Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

A Prophetic Reminder from a Christmas Past

Well, I have taken quite a vacation from blogging, but for good reason, I hope.  I’ve been working on a book manuscript and have submitted a proposal to a publisher.  I’m waiting to hear.  But I’ve been thinking about this blog and feeling ready to climb back into the saddle.  Nearly at the same time, Pastor Robert Jefress, of First Baptist Church, Dallas, hands me something to think about.  Perfect!

You may have seen Dr. Jefress on CNN this morning, answering questions about the controversial web site that lets people grouse about businesses saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”   The charge of cowardly political correctness lies behind this internet effort as well as the call for people to proclaim their faith openly.

Which made me think of a journal entry of John Wesley’s that I read just a couple of days ago.  What was Mr. Wesley doing on Christmas Day, 1777?  I’ll let him tell us: “Thursday, 25.  I buried the remains of Mr. Bespham, many years master of a man-of-war.  From the time he receive d the truth in love, he was a pattern to all that believe.  HIs faith was full of mercy and good fruits; his works shall praise him in the gates.”

That’s it.   A burial.  Whatever else Mr. Wesley might have written in his private diary about this day, he mentions in the Journal only this one act, drawing attention to the legacy of a man who died full of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

This little historical snapshot reminds us of how modern our Christmas traditions are, therefore how odd some of our concerns are about how people celebrate Christmas.  Though bits and snatches of modern traditions can be traced to more ancient times, most of what passes for Christmas celebrations these days are American traditions, most of which got started in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Remembering this point humbles and chastens our opinions about what should happen surrounding the day.  And it’s especially good to remember that deeply committed Christians who are our forbears essentially did not observe December 25 at all.  They were too busy burying people and doing other necessary things.

Without wanting to sound crabby or cynical or Grinchy or Scoogy, whether we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” seems ridiculously, embarassingly superficial as a way of witnessing to our faith in the Incarnation.  Even our overtly religious expressions of Christmas these days are too laden with the wrong emphases.  Which is why I can’t get too worked up about the stuff to which Pastor Jefress has drawn attention.

I do not want to set up some sort of false dichotomy with my fussing about Pastor Jefress’ concern over political correctness.  Still, I’d rather have words spoken over my grave like Mr. Wesley said of Mr. Bespham, rather than that I “kept the faith” by setting up some web site that lets people gripe about whatever it is that they think other people are doing wrong with this time of the year.

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December 9, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , | 4 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

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

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

Watching a Denomination Die

While a grand old institution slowly crumbles, the people who have invested their lives in it look for every glimmer of hope, every shred of evidence to sustain the belief that, really, “we’re doing fine.” Even when we acknowledge trouble, we have an odd way of tipping our hats to it while bolstering – in a form of whistling past the graveyard – our shaky feelings with positive-sounding language about hope and change.

I’ve been a United Methodist all my life. Being a preacher’s kid warped me, but not for the usual reasons; you know, the glass house, the resentments about “being watched,” being moved or just being different because of parents’ profession. I love The United Methodist Church. Pardon the gender specific reference: she has been like my mother.

I entered United Methodist ministry in 1984, the same year Bishop Richard Wilke’s book, And Are We Yet Alive? was published. That book was an eye-opener for many, but the press of institutional survival squashed its impact. We have been in critical institutional decline for 25 years! We go through periodic frenzies of corporate self-examination that turn out to be little more than posturing and hand-wringing. The more things change…

The Church needs leaders. We have some. We need more. I am speaking to my ilk: we pastors have to be more than goodhearted people who work hard and love our flocks. We have to lead. We have to teach! It takes transparency of faith and character. It takes courage. It takes perseverance. We had better figure out how to do our jobs – or we had better quit. It is far too holy a calling to occupy the place without doing the work. God is asking us, “Where is the fruit?” (And I don’t mean just numbers although I’m also not trying to avoid them!)

In “The Wisdom of God’s Counsels,” John Wesley’s lament over the decline of the Methodist movement (mainly because of love of wealth) carries on for several pages. After painting so bleak a picture he then asks, “But have all that have sunk under manifold temptations, so fallen that they can rise no more? Hath the Lord cast them all off for ever, and will he be no more entreated? Is his promise come utterly to an end for evermore? God forbid that we should affirm this! Surely He is able to heal all their backslidings: For with God no word is impossible.”

God can create something from nothing and bring the dead to life. This great truth we all know. God isn’t the problem. Our unwillingness to risk real repentance, our unwillingness to take up our cross daily and follow – that’s the problem.

Some reader(s) perhaps will take offense at my words, because she/he/they can think of the exceptions to my “negative” perspective. We have developed quite a perverse penchant for denying a generalization by finding a handful of exceptions. This defense is exactly part of the problem. We gag at a gnat and swallow camel. God is not fooled…or mocked.

March 27, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments