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The Prophet Needs to Love Her Hometown

Jesus famously said, “The prophet is not welcome in his hometown.” (Luke 4:24) I have written before about the misguided uses of the term prophet (and so has David Watson here).  In a polarized and judgmental age, Christians are too quick to claim the mantle of prophet and call down fire, she-bears, and all manner of rhetorical aggression on those we dislike.  Any would-be prophet is chiefly called to judge one’s own, which implies a duty to love her or his hometown before “speaking truth” to them.  Oxford moral theologian Nigel Biggar ends an excellent little tome on Christian ethics with this reflection:

To look before one thinks and speaks is simply an expression of love. To speak in love is to speak with the intention of benefiting, and we cannot expect to benefit what we have not taken the trouble to understand. And in order to understand particular human beings in their concrete predicaments, it is not enough to hoist one’s prejudices over them. An ethicist who is Christian should want to follow his Lord and Master in the loving the world. And if he would love the world, he will play pastor before he plays prophet. For the only people a prophet has the right to prophesy against are those he has first cared to make his own. (1)

The sad truth is that, at least in American culture, we have never been at once so connected and so divided. The closeness of the neighborhood or small church is not replicated by community found on Facebook or Instagram.  So we despise each other at the same time we are estranged from one another (despite the illusion of connectivity).  This piece on Nate Silver’s blog summarized a recent study that found both Democrats and Republicans don’t really know each other.  For instance:

Blacks made up about a quarter of the Democratic Party, but Republicans estimated the share at 46 percent. Republicans thought 38 percent of Democrats were gay, lesbian or bisexual, while the actual number was about 6 percent. Democrats estimated that 44 percent of Republicans make more than $250,000 a year. The actual share was 2 percent.

People also overstated the numbers of these stereotypical groups within their own party — Democrats thought 29 percent of their fellow Democrats were gay, lesbian or bisexual — but they weren’t off by as much as members of the other party.

If Biggar is correct, this means that, as Christians, we have no moral authority to critique our neighbor until we close that knowledge gap.  Until we make the other our own – until we meet the immigrant, have coffee with the police officer, have dinner with our gay neighbor, actually talk to our cousin who is a hardcore Trump supporter – we are in no position to prophesy against them.

As the Babylon Bee notes, satirically, this is becoming an increasingly fringe notion.  But it is the proper stance of those who claim both to follow Jesus and to love their neighbors.

  1. Nigel Biggar, Behaving in Public: How to Do Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2011), 112.

 

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A Blockhead for Jesus

Is it better to be a blockhead?

Every few years I reread Imitation of Christ by Thomas a’ Kempis. It is a devotional classic, and it was a personal favorite of John Wesley (and many other spiritual giants).  I came across this gem the other day:

Those who think themselves wise are rarely humble enough to allow others to guide them. It is better to be a blockhead and a numskull, and to be humble about it, than to possess encyclopedic knowledge and be filled with self-conceit. Better to have little than much, if much is going to make you proud. (1)

The humble monk’s advice reminds me of the conversion story of John Wimber, founding light of the Vineyard movement. He describes how, after a period of wrestling with God, he was suddenly flooded with God’s presence and began to talk to God with such intensity that he feared he was being stupid:

About the only words I could say aloud were, “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!” I knew something revolutionary was going on inside of me. I thought, “I hope this works, because I’m making a complete fool of myself.” Then the Lord brought to mind a man I had seen in Pershing Square in Los Angeles a number of years before. He was wearing a sign that said, “I’m a fool for Christ. Whose fool are you?” I thought at the time, “ that’s the most stupid thing I’ve ever seen.” But as I kneeled on the floor, I realized the truth of the odd sign: the cross is foolishness “to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18). That night I knelt at the cross and believed in Jesus. I’ve been a fool for Christ ever since.

The way of Christ is a foolish way to the world. But it is far better to be a blockhead, a numskull, a fool for Christ, than to be thought wise by the world.

 

  1. Imitation of Christ (Vintage Spiritual Classics Edition), p. 86.
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From Consumers to Disciples

How did we get to a place where the phrase “church shopping” is normal?

