Spin, excuses and denial (or, What pride sounds like)

“This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.” — John 3:19-21 (The Message)

Because I’m so hopelessly in love with the community of Christ, I’ve spent a bit of mental time contemplating how healthy community works. That line of thinking naturally leads to a conversation about pride and humility and the ways they manifest themselves in our relationships. Pride is the big killer of community and it affects our communication at a most fundamental level.

What do we know about pride? For starters, pride manifests as self hatred.

Self hatred distorts how we communicate, because it creates a focus on the SELF. We tend to feel threatened when our sense of self is weak. It is our nature to preserve our survival, whether physical or emotional. When we feel threatened — when the survival of our “self” feels attacked even from within — we will go to any length to protect it. Becoming focused on the self for the sake of self-defense necessarily means taking our attention off other things, including God.

How does pride or self hatred manifest in our conversations?

Self defense begins with denial. “It isn’t my fault!” How often do our responses begin there, even if only internally? To uphold my delusional sense of self I have to externalize the blame and make others the problem. This thing you’re saying about me or blaming me for can’t be my fault — not if I’m responsible for the survival of my identity.

To own responsibility means I’d have to my own woundedness or inadequacy. That kind of admission is a threat to a weak identity.

Externalizing leads to excuse-making — the language of victims. Now I am a victim of others’ bad behavior. If they would act right, we’d all be fine but since they won’t I now have to claim them as the problem.

So I make excuses.

Externalizing is a big issue for those whose sense of self feels threatened. We can’t afford the risk of taking responsibility (remember? We are already in a weakened state) so we flail about to find someone or something external to ourselves who must be the cause of our pain or inadequacy. It must be my parents’ fault or my spouse’s fault or maybe this is about a co-worker or team member or … someone. Just not me, because I can’t emotionally afford to take the hit.

A more subtle kind of excuse making is “spin” — the habit of changing the facts so they more comfortably fit my reality. I present a view that frames me and my behavior or circumstances in the most positive light. Usually my spin will be at the expense of someone else’s reality, but in my need to frame myself as positively as possible I must ignore the collateral damage.

Spin, excuses and denial are all ways we hide. Hiding is the habit of people who are threatened. We hide because we are convinced that if we expose the truth of our inadequacy we will be destroyed or at least further wounded. This is the point of John 3 (see above). Jesus tells us we’ll hide things, but only because we are afraid of the light.

We not only hide the truth from others; we hide it from ourselves. But here’s the thing: If a person can actually get to the place of asking, “Why do I feel threatened?” and can follow that out to its logical conclusion, s/he will likely discover the threat is not real. The defenses we launch wouldn’t survive rational analysis because our fearful, defensive thoughts are themselves lies, encouraged by the father of lies.

A more subtle and insidious form of self-protection is passive aggression. Passive aggression is another way to hide. It reveals a deep weakness in identity formation and is the opposite of courage. It is just what the name implies — a form of indirect hostility masked by a subtle brand of lies. Passive aggression looks like procrastination (“I will say I’ll do this, but I’ll drag my feet so I control if and when it actually happens.”), negative emotions (“I will express my feelings not with words but with how I love someone.”), ignoring responsibility (“I will listen to what is expected, but I will only do what I choose to do.”).

Passive aggressive communication is slipping unspoken signals into our behavior so we passively communicate a negative message. It is sneaking in our anger, disapproval or disagreement without actually owning the courage to state it maturely and directly. It is any behavior that keeps us from submitting out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) to a relationship with which we’re internally at odds.

Passive aggressive people lie by not directly expressing their feelings or by hiding the script, as someone has said. When confronted, they often deny having a hidden agenda. What a passive aggressive person is after is control which manifests as silent rebellion.

The most glaring dysfunction in the communication of self-haters is conscious lying.

This is a hard, fast truth: addicts lie. What we don’t often acknowledge is the variety of forms in which addiction manifests. I can be addicted to myself and to self-preservation just as surely and destructively as I can be addicted to a chemical. In fact, self addiction is chemically fueled, in that the unhealthy stress hormones released by feelings of failure or inadequacy become compelling triggers motivating me to avoid truth.

All these levels of dysfunctional communication spring from the same root: self protection. We are guarding against any reality that might force us to change from our current ways of behaving while we desperately protect an identity we feel is in danger.

Self protection centers on one key word: SELF. It is the enemy’s first line of defense. He doesn’t care if I love myself too much (narcissism is a pathological form of pride we’ll save for another conversation) or hate myself even a little; either end of that spectrum works. In either case, my mental posture will keep me focused on SELF which means I will have less room for God.

