Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Meditation

Throughout the churches of North Alabama United Methodism, we are preparing to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. The proclamation that God became flesh and moved in with us (John 1) is one of the most distinctive affirmations of the Christian faith, perhaps the most distinctive. Comparison with other accounts of who God is and what God does is instructive.

In Islam, at least from my amateurish reading of the Koran, there is this constant distancing of God apparently as a means of honoring God. The view of God that emerges in the Koran is noble and exalted, but God is clearly at some remove from the world. God is as absolute, as majestic as God can get. You would have to know the Christmas story to know why that’s a problem.

Christians don’t know that God is sovereign, noble, exalted, absolute, high and lifted up. We know that God is in the world, with us, for us, Immanuel. Jesus is a prophet, but prophets, even the most truthful and courageous of them, cannot save. When we see God next to us, stooped toward us, in the muck and mire with us in order to have us, that’s what we call sovereign, noble, and exalted.

A story: A man died. He had not lived the most worthy of lives, to tell the truth. In fact, he was somewhat of a scoundrel. He therefore found himself in Hell, after his departure from this life.

His friends, concerned about his sad, though well-deserved fate, went down to Hell, and moved by the man’s misery, rattled those iron gates, calling out to whomever might be listening, “Let him out! Let him out!"

Alas, their entreaties accomplished nothing. The great iron doors remained locked shut.

Distinguished dignitaries were summoned, powerful people, academics, intellectuals, prominent personalities. All of them stood at the gates and put forth various reasons why the man should be let out of his place of lonely torment. Some said that due process had not been followed in the man’s eternal sentence. Others appealed to Satan’s sense of fairplay and compassion.

The great iron gates refused to move.

In desperation, the man’s pastor was summoned. The pastor came down to the gates of hell, fully vested as if he were to lead a Sunday service.“Let him out! He was not such a bad chap after all. Once he contributed to the church building fund and twice he served meals at a soup kitchen for the homeless. Let him out!”

Still, the gates of Hell stood fast.

Then, after all the friends and well wishers finally departed in dejection, the man’s aged mother appeared at the gates of Hell. She stood there, stooped and weak, only able to whisper softly, in maternal love, “Let me in.

And immediately the great gates of Hell swung open and the condemned man was free.

Something akin to that great miracle happened for us on a starry night at Bethlehem

William H. Willimon

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Resisting the Clutches of Consumerism

Our government no longer refers to us as “citizens,” but as “consumers.” If we can get you to consume cigarettes, cars, mouthwash, and sedatives, then we can get you to consume people. That is why Calvin Klein uses soft kiddie porn to sell blue jeans. Consumption.

Therefore the question: “How could we, who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, rather than say Michael Eisner as Lord, how can we as a church resist the corrosive acids of Capitalism?”

The immediate problem that confronts is that our church is accommodationist. Even though we know that there is a strong, critical strain in Wesleyanism against the evils of “riches,” we quickly learned in this society that there is no way to be a successful, responsible, public church, without submitting to the political vision that says that there is no greater purpose of human community than accumulation and aggrandizement.

For this reason, the “user friendly” approach to church won’t work. There is no way to entice people off the streets with hymns that are based on advertising jingles and end up with the cross-bearing, self-sacrificial, burden-bearing Jesus. Evangelism cannot be based upon our basic selfishness (“Come to Jesus and get everything you want fixed.”) and end up with anything resembling historic Christianity.

One of the reasons why Church is difficult is that the modern media culture (a culture which has no other purpose than giving us what we want, since “getting what we want” is the main purpose of life) has been so successful in forming us into such consumers.

In the middle of a sermon I said, “If you bring a child into this church, say a child of four or five, that child will have a difficult time during the service. Church does not come naturally. The child will have to be trained to sing this music, to bend his life toward these stories, to pay attention to that which he quite naturally avoids. If you take that same child into Toys R Us, no training is necessary. Greed comes to us quite naturally. After all, this is America.”

But then I caught myself in mid-sentence, and said, “No, that’s not quite fair to Toys R Us. Billions have been spent, and our very best talent expended, in forming that child into the habits of consumption. Barney is not innocent.”

For me, one of the most moving moments, is when people come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper. They shuffle forward and hold out their hands to receive the elements of communion. I look into their outstretched empty hands. I say, “I notice that your hands are empty, as if you were empty, needing some gift, grace.”

They reply to me, “Oh no, not at all. I have my Masters degree, a well-fixed pension.”

I persist, “That all may be true, but in this moment, you look touchingly dependent, as if your life would be nothing if you did not receive a gift.”

The good news of the gospel is that such bad news about us is the great good news about God. God is determined to get back what God owns. And we, timid church though we are, are part of God’s plan to win back the world.

One night in a Duke dormitory Bible study I had some bad news to deliver. Luke 18:18-26. Jesus meets a young, upwardly mobile, smart young man. The students perk up upon meeting one of their own in the Bible. Having kept all the rules so well, the young man is looking for a real spiritual challenge. Jesus says, “Just one little thing is left. Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, strip down, follow me.”

With that the young man got real depressed. Jesus remarks to his students, “It is hard to save these upwardly mobile types. Easier to shove a fully loaded dromedary though the eye of a needle. Impossible! Of course, with God, anything is…possible.”

I then asked the students what they thought of Jesus’ prejudice against wealth.

“Isn’t that great?” one said, “Just laid things out so directly. Lots of times with Jesus, you can’t figure out what he wants you to do. Here, it’s different. I like his candor. He’s so clear, almost anybody can figure it out. This guy hears what Jesus is up to and knows he doesn’t want any part of it. That’s great.”

Then another student. “I like the way Jesus believes in him. He invites him to join up. I’m looking for a challenge just now; maybe that’s why I like this. Jesus believes in him. Like me, this guy probably can’t imagine that it’s possible for him to break free, to let go of all that stuff, not to go to law school, not to please his parents. But Jesus thinks he can do it, even him.”

That night I learned that sometimes the difference between bad news and good news is where you happen to be when you get the news. The breakdown and dissolution of American culture, otherwise known as Disneyworld, is a gift, a marvelous time for us to attempt to save people before it’s too late, to learn to worship a God whose victories come through righteousness not riches. To call everyone to confess that Jesus Christ is the one Word of God whom we must listen in life and in death.

William H. Willimon

Don't forget to join Tony Campolo, Dr. C.T. Vivian, and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6!

Imagination and Ministry

“The Bible is a book of the imagination.” So writes Harvard’s Peter Gomes. One reason why Peter is such a great preacher, and biblical interpreter, is that he has a fertile imagination. It is as if Scripture has as its purpose to stoke, to fund, and to fuel the imagination, thereby to make available to us a new heaven and a new earth.

Therefore, I think the best preaching from the Bible is that preaching that is evocative, suggestive, and thick, rather than that preaching which, in wooden fashion, merely lays out principles and precepts, abstractions and rules. We pastors are those who are called, in great part, to open up the imagination of our congregations to what is possible and probable now that a creative God is determined to get back what belongs to God. Too often we preachers think that our job is to take a biblical text and narrow the possibilities of that text, force it to speak univocally, and reduce it to the one authoritative, right interpretation. More creative, and perhaps more faithful, biblical interpretation and exhortation seeks to multiply the possibilities, to open up new perspectives, and to help us see something that we would not have seen without the imaginative stimulation of Scripture.

Professor Carol Zaleski of Smith College, herself a wonderfully imaginative interpreter of the Christian faith, writes that what is possible for us as Jesus’ disciples is directly proportional to what we will imagine:

Every institution with which we deal – our schools, hospitals, courts, theaters, newspapers, stores, playgrounds, and even our churches – tells us by signs overt or subliminal that the dramatic parts of the Christian story are over; except for some commotion at the end on which it’s best not to dwell. We know this can’t be right, and yet these blandishments, claiming to be the voice of reason, whisper in our ears so continuously that we begin to suffer imagination fatigue. Imagination fatigue doesn’t directly attack the Christian faith; instead it diminishes the power of the Christian story to quicken culture. “The heart is commonly reached,” as John Henry Newman wrote, “not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.” But if imagination is fatigued, faith is surely in jeopardy, and even testimony begins to falter.

-- Carol Zaleski, “Faith Matters, Habits of Hobbits,” Christian Century, June 14, 2003, pg. 37.

Be sure to join Tony Campolo, Dr. C.T. Vivian, and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6 if you are in Birmingham, Alabama. Remember, the event is free but please register so the planning team will know you are coming. I hope to see you there!

William H. Willimon

Reaching People for Christ or for the Culture?

Jesus commands us to go and to reach out to all the world in his name. Yet sometimes, in evangelistically reaching out, we fall face down into the culture. In offering people the Christian faith, we offer them nothing much more than they could get anywhere else in the world. Pastor Rick Barger thinks about the difference between Christian evangelism and any other marketing venture.

On the front door of our house hung a little white plastic bag with a videotape in it. On its cover was a picture of an immensely obese sumo wrestler. He hung suspended in the air. His legs were split, almost parallel to the ground as if he were a gymnast. His right arm was stretched straight up over his head. The hand in this outstretched arm palmed a basketball. He was a four-hundred pound Michael Jordan!

Under this picture were these bold words:
In smaller print were these words:
7 minutes.

So what the heck? Not knowing who hung this curious tape on my door or what it was about, I turned on our television, cued up the VCR, and inserted the tape. Almost immediately the room was filled with upbeat music. On the screen appeared a video shot zooming in on the new church facilities of a non-denominational mega-church located on the perimeter of our neighborhood. The audio portion began with the words, Just imagine. What unfolded over the seven minutes was very clever and inviting. Filled with scenes of smiling and happy people, the tape asked me, the viewer, to just imagine a gorgeous place with all kinds of wonderful programs. There were programs for small kids, junior high kids, and high school kids. There were programs for married couples and programs for singles. There were programs for small groups. And there were worship programs. Each of these programs promised excitement, meaning, and fun. I, the viewer, was then invited to come to the grand opening of this place.

What unfolded on this seven-minute tape was not unlike another videotape that I had received some time ago. This other tape was from Sandals, a small chain of couples-only resorts located in various places in the Caribbean. My wife and I had celebrated thirty years of marriage by spending a week at a Sandals resort in Jamaica, and they were now offering a special deal to generate more repeat customers. This tape also had all kinds of smiling and happy people. It too promised a gorgeous setting with all kinds of exciting and fun-filled programs.

The similarities between these two videotapes and the experiences they are selling ought to cause us to pause and reflect upon how our market-driven culture perceives the nature and purpose of the church of Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified and is now raised.

-- A New and Right Spirit: Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture, by Rick Barger, The Alban Institute, Herndon, Virginia, 2005, pp. 2-3.

Please join Tony Campolo and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6 if you are in Birmingham as we explore ways to respond to the challenge of our Conference Vision Statement: Every Church Challenged and Equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.

William H. Willimon