A person not a self-help program

This is an old blog post, but it came across my Facebook feed this morning, so it is new to me.

United Methodist Communications shared this post connecting a song by Tim McGraw with the teaching of 19th century British Methodism. The gist of the short article is that McGraw’s song, which calls people to “always stay humble and kind” mirrors the advice of Methodist devotional writers in the 19th century.

Of course, on the surface, this is probably true. Humility and kindness are fruits of the Spirit, and so it is not at all out of place for a Christian writer to praise them. But in making this connection, the article misses a rather large and important point.

What is the point?

Well, for Christians the point is Jesus Christ.

We are Christians because of Jesus. Our faith is in a person not a set of values or character traits. If we focus on the outward things — the character traits — we can discover that we have the surface but none of the depth.

The truth is this: People are capable of being humble and kind without knowing Jesus Christ. There are kind atheists and humble Muslims. There are generous Buddhists and peaceful Hindus. We worship Jesus Christ, we follow him, we pray to him because he is the Son of God, the Word, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, the Savior of all humanity. Through him we are forgiven and saved from the power of the devil and grasp of evil.

Christianity is not a set of socially valuable character traits. It is about a person.

Does this mean praising humility and kindness is a bad thing? Well, of course not. But my sense of American Christianity is that we are very good at looking at the outward things and confusing them for the real thing. We point to humility and kindness and fail to seek Jesus. We point with pride at never missing a Sunday worship service and always putting our tithe in the offering plate and ignore the fact that we have no living relationship with the one we worship. We put up posters in our churches of “The Three Simple Rules” and rarely look each other in the eye and ask “Do you know the Lord?”

I am sure I am not being entirely fair to the writer of the post that prompted this blog post of mine, but I do hope my concern is clear. Let us as the church make sure that we never confuse the main point of what we do and who we are. Let us always err on the side of too much Jesus and not enough of everything else. He is the reason we exist.

The challenge of polygamy

The United Methodist Church’s official web site shares a commentary by the Rev. Lloyd Nyarota about the differences between American and African United Methodism, especially the different challenges facing the African church. Among the many interesting concerns he raises is the following:

Polygamy is one of the big issues facing Africa, and it’s often confusing to pastors in the local churches. Children from polygamous marriages sometimes cannot be baptized. Women from polygamous marriages are sometimes denied acceptance into women’s fellowships (organizations equivalent to United Methodist Women) because of the stigma associated with polygamy within the church.

Polygamy is a long time cultural phenomenon and missionaries created a legacy of stigma around this issue that is difficult for The United Methodist Church in Africa, especially since some African churches promote polygamy. This is an issue that we will be discussing for generations to come.

The challenge the church in Africa faces with the cultural acceptance of polygamy is both pastoral and theological. The full depth of the matter is beyond my understanding or experience. However, I am familiar with the fact that the church is always and constantly in a position in which its teaching and its call to holiness is at odds with aspects of the non-Christian culture in which the church exists. The church always finds itself at odds with the culture around it. The church is constantly being pressed by those outside it and within it to reformulate its vision of holiness to accommodate God to human desire. The great temptation of the church — one it has often failed to meet — is to confuse the sinfulness of human hearts for the holiness of God. The church is always in need for reformation and confession in this regard.

I do not expect the church will find any resources in this struggle from the secular or non-Christian cultures of Africa and America. What it will find is what it has always found from its earliest days. Those who do not acknowledge the lordship of Christ will provide the church with many reasons to abandon its understanding of holiness because holiness is always an affront to sinful desire.

I pray that our church can and does provide Christians in Africa with the support and resources they need to provide a strong witness to Christ in the face of the particular cultural challenges that work against the gospel. I pray the same for the church in America.

The temptation we don’t discuss

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

Clergy face a temptation that is not talked about much and certainly never breaks into public attention the way other temptations we face do from time to time. It is the temptation to tell our congregations what they want to hear.

A sizeable number of our people want us to soothe their fears and worries with easy assurances. They want to be able to get on with life and not think about things like sin and death and eternity. And if we help them do that, they will thank us and love us, or at least they will until the day comes when they are staring into the black night of death and they discover the elixers we’d been feeding them were strong enough to numb what had been haunting them but not strong enough to cure them.

Too many Christians get to a crisis of faith and discover they have built upon sand. They face death and find themselves overwhelmed by grief and terror. They experience the loss of a loved one and uncover deep wells of bitterness toward God that drive them away from church forever. They encounter hardship and find that they have no spiritual reserves to draw upon because they have been fed straw rather than true food. And it is people like me who have helped them arrive at this point because we are too afraid of upsetting people and too worried about how we will stand up to the charge of hypocrisy. We make a secret and unspoken pact with our people. I won’t talk to you about sin and salvation too much and you will bring me lovely little cakes. It all works out fine until the sand start to give way beneath their feet.

I am a far from perfect man and a far from perfect pastor. I am going on to perfection and have much distance to travel still. But I truly do believe that we preachers do a grave disservice to our people when we offer them words of peace when what they need is to have the source of their fear and unease brought forth where it might be exposed to the light of the gospel. That is scary work and painful for all involved, but it is the only way we can truly help people. Soothing their pain in the moment only sets them up for much worse down the line.