I used to think my job was hard, and then I got married. My wife is a physician, and I’ve been blessed to be her partner through MCATs, interviews, medical school, match day, and (most of) residency. United Methodist clergy go through a period of formation called “residency” before we are ordained, but trust me, it’s nothing like medical residency. I am constantly in awe of what my wife and her colleagues do: not just the technical mastery needed, not just the massive amounts of knowledge one is expected to hold or the crazy hours doctors work – but the fact lives are in their hands day in and day out, and at risk in decisions great and small.
The work of clergy is in some ways similar. If we believe that spiritual health matters at all, or that it somehow intersects with physical, mental, and emotional health, then the care of souls is critically important as well. In our democratized age of religion, many of us try to “go it alone.” But I’m here to tell you: the self-guided information about physical health available on the internet is of the same dismal quality that one finds in the spiritual realm. The care of those called to these ministries thus has some things in common, not least in the importance of formation for doctors and clergy, but also in the challenges they face. I resonate with Atul Gawande’s description of medicine in Better:
“But success in medicine has dimensions that cannot be found on a playing field. For one, lives or on the line. Our decisions and omissions are therefore moral in nature. We also face daunting expectations. In medicine, our task is to cope with illness…the steps are often uncertain. The knowledge to be mastered is both vast and incomplete. Yet we are expected to act with swiftness and consistency, even when the task requires marshaling hundreds of people…for the care of a single person. We are also expected to do our work humanely, with gentleness and concern. It’s not only the stakes but also the complexity of performance in medicine that makes it so interesting and at the same time, so unsettling.” (4)
I contend that one could replace “medicine” with “ministry” in the above, and the description would still ring true. As a friend of mine says, the work of a pastor or priest is full of both “blessings and bedevilments,” which is of course true for most, if not all, vocations.
My wife has given me newfound appreciation for medicine. Gawande has helped me see some fascinating connections between my wife’s calling and my own.
What other connections do you see? Have I overstated my case? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
A new feature here at Uniting Grace will be a “Creed of the Month,” highlighting a different iteration of what St. Vincent of Lerins called, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” We’ll do this the third Monday of each month, since, you know – Trinity and all that. First up is a creed I have recently come across from the Maasai people of Kenya. Yale historian of doctrine Yaroslav Pelikan referred to it as an excellent example of how the faith “once and for all delivered” (Jude 1) is adapted to local culture and custom. One of his students, a former missionary, told him of this creed, and he included it in his magisterial collection of creeds published near the end of his career:
“We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.
We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.”
I especially love the line about “the hyenas did not touch him,” and the way that “share the bread together in love” unites both the Eucharist and justice. I find this to be a wonderful creed, and a true gift to the church universal.
“…have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church asyour Mother.”
Languages are best learned through immersion. One cannot learn French by reading an English translation of a Dumas novel – one needs to hear the French, speak it, let it get inside. Doctrine functions quite similarly to language, if George Lindbeck is to be believed. Thus he argues that, from a cultural-linguistic perspective, Christian doctrines function much like “communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action.” (1)
Reflecting on the use of creeds in worship, from the ancient church to today, Geoffrey Wainwright argues they “are binding in so far as they summarize in words the primal revelation of God in Jesus Christ…and so enable the believer to declare his own life-commitment to that same God in the present.” (2) By the words of the traditional creeds, we learn the language of faith, the language of that sacred and profane body of persons that is somehow called the Body of Christ. Through the creeds and other forms of doctrinal instruction (in particular, if they are of sufficient quality, our hymns), we learn to speak the truth which was “preached to [us], which [we] received and on which [we] have taken [our] stand” in and through the ministry, witness, service, and worship of the church. (1 Cor. 15:1, NIV)
St. Augustine goes so far as to recommend reciting the Apostle’s Creed multiple times per day in his homily to catechumans (who would recite the Creed at baptism):
“Receive, my children, the Rule of Faith, which is called the Symbol (or Creed ). And when you have received it, write it in your heart, and be daily saying it to yourselves; before ye sleep, before ye go forth, arm you with your Creed…These words which you have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes. For have ye now merely heard that God is Almighty? But ye begin to have him for your father, when you have been born by the church as your Mother.”
Only in the language bequeathed from our Mother, the church, is right praise (“orthodoxy”) possible. This language is learned chiefly by our full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy, through creed and hymn, through homily and response, through sacrament, icon, footwashing, and stained glass. Without worship that forms us in the language of God’s self-revelation in Christ, we are left mute to proclaim and live (for language forms lives, not merely words) the One who is alone and fully True, Good, and Beautiful.
“How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” asked the Psalmist. (137:4)
We cannot, at least not without much formation, practice, immersion. And increasingly, we Western Christians are realizing that North America and Europe are foreign lands. Thus for the sake of Christian mission, belief, and life, we need to recover our Mother Tongue.
1. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984), 18.
2. Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford 1980), 192.
Creeds are a point of contention among Christians. Because we live in an age where authority is a dirty word, the idea that Christians should assent to any set of beliefs about God* is a scandal (dare I say – a heresy?). Even churches that do affirm the creeds, like the United Methodist Church, are sometimes wary about their liturgical and pedagogical use. An old article still (unfortunately) found on the UMC homepage actually claims, “Affirmations [like the creeds] help us come to our own understanding of the Christian faith.”
The last thing we as Christians need is “our own understanding of the Christian faith.” There is, after all, a deposit of faith that was revealed in Christ and taught by the apostles; this is what Jude refers to as “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)
Several folks I read to great benefit have been reflecting on creeds recently, and I commend their work to you. David Watson of United Seminary asks if the Wesleys were creedal. Joel Watts develops this, compiling an impressive list of quotations by Wesley on the creeds. Lastly, Andrew Thompson from Memphis Theological Seminary weighs in on Wesley and the creeds with a focus on the doctrine of the Trinity, including some quite helpful reflections on common misconceptions about the creeds and Methodist worship. Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards’ thoughtful feedback here and here on two of the above posts is also worth your attention.
Below is an excerpt from a letter that Wesley wrote to a Roman Catholic, attempting to find some common ground. Thompson, linked above, quotes this section in part, observing keenly, “Wesley resorts to a creedal form of writing.”
Ted Campbell once suggested this list “is as close as John Wesley came to a statement of essential fundamental teachings, even though it is not structured as a list of fundamental teachings.” While not a formal creed, it draws heavily on the structure and content of the Nicene Creed and Apostle’s Creed. More specifically, it bears commonality to the baptismal form of creeds (note the personal language of “I believe”). Campbell also notes that a certain Bishop Pearson – whom Watts quotes in the above link – contemporary with the Wesleys, had written a well-known exposition on the Apostle’s Creed, which may have influenced the whole Wesley clan (including Mama Sussanah, who herself wrote a commentary on the Apostle’s Creed). With all of this in mind, consider what I am happy to call, with only a bit of tongue-in-cheek, John Wesley’s Creed:
A true Protestant may express his belief in these, or the like words:
As I am assured that there is an infinite and independent Being, and that it is impossible there should be more than one, so I believe that the one God is the Father of all things, especially of angels and men; that he is in a peculiar manner the Father of those whom he regenerates by his Spirit, whom he adopts in his Son as co-heirs with him, and crowns with an eternal inheritance; but in a still higher sense the Father of his only Son, whom he hath begotten from eternity.
I believe this Father of all, not only to be able to do whatsoever pleaseth him, but also to have an eternal right of making what and when and how he pleaseth, and of possessing and disposing of all that he has made; and that he, of his own goodness, created heaven and earth and all that is therein.
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Saviour of the world, the Messiah so long foretold; that, being anointed with the Holy Ghost, he was a prophet, revealing to us the whole will of God; that he was a priest, who gave himself a sacrifice for sin, and still makes intercession for transgressors; that he is a king, who has all power in heaven and in earth, and will reign till he has subdued all things to himself.
I believe he is the proper, natural Son of God, God of God, very God of very Gods and that he is the Lord of all, having absolute, supreme, universal dominion over all things; but more peculiarly our Lord, who believe in him, both by conquest, purchase, and voluntary obligation.
I believe that he was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.
I believe he suffered inexpressible pains both of body and soul, and at last death, even the death of the cross, at the time that Pontius Pilate governed Judaea under the Roman Emperor; that his body was then laid in the grave, and his soul went to the place of separate spirits; that the third day he rose again from the dead; that he ascended into heaven; where he remains in the midst of the throne of God, in the highest power and glory, as mediator till the end of the world, as God to all eternity; that in the end he will come down from heaven to judge every man according to his works, both those who shall be then alive and all who have died before that day.
I believe the infinite and eternal Spirit of God, equal with the Father and the Son, to be not only perfectly holy in himself but the immediate cause of all holiness in us; enlightening our understandings, rectifying our wills and affections, renewing our natures, uniting our persons to Christ, assuring us of the adoption of sons, leading us in our actions, purifying and sanctifying our souls and bodies, to a full and eternal enjoyment of God.
I believe that Christ by his apostles gathered unto himself a Church, to which he has continually added such as shall be saved; that this catholic (that is, universal) Church, extending to all nations and all ages, is holy in all its members, who have fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; that they have fellowship with the holy angels, who constantly minister to these heirs of salvation; and with all the living members of Christ on earth, as well as all who are departed in his faith and fear.
I believe God forgives all the sins of them that truly repent and unfeignly believe his holy gospel; and that at the last day all men shall rise again, every one with his own body. I believe that, as the unjust shall after their resurrection be tormented in hell for ever, so the just shall enjoy inconceivable happiness in the presence of God to all eternity.
Before you say, “It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do,” hold the phone. Wesley adds briefly after this list: “Does he practise accordingly? If he does not, we grant all his faith will not save him.” For Wesley, it is faith AND works, belief AND practice that make up the Christian life.
So, what do you make of John Wesley’s Creed? What holds up today as truths central to Christian belief? What doesn’t?
Thanks be to God that the Christian faith is not malleable based on our whims. The good news is this: I don’t have to grope in the darkness and come to my own understanding of God. God has come for me and to me long before I have ever sought out God. What is this God like? I have only to look in the back of the United Methodist Hymnal.
*Outside of believing that God is benignly benevolent and really wants me to be personally fulfilled on my own terms – AKA Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Thanks to the team over at TheUnited Methodist Reporter for the chance to offer some thoughts on vows, based in part on a recent piece that argued personal convictions trump ordination promises. If you haven’t seen it yet, the link is here.
Have you ever met a new parent or grandparent? They are almost always chomping at the bit to show you pictures. And it’s not just proud moms and granddads. All of us share, promote, and defend that which we value, worship, and love. The ability to “+1,” “like,” share, or RT a post, status, or article is only the newest way we do this. What we share is what we love. St. Augustine notes:
“In the theatre – that den of wickedness – someone who loves an actor and revels in his skill as if it were a great good, or even the supreme one, also loves all those who share his love, not on their account, but on account of the one they equally love. The more passionate he is in his love, the more he tries by whatever methods he can to make his hero loved by a greater number of people, and the more he desires to point him out to a greater number of people. If he sees someone unenthusiastic he rouses him with his praises as much as he can. If he finds anyone antagonistic, he violently hate that person’s hatred of his hero and goes all out to remove it by whatever methods he can.”
What a perfect description of how social media works. Whether what you love is a celebrity (as in Augustine’s example of a famous actor), an idea, or a product, the odds are you find ways to share this. The Christian word for this is evangelism.
Often, it seems that Christians are willing to share everything but the love we have for God. We put Apple stickers on our car, post about which team(s) we have winning the NCAA tournament, pin to our favorite crafts on Pinterest, or tell our neighbors about the great new fish recipe we just attempted. But talk about God? That’s only something those “crazy Christians” do.
Augustine would suggest this is precisely backwards:
“So what should we do in sharing the love of God, whose full enjoyment constitutes the happy life? It is God from whom all those who love him derive both their existence and their love; it is God who frees us from any fear that he can fail to satisfy anyone to whom he becomes known; it is God who wants himself to be loved, not in order to gain any reward for himself but to give to those who love him an eternal reward – namely himself, the object of their love.” (On Christian Teaching, Book One, p. 22)
Unlike Justin Bieber or a mobile phone company, the love of God is pure and self-less. God does not want us to buy anything, but only desires to give. God has no need of our love, but loves us enough to continually seek us out – the Hound of Heaven, as Francis Thompson named Him – purely out of a desire to give of Godself, the one pure, unchangeable, and fulfilling object of our love. If we really believe that God is the most true, good, and beautiful object of our love, how could we not share the Love to which all over loves point?
We share what we love. Whether the thing loved is a cause, a shoe brand, a song, or the Three-Yet-One God through Whom all things were made.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “The best solution to an internet troll is a physical beating?” More than once, I’ve encountered trolls of a sufficiently brutish nature that I concluded the only possible solution was violence. Oddly enough, a former professional MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter named Josh Neer recently tested that theory. Here’s what went down, according to the aptly named MMA news outlet Bloody Elbow:
“The 5’9″ Neer, who has fought at Welterweight (170 pounds) for most of his career was seen in the video he briefly posted to YouTube on top of the 6’6″ 240 pound Martin landing elbows to Martin’s skull before teammates dragged him off the beaten man. Then Neer appeared to kick the downed Martin in the face although both he and his coach claimed he tripped.”
