Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Friday, July 29, 2011


As I watch the struggle of our political leaders to deal with the debt ceiling, I am reminded of the struggle within our own lives to make sense of God's way and forgiveness, knowing the struggle reflects our own call to be faithful:

O God, witnessing our political struggles in this nation, I am reminded of the struggle within our own lives.  I pray that wisdom and forgiveness and justice will prevail amidst the toxic and chaotic calls of division and discord.  In Christ's name.  Amen.

Two More Books to Consider

Wesleyan Beliefs: Formal and Popular Expressions of the Core Beliefs of Wesleyan Communities

A Little Heaven Below

Darren Cushman-Wood, pastor of Speedway UMC, has recommended two resources with respect to Methodist history and belief.  I haven't read these works yet, but look forward to reading them, especially the one about the Quarterly Meetings.

Pietist Impulse

The Pietist Impulse in Christianity (Princeton Theological Monograph)
Two years ago I attended a conference at Bethel College in Minnesota.  The main thrust of the conference was the "pietist impulse in Christianity" which looked at the historical currents or 'impulses' of pietism in the church, mostly coming from continental Europe. 

Now the book is out with several good chapters on the relationship between Methodism and Pietism. 

This is probably not everyone's cup of tea, but it does provide an interesting framework for understanding this important impulse within the wider Christian tradition.

Summer Reading

Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir
Last week I had the opportunity to read Stanley Hauerwas's memoir Hannah's Child.  I found it to be a very interesting book, especially as it pertains to the importance of friendship and the stuggle with a loved-one with mental illness.  There is much here to consider about family, education, and theological reflection. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Interesting Resources

The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology (Oxford Handbooks)The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (Oxford Handbooks) 

It is not everyday that I would recommend two very expensive resources, but the two books above are part of my ongoing efforts to make sense of our Methodist/Wesleyan heritage and the wider evangelical tradition.  They are highly accessible in terms of readership, and they help to place in a broader context the cross-currents that flow beneath the surface of these streams of Christian faith and practice.  The Handbook of Methodist Studies is particularly useful, especially in light of the current discussions surrounding what it means to be a "Wesleyan" or "Methodist" Christian.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A More Perfect Union

Over the next four weeks I will be lifting up the message of Habakkuk.  In fact, if you would like to get the copy of the little book on Habakkuk on Amazon by Keith Kent, I invite you to do so. It’s another way to follow along with what we will be sharing.


We know very little about Habakkuk other than what he wrote here.  We do not know about his tribe or hometown, and we really don’t know what his name means.  In Hebrew, for example, Habakkuk means “embrace” or “hug.”  In Akkadian, Habakkuk means fruit tree. We don’t know for sure./1/ 
What we do know is that, based on his writings, Habakkuk lived near the end of the seventh century B.C., contemporaries with the prophets Nahum, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah.

That’s important to keep in mind because that period of history was a turbulent period of history. 
If you will remember:  following the reign of King Solomon the nation of Israel splits into two kingdoms:  a northern kingdom of Israel and a southern kingdom of Judah.
In time the Assyrians would conquer and destroy the northern kingdom, deporting the population in 722-721 B.C, and then in 587 B.C., the Babylonians would march into Jerusalem in the south and take the people into exile.
Over a period of two hundred years the people of Israel would be scattered throughout the Middle East – in Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt, to name a few.
Nothing was stable. The whole world was in flux, and not only the world, but the tiny nation of Judah was in turmoil. Things were not right. 

And that’s where the prophet Habakkuk comes into the picture.   Habakkuk loves God, but he is not happy with God. /2/ In fact, Habakkuk has questions for God as to why God is not acting in the face of so much violence and injustice in the land.  

That’s a major question in this book:  Why?  If God is just and good, why is he tolerating so much evil, so much injustice, so much sin? 

Habakkuk knows God does not approve of violence and corruption, but somehow violence and corruption seem to have the upper hand:  Why doesn’t God do something to change it?  “The wicked hem in the righteous and pervert the good” (1:2-4).

That’s how Habakkuk begins this book:  complaining!  Not so much against the people, though the people are not innocent, but against God!  Why is there so much oppression, so much hate, murder, poor health, greed, war, floods, homelessness, strife, conflict in families, and disease?

Habakkuk does not doubt God can act in the face of these problems, but he is filled with anguish as to what God will do, or won’t do: Why is it taking God so long to act?
Difficult Questions

To the hard-hearted these questions are simply part and parcel of life’s journey:  that’s just the way life is!  We will always have the poor with us, right?  There will always be wars and rumors of war, right?! It’s normal!

