Atheism in the News

This morning I went out to grab the newspaper, and instead of the regular Salt Lake Tribune we received a Sunday New York Times. This was quite a treat, especially getting the Times Book Review.

Leafing through it, I was struck by the fact that there are currently two books on the bestseller list that focus on essentially debunking religious faith. At number 6 is Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, which is a polemic against the tenets of Christianity (particularly evangelical Christianity). Then at number 8 is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which basically says that religious faith is a human fantasy wired into our mental consciousness.

Now, I haven’t read either of these books yet–but I might. I think it’s good sometimes to examine the "other side" of faith. And I do mean faith, because even atheists have beliefs. Still, since the existence of God is neither empirically provable nor disprovable, it’s important for us to examine the evidence and weigh it critically.

One of the things that bugs me about this kind of debate is the a priori assumption by some people that having faith in God is somehow anti-intellectual. They’ll quote Freud and Bertrand Russell, but rarely look at the likes of C.S. Lewis (who was an Oxford man, just like Dawkins). The assumption seems to follow the argument that religion has caused much division and destruction in the world, therefore it should be abandoned. Well, that’s certainly a big baby to be throwing out with the theological bathwater!

If you’ve read either of these books I’d be interested in your review. I’m not interested in just pooh-poohing these works. They deserve some critical thought, but at the same time we need to understand assumptions and agendas (and I have my own as well). These might make great book discussions!

I’m still not sure why I got the Times instead of the Trib, but who’s complaining! The only drawback is that there weren’t any comics…

The Method in Methodism: Part V (Sermon for 10/22/06)

The Method in Methodism: Part V—The Means of Grace

            OK, let’s begin this morning with another review. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about how Methodists emphasize God’s grace as the means of saving us from sin and bringing us to new life. Wesley said that God’s grace comes to us in three movements: Prevenient grace (the grace that goes before, that calls to us), Justifying grace (the grace that forgives sin and launches us into a new life) and sanctifying grace (growth in the image of God).

            We then talked about the Rule of Discipleship, which is our response to God’s grace. The Rule of Discipleship touches four practices that define who we are in relationship to God. In other words, we are called to balance love of God and love of others through both personal and public acts of faith. Remember the Jerusalem Cross diagram. Last week we talked about the upper two quadrants, acts of compassion and justice. Today I want to focus our time on the personal acts of piety—acts of devotion. Since there’s some detail here to cover, we’ll look at the acts of worship next week and talk about worship in general and why it’s so important.

            One of the phrases I’ve used throughout this series to describe Wesley’s theology is “practical divinity.” In other words, Wesley was not just concerned that people love God and their neighbor with their hearts and minds but also with their actions. The early Methodists engaged in a wide variety of spiritual practices that enabled them to grow in their relationship with God. These practices were not designed as a way of gaining God’s favor, but rather were practices instituted as a response to God’s grace and were means toward the end of knowing God more intimately. In fact, Wesley called these practices of personal devotion to God “The Means of Grace.”

            Wesley listed these means of grace often in his writings and certainly practiced them himself, calling them “outward signs, words, or actions” that the Holy Spirit uses to convey grace. These practices invite us into a transformational relationship with God. They are a reminder that being a disciple is a discipline!

            The means of grace that Wesley listed were not limited, but he did have several to which he most often referred. These are:

            1. Prayer: personal, family, extemporaneous, and written

            2. Searching the Scriptures by reading, meditating, hearing the Word preached and taught

            3. Taking the Lord’s Supper

            4. Fasting or abstinence

            5. Christian conference, which includes conversations that minister grace to the hearers.

            Wesley would say that these were the “ordinary” and “instituted” means of grace: things that Jesus himself  practiced or instituted for his disciples. These acts of devotion act as a daily check upon our lives. If we want to know God, said Wesley, these are the basic ways we can do so.

            Take prayer, for example. We often look at prayer as the thing we do when we need God to do something for us. We make a list and offer that to God for inspection and approval. But that’s not really the true intention of prayer. Prayer is not so much about changing God as it is about changing us. We pray so that we might bring ourselves into God’s presence, to align our will with God’s will for us. Prayer, in other words, is an act of surrender.

            How do we pray? Well, that’s a whole sermon series in itself. But look at Wesley’s list of kinds of prayer: personal prayer can be anything from an awareness of God’s presence to a daily running conversation. It’s not just a “fold your hands and bow your head” thing. Prayer with your family is also important. We pray together at mealtimes, thanking God for our daily bread (we rotate the responsibility for the prayer and use a “prayer cube”—a little wooden cube that has 5 different prayers on it that the kids can read, too. They roll it and pray the prayer that comes up. We also say a prayer together at bedtime, thanking God for the day and asking God’s blessing on our rest.

