Examining your glasses

Examining your glasses

By Frank Decker

We were nearing the conclusion of a training session in which I was teaching about the Kingdom of God when the hand of a South American pastor shot up. “So, does someone have to be a Protestant to be saved?” he asked. His question was obviously born from uneasiness that had been building in him throughout the day. We had been discussing the importance of enabling people to meet Jesus within their own denominational context—as Jesus’ disciples demonstrated. And we had re-examined the meaning of the word “church” (or ecclesia), defining it as simply a gathering of believers in Jesus Christ, regardless of their denominational affiliation. This pastor’s frame of reference, however, was that Catholics needed to be extracted out of their own background and into his own context (in this case Methodism) as a prerequisite for them to really meet Jesus.

When this type of thinking is the default setting in our cranial software, we are likely to find ourselves spending far more energy proliferating our own denominational organizations or traditions rather than simply sharing Jesus. The distinction may seem rudimentary, but it is crucial. Sometimes the religious lenses we wear cloud our ability to see God’s work in the hearts of the people around us. However, if we are willing to look at those lenses rather than through them, we are likely to position ourselves to more fully experience reformation and renewal. In fact, after my response to the pastor’s query, which was the simple question, “Are you saved by being a Protestant, or are you saved by the blood of Jesus?” it seemed as though a light had come on in the room.

I am encouraged by evidence that this light seems to be coming on in many places. Vincent Donovan, an American Roman Catholic priest, served as a missionary to the Masai of Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s. During his first year of cross-cultural ministry he wrote a letter to his bishop questioning the missionary approach that had preceded him for 100 years in that location. The schools, chapel, and hospital that marked the presence of that mission consumed countless hours of energy, and in Donovan’s assessment produced little spiritual fruit.

In other words, as helpful as these ministries had been to meet specific needs, sustaining them had eventually begun to interfere with—rather than enable—the essential work of pointing people to Jesus. So, instead of resigning himself to spend his time and energy only maintaining these mission mechanisms, this novice missionary decided to invest himself by “simply getting to know the Masai and telling them about God.” His book Christianity Rediscovered bears witness to the result that he became a successful disciple-maker in a locale where previously, in his estimation, not one local Masai had come to faith in Jesus.

Picture a scene with burned-out automobiles and buildings, the result of recent clashes between Muslims and Christians in central Nigeria that have left about 400 people dead. It was in this environment that Mission Society staff members Dick McClain and Darrell Whiteman, cross-cultural worker Kirk Sims, and African leaders recently facilitated a Global Engagement Training event attended by 100 pastors and bishops representing seven denominations. As the teaching progressed, it was evident to the Christians present that they needed to think not in terms of spiritually conquering their Muslim adversaries, but loving them into the Kingdom.

A watershed incident took place when one woman stood up and testified, “Because of the conflict, whenever I see a Muslim, I just become angry in my heart. I don’t even want to look at them. But now I see that I need to love them.” She continued, “If we cannot deal with Muslims right here, how are we going to be able to reach them in Senegal or wherever else God sends us?” She went on to say that she intended to begin to pray for her Muslim neighbors and to reach out to them. A spirit of revival broke out during the event that led to the final two evenings being consumed with times of crying out to God for Muslims to meet Jesus. In Sims’ words, “it was almost like scales falling off the eyes of people.”

As I think about the increase of light, I also am aware of the opposition from the forces of darkness. In fact, if I were the devil, I think I would attempt to reduce the biblical message of Jesus and his Kingdom so that it would popularly be understood in a weak and diminished form—as mere adherence to a religion, void of the essentiality of actually knowing the King. Then that perspective, not the perspective of the Kingdom, would become the lens through which devotees would view everything else. Yeah, if I were the devil I think I would try that.

Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society and a long-time columnist for Good News.

Examining your glasses

The punk rock Orthodox priest

By Steve Beard

The symbolism was profoundly countercultural. When Sergei Rybko lumbered onto the stage in between rock bands at a dingy nightclub in Moscow, his appearance was sure to provoke a whiplashed double-take. Draped in a flowing black cassock and adorned with a massive gold cross, 49-year-old Rybko sports a shiny bald head and burly beard that would make the guys in ZZ Top jealous.

As he looked across the faces of the teens and twentysomethings, he flashed the peace sign—thawing the ice with the nostalgic hand gesture popularized by the disillusioned bohemians of a different era.

The heart of his message to the understandably perplexed audience was eloquent and simple. As Rybko looked around the club, he told them that they had come together on that night because, in one way or another, they were a club of lonely-hearts—similar to the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” made famous by the Beatles. Under the roof of the club, their hearts are united by the music; but once they leave the range of the deafening decibels, they will be all alone.

“You don’t have to be alone,” he reminds them. “If you reach out to God, you will never be alone.” With a slight bow and another flash of the peace sign, Rybko leaves the stage to the applause of the crowd.

As you might have surmised, Rybko is a Russian Orthodox priest and his unique ministry was recently profiled on ABC News.

Rybko tends to the normal priestly duties of his parish by day, and ventures into the underbelly of Moscow’s rock subculture at night—a mission that was given to him by the late Patriarch Aleksei II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who died last December.

Back at the club, a young rocker makes his way over to Rybko. “I wanted to say a big thank you for coming and for his support,” he told ABC correspondent Alexander Marquardt. “I had some questions I didn’t know who to talk to about, so I asked him and explained everything to me.”

Rybko’s expectations are modest. “At least they didn’t throw anything,” he says afterwards. “My job is to sow, it is up to God to cultivate,” he says. “If what I say changes someone, if it makes someone purer, closer to God, then that’s a successful evening.” Quite simply he believes that if the punkers and metalheads won’t come to church, the church should go to them.

In many ways, Rybko is the perfect candidate to reach out to a wayward flock. Before becoming a wandering hippy when he was young, he played in a rock band and led a small group of anarchists in rebellion against oppressive and rigid Soviet communism. “I used to be a rocker and I will always be one,” he reports. “For the average person behind the Iron Curtain, it represented the only truth that you could listen to.”

Those outside the walls of the sanctuary may not be interested in our internal church battles, but they are intrigued by truth—eternal truth that speaks to the heart, mind, and soul.

When Rybko first got involved in the church, he was a bell ringer. He took the opportunity to mix Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin songs along with the traditional Orthodox bell ringing. According to Rybko, the old ladies in the congregation actually liked the convergence of rock and ritual.

Twenty-one years ago, Rybko was ordained as a priest. Today, he attempts to live out his faith before those inside the sanctuary and those moshing at the rock clubs. “My job as a priest is to bring the life of Christ to the darkest basements,” he says. “In the club, I talk to people who are far away from God…. If I open the Bible [in the clubs] and start to talk like a priest, they will all run away. So I have to use their language but make sure they understand that a priest is speaking to them and that Christianity will solve their problems.”

I have a soft spot in my heart for Rybko’s outreach. When I was a teenager, I used to hang out at a notorious punk rock club called the Cuckoo’s Nest in Orange County, California. Despite having grown up in the church, it ended up being a group of mohawked and tattooed rockers that helped me to embrace my faith.

What really stuck out in the Rybko story was that in addition to hanging out at the clubs, he also opens up a small building behind the sanctuary to bands that need a place to rehearse. Amongst the instruments, amps, and graffiti, there is a large cross on the ceiling and icons of Jesus and the saints displayed on the walls.

As he is getting older, Rybko admits that he usually feels more comfortable preaching in church than hanging out at concerts and clubs. “Thirty years ago that would have been my home,” he says. “Now I feel more at home in church, that is closer to me. But it is my duty to go to the clubs. If I don’t, who will?”
Great question. God bless Sergei Rybko.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Examining your glasses

Letters to the editor

Letters to the editor

Oddly uncharacteristic

I was recently in a Sunday school class (not Methodist) where the notion of predestination was presented as absolute biblical fact. As someone who is passionate about overseas missions, I obviously don’t cotton too well to the idea that our salvation was decided even before our birth.

So, I was so glad to read Professor Longden’s article, “Wesley and Predestination” (May/June 2009). This idea of predestination seems oddly uncharacteristic for the God who loved us enough to send Jesus, the God who loved us enough to weave his entire story throughout centuries of the Bible, the God who urged us to choose life, not death.

Blessings and again, thank you, Good News and Professor Longden.

Claudia Stayton
New Braunfels, Texas

Misrepresenting the UM Church

I am writing in response to an article in the September/October 2009 issue. The article, “Evangelicals respond to Mississippi controversy,” by Steve Beard really upsets me. When will you realize the slogan we have of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”? I do know exactly what the Discipline states about homosexuality, however, we are a denomination that accepts all persons so that we may lead them to the Kingdom of God.

Your magazine misrepresents the UM Church and in particular this article. We may not agree with two women who are partners, however it is the ministry of the UM Church to accept all persons and to bring them the love of God through Jesus Christ.

In fact, Jesus never refused anyone. Jesus confronted persons but they ultimately made the decision not to follow Him nor accept the grace of God. We are not to judge anyone but in fact we are to accept everyone so we may expose them to Jesus Christ. I firmly believe that when we present Jesus to all people, it is Jesus then who makes the change in all of us sinners.

Homosexuality is but one sin of many that we encounter in ministry. It is my responsibility to preach, live and extend the love of God through Jesus Christ to everyone who enters into the church. It matters not their lifestyle, place of origin, persons of color, ethnic background, rich or poor, or any other item of concern. What matters is their heart.

I think it is about time that Good News and the evangelical movement begin to live the life they so proclaim to possess. It is God who is the final judge. When anyone refuses to show and share the love of God they will be judged accordingly.

Keith A. Michaels
First United Methodist Church
Carlyle, Illinois

The General Rules

Even before General Conference 2008, a men’s study in which I participate agreed to study The General Rules (“A closer look at Three Simple Rules,” by Les Longden, September/October 2009). We chose to use Kevin Watson’s A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley’s General Rules As a Guide for Christian Living (Discipleship Resources). My pastor also gave me a copy of Bishop Job’s book. I read both and would recommend Watson’s book for anyone who wants a serious approach to the standards of these simple rules and the accountability they are intended to engender.

Rich Jenkins
San Antonio, Texas

Examining your glasses

Book Review of Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed

By Andrew D. Kinsey

“What makes John Wesley so perplexing?” That opening question sets the stage for Jason Vickers’ stimulating new book, Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum). Associate Professor of Theology and Wesley Studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Vickers points to three perplexities.

First, despite Wesley’s insistence to preach “plain truth for plain people,” interpreters over the years have argued otherwise. For example, though Wesley said he would not leave the Church of England, many scholars believe that his actions pointed toward establishing a new movement, if not denomination; and though Wesley said he was a “High Church Tory” in a confessional state, several recent interpreters maintain that he was really a proto-liberal democrat all along. Inconsistencies, as well as suspicions, persist.

Second, scholars disagree about Wesley’s interactions with the age in which he lived, seeing him either as a reactionary who sought a “primitive” Christianity with miracles and demons to boot, or a thorough-going progressive adapting the faith to modern trends. Both perspectives buy into a common secularization theory regarding eighteenth century English society; however, as Vickers notes, both also fail to see the nuances and complexity of the age.

Third, we fail to recognize the unity in Wesley’s theological, ecclesiastical, and political commitments. Here, scholars have difficulty with what they see as Wesley’s democratic impulse on the one hand and his hierarchical style of leadership on the other. Indeed, as Vickers states, Wesley was quick to say that Methodists were “no republicans and never intended to be.” In fact, often overlooked in this debate are Wesley’s skills in maneuvering Methodists between competing political loyalties and philosophies. It is difficult to know, for instance, given our own democratic proclivities, what to do with Wesley’s statement “mark the man who talks of loving the Church, and does not love the King.” Similarly, it is also difficult to know how to interpret his commitment to the monarchy with his view of unlimited atonement; that is, “the people have no role,” but “salvation is for all people.” Coherency in Wesley studies has been difficult to find.

