Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Because We Ate Our Fill of the Loaves

Sometimes when I read (especially) the Gospel of John, I notice with discomfort that Jesus often does not answer the questions asked of him.  In John 6:26, he responds to the question, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (to the other side of the Sea of Galilee) with the answer, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  The answer that is no answer.  The answer that redirects.

At the beginning of John 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000.  His disciples then get in the boat for a night-time crossing of the sea, whereupon they see Jesus walking on the water.  Then we come to this interchange as people figure out that Jesus is gone and they want to find him.

So, why does Jesus bluntly redirect the questioners’ question?  One answer: they’re missing the point.  Feeding the 5,000 was a sign of God’s presence, not just a meal (John is a good one for talking about those signs).  The people seeking Jesus are latching on to him, evidently, because of the good stuff he did for them:  “Maybe he’s a prophet or something.  We’d better stick close to see what else he’ll do for us.”  It is a way of following Jesus, all right.

A case of mixed motives again?  These folks felt excited about Jesus.  That’s good.  But excited about what?  It’s not about the bread, but about the Bread of Heaven.

The tricky part about mixed motives: many of them – considered on their own – are quite legitimate.  But when laid next to the deeper realities to which Jesus points, they start to compete.  “You are looking for me not because of the signs…but because you ate your fill.”  Jesus, who knows all people’s hearts, discerns the mixed motives and points out the problem so that those who seek him can know their own hearts and make the appropriate response.

Why do I follow Jesus?  Is it because of the cool things he does for me, or I’ve seen him do for others?  Is it because I find my life seems to have more significance because of him?  “My day just seems to go better” when I spend time in prayer with him (“go better” according to what principles of judgment?)?”  Yes, yes and yes.  These things are all true.  But notice the focus: me.

I need constantly to check my motives, not in order to be picky and self-critical, not to deny legitimate desires, but to check to see if my heart aligns with The One.  Not just the bread, but the signs.

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July 30, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Problem of Mixed Motives

I’ve been talking to people lately about a roadblock that I think I see in spiritual growth.  It looks like a two-step process: (1) “get” (understand) the principle and then (2) “apply” it, which means to incorporate it into our, attitudes and practices, to make it part of who we are.  Knowledge and application are both critical.  But there’s something missing.

I’ve also been thinking and writing a lot about emotions, lately, and I’m caught in a paradox.  On the one hand, I think we insufficiently understand the role and power of emotional tonality for spiritual maturity, because we have a much impoverished vocabulary.  We tend to reduce emotions to talk about “how we feel” about something.  On the other hand, when it comes to Christian doctrine, we tend to avoid feelings, because we’ve been taught that emotions actually muck up understanding.

Consider the connection between emotions, desires and motives and let’s try a little scenario.  I desire to grow spiritually in some way, let’s say, in prayer.  (Desire: I want a more intimate relationship with God.)  I can read a book, hear a teaching and gain a new understanding of the practice.  OK, so I’ve done step 1.  I understand better.  Now, I’m supposed to “apply” what I’ve “learned.”

(Hint: merely understanding a concept is not yet learning.)

Actually, when I start trying to “apply” the new “knowledge,” I discover that it’s really harder than it first seemed.  Prayer takes time.  And focus.  And persistence.   Persistence requires a degree of courage.  Notice the emotional tonality?

But I am busy.  I can’t get that song out of my head when I’m trying to pray.  I’m distracted by work projects and a million other thoughts.  I’m tempted to give up (discouragement – more emotional tonality).  And now comes the problem of mixed motive.  (1) I want to learn to pray fruitfully, effectually.  (2) I’m not inclined to demonstrate the persistence that fruitful praying takes.  So, (1) I desire to pray and (2) I desire not to go through the time-consuming process to get at the goal.

Actually, in reflection, I discover that I want the benefits of prayer (peace, confidence that I know God’s will, other benefits), especially as the book on prayer describes them.  It sounded so good there!  But prayer is interacting with God.  Well, I do want to interact with God, but on my terms, in my time frame, under my own schedule and with the envisioned benefits, as I’ve already mentioned.  When I discover that they don’t come that way, my desire for intimacy with God is tested.

