Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Monday, September 14, 2009

are you certain?

I knew, as soon as I saw her standing there with a handful of tracts, what her intentions were. But when I didn't break eye contact soon enough, she started the conversation.

She: Do you have a few moments to take a survey?

Me: I guess so. [thinking: I know this whole script. There was a time in my life when I was the one handing out tracts. It shouldn't take long.]

She: Great! Do you live around here?

Me: Yeah. [I'm going to keep close. I don't feel like getting into a theological fight today.]

She: Do you have a church that you attend?

Me: Yeah.

She: Oh really? Which one?

Me: Grace United Methodist.

She: Oh. Well, I go to We're More Christian Church [or something like that], and I'd like to invite you to join us if you're ever interested in visiting.

[She hands me the tract.]

She: And one more question…If you died today, are you certain of where you'd spend eternity?

[I pause, thinking: I wouldn't word it exactly that way, but I really don't want to get into an argument over semantics like I did the last time.]

Me: Yes.

She, after seeing that I'm not going to elaborate without further prompting: And where is that?

Me: Heaven.

She: And if God asked you, "Why should I let you into heaven? What have you done to deserve it?" How would you answer?

Me: God's not going to ask me that. Ultimately it's God's decision, not mine. [Oh no, I am going to get into a theological argument after all.]

She, opening one of the tracts: Well, if you'll say this prayer with me, you can be sure of getting into heaven. Just repeat after me, "Heavenly Father…" [pause] "Heavenly Father…"

Me: Yeah, I've said one of those before. [That'll throw her off her script!]

She: But I thought you said you weren't sure? Didn't you just say it's not your decision? But if you've said this prayer, you can be sure. So next time someone asks, say you're certain. Don't let the devil tell you you're not.

Me: Yeah, OK. Bye. [Whew, that was close.]

Here's my problem with her type of theology: It turns prayer into a magical incantation, and God into a genie who must do our bidding if we get the words right. We earn our way into heaven by casting a spell that forces God to overlook our sinfulness.

That's why I had to tell her it's God's decision, not ours. I'm not denying that we do make decisions to follow the will of God. In fact, as a good Methodist I believe we must in some way respond to God's call on our lives if we want to claim to be followers of Christ.

But ultimately, it's up to God. We don't get into heaven by our own merits, and we can't recite a magical formula to force God to turn a blind eye to our shortcomings. If we can't absolutely know the mind of God, we can't be absolutely certain that we've got a free pass.

On the other hand, if we know God and have a strong relationship, we've got something even better: trust. We can trust God to make the right decision, because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. What could a magical incantation give us that could possibly compare to that?

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 25, 2009

more on faith and fear

John Meunier has some thoughts related to my recent post faith and fear.

He tackles the issue of fear from a different angle:

I saw Frank Langella, the actor, interviewed by Charlie Rose the other day. One of the great realizations of his late life, he said, was coming to understand that his fear was and is the major drive of our lives. Fear is what causes us to not try new things. Fear is what chases us into all kinds of choices and talks us out of others. It is only when we cease to be driven by fear, that we learn to love, he said.

Langella was not talking at all about faith. His savior was psychological analysis. But his diagnosis seems spot on to me.

The hitch is that we often do not properly locate the source of our fear. We experience it as a vague and amorphous presence that seems to rise up from many places. But we never quite put our finger on it. We often try to “get over it” by just pressing forward or acting as if it were not there. If we pretend it is not there, maybe it will go away.

One Christian response to this condition is to name that fear. John Wesley called it fear of “the wrath to come.”

Yes, there is that kind of fear, the fear that we must confront and overcome if we are to grow. I know a lot of people who have been driven to God because of that intrinsic fear. For other people, the catalyst has been something else. (In my own case, it was a crushing sense of loneliness.) But I won't deny that fear motivates some people to seek God.

But there is another kind of fear, the kind that is not intrinsic but imposed. The kind that leads evangelists to say, "If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?" and takes any hint of uncertainty as an opportunity to press the issue and make the sale.

John makes the point that John Wesley used fear as a conversation starter:

Awaking people to their true state was his first goal.

Now I want to preface my next remarks by saying I could very well be wrong about this, and I don't mind anyone using the comments to try to change my mind.

In Wesley's day perhaps fear of the wrath of God might have been a productive way to begin a conversation. Today, not so much. Not when we are bombarded by advertising designed to convince us that something is missing in our lives, and that the product being advertised is the solution. In this atmosphere, salvation can easily become just another product for sale to cynical consumers. If Christianity is nothing more than eternal fire insurance, it's doomed. That's not a product people want to buy. (I don't have anything beyond anecdotal evidence to support this, but it seems to me that's a common view, especially among younger people today. Or else the people I know are naturally more cynical than most.)

But a vibrant Christian faith is more than just fire insurance. It is a transformative process, a journey of a lifetime and beyond. And as Christ transforms us and leads us into lives of service, we become equipped to help prepare the kingdom of God on earth. (Yes, the kingdom of God on earth. Don't we pray for this every week in the Lord's Prayer?) Questions beginning with, "If you died tonight..." shortchange the process, leaving us focused on ourselves and some heavenly reward. I don't think that can be the foundation of a mature faith.