            I’ll confess that I have had problems with prayer over the course of my life, mostly because I had put my prayer life in a tight little box that required sitting and trying to concentrate. I am not a contemplative at heart, so I have gone toward writing down my prayers—getting them out on the paper and offering them to God. The more I write, the more I begin to see what I need and where God is calling me. Sometimes if I don’t have a clue what to pray, I pray the psalms…the ancient biblical prayer book. There’s a prayer for everything in there! Or I also have books of Celtic prayers that I like.

            We’ve been talking a lot about how we can help everyone with their prayer lives. Francesca Flood is working with our prayer ministry and you’ll be seeing some workshops in the near future that will focus on ways of praying. If you’d like to learn more about prayer, watch for those workshops!

            The Scriptures, for Wesley, were the source of life and faith for Christian disciples. He called himself a “man of one book” and spent much of his time studying the Bible. He understood it to be the primary revelation of God—the means by which we might know God historically and practically. “Scriptural Christianity” was the goal for the early Methodists.

            But Wesley also understood that studying the scriptures was about more than just reading them in a vacuum. He saw the scriptures as being primary, but that they were also to be read and studied through certain God-given lenses, too.

            These three lenses were tradition, reason, and experience. Think of it like this: The Bible acts as a prism that filters light from three sides. Tradition is the witness of generations of Christians who have read, studied, and practiced the faith. Think of the rings on a tree—each successive ring representing growth but also enclosing everything that has come before it. The tradition is living and active, ever-expanding and growing—unlike traditionalism, which says “We’ve always done it that way!”

            Reason is the ability we have to think. We use our reason to study the Bible, to look at is context, understand its history, know the differences in its literature. We use our reason to discern meaning, glean interpretation, argue potential applications. Wesley did not advocate the infallibility of the Bible—it’s literality, but rather its authority. We don’t check our brains at the door when we approach the Bible…in fact, we do just the opposite. We approach it critically, inquisitively, with our questions and our intellect.

            Experience, then, is the end of the prism where we see how the witness of Scripture plays out in human experience. We relate to the scriptures by finding our experience in it. This is what I try to do in preaching—relating the ancient text to modern life. The beauty of the Bible is in its practicality—when we open the pages, we find ourselves there. Personal experience is important.

            When we put all these things together, we achieve a balanced perspective on the Bible. Like the Rule of Discipleship, balance is important. Most Christians (and churches) tend to focus on one of these lenses more than the others. We need all four, with Scripture as the prism, in order to see all the colors of grace God has offered us.

            So, when Wesley tells us that studying the Bible is a foundational discipline, we need to take that seriously. Biblical illiteracy is one of the biggest impediments to growing disciples and growing churches. The more we study the Bible, the more we realize God’s purpose for us. Are you involved in daily scripture reading? Are you involved in a Bible study? If not, you are missing a primary source. Being a Christian without studying the Bible is a bit like being a surgeon without ever having taken a course in anatomy!

            Wesley believed that taking the Lord’s Supper was also a vital spiritual discipline. When we come to communion, we humble ourselves and are constantly reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for us. God’s grace is offered to us by the invitation to this simple meal. It is an outward sign of an inward grace.

            It’s interesting that in some churches I have served communion Sundays were more sparsely attended. People would tell me that it “takes too long” or that having it more than a couple of times a year would make it less “special.” Wesley would have had strong words for that attitude. The Lord’s Supper is our family meal and we should take it as often as we can. That’s one of the reasons we offer it every week at the second service and every month at both. We want people to have every opportunity to take this practical sign of God’s grace and love.

            Fasting is one of those disciplines that has been more sparsely practiced, but is perhaps the one that makes the most practical impact on us. Fasting means to give up taking food for a period of time—intentionally skipping a meal and dedicating that time to prayer. John Wesley would fast beginning after supper on Wednesdays and break the fast at Thursday supper, essentially skipping two meals. I have done this at various times, especially during Lent. The discipline is very humbling. When you skip a meal intentionally and devote that half hour or hour to prayer, the rumbling in your stomach reminds you of your dependence upon God for all that you have and, even more importantly, reminds you that there are others who don’t have enough to eat every day. Fasting puts us into the mindset of our needs and opens up avenues for us to grow closer to the God who provides for us.

            Abstinence is another form of fasting where we “give up” something important to us as a spiritual discipline. We might forego television or chocolate or dessert, anything that gives us pleasure, as a means of denying ourselves in order to be able to listen to God.