In their excellent book Deep Church Rising, Andrew Walker and Robin Parry discuss the changing cultural landscape of Western modernity and late/post-modernity.  One seismic shift has been the dominance of the consumer identity in virtually every sphere of life:

“Indeed the consumer mentality has arguably become the dominant mindset in the way we approach many areas of life. People work hard to hard the money to spend on their enjoyment, and religious commitment has suffered as a result…The consumer mindset has come to dominate the way we approach many aspects of life – the consumer rules, not just when we shop for goods but also increasingly in our interactions with schools, hospitals, and churches. We hunt down whatever satisfies our needs and if we feel that it i not doing so we move elsewhere. Customer loyalty is almost a thing of the past – we feel no obligation to continue a relationship unless we benefit from it.” (42)

They go on to quote sociologist Grace Davie, who summarizes this mindset as it is often lived out by individual Christians (which was lampooned beautifully by John Crist):

“I go to church (or to another religious organization) because I want to, maybe for a short period or maybe for longer, to fulfill a particular rather than a general need in my life and where I will continue my attachment so long as it provides me what I want, but I have no obligation either to attend in the first place or to continue if I don’t want to.” (42-43)

In some ways, the church has been complicit in this consumer mentality.  We plant churches in growing, wealthy neighborhoods, like any other franchise. We do market research, demographic studies, and “sell” our product like any other good or service.  The church must own that, in part, we have created the consumer mindset by treating the Body of Christ as a business, worship as a show, and our members as customers to be kept happy rather than children of God to be formed into saints.

How do we shift from a consumer mentality to a focus on making disciples? A great deal here falls on catechesis. Are we trying to get people in the door, or get them to a spiritual destination? It’s not hard to draw a crowd, after all – but a crowd only becomes a church through prayer, service, sacrament, and the fruits of the Spirit.

My sense is that we are often grow complacent. We worry more about getting people in our church moreso than what we are inviting them to.  We strive to offer the best “product” we can, rather than first ask whether or not we are proclaiming “Christ and him crucified” as St. Paul said in 1 Cor. 2:2.  The result is the predictable attraction of consumers rather than the formation of disciples.

To aim at disciples rather than consumers in our present American culture is to swim upstream.  It is even, in some ways, countercultural to much of the church growth material that our denominational leaders often hock.

But we do not need anymore “5 Simple Steps to 500 in Worship,” and we can stop giving away the church’s sacraments like Sam’s Club samples to any passers-by.  Our chief calling, instead, is to live out the Great Commission: to make disciples.

Anyone can draw a crowd. But only the church can make disciples.

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How To Pass Your #UMC Ordination Interviews

by Drew 2 Comments

The Ordination of Bishop Asbury. Public Domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I am often asked for advice about various stages of the ordination process.  While I’m not an expert, and I’ve only experienced the UMC process in one part of the Connection, here are a few thoughts you might find helpful.  I’ve divided my advice into stages, from first principles to the outcome of the interview.  If you know someone who is going through the process, please pass this on to them if you think it could be helpful.

First Things

Ordination is not a right, it’s a rite.  In ordination, we set apart certain of the baptized for full-time service in the church.  No matter how much education or debt, no matter how many years of service, no matter how sincere the call or how much your mom thinks you deserve it, ordination is a pure gift; holy orders are never earned or deserved.  The church owes no one ordination.  In fact, many of the early saints experienced ordination as a temptation more than a blessing.

Accept the insanity. The UMC ordination process, as I have experienced it, is far from perfect.  It will feel redundant at times, and silly at others.  You are experiencing a rigorous process designed by fallible people who are, in general, doing their best.  A lot of our process is simply a test in endurance.  If you are willing to jump through hoop after hoop, and show resilience – even when the individual steps don’t make sense to you – you are showing the kind of grit necessary for success in ministry.  One could even argue that such a cumbersome process is designed to prepare us for the complex world of the local church.

On Writing Papers

Follow directions. The best advice I have ever heard about writing ordination papers was from a retired District Superintendent: “The process is an exercise in following directions.”  As simple as it sounds, make sure you answer every part of every question as clearly as possible.  Especially if a question is multifaceted, make sure you leave no question as to whether you addressed each part or not.  I often recommend organizing a given answer so that each element gets its own paragraph.  Be intentional about exercising attention to detail.  My first time up for Provisional Elder, I failed was not passed because I forgot to include one (relatively minor) part of the Bible Study.  The sad truth is I was just rushing and missed that part of the directions.