But to a prophet like Habakkuk these things are not normal: they are disasters! Violence, cheating, apathy, exploitation – are like deathblows to our existence as human beings, injuring everyone./3/

And that’s what concerns Habakkuk: he sees the wrong the people are doing, and the consequences of what could happen, and he wants God to do something about it, but he is dismayed and even fearful over how God will take care of the problem: God will use the Babylonians to execute justice!

And that’s not what Habakkuk had in mind! To be sure, the people of Judah have done wrong, but isn’t God going overboard punishing them by using the Babylonians? After all, didn’t God make a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendents to be a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3)? What if the Babylonians wipe out the entire nation of Judah? What would happen to the covenant?  That’s not the kind of punishment Habakkuk wants!/4/ 

Question:  have you ever prayed to God for a certain answer only to have God answer that prayer, and then you are actually surprised with the answer?  What’s the old adage?  Be careful what you pray for!  If so, you can understand Habakkuk’s anguish:  Habakkuk gets an answer from God, but it’s not the answer he expects! 

Habakkuk wants to know when God will execute justice and how God will provide for the people in the face of so much violence, but he also wants to know what the people need to do to respond to God as part of the covenant.

Habakkuk’s Message

Those are the concerns that guide this prophet, and they are the concerns that lead him to conclude in the face of so much chaos that “the righteous will live by faith” (2:4b)./5/

Standing watch on the walls of the city of Jerusalem, Habakkuk receives God’s answer to his complaints, and it’s an answer that Habakkuk is to write plain on tablets big enough so that if you and I are driving by them, we will see them (2:1-2); even though the world around us is coming apart, even though we don’t understand what is going on:  the righteous will live by faith. 

As people of Christ’s covenant, we may not have all the answers to the problems of injustice, or to all the problems that assail us, but as those who believe in God we are to be steadfast in our trust of God:  God will act, in God’s time, for God’s vision of what is true will come to pass.  God doesn’t lie./6/

That’s how God answers Habakkuk:  though this present time is filled with all kinds of problems, the righteous shall live by faith! 

In other words, God’s message is, “Keep the faith!”  I can hear my mom in the background:  “Yes, things are not going well, but in order to be a witness to Christ, keep the faith – even when everyone else isn’t, even when the rest of the group isn’t, even when your friends are not, even the nation you love is not going in the direction you think is right – keep the faith!  Even when you don’t understand God and God’s ways, keep the faith!  Keep on trusting God!”

A popular message today?  Yes?  No?  Maybe what Habakkuk is saying is,  “We can’t have change until there is faith, and until there is faith in what God can do righteousness is in short supply.”   

Reminder and Lesson

It is also why it may be important to remember that what the prophets of Israel usually give us is what I call the “minority report”:  typically, what the prophet says is not popular; the vast majority of the people do not listen to the prophet – whether it’s Habakkuk, or Amos, or Jeremiah. There is a kind of Rodney Dangerfield effect:  no respect! Traditionally, the people of God – whether it’s Israel or the church – ignore the prophets.    

In Habakkuk’s case, few listen, and fewer understand why he is so upset.  They don’t understand why this prophet who loves God questions God; and they don’t see the judgment that is coming:  there is a “disconnect” between the vision of what God seeks and the reality of what the people do.  And so, Habakkuk prays for God’s mercy (3:2). 

No prophet ever wants to see judgment come upon the people! That is, the prophet is not a person who goes about in pride announcing doom. Instead, in fear and trembling there is the announcement of God’s word and God’s mercy.

There is a lesson here, I believe, as we approach a time of national celebration and reflection; for in the Preamble to the Constitution, it states that “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”

The key word in that statement is “we.”  In the history of the United States that “we” has not included everyone:  this union is not a perfect union; instead, it is a work in progress, an experiment, distant goal, a vision of what can be.  Along the way, there have been moments of “discontent” between what we profess and what we do.

In fact, I think most of our conflicts in our history have had to do with how we interpret who gets included in the “we”!  Hence, the discontent!

Now to be sure that’s not all bad:  without discontent we get little accomplished.  On the other hand, when our discontent becomes outright anger we can say and do things that can only make matters worse.

The other day as I watching television I overheard Thomas Friedman of The New York Times suggest that at this moment in history we Americans could be characterized as “frustrated optimists”:  we are frustrated because we know as a people that we are falling short of what we profess we say we are about; we are frustrated because we can’t seem to agree on a way forward; and yet, we are optimistic because we believe the future holds promise. 