What is the alternative? Here are a few questions to sit with in the presence of the Holy Spirit:

  1. Do any of my responses reflect a posture of self-defense? Do I have a protective crouch?
  2. Do I use my emotions in an attempt to manipulate others’ behavior?
  3. How do I hide? Why do I feel threatened?
  4. What prayer of confession will help me bring these things into the light of truth?

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The character of a Wesleyan

Much is being made these days in my (admittedly very narrow) slice of the world about what it means to be Wesleyan. “Wesleyan” in this case doesn’t refer to a particular denomination but to a broader theological stream birthed through an eighteenth-century movement and largely defined by the commentaries and sermons of John Wesley.

Wesley himself once wrote a tract called “The Character of a Methodist.” By his definition a Methodist is happy, full of love, prayerful, pure in heart, servant-minded, known by his fruit.

In this age, it seems important to articulate further the distinctives that make us Methodist. In my own study, I discovered this strong reflection on the character of a Wesleyan written more than a decade ago by Kent Hill, then president of Eastern Nazarene College. His thoughts resonate, so I share them as a starting point for your own formation of a definition of what it means to be Wesleyan.

What does it mean to be Wesleyan?

First, to be Wesleyan means to recognize the primacy of Scriptural authority. John Wesley never left any doubt as to his convictions in this area. In a letter in 1739, he unequivocally stated: “I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures….” Wesley was so serious about Scripture playing the primary role in what he thought and how he lived, that his sermons and letters are infused with Scriptural phrases. It became part of his very language.

Second, to be Wesleyan means to be consciously and proudly part of the broad, ancient tradition of the Christian faith. We do not belong to a religious sect that came into existence in the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1777, at the founding of City Road Chapel in London, Wesley described the movement of Methodism this way: “Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England. This old religion…is no other than love, the love of God and all mankind.” If we are true to our Wesleyan heritage, we not only may, but are obligated to, draw broadly from Christian tradition.

Third, to be Wesleyan not only allows, but requires, that we be ecumenical. Though John Wesley believed strongly in his theological convictions, he never lost sight of the fact that the Body of Christ is much bigger than any one tradition or theological perspective. He neither swept under the rug important theological divisions that existed, nor allowed those differences to cloud the larger reality that what we hold in common through the creeds is of primary importance. In Wesley’s ecumenism, there was a commitment to a common humanity in Christ.

Fourth, to be Wesleyan means to affirm the cardinal doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Salvation is grounded in the merits of Christ’s righteousness and is appropriated by faith, which is a gift of God’s grace. Wesley insisted that we must respond to God’s gift through acts of obedience that flow out of faith. Wesley believed that humans can never do enough to merit salvation; still he taught that God in his sovereignty grants us a measure of freedom to respond to his transforming grace, and if we refuse to respond, then we will neither be saved or transformed.

Fifth, to be Wesleyan means to recognize the grace of God as “transforming,” as well as “pardoning.” This lies at the crux of what can be called the central theological distinctive of John Wesley’s thought – the quest, by God’s grace, for holiness or sanctification. Grace is more than the “creative grace” that has formed all things. It is even more than the “pardoning” grace that forgives us of our sins. It is the “transforming” grace which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, enables us to conform ever more to the image of Jesus Christ.

Sixth, to be Wesleyan means to be effective apologists of the Christian faith. John Wesley’s life and ministry reflects a compelling response to the command recorded in I Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience….” (NIV) If we reflect a Wesleyan perspective, we will cultivate opportunities to use Scripture, broad Christian tradition, reason and experience in defense of the faith. And we will do it in a way that shows restraint and love in the face of criticism.

Seventh, to be Wesleyan requires commitment to discipleship and accountability. Specifically, it requires of us a commitment to the importance of structured Christian discipleship. In June 1779, Wesley wrote in his journal: “This very day I heard many excellent truths delivered in the kirk (church). But, as there was no application, it was likely to do as much good as the singing of a lark.” In addition to participation in small accountability groups, Wesley insisted on the importance of private devotions, participation in larger church meetings, the taking of the sacraments, and acts of mercy.

Eighth, to be Wesleyan means to be involved in compassionate ministries. John Wesley always believed that it was imperative that a follower of Jesus Christ be simultaneously committed to the essential vertical relationship with his or her Creator, and to the necessary and redemptive relationship to the rest of God’s Creation. If the latter is not present, Wesley insisted that there is something fundamentally wrong with the former. No position could be more clearly rooted in Christ, who stated in Matthew 25 that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (NIV)

In our own day, may we see a revival of Methodism with such a strength and character that it regains its ability to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God. 