A Lutheran (Missouri Synod) ordination, courtesy Wikipedia.

Get an editor.  Your papers need to be not just clearly written but grammatically flawless.  Find a retired English teacher or a professor.  Hire someone if needed.  But if you turn in otherwise solid work with repeated errors, you will most likely not pass.  Maybe you worked very hard on researching your paperwork, but if the grammar and spelling are sloppy, your readers will assume you were lazy and/or rushed in your preparation.

Get away to write.  Everyone’s flow is different, but I find it best to get away for dedicated periods of writing.  Schedule time at a retreat center, or go to a church member’s mountain cabin.  Don’t try to write while facing a Sunday sermon.  Make sure your church knows that writing time is not vacation.  Alternatively, schedule a day a week to work on writing for a year.  Again, this is part of your ministry.  Make space to get it done well.  I highly recommend the Study Leave program at Duke Divinity School, an affordable retreat which also provides access to the library, for research purposes, and to faculty, to help with content or talk through thorny questions.

Send your papers to multiple readers. The more eyes you get on your papers, the better.  I recommend former BOOM(Board of Ordained Ministry) members, retired District Superintendents, and recently ordained folks in particular.  Take them to lunch and ask for their honest input.  If you know someone is strong in a particular area (say, polity or preaching), send them the papers for which they can be most helpful.

On Preparing for the Interview

Talk to recent interviewees.  Talk to people who were ordained in the last couple of years.  Ask them if there was a particular question or area that got hammered.  Ask them who was tough, and who was supportive.  Find out if two members of a particular committee like to get into debates while interviewing a candidate.  Quite often, in a given year, a Board will have one or two areas in which they are focusing.  When I came through, everyone was getting asked about the atonement that year.  Another year, candidates were being asked about the possibility of online communion. Many BOOM members will have a particular soapbox.  Find out what that is, and you’re a step ahead.

Know your papers.  In my Conference, we were allowed (and encouraged) to bring copies of our papers.  If you get asked, “Why did you write ______ on page 5?” and you look like a deer caught in the headlights, it will set a bad tone for the whole interview.  Know what you wrote so your conversation flows smoothly.

Anticipate questions.  This is another reason to talk to recent ordinands.  I would also recommend sending your completed papers to another reader or two (different from previous readers) and asking them for feedback.  Ask a former BOOM member or DCOM (District Committee on Ministry) member, “Where are my weak spots?” or, “What questions would you have if you were on my committee?”  Make notes of potential questions or talking points in the margins of your paperwork beside each question.  Make it a cheat sheet!

On Interviewing

Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby praying in Talladega Nights.

Prepare in prayer and peace.  Ask your church, family, and friends to pray for you in the month leading up to your interview.  Don’t preach the Sunday after you are going to interview, so your focus can be totally on preparation that week.  If your interview is more than an hour away, stay in a hotel or with friends the night before so you don’t have the stress of traffic or the possibility of a flat tire interfering with your mindset.  I spent the night before my Full Connection interviews in a hotel room minutes from my interview location looking over my papers and enjoying some nice wine.

Plan for the worst.  Just assume that you will encounter at least one jerk in your interviews.  Like most local church committees, the typical BOOM has one or two antagonists in the bunch.  Or, you might just catch someone on a bad day.  You might remind one of your readers of their ex-wife or their middle school bully.  Anticipate someone being openly hostile and don’t get rattled.  Stay polite, focus on the question, and don’t be afraid to say, “Please tell me more, I’m not sure how to answer your question.”  For instance, I encountered two individuals on a particular team during my provisional interviews who were entirely hostile to me.  This happened on two separate occasions a year apart.  The first time (when I forgot a component of my Bible Study, mentioned above), I assumed they felt slighted because I turned in sub par work.  The next year, I turned in much better quality work, and they were just as nasty to me.  Then I realized: it wasn’t about me. Some people are just dangerous with a little bit of power.  It’s not about you, so don’t take it personally and don’t allow yourself to become shaken.

