Wednesday, December 26, 2007
When I read the Christmas story, it is unfair for me to read myself into the places of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, or even the wise men. This was their home. They are under the heel of the Empire, their lives jerked around by imperial decrees.
I live in Rome with Caesar Augustus, or maybe in Jerusalem up at the palace with that King Herod, lackey for the Roman overlords. I’d rather see myself as one of the relatives of Mary and Joseph. I wouldn’t mind being one of the shepherds, out working the night shift, surprised when the heavens filled with angels.
But that is not my place in the story. My place in the story is as a beneficiary of the Empire. I am well fixed. I don’t live up in the palace, but I live in a home which -- with its modern conveniences and security -- the majority of the world’s people would call a palace. I have been the beneficiary of a great classical education, and I am a citizen of a country that has dominated other countries, often without even trying to dominate other countries. We are the Empire.
I don’t like my particular place in the story of the first Christmas.
So when you think about it, in our context, it is odd in a way that so many of us should flock to church on a Christmas Eve. It is a bit strange that we should think that, in Christmas, we hear such unadulteratedly good news, that we should feel such warm feelings, and think that we are closer to God now than at any other time of the year.
I guess we ought to be of the same frame of mind as our cousin, King Herod. When he heard the word about the first Christmas, the Gospels say that he was filled with fear. Give Herod credit. He knew bad news when he heard it. He knew that the songs that the angels sang meant an attack upon his world, God taking sides with those on the margins, the people in the night out in the fields, the oppressed and the lowly.
But for the people up at the palace, the well fixed, the people on top, the masters of the Empire, Christmas was bad news. And many of them were perceptive enough to know it.
So maybe that is why we cover up Christmas with cheap sentimentally, turn it into a saccharine celebration. Maybe, in our heart of hearts, we know that Christmas means that God may not be with the Empire, but rather the Empire may be on a shaky foundation, and that, if we told the story straight, as the Bible tells it, we might have reason, like Herod (when he heard about the first Christmas) to fear.
Let us hear again the song of the angels:
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am brining you good news of great joy for all people: To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 1:10)
The angel did not say good news for some people. The angel was bold to say good news for all people. All. Though the angel was singing to the shepherds, the angel meant the song for everybody. Herod no doubt had difficulty hearing the song, safely fortified as he was with his troops and his thick walled palace. Herod, the old fox, missed it.
But you haven’t missed it. Even though you are a card-carrying member as am I, of the greatest Empire that has ever ruled, you are in the right place to hear the news.
Good news this day. There is born for you a savior. Our flags, government, armies, cannot save. Only that baby saves. One who is born among the lowly and the poor, only that one saves.
He comes not only for the oppressed, not only for Israel, but for the oppressor, that is, for all. O that we in the Empire could hear that song, O that we could turn back to the Lord, change our ways, bow down before the manger, rather than before our power, acknowledge our need, and pledge allegiance to the Prince of Peace.
Because he is our prince too. He comes to form an empire, not the way this world builds empires, called the Kingdom of God. And he shall reign forever and ever, and of his reign there shall be no end.
Good News. For this day in the City of David is born a Savior, Christ the Lord. Good News for all. Amen.
William H. Willimon
Thursday, December 20, 2007
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
As a child, I was frightened of the dark. I grew up in a rural area and, when it was dark, it was really dark -- no street lamps, no passing automobiles. Dark. How well I remember that long walk, which I would have to make, down our winding drive through the pine trees from the highway to our house. At the end of the drive though, as I came in sight of the house lights, there was often my mother’s reassuring, “Is that you?”
Nothing so tames the terrors of the darkness like a light, a voice.
John’s gospel opens by saying, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Israel was in darkness, the dark of political oppression. Judea was occupied by Rome. These are the people upon whom light has shined, says John.
But before there was light, there was a voice. A voice in the darkness. That voice belonged to John, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the voice who proclaims a light coming into the darkness.
All the gospels tell about John. And yet we get most of our detailed information about John from Matthew and Luke. They tell that he ate insects, lived in the dessert, wore camel hair. Strange. John’s gospel tells us none of this. All John tells us was that John the Baptist was "a voice." We have got to figure out who he is and what he is up to by what John says.
People ask, “Who are you?”
John tells them that he is a mere forerunner. John also waits. He says that this one for whom he is preparing, is one who is great. But John doesn’t seem to know many details. He only knows that his coming will be light in the darkness, that great advent for which people are expecting.
We have song advent hymns of waiting, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Waiting is not easy for us. Waiting is particularly difficult, when we are waiting in the dark, when we can’t see the way forward, and there is no reassuring light, and we do not know whether we are going forward, or backward.
One feels so vulnerable in the dark. We like to be in control. We like to know that we are taking sure steps forward, meeting our goals, getting somewhere. But in the dark, one is unsure. One stumbles. And I don’t like to stumble.
Odd, sometimes people speak of the Christian life as fulfillment. "Now I have found Jesus." "Now I have gotten my life together." "Now I have turned myself over to God and I am saved." It sounds like it’s all finished, done, complete, fulfilled.
But so much of the Christian life is spent waiting, yearning, leaning forward to that which we need, but do not yet have.
What are you waiting for? We speak too negatively of waiting. Show me a person who is not waiting, not yearning, not leaning forward, not standing on tiptoes hoping for something better, and I will show you a person who has given up hope for anything better. Someone who has settled down too comfortably in present arrangements.
And that’s part of the message of John the Baptist. His was a voice, a voice speaking into our darkness, telling us that there is dawn. He was a watchman, standing on the starlit hill, looking east, telling others that it was almost day.
Beyond, behind our deepest longing and yearning, that is really what we want. Our times of darkness are vivid reminders that we are, in truth, frail, vulnerable, and needy. We really are those who need deliverance. And our deliverance has got to be something beyond ourselves, someone greater than our own abilities to deliver.
John did not know the complete shape of that hope. John was a voice, a voice into the darkness, telling people not to give up hope, telling people that their yearning was not mere wishful thinking, that their longing was an act of faith, a deep and abiding belief that God cared, that God would come and deliver.
You may have read Victor Frankl’s classic account of his experiences in a Nazi death camp, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl had been a successful therapist. While in the camp, he spent his time observing himself and his fellow inmates.
Frankl noted that some of the prisoners just wasted away and died quickly, even though they had no discernable physical ailments. He recalls one man who was doing reasonably well, considering the deplorable conditions of the camp. The man often talked of his dream to get out of the camp and to be united with his dear wife. Then the man received word that his wife had died in another prison camp. And in just a couple of days, the man died. Frankl concluded that the man died, not because of some bodily ailment, not because he lacked food or water, but because he lacked hope. He lacked hope that there was anything to be had beyond the darkness of the bleak prison, that there was anything beyond the present anguish of Nazis brutality. We can live, said Frankl, longer without bread than we can live without hope.
Hope that the light shines in the darkness.
We gather on this night as those who yearn, who desire, who are not yet fulfilled, but who are confident that light breaks into the darkness, and we shall see, and we shall know, and we shall be filled.
The light, the world's light, our light, has a face, a name, Emmanuel.
Monday, December 10, 2007
When I was new, people sometimes asked, “What has been your biggest challenge as a baby bishop?” They think I’m going to say, “Moving from an intellectual to a nonintellectual environment,” or “Having to work harder than I did as a professor,” something like that.
I’ve come to say that the most difficult part of being a bishop is to have to live, on a daily basis, in that great gap between who Jesus is (a marginalized, fanatical, Jewish prophet who was the God we didn’t expect) and what the church is (a rather sedate, rule-driven group of people who just want to be left alone so we can be “spiritual”). Jesus’ Body, the church, is the greatest challenge in following Jesus.
“I could believe in Jesus,” declared the poet, Shelley, “if only he did not drag behind him his leprous bride, the church.”
One of last year’s most popular church books was entitled, Leaving Church. Oh to rise above the muck and the mire of the corporeal and the ecclesiastical so that we can be free to descend ever more deeply into the subjective and the personal.
We’re in Advent, that time in the church year when we attempt to prepare for the shock of the Incarnation, the shock that God Almighty refused to stay above us but got down and dirty with us, in the flesh, moved in with us. Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords, has chosen to be a people, a family, this people, this church.
Bonhoeffer, before he went willingly to be hanged by the Nazis was forced by God unwillingly to hang out in the church. There he discovered the power of a God incarnate. Bonhoeffer, put it this way:
A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities. They are heard, learnt, and apprehended, and that is all. But the incarnate son of God needs not only ears or hearts, but living [people] who will follow him. That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following, and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality… Having been called they could no longer remain in obscurity, they were the light that must shine, the city on the hill which must be seen.
In my own life, the church that previously had been relegated to the margins of the university as a “sometimes helpful spiritual influence,” has now assumed a large place. As a bishop the church has for me, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “taken up room”. It’s a “Treasure in earthen vessels,” (2 Cor. 4:5-7) yes, but it is also for me the sprawling, cracked earthen vessel that takes so much of my time there’s precious little room left for the treasure.
To be a lay or ordained leader of the church is to be called to care for the visibility of the church, the corporeal mass, the machinery. This task is particularly trying in age in the grip of anti-institutionalism and solipsistic spirituality.
Jerome Burce calls our age that of “spiritual agnosticism” (Marcus Borg and the so-called “Progressive Christians”) in which “The Fundamental truth claim of our culture with respect to matters spiritual is that we cannot know about them with anything approaching sufficient certainty to command the allegiance or shape the conduct or, least of all, correct the spiritual and/or moral opinions of another.”
Flee the Body in order to ascend to some disincarnate spiritual realm. Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” last year was, “You” – we have lost interest in anything but us.
Professor Bart Ehrmann, professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote a bestselling book, Misquoting Jesus. Surprise, there are all sort of stenographic errors in scripture, errors of transcription and questionable renderings of what the Jesus Seminar says Jesus said. So Ehrmann ends his book asking present day Christians (Ehrmann was a fundamentalist as a kid and appears not quite to have grown out of it), “Do you really want to put your trust in a flawed, thoroughly human book like the Bible?”
Well Bart, just where on earth would we put our trust? We actually believe that God became flesh, took on our flawed, thoroughly human corporeal nature. So if we’re going to put our trust in God, it will have to be in this God, it will have to be here, now, the same God who has condescended to take up room among us as the United Methodist Church. When we put our trust in the “thoroughly human” we actually believe we’re putting our trust in God who loved us enough to become human.
We can’t love Jesus without loving his body. It is a crucified body, to be sure, in bad shape, statistically speaking, but a body all the more in need of a loving caress.
We are those called, at this time in the history of Christendom, to worry about what constitutes a church, to be a sign of the visible unity of the church, to keep encouraging members of the body to honor one another, and sometimes even to promise a dead, decadent body nothing less than resurrection. An embodied, incarnate Christ sanctifies our mundane ecclesiastical body work as his. The church is Christ’s way of taking up room in his still being redeemed world.
The night I was ordained, a bishop laid hands on my head, repeating the ancient words of the Ordinal, “Never forget that the ones to whom you are called to minister are the ones for whom he died.” There I was, wondering, “Will the church appreciate my superior training? Will I get an all-electric parsonage?”
And there was the church, once again forcing me to be a Chalcedonian Christian, once again forcing me to believe in the blessed Incarnation, once again telling me, “The often disheartening, sometimes disappointing ones I’m making you fortunate enough to serve, are the ones for whom I died. This is my idea of salvation. Don’t mess it up.”
Oh the challenge of believing the Incarnation!
Thursday, December 06, 2007
One person emerged after I had preached at the Advent service at another University Chapel and accused me of "promoting irresponsible passivity" in my sermon. "You should remind us," he said, "We are educated, responsible people who have been given the gifts to make the world a better place."
Yet what was I to preach, stuck as I was with the repeated Advent gospel assertion that God really has come in Jesus Christ to do for us what we could not do for ourselves? How could I calibrate the Hebrew scriptures' prophetic announcement that history had again become interesting not because we had at last gotten organized but because God was moving among us. In short, my critic had gotten more than a whiff of eschatology and found its odor distinctly offensive to his activist, educated, progressive sensibilities. He, like most of us, would rather get better than be born again. He like most of us, wants a world improved rather than made new.
Advent is the season of "the last (Greek: eschatos) things," a time of winter death in nature, the ending of another year. Yet it is also the beginning of the church year, a time of birth at Bethlehem, a time when we know not whether to name what is happening among us as "ending" or "beginning" for it feels both as if something old is dying and something new is being born.
Christian eschatology, like Jewish eschatology before it, makes a claim about the future in which the Creator of the world at the beginning is fully revealed as the world's Redeemer at the end. Eschatology is more a matter of Who? than When? "The end" is not so much a matter of chronology (When?) but rather a debate over who, in the end, is in charge. The hope for the coming of Christ in fullness (Christ's Parousia) has nothing to do with the hope engendered by wishful thinking, a positive mental attitude or creative social programming.
Advent promises us that, when all has been said and done by God, in us as individuals, in our political/social/economic structures, in the whole cosmos, God will reign. What God is doing among us, for us, often despite us is large, cosmic, political, nothing less than "a new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1).
Our individual hope is grounded in the promised cosmic dismantling and reconstructive transformation which God is doing in the whole world. John Howard Yoder was pointing to the eschatological nature of our hope when he suggested that the word "revolution" was a bit closer to the root meaning of euangelion than merely "good news" The good news of Advent is that we are being met, reconstructed by a God who intends to make all things new.
President Bush stood before congress and, paraphrasing a beloved old hymn, said, “there is power, wonderworking power in….the good American people.” That’s not what Christians believe.
More than likely, Advent eschatology offends us for more mundane reasons. I am at church seeking personal advice for how to have a happy marriage or how to get along with the boss next week, only to have Advent wrench my gaze in our subjectivity in its insistence that whatever God is about in the Advent of Jesus, it is something quite large, quite cosmic, quite strange and humanly unmanageable, something more significant than me. I am not the master of history.
So let us begin with the honest admission that our real problem with these Advent/Christmas texts is largely political and economic. Tell me, "This world is ending. God has little vested interest in the present order," I shall hear it as bad news.
However, for a mother in a barrio in Mexico City who has lost four of her six children to starvation, to hear, "This present world is not what God had in mind. God is not finished, indeed is now moving, to break down and to rebuild in Jesus," I presume that would sound something like gospel. For her the Advent/Christmas message presages a revolutionary conflagration.
A great deal depends, in regard to our receptivity to these texts, on where we happen to be standing at the time when we get the news, "God is coming."
It’s Advent. Let the revolution begin.
William H. Willimon
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
I see Advent this year with greater intensity and anticipation than ever before.
Walking up and down in my cell, three paces this way and three paces that way,
with my hands in irons and ahead of me an uncertain fate, I have a new and
different understanding of God’s promise of redemption and release.
This reminds me of the angel that was given to me two years ago for Advent by a kind person. The angel bore the inscription, “Rejoice, for the Lord is near.” The
angel was destroyed by a bomb. A bomb killed the man who gave it to me, and I
often feel he is doing me the service of an angel.
The horror of these times would be unendurable unless we kept being cheered and set upright again by the promises that are spoken. The angels of annunciation, speaking their message of blessing into the midst of anguish, scattering their seed of blessing that will one day spring up amid the night, call us to hope. These are not yet the loud angels of rejoicing and fulfillment that come out into the open, the angels
of Advent. Quiet, inconspicuous, they come into rooms and before hearts as they
did then. Quietly the bring God’s questions and proclaim to us the wonders of
God, for whom nothing is impossible.
For all its earnestness, Advent is a time of inner security, because we have received a message. Oh, if it ever happens that we forget the message and the promises; if all we know is the four walls and the prison windows of our gray days; if we can no longer hear the gentle step of the announcing angels; if our soul no longer is at once shaken and exalted by their whispered word--then it will be all over with us. We are
living wasted time and are dead before they do us any harm.
--Alfred Delp, “The Shaking Reality of Advent,” in When the Time Was Fulfilled, Farmington, PA: Plough, 1965, pg. 16.William H. Willimon
Monday, November 12, 2007
For youth off campus, the picture is equally disturbing. The rate of violent crimes by youth in the United States rose by 25 percent over the past decade. The teen-age suicide rate has tripled over the past three decades. Suicide is the second leading cause of death of 15-to-19-year-olds. The image of our nation's best and brightest, mindlessly consuming large amounts of alcohol, is not an attractive one, yet it is an image which accurately portrays an important aspect of today's young adults.
I have sometimes called today's Twenty-Something crowd "The Abandoned Generation". Today's young adults have the dubious distinction of being our nation's most aborted generation. After scores of interviews with them, Susan Litwin called them "The Postponed Generation," those children of the children of the Sixties who were raised by parents so uncertain of their own values that they dared not attempt to pass on values to their young.
Here is the way in which Yale's Allan Bloom put the problem:
... the souls of young people are in a condition like that of the first men in
the state of nature -- spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no
inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone. They can be
anything they want to be, but they have no particular reason to want to be
anything in particular.
We have therefore made “reaching a new generation of Christians” one of our Conference priorities. The good news is that many of these young people are willing to listen, amazingly willing to sit still and to focus if we are bold enough to speak. For what could a preacher ask but that? My student generation of the Sixties was unable to hear words spoken by anyone over Thirty. Our parents lied to us about Vietnam; they failed to be straight with us about Civil Rights.
I have found that today's "Abandoned Generation" brings a new curiosity and openness to the gospel as well as a willingness to hear what their elders have to say, if we will speak directly to them. Therefore leaders of the church need to revise some of our conventional wisdom about the imperviousness of young adult hearts to the gospel. Thomas G. Long, who led this year’s Bishop’s Convocation, says it well:
...There is a growing recognition that it is not enough for the community of
faith to wait around for the "boomers" to drift back. ....Conventional wisdom
holds that there are three broad phases in religious commitment: There is
childhood, a pliable and receptive age religious instruction can and should be
given; there is mature adulthood, when people, given the right incentives, can
be persuaded to take on the responsibilities of institutional church life. In
between childhood and adulthood, there is the vast wasteland of adolescence and
young adulthood, a time when most people wander, or run away from their
religious roots. The most that a community of faith can do in this middle period
is to wait patiently, to leave people alone in their season of rebellion,
smiling with the knowledge that, by the time these rebels arrive at their
thirties, they will probably be back in the pews and may well be heading up the
Christian education committee.
This conventional wisdom is wrong....
Long feels that the contemporary church must take the religious wanderings of young adults with new seriousness, that the time is ripe for new strategies of evangelization and Christian education of a generation who, having been left to their own devices, religiously speaking, now needs to be addressed by the church.
Can we see the needs and problems of this generation of young adults as an invitation to proclaim the gospel with boldness, to beckon them toward a new world named the Kingdom of God? If we can, we shall discover this generation as a marvelous opportunity for gospel proclamation.
William H. Willimon
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
"I want to preach sermons which really hit my people where they live."
In sum, these pastors wanted to preach in a way that addressed their culture. There was a time when I would have agreed that this was one of the primary purposes of Christian preaching--to relate the gospel to contemporary culture. However, I have come to question this way of construing the task of Christian preaching.
Sometimes in leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear that we may have fallen in! When, in our sermons, we sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the new modern world, the traffic was only moving in one direction on that interpretive bridge. It was always the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like "This relates to me," or, "I'm sorry, this is really impractical," or, "I really can't make sense out of that." It was always the modern world telling the Bible what's what.
I don't believe that the Bible wants to "speak to the modern world." Rather, I think the Bible wants to change, convert the modern world.
The modern world is not only the realm of the telephone, the telegraph, and allegedly "critical thinking," this world is also the habitat of Auschwitz, two of the bloodiest wars of history, and assorted totalitarian schemes which have consumed the lives of millions. Why would our preaching want to be comprehensible to that world?
Too often Christians have treated the modern world as if it is an unalterable fact, a reality to which we were obligated to adjust and adapt, rather than a point of view with which we might argue.
Fortunately, modern ways of knowing and thinking are gradually losing their privileged status in Western thought. We are realizing that modernity is only one way of describing what is going on in the world. Humanity has received many gifts from modern, scientific, technological ways of thinking. However, as we ended the twentieth century, we realized that modernity was not without its loses.
Rather than reaching out to speak to our culture, I think our time as preachers is better spent inculturating Twenty First Century Americans into that culture which is called church. There is no way that I can crank the gospel down to the level where any American can walk in off the street and know what it is all about within fifteen minutes. One can't even do that with baseball! You have to learn the vocabulary, the rules, and the culture in order to understand it. Being in church is something at least as different as baseball.
Forming the church through our speech, laying on contemporary Christians the stories, images, and practices which make us disciples is our most challenging task as preachers.
The point is not to speak to the culture. The point is to change it. God's appointed means of producing change is called church. God's typical way of producing church is called preaching.
William H. Willimon
Monday, October 29, 2007
Most of us began worrying about our membership loses with the publication of Dean Kelly's Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row, 1977). Kelly's thesis, as best I remember, was not simply that conservative churches were growing because they were strict and conservative (although their relatively high demands upon their members was a positive growth factor) but rather because these churches kept themselves energetically focused on the main business of religion -- making meaning for their members. When churches become distracted, seeing themselves as just another volunteer service organization, or one more friendly social club, they decline. The business of churches, said Kelly, is meaning in God.
In the succeeding years, we pastors were deluged by studies and books on church growth and decline. Some said Kelly had neglected certain sociological factors; that he had made too much of the intellectual/theological basis for church growth. They pointed out that the mainline protestant birthrates had declined since the 1950's. Most mainline growth comes through births to members, therefore the decline.
Then a book by C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen, Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream: Sources of Growth and Opportunities for Change (Abingdon, 1995) showed the fruit of decades of studies of church growth and decline. As their title shows, Hadaway and Roozen, two distinguished observers of the mainline church, tried to get beyond analysis and more toward positive prescription.
We live in a buyer's market, as far as religion is concerned, say Hadaway and Roozen. And that's not completely bad. Having had a virtual monopoly on American religious life, today's mainline protestants must now adapt to a consumeristic culture where people shop for a church, where people demand quality, and where people drop their church if it doesn't meet their demands.
Too often those demands are identified as an upbeat worship service, a clean nursery, a big parking lot -- which are important factors. However, Hadaway and Roozen highlight a demand that echoes some of Kelly's earlier claims. They say that, when all the factors are studied, "the key issue for the churches seems to be a compelling religious character...not whether the content of that character is liberal or conservative" (p. 69).
For some time I’ve believed that Mainline Protestantism is in trouble because we provided people with the theological rationale not to go to church. We gave them a theology of secularity. Hadaway and Roozen seem to agree. Church cannot be a sanctified form of Rotary. We must clearly, intentionally, relentlessly be determined to be a place where we meet God and God in Jesus Christ meets us.
Hadaway and Roozen tell the delightful story of a Roman Catholic congregation that opened their worship with a time of friendly community and handshaking. The priest said, "It would be a shame to leave here without knowing those around us."
Then, with a twinkle in his eye he said, "It would be a much greater shame to leave here without knowing God!"
The congregation erupted into applause as if to affirm this is the reason why we are here.
Hadaway and Roozen are explicit:
"To grow and to continue growing, it is necessary for each mainstream church to
become of vital religious institution, vibrant with the presence of God. It must
develop a clear religious identity, a compelling religious purpose, and a
coherent sense of direction that arises from that purpose" (p. 86).
A strong sense of identity and a compelling vision are the two essential characteristics for a vibrant congregation. Hadaway and Roozen are critical of Kelly and others who believe that high demands, conservative theology, or strict expectations are the key.
We desperately need leaders, say Hadaway and Roozen, leaders who are dissatisfied with decline, who refuse to bow to sociological determinism, who emphasize the distinctive, spiritual, God dimensions of church.
Halford Luccock, that great teacher and preacher, told the story of the Methodist congregation, somewhere in the remote Dakotas, who suffered a severe blizzard one winter. The snow was high. Even the mail did not get through for a week. That meant that the pastor and congregation had no clue what was the denominational emphasis for that week. They did not if know this Sunday in February was United Nations Sunday, or the Festival of the Christian Home Sunday, or what. So, said Luccock, the pastor strode embarrassed before the congregation that Sunday and said that, "In the absence of any other reason for gathering today, we'll just worship God."
William H. Willimon
"I'm not a minister, but just your ordinary lay Methodist who has just now been made aware of this thing called the emerging church movement -- and I'm not sure how I feel about it, one way or the other. Would you feel comfortable addressing this topic some time?"
I'm just an ordinary Methodist too! I know little firsthand about the so-called emergent church. Mostly what I know is from the books by Brian MacLauren. However, what I read I like, such as the Emergent church's ability to reach young adults, its stress upon the sacraments, its stress upon a recovery of the tradition of the faith, etc. I have a couple of churches that are exploring some of this emergent material. Sounds interesting to me. Thanks for writing. Wish I had more to share.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
I was particularly struck by his section on sermon feedback from the laity. How do we get reliable, useable feedback from our listeners? How do we move beyond the conventional, “Good sermon, preacher” and toward worthwhile feedback that can be used in our sermon preparation?
Fred Craddock stresses that, in the congregation, we preachers are always receiving feedback, if we will be open and attentive to that lay response:
As to sermon feedback, I have two suggestions: First, if one is approachable and accessible, there will be feedback. At first it will not be profound or critical; the listener will have to test the preacher to see if feedback is welcomed and heard. Increasingly, feedback will be thoughtful and often full of memories, both painful and joyful. A sermon may thus evoke thoughts and feelings more associated with another time and place, and perhaps even another preacher, than with the present sermon. Response to such feedback may be immediate or may call for more extended conversation. Since feedback involves memory of not one but many depressed by any comments from listeners. Secondly, since the sermon grows out of and contributes to the congregational (and sometimes public) conversation, I suggest introducing into conversation with persons present or absent at its delivery portions of the sermon. This keeps the sermon alive and at work; it also removes the awkwardness some people feel about initiating response to the sermon with the one who preached it. (Fred Craddock)Likewise, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that while we are preaching, in the very act of sermon delivery, we are also receiving congregational response:
I am acutely aware of the congregation’s eye contact with me, their stillness or
restlessness, their silence or coughing--even their breathing. While this does
not give me specific information about how my sermon is being heard, it does
tell me whether or not I am being listened to.
John Claypool stresses the need for pastoral habits and practices that encourage sermon feedback from the laity:
I am always very available at the end of the service at the back of theBarbara Brown Taylor also stresses the possibility of a systematic attempt to get feedback:
worship space, and have made it a point to never be rushed here, but to stay t
the church as long as there is anyone who has something that they want to share.
I listen with keen attentiveness to the things that people say about the sermon
as they leave. Many times a person will ask me, “I heard what you said this
morning, but what about this or that?” Their question will often lead me to the
next word in our ongoing pastoral conversation. I work in the southern region of
the United States , which means that people have been conditioned to not be
totally frank in their face-to-face encounters. (John R. Claypool)
From time to time I ask specific question of my listeners. I preach to one
women’s group twice each week, at an informal service on Thursday and again at a principal service on Sunday. I have asked them to pay attention to the
differences between the sermons (the first delivered from the altar rail without
notes, the second from the pulpit with full manuscript) and to tell me about the
difference in their hearing.
Many preachers make good use of an official sermon feedback group. Sunday isLutheran preacher, Barbara Lundblad, with whom I have often done preaching workshops, is full of suggestions for preachers who really want feedback from their parishioners:
not the best day for this, however. It seems easier to give and receive
responses to a sermon after it has had time to cool off
A weekly text study group within the congregation (we met on Wednesdays);
the first part of the session can be a reflection on last Sunday’s sermon. If a
preacher is open to genuine questions and disagreements, as well as compliments,
the group will begin to be more honest and helpful.
Structured sermon discussion during coffee hour after worship once a month. As two or three people to be reflectors each week; one of them might read the gospel text aloud to the preacher on Monday so the preacher hears the text. It may be helpful to give these reflectors three questions or open-ended statements, such as, “I got lost when...” or “When the sermon was over I was thinking...” Try to vary the reflectors; retired people, teenagers, single people, married people, men,
women, newcomers, and old-timers.
Tape sermons and listen alone or with a colleague.
Trade sermons with a friend or mentor (trade tapes if there’s no manuscript); ask for specific feedback: Did this image work? Where were transitions unclear?
In order to grow as preachers, we must get good feedback to our preaching and then we must integrate that feedback into our work.
(The quotes are from John S. McClure, ed., Best Advice for Preaching, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1998, pp. 135-145.)
William H. Willimon
I'll see you this Friday, October 26, at the North East District, to hear Dr. Peter Steinke lead an important seminar on Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times. You won't want to miss this event.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
When Aristotle was offering, in his Rhetoric the “available means of persuasion,” including reason, emotion, and the character of the speaker, Aristotle listed the character of the speaker as the most important. In fact, a later rhetorician would define a good speech as, “a good person speaking well.”
The credibility of the speaker continues to be one of the most powerful aspects of a persuasive speech. Sermons appeal to the emotions, appeal to the reason, cite scripture, and use story. However, both the opinions of classical rhetoric, and contemporary studies of public speaking agree that the personality, the character of the speaker is the key factor in credibility of the speech.
Even though credibility is a gift offered by the audience to the speaker that does not mean that the speaker has no control over credibility.
At least five factors influence the credibility of a speaker:
Character. The speaker must be perceived as trustworthy and true. There must be congruence between the listeners’ assessment of the personality of the speaker and what the speaker is saying. Parish pastors have great opportunity to influence through character. Listeners get to know you intimately in the daily activity of the congregation. Of course this can be a two-edged sword! Because they know you so well, in their daily interaction with you as their pastor, then they are apt to pick up phoniness, artificiality, and incongruent between what you say and who they perceive you to be.
Competence. Your audience must perceive you as a person who has control over the subject.
Composure. Speakers, who are nervous, are less trustworthy than speakers who appear confident and composed.
Likeability. We listen attentively and positively to people for whom we have positive feelings. This can be a great challenge for the Christian communicator. After all, to be faithful to the Gospel, at times we must say things that are not likeable, ideas and beliefs that will challenge our hearers, that our hearers hear as criticism. Nevertheless, if our hearers are positively disposed toward us as people, they will receive even our criticism much better than they would if they were negatively inclined toward us.
Extroversion. Speakers who reach out to their audience, are positively perceived by their audience. The audience perceives that the speaker really cares about them, really wants to be heard by them. However, extroverts in public speaking also note that it is possible to be too extroverted. A speaker who seems too intent on pleasing an audience, in being liked by the audience, can be perceived by the audience as disingenuous and artificial. The audience, feeling that the speaker is putting the make upon them, may resist the speaker. Defenses rise when we feel we are about to be manipulated by another person for that person’s own ends.
Although most preachers do not stand up and enumerate for the congregation all of their academic degrees, and all of the schools where they have studied, we will say things like, “In my study this week of today’s scripture, I had a tough task before me.”
Or we will say, “In my twenty years as a pastor I found that….”
Conversely credibility can be engendered by the speaker admitting to his or her shortcomings. The speaker says, “One of my weaknesses is I tend to judge people by their appearance. I will see someone shabbily dressed, and I think that this person is rather shabby. Have you ever done that?” Preachers who are sometimes perceived by their congregations as people who have solved all spiritual problems for themselves and are now, from their exalted perch of perfectionism, seeking to instruct the congregation. Letting some of our humanity come through in our speech is a means of establishing greater credibility.
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels” says Paul. We preachers are thoroughly human vessels, yet God has given us a treasure to communicate to our people and one way we communicate is through who we are. Character and credibility are thus closely linked.
William H. Willimon
Be sure to join me on October 26 at 9:00 am at the North East District Office to hear Dr. Peter Steinke as he leads a very important seminar on Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.
Friday, October 05, 2007
The way Scripture tells the story (and nothing we know about Jesus would we know without Scripture - here is a story so wonderfully strange we could have never thought this up ourselves) Jesus is not only God with us but God actively doing something about the problem that exists between us and God. We call that divine work in Christ and on his cross “atonement” - at-one-ment. The atonement names that dramatic process of divine love through which God did something decisive in Jesus Christ about the separation between us and God. Note, in the above thickly packed quote from our Discipline that Jesus’ work is described as “redeeming,” “atoning,” work that is “triumph” as well as that which “judges” us, “summons…, pardons us, receives us” and “gives” us. God doesn’t just sit back and say, “You know, don’t you, how much I love you?”
God acts, moves, works, triumphs and gives and forgives. I note this because it is my impression that many Americans have had our theological imaginations truncated with a flaccid Deism that renders God into an allegedly compassionate, but essentially inactive and uninvolved sort of deity. Deism says that while God may have created the world, God fairly quickly retired and has left us to ourselves.
Deism always sent John Wesley into orbit. Wesley not only thought that, without the Trinity, we cannot follow God, but that without the self-revelation of God in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit we can know nothing of God. Walk all in the woods, hug a tree or listen to the song of a bird, you will still not know much about God.
Against Deism of any stripe, United Methodists believe God is very, very busy. The name for God’s busyness among us in Christ and the Holy Spirit is atonement. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection demonstrates that any God who would reach out in love to the likes of us has got to be a God who doesn’t mind much blood, sacrifice, and death, for we are murderous toward our would-be saviors. To redeem us, a high cost must be paid. Jesus risked all and got down and dirty with us sinners in order to embrace us and carry us home. He atoned and redeemed.
Who was Jesus? Jesus was a wonderful teacher and preacher. Many found in his words the words of life and words that wisely pointed the way to greater love of God and neighbor. However, when some sincerely tried to follow the way that was cast by this great teacher, they found it virtually impossible. It would have been one thing if the teacher had urged us simply “do not worry about tomorrow” (Mt. 6:34), which might have led us to greater peace of mind. But he went on to say that we should love our enemies (Lk. 6:35), pray for rather than revenge our enemies (Mt. 5:44), and hate our mothers (Lk. 14:26). Such talk forever disturbed our peace. Paul spoke for us all in saying, “I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19). That many believe that Christianity is mostly about “trying to live a good life and being kind to your neighbor” suggests that they have never actually listened to or tried to practice the teachings of Jesus!
