Lenten Musings – The End of Casual Christianity

Casual Christianity as we know it is dying.  For a good decade now carefully observant pastors have noticed people who typically would worship a couple of times a month moving to worship patterns that are more episodic.  A variety of studies (Pew, Barna, Gallup, etc.) have reported changing patterns of worship attendance.

While much attention is given to decreasing worship attendance, less attention is given to a counter trend of people who are moving more deeply into faithful worship, prayer, ministry to those in need, missional outreach etc.  I confess that I am less able to document this trend.  Rather, I sense it unfolding.

I keep remembering that my predecessor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Dr. Steve Wende, used to tell the congregation (my dimly remembered paraphrase) “how can you call yourself Christian if you don’t go to the cross with Christ on Good Friday before you show up at Easter?”  His call to take seriously the call to Holy Week worship (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) was a grace-filled yet clarion claim to deeper discipleship.  The United Methodist Church is gaining significant clarity around its core mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Tire kickers and test drivers are always welcome in our worship but the goal is disciples – committed disciplined followers of Jesus Christ.

I think there is a quietly growing depth to many who have stayed faithful in deeper ways.  There is a counter trend emerging from the end of casual Christianity which is a good, godly, Holy Spirit-induced thing.  The recent overwhelming response to my study of Calvin versus Wesley provides some evidence.  I thought 8 or 9 people would join me.  Was I wrong!  We’ve had a large group at Texas Wesleyan University; multiple simulcast sites, many following the online streaming, and Sunday School classes using the material.  I believe this is a sign of the hunger for deeper discipleship and a closer walk with Christ.

One of the books that I am casually dabbling with (actually occasionally listening to on my phone) is Radical by David Platt.  While I have some strong theological disagreement with what I am hearing/reading, I am attracted by the way he too sees an end to casual Christianity and the growth of discipleship.  The subtitle of the books speaks volumes — Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.  Somewhere along the line, I ran into some quotes in a review from a newer book Platt has written that resonate with me.  The book is entitled Follow Me:

  • “There is indescribable joy, deep satisfaction and an eternal purpose in dying to ourselves and living for Christ.”
  • “Jesus is not some puny religious teacher begging for an invitation from anyone. He is the all-sovereign Lord who deserves submission from everyone.”
  • “Our greatest need is not to try harder. Our greatest need is a new heart.”
  • “We cling to the person of Christ as life itself.”

C.S. Lewis’ comment about Jesus echoes through my musing about the end of casual Christianity. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

My musings led me back to my faded copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  It is to the cross that our Lenten journey takes us.  I do know that I need to remember what Bonhoeffer wrote:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Even more, I remember what Jesus said, “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them’” (Mark 8:34-35).

There is much to think upon, pray about, and engage in action on the way to the cross and beyond.

Progress on Imagining No Malaria, Prayer Missionary & Captives ©

One of the great Focus Areas of the United Methodist Church during the last eight years has been combating killer diseases.  In particular, the United Methodist Church has focused on combating the killer disease of malaria through Nothing But Nets and the larger emphasis called Imagine No Malaria. The Central Texas Conference has been a part of this great mission emphasis contributing $539,458 to date.

It is a joy to share some wonderful good news passed on via Newscope (The United Methodist Publishing House’s weekly newsletter).  The World Health Organization reports that “the number of people dying from malaria has fallen dramatically since 2000 and malaria cases are steadily declining.”   In an article written by Joey Butler of United Methodist Communications, the use of insecticide-treated bed nets is given as one important reason for the drop.  He goes on to note that:

  • “Between 2000 and 2013, the report says, the malaria mortality rate decreased by 47% worldwide. In the WHO African Region-where about 90% of malaria deaths occur-the decrease is 54%. The Dec. 9 report estimates that, globally, 670 million fewer cases and 4.3 million fewer malaria deaths occurred between 2001 and 2013 than would have occurred had incidence and mortality rates remained unchanged since 2000.
  • In 2013, 49% of all people at risk of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa had access to an insecticide-treated net, a marked increase from just 3% in 2004. This trend is set to continue, with a record 214 million bed nets scheduled for delivery to endemic countries in Africa by year-end.
  • Since April 2010, The UMC’s Imagine No Malaria initiative has distributed more than 2.3 million bed nets and is less than $10 million shy of its goal to raise $75 million by 2015 to dramatically reduce deaths and suffering in Africa. Significantly the report closes with a challenge and a holy call to action. “Despite these victories, malaria remains a major threat and greater global commitment is necessary for success. In 2013, one-third of households in areas with malaria transmission in sub-Saharan Africa did not have a single insecticide-treated net, the report noted. Approximately $5.1 billion is needed annually to achieve malaria control and, eventually, elimination; but current annual funds remain around $2.7 billion” (Newscope, Editor Mary Catherine Dean, Vol. 43, Issue 08 / February 25, 2015, “WHO REPORTS ‘DRAMATIC’ DECREASE IN MALARIA DEATHS” by Joey Butler, UMCOM).

In other mission activity, I ask that the congregations of the Central Texas Conference to join in praying for Rev. Phyllis Sortor, a missionary for The Free Methodist Church who has been abducted and held for ransom by terrorists/criminals in Nigeria.  I also ask that we continue to join with Christians around the world in prayer for the Assyrian and Coptic Christians who have been persecuted by ISIS.  News reports indicate that a significant number of Coptic Christians, one of the most ancient branches of the Christian faith, are being executed by ISIS.

