The Value of Tradition

I was fortunate to get a Kindle back in February for my birthday, and I have really loved it. One of the unexpected surprises with this new gadget has been the opportunity to read some of the great classics that I’ve never read. The big one I’m working through right now is Moby Dick, which I started right after Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

I’ve always believed that creativity is aided by reading apparently disconnected works and seeing the things that tie them together.  That’s what I always loved about taking several different classes simultaneously during seminary. Unexpected connections are often the place where we find true inspiration and creativity.

In reading these two books, I came across two quotes that I really appreciate that offer a unique perspective on the value of tradition. The first is one that I have heard before,

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.  Orthodoxy – G.K. Chesterton

The next is one I hadn’t heard,

Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Moby Dick – Herman Melville

These two quotes were important reminders to me that we lose an important voice when we forget or ignore the wisdom of those who have gone on before us.

The Bodily Resurrection

As an associate pastor, my ministry is far more specialized than it was when I was a solo pastor in rural churches.  As a result, I spend the majority of my time teaching in assorted settings.  One of the things I love about this role is the way I get to respond to people’s questions about the faith.

When I come across a resource that helps me think through why I believe what I believe and teach what I teach, it’s like discovering a new tool for the toolbox. Thanks to Allan R. Bevere I came across one of those resources this week.

Professor Craig Blomberg, of Denver Seminary, wrestles with the question, “Must I Believe in the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus?” If you don’t want to read the whole article, here’s the summary of his answer,

Without a supernatural, bodily resurrection we are still dead in our sins and of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:12-19).  Without Christ’s bodily resurrection we have no bodily resurrection to look forward to.  Death ends everything and we might as well “eat, drink and be merry” (in moderation of course, so as not to get sick) and not bother with any of the sacrifice and self-denial that even just following Christ’s cause requires.

If there is no life after death, indeed if there is no embodied life after death as in the new heavens and new earth…then we are idiots to be Christians and should give it up immediately.  If there is, on the other hand, then being a Christian makes all the difference in the world—and in the next!

At a conference I once attended the speaker said, “Jesus is alive every time we remember him in our hearts…” to which the more seasoned pastor sitting next to me replied, “Yeah…so is Elvis.”  With my friend, I believe that Jesus is more than a memory.  I believe in the bodily resurrection.  Jesus is alive, whether we remember him in our hearts or not.

Why Pray?

For the last two weeks, I have been teaching one of our young adult classes at Servant.  We worked on tough questions that they submitted by email prior to the class.  One of the questions I didn’t get to answer, I promised to answer here on the blog.  The question is this:

How does someone pray when they know/trust that God either already knows the situation and is on the job or that God knows better what the outcome should be than the one praying?  For instance, how does a person ask God to heal someone when that may or may not be God’s plan?  I really struggle with this.  I can be grateful all day long.  I can ask for guidance for myself.  But to ask for others seems like I am telling God something that I assume he doesn’t already know.

When someting is troubling, what do I ask for? Peace that passes understanding, I realize is the ultimate goal. But when that is all that is said in a prayer, after a while, the result is a bit of a disconnect.  I liken it to an old couple who has been together for years. They still love each other, they still have their little jokes, but when they go out to eat, they don’t talk much.

Got anything for me?

This is obviously a tough question from someone who has really given this some serious thought, and there is a lot of theology underneath this question. The two main questions here, as I see them, are these:

  1. Why are we supposed to pray when God is already omniscient (all-knowing)?  After all, we aren’t telling God something he doesn’t already know, and he knows far better than we do what to do in any given situation.
  2. If all I ask God for is generic things like “peace” or “comfort,” how can prayer be truly relational?

To begin with, I think we (this includes me, by the way) sometimes have a mixed up view of prayer.  We are tempted to think of God as the “Big Vending Machine in the Sky.”  We put in our quarters (prayer), and out pops the Snickers bar (whatever we ask for).  This is how we sometimes hear verses like John 15:7 interpreted, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”  And yet, Jesus also tells us, “…your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” in Matthew 6:8.

So, what are we supposed to do?  Philip Yancey, in his incredible book, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? writes,

The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God.  I need God more than anything I might get from God.

I think this is one of the keys to answering the questions above.  Prayer, ultimately is about intimacy and relationship with God, and that relationship is no less dynamic or predictable than any other relationship we find ourselves in.  God knows all the problems and needs in the world, and yet for reasons beyond our understanding, God still wants to be in a deep relationship with us.  He wants to hear our thoughts, feelings, and desires for our lives and the world around us.  We only need to look at Jesus’ prayers and the Psalms to see a great record of these kinds of prayers.

And somehow, in the middle of all of this, God responds to our prayers.  We’re not in control of God, but we are given the privilege of working together with him.  So, in a sense, the answer to question two is this:  prayer that is generic isn’t the kind of relationship God wants to have.  He wants to know our deepest thoughts, feelings, and desires both for our own lives and the lives of those around us.  He wants us to ask for people to be healed, and even though we can’t comprehend how, our prayers are included and make a difference in the way God works and moves in the world.  Again, prayer isn’t predictable (that would put us in control of God), but it is powerful.

In the end, the analogy of an old husband and wife is probably very much what God desires.  A relationship that is intimate and deeper than words is only the result of a lifetime of conversation.  So, keep praying, don’t be afraid to be specific, share everything with God, and get to know him more than you ever have before.  That’s the kind of “abiding” that Jesus says is integral to prayer.

In the end, entire books have been written about these questions, and we are still asking them.  I hope this begins to touch on wrestling with this question and gives you food for thought.

What are United Methodists Known For?

Craig Groeschel wrote this in a recent short blog post:

I’m thankful for the:

  • Social conscious of the United Methodists.
  • Emphasis on being born again from the Baptists.
  • Focus on holiness from the Nazarenes.
  • Power of the Holy Spirit in the Charismatics.
  • Evangelistic hearts of the seeker sensitive leaders.
  • Message of grace from the Lutherans.
  • Attention to right doctrine from the Bible Church leaders.
  • Heartfelt worship from Pentecostals.
  • …and much more more!

I’m thankful that God uses different Christian Churches as His light in a dark world!

What are some of the differences you’re thankful for?

Does anyone else think it’s strange that United Methodists only get props for social conscious (conscience/consciousness)?  It seems to me that at our best, Methodists should embody everything on this list.  After all, you can find every one of these themes in the writing and preaching of John Wesley.  

I know the spirit of this post was likely just sort of the general ecumenical, “I appreciate things from all denominations” sorta thing, but I really see it as a challenge.  Are we just the nice socially aware denomination, or can we recover a passionate concern for justification, holiness, the power of the Spirit, evangelistic desire, grace, rich orthodoxy, and passionate heartfelt worship?  I think this is a question worth asking.

Finding the Jesus You Thought You Had Lost

This is one of the transcripts from the teaching videos I’m doing each Sunday.  This one is based on Luke 2:41-52 and owes a lot to N.T. Wright’s interpretation in his “Luke for Everyone” commentary.

Growing up, I lived on a small country back-road. If you ever drove down it, you might even think it was a back-road off of a back-road. In many ways, my life was something like that of an earlier time. On one side of our property you had my great Aunt and Uncle, the Fitzgeralds, across the street were the Sisks, and on the other side you had the old Reich place. Behind our house there was a little branch called Jackson Creek, and just across our pasture were the Potato Hills. There were so many times when I’d leave the house in the morning and tell my mom goodbye. She would just wave and say, “Make sure you’re home before dark!” We knew everyone up and down that little back-road, so she wasn’t worried. Besides, if I got in trouble, she would know before I got back home!

My kids will grow up in a different world. Even if we lived in that same place, I think I’d be a little more cautious about letting my kids run wild. There’s no way we’re going to let our kids leave the house and not know where they are all day long!

