Knowing Right From Wrong – Christ the King Sunday

A friend sent me a quote recently from the author Oswald Chambers: (Satan) “does not come to us on the premise of tempting us to sin, but on the premise of shifting our point of view…” How true for me! The premise also seems to be true for lots of people. We have become so confused about what’s right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. Like scotch tape yanked away from a piece of paper, we have picked up more of the world than the world has picked up us.

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday and if Christ really is King then we who are the subjects of the realm have usurped the throne! Does it appear that Jesus is in charge of our lives? Doesn’t anyone take responsibility anymore? I’m around clergy and parishioners as a District Superintendent who are often in conflict, and it seems everyone says its somebody else’s fault. I remember the old hymn that says “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord – standing in the need of prayer…”

We need to take responsibility and personally put Christ on the throne of our lives every day! As United Methodists we use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to do theology and determine if something is kosher, orthodox, or sinful. The Quadrilateral, a matrix used by our founder John Wesley, is a good determinant for right and wrong: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Where I get fouled up is when I put Experience before anything else. The United Methodist, even Christian reality, is that Scripture is primary and is informed by and informs Tradition, Experience, and Reason. We get into trouble when we think of the Quadrilateral as an equilateral, as if all 4 components are of equal value. It would be much better from an orthodox point of view to think of the Quadrilateral as a three-legged stool with Scripture as the seat with Tradition, Experience, and Reason as legs. I would avoid so much sin in my life it I started with Scripture, recalled the teachings (Tradition) that the church has valued over the centuries, checked my actions via the lens of Experience, and finally asked if what I’m doing or about to do is Reasonable; i.e., “Rationally, what are the consequences of my actions?”

I remember hearing about 2 preachers who were talking one day. They usually rode past each other on their bicycles but on this occasion one of the ministers was walking. The other asked, “What happened to your bike?” The other responded, “I think one of my parishioners stole it.” His fellow minister said, “What you ought to do is preach on the Ten Commandments next Sunday and really bear down on the part about ‘Thou shalt not steal’- You’ll get your bike back.” The next week the 2 preachers met up and both were on bikes. The one who had given the advice said, “It looks like you did what I said and preached on not stealing and got your bike back.” His colleague said, “Not exactly. I did preach on the Ten Commandments, but when I got to the part about not committing adultery I remembered where my bicycle was.” Ouch, big ouch!

I think most of us would be hard-pressed to name the Ten Commandments, much less live them. We need to have a firm understanding that Scripture is more important in our ethical decision-making than experience or anything else. There is a cartoon which I’ve seen in several places. It shows a crucifixion scene, and depicts Jesus saying, “If I’m O.K. and you’re OK, then what am I doing up here hanging on this cross?” As much as we seem to hate to admit it, “We’re not O.K.” We need a Savior. We need Jesus and we need to drop our rationalizations and pretense of false innocence.

There was a big burly lineman for a NFL football team who really liked to sneak out of the confines of his motel room on the night before games. Despite the club’s curfew he would try to fool his coach as he made his rounds to do bed-checks. He would pile things under his blanket so that it looked like he was in bed. At one motel, however, he couldn’t find enough things to stuff under the covers so he stuck a floor lamp in the bed and took off. When the suspicious and wise coach peeked in way after curfew and flipped on the switch for the light you can guess what happened – the bed lit up! Our sins have a way of finding us out! We may think they are hidden, but the light of judgment is coming!

Christ the King Sunday reminds me that there is only One to whom I owe allegiance and it’s Jesus, not my own desires and wants. If Jesus is Lord and King, it’s high time we acted like it. Don’t let evil shift your point of view. Some things are wrong.

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Neo-Calvinism and The God Who Risks!

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.

