The Peaceful Fruit of Righteousness

(I’m posting here my homily for today’s Ash Wednesday service at Southern Methodist University. It is based on two verses from Hebrews 12.)

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline (paideia). God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7)

“Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Her. 12:11)

I do not go to a concert to listen to the performers play scales, nor, I’m guessing, do you. But practicing scales for musicians is an essential part of their discipline. Practice of this sort frees them for the goal, which is, in one obvious sense, the performance, but in a larger sense, it is the music itself. We don’t go to concerts to hear performances. We go to hear music. Something ineffable, something transcendent happens, as we experience music.

Case in point: Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion singing “The Prayer” brings me to tears just about every time I hear it. If you know the song, there is a bridge in which the music rises and swells in crescendo while the singers voice these words, (which they sing in Italian):

“We dream a world without violence any longer, a world of justice and hope, every day near your hand, symbol of peace and fraternity.”

Of course, it’s much more beautiful in Italian and the force of the rhyme comes through:

Sogniamo un mondo senza più violenza
Un mondo di giustizia e di speranza
Ognuno dia la mano al suo vicino
Simbolo di pace, di fraternità

The skill of Bocelli and Dion is beyond question. Their discipline in developing their technique would be interesting to observe, but it’s the music that is their goal. Listening to them make music takes us out of ourselves to something more, something bigger.

We may be tempted to focus on the Lenten discipline, perhaps, too much as an end rather than the means, as if, like going over the scales again and again, the point of practicing was the practicing itself. We don’t practice the Lenten discipline for the sake of the discipline, crucial though it is. We observe Lent for something bigger, for, as this text calls it, the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

How do we bear this fruit?

Discipline. Discipline is the means. The end is righteousness. The Greek term for which “discipline” is the translation is a word familiar to educators. It is the word paideia, well-known in Greco-Roman culture as the education an aristocrat’s son would undergo to prepare to govern. The young one enters into paideia, undergoes the process, endures it. In a quite literal way, one suffers this discipline, using that word in the same sense as the one who does not suffer fools gladly. Paideia can be difficult and stressful, pushing the student beyond her preconceived limits.

Likewise with Christian discipleship. Paideia in our scripture, applied to the Christian community, keeps the basic meaning of the word and aims it toward God’s comprehensive will. Our paideia, our training, is for something bigger than just our own personal, spiritual benefit. As daughters and sons of God, our aim in the Christian life is perfect love, love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. The goal is love of God and neighbor, holiness of heart and life. The goal is conformity to the image of God for the sake of God’s purposes in the world.

In short, the goal of our Lenten discipline, indeed all our spiritual disciplines, is the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Righteousness is not just for us; it is intended as a blessing for others. Our keeping the discipline of Lent is as much for the world as it is for ourselves.

Discipline, though it is sometimes, even often, painful, is essential to the Christian life. Divine grace is the source of our strength, the reason we can stay faithful, but the discipline is essential. We are, as Saint Paul says, to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in us both to will and to do for God’s good pleasure, not ours.

And so, as you keep the Lenten discipline:

Perhaps as you fast from eating a meal, OR
If you abstain from some other activity (some of my friends “fast” from Facebook)…

…when you feel discouraged by the hassle of the Lenten discipline, when the way grows wearisome and you are tempted to break it, take the opportunity to pray for our campus. Pray that our students who undergo the paideia we create for them, would flourish. Students, may your keeping this discipline be a blessing to others.

May the goal of this scripture – the peaceful fruit of righteousness – be ours in abundance as we journey toward Easter’s victory.

Last Adam

We are still celebrating Christmas and nearing Epiphany. Thoughts of the incarnation of the Word of God continue. Like Mary, I want to ponder these things in my heart.

A scripture (Hebrews 2) from a recent daily reading: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death…”

In the previous chapter the writer has told us that the Son “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” This is the Incarnate One. The One who sustains all things is the One who was glad to share our very flesh and blood. Our Elder Brother, who taught us to call God, “Father,” shares our sufferings. He was “made perfect” through them. A couple of chapters on (ch. 4), he is the great and perfectly sympathetic high priest, who knows our temptation, having been tempted in every way as we are (yet without sin).

