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.

How do I get to heaven?

Earlier this week, I asked how we as United Methodists would answer the question: How do I get to heaven?

Here are a few of my thoughts on the answer.

I begin by saying we make a mistake if we confuse the process of salvation with the goal. What do I mean by that? I mean that we often answer these types of questions by laying out some form of the order (or way) of salvation. Repent of your sin. Confess Jesus Christ. Get to a good church. Etc. But these are the steps in a process. They are the outward forms, not the inner grace.

As one who has been greatly influenced by the Wesleyan movement, I would say the answer to the question about getting to heaven is some variation on one of John Wesley’s favorite verses, Hebrews 12:14b. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. I’m not tied to this specific half-verse, of course. The witness to holiness in the Bible certainly spans from Genesis to Revelation. The points is this. God is holy. If we wish to dwell with him in eternity, we are called to be holy as well.

I see the answers — obviously not in this form if talking with a real human being — as going in this order.

How do I get to heaven? That’s easy. Be holy as God is holy.

What does it mean to be holy? Well, let me show you some places where God spells that out for us. Let me talk to you about the law and the prophets. Let’s see what Jesus said about those. Let me show you some people who have exemplified what he taught.

How can I do all that? I’ve tried, and I fail. Well, let me talk to you about Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the power of the Holy Spirit.

That seems pretty hard to do. Well, good news, we have a whole bunch of other people trying to do the same thing. We’re called a church. You should come along with us.

Of course, it is rarely this straight forward in real life. I just think staring off with “put your faith in Jesus” misses the point. It leads people into viewing Christianity as a kind of fire insurance program.

Do you ever see those signs or billboards on the side of the highway? They do it this way. “Avoid Hell. Believe in Jesus.” In church, I think our message is at times a more sophisticated version of these highway signs. But we are jumping the gun. We are offering the process before the solution. The process is not bad. It just isn’t the actual answer. It can confuse people into thinking that because they uttered some words in sincerity or got dunked in a creek that they are glory bound. When the real issue at the end of it all is going to be whether we are, in fact, holy.

Maybe I’m wrong. This is the way I’d answer my own question, though. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter.

 

What it means to save souls

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Romans 14:12)

John Wesley famously told his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.

If we are not listening carefully to him, we might fall into the trap of thinking he is aiming at mere conversion. This might sound like an appeal for a kind of altar-rail salvation that takes a much too narrow view of the meaning of salvation but packages well in American culture.

Conversion is important, crucial even. But it is just a step in the process of salvation. It is salvation begun but not salvation completed. Salvation is not complete until the second coming when the book of life is opened and read.

If that is true, then the work of the pastor is not conversion but fruit. Each one of us will stand one day before the Lord who will judge us. And so the work of the pastor is to help people get ready to have their lives laid bear before the judgement seat of God.

Saving faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary for this work. It is the power to destroy sin and remove guilt and shame, but it is not everything. We can’t be saved without coming to faith in Christ, but coming to faith is the beginning rather than the end of the journey.

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.