Winning Strength Out of Weakness

(I preached the following sermon at the annual Lifewatch Service [lifewatch.org] yesterday in Simpson Chapel in the United Methodist Building in Washington, DC.  It is based on the scripture text, Hebrews 11:32-28.)

 

The Apostle Paul, in the fourth chapter of Second Corinthians, summarizes the experience he and his traveling companions had as witnesses and ministers to Christ: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” In spite of the qualifiers in this statement, most us would likely look at it and conclude, “I’m not up to that kind of witness.” But Paul went a step further, even boasting in his weakness.

Paul’s witness challenges us to stiffen our spines and renew our resolve. In the West, the church looks weak, weary, worn out, broken down, seemingly on the verge of defeat. We struggle to persist in living fully as Christ’s followers in what seems like an increasingly hostile culture. Some of us (many?) feel like the proverbial ninety eight-pound weakling. While we seek to do good, sooner or later someone comes along and kicks sand in our faces and makes us feel like, whatever it is we’re trying to do, we’re not very effective. The recent women’s march on Washington, which scorned the participation of pro-life women, is only one such example. If one were to pay attention to the dominant news stories about the church, it looks like bad news all the time.

But then, a Washington Post article indicates that the number of abortions performed in this country has fallen to its lowest level since the institution of Roe v. Wade. I’ll leave it to brighter minds to decipher the reliability of the statistics, but any reduction of this tragic practice surely is good news and we rejoice and give thanks to God for his great mercy.

Always Struggling, Always Advancing

It seems that the Christian faith is always struggling against apparently much stronger forces, always losing ground to the much better resourced powers. And then we look up and find that, in fact, the Body of Christ, filled with and led by the Spirit, constantly advances.

From the beginning, followers of our crucified and resurrected Lord faced opposition. In the early phases of the spread of that strange and, to many, loathsome faith, these fledgling congregations did things that neighbors found strange. They would take as their own the newborn babies, exposed and left to die, that others had discarded.   When people fled Rome in the 160s because of an outbreak of plague, Christians stayed behind and nursed the sick, risking their own lives for the sake of sometimes total strangers. They provided loving care for the dying, but their simple ministrations also helped a significant number survive. The steadfastness of their faith under great pressures and the winsomeness of their witness bore fruit in every place such that by the middle of the fourth century, so many people had joined the faith that Christians made up more than half of the entire population of the Roman Empire. For the vast majority of those centuries, however, it would have looked as if the church were failing.

During another crucial time in the early 700s, St. Boniface, the apostle to the Germans, led his team deep into areas yet to be evangelized. Sometimes the locals were none too happy with Boniface proclaiming a rival god who came to displace their local deities. He stayed with it. He and his co-workers faced the risk and danger of the mission, until hundreds of new congregations had begun and many thousands of people were baptized into the faith. In 754, bandits murdered the aged Boniface and his fellow servants. Expecting to find gold or silver and other valuables, the thieves opened the trunks that and found nothing but books – the scriptures that announce Jesus as Lord and other writings to help catechize new believers.

Our Wesleyan tradition is replete with examples of faithful witnesses, who, though they were weak, were made strong. John Nelson, a bricklayer and early convert of John Wesley, became a bold and effective preacher. Though he refused on principle to fight in war, he was press-ganged (basically kidnapped) into military service. Since he refused to fight, he was held in camp as a prisoner. He continued to share the love of Christ with anyone who would listen, so much so that the commanding officer finally let him go just to get rid of him!

And in our generation, Dr. Fenggang Yang, director of the Center for Religion and Society in China at Purdue University has projected that, in view of current growth trends, the number of Christians in China could reach a quarter of a billion people by 2030.[1] At the ascent of the Maoist revolution, the church in that great nation appeared to be all but obliterated. Now look at things!

The church has always struggled and it has always advanced. Around the world, at this very moment, faithful Christians are winsomely sharing the powerful love of Christ, many of them at great cost to life and limb. Out of weakness they share, but Christ’s power is made perfect in their weakness.

Strength Through Weakness

The Christians to whom the writer of Hebrews addresses his book were struggling to remain faithful. Some were flagging in their faith. They had begun to worry about whether Jesus was really the Christ, whether their faithfulness was worth the hassle, whether the pressures they were feeling from a hostile culture made their faith worth maintaining. The writer reminds them of all those who, by God’s grace persevered in the work, and won strength through their very weakness.

Some years ago the Christian artist Michael Card beautifully captured this mysterious outcome of strength won through weakness portrayed in Hebrews 11:

By faith one was commended for the sacrifice he made

Another out of holy fear built an ark the world to save

Another left his homeland and as a stranger he’d reside

But none received the promise then and so, in faith, they died.