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Violence in the Kingdom of God

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. – Jesus (Matthew 11:12)

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God all the time. He seemed always to be trying to get his people to see it, to grasp what it means to live in the Kingdom and have the Kingdom living within us.

In the verse above, he uses a Greek word for “violence” that can have one of two meanings, depending on how you use it. The word is biazetai. In this version, it is translated “suffered violence.”

From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

That’s one possible translation but there are other possibilities. Another valid option is this: “From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing,” or “has been forcing its way in” while violent people take it by force.

So we’ve got two options here, depending on which voice we use (active or passive). Which is it? Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully advancing — pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?

Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is the Kingdom of God suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes. It is both. The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If you want to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, start with what Jesus told John’s followers in that same chapter of Matthew: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

And people will be offended by that (some violently so), but blessed are the ones who aren’t.

That’s why John and his followers were asking questions. Because this isn’t what they expected. They — and we — want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, a kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like normal people bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom to the captives, opening the prisons of those who are bound.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of God to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so that no one is left behind. It is one person handing a cup of cold water to someone else.

That’s the force of it, and for a lot of people, that’s an offense because it isn’t what we expect. But that, Jesus seems to say in Matthew 11, is how its done.

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Calvinism, Gender Politics and the ESV

In any attempt to speak into a conversation about Bible translations and theology, I am skating on the edge of my own incompetencies before I even begin. Receive this blog in that light. I write not as a scholar, but as a pastor deeply troubled by what reformed theology is teaching this generation about men, women and value. In fact, I’m stunned.

Let me begin with a word about what some Calvinist (reformed) theologians teach about the nature of women in general.

John Piper and Wayne Grudem, who have both written extensively on a “reformed” view of human design, claim that the male-female hierarchy has been so from the beginning. In their book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, they argue from Genesis, chapter two, that woman was taken out of man and that man was given dominion over the whole earth before woman came on the scene. They both lean on their heavy exegesis of the word “helper” to suggest a woman’s supportive role (Recovering, loc 2384).

Complementarianism emphasizes the distinctions between men and women, as well as their roles (Recovering, loc 2384). In the healthiest view of this theological stance, men and women bear God’s image equally, with men having the role of leader and women having the role of helper (Recovering, loc 2144). The weakness of this approach is that it emphasizes roles over gifts, gifts being the New Testament preference.

In its most extreme form, however, complementarianism doesn’t just define roles; it implies an unusual value, to say the very least, to men. Grudem states, “God did not name the human race ‘woman.’ If ‘woman’ had been the more appropriate and illuminating designation, no doubt God would have used it … he called us ‘man’ which anticipates male headship” (Recovering, loc 2224). Where Genesis, chapter one, paints the picture of partnership, complementarianism uses linguistic tricks to insert a hierarchy.

And now, in a last-minute edit, what has been woven into their theology has been solidified into a popular translation of the Bible. The Calvinist camp has now placed the idea of patriarchal design into the English Standard Version of the Bible. The editors of that version (with Grudem as general editor) recently released a statement, after making a handful of final edits, announcing that the ESV is now complete and will remain unchanged for all perpetuity. Among the final edits is a change to the language describing the curse of the woman in Genesis 3. The editors have changed the wording from, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

That translation tweaks the meaning of the verse. The revision now implies that far from being an effect of fallenness God designed gender hierarchy. The problem is that the language doesn’t support the revision.

Of this translation, Scot McKnight says, “It is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong.” Indeed, McKnight goes on, “This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism.”

Can I say again that I am stunned by this?

The editors of this popular version of the Bible (one I’ve used for years) have intentionally taken a creation-up view of scripture, using their theological biases to weave into the text something that isn’t actually there in order to make their point that gender hierarchy is a matter of divine design and not human fallenness.

This is stunning in its boldness. It is one thing to write commentary on a passage and claim one’s opinion as a sidebar discussion. It is another thing entirely to manipulate the words of the text itself to favor one’s theological biases.

The editors must rethink this. As faithful students of the Word, we must resist it. As Carolyn Custis James poignantly states, “Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that reveals the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message in contrast to the patriarchal world. We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular—much better than we do—if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.”

