Archive for April, 2017

“Don’t you forget about me”

April 7, 2017

William Temple, the mid-twentieth century Archbishop of Canterbury, said, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.”

Inasmuch as this is true, my “religion” is what other people think of me. Years ago, in my first job out of college, I worked with a successful salesman named Alec. One time he told me that he didn’t care nearly as much about his commission checks as he did about being recognized for his accomplishments.

At the time, given how small my own commission checks were, I thought he was nuts. Now I know exactly what he means!

I’ve made an idol out of recognition. I desperately crave the adoration and praise of others. And when I perceive that my “standing” before others is threatened in some way, I fall apart. (Notice I say “perceive,” because it doesn’t have to be based in reality.) I spend so much of my “solitude” obsessing over other people’s opinions of me.

Even a couple of weeks ago on Facebook, some high school classmates announced a thirtieth-year class reunion next year. Alongside the announcement, someone posted a video (captured from an old VHS tape) of the Henderson High School class of 1988: scenes of classmates goofing off and making faces in hallways, classrooms, breezeways, and the cafeteria. My classmates look like extras from The Breakfast Club. They’re all young and beautiful.

Then there’s me. I’m in it—for a moment. And in that moment, I was by myself.

I promise my internal monologue while watching this video sounded something like this: Why are you by yourself, Brent? Where are your friends? Did you have any friends? You’re only in this video because you got in the way of the camera. Were you a loser? Surely when people see you in this video, that’s what they’re thinking. And what must they think of you now? What do you have to show for yourself these past 30 years? If you go to the reunion—as if anyone wants to see you there, anyway—are you finally going to lose that last ten pounds?

This is just one small episode in my life. But God help me, these sorts of monologues happen all the time!

Getting back to Temple’s point: How much happier would I be if my religion were properly centered not on the false god of “what other people think of me” but on the God whose opinion of me never changes. He couldn’t think more highly of me. And no one and nothing can take away his esteem.

My head knows this, but my heart forgets.

Having Christian convictions doesn’t mean we have God “100 percent figured out”

April 7, 2017

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post about Dr. Howell.

He only appears to offer one reply per commenter, so he didn’t reply to my second comment. But in response to another dissenter, who also challenged him on scripture, he refused to take the bait. Instead, he wrote the following:

I guess I keep hoping that readers will join me in the faithful posture that we don’t have God 100% figured out just yet, that however much we know, we’ve missed something, so we have learning and growth ahead and this might be the time. Doesn’t imply an outcome, just a dream of something besides defensiveness and fault-finding on both sides.

This sounds nice at first. He’s right: none of us has God “100 percent figured out”—not even close! We are finite and fallible. We see through a glass darkly. By all means! So Dr. Howell’s comment seems humble. And what kind of jerk must be to be so presumptuous—so arrogant—to think that I do have God 100 percent figured out? People with strong convictions on this issue must think they have God 100 percent figured out!

But not so fast…

Dr. Howell’s implication is obviously false. To believe that we know something about God isn’t the same as believing that we we know everything about God. Indeed, classic Christian theology teaches that God is unknowable apart from what God has chosen to reveal to us. And how does God reveal himself? The primary way is through his holy Word, the Bible. This is, in fact, the only infallible way that any of us possesses.

Progressives like to interject at this point that the Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible, but that’s a false choice. Yes, Jesus is the Word of God, and he is the perfect revelation of God. But everything we know for sure about Jesus—given that he ascended to heaven and now reigns at the right hand of the Father—we know from the Word of God that is the Bible. If someone has received a “revelation” about Jesus that contradicts what’s revealed about him in scripture (cf. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons) we rightly reject it.

So as I said in my original comment to him, there’s no getting around it: if the different sides to this conflict in the UMC are going to listen to one another, which Dr. Howell says he wants to do, we need to talk about what we believe about the Bible. This, I suspect, will be the heart of the division in our denomination.

God wants us to make wise decisions, but he can redeem even foolish ones

April 6, 2017

doRecently, I had a conversation with a friend who was mulling over a major life decision. He sensed that God was calling him to change his career, but it wasn’t clear. He said, “I wish I could know for sure if this is what the Lord wants me to do.”

As I listened, I became newly sympathetic with a complaint made by theologian Phillip Cary. In his book Good News for Anxious Christians, he says that over the past few generations a novel idea has entered the mainstream of evangelical Christian thought: that the primary means by which we hear God speak to us is not through studying the scriptures, reflecting on them, and letting them guide our decisions, but by discerning a “voice” or intuition inside our heart and believing that it comes from God. Cary insists that it doesn’t.

The practice of listening for God’s voice in your heart has only recently displaced Scripture as the most important way, in the view of most evangelicals, that God reveals himself to us… The idea… was that when you have a big decision to make—say, about marriage or your career—then you are supposed to seek guidance from God (good idea!) and the key way to do that is by listening to how he’s speaking in your heart (bad idea!).[†]

While I have no reason to doubt that Cary fairly represents the evangelical tradition, I can’t go all the way with him: Doesn’t God guide us in our decision making—even through intuitions or dreams? And if we refer to this guidance as God’s “voice,” I have no problem with that—so long as we don’t believe that whatever God “tells” us this way is equal in authority to God’s Word.