            We live in a culture that is always telling us that “more is better” and that, like Taco Bell, “it’s good to be full.” Fasting and abstinence remind us that we are needy and that our neighbors are needy. We can live more simply, live with less, and that we need to be filled with more of God’s grace instead of more food and self-gratification.

            This is something I’d encourage you to try. Intentionally decide to skip one meal this week and take that time to spend with God by yourself. Use that time to write a prayer or read the Bible. Listen to the rumbling in your tummy and remember who provides for you. Remember those who are hungry. See what it does to you as a discipline.

            Christian conferencing is another means of grace which recognizes that we grow best as disciples when we do so in community. The early Methodist movement was built on small groups where people met for mutual support, prayer, study, and accountability. The class meeting was not optional in Wesley’s Methodism, it was required. You had to be involved with a small group in order to be able to be part of the larger church.

            Christian discipleship is a group project, thus we need to meet together. It’s always interesting to me to note that in most churches most of the people’s involvement is limited to one hour on Sunday morning. While that’s great, it’s the equivalent of being like a football player who only shows up for the occasional game while skipping practice all week. One of our goals here is to provide opportunities for everyone to be involved in a group where you can grow deeper in the knowledge and love of God through interaction with others who are seeking the same thing. Typically, we get the same people at every small group and Bible study, however. I think it’s critical to our church’s growth and the growth of each person to be involved in some type of small group experience beyond Sunday morning, whether it’s here or somewhere else in the community.

            A lot of people tell me that they don’t have time to do something like that. I know that modern life is busy, but each of us still has the same 24 hours in each day. We get to allot that time according to our priorities. If growing as a disciple, if responding to God’s grace is your priority, it is something for which you will make the time.

            Trust me, I speak from experience. I was warned by a wise mentor once to be careful that the practice of ministry didn’t cause me to lose my own soul. I now know what he was talking about. As a minister, it’s easy to get so busy doing work ostensibly “for God” that I neglect to be “with God.” Busyness, however, is not a biblical virtue. Devotion is!

            I got convicted about this in England this summer and one of my goals has been to spend intentional time each day with God. Jennifer and I have made a covenant together to get up at 6 every morning so that we might have our devotional times before the kids wake up. I get showered and dressed and then head downstairs to my study. I have a prayer book (“A Guide to Prayer”) that has in it written prayers and scripture readings for each day. I read through those, then read a chapter out of a book of daily readings from CS Lewis that stimulates my thought processes. I then spend about 15 minutes writing in my journal, recording my prayers, thoughts from the previous day, confessions of where I’m failing to live as a disciple, goals and plans, reflections and thoughts. I use a good notebook and a fountain pen (which was a gift, but gives me a sense of being a “scribe”).

            All of this takes about a half hour, but it’s the most important half hour of my day. When I miss it (which is rare now) I really feel it. It’s become a habit and a necessity. Who else has a daily discipline like this? What do you do? Would you share it with us?

            One of the ten commandments (actually, the one that has the most words dedicated to it) is the one about Sabbath—time dedicated to stop working and devote ourselves to God. We most often think of that as Sunday and it’s true—we dedicate a whole day to rest and worship.

            But I believe that we need a little bit of Sabbath every day—some intentional time to stop whatever else we’re doing and give time to God. It’s something we’re commanded to do—not simply for God’s benefit, but for our own.

            I’d like to covenant with you to help you engage in some kind of personal devotional practice. It might look very different from mine, but the point is that you devote time each day to working on your relationship with God. It’s an essential part of being a disciple.


Coming This Sunday – 10/22/06

This week we’ll look at Part V of "The Method in Methodism" as we explore the role of personal devotion as a "means of grace" in growing in our relationship with God. We’ll look at Wesley’s conception and use of scripture as the source of life and faith and how we might interact with that model as a way of better understanding God and ourselves.

We also have the opportunity to celebrate a baptism and share together some more about our upcoming Consecration Sunday by watching a video about our church. I hope you’ll join us at 9 or 10:30 on Sunday morning. Don’t forget to fill out your reservation card for Consecration Sunday!

Preaching to the Choir

This week I was at our annual clergy retreat over at Snow Mountain Ranch near Winter Park, CO. This is always a great week, not so much because of the program but because of the relationships that we build. For me, it’s a time to sit and talk about ministry, books we’re reading, theological stuff–all the things that we ministers love to talk about but rarely get to because of the demands of the job.

This year, I was asked to preach at the first service of the week. Now I have to say that while being asked to do that is quite a privilege, it is also very frightening. After all, there are no better critics of preachers than other preachers, each of whom is sitting there thinking, "I could do this better." I’ll confess that I can be just as critical.