And – dare I speak for God!? – God is more interested in my growing to maturity than in meeting my deadlines or other criteria for receiving the benefit of prayer.  And when I begin to realize this point, I’m challenged with awareness of my mixed motives.  I do want to pray and grow in intimacy with God.  I also want it to occur according to my designs.  What happens when the motives clash?

To grow spiritually, we need to think about and recognize mixed motives.  Where do your mixed motives reside?

July 26, 2010 Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Religion | , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Bane of Religion: Evil Speaking

From John Wesley’s Journal – “November 5, 1747: I began examining the classes, and every person severally, touching that bane of religion, evil speaking; as well as touching their manner of life before they heard this preaching; and by comparing what they were with what they are now (emphasis added), we found more abundant cause to praise God.

“That bane of religion…”  “Bane” is no longer a common word, so, just in case we don’t know the meaning, it refers to that which spoils or destroys something.  The bane of religion, according to Wesley is “evil speaking.”  Evil speaking destroys Christian life.  When was the last time someone asked you to evaluate your growth and/or progress in the Christian life on the basis of how you spoke about others?  Imagine getting kicked out of the society for habitually speaking evil of others.  Imagine getting kicked out of anything for any reason.

Pretty commonly, we recognize the corroding influence of the kind of talk we call “gossip.”  But, if I get Wesley, evil speaking extends much further.  I’m thinking about how Christians cut each other up across political lines, just for starters.  It doesn’t matter if it’s church politics or national.  For example, I know people who qualify as “Bush haters” (as in, they can’t stand “W”).  I’ve heard them say awful, cutting things about him.  I also know people who feel exactly the same way about President Obama, with similar hateful comments.  And in both cases I’m referring to United Methodists!

Now, I’m not calling for us to make nice and pretend we don’t have differences.  If you know me at all, you know that I’m no fan of making nice.  I think we should have open, pointed, honest conversations.  Loving someone means taking that person seriously enough to admit questions and disagreement.  I have opinions galore.  Sooner or later, you and I will most likely disagree on something.  Obviously, we can agree to disagree on most things and not worry.  However, sometimes we’re going to have it out, because we care about matters intensely.

But when we do have it out, can we not continue to love each other and talk to and about one another in love?  Clearly, I’m using “having it out” in an overstated way.  Yelling matches do no one any good.  But neither does making nice.

I’m thinking a lot about spiritual maturity these days and feeling the pinch of Wesley’s analysis with regard to evil speaking.  No one has asked me (in a long time, if ever) if I’ve engaged in evil speaking, but Mr. Wesley would.  And I’d have to tell him the truth.  And then I’d have to repent and do differently.  Or I’d get kicked out of the society.

Speaking the truth in love and avoiding evil speaking takes practice.  And sensitivity.  And awareness.  And practice.  We United Methodists need to work on it.  Big time.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , | 1 Comment

What My “Crazy” Charismatic Friends Always Teach Me

Over the past weekend, I made a quick trip to Kentucky to spend some time with dear friends who work together in a mission organization.  For many years I worked with them until I felt like my new job at SMU necessitated resigning from the board of trustees.  But these friends and Gospel co-workers are truly like family, so I made the trip in order just to be with them, if only briefly.

As usual, I heard the amazing things God is doing through people whose hearts are broken for the suffering and the lost. I heard prophetic words from scripture, and visions.  As usual, this experience made me think of something I’ve been reading…in John Wesley’s journal.

A couple of examples:

October 13, 1749: “At the meeting of the [select] society such a flame broke out as was never there before.  We felt such a love to each other as we could not express: such a spirit of supplication, and such a glad acquiescence in all the providences of God, and confidence that he would withhold from us no good thing.”

(United Methodists, when was the last time you felt like this in a small group, a  prayer group, or a church meeting of any kind?)

December 11, 1749: “I read, to my no small amazement, the account given by Monsieur Montgeron both of his own conversion and of the other miracles wrought at the tomb of Abbe Paris.  I had always looked upon the whole affair as mere legend…but I see no possible way to deny these facts without invalidating all human testimony.”

