How Can You Think That?

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In my last post late last week – “Death with Dignity; Life with Faith” – I wrote about the recent death of Brittany Maynard by assisted suicide and the response that Kara Tippett, another young woman with the very same terminal illness, made to it.  I wrote to urge a little bit more “humility” and “modesty” in the way that we think and talk about public policy issues like euthanasia.  I was reacting to the way that I perceived some of my ministerial peers – both progressives and traditionalists – in their blogs and Facebook postings were using the story of this intensely personal tragedy to score ideological points in support of their predetermined political and social positions.  You don’t have to read very many of my blogs before you discover that this is one of my pet peeves.

I get terribly uneasy when one of my ministerial colleagues will fire off his or her “hot sports opinion” on a pressing social and/or political issue.  When my theologically and socially conservative friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a caucus of the Republican Party. And when my theologically and socially progressive friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a wing of the Democrat Party.  And I worry about how this creates premature barriers, keeping people from hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, unless, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is identical to the platform of the Democrats or the Republicans, in which case, please say so — add it to the Good Confession: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my Lord and Savior, and that to be a Christian is to be a Republican, or a Democrat, as the case may be.

If am a politically conservative and my minister and church preaches the “Democrat Gospel,” then I am marginalized and I am left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are incompatible.  There’s no room for me at their Table.  And if I am politically progressive and my minister and church preaches the “Republican Gospel,” then I am equally marginalized and left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are just as incompatible. I am excluded from that Table as well.  We are fracturing the Body of Christ over “inferences” and the conscientious application of Biblical principles and not the gospel itself, which I thought was what the Stone/Campbell Movement came into existence to reject and avoid.   Unless voting for Greg Abbott, or Wendy Davis in the last gubernatorial election here in Texas, as your conscience and conclusion dictated, was one of the so-called “essentials” of Christianity about which we must be unified as Christians, then let it be a “non-essential” about which we are accorded freedom.

Because in our communities of faith we are going to have people of varied convictions and conclusions about the non-essentials, and I am called to be the pastor/teacher of them all, I have consciously and conscientiously taken the position of political neutrality as a pastor.  Oh, I vote, and I will encourage you to do the same.  But I will not tell you how I voted, or how to vote.  This is a matter to be decided in the sacred arena of “private interpretation” for us as Protestant Christians.  This is a Holy of Holies that we dare not barge into uninvited.  You have got to do your own believing, and your own deciding.  And I have to do mine.  My job as a pastor is not to “pass judgment on your opinions” (Romans 14:1), but rather to provide you with the tools to help you “think Christianly” on the great spiritual, moral and social issues of the day.

I get spiritually uneasy when my ministerial friends get political.  But if you insist on doing this, if you are going to tell us what to think about this candidate and that proposition on the ballot, then at least do us the courtesy of explaining why you think as you do.  Don’t just give us the “right” algebraic answer to the problem “de jour,” lay out the geometric theorems and proofs that got you to that answer!  Frankly, “how” you think about an issue is so much more useful than just a concise statement of “what” you think.  Nevertheless,  most of the socio-political conclusions I hear from my ministerial friends get stated with a “twitter-like” brevity devoid of any explanation.  They read like the “therefore let it be resolved” statement in the final paragraph of a General Assembly Resolution without the benefit of any “whereas” clauses that make the case for the recommended action

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Harry Blamires, a student of C.S. Lewis, in his book The Christian Mind (Seabury 1963) proposed this experiment –

Take some topic of current political importance.  Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it; and do so in detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form your conclusions by “thinking Christianly.” Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation. The full loneliness of the “thinking Christian” will descend upon you.  It is not that people disagree with you. Some do and some don’t.  In a sense that doesn’t matter.  [What does matter is that] they will not “think Christianly.”   They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are almost wholly determined by political allegiance.  Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average churchman to the Conservative Party or to the Labour Party is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the church [and her teachings]. (13)

Of course, all of this presumes that “thinking Christianly” is a category that we actually understand and accept.  The heart of Blamires’ book was an exploration of the “marks” of a mind that in fact “thinks Christianly,” and the presupposition of the whole argument was that God is there and is not silent.  In other words, we have access to what it is that God wants for us, for both our lives and our world.  “Thinking Christianly” means thinking God’s own thoughts after Him; having what the Apostle Paul called “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16).

The foundation to any theology – a faithful word (“logos”) about God (“Theos”) – is the source of our “knowing.”  Whenever anybody says anything about who God is, or about what it is that God is doing, or about what it is that God wants from us, or of us, the right thing for us to ask is, “So, how do you know that about God?”  The “Quadrilateral,” a model for thinking usually associated with the name of John Wesley, the Founder of the Methodists, is a really helpful way to get at your answer to the question – “How do you know what you say you know about God?”

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According to the “Quadrilateral,” the four sources of our knowledge of God are: Scripture – the record of God’s own self-disclosure in history;   Experience – the stirrings of God in us and around us; Tradition – the stirrings of God in and around other people before us; and Reason – a critical reflection on the claims of both revelation and experience.  Most Christians have very little difficulty in acknowledging how Scripture, experience, tradition and reason have each made a very real contribution to their knowledge of God. The fuss comes when these four souces compete.  When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out, and they do all the time, which one functions as the referee? When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four is supposed to step up and settle the dispute?