But maybe that’s because our humanness has a tendency to catch us. We find ourselves in competition with each other, which is really quite ridiculous given that there are plenty of people out there who need to hear the gospel. None of us has the corner on communicating it, but we all want to be liked and recognized just like anyone else.

At some point, however, we have to get out of the way of our own preaching and let God do the work of giving us what we need–and then giving God the credit. If any of us are effective in communicating the gospel it’s only because God has taken our inadequate words and "clay jar" brokenness and done something amazing with them.

So I prayed about this a lot before offering the sermon, and when I stood up to preach for my peers I really felt a burden lifted from me. We were all there together, all dealing with the same stuff in our churches and in our own lives–the wrestling with God that so characterizes ministry. I decided to talk about that from my own perspective and it seemed to resonate. It didn’t feel like a clergy gathering but like a community where we were all in it together.

I have to say that it was a fun experience, just like it was fun last year to hear some of my friends preaching. It proved to me that all of us have something important to say…a word to share with each other from time to time. If we can get over ourselves and let God speak through us, we can all be blessed!

The Method in Methodism: Part IV – Compassion and Justice (10/15/06)

Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

           Who is my neighbor? It’s interesting to note that when the Pharisee asked Jesus this question, Luke tells us that it was as a means of “justifying himself.” In other words, the great commandment was something the Pharisees believed in, too, but only to the extent that it applied to people like them. The Pharisee who confronted Jesus was trying to legitimize this view—that people of faith should take care of their own. Jesus, however, responded with a scandalous parable.

            We miss the power of this parable if we don’t understand the context. To the people of first century Israel, there was no such thing as a “good Samaritan.” Samaritans were hated as half breeds—Jews who had intermarried with foreigners and who practiced a form of Judaism centered on Mt. Gerizim instead of Jerusalem . They were a rogue religious sect according to pious Jews and worthy only of contempt. This is not like the differences between Methodists and Baptists, mind you. Think Sunnis and Shiites here—people who were ostensibly of the same religion but practiced it differently and thus hated each other.                  

            So when Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of the story, the “good neighbor” instead of the priest or the Levite—both representing pure and pious Jews—the point was pretty clear. Who is my neighbor? Everyone is—including those who you now consider to be enemies.

            Jesus saw all people as being worthy of God’s love and grace and was not afraid to call the powers that be to recognize the inherent value of people created by God. Differentiations due to economic status, physical limitations, and ethnic origins were artificial to him. God’s kingdom, God’s reign, was for all. Everyone is our neighbor and we are to love them as we love ourselves.

            John Wesley took seriously this call of Christ. As we were saying last week, the Rule of Discipleship grew out of Wesley’s General Rules that balanced love and devotion for God with love and compassion for our neighbors. He called this balance “practical divinity” and “scriptural Christianity”—following Jesus meant more than just a personal spirituality. It was indeed an experience of grace in action and a recognition that God’s love always comes to us on its way to someone else.

            The problem is that many of our churches have failed to recognize that balance. Ron Sider, who is a Christian social activist, says that “Most churches today are one-sided disasters.” There are churches in the suburbs where “hundreds of people come to Jesus and praise God in brand-new buildings, but they seldom learn that their own faith has anything to do with the wrenching, inner-city poverty just a few miles away.” There are, on the other hand, churches where members “write their senators and lobby the mayor’s office” but “would be stunned if someone asked them personally to invite their neighbors to accept Christ.”

            The great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones put it another way: “An individual gospel without a social gospel is a soul without a body and a social gospel without an individual gospel is a body without a soul. One is a ghost and the other a corpse.”

            If we go back to our Jerusalem Cross diagram of the Rule of Discipleship, we might recognize that the “works of mercy” are every bit as important to living out our Christian faith as the “works of piety.” We’ll look at those works of piety next week, but this morning I want to focus on these top two quadrants. How do we love our neighbors?

            A couple of weeks ago we talked about Wesley’s concept of God’s grace—that humans were created for relationship with God—a relationship characterized by love. God chose us in love and we respond by choosing to love God in return. Sin is the reversal of that love, or love turned inward. To love God means that our love is outwardly focused on God and on others created by God (which includes everyone). E. Stanley Jones again: “The most miserable people in the world are the people who are self-centered, who won’t do anything for anybody except themselves.” By contrast, said Jones, “the happiest people are the people who deliberately take on themselves the sorrows and troubles of others. Their hearts sing with a strange wild joy.”

            Through his Wesleyan heritage, Jones realized that serving others and particularly serving those who were poor and marginalized was the real evidence of faith in action. He spent much of his life in India, serving and bringing hope to the poorest of the poor. If you read his works you can’t help but be struck by his vision—a Christ-like vision—for healing the brokenness of others.