Enter Vickers’ case for the unity of Wesley’s ecclesiastical, political, and theological thought. Vickers navigates the terrain of eighteenth century England, depicting Wesley as a man of the Church of England and a monarchical constitutionalist. Again, while nothing new, it supplies a helpful review.

Vickers emphasizes how Wesley was a man of his times—pointing out that Wesley out of context only leads to more inconsistencies, while reading more into Wesley fails as well. Vickers’ key here is the Anglican stabilization thesis as a way beyond the perplexity: as an Anglican priest and supporter of the crown, Wesley exhibited a keen awareness of the need for the stability of a confessional church and state. By placing the Trinity and sacraments at the center of the Christian life, Wesley not only sought to renew the church but also to cultivate stability beyond it. Therefore, Wesley’s political theology combines the essentials of orthodoxy with the spirit of generosity, maintaining both church and state on the one hand while allowing room for toleration on the non-essentials on the other, avoiding extremes on all sides. A thread of consistency begins to appear.

But the thread is woven tightly. Here, Vickers picks up Theodore Weber’s latest work with respect to Wesley’s theological politics of a confessional state: Wesley’s High Church Anglicanism supports his Tory inclinations. Pointing out inconsistencies in Wesley’s political theology, Weber notes how Wesley’s hierarchical vision of God does not cohere with his understanding of constitutionalism; that is, if Wesley affirms that God is ultimately bestowing authority from above through the King, how can he also affirm authority from below through the people? If God has provided the benefits of salvation to all, how can only a few have rule?

What makes for consistency in Wesley’s thought? The answer is covenantal Arminianism—the view that God intends salvation for all, but that through Christ’s covenant on the cross, repentance and obedience are also necessary; for without obedience there is no real faith, and without faith the universal scope of salvation goes unrealized. Therefore, as Vickers states, a strong compatibility exists between Wesley’s view of the atonement and his constitutional monarchianism: “Just as the constitution restricts the absolute power of the King, so the atoning blood of Christ constrains the absolute power of God. Moreover, because the constitution precedes the birth of English subjects, the rights and liberties that it grants can in no way be thought of as deserved. Similarly, because the covenant of grace precedes the birth of all people, its benefits are a matter of sheer generosity. In both cases, the appropriate response is gratitude and joyful obedience.” Covenant, church, and constitution are all matters of divine gratuity, offering forms of grace before our faithful response.

What are the benefits of reading Wesley in this way? The first is honesty. Wesley resists easy conformity to the whims of our age. Dealing with Wesley on his own terms is a first step toward understanding his gifts and limitations for the church’s renewal. Hijacking Wesley for narrow theological and political purposes is a non-starter. The many portraits of Wesley, while illuminating, must be kept in balance, whether dealing with Albert C. Outler’s “folk theologian,” Henry D. Rack’s “reasonable enthusiast,” or Howard A. Synder’s “radical renewalist,” to name a few. Wesley resists historical conformity. The same goes for applying other frames of reference to Wesley as well; e.g., viewing him either as a proponent of “process theology” or as a proto-liberal of democracy. Vickers’ book helps in this regard.

Second is the link between covenantal Arminianism and divine providence. As spiritual director and evangelist, Wesley was able to discern God’s hand in the church and world; the Spirit was being poured out on all flesh. And yet, seeing God’s hand in all things, including Wesley’s theological, ecclesiastical, and political commitments, lends credence to the argument as to why Wesley stayed in the Church of England and yet led the Methodists: he realized that leaving either would be tantamount to turning against God.

At the core of Wesley’s faith was a robust vision of God’s grace, being realized in faithful obedience. It’s a vision that resonates today.

Vickers states in the introduction that his volume is intended for a broad academic audience, especially students of church history, theology, and politics. Fair enough, but it would be too limited. Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed needs thoughtful reading among leaders in the church; that is, it needs the kind of reception that will rekindle our imaginations, reminding us all that what ties the various pieces of Wesley together (as well as ourselves) is God’s transforming grace, and that such pieces, while often in tension, do not have to be so perplexing.