It is important that we do not react with hate and especially important that we do not ourselves persecute the many (majority) peaceful Muslims in our midst.  Let goodness be known to all as we keep all those who are persecuted in our prayers.  To this end I request each church in the Central Texas Conference to make a point of lifting up Rev. Sorter and the Assyrian & Coptic Christians in our prayers.

Reflections on a Winter Day (c)

Like many of you, I found myself working at home on Monday, February 23rd.  Outside the study window, both our driveway and the street are covered in a sheet of ice.  Such winter days often leave me in a thoughtful reflective mood.  I try to catch up on writing, email and reading.

In my reading this morning I am continuing to plumb the depths of John Ortberg’s marvelous little book Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.  Over the past few months, my spiritual guide and I have been slowly working our way through the book and its accompanying study guide.  Today I read the 13th chapter entitled “The Soul Needs a Blessing.”

I found myself captivated by insights that Ortberg (and through John Ortberg, Dallas Willard) offers.  The words “blessing” or “blessings” is one I use often and casually, yet with meaning on my part.  It is here the author focuses my intention.  He writes:  “Blessing is not just a word.  Blessing is the projection of good into the life of another.  We must think it, and feel it, and will it.”  In this simple yet profound definition, I am taken to a deeper level.  I am asking myself, “When I say ‘blessings’ or ‘God bless you,’ do I think it, feel it, and/or will it?”  My honest answer is a hedged yes; mostly but often, far too often, not on an impactful level.  A blessing is reaching out in love.  It connects me to the great commandment, to love God with my heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love my neighbor as I love myself.

John Ortberg quotes his great mentor Dallas Willard (to whom the book is dedicated) as saying, “Churches should do seminars on how to bless and not curse others.”  On reading I simultaneously experienced an “aha” epiphany and a punch in the stomach.  I pastored local churches for 30 years and never once held a seminar on how to bless not curse others.  Furthermore, I’d like to take such a seminar!

Under Willard’s tutelage, John Orberg starts with a passage we know well.  I first learned it about 50 years ago as a teenager.  We called this passage of Holy Scripture the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) benediction.  It comes from Numbers 6:24.

“The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

The following is my own shortened summary of advice from Soul Keeping on learning to bless (pp. 154-157).  I continue to commend this whole book and in particular this chapter to you.

1.  Blessings and curses are “simply the two ways we treat people.”
2.  Blessing takes time, so don’t hurry.
3.  “Blessings-giving should be asymmetrical. It is not a form of barter.  It’s grace.”
4.   Turn to the one you want to bless.
a.  Look into their eyes..
b.  Allow your mind to focus on this particular individual, the one before you.
5.  “The Lord bless you” = may the Lord, “constantly bring good into your life.”
6.  “Keep you” = God should protect and guard you with the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross. John Ortberg adds:  “Underline the word you.”
7.  “His [God’s] face shine upon you” = the Lord’s glory and delight be in your life. Dallas Willard adds, “Glory always shines.  Glory was always meant to be shared.”  As I understand the biblical concept of glory, it means the radiant presence of the Lord.
8.  “The Lord lift his countenance upon you” = being fully present to someone. I cannot help but think the opposite is multi-tasking while we talk to someone.
9.  “And give you peace” = “unthreatened, undisturbed peace”

I hope to be more of a blessing to people.  How about you?

The Way of the Cross ©

Participating in Ash Wednesday services always re-focuses my attention on the cross.  This was further emphasized for me in writing a devotional for United Community Centers of Fort Worth and preparing a number of sermons that I will be sharing in various congregations during Lent.

I think the early church got it right when it called for a season of self-examination, confession and reflection preceding Easter.  It is a fact of faith that we cannot truly get to Easter without going through Good Friday.  It is a biblical and theological truth that we must first journey to the cross before going to the resurrection joy of the cemetery.

An exchange between Jesus and Peter highlights the point of focus.  “Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts’” (Mark 8:33).  Jesus the Savior makes the cross connection in his determination to live out God’s purpose.  And what is that purpose?  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

Obedient to God, Jesus is on a collision course with human things.  His mind is set on divine things, the divine purpose of God for the salvation of all people.  He is not out for Number One but marches cross-ward for all.  He will suffer, be rejected, and even die to reconnect us to God in a relationship we call salvation.

Peter is “rebuked” because he tempts Jesus to ignore God’s purpose.  One scholar puts it this way:  “Jesus is tempted (and so are we) to think that God’s anointed can avoid suffering, rejection, and death; that God’s rule means power without pain, glory without humiliation.  This is Peter’s human way of thinking; and Jesus, overcoming this tempting suggestion, identifies it as a devil of an idea.  Second, Jesus’ rebuke reminds Peter where disciples belong.  ‘Behind me’ (v. 33) and ‘after me’ (v. 34) are identical in Greek.  Disciples are not to guide, protect, or possess Jesus; they are to follow him” (Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, p. 153).  In the courage of Christ’s self-offering, the cross connection is made.  Jesus offers himself for you and for me and for all.  He not only shows us what God is like, he takes us to God if we will only but follow.

