The sting of Amos

I wanted to share some observations from reading the Book of Amos this week.

Amos opens with a litany of sins of the peoples. Damascus has threshed Gilead. Gaza and Tyre have taken whole communities captive and sold them to Edom. Edom — the land of Esau’s descendants — has taken the sword against its brother (Jacob’s people). Ammon has “ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead.” Moab has burned to ashes the bones of Edom’s king.

The particular accusations are likely worth careful study, but we see a litany of sins related to war against the people of Israel and Judah, and even against their brothers the Edomites.

Amos then moves on to list the sins of Judah and Israel. Judah has rejected the law of Yahweh, not kept the Lord’s decrees, and been led astray by false gods. Israel has sold the innocent for silver and the needy for sandals, trampled the heads of the poor, denied justice to the oppressed, engaged in profane sexual relations, refused to return garments taken in pledge, and gotten drunk in the house of God on wine taken as fines.

I’m not sure if Amos’ charges against Judah reflect a protest against the Davidic kingdom and temple or the more usual complaints of Baalism. In Amos 6:5 the prophet appears to take a jab at David and the luxury of his kingdom, so I don’t know if these accusations against Judah might reflect the tensions between the two kingdoms. In any event, the criticisms of Judah are remarkably different from the complaints against Israel, which the prophet repeats and deepens in chapter 5.

Here the list includes: turning justice into bitterness, casting righteousness to the ground, hating the one who upholds justice in the court, detesting the one who tells the truth, levying straw taxes on the poor, taxing the grain of the poor, oppressing the innocent, taking bribes, and depriving the poor of justice in the courts.

Amos lashes out at the leaders who indulge themselves in luxury and care little for the poor and weak. He mocks their outward piety. One of my favorite verses is 5:14:

Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.

That “just as you say he is” hits with a zing. I don’t think it should hit us with any less force than it hit Israel.

In 8:11, the prophet famously warns about coming drought of the hearing of the word of God among the people. Yahweh has attempted to discipline them with crop failures, lack of rain, and plague, but they have not turned from their evil ways. So, now they will be deprived of the very word of God. I have always taken this to be reference to the killing and carrying off of the religious elites and the prophets by invading kingdoms.

As I reflect on the church today, I wonder how we might hear Amos’ warning. In Amos the neglect and oppression of the poor and weak leads to a loss of the word. Retreat to empty ritual and blind luxury robs the people of God’s presence.

As the churches commonly known as the mainline have lost contact with the poor and the weak, I wonder if that has placed us under the judgement of Amos’ prophecy. Could it be that our struggle to grasp and proclaim the Word authentically and with power is the product of our treatment of the poor? Is God with us? Or is that merely something we are saying to ourselves?

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.

The creeds – a view from the pew

One of the great things about writing a blog is that people write comments on it that teach you things.

In the midst of the current Methoblog flurry about the creeds of the church, I wanted to highlight this comment from the pew by one of my frequent comment writers:

A practical view from the pew: After a life time of reciting the Apostle’s Creed, I came to the point as an adult that I realized I did not truly understand what I was saying “I believed”. Unfortunately hard on the heels of that realization, things went south for me at church and I ended up distancing myself from it. I finally stumbled on the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it that fleshed out the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer. Over a space of a few days Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable and “even I” was folded into God’s story of salvation. I was left wondering why nobody had never shared this information before.

Bottom line is, clergy and theologians tend to over think things when it comes to creeds. Reality is, reciting a creed every Sunday has a practical use for the person in the pew if it is fleshed out elsewhere. It is a very good “jumping off spot”. And, when fleshed out properly, the Apostle’s Creed is very much a Trinitarian creed.

‘Methodists are free church Catholics’

Methodism could make a real contribution to our common life as Protestant Christians if we took seriously the ecclesial implications of Wesley’s stress on sanctification. I think Maddox is quite right to say that Wesley understood that without God’s grace we cannot be saved; but without our (grace-empowered but uncoerced) participation, God’s grace will not save. Wesley, of course, was not unique in this emphasis — thus Augustine’s observation that the God who created us without us will not save us without us. Participation is, of course, signaled by baptism, by which we are made members of a community in which we are made accountable to one another. In short, Methodists are free church Catholics.

