We were warned

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:25-33, NIV)

In praise of incomprehensibility

Among the books by Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved is one of my favorites. It holds this place in my heart not because of what it achieves but because it fails.

The book was written at the request of a friend who wanted Nouwen to write something about the life of the Spirit that would speak to secular people. The book is a meditation on the Christian life written within the framework of the four movements of the Eucharist – take, bless, break, give. At the end of the book, Nouwen reports on the negative reaction of his secular friend.

Nouwen quotes him:

Although it is clear that you try to write for me and my friends from your own center and although you express to us what is most precious to you, you do not realize how far we are from where you are. You speak from a context and tradition that is alien to us, and your words are based on many presuppositions that we don’t share with you. You are not aware of how truly secular we are. Many, many questions need to be answered before we are able to be fully open to what you say about the life of the Beloved.

Among these questions are: Who is God? Who am I? Why am I here? How can I give my life meaning? How do I get faith?

This part of the book speaks to me because I was not a cradle Christian, and I could have put myself in this secular friend’s shoes at one point.  I had some questions that were a lot more pointed than these.

But here is what I have learned since those days. Answering these questions was not for me the first step toward faith. Following Jesus was. As long as I stood apart and insisted that someone provide a series of intellectual answers to intellectual questions, I moved no closer to God. I am only learning the answers to these questions as I have followed Jesus.

It is out of this experience that I find Will Willimon persuasive when he says the key issue is not apologetics but conversion. I do not mean that we should not answer secular questions like the one’s above, but I do not think we should expect our answers to have deep impact. You do not get the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” without following him. If you try to understand him without following him, the best you can hope for is the confusion of Pilate muttering “What is truth?”

I suppose this is why I am skeptical of calls to speak in ways that the culture can understand. I don’t mean we should try to be obscure, but rather that we cannot avoid being obscure if we are speaking truthfully. How did Paul put it? The gospel is foolishness to the Greeks. Yes. And to Americans.

To quote Willimon:

Too often popular American evangelism presents the gospel as the solution to all our problems, the resolution of all conflict, another technique for making nice people nicer, successful people even more successful.

“My life was a mess. I was on drugs. I was addicted to sex. I ate high cholesterol snacks. Then I found Jesus … and everything got fixed.”

Against the notion of evangelism as simplification of the gospel to the point where no one could raise objections, accommodation of the gospel to the unformed and uninformed limits of our listeners, I would like to plead for another way, a way that sees the prime evangelistic moment, not in resolution and solution, but in the gap, the gap between us and God, as well as the peculiar way in which God deals with that gap in Jesus Christ.

I have no doubt Nouwen’s secular friend would find Willimon — and Jesus for that matter — even less comprehensible than Henri Nouwen.

Geography not important?

Christianity Today posed the question whether geographical organization (annual conferences, jurisdictions, etc., in the United Methodist Church) was the best way for denominations to organize.

The question was sparked by the Presbyterian Church (USA) proposal to allow non-geographically organized presbyteries.

As I skimmed the list, I found UMC Bishop Will Willimon had offered his thoughts:

“Of all the ways of organizing the church, geographical proximity is not the best. It worked fine when we were all on the same page in regard to fundamental beliefs. That homogeneity seems to be passing. Affinity groupings may be the wave of the future.”