Will we bend our knees?

I have been away from regular blogging for some time, and I am finding it difficult to get into the regular pattern once again. Such is the way with all things in life, yes?

As I try to pick up this habit and discipline again, I am going to return to something that has long sustained me in both my writing and my spiritual life: Reading and responding to the works of John Wesley.

In the past, I have written some on his 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. For a time, I am going to read through them again and write about some of the things I encounter in them. I hope it is useful for you.

And so, let us begin with his first sermon in this series, where I come across these words.

Let us observe, who it is that is here speaking, that we may take heed how we hear. It is the Lord of heaven and earth, the Creator of all; who, as such, has a right to dispose of all his creatures; the Lord our Governor, whose kingdom is from everlasting, and ruleth over all; the great Lawgiver, who can well enforce all his laws, being “able to save and to destroy,” yea, to punish with “everlasting destruction from his presence and from the glory of his power.”

In my notes in the margin of my book, I wrote in response to this: “our democratic instincts rebel against this.” And they do, do they not?

We Christians who have been born and raised in America have within us a deep passion and prejudice in favor of democracy. We consider it by reflex the only just way for a country to be organized and resist by instinct any suggestion otherwise. We expect our rulers to be responsive to the “will of the people” and for the laws of our land to be constantly adjusted to the changing — we always flatter ourselves by saying advancing — norms and values of our society.

All of this prepares us poorly to be people who understand what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord.” We use the words, but we do not really grasp what we say or we say it without really believing it. In some part of our soul, we do not bend the knee.

Of course, this problem did not start with us. Genesis 3 is the same story. Exodus 32 is the same story. And on and on.

We can recite the creeds as many times as we like, but we still must wrestle with the temptation to say in our heart: “Yes, Jesus is Lord, but …”

The simple truth is this. Jesus is Lord, the Creator of all, and he can therefore do whatever he wishes. We have no “rights” to invoke against him. If Jesus were to require our life right now, we have no room to protest. If Jesus lifts us up, we have no reason to boast at our achievements and if Jesus brings us low, we have no reason to complain at our treatment.

If we cannot say “amen” to this, then there is very little chance we will hear the rest of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount with proper ears.

And so, I am called to examine my heart. Do I say the words “Jesus is Lord” and truly mean what I say? Or do I reserve some of my democratic demands to press on God? Do I bend the knee? Do I say it is better to die on my feet? Am I ready to be taught or do I have things I want the teacher to agree to first?

I pray that Jesus gives me supple knees and a ready heart.

The UMC at the Valley of Elah

During the later stages of the controversy over Donatism in Africa during the fourth and fifth centuries, Augustine of Hippo took a major role. It is a long and complicated story and not without controversy still today, but I wanted to share some of Augustine’s words that remain relevant to the church today. While writing in response to an opponent in the controversy, he had these words for his allies in the church.

These things, brethren, I would have you retain as the basis of your action and preaching with untiring gentleness: love men, while you destroy errors; take of the truth without pride; strive for the truth without cruelty. Pray for those whom you refute and convince of error. — Answer to Petilian the Donatist

In my branch of the universal church, United Methodism, we need these words.

We have within our denomination two groups who are convinced of the truth. We stand arrayed like the Israelites and Philistines on the hills surrounding the Valley of Elah. In our struggle, each side believes itself to be the bearer of the banner of truth. Each side has come to this conviction with earnest, thoughtful, and prayerful effort. Neither side holds its convictions loosely, and for most on both sides those convictions are closely tied to a whole network of beliefs and convictions that are central to their entire faith. Neither could easily set aside their convictions on the issue of human sexuality without unraveling many other beliefs. The roots of their convictions are deep and tangled up with much else that defines their faith.

Both sides are tempted to see and portray the other side not just as wrong but as evil, led astray by devil and in the legions of the anti-Christ. Both are tempted to see the other as not just in error but as the enemy of God. Both are tempted to attribute to the other all manner of vices and dark motives.

Standing separate from these two groups, a third group calls for an end to the struggle. They do not appear to see how deeply rooted the convictions that drive the two contending sides are and appear to assume that they can be laid aside as easily as a person takes off a baseball cap and puts on another. They imagine a unity in the church that could only come if the contending sides both admit that what they hold as truth is not truth but mere opinion and not essential to what it means to be a Christian.

Maybe the image I have drawn here is not right, but it is how the situation appears to me. It is not a new moment in the life of the church, which has sadly always been rent asunder by disagreements, heresy, and sin. And this morning I turn to the wisdom of Augustine to help me in this moment.

I do not think either side can or will lay down their banners and return to their homes. And so I pray that we might hear and heed the words of Augustine until the Lord brings our church through this crisis. Act and preach and speak with gentleness. Love those with whom we contend. Set aside both pride and cruelty. Pray for those we believe are in error.

I am not wise enough to see how God will lead us through this. If I am in error, I pray the Lord will break me gently. If I am in the right, I pray my words and speech honor Christ.

Evangelical amnesia

Scot McKnight was one of the first evangelical writers I read as a new Christian. If you have never read his books or his blog, I’d encourage you to do so.

Recently, he wrote a blog post about the demise of evangelical Christianity.

As an evangelical Methodist, I find much of what McKnight writes in his post compelling and on target. Indeed, I would say that much of what is troubling United Methodist churches that I have been a part of can be attributed to the degree to which we are afflicted by the ills McKnight outlines in his post. We United Methodists are evangelicals with a case of amnesia. We have forgotten that we are evangelicals. We have forgotten ourselves and therefore have no idea why we are here or what we should be doing.

McKnight highlight the following areas of trouble. See if any of these ring true to you.

The Bible is diminished – Preaching is not rooted deeply in it. People do not study it. We are not shaped, formed, and challenged by it on a daily basis.

Evangelism is diminished – We do lots of mission work, but somehow that activity has been divorced from church planting and the salvation of souls. Whether it is overseas or in our own communities, we are very eager to provide bread for the body but not food for the soul.

Vocations are diminishing – Is this one true in the UMC? McKnight writes that the numbers of people coming forward to seek vocations as pastors is decreasing. I don’t know if that is the case in my conference in the UMC. I know that my commissioning class was fairly large by recent standards, but that may be a decline overall from historic trends. I do know that there is much talk in my conference about retirements out-pacing new vocations.

The Cross is diminished — McKnight’s point is that there is a lot of confusion and contention around atonement theology. Camps are divided. Progressives seek theories that downplay or dismiss the notion that Christ died for our sins. Conservatives go all in on penal substitution and ignore other aspects of the work of Christ on the cross. In all this, we end up diminishing Cross and  — dare I say — emptying it of its power.

I’m sure these critiques are not valid in every place United Methodists gather, but much of McKnight’s critique seems like it applies to us as well. It feels in the church that we are much more comfortable with “doing good works” than we are in the hard work of sanctification or the often unrewarding work of preaching the gospel to those who have not heard it. And we are really, really, really good at clustering together with like-minded folks and clucking about how those “other Christians” are doing it all wrong.

What do you think? Does any of this seem on point to you?

What can we do to shake off our amnesia and help others to do the same?