I am deeply concerned for the direction reformed theology is leading this generation and these ESV final edits only deepen my concern. I am concerned for the women who are being led down a patriarchal path to a place where their very value is stripped. It is dangerous, indeed, to imply that women don’t share in the creation fabric of humanity; it is foolish to state that at the fall, nothing changed. Much more, I am concerned when an agenda is so deeply held that it overrides the integrity of biblical scholarship. When that happens, on what basis can we argue anything?

The original design for men and women is partnership, not hierarchy. The fall fundamentally, catastrophically altered that relationship. All thoughtful, faithful Christians should be fighting like crazy to get all of us back to the other side of the fall line, because it is as we live out our created design that we bring glory to God.

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Jesus is a friend of sinners (and Jesus is a friend of mine).

I’m thinking about a first-century gathering. Jesus is at somebody’s house and he is laughing. It is a deep belly laugh. Someone has just said something (maybe about the irony of Levi the tax collector hanging out with a spiritual teacher) and Jesus thinks its funny.

And it is kind of funny how people end up at a table with Jesus. They come in all kinds of ways, as many ways as there are people. Sometimes they come broken, and sometimes — like Levi, who learned from the best of them how to cheat people out of money — they don’t realize what they’ve been missing until Jesus shows up.

This gathering at someone’s house is news. It is odd that it would be news that Jesus is eating at dinner with friends; nonetheless, the religious leaders have someone looking in on this little gathering to see who’s there. They count heads and take names and go back to their people to report what they see. “Jesus is at Levi’s house,” they say.

And eyes roll.

“The food is not kosher. These people are not ceremonially clean. I doubt any of them could quote from the holy scriptures.”

More eye rolling.

That’s how people with a religious spirit do it. They judge everything so it is almost impossible to be okay by their standards.

Jesus does not get their standards. He just doesn’t get it. And when they call him out on it — when they call him on these picky little charges, like meeting with sinners — he says, “It’s like you’re treating a hangnail when a person has cancer. Where is the grace for what is? Don’t you see that when I go into these gatherings, I’m not looking for students to grade. I’m looking for friends to walk with.”

And with friends (you can just hear Jesus say it) you start with what is.

Four times in three verses, Mark mentions that Jesus is at this gathering with sinners. When a word is repeated in the Bible, pay attention. When it is mentioned four times, it means something: Jesus is a friend of sinners.

Which means that Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners.

That is great news for us, but a problem for people with the wrong attitude toward sin. People with a religious spirit don’t just have a problem with sinners. They have a problem with saviors, too. Some people have a problem with how Jesus chooses to solve problems. He doesn’t do it by ignoring sin, nor does he do it by running from sin. He does it by leaning in.

In response to our sin, God leaned in. Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, gave up His place as God to become a man. Isaiah 53 says it was the will of the Lord to crush him and Isaiah 61 tells us God did it this way for the sake of poor, bound-up captives. People imprisoned by all manner of brokenness. Jesus healed sick people, gave sight to blind people, raised a few dead people and fed a lot of hungry people.

And Jesus ate with sinners.

The whole time he was showing the mercy and compassion of God, he preached this good news about how redemption works. It is God leaning in, being unafraid of our demons, our diseases, our sicknesses, our poor spiritual sight. Over all our sin, Jesus pronounced the Kingdom of God, inviting us to enter in and be forgiven of our sins and made holy by a sinless sacrifice.

Jesus was that sinless sacrifice. Because he’d lived this sinless life, he became what they called in the old system of sacrifices a spotless lamb. Jesus willingly gave himself to this. He allowed a group of men who were against everything he stood for — who peeked in on his small groups and judged him for leaning in and letting people start where they are — to arrest him, because he called his brand of compassion the very holiness of God.

And that is the Jesus who invited a group of sinners to sit around in a circle with him to enjoy each other and to find their redemption not in who they were but in who he is. Which means we are forgiven of everything we’re not … because of everything Jesus is.

Hallelujah.

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When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.

What?

Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that when we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.

 

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Belonging, Believing and Behaving: The Sense of a Faithful United Methodist

The Babylon Bee, a satirical website that pokes fun at Christian culture, recently posted a marvelously ironic “news piece” with this heading: “Pastor Surprised to Learn His Church Has Statement of Faith.”  Surely this piece was inspired by the current Methodist conversation. In my own interactions with those reading my posts, I’ve received comments like, “Who are you to decide what ‘orthodox’ is?” The same has been asked about Wesleyanism, Methodism, and even truth in general. I hear echoes of Pilate’s question to Jesus: “What is truth?”