I think the prophet Habakkuk would understand:  there is the vision of what God intends, but then there are the problems that fly in the face of that vision.  Hence, the frustration!

And what Habakkuk wants to say is, “All right, God, even with all the problems we face as a nation, we as God’s people will live by faith, even if we don’t understand, even when everyone else isn’t, we will…”

We will live by faith and be thankful.  We will witness to Christ and be thankful.  We will pursue justice and be thankful.  We will walk in the way that leads to life and be thankful. 

Yes, we will!  Amen.

1.     See Kent M. Keith, Have Faith Anyway:  The Vision of Habakkuk for Our Time (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2008), p. 2.

2.     See Kent M. Keith, Have Faith Anyway:  The Vision of Habakkuk for Our Times (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2008), pp. 2-4 and 9ff.

3.     See Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction – Volume One (New York:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), p. 4.

4.     See Have Faith Anyway, pp. 7ff.  See also Theodore Hiebert, “The Book of Habakkuk” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1996), p. 641; and see Donald E. Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1976), pp. 40ff. 

5.     See Have Faith Anyway, pp. 13ff.

6.     See Have Faith Anyway, p. 19.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Not Almost Christian, but Altogether Methodist

It’s a scenario many in the church may have experienced.   There is the question:  “What makes United Methodism distinct?”   And then there is the answer:  “We can believe what we want!”   It’s not exactly the answer we may have had in mind, but it’s become popular in some circles.  It certainly doesn’t reflect what is best about our Wesleyan tradition.

It may be an overstatement, but somewhere along the line we as United Methodists seem to have lost contact with the treasures of our heritage.  We seem to have forgotten what Wesley said about an “altogether Christian” as over and against an “almost Christian.”  For Wesley, the “altogether Christian” is the person who desires to love God with their whole heart and mind and strength and their neighbor as themselves, and not just their neighbors but their enemies too.   For Wesley, nothing could be worse than being an “almost Christian” or having a loveless faith.
One of Wesley’s worst fears, of course, was that “the people called Methodists” would become “almost Christians”:  they would demonstrate the form but not the power of true religion, empty of the power of God’s transforming love.  

In his famous tract on “The Character of a Methodist,” for example, Wesley stresses that what makes “altogether” or “real” Christians is how God has changed their lives inwardly:   persons are able trust in Christ alone for salvation and know their lives have been cleansed from sin; they are able to “give themselves as a loving sacrifice to God so that people around them may grow into the fullness of Christ.”  The kind of life Wesley envisions is a life of loving obedience to God.   

Throughout Wesley’s Sermons and Notes on the New Testament, we hear how he describes the Christian life as a life lived in the power and presence of God’s grace.  The pilgrimage upon which we embark in baptism becomes a visible expression of “faith working through love,” not only to be lived out as love of God but also as love of neighbor, as works of piety but also as works of mercy.   As we grow in grace as “altogether Christians,” we grow in service to the world.   We cannot separate “walking as Jesus walked and having the mind of Christ.”  The two go hand-in-hand.
Among United Methodists, this may sound familiar.  The Wesleyan mission to spread scriptural holiness set out to establish a dynamic pattern of living that focused on helping the whole person.   The Methodist programs of medical clinics and interest-free loans, orphanages and schools, housing and meals for the poor, not to mention the network of bands, classes, and societies – were all meant to increase among the fellowship of believers true love of God and neighbor.   At its core, the Wesleyan form of discipleship was (and is) a very practical aspect of living in Christ.

One Wesleyan historian, Richard Heitzenrater of Duke University, has stated that Methodism never really achieved large membership during Wesley’s lifetime because of the strict discipline that Wesley required to enter into covenant with the Methodists.   That the Methodist movement continued after Wesley’s death is testimony to the power of the vision he cast for true Christian living:  conforming our lives to Christ is how we are to live as faithful disciples.  What we do in Christ’s name is simply a sign of who we are as God’s children.
Sound easy?   Somewhere in our DNA as United Methodists are the seeds of our own renewal.   It’s why it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how we can fall into a mindset of “anything goes” or “believe what you want.”   Rather, as United Methodists we can build upon the best our heritage has to offer:   we can look, as John Wesley did, to Jesus Christ, the true pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the One who can make us altogether Christian (Heb. 12:2).
(This blog will appear in the Together Magazine of the Indiana Conference.)