Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Serving God, Mammon, the "Extreme" Middle

Joerg Rieger, the Wendland-Cook Professor of Constructive Theology at Perkins School of Theology, has written a brief but very needed volume published earlier this year entitled Grace Under Pressure: Negotiating the Heart of the Methodist Traditions. The book provides a corrective and critique of the mainline, traditional understanding of Wesley and primitive Methodism as a kind of middle ground.

We meet God at the bottom. Rieger asserts his self-critical principle early on and it comes from Mr. Wesley himself, in 1764: "Religion must not go from the greatest to the least, or the power would appear to be of men." In 1783, Wesley states it again: "'They shall all know me,' saith the Lord, not from the greatest to the least (this is that wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God) but 'from the least to the greatest,' that the praise may not be of men, but of God.'"

In the pressures of post colonialism, there is no "middle ground." God's grace is known in the context of "acute" pressures. Rieger maintains that establishing "some amorphous middle ground" will not help: "Answers can be considered genuine (and truly salvific) only if they touch on where the real pain is, where the ultimate pressures of life and death are in our time, and where the conversation is broad enough to include the margins." The search for the middle or the lowest common denominator is a dead end.

Works of mercy are an essential means of grace. Wesley taught that works of mercy are an essential means of grace, while neglecting it caused some Christians to fall from grace. We are in real trouble when we ignore the teaching of I John 4:20: if are not equipped to love and respect others, then we have no hope of loving and respecting God. If works of mercy are an essential means of grace (separate from works of piety), then we are delivered "from presenting ourselves as the norm and from having to shape others in our own image, we are finally freed to open up to the transforming power of God's grace." p.36

Grace is the relationship between God and us. God initiates and we respond, but there is no "essence" or "substance" of grace apart from that relationship. God's grace is not a commodity that we can buy or use to control or produce results for ourselves: "Grace now has a specific direction. It is tied to the lives of those who are different, those whom we usually do not notice because they inhabit a lower class or because they are born into a race or gender that we consider less prestigious..." p.52

Leaders need to clue in to the direction of God's work in the world
(p.86) As in Matthew 25, we do not "bring" the Holy One to another in ministry, rather, we meet the Presence by encountering the stranger. The meeting itself is not about feeling good. Rather, it is about a renewed relationship and a transformed world. Thus, God's grace is itself an alternative to both burn out and control, neither of which could be said to be marks of the new creation.

This volume is worth the read as many will find it a sorely needed challenge to our top down ways of ministry, serving- and living. Look at Reiger's discussion of the Nicene Creed, which he uses to support his "bottom-up" theology effectively. You will also be introduced to some " lost" verses of Charles Wesley, those you apparently won't find in any anything published since 1897. (pp.57-58)

Note that Rieger's teaching context is SMU: the future home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library -and a separate Policy Institute. He references attempts to explain the decision in centrist terms. (p. 71) The money for the Presidential Library, however, came tied to the Policy Institute, or not at all. No "middle ground" existed, but the idea of the middle was used to justify the wisdom of the project.

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