Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Challenging One’s Sense of Self

Usually in my blog posts I’m trying to think about some theological or religious or ministry issue.  This time, it’s more personal.  This move to Dallas has me rattled in unexpected ways.

I’m a preacher’s kid.  Preachers’ kids and “army brats” have something in common.  We moved a lot as kids.  I think these experiences give us a sense of rootlessness that people who grew up in the same place have a hard time understanding.  In high school I remember feeling very envious of my friends who had known each other since kindergarten.

We’ve been in Winfield 14 years.  Our kids all graduated from Winfield High School.  Three of the four are or have been students at Southwestern College (one “escaped” to the U. of Kansas).  While I wasn’t looking, I developed roots.  And now I’m pulling them up and trying to re-plant them in Dallas.

To clarify: I’m not surprised about the grief I feel about leaving SC and Winfield.  SC is a great place to work and the community (in the theological sense) is precious to us.  At the same time, I’m excited about the job at SMU.  I’m getting acquainted with my new colleagues and looking forward eagerly to working with them.  I’m confident God has called me to this new work.

What has me rattled is the lifestyle change that is challenging my sense of self.  I like to call myself a hayseed.  I grew up in very remote, rural places and small towns.  I’m not really a farm boy, but I went to school with them, stayed over at their houses, drove tractors and hauled hay and cut wheat with them.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time horseback and working cattle.

So, this move to Dallas has the feel of the country boy moving to the big city.  Coming home from a house-hunting trip to Dallas a couple of weeks ago, I was talking with Joni about the challenge to my sense of self this move was engendering.  I started thinking about her dad, who, except for a stint in the Army, lived in the same rural area his entire 89 year life.

Even as I write this blog, I struggle for the appropriate terms.  I like to think of myself in a certain way, but it’s probably not very accurate.   Thus, at a deeper level I am coming to terms with myself in this move.  I’m kind of embarrassed to realize that people who know me understand it better than I do myself, though isn’t it often the case that others see us more clearly than we do ourselves?

I’m beginning to get it.  In some fundamental, near-visceral way, this move to Dallas – and to the new ministry – is a mysteriously providential fit.  Still, it challenges my sense of self.  Clarity is sometimes a scary thing.


June 24, 2009 Posted by | Religion | 3 Comments

John Wesley, Earthquakes and God’s Providence

Reading John Wesley’s Sermon (actually, it’s Charles’, I recently learned) , “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes,” reminds me again of how societies’ assumptions can change.  The title alone strikes today’s reader as quaint, to say the least.  An earthquake is a completely natural disaster.  How does one “cure” earthquakes, unless some sort of controllable natural cause can be identified?

But, of course, with Wesley, it’s always about God, so our interest is theological and it raises the question of God’s action in the world.  Wesley’s sermon clearly indicates that God directly causes the earthquakes for the sake of judgment: a holy God uses natural disasters to judge and awaken wayward peoples.

The sermon to which I refer was published in 1750, in response to an earthquake that the English themselves had felt.  Wesley is capitalizing on this moment with an evangelistic appeal.  And here is where the rub begins.

As I read, I was struck by how people today (in America) would likely respond.  They probably would be quite offended with Wesley’s tone and claims.  How could a loving God do such a thing?

So, we face two conflicting worldviews.  Wesley’s view, shared by many of his day, was of a holy, just, God who is Governor and Judge of the world.  God has every right to use all means available to bring about God’s holy purposes.  “Our lives are in God’s hands,” and God can do as he sees fit.

By contrast, listening to folks today, even “conservative evangelical” Christians, God sounds more like an Attentive Helper, waiting to do our bidding.  I may be overstating some, but how much?

Reading a sermon like this one (or any of Wesley’s, to tell the truth) provokes questions.  Virtually all Christians would agree that God can do things like cause earthquakes, but we likely would conclude that God does not directly cause them.  God’s loving nature does not will such evil on people.  God uses other, more gentle means.  Natural disasters like earthquakes are an inevitable part of the kind of world God created, but not directly relatable to human sin nor to God’s direct action.

Question #1, then, has to do with how God uses power.  The harshness of Wesley’s view may trouble us, but so should the God-as-Attentive-Helper view.  Practically speaking, it holds that God always uses power for our benefit according to  (here is the kicker) how we understand “benefit.”  In this view, we expect God always to avert disaster on our behalf.  And if not, we have every right to be angry with God for not coming to our aid.

Two standard options arise to get God off this hook.  We can conclude that God is not powerful enough to prevent such disasters.  Or we can conclude that God isn’t good in the way we think God ought to be.  God’s power can be used – from our vantage point – capriciously.  Thousands of innocent victims can die in a natural disaster and God doesn’t seem to care.

Two bad choices, it seems.  Either we have a God who is able and willing to interact with us in real life, or we have a God who is either only remotely connected or is unable to prevent horrible circumstances from happening.

What do you think?  I know that we would prefer God to act according to our feelings and desires, but God is independent of our preferences.   In this light, what do you think?

June 19, 2009 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, General, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

New Job, New Challenges

Among the requisite qualities for my new job as SMU Chaplain, I find these three: (1) passionate commitment to Christ, (2) strong United Methodist identity and (3) openness to people of other faiths.  The third point is particularly important because of the number of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other students.  I am eagerly looking forward to getting acquainted with them, but I am also aware of the tension in the aforementioned job requirements.

