Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Should GC Delegates Have to Demonstrate Theological Qualifications Beforehand?

People who seek to become naturalized citizens of the United States must pass a test to qualify for the privilege of reciting the citizenship oath.  And it’s an oral test (see http://www.uscis.gov).  No guessing on multiple choice questions.

Still worrying about the fallout from the 2012 United Methodist General Conference: what if potential delegates had to pass a test to qualify for election?  Has someone already thought of this?  One answer might be, “Yes, preparation for church membership and/or ordination should qualify a person.”  Oh, would that it were so!

A quick narrative detour: years ago I was invited to collaborate with another pastor on a “What United Methodists Believe” class in our local congregation.  We expected a handful of people and we agreed to go for 4 weeks.  We had more than 50 people (a right good number for our community) and we extended the 4 weeks to 6 in order to accommodate people’s questions and interest.  We had a lively time.

At the end of the study a dear sister in Christ approached me and said (I quote), “I’ve been a Methodist for more than 50 years and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”

She was a member in good standing.  She could have been elected a delegate to GC.  How many delegates go with lots of experience in the UM system but little to no awareness of our theological tradition?  Shouldn’t we be at least  somewhat unsettled by this state of affairs?

I can imagine two questions raised in protest:

1.  Just what is “United Methodist” theology?  Good question.  Could we start with the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and have people study “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task?” (Book of Discipline)?  And could we finally make somebody show us how to use the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral?”

But I digress…

2. Could we not just as well say that there are “United Methodist” theologies?  Of course, but simply asserting the fact does not move us toward resolving any of the issues rending our ecclesial fabric.

If General Conference – as the only body that speaks officially for the entire denomination – is going to function properly, should we not demand that people who serve as delegates be at least minimally theologically qualified to do so?  Notice how the pragmatic (a well-functioning General Conference) is affected by seemingly unrelated academic content.  Notice the link between doing and thinking.  Much thinking goes on before and at General Conference.  But are enough people able to think with the the necessary theological tools in order to fulfill their obligations as delegates?

We don’t have to draw “theology” here too narrowly.  Some people worry that when others – in other words, academics like me – start making references to theology, hair-splitting obfuscations follow that lead to more division rather than less.  But honestly, could we be any more divided than we are short of actually dividing?

Maybe it’s time to try theology!   I have to wonder if we could not avoid some of the problems bedeviling us if delegates had an adequate knowledge of the implications of their decisions relative to basic Christian and United Methodist beliefs.

So I entertain what likely seems to many United Methodists a ridiculous question: Shouldn’t we make our delegates pass a basic theology test in order to qualify?  If you think it preposterous, I refer you back to the narrative detour.

May 16, 2012 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Needed: A Good Dose of Self-Awareness

In a recent post,  I took a swing at the problem of using the rhetoric of critical thinking without actually employing it ourselves in higher education.  So, let me try to explain a little more of what I mean by critical thinking.  It’s a complex concept, so I’ll try just one piece.

Critical thinking starts with self-awareness.  It entails the intellectual virtue of humility, a virtue not easily won.  To think well, one must practice noticing the contours of one’s perspective. It means thinking about the way we think.  It means asking ourselves (and being open to others asking us) what biases and assumptions are already at work as soon as we start the act of thinking.  Recognizing our biases and background beliefs and exposing them for evaluation is fundamental to critical thinking.  This is what I mean by self-awareness.

An exceedingly important example has to do with recognizing our own social location in the ways we read the Bible.  The reader admits to being situated in a particular place, time, culture and language.  Race, gender, educational level and socio-economic status influence how we read.  There is no neutral ground, no way of reading the Bible without bias.  The Bible, likewise, is situated in a similar way.

This kind of self-awareness is liberating, not limiting.  (It has nothing to do with one’s commitment to biblical authority.)  I will get far more out of reading the Bible if I pay attention to how my context affects the way I read.  If I am aware of my assumptions, I can practice avoiding the automatic, default conclusions, thereby learning to let the text speak more on its own terms.  This is the liberating effect that self-awareness can bring.