A great preacher of our time, Fred Craddock, puts it this way.  “Do you want to know what God is like?  Jesus is what God is like.  He is the revelation of God’s nature.  You see, it is not enough to say, ‘I believe in God,’ or ‘I believe there is a God.’  People hate in the name of God.  People kill in the name of God.  People are prejudiced in the name of God.  What kind of a God do I believe in?  This kind:  I believe in the God who is presented in Jesus Christ, not just some vague little feeling that crawls around in my head and make me say, ‘You know, I feel kind of funny.  I think I must have faith.’ . . .

“What is God like?  Here is the answer: Jesus. . . . I do not want you to think that to be a Christian you have to believe in God and then you add Jesus.  You do not add anything; it is Jesus Christ who tells us who God is.  This is the kind of God in whom we believe.  . . .  Do you remember when he took that old cross on his shoulder and started up the hill to Golgotha?  That is what God looks like” (Fred Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons, pp. 40-41).

three-crosses The purpose of God is the cross connection; to draw us back into a relationship with him through the suffering, rejection and death of his own son.  The cry of why on our lips – thrown into the angry storm of this world’s hate, of human things – is answered by the divine thing, the very love of God in Jesus the Christ.  This is God’s purpose.

How does this purpose translate for our lives?  Why first, from good old Peter, we learn not to rebuke or manipulate God but to follow, to follow the Lord through suffering, rejection, and death to the cross and beyond.

Secondly, we are taught to focus on divine things by embracing God’s purpose of redemptive love for all people.  We are to see both ourselves and every single human being as a person for whom Christ died.  The cross connection is made for all.

Third, we are to embrace both the purpose and the method of love.  Evil is not met with greater evil.  That is the human way.  The way and purpose of God exists in the gift of divine love to be shared.  This truth is hard to remember and even harder to embrace when facing the hatred of ISIS or violence in our community.  And yet, it is the way of the cross.

Rev. Jason Adams (then an Associate Pastor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio where I was the Senior Pastor at the time) shared a story with me that has lingered in my mind as an illustration of the way of the cross.  “In the early 1990’s, there were some women who lived near Washington D.C. who wanted to show God’s love to a special group of people.  They heard about a group of babies who were rarely held and destined to live and die in hospitals because they had AIDS.  The babies didn’t get much attention, so they began to cry silently.  No one had responded to their crying out loud, so they stopped doing it.  But they still shed tears.  Even though these children would die by their second birthdays, the women took a number of the AIDS babies’ home.  The women would respond to the silent tears by holding and rocking the babies.  Soon these unloved, cast-off AIDS babies began to cry out loud again.  They had been spoken to in the only way they could understand.  Women, who were willing to truly give of themselves, had spoken to them in the language of love.”

God’s purpose in Jesus Christ is to similarly embrace us in the cross connection.  We are spoken to in a way we can understand.  The divine thing is Christ, his sacrifice for us and the forgiving love of God he offers us and all.  The way of the cross offers a purpose to embrace and a Savior to follow.

I need Lent.  I need it not only to prepare for Easter but to forge the better nature and higher intent of my being.  In the way of the cross, all life and death take on a greater purpose and higher calling.

CTC Cabinet work in Diversity, Mission Field Ministry and Inventory Retreat

As this blog is posted (Tuesday, February 17th), the Central Texas Conference Cabinet is meeting in its yearly “Inventory Retreat.”  At our retreat, we look at the needs of the Conference for clergy deployment in the upcoming year.  This starts with an assessment of the number of people retiring from active appointive ministry (Christian, lay or clergy, never retire from ministry as long as they are faithful followers of Christ!) and the number of people coming in for appointments (new seminary graduates, licensed local pastors, clergy seeking transfer from other United Methodist Conferences or denominations, etc.)  As can be easily imagined, it is extensive and exhausting work.  Given the wild swings in need, balancing incoming and outgoing clergy is difficult.  Additionally we review and pray over requests by both clergy and churches for possible changes of appointment.  We seek to be driven by the Holy Spirit.  Together, with all the clergy and laity of the Central Texas Conference under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, a new church is slowly coming into being.  I ask for your prayers for the Cabinet on our Inventory Retreat.

A critical and exciting (encouraging!) part of work is the growing diversity of the Central Texas Conference.  While our dominant ethnic group continues to be Anglo, we have rising congregations with growing diversity.  Our ministry continues to expand with the addition of Rev. Samuel Macias (on loan from the Northeastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church of Mexico) and the wonderful saints of La Trinidad UMC.  We have a number of thriving Korean language (actually multi-lingual – Korean and English) churches, a vibrant Ghanaian language church (begun as a new start a few years ago) in Arlington, a French-speaking congregation, etc.  Currently we have 5 different situations where an African-American pastors is serving a mostly Anglo congregation.  Likewise three clergy of Korean heritage are also serving predominately Anglo congregations.  (This is a dramatic rise from just a few years ago.)  Additionally many predominately Anglo and/or African-American congregations are faithfully leaping old ethnic boundaries and becoming more multi-ethnic.  In one situation a new church is in the process of being birthed out of two congregations, one predominantly Anglo and the other predominately African-American.

Not only are we moving across ethnic lines but also across gender barriers.  Among Protestant clergy as a whole, women now make up more than ½ of the seminary students.  I believe we are currently at our highest number of women clergy under active appointment and have the greatest number we have ever had on Cabinet.