These scriptures announce an utterly mind-boggling claim. By sharing human existence the Son exposes himself to all that afflicts us. Doing so, he made the Father known. Doing so, he destroyed the works of the devil and freed us from the power of death. Doing so, he brings many children to glory.

While we western, usually Protestant, Christians tend to skip from Christmas to Easter in our Christology, scriptures like this one confront us with truly astonishing clarity about the whole trajectory of human life. When it says that Jesus was made perfect through suffering, it does not refer only to his passion and death. He emptied himself (Philippians 2), taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. Not only was he born, he humbled himself and became obedient. The Gospel of John says the same: “My food is to do the will of my Father, and to accomplish his work.”

The whole of Christ’s life was a suffering, not in the sense of feeling pain or sorrow every moment, but in the sense of enduring, or going through, an experience. So many realizations radiate from this one: In sharing our nature, in being brought to completion through what he suffered, he undertook to reclaim every fiber, every molecule, every corner of human nature.

He crawled. He toddled. He scrawled out his first letters. He learned. He grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humans. He wrestled with thoughts of God in the temple as a soon-to-be son of the law. He wrestled with the tempter’s taunt, “If you are the Son of God” in the wilderness. He transformed the untouchable by his touch. He restored a daughter of Abraham to wholeness. He put a terrifyingly deranged man back into his right mind. He fed the hungry and ate with sinners. He taught. He brought sight and insight. He made friends and enemies. He endured ridicule and alienation. He prayed.

And much, much more.

It was fitting, Hebrews 2 says, that he should do all these things. He is the Last Adam.

Dare I say? Here, truly, is the most interesting Man in the world. May we grow in the knowledge and grace of the One who took up our nature.

My Perspective on “Uniting Methodists”

Almost two weeks have passed since the Uniting Methodists  made public their vision for institutional unity in the midst of our fractiousness. As usual, I’m late getting to the party, but now, finally, I have dutifully considered their statements, as I have with the WCA and others and so, some thoughts.

The vision statement of Uniting Methodists  draws the denominational picture as a dichotomy.  On the one side are the polarizers. Whether “traditional” or “progressive,” they polarize. (If only they knew!) To be fair, the Uniting Methodists statement doesn’t name names. They put the problem abstractly, lamenting the “harmful polarization that…has infected the church.” They tell us, “We are not interested in being another combatant in a denominational tug-of-war.” Polarization requires polarizers. The polarizers are engaged in a tug-of-war. They must be opposed.

Enter the Uniting Methodists with their call for unity. What serious, committed United Methodist disciple of Jesus Christ could possibly resist this call? Who in her/his right mind would be against unity? Yet I remain diffident, unconvinced and, to be honest, angry.  Explaining why requires my telling you some of my story as a United Methodist elder.

I have been a United Methodist all my life. I’m also a preacher’s kid, which means that the United Methodist congregations my father served were like family. The UM Church is family. Always has been.  I have studied our doctrines. I agree with and uphold them. I was ordained elder in 1988. I continue to engage the Wesleys and Methodism, historically, biblically, theologically, philosophically, devotionally. I did a PhD in religious studies, focusing on John Wesley and Methodism. I go again and again to sermons, treatises and hymns, to the stories and people of our Wesleyan family.

In 2008, I was endorsed as an episcopal candidate, one of two that year, by the (then) Kansas West Conference. My fellow endorsee (shout out to my sister, the Rev. Cheryl Bell) and I questioned our delegation about the wisdom of endorsing two. They convinced us that they had prayerfully considered that question and had decided to move us both forward. So we did.

As part of the interview process, the (then) Kansas East delegation told me that they would not endorse me.  (Kansas West and East had this practice of jointly endorsing.) Their reason? I was a “polarizing” figure.  Of all the reasons not to endorse me (and there were plenty), that one totally baffled me. It also smarted. Here’s why.

