The mind is not all of human nature by any means, but it is part of and essential to a healthy humanity.
Similarly, a full and credible theology is essential to a healthy Christianity.
Hence a progressive Christian movement, if it is to be more than a fad,
must be resolutely theological as well as active in the pursuit of justice.
~Delwin Brown

Devotions

These are devotionals about random thoughts related to life and theology.

From Babel to Pentecost to Now

The Christian event and celebration of Pentecost has long been seen as a reversal of the story of the “Tower of Babel” as told in Genesis 11:1-9 where God “confuses” the languages of the people trying to build a tower into the heavens.

This morning, I was re-reading a book by Delwin Brown where he interprets this story:

[T]he story is theologically profound. It does not say that God separated the people into different linguistic groups as a punishment – not at all. The diversity imposed on the human race was a safeguard, a protection against the illusion that we are or can become like God. God intervened when uniformity became excessive. 1

As I thought about this in relation to Pentecost, I realized that Pentecost (as read in Acts 2:1-18) is not a reversal of Babel, though it does change the rules of the game.  The story of Babel was about doing away with uniformity while promoting diversity.  Pentecost, however, does not do away with diversity; rather, those seeking to share the good news of hope reach out to people different than themselves, meeting them where they were to share the news.  The human response to diversity was to build walls of separation, saying in effect, “You’ve got to learn to speak my language if you want to communicate with me or if you want what I’ve got to give.”  Pentecost said, “Okay, I’ll speak your language.  You don’t have to speak my language for us to communicate – for me to share this message, for me to give you what I have.”

In Pentecost, diversity is not abolished.  It is not seen as a dividing wall.  Whereas in Babel, diversity is forced, in Pentecost, uniformity is not forced.  Diversity is accepted, and those following the guiding of the Holy Spirit become more diverse to share the love of God.

In so many of our churches (and in life in general), we want harmony.  We want everyone to get along, and we assume the means by which that is to happen is to have uniformity – for all to be in unison.  But let’s think about a musical ensemble.  Would the Eagles have been as popular had they always sung in unison?  Wasn’t a large part of their appeal the beautiful, yet diverse, harmonies that they created?

Anyone who has tried to sing in harmony with others knows it is not easy (nor are relationships with diverse people – just ask the Eagles).  Yet, the results are beautiful.  Having a diverse meal of language, thoughts, ideas, and theology, I believe, makes us more beautiful people – as individuals and as communities.

  • Why do you think we are often afraid of diversity – especially within our faith communities?
  • What do you think about the idea that the Holy Spirit leads people to become more diverse to reach out to more people?
  • How might the Spirit be guiding you to be more diverse?
  • What kind of difference would be made in your faith community if it were more willing to speak the language of those outside that community?
  • Do you think it would help the growth of your community – in number, in love, and in knowledge?  Why or why not?

1.  Delwin Brown, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? A Guide for the Searching, the Open, and the Curious (New York City: Seabury Books, 2008), pg. 65.


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Aldersgate Day – Not the End of the Story

My wife works for Sojourners in Washington, DC.  Being connected to this magazine, from time-to-time, she gets other magazines or books to review.  Thanks to this, I recently received a copy of Grace & Peace: Ministry in a Connected Culture, which is a resource for Nazarene clergy (if you are not aware, the Nazarene Church is an off-shoot of Methodism).  In their Summer-Fall 2011 issue, they had an interview with a Wesleyan scholar named Kenneth J. Collins.  In this write up , he is noted as saying that we need to “bring forth the whole Wesley.”  Although, there are aspects of the article I disagreed with (and these may be discussed in a later blog post), on this Aldersgate Day, I think it is important to consider bringing forth “the whole Wesley.”

I think this day has been over-sentimentalized within Methodist / Wesleyan circles.  In many Methodism classes I have taught over the years, many had the understanding that after this special day (May 24, 1738) John Wesley never questioned his faith again.  His assurance of salvation was strong and not to be swayed.  These ideas are upheld by his journal entry for that day saying that he had not been a Christian before hearing Martin Luther’s Preface to the book of Romans being read that night at the Aldersgate society.

Yet, less than a year later on Thursday, January 4, 1739, Wesley writes at length in his journal:

My friends affirm I am mad, because I said I was not a Christian a year ago. I affirm, I am not a Christian now. Indeed, what I might have been I know not, had I been faithful to the grace then given, when, expecting nothing less, I received such a sense of the forgiveness of my sins, as till then I never knew. But that I am not a Christian at this day, I as assuredly know, as that Jesus is the Christ.

