How failure led to fruit

When Philip Spener wanted to bring renewal to the Lutheran churches of Frankfurt, Germany, he started in the way that sounds familiar to me. He started by putting a focus on catechism and church discipline. He thought these measures might stir up the passive and nominal faith of the Christians in his charge.

They did not.

Frustrated by his failures to lead renewal from the top down, Spener eventually turned to the formation of small groups in response to a request from some of his more devout laity. They wanted a means of meeting with others who were longing for the kind of spiritual conversation and building up that they never could get in their world of work and secular relationships.

The groups that were formed in response to this request would set the model for devotional and edifying small groups that would be central to Pietism and later Methodism.

In the book where I read of this bit of history, the author did not mention this explicitly, but I assume those men came to Spener because his preaching and other actions had made it clear that he was passionate about a deeper and living faith. They came to him because they saw in him a kindred spirit.

As I think on that, I recall John Wesley’s account of the beginnings of Methodism. It was his preaching that led people to come to him seeking more opportunities to learn and grow in their faith. He formed the societies and classes as a response to those requests.

I hear two lessons in these examples.

First, if I want laity to reveal their longings for a renewed and vibrant faith, I should preach as if living faith is the norm or expectation of the Christian life.

Second, I cannot herd people into wanting a living faith, but I can remain attentive and open to those who show an interest or longing for it. It is okay to be reactive.

Neither Wesley nor Spener — nor for that matter Jesus — won everyone over to their views about Christianity. Indeed, they all made a number of enemies. But they also did help some people find a true and living faith that changed their lives.

I wonder if we can’t still do that.

I see a vision of United Methodist renewal that is worked out not from the top down but from the bottom up, a renewal based on scattered pockets where men and women are seeking a living faith in Jesus Christ. I see such a movement marked by preaching aimed at transformation and renewal of the heart, small groups with a focus on devotion and accountability, and the expectation of a living faith that shows forth in the outward lives of people.

What can Spener teach United Methodists?

I have been reading Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria. It is one of the foundation stones of Pietism, a movement that has had vast influence on both the Methodism of John and Charles Wesley and on the founders of the communions that would come together in the Evangelical United Brethren. Therefore, it is a book that should be read with humble and open hearts by United Methodists. It is a root from which our mingled traditions spring.

As a result of my first read through the book, I wanted to share some short observations about Spener’s method and his prescription for the church.

His method was exceedingly practical. He called upon clergy to examine themselves and the church carefully for signs of sickness and turn to God in prayer for the light to see the proper remedies. He urged them to do this task in writing to each other and in meeting together as they were able. He saw reform, in other words, as rising up from networks of clergy who shared a sense that something was not well and reached out to one another for discernment and encouragement in treating the illness of the church.

Having proposed some remedies, he urged them to put them into practice in their own congregations, but not with blindness of heavy-handedness. He urged clergy to first aim at those most ready to receive and be edified by what is useful and necessary to true and healthy Christianity. Aim first and exclusively at those who are “tractable.” As those efforts bear fruit, Spener argued, others would be drawn into the circle by their example.

Even as we do this, however, we must not expect instant results or immediate fruit. Spener urges patience and hope, knowing that the seeds we plant often bear fruit we do not see. He writes, “If God does not give you the pleasure of seeing the result of your work quickly, perhaps he intends to hide it from you, lest you become too proud of it. Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe.”

As I read these words, I find Spener both pastoral and practical in ways that draw me into deeper study.

So what are the tools by which Spener urged clergy to cultivate these seeds? What is the medicine he urged for the sickness of the church and the people?

He offers six proposals, which I will list here but hope to expand upon in later posts.

  1. Extensive use of the Word of God both by individuals and in small devotional groups
  2. Diligent exercise of the priesthood of all believers
  3. Emphasis on living faith beyond mere knowledge of faith
  4. Engagement with non-believers and heretics in a spirit of love rather than bitterness or competition
  5. Reformation of training of clergy toward the practical arts of ministry and inward formation
  6. Promotion of preaching aimed at producing faith and fruits

Each of these items requires further explanation and each bears examination, but as a United Methodist, I find some encouragement that there may be a program here that fits our spiritual heritage and practices. I want to study these more.

Lectionary blog: 1 John 3:16-24

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18, NIV)

There are passages of Scripture that I read, and they leave me completely unable to understand Christians who never lift a finger in service to their brothers and sisters. People tell me that they love Jesus, but they never do anything for the good of others. I can’t find any place in the Bible that reflects that kind of passivity.

