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Part II of the email chain (Part I is here).  We pick up below with Joel’s (the Calvinist’s) attempted syllogism to show that Arminianism leads to a view that would “obligate” God to “save” me if I put my faith in Christ, and allegedly would put the credit for salvation not with God, but with the believer.

Feel free to skip to the final few (long) emails for the climax: a Reformed view, a Catholic view, a Methodist view.

From: _____, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 5:07 PM
To: _____, Jonathan B.; ______, Nate; ______, Marc J.; Burden, Jack

Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I will reconstruct if I can.  The Arminian believes he is saved because he chooses God.  In other words, God is obligated to save the Arminian, because maybe he walked the aisle in an altar call, or got baptized, or in some event “put his faith” in Jesus.  But fundamentally, it comes down to the Arminian’s choice.

If that be true and scriptural, then it follows that the Arminian can lose his salvation. If salvation be based on the choice of a man, surely that man (if he has free choice) can choice to do otherwise:  today I will choose to believe in Jesus, and tomorrow I will change my mind and choose otherwise.

I believe the doctrine of eternal security is completely antagonistic to Arminian theology.  The Arminian has no warrant to believe in eternal security of the believer.

Again, I reject Arminian theology (though I embraced it for the first 25 or so years of my Christian life).

From: __________, Nate
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:22 PM
To: __________, Joel E.; __________, Jonathan B.; __________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

The Arminian believes he is saved because he chooses God.  In other words, God is obligated to save the Arminian . . . .

That is a logical fallacy.  There can be more than one but-for cause of a single event.  It is necessary that God have grace on us; it is also necessary that we choose to accept that grace.  God is not obligated to do extend grace.  He chooses, however, to extend grace, and He is faithful to the promise of grace He made through Christ.

From: __________, Joel E.
To: ‘__________, Nate’ ; __________, Jonathan B.; __________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.;
Sent: Fri Feb 20 16:34:59 2009
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

But to the Arminian, God indeed is obligated.  What does the Arminian say are the efficient and proximate causes of salvation?

Major Arminian Premise:  All have 100% free choice to choose or reject God.

Minor Arminian premise:  God must save those who choose Him by putting their faith in him.

Conclusion:  God must save me if I choose him.

Conclusion #2:  If God must save me, he is obligated to save me, all on the strength of my choice.

From: __________, Jonathan B.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:43 PM
To: __________, Joel E.; ‘Nate.__________; __________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: Re: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Now we’re really getting somewhere. I would say that your minor premise is really the major premise, as cast by classical logic, being a universal. (All X are Y. All those who choose God’s goodness are saved.). The minor premise is Some choose God’s goodness, a conditional, though not stated as if-then. The conclusion is that some, who have chosen God’s goodness, are saved.

From: Burden, Jack
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:49 PM
To: __________, Joel E.; ‘__________, Nate’; __________, JoJack B.; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I am trying to get a brief out the door this afternoon, and really wish I could delve into this right now.  Keep ’em coming; I will hopefully be able to engage tonight.

But let me say that your “minor Arminian premise” below is a misstatement, at least to my eyes.  God promises to save those who accept his freely offered gift of grace; I can choose whether to accept that gift of grace; and because I believe God is faithful to his promises, I believe I am saved by my faith in Christ.  You’re adding the “obligation” part.  God isn’t obligated to do squat.  I would submit that God can renege on his promises if he so desires, and remain perfectly righteous and holy and honest – for he is the definition of holiness and righteousness and Truth.  He’s not obligated to save me, and I would have no right to bitch and moan if, at the end of the day, I were denied salvation – I would only be getting what I deserved all along.  I will also admit that I leave open the possibility that God, in his sovereignty and unfathomable mercy and love, will reconcile all things to him and extend salvation to all, believer and unbeliever alike.

Does the Calvinist leave open the possibility of universal salvation?

From: __________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:52 PM
To: Burden, Jack; ‘__________, Nate’; __________, JoJack B.; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

No, the Calvinist vehemently denies universal salvation, but on the strength of scripture which clearly teaches that not all will be saved.

As to God having the ability to renege, God does not have the ability to deny himself, which means he cannot lie.  Omnipotence does not mean that God can do anything and everything, it means only that God can do all things which are capable of being done.  If God promises to save all who put their faith in Jesus, he  cannot then renege on that promise, so you are back to my prior email.

From: Burden, Jack
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:52 PM
To: __________, Joel E.; ‘__________, Nate’; __________, JoJack B.; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

So is God’s sovereignty restrained by the words of Scripture?

From: __________, Joel E.
To: Burden, Jack ; __________, Nate; __________, JoJack B. ; __________, Marc J. ; __________, Robert J. ;
Sent: Fri Feb 20 17:54:38 2009
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

In a sense, scripture (as recorded in the original autographs, and as interpreted in context, etc. etc) has the full force of God’s will, because God cannot lie.  If Jesus says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” Jesus then cannot renege and decide, “What the heck, I am sovereign, so I will leave my boys hanging.”  No sir, Jesus cannot do that, even though he is sovereign.  I would not say God is “constrained,” I would say all his actions are righteous altogether and wholly consistent with his revealed Word.

From: __________, Nate
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 5:30 PM [inserted here because responsive to Joel’s email above]
To: __________, Joel E.; Burden, Jack; __________, JoJack B.; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: Re: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Which is also why he is not obligated to save us, just because we accept christ. He is fulfilling a promise he didnt have to make. The new covenant.

From: __________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:48 PM
To: __________, Jonathan B.; ‘Nate.__________; __________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

OK, let’s take baby steps:
All men are free.
Freedom includes the ability to choose without any outside constraint(s).

All men are free to choose.

God will save all who put their faith in him.
Some choose to put their faith in him.
God saves those who choose him.

Ultimate conclusion:  Salvation ultimately belongs to man, who possesses unrestrained free choice.

From: Burden, Jack
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:55 PM
To: __________, Joel E.; __________, Jonathan B.; ‘Nate.__________; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Again, that conclusion just doesn’t seem to follow from the premises.

We don’t think that way in everyday life.  Let’s say my wife offers me a gift: a new set of golf clubs.  I can choose to accept or reject that gift, but I didn’t choose that the gift was offered to me in the first place – that’s what makes it a “gift.”  People would look at me funny if I walked around telling people that my enjoyment of the new golf clubs was “ultimately” up to me – they would say, “but didn’t your wife give you those nice new clubs?”  And I would look like a jackass, because I would be one.

From: __________, Joel E.
To: Burden, Jack; __________, Jonathan B.; ‘Nate.__________@usdoj.gov’ ; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.; ”
Sent: Fri Feb 20 17:03:35 2009
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I submit that the err lies in tying God’s gift of salvation to a set of golf clubs.  Your wife is no doubt awesome, but she is not Sovereign God, and the clubs are probably pretty good, but they won’t get you into Heaven (although they may get you into the Masters with enough practice).

The “gift” analogy breaks down at some point.  Salvation is free and unmerited, so in that sense it is a gift.  But if we can reject the gift, then our ultimate possession depends on our choice.

If someone asks why you have a nice new set of clubs, it is correct to say “my wife gave me this unmerited gift,” but it would also be true (albeit weird) to say, “I have these golf clubs because I decided to accept them, because I could have chosen to tell her to take them back if I did not want them.”

From: __________, Jonathan B.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 5:07 PM
To: __________, Joel E.; Burden, Jack; ‘Nate.__________’; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: Re: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

What’s the problem with that? It seems to explain why some people are saved and others aren’t.

From: __________, Joel E.
To: __________, Jonathan B. ; Burden, Jack ; __________, Nate; __________, Marc J. ; __________, Robert J. ;
Sent: Fri Feb 20 18:09:52 2009
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I guess you have agreed with me on what the central issue is.  Who ultimately is responsible for you or me or Jimmy Carter being saved?  If we can reject God, isn’t it ultimately up to us?

From: __________, Nate
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 5:29 PM
To: __________, Joel E.; __________, Jonathan B.; Burden, Jack; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: Re: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Ultimately doesnt take grace out of the equation. We are like the drowning man who receives a lifeline. Yes, it was ultimately up to him to take it, but its not a cause for pride nor does it detract from the graciousness or superior power of the rescuer.

From: __________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 5:31 PM
To: ‘__________, Nate’; __________, Jonathan B.; Burden, Jack; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Just don’t let go of the rope.

I’m glad he tied it around my waist for me.

From: Burden, Jack
To: __________, Joel E.; ‘__________, Nate’ ; __________, Jonathan B.; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.; ”
Sent: Fri Feb 20 19:00:10 2009
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Truly no offense intended, Joel, because I know the spirit in which you say it (i.e., a spirit of joy and gratitude), but it is comments like your last sentence that make Calvinism repugnant to a lot of people.  Indeed, it is hard to find much of that ballyhooed Calvinist humility in such a statement, and it seems designed to put the non-Calvinist Christian on the defensive.

Like I said, no offense intended, and if you were just giving Nate a hard time, I double my apologies.

From: __________, Joel E.
Sent: Fri 2/20/2009 7:39 PM
To: Burden, Jack; ‘Nate.__________’; __________, Jonathan B.; __________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: Re: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I apologize if I offended you – certainly not my intent. Although I wish I could say I planned a graphed picture to drive home the point; if I had more intentionality in my word choice, I would feel better, because I think what I said graphically (albeit roughly) sums up the debate, and should be memorable. Even if I persuaded nobody, I hope I at least challenged you to keep an open mind about these things.
For the first 25 years or so of my Christian life I did not have an open mind. I was an Arminian’s Arminian. I fought the Reformed guys tooth and nail. I fought them in DC, and I even fought them at Cambridge in England (including a challenge to the son-in-law of Francis Schaeffer). It exhausted me, and in time the scriptures opened up for me in such a new and profound way. I was aided by the likes of Jonathan Edwards and RC Sproul and John Piper. And I had to admit I was wrong. I am embarrassed and humbled, because I am the last person who should embrace the Reformed faith. I am not that much unlike Paul going to Damascas, although my event of humbling was much less sudden. But I nevertheless was humbled, and now all is clear in a way I could not have imagined. Such joy in knowing God has chosen me. Such joy in knowing he will keep me by his power. Fear is gone. I feel like I’ve won life’s lottery; although I am the one who deserves it the least.
So please, keep an open mind. I still do – I have to, as I have already been greatly humbled by having been turned 180 degrees. If you never embrace the Reformed way, I will still call you my Christian brother if you believe salvation is by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. And I will further state the obvious: we are all struggling to know truth, and given the limitations of our fallen state, we all have errors in our thinking, and we always will. So I clearly understand that I have much more to learn. I just want everyone to know the joy I have found, and I am compelled to sow the seeds of the gospel as I understand it. If the seeds I sow do not bear fruit – no worries between us.
————————–
Sent from my BlackBerry Wireless Handheld

From: __________, Nate
Sent: Fri 2/20/2009 8:31 PM
To: Burden, Jack; ________, Joel E.; __________, Jonathan B.; _______, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.
Subject: Re: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

He is just running consistently wth the mataphor and his view that even the “choice” to follow christ is not truly a choice but a predestination. The funny thing is, i find that view, which i once held also, even more terrifying than what i now believe to be the truth — that i have to make a constant choice to follow christ and at any moment am free to turn away and damn myself. Because by the calvinist view, even those of us who think we are among the elect may not be. Maybe we are destined to be like judas iscariot (who i believe was within christ’s grace until he betrayed him and might still have found that grace afterwards had he not fallen into despair and killed himself). Maybe, despite the fervency of our present devotions, we were never truly saved, and this will be born out at the end of our lives by a spectacular sin or apostasy. Or maybe it won’t be spectacular — our tepid devotions will prove to have been phony all along and we will die outside of grace, not even aware of it until it is too late.

I must have prayed the prayer of salvation a hundred times as a kid, always scared that i hadnt done it with full conviction before. I remember tearfully imploring an itinerant preacher to explain to me how i could ever know i was truly saved. No good answer. And when i began to contemplate calvinism in college and law school, i practically gave up and figured what was the point of even going to church or praying or doing anything. Why not kill myself and find out sooner rather than later whether i was one of the elect? It didnt help that i was a naturally pessimistic crank from a family with a history of chronic depression, but the flaw in this solipsism was not logic, so no therapist or medication could talk me out of it.

The appeal of catholicism (in the broad sense, which would include any sacramental version of christianity — orthodox or anglican as well) in this regard was that it attempted to resolve the paradox not analytically as we are doing now but practically, by action. It said you had to renew your faith constantly, so the risk of damnation would never go away completely, but so long as you accepted the sacraments voluntarily, your faith was real and you could count on god’s grace covering you and you wouldnt have to worry about whether you were one of the elect.

I am much less of a head case now that i concentrate on being constant in my faith, which means not committing mortal sin and going to confession (a sacrament) if i do. The joy and assurance that joel talks about never came to me until after i’d gone to confession as a catholic, aware of recent sin and its eternal consequences and simply relieved that i could trust in the grace conveyed by the sacrament (which i hadnt earned and didnt deserve) to save me from those consequences. And every time you receive the eucharist at mass, its another altar call — which ouight to be as emotionally and existentially significant as your first one. Y’all should try it some time.

From: Burden, Jack

Sent: Sat 2/21/2009 12:13 AM

To: _____, Joel E.; ________, Nate; ______, Jonathan B.; ______, Marc J.

Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

By no means am I offended — like I said, I know what you meant, but want you to realize how it may come across to others outside the Reformed persuasion.  I’ve been ’round and ’round with Calvinists for years — never as the provocateur, being a lazy Methodist theologian and all, but always willing to engage in response — and was simply commenting on what I’ve recognized as a common tactic among the Reformed folks (the subtle “I know I’m saved, but I’ll pray for you” dig).  (I realize now that I may have over-interpreted your extension of the metaphor.)  In fact, I lost my best friend from high school when, in college, he became deeply involved with Campus Outreach (a Reformed campus ministry) and proceeded to try to persuade/shame/browbeat me, over a period of several weeks, into intellectual assent of Reformed doctrine.  Incidentally, on his Facebook page, he now describes his religious views as “all our love is God’s money” and his political views as “Bob Dylan for president,” so I take it he wasn’t part of the elect after all.  Similarly, my wife — a model of Christian virtue in every imaginable way and offspring of an extended family of countless Methodist preachers in the North Alabama Conference — had the dubious (dis-)honor of having her personal salvation publicly prayed over, in her absence of course, by her Reformed sorority sisters at a campus-wide Campus Outreach event.  So while I can be a wee bit sensitive to that dog whistle, I’m not offended by it because I really do think it’s just a blind spot for many Calvinists.

As a Wesleyan Methodist, I believe that I am saved by faith in Christ and his reconciling sacrifice on the cross, the power and effectiveness of which was evidenced by his resurrection.  What is more, I believe that salvation begins now: I “am redeemed,” not just “I will be redeemed.”  I am not crippled by fear that I may fall away from God’s saving grace (although I acknowledge this possibility) because, well, it’s not about me anymore: “God so loved the world,” which includes me, but by no means ends with me.  I accept the efficacy of my justification through Christ, and do my best (well, almost my best) to move toward Christlikeness with the help of God’s sanctifying grace, striving to do my part in the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom here on earth.  And when my faith falters from time to time, I find comfort in Christ’s healing of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9, whose father emitted that most honest and anguished cry, “Lord I believe!  Help my unbelief!”

Beyond that, I must admit, we Methodists often wonder what all the fuss is about.  A dying man does not insist that he understand why the medicine works before he swallows the pill — and rarely does he insist to know even after the pill has done its healing work.  Likewise, it matters little to me whether the atonement was a blood sacrifice to God, a cosmic transaction with Satan, or merely a symbol of God’s love for us that reflected the saving work God had already accomplished.  Nor am I concerned with the logical paradox of God’s sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience and man’s free will and moral agency.  I’m interested but not obsessed, for I am sure of the only thing that matters: salvation is here and offered freely to all.  That is the Gospel, the Good News — not how it works, but THAT IT WORKS.

It is my hunch that many, if not most, of those who you would say fall in the “Arminian” camp would not identify themselves as Arminians per se, but adherents to practical theology — that is, a theology that they think works, that is consistent with the world as they experience it.  So-called “Arminians,” in my experience, don’t do catechisms and don’t learn handy-dandy acronyms to explain the world.  I’m not bragging about this; many of us are inexcusably weak on doctrine, to be sure.  But whatever the intellectual and logical attractiveness of Calvinist doctrine — and it is undeniably tidy in this regard — it strikes many of these Christians as inconsistent with the world they experience: a world in which it certainly seems like people have real moral agency, are naturally selfish but at least capable of good, and blessed with the ability to assent to God’s lordship and Christ’s offer of salvation.  In this way, Calvinism is like Latin to a lot of people: it’s logical and attractive, but irrelevant to the world as we actually find it — a dead language, so to speak.

(Perhaps this metaphor of language as theology reveals something deeper about how different Christians view the purpose of doctrine.  Arminians, in my experience, think of doctrine the way C.S. Lewis described it in Mere Christianity: doctrine is to Truth as a map of Europe is to Europe (the actual place).  The map is not the place, but a way of understanding the place.  Likewise, the doctrine is not the Truth, but a way of exploring and understanding the Truth.  It is important only insofar as it helps us engage the Truth, but the doctrine has no intrinsic worth.  My experience has been that Calvinists tend to take a higher view of doctrine, and sometimes conflate doctrine with Truth.  I think this is reflected by the reluctance of many Calvinists to assent to the mere possibility that their doctrine might actually be incorrect (cf. your earlier statements that after years of fighting and resisting the irresistible pull of Calvinist thought, “I had to admit that I was wrong,” that “all is clear now,” and that your intellectual assent to Reformed doctrine was “not unlike Paul going to Damascus”).  This kind of thinking, at least from the Methodist perch within so-called “Arminianism,” is foreign to many Christians.  I’m not saying either view of doctrine is correct or incorrect, just that I think there are different views.  But it is amusing when the Calvinist exhorts others to “keep an open mind.”)

So it’s not that I’m wed to Arminianism or dead-set against Calvinism; rather, I’m perplexed by the passion with which it seems the Calvinists continue to wage this internecine war (for it seems to me that Calvinists are far more eager to “share” their doctrine, as distinguished from the Gospel itself, than Arminians).  To what end?  To prove that my post hoc explanation of the miracle of salvation is more logically deducible than yours?  Or that I can line up more Bible verses, ripped from their literary and historical context, to support my theory than you?  Isn’t this the epitome of a tempest in a teapot?  Given the state of things, it’s probably time to kill the stove and distribute the damn tea to a lost and hurting world.
I hope this is taken in the spirit it is intended — that is, robust but loving debate among Christian brothers.  I’m reminded that despite their doctrinal differences, George Whitefield and John Wesley made common cause in spreading the Gospel; Wesley even gave the eulogy at Whitefield’s funeral.  Grace and peace.

Jack

From: ___________, Nate
Sent: Sat 2/21/2009 12:02 PM [inserted here because it responds to Jack Burden’s email above]
To: Burden, Jack; ________, Joel E.; ______, Jonathan B.; _____, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: Re: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Very well-stated — what i would call proto-catholic practical theology.  You just need to learn to love you some latin.  Veni vidi vici.
From: _____, Joel E.
Sent: Sat 2/21/2009 6:26 AM
To: Burden, Jack; ‘Nate.___________; _______, Jonathan B.; _____, Marc J.; ________, Robert J.
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I think part of the reason Calvinists can be aggressive is their understanding of their biblically-mandated duty to “contend for the faith.”  In that regard, they may necessarily come across much like the folks who knock on your door to hawk their religion – rather annoying if we must be honest.  Such folks violate the fundamental American (really, Western) contemporary idea that we all just want to be left alone, thank you.  So the Calvinist is in a pickle; he is compelled to contend for the faith, and he’s commanded to share the gospel, but he’s swimming in a sea of folks who really want him to shut his pie hole and leave everyone else well enough alone.

[Note: As I read scriptures I don’t see much of any of God’s folks leaving people alone, either old or new testament.  God’s people pretty much always challenged and provoked, although I acknowledge Paul’s admonition to live quiet and humble lives taking care of our families – so maybe there is a balance in there somewhere.  However, the ministers in the bible admonished, pleaded, exhorted, challenged, put their fingers in faces, at times beat people, called down judgment, etc.  They took this business about truth and the Glory of God very serious, indeed.  But perhaps I should me more quiet and passive until/unless I am called into ministry???]

And the Calvinist is further in a bind (so to humanly speak) because he is living in a time when at their core most people believe there are no absolutes, so to even mention the possibility of an absolute smacks of elitism or arrogance.

Finally, the Calvinist feels pressured because he understands that he is not dealing with mere triffles about secondary doctrines.  He believes he is contending for core issues concerning the faith which go to the heart of the Gospel and the Glory of God.  This is no mere debate about whether women should be allowed to minister in church or which side of the church we should put the piano on.  This is a debate about the very essence of the Gospel and how same relates to the glory of God.  And significanly, the Calvinist believes that if the Gospel be preached properly, perhaps we would see many nations converted, perhaps even another Great Awakening in our own country.

So the stakes are very high, and the Calvinist is constantly struggling over the extent to which his duty requires him to challenge those who believe they have an iota of control as against the sovereingty of God, including the ultimate salvation of a man or any man.  The Calvinist, if he be faithtful to what he believes God has revealed to him, must speak out against any form of the gospel in which any works are any ingredient to the formula for salvation.  Finally — and this may be a surprise to some — the true Calvinist, I would submit, is motivated by love and concern for his brothers and sisters, including those who are yet lost, and even including those who know Christ but yet practically live as though they are trapped and are not experiencing the freedom of knowing Christ.  Calvinists can be guilty of being aggressive in caring to see their brothers set free.  Calvinists make lousy superficial friendships.

Jack:  I am surprised that anybody would be offended to learn that Calvinists are praying for them IN SECRET!  Perish the thought!  I’ll be honest – I want all of you (indeed, all of the world) to pray for me and my family, in secret or in public or in both.  If the prayers be true and in line with God’s will, I am blessed.  And if not, no sweat off my back.  But I think your angst here reveals a bit about yourself as much as it does about the earnest Calvinist.  And of course, an over-zealous Calvinist does nothing to define or categorize the entire belief system of Paul/Agustine/Luther/Calvin/Edwards, any more than than one lazy Wesleyan Methodist minister from Berkley overseeing a same-sex union does to destroy any Arminian faith.  I don’t hold contemporary Methodism in the U.S. against that great man John Wesley.

To Nate’s point about knowing one is saved, I will respond by answering a slightly different but related question:  How can one have Assurance of Salvation?  Is such biblical?  Is such practical?  (of course, if biblical, then practical).

I submit that the bible very clearly and at some length holds that we can have and should have the assurance of our our salvation.  This assurance is provided by objective tests (knowledge of truth) and subjective tests (a life growing in light of the truth).  Many of these tests are provided in the book of 1 John.  There are many others, and your bible cross references will point you toward them; in sum, the bible has much to say about the tests which lead to our assurance (and which provide the evidence of our calling).  Then, ultimately, the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.

There is so much more that can be said here, including many books written by some renowned theologians; I don’t think I should try to recreate the wheel here, and I cannot handle the task as well as others who devote their lives to these issues.  I’d be glad to dig in deeper with any of you, if you like.  But in the interest of discharging my duty to respond to Nate’s most recent question to me, and to be certain I have attempted to provide whatever help I can, I paste below, 2 sermons on point which I believe are helpful (note that there is much said about the need to examine ourselves and to work, etc.)  I also paste some links below to further helps, all of which can be quickly deleted if this is not an area of your present interest:

[Links to Calvinist resources]

From: Burden, Jack
Sent: Sat 2/21/2009 12:09 PM
To: _______, Joel E.; ‘Nate._________; ______, Jonathan B.; ________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Your email illustrates my point that Calvinists conflate their doctrine with the Gospel Truth itself.  You speak of your conversion to Calvinism, after your first 25 years in the “Christian life,” as your personal “Damascus Road” experience.   Is salvation through Christ, or through Calvin (and Sproul and Piper, et al)?

Certainly, Wesleyans – and I speak here not just of the various stripes of Methodists, but also of Pentecostals and “Holiness” believers who are part of the Wesleyan tradition – have felt equally compelled to “contend for the faith” as their Reformed brothers in Christ.  And despite the decline of the United Methodist Church in North America – an institution that began to lose its focus on the Gospel some 40 years ago, I am deeply sad to say – Wesleyan-rooted Christianity is by far the largest piece of the Protestant Christian pie worldwide, and its share continues to grow at a dazzling pace, especially in the developing world.  The defining feature of the Wesleyan tradition, properly understood, is passionate and joyful evangelism.  They didn’t call ’em “Shouting Methodists” for nothing.  (As an aside, I am puzzled by your statement: “significantly, the Calvinist believes that if the Gospel be preached properly, perhaps we would see many nations converted, perhaps even another Great Awakening in our own country.”  Putting to the side the fact that many nations are being converted without resort to TULIP, your “if-then (perhaps)” statement surely suggests that, despite your intellectual assent to the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement, you hold out some hope that human action can, in fact, affect whether others receive salvation.  Which makes sense, because it is consistent with the way we actually experience the world.)

So I don’t recognize that straw man you’ve set up, and I won’t claim it as my own.  Evangelize!  Proclaim the Good News!  Fulfill the Great Commission! The true Wesleyan has been about this business for a long time, and will happily go into the world with you as we seek and minister to the lost.

But it’s in the Calvinist definition of “lost” where the rubber meets the road, eh?  You say that the “Calvinist feels pressured because he understands that he is not dealing with mere trifles about secondary doctrines … [and] is contending for core issues concerning the faith which go to the heart of the Gospel….”  And it’s at this point that it begins to dawn on the Wesleyan: “All that ‘brothers in Christ’ jibber-jabber was just flattery!  This guy thinks I’m ‘lost’!”  The Wesleyan thinks he’s going on a mission, when in fact he has just walked into his own intervention!

Surely you can imagine how insulting this is to the Wesleyan, no?  Surely you do not actually miss the point of the anecdote about my wife – easily the most saintly Christian I personally know – and the very public “concern” for her personal “salvation” aired by her Reformed sorority sisters during a public prayer at a university-wide Campus Outreach event.  (Please note that my wife, a deeply devoted Methodist, was a saint in college, also – she just made the “mistake” of choosing to attend the Wesley Fellowship rather than Campus Outreach.)  I am confident the anecdote speaks for itself.  But the Calvinist, like the seasoned politician, learns to cast this flaw as a virtue: “My problem is I care too much!”  (Jonathon Edwards, meet John Edwards?)  Or put otherwise, “Calvinists make lousy superficial friendships.”

At the end of the day, the Wesleyan cares not a bit that the Calvinist has worked out to his satisfaction a logically consistent, post hoc explanation of the miracle of salvation and the “God’s sovereignty/foreknowledge vs. man’s free will/moral agency” Rubik’s cube.  Bully for the Calvinist — glad it works for him — now let’s take the Good News to the streets together.  Every Sunday, the Wesleyan Methodist prays specifically for all of the Christian denominations – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal/Holiness, Reformed/Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans, Churches of God, Churches of Christ, nondenominational churches – not for their salvation or conversion to the “true” faith, but for their continued efficacy in carrying out the Great Commission and the Great Commandment as members of the body of Christ, the Church writ large.  I’m not always sure the Calvinist feels the same way, but I hope he does.

Incidentally, one of my new heroes is Tim Keller, the magnificent church-planter and pastor who has grown Redeemer Prebyterian in downtown Manhattan — the heart of post-Christian, post-modern secularism — at an absolutely astounding rate, and is doing incredible Kingdom work in New York City and beyond.  I read “The Reason for God” and have forced others to read it also.  His latest, “Prodigal God,” is on my nightstand.  I made copies of a NYT article describing Keller’s work at Redeemer to distribute to my Sunday School class, for I would love to see my downtown church replicate Keller’s success in reaching the lost in an urban setting.  I’ve listened to most of his sermons on his website, and have been greatly edified by them (even when he gets into Reformed doctrine, which I’m always willing to listen to because much of it is likely helpful in understanding the Truth).  And every few Sundays, when I’ve been to my church in the morning but want another corporate worship experience in the evening, I walk to the new church plant in my neighborhood, Redeemer Community Church, which is…gasp!…Reformed.  (And as Marc certainly knows by now, I have a secret affinity for the Catholic church and the coolest man alive, Pope Benedict XVI.)  So “open-minded” on doctrine, I am — indeed, as a Methodist, I have to be careful not be so open-minded that my brain falls out, as has unfortunately happened to the folks who run the United Methodist bureaucracy.

Part I of an email chain, which started with my email linking to Peggy Noonan’s column today. (You should read it.)

Joel is Calvinist (Presbyterian), Nate and Marc are Roman Catholics, Jonathan is Southern Baptist (though raised Methodist), and Jack is United Methodist.

Pay no attention to the time stamps — some of them appear off due to time zone differences, while others have been rearranged for the sake of coherence.

The real meat is in Part II, which will be posted next.

From: ___________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 2:12 PM
To: ___________, Jonathan B.; Burden, Jack; ‘___________, Nate’; ___________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

The article is humanist rubbish.  We will pull ourselves up from our bootstraps blah blah blah.  Nonsense.  And I reject her premise that beginning in 1984 we saw incredible progress.  Baloney – we saw movement, but movement is not equated with progress.  So what if we can send an email from an airplane.  Who gives a rip?  How does that make us more noble or more godly?

I reject the religion called Humanism.  Give me progress, not merely prosperity.

From: Burden, Jack
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 2:33 PM
To: ___________, Joel E.; ___________, Jonathan B.; ‘___________, Nate’; ___________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Wow…I too reject Humanism, but didn’t think Noonan – who wrote that acclaimed, glowing biography of Pope John Paul II – was trying to engage Humanism in this seemingly innocuous column on how crappy the economy is, how sorry our politicians are, and how people feel about it.  I was struck by this sentence, the one Jonathan referenced, near the end: “They [our political leaders] claimed to be quintessentially optimistic, but it was a cheap optimism, based more on sunny personal experience than any particular faith, and void of an understanding of how dark and gritty life can be, and has been for most of human history.”  That doesn’t sound particularly Humanist to me.  Nor do I think acknowledgement of the possibilities of human achievement necessarily connote devotion to Humanism.

In any event, I refuse to take this message seriously because it was sent via email.  Please re-transcribe on parchment.

From: ___________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 2:36 PM
To: Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; ‘___________, Nate’; ___________, Marc J.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Valid criticism.  I suppose if I want to connect to today’s youth I have to pierce my navel and ink my thoughts on skin via indelible tattoo.

Noonan is emblematic of the problem.  She’s religious, but from her writing (if that be a fair and representative sampling), she believes that man fundamentally can solve most of his problems.  I think such a belief is utter nonsense and has been conclusively rejected by the past 200 years of history.

From: Burden, Jack
Sent: Fri 2/20/2009 2:43 PM
To: _________, Joel E.; _____, Jonathan B.; _________, Nate’; _________, Marc J.; ________, Robert J

Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I agree completely with your last sentence.  I just think you’re over-reading Noonan’s column and setting up a straw man so that you can give your man John Calvin a high-five.

Which raises the question: if we are totally depraved, how can there be such a thing as “progress” toward “godliness”?

From: ___________, Marc J.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 2:39 PM
To: ___________, Joel E.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; ‘___________, Nate’; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Me thinks you are going a bit too far with your criticism.  We are called to transform society, not simply to wait for the end and change “on the inside.”  We should all be Christian humanists – the only rational “humanists” that could be, I would argue.  We should be involved in the arts and sciences and such.  We have not done that, and those institutions have deeply suffered (see contemporary Christian “art”).

From: ___________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 2:57 PM
To: ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; ‘___________, Nate’; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I disagree that acknowledgement of Total Depravity requires us to withdraw from society.  Jonathan Edwards did not withdraw.  William Wilberforce was a Calvinist too, and he changed the world for the better (so I knock down your straw man too, sir).

From: ___________, Marc J.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 2:59 PM
To: ___________, Joel E.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; ‘___________, Nate’; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I am glad for it.  The problem is that too many do not think as you do, and remain in a somewhat Gnostic over-spiritual funk.

From: ___________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:04 PM
To: ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; ___________, Nate; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Perhaps they err by embracing hyper-Calvinism, which I submit is bad theology and unbiblical.  I believe that Calvinism, rightly and biblically understood, demands personal humility, joyous hope, and active engagement in a lost and fallen world.  We don’t have to stop with folks like Edwards and Wilberforce:  One of my more recent discoveries – a hero among heroes – is Adoniram Judson.  His strong Calvinism did not prevent him from leaving a life of ease (and probably wealth) and to spend the rest of his life in hardship, to the point of death, trying to convert the people of Burma.  Only a rock solid belief in God’s sovereignty and a complete devotion to Jesus could make a sane man do that.

From: ___________, Nate
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:14 PM
To: ___________, Joel E.; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

There’s really no practical difference between that disposition and a Thomist view of the world.  The theological difference boils down to which side of the “God is sovereign”/”man is free” paradox one chooses to emphasize at the particular moment.

From: ___________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:16 PM
To: ___________, Nate; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

How do you define “free will” in the context of man?

From: ___________, Nate
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:17 PM
To: ___________, Joel E.; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

The capacity to choose to take a certain action, among a menu of options, and then to carry out that choice.

From: ___________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:19 PM
To: ___________, Nate; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

OK, let’s follow through with that definition.  Does it follow then that you are completely free to choose Christ or to reject Christ?

From: _______, Jonathan B.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:21 PM
To: _______, Joel E.; ‘_______, Nate’; _______, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; _______, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

If you aren’t, I’d say there was a problem.

From: _______, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:26 PM
To: _______, Jonathan B.; _______, Nate; _______, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; _______, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Ok, let’s assume Jonathan that you choose Christ, but your neighbor does not.  Why?  Are you inherently more righteous than your neighbor?  Why are you saved?

From: _______, Nate
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:28 PM
To: _______, Joel E.; _______, Jonathan B.; _______, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; _______, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

My honest answer to that question is that it is a mystery we do well not to attempt to understand.  The only things that matter for present purposes are (1) the right choice (Christ); (2) getting your neighbor to make that right choice.

From: _______, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:36 PM
To: _______, Nate; _______, Jonathan B.; _______, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; _______, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Nate – you have NEVER shied away from a question.  I know you better than that.  I reject the conclusion that we “do well not to attempt to understand.”  A better response may be, “we should see whether scripture speaks to this issue.”  I submit that scripture speaks in depth to this issue.

From: _______, Nate
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:41 PM
To: _______, Joel E.; _______, Jonathan B.; _______, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; _______, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I’m not shying away from the question — I spent the better part of my life angrily posing it, and the only answer that ever came back was akin to the unsatisfying, get back in your place reply of God to Job:  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  It is a mystery.  Scripture suggests answers in paradoxical conflict.  Too much obsessing about it is unhealthy and paralyzing, as I can personally attest.

From: _______, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:47 PM
To: _______, Nate; _______, Jonathan B.; _______, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; _______, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

So did you conclude then that scripture fails to address the question?  If so, I will leave you alone unless you ask me for the scriptural proof.

From: _______, Nate
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:00 PM
To: _______, Joel E.; _______, Jonathan B.; _______, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; _______, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Scripture addresses it all right; that’s the book of Job.  It doesn’t resolve it, certainly not in the way that Calvinists or anybody pretends it can be resolved.

From: _______, Joel E.
Sent: Fri 2/20/2009 4:03 PM
To: ‘_______, Nate’; _______, Jonathan B.; _______, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; _______, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

That is a very offhanded way to summarize the book of Job and this critical doctrine.  What about Romans chapter 9?  What about the references therein?

I don’t for a minute believe that the reformed view of salvation answers all questions.  There are some mysteries that will likely always be mysteries (such as, “Where did the first sin come from?”).  But to suggest that the book of Job is the final  biblical statement on these issues is to ignore a wealth of other scriptures which are clearly on point.
From: ___________, Nate
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:25 PM
To: ___________, Joel E.; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Yes, although circumstances can limit that freedom.  The island primitive who has never heard the historical account of Jesus is somewhat limited in that freedom, although an archetype of Christ, as the necessary response of a loving God to a human race that has turned away from the law of nature that is written on all our hearts, might still move him in his mind to a piety that is salvific.

From: ___________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:28 PM
To: ‘___________, Nate’; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; ___________, Jonathan B.; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

If you (being fortunate to not have been reared on a primitive Island) are completely free then, how can you be sure you will not “unchoose” Jesus and thereby incur eternal damnation?

From: ___________, Jonathan B.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:35 PM
To: ___________, Joel E.; ‘___________, Nate’; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

May I answer a question with a question?  Would the ability to choose necessarily imply the ability to be unchosen?

From: ___________, Joel E.
To: ___________, Jonathan B.; ‘___________, Nate’ ; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.; ”
Sent: Fri Feb 20 15:45:58 2009
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I reject that man has any ability to choose, so I’m not sure I understand your question.  I don’t begrudge any good faith question, but I simply don’t understand it (remember, I’m from South Alabama, so you gots to write slowly)

From: ___________, Jonathan B.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 3:53 PM
To: ___________, Joel E.; ‘Nate ______________; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: Re: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Your question presumes that you do understand. You can’t entertain the possibilty of unchoosing if you don’t first entertain choosing.

From: ___________, Joel E.
To: ___________, Jonathan B.; ‘Nate.___________ ; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.; ”
Sent: Fri Feb 20 15:57:04 2009
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I reject choice as you’ve defined it.  No, we do not have such choice.  That is the “U” in TULIP.  God’s call is always effectual.  It is Unconditional.  Period.

From: ___________, Jonathan B.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:02 PM
To: ___________, Joel E.; ‘Nate.___________’; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.; ”
Subject: Re: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

Then please give me a workable definition of unchoosing so I can work backwards. It is your term, so I leave it to you to clarify.

From: ___________, Joel E.
Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 5:07 PM
To: ___________, Jonathan B.; ___________, Nate; ___________, Marc J.; Burden, Jack; __________, Robert J.;
Subject: RE: Speaking of Caddyshack, here’s Noonan

I will reconstruct if I can.  The Arminian believes he is saved because he chooses God.  In other words, God is obligated to save the Arminian, because maybe he walked the aisle in an altar call, or got baptized, or in some event “put his faith” in Jesus.  But fundamentally, it comes down to the Arminian’s choice.

If that be true and scriptural, then it follows that the Arminian can lose his salvation. If salvation be based on the choice of a man, surely that man (if he has free choice) can choice to do otherwise:  today I will choose to believe in Jesus, and tomorrow I will change my mind and choose otherwise.

I believe the doctrine of eternal security is completely antagonistic to Arminian theology.  The Arminian has no warrant to believe in eternal security of the believer.

Again, I reject Arminian theology (though I embraced it for the first 25 or so years of my Christian life).

Henry Neufeld offers his insights on what “belief” means to a “liberal charismatic”/ “passionate moderate,” in one of those posts I wish I had written — it’s more than worth your time.  Henry was prompted by this post on “bringing back belief.”

Methodist Thinker reports that the General Board of Church and Society has withdrawn its support for the Freedom of Choice Act, which support had previously been expressed through the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s open letter to President-Elect Obama. The Board eventually came to realize what some of us have been saying all along: support for FOCA flatly contradicts the UMC’s stance on abortion as articulated in the Social Principles.

Praise be to God.

How long, O LORD?  Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?


How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and every day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?


Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;


my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

and my foes will rejoice when I fall.


But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD,

for he has been good to me.

Psalm 13.

John Meunier asks, “What do you do with anger?”.  Specifically, John refers to this situation involving the former “John the Methodist.”

I’m not a pastor, but I have dealt with people who feel like they have been cheated, mistreated, defamed, or taken for granted.  (Make no mistake: both plaintiffs — because they are, in their eyes, injured by someone else — and defendants — because they’ve been sued, in their eyes, unjustly — feel this way.)  And the initial challenge is always the same: while it is okay to let the client vent, we have to resist the urge to take a flame-thrower to the immediate object of our fury and everything associated with it.  We have to…calm down…and trust that, working together and through the system, we can come to a reasonably satisfactory resolution.  We can’t just give in to the rage or the sorrow.

Which brings me to the importance of “but.”

“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.”

“But” is the first ray of sunlight that shoots above the horizon into the blackness.  “But” is the last dry sob, the last little sniffle, the moment we can finally see with clear eyes that all is not lost, that we will not perish, that hope remains.  “But” is the empty tomb on Sunday after the agony of Friday and the despair of Saturday.

The psalmist got there: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and have sorrow in my heart?…But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.”

My student, Trevor, got there: “Life is like a pig and a farmer.  The farmer and the family love the pig, but as soon as they get a little hungry, it’s off with its head. … You worry about the trials and tribulations in life and it makes you want to commit suicide.  You can’t prevent the inebitable [sic].  You die and that’s it. … If life is so precious, why do I waste it?  If you have free will, why force yourself to do wrong?  It should be so evident what the right way is, but it isn’t. … But the Lord is my Shepard [sic] and I will not be in want. … His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.  He watches me.  He cares about me.  He loves me.  He keeps me in perfect peace.  Halelujah [sic] to God Almighty, to Jehova Jira [sic], to the Awesome Ruler.  To Him which is Yes.

We serve a God that believes in the power of “but.”  We know because God is faithful, because God has redeemed us, that there is another sentence, and it starts with that most amazing word.  “But” is our trump card for life.

“But God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The promise of Christ is not that we will no longer be sinners or victims of the sins of others.  The promise of Christ is that sin need not have the final move, the final victory, over us.  It is not a promise of immunity and immortality — it is a promise of restoration and resurrection.

Knowing this good news, we Christians may still feel despair, sorrow, and anger — but we must resist the temptation to wallow!  We must not hide our lights and lose our saltiness.  We must not lash out, as our sinful nature wills.  They must know we are Christians by our love.

“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”  This is the ultimate destination, the place we must seek to end up when we experience injustice.  The secular world cannot get there, and no lawyer can promise his client a victory like the resurrected Christ.   We can only get there because of “but.”


2008 ends tomorrow, and I’m crawling across the finish line.

Too many goals.  Too many obligations.  Too many interests and hobbies.  Too many, too much…too tired.

As early as junior high, my teachers warned me: don’t spread yourself too thin.  You can’t do it all, be in every club, serve in every office, play on every team — and be any good at any of it. I always saw it as keeping my options open.

But here I am.  I have grown up to be the consummate jack of all trades and master of none.  It’s the result of always propping doors open, but never walking through any of them.  Looking back on my almost 30 years, I’m not sure I can say I’ve ever really tried my hardest — really focused — on any one thing for any meaningful period of time.  Ever careful not to foreclose another opportunity, I hold enough of myself back just in case. In my wake is a record of pretty-goodness, sprinkled with specks of both excellence and lousiness.  This is the result of a life lived timidly.

“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”  Proverbs 19:21.

How shockingly true.  Langston Hughes asks:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Does it fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over —

Like a syrupy-sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In 2008, my answer, for my dreams deferred: yes.  All of it.  They dry up.  They fester and run.  They crust  over.  They weigh you down.  They explode in your face.  All of it– I’ve experienced all of it in 2008.  Never thought it would happen to me.

Ah…”but the LORD’s purpose prevails.”

——————————————————

It was Wednesday, November 5, 2008.  Jenny and I had just arrived home from choir practice, heated up some leftover Chinese food, and watched “Friday Night Lights” on television.  After the show, I went back into the kitchen to put my dishes in the dishwasher.  A leftover fortune cookie caught my eye.  For some reason, I unwrapped it, cracked it open, removed the fortune, and ate the cookie.  The fortune said, “Be prepared for an opportunity on Thursday.”  I chuckled to myself, but at the same time, I thought about that silly fortune cookie, for when you are in the midst of depression, any sign will do.

I spent the rest of the night in a funk – the same general malaise that has remained with me, at differing levels of intensity, for most of my 20s.  I have likened this period of malaise to the “The Great Sleep,” as described by narrator, Jack Burden, in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Jack describes The Great Sleep as a period of time in his life when he was “hiding from the present,” more or less freaked out by the seeming meaningless of existence.  I felt like I had been in a my own Great Sleep since – when?  The beginning of college?  Graduation?  The broken engagement?  Law school?  I wasn’t sure – and still can’t be sure – when it really started, or if something like that has a real beginning (or a real end, for that matter).  But it was very, very real.

That evening, I drifted around on the internet, on the same news sites that I always read, though I wasn’t in the least interested in reading anything.  The entire time, I hated myself.  I hated my indifference toward my job – I had spent most of the day at work not working, just as I had spent the entire week, much of the last month, and pretty much the entire year to some extent.  But most of all I felt totally numb, which is really the worst feeling in the world.

When I got up from my chair to climb the stairs to go to bed, something — boredom — led me to take a look at my bookshelf in the den.  And for some reason, I pulled The Purpose-Driven Life from the shelf.  I had bought it a few years before when I was trying to help my little brother through a difficult time – I had proposed to him that we would both read the book and discuss it.  As it turned out, we both bought the book, but I don’t think either of us actually read it, at least not more than a few pages.  But I pulled the book down on this night, and read the first chapter, which simply established the idea that God created everything for his purpose.  I nodded in agreement – I fully believed as much on an intellectual level – but it couldn’t break through my funk.

As I lay in bed that night, I remember wanting badly to talk to Jenny about what I was feeling — but when you don’t feel anything, what do you say about it?  I lay there flat on my back, and I tried to start a conversation with her to convey somehow my desperation.  I said something that was totally cryptic – I can’t remember exactly what – and she responded, but I just couldn’t follow up.  We both eventually just fell asleep.  My last thought was that I wished that I could stay asleep for a long time.

The next morning, I went to the gym.  I listened to Christian music that morning during my workout.  I was just feeling very blue, very numb, wanting something, anything, within me to bubble up to the surface.  When I got back home, I ate breakfast and read the second chapter of The Purpose-Driven Life, and I tried to really meditate on it.  But I remember this feeling like there was something in the front of my head, of my brain, that was clogging everything up.

But I did something different that morning – I prayed in earnest.  I really prayed.  Pretty much out loud.  I remember thinking that I didn’t know really what to say.  So I started my prayer by saying the Lord’s Prayer, out loud.  When I finished saying the Lord’s Prayer, the words just came.  I told God about my numbness, my utter lack of purpose and direction, my despair.  I told him I was so sorry for my sins, because I had this feeling that it was my narcissism, my subconscious rebellion against God, my obsession with my own dreams, that had led me to this point.  And I asked God to unclog me, to make me whole again, to show me the way.

And then everything changed.  The numbness vanished.  I began to weep, and then to sob.  And the tears fell down my face onto the hardwood floor, and I just let them fall as I talked to God, and thanked him for what he was doing right then and there.  And the fog lifted.  Almost immediately, I felt a purpose, a calling in my life.  I got up and went upstairs, and my wife saw a different person.  I was happy as I got ready for work.  I played a CD of hymns by Alan Jackson and sang along.  And I knew right then that everything had changed, that God was revealing a plan for me, and that I would follow that plan and fulfill His purpose.

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As I mentioned in the opening, I am crawling across the finish line of 2008.  Even as God has remade me — a “new creation” — I am struggling to…let…go…of some of my old ways, my selfish dreams and desires in life.  I still want to do it all.

But God didn’t create me to be a flake, a flighty dabbler.  I am made in His image.   And what is God if He is not the model of intensity, of focus, of passion, of inexorable, unstoppable Will toward the single purpose of establishing His kingdom, of reconciling ALL CREATION to Him, once and for all?

The name of this blog is derived from two places — an essay from one of my former students, and from 2 Corinthians 1:20: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”  Both are about redemption — God’s reclamation of us for His purposes, despite all of our past attempts to make it ourselves, and His promise to walk with us, to empower us, as we adjust our eyes to life in the Light and out of the darkness.

May we learn, in 2009, to trust God and His promises.  May we live with a spirit of boldness as we abandon our old dreams and let them die, once and for all, and instead “run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus….”  May we dedicate 2009 to Him which is Yes.

More than a feeling

Last week, I heard a pastor say that “we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the details of Jesus’s birth, but what matters is the feeling we get from the Christmas story.”

Ah, Christmas in the mainline.  Spiritually hungry?  Well, we’re serving up heaping ladle-fulls of magic mush — the thinnest of gruel.  Just close your eyes and pretend it’s whatever you want it to be, and — voila!  Come and get it!

Appetizing, huh?

For non-believers, the Christmas story may be about one’s “feelings,” to be treated no differently than It’s a Wonderful Life or The Polar Express.  They can take this approach only because they do not believe that Jesus was who He said He was.

But for Christians, the story of Christ’s birth matters: it was the moment that heaven met earth, that God himself finally set in motion His divine plan to redeem Creation, that God became “one of us.”  We celebrate the birth of this child not because it is a great story, or because this child grew up to be a profound teacher or philosopher.  Nobody celebrates Confucius’s birth.   We celebrate the birth of this child because we say that Jesus was the Son of God — the Way, the Truth, and the Life, whose death and resurrection have made it possible for us to be reconciled to God.  It’s not a mere story, but the ultimate history-changing event — the point of everything.

It’s become taboo in some circles to suggest that there is anything that is foundational to the Christian faith.  Many self-identified “Christians” unfortunately equate Christianity with their own personal search for meaning or truth — that any idea or belief they dream up must be “Christian” because they consider themselves “Christian.” No.  Your personal search for meaning may be deep and mystical, and who knows — it may lead you to something you believe is truth.  I do not know.  But I do know that unless you can answer Jesus’s question — “Who do you say that I am?” — the way He himself answered — “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” — you are not a Christian.  (What that means for salvation is a more complicated question — one that I don’t address here.)  We don’t get to redefine it.  It is what it is.

I’m reminded of the Episcopal priest from Seattle who recently claimed to be both Christian and Muslim. This was too much even for the Episcopal Church, which suspended her from the priesthood for a year (she still teaches at a Jesuit seminary).  No word yet on whether she has declared jihad on herself.

None of this is to say that all Christians must believe all of the same things.  Not even close — Christians have disagreed on a wide range of doctrinal issues for centuries.  This is not a call to strict doctrinal rigidity; after all, I am a Methodist.  But to be a “Christian” must mean something about who we believe this child, Jesus, was — and why His teaching should be followed, and why His death and resurrection mattered.

Christmas is more than a feeling.  Put another way, it’s “the greatest story ever told” only because of who Jesus was: the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

The late Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Heschel understood: “Jesus Christ is of no importance unless he is of supreme importance.”  Would that more Christians grasped this “detail.”