How to love our neighbor

Christians are called to love God and love their neighbor.

This is the command of Christ.

When I hear or read these words, my thoughts go something like this.

As a Christian who looks to John Wesley as a spiritual teacher, I know that the commands of Christ serve many functions, each one beneficial and fitted to the needs of individuals at different places in their spiritual life.

For the non-spiritual, non-believing person, these commands are rocks to break up our pride and self-confidence. We no more contemplate them before we begin to squirm under their heavy burden. We know that in our heart we are selfish, self-indulgent, full of pride, and hungry for praise. We can no more make these commands a rule of our life from moment to moment than we could make a command to grow wings and fly to the moon a plan for tomorrow.

The person in a state of nature will experience these commands as unpleasant and either put them out of mind or justify their disobedience in some way — often by denying the very notion that obedience to the one who gave the command is required.

For the one who does not dismiss of self-justify their way out of the fetters of this double command of Christ, these words bring us by painful degrees to the recognition that we are the problem, not the giver of the command, and that we are equally powerless to obey as we are to break free of our rebellion. We come to understand that we need salvation — not from an external enemy but from ourselves. Our sin runs deep.

Whether we wrestle with these truths for a few moments for for years, we come at last to know the saving faith of Jesus Christ. We come to know that he won the victory we could not and will pardon us for all our wicked and rebellious ways. He will set us free from the chain of sin, which until recently we treasured as our most cherished possession. He will make us new by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And the fruit of this spiritual process, often painful and always transforming, is that we discover we have, by the grace of God, the ability to truly love God and neighbor. We become capable of love that is not tainted by our selfishness and neediness. We become capable of love that is not just another form of self-justification or another way to prop up our own self-esteem. We have overcome the need to regard ourselves highly, and thus by Christ won the great prize of being able to actually love. With this prize in hand, we discover that these commands of Christ confirm and guide us, teaching us again and again what it is to follow our Lord, which we are able to do now thanks to his grace.

As I write these words, I am aware this is not what the world means when it says love is the answer to the world’s problems. I know that the way I write about love here is not what many of my Christian brothers and sisters mean when they say “love wins” or something similar.

I do believe it is how Christians should speak of such things. I believe it is in keeping with what the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church enjoin upon its preachers to preach. To the best of my ability, I hope I do so.

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Another reason we don’t talk about heaven

When I was writing my last post, I thought maybe I should write this one first.

My last post suggested that one reason mainline pastors don’t talk about heaven much is because talking about heaven requires us to deal with questions about who does not end up there. I believe there is truth in that, but I’m not sure it is the biggest reason why so many pastors say so little about heaven.

My fear is that many pastors do not talk about the way to heaven because of doubt about the doctrine itself.

This doubt can take more than one form.

The mildest form of this is an impulse to “correct” the flaws in popular piety about heaven. If you read the Bible, it does not take much effort to notice that the Bible speaks about eternity with God not in terms of wings and harps and clouds, but in terms of a physical life in resurrected and redeemed creation. The idea that life after death involves living on as a some sort of ghost among angels is popular but not biblical. The biblical promise is that after Christ returns again creation will be redeemed and heaven and earth will be one. We will live on in bodies of flesh and bone, but free of the death and frailty that so marks our existence now. It will be utterly different than life as we know it, and yet we will still have lungs full of air, stomachs taking in food, and skin feeling the softness of a puppy’s fur.

Observing all these things is mere orthodoxy.

But sometimes, we pastors can be so devoted to clearing away the errors of popular piety about a heaven full of ghosts that we sound like we are calling into question the idea of heaven itself. We want to appear wise more than we want to help our people love God and trust in what they believe.

This can be fixed with more care in the way we speak.

Some problems, however, run deeper than words.

Some pastors don’t talk about heaven because they do not believe the orthodox teaching embodied in the great creeds of the church. They do not believe that Christ will come again and judge the living and the dead. They do not believe that some of us will spend eternity with God and some will be consigned to hell. They do not believe in a final reward for the righteous and final punishment for the wicked.

I love my brothers and sisters in the clergy who struggle with doubt or secretly disbelieve the things we say in the creeds of the church. I do not know how I could stand up and preach every week if I seriously questioned the baptismal faith I am called to preach as a pastor. It would cause me deep pain to be so divided, but I hope that we would all recall that we are called to preach the faith of the church rather than “our own theology” and not let our own doubts keep us from sharing the great hope of heaven and eternity with God with the people who gather in worship with us each week.

I appreciate you taking time to read my thoughts here. I’m curious what you think. Do mainline pastors speak and preach about heaven too little or too much? Why do you think this is so?

The treacherous first step

John Wesley reads the Beattitudes as both an account of the perfected Christian life and as a description of the journey we take toward that state. The first and enduring rung on that ladder is poverty of spirit, which Wesley described at great length but sums up with the following words:

Poverty of spirit then, as it implies the very first step we take in running the race which is set before us, is a just sense of our inward and outward sins, and our guilt and helplessness.

It is a proper awareness of our “mere want, of naked sin, of helpless guilt and misery.”

Let me not sugar coat this, though, because I have found in my study of Wesley that this first step is the one that we most fight against, most try to skip past, and most deny as having any basis in “contemporary” Christian thought, obsessed as we are with being infectiously peppy and upbeat. We want to jump to the blessing that poverty of spirit brings without actually being poor in the first place.

Here are some of Wesley’s words about the thoughts of the one who is poor in spirit.

“In me,” saith he, “dwelleth no good thing,” but whatsoever is evil and abominable. He has a deep sense of the loathsome leprosy of sin, which he brought with him from his mother’s womb, which overspreads his whole soul, and totally corrupts every power and faculty thereof.

The one who is poor in spirit is deeply aware of his or her own pride, vanity, thirst for praise, envy, jealousy, hatred, anger, opposition to God, love of the world, and self-will.

It is difficult to overstate how pessimistic Wesleyan Christianity is about human nature. There is not a speck of the talk that we so reflexively engage in to defend our own faults and “short comings.” The notion “Well, you are only human,” is neither defense nor justification, but is rather an indictment.

As we come to terms with this, we can see why Wesley was hounded out of so many churches and why the movement he founded was always derided by many good church leaders. In our day of bright and sunny Christinianty in which faith is often offered as a kind of “be happy” solution to the difficult things in life, I expect Wesley would meet a similar reaction in our churches as he did in his day.

We sing hymns still at times about our sense of unworthiness and our sinful nature, but if we hear the words we sing, we often do not really think they apply to us. Sinners are other people. I just have problems and struggles that hopefully God will help me get over.

And here is the problem that our contemporary ways of thinking have. Wesley was so adamant about the desolation of sin because he knew that only when we could look without flinching at our own sin could we experience salvation with joy. For him, the blackness of sin set the stage for the brilliant sunshine of salvation. But so often for us, our tepid and halting admission of our own sinfulness and helplessness leaves us with a similarly tepid experience of the gospel.

Poverty of spirit is the first step toward the joys of Christian salvation, but it is a deep step down for many of us and we often will not take it unless we stumble and fall into it.