As a United Methodist pastor just three years out of seminary, it is a daunting task to go into a local church and teach people the ins and outs of what it means to be a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition. Adding to the difficulty of the task is the fact that so many people who occupy pews in our United Methodist churches come from varying backgrounds — some are raised Baptist, others have left the Catholic church, some were Baptist and then married a Presbyterian and found the United Methodist Church to be a “compromise church,” others are working on their third or fourth denominational affiliation. Being a Christian these days can be complicated considering how The United Methodist Church is for so many a “big tent” tradition where folks from all sorts of backgrounds can find a home.
I am currently serving in South Georgia which means I’m serving right around the right hand side of the buckle of the Bible Belt — a setting where Calvinism in both the traditional and neo sense is very much alive, well, and prominent in religious culture. So when I was pointed toward Don Thorsen’s little book, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice, I was thrilled to find a book that might help me undertake this monumental task of clarifying what it meant to be a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition.
And I was NOT disappointed.
Not only did I read this book, I taught it in a Sunday School setting. Our group was largely made up of upwardly mobile 30, 40, and early 50-somethings. On the first day we did an experiment to see how many denominational traditions were represented in our group and we found that only 4 out of 20 of us were “cradle Methodists.” 80% of our group had spent time in another denomination. So that became the launching pad whereby we jumped into Thorsen’s concise, yet comprehensive work.
I cannot begin to describe the thrill a pastor can feel when topics like the sovereignty and love of God are debated (Ch. 1, God: More Love Than Sovereignty). I cannot tell you how exhilarating it is to have people passionately talk about the power of grace in their lives even when they do not realize it (Ch. 4, Grace: More Prevenient than Irresistible). And then for a group to be encountered with what it means to live a life of holiness marked by the love of God and our neighbor (Ch. 6, Spirituality: More Holiness than Mortification)? Well, you get my point. Seeing the light bulbs go off as people grew in both clarity and conviction about why they are uniquely Christian in the Wesleyan tradition is an experience Methodist pastors long to experience.
Thorsen’s work is accessible to both clergy and laity alike. And despite the adversarial cover and title, he is very hospitable to Calvin. At the same time he makes no bones about what makes Wesley’s perspective unique and, in the end, superior. As Thorsen reminds us, “From Wesley’s perspective, there should be no ‘half a Christian’ — that is, one who receives justification by faith but fails to go on toward sanctification by faith” (p. 82). In other words, believing the right stuff and agreeing with the right stances does not make us Christian if our lives do not reflect the holiness of God. Thorsen reminds us that Wesley’s emphasis on practice and growing in grace more fully tells the story of what it means to be a Christian. The wonder of being a Christian is working out our salvation, empowered by God’s grace and in union with the church made up of fellow sojourners, and lived in a spirit of humility marked by a distinct love for God and our neighbor.”
In just under 150 pages, Don Thorsen writes a brilliant account of Wesleyan theology for both the new and more seasoned Christian. He deals with the matters of God, sin, grace, salvation, holiness, the Church, and how we live the beliefs we profess in remarkably clear and direct ways. It has been a book that will have a reserved spot on my bookshelf for years to come and in many ministry settings yet to come. So I strongly recommend you not only read this book yourself, but include a small group of friends in your reading as well. And that advice doesn’t just come from me, I have 20 friends who would gladly agree.
Last week I came across two instances where a discussion arose about the relationship between the demise of the church in America and the demise of nuclear families. The argument in both forums went something like this:
Demise of the family unit –> Demise of the church –> Demise of Christian values –> Demise of society as a whole
Essentially we can blame the moral decay of our society on the lack of Christian values that permeate our culture. We can also blame the decline of the Church in America on the decline of the family unity, aka the nuclear family.
Now this is not a post designed to debate the fact that morality in America is shifty at best — it just is. It’s not a post to debate whether or not a healthy and loving nuclear family can raise children to be healthy and contributing members of society — studies show this is often true. This isn’t even a post to debate whether or not the church in America is in a season of decline — the numbers tell that story just fine.
