On Thursday evening I engaged with a long thread of discussion on my Facebook page about a post made by a popular author by the name of Jim Palmer. Jim lives in Nashville and is a former evangelical pastor who left the pastoral ministry several years ago. He writes some helpful and genuinely provocative stuff. I have not read his three primary books, two published by Nelson and one by a private publisher, but I have read a number of reviews of them. Most comments on Amazon are glowing and demonstrate his popularity. A few come from the far right and talk about “new age” tendencies and other such nonsense. I have honestly sought to get a handle on what he, and his particular writing, is about. I’m still not quite sure what Jim is doing but I am getting a clearer sense over the last 48 hours or so. From what I’ve read, at least up to this point, Palmer mixes his painful experience of the religion of “ought and should” (my words) with his very bad experience of church. In the process he protests against this painful journey in evocative and honest ways that resonate with many. He sees the failure of the contemporary church writ large. Here is where I agree with him. But what is he actually offering in the place of this flawed system of religion, as he calls it, and intolerably bad church life? This is where I grow uneasy. He sounds like a number of so-called “emergent” writers who believe in the love of God but do not see how to actually love the visible, flawed and imperfect church in our present age. I get it. The church is living in a very messy time. Christendom is breaking up on the shoals of secularism and post-modern realities that are not going away in the near future. Like Luther I think we have entered a time we might call the “Babylonian Captivity.” (There are thoughts here that I hope to explore in 2013). What I cannot understand is this–how you can love Jesus and not also love the church, all of it? To love Jesus means to love his people, expressing life together (or even death) in various church forms.We can argue about the forms but we cannot reject the church as the people of God gathering under the Word and celebrating the sacraments given to them by Christ. This is why I call my perspective missional-ecumenism; e.g. John 17:21. I love Jesus and I love his church; cf. John 13:34-35.
I wrote a friend to ask him if he had read Jim’s work and what comments he could offer to give me more perspective. He responded most helpfully and then confirmed what I’ve seen by reading the posts of this talented and able former pastor. (Did you know that 9 of 10 persons who enter the pastorate will not retire from the pastorate?) My friend expressed that he too was leery of Jim’s message for the same reasons that he is leery of the whole “Emergent” crowd . . . . “[their] lost focus on Christ.” My friend rightly said: “Hold on to Christ, and let go of everything else. When I sense you’re not holding on to Christ, and holding on more to your ‘bad church’ experiences (and who hasn’t had them?), then I’m backing off.” That expresses my response very well.
In another exchange my friend further wrote what I have come to understand so profoundly in my latter years:
I am going two opposite directions at the same time, the older I get. My theology is getting more complex; my faith is getting more simple. In other words, in my faith I’m growing INTO childhood, not out of it. And my child-like faith is simplifying around this one thing: “You can have all this world, Just give me Jesus.” I can guarantee you that when I die, what will be on my lips is not my theology. It will be that childlike faith: “Give Me Jesus” or “Jesus Loves Me This I Know.”
This is my experience. Theology is more important to me than ever but not as a system that explains everything. Mystery is either reduced by theology or expanded. In my case my theology makes the mystery larger than ever. Theology is important because it helps me avoid the ditches and glitches that come to us all. It reminds me that God is God and I am not. It helps me glimpse the incomprehensible God in the face of Christ. It acts as a servant to my simple, childlike faith. Yes, you can have all the world, and my theological thoughts and systems with it, but give me Jesus. If you resonate with this creed then you likely understand me and what I am about. Much more important than understanding me and what I’m about you will understand and love Jesus above all others. This is what the Christian faith, and thus the Christian religion (a word Palmer and others do not like at all), is really ALL about. Come to think of it this is what the church, the very institution that so many want to walk away from, has always been about at her best. At her worst she has become a substitute for Jesus but to worship Jesus and reject the church will not work for long, at least not if you have a biblical and historical faith.