A good book on doubt

My blogging friend Talbot Davis sent me a copy of his new book, The Shadow of a Doubt, recently. In honor of a regular feature on his blog, I’d like to share my Top Five Things I Like About This Book.

5. It engages an important pastoral topic in a faithful way. The book is based on a sermon series Davis preached at Good Shepherd Church on the topic of doubt. This is an important topic, but one I’ve heard handled in unproductive ways in the past. Davis acknowledges doubt — including his own — without praising it. In five sermons, he tackles important questions about doubt and makes relevant connections to people’s lives.

4. It displays Davis’ skill as a preacher. The book chapters are edited versions of Davis’ sermons, which makes this a bit of a sermon anthology for preachers such as myself who are still mastering their craft. Davis is a big fan of Andy Stanley’s one-point preaching style. If you’ve ever read Stanley’s book on preaching and wanted to see how such sermons look in actual practice, this book is a great resource. It also demonstrates Davis’ wonderful use of language and deep engagement with the biblical texts. Which brings me to ….

3. It is biblical. Each chapter takes a close look at a key text. This is not a book collecting what secular authorities say about the topic of doubt. It is a book that brings our questions to the Bible and lets the Bible shape our answers.

2. It would be perfect for a small group. Each sermon is followed by well-crafted questions designed to promote small-group conversation, devotional activities, a prayer, and some scripture readings for the week ahead. This would be an easy and interesting five-week small-group curriculum.

1. My copy is autographed. I’m sure if you asked, you could get an autograph, too. I understand Davis will be signing books at the upcoming New Room Conference.

I recommend the book, especially as a resource for small group ministry. At 112 pages and $9.99, it is well worth the price.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was provided with a free (autographed) copy of the book and asked to write about it. I was only too happy to do that for a pastor who has a vital ministry in the United Methodist Church.

Sign of spittle and grace

I had someone ask me recently how they should talk to an atheist who insists on saying things meant to provoke or insult.

My initial response was something like this: You are asking me what to say when that person says something insulting to faith or about your belief. How about, “I love you”?

I knew that was easier to offer as advice than to do, but I went on to say that I have always found it interesting how strongly some people feel compelled to react to the presence of faith around them. Based on my own pre-Christian experiences, I believe that in many cases the person is reacting defensively against the grace of God. Acting out in anger might just be the sign that God is getting a foothold and they are lashing out to try to drive grace away.

Paul writes in Romans 8 about the groaning of creation as it awaits the liberation from death and decay. Commenting on this passage, John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament observe the following:

Upright heathens are by no means to be excluded from this earnest expectation: nay, perhaps something of it may at some times be found even in the vainest of men; who (although in the hurry of life they mistake vanity for liberty, and partly stifle, partly dissemble, their groans, yet) in their sober, quiet, sleepless, afflicted hours, pour forth many sighs in the ear of God.

Some of our sighs to God can look a lot spitting in God’s face.

It is not easy to be on the receiving end of these things, but I do think Christians should view vocal atheism as a sign of God’s grace at work stirring up souls.

Many atheists, of course, would reject what I just wrote. I understand that. I was once among their tribe. Part of being a Christian, though, is learning to tell the story of the world around us in terms of grace and God’s activity.

So maybe in addition to suggesting that my friend say “I love you” in the face of atheist insults, I should have added “God loves you, too.”

Waiting for Tatooine

“Are you going on to perfection?” A Wesleyan question.

It is a question, though, that makes an assumption, namely that we are not there yet. While we desire, long for, and strive to be made perfect in love, we must admit that if we are still going on, we have not arrived.

This makes pastoral work a messy thing because we so rarely meet anyone — including that clergy person in the mirror — who has leaned fully on the power Christ gives us to conquer sin. We are constantly greeted with the question of how best to nurture further growth. Do we place our eye on the weeds or the wheat in the life of the person before us? Again, I ask this question about myself as well as others.

In John Wesley’s sermon “The Repentance of Believers,” he describes the state of the soul of those who have been justified but are still going on to perfection.

