What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Man From Oudewater

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I am Wesleyan/Arminian.

It might surprise you to know that four word sentence is rife with interpretive possibilities.  The truly uninformed think the last word indicates I am from a country somewhere in Africa called Armenia, even though Armenia is actually in Eastern Europe.

The slightly more informed know the sentence implies some sort of belief in human free will at the expense of an all controlling God.

The little bit more informed think that the emphasis should lie on Wesleyan and not Arminius because, as we all know, John Wesley died without any of Jacob Arminius’ books in his library.

The even more informed would argue back that Wesley had plenty of books written by Arminians.  Therefore the 18th century Wesley owes much to the 16th century Arminius.

My friend Rustin E. Brian is even more

Click to buy from Amazon (and please, please do!)

informed than that.  Luckily, he wrote a short book to bring the rest of us nitwits up to speed.  Sadly, before reading about the man from Oudewater I was one of those who thought the connection with Arminius was tenuous at best.  I thought that if our tradition had a “Great Grandfather” it would probably be Thomas Cranmer, or even Martin Luther.  I mentioned this to a Wesleyan scholar at a conference awhile back who disagreed and that quite vehemently.  I think an hour later he asked one of my former seminary professors what he had been teaching us!

In remembrance of that embarrassing incident, I eagerly snatched up Brians’ book about Jacob Arminius and read it in a couple sittings.  After all, if the scholars of our tradition are saying Arminius is important, I better know my stuff!  Brian’s book was the perfect primer, an albeit really short one.

It turns out Jacob Arminius actually lived a much less impressive life than I had supposed.  Despite underplaying his role in my tradition, I had somehow assumed he died with an international following, several published works to his name and as a martyr for his cause.  It turns out he spent most of his ministry as a pastor and only the last few years as a professor.  He died of sickness at a fairly young age.  He was not burned at the stake or beheaded for his beliefs like I had previously assumed.

But due to one of history’s great ironies, his name has had a far more fascinating history than his life.  It has become synonymous in Protestant circles with “free will” though we should alter that to “freed will.” Arminius’ theology has also become a critical component to theodicy conversations as his framework retains God’s power while not sacrificing God’s love.  Arminius’ name has also been valuable in carving out a middle road through all the Christian traditions, making those of us who bear his name a catch all for anybody seeking a different road.

Yet what I appreciate most about Arminius’ biography, or at least Brian’s reading thereof, is that Arminius’ theology was what it was because Jacob was a pastor first.  John Wesley was too, for the record.  And I am too, as is Brian.

In fact, in late college and all throughout seminary I struggled and prayed with whether or not to apply for PhD programs and seek a faculty position at a university.  At that point I was proving myself to be an adequate teacher and writer.  I was an okay student, a B+/A- one, which one novel cleverly characterized as the black sheep of academia.  On top of that my professors were wonderful people who had a life changing impact on me, a pastoral impact no less.  It was those same professors who advised that academia was a brutal place with low wages and long hours with high expectations.  It was not a job for the weak or uncalled.

In the end I chose the pulpit but not because I don’t value the input of ivory towers.  Most days my entire ministry rests upon the conclusions of those who spend their days doing nothing but studying Scripture.  Their contributions are invaluable and they need all the time in the world to think through them.  However, their contributions are worthless without pastors whose feet are on the ground and whose hearts are among the people.  The great contributors of our tradition have been pastors who spent the morning studying and the afternoons and evenings ministering.

Therefore, I am grateful to call Jacob Arminius my great grandpa and to be one of many who continue the work he began in local parishes.  I am grateful too for my esteemed colleague, Rusty Brian who continues that work in his local parish and write books like these as an extension of his ministry.

Now off to work I go!

Comparative Religion in a Worldview of Absolute Humility

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I don’t know if you knew this about me but I am a really religious person.  That last sentence was a bit of a joke because any of you who know me know that I try to be spiritual but that I succeed at being religious.

A pastor named Kent Carlson once wrote, “At night I am a subversive revolutionary in a French cafe, wearing a beret and smoking cigarettes with some revolutionaries plotting the overthrow of the institutional church.  The next morning I put on my nicely laundered button-down shirt, pull on my neatly pleated Dockers and drive my Honda Civic to the church office to try to figure out ways to build the organization.” (Renovation of the Church, 175.  You can read my review here.)

These words come pretty close to describing me.  I started this blog because I liked the freedom that the format gives me to pose revolutionary questions and give “third way” answers.  Therefore, I write this blog as a revolutionary.

But after I am done today I will open up a word processor and write a sermon for institutional church ears to hear.  Then I will go to Excel where I will work on an institutional church budget that hopefully represents our religious priorities.  After that I will meet with traditional church guys for lunch and then go visit a woman who has given most of her life and money to the church.

I make no apologies for that.  There is a lot of good left in what we so wryly call “religion.”

Yet lately I have been inundated with questions and claims that seek to defend our institutional religion against the big bad enemies.  These questions and claims come from a defensive posture by those in our institutional world who want everybody to know, “we are better than them!”  These come in the form of, “Who is the better Christian?  Am I a worse Christian for disagreeing with you?  Is our religion more or less violent than theirs?  Is our denomination or tradition more doctrinally sound than theirs?  Are our political views better or worse than them?”  I could list many more.

I admit that sometimes I catch myself asking those questions and playing that game.  I make lists that rank worldviews from better to worse.  I find myself thinking, “if that one grumpy parishioner would just become a better Christian, like.  .  .wait for it.  .  .me.”  I find myself in the heat of argument claiming that a “true(r)” Christianity would do A, B and C for the world.  And I get defensive and stand on what others might call “molehills.”  There I sit with my French revolution cigarette, holding a scimitar and daring anybody to try to push me off of this ideological issue.

Lately I have been laying down that scimitar and repenting of those tendencies, desperately asking God to cure me.  I am doing so because I have found those comparisons are extremely unhelpful in following a God who requires absolute humility.  In our system there is no room for better or worse, truer or falser, righter or wronger.  After all, when you boil out all the religious fluff and pound down all the molehills, what remains of Christianity is a group of wayward sinners who are dying of spiritual thirst helping each other find the free water that gives life and then proceeding from the well to live faithfully to its owner.

In closing, I am reading a wonderful little book about Jacob Arminius, whose hometown Oudewater was completely destroyed by a Christian army because the Christian in Oudewater were not “right” enough.  There is a rather dark report from Oudewater of the Christian army raping the nuns while the nuns cried out, “We are Catholic too!”  This did not just happen in Oudewater.  It happened all throughout Europe for over 150 years as Christians slaughtered Christians.  Not coincidentally, that century also saw the rise of atheism as a legitimate worldview.

It seems that with that dark memory in my religion’s recent past we can stop arguing about who has the truer system and start seeking the truer God, a God who is not far from any of us and yet whose narrow gate we still refuse to enter.

Have a blessed day.