Others conquered kingdoms, quenched the fury of the flames.

Some made strong in battle, some were raised to life again.

Many more were martyred midst the crowd’s loud clamoring.

By faith they would not bow the knee or kiss the emperor’s ring[2]

They would not bow the knee to idols. They would not stop living for Christ and talking about Christ. They wandered in deserts and lived in caves, people of whom the world was not worthy. They suffered and won strength out of weakness.

Why? How? Because God is 100% faithful to his promises. This they knew. This we know. Let us never forget.

For Us, It is the Same

The witness that knows the strength won through weakness is as pressing as ever. This is a particular kind of knowing. We don’t expect service to be easy. In a sense, opposition to the Gospel and interference from many quarters is regarded as par for the course. No matter the resistance or the feeling of weakness that creeps upon us, we will not stop. At stake are the lives of many precious people.

To illustrate this point let me turn, if I may, to the context for my own ministry: college students. For a couple of years at least, we have been hearing about the “nones,” those persons who no longer claim a religious identity. Not just a religious preference, but literally no religious identity at all. Among those in the age range of eighteen to thirty five, that percentage of “nones” may rise as high as three in ten or more. Lay this statistic alongside those who claim the Christian faith, but who do almost nothing to foster and grow that faith, the picture looks pretty daunting.

But, as the research also indicates, marking “none” for religious identity does not mean that one is an atheist or an agnostic. Many “nones” believe in God, pray sometimes, read their Bibles and even on occasion, attend worship. We have in front of us, then, a generation desperately hungry for God. Let’s not let them down.

And there are many of them. More than 20 million students attend college in this country. Counting those in the same age range, but not going to college, the number swells to close to forty million people. They are, as one book title puts it, a generation on a tightrope.[3]

If you spend significant time with young people, you will find some of the attitudes and behaviors that are the stuff of caricature. And caricatures work because they are partly true. Many emerging adults, as they are now known, drink too much and party too hard. There is such a thing as “hookup culture,” with young people engaging in risky activity even though they have had the “safe sex” training. Too many of them are anxious to the point of distraction. They seem to lack grit. They don’t know how to persevere through disappointments. They desperately fear “looking stupid.”

At the same time, a full twenty percent of college students do not drink alcohol at all. They know how to avoid the risks associated with party culture. The ones who get involved with campus ministries, who attend worship regularly and read their Bibles and pray and have fellowship with other believers, do much better than their cohort who do not. The young people who know Christ, who have adult mentors in their lives, who walk in integrity, you will not be surprised to know, are happier than their peers. They handle stress and disappointment more effectively. And they want to live lives of purpose.

These generalizations point to the need for us who are older to invest in our young. The faith that has been committed to us, we must pass on to them, just as our forbears in the faith handed on their faith to us. Those faithful witnesses on whose broad shoulders we now stand have shown us time and again that our strength will be won through weakness. If we risk letting our hearts to be broken by the brokenness around us, inevitably we will feel desperately inadequate. At times we will feel our energy flag and our vision go out of focus. Nevertheless, let us not grow weary. Let us not grow faint in the struggle. Let us continue to fight the good fight.

And let us always remember that in our weakness, Christ’s strength is made perfect.  We are never alone and never left to our own resources. Ever. Thanks be to God.

 

[1] https://www.purdue.edu/crcs/

[2] Michael Card, “Soul Anchor” (2000).

[3] Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, (2012).

What Makes Someone An Intellectual?

I had a stimulating phone conversation with a friend today.  She recounted that an acquaintance of hers, hearing a talk I gave some time back, described it as “not very intellectual.”  As is often the case, the conversation has sent me down the pathway of pondering.  What makes someone an intellectual?

Let’s start with the usual starting place – the dictionary.

(If I use the Merriam-Webster online rather than the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, does that prove I’m not an intellectual?  Or does it show that I’m too cheap to pay the subscription?)

Intellectual –  The Merriam-Webster definition has three parts:

(1) “Of or relating to the ability to think in a logical way.”  OK, this is good in so far as it goes, but I think it is somewhat misleading on its own.  I have family members who would not refer to themselves as intellectuals at all, but who think very logically, especially about mechanical problems they need to solve.  I imagine very few people would think of them as intellectuals and they themselves might even be somewhat disgusted by the term, but they clearly know how to think very logically.

