It’s been a busy, busy month–thus, the lack of blogging. My wife and I are still in our contest to see who can get a job first, with no winner yet. She’s had a few interviews, the most recent of which may still result in an offer. I have an interview next week for a community college adjunct faculty position, which wouldn’t pay much–but it doesn’t take much money to improve on zero. I am so looking forward to telling my grandkids stories from the great recession.
Our daughter turns four today. Due to our moves and transitions, she is currently without friends, so when we noticed that one of the Methodist churches in town was about to start a VBS, we signed her up, and then worshiped there the Sunday before VBS began to get a feel for the congregation.
I’m inclined to have warm thoughts toward Methodism in general, because of my affection for the work of Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon and Richard Hays, who have significantly impacted my own thinking. (I understand that Hauerwas is attending an Episcopal Church now, but his roots are Methodist.) I explored the idea of becoming a Methodist pastor once, but I can’t get enthusiastic about infant baptism, although I see the argument for it. I wouldn’t say that I’m against it, or that I think it’s invalid, but I was raised in a tradition that immersed professing believers, and that symbolic act still resonates powerfully with me in a way that pedobaptism just can’t match. I suppose if I had been raised Methodist, my feelings would be just the opposite, but I wasn’t, and you have to go to war with the memories you have, not the ones you wish you had. I’m also not keen on being told which church to go to and when–although I haven’t always done a dandy job of sussing out by myself which congregations would be a good match, so I might be able to get over that one.
At any rate, we attended this Methodist church and found it, overall, delightful. Very welcoming, very enthusiastic. It was an unusual Sunday for them, because they were wrapping up a mission trip (to the heathens of neighboring Oklahoma) and kicking off their VBS, so the whole service was given over to testimonies, appreciations and explanations. As a visitor, I rather appreciated the chance to get some insights into the life of the congregation that I wouldn’t get on most Sundays.
One thing that stood out to me was the two or three times that a specific instance of laudable work was mentioned, and the speaker would always offer the caveat that, “Of course, I’m not saying this to give glory to Jim (or Carol, or Brandon)–we’re giving all the glory to God.”
I’ve heard that sort of thing in churches of various stripes. I’m sure it’s not limited to Methodism–although it was so pronounced that I wondered if the refusal to honor humans is particularly strong in Methodist culture. I admit that always strikes me the wrong way. I get it that we’re shunning pridefulness and encouraging thanking God in all things, but surely there is some room to acknowledge Jim, Carol and Brandon made some exemplary choices through their own free will that can be praised and emulated. Scripture doesn’t seem to shy away from doing that. Just look through Romans 16, for example, and watch Paul praise one person after another, without ever stopping to snatch the plaudits away from them and redirect them toward God alone.
Humans need exemplars, and we need to be told when we’ve done something well. Unabashed praise of outstanding work is a blessing both to the worker and to the witnesses. It gives us something to aim for. A friend of mine says “You get what you praise.” As church leaders recognize and honor certain kinds of activity, the congregation moves further in that direction. I’m a little concerned that perpetually saying, “Of course, it’s not Jim that we’re honoring, it’s God” will leave Jim feeling a bit deflated, wishing that his community could at least notice that he did some really hard work that he didn’t have to do, and that he chose it. Others are concerned not to diminish the agency of God, but Jim is also a moral agent, and I don’t see the value in pretending otherwise. If Jim gets no credit for his work, and it was God alone that made him work hard, then it was God alone that made Skyler lazy, and God alone that decided that Suzy would feign an illness and run off to the liquor store during the Thursday evening devotional. If there’s really only one moral agent in the universe, then human awards and punishments are an exercise in futility–unless the only point is to try to discern the mind of God by noticing which particular meat puppet he used for good deeds this week and which he used for criminal ones. That doesn’t seem like a fun game to me.
Yeah, the person who stood and praised God for the things that Jim did probably didn’t mean it that way. But words are powerful, and words of praise especially so. Let’s go ahead and clap for Jim. If he becomes prideful, then let’s pull him aside and rebuke him. Either way, at least we are appreciating that he, too, makes choices.