Today’s scripture passage takes place in a world much more like the world I was raised in. Luke tells us that Jesus’ family lived in a tiny village called Nazareth. Everything we know about Nazareth from sources outside the bible and archeologists suggest that it couldn’t have been more than about 500 people. Undoubtedly Mary and Joseph would have had extended families and friends throughout the village. It’s no surprise, then, that they could set off with a large group of travelers making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover without keeping a close eye on Jesus.

Yet after a day’s travel, when they looked around to see if Jesus was there, he was nowhere to be found. Jerusalem was a bustling city of around 70,000 people in pretty tight quarters. It was one thing to let a twelve year old boy run free in Nazareth, but the city was full of dark alleys, strange people, soldiers, and traders. You can almost feel Mary and Joseph’s anxiety and urgency when they run back to Jerusalem to search for their son.

I get paranoid if I lose sight of my kids when we’re out shopping even if they’re in the same store that I’m in. But can you imagine realizing you’d left your child in the big city, when you assumed he was traveling back with your family and friends?

So they rushed back to Jerusalem…and notice something interesting…they didn’t find him in the first place they searched. We read that after three days they found him in the temple. Three long days this couple from Nazareth searched Jerusalem: walking the back alleys, asking merchants, calling out his name as they searched. And finally, they found him in the temple sitting among the teachers. Rabbis didn’t stand at the front of the class when they taught. They sat and their students gathered around. It’s important to notice that twelve-year-old Jesus is sitting among the teachers, listening, asking questions, and amazing everyone with his grasp of the faith. Actually, the Greek word used here is existanto, and you could translate the passage literally, he was shocking them with his understanding and answers.

Mary and Joseph were blown away (explagesan), and Mary reacts as any good mother by saying, “You had us scared half to death, how could you do this to us? Your father and I have been searching for you like crazy!!!” But Jesus reminds us of something extremely important with his response when he says, “Why were you searching?? Didn’t you realize I’d be here in my Father’s house?”

This passage is filled with meaning, and to be honest the only way we can wrap our minds and hearts around it is to treasure it in our hearts in the same way Luke tells us Mary did.

I can relate to this story all too well on several different levels. There have been times in my life when I’ve went my own way, assuming Jesus was with me, taking Jesus for granted, and all of a sudden I look around and he’s not where I expected him to be. Again and again, the times that I have decided to strike out on my own and do it my way, I’ve struggled. Like Mary and Joseph, I’ve at least had enough awareness to search for Jesus. But also like them, I’ve often spent three days looking for him where he can’t be found. And Jesus will say to us, “Didn’t you know where to find me? I’m here going about my Father’s business.”

As Christians from the Methodist Tradition we have a strong belief that God has given us a map of where he can be found. We call this map the “means of grace.” These are the means where God promises to meet us: in worship together as the Church, in prayer, in studying Scripture, baptism, Holy Communion, authentic Christian community, visiting the sick, caring for the poor, giving. Are you looking for Jesus? Believe it or not, you can still find him in his Father’s house. I want to invite and challenge you to return to the tried and true places where God has promised to meet his people. Don’t waste your time looking anywhere else, and you’ll find the Jesus you thought you’d lost.

Science and Theology

Last night, our church hosted a discussion on Science and Theology as the final installment of our Living Faithfully series.  As I listened to the talk, I thought it might be interesting to provide some of the resources that have shaped my own thinking in this area.  To make a long story short, I entered the ministry after six years studying Biology and Molecular Biology, so it has been an important thing in my faith to integrate these two fields that are sometimes seen as polar opposites.

Here are a few books and a resource that have been helpful to me:

There are many more, and some that are much more specific and in depth.  If there’s a field you’re curious about specifically, either leave a comment or contact me and I can give you more detail.

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 6

So then, what is our response in a world where suffering is often met with a disinterested look and the idea that it is generally, “for your own good?” How can we challenge the common moral imagination which suggests an utterly teleological approach to suffering? It is my belief that it can only happen by truly listening and fully hearing the testimony of those who suffer for nothing. We can only be jolted out of our complacency by hearing the stories of those who have seen the brutality and injustice firsthand.

