Digging through the sand

[N]one can trust in the merits of Christ, till he has utterly renounced his own.

— John Wesley, Salvation by Faith

This is so hard.

We are so good at polishing our own resume. We do such a good job listing off our own merits. We spend so much time telling ourselves “I am good enough” and “I deserve to be happy” that we cannot easily say “I am a sinner.” Indeed, some of us cannot say it at all and are upset at the notion that we need to.

I meet so many Christians who cannot comprehend the idea that they are sinners or that they need a Savior.

Other people, yes. But not them.

They have never murdered anyone or committed adultery. They go to church. They pray. They give. They do good works. Surely, this is enough. This is what they have been taught by example it means to be a Christian. Surely, Jesus must smile when he looks upon them.

We fight our whole lives to get ahead and prove we are worthy. As a result, we often cannot admit the one true thing and the first most necessary thing for our salvation — that we are sinners. We cannot admit that we need saving. We feel entitled to heaven and can explain why we deserve to get in. We do not worship God. We worship ourselves.

It is the most heart-breaking thing I see as a pastor because I know it is all sand.

I know the day will come for each of us when we look death in the eye, and in that day we will discover that there is only one foundation strong enough to support us. We are not enough. I am not enough. I need a Savior because I am a sinner, full of pride and self-righteousness. My resume means nothing. Only Jesus Christ can save me.

There is nothing more heart-breaking as a pastor than seeing someone who imagines themselves to be a Christian finding out in the midst of a hurricane that their confidence has been built upon the sand of their own self-righteousness rather than the solid rock of faith in Christ. I’ve found no work more difficult, more challenging, or more holy, than getting on my knees with someone as the waters rise and digging through that sand to find that rock. I wish I had time and skill enough to do this better. I am repeatedly humbled by the importance of the work and my limitations in doing it. I am constantly reminded that without the grace of God, we would all drown.

There is nothing more heart-breaking as a pastor than seeing the ones who never found that rock and got carried away by the waves when the sand beneath their feet gave way. There are a many things I need to learn to do better as a pastor. This is the one area I most feel at a loss — helping people to see, to understand, and to embrace the most basic truth of our faith. We are sinners. We need a Savior.

But I will keep digging so long as God and the United Methodist Church call me to dig.

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Skipping over our sin

“I’m a sinner, but I’m forgiven.”

If you have been around church or been a pastor, you’ve heard these words. You may have even said them.

One of the things I find myself struggling to communicate to people is the importance of not skipping over the first part of the sentence too quickly.

We like to get to the forgiven part quickly. We don’t like to dwell on the sinner part. That, of course, makes perfect sense. Dwelling on our sinfulness is rather unpleasant.

But here is the thing I often encounter in my ministry.

Many Christians struggle because they have not really experienced the good news of the gospel. Oh, they have heard it. They have sung about it. They’ve sat through countless sermons about it, but there is something that has not yet grabbed hold of them.

They are like the pre-Aldersgate John Wesley, who spent his life in admirable Christian service, but had himself not come to know the joy of the gospel. For him, the key moment was when he came to a deep realization that his sin had been forgiven.

In the Bible, Jesus puts the contrast this way. Those who have been forgiven much rejoice much. Those who have been forgiven little, rejoice little.

And our problem so often is that we want to convince ourselves and others that we have little to be forgiven for. We do not really dwell on the ways that we reject God. We do not think on our sins. We do not experience the cold hard truth that we are in dire need of forgiveness. Instead, we rush ahead and grab the warm comfortable mantle of forgiveness and so fail to really know what it means to come out of the cold and into the warmth of the Father’s love.

We skip past our sinfulness like someone running on hot coals. We move so quickly, that we barely need the healing that awaits on the other side.

And so, this is work I continue to seek the wisdom to do better. For I do know this to be true. The tepid relief of “I’m a sinner but forgiven” often provides little comfort when a person is lying in a hospital bed with their heart failing or cancer assailing their body. At the hour of their death, they need the full assurance that only comes from the full gospel.