On the Aftermath

Holy on loosely. Passing or failing these interviews is not a ratification on your calling or your gifts for ministry.  I’m going to say that again: pass or fail, this says nothing about the validity of your calling or your gifts.  Do the best you can to prepare and leave the outcome to God.  Every year people pass who are a complete mystery, and people get held up who are brilliant, holy, gifted pastors.  I’ve known folks with doctorates in theology who fail theology, and people who can barely put coherent sentences together who get through.  I’ve had friends get read the riot act for their papers by people who are far less gifted than they are.  Find your value in the God who has called you to ministry and the transformed lives of the people you serve, not on a rubber stamp from a committee who does not know you.

Your Turn

What advice have I left out? Are things drastically different in your conference or denomination? What other tips and tricks do you have? Leave a comment below!

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God’s Medicine Bag

by Drew 0 Comments

I recently wrote for the WNCC Conference Blog and riffed on David Watson’s new book Scripture and the Life of God.  Here’s a blurb from that piece:

The church is more than we usually make of it.  The church is not merely a house of worship, a social outlet, a service agency, or a repository of age-level programs.  Instead, she is a vessel of God’s own design, the Bride of Christ, whose unique calling and giftedness is to the do the work of God in the world.  What this means, in short, is that the church is in the redemption business.

You can read the full blog here.

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Selling the Gospel is Easy

by Drew 2 Comments

Selling the Gospel is easy. In North America we are awash in a culture that is narcissistically individualistic, market-driven, and pleasure-focused.  To sell the gospel, all you have to do is mimic the market, offer a sleek presentation, and promise people their best life now (and all the great stuff – literally – that comes with it).  There are thousands of McChurches that testify to the ease with which Revered Huckster can package the gospel and sell it to practically anyone.

But this is not how disciples are made.  Followers of Jesus cannot be manufactured. As Eugene Peterson notes,

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sing up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. (1)

We have all seen megachurches, religious personalities, and gurus rise and fall.  Think of how quickly the Crystal Cathedral fell apart after the elder Robert Schuller retired.  Getting people excited about a product is easy.  A gifted, charismatic leader can draw a crowd (for good, or for ill).  But if the orientation is not toward discipleship, it will never last over the long haul no matter how successful the selling has been.  This is something the early church knew and practiced.

One way that some friends of mine are taking discipleship seriously is reclaiming the small group experience of the early Methodist Class Meetings and Band Meetings.  These offer exactly what Peterson tells us is a hard sell: “apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”

Such transformation, not wrought in an instant but given by grace over a lifetime, is the only purpose of the church.  C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully in Mere Christianity when he noted,

… the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

Selling the gospel is and always has been easy.  Getting people to sign up to follow Jesus over the course of decades is what the church is called to do.

I’ll close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas, emeritus professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, whose petition matches the intention we have named above:

Spirit of Truth, direct our attention to the life of Jesus so that we might see what you would have us be. Make us, like him, teachers of your good law. Make us, like him, performers of miraculous cures. Make us, like him, proclaimers of your kingdom. Make us, like him, loving of the poor, the outcast, children. Make us, like him, silent when the world tempts us to respond int he world’s terms. Make us, like him, ready to suffer. We know we cannot be like Jesus except as Jesus was unlike us, being your Son. Make us cherish that unlikeness, that we may grow into the likeness made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. Amen. (2)

 

  1. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downer’s Grove: IVP Press 2000), p. 16.
  2. Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken (Downers Grove, IVP Press 1999), p. 26.
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Every Church Has a Creed (Whether They Know it or Not)

by Drew 3 Comments

Every church operates from a creed; whether or not their beliefs are codified into a formal, written statement or not, every church (and every religious organization) is creedal.

From David Watson’s excellent new book Scripture and the Life of God:

“Occasionally I have heard people claim that their church or denomination is non-creedal. I don’t believe that there is any such thing as a non-creedal church. There are churches with implicit creeds and churches with explicit creeds. Every Christian tradition, however, is organized around some set of beliefs that set it apart from other traditions, and the adherents of those traditions generally know what those beliefs are. These beliefs help to shape the ways in which the community of faith understands and applies Scripture.”