            As we have been saying, the early Methodist movement really took root among the poor—not only because the message of God’s grace being available to all was so compelling, but because that message was backed up by action. The early Methodists were prolific at developing ad hoc social service agencies in a time when governments were not at all concerned with the plight of the poor. They established schools to help educate poor families, dispensed natural medications and remedies for the sick, visited prisoners, and gave their finances to ministries that engaged those needs.

            John Wesley himself sought not only to help the poor but to identify with them. In an age where educated clergy wore powdered wigs as a sign of wealth (and to keep the lice away), Wesley refused to do so. Most of his personal finances gleaned from teaching and publishing his sermons and works went toward ministry to the poor while he himself lived very simply. If you visit his home in London, for example, you see that most of his personal possessions were books and simple furniture. It was not the comfortable life that most Oxford dons would aspire to!

            Our Methodist heritage is focused on works of compassion as an outgrowth of faith, but often this is difficult for church folk particularly those who are affluent. This was true in Wesley’s day as well. He once wrote: “One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that…one part of the world does not know that the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it—then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.”

            Harsh words, but spoken from one who knew. For Wesley, compassion meant more than writing a check…it meant being there in person, reflecting the love of God to those in need.

            The question for us as a Methodist congregation is how well we’re doing in engaging in works of compassion. We have a missions team that is very motivated in this direction and you’ll hear from them in a moment about how you can be involved in not only giving your money but your time. The bottom line is that we are, indeed, responsible for caring for our neighbors as a foundational act of faith.

            But that care extends more broadly as well. Wesley was also one who saw the stewardship of creation as being a Christian responsibility. We all live on this planet together, therefore when we care for the environment we care for each other. Environmental issues are stewardship issues. When we recycle, drive our cars and SUVs only when necessary, conserve water, cut down on our power usage, and do a host of other “green” practices we are not just being economically efficient, we are carrying out God’s charge to humanity at creation.

            But the Rule of Discipleship doesn’t stop there. Not only do we engage in those works of compassion for our neighbors and our environment, we also engage in works of justice at the broader level as a means of creating conditions for compassion to happen on a general scale. It’s often been said that you shouldn’t mix religion and politics, which in a sense is true. We shouldn’t allow government to define religion, nor religion government to the extent that religion becomes it’s own power broker. At the same time, however, we do recognize that there is a political dimension to faith.

            Early Christianity found itself in conflict with the Roman Empire because it claimed that it was Jesus Christ who is Lord and not Caesar. This doesn’t mean they revolted against the government, just that they viewed their participation in society through the lens of being disciples of Christ. The early church was not part of the political power structure, yet it wielded the power of love by caring for the poor and calling attention to oppression through their quiet suffering.

            Wesley recognized that part of Christian discipleship was not simply turning a blind eye to political and social conditions that perpetuated poverty and oppression. Case in point: Wesley called for the abolition of slavery in England, which would happen after his death in part because of his influence. He recognized that the Bible talks a lot more about systemic evil in economic injustice and social oppression than it does about things like, say, sexuality. Christians have become way more focused on personal sins, however, than the larger systemic sins that drive people into bad conditions. I’m sure that he would find it curious that his spiritual ancestors spend more time arguing about issues of sexuality than they spend working toward justice in things like health care for all. It’s not that issues like human sexuality aren’t important, it’s just that biblically speaking the weight of God’s instruction lies in caring about justice.

            Working for acts of justice means that we don’t simply turn the pages of the newspaper or change the channel when issues of injustice arise. We are called to speak God’s truth to power. When we vote, when we pay attention to what our government is doing, when we seek peace, when we lobby on behalf of the powerless, we are engaging in the ministry of justice. Our faith does inform our politics.

            Granted, we may not all agree on how certain issues should be handled, even within our own church. It’s possible that Christians of good conscience can disagree on how to approach certain topics. You may have noticed that I don’t preach much on social issues by themselves. That’s because I want us to focus on the kingdom of God first, to begin to discern God’s heart for people and for his creation, to search for ourselves where it is that God is calling us to live and work. If we can catch God’s vision of justice, then our positions on any issue will be driven by that vision.

            So, as a Methodist preacher, I feel confident in saying to you that you should vote for the candidates and issues of your choice, but do so with God’s kingdom in mind. Is what I am supporting promoting or abolishing oppression? Is my political view self-serving or does it make conditions better for others? We all have a responsibility to promote God’s justice, God’s kingdom in this world.

(A helpful source for this sermon was Henry Knight III’s little book Eight Life-Enriching Practices of United Methodists. It’s a great, concise look at some of the details of the Rule of Discipleship.