The book of Job has challenged me. It has made me question whether or not I’ve been complicit in the suffering of the world. It has forced me to ask whether or not my own “theodicy,” is a way of enforcing the status quo, and it has challenged my own moral imagination. Perhaps then, that is the “point” of the book. Perhaps, we are all called to move from an easy embrace of mystery to an uneasy embrace of social rectification as we encounter and experience the full witness of suffering in our world.

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 5

In response to this understanding, then, we must think about how the book of Job might challenge and transform our cultural and social structures in response to suffering. Walter Brueggemann becomes a very helpful conversation partner exactly at this point. If Job’s experience of suffering and moral response is carried out in our world, we will need to be attentive to the cries and laments of those who suffer all around us.

As those who are oppressed under brutal dictatorships share their testimonies, we as Christians are called to listen. As those who have experienced traumatic attacks begin to bear witness to the brutality, we who have some measure of power are called to respond.

Brueggemann suggests, that we often use theodicy as a tool of those with a vested interest in the status quo.[1] However, when we truly hear the testimonies and cries of those who are suffering, we will also hear the not-so-subtle voice of God calling us to alleviate suffering.

If we take suffering to be something that confers wisdom, strength, or character on those who are suffering, we are tempted to see ourselves as free us from having to respond. However, if like Job we see come to understand suffering as meaningless, our moral imagination won’t be able to accept any amount of suffering as acceptable. This does not necessarily lead to the disregard for life caricatured in the popular figure of the “Joker.” Combined with an interest in hearing the witness and testimony of the sufferer, it leads to an appropriate response to act.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “Theodicy in a Social Dimension,” JSOT 33 (1985): p. 7

Conflicting Moral Imaginations: Job, His Friends, and Suffering, Part 4

If you haven’t been reading this series of posts, then this one might still be interesting.  I try to interact with popular culture and the recent Batman movie’s portrayal of suffering.

Recently on the History Channel, there has been a television show entitled, Batman Unmasked: the Psychology of the Dark Knight. Various psychologists and experts debate the response to suffering and trauma in the fictional life of Bruce Wayne, the alter-ego of Batman. Bruce Wayne, as a child, experienced the death of his mother and father before his eyes. Somehow, as a result of that tragedy, he focused his life and became a vigilante of sorts with a desire to channel his fears and suffering into a positive good. He thus becomes Batman, and takes on the role of defending Gotham, the city where his parents were killed.

On the other hand, this special also portrays the Joker, Batman’s archenemy. The Joker too has experienced great suffering. In various versions of his origin in the Batman comics, the Joker is portrayed as someone who was unjustly horribly disfigured and driven insane. However the Joker’s response is quite different than Batman’s. Taking a seemingly opposite approach to Batman’s teleological view of suffering as something that builds character, the Joker reasons that if life is unpredictable and characterized by suffering, then life is utterly meaningless.

The modern moral imagination regarding suffering is the response of Batman. Many people tend to idealize suffering in such a way as to lift up the teleological “benefits,” at the expense of fully understanding the difficulty of those who suffer. For most of us, suffering is only tolerable if it makes us better people. Suffering is acceptable because it supposedly makes us stronger, holier, or wiser. Strangely enough, most of us seem to agree with Job’s friends!

In that version of understanding suffering, it is either caused by something or intended for something. The idea that suffering could be pointless or meaningless, which Job seems to embrace, is a moral imagination that is demonized and parodied in the character of the Joker. In the popular moral imagination of our day, and perhaps of Job’s day, if suffering is meaningless or pointless then life is meaningless as well. In that way of imagining reality, insanity and destruction are the only possible outcomes.

Job’s position then, offers a totally different way of looking at the world than common wisdom, both in his day and in ours. In Job’s moral imagination, the meaninglessness and pointlessness of suffering refuses to suggest that life itself is meaningless. Instead, it suggests that something is utterly wrong. In the face of that “wrong-ness,” those who suffer unjustly are called to bear witness and give testimony to the reality of their experience.