Who was Jesus? He was not just a great ethical teacher, he was the Redeemer who went to the cross and “died for our sins” as the church said from the first, attempting to account for the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross. We are, as we have admitted, sinners. What’s to be done about our rebellion and estrangement from God? Whatever is to be done, it can’t be done by us. Our debts are too great, our lives too corrupt and deformed. So somehow, in the cross of Christ, God took up our sin, our propensity to serve death rather than life, and redeemed us (bought us back from slavery to sin and death), atoned for us (did something about the great gap between us and God), judged us (our sin is deadly serious), and pardons us (writes off our debts that we have incurred through our sin).
Note that the Discipline doesn’t spend much verbiage in attempting to explain just how this happens. For us, God’s reconciling the world in Christ is a great mystery that we Wesleyans would rather experience and live into rather than explain. All we know is that, from the testimony of Scripture and in our own experience, God in Christ did something decisive at Calvary, wrought a victory that totally rearranged relations between God and humanity.
Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served by to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)
William H. Willimon
At the heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth.
All Christian theology, for certain all Wesleyan theology, is a series of implications and expositions on the primal, originating wonder that the Word was made flesh and moved in with us and we beheld in him the great glory of God. We believe that those dear folk who say -- presuming intellectual humility - that God is ultimate, distant, ineffable and unknowable, are wrong. God is not vague and indistinct, aloof and indiscernible. God has a face, a name, a certain way of talking and living, and dying, and rising. Jesus Christ - who lived briefly, died violently and rose unexpectedly - is the One in whom “all the fullness of God chose to dwell” (Col. 1:19).
Let’s be honest. When you listen, really listen to Jesus, as you get to know him as he is revealed in Scripture and present in the church in word and sacrament, there is part of you that wishes that God had remained vague, indistinct, aloof, and indiscernible! What with Jesus’ forgiveness of enemies, his nonresistance to evil, his denigration of the powerful, and reaching to the outcasts, well, Christians are those who are still getting over the shock that when God came and showed us the fullness of divine glory it was Jesus!
“Incarnation” is a word whereby we join other orthodox Christians in maintaining a difficult but saving truth: Jesus Christ was completely human and fully God. Jesus was not God in disguise, or a man who was almost divine; he was truly human, truly divine.
God came to us as a baby, born in a human family. Jesus hungered, thirsted, and hurt, just like us. He was tested and temped like us (Heb. 4:15). He was no make-believe person and the final proof of that was his horrendous death on a cross. True, he was rightly human in a way none of us are. Though he was “tested as we are” says the Letter to the Hebrews “yet he was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Though we “walked in darkness,” (Isa. 9:2) he was radiant light. Though we have this propensity to rebel against God and try to be gods unto ourselves, he was fully obedient, even obedient to death on a cross.
When we stand and affirm in the Apostles’ Creed that he was “born of the Virgin Mary,” we are telling the story that is Incarnation. The “Virgin Birth” both claims Jesus’ godly nature - he was not something that we worked for or thought up - and Jesus’ human nature - he was born as we are born and died as we must die. The story of Jesus begins with a woman, an obedient woman who said in effect, “I don’t know all that you are going to do for the world through me, but here I am, send me.” (Luke 1-2) This is why the church traditionally spoke of Mary as the very first disciple. She was the first to hear the call of God in Christ and to say, “yes.”
Just when we were all set to worship a God who seemed distant, indistinct, therefore undemanding and irrelevant, a God who could be utilized in our pet causes and to fulfill our assumed needs, we met God in the flesh, Jesus the Christ. He managed to be both very close to us, very much like us and absolutely distant from us, very unlike us. He both stood next to us in our suffering and walked on ahead of us in our complacency. So if you are aggravated with Christians in general for talking in such seemingly convoluted and complex ways, and with United Methodists in particular, please know that we are trying to think about the almost unthinkable - “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).
William H. Willimon
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
We Believe in the Triune God
United Methodists profess the historic Christian faith in God, incarnate in Jesus Christ for our salvation and ever at work in human history in the Holy Spirit. (Boldface quotes are from the Theological Statement of the Book of Discipline.)
“In the beginning God,…” (Gen. 1:1). That’s the way the Bible begins. Our story starts with God. In fact, if God had not said, “Let there be….” we would have had no story to tell. We have been conditioned by our culture to think that our life stories begin with us, with our initiative, our hard work, our own intellectual searching. We are heirs of the story that is modernity, the story that tells us that we are in control, gods unto ourselves. Knowledge is power. We think in order to gain control, to have power over ourselves and the world, to use the world and everyone in it for our egoistical ends. It is therefore somewhat of an offense to hear of a God whose love desires to control us for God’s purposes, rather than the other way around.
The modern world teaches us that we are masters of our fate, captains of our souls. Rather than see ourselves as creatures, we like to think of ourselves as sovereign, free creators. We construct ourselves through our astute choices and heroic decisions. What a shock to learn, through the testimony of Israel and the church, that the lives we are living may not be our own. As the psalmist puts it, “It is he who made us and not we ourselves” (Psalm 100:2). God made us before we had the opportunity to make up God.
That assertion, that God makes us, rather than we make God, flies in the face of what we have been taught to think about human thinking by modern cosmologists like Kant and Feuerbach. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put into our heads that the world is a chaotic, disorganized affair that assaults our senses with confusing phenomena. Our minds go to work on this mess of data and impose categories of space and time, arranging the world in a way that we find to be coherent and controllable.
See what’s happened in Kant? The primal story of God creating and giving a good world in Genesis 1 has been exchanged for a counter narrative about our construction and constitution of a world that is better understood by us in order to be better controlled by us. The voice that now speaks, bringing something out of nothing, order out of chaos, light out of darkness is no longer the voice of God (Gen. 1 and 2) but rather our own voices emanating from our own vaunted reason as we make a world to suit ourselves.
It was not too great a step from Kant’s notion of the world constructed by our minds to Feuerbach’s “god” as a sometimes helpful, sometimes hurtful human construction. Having been made “in the image of God,” as Genesis puts it, we returned the compliment.
Forgive me for boring you with Kant and Feuerbach. I do so only to remind you that when we think about God, we tend to do so within the limited confines of the modern world view. So it is always a reach for people who live in a world like ours to think theologically, if by “theology” you mean to think about God in a way that is fully open to the possibility that God may be a living, sovereign, free and active reality beyond the bounds of human construction and imagination.
The story that we are gods unto ourselves, autonomous, relatively powerful free agents - indeed, the only active agents in the world -- is the story that holds us captive. We believe the lie that we are our own authors. This is the story that made possible many of the triumphs of the modern world and just about all of our truly great, bloody, contemporary tragedies. It is the officially sanctioned, governmentally subsidized story that makes our nation both powerful and violent, that makes many of us Americans so driven and so lonely, the story that has led to the ecological devastation of our planet and the plethora of false godlets who enslave and demand many of our lives.
To be a Christian means gradually, Sunday after Sunday, to be subsumed into another story, a different account of where we have come from and where we are going, a story that is called “gospel.” You are properly called a “Christian” when it’s obvious that the story told in Scripture is your story above all other stories that the world tries to impose upon you and the God who is rendered in Scripture is the God who has got you.
William H. Willimon
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Congregations interested in increasing their weekly attendance would do well
to make a plan for recruiting new members, become multiracial and make sure that
serious conflict doesn’t take root. That’s the message of an analysis recently
released by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary.
The “FACTs on Growth” report, based on data collected in a 2005 survey of nearly
900 congregations, found that congregations reporting growth in worship
attendance between 2000 and 2005 tended to exhibit certain common attributes.
Multiracial congregations had a better chance of growing than those
predominantly consisting of one racial group. Some 61 percent of multiracial
churches said they had experienced growth, while just 31 percent of
predominantly Anglo congregations said the same.
But even more important may be whether people in the pews, no matter their race, actually get along with one another.
“Whether or not a congregation finds itself in serious conflict is the number one predictor of congregational decline,” writes C. Kirk Hadaway, director of research for the Episcopal Church and author of the report, released in December. “This finding points out the need for conflict resolution skills among clergy so minor conflict does not become serious, debilitating conflict.”
Conversely, congregations were most likely to grow if they:
* had a clear mission and purpose as a congregation
* conducted “joyful” worship services
* adopted a specific plan for recruiting new members
* had changed worship format at one or more services in the past five years
What’s more, congregations were likely to grow if men constituted the majority of active participants, said Hadaway.
Among congregations in which at least three out of five regular participants were men, 50 percent reported growth, but among churches where no more than two in every five regular participants were men, only 21 percent said they had experienced growth.