We’ve had this debate in the UMC (some still claim Wesley was not creedal) but it applies to other churches as well.  Take, for instance, the phenomenon of so-called “Non-Denominational” churches.  In many cases, they have explicit ties to a denomination, but they are quiet about them. Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC, for instance, was begun with Southern Baptist money.  In all cases, “Non-Denominational” churches have a set of beliefs one might call creedal.  They are always protestant, and usually some combination of baptist, reformed, and/or charismatic.  (Hint: claim the title or don’t, but if you have a congregationalist polity [read: autonomous] and you practice believer’s baptism, you are a baptist.)

We should not be shy about the traditions we inhabit and the beliefs that go along with them.  In part, this is simple honesty: be up front with insiders and outsiders about who you are and what you are about.  Many hip megachurches look trendy and contemporary, but hide the fact that they don’t let women be in leadership.  Better to own it than to deceive.

But creeds also matter, because we need guard rails.  Many people think of creeds as shackles, but this is modernist anxiety run amok.  As G.K. Chesteron put it with his characteristic wit, “doctrine and discipline may be walls, but they are the walls of a playground.”  The creeds help us interpret Scripture, as David Watson notes, because they place us in conversation with the undivided, earliest church.  We will quibble over lesser matters, but if we exit the apostolic consensus represented in the creeds, we know we’ve committed a grievous error.  Within the playground formed by these walls, however, there is a lot of room for running, jumping, and skipping.

Every religious organization has a creed, whether explicit or not.  Churches would do best claim, teach, and celebrate them, both for the sake of formation in the “faith once delivered” (from Jude), and for transparency.

Does your church use creeds? What implicit creeds have you encountered at various churches? What creed is most valuable, and why? Leave a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe!

 

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The Historical Jesus vs. the Word of God

To what extent should the historical Jesus reconstructed by scholars be normative for Christian faith today?

A couple of decades ago, the Jesus Seminar made headlines in claiming to (ahem) “scientifically” – that is, using the neutral tools of the historical craft – free the true Jesus from the churchy, dogmatic accretions of the centuries.  Of course, folks like Luke Timothy Johnson have pointed out that such efforts are fraught with problems.  Even though out of fashion in New Testament studies now, the assumptions of the Jesus Seminar and their ilk are still very much in the water.

In a wonderful little book on the Beatitudes, Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Papal household, reflects on the degree to which historical assumptions have crept into the church and biblical studies.  Is the only authentic Jesus the Jesus of the “nugget” on which a critical mass of scholars can agree? Cantalamessa responds:

The research on the historical Jesus that is so fashionable today – whether by scholarly believers or by some nonbelievers doing farfetched study – conceals a grave danger: It can lead people to believe that something is authentic only when it can be traced back to the earthly Jesus; everything else is considered nonhistorical and thus not authentic. This would mean unfairly limiting to history the ways that God has at his disposal to reveal himself. It would mean tacitly abandoning the truth of faith in biblical inspiration and thus the revelatory character of Scripture.

The Word of God, which is normative for the believer, does not consist in some kind of hypothetical original nucleus variously reconstructed by historians; the Word of God is what is written in the Gospels. The result of historical research should be held in great esteem because it is needed to guide our understanding of subsequent developments in tradition. However, we will continue to exclaim, “The Gospel of the Lord!” at the end of a reading from the Gospel – but not at the end of a reading from the latest book about the historical Jesus. (pp. 49-50)

Notice how Cantalamessa refuses to play the over warmed faux-Barthian move of opposing the written text of the Bible with the Word of God.  The Word and the word ought not be played off of each other, not least because it is a kind of functional Marcionism.

But most importantly, the Pope’s preacher (talk about pressure!), puts in proper perspective the role of historical research in the life of the church and the disciple.  Top put it simply: historical Jesus research is a useful servant, but a poor master.

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Making Friends with the Beast: Hamartiology in Johnny Cash & Eminem

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I am definitely not okay.  You probably aren’t either.  Welcome to the human condition.

The Christian faith has always taught that something has gone wrong in us; something, we followers of Jesus claim, is broken, and though we may find it difficult to explain it, we are nonetheless unable to fix ourselves. The traditional name for this is sin.  Sin infects both individuals and communities, which is to say that it is personal and systemic. This brief piece will focus on the former, in conversation with two musicians: Johnny Cash and Eminem.  For those who like fancy theological terms, this is a post about hamartiology (the study of sin).