General Conference 2012 Rhetoric and Listening

General Conference 2012 has already produced a ton of verbiage. I have already received letters and phone calls eliciting my support for various issues. General Boards and Agencies of the UMC have started sending out their proposed legislation. I have been personally involved in writing legislation for the Connectional Table and the Worldwide UMC Study Committee, not all of which I agree with. However, I would rather listen to the divergent voices and write good legislation and pray that the GC 2012 Legislative Committees and Plenary Sessions can have clear choices rather than hard-to-hug jello with which to grapple. I want radical change in our denomination and especially want our bishops to express leadership in their annual conferences and local churches because that’s where disciple-making truly happens, but there I go in my verbal haranguing.

Words have to be replaced with listening – sooner rather than later in our position jockeying. In the midst of all the helpful and not so helpful propaganda that will be shot across the bows of our desks and computers, we have to listen to each other and lay aside fruitless personal agendas or theological quagmires that are too often unanswerable. Now, to be sure, I believe some issues are not only answerable using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, but the answers are essential. They are doctrine! Doctrine doesn’t change. Theology, on the other hand, should always be changing. Doctrine expresses God’s perspective on a subject. Theology is a never-ending contextualization of doctrine revealing God’s mind to a contemporary world. In the midst of conflicting values between the authority of Scripture and love for all people, I admit I would rather side with God than with human reason or experience, admitting that Scripture is both informed by and informs our use of Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I think God’s preference is clear: Love everybody AND be obedient! That takes keen listening!

Herein lies part of the problem. I’m spouting off from my own perspective, and someone else speaks from their context and so the saga goes on ad infinitum. Polarization occurs when all that is going on is talk, talk, talk and no one is listening either to God or each other. The Lord knows we are a people who talk too much. Cell phones, smartphones, texting, and high speed internet are almost universal. Listening isn’t. On my summer’s mission trip to Nicaragua I saw a huge uptick in the use of cell phones even in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere!

In the face of our changing communications reality, I like what Norman Brown said, “The meaning is not in the words, but between the words, in the silence.” How can we watch what we say and keep it to a minimum? The Proverbs speak of letting God put a guard over our mouths. That would help, but how do we do it? Certainly, we can ask God to help us listen attentively to others and not rush into thinking about our reply. We can become reflective listeners clarifying to people what we think they just said and see if we were correct in our assessment. We can pray before we talk.

Mo Udall had a prayer that he prayed before he spoke, “Lord, grant me the wisdom to utter gracious and generous remarks today, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.” Another version that I’ve heard said something to the effect, “Lord, help me keep my words soft and sweet because I never know from day to day which ones I’ll have to eat.” The essence of prayer is to invoke God’s help. We really do need God to help us in our speaking and listening!

In a land where free speech is guarded to the detriment of real communication, I like what Teddy Roosevelt did in 1895 to put a muzzle over an extremist’s words. An anti-Semitic German preacher named Ahlwardt came to New York City to advocate a crusade against Jews. The city’s Jewish leaders went to the police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt, and demanded that Ahlwardt not be allowed to speak. Roosevelt insisted correctly that the German was entitled to his freedom of speech regardless of his views and even deserved police protection. So Roosevelt personally appointed the man’s security guards: 40 policemen, all of them Jewish! How about that for helping someone watch what they say?

The best way for me to watch what I say is to attempt to emulate Jesus. Everybody wants to be like Jesus, right? Jesus always had the right words for the right time. A mail carrier was talking to a small boy about his little sister, “Can she talk yet?” “No,” the little boy replied. “She has her teeth, but her words haven’t come in yet.” A lot of us have teeth in our conversation, but are the right words there? Is Jesus in our speech?

If you think your answer is, “Yes!” to that question, here’s a challenge: See if you can go 24 hours without a slam at someone, and monitor your conversation for 2 days. Jot down whenever you say something negative about someone who isn’t present. Also note when others say something negative and what your reactions are. Do you go along with them or stop them? It’s time to revive one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Then we will be on the right track to holy conversation, holy conferencing, and on our way to a civil and productive God-pleasing General Conference 2012.