In fact, these terms have accepted meanings. Our Articles of Religion define what it means to be Methodist. Wesley’s sermons interpret those articles into practical living. We have a doctrine that reflects the thinking of generations; this is the substance of Wesleyan orthodoxy. It is not purely theoretical but the kind of religion James discussed: the capacity to serve others without letting the world get the best of us (James 1:27).

To allow a non-theological culture to redefine our terms would be foolish and yet this is the plague that has befallen United Methodism and the root cause of our severe sickness. We have forgotten that we are creedal, doctrinal and covenantal, and that our beliefs are to be lived out for the transformation of the world.

Hear that: we transform the world, not vice versa.

What makes Wesleyanism so attractive is its insistence that its doctrines remain married to its practice. Wesley preached what he called a “practical divinity” or an “experimental divinity.” A Latin term — consensus fidelium, or “the sense of the faithful” — holds in tension the Spirit-infused experience of the believer with the scripturally-grounded doctrines of the Church.

Don Haynes has written eloquently on this theological vision of Wesley in a piece entitled “Wesley’s Consensus Fidelium” and it is my privilege to share Haynes’ good word here. I encourage you to read on and recommit yourself in this season to becoming a student of the Articles, sermons, notes and creeds that form our theological foundation as a people called Methodist.

Wesley’s consensus fidelium

In Dr. Robert Cushman’s book, John Wesley’s Experimental Divinity, he reminds us with much sadness that somewhere during the late 19th century, Methodism lost touch with the doctrinal foundation laid by Wesley’s Sermons and Notes. Cushman notes that the earliest Form of Discipline was most certainly doctrinally substantive — an “experimental divinity” rooted in scripture but lost by “a failure of memory.”

Cushman points us through consistent references by Coke, Asbury, Whatcoat and McKendree to a common canonical history of American Methodism. This paragraph appeared originally in the Form of Discipline published immediately following the Christmas Conference:

“Far from wishing you to be ignorant of any of our doctrines, or any part of our discipline, we desire you to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the whole. We know you are not able to purchase many books; but you ought, next to the Word of God, to procure the Articles and Canons of the Church to which you belong.”

For Wesley, and somewhat uniquely so, “doctrine called for or presupposed an appropriate discipline by which its truth might be nurtured and become a biographical reality.”

Consistently combining “doctrine and discipline” sets us apart from those who concentrate only on belief.. For Wesley and the next generation, Methodism was marked by a tri-fold commitment: belonging (to a Society or class meeting), believing (in the Edwardian Homilies doctrines), and behaving (in accordance with the General Rules).

To the generation of Calvinists who excommunicated Jacob Arminius posthumously by the Council of Dort for his belief in a modicum of free will. To that generation of Calvinists, behavior meant little or nothing; orthodox belief was the summon bonum of being a Christian. For Wesleyans, our received doctrinal tradition is a “living faith”—a “practical divinity,” an “experimental divinity.” (“Living faith” is a term Wesley lifted from the Edwardian Homilies of the early 1550’s Protestant Era in England.)

A significant dimension of what Cushman has uncovered as “consensus fidelium” was what Wesley called “holy living.” He never let that go even after Aldersgate brought the “strangely warmed heart”– forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God issued forth in a divinely supplied “blessed assurance” that “Jesus is mine.” As United Methodists, we must not let go what Paul articulated irrevocably in Romans 8:16 —“the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God….” These are the foundational beliefs that constituted our consensus fidelium — our common consent to be shared in faith, hope, and love. This the preachers called “Wesley’s little body of divinity” or his “Scriptural Way of Salvation.”

Until 1808, the Methodist Episcopal Church had no constitution. When that was adopted, there were Restrictive Rules limiting what Cushman called a “dimming, or decline, or erosion of that consensus fidelium.” He wrote further, and prophetically, that such changes would create a “negative prognosis for the survival of that church, particularly in modern secular society.”

Cushman then wrote, “It is then to be pondered in the absence of a consensus fidelium (that is a common sum of doctrines and discipline acknowledged by most), whether a Christian community can attain to or retain a manifest identity and self-understanding, or convey a recognizable or enduring message or indeed, survive at all.” The obvious intent of the First Restrictive Rule of 1808 was to secure the aforestated consensus fidelium as the normative faith for the “Scriptural Way of Salvation,” vivified through the inner working of the Holy Spirit. What some call Wesley’s unique contribution to Christian journeying is the sanctifying or perfecting grace that follows one’s experience of saving grace. Wesley called this a walk of faith that became “inner and outward holiness in heart and life.” It was basic to that early consensus fidelium.

