What Should I Do?

What Should I Do?

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Today is the final in a 5-part sermons series entitled “Reel to Real,” during which we will engage the popular culture through the medium of film. The intent is to add a Christian voice to the conversation being raised by each film. The springboard for this sermon is the film The Post. The theme is faith-informed decision-making.

Sermon 1: Engaging the Real World
Sermon 2: “Put Away the Chisel” (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Sermon 3: “There’s More Than Meets the Eye” (Ferdinand)
Sermon 4: “Being God’s Home For Another” (The Greatest Showman)

Scripture: Proverbs 3.5-6, 13-18

Anyone who’s gone to college or helped their own children decide on a college knows the process of deciding where to go. There are thirteen United Methodist seminaries in the U.S. When I finally made the decision to go into the ministry, I had a choice to make: to which of our thirteen seminaries would I apply? In the end, my decision came down to breakfast in a hotel lobby.

I’d heard that the president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary would be giving a lecture on an upcoming Sunday afternoon at Ann Arbor First United Methodist Church. I thought going to hear him might help me in some way in my decision-making. And it did. But it had nothing to do with what he talked about that day. It’s what he did that convinced me to choose that seminary over the others. After introducing myself to him, he invited me to come by the hotel the following morning and he and his wife would treat me to breakfast. That’s all it took. That he, the president of one of our United Methodist seminaries, would show interest in me, a college kid he didn’t know at all, was the deciding factor for me.

Throughout this week I’ve been thinking a lot about what aspect of the film, The Post, most intrigued me, and what would most inform what I might talk about today. In the process, I realized two things, and they go together. One, I realized that there’s a common element among all four of the films for this sermon series. Star Wars, Ferdinand, The Greatest Showman, and The Post all contain the theme of decision-making. Specifically, having to make an important, potentially costly, decision while being pressured to do otherwise.

And my second realization was that decision-making has been a reoccurring theme in my preaching over the past few years. Looking back, I realize that I’ve often talked about making certain life-choices and decisions. The reason for this is because life is all about making choices and decisions. This is the case no matter who you are, your ‘station’ in life, or your religious background. It’s a reality for all human beings who aren’t living under a rock.

Some decisions we make are benign and have little or no consequence. Do I wear my blue jeans or my black jeans today?

Others are a bit more significant, and require more time and thought. Given my personal schedule, should I agree to be on this church or school committee? Should I buy a new car or a good used car?

And yet other decisions that have to be made come with a great cost no matter what you choose. If I choose to begin cancer treatments, I’ll live longer, but my quality of life may go down because of how the medication will make me feel. On the other hand, if I choose to forego the treatment I won’t live as long, but my quality of life will be a lot better. What should I do?

The Post is based on an historical event in current American history. It recounts the struggles behind the decision to release the Pentagon Papers to the American public. The Pentagon Papers was a report which revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War with the bombings of nearby Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which were reported in the mainstream media. It also revealed that the Johnson administration systematically lied, not only to the public but to congress. The report was classified, but in 1971 it was leaked to The New York Times, which began revealing some of the contents of the report. The Nixon administration quickly got a federal judge to bar The New York Times  from any further publication.

Enter the much smaller, family-owned Washington Post. Meryl Streep plays Katherine Graham, the owner of the newspaper who inherited the position when her husband died. The film opens with her having just made the decision to make Washington Post a publically traded company on the American Stock Market. From now on, she will have to answer to the stockholders—who tend to be more interested in profits than social justice.

Tom Hanks plays her Editor-in-Chief, Ben Bradlee, who meets with Graham every week over lunch and has the unenviable job of trying to walk that fine line between doing his job and keeping his boss happy. She likes to play it safe. He’s willing to take a risk if it’s for the sake of telling the truth.

After the Times made the decision to obey the federal judge to stop printing anything more about the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post went after and obtained the report. It’s now decision time: do we adhere to the federal judge’s decision, and not print anything of the report, or do we publish the report? What should we do?

It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves often. Case in point for you youth. Let’s say you have a job that you have been working very hard at because you are saving up to buy a car. Your best friend approaches you and asks if you would like to go away with their family over winter vacation. You want to go, and so you ask your parents. They’re supportive of the idea. However, they tell you that you’ll have to pay for your  own airfare and spending money. This, of course, would put a significant dent in your car savings. If that were you, what would you do? What factors would you take into consideration in your decision-making?

When it comes to answering that question, is there anything that we as Christians might offer as part of this conversation about making important decisions? I believe the answer is yes.

A square. The words "tradition," "Scripture," "Reason," and "Experience" are located at the four points of the square.

I don’t know how many people outside of the Wesleyan traditions are aware of this tool because it’s come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Even though John Wesley didn’t come up with it, a Wesley/Methodist expert named Albert Outler came up with it and attributed it to Wesley based on his understanding of John Wesley’s way of thinking.

As a quadrilateral, it has four parts: experience, reason, tradition, and Scripture.

Experience is the individual’s understanding and appropriating of the faith in the light of his or her own life. For example, through my personal experience of accidentally mishandling someone else’s money many, many years ago, I can tell you that today if someone gives me a check, I no longer hold on to it until I finally get around to depositing it in the bank.

Reason is the ability to think and discern.  It’s been said that God gave each one of us a brain and expects us to us it! If someone said that we are to believe that 2+2=5, reason would tell us to reject that belief.

Tradition is a bit trickier. Tradition in this regard is not the same as personal preference. It’s not “this is the way we’ve always done it.” Rather, it’s the collective wisdom of the Church through the years. It’s the unofficial and sometimes official position the church has taken on a given issue which has stood the test of time and opposition.

And Scripture is the Bible, God’s Word. What does God’s Word have to say about what we’re thinking about?

Altogether, these elements helps us think through and make important decisions. One of the most important way this can help us is when we’re trying to figure out what we believe as Christians. Christians are unified in our belief that Jesus Christ is central to our faith, but we don’t all hold the same beliefs about him. This tool might help you come to a decision about what you personally believe.

For example, some Christians – loving, caring, helpful, I’ll-give-you-the-shirt-off-my-back Christians – earnestly don’t believe that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. Or that he was physically raised from the dead. What do you believe about Mary? Or about Jesus’ resurrection? And do you know how you came to believe what you believe?

Christians are not of the same belief when it comes to many of the social issues of our day, such as abortion, birth control, capital punishment, war, gun-ownership, sexual orientation and other gender issues, and so forth. Part of maturing spiritually is being able to articulate what you yourself believe. And before you can articulate it, you have to decide what you believe. So how might do you come to those decisions?

The Wesley Quadrilateral is one tool that can help. It’s not fool-proof, and no one would claim that it necessarily makes decisions-making easy. But it does give us a way of looking at whatever we’re wondering about so that we’re not just basing our decision on subjective feelings — which can change like shifting sands.

A trapezoid. Each side has one of the words, "Scripture," "Experience," "Reason," or "Tradition."
A Wesleyan Quadrilateral showing that Scripture receives the greatest weight.

I’d like to show you two images which illustrate the fact that the Wesley Quadrilateral is not an equilateral square, contrary to the image above. Of the four elements (experience, reason, tradition, Scripture), Wesleyan theology would give Scripture the greatest weight. This means that to a degree, Scripture trumps the other three elements. The image at the right  shows the heavier weight of Scripture by the fact it’s the longest side of the quadrilateral.

Also, note the placement of the three arrows. They indicate that experience, reason, and tradition are informed by Scripture. When considering an issue, we might ask ourselves what reason would suggest to think or believe, and what our experience has been. But each of those are then viewed through the lens of Scripture. It’s important that we seek to determine if our reason, experience, and tradition aligned with Scripture.

If any of them are not aligned with Scripture, then we have to do two things. First, we consider the possibility that we might have to adjust what we believe so that it’s more aligned with Scripture than our experience or reason. For example, if my human father was abusive, my experience might indicate that God the Father is uncaring and hurtful. The biblical witness, however, is that our Heavenly Father is loving and caring. So in this case it would be wise to give the greater weight to Scripture and adjust my belief.

On the other hand, there are other times when it’s not so easy to disregard my experience or reason, or even the traditions of the church. In these cases, we may have to determine the extent to which we will give the greater weight to Scripture. Here’s a modern example within The United Methodist Church. Many Christians, even entire Christian denominations, are opposed to women clergy. This is not so within The United Methodist Church. Today, having women serve as clergy and bishops, is a part of our denominational DNA. However, this has not always been the case. There was a time when we didn’t have women clergy, and for the same reason that some Christian traditions today still don’t allow it. There are a few verses in the Bible which indicate that women should never teach men. But somewhere along the way our denomination came to the conclusion that even though those Scripture verses are pretty clear on the matter, the whole of Scripture supports the idea that it’s not only OK to have women clergy, but it’s God’s will. And that position is backed up our experience of women clergy doing a wonderful job at it. And it makes sense that women would be gifted leaders and teachers.

A circle representing "Scriptures" contains three smaller circles, each of which represents "Tradition," "Experience," and "Reason."
Another Wesleyan “Quadrilateral” indicating the primacy of Scriptures.

My point in all this is that of the four part of the quadrilateral, Scripture has the greatest weight. The image to the left illustrates this point. Scripture encircles reason, tradition, and experience.

Does God expect us to always know what to do in every life situation? Or to innately know what we should believe? I don’t think so. As we seek answers to our questions, he wants us to look to him for help and guidance. Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight.” Verse 13 says, “Happy are those who find wisdom and those who gain understanding.”

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight….Happy are those who find wisdom and those who gain understanding.” — Proverbs 3:5-6, 13

I think the Wesley Quadrilateral is one tool that can help us gain wisdom and know God’s mind. It’s one resource if you’re ever in the place where you have to make an important decision, and it’s not obvious what you should do. Whatever the issue may be, you can begin by looking at it through the lenses of

  1. your personal experience;
  2. what you personally think (reason) about the matter;
  3. long-standing traditions of the church which may be in place with regard to the issue at-hand;
  4. what God’s Word says about it, both directly and indirectly.

My hope for you today is that you would leave here knowing is that your Christian faith can inform your decision-making, even if what you’re having to decide about isn’t necessarily religious in nature. But especially if it’s religious in nature, this is a great tool for helping you decide what you believe.

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