On this topic (of Bible reading) the easy target for people inside the academy is “literalism.”  We regularly lament how it distorts people’s understanding and, with no little indignation, verbally shake our fingers at literalists.  We accuse them of not being appropriately self-aware, of not paying attention to social location; in short, of not thinking critically.

But, as the old childhood admonition goes, pointing a finger at someone else turns three back at us.  We in the academy can be guilty of simplistic readings ourselves, using the very tools we believe so powerfully illuminate.  I have read too many scholarly articles to count, in which the author identifies herself or himself by virtue of this social location paradigm.  Let me illustrate: I am a white, male, middle class, well-educated, married heterosexual, academic, from the rural high plains are of the United States.

The problem, I hasten to say, is not the description of social location, which, to the good, gives you (and me) the opportunity to assess how it might influence my perspectives on any given topic.  The problem, rather, is that we’ve come to think that simply by describing our social location, we have proven that  we are self-aware, as if the mere naming of a handful of socio-economic categories proves our scholarly legitimacy.  it can easily serve as an academic shibboleth.

I have to admit, I have begun to worry more about this latter problem than I do about the literalists.  We academicians are supposed to be the self-aware critical thinkers.  It’s part of our job.  But, because we have grown so confident in how we use the tools of our trade, we often sound self-congratulatory and complacent.  We can make astute-sounding references to critical thinking while displaying a shocking lack of it ourselves.  We should not miss the irony.

December 6, 2011 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Discerning Our Desires

People who read John Wesley and study early Methodism know quite well that the only criterion for joining a Methodist society was “the desire to flee the wrath to come.”  Sometimes this statement is used as an argument against doctrinal debate, i.e. Methodists shouldn’t argue about doctrinal differences because the ground of our unity lies elsewhere.  I’ve been mulling over what “the desire to flee the wrath to come” actually entails and it is stirring the waters of my soul.

Immediately, I notice that Wesley is using the language of John the Baptist: “Who warned you [brood of vipers] to flee the wrath to come?”  (See, e.g. Matthew 3:7.)  In the biblical context, it has an eschatological tone.  It points to the ultimate purposes of God loosed in the world and to a particularly definitive moment in history – the appearance of the Messiah.  In other words, we’re not just talking “revival” in the bland, presumptive sense we often use the word.  John the Baptist isn’t leading a “revival.”  He is evidence of the day of the Lord.  The more I read Wesley’s journal, the more I think he felt similarly about the Methodist movement.  In one sense, I just stated the obvious, but I think we’re not paying sufficient attention to this particular feature.

Next, I notice the word “desire.”  “Desire” suggests a positive pull of the heart toward an object that produces intentional action in order to realize the desire.  People did not get into Methodist society without actually desiring to do so.  Compare this thought with the tradition of “joining the church” so common to us now.  I’ve heard it said – and I’m inclined to agree more and more – that it should be a lot harder to join the church than it is.  It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that today’s version of church membership in generally meaningless.  I know some glorious exceptions, of course.  But not many.

Finally,  the desire is “to flee the wrath…”  Admittedly, Wesley’s journal is biased.  It’s aimed toward presenting certain features of Methodism, partly to disprove the charges leveled against Methodism and to make a defense of their legitimacy, and partly to instruct Methodists on how to perceive and feel their Christian experience.  But, even with these biases shaping the journal, we still read what people actually thought and felt.  They had a sense of God’s holiness that has almost totally vanished in our day and time.  Oh, we can pick up a stray reference to “justice” in various circles or to “morality” in others, particularly when someone is advocating a cause.   I’m talking about the awful, aching personal, heartfelt awareness of God’s purity and power.  We think too much of God as “our ever present help in time of need” and not nearly enough of God as “a consuming fire.”

And the words we use repeatedly; the concepts that dominate our thinking about God will shape our emotional lives.  “Desire” has emotional tonality.  In other words, the words that we use to describe our spiritual lives shape our hearts.

Those early Methodists wanted to flee the wrath to come.  What do we want?

June 25, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Emotional Impact of Good Thinking

There is a long practice (or prejudice) in Christian history that separates “head” and “heart.”  It comes to us most strongly, perhaps, from the Pietist movement that began in Germany in the 17th century.  People who identify themselves as “evangelical” know this terrain very well.  We pietist evangelicals use this kind of language commonly to describe inauthentic religion (“mere” head knowledge) and authentic religion (heart knowledge).  I don’t like this trade-off and I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t.  The head-heart trade-off is a false dichotomy.

It turns out that good thinking involves having the right kind of feelings, a point to which Christians need to pay close attention.  We need, therefore, to quit talking about “head knowledge” versus “heart knowledge.”

I rather feel like I’m stating the obvious here, but let me try out this idea anyway.  Let’s try to notice the difference between between two aspects of learning.  “Learning” can mean something like cognitive mastery – I “get” (i.e. understand and can manipulate) an idea and can make use of it in other ideas.  I’m afraid that, usually when we talk about learning doctrine, we put it in this framework.  But (by itself) it isn’t learning.  It is reductionistic and looks much like the “head knowledge” we decry.

If we follow the usual path, at this point we switch to “heart knowledge” for the corrective, but it is precisely here that we start going wrong.  We go wrong because with “heart knowledge,” sound doctrine (good thinking) tends to get downplayed.  Oh, yes, we know that believing the right things matters, but really it matters mostly to prove our orthodoxy, our being on the “right side” of a controversy.  For spirituality, by contrast, what  really matters is how one feels and what one does.  Does one feel love for Jesus?  Does one do what Christians are supposed to do (go to church, tithe, feed the poor, etc.)?

If we want to work on “heart knowledge” we tend to look to the spiritual disciplines to help us.  So, we read books on prayer and mysticism, or fasting, or some other practice.  We tend not to read books on theology, partly because “theology” has become so technical that only professional academics can use the lingo.

So we pietist evangelicals fall off the log the other direction and reduce the Christian faith to “heart knowledge.”   In truth – and it’s critically important that we “get” this point –  “learning” something means doing the hard cognitive work for understanding and being taken by, possessed by, the truth of God’s revelation.  It is still mental and conceptual, but it is more than mere mastery of concepts.  The ideas become personal – the will has yielded and “made it personal” in a more-than-merely-cognitive way.  In learning, I’m not merely manipulating an idea.  That idea permeates my whole being.   Clearly, this sort of learning affects our emotional tone and we become, over time, different, renewed, transformed people.

If my chain of thought is sound, it means we Christians need to spend a lot more time with doctrine/theology: reflectively, ponderingly, persistently, leisurely, slowly, prayerfully.

December 28, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Christmas, Doctrinal Truth and Human Flourishing

In my prayer time the other day I was pondering Psalm 43:3, “O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.”

Truth and good order go together.  The shalom of God means that truth and good order lead to human flourishing.  God’s created order means goodness and blessing for all.  Implication: truth cannot be a secondary matter.

Talking about truth sounds to many people like a mere intellectual game.  The spirit of the age encourages people to separate the experience of God’s goodness from doctrines about God’s nature and work.  Some people argue that one can have a powerful and life-changing experience of God without being committed to (or even very worried about) truth.

Clearly, we don’t have to be perfectly logical and coherent in order to experience God’s goodness.  Certainly, there are flaws in my concepts of God and I still experience God’s goodness.  But I don’t think this point gets at my concern about the spirit of the age.  The problem is that we almost entirely divorce truth claims from experiencing God’s goodness, as if we can have heads full of seriously bad ideas and still experience the fullness of God.