(2) “Involving serious study and thought.”  Ah, this is progress.  I imagine the word “serious” also implies “sustained.”  In other words, intellectuals study and think about topics over a period of time.  They stay engaged with a subject until they have the sense that they know the subject adequately.

(3) “Smart and enjoying serious study and thought.” I think the property of enjoyment is very important.  Some people are smart, but not intellectually curious.  They are happy with what they think, maybe even to the point of complacency or laziness.  More than once I have heard someone say – knowingly, I might add – that they “took a course” back in college and now feel as if they know all they need to know about the topic.  This attitude is especially a problem when it comes to Christian theology.

What I don’t see in this definition of “intellectual” are “PhD,” or “academic.”  Certainly, those who work in the academy as researchers or professors and who have this terminal degree likely would be called intellectuals.  But simply working in the academy or having a terminal degree does not automatically qualify one as an intellectual.

Let’s move to the other side of the ledger.  What does it mean to be “anti-intellectual?”  Out of the denominational history that I know, certain parts of the Methodist movement and its various denominations have been labeled as anti-intellectual.  There is a grain of truth to this characterization, but it also is the case that class interest can so color a person’s perspective that s/he mistakes “not formally educated” with “anti-intellectual.”  As one who came from prairie pioneer people, I’ve always been a tad sensitive to this snobbery.  But on to the definition.

Anti-intellectual – “Opposing or hostile to intellectuals or to an intellectual view or approach.”

Let’s see if we can fill in a couple of blanks.  Going back to the first set of definitions, an anti-intellectual might be considered to be lacking in the facility of thinking logically, or lacking the desire to engage in serious study and thought or, finally, one who does not enjoy serious study and thought.

What I don’t see in the definitions of intellectual or anti-intellectual is “conservative” or “liberal” or “Centrist” or “Moderate” or “progressive” or “Republican” or “Democrat” or “Independent” or “Libertarian” or “Anarchist” or “Postcolonial” or “Socialist” or “Marxist” or (insert the label)…

If you truly care about the Common Good; if you truly desire justice to come upon the earth; if you want to live at peace with your neighbor and make your contribution to society, then I pray that you will ignore the silly pretensions of pseudo-intellectuals, who confuse using polysyllabic abstractions with intellectual power or who think that a string of academic degrees satisfies the definition.  Practice, at least on some regular basis, ignoring the unhelpful labels we give to each other’s opinions.  Read widely, not only the stuff you’re fed because Facebook or some other social media algorithm has placed you in a certain demographic.  Read widely and thoughtfully and gain wisdom.  And hope.  If you read widely, you will find yourself a more hopeful person.

And you will qualify as an intellectual.

 

 

Little League Lesson with Big-League Impact

There is plenty of worry these days (mostly among us older adults) about entitled young people and not-very-resilient college students.  Because of the work I do, I feel a good deal of sympathy for emerging adults and wince at these easy generalizations, but I also have to admit, there’s truth in them.

Here’s one that dates me, for sure.  How many of you have said or heard, “If I got in trouble in school when I was a kid, I knew I’d be in trouble when I got home?”  And then the complaint: nowadays, parents too quickly step in to defend their children against disciplinary consequences or otherwise fight their battles.  I confess, this scenario does happen far more often than it should, and with the consequence that students do not learn how to exhibit grit and “bounce back” and perseverance.

I was involved in one such conversation the other day.  We were lamenting how often students are unnecessarily shielded from painful, yet edifying lessons.  The talk evoked a memory, one of those important “lesson’s learned” from my childhood.  Admittedly, it is low on the severity scale, but, the older I get, the more grateful I feel that in many such situations adults took such pains to teach me.

As a kid, I was a pretty darn good baseball player.  When I was a twelve year-old, playing Little League baseball, I played on a championship team and then got picked to play on the all-star team in the regional playoffs.  Yeah, I was all that.

In the middle of my all-star season, my parents decided we needed to go on vacation.  So, off I went with Mom and Dad to some place like Ruidoso or Red River, New Mexico.  We were gone a week, maybe ten days.  I couldn’t wait to get back to the games.

My first game back after vacation, I showed up, fully expecting to step back into my position on the field, but the coach informed me that I would be sitting out this game until, perhaps (no guarantees) the late innings.  I was shocked.  The coach gently reminded me of his policy: “You don’t practice, you don’t play.”  And that, while I was gone, other guys had shown up to practice.  They were going to play and I would ride the pines for a while.

I stress the coach’s gentleness.  He emphasized that he did not think I had done anything wrong, that I was not in trouble, that he was not upset with me, that he understood that my going on vacation with my parents had not been my decision or within my control.  Nonetheless, those circumstances did not change the fact that other boys had been to practice, had done the work, and deserved to play.

