Two connecting coincidences occurred today. One is that I have just been asked to read a soon-to-be-published book by a friend and offer a back-cover endorsement. Second is that another friend asked me for a book list on theology in general, plus Liberation Theology, Process Theology, Wesleyan Theology, and differences between denominations. So after my morning devotional I have spent time perusing my library and noting which books have been most formative in my faith journey. I’m about to turn to reading my other friend’s manuscript, but first I have to work through my personal theological grounding. It’s something I need to do every day.
Why do we believe what we believe? That’s a hugely important question even for those who say believing in Jesus is all that counts. I spent 10 years on the Board of Ordained Ministry’s Doctrine and Theology Committee and know it’s important for our new clergy to articulate more than a cursory undeliberated faith. Too often clergy and laity alike are guided by the embedded theology of our culture and times. Our culture, unfortunately, has been inundated for several decades by a neo-Calvinism (Rick Warren) mixed with Dispensationalist’s premillennial understanding of eschatology (Tim LaHaye). United Methodists have had to work overtime to lift up the alternatives of Wesleyan Process Theology and amillennialism. For the former and latter perspectives I would recommend John Sanders’, The God Who Risks and N.T. Wright’s, How Became King.
The favorite two questions that I asked repeatedly in the Doctrine and Theology Committee were: “If you are close to heresy, how so and why?” and “Using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, why isn’t foot washing a sacrament?” Both questions provided an assessment of a candidate’s ability to do theology. Rather than spout rote answers via whoever put the biggest funnel in the person’s head, these questions gave people a chance to work out a theological perspective on the fly. Isn’t that what most of us have to do anyway? We’re caught in a hospital hallway and someone wants to know why bad things happen to good people. Our theodicy is quickly exposed. All the trite and unhelpful words of non-comfort like, “It was meant to be…” “God has a purpose/reason for your tragedy…” are antithetical to a God who risks submission to human whims and vagaries, even unto death.
If you haven’t been through the fire yet, you will. If economic disaster, natural calamity, ill health, tragedy, and crud haven’t come your way then watch out! They’re on the way – duck and run – to God! God doesn’t cause any of this stuff. What God does is meet us in the fiery furnace and stay with us through it all. God’s gracious act in Jesus Christ is proof that God enters our pain and redeems it, not through some escapist trick like the hymn “Farther Along,” or self-deprecating platitudes in the ilk of Job’s so-called friends, “What did you do to deserve this?” God’s response to our questions doesn’t provide an answer as much as a Presence.
Why do bad things happen? Reason One: my choices. Reason two: the choices of others. Reason three: the general decay that’s in the world that causes everything to fall apart. Reason four: evil (John 10:10). The Scriptures are clear that God is the author of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17), therefore when I ponder the big question, “Why?” I am not going to blame God, but claim God. God does not jerk us around like puppets on strings. It does me no good to think that God is somehow the Mastermind pre-engineering everything, both good and bad, in my life. I am comforted and heartened more by the truth that Jesus knows my every weakness and sorrow for He was a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), and tempted every way like us (Hebrews 4:15-16), yet conquered the grave and death through painful obedience. This isn’t cheap grace, but hard-won incarnational hope.
So what difference does this make on a Tuesday morning? I am going to do the very best that I can through the grace of God to avoid evil, personal defeat, and the vicissitudes of reckless people around me. I am going to pray the prayer that we all have prayed so much and try to really mean it, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” If everything that happens is God’s will, then why in the world should we pray for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? So, there you have it, right there in the Lord’s Prayer – what we need to do when life hits us with a sucker punch. Pray – pray hard, and even when the answers don’t come, God does come, and it is prayer that lets us know God’s supreme love, not enmity, towards us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Protect us, Lord, this day and every day, and give us grace to endure as your Son endured. Amen.