Thursday, December 24, 2009

Not To Worry

In the volunteer work I do with Home Works of America, we involve teens and adults in the repair of homes for low-income elderly homeowners. We close our repair sessions in prayer with the home owner and the volunteers together. We call it a House Blessing, and part of it is the reading of the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:25-34.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Sometimes as we read this aloud in the presence of a mix of prosperous middle class teens and adults and one or more individuals living in poverty, I think, “This is crazy.” I have that thought because the home owner is very often in a bad situation because somebody didn’t give any thought to tomorrow, even about something so simple as fixing a water leak that over time has rotted a bathroom floor, and that many of the volunteers are in very comfortable positions because somebody did give thought to tomorrow with respect to education and savings and investment and other worldly things or even about an other-worldly thing such as Christian education.

In one particular case I was having such thoughts when the reader got to verse 33 which begins with “but” and which seems to be the key point Jesus makes. I thought, “OK, the point is not to completely drop all thinking about and planning for the future. It is to seek God first and be sure that serves as the context for the planning. It’s a matter of priorities.” I’m not saying that is the definitive word of truth here. I’m just saying that is the thought I had.

Later at home I looked at this passage and decided that we err in starting with verse 25 because the first word is “therefore,” which is a clear signal that what follows can be understood only if we know what the “therefore” refers to. In this case, the previous verse is:

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

Then we get the “therefore…do not worry” followed by the “but seek first…his righteousness.” I guess Jesus’ point was that if we get our priorities right, the things we seek will be different and we will live lives of peace and joy free from worry about tomorrow. OK, all who have their priorities correctly established according to the words of Jesus, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow, please stand! The rest of us can then join humbly in the closing prayer we use at the house blessing, the “Our Father,” in which we say: “Forgive us our trespasses.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Big Methodists

I like big Methodist churches. Little Methodist churches can still be a bit provincial and family or founder or “big giver” dominated or bound up in local traditions, but the big ones seem to be the humblest, most service oriented, most welcoming, and least argumentative of the better known Protestant groups still on record as “protesting” the Catholic faith. The Catholics of course claim to be the one true church and seem to me to be the only group with any reasonable basis for such a claim. The Baptists often deny protestant status and sometimes come across as also claiming to be the one true church but, as far as I can see, without any reasonable basis for such a claim.

The Lutherans trace their history back to the 16th century mass departure from Catholicism which I blame more on the Pope of the time than on Luther. Leo X should have assigned Luther to head up a task force to stamp out abusive practices, of which there were plenty, instead of kicking him out of the Church. Many Lutheran Churches have ethnic traditions since they not only departed Catholicism en mass but were often ejected from their homes and regions and emigrated to the new world en mass, leaving all their property and possessions behind. Lutherans sometimes seem to be prouder of being Lutheran than of being Christian. That’s good because pride in surviving persecution may be acceptable while pride in receiving salvation by the grace of God is certainly not. That calls only for thankfulness.

Presbyterians date from the same time as Lutherans, still have some of the predestinarian views of Calvin and Knox, and may seem a bit aloof to those not predestined to be Presbyterians. Episcopalians still suffer from their poorly motivated founding by Henry VIII as well as from recent theological splits over gay issues. Lutherans may be heading the same way after decades of mergers combining as many as sixty separate synods into today’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Episcopalians gave birth to the Methodists, and for that we can be grateful. However, at least as far as American Methodists go, formation was not the result of a rancorous split and a mass departure with associated squabbles and residual acrimony. Formation of American Methodists was almost totally positive in nature. John Wesley left the Church of England, came to America, and founded a new church for which he provided an adequate supply of ordained (falsely so according to the folks back home) English-speaking pastors. People with no church and people who were members of other churches came to the Methodist faith but not en mass over theological splits. They came because they were invited, came, liked, and stayed. Methodism in America is an American church.

Baptists stand pretty much alone among major Christian denominations in denying the Sacraments, rejecting the creeds, and insisting on “believers” baptism only. Fortunately, they are good at motivating people to get up out of their pews and take that first step of faith, sometimes more than once, and at teaching believers how to tithe and how to find their way around in the Bible. For those things, we can be thankful. Former Baptists stand out as faithful and disciplined members of many denominations.

There are some very good reasons for the formation of these various Protestant church bodies. The gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church our Lord founded, but sin has crept in from time to time necessitating reforms. However, the Catholic Church has changed over the centuries, and the question now is whether enough problems remain to justify the divisions which currently exist and which result in presentation of a very fuzzy picture of Christianity to the world outside the Christian Church. If not, we (non-Baptist) Protestants might as well repent, recant, and return to the Catholic Church and begin working together to continue its reformation and to present a more unified picture of The Body of Christ to an unbelieving world.

If serious church dividing problems do remain, then my suggestion would be that we all give up our smaller theological points of contention and join together in big Methodist churches. We need to forgive and forget if our founder was excommunicated or our ancestors were cast out of Europe. We need to forgive and forget those who followed Henry VIII and Henry VIII himself for an unbelievable display of arrogance. We need to quit talking about predestination and leave that entirely up to God because there is no point in discussing something about which, we must confess, nothing can be done. Then the Body of Christ would have just three major parts: The Catholic Church with its magisterium and tradition and its rules and regulations and frequent masses, the Methodist Church with its open doors, friendly faces, loose theology, and numerous opportunities for service and worship, and the Baptist Church struggling along without the Sacraments and creeds but doing a fine job of teaching Bible and stewardship. It would be a better world and a better witness for our Lord.

Confession and Background Information: I wrote the first draft of the above on a bulletin while sitting in the back pew of a big downtown Methodist Church December, 2008, listening to the community Messiah sing-along in which my wife was participating. I was Southern Baptist for 32 years, Presbyterian for 16 years, and now have been in Lutheran churches for 19 years. Self identification has shifted over the years from denominational to now saying simply that I am Christian and currently a member of a Lutheran Church. I can’t help wondering what the message is in the fact that the two groups I seem to favor in the essay, Catholic and Methodist, are ones with which I have little firsthand experience, but make what you will of it. I first got interested in Christian unity when we were living in Japan (1992-1995) and seeing how confusing the multiplicity of Christian groups can be to a people who are about 2% Christian. Then, after retirement, I spent three years at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary where I got my first real doses of Christian theology, Church history, contextual Bible study, and ecumenism and learned something about what separated and still separates us from each other. I trust we will eventually be united, but it may be a while.