For a Christian is one who has the fruits of the Spirit of Christ, which (to mention no more) are love, peace, joy. But these I have not. I have not any love of God. I do not love either the Father or the Son. Do you ask, how do I know whether I love God, I answer by another question, ‘How do you know whether you love me?’ Why, as you know whether you are hot or cold. You feel this moment, that you do or do not love me. And I feel this moment, I do not love God; which therefore I know, because I feel it. There is no word more proper, more clear, or more strong.

And I know it also by St. John’s plain rule, ‘If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’ For I love the world. I desire the things of the world, some or other of them, and have done all my life. I have always placed some part of my happiness in some or other of the things that are seen. Particularly in meat and drink, and in the company of those I loved. For many years I have been, yea, and still am, hankering after a happiness, in loving, and being loved by one or another. And in these I have from time to time taken more pleasure than in God.

Again, joy in the Holy Ghost I have not. I have now and then some starts of joy in God: But it is not that joy. For it is not abiding. Neither is it greater than I have had on some worldly occasions. So that I can in no wise be said to ‘rejoice evermore;’ much less to ‘rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.’

Yet again: I have not ‘the peace of God;’ that peace, peculiarly so called. The peace I have may be accounted for on natural principles. I have health, strength, friends, a competent fortune, and a composed, cheerful temper. Who would not have a sort of peace in such circumstances? But I have none which can with any propriety be called, a ‘peace which passeth all understanding.’

From hence I conclude, (and let all the saints of the world hear, that whereinsoever they boast, they may be found even as I,) though I have given, and do give, all my goods to feed the poor, I am not a Christian. Though I have endured hardship, though I have in all things denied myself and taken up my cross, I am not a Christian. My works are nothing, my sufferings are nothing; I have not the fruits of the Spirit of Christ. Though I have constantly used all the means of grace for twenty years, I am not a Christian.

John Wesley’s special heartwarming experience at Aldersgate was not the end of the story.  He continued to experience dark nights of the soul.

Although it pains me that Wesley was struggling with his faith, this part of Wesley’s story gives me hope.  Here was truly an influential Christian – prior to this time and certainly after – yet he didn’t always feel assurance.  He had struggles in his life of faith and yet he kept plugging away – pressing on toward the goal of Christ Jesus.  This is an example we can all look to and follow – preaching faith until he had it and then preaching faith all the more.

On April 9, 1788 – almost 50 years after his Aldersgate experience, Wesley preached a sermon entitled, “On Faith.”  In it he said,

Indeed, nearly fifty years ago, when the Preachers, commonly called Methodists, began to preach that grand scriptural doctrine, salvation by faith, they were not sufficiently apprized of the difference between a servant and a child of God. They did not clearly understand, that even one “who feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him.” In consequence of this, they were apt to make sad the hearts of those whom God had not made sad. For they frequently asked those who feared God, “Do you know that your sins are forgiven?” And upon their answering, “No,” immediately replied, “Then you are a child of the devil.” No; that does not follow. It might have been said, (and it is all that can be said with propriety,) “Hitherto you are only a servant, you are not a child of God. You have already great reason to praise God that he has called you to his honourable service. Fear not. Continue crying unto him, “and you shall see greater things than these.”

I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t have his own experience in mind as he shared this part of his sermon.  “Fear and guilt are not the way to make disciples,” I think he had learned.  Rather, continuing in the process of faith – going on to perfection – is how disciples are made.

Just as Wesley’s experience at Aldersgate was not the end of the story neither was Wesley’s understanding of assurance and salvation.  So, when we consider bringing forth the whole Wesley, let us remember the process of pain, growth, and change.  Let us realize that the Wesley we read in 1738 is not the same Wesley we read in 1788.  Likewise, may we not be the same people we were in the past.  Let us grow more fully into the stature of Christ in the future!



To learn more about how John Wesley’s theology developed and changed over his life, I highly recommend Theodore Runyon’s, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today.


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It’s Not Just Forgiveness

WHAT WAS THE STATE OF TEXAS THINKING?

They gave me, at the tender age of 15, a learner’s permit.  I filled out a form, and there it was.  So long as a licensed driver over the age of 18 rode in the car with me, I could drive anywhere, anytime.

