The danger of Christmas

It is that time of year when that slumbering beast the Christmas marketing machine stirs from its summer hibernation, opens its glittering jaws, and tries to devour all light and joy within itself.

On every screen that captivates our attention and in every shop window and aisle, we are bombarded with the message that happiness lies in buying things and getting gifts. Economic empires rise and fall based on how well companies can convince us to covet the new and pretty things that they have to offer us.

In the face of this onslaught of materialism, I received this small gift and reminder from John Wesley as I was reading his sixth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount.

[O]ur prayers are the proper test of our desires; nothing being fit to have a place in our desires which is not fit to have a place in our prayers: What we may not pray for, neither should we desire.

The trick with such a quotation, of course, is that we have a lot of teachers in the church who have taught us to pray for exactly the same things that the secular marketing machine wants us to desire. We have far too many pastors and teachers who teach us to pray not for our “daily bread” but for gold and fame and so many other treasures that perish like dust.

So the work of the church, in many cases, is the work of redigging old wells. We have to teach people what it means to pray as a Christian rather than as a well-trained participant in our economic system, and we have to help each other bend our desires to the things that our Lord would have us seek.

The old Methodist teaching went something like this. As we pray that God give us our daily bread — just what we need to make it through the day each day — so this is all we should desire. While we work hard to make the most of the gifts God has placed in our hands, we are called to desire nothing more than the simple necessities that secure life and provide for the needs of our families. Perhaps the Lord will bless us with more than this, but we should desire only what our Lord himself had for himself: sufficient food to eat, clothing to wear, a roof over our heads (and even he did not always have that), the comfort of friends, good work to do, and time alone with God.

Perhaps this is too spare a list. It feels that way to me if I am honest about the rumblings of my own heart. But here is the challenge I place before myself. Search the scriptures. See what our Lord teaches on these matters. Ask whether that rumbling in our hearts comes from the Holy Spirit or is perhaps the sign of another spirit at work in us.

We celebrate on Christmas the child born in a feeding trough for animals. It is not proper for us to desire more than our king required.

Plucking souls from the fire

This morning, I was reading part of John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” In this work, he includes plea to sinners who rush headlong and continuously away from God and into sin.

Think a little for once. What is it you are doing? Why should you destroy yourself? I could not use the worst enemy I have in the world as you use yourself. Why should you murder yourself inch by inch? Why should you burn yourself alive? O spare your own body at least, if you will not have pity for your soul! But have you a soul then? Do you really believe it? What, a soul that must live for ever! O spare thy soul! Do not destroy thy own soul with an everlasting destruction! It was made for God. Do not give it into the hands of that old murderer of men! Thou canst not stupify it long. When it leaves the body, it will awake and sleep no more. Yet a little while, and it launches out into the great deep, to live, and think, and feel for ever. And what will cheer thy spirit there, if thou hast not a drop of water to cool thy tongue? But the die is not yet cast: Now cry to God, and iniquity shall not be thy ruin.

I am reminded in reading this that Wesley’s ministry and passion was stirred by a clear and specific theology, one that is not in favor in many Christian gatherings in the United States today. Wesley, in short, believed in eternal torment of the damned.

Now, an NT Wright would point out to us that Wesley’s picture of souls disembodied misses the good news of resurrection. A Rob Bell will attempt to drive us with beautiful questions to doubt that anyone would ever be condemned for eternity. More than a few United Methodist pastors I know would point out that Wesley had bad relationships with women and was a dictator in the Methodist movement.

All these are worthy of note, but they also all seem to miss an important point.

When we look at Wesley’s ministry, we cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer intensity and energy with which he set about his task. Here was a man driven by the conviction that men and women all around him were leaping into eternal torment, and he must do everything he could to pull as many back from the pit as he possibly could.

Many among us these days might make fine arguments about his theological or psychological faults, but I wonder how many of us would dare compare our energy and passion with his.

Death defying experience

We United Methodists say that experience informs our theology.

When we are being less faithful to our own Wesleyan roots, we mistake “experience” for revelation and act as if whatever we happen to feel or think must be on par with what God has revealed via Scripture. When we are being more faithful to our roots, we recall that Wesley stood with the historic church in viewing experience as way of confirming the truth of theological commitments. What we believe plays out in how we live and therefore adds credence to the truth of our beliefs.

Athanasius would approve of this use of experience as a theological tool.

He wrote in On the Incarnation about the experience of Christians as confirmation of the truth of the resurrection. If Jesus was not alive and death had not been defeated, he wrote, how could anyone explain the behavior of Christians who embrace martyrdom and show no fear of death?

Of old, before the divine sojourn of the Savior, all used to weep for those dying as if they were perishing. But since the Savior’s raising the body, no longer is death fearsome, but all believers in Christ tread on it as nothing, and would rather choose to die than deny their faith in Christ. … human beings, before believing in Christ, view death as fearsome and are terrified at it. But when they come to faith in him and to his teaching, they so despise death that they eagerly rush to it and become witnesses to the resurrection over it effected by the Savior.

I love the boldness of this vision of Christianity. This is an experience that confirms the truth of our beliefs, only if Jesus were really alive would people be able to live like this.