Andrew D. Kinsey is co-pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Franklin, Indiana. He is an ordained elder of the South Indiana Annual Conference.

Examining your glasses

Dancing in the furnace

By B.J. Funk

When my children were younger, I received a few of those “Everything is perfect in our world” Christmas letters from well-meaning friends. I was happy for them. It’s just that their good news made me even more conscious that I had the opposite. My boys and I were struggling to get from one day to the next with some semblance of sanity. If one day ended and we had moved a step forward, we felt more confident that the next day might possibly bring another step, or at least a half a step. That would be the best Christmas for us. How was I supposed to write in our Christmas letter, “The boys are doing great, excelling in every area,” when in fact their lives were buried under a steady stream of tears from their daddy’s absence?

Those were dark days. Nothing hurts a mother more than seeing her children cry because they felt abandoned. As the three of us pushed forward to make it “in spite of,” I found myself in a precarious spot, my first introduction to the furnace of affliction. It was much too warm. I began to notice heat around my heart, where at times the flame was so intense I could not get out of bed in the morning. As the searing increased, the heat moved into other organs. My senses felt intense burning as my eyesight became first impaired, and then suddenly clearer than ever. My hearing changed too. Sounds I used to love faded as the flames burned away anything contrary to the fire’s purpose. Daily, I felt the inferno’s injustice moving like a searchlight into my soul. I didn’t always like what I saw; however, the fire was unrelenting. Eventually, a fire with no mercy at all moved into my slumbering soul and stirred a fresh pot of new mercy, a bubbling cool pool whose contents spilled all over me.

I watched as old habits of thinking melted in the heat’s darkness. Priorities shifted. It didn’t matter so much that I kept my house spotless; now, I wanted more than ever to keep my life spotless. I picked up the Bible and could not put it down. With the intensity of a hot branding iron, words of life were emblazoned on my heart. After months of this, I came out of the furnace a new person, flicking off the smoldering ashes, and praising God for the heat that causes change. I would not have gone back to the way I was for anything. I liked the new and growing me. I loved my new hunger for God’s Word. The furnace did all that. Romans 8:28 was true: God does use all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purposes.

Back to my Christmas letter. How could I write the truth, which included one of my sons failing two grades and finally dropping out of school? Somehow, it didn’t seem right to lie at Christmas. So, my Christmas letter flowed in senseless generalities: We got a new puppy. It snowed. My youngest likes music. No great accolades. But, at least truthful.

Later, I discovered in the Bible exactly what had happened to me. I had been in the Refiner’s Fire. “Behold, I will refine thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10).

That was a long time ago. I am still flicking off the ashes. Every now and then, God dips me back in that same furnace of purification. The book of James tells me to thank God for this new trial because he is using it to bring me deeper unto him. A dear Christian friend whose 20-year-old son died in an automobile accident pointed out, “We can still dance, even in the furnace.”

Those who have danced in the fire are those who know that the furnace will bring out their ultimate best for the kingdom of God. The purpose of the refining fire is so that the Master will see his image reflected on our purified silver lives.

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon put three Israelites in the furnace because they refused to bow down to false gods. When he looked inside, the king saw a fourth person, looking like a god, and the others were unharmed. He ordered them out, promoting the three and forbidding anyone in his kingdom to say anything against the Israelite’s God.

After that first furnace, I stopped comparing my Christmas letters to others. I simply was thankful that God walked into the furnace with me. I saw my ashes as a treasure to his faithfulness. His desire was to bring me to a higher life within him.

Have you been flicking off any ashes lately? The book of James would say, “Count it all joy!” My friend would say, “Dance, even there.”

B. J. Funk is Associate Pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She is the author of The Dance of Life: Invitation to a Father Daughter Dance, a regular contributor to the South Georgia Advocate, and a frequent speaker at women’s retreats. She can be reached at bjfunk@bellsouth.net.