In Eminem’s “The Monster,” performed with Rihanna, we hear:

Maybe I need a straightjacket, face facts
I am nuts for real, but I’m okay with that
It’s nothing, I’m still friends with the

I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head
You’re trying to save me, stop holding your breath
And you think I’m crazy, yeah, you think I’m crazy

The Cover to Cash’s American Recordings, the first album collaboration with Rubin. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Johnny Cash, under the watchful eye of Rick Rubin, wrote and performed some of the best music of his career in the twilight of his life. One example of that rich collaboration is a song found in their first album together titled “The Beast in Me,” in which Cash confesses, with his characteristic lack of sentimentality:

Sometimes it tries to kid me
That it’s just a teddy bear
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air
And that is when I must beware
Of the beast in me that everybody knows
They’ve seen him out dressed in my clothes
Patently unclear
If it’s New York or New Year
God help the beast in me

The eminent psychologist Carl Jung made famous the concept of “the shadow,” that dark aspect of ourselves that must be acknowledged in order for one to mature and be healthy.  The Enneagram makes space for this concept too, as it describes persons, using its 1-9 numbering system, in both healthy and unhealthy states.  The unhealthy state, I would venture to argue, is akin to Jung’s “shadow” self.

Thus, many voices, secular and theological, artistic, spiritual, and psychological, converge on this same central idea: something has gone wrong.  As they say in 12 Step circles, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Note how, both for Eminem and Cash, the shadow is something immediate and near, something perhaps even intimate.  For Mr. Mathers, the Monster is “under my bed,” and for the Man in Black, the Beast is within him.  There is no attempt to separate themselves or to put a false distance with the shadow.  There is an unrelenting spiritual integrity at work here.

This is critical because both artists remind us of a crucial aspect of reality: that which is unacknowledged cannot be healed.  Like a small scrape that turns into a life-threatening infection, sin does not heal on its own.  Unchecked, evil will only continue to divide homes, communities, nations, and the church.  The cure does not come from any machinations of our own devising.  Rather, the Father acting through Jesus in the power of the Spirit redeems, restores, forgives, and sets us free – something we cannot do for ourselves.

Of course, even acknowledging the “beast” or “the monster” is itself an act of grace; in particular, this is the work of the Spirit to convict us, so that we seek out the medicine from the Physician of our souls.  A scene from C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce vividly portrays this dynamic:

GHOST: What do you keep on arguing for (says the Ghost) I only want my rights.  I’m not asking for anyone’s bleeding charity.

BRIGHT MAN – Oh then do (said the Bright man) – at once.  Ask for the bleeding charity.  Everything is here for the asking and absolutely nothing can be bought.

As Johnny Cash well knew, the “bleeding charity” of Christ’s love, poured out on Calvary for sinners like me (and you), can be asked for but never bought, received but never deserved.  Sin thus becomes something, as John Wesley said, “that remains but no longer reigns.” Acknowledged, confessed, and healed by God’s grace, the Beast under our beds and in our hearts becomes a reminder of and vehicle for the mercy that has claimed us, as Paul discovered with the “thorn in the flesh” that so vexed him:

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:8-10, NRSV)

The Beast and the Monster are no match for Christ who is the Lion and the Lamb, who became sin and died our death in order to vanquish them.  The Beast can be caged, and the Monster can be befriended, because we know the savior who alone has broken their power on the cross and in the empty tomb, and will one day utterly destroy every power and authority that stands against God’s purposes.

Thanks be to God!

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American Gods: On Mawmaw’s Faith in Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw.  Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying.  Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family.  She’s fascinating, to put it mildly.  Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire).  Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state.  This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving  its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13.  The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.

On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13.  This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state.  Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.

The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale.  Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option.  Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:

Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.

By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.

The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians.  Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.

Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties.  To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry.  The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel.  Nationalism can only ever be blind.

I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain.  It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.

I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same.  They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter.  In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts.  Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.

As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be.  This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far.  All governments stand under God’s judgment.  Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right.  Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.

To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit.  Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.

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