The danger of Christmas

It is that time of year when that slumbering beast the Christmas marketing machine stirs from its summer hibernation, opens its glittering jaws, and tries to devour all light and joy within itself.

On every screen that captivates our attention and in every shop window and aisle, we are bombarded with the message that happiness lies in buying things and getting gifts. Economic empires rise and fall based on how well companies can convince us to covet the new and pretty things that they have to offer us.

In the face of this onslaught of materialism, I received this small gift and reminder from John Wesley as I was reading his sixth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount.

[O]ur prayers are the proper test of our desires; nothing being fit to have a place in our desires which is not fit to have a place in our prayers: What we may not pray for, neither should we desire.

The trick with such a quotation, of course, is that we have a lot of teachers in the church who have taught us to pray for exactly the same things that the secular marketing machine wants us to desire. We have far too many pastors and teachers who teach us to pray not for our “daily bread” but for gold and fame and so many other treasures that perish like dust.

So the work of the church, in many cases, is the work of redigging old wells. We have to teach people what it means to pray as a Christian rather than as a well-trained participant in our economic system, and we have to help each other bend our desires to the things that our Lord would have us seek.

The old Methodist teaching went something like this. As we pray that God give us our daily bread — just what we need to make it through the day each day — so this is all we should desire. While we work hard to make the most of the gifts God has placed in our hands, we are called to desire nothing more than the simple necessities that secure life and provide for the needs of our families. Perhaps the Lord will bless us with more than this, but we should desire only what our Lord himself had for himself: sufficient food to eat, clothing to wear, a roof over our heads (and even he did not always have that), the comfort of friends, good work to do, and time alone with God.

Perhaps this is too spare a list. It feels that way to me if I am honest about the rumblings of my own heart. But here is the challenge I place before myself. Search the scriptures. See what our Lord teaches on these matters. Ask whether that rumbling in our hearts comes from the Holy Spirit or is perhaps the sign of another spirit at work in us.

We celebrate on Christmas the child born in a feeding trough for animals. It is not proper for us to desire more than our king required.

The missing parts of the story

I had a curious exchange recently with a man who got me thinking about being a pastor.

Talking to this man, who professes faith in Jesus Christ, I realized that the story he tells himself about his own life includes neither Genesis 3 nor Revelation. If he wrote a private version of the Nicene Creed, it would not include the line about Jesus being crucified for our sake or coming to judge the living and the dead. The article on the Holy Spirit would not include mention of forgiveness of sins or the life of the world to come.

He is living now and for today and — so far as he can see it — the only point of Christianity is to help improve the material and social conditions of people living right now. The only sin he could see in the world was “institutional” or “systematic.” It was all out there and not in him.

I understand that Christianity can easily become so “other worldly” that it fails to live out the call to love our neighbor. It is pretty easy, however, for me to point out where and how the Bible instructs us on this point and corrects this mistake. Someone who acts as if Christianity is purely about getting a personal, eternal fire-insurance policy has missed some important parts of the Bible.

And it seems to me that the man I was talking to did so as well. Talk of his own sin, his need for a Savior, and his own eternal status before the Lord were dismissed as if the Bible never spoke a word about such things.

I struggled to draw his attention to this in a way that he could hear. I’m sure he left our encounter convinced that I was the one missing the point.

I am reflecting on the conversation, in part, because I know that man is not the only one in my community who thinks that way. I wonder how I am called to witness to our faith in his presence. As a pastor, how do I best feed this lamb of Christ?

There is a model in our Wesleyan heritage that says the correct response is to lay out in clear terms his mistakes. Like John Wesley himself, we might dust off our copy of “Almost Christian” and walk through point-by-point where he has gotten the whole thing wrong.

That is a model, and Wesley would chide me at my hesitation to embrace it. He would tell me to pick up my cross and bear it for the sake of this lost soul. He would remind me that if this fellow — clearly still in the slumbers of his fallen nature — would not hear the message, I would at least be clear of the guilt of refusing to deliver it. His blood would not be on my hands.

I can feel Wesley’s firm but loving stare as I write these things, but I must confess that I feel ill-equipped for such a response.

Nearly every person we encounter — and I don’t exclude myself here — is getting something wrong and failing to live the faith we profess in full. How as pastors do we respond? The answer, of course, depends on the particulars of the person and the situation before us. There are blanket principles but not blanket answers. Each person requires different things. This is also something Wesley would say.

Discerning when to lead with the rod and when to offer milk is a skill learned over many years. I am aware that I have much to learn in this area. I know myself well enough to know I am apt to err too much toward gentleness when firmness is often required. I pray that the Lord will give me grace to do this thing I have been called to do, to feed and care for his flock.

 

 

Death defying experience

We United Methodists say that experience informs our theology.

When we are being less faithful to our own Wesleyan roots, we mistake “experience” for revelation and act as if whatever we happen to feel or think must be on par with what God has revealed via Scripture. When we are being more faithful to our roots, we recall that Wesley stood with the historic church in viewing experience as way of confirming the truth of theological commitments. What we believe plays out in how we live and therefore adds credence to the truth of our beliefs.

Athanasius would approve of this use of experience as a theological tool.

He wrote in On the Incarnation about the experience of Christians as confirmation of the truth of the resurrection. If Jesus was not alive and death had not been defeated, he wrote, how could anyone explain the behavior of Christians who embrace martyrdom and show no fear of death?

Of old, before the divine sojourn of the Savior, all used to weep for those dying as if they were perishing. But since the Savior’s raising the body, no longer is death fearsome, but all believers in Christ tread on it as nothing, and would rather choose to die than deny their faith in Christ. … human beings, before believing in Christ, view death as fearsome and are terrified at it. But when they come to faith in him and to his teaching, they so despise death that they eagerly rush to it and become witnesses to the resurrection over it effected by the Savior.

I love the boldness of this vision of Christianity. This is an experience that confirms the truth of our beliefs, only if Jesus were really alive would people be able to live like this.