In Wesley’s sermon, “The Way To The Kingdom,” he preached, “For neither does religion consist in orthodoxy or right opinions… which are not of the heart. A man may be orthodox in every point; he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God. He may assent to all three creeds—the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian—and yet ‘tis possible he may have no religion at all, no more than a Jew, Turk, or pagan. He may be almost as orthodox as the devil…and may all the while be a stranger as he is to the religion of the heart.”

After asking, “If not orthodoxy as the criterion of faith, what was?” Jason Vickers has written that Wesley’s response would be “the testimony of the Spirit.” Wesley wrote, “We must love God before we can be holy at all. We cannot know his love for us until his Spirit witnesses to our spirit.” Then he cautioned that the “testimony of the Spirit” must be held in conjunction with the fruit of the Spirit, and he then quotes from St. Paul’s list of fruits.

Cushman taught his students that “We have a consensus fidelium that we call ’rule of doctrine and discipline.’ It is two-fold. We must always distinguish between fides quae creditor (faith that is only believed) and fides qua creditor (living or saving faith). This latter dimension, Wesley called “taking the cure” as he loved to call Jesus, “the great physician of souls.” If we can no longer encourage the work of the Spirit in taking the cure, we are, in Dr. Cushman’s words, “precisely where Wesley found the churches in the 18th century—possessing “a form of godliness, but lacking the power thereof.” This, Wesley thought, was the peril of orthodoxy. It is certainly also the peril of progressivism.

“By the end of the 19th century,” Cushman wrote, “Wesley’s ‘experimental divinity” had lost currency. By the third quarter of the 20th century, a consensus fidelium was not regarded as essential, and affirming it was often received as controversial. Meanwhile the spectacular decline of the past decade and more may suggest that many have wearied beyond endurance with a church that manages mainly, ‘the form of godliness’ that is doctrinally shapeless.” Those prophetic words were printed in 1989, after Dr. Robert Cushman’s death.

Perhaps God is calling the Wesleyan Covenant Association to bring us back to the consensus fidelium. If this is true, October 7 could be a “tipping point” in the recovery of Wesley’s insistence on belonging to a redemptive fellowship, believing in the “Word of God for the people of God,” and behaving like those who “have the mind in them that was in Christ Jesus.”

— Dr. Donald W. Haynes, retired WNCC/UMC clergy, author of former column, “Wesleyan Wisdom,“ author of On the Threshold of Grace

September 1, 2016

 

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You are a strange bird. (or, What it means to love like Jesus)

You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9

We are peculiar people. We’re designed that way. Christians aren’t supposed to look like the rest of the world. We like the hard case, the loose cannon, the one in the margins, because Jesus does. He has a preference for the poor and those who struggle and because he loves, we do.

Christians are known, in fact, for the way we treat the least lovable among us. How do we love those who struggle like Jesus loves them?

Hang in there with those who struggle. Tony Campolo says, “If you want to win people to Jesus, you first have to love them.” Too often, people who follow Jesus react in fear when they are faced with someone who struggles with sexual brokenness or addiction or emotional wounds. But the Bible teaches us that perfect love casts out all fear. Jesus is our model. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry and ate with sinners. Those who follow him will hang in there with those who struggle.

Pray for anyone who struggles with any issue that keeps them from the abundant life. There is a sense that Christians are supposed to live to avoid pain. We pray for healing. We celebrate healing as the ultimate sign of Jesus’ presence and power, but then we pray too small. As if our own personal deliverance from a headache is the most a cosmic redeemer can muster. “Well, the world is a shambles, but at least my head feels better.’ Is that the redeemer we want? Is that the redeemer of the Bible? Why not spend your faith on bigger things? Let your heart break in prayer over someone in your life who deals with sexual brokenness? Or start praying every day for an alcoholic or an addict. Or pray in tears for God to save every person you love who isn’t saved. Why not shake the gates of hell for someone every day for a month and see what happens? Because your headache can be handled with an aspirin, but the world is full of people who cannot change or will not change until we pray.”

Be a friend. You know the old saying? “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” It really is true. Our job is not to fill every need or ease every discomfort. That’s a formula for burn-out. What we can do is simply be a friend who listens, prays and loves.

Don’t define anyone by their struggle. None of us wants to be labeled according to our sins or issues. Grace doesn’t define people by their struggles, but by the blood of Jesus. If the gospel were to boil down to one issue, it would not be someone’s sin. It would be grace. That doesn’t mean we ignore sin or normalize it, but that we are able to look more deeply at what defines people so that we see them as more than their worst moment.