[A] deep conviction that we are not yet whole; that our hearts are not fully purified; that there is yet in us a “carnal mind,” which is still in its nature “enmity against God;” that a whole body of sin remains in our heart, weakened indeed, but not destroyed; shows, beyond all possibility of doubt, the absolute necessity of a farther change. We allow, that at the very moment of justification, we are born again: In that instant we experience that inward change from “darkness into marvellous light;” from the image of the brute and the devil, into the image of God; from the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, to the mind which was in Christ Jesus. But are we then entirely changed? Are we wholly transformed into the image of him that created us? Far from it: we still retain a depth of sin; and it is the consciousness of this which constrains us to groan, for a full deliverance, to him that is mighty to save.

Wesley urged Methodists to attend closely to the “inbred monster’s face” within. He warns that we not forget that nothing in our worthiness led Christ to shed his blood for us, and nothing in our power can overcome the darkness that still lingers within. It is only obedience to and trust in Christ that will move us along the way.

And so, as a United Methodist pastor, I find myself wondering how to live this doctrine out in the midst of the messy not-yet-there church in which I serve.

I wonder — and am convicted by the thought — whether I have failed as a pastor to describe what “there” looks like. Have the outlines of holiness been drawn by me with enough clarity that people can see and feel for themselves the gap between where we are and where God promises to lead us? (Is that why Hell is so much easier to describe? We have lots of at-hand reference points to help us imagine Hell. We have so few to help us anticipate heaven.)

I was talking the other day with someone who — like me — is excited about the upcoming release of the new Star Wars movie. We had both seen a video about the movie that was released at a comic convention. What we shared was how excited and eager we were for the release date to arrive. It makes you ache to have to wait for it arrive. Take our money, now, we joked.

Do we ever, ever, ever get close to describing the future God has in store for us with enough clarity to make us ache that way at the gap between the world to come and the one that is?

Unlike waiting for a movie release date, of course, the gap we live in is not just about time. We do wait. But we also know we are not ready for the day to arrive. It is like we are movie fans who have not yet grown ears or whose eyes cannot see the images on the screen. And even more than that. There is a gap within our hearts. Wesley’s inbred monster whispers to us that we should not even long for such a day to arrive. It is an illusion or the mirage conjured up by people who want to oppress or stifle us. The movie studio is just in it for the merchandising and the money, after all. The church is just about power.

How do you reach people in such a world? How do you sort through the messiness of pilgrims who still have far to go? What do you do with those who would rather stay in Egypt than imagine Israel? And yes, you are sometimes, like Aaron, among the ringleaders.

Seeking authenticity

I’m trying to grasp what people mean when they say Christians need to embrace authenticity.

I read recently someone praise a singer for authentic use of profanity while speaking to an audience.

I read this morning a piece by a man arguing that experiencing a divide within ourselves – a tug-of-war between the part that longs for God and the part that wants to be submerged in the broad stream of popular culture – is a sign that something is wrong with Christianity. I took the point to be that a more authentic Christianity would not create this sense of a divided self.

I can’t figure out how these uses of the concept of authenticity square with Christian teaching about the holiness of God and the falleness of humanity. We are divided in our deepest being. We are called to live transformed and healed and holy lives as the children of God. Our most authentic self is the self we were created to be – holy and happy.

Dropping f-bombs and melting into pop culture strike me as moves away from God’s intention for our lives. People who do so may appear to lead more “integrated” lives without the struggle created by the working of grace, but – at least from a Christian vocabulary – I don’t see how we can call that more authentic.

Is not the real, the genuine, the authentic me the person God created me to be and calls me to become? I am not yet my authentic self, but by God’s grace I hope one day to be so.

Finish, then, thy new creation

A question for my brothers and sisters who claim an ongoing connection with Wesleyan theology: Do you affirm the doctrine of Christian Perfection?

Huge numbers of Christians do not. As I understand Lutheran and Calvinism, they reject the doctrine. Everyday non-reflective American Christianity does as well. Even the early Methodist movement in John Wesley’s day resisted the doctrine.