In my old annual conference, I was “known” as an evangelical the liberals could talk to. I had graduated from Saint Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary, by no means a bastion of conservative evangelical orthodoxy. I appreciated my education, though at times I struggled. I got a good dose of process, feminist and liberation theologies, along with living in an ethos that was, at times, openly hostile to my theological convictions. I wanted to learn from this “liberal” environment and I did. Saint Paul helped me to understand the beliefs and values of folk who did not see things as I do. I came to the annual conference, then, with a real desire for people of differing “camps” to talk to each other, to have serious, honest dialogue, in order to figure out what unites us! Hence my utter disbelief at being called a polarizing figure.

For as long as I have been a United Methodist elder, I have sought and worked for honest conversation. In the early ’90s, I helped to organize a conference-wide event that we called “Beliefs and Boundaries.”  The purpose was entailed in the name: to engage basic theological topics and to have discussions around tables to get a sense of what unites us. Or doesn’t. The logical complement to unity is boundaries. Not a single traditionalist, conservative (pick your label) I know desires disunity or wants to exclude anyone. Not a single one! But if we can believe virtually anything and be United Methodist, then the name becomes an oxymoron and we dissipate our mission. If unity matters, then beliefs matter, as do boundaries. This point is logically inescapable.

I also helped to organize a conference-wide event on sexuality some years later, in the late ’90s or early 2000s.  Again we organizers sought to bring people of divergent viewpoints together for learning and honest discussion. We had presentations from experts in the fields of medicine and psychology. We had guidance on scriptural exegesis. We talked to one another. We drew no conclusions.

One more example, much more informal and on a smaller scale: Though I have forgotten the year, I also helped to gather a group of about ten United Methodist clergy in our annual conference to spend an afternoon together talking about what core theological commitments we actually share. After about two hours’ discussion, the only point we could agree on was this: on the first Easter morning, something happened. We could not agree that the bodily resurrection of Jesus happened. Just something.

(If anyone who participated in that discussion happens to read this blog and remembers it differently, please feel free to comment. I’m pretty confident my memory serves adequately.)

I’m trying to show, by my sharing a bit of my own experience as a “conservative” (I just don’t like this misleading label), evangelical, orthodox, classical, Wesleyan believer, that I’m every bit as interested in the unity of the church as the Uniting Methodists. I know that my experience is that of just one person, but over the years I have talked to plenty of people who position themselves as I do and feel the same frustration. We’re constantly being told that we either don’t understand or that we have bad motives that we probably don’t recognize or that we want to “exclude” people or that we’re engaging in slippery slope fallacies. Ad nauseum.

So, yes, I’m getting a little sick of the calls for honest conversation.  They sound hollow and disingenuous to me. In the social media era, I have studiously avoided, for the most part, online polemics, so, on several occasions I have communicated privately, in an honest attempt to make clear my concerns and to ask the questions that I think are desperately important but that we seem not to address in any of our public debates. In almost every case, I received no response.  Not just unsatisfying answers, but no answers.

I yearn for the unity of the church every bit as much as the Uniting Methodists, but on what grounds?  By what measures? I’m looking for more than false dichotomies and platitudinous generalizations. And some of the leaders could start by answering their mail.

Christian Ethics, Christian Eschatology

A thought I had that led to a tweet that led to a Facebook conversation, prompted the suggestion that maybe I needed an article to explain what I was thinking.  I shall try to make good on an explanation, with this caveat.  I pretend no special expertise in ethics or eschatology.  Maybe the fool is rushing in.  If so, so be it.

The tweet:

“A Christian ethic must always remain coupled to Christian eschatology.”

Eschatology as a category of theology has two distinct aspects.  Its better known feature deals with scripture’s and the church’s teachings on “last things” – a literal understanding of the Greek words eschatos (last) and logos (in this case, study of).  The most well known topics have to do with theories about death and the afterlife, the intermediate state, the Lord’s return, final judgment, heaven and hell.  Eschatology in this sense then deals with final events in history as we think of history.

Within Christian thought, there are a number of approaches to eschatology: preterist, futurist, realized, for example.  Each term involves particular ways of understanding the Bible’s prophetic passages, both Old Testament and New,  especially the book of Revelation.  Christians have argued e’er long about which eschatological understanding is most faithful to scripture.  This is a big reason why some Christians think the whole business is overly speculative and not worth fighting about.  Better we leave the future to God and learn how to do justly and walk humbly.