We mostly soft-pedal doctrinal differences.  We don’t like doctrinal debates (too abstract and probably irrelevant) and we don’t like to tell people openly, “You’re wrong,” even though we think it all the time.  The underlying assumption seems to be that doctrine really doesn’t matter very much – that God is so gracious and good that God apparently overrides really bad ideas with grace and love anyway.  But, of course, I just made a doctrinal (or theological) claim about God’s goodness.

Does God care whether I think A or B about God?  Since we’re approaching Christmas, is it truly only of secondary importance that some Christians dismiss a literal incarnation of the Word of God, preferring to think of it as metaphorical and not actual?  Does thinking A rather than B have no impact on their spiritual lives?  Their experience of God?  Can we grow to maturity either way?

If there is not real life from God in true doctrine, then about any old idea works.  If doctrine is nothing more than manipulating concepts, while experience of God lies elsewhere, then any old idea works, because God apparently works independently of ideas.  But of course, not any old idea works.  If any old idea worked, then God-as-cruel-Tyrant works as well for helping me flourish as does God-as-loving-Parent.

Having a head full of the right ideas that don’t penetrate one’s heart is not what the Christian life is about.  Neither is the opposite, that one need be unconcerned about sound doctrine because God will bring a flourishing life anyway.

I believe that those people who are captivated by the incarnation of the Word of God will have a dramatically different Christmas experience than those who think it’s just the birthday of Jesus.  There.  I said it.

December 16, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion | , , , , | 1 Comment

Academic Moral Equivalency and Christian Perfection

I have been seriously pondering John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection for several years.  Have we his heirs advanced or retreated in our understanding of Methodism’s “grand depositum” as he put it?  I don’t know.  We certainly don’t like the word “perfection,” a problem Wesley himself had to face.  Still, if he considered it the reason “Methodists were chiefly called into existence,” then it seems like we ought to figure out if there is a 21st century version of it that can be called legitimately Wesleyan.

The idea of spiritual maturity suggests that some people are further along the path toward it than others.  Already we sense the danger of making a judgment, yet the Bible makes it.  One recalls, for example, that word about some still needing milk while they should be ready for meat.  In the Christian life, there is a trajectory toward a telos, a goal.  We can argue about whether or not we ever reach the goal, but it’s a goal we envision.

We do the same in education.  A college senior should be more mature than a freshman.  The very terms we use for undergraduate classification points this way.  Educational theory includes the telos.  I’ve been scouring through Fowler’s stages of faith lately.  He and his main authorities (Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg) all include a view of maturity.  They believe that they have empirically demonstrated that some people are more mature than others.

We tend to assume, do we not, that a college-educated person is better educated than someone who has no college?  We assume, don’t we, that going to college challenges people to become more self- and world-aware, which is better than not being aware?  One of the major goals of a college education is to help develop whole people, not just skillful people who are good at doing certain jobs.  This is supposedly the difference between a college degree and a technical school degree.

So, in addition to skills, we expect a college education to develop appropriate attitudes and behaviors.  A well-educated person is more than a skilled person.  A well-educated person has some of the right…virtues.  A well-educated person should also be a wise person, no?  Everything I’ve said so far about a college education can be applied to theological education.  Don’t we expect advance in a theological education?  A person with a Master of Divinity should have the skill and the character, by virtue of the education, to lead a congregation, right?

Most academic institutions assume that by merely having the experience, these virtues will emerge in our students.  Yet the academy prizes and rewards skill and achievement rather than good attitudes and behavior.  We tend to assume moral equivalency.  More educated people are supposed to be likewise more trustworthy, more wise, because more aware of “the issues.”

I’m not sure we Methodists have gotten Mr. Wesley right on Christian perfection.  Yet, in higher and theological education, we have taken up this very endeavor, only in academic terms and with academic values rather than Christian ones.  We assume that something like an academic version of that fruit of the Spirit will happen by virtue of the experience.

I think we have something still to learn from Mr. Wesley…

December 7, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Religion | , , , , , | 2 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