One might reasonably ask, “How can you be passionately committed to Christ and be open to other faith expressions?”  Part of the way one would answer that question depends on how one defines “open.”

Some religious beliefs have universal implications, meaning that if I believe ‘A,’ then by believing ‘A’ I cannot coherently believe ‘B.’  I think the belief in God as Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus of Nazareth fit this logic, which prevents me from believing certain other beliefs about God and Jesus.

Drawing these conclusions, how, then, do I “be open” to other faith expressions?  When we lived in the Chicago area during graduate school days, our next door neighbors to one side were Chinese Buddhists and our neighbors on the other were Jewish.  They were our friends.  Period.  Did we talk about Jesus?  Yes.  Did we manipulate conversations and twist and turn them in order to “witness”  about Jesus?  Absolutely not.  You don’t treat friends that way.

Part of faithful Christian witness is the appropriate use of power inherent in relationshps.  We are both powerful and vulnerable in real relationshps.  We can uplift or harm others and they can do the same.  In addition to my beliefs about Jesus, I have other beliefs (that come from Jesus), about how to treat people.

In the sermon, “On Living Without God,” Mr. Wesley has the following to say (Warning: it’s a long quote in 18th century idiom):  “Let it now be observed that I…have no authority from the word of God ‘to judge those that are without [i.e. outside Christianity];’ nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Mahometan world to damnation.  It is far better to leave them to Him that made them, and who is ‘the Father of the spirits of all flesh;’ who is the God of the Heathens as well as the Christians, and who hateth nothing that He hath made.”

My translation: It’s God’s job to judge, not mine (thank God!).  God made all people, so we can leave the sorting out of people’s eternal destinies to God.  Since God made all people, God loves all people. Furthermore, Jesus commands us to love our neighbors.  Hopefullly, I embody the love of Jesus for all to see.  When I am given the opportunity to talk about my faith in Christ, I will do so with clarity, passion and gentleness.

In other words, I am not a pluralist.  I’m not interested in “blending” or matching doctrines from diverse religions for the sake of peace.  This approach demeans the integrity of all religions.  As a passionately committed believer in the Triune God, then, I am eager to undertake my responsibility to welcome people of other faiths, to make sure they have all appropriate means to exercise that faith as they see fit and to learn from them as God continues to work, however mysteriously,  in us all.

There is much more to say on this matter, I know.  I’ll keep thinking about how I should say it.

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, General, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

God’s Wrath: An Argument by Analogy

Not far from where I live is a nationwide (I think) drive-in, no appointment necessary, oil-change business.  I regularly drive and jog by this place and have even succumbed to having my vehicle serviced there, on desperate occasions.  

Every day, employees stand out in front, holding a sign that proclaims oil changes for $19.99 and beckoning people to stop for service.  It’s the classic bait-and-switch. The parameters under which one can actually get an oil change for that price are so narrow as to be virtually impossible.  But, hey, they got you in the door.

Worse, once they’ve captured you, they try to sell you stuff you don’t need. I’ve always serviced my own vehicles, but, as I said, occasionally, I’m desperate and too busy to do it myself.  One time I was in this store getting the “$19.99” service job that actually cost me $35 and change and, during the ordeal, the service manager came into the waiting room to tell me that I needed new windshield wipers.  I couldn’t believe it.  He did not bat an eye when I informed him that those wipers were brand new because I had changed them myself two weeks earlier.  He had moxy, I’ll give him that.  As you might imagine, I have not frequented this place of business in a long, long time. 

When I jog or drive by this place and see the poor employees standing out in the heat or the cold, I feel genuinely sorry for them.  They need the job.  I feel for them, but I still withhold my business.

Which makes me think of God’s wrath.  Maybe there is an analogy here, even though, admittedly, my little scenario is trivial.  It points to an important truth.  A merciful/just God eventually withholds benefit in the face of persistent injustice in order to bring about change.  It’s not a passive inactivity.  It is an active withtholding of blessing; God’s wrath revealed against all unrighteousness…     

I think this point important for two reasons.  First, I work with students who often exhibit the attitude that their actions (or lack thereof) deserve no untoward consequence.  It’s easy to dismiss their assumption that they’ll get a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th chance on the basis of the immaturity of adolescence, but the truth is, humanity suffers from this disease, especially American humanity.  Within the church the sappiest of notions of divine love prevails, a view in which God’s love always trumps God’s wrath.  

Partly, I admit, we think this way because some Christian leaders have overworked and distorted the impact of God’s wrath.  I for one don’t want to go around consigning people to the outer darkness.  That said, our shallowness on this point is truly shocking.  Maybe our society is caught in the arrested development of perpetual adolescence.

Secondly,  this analogy bespeaks the real emotions of God who loves the world and suffers its waywardness.  As I mentioned, I genuinely feel for the guys who work in that oil-change shop.  I wish them well.  But I don’t take my business there.  Does God genuinely feel the world’s pain while at the same time withholding blessing because of our sin?    

If so, those of us who are Christian leaders ought to help people grapple a little more seriously with their own sinfulness.  Instead of noticing the sin in “the other” we ought to consider our ways in light of God’s nature.  This is theology at its most practical: helping people think about God so that they can walk in faith and obedience.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , | 3 Comments