One commenter who disagreed that Christian ethics should remain tied to Christian eschatology raised the specter of dispensationalism as a corrupting influence.  The dispensationalism mentioned originated with John Nelson Darby, the nineteenth century Bible teacher and eventual Plymouth Brethren leader.  Darby’s system was popularized by C.I. Scofield in the United States, beginning in the early twentieth century, through the Scofield Bible.  This Bible has been very popular among fundamentalists (using this term historically, not pejoratively) and evangelicals.  The Great Tribulation in the book of Revelation, the the rapture of the church and a premillennial understanding (that Christ would return at the beginning of the thousand year reign) of Revelation 20, are well known aspects of this dispensationalism, though among dispensationalists there is variety of perspective.

There is more to Christian eschatology, however, than the various competing views of end times.  Rather than focusing exclusively 0n what will happen or what is yet to happen, eschatology also deals with how God’s final purposes are revealed before the end of all things.  When Jesus announces that, with the beginning of his ministry, the Kingdom of God is at hand, this statement prompts us to think eschatologically.  Jesus’ resurrection as the first fruits of the New Creation and the powerful manifestation of the Spirit on Pentecost, which Peter announces as the fulfillment of Joel 2’s “last days,” are critical to eschatology.  Not about what will happen, but what has happened, which absolutely shapes the future.

What does any of this have to do with Christian ethics?  My original point, that Christian ethics should always remain tied to Christian eschatology, was not to identify a particular theory about (especially) end-times scenarios.  Rather is was to gesture toward the fact that Christian ethics – a theologically-grounded vision of the good, the just and thus the obligatory – must keep in mind the aim or goal or of God’s purpose for creating and recreating.  This is the aspect of eschatology that I believe indispensable to Christian ethics.

If Christian ethics does not stay tied to Christian eschatology, it does not mean that we avoid eschatology.  Any ethical system has an ultimate aim, a view of human flourishing, which necessarily includes purpose (telos).  Even if we say, “We’ll leave it up to the individual to sort out her ends,” that is a way of talking about human flourishing.  It is an ethical viewpoint with an implicit eschatology, an individualized one, to be sure, but an eschatology nonetheless.

Consider these examples.  The time management/leadership guru, Stephen Covey, is famous for the aphorism, “Begin with the end in mind.”  If we want to be good – ethical as well as effective – leaders, we have to have a vision of the goal.  If this is not an eschatology, per se, it has inevitably eschatological features. On a larger scale, historians of the Enlightenment have argued that at least some of the philosophes like Voltaire were attempting to find a way to establish a just society without need of the church’s, or even God’s, involvement.  They thus proceeded with a kind of secularized eschatology.

Believing that we can have a non-eschatological Christian ethic implies that laying hold, even in a proximate way, of God’s ultimate purposes is not really needful for Christian ethics.  This seems like a foolhardy, even dangerous, proposition.  It does not prevent eschatology from “tainting” our ethics. Someone’s vision of ultimate human good (of our flourishing) will take priority.  For Christians, if that vision is not grounded in convictions that grow from our Christian tradition, then we will wind up working for a tyrant and not the one we call Teacher and Lord.

To be sure, Christians learn from all sorts of ethical systems that stand separate from the Christian faith.  I am by no means calling for some narrowly “biblical” constraints.  At the same time, we need to be able to recognize differences.  And Christian eschatology – an understanding of God’s vision for human flourishing, for salvation and the New Creation – it seems to me, remains indispensable.

 

Real Freedom for Our Young

In the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus announces in his home town that, “today,” the words of the prophet Isaiah have been fulfilled.  “To let the oppressed go free” is part of that proclamation.

The first act of setting the oppressed free comes in the next scene, in Capernaum.  After Jesus’ unceremonious exit from Nazareth, he goes there and teaches in the synagogue.  Following an observation about Jesus’ astonishing authority through his teaching, the narrative turns to the demon-oppressed man in the synagogue, whom, with a word, the Lord sets free.