All this and more is a work of the Lord among us.  This great diversity calls to mind I Corinthians 12:  “There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. … Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.  We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink” (I Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-13).  Our great diversity and inclusivity is a gift God gives the church through the active presence of the Holy Spirit.

Last month, the Cabinet spent a full day in training on “Intercultural Competency Partnership” under the leadership and guidance of General Secretary Erin Hawkins and a staff member from the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR).  It was a superb time of learning that is part of a larger missional and evangelistic framework to reach all of God’s people.  I love the definition of “intercultural competency” General Secretary Hawkins taught us.  “Intercultural Competency (effectiveness, agility): ‘The ability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior and/or serve as a bridge when difference is present’”  (Mitchell Hammer).  We will continue our learning as an entire Conference with Rev. Rudy Rasmus as our keynote teacher at this June’s Annual Conference meeting.  It should be another time of great learning!

Ultimately all of this is done not for our sake but for the sake of Christ and His church.  Moving into Lent we are reminded again of what we are about regardless of ethnicity or gender, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Once again the Apostle Paul speaks to us from the passages of Holy Scripture.  “But we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:23-25).

As we make appointments we will continue to be guided by the need to make mission field appointments based on gifts and graces that accomplish the mission.  We will continue to lift up core values and commitments with a high Christology, a towering focus on the local church, and an ongoing commitment to leadership development that includes by laity and clergy.  We are driven by faithfulness to Christ and service to the mission field the Lord places before us.  Ministry is much more than a career.  It is a holy calling.  We solicit your prayers.

The Challenge of Brokenness – Part 3 ©

Reporters covering the White House during the administration of President Calvin Coolidge had a tough go of it.  President Coolidge wasn’t called “silent Cal” for no reason.  On a Sunday morning, the story goes, President Coolidge went to church.  Coming out at the close of worship, a reporter accosted Coolidge.

“What did the preacher speak about?” he demanded to know.  Coolidge pause, looked at the reporter and commented, “Sin … [long pause], he was against it.”  So are we – at least in theory.

Officially a doctrine of sin (and original sin at that) is part of the lexicon of United Methodism.  Article VII of the Doctrinal Standards and General Rules of the Methodist Church states:

Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby every man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually. (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 103, Section 3, p. 65)

Similarly Article VII of the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church states:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.  Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. . . . (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 103, Section 3, p. 72)

[It is important to note that both General Rules are currently operative and protected by the Restrictive Rule 2, Paragraph 18 of The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church 2012.]  On paper we hold to a doctrine of sin as central to understanding and diagnosing the human condition.  Its evidence is all around and within us in a bewildering variety of personal and corporate ways.  And yet, our easy acceptance of the cult of the nice precludes real analysis.

Similarly the book of The Acts of the Apostles is peppered with specific references to sin.  None perhaps is more pointed than the conclusion of Peter’s great Pentecost sermon.

Peter replied, ‘Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away — as many as the Lord our God invites.’ With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation’ (Acts 2:38-40).

We must repent of sin and be saved by the Lord our God in the fullness of the Trinity – baptized in Jesus Christ, received through the gift of the Spirit, at the invitation of the Lord God.  It is all there in the original doctrinal claim of United Methodism, and yet much of it is lacking in our preaching and teaching today.

The original Methodist movement also reclaimed a strong doctrine of sin.  The aforementioned letter of the Duchess of Buckingham offers dramatic evidence of this conviction and practice. Wesley’s sermon on original sin leaves no room for doubt.

This, therefore, is the first, grand, distinguishing point between heathenism and Christianity.  The one acknowledges that many men are infected with many vices, and even born with a proneness to them; but supposes withal that in some the natural good much overbalances the evil.  The other declares that all men are ‘conceived in sin,’ and ‘shapen in wickedness,’; that hence there is in every man a ‘carnal mind which is enmity against God, which is not, cannot be, subject to his law, and which so infects the whole soul that ‘there dwelleth in him, in his flesh, in his natural state, ‘no good thing;’ but ‘all the imagination of the thoughts of his heart is evil’, ‘only evil’, and ‘continually’  (John Wesley, “Original Sin,” Sermon #44, in The Works of John Wesley, Sermons II, 34-70, Volume 2, ed. Outler,  p. 183).

The modern mind chokes at the strong words and harsh language of Wesley’s sermon.  Yet there is a truth here which we have forgotten and largely ignored even though it lies still embedded in our core doctrines.  We have succumbed to the foundational idolatry of self-salvation.  In moralistic therapeutic deism, Pelagius stands triumphant.  Almost forty years ago Albert Cook Outler offered the theological challenge we face in comfortable middle class Methodism.  “How many of you would take seriously the notion of a human flaw that is radical, inescapable, universal – a human malaise that cannot be cured or overcome by any of our self-help efforts or ethical virtues, however ‘moral’ or aspiring – which is not, at the same time, of the actual essence of God’s original design for the humanum (what he intended human existence to be)?” (Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 32, 34).

The great American theologian of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr, defines sin as rebellion from God ultimately rooted in pride.  We are not the center of the universe.  It is not about us.  Our personal pleasure, regardless of whether it is golf, gold, or grumbling is not the purpose for which we are created.  Outler, the great Methodist theologian, labeled sin “a radical universal human flaw … a malignant disease” (Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 24).

