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.

Male sin vs. female sin?

I’ve heard variations on this idea before. Do you think it is the case — as presented here — that men and women are tempted to different kinds of sin?

Many women have negated self so much that we no longer have a self to surrender to God. The primary meaning many of us find is in identification with the lives of others. When the husband or children are joyful, sad, or pensive, we feel likewise, taking on the feelings of others, instead of being a self that is related to God apart from these relationships. Women are not inherently more “good” than males. Women are just as sinful, but in different ways. Valerie Saiving provided a valid list of the sins women are tempted toward: sins of distraction, diffuseness, triviality, sentimentality, avoiding responsibility, mistrusting reason, lacking centeredness, disrespect of boundaries, and passivity. These temptations seem trivial to males (and may even appear to males as virtues). But for women, they’re sins just as much as lust, rage, and power-seeking. Women can be tempted to find their identity completely in others instead of God and are tempted to give their entire selves to others, leaving no self left to surrender to God.

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.

Do we need the Creed?

Andrew Thompson has provided a series of links to some recent and not-so-recent writings about the place of the Creed in Wesleyan and Methodist faith. The authors generally come out in defense of the Creed. This is not a controversial position for Christians to take, of course, but given the history of doctrinal neglect in United Methodism, it is not a foregone conclusion that any particular group of United Methodists will provide a robust defense of the creeds of the church.

So, these arguments are important.

But, at the risk of encouraging an “anything goes” attitude, I do want to ask whether the Creed is either sufficient or necessary for Christianity. Is affirming the Creed enough to make you a Christian (the demons believe and tremble)? Is affirming the Creed necessary for a person who claims to be a Christian?

Another way to ask this, I suppose, is whether Christianity could exist without the Creed. As a historical hypothetical, of course, it is an impossible question to answer. And yet, we do have an answer. The Creed was not handed to us by Jesus Christ. The Apostles did not recite the Apostles’ Creed. The church found the absence of a Creed problematic and the establishment of a Creed useful, but Peter and Paul and the subsequent generations were certainly good Christians despite their ignorance of the Creed.

So the question is not whether we need the Creed, but how best do we use it? What role should it play in the life of faith? How does knowing the Creed deepen our faith and practice? How does the Creed call us into holiness of heart and life?

Pastor school via Ezekiel & Jeremiah

Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the Lord. “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:28-29)

I’ve been thinking recently that every seminary and pastor training course should include a lesson on Ezekiel 33 & 34 and Jeremiah 23, not just as part of a general Old Testament class but specifically as part of pastoral formation. There are probably other chapters that should be thrown in there as well. What they all have in common is the stern words of God for shepherds or prophets who do not teach faithfully, who do not warn the people about the utter seriousness of being God’s people, and who do not strengthen them with the pure word of God.

The word is a hammer that break rocks to pieces.

How often is my preaching more like a velvet blanket?

In Ezekiel, God warns of the watchman who fails to warn people from their wickedness. The blood of the wicked will be on the hands of the watcher who holds his or her tongue. Jeremiah lashes out at the prophets who say “peace, peace” to the people when there is no peace.

God’s desire is not to destroy or burn. His desire is to turn people from their wicked ways.

And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right — if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil — that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live. (Ezekiel 33:14-16)

The message is one of grace, in the end, but it is grace on the heels of a word that burns like fire and shatters stone. God does not desire that anyone should perish, but that is what will surely happen if we do not repent of our wicked ways. (And just to be clear, this is not only about sex. It is about oppression and violence and exploitation of the weak; also it is about sex.)

I read these passages today, and I wonder how my ministry has heard them and whether it reflects the heart of God in regard to these things.

I read these words from Ezekiel and Jeremiah and I wonder how my brothers and sisters in the clergy hear them.

‘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.