The hope of this post is to remind us that by virtue of our baptism and the historic role of the Church in forming communities of faith, we’ve never (ever) considered the nuclear family to be the most important unit in society.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
This is the introduction to the service of baptism in The United Methodist Church. One thing you’ll notice is there’s no mention of a nuclear family the way it’s understood in contemporary American society. There’s a reason for this: as Christians we believe that through baptism, we are offered the grace of a new, and much larger family than your nuclear family. Parents who bring their children for baptism in a community of faith do so with the hope that they will not be alone on their in raising their children. And congregations are asked questions like:
Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include [this child/person] now before you in your care?
And then, through God’s grace, they respond:
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround [this child/person] with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.
But this isn’t anything new in the Christian tradition. Numerous passages in Scripture tell us that the community of faith is called by God to care for those who have no family at all — widows, orphans, and immigrants. Those who have no family in this world, can in fact, find family in the Church. The motherless can find mothers. And the childless can adopt children to love and care for. On our very best days we can participate in God’s redemption of circumstances and relationships that are damaging and hurtful — even within the nuclear family. And family lines can be drawn and redrawn all by the power of God’s grace.
So if you ever hear anyone say the Church’s role is to promote the nuclear family in American in order to preserve some vague notion of Christian values, know that we are called to something much larger than that. We are called to the Church — to adopt families and individuals, the share and the grace of holy water, and to live Spirit-filled lives that care about things bigger and grander than just worrying about whether or not our culture looks differently than it did 50 or 100 years ago.
And there are people yet to join our family and share in the grace of life in Christ with a community of love and forgiveness and service — widows, orphans, nuclear families, single people, immigrants, children, and adults. The family drawn by lines of blood and DNA is important, but it’s not the fullness of family according to the God and found within the life of the Church. Blood might be thicker than water for some, but if you’re talking about the waters of baptism then all bets are off.
What does the Bible mean to you?
I asked this question in a Sunday School setting this past week and we launched into a pretty neat discussion. For starters, we mentioned some of the typical answers: “Scripture is God-breathed,” “The Bible is God’s holy word for God’s people,” “For many the Bible is without errors or contradiction” — you know, the typical Sunday School answers.
It was interesting to ask this in a group setting because we all tend to have our own bias ways of reading the Bible that we pretend aren’t bias at all. We gave space to admit our biases and even laugh at them a little.
Have you ever heard or uttered phrases like, “a plain reading of Scripture” or “a biblical view on marriage, parenting, relationships, sexuality, creation, science, war, etc.? The funny thing is that we can all come up with different and even conflicting answers when we approach the Bible in this kind of way. We all have our ways of twisting and turning the words of Scripture to say or support pretty much whatever we want. And more times that not, we do this in order to strengthen an argument and prove someone else wrong. But we rob the Bible of its enormous richness whenever we use it as a means to attack others or just to prove them wrong. After all, the Bible is not an encyclopedia or dictionary. All of the answers to every question ever asked cannot be found in the back of the book.
Now John Wesley saw the Bible as very authoritative and even the final word of authority. But he was honest enough to admit that we bring so much to the Bible whenever we read it. We cannot divorce ourselves from the traditions we’ve been formed in, the contexts we live in, or the biases we cling to whenever we read the Bible. So Wesley saw tradition, reason, and experience as important authorities with which to engage Scripture as we read and seek to be transformed by the text. Scripture may be the final authority but it is certainly not the only authority.
This is why we find ourselves living in a constant tension between the way(s) we read the Bible, the biases we cannot shake ourselves from, and the challenge to live in such a way that we continually seek to make God’s story our story. So let me offer a couple of ways we can faithfully delve into the Bible in (hopefully) new and exciting ways:
Here’s a question our group got back to that I think is a great question and reveals a lot about us: How do you use the Bible in your life?
How we answer that question will reveal a lot about what we believe about the Bible. We might call it sacred but if we never read it, is it actually that sacred? We might say we believe God speaks through it, but if we’re too busy finding evidence to support our own opinions when we read it, are we giving God a chance to speak? And if we only see it as a weapon to exclude or prove wrong or hurt others, then surely we aren’t being changed by the wonderful mystery of the gospel revealed most fully in Jesus Christ and found within the pages of this amazingly complex and life-giving book.