(Miracles?)

I like to tease my “crazy” charismatic friends about some of their ways.  In truth, I am only teasing, because in so many respects, they live closer to the experience of a John Wesley than most modern United Methodists, including myself.  Just look at the comments from his Journal: both the miraculous and the sheer, undignified, emotion-filled basking in God’s love.

So, I’m paying attention to Wesley’s journal and thinking about these friends and pondering as well my experiences with other heirs of Wesley in our United Methodist denomination.  I feel like I’m visiting two different countries.  Actually, two different worlds.   One world is infused with the direct experience of God.  The other, having many reasons to commend it, nonetheless seems trapped in a different dimension.

I want both.  Can I have both?  Can I have the serious, careful, scholarly work of the academic and the honest, open-faced, unabashed love for a God who can do literally anything according to his own purposes?

Maybe this is a wanting to have my cake and to eat it, too.  I don’t think so and I hope not.  I don’t want to live in the eighteenth century.  I don’t want to be overly-credulous.  But when I look at Wesley’s life – as well as my friends in KY – I come again and again to the conclusion that I’d rather be like them than the kind of Christian who doubts more than he/she believes.  And in the denomination that I love, there’s far too much of the latter.

July 12, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Perhaps to Clear Some Confusion: Sanctification, Christian Perfection, Legalism and Perfectionism

I am having a blast teaching United Methodist Doctrine to a group of theology school students.  I’ve been out of the classroom for a year, so it feels good to get back in there.

Yesterday, we covered that part of United Methodist doctrine that John Wesley called “‘the grand depositum’ for which Methodists were chiefly raised up.”  He referred to it variously as, Christian perfection (uh oh), being made perfect in love, holiness of heart and life, and sanctification.  Ironically (as I mentioned to the class), this doctrine has almost completely disappeared from common United Methodist discourse.

Why?  Well, several historical reasons which I won’t indulge here, but a couple of contemporary prejudices help to quell much talk about sanctification or holiness.  Those two dread terms, “legalism” and “perfectionism” stand like Scylla and Charybdis, menacing any Christian who might venture too close.

Our conversation yesterday set me to thinking about how talk about and teaching on “legalism” and “perfectionism” thwart our growth in Christ.  I’m trying to write a book on spiritual maturity and I’m re-telling and contemporizing parts of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, believing that he has some deeply important things to say to us in 2010.  The mere vision of spiritual maturity as God’s intended goal for us sets some Christians to trembling and grumbling about the need not to be “legalistic” or become “perfectionists.”  Let me see if I can unpack this box of problems with a couple of observations.

Legalism: the heart of this problem is self-sufficiency, not sincerely trying to follow a rule or pattern.  If we follow Paul’s criticism of legalism (in Galatians, for example), then the basic problem lies in the assumption that we can, of our own native ability and strength, keep the law.  Worse, self-sufficient people of this ilk actually think they are keeping the law while we lesser sorts are not.  Legalism is self-sufficiency, not commitment to a high standard. We cannot use the term “legalism” to trump this aim.  The life of holiness demands accountability.

Perfectionism: at its core, perfectionism exudes the spirit of condemnation.  Contrary to common belief, the worst part about being a perfectionist is not trying and trying and never measuring up.  It is the judgment that one is therefore somehow unacceptable because one tried and failed.  Two problems (at least) arise here.  First, what standard of measure are we using when we conclude that we tried, but failed?  Some vague notion of what?  Flawlessness?  What does it look like, this flawlessness, in actual practice?  Second, we think the cure for “perfectionism” is not to get “too hung up” about trying very hard.  “It’s not about doing,” so the saying goes, but about “being.”  False dichotomy, if there ever was one.

I am certainly not interested in putting people on some sort of grinding spiritual treadmill.  Sanctification (being made holy), like justification, flows from God’s gracious action, so the ability to live a holy life comes from God.  But it does not happen automatically and if we don’t even have holiness as at least part of our vision for living a fully committed Christian life, then how do we know or care to reach for God’s vision of fully Christian discipleship?

July 1, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment