Is someone building an ark?

They say every preacher has one sermon. Dan Dick has one blog post, but it is a good and needful one. Here’s the latest iteration.

In this he laments the low expectations culture of the United Methodist Church as a whole.

We want a definition of discipleship that costs absolutely nothing.  People often comment that they think I make discipleship too hard, that I expect too much of people, that I am unrealistic in my expectations.  I always wonder where people got the idea that discipleship was supposed to be easy and convenient.  Can people be Christian “believers” and not read the Bible and not pray, and not attend church regularly, and not give or serve as an expression of their faith, and not fast, and not share their faith?  Obviously, a lot of people think so.  But be a disciple?  Discipleship has some built-in defining characteristics that are much more demanding than occasionally showing up.  People who haven’t shared in public worship for two years should not be called disciples.  Those too busy to pray, who have no time to meet with other Christians for accountability and spiritual practice, who neglect a sacrificial commitment of time or money should not be called disciples.  Those who do meet to debate carpet colors, criticize the pastoral leadership, snipe over music styles, and decide who isn’t welcome are not disciples.  Those who only pay attention to the parts they like and that make them feel comfortable and lovable are not disciples.  Come on!  Why would anyone want to be a disciple if the key qualification is breathing?

On his blog, I asked — and will repeat here — whether we are institutionally capable of surviving the fall out that would happen if United Methodists got serious about discipleship. Here is what I predict would happen: First, there would be a tremendous amount of conflict and shedding of “members.” Then, the remnant would go forth and be much more like the church as the New Testament describes it. But make not mistake, it would be a much smaller church. It would probably be more active and vital, but it would be smaller.

There would be fewer buildings, fewer full-time jobs for clergy, and even less cultural relevance than we have now — at least for a time.

If we want a church of disciples — I think it says this somewhere in our mission statement — then shouldn’t we being doing the kind of institutional prep work that getting that kind of church is going to require? The image that comes into my head is Noah. If we know a flood is coming, shouldn’t we be building an ark?

Maybe someone is. I can’t hear the hammering from where I stand, though.

Encouraging cross bearing

I’ve been thinking about the necessity of cross bearing the last few days.

As I often do when pondering such things, I’ve been reading John Wesley. Here is his word on the topic from his sermon “Self-Denial.”

The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, Him.

I’ve been thinking about these words and thinking about being a pastor.

When someone comes to me as a pastor and shares a word about how hard it is to follow Jesus, to really follow, do I lose faith in the virtues of cross bearing? Often, I fear, I do. I am good at extending a word of consolation and solidarity. Yes, yes, that is difficult. I struggle with that, too.

But what I fail to say is that, yes, God is calling you and me to do this very thing we find so hard. It is in taking those steps that we discover that we have faith. God will give you grace to bear this burden. Trust him.

I fear my failure in this area is a sign of my own need for spiritual growth. I cannot encourage a practice that I avoid.

Listening to Peter

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:39-43)

Peter’s testimony to the household of Cornelius echoes the apostolic witness recorded elsewhere in Acts. I think in particular of Peter in Acts 2 and Paul in Acts 13. Here is what I hear in these proclamations.

The resurrection of Jesus is a promise and a sign. It is a promise of a future resurrection of all humanity — the wicked and the righteous. It is also a sign that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Son of God, the messiah, Christ. He is the one who will judge the living and the dead at the end of the present age. He is also the one through whom we receive forgiveness for our sins.

In the witness of the Book of Acts, those who receive this teaching receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is a present gift offering us peace, joy, and power to trample down sin. The Holy Spirit gathers us into a body and teaches, nurtures, and disciplines us.

As Christians, we are called to live by the Spirit and in accord with the will of God, so that at the resurrection we will be found to have worthily run the race set before us. In our ears, the Lord will say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

This is, I hope, a fair summary of the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts. If it is, I wonder how it is heard today. I wonder how well it accords with what we preach and teach.

Three fruit marks

I’ve been playing around with simple ways to describe what a fruitful Christian looks like from the outside.

Here is one set of three “measures” that might fit the bill. A fruit-bearing disciple of Jesus Christ:

  • Can explain to another person why Jesus is important him or her.
  • Can describe specific ways their love of God is visible in their life.
  • Can describe specific ways they reach out in love to their neighbors.

The goal here is to be able to assess the spiritual maturity of disciples without resorting to some sort of checklist that might promote a legalistic understanding of faith or might create a box into which everyone is forced to fit.

The first criterion might be too vague. Jesus being “important” and Jesus being “my Lord and Savior” are not the same thing. I find people struggle to describe in what way Jesus is their Lord in Savior. Most often — if they can reply at all — they offer a canned phrase that echoes some doctrine or Bible verse rather than an expression of living and vital faith.