A simple, basic way to think about this issue is to ask yourself who is in charge of your life.  Who is your ruler; your ultimate boss; the commander of your existence, resources, actions, and reactions?  C. S. Lewis put it this way:  “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save” (C.S. Lewis, quoted in Dean, Almost Christian, p. 25). H. Richard Niebuhr summarizes this watered-down, blanched out understanding of sin in his famous statement:  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, p.193).

And yet, at any age, we are called to greatness through life in Christ under power of the Holy Spirit.   The way of salvation begins with a Holy Spirit-inspired recognition of our sin, of the fact that we are not the center of the universe.  This is what Wesley called the first dawning of grace.  Prevenient grace is the grace of God that goes before.  It leads us to an awareness of our sin and our need for a Savior.  Such grace is the first step in the “order of salvation.”

The critical element of reclaiming a doctrine of sin lies in its connection to the doctrine of salvation.  Indeed any concept of salvation (Christian or otherwise) reflects to the need to be saved from something.  In the Christian case, that something is sin – our persistent separation from God and determination to have ourselves as our own gods.  If the failure of the human condition and the sad state of human affairs is endemic and systematic, then surely we need rescuing.  If it is merely a matter of being “nicer,” then why bother?  We merely need to work a little harder at being nice people.  We need to be more arduous at improving our moral behavior.  And yet, at the center of the Christian claim is the notion of sin that is a radical human flaw that cannot be adequately dealt with by any self-help solution or governmental intervention.  St. Augustine’s words whisper from the past, guiding us to reclaim the present and the future:  “But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error” (Augustine of Hippo, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, Confessions, Book I, 20, pp. 40-41).

It is the centrality of this conviction of sin that delivers us to the issue of atonement and a doctrine of salvation along with the concomitant need for the reclamation of a vibrant doctrine of the Trinity.

Think of the standard images for atonement (at-one-ment with God).  The term salvation comes from the battlefield.  We are knocked to the ground and about to be run-in by a spear-wielding enemy.  Just then, someone steps into to take the blow and dies to save our life.  We are saved!  Or think of redemption, the image comes from the slave market.  It is an especially powerful image for those caught in the grip of an addiction.  We are being auctioned into slavery for our sins  – our willful separation from God.  Someone, Jesus Christ, steps in and pays the price for our freedom.  Or again, consider the term Paul uses in Romans, Justification.  We are in court and held to account for our failures, our sins.  Any plea that we are mostly a nice person is easily thrust aside.  The evidence is clear.  We are guilty of sin, of separation, from God.  As the gavel is pounded down, Christ steps in and sets the verdict aside declaring us justified, that is made right by his actions.

While hardly a complete list, each image referenced points to the seriousness of our separation from God.  They signal a far different reality than the need for just a little correction.  They give evidence of a radical flaw in our makeup; a flaw so deep that none escape.  This truth was demonstrated recently by Pope Francis when he posed the question about himself.  “‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ I am a sinner. This the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

It is the cross rising before us in the distance that makes us face fully and truthfully the reality of sin, our propensity to be our own gods.  It is the cross standing before us in the distance that challenges our naïve assumptions of our own essential goodness.

The Christian conviction wrapped up in the theological concept called atonement is that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus somehow this sin has met its match.  Sin is still real.  It is still present.  It still needs to be faced, confessed and repented of; but its power is ultimately broken.  Heading towards the cross we are challenged to face the seriousness of our separation.  Only then can the joy of Easter morning be fully embraced.

The Challenge of Brokenness – Part 2 ©

 

 I read the famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s semi-classic What Ever Became of Sin? 40+ years ago.  Yet down through the decades the books resonates in the uncomfortable pit of my soul.  One particular story lingers.  It is as follows:

On a sunny day in September, 1972 in Chicago’s downtown business loop, a plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner.  “As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’

Then without any change in expression, he would resume his stiff stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture.  Then again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’

The effect of this strange [behavior] on the passing stranger was extraordinary, almost eerie,” reported the noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger.  “They would stare at him, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.

One man, turning to another who was [Dr. Menninger’s] informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?!’”
(Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin, p. 72)

To borrow from the Apostle Paul; my brokenness is ever before me.

In his work Menninger chronicled the “disappearance of sin” as a general concept and as a part of our cultural language.  He noted that the concept of sin had migrated into crime, symptoms of illness or disease, and collective irresponsibility.  At the close of his still appropriate book (perhaps even more so than when originally published), he delivers a plaintive defense of the need to reclaim and reapply an understanding of sin.  The closing words of his work linger hauntingly in the air above modern society like smoke after a fire.  “Yet, how is it, as Socrates wondered, that ‘men know what is good, but do what is bad?’ ” (Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?,  p. 230).

Culturally we are not far from the Duchess of Buckingham’s famous complaint to the Countess of Huntingdon on Methodist preachers and their understanding of sin.

I thank your ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers.  Their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions.  It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. (Letter from the Duchess of Buckingham to the Countess of Huntingdon in the early days of Wesley’s ministry.)

It may be monstrous, but it is also true.

What stands in marked contrast today is that many Methodists (and Methodist preachers) are inclined to at least subconsciously agree with the Duchess of Buckingham.  As noted last week, while exceptions abound, a weak doctrine of sin is the general rule.  We don’t teach or preach on sin to any significant degree.  Thus there is no real need to be saved from anything.  We need merely to improve. “‘Gospels of Sin Management’ presume a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind … [and] they foster ‘vampire Christians,’ who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven”  (Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, p. 76).

We have limited the label “sin” to something others do … those who aren’t good.  We have applied it to a certain class of actions (usually involving errant sexuality) or relegated the concept to our enemies.  Yet everywhere we live with the consequences of sin, our own and others.  Consider this list (that I shared in a previous blog) which Professor Scot McKnight has put together.

  • Individualism – the story that “I” am the center of the universe
  • Consumerism – the story that I am what I own
  • Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation
  • Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good
  • Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter
  • New Age – the story that we are gods
  • Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
  • Salvation by therapy – the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration

 

(Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, p. 157)

 Years ago Professor Albert Outler told a story in one our classes about a student who was wrestling with the weighty topics of sin and salvation.  Casually (as Dr. Outler remembered) he recommended a book for the student to read on the subject.  To his surprise, the student went, purchased the book, and carefully read it through.  Upon finishing, grief stricken, he returned to visit the professor.  “Well” he exclaimed, “if sinning is a part of our very nature and we can’t overcome it by moral effort alone, then all I have to say is ‘God help us!’”  To which, Dr. Outler pointed out, this is exactly what God has done in Christ.

The challenge of our brokenness can only be answered by Christ and the good news of salvation.  This necessitates the recovery of a vibrant cross-roads (pun intended; literally where the cross meets the road of life!) at the juncture of sin and salvation.  Such is the subject of the next blog.

The Challenge of Brokenness (c)

Stories which circulate on the internet are dangerous citations.  Attribution is at best sketchy.  Internet tales can take on an exaggerated life of their own.  Any yet, I will venture where angels fear to trod by sharing a story passed on to by Rev. Virgilio Vasquez-Garza (my good friend, esteemed colleague, and Assistant to the Bishop for the Rio Texas Conference).  It is written in the first person but just who that individual is, is not cited. “As a bagpiper, I play many gigs. Recently I was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man. He had no family or friends, so the service was to be at a pauper’s cemetery in the Kentucky back country. As I was not familiar with the backwoods, I got lost and, being a typical man, I didn’t stop for directions. I finally arrived an hour late and saw the funeral guy had evidently gone and the hearse was nowhere in sight. There were only the diggers and crew left and they were eating lunch. I felt badly and apologized to the men for being late. I went to the side of the grave and looked down and the vault lid was already in place. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started to play. The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around. I played out my heart and soul for this man with no family and friends. I played like I’ve never played before for this homeless man. And as I played ‘Amazing Grace,’ the workers began to weep. They wept, I wept, we all wept together. When I finished I packed up my bagpipes and started for my car. Though my head hung low, my heart was full. As I opened the door to my car, I heard one of the workers say, ‘I never seen nothin’ like that before and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.’” (email story received from Rev. Virgilio Vasquez-Garza; RevDiver@aol.com; Thursday, March 31, 2011)

There is much to both laugh at and admire in that story.  The heartfelt offering for a homeless man embraces the best of the gospel witness.  The still compassion of those gathered around listening touches the heart.  The commitment to give your best in the playing of the bagpipes regardless of the context reminds us to offer our best no matter what the situation.  The salute to septic tank painfully challenges us to reflect on the degree to which the Christian movement is playing over the compacted refuse of a broken society and a broken church.

If, as has been my contention, the heart of our challenge as a church today lies in the combination of an emaciated theology with a stunted understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then, we too have been playing “Amazing Grace” over a septic tank.  We have exalted the human potential movement beyond any true merit.  We have limited human responsibility beyond reason.  We have too often advocated a “salvation plus” heresy.

By “salvation plus” I mean the notion that salvation comes through Christ plus anything else we might earnestly assert.  For example, often for those on the theological and political right the subtle “salvation plus” comes from an individualistic human freedom (the right to bear arms as an example) plus a dollop of Jesus.  Conversely for many on the religious and political left “salvation plus” comes packaged as exalted faith in government intervention plus a peppering of Jesus ethic with a dash of God.

The thoughtful and fair reader will point out that both of the aforementioned positions are caricatures.  Such an assertion is accurate.  Yet caricature and all, a core of truth remains.  We are always tempted by the notion that somehow we can correct what God didn’t quite get right.  Subtly the argument is made that we need to improve God’s working by adding a little bit of our own genius.

Yet always the gospel story returns to Christ alone.  Rome will not save us either in the first century or the twenty-first century version.  The heroic human individual is lamentably flawed in both the first century edition and the twenty-first century addition.  There lies deep within us and our larger society and culture a brokenness that challenges our deepest human longing, our highest human aspirations and our noblest efforts at virtuous living. Devoid of a divine dimension, we are playing “Amazing Grace” over a septic tank.  The music may be beautiful but in the final analysis we are worshipping the wrong thing. At the heart of the challenge of brokenness lies the recovery of a doctrine of original sin.

Stop you reading for a moment and engage in a quick spiritual examination.  When is the last time you heard a sermon on original sin?  When have you last heard a sermon on sin that made you squirm?  How frequent and how real is your own sense of confession?  How often do you consider sin to be something that applies mostly to others (and only in a mild sense touches upon your own person, group, nation, ideology, and culture?