Essentially they were saying, “You haven’t proven yourself in any way; yet, we are giving you this freedom and responsibility of getting behind the wheel of a potentially dangerous piece of machinery.  Good luck.  Practice hard.  Take Driver’s Ed this year, and come back in a year for a simple driving test.”

Didn’t they know that I felt a need – a need for speed?  Didn’t they know I had a full-time 4×4 pickup with a 350 V-8 under the hood?  Didn’t they know that I would actually drive occasionally without that licensed driver?  (At least I never drove myself by myself to my Driver’s Ed class like my friend Matt did).

What they did in that instance was to empower me – to give me grace – to handle the big responsibility of looking out for myself and others on the highways and byways.

I believe God empowers me – gives me grace – to handle the big responsibility of looking out for myself and others on the highways and byways of life.

Yet, it seems that the majority of the time that I hear the word “grace” used in church or in pop and Christian culture it simply means forgiveness – no more, no less.  Some will say something along the lines of, “Even before you sin, God has forgiven you.”  You might hear someone follow up with something like, “Since you’ve been forgiven, you have a responsibility. . . .”  Seldom, though, do I hear, “You’ve been given grace, and that is a big responsibility.”

GIFTS

Let’s be honest.  The guy had skills.  He was able to unify a large number of people behind common goals.  To people who were hurting economically and emotionally, he gave hope.  A group of people, who seemed destined for destruction, rallied together behind this charismatic leader to make things better for a majority of the people.

I could be talking about Jesus.  I could be talking about the Apostle Paul.  Sadly, I’m talking about Hitler – yes, Adolph Hitler.

He had gifts for administration, leadership, and exhortation.  In a sick way, he was an evangelist who shared what seemed to many to be good news, and he equipped the Germans for the building up of Germany.

He was given great responsibility with great gifts that he squandered for selfish gain.  Just think what he could have done had he used these gifts for God’s kingdom instead of his own.

GIFTS & GRACE

In the New Testament, the Greek word that is translated “grace” is the word CHARIS (or a form of that word).  One of the Greek words often translated as “spiritual gifts” is the word CHARISMATA – notice that the root word is CHARIS – grace!  The abilities God gives us to DO, to LIVE OUT our faith, is grace.  I’ve seen the term CHARISMATA also translated “grace-effects.”  God’s grace causes the effect of doing.  As we have seen, we can use these abilities to do (using these elements of grace) for good or evil.  We have a choice to make and a responsibility to accept in receiving this grace.

JESUS’ TEACHING & HIS PARABLES

I believe that the point of most of Jesus’ teachings was to empower his listeners.  Not everyone that he reached out to and taught were the worst sinners in the world who simply needed forgiveness.  Many, by no fault of their own, had been labeled outcasts.  Lepers and others with illnesses or physical maladies certainly fall into this category.  Plus, a prevalent theology then was, “If you are not doing well financially, you must be doing something wrong.  Otherwise, God would be blessing you with wealth.”  Thus, people who had lost their land would fall into this category.

Have you ever thought about what happens in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?

  • Matthew 5:  The beatitudes make hearers reevaluate labels as do his teaching on salt and light.  He next reinterprets aspects of the law to help his hearers live out a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
  • Matthew 6:  Then we hear how to give alms, pray (which apparently includes forgiveness), and fast.  It’s important to see that giving alms and fasting helps people to not store up treasures as does praying only for a days worth of bread at a time.  These help one to serve God and not wealth, and through living these out, one will not worry but will be striving for God’s kingdom and will to come upon the earth
  • Matthew 7:  Don’t judge until you’ve first removed the log in your own eye!  Don’t force your ideas on others until they are ready, but don’t let that stop YOU from asking, seeking, and knocking for more information!  Do to others what you’d have them do to you, but know that doing all of this is not necessarily easy.  Pay attention to the fruit produced by others, but don’t assume that just because they do great things that they are to be trusted or followed.

Then, in Matthew 7:24, we read, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (emphasis mine).

Essentially, Jesus says, “I’ve given you the gift, the grace, of knowledge, but you have to act on that.  You have to live it out.  I’m not doing it so you don’t have to.  I’ve told you how to do it; now I’m going to show you.”

I’ve also come to believe that Jesus told parables primarily to get his hearers to think.  So many of them had essentially been told that they didn’t have a voice, but Jesus was trying to help them find it.  I also think that it was used as a community-building tool.  Let me explain.