Practice humility. We can’t possibly know all the reasons someone else struggles. Humility requires us to assume that they suffer just as legitimately as we do. It also requires us to be honest about our own weaknesses. In their shoes, we might be just as much of a mess. Humility cautions us to wait for the Lord to move first because only the Lord can change a life.

That’s how Christians act.  We are peculiar people — people who love profoundly, who hang on way past good sense, who believe that the Holy Spirit uses odd people to advance the Kingdom of God.

And when we act like Jesus, the world will call us peculiar, but the Word will call us blessed.

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Lessons on Eight Wheels (or, what skating teaches me about life)

I skate. Or at least, I own some skates and when I get an hour on a weekend or Friday morning, I find some flat asphalt and roll around. This is a relatively new thing for me. I took it up because the gym gets old after a while and my area isn’t bike-friendly.

I like skating outside and I like going fast; walking doesn’t do it for me. Soon after buying my skates, I went online to find out if anything has changed in the skating world since 1978 (when I last skated). I found this statistic: 1% of all skaters in the U.S. are older than fifty.

I am the one percent.

Over the weekend, I skated on a familiar paved path but right after a big storm. There were gum balls and fallen limbs everywhere. Seeing the carnage and continuing to skate was probably not my best idea ever, but on the very careful five-mile skate, I did a lot of analogizing. Skating can teach a person a lot about life, especially when one’s health is determined by one’s ability to dodge gum balls.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned on eight wheels:

1. Slowing down takes different muscles than going fast, but just as many. On skates, slowing down is actually harder than speeding up. It takes almost no distance to get the speed up but it takes a lot of space and effort to slow down (at least for me it does). That’s also true in life or at least in my life. It is much easier to keep increasing my speed, and much harder to figure out how to slow to a saner pace. Sometimes we need to slow down so we can exercise a different set of muscles, just for the sake of keeping those muscles limber and in practice. Maybe this is why God calls us to a Sabbath every week?

2. Slowing down is important for sanity’s sake; sometimes, it is critical. When the landscape is littered with storm damage, going slower is how we keep from hurting ourselves or someone else. Grieving requires a slower pace (we so rarely understand that grief is an illness that requires recovery and rest, like any other wound). Increased stress requires a slower pace. Being able to judge the path and move accordingly is a test of one’s wisdom.

3. Staying on our feet when we stumble is good. Staying on our feet graciously is even better. I’ve noticed over my year or so of skating that I’m better at staying on my feet when I wobble than I was when I first started. Still, it is not pretty when a skater almost falls. It doesn’t just stress the person who stumbles; it stresses the people watching. In much the same way, it is one thing to negotiate a crisis on the job or in a family relationship and somehow come through the other side without killing anyone. It is another thing entirely to negotiate that crisis in such a way that it raises everyone up to a higher level. Learning to move through situations with such grace that others can enjoy my presence and not be stressed by it is a skill worth mastering.

4. It is the big things that spook us but the small things that get us. That storm we had last week shook every loose gum ball from every tree in my path … and countless twigs, a few big limbs, and every spare leaf. That path was an obstacle course. On a good day, my main concern on that path is two streets I have to cross along the way. Those street crossings are always a source of anxiety. I hate having to skate over curbs. It takes everything I’ve got to make it from one side of the road to the other without falling.

But here’s the thing: curbs are obvious hazards and I know to take them delicately. What is more likely to get me is not the curb I can see but the gum ball I miss seeing. In other words, it is the little things that throw us off. As I learn to pay attention to the small things — expressing gratitude often and creatively, following through on promises, learning to listen well — I notice that the big things aren’t nearly so scary.

5. People are inspired by risk-takers. In general, people like old women on skates. I get a lot of smiles and thumbs-up. I’m a rock star with kids. People are inspired by someone who tries something different. I hope it gives them joy to see someone enjoying life. Most people need something external to themselves to remind them that until we die, we are charged with living life fully. This life is a gift meant to be enjoyed, not just endured.

6. There is a big difference between commitment and involvement. Eight wheels is a commitment. Unlike biking, I can’t stop and walk when I skate. I can’t steady myself before rolling on. When I put those skates on, I’ve committed to a mode of travel that doesn’t change until I take them off. It is something like the difference between the the chicken and the pig in a breakfast meal. Chickens are involved; pigs are committed. Likewise, I believe we make the greatest impact in those places where we fully commit. People respect those who let their “yes” be “yes,” and they lose trust in those who don’t follow through consistently. As a pastor, it is always more difficult to hear the criticism of someone walking out the door; I have much more respect for the advice of one who is invested for the long haul. It doesn’t mean there won’t be skinned knees along the way, but that we’ll help each other up and get rolling again.