As I write this I have been teaching a class comparing John Calvin and John Wesley.  We have spent our time examining their differences (using Don Thorsen’s book Calvin vs Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice).  Yet even as we focus on their differences, we must start with their great agreements.  Facing the brokenness of their time, both started with a deep understanding of human sinfulness (including their own!).  For Calvin, there was abiding sense of total depravity; a sinfulness at our core.  For Wesley, the emphasis was on human sin as a corruption of our creation, a sickness unto death.  I can still hear the great Methodist theologian Albert Cook Outler speaking in class and reaching out through print.  “How many of you would take seriously the notion of a human flaw that is radical, inescapable, universal – a human malaise that cannot be cured or overcome by any of our self-help efforts or ethical virtues, however ‘moral’ or aspiring – which is not, at the same time, of the actual essence of God’s original design for humanum (what He intended human existence to be)?”  (Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 24)

Perhaps it is past time that we reclaim the doctrine of original sin both for ourselves and for the church, the tattered bride of Christ, which we love.

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #7

 

 Moving Beyond the Church World © 

We stood gazing over the impressive “hemi” engine at the Good Guys Car Show located on the grounds of the Fort Worth Motor Speed Way.  My cousins, Fred and Tom, peered intently inside the hood of the “hot rod.”  They gazed in awe down at the engine components.  I gazed too but I had no clue what we were actually looking at.  Finally I had to ask; “What are we looking at?”  Almost reverently Fred pointed with one finger down at a part of the engine intake.  Solemnly he intoned, “Fuel injected.”

That day at the Texas Motor Speedway I was introduced to a different world I only dimly knew existed.  My cousins had talked with great zest about the world of cars and car shows (especially what I would call the “hot rods”) before.  They had repeatedly invited me to come to one of the shows with them.  They both had restored older model cars to a “street rod” configuration.  This semi-hidden world was a great part of life for them.  It was a part of life that they were eager to share.

So what does all this have to do with the Wisemen and “the light in our darkness?”  In a sense, everything!  Neither of my cousins is an active Christian.  To be sure, they would align themselves loosely with what they understand to be some of the values of the Christian faith.  Still neither would claim the title of “disciple” or “Christ follower.”  Strangely however, they were “evangelistic” about their love of cars and zeal to share that love with others.

For me they are a launching point into this last blog (of seven) on the series “EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness.”  I write to offer six practical suggestions for church pastors moving themselves and their churches beyond the church world.  Additionally, I write to offer five practical suggestions for lay people in moving beyond the church.  [While I will list them separately, there is a real sense that both lists belong to both lay and clergy alike!]

Practical suggestions for church pastors moving themselves and their churches beyond the church world:

1.     Live the incarnation. Go and enter in the non-Christian, non-church world. The Lord of the universe didn’t just demand that we come to him!  Jesus came to us.  Follow Christ’s example!
2.     Make friends for the sake of friendships (not as a means to an end). Model such behavior for your congregations and be publically explicit about such modeling! This is a basic way we both share the love of Christ in us and help our congregations do the same.
3.     Where appropriate, share what God is doing in your life. The key is to speak of the triune God as a subject in action and not as the object of sentence. To quote Carlyle, “People want to know God other than by second hand.”  To quote Peter, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it” (I Peter 3:15).
4.     Pray to be led into a faith-sharing, witnessing opportunity. The Holy Spirit is at work in our world and our lives. Every time I remember to pray to be led, in measurable time, the Holy Spirit comes through!  The Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is powerfully active in our lives!  We need to both seek and trust the Spirit’s guidance.
5.     Turn “attenders” into “recommenders.” Jim Ozier writes, “Before we get to a culture of invitation, we must master the art of recommendation” (Jim Ozier & Fiona Haworth, Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church, p. 117; the whole book is an excellent starting place, but chapter 9 is worth the price all by itself!).
6.     Rediscover and employ in congregational worship brief “testimonials” or “witnesses” by lay people about how God is active in their life. Brief, practical faith sharing has a power and blessing all its own. It must not be about God but do stress how God has been active in my/our life/lives.

Practical suggestions for lay people in moving beyond the church world:

1.     Prayer, Prayer, Prayer! It cannot be said enough. The Holy Spirit will lead you!  In your prayer, trust your fears to the Lord. Pray also for people you see in public places. Try asking your table server next time you eat out if they have something they might like you to pray for as you say grace.  9.5 times out of 10, they will be deeply appreciative and often spiritually moved!
2.     Rehearse and be able to share your own story (“testimony”) of how God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has been and is now active in your life. Sunday School classes and small groups are excellent safe places to practice. In fact, a Sunday School class will itself be revitalized and revolutionized by such faith sharing.
3.     Engage in mission outreach as a part of sharing your faith story. The Christian faith is more caught than taught. A (lay) friend recently told me about how in his church they share fresh grown produce with the poor and hungry.  In doing so, they add a gracious non-coercive verbal witness
4.     Exemplify a Christian lifestyle by both word and deed. It is not an either/or equation. It takes both word and deed.  The two together are a gift to others!  Employ Philippines 4:4-9.  In this divisive culture, it will be received as a blessing.
5.     Invite and go with. Incarnational faith sharing and invitational faith sharing go together. They too are not an either/or.  Pick some wonderful ministry/event in the life of your church and invite a non-Christian friend to go with you.  Most Christians fail to understand how scary visiting a church is to non-Christians.  Simultaneously most non- or nominal Christians would secretly be delighted by an invitation to go to church with Christian friends on Christmas Eve, Easter or Mother’s Day.