“As American congregations become increasingly populated by women,” the report says, “those congregations that are able to even out the proportions of males and females are those most likely to grow.” RNS
- Excerpts from Christian Century, January 23, 2007, p. 14
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
This year’s Annual Conference had as its them “New!” It is a great challenge truly to “make all things new” as Scripture enjoins us to do.
Brad Spencer from Canterbury gave me a wonderful book on leadership, Real Change Leaders, by Jon R Katzenbach. I have found it a most stimulating read for those of us who are charged with the leadership of the church and its congregations. “Real Change” is change that is deep, lasting, and genuinely changes the direction of an organization. On page 13, Katzenbach lists the common characteristics of real change leaders of an organization. I think that we pastors could benefit by measuring our own leadership by these characteristics:
- Commitment to a better way and strong belief that the future is dependent upon the change-particularly their being a part of it.
- Courage to challenge existing power bases and norms
- Personal initiative to go beyond defined boundaries - they break/alleviate constraints and think outside the box
- Motivation of themselves and others
- Caring about how people are treated and enabled to perform - understand that institutions are both economic and social organizations
- Staying undercover - keeping a low profile - grandstanding, strident crusading, and self-promotions are ways to undermine rather than enhance credibility
- A sense of humor about themselves and their situations - enables RCLs to help others stay the course
Whenever I visit a congregation where significant, Spirit-filled change is taking place, I see at least five of these characteristics in the pastor who is leading that change.
Prayer for the day: Lord, help us to be better leaders, so that we might follow your leadership into your promised future. Amen!
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
History shows the small congregations are wonderfully resilient. They survive. To be honest, one reason United Methodism has more small membership churches than any other denomination is that we have so many ways of subsidizing and supporting small churches, long after any other denomination would have forsaken these small congregations.
However, one of the main reasons that small churches survive is that many so restrict their view of the ministry of the church, scaling down their expectations for discipleship, that clergy and laity find it easy to meet the meager expectation that many people have for the small church. If your definition of the church does not extend beyond the bounds of the nurture and care of the people in that congregation, then it doesn’t take much pastoral leadership, or much time and effort, to meet those expectations.
Now if we move from our scaled down, limited expectations for the church, to Jesus’ more expansive expectations, many of our small congregations look quite different. The major reason why our small congregations are not growing, and the major reason why most small churches are almost exclusive tied to those of us in the over fifty generation, is that they have limited their ministry exclusively to the boundaries of their congregation. Many of our small churches are “church family,” as we like to say. That family feel of the small church becomes the very reason why a small congregation eventually dies.
Veteran church observer, Penny Marler, has studied small congregations. She notes that it is very difficult, virtually impossible, for a long established small congregation to grow -- mainly because it restricts it’s ministry to its own people. A congregation may think of itself as a loving and caring group of people, but if you visit there on a Sunday morning, or if you should try to join, you have the impression that they are unfriendly, focused inward, and closed. Their vision of the church is restricted to those people whom God gave them thirty years ago. They restricted their ministry to the members of the church, and their families. As those members age, as the birth rate declines, so does these churches.
Alas, too many of us pastors have bought into this view of ministry. We believe that the purpose of their ministry is our ability to care for the people within the congregation exclusively. We pray for the sick, we visit the infirm, we focus upon the needs of the congregation, without praying for, visiting, or encountering anyone beyond the bounds of the congregation. And the congregation comes to value a pastor exclusively on that pastor’s performance within the congregation. Death is the result.
The writer to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus Christ as the one who went “outside the camp.” Jesus Christ was crucified, in great part because he went beyond the boundaries. He reached out, touched, and embraced the untouchables. He was constantly pushing out beyond the boundaries, expanding the notion of God’s kingdom and God’s people. In fidelity to Jesus Christ, we must stop propping up small congregations who have decided to limit their vision of the church to those who happen to have been given to them by a previous generation. And pastors, who have come to limit their definition of ministry to those within the bounds of a congregation, have got to grow in their definition of what God has called them to do as evangelical leaders of the church. Any congregation that limits its ministry to itself will not be with us long into the future. This appears to be a law of church growth and decline. More importantly, it also seems to be an implication of following a Savior like Jesus!
William H. Willimon
What if Wesley was right? That is, what if Wesley was right, not about everything he believed, but what he most essentially believed? Particularly, what if Wesley was right in what he believed about God - a Triune God who intrudes, makes new, transforms and empowers? What if Wesley was right about the transformative, miraculous power of grace? If Wesley was right, in what he believed about God and what he believed about transforming grace, then in what ways might we contemporary followers of Wesley be wrong? In what ways does Wesley judge us and challenge us today, if Wesley was right?
What If Wesley Was Right?
Silly question. We’re here because we all believe that Wesley was right, not right about everything, to be sure (“beware of panegyric, particularly in London”), but right about the things that matter. And if Wesley was right, about what he was most right about, then perhaps we should be uncomfortable. I suspect that some of you are here tonight, not so much because you believe Wesley was right, but rather because you think he was interesting. You have a Wesleyan affinity, you are part of the “Wesleyan tradition,” you are curious about Wesley, or you find him useful in explaining something else that interests you more than Wesley: “Wesley, the organizational genius of the eighteenth century,” or “Wesley, the Tory for all seasons,” or some other merely academic interest. As a sometime academic myself, I have some admiration for those of you who can muster enthusiasm for such matters. But not much.
What if “our Old Daddy” (Asbury’s somewhat mocking title for Wesley) was not just interesting but also right? We may be uncomfortable because if Wesley was right in what he thought and taught, then we may be wrong. To ask, “What if Wesley was right?” is to allow ourselves to be challenged by Wesley’s grasp of reality. And if we should be so engaged by him, interrogated by him, and if we find ourselves thinking about God with him, why, we might again become theologians ourselves. We might again believe that there is nothing more important to talk about and no one more important to listen to than God.
So if you have a mainly archeological interest in Wesley as a set of ancient texts - a man who was remarkable rather than a man who was right - I hope I have nothing to say to you tonight.
If Wesley was right, then a conference about Wesley can be dangerous as we endeavor to protect ourselves against Wesley by talking about him rather than daring to allow him talk to us. (Wesley’s dreaded “almost Christian” comes in many forms.)
To answer, “What if Wesley was right?” we need to think what Wesley thought. The most challenging task of thinking with Wesley is that we must become theologians. That is, we must begin where he began. To read Wesley is to be in the presence of a man who has been assaulted by the living, speaking, active, interactive personality of the Triune God. To read Wesley’s Journals is to be with a man who is driven, moment-by-moment (even the most mundane), thought-by-thought (even the most trivial) by a robust, resourceful God. (Only a man who had the stupidest idea of luck - which Wesley did not - or the most extravagant notions of particular providence - Wesley did - could rely upon casting of lots as a method of intellectual discernment.)
What if Wesley was right about God?
Wesley was more medieval than modern theologian. That is, he inherited the robust Trinitarian faith that had been worked out in the early centuries of the church. God is not an idea, an abstraction, a source of meaning, a wholly other, a general concept, or a technique to help us make it through the day; God is the One who presently, directly speaks, creates, intrudes, convicts, enlightens, demands, commands, passionately loves, continually transforms. Wesley’s biblical interpretation is a sort of anti-interpretation in which he assumes that God speaks through scripture, every word of it. Rather than assume that the task of the interpreter is to make the text more meaningful to sophisticated, modern people who drive Volvos, Wesley seems to assume that the task of the text is to make the interpreters’ lives more difficult.
As Wesley wrote to his father, at the heart of the Methodist movement is an “habitual lively sense of our being only instruments in His hand, who can do all things either with or without any instrument.” Much of American popular religion is instrumental - religion valued on the basis of its alleged personal or social utility. Wesley assumes that the reader is instrumental to the biblical text.
What respectful, deferential, intellectually constrained Deist could write so sensuously?
Rise my soul with ardor rise,
Breathe thy wishes to the skies;
Freely pour out all thy mind,
Seek, and thou art sure to find;
Ready art thou to receive?
Readier is thy God to give.
Friend of sinners, King of saints,
Answer my minutest wants,
All my largest thoughts require,
Grant me all my heart’s desire,
Give me, till my cup run o’er,
All, and infinitely more.
Wesley assumes a God of plentitude, a God who is extravagantly, abundantly revelatory (my cup run o’er, All, and infinitely more). Most of us have been trained to - when we’re thinking about God - to assume deprivation. We lack enough information about God to speak with any authority about God.
Since the Son hath made me free,
Let me taste my liberty,
Thee behold with open face,
Triumph in thy saving grace,
Thy great will delight to prove,
Glory in thy perfect love.
Since the Son hath bought my peace,
Mine thou art, as I am his:
Mine the Comforter I see,
Christ is full of grace for me:
Mine (the purchase of his blood)
All the plenitude of God.
If Wesley was right about God, then we are wrong. We hear Wesley from within a dysfunctional family where death is normal. John Milbank accuses contemporary theology of dying under the grip of a “false modesty” in which theology finds it impossible to declare anything with conviction. We say that are so respectful of the ineffable mystery of God. In reality, we are reluctant to speak about God for fear that in the process we might discover a God who says something definitive and authoritative to us. Spent Calvinism, sliding into a renovated Deism, has triumphed. Silence is what you get when you know everything about God except that God is love. God is all distant concept, abstraction, and essence (Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity) and never speaking, revealing, troubling subject. We’ve got just enough God to give our lives a kind of spiritual tint without so much God as to interfere with our running the world as we damn well please.
I have just listened to the taped sermons of sixty of the preachers who are under my care. Many of their sermons were lively and engaging and most congregations would hear them gladly on a Sunday. Yet in a depressing majority of these sermons there was little indication that the content of the sermon or the engine driving the proclamation was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Other than that, they were fine sermons.
One sermon began well enough, the Second Sunday of Christmas, Luke 2, young Jesus putting the temple elders through their paces, abandoned by Mom and Dad. After reading the text, and noting Jesus’ amazing ability to stupefy professional scholars, the preacher then sailed off into a veritable shopping list of things we needed to do. We were told that we must resolve, in the coming year, to be more proficient in study of God’s word. We should strive to “increase in wisdom and in statue.” We ought to spend more time with our families (despite Jesus’ abandonment of his own family).
Note how quickly, how effortlessly, and predictably the preacher disposed of a story about Jesus and transformed it into a moralistic diatribe about us. Moving from a text that simply declares what Jesus did and, by implication, who Jesus is, the preacher moved to a moralistic rant on all the things that we need to do if we (lacking a living, active God) are to take charge of our lives and the world.
This is what Barth condemned as “religion,” defined in Romans as “a vigorous and extensive attempt to humanize the divine, to make it a practical ‘something’, for the benefit of those who cannot live with the Living God, and yet cannot live without God….”
Of course, most congregations that I know love such moralistic Deism. The subtext is always, You are gods unto yourselves. Through this insight, this set of principles, this well applied idea you can save yourselves by yourselves. Whether preached by an alleged theological conservative or would be liberal, we’re all Schliermachians now. Theology is reduced to anthropology because unlike Wesley, we’re obsessed with ourselves rather than God. God is humanity spoken in a resonate, upbeat voice backed up with power-point presentation. Our noble Arminianism really does degenerate into Pelagianism when the divine gift of divine-human synergism loses its divine initiation. My image of us United Methodists on Sunday morning is that we come to church with pencil and pad ready to get our assignments for the week, not from God but from the preacher: “This week church, work on your sexism, racism, and be nice to sales clerks. Come back next week and I’ll give you another assignment.” God thus becomes the patron of politics of the right (IRD) or the left (NCC) in a last ditch effort to give God something useful to do.
Wesley’s much touted “Catholic spirit” was right to draw the line at extending the open hand of fellowship to Deists. (I define Deism, with James Burtchell, as the theological equivalent of safe sex.) Though Wesley might have been wrong in his belief in the reality of witches; he was right in his belief that the Deists’ disbelief in witches was not to be trusted because of their truncated theological imaginations.
Reaching out to speak to the world, we fell in face down. Too troubled by our expectations of what our audience could and could not hear, we reduced the gospel to a set of sappy platitudes anybody could accept and no sensitive, thinking person could resist. “Open minds, Open hearts, Open doors.” Our testimony got reduced to whatever the market could bear. In the process of such “preaching,” distinctive Christian speech was jettisoned and the discourse of instrumental, utilitarian, therapeutic Deism is the dominant homiletic mode. Finney’s pragmatism triumphs. A-theistic, simplified wisdom now dominates popular preaching (Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”) because preaching is no longer an expression of the peculiar actions of a Triune God. People on top, well fed, well empowered people always love Wisdom Literature because of its lack of a God who either judges or redeems. Well fixed people always want therapy more than salvation. We thus violated Barth’s “first axiom of theology” - the First Commandment, “thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Today the Methodist movement, at least in it North American and European vestiges, suffers from the debilitating effects of a truncated theology. We are attempting to revive a church on a too thin description of God. Whereas Wesley’s robust Trinitarianism produced a vibrant, experimental, missional, adaptable ecclesiology that rejoiced in radical manifestations of the work of the Holy Spirit among ordinary people, today a virtually deistic view of God has rendered a dispirited, ossified ecclesia that in so many ways appears to be organized as a defense against the Holy Spirit. I marvel at Wesley’s determination to deal with all organizational and missional questions from a theological point of view. Wesley was open to development and to change of the very structures he had created because he was determined to worship a living God whose perichorietic, trinitarian nature demanded a certain sort of institutional embodiment.
Church growth guru, Paul Borden spoke to our pastors. Borden is creating a virtually new, bourgeoning denomination among once dispirited American Baptists in California of all places. When asked, “What qualities do you most desire in pastors who are employed to start new congregations?” Borden replied, “They must be joyfully Trinitarian and orthodox in their theology, stressing the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ.” I thought I was hearing Wesley.
Ecclesiologically, when the name “God” designates a stable, abstract essence rather than an active, reaching Trinity, then internal maintenance displaces external mission. The ministry that once was sent now becomes almost exclusively settled and parochial. The church that once planted congregations in thousands of places in order to follow Jesus everywhere is left behind by Jesus as we maintain and subsidize thousands of little churches that have long since ceased to bear any of the visible marks of the church and Jesus moves on to his next area of conquest.
Wesley’s “conjunctive theology,” (Ken Collins) in its complexity and tensive holding together of seemingly disparate emphases (knowledge and piety, sacramentalism and evangelism, faith and good works, justification and sanctification, personal holiness and social holiness, reason and enthusiasm, etc., etc.) is just the sort of sweeping intellect that is produced by the worship of a complex God for whom Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, these three, are one.
If Wesley was right, then the best thing about John Wesley was the three-personed God who met Wesley at Aldersgate and elsewhere. As I read him, Wesley didn’t so much love the poor as he loved the God who for our sakes became poor (Phil. 2:6-10). He was not so much an organizational genius of the Eighteenth Century as a man who experienced first hand the reality of the Incarnation. Methodism, Wesley kept contending, was solely a miraculous work of God. He was not so much a great pastoral theologian as someone who was trying to figure out what had happened to scores of ordinary Eighteenth Century English people after God had gotten to them in the miraculous movement called Methodism.
But if Wesley was right, then the Trinitarian God may not be done with the Methodist movement yet, then God may find a way to meet us again in the present age. When you’ve got a resurrected Christ, we always have more future than past. God give us more theologians and fewer historians. Limp, static, inoffensive and uninspired merely contemporary views of God can be judged and corrected by our encounters with Wesley who brings us into encounter with a living God. When I read Wesley, I find that one of the Trinity’s prominent attributes is not order, righteousness, or even love - it’s momentum. Wesley’s God is truly God in action, intruding everywhere. So whereas Dr. Whitehead emphasized, in his funeral sermon for Wesley, the pacifying, steadying effect upon the general population, tonight I celebrate the potentially dislocating, disruptive effect of his robust view of a living God.
Thus Wesley may be able to rise up and speak to us yet -- for he believed in an active, personal God who can kill and make alive, who refuses to be silenced, who loves to make a way when we gave up hope that there was a way. If Wesley was right.
My friend Hauerwas is fond of saying that when contemporary Anglicans talk about the Incarnation, they don’t know what they are talking about and when Methodists speak today of grace we know even less. Without the personality of a Trinitarian God to give it specificity and content, “grace” becomes a vaguely benign spirit of divine beneficence toward an already benign humanity. Today, we’re more inclined to “accept our humanity” than to worship a God who means radically to change us and to enlist us.
For Wesley, grace was the constant, moment-by-moment active working of God in us that gives us a different life, indeed a different world, than we would have had if God had left us alone. Without God we wretched sinners can do nothing, thought Wesley, with God we being-sanctified saints can do all things. Wesley took the Moravian one-time experience of spiritual enlightenment and made it a lifetime process of daily awakening to what grace can do among us. Responsible grace (thank you, Randy Maddox). As early as 1734, Wesley preached the “one thing needful” as a soul that was being transformed by constant encounter with a living God.
A transformed life is the anthropological result of a theological claim -- "The best of all is God is with us.” A Trinitarian God never stops being Creator pro nobis, transforming everything that God touches. One of the most memorable impressions of Dick Heitzenreiter’s The People Called Methodists is his depiction of the Spirit-induced heroism of ordinary Methodists. For Wesley, the transforming Holy Spirit was more than personal and subjective; it was corporate and ecclesial. Wesley delights to report the transformative work of the Holy Spirit on thousands of ordinary folk, even more than his delight in chronicling the results of the Holy Spirit on himself. Transformed lives confirmed Wesley’s pneumatology.
At Aldersgate, Wesley experienced verification of the truth he had heretofore preached. As Heitzenrater puts it, at Aldersgate, “A long tradition of propositional certainty of faith met the power of a personal experience of the faith.”
Robert W. Cushman first told me that it was not so much Aldersgate that transformed Wesley but rather field preaching. Field preaching was against just about everything Wesley had been educated to be for. I love Wesley’s surprise at the response God gave to his field preaching. About the same time as Jonathan Edwards was marveling at “the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton” (1737), Wesley was stunned by the effect of his field sermons at Bristol. When I read Wesley’s written Sermons I share Wesley’s shock that anybody got moved by his preaching. I find little to account for his homiletic effect other than a God who loves to raise the dead and to speak despite us.
As you know, Wesley’s full embrace of both forgiveness and radical personal transformation sent both Lutherans and Calvinists through the roof. On the cross, Jesus didn’t just do something about our guilt; Jesus defeated the kingdom of Satan and established the Kingdom of God; Jesus recreated the world and us, making us into a new people who had a fresh start in life. What Lutherans and Calvinists thought wrong was Wesley’s extravagant assertion that something radical was done not only for us but also is being done in us to sever our desires from their evil affections and to infuse us with robust craving to live a life of love toward God and neighbor.
Don’t you find it revealing that Wesley expended so much theological energy defending his notion that human beings could actually contribute something to their salvation. We must spend our time defending the divine side of divine/human synergy. It’s not radical for us to think that we save ourselves by ourselves. What’s radical is to assert a God who is able to work signs and wonders. In my own efforts to prod denominational renewal, I would say that disbelief in a God who is able to do among us what God demands from us is the biggest impediment to renewal. The Enlightenment still holds our imaginations captive and that captivity is killing us.
Our conference is concerned with matters of ecclesiology, missiology. May I begin the conversation by stating my belief that the God who transforms lives formed the basis of Wesley’s ecclesiology? A sent ministry is what you get with a God who loves to go on “processions” (as the Fathers put the sending work of the Trinity). Why do we contemporary Wesleyans wring our hands over our alleged lack of an ecclesiology when, seen from one angle, that’s all Wesley did - ecclesiology. His vision of God being so great and so lively as massively to transform the lives of ordinary Eighteenth Century English people is an ecclesiology worth having - if Wesley was right.
Our great challenge, in ecclesiology is that we’ve made salvation personal and subjective (William James has won). For Wesley salvation was always corporate. His elaborate, detailed attention to the life of the Body of Christ is a rebuke to our religion-as-subjectivity. The wrong turn we took in frontier revivalism nurtured under William James, brought to flower in capitalism, now running shamelessly among us as evangelicals wreak havoc in a church that once embodied holiness. Pragmatic evangelicalism has fostered theological minimalism. Everything is reduced to “the message” - some trite expression suitable for a bumper-sticker. Rather than transformation, preaching’s goal becomes communication and acceptance of “the message” rather than life-changing encounter with Jesus the Messenger, becomes the goal of preaching.
A bestselling book of the past year says it all: Leaving Church. Our God dis-incarnate determines that we all must disembody our faith and leave church in order to follow the governmentally approved ordo salutus - saving ourselves by descending ever deeper into our subjectivity. Because of our limp theology, our anthropology becomes too stable, and the purpose of our preaching is adjustment, confirmation rather than conversion. Preaching thus becomes another means of self-cultivation as well as a well reasoned defense against true transformation.
Wesley’s ecclesiology has proved difficult for us heirs of Wesley to maintain, not because Wesley was too strict or too obsessive but rather because his was an ecclesiology that requires a certain sort of God to sustain it. (Wesley’s lively Trinitarian God of constant processions.) Only a person who has a most extravagant notion of the miraculous power of God could devote nearly one-fourth of his first collection of Sermons to expositions of the Sermon on the Mount, taking with direct seriousness the ability of God to produce people who could live the lives assumed by the Sermon on the Mount.
Heavenly Adam, life divine,
Change my nature into thine:
Move and spread throughout my soul,
Actuate and fill the whole:
Be it I no longer now,
Living in the flesh, but thou.
Holy Ghost, no more delay,
Come, and in thy temple stay;
Now thy inward witness bear
Strong and permanent, and clear;
Spring of life, thyself impart,
Rise eternal in my heart!
If Wesley was right, then we have some serious theological work to do. Wesleyan theology is a gift of God to make Wesleyan ecclesiology and Wesleyan mission as difficult as they ought to be. We’re in great need of theological, Christological refurbishment. If Wesley was right about God, grace, mission and the church, then we’ve got lots to talk about, at least two weeks’ worth. Thank God we’ve got someone as interesting as the Wesley to converse with.
Not long ago I disposed of an hour recently with a man who has a nationwide ministry in which he tries to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals. This he claims to do with a combination of prayer and exorcism. I of course assumed that his ministry was bogus. Still, I told him that if Wesley was right, then even stranger things than him are possible with prayer.
Go with me to a dilapidated ex-warehouse that is today the Church of Innerchange at the interchange of I-20 and I-459 outside Birmingham. There, in a ministry that ranges from Bible study to paint ball tournaments, the Innerchange Church ministers to hard living blue collar people. I’m there on a Sunday.
Before you speak, we’ll show a video clip,” the pastor told me. (I don’t approve of multimedia homiletics, believing that preaching ought to be done the way Jesus did it - stand and deliver without aid of technology.)
So just before I speak, a voice on the video says, “Why do you come to the Church of Innerchange?”
A young African-American man looks into the camera and says, “I met Pastor Mike. I told him I had a drug problem that I hadn’t been able to shake. Pastor Mike told me, ‘That’s good. It’s a sign that you know something’s wrong in America. Lots of people aren’t smart enough to know that God intends us for a better world. But drugs won’t get you what you want. Let me show you Jesus. I’ve been here ever since. One year, drug free. I couldn’t have done it without Jesus and Innerchange.”
A young woman, holding a small child says, “One night my husband beat me so bad that I didn’t leave the trailer for a week. I was so ashamed of how I looked. But the baby needed milk so I put on these sunglasses and a lot of makeup and went to the store. There, at the vegetable section, this woman comes up to me, takes off my glasses and asks, ‘What happened to you honey?’
“I lied and told her I had a car accident. ‘A man did this, didn’t he?’ she said. ‘I know what that’s like. Let me take you somewhere where you and your baby will be safe. She brought me to Innerchange. This is the family I always knew God wanted me to have.”
Through my own tears and inability to stand up to preach, I mumbled, “So, Wesley was right!”
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Thursday, August 09, 2007
Kierkegaard, here in his Journals, notes that in his day clergy had moved from being powerful people in their societies to “being controlled” by the surrounding culture. The result was a desperate attempt on the part of the clergy to be useful, to get a hearing, to appear to be relevant to whatever it was that the culture wanted. Thus was Christianity “watered down,” according to Kierkegaard.
The good news is that the situation now calls for clergy who are as tough on our selves as the gospel is tough on humanity. Lacking the former crutches and accolades of the culture, we now must get our courage strictly from the gospel itself. We clergy must begin by applying the gospel to ourselves, before we apply it to others.
“Even then,” says Kierkegaard, “things may go badly”:
As long as the clergy were exalted, sacrosanct in the eyes of men, Christianity continued to be preached in all its severity. For even if the clergy did not take it too strictly, people dared not argue with the clergy, and they could quite well lay on the burden and dare to be severe.
But gradually, as the nimbus faded away, the clergy got into the position of themselves being controlled. So there was nothing to do but to water down Christianity. And so they continued to water it down till in the end they achieved perfect conformity with an ordinary worldly run of ideas - which were proclaimed as Christianity. That is more or less Protestantism as it is now.
The good thing is that it is not longer possible to be severe to others if one is not so towards oneself. Only someone who is really strict with himself can dare nowadays to proclaim Christianity in its severity, and even then things may go badly for him.
--Kierkegaard, Journals 
Still, all things being considered, being a pastor is a high vocation, a great way to expend a life. The way of Christ is narrow and demanding, but it is also a great gift, even “in its severity."
These are my thoughts, thinking with Kierkegaard looking over my shoulder, as I begin this week of ministry.