What do you think?

Labels: , ,

Thursday, January 01, 2009

more evangelical than i realized

In a recent post, John Meunier comments on Mark Noll's book The Rise of Evanglicalism, which discusses David Bebbington's four ingredients of evangelicalism. By this definition, John says he qualifies as an evangelical.

How do I rate?

  1. Conversion - the belief that lives need to be changed

    I certainly agree with this one.

  2. Biblical priority - the belief that the Bible contains all spiritual truth

    I'd have to hedge on this one. I think the Bible contains enough spiritual truth. If someone had nothing but the Bible as a guide, they could still learn everything they need about spiritual life and salvation. But I would have to say I see the Bible as the first word, not the last word, in spiritual matters. I may need to expand on this in a separate post.

  3. Activism - dedication of all believers to lives of service for God, especially the spreading of the good news and the carrying of the gospel to those who have not heard it

    I agree with this one to a point. I think all believers should be dedicated to lives of service for God. I also think sharing the gospel is important, but it is only part of the work of the Kingdom of God.

    Having been involved in several missions projects, both locally and globally, I have learned what my skills are, and evangelism is not one of them. I think the church of Acts 6 was wise to recognize that different people could serve in different capacities, and that some people "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" might indeed be better suited for waiting on tables than for preaching.

    Evanglicalism, it seems to me, has a tendency to belittle these other forms of ministry.

  4. Crucicentrism - Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin

    Here I agree fully, although the word "sin" probably has more definitions than there are Christian denominations. So here's my definition: Anything less than perfection is sin. Not a single person among us has the inherent power or ability to reach perfection on our own, so Christ's death is important to us all.

So by this standard I'm mostly evangelical. On two of the four points I agree, and on the other two I agree with reservations.

But the word evangelical still makes me queasy. In the United States, the word has taken on disturbing connotations: An evangelical is someone who attends a megachurch, suspects the end of the world may be near, hopes to Christianize the culture anyway, views the nuclear family as the essential building block of society, and votes Republican. I'm sure this does not reflect all evangelicals, but I've met a lot of people who fit this entire profile.

Personally, I like Bebbington's definition much better. I'd like to see American evangelicalism move back in that direction.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, November 08, 2008

the beer, massage, chocolate and steak club

Joe the Peacock has an excellent post on how to actually talk to atheists. This is not the way:

Have you not heard about the beer, massage, chocolate and steak club? Well, let me tell you all about it - it doesn't matter if you don't like beer, or steak, or massages - whichever one you like, you get 24 hours a day for the rest of your life. And if you like all four or any combination of them, well... You're in luck! Because That's what the rest of your eternity will be - massages (happy ending or not, your choice), steak cooked just the way you want it, chocolate of any sort coated in any topping (or as a topping on anything you want), and any beer ever made or ever conceptualized, always on tap and never flat. And to get all of this, all you have to do is accept a unicorn into your life.

Threats don't work either:

Okay, fine, don't believe in them - you're going to end up in the Pushups For Eternity club. That's where you have to do knuckle pushups on mounds of broken glass with Rush Limbaugh sitting on your back for all eternity. All because you won't accept a unicorn into your life.

Hat tip to PamBG.

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 17, 2008

evangelism in the new testament

Martin LaBar of the Sun and Shield blog has posted a chart with examples of personal evangelism in the New Testament, along with a blog post of commentary on the chart.

Among the things Martin notes are: there is no set pattern, all the conversations are with strangers, and none of the conversations begin with a warning about sin, or with talk about God's love.

One thing that he doesn't note, but stuck out to me was that in the majority of these cases, the other person initiated or invited the conversation. Nicodemas came to Jesus; the Ethiopian eunuch asked for guidance; Cornelius sent for Peter because of a vision; the jailer asked Paul and Silas how he could be saved.

Does anything else strike you about these examples of evangelism? What about other examples from the New Testament?

To the thief on the cross, Jesus presented the good news in the most succinct version possible, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." This was preceded by perhaps the most succinct "sinner's prayer" possible, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

To Zacchaeus, Jesus took a very passive approach to evangelism, simply inviting himself to dinner and letting Zacchaeus do all the talking. Jesus didn't even mention the word salvation until after Zacchaeus had committed to turning his life around.

Despite the fact that Jesus often waited for people to come to him before he tried to evangelize (and despite the fact that he was Jesus), he was not always successful. The rich young man went away grieving, unable to commit to what Jesus asked of him.

Jesus had a chance to share the gospel with Pilate, too, but couldn't get a better response than a noncommittal "What is truth?"

Paul tried to share his testimony with the governer Felix, but all Felix was interested in was a bribe. Later, Paul tried to evangelize King Agrippa (son of Herod Agrippa) who was not impressed:

Agrippa said to Paul, "Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?" Paul replied, "Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains."

If anything, I think these additional examples give us even less of a clear pattern. Any further thoughts?

Labels: ,