Let’s say Bob and Tom – two total strangers – are listening to Jesus teach.  He tells the parable of the Good Samaritan and then leaves.  Well, it just so happens that Bob and Tom have to walk home by the same route, and they begin talking about that parable.  Before you know it, a friendship has formed in which each helps the other strive for God’s kingdom and justice.  The friendship brings together two (or more if you include family) in the name of Jesus, thus, bringing the Spirit of Christ into their midst.

WHAT AM I GETTING AT?

I hope and pray that we can move away from the idea that grace is only about forgiveness.

What I hear in the midst of the Gospel is that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God who is love.  We are to be imitators of that God, loving as Jesus loved, being willing even to die for others.  As God has taken an initiative in reaching out to us, we need to do likewise in taking an initiative to live out the grace-filled responsibility given us by God.  We don’t have to prove ourselves before we do this, either.  We can just do it with God who is enabling us  both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure!

I believe God empowers us – gives us grace – to handle the big responsibility of looking out for ourselves and others on the highways and byways of life – and sometimes that does include accepting and giving forgiveness.

FOOTNOTES:

For more on the next-to-last paragraph, read:

  • Psalm 139
  • Genesis 1
  • 1 John 4
  • Ephesians 5
  • Philippians 2

You’ll find phrases from each of these passages in that one paragraph.


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D-I-V-O-R-C-E and the C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N

“Can I talk to you,” I asked, a bit sheepishly (I’ve always been a bit shy).

“Sure,” was the response.

I was considering a call to vocational ministry, and a few mentors had advised that I should ask to hear call stories of others that I knew who were in ministry or going into ministry to help me discern my own call. This was the intent behind my question.

“I know that you have recently decided to go into ministry and that you’ll be starting school soon. I’m wondering if I’m called to ministry, too, so I was hoping to hear your call to ministry to help me understand my own.”

“You can’t be a minister. You’re divorced. The Bible is clear that a minister should have but one wife. You couldn’t manage that relationship; how can you manage a church?”

A bit perturbed but trying to stay positive, I responded, “Okay, but I’d still like to hear your call.”

The glare along with immediately seeing his back moving further away from me as he walked off told me that was not something I’d be hearing.

++++++++++++++++++++++++

A friend of mine was a minister of another denomination. He had been married, but his wife decided that marriage to a minister was not something to be envied or lived. So, without seeking any counseling as a couple, she left.

That particular denomination would allow a minister to remain in ministry following divorce, but only so long as that one remained unmarried. So, when he found the love of his life, he was forced to make a decision: drop her, forget ministry, or change denominations.

I’m pleased to say he has joined the rest of us “heathens” in the United Methodist Church!

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As I think about “the Church’s” approach to divorce, the first thing that frustrates me is this. According to Jesus the only unforgivable sin is blaspheming the Holy Spirit (see Mark 3:28-29), and yet, “the Church” has taken it upon itself to essentially insist that divorce is not forgivable. The Apostle Paul can persecute the church (maybe even kill Christians), and that can be forgiven. He can do ministry now, but not someone who has been divorced.

The typical reason given by “the Church” for this is found in 1 Timothy 3:

2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) (NIV, Italics Added)

That’s all well and good, but think about. Not even God has been able to manage us human beings. Despite all of God’s wooing, we keep turning away. Consider Isaiah 50:1:

This is what the LORD says: “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away? Or to which of my creditors did I sell you? Because of your sins you were sold; because of your transgressions your mother was sent away. (NIV)

Even the LORD has gotten so upset with God’s people that God divorced them! If even God cannot “manage us,” why is it that “the Church” thinks we can “manage” our spouses who are the same wayward people that not even God can manage!

Of course, the next response from “the Church” is a quote from Matthew 5:

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (NIV)

“Unless the spouse has committed adultery with another person, there are no grounds for divorce,” “the Church” says.

There is something important to consider in thinking about this passage (along with other similar passages), though. God, in speaking through the Hebrew prophets, often says that the Israelites’ lack of commitment is “adultery.” Just read the book of Hosea, and we read that God sees that the Hebrews, in breaking their covenant with God, have become adulterers or prostitutes. We see this even in Hosea 1:2:

When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD.” (NIV)

In the full biblical context, then, adultery / prostitution is not simply having sex with another person. It is also departing from one who loves you. For sure, God is willing to take them (us) back, but God does not force us (manage us?) to come back. God is not any less God because people turn from God, and ministers are no less ministers because someone has turned from them.

Can we, please, get back to the message of Jesus and accept all who are called to ministry and willingly serve together to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven!