Lessons learned:

  1. I wasn’t (and never have been) indispensable.  The team could get along without me.  This is not to say that my role was unimportant, yet it also helped me think more that my teammates had their skills and aspirations, too, and they cared as deeply as I did about winning.  Everything most definitely did not revolve around me.
  2. Relatedly, “team” really is bigger than individual goals and desires and commitment to (and responsibility for) the team supersedes individual goals and desires.  It does not downplay the value of individual talents, but it also does not make them paramount.  How important (and liberating) it is to realize that the world does not revolve around me.
  3. Coach was true to his word.  We could trust his word.  He meant what he said and I could take that to the bank.  He stuck with his policy.  We boys were watching him and we noticed.  Imagine how easily cynicism begins invading a young mind when the adult s/he looks up to offends his own stated values and principles.  It is very important to be true to your word.
  4. The rules are still the rules even if you didn’t “break” them on purpose.  You don’t always have to do something wrong to suffer unwanted consequences.
  5. These values were in place regardless of whether we won or lost.  Some things are more important than winning and losing.  (I don’t remember if we won or lost that game I sat the bench.)  He risked irritating parents.  Come to think of it, I don’t remember ever seeing parents bending his ear too much about anything.  That is another parental behavior that seems to have changed significantly.

Any kid who has experiences like this lesson I learned from a Little League coach will have a better start on adult life than the kid who does not.  Even today, I get a fresh challenge from the memory.

 

Honesty and the Art of Persuasion

A recent Time Magazine article by Joel Stein explores and laments the character and power of internet trolls.  According to Wikipedia, they are people “who sow discord on the internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community…with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.”

One line from the article especially caught my eye: “Troll culture might be affecting the way non-trolls treat one another.” Yep, I think so.

Admittedly, Stein goes on to observe, based on a study by a U. of California Irvine researcher, that reports of good deeds seem to prompt others to report good deeds.  But the reverse is also true and that is what most of the article seems to reveal.  Trolls infect the internet and, though they are actually just normal people and not monsters, their corrosive rhetoric is doing real damage to serious debate.

Which raises the question about honesty on the internet.  Trolls seem to care little for careful and accurate characterization.  They go straight for the jugular, making things nasty and personal.  What should we think when bloggers do the same for the sake of promoting their views?  There are lots of Christian bloggers and commenters on the internet and there are lots of United Methodist bloggers.   There is more than enough nastiness among us to demonstrate the point.

Christian engagement with important and sensitive topics is dreadfully important.  All the more reason for us to strive for honesty in our arguments and, most importantly, in our characterizations of others and their views.  A number of United Methodist bloggers fail miserably on this measure.  The troll mindset infects us shamefully.

Experts and teachers of good communication remind us of some crucial reference points. For a long, long time teachers have been introducing  students to the three modes relevant to appropriate means of persuasion mentioned in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Logos (word/reason/order) refers to our ability to reason, sort, analyze, understand, make connections and draw conclusions.  Good communication illuminates and clarifies a subject.

Pathos (passion, emotion) appeals to our feelings.  Those appeals can come understated, even matter-of-fact, or they can come with swells of drama and pageantry.  We may feel inspired, or angry, or grief-stricken.  If pathos overwhelms logos, then we fail at good communication.

Then there’s the tricky one: ethos.  You can see the connection to “ethics.”  Ethos speaks to the credibility of the communicator.  Is the person believable because she demonstrates competence in the topic?  Do her words carry weight because she is known to be a trustworthy person, a person of integrity and character?  We all know people like this: when this person speaks (or writes), we listen and we are inclined to take to heart – to believe – what they say.

Many blogs plainly stink on the “logos” measure.  We seem to have overdeveloped “pathos.”  But “ethos” is what concerns me the most.  Sometimes the line between honest error, intentional hyperbole and subtle dishonesty is as thin as gold leaf.  Heck, even open dishonesty often gets a pass in the degraded discussions happening around the internet.

It behooves Christians to keep a firm hold on the virtue of honesty and integrity when we’re trying to persuade.  This is not to say that honesty has to avoid rhetorical devices.  Satire, hyperbole, sarcasm (extra care needed here!), reductio ad absurdam arguments are all legitimate tools.  Not very many people know how to use them.

Whatever our agendas, no matter how deeply run our passions, honesty must remain.  If we Christian bloggers lose our grip on a fair treatment of facts or situations or narratives; if we play fast and loose with other person’s views, characters, and motives, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

And subject to the judgment of God.

%d bloggers like this: