November 22, 2017

Losers Who Just Keep Walking

Triumphalism is a terrible thing.

I heard an unexpected sermon yesterday from a guest preacher in a church we visited. The church is a traditional old Midwest Protestant congregation, not known, at least in recent memory, for their religious enthusiasm or expressiveness. Sunday’s speaker was from a quite different ecclesiastical milieu. The congregation seemed to enjoy the change of pace, the humor and the gregariousness of the man at the pulpit. He was likable and knew how to connect with an audience.

However, I’m sorry to report, I found what he had to say a long, long way from the actual nature of the biblical story and the mind of Christ.

I am sure, whatever the exact nature of his background, that he comes from the “Continualist” wing of Christianity, which is now usually described as having three “waves” — Pentecostalism, the Charismatic renewal, and the Third Wave of signs and wonders. Today, some also speak of a “Fourth Wave,”  which is characterized by such groups as the “New Apostolic Reformation” and “Independent Network Charismatic” movements.

Now, I don’t dismiss or denigrate these movements lightly. As Ed Setzer observes in his posts on continualism, “it is the fastest-growing movement in the history of world Christianity.” Nor am I a traditional “discernment” blogger, intent on preserving the purity of the faith once delivered. There are countless facets to the Christian faith that others see and appreciate more clearly than I. So, I don’t take it upon myself to declare these sisters and brothers heretics and condemn them.

But what I heard Sunday morning is problematic.

The basic point of the sermon was fine: God’s people need not fear because we have a great God who is bigger than all the things that make us afraid.

However, he then went on to develop this thought by saying that God does not want us to be afraid because when we fear, we are unable to “operate in faith.” This opened the door into another realm of ideas. Now we were encouraged to think about how God has given Christians a special power called faith. He defined faith as “having power and authority with God” that was strong enough to dramatically influence even the rulers and nations of this world.

Included in this power is a unique access to the mysteries of God. He also called this “an inside track to the heart of the Father.”

For his biblical example, he chose the story of Daniel, who was given insight into Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, and whose faith facilitated a great change of heart in the fearsome ruler.

What’s wrong with this picture?

In the end, the message I heard in worship Sunday is triumphalism. It puts forward a binary choice: fear or faith. It says if we have enough faith, if we operate in faith, if we surrender our fears and make use of the power of faith, we will triumph and come out on top. If God’s people do this faithfully enough, the whole world, all evil rulers, and every nation will change. We are God’s army and our chief weapon is faith. This gives us exclusive access to the very mysteries of God and a voice of authority and power before God in prayer and through working miracles to transform the world.

We will win. But — and here’s the key point — we will win by winning.

That is why Sunday’s preacher was so enthusiastic. Everyone loves to win and win big. We love the raucous pep rally that cheers our team on to victory. We love to get motivated, energized, and fired up. This is why so much of Christian worship is what it is today. No longer the simple, sacred duty of a grateful people, it is now, more often than not, a spectacle of positivity and stimulation.

Not so fast.

The nature of the Bible argues against this “win by winning” perspective. For example, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is one of the rare instances in human experience where history was written by the losers.

The Hebrew Bible was compiled, composed, edited, and brought into its final form by people from a nation that was no longer. Rather, they were exiles. And then post-exilic puppets to other, stronger nations. Whatever the Hebrew scriptures teach about faith and “winning” is written from the fringes, from subjugated people living in an outback crossroads where the more powerful trampled their way to conquest and victory routinely. The Jewish people were strangers to the centers of power, and whatever “victories” they may have experienced in their long journey, the outcome found them still under the pile.

I think it’s hard for Americans, in particular, to grasp how different the perspective of the Bible is from our own view of the world. We see ourselves firmly on top, we have been on top for a long time, and our freedom, prosperity, and might forms us to have a proud and fierce mindset. We are winners!

But the Hebrew Bible is the story of a small nation of obscure losers who wrestled with God (Israel) through a long and tumultuous history that did not end well. It ended so badly, in fact, and created such a theological crisis, that Israel’s religious leaders put together a massive book of stories, laws, poems, and prophecies to try and strengthen the fallen nation and give her future hope.

Then we come to the New Testament, the subsequent story of how God fulfilled his promises to Israel and brought her (and the whole world) out of exile by sending her Messiah. Story of victory and conquest? In one sense, yes, of course. In another sense, the most curious story of triumph ever written.

To be clear: Jesus didn’t win by winning. “Therefore,” the Apostle Paul writes, “God exalted him” (Philippians 2). What’s the “therefore” there for? Jesus was exalted because he poured himself out, took on humanity, made slavery his vocation, and endured a criminal’s execution.

Instead of conducting triumphalistic pep rallies, we should be doing what a missionary couple Damaris once told me about did. As they prepared to go to Africa, they fashioned furniture that could double as caskets because they knew the likelihood of surviving and returning home was small. As they went forth, they prepared themselves to die.

Were they afraid? I’d be willing to bet that their inner beings were filled with such a mixture of fear and faith that the two were virtually indistinguishable. But faith won out in the simple act of going to live among the poor. No binary choice — faith that empowers or fear that disables — but faith (trust) that follows Jesus while trembling with fear.

Faith is not some special power. Christians have no special authority. There are no spiritual “secrets” or technologies that blow the enemy away, leaving us to raise the flag of victory. We have Jesus, the Savior who won by losing. The Savior who said to us, “If you want to follow me, get ready to lose too.”

I don’t think he had any illusions that those who took him up on his offer would be free of fear. I don’t think he offered them any special emergency kit of tools like “faith” that will automatically banish our butterflies and give us the win. I think he just said, “Come on, let’s go lay down our lives together for our neighbors. I’m sure you’re afraid. That’s okay, I’m with you.”

God wins, we win, the world wins when we love like that; like losers who just keep walking.

Comments

  1. You mean we’re not gonna win so much that we’ll get tired of winning? Oh, come on!!

  2. There’s no doubt that the way of the cross is the door into the mysteries of life. We win when we lose. Heroism is ego fiction.

    • In other words, a theology of the cross instead of a theology of glory.

      If nothing else, I honor Luther and the Lutherans for that sublime formulation of how God works in Christ.

      • Christiane says:

        it was the Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who also wrote of a ‘theology of the cross’ before he lived it himself, this:

        “Bonhoeffer on the Incarnation:
        “” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate lord makes his followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. The “philanthropy” of God (Titus 3:4) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love toward all on earth that bear the name of human. The form of Christ incarnate makes the Church into the body of Christ. All the sorrows of humanity falls upon that form, and only through that form can they be borne. The earthly form of Christ is the form that died on the cross. The image of God is the image of Christ crucified. It is to this image that the life of the disciples must be conformed: in other words, they must be conformed to his death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4). The Christian life is a life of crucifixion.”
        (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

  3. The biggest losses, the biggest shames, the biggest embarrassment’s and defeats are the signature moments of transformation in our lives if we keep on walking as you say. I like that phrase. Reminiscent of “the patience of the Saints”. The image is not of us robed in white on a flying steed bringing enlightenment to the world but rather of us weekly grasping a torch to hold on and find our way through the mire, misery and darkness. Jesus said we enter the kingdom of heaven through many tribulations. Counterintuitively it is through those tribulations that the light begins to shine in the world, virtually unbeknownst to us, and not through our heroics with the neatly combed hair.

  4. Iain Lovejoy says:

    But Christians should be triumphal. There is a new heaven and a new earth coming down from God, and one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. That is the whole of the Bible. Where the OT was patient hope, the NT is the triumphant fulfilment of that promise. Lose the triumphalism and the good news isn’t “good news” any more.
    What I would say, however, is that where it goes wrong is to say “we” are going to triumph. It’s God who is going to triumph, not us. The idea that we Christians have a special secret of God that enables us to triumph over our enemies by some magical means is Gnosticism, not Christianity. Using faith as some kind of weapon to achieve victory over our opponents is an attempt to use God to our own ends, and this tends not to end well.
    I would say that we do need to be triumphal, to say that God is coming and God will win, and we can and should say that God is pleased to grant that, if we have faith in him, we can play our part in God’s victory. But what we have to be clear about is that when God wins, it is not a triumph of Christians over everyone else, but a victory for everyone and everything in creation. (Everyone will have won, and all shall have prizes!)

    • You have balanced my post with the other side of the coin. Of course there is joy and ultimate optimism in the victory of Christ. I don’t mean to diminish that, only to say that victory always comes by means of the cross and not by displays of power.

    • I call this type of triumphalism as the great hope, like in Hebrews 11. It is realized only by faith in this life. I think this pastor was alluding to a present triumphalism, which, as Mike is pointing out, will always disappoint. So we have this strange world, in which we live. We expect failures, hardships, pain and suffering in this world, but endure with a face towards that great hope in Christ of eventual victory over all.

  5. God is Love. When we love, that is God. It is not of God, that is God because God & Love are one in the same.
    So the triumph is that love is present. God is present.

    Thank you for this meditation, Chaplian Mike.

  6. Fear and trepidation abound, anger and discord close behind, the world teeters and reels as mobs and armies prepare for battle. Never in many thousands of years have we been closer to worldwide victory and freedom, never closer to ultimate defeat and tyranny. Pontificators abound, choose your flavor.

    Me? I’ll be going thru the eclipse in prayer and meditation on behalf of the planet and all its peoples for peace and harmony and unity. I’ll be joining many in this effort, likely thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands across this nation and the world, possibly even more. Will this make a difference? I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it would, but I’m aware of those who scoff and sneer and denigrate as their chosen life path. It’s part of the deal.

    My guess would be that I am the only one here at the Monastery joining this endeavor, but just in case the central moment agreed upon is 11:11 Pacific Time or 2:11 Eastern, support it as you see best. Surely a cause for merriment for some, but in my view it beats breaking windows and burning cars and driving vehicles into crowds or designing furniture to transform into coffins. Peace to this planet, blessed be.

  7. Dennis Fitzpatrick says:

    Thanks for the good word.

  8. So here’s what jumps out to me.

    But the Hebrew Bible is the story of a small nation of obscure losers who wrestled with God (Israel) through a long and tumultuous history that did not end well. It ended so badly, in fact, and created such a theological crisis, that Israel’s religious leaders put together a massive book of stories, laws, poems, and prophecies to try and strengthen the fallen nation and give her future hope.
    Then we come to the New Testament, the subsequent story of how God fulfilled his promises to Israel and brought her (and the whole world) out of exile by sending her Messiah. Story of victory and conquest? In one sense, yes, of course. In another sense, the most curious story of triumph ever written.

    So…why would I as a 21st century American care at all about the trials and tribulations of an ANE group of nomads from thousands of years ago, beyond historical curiosity and edification, and why would I believe they have any bearing on my life at all today, especially if I have zero ancestry from them?

    That’s a question I keep asking myself and struggling with.

    • Only for the reason that God chose to incarnate Himself amongst them, in fulfillment of all the promises He made to the world through them.

      • And I ask…did he? Which of their gods? And why just their’s? Or was it just their’s? Lots of questions. The faith handed down through generations I’ve discovered was a patchwork lie, and truth is a lot more elusive unless you choose to stop and ‘just believe’.

    • Stuart, it’s a good question. If God’s dealings with Israel are represented accurately in the Hebrew Bible, then the story is that God chose them not because they were special but because he wanted to work in and through them to bring all the people and nations of the world into a new creation of peace and justice. If you read my posts on Genesis, then you will see that I think this was humanity’s vocation from the beginning, as represented in Adam & Eve. The world was not perfect at the beginning, and Gen. 1 tells us God created humans to subdue evil and fill the earth with God’s blessing. They failed, as did Israel, who inherited that vocation. The story says that Jesus did fulfill that vocation — he subdued evil by taking its full impact on the cross and then defeating it through the resurrection — and he is now gathering a people who are called to carry that vocation on in the power of the Spirit.

      Your question also reinforces the point of my post. If God is real and at work in the world, then God tends to act in rather unexpected ways. Who would expect that “the trials and tribulations of an ANE group of nomads from thousands of years ago” would be the ones to bring redemption and healing to the world?

      • Or, as Dorothy Sayers put it…

        “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”

        That’s not “fate”, that’s not “bootstrapping”. That’s what makes Christianity unique.

      • And that’s a far better narrative than I’m presented with regularly. Thanks, CM.

      • Christiane says:

        ” If God is real and at work in the world, then God tends to act in rather unexpected ways. Who would expect that “the trials and tribulations of an ANE group of nomads from thousands of years ago” would be the ones to bring redemption and healing to the world?”

        I think I trust a God who does this through ‘a group of nomads from thousands of years ago’ . . . . . . we look at the Scriptures and ‘wow’ . . . . a desert tribesman writes the Book of Job in poetry and imagery more exquisite than any privileged modern culture-vulture could produce . . . . . there is mystery and beauty in such a paradox that speaks of a God Who has an appreciation for a sense of humor and a love for humility . . . . .

        I like this ‘God of the Unexpected Ways’, Chaplain Mike

  9. Burro [Mule] says:

    I thank God that He allowed me to know the Pentecostals when they were at the tag end of their career as despised working-class enthusiasts. Something vital went out of them when they moved uptown and started building cavernous churches with acres of parking.

    My wife worships with a Pentecostal congregation that has roots in that milieu. They opened their storefront church in a blighted neighborhood and worked diligently among the poor for decades. That triumphalist faith you complain about doesn’t sound so bad in the mouth of someone who stepped up to bat with two strikes against him and managed to hit a double. The neighborhood is gentrifying rapidly now, and the poor are being forced out. The Pentecostals are being forced out into the suburbs now to thrash “the highways and the byways”.

    It’s kind of sad. The recent arrivals have little interest in the church.

    • I really don’t blame them after seeing over and over what late-stage pentecostalism looks like.

      It’s sort of the same with every group, really. In the beginning people are motivated for love for others and end up improving and changing people’s lives (mostly through social gospel I imagine). But then doctrine and tradition and inbreeding take over, and you end up with the Fort Lauderdale 5 and gold dust on the ceiling and blood moons.

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        But then doctrine and tradition and inbreeding take over, and you end up with the Fort Lauderdale 5 and gold dust on the ceiling and blood moons

        There’s none of that foolishness in evidence among these Pentecostals. As far as a Social Gospel, well, I guess Finn is right. There is no ‘asocial’ gospel, and a lot of the uplift comes from knowing there is someone else interested in their problems, but there is an element of faith at work as well. The poor believe the raw outline of the narrative of the Gospels; God came in the flesh, died, and rose again. He is interested in your life.

        It gives them hope, and they attempt things they wouldn’t ordinarily attempt. The supernaturality of the message is central to the hope. Most of these people don’t have a chance in the world-as-it-is

  10. Amen.

    We walk the way of the cross. God wins in the end, sure. But our path is to follow and obey. That is hard. It’s frightening. It uses us up. And even though there is peace and joy on the way, it’s sure hard to sell, especially in America these days.

    It doesn’t look like a winner. And if there’s anything America wants, it something that looks like a winner.

  11. As far as I’m concerned it is people like Chaplain Mike who are providing leadership for the way forward for evangelicals. Let’s hope and pray enough will listen.

  12. Randy Thompson says:

    It has seemed to me that the “power of faith” advocated by much of Pentecostal Christianity (whatever wave it might be), has more to do with shamanism than with Biblical faith. The verb “trust” gets at the BIblical meaning of the word “faith” better than the noun (!) “faith.” Shamanism, as I understand it, is about harnessing and controlling spirituaol forces for one’s end. That’s not trust-faith. Trust is rooted in relationships, not power.

  13. Dana Ames says:

    Small digression – Eclipse watch:
    Just saw as much totality as we’re going to be able to see in my locale – the moon’s red edge across the crescent sun.

    The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork!

    Dana

    • Nice.

      Just passed by we Pacific Northwesterners near Seattle. Didn’t get as dark as I thought it would.

  14. Daniel Jepsen says:

    Forgive the terrible haircut and the 90’s videography; they lyrics are spot on:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q023gA5IeV8

  15. We will win. But — and here’s the key point — we will win by winning.

    So… Charlie Sheen was your guest preacher?
    (I understand it can be a quite lucrative career….)

    • LOL.

      You could come up with a whole collection of wonderful spiritual-sounding untruths.

      “And Jesus said, ‘I will make you alive, those who play to win, and not only play to win, but then win.'”
      “And I tell you, run the race with all your heart, to win, for if you don’t cross the finish line first, you will not receive the crown of glory.”

  16. Regardless of belief, non-belief or unbelief, we will all lose, just as Jesus lost. Maybe not as dramatically as hanging on a cross, but just as final.

    The hope offered by Jesus, then, isn’t any sort of victory in this life, but rather that in the ultimate, and what looks to be final, loss we will be lifted up, just as he was lifted up.

  17. I knew a man some years ago. His name was Gus. He was quite old when I met him, and I was young. He was a street person, no permanent home, a loner for many years, alienated from family. He walked from shelter to shelter, from alley and park to park and alley, and back again. He slept where he could, with a roof over his head when he could arrange it, or when it was arranged for him, more often without. He received a VA pension, not much money, just enough to barely get what he needed for a month. He kept a PO Box that it was mailed to.

    And he walked everywhere. He walked to soup kitchens, he walked to shelters, he walked to a couch for a night, he walked miles and miles, and didn’t like accepting rides. He’d rather walk than ride. He’d never owned a car or had a driver’s license. Often he walked just because he wanted to, with no particular destination. Just kept putting one foot in front of the other, to the park, to the convenience store, to a warm library on a cold day. He wanted to walk, and he took a grim kind of pride in his ability to keep walking despite chronic pain and debility.

    I moved away from the area, and consequently lost touch with him. A friend of his looked me up and called me months later. He told me that Gus was found dead a few weeks earlier on the street. He had died from exposure on a cold January night, when he couldn’t find or more likely refused to accept shelter. He had been out walking all night, as was his habit, until he couldn’t walk anymore. And then he had just sat down where he found himself.

    Gus walked everywhere, and he kept walking until all the walking was taken out of him. RIP, Gus. I hope you walk the city of God now, with that son of man who also had no place to lay his head, or to stop walking.

  18. Faith is most magnificent when it is helmed in on all sides by overwhelming terror. Faith and incapacitating fear not only can co-exist but the fear is the dark backdrop that causes faith to shine the brightest. Those with no fear, I don’t see as people of faith, but people who have little need for faith. I thank God every day that he has made me a fearful and anxious person, where each day it is like an adventure of Frodo Baggins.

  19. well now for the longest time ego and pride have been my enemy. The fact remains if I am willing to be to be a loser right or wrong for the sake of someone else I have become the winner not that i really care about either

    • in following please except my sorrows in printing. Sometimes not eating meat put before Idols even though it has no effect on me is good for the one I sit with and no need to make a point just enjoy the company.

  20. Lumping these three (4?) waves together…when there are vast differences among them, and then claiming this one person’s sermon is representative of them all is quite a logical leap.