I see these not as binary (yes/no) measures but as ways to assess growth. The person who struggles to say more than “I attend worship 3 or 4 times a month” as a description of how their love of God is visible might then be engaged with teaching and counsel about ways to deepen and mature in their love of God.

I’m open to other ideas.

What other ways do you have for assessing the spiritual maturity of disciples?

Making friends with God

No friend, no lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness. And by burdening others with these divine expectations, of which we ourselves are often only partially aware, we might inhibit the expression of free friendship and love and evoke instead feelings of inadequacy and weakness. Friendship and love cannot develop in the form of an anxious clinging to each other.

— Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

There are truths we believe but we don’t really understand.

Henri Nouwen’s words have been marked in my book since the first time I read them several years ago. But I have been coming to understand them more deeply since last September. Mostly what I have been coming to understand is how much I have directed my “cravings for unity and wholeness” toward others and how they treat me and speak to me. I have discovered holes in myself that I had been trying to fill with the uncertain kindness and love of others.

Failing that, I turned to a sense – an artificial one – of self-importance and accomplishment, which is just another kind of chasing after praise. I believed that — as Augustine says — our hearts are restless until we find rest in God, but I did not really understand it.

The requirement with finding that sense of unity and wholeness in God is that you have to be well-acquainted with God, which means time devoted to silence and prayer and disciplines of the Spirit. It is not something you can rush through. Ten minutes – or five – with today’s devotion in the Upper Room is not doing it. It is the spiritual equivalent of sending someone a Happy Birthday post on Facebook. You did it. There is even evidence that you thought of the other person. But your life is no deeper for having done it.

As Eugene Peterson has written more than once, pastors of all people are prone to confusing being busy about God-talk and church work with spending actual time with God. Preparing sermons and praying in public and making pastoral calls are good, honest religious work, but they are all on the clock. Friendship with God develops before and after you punch the time clock.

This morning, I was pondering a passage from 1 John when Nouwen’s words came to me.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

The apostle’s words are not as gentle or even speaking to the same exact point as Nouwen’s. He is issuing a warning, but the ground is similar, I think. John also speaks to us of the ultimate inadequacy of misdirected love. The love is misdirected because it aims toward the wrong thing, and it is misdirected because it is that clinging, needful thing that we often call love because our words are imprecise and we are so good a lying about our own intentions.

I think I am coming to understand this truth more fully. I have much more to learn and much more to do. God is a good friend. He waits patiently for me. I am grateful for that.

The Uncle Bob problem

Recently, I had a Christian in passing conversation refer to a relative who was living in active sin. The person said to me that the sinning relative believed in Jesus so should be okay.

“As far as I understand it, if you take Jesus Christ as your savior, you will go to heaven,” this person said.

Most of this was an exercise in easing the Christian’s own anxieties about the fate of the relative, and it was literally a conversation in passing, so I did not respond very deeply or well in the moment.

But the brief exchange has stuck with me. I’m wrestling with how to best re-engage that person. And I find myself wondering how many other people have this view — despite all the preaching that gets done.

The fear that a person we love might be damned to hell is powerful. It is the question I hear Christians wrestle with most often — even more than they wrestle with their own salvation. And the pressure to not face the threat of hell for a child or spouse or parent is powerful. I would venture to say the most common response is to conclude that since we cannot contemplate the damnation of the person we love or a person who has already died, it must not be an option. Surely, God forgives. Surely, at the last second, Uncle Bob repented.

I understand these thoughts. And as a pastor, I am the first to say that I don’t know what the Lord has decided in the case of those who have already died. We all stand before the Lord on the day of resurrection. It is not for me to know or say what Jesus will judge in the case of others.

And yet, I worry about the Uncle Bob theology that spares us the heartache of contemplating hell for those we love. I worry because it does not just slide into antinomianism, it is antinomianism. It discounts what Jesus Christ and the apostles taught regarding holy living and the narrow way of salvation.

All these leads me to wonder how powerful spiritual denial is in our theology. To explain, let me compare it to medicine. We all know people who engage in willful denial about their own health problems. They can be in pain or suffering, but if you suggest they change their ways or go see a doctor, suddenly they tell you that it is not a big deal or that they are really okay. The problem with this, of course, is that cancer and heart disease don’t go away just because we don’t want them to be there.

In spiritual matters, we find it even easier to engage in denial because the consequences of our spiritual maladies are easily ignored. When sin brings trouble and strife to our life, we blame these present fruits of our sin on other factors — mean people, bad luck, coincidence, misunderstanding parents, etc. As for the future fruits of our sin, we deny they exist or talk ourselves into a theory that “God loves us” and “Love wins,” so we don’t have to worry about that.

This is all comforting, but, if the Bible is to be trusted at all, it is fatal.

I am at a loss when it comes to dealing with this fatal disease among our people. Jesus said, “Let those with ears, hear!” We seem to be pretty good at stuffing spiritual ear plugs into our heads.

But the problem seems real to me.