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In this second diagram of the “Quadrilateral,”  Scripture is the bigger foundation on which the other three rest, and this has been the traditional perspective of Protestant Christianity.  Sometimes it’s referred to as “Sola Scriptura” – “Scripture Alone” – although more accurately it is more a matter of  “Prima Scriptura” – “Scripture First” or “Scripture Primary.”  In matters of faith and practice, we start with Scripture.  “What does the Bible say?”  is our first concern.  Clearly reason, tradition and experience all have their part to play in the process of understanding what the Bible says and means, but it all starts with Scripture.

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Francis Schaeffer called this the “watershed” – the “great divide” – in the church today.  Belief in an inspired and authoritative Bible sends theological and moral reflection in one direction just as the rejection of an inspired and authortative Bible sends theological and moral reflection off in another direction altogether.  So, coming back around to the tragic life and death of Brittany Maynard and the question of euthanasia (“the act or practice of killing someone who is very sick or injured in order to prevent any more suffering”), how does one “think Christianly” about it?

As a proponent of “Prima Scriptura,” “thinking Christianly” sends me to “Scripture First.”  “What does the Bible say?” is where I begin, and this is where it gets complicated.  When you turn to the Bible among the things that you discover pretty quickly is that there are any number of things in it that were at the center of the author’s concerns in the days when it was written that are no longer of much concern to us today, eating meat sacrificed to idols for instance.  Furthermore, there are things that are of great concern to us today that for whatever reason never get mentioned by the Biblical authors, euthanasia for example. The early church after the New Testament was written took a pretty public, consistent and aggressive stance on infanticide, and they were at the forefront of taking care of people who had been abandoned to death by their families in times of plague.  They did these things not because the Bible specifically told them to, but rather because doing such things were consistent with what the Bible did tell them about the sanctity of life.

The sanctity of life was well-established in their minds by what the Bible told them about all people being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), about guarding the image of God in human beings (Genesis 9:1-7), about not committing murder (Exodus 20:13) and about our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16).  If ever there was a case to be made for euthanasia in the Bible, a “mercy killing,” Job in his anguish and distress would seem to be it.  But when it was just hinted at by Job’s wife, it was immediately rejected out of hand as being an act entirely inconsistent with faithfulness to God’s dealings with us (Job 2:9-10).  This same perspective weaves in and out of the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-2; 7:17; 8:8).

But by far, the most compelling reflection about euthanasia from the Biblical perspective that I’ve ever come across was Oscar Cullmann’s Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: the Witness of the New Testament (Epworth Press – 1958).

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Socrates (470/469 BC – 399 BC); Jesus of Nazareth (7–2 BC to 30–33 AD)

A contrast between the death of Socrates as reported by Plato in “Phaedo,” and the death of Jesus, especially His travail in the Garden of Gethsemane as reported by the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, becomes the frame in which Cullmann brought into focus the Biblical face of death as “the final enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26; Hebrews 2:14-15), and the culturally popular face of death as the liberator from the weakness and limitations of the body.  Euthanasia is a logical choice from the experience and perspective of Socrates, but not so much from the experience and perspective of Jesus Christ. The way Jesus went to the cross kicking and screaming is a powerful witness to the abnormality of death (Genesis 2:15-17) and a foundational argument in the church’s historic resistance to the culture of death in which she lives, and moves and has her being. The Bible may not ever actually use the word “euthanasia,” but the church’s message of life, eternal and abundant, has some important implications for the conversation about euthanasia, especially for people of faith who have named Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  It is neither incidental nor inconsequential that those Christian leaders who have a high sense of the speaking of God in Scripture and Tradition agree in their opposition to euthanasia. But as persuasive as the weight and logic of their arguments born of their reading of Scripture are to me, even more persuasive is the witness of a simple Christian like Kara Tippett, a woman who is dying and who chooses to embrace each moment she has left with spiritual courage and what she calls “mundane faithfulness.”  More compelling to me than an encyclical from the Pope or a position paper written by a first-rate Evangelical Scholar well-grounded in Scripture against euthanasia, is the letter that Kara wrote to Brittany before she took her life. You can find it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/.

This is a wonderful example of what “thinking Christianly” sounds like, and a clear picture of what “acting Christianly” looks like. There is much that I could learn from Kara.   DBS+

 

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Death with Dignity; Life with Faith

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29 year-old Brittany Maynard died on Saturday, November 1 by swallowing lethal drugs made available to her under an Oregon law that allows terminally ill people to choose when to die.  Diagnosed with incurable Brain Cancer at the beginning of this year, Brittany was given six months to live.  As her disease progressed she “suffered increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms. As symptoms grew more severe, she chose to abbreviate the dying process by taking the aid-in-dying medication she had received months ago” (http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/281248621.html).