Lord, help me to learn better how to help the people in my care die a good death.

What about greed?

I was reading a biography of Catherine de’ Medici today. The book opens with an extended argument that it was in the late 15th century and early 16th century that capitalism and a social order based on competition finally swamped the medieval church’s prohibitions on greed. The author argues that the church was simply and finally pushed along by the currents of social change into accepting a set of values that it had resisted for hundreds of years before that.

I was thinking of that as I was reading this evening from Ephesians 5.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. (Ephesians 5:3-7, NIV)

In the midst of our current church debates, our eye might first be drawn to the apostle’s concern of sexual immorality, but I want to draw your attention for a few moments to the sin that draws equal condemnation here: greed.

If I asked a hundred clergy, I think I would have a hard time getting much consensus about what the biblical definition of greed might be. I wonder how many of us have preached on this topic or discussed with our members the dangers of this sin. I wonder how many of us could even articulate clearly what we think the sin might be.

In our Methodist tradition, of course, we have some resources to draw upon. John Wesley wrote and preached on “The Dangers of Riches” and “The Use of Money.” In the eighth his 13-part series of sermons on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, he devotes extended attention to the sin of laying up treasures on Earth. Because this is my blog and I enjoy this particular bit of Wesley’s writing, I am going to share an extended quotation from that sermon:

With regard to most of the commandments of God, whether relating to the heart or life, the Heathens of Africa or America stand much on a level with those that are called Christians. The Christians observe them (a few only being excepted) very near as much as the Heathens. For instance: the generality of the natives of England, commonly called Christians, are as sober and as temperate as the generality of the heathens near the Cape of Good Hope. And so the Dutch or French Christians are as humble and as chaste as the Choctaw or Cherokee Indians. It is not easy to say, when we compare the bulk of the nations in Europe with those in America, whether the superiority lies on the one side or the other. At least the American has not much the advantage. But we cannot affirm this with regard to the command now before us. Here the heathen has far the pre-eminence. He desires and seeks nothing more than plain food to eat and plain raiment to put on. And he seeks this only from day to day. He reserves, he lays up nothing; unless it be as much corn at one season of the year as he will need before that season returns. This command, therefore, the heathens, though they know it not, do constantly and punctually observe. They “lay up for themselves no treasures upon earth;” no stores of purple or fine linen, of gold or silver, which either “moth or rust may corrupt”, or “thieves break through and steal.” But how do the Christians observe what they profess to receive as a command of the most high God? Not at all! Not in any degree; no more than if no such command had ever been given to man. Even the good Christians, as they are accounted by others as well as themselves, pay no manner of regard thereto. It might as well be still hid in its original Greek for any notice they take of it. In what Christian city do you find one man of five hundred who makes the least scruple of laying up just as much treasure as he can? — of increasing his goods just as far as he is able? There are indeed those who would not do this unjustly; there are many who will neither rob nor steal; and some who will not defraud their neighbour; nay, who will not gain either by his ignorance or necessity. But this is quite another point. Even these do not scruple the thing, but the manner of it. They do not scruple the “laying up treasures upon earth,” but the laying them up by dishonesty. They do not start at disobeying Christ, but at a breach of heathen morality. So that even these honest men do no more obey this command than a highwayman or a house-breaker. Nay, they never designed to obey it. From their youth up it never entered into their thoughts. They were bred up by their Christian parents, masters, and friends, without any instruction at all concerning it; unless it were this, — to break it as soon and as much as they could, and to continue breaking it to their lives’ end.

Our bishops have taken up the charge to sort out how we can live in a church where there is widespread disagreement about exactly what is and what is not sexually immoral. We have no need of such a commission on the topic of greed. We seem to not be vexed by that sin at all. I fear, though, that it is because we have ceased to view it as a sin and not because it is no longer a problem among the people called Methodist.