There is more, much, much more, to be said.  Allow a redundant emphasis.  The clergy list applies to laity and the lay list applies to clergy!  The light shines in our darkness and the darkness does not overcome it!  (John 1:5). Moving beyond the church world is an exciting adventure in faithfulness!

I would also recommend these resources to explore evangelism and faith sharing:

Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church by Jim Ozier and Fiona Haworth

Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese

Get Their Name: Grow Your Church by Building New Relationships by Bob Farr, Doug Anderson and Kay Kotan

Just a Walk Across the Room by Bill Hybels

 

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #6

 A Test of Love ©  I overheard the conversation; so too did others. In the setting you really couldn’t help it. The puzzled plaintive questioning in the voice was unmistakable and the dialogue surfed the edge of embarrassment.  It involved a young woman talking to a close and obviously treasured boyfriend.  I cannot remember the dialog word for word but it went something like this.

“I don’t understand?  If it meant this much to you why wouldn’t you share it with me?

His response was muffled and awkward.  “I didn’t want you to feel pressured or put you on the spot.”

Her earnest, almost heated, reply came back.  “But if it mean that much to you; you could at least share your convictions.” He mumbled something about being embarrassed and fearful of rejection.  She respond by saying something to the effect of “if you love, as you say you do, how could you not share!?”

Can you guess what the topic was?  It was about her boyfriend’s failure to share his deep convictions of faith in Christ with his girlfriend.  Apparently he had told her that he went to church but never added much more to his low level, low key sharing.  For her, it was a test of love.  If you really love me, you will share.

There is a great love contained in the story of the wise men (Magi) as found in Matthew 2.  Actually there are two great loves.  The overwhelming first love is God’s love for us, for all humans.  God loved us so much that the Lord of the Universe didn’t just sit back and say, “I hope they get it.”  God came down and came to us in the person of a baby named Jesus; the cradle connects to the cross … and beyond!  According to Luther, this is the greatest miracle of all.  This great love is encapsulated in the great doctrine of “incarnation.” God became flesh, human, in Jesus!

The second love is that of the wise men traveling their great distance and kneeling at the Savior’s feet.  It can be simply summarized in the power, majesty, and humble overwhelming love of Matthew 2:11.  “They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The test of love for us is similar to that of both God Almighty and the wise men.  Do we love enough to share?  Do we love enough to risk misunderstanding or rejection?  Do we really love as the Lord loves?

There is much written about attractional theology and attractional church evangelism.  Our churches should exemplify such radical hospitality that people are attracted to them.  They should be so open, welcoming and loving that others want to come!  But by itself attraction is not enough.  It fails to fully reflect the greater love of God in Christ.

Incarnational theology and incarnational evangelism engages, reaches out, to the last, the least, and the lost.  It passes the test of love in its willingness to reach out, initiate an encounter, and, with great graceful intentionality, offer our gifts in sharing that which matters most to us – the very person and love of Christ.

Back in 2010 Rev. Mike Slaughter, the lead pastor for Ginghamsburg UMC, wrote a book entitled Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus.  His first chapter was entitled “Missional vs. Attractional.”  Among other great insights he commented, “The church must make a major paradigm shift from attractional evangelism to mission evangelism.” (p. 7)  The chapter ties the great commandment of love to the great commission of faith sharing and disciple making. Offering the light of Christ in our darkness is a test of love.

Awhile back (2006) Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church wrote an insightful and instructive book entitled Just a Walk Across the Room.  One reviewer on Amazon wrote: “It was insightful to me to see how easy it can be to share my faith with others in a non-threatening and easy manner. The bottom line is to truly care about others, be open and honest, and share the most important thing in my life which is my relationship with Christ.”

Witnessing, faithful sharing, and evangelism comprise together a test of love. Ultimately this concept of love connects with deeper convictions about salvation.  In an age where we have confused salvation with going to heaven, it is useful to remember that salvation is ultimately not about heaven but about a relationship with Christ as Lord both in this life and the next.  Jesus himself put it well.  “I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.” (John 10:10)

There is an old, once well-known but now almost forgotten poem that expresses this relationship well.  It draws together God’s great love and the test of our sharing.  Written by Myra ‘Brooks’ Welch, it is simply entitled “The Touch of the Masters Hand.”

The Touch of the Masters Hand

T’was battered and scarred, and the auctioneer thought

It scarcely worth his while

To waste much time on the old violin, but held it up with a smile;

“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried, “Who’ll start the bidding for me?”

“A dollar, a dollar”; then two!”

“Only two? Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?

Three dollars, once; three dollars twice; going for three.”

 

But no, from the room, far back, a gray-haired man Came forward and picked up the bow;

Then, wiping the dust from the old violin, and tightening the loose strings,

He played a melody pure and sweet as caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer, with a voice that was quiet and low,

Said; “What am I bid for the old violin?”

And he held it up with the bow.

A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?

Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?

Three thousand, once, three thousand, twice, and going and gone,” said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,

“We do not quite understand what changed its worth.”

Swift came the reply: “The touch of a master’s hand.”

 

And many a man with life out of tune,

And battered and scarred with sin,

Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd, much like the old violin,

A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine; a game – and he travels on.

“He is going” once, and “going twice, He’s going and almost gone.”

But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd never can quite understand

The worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought

By the touch of the Master’s hand.

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