But I agree with him that we put unneeded pressure on ourselves if we expect to hear this “voice” (sorry for all the scare quotes) every time we have an important decision to make. Like Cary says, God gave us the gifts of our minds and wisdom to reason things through. We are not wrong to use them! In fact, let’s trust that God will guide us as we do so.

Besides, the most important and perhaps least appreciated way that God guides us is through providence. Providence is the doctrine that says that God is always guiding us through everything that happens in our lives and the world. God is always at work through circumstances in our lives, both good and bad.

Do you see how God’s providence takes the pressure off—at least a little? Getting back to my friend’s dilemma, there isn’t necessarily one right choice that he needs to make, otherwise he is “out of God’s will” unless or until he corrects his mistake and gets back on the path that God chose for him. God is infinitely resourceful: not that God doesn’t want us to make wise decisions in the first place, but God can redeem even foolish ones. If my friend makes a poor choice and regrets the decision, guess what? God will bring good even out of that choice.

Haven’t we all had experiences in our lives about which we say, “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, but I’m glad it happened to me”?

Providence means that, in a sense, wherever we are right now is where God wants us to be. Which means at every moment we can accomplish God’s will for us: which is, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 2-3.

Please don’t patronize us, Dr. Howell

April 6, 2017

The Rev. Dr. James Howell, a United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School lecturer, published a popular blog post yesterday about sex, marriage, and sexual sin—the issues that threaten to split our denomination in 2019. He says that his post is “something of a final resort” as an appeal for unity, rather than division.

In response to it, I posted the following on Facebook:

While I appreciate Rev. Howell’s irenic tone here, I would have to “die on that same hill” with Talbot Davis, in part because the apostles in Acts 15 seemed willing to. Or else why include the caveat of verse 20 against porneia [Greek for “sexual immorality”]? And what did porneia mean to the apostles, and does it mean something different today and why?

But even to have that discussion involves exegesis and hermeneutics—and before long we’re knee-deep in a discussion about the authority of scripture. Still, Howell says we’re not really arguing theology. Really? It feels like we are. As much as Howell wants us to listen to one another, I don’t feel “listened to” when he says otherwise. In fact, I feel patronized. But enough about my feelings! Good arguments don’t depend on feelings. (Do they?)

He gives reasons why our disagreement isn’t over an “essential” of Christian faith. But surely he knows that “my side” has a counter argument. Why does he give no evidence that he’s heard it? If he has, surely he wouldn’t resort, for example, to an argument over the Articles of Religion, the General Rules, or Wesley’s sermons. What about the Bible? I don’t think anyone on my side will be persuaded apart from a biblical argument.

But Rev. Howell and I do agree on this: Essentials of the Christian faith are worth splitting over.

I also posted a similar comment on his blog. He wrote this in reply:

But can’t you feel your (and my, we all do it) selectivity? Exegesis couldn’t be clearer regarding what to do with our possessions, or with whom you eat dinner, or whether to accumulate pension funds, etc. We roundly ignore these items or rationalize, don’t we? But then on homosexuality we become literalists?

To which I wrote,

I’m confused, James. Are you saying that you believe the church’s traditional doctrine on sexuality is correct, but, since we fall short in all these other areas, we’re hypocrites to try to follow it?

By all means, the Law can only condemn us. And when it does, we fall on our knees and thank God for the cross of his Son Jesus. We don’t shrug and say something like, “My greed, or my hypocrisy, or my idolatry is no big deal.” It is a big deal; it will send us to hell apart from Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

So do we ignore or rationalize other ways in which we sin? I’m sure we do. We’re terrible sinners, after all. But inasmuch as we become aware of our sin, we repent. And as pastors we teach our flock to do the same.

Do you disagree? Have I misunderstood you?

I want to underscore one point I make above: Despite protests to the contrary, Dr. Howell hasn’t heard me—or people on “my side”—if he doesn’t understand why we believe these issues related to sex are essential to Christian faith. We make this argument from scripture—not from creeds, confessions, or founding documents of our denomination. If the Bible is our ultimate authority that guides faith and practice (which United Methodists say they believe), then it’s no use arguing from lesser authorities.

By the way, the same creeds, confessions, and founding documents that fail to mention sexual sin also fail to mention any number of sins about which Dr. Howell and Methodists on the left wing have also “become literalists.” By Dr. Howell’s logic, should we disregard the Bible’s teaching on immigrants, for example, because we ignore so many other “clear” teachings of scripture? I suspect he would say no.

Because of scripture, we believe that without repentance, the practice of homosexuality—alongside many other sins that all of us have committed—risks excluding us from God’s kingdom eternally. While I don’t expect Dr. Howell to agree with this conviction, I do expect him and my fellow United Methodists who disagree with “my side” to understand what’s at stake for us.

Please don’t patronize us by saying that we’re not really arguing theology or that matters pertaining to (nothing less than) eternal life or death aren’t “essential.”

If you believed what we believe about this or any other sin, you would agree that, in the interest of love, it is essential.