Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
July 13th, 2015 by Joel Watts

The Christendom Imposters: Triumph and Disaster

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) at his tr...

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) at his triumph after his success against Germanic tribes. Bas-relief from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Rome, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1895, Rudyard Kipling, the famous author and poet, drafted a short prose to his son.1 In a powerful poem, of the passing of wisdom from father to son, there is a line that has captured my focus over this weekend:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

I think we American Christians, particularly Protestants, have fallen in line with the imposters. How we count Triumph and Disaster is important and telling of just how much we have given our allegiances to these false messiahs.

Dr. David Watson, Academic Dean at United Theological Seminary, has written on his recent experience at an Aldersgate Renewal conference. He is convinced that renewal is ongoing in The United Methodist Church. I think so, as well, although I would not be called charismatic nor participate in charismatic services, but I do believe that we are seeing a renewal in The United Methodist Church. Rather than disparage those who do participate, I lift them up as examples of seeking the Spirit as an agent of renewal for the corporate body of Christ. If only each renewal group sought the leading of the Holy Trinity…

I have heard from some participants at Aldersgate who noted that unlike our Annual Conferences, our blogosphere, and our local churches, neither Unity or Schism (you can guess which is Triumph and which is Disaster) were mentioned. Rather, they had a Cuban bishop present who preached about the Gospel. 

We see renewal based on Christ, on the things that have worked in the last 2000 years of Church history. I cannot — and would not — discount Aldersgate or any legitimate renewal movement. I cannot discount movements that focus on the Trinity rather than the latest cultural trend — whether we lose or win in that trend. Indeed, we see renewal come when we return to our Wesleyan principles of laity, of small groups, of a focus on heart and mind. In the Church universal, I believe we are seeing renewal come as we once again are called to be a prophetic institution, rather than a non-profit organization.

Indeed, our triumph and disaster must be in Christ. St. Paul wrote that in the triumph of Christ, the person must lose everything (Philippians 3.7–11). When we begin to think we have won everything (Christendom) we will lose our focus on Christ. If we complain about our loss (the end of Christendom) we have lost focus on Christ.

I believe renewal exists between Triumph and Disaster, while ignoring them equally. Take for example the types of congregations denominating protestant America. We have large megachurches (surely, Triumph) and small multi-point charges (Disaster). When Willowcreek, a popular evangelical megachurch in Chicago, realized that they were creating members rather than disciples, they began to change. Rather than “seeker-sensative” drives for members they implemented bible study classes with the aim to mature the faith of the person. Rather than focusing on their Triumph, they began to turn to Christ as the agent of renewal, even within their self-identified Evangelical Christians.

Or, take the small congregations of The United Methodist Church. Many of these smaller churches were once larger congregations. I know in West Virginia, these congregations littering the coal fields were once large and have dwindled in size as the population has. And yet, in this disaster they too have a chance at renewal. How? When they work together to begin to cast a new vision of what their congregation should do. Does the dying church exist only to hold a few cherished memories (usually noted by small bronze plaques on pews or under windows) alive or will it continue to exist to feed the poor, give shelter in times of grief, and act as a beacon in the darkening community? Even in disaster, there is a chance at renewal.

I am happy to see renewal, because renewal means people have neither rested nor given up. Yes, as Kipling said a century ago, Triumph and Disaster are indeed imposters in our life. But, they are imposters in the Church as well. They tell us that we have won, we have reached our quota, we have done enough — or they tell us all hope is gone, that we have come to the end, that we are simply ready to disappear. Both imposters tell us to maintain what we have. Neither is ever the case – if we actually follow Christ.

  1. His son would later die in 1915, during the Great War.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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