Do we who sing the final verse of Charles’ hymn that provides the title of this post, join the critics or the hopeful teachers of this doctrine?

Do we believe that men and women can be made perfect in love?

Of course, to answer that we need to be clear about what we mean. Christian perfection does not mean we are free of ignorance or weakness, so we still might harm others or fail in our duty as a result. Neither does being perfect in love mean we feel no impulse or temptation to sin. That we will not be free of while dwelling in this house of clay, but Christ has broken the power of sin. We can overcome sin if we rely on Christ’s strength and not our own. We can love with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can have the same love that Christ poured out for us pour out for others. Love can be the center of all we do and say.

At least, that is what Christian Perfection claims. And it does not claim these things merely as some higher or better way of being a Christian. It believes that we can be made perfect in love because it believes that without holiness no one will see the Lord. It answers the question “How do sinful humans become holy enough to live with God for eternity?” By the grace of God, we are made holy in heart and life.

Here has been my experience. It is easier to sin and ask for forgiveness than to grow in holiness. It is easier to say “I cannot change” than it is to put to death the things of the flesh.

So those strains of Christianity that deny Christian Perfection come up with doctrines explaining how unholy people arrive in heaven.

Are we among them?

Or do we sing our own hymns with integrity?

Do we ‘dare to believe’ with Wesley?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline could be more precise in its statements about the place of John Wesley’s sermons in our doctrinal panoply. In ¶103 it explains that the Plan of Union for the UMC understood Wesley’s sermons and notes to be established standards of doctrine for the church. In other places, however, the Discipline appears to treat Wesley as a model or example rather than as a measuring stick for our doctrine.

This is relevant to me because my conversion to Christianity was followed by immersion into the works of Wesley. Early in that process, I was continually struck by how far the United Methodist Church as I knew it strayed from the vision of Christian life and the church as I encountered in the works of Wesley. I found myself asking at times whether John Wesley could even get ordained among us if he were a candidate today. Our responses to him often are often more in keeping with his critics than his co-workers.

These thoughts arose again for me as I was reading John Wesley’s first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he introduces what will be a 13-sermon series on those three chapters in Matthew and considers the first two beatitudes. In discussing the blessedness that comes from being poor in spirit, tilts into what would later be called revival preaching.

He calls out for sinners to know themselves and wake up to their state.

Know and feel, that thou wert “shapen in wickedness,” and that “in sin did thy mother conceive thee;” and that thou thyself hast been heaping sin upon sin, ever since thou couldst discern good from evil! Sink under the mighty hand of God, as guilty of death eternal; and cast off, renounce, abhor, all imagination of ever being able to help thyself!

To those he calls to wake up, he offers Christ as the cure for their ailments, making no scruple at the mention of being washed in the blood. He then describes in three paragraphs the righteousness, peace, and joy that are offered to us as the inward kingdom of heaven.

Finally, he shifts to an exhortation worthy of any sawdust trail preaching of the century following Wesley’s death.

Thou art on the brink of heaven! Another step, and thou enterest into the kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy! Art thou all sin? “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!” – all unholy? See thy “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous!” – Art thou unable to atone for the least of thy sins? “He is the propitiation for” all thy “sins.” Now believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and all thy sins are blotted out! Art thou totally unclean in soul and body? Here is the “fountain for sin and uncleanliness!” “Arise and wash away thy sins!” Stagger no more at the promise through unbelief! Give glory to God! Dare to believe! Now cry out, from the ground of thy heart – “Yes, I yield, I yield at last, Listen to thy speaking blood; Me, with all my sins, I cast On my atoning God.” (This last is a quote from a Charles Wesley hymn.)

So the question I have is this: Are United Methodists called to treat such preaching by Wesley as mere “models of doctrinal exposition” or as standards by which we can judge our own interpretation and preaching of the Bible?

In other words, if what I preach is incongruous with what Wesley preached – or a direct contradiction of it – am I failing to uphold the doctrine of the United Methodist Church? If the answer to that question is “no,” then what place does Wesley’s preaching have among us and why is it mentioned as a standard of doctrine in our Discipline?