It’s a new year. We’ve come through the season of Advent. We’ve celebrated the coming of the Christ child in the manger. We’ve thrown away our old calendars and hung new empty ones showcasing a year full of promise. So how are you going to fill that new, empty calendar? Better yet, how are you different in this new year? I’m not a huge fan of making New Year’s resolutions. I confess that it’s largely due to the fact that I have a hard time keeping the resolutions I make. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not a big fan of enduring a self-defeating process every year.
But I thought I’d give it another shot this year to see what happens. After all, that empty calendar reminds me that there’s always hope for things to be different. I’m going to make a public declaration, too, right here in this column. After all, accountability is a big part of taking on new disciplines. And since we’re all Methodists, I figure it’s in our DNA to watch over one another in mutual love and accountability.
So here it is … This year I resolve to look for the beauty of God more. And when I find it, I resolve to tell someone about it. In his book, “The Beauty of the Word,” James Howell writes, “preaching does not depend on the cleverness, intelligence, or preparation of the preacher, but solely on the beauty, in inherent persuasiveness, of the One we proclaim.”
I think our hope to live a faithful life also depends on this beauty. We can do a lot to distract ourselves from making God’s beauty central in our lives. We can convince ourselves that things like politics, stances on issues, the reduction of districts, apportionment dollars, clergy defrocking, membership numbers, wars over worship styles, building programs, committee meetings, and whether or not we agree with others are central to our lives with God and one another when they certainly are not. What is first and foremost in our lives is the beauty of God and how we see it and experience it all around us and in others. Nothing else is more important and everything else follows this.
And when we focus on God’s beauty, a wonderful thing happens – we stop being so negative. A sad fact in our world is that industries are built on keeping people angry. Cable news networks make millions knowing that we watch them, get angry, and stay that way. But they’re simply capitalizing on the fact that we like getting angry and we love it when we can do it with others. So what if we resolved to look for God’s beauty all around us and in other people more this coming year? What if we resolved to be less negative about everything? What if we griped less? What if we loved and appreciated beauty more? What if instead of arguing or resenting each other, we sought to appreciate the beauty of God in one another (and especially in those we might not always agree with)? I don’t entirely know what might happen if we tried this resolution but I hope you’ll join me in finding out. Make this your resolution for the coming year. And maybe, just maybe, we can fill our calendars and our lives with really good things.
[This column originally ran in The South Georgia Advocate on Jan. 6, 2014]
Today is the 4th Day of Christmas where we remember the children Herod slaughtered at the news of a newborn savior. And many are preaching on this story for the Sunday following Christmas Day. So here is a prayer for the Feast of Holy Innocents:
We come to this fourth day of celebration with full bellies and rich spirits. Our children have had their stockings hung by chimneys and filled to over flowing with material riches. Frankly it is hard for us to fathom a world where children can go hungry, live in the harsh coldness of the streets, and die in poverty. We confess that while this happens all around us, we are often too busy with our own self-interests to be bothered. Forgive us, we pray. Help us not only to be more personally mindful of the needs around us, but help us also to teach our own children of privilege how to care for those in need even when it means putting the needs of others ahead of their own accumulation of wealth. And may we be faithful in our service until the day comes when your kingdom is fully present among us — when guns will be beat into instruments of peace and no longer used to inflict pain on school campuses; when children will play on playgrounds that once were battlefields; and when your table of peace and abundance will be extended so that all may come and find something to eat. We pray through the one who came among us, to save us, as an innocent and vulnerable child in a world where children were also unnecessarily slaughtered; even Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
This will be the final post this Advent season so I wanted to finally share a prayer for the day — Christmas Eve’s Eve.
O come, O come, Emmanuel…
We are a people who live in captivity. We find ourselves captive to sin, whether it’s in the form of bad choices or decisions we make or the power that keeps us from living into the full freedom of life with you. We are lost without you.
We are a people captive to burdens. Loneliness, despair, heartache, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness – these are just a few of the shackles we drag behind us daily. The weight of which grows heavier with each passing day.