Because life is too short to let a few falls stop us from this grand adventure.

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Biblical … or superstitious? Which are you?

Consider how the following three numbers are related*: 2, 4, 8. What would you say is the likely relationship between these three numbers? Is there a pattern (hint: yes)? To confirm your guess, write three other numbers you think follow the same pattern (or rule) as the three above.

So what’s your guess?  Are you thinking that each number doubles the one before it? If that was your assumption, think again. While your rule may work for the numbers you’ve chosen, the rule I’m thinking of is that each number is higher than the one before. So 1,2,3 also works. And 15,21,82 also works.

Back in the 60s, a psychologist named Peter Wason developed this test to prove a mental tendency he called confirmation biasIt is that tendency we have to pay attention to information that confirms our beliefs, while we ignore information that challenges our beliefs. You want to believe you don’t do this. You want to believe, in fact, that you always filter information objectively and see the world just as it is. The fact, however, is that we all tend to confirm our suspicions by gathering information that fits what we already believe. And that can be very dangerous to our worldview and especially to a right understanding of God.

How, you ask?

Have you had the experience of having several bad things happen in a day, only to come to the end of it believing the world — or God — is out to get you? Have you had a streak of bad breaks, leaving you feeling that God has abandoned you? Or that you’re not good enough? Or that God is punishing you, or doesn’t have enough power in your life, or that you’re somehow wrong as a person?

That kind of “bottom up” thinking is actually more pagan than Christian. By “pagan,” I don’t mean “sinful.” I’m talking about a worldview almost as old as the world itself — a view that promotes the idea that everything is hard-wired together. Everything. So the tree in your yard is connected to your chair is connected to your dog is connected to your car is connected to … you get the picture.

This view of reality not only connects things, but also events. It makes sense of the world by connecting unrelated events to explain why things are as they are.

Animist religions follow this thinking. Take this view of the world far enough, and you’re collecting the eyes of newts to cast a spell on a noisy neighbor. Or back off just a bit and you’re wearing the same Atlanta Braves hat every day because your team is on a roll and consciously or not, you’ve decided your hat is a contributing factor to their luck. You don’t really believe that … but you still wear the hat.

Do you get the idea?

In this worldview, I begin with events in front of me and reason outward from them into the  realm of cause and effect. When I’m thinking from creation up, I may actually begin to believe that I control the world, or at least my world. And I may even begin to use the condition of my world to define what I believe about God. A creation-up worldview even colors my understanding of scripture, when I require my personal experience to define for me what the Bible means.

Of course, this isn’t the way the world (or the Bible) actually works, though we often function as if it does. A biblical worldview teaches that when God reveals himself, it isn’t from creation up — we can’t conjure him or his power up by doing certain things that compel him to act — but from the Kingdom down. Things don’t define God; God defines things.

Hear this: There is inevitable mystery in the gap between God and the world and God is the one who chooses where to break through that mystery to reveal himself. God is the one who defines what is. 

In a Christian worldview, grace is the critical link that spans the gap and makes the unknowable knowable. We don’t generate grace; God does. And it is only by God’s grace — not by our actions — that we can know him. Any mysteries solved, any connections made, must come from the top down.

From God.

Do you begin to see why our perspective on the world and what controls it — how we see things — can have a major impact on how we understand God? It becomes vitally important for us to begin with God’s revealed character rather than with our circumstances, in order to build a right relationship with him.

And ironically, it is in our use of the means of grace (things like Bible reading, prayer, worship, community, service) that we are most able to connect. Think of the means of grace like bowls that catch grace. Or like “God glasses.” These habits don’t conjure God up nor do they define God, but they are places where God reveals himself.  When we wear these lenses we are likely to see him as he is.

So we come back to our thought experiment about numbers. What I learn is this: first, that the world isn’t always as we perceive it; and second, that while I can’t know the world by beginning with the world itself, I can know the world by beginning with the end in mind.

In other words: Don’t think from creation up. Think from the Kingdom down. This is the essence of Paul’s advice to the Corinthians: “Do not be infants in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.”

 

* I first saw this thought experiment in an article in The New York Times.  You can find it here. The last half of this post is inspired by a lecture given in a Doctor of Ministry class by Dr. Joe Dongell (Asbury Theological Seminary).

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