Theological Reflection from a Wesleyan Perspective

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

God Restrained His Anger - Thoughts on Psalm 78

1:49 PM Posted by Casey Taylor , , No comments
As part of my morning prayers, I was praying with Psalm 78 which is one of several wonderful psalms that recites in worship Israel's history with God.  If you've read the Old Testament, you know it's a checkered history.  God set apart the people of Israel (the patriarch Abraham's offspring) as part of God's rescue plan for the world, but the majority of Israel were repeatedly unfaithful to God.  Thus, God eventually sent the true Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth, as the hero to rescue the Story gone wrong (at least that's how Christians see it).

How does God respond to Israel's unfaithfulness?  Yes, God expresses anger when God's dearly beloved is unfaithful.  The psalmist acknowledges that in Psalm 78:49, 

"[God] unleashed against them his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility."  

The psalmist minces no words about Israel's collective rebuke for their collective failure.

But contrary to popular caricatures of God in the Christian Old Testament, God is not capricious, grumpy and on the lookout for the next smiting.  On the contrary, God is quite restrained from exercising the full gamut of righteousness indignation against repeated unfaithfulness, even after the unfaithful spouse stumbles back home and promises never again to leave.  Listen to how the same psalmist describes God's reaction:

[Israel] would flatter him with their mouths,
    lying to [God] with their tongues;
37 their hearts were not loyal to him,
    they were not faithful to his covenant.

38 Yet he was merciful;
    he forgave their iniquities
    and did not destroy them.

Time after time he restrained his anger
    and did not stir up his full wrath.
39 He remembered that they were but flesh,
    a passing breeze that does not return.

The psalmist highlights God's mercy and forgiveness.  He emphasizes that God did not stir up his full wrath.  That's the essence of mercy: not dishing out a justly deserved punishment.  And it's consistent with an oft-repeated description of God in the same Old Testament scriptures, 

"The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:6-7).”

This image of God is cited in full or in part at least nine times throughout the Old Testament.  When folks are eager to point out God's exercise of wrath in the Old Testament, we should carefully pay attention to how the Old Testament itself characterizes that divine anger.  It acknowledges divine wrath but it does not dwell on it or think it the last word. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lunch with C.S. Lewis - REVIEW

It's hard not to see Alister McGrath's If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis as an extended commercial for his in-depth biography, C. S. Lewis: A Life - Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.  That's not a fault but it's good to be aware that this is not an extended biography of Lewis' life or sustained engagement with his body of work.  Lunch with Lewis is a good introduction for people who have some awareness of Lewis, have probably read at least one of his texts and want to briefly see some connecting threads in his life and thought.

McGrath covers the following topics from Lewis' perspective in eight chapters: the meaning of life, friendship, importance of stories, the Chronicles of Narnia, apologetics, educational theory, suffering and heaven.  One appendix suggests other books by and about Lewis (McGrath's extended biography is mentioned several times).  The second appendix offers a brief sketch of Lewis' life.

Lunch with Lewis is a great introduction to C. S. Lewis' life and thought.  As someone who has read one Lewis biography (The Narnian by Alan Jacobs) and several of his major works, it was also a helpful overview that draws out connecting threads among Lewis' wide variety of material.  

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Confirmed or Converted?

3:33 PM Posted by Casey Taylor , , , No comments
I have four children living under my roof.  All were baptized as infants.  My wife and I, however, were baptized as older children (I responded about age 10 to an invitation at a revival to receive Christ and was later baptized). We grew up Southern Baptist and were horrified when when we first visited a Methodist church in college and witnessed our first baptism of an infant.  Southern Baptists teach "believer's baptism," the idea that only people who can individually and publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ can receive a valid baptism as a public expression of their commitment to Christ.  And yet, we eventually became Methodist and baptized all our children before their first birthday.


I currently oversee Family Ministry in our church (ministry with children and youth). I've had great discussions with my fellow staff about how to share the gospel with children.  As a United Methodist church, we practice and encourage baptism of children. Most of our leaders can distinguish it from infant dedication. United Methodists often say that infant dedication and believer's baptism emphasize the human role in faith while baptism of infants emphasizes God's role in faith.  Put another way, believer's baptism is my public statement that I belong to Jesus whereas infant baptism is God's public statement that I belong to Jesus (United Methodists don't distinguish infant baptism from adult baptism - it's all one thing).  My church offers a Baptism Workshop for parents multiple times a year to teach about the meaning of baptism and how parents can guide their children everyday toward Christ.
This muddies the waters when we talk about Confirmation and conversion.  Our ministry team has had great conversation about how children in our church should be guided to profess faith in Jesus Christ.  John Wesley, pioneer of the Methodist movement, endorsed baptism of infants but also believed that most people needed to have an experience of saving grace to which they gave public testimony.  My hunch is that the same was expected of children, though I need to research more.

One idea that has surfaced in our team: teaching parents how to guide their children toward a profession of faith in Christ, i.e. accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  I'm a little uneasy with this idea until someone spells out what this says about that child's baptism and our Confirmation process. [UPDATE: I'm not uneasy with guiding kids to profess faith in Christ.  Just the opposite!  I'm uneasy with creating some sort of ritual of public profession for children until someone can explain how that fits into what we believe about baptism and Confirmation.  Kids need Jesus, too!]

One of my team members asked how I engage my own children on this.  After some careful thought, I said, "I guess I'm hoping 'the process' works."  Here's what I mean.  My children were baptized as infants.  We remind them of this and, at the prodding of a friend, are trying to do a better job celebrating this with them.  We try to teach them to pray, we sometimes engage them in theological reflection by using a catechism, pray with them, worship with them, take them to Sunday School, take them on mission trips and service projects, etc.  When the time comes, they will enter Confirmation.  Confirmation will be a focused time of learning about committing to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  And when that time comes, I don't want (or expect) discipleship to Jesus to be something new and foreign.  I expect it to be consistent with what they've been learning everyday of their lives.

As I see it, the question is this: do we want our kids to confirm the covenant God made with them in their baptism OR do we assume they have no relationship with God prior to a conversion experience?   If the former, then let God claim your kids in baptism, raise them to be disciples of Jesus every single day and guide them toward public profession at Confirmation.  If the latter, then learn how to guide someone to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.