Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Almost or Altogether?

Earlier this year, I posted a couple of entries concerning “Jesus Deficit Disorder” (here) and “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (here).  To me, both phrases capture what seminaries described as “nominal Christianity” 25 years ago.  In those blog posts, I confessed my need for affirmation and a tendency to sometimes settle for superficiality in faith and preaching.

It was shortly after writing those posts that I committed myself to addressing this “in-name-only-therapeutic-assuaging-vague-theism.”   Itseems to have infected many clergy and laity with a spiritual disease whose main symptom is ennui – a restless boredom.  We know something is wrong, but can’t quite work up the will to either discern the problem or address it. 

As I write this, I find myself just weeks away from preaching about this condition.  I have spent my summer immersed in some of the best post-modern description of this disease: Craig Groeschel’s The Christian Atheist, Kyle Idleman’s Not a Fan, and Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian.   As I read these books, I heard their descriptions of the disease more loudly and with more detail than I did their suggested cures.  I began to lose both hope and direction…

But, one day, the title of Dean’s book reminded me of a sermon preached by John Wesley in 1741 by the same title (almost always the second sermon in any collection of Wesley’s sermons; you can find it here).  I first read this sermon nearly 30 years ago during a Lenten study in which I participated while, at the same time, discerning my call into the ordained ministry.  I remember my pastor, Don Johnson, telling our group that the church can’t “make” Christians;  rather , the best the church can do is to make people “appear” to be Christian…what Wesley calls an “almost Christian.”  He went on to teach us that the “altogether Christian” Wesley describes is not the product of a study, retreat, program or worship service.  It is the product of a very personal experience of surrender and acceptance which may or may not take place in a study, retreat, program or worship service. 

Shortly after this study, this same pastor introduced us to Tillich’s “You Are Accepted.”  The words from that message changed my life, confirmed my call and helped me experience real grace for the first time in my life.  Here they are:

Do we know what it means to be struck by grace?  It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. 
Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. 
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!"  [The complete text is here; emphasis mine.] 

Those words seemed to both pierce and heal my heart at the same time.  With those words, I discerned my call to ordained ministry.

I wonder if the institutional church, in its current self-absorbed, survival-oriented mindset, isn’t trying to “manufacture” an experience of grace and, in so doing, is creating that which it seeks to transform.  No wonder we’re restlessly bored.

I wonder if it isn’t time for us to get out of the manufacturing business (which, let’s face it, keeps Zondervan and Cokesbury in business) focused on filling our ‘toolboxes’ and get into the surrendering business focused on dropping all our defenses and yielding to a love that seeks to transform us and invite us into a new way of living and being in the world. 

At one point a few weeks ago, I began to fear that addressing the difference between Wesley’s “almost Christian” and his “altogether Christian” may be a fool’s errand.  But, as I continue to run this errand, I have remembered and re-experienced the power of self-surrender and self-acceptance.  But in so doing, I have also realized that I cannot – indeed, should not – manufacture it for anyone else.  The best I can do is to create a space which is spiritually safe enough for others to surrender.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your blog, Jon. I don't remember ever hearing this story of your call and surrender. What a great story--and how cool it is that it comes back to you as you're grappling with all of these questions.

    Your comment about our "toolbox" reminds me of something I've been reflecting on, which is Psalm 121. When we say "I lift my eyes to the hills; where does my help come from?," I think we've loved that image so much that we've become convinced that the hills ARE where our help comes from. The hills must contain--what do you think?--reinforcements, or cavalry, or the next program/book/song/gimmick that will be the help we've been looking for, up and down, always waiting. But no, the next line of the psalm says, "our help comes from the Lord"--the Lord who never slumbers or sleeps, who won't let our hand be moved, who has been with Israel from the beginning of time, who keeps our going out and coming in from this time forward." We don't trust God, so we keep looking elsewhere! I so agree with what you've said about surrender rather than the grasping to which we are prone.

    I'd love to hear more about your last line: how do we create that space? I hope you'll talk more about that in a future blog. I have an inkling that it has something to do with being people who have ourselves found that safe space, and had the courage to let go rather than continuing to grasp.