“To set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  In Luke’s gospel, the first person to experience freedom from oppression is a demon-possessed man.*

Thinking of another situation in which Jesus freed someone from demonic affliction – the Gerasene’s Legion – we find in Mark’s account that the man, delivered from demons, is found “in his right mind.”  Assuming the same result for this demon-possessed man in Luke whom the Lord set free, he went from the chaos of mental, emotional, spiritual fragmentation to a clear, ordered mind.

There is, in this man’s healing, both a returning and a glimpse of the future when all things will be made new.  Either way, in creation or new creation, liberty resides within the bounds of God’s created and creative order.  Freedom, then, is a properly bounded freedom, according to which God oversees and orders the creation.

Our late modern notions of freedom are based on individual autonomy within the framework of the laws established by society.  In other words, we still have a bounded freedom, but we generally understand that societies through governments, not God, establish those boundaries.  Whereas, in the stream of intellectual history associated with the West, we once assumed the involvement of “nature’s God” in the establishment of laws, we no longer do.  “Theology” is a word generally relegated to constructions of our very human religious experiences that we then attribute to God and since, as this logic goes, we cannot ultimately know God’s mind, we have to look to human foundations for a just ordering of society.

We therefore have replaced theological foundation with a socio-economic one and tied it to a mainly utilitarian ethic .  Our theories about human nature, at least in the present time, rest on purportedly evidence-based knowledge, believing it gets us much closer to reality than theological, “metaphysical” speculation.  Late modern, secularized western society has concluded, furthermore, that this approach is more just, because it seems not to privilege any particular religion over any other.

We have thus sought to take from God the authority to order and to chase God from the garden.

Fortunately, because all humans are created in God’s image, whether or not as a society we acknowledge this truth, we can still do much good.  We can sense and imagine a just world and work toward it.  But, it does seem to me, looking at large trends, we are, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, lurching toward chaos. This trend shows most clearly among our young people.

A couple of critical examples for my claim:

  1. It is not an exaggeration to say that a mental health crisis is happening on college campuses.  Counseling centers cannot keep up with the demand.  Anxiety and depression have been well known problems for a while, but the trend remains upward and other problems have appeared.  An American Psychological Association article reveals that 44% of college counseling centers report “severe psychological problems” among their clients.  The same survey shows notable increases in eating disorders and self-harm (for example, cutting and, worse, suicidal ideation).
  2. Similarly, almost half of the counseling centers report a significant increase in the number of students struggling with alcohol abuse.  I worry a lot about the amount of alcohol college students consume.  Yes, I know(!) that they have “always” gotten drunk, but the amount and the degree are nonetheless deeply disturbing.  We have essentially sanctified party life for the college years, rather fatalistically assuming that 18-24 year olds need time to explore and try things out in order to discover (or create) who they are and partying seems to be understood as an inevitable part of the quest.  This fatalism is all the more disturbing when looking at the statistics.  Generally, of the students who drink (between 60% and 80% of all students), half to two-thirds binge drink.

And binge drinking is dangerous drinking.  On average, over 1800 college students die in alcohol-fueled accidents every year.  Alcohol is almost always involved in sexual assaults.  Think about the enduring heartache, anguish, anger, fear and turmoil left over after these incidents.  Less dramatically, cognitive malfunction and academic underperformance is like a low-grade fever infecting students who consume too much alcohol.

Dare we think about eating disorders and various acts of self-harm in light of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ freeing the demon-possessed?  Once again the Gerasene.  What was one of his behaviors?  He cut himself with stones. (Mark 5:5)  Dare we think about the chaotic behavior associated with binge drinking?  We need to think about this.

A reductively socio-economic understanding of freedom is not freedom.  Autonomy is not freedom.  We are lying to our children when we tell them it is.  Freedom will always be bounded.  Jesus Christ came to let the oppressed go free, not by cutting them loose, but by returning them to the creative order established, guided and governed by the One he called Father.  We who claim to be Jesus’ followers dare not lose sight of this truth.

 

 

 

 

 

  • I acknowledge that this man’s condition as described in Luke is most likely tied to the other kinds of politico-socio-economic oppression taking place.

 

 

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