We have probably all heard those sermons where the preacher has talked to us about the meaning of love. We know the various Greek words. We can call to mind various metaphors and word images that festoon the pulpit talk that we preachers use when trying to get a point across.

Here, in the lectionary this week, we get it straight and simple.

Do you want to know the meaning of the word “love” for Christians? Jesus Christ died for you. Go and do the same for others. That is love.

Do you want to know the meaning of the word “love”? Let me show you the cross. That is love. It is self-surrendering action.

It is more than most of us can hear or bear, so the the epistle writer gives us an easier problem. You are not ready to die for your brother or sister? Okay. Put your money where your mouth is. You say you love your neighbor. Show me the money.

If love is laying down our life for another, then how can we possibly say we have love — that we even know what love is — when we have the means to help a brother or sister in need and close up our heart against our fellow Christian?

The point here cuts right to our hearts if we have any ability at self-examination, but it also points to something of crucial importance about Christianity.

Our faith is not about merely believing the right things. It is about action. We cannot claim to love Jesus and sit on our hands. It simply is not possible.

Jesus said he was giving us a new commandment: Love each other. Let all of us who call him Lord strive to obey and pray for faith to do so.

Male sin vs. female sin?

I’ve heard variations on this idea before. Do you think it is the case — as presented here — that men and women are tempted to different kinds of sin?

Many women have negated self so much that we no longer have a self to surrender to God. The primary meaning many of us find is in identification with the lives of others. When the husband or children are joyful, sad, or pensive, we feel likewise, taking on the feelings of others, instead of being a self that is related to God apart from these relationships. Women are not inherently more “good” than males. Women are just as sinful, but in different ways. Valerie Saiving provided a valid list of the sins women are tempted toward: sins of distraction, diffuseness, triviality, sentimentality, avoiding responsibility, mistrusting reason, lacking centeredness, disrespect of boundaries, and passivity. These temptations seem trivial to males (and may even appear to males as virtues). But for women, they’re sins just as much as lust, rage, and power-seeking. Women can be tempted to find their identity completely in others instead of God and are tempted to give their entire selves to others, leaving no self left to surrender to God.

‘For I keep your statutes’

In the movie Luther there is a dramatic scene when Luther is overcome with grief and agony over his sin and the devil’s power. His father confessor comes to him and directs him to pray this terribly simple prayer to Jesus: Save me. I am yours.

I had not noticed until this morning that the prayer was from Psalm 119: 94.

The full verse in the NIV is translated like this: Save me, for I am yours; I have sought out your precepts.

Maybe it is what I have been reading recently — both online and in book form — but reading Psalm 119 for my Scripture this morning brought home to me the ease with which my ears are tempted by calls to set aside the law and the teaching of God. It is so easy to talk yourself into the idea that God’s law is fluid and defined by the culture of the day. It is so easy to lift up verse against verse in the Bible and melt any sense that there is something hard and fast and unchanging at the base of it all. It is so easy end up double-minded and hating the law (contra. 119:113).

Psalm 119 ends with this: I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten you commands.

May God’s grace give me the faithfulness to be able to pray those words in truth.

Purity and justice

See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. You have despised my holy things and desecrated my Sabbaths. In you are slanderers who are bent on shedding blood; in you are those who eat at the mountain shrines and commit lewd acts. In you are those who dishonor their father’s bed; in you are those who violate women during their period, when they are ceremonially unclean. In you one man commits a detestable offense with his neighbor’s wife, another shamefully defiles his daughter-in-law, and another violates his sister, his own father’s daughter. In you are people who accept bribes to shed blood; you take interest and make a profit from the poor. You extort unjust gain from your neighbors. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord. (Ezekiel 22:6-12)

I was reading Ezekiel last night. Chapter 22 grabbed my attention in more than one way. In the latter part of the chapter when it talks about God’s wrath refining Israel like silver, I thought of John the Baptist and Jesus. I wonder if they had this chapter in mind when they preached.

But it is the quote above that opened up a question I wanted to share with you.

In the passage above, God lays out a list of offenses including things we divide into different categories. Some are things we might call concerns with purity — ritual or personal — and some are things we might call justice issues.

Jesus does the same in his preaching. The Apostles do as well.

It seems like we tend to separate these things. You find churches where the emphasis falls almost entirely on the need for us to purify our hearts and conduct. You find other churches where the emphasis falls almost exclusively on care for the poor and vulnerable.

Righteousness in the Bible strikes me as involving both things.

How do we hold these two things together and so honor God?