We are captive to the ways of this world. We spend our time and energy seeking to consume and help others consume in the hope that somehow a gift — or two, or ten — wrapped in a package with a nice bow on it can somehow be our ultimate source of joy. We confess that we live by the ritual rhythms of the consumer calendar and we forget that as your people, we are called to a different sense of time and space and rhythm. Help us to slow down, consume less, and seek to love and give in more meaningful ways.
O come, O come, Emmanuel and free us from the burdens that hold us captive. Grant that we might live as a people free to joyfully follow you and love one another. May we sift through the empty promises and glitzy, tinsel laced facades of this season in order to truly find you – coming among us in poverty and obscurity as a light that shines in the darkest places in our world. Save us to be a people who live in hopeful and humble expectation for your coming. Grant that we may not be lured into notions of exceptionalism, superiority, or arrogance just because we dare to call ourselves Christian this season. Lead us down the humble road to Bethlehem that we might find you in a manger – cold, fragile, vulnerable, truly human, yet truly God in human flesh.
We pray all of this in the hope of your coming Messiah, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
May your Advent be a time where you find hope in waiting. And may your waiting be met tomorrow and the next day in the coming of God’s own Messiah.
I know it sounds like a crazy question, but where does the Church fit into the Christmas season?
On the one hand, we can be the people who get all fired up and crazy whenever people take nativity scenes off of public squares or tell us, “Happy Holidays,” when we’re out shopping. We can commit ourselves to fighting an imaginary “war on Christmas” and seek to snuff out any hints religious diversity during the season (never mind the fact that we do so while also observing pagan rituals like putting trees up in our homes, offices, and churches). We can get our blood pressure up anytime we see someone write “Xmas” instead of Christmas and accuse them of somehow “leaving the Christ out of Christmas” (never mind the fact that X is the Greek reference to how you spell Christ). Yes, we can spend the whole season with a burr in our saddle over the encroaching threat we perceive happening to the spirit and meaning of the season.
On the other hand, we can be the kind of people who gripe about the over-commercialization of the season and how Christmas has successfully swallowed up any notion of Advent and even Thanksgiving. For all we know the mammoth consumer holiday might have Halloween in its sights next. We can complain about how consumerism and secularism has ruined what should be a perfectly solemn season. And we can dig our heels in whenever people tire of singing Advent hymns by the middle of December and start requesting the carols they’ve heard 24 hours a day since November 1st. We can throw Rudolph, the Elf on the Shelf, and even Santa under the bus as we try to usher in the season of Advent and Christmas as the season of peace on earth and goodwill toward others.
But what if there’s a different, less antagonistic place for the Church?
What if instead of complaining, we welcomed the idea of being pushed out of the center of the culture? What if instead of being antagonistic and vowing to wage war on anyone who dares to question the superiority of Christmas, we humbly and faithfully found our place on the margins of the season? You see, when you get pushed out of the center of Main Street in society, you’re able to find those who are also struggling to find their place in this season. While the world is marching toward yet another tinsel-stuffed, holly, jolly exercise in indulgence, the Church could be seeking out the people and circumstances that don’t quite fit into a Norman Rockwell scene. We can look in the dark places that might otherwise go unnoticed this season to find those who long for hope. And we can offer them a story and a witness to the sheer power of what “God with us” truly means.
I will be reminded over these next 7 days that the miracle of the real nativity did not happen on Main Street with fanfare, public displays of affection, or joyful adherence from the culture. It happened in the throes of terrible labor pains and a baby crying at the top of his lungs. It happened in the darkness of the night where some farm animals and peasants were the only witnesses. The religious people might have missed it but those we would call secular didn’t. How could they? Angels chose them to be the recipients of the heavenly news.
I suppose that’s the funny thing about this season — God chooses the most surprising people from the most unexpected places to be a part of the story. While the rest of us wage wars on secularism or religious diversity, God is busy in the dark places calling those who might otherwise go unnoticed to be a part of the miracle. And if we’re smart in the Church, we’ll find ways to be in those dark places too and we’ll quit our fighting with, well, everything. Lord knows we don’t want to miss out on God’s surprising work among us.