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An Advent Prayer – Expectations

O God, Christmas is right around the corner,
and we are full of expectations.
What will happen in worship?
Will my prayer get answered?
What will happen at such-and-such party?
What will we get so-and-so for Christmas?
What will WE get for Christmas?
Will the answer to these questions meet our expectations?

O Lord, in centuries past,
people were expecting a messiah,
and there were expectations
about what that messiah would be like.
Is it interesting that Jesus did not fit these expectations?

God, as our story in Luke goes,
he was born to parents who were peasants.
He was born in a stable and laid in a manger.
There must have been the smells
of hay, animal dander, and even manure there.
Was that a place fit for a king?
The lowest of low – shepherds – were his first visitors.

He didn’t come starting a revolution,
but brought good news to the poor.
He proclaimed release of captives and
recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
He preached the year of your favor, O God, to the least of these.
He did not amass a great army
but gathered together a rag-tag group of twelve
and some women to support them.
He didn’t come catering to the rich and famous
but to the poor, disenfranchised, and sick
all the while calling on the rich and famous to take care of them, too.
And yet, many of us call this one
who did not meet expectations, “Messiah.”

As we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Christmas, O Lord,
help us to consider what this might mean for our expectations.
Let us not forget that in the story of creation,
You didn’t say everything was perfect, only, “Very good.”

Amen.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The above prayer is a response to the great discussion we had at the 2nd Session of the 2011 Advent Study,
Christmas is Not Your Birthday,
inspired by the book of the same name.

This prayer was prayed at First United Methodist Church in Wichita Falls on Sunday, December 11, 2011.


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Thoughts for Advent: It’s a Beginning. . .

Have you ever thought about the purpose of worship? What about when we worship – the day or time of year?

Jesus was Jewish, so it is important to think about our Jewish heritage here. In Judaism, the Sabbath is observed starting at dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday – the last day of the week. Think about the first story of Creation in Genesis 1. God is said to have labored six days and rested on the Sabbath – the seventh day. Part of the purpose of worshiping on the last day of the week is to look at the week that has just passed and to give thanks to God for the blessings received that week. This is an important aspect of worship that we often overlook with our more future-oriented outlook both within Christianity and as a culture.

Within Christendom, worship is most typically held (obviously not always the case) on Sunday, not Saturday. Why? It is a weekly reminder of Easter SUNDAY. Rightly understood, the Sabbath has not been moved to Sunday; rather, Sunday is a day to worship and be reminded of the gift of Easter. On top of that, though, because worship is held on the first day of the week in this scenario, it is a preparation for living out the life of faith in the week to come. It is an opportunity to become re-focused on the goal of the Christian life.

I think it may be partially because the New Year follows Christmas, that we tend to focus in December (the time of Advent and Christmas) on what has gone on in the previous year. It’s the last month of the year; it’s a time of ending.

The problem is that we are basing this off of the Gregorian calendar not the Christian liturgical calendar. In this calendar, the New Year begins four Sundays prior to Christmas Day – the first Sunday of Advent. It is a time of remembering the birth of Christ, but it is also a preparation for the coming of Christ again.

Often, this second coming is envisioned as vision of rapture – Jesus coming down out of the sky. Let’s consider this another way, though, using these passages of Scripture:

  • For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them. – Matthew 18:20
  • 37 Then the righteous will answer the Son of Man, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:37-40
  • Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:27

When we really listen to these passages, we see that Jesus returns all the time – when we gather together, when we serve those in need. Advent, then, is the time that we should be preparing ourselves (and allowing God to prepare us) to bring forth Christ into the world through our fellowship and service to others. As a parallel to Mary’s story, Advent is the time of our pregnancy where our calling from God grows in conviction in preparation for being birthed into action after Christmas.

It is important to remember and cherish our past blessings, so it is fitting that Thanksgiving falls the Thursday before the first Sunday of Advent. Let us change direction and focus, though, during this season of Advent, looking for how we will bring Christ into the world.

  • How might God be calling you to bring Christ into the world in the coming year through your Christian fellowship and service to those in need?
  • Knowing that you are but one member of the body of Christ, who might you invite to share in those actions?

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The above devotional is a response to the great discussion we had at the 1st Session of the 2011 Advent Study, Christmas is Not Your Birthday, inspired by the book of the same name.

Originally posted at http://fumcwf.org/archives/6264 on December 2, 2011.


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