Harry Huebner on being the the church in the world

I have now finished Harry Huebner’s Echoes of the Word. I enjoyed going through it in a relatively short time frame, and I hope readers appreciated the glances I provided into this reading.

Before I post a final quotation I’d like to draw attention to the two chapters I most enjoyed. What sets these essays apart for me is their tremendous practical wisdom combined with rich theological insight. That is, not only did these essays provoke my thinking, but I have high hopes that they will help me to become a better person – this without being trite or reductionist.

The first is “On Being Stuck with our Parents: Learning to Die in Christ.” In this essay, Huebner reflects on living with his mother in law while she was in the late stages of dementia, aiming to articulate what it might mean to live and die in Christ. Huebner begins with the premise that, as created beings, we are not our own; to a large degree we are “stuck” with what we get (our family, our bodies, our abilities), and far from our wills being primary to our identity, we are claimed by Christ. This is why Huebner rejects the idea that our calling is to struggle to change what we can and learn to stoically accept what we cannot (such as our biological destiny). Instead, he calls us to an imagination that places our hope and identity in the activity of God, for when an illness like dementia strikes us it is evident that we cannot save ourselves, whereas a faith reduced to self-fulfillment, religious experience, social justice activity, resignation to fate, and so forth often becomes a worship of self and one’s own saving powers.

Here, Huebner names God’s salvific activity as remembering, not as a sort of mental recall, but as God acting in God’s character: redeeming, creating, forgiving, liberating, judging forgiving. God remembering is God claiming us as God’s own people and thus is God sustaining and giving redeemed life. And as God’s people we are called to remember as God remembers. For Huebner, the term presence best describes such faithful remembering. In a world that values freedom from others and instant gratification, the church is called to embrace “stuckness” as an opportunity for friendship grounded on promise and commitment. And in such friendship we hold each other in memory; most significantly we help each other to remember whose we are, and that the one who gives life has the power to change things. With such friendship, with the gift of being such burdens to each other, dying need not be tragic. As Huebner concludes, “To help another die – or live – in Christ is to help that person remain who she is in Christ, in spite of her loss of mobility, thinking capacity, and even identity.”

The second chapter I want to draw attention to is “Wisdom and its Bookends” a sermon that concludes Echoes of the Word. Huebner begins with Matthew 23:29a, 33b-34: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!… How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” With stories and exegesis Huebner warns of becoming too wise or too foolish. When we become too wise we become stuck with disembodied analyses that do not allow us to hear God’s call or act on Jesus’s commands. When we are too foolish we renounce thoughtful analysis and consultation in favour of false “emotiveness” and easy ideologies; we lose the ability to heed or be anything particular, distinct, or critical (and Jesus was all of these things). The alternative to these is to seek a wisdom that recognizes that our lives are not our own, but a gift from God and that seeks to model our lives on Jesus, trusting that we do find truth in our saviour.

All this suggests that wisdom is a lot like a craft, learned and cultivated in body and mind through inherited but ever developing practices and knowledges. And so Huebner concludes with ten practices that might help to cultivate wisdom. For the sake of brevity, I will simply list them, skipping Huebner’s descriptions and elaborations. Under the category of “Loving God Wisely” he lists: 1. Learn from God’s word; 2. Open yourself to the awesome grace of God, and learn to grow in the faith; 3. Learn to see God at work in the ordinary life around you; 4. Learn to recognize your own limits – learn to see yourself as sinner; 5. See yourself as God’s gift. Under “Loving Neighbour Wisely: 1. Learn to see yourself in the other, and the other in yourself; 2. give generously to the other; 3. Learn to forgive the other, not only in your heart but socially as well; 4. Cherish friendships; 5. Learn to live in hope.

And finally, to wrap up this series, here’s Huebner on being the church in the world.

In the final analysis we are called to live very much like the world around us lives even when that world is avowedly unchristian. We cannot and we dare not disentangle ourselves from the world. Its welfare is our welfare. As Jeremiah goes on to suggest, the dream of disengagement is a lie.

Ours is not the task to change the world; ours is the task to proclaim the lordship and hope of Christ to those around us. As our world becomes less and less familiar with the biblical story, Christians move more and more into an exilic posture. Yet it matters not so much whether our claims are accepted or not; it matters first and foremost who we are and how we are seen. – 248-249

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