This is a story of human tragedy that deserves our compassion.  Apart from any conversation about the moral and spiritual legitimacy of euthanasia, the terrible circumstances that Brittany Maynard and her loved ones found themselves in and the difficult choices that they faced should leave us “humble” and “modest” – what theologian Gabriel Fackre once described as the two “least appreciated” theological virtues that we have at our disposal as people of faith.  “Humility” acknowledges that we don’t know everything, and “modesty” is how that “humility” behaves.  It doesn’t say too much, too quickly or too loudly.

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We are told that Jesus wept when He finally got to the tomb of His good friend Lazarus (John 11:35).  There is a theology in the tears of Jesus Christ that deserves much more attention than they have traditionally gotten.  Reduced to a riddle – “What is the shortest verse in the Bible?” – we have been distracted from the powerful point that the weeping of Jesus Christ makes about where God is and what God is doing about human suffering (see Hebrews 2:10-18; 4:14-16).   Where Christ’s title “Emmanuel” – “God with Us” (Matthew 1:23) gets most powerfully incarnated for me is at the tomb of Lazarus when He broke down and wept before the exercise of His sovereign power in bringing Lazarus back to life.  When Paul told the Thessalonians that Christians “grieve, but not as those who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13), I think that he was holding together both Jesus’ tears and His display of power at the grave of His friend. It’s in-between these “furious opposites” that my faith lives.

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After the catastrophes that befell Job, what Marilyn McCord Adams calls “the horrors,” we are told -

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.  (2:11-13)

If this is where they had stopped, Job’s three friends would have been hailed as spiritual giants, pastoral role models for us all.  But they didn’t.  They opened their mouths and spoke.  They said too much, too quickly and too loudly, with the result that they muddied the waters of understanding and obstructed the channels of compassion.  I have observed a fair amount of this in the blogs and Facebook pronouncements of my ministerial peers in the weeks since Brittany Maynard took her leave of this world.

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Many of my more progressive colleagues have used the death of Brittany Maynard to make their freedom of choice argument while many of my traditionally-minded colleagues have used the tragedy of her death to defend their prolife convictions.   Predictably, they have lined up on opposite sides of the field of this familiar battle to launch their volleys, and in some ways, this is exactly what Brittany Maynard wanted.   She made the conscious decision to go public with her private tragedy in order to advance the conversation about death with dignity in our society.  She chose to make her private drama a media event.  She wanted it to be the story that led the national news, and it did.  This gave her suffering a greater purpose, and I respect the courage it took for her to do this even as I admire the clarity with which she did it.  The tragic circumstances of her life provided her with a “bully pulpit” that she used quite effectively.  She strode into the public square with a statement to make.  But the nature of the public square is dialogical; other voices are going to answer back, and they have, as the blogs and Facebook postings I’ve read in recent weeks prove.  My problem with so many of those other voices has been their smug tone and their shrill arguments.  They have been so eager to score points in support of their predetermined positions that I fear that they’ve lost sight of the fact that this is about real people suffering in real ways from real threats to their existence.

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Of all the responses that have been made to Brittany Maynard’s circumstances and choices, the most compelling one that I have personally come across was made by another terminally ill young woman, Kara Tippett.  On both her web page – http://mundanefaithfulnrss.com – and in her recently published book The Hardest Place: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard (David C. Cook – October 2014) – Kara Tippett has staked out the exact opposite position that Brittany Maynard took while suffering the same exact set of circumstances, what Kara has described as “a road that feels simply impossible to walk.”  Kara Tippett wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard.  You can read it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/  Rather than the rhetorical broadsides, “in principle” arguments and political salvos that I have read elsewhere, this “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread” approach has such power for me.  How I wish that Brittany and Kara could have sat together, talked together and cried together.  And how I wish we could have all been there to eavesdrop on that imagined moment.   I suspect that in the solidarity of their suffering, there would have been much for us to learn about how to face our own dying, and the dying of those we love the most, with dignity and in faith.  As Dr. Candi K. Cann, a Professor of Comparative Religion down at Baylor University, has written -

This is a complex issue that requires an equally complex response. I would agree that there is beauty to be found in both suffering and in death: a kind of beauty and embracing of life that one only finds when faced with the last breaths and days of someone we love who does not want to die. I believe that we learn lessons in sickness, in suffering, in dying, and in walking that journey with someone who is dying, but I also believe that it is easy for one person to judge another’s capacity for suffering based on their own experiences and prejudices. …Both Brittany and Kara write beautiful justifications for their positions on life (and death), and I admire both women — Brittany for taking ownership of her life and the way she wants it to end, and Kara for fighting to be present with her family and to find ultimate meaning in her suffering. The world is indeed a brighter place with both of these brave women shining light on these important issues and our need to bring death into the conversation of our daily lives. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-candi-k-cann/two-perspectives-assisted_b_5960716.html

 

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“Above the Scripture” or “Under the Scripture?”

dudes                                     Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)                                             Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536)

Martin Luther summed up the difference between the Reformation and the Renaissance nicely when he said to the great scholar Erasmus: “The difference between you and me is that you sit above the Scripture and judge it, while I sit under Scripture and let it judge me.” [John Stott]

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Making the