— Stanley Hauerwas, “The End of Protestantism,” in Approaching the End

Stanley Hauerwas follows the statement above with an admission that very few United Methodist Churches would offer much support for his claim that we are “free church Catholics.”

I take his point to be that our tradition holds to a view of sanctification that requires a community to nurture us and hold us accountable. To “participate” with God’s grace requires the presence of other people. As Wesley would say, there is no holiness without social holiness.

I hear Hauerwas asserting that because of this there is no salvation without the church, not because the church has grip on the magic beans that get us into heaven but because it is impossible to grow in grace without being part of a community around you.

I’m not convinced I understand Hauerwas properly. I’m never convinced of that. I wonder how his quote above strikes you.

Methodism as a spiritual order?

A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection upon the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any solid theology.

This is how Gustavo Gutierrez’s We Drink From Our Own Wells begins. I am still trying to figure out whether I agree with him.

Is theology what emerges when we reflect on the experience of following Jesus?

In Gutierrez’s book, he describes the various schools of the Spirit within the Roman Catholic Church — Dominicans, Franciscans, Ignatians, and so on — as arising out of particular experiences that become theologized. The experience comes before the theology.

Gutierrez argues that liberation theology is the theology that emerges when people seek both to be followers of Jesus and committed workers for liberation from material and political oppression. Liberation theology is what you get when you have the experience of following Jesus in the midst of the struggle.

If I am understanding his argument, then we might conceive of Methodism as the theology and practice that emerged as followers of Jesus sought after an experience of total sanctification — perfection in love — in the context of early industrial Britain. Although John Wesley would argue that Methodism represented true Christianity, Gutierrez would argue that it represents a way of being Christian.

Here is what I find appealing in this — assuming I am understanding Gutierrez at all.

First, it helps me think through the continuing ecclesiastical and vocational problems presented to United Methodist clergy by the fact that our church emerged as a holiness movement within the Church of England.

I can envision in this a bifurcated role in which the pastor is both leader of a church body committed to the broadly ecumenical and orthodox — the small ‘c’ church catholic if you will — expression of the faith and shepherd of distinct groups within the larger body of those who wish to delve into Methodist spirituality. (I see here something of the two kinds of Christian Wesley describes in “The More Excellent Way.”)

The United Methodist pastor would not have to be so troubled or defeated by the fact that so many in our congregations do not opt to pursue Methodist spirituality, so long as they do attend to the orthodox faith, but we would continue to provide and even view our role as being guardians of a Methodist spirituality that aims at a perfection in love, a holiness of heart and life, as the Holy Spirit’s promise to all who seek it.

Second, Gutierrez’s approach puts life in front of books. Theology is usually taught and presented as a collection of ideas and concepts knit together into elegant systems by brilliant thinkers. As a rather bookish guy myself, I don’t begrudge theologians any of this, but I do find that it can lead to theology that has no connection to life as lived and experienced by people.

I also find in my own life that theology only gets developed when it becomes the focal point of some lived problem or joy. The areas where I have thought through and wrestled theology to the ground the hardest are those places where experience makes those theological questions pressing.

Now, for all that, I am wary of making experience the touch stone of theology. I’ve seen first hand how we can use experience to justify anything we want to gut the witness of Scripture and the wisdom of tradition. And so, I’m wary of the prominence Gutierrez gives to experience as the crucible of theology. Perhaps this is why it is important that all these various spiritualities and ways of being Christian remain linked under the broader umbrella of the body of Christ.

Cautions noted, I do find myself coming back to this book again and again. I keep wondering if these words are not the best way to understand the nature of Methodism within the wider church:

Every great spirituality begins with the attainment of a certain level of experience. Then follows reflection on this experience, thus making it possible to propose it to the Christian community as a way of following Christ.

How do we mold leadership teams?

Patrick Lencioni defines a leadership team as a small group group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving results for their organization.

Do our churches by this definition have leadership teams? Do we have a groups that understands themselves to be collectively responsible for achieving results?

I find these questions challenging. They challenge me because I wonder if we could even define what we mean by “results” in many cases. They challenge me because I am full of doubt about my ability to pull together such a leadership team. They challenge me because I sense that as pastor, the ministry of order calls me to do what I most doubt my ability to do.

What stories can you share about creating groups of leaders in church?