The video, which you can see at the link below, shows 14 seconds of a vicious beating. The reason? Martin had been trolling Neer on social media, which Neer initially ignored, but under sustained verbal assault he eventually relented and agreed for Martin to come in and spar. He posted his rationale for the invitation, along with a sample of Martin’s messaging:
Despite the video, Martin claims he was sucker-punched and that the full video would show a much closer encounter. He added, “If I fought Neer I would take him to decision because he can’t score nor choke me out or take me down when I’m in my guard!” (Note that the size difference between the two fighters makes such declarations less brave than it sounds.)
Neer got what many of us wanted: he got to beat up the troll. Let’s be clear about what a troll is. This definition is culled from the Psychology Today piece linked below:
“An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. Often, in fact, it seems like there is no real purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response. “
Martin got his response, in the form of a serious beatdown. But did it stop the troll, did it cause a breakthrough or a change? No. This is because trolls are probably psychologically resistant to insight. A recent study likened internet trolls to “prototypical everyday sadists.” It goes on to elaborate:
“Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”
There is no negotiating with a sadist, whether through intellectual convincing or physical violence. Josh Neer learned the hard way that one cannot beat them into submission (even if you elbow them repeatedly in the face). As we learned from the classic early Broderick movie War Games, the only way to win with trolls is to refuse to play the game. You cannot beat them, but you can refuse to join them.
As Christians, should we prioritize Jesus’ teachings, or teachings about Jesus himself? Some Christians (and some Unitarians who consider themselves followers of Jesus) suggest emphasizing the former:
“UU Christians look to the teachings of Jesus (not about Jesus) as a source of wisdom and guidance in building the Beloved Community.”
“…the fundamentalists see Christianity as a religion about Jesus, while I and others understand Christianity to be the religion of Jesus. The key difference here is that a religion about Jesus casts him as a god who(emphasis original)m we worship, whereas seeing Christianity as the religion ofJesus allows us to see him as a brother, as the role model for how we can attain a mystical union with God just as he did.” (emphasis original)
These two examples come from Unitarian Universalist sources, the first from Eno River UU in Durham, NC and the second from a UU Fellowship in Churchville, MD. More troubling is that I have heard these exact same sentiments shared by Christians, including United Methodists (who, supposedly, have clear doctrinal standards emphasizing particular teachings about Jesus). Why is this bifurcation problematic? Lesslie Newbigin gives us the answer:
“And indeed it is the very nature of the gospel itself which always defeats these attempts to separate the word from the deed, to give one primacy over the other, because the gospel is precisely the good news of the Word made flesh…to set word and deed against one another, and insist that one or the other has primacy, is futile. The announcing of the good news about the Kingdom is empty verbiage if there is nothing happening to make the news credible. On the other hand, the most admirable program for human welfare does not provide any substitute for the name of Jesus in whom God’s reign has come. At its very best, such a program can be no more than a sign pointing toward the full reality which we encounter only when we encounter Him.” (Signs Amid the Rubble, 99.)
With Newbigin, we see that choosing between the teachings of Jesus (feeding the poor, forgiveness, clothing the naked, etc.) and the apostolic teaching about Jesus as the Word made flesh is ultimately a false choice. Word and deed, piety and mercy, hang together or not at all. We don’t have to choose. Jesus did not intend us to.
The message is the Messenger. The Messenger is the message. To paraphrase an old wedding liturgy, what God hath joined together in Jesus the Christ, let no one put asunder.
[Warning: Spoilers about a very intense Season 3 House of Cards scene, and broader HOC spoilers, below.]
What does Frank Underwood believe about Jesus? As Underwood, Kevin Spacey masterfully plays the House of Cards protagonist, a character with moral abandon seldom seen on the small or large screen. In season 3, just released by Netflix, now-President Underwood is not showing any signs of slowing down. He (literally) urinates on the memory of his ancestors to open the season, and an episode 4 ethical dilemma finds him talking ethics with a Bishop late one night in a church. Spacey’s Underwood is so skillfully sleezy that we almost believe him when he tells the good Bishop he wants a few moments alone to pray.
C’mon, do you really think Frank is going to pray to anyone but himself? (To be fair, he has conversed with Satan on screen as well.) Of course not. He stares up a crucifix, shares a few critical words with Jesus, and then spits upon it – a treatment not unlike what the real Jesus endured on the cross, actually. As you can imagine, this scene shocked audiences. Much has been made of this scene, but the broader implications of his conversation with and about the Son of God has been largely ignored. Here’s a snippet, edited down to the relevant statements:
Underwood: “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear, but…him?” [points to crucifix]
Bishop: “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end….Two rules: Love God. Love each other. Period. You weren’t chosen, Mr. President. Only he [Jesus] was.”
(Frank asks for alone time to pray.)
Underwood – looking up at crucifix: “Love? That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.” [Spits]
Frank, without knowing it, has just made a theological argument for a very old Christian heresy. Notice the strong division between the “Old Testament God” and Jesus. For Underwood, the OT deity is a being of power and intimidation, and, while he doesn’t elaborate, his attitude towards Jesus on the cross indicates he understands the discontinuity: this Jesus wields power very differently than does the fictional President. This bifurcation between the Old and New Testaments, even to the point of asserting the centrality of different deities to each, is called Marcionism. The definition from Theopedia is helpful:
“Marcionism was an early heresy led by Marcion, who proposed the first canon of Christian texts. The proposed canon consisted of the Gospel of Luke and several of Paul’s epistles; however, Marcion edited the writings by deleting any references that appeared to approve of the Old Testament and the creator God of the Jews. Marcionism thus rejected the Old Testament God, claiming that Jesus represented the true sovereign God who was different from the God of the Hebrew people.”
Underwood expresses a sentiment that is still not uncommon today, though typically less developed than Marcion’s own views. Here in the Bible Belt, you even occasionally drive by churches that advertise themselves as “New Testament Christians,” whatever the hell that means.
It’s no surprise that Frank’s gospel is a false one, a heresy (to be fair, he’s kind of an inverse Marcionite, since he identifies with the “Old Testament Deity” that Marcion rejected). What is a surprise, a problem even now, is how easily we still buy into Marcion’s lie today. Make no mistake: the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both contain the revelation of the one God’s gracious activity towards us, God’s creatures. Where Marcion posited radical discontinuity, the orthodox position has always on a strong connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. There is a beauty to the canon, which is no surprise if you believe (as Christians do) that the 66 books of our Bible represent a beautiful library in which everywhere God is revealed in loving self-disclosure.
The life and witness of Jesus makes no sense without an appreciation of the Old Testament narrative. There is no understanding Jesus and his mission apart from his role as Israel’s Messiah, fulfilling the promise to Abraham to “bless many nations” as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. This same Jesus is sent by and begotten of the Father and united with the Spirit, one God in Triunity, who (Christians believe) is none other than the God confessed still by Jews in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, your God is one.”
Two Testaments. One God. Frank Underwood is a very effective politician, but as a theologian he is a pure heretic.
The good news is that God’s loving action is revealed in both Testaments, which tell the story of a God radically committed to His creation. So committed, in fact, that God abdicated all God’s power and, in Christ, subjected Himself to the totality of wrath, sin, evil, and abandonment that vexes humanity, and submitted to death on our behalf. In submitting to death, it was conquered, and we were healed.
To Frank Underwood, and to us, the cross is and always remains a scandal. After all, a God of power is comprehensible, recognizable on the world’s terms. But what earthly ruler – a Nietzschean like Underwood, a Caesar, or a Putin – would dare endorse the seeming naiveté of a God who gives up power out of selfless, other-regarding love for ungrateful creatures who will ultimately put God to death rather than submit to His Kingdom of love and mercy?
Thus St. Paul said to the Corinthians,
“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Cor. 1:18, CEB)
At least Underwood is honest enough to know that he cannot conduct his affairs as he does and also worship the God who hangs on a cross. Frank understands the foolishness of the cross. But now the question is to us, followers of the risen Lord. Do we, “who are being saved,” embrace the foolishness that is the cross?
I conclude with the words of Charles Wesley, who captures both the pain and the beauty, the incomprehensibility and the glory of the cross in his excellent hymn:
O Love divine, what has thou done! The immortal God hath died for me! The Father’s coeternal Son bore all my sins upon the tree. Th’ immortal God for me hath died: My Lord, my Love, is crucified!
In conversation with some theologically gifted friends recently, it was mentioned that many contemporary Christians seem to make Christianity all about them. That gave me the idea to rewrite the Lord’s Prayer based on many conversations I have had or that I have overheard. Without further adieu, I give you the Lord’s Prayer for Today’s Christians.
Our deity who art everywhere and in everything,
hallowed be every possible name for you.
Please make things here a little better,
and give us all the things we want
which is exactly what heaven will be like.
Deprive us not of our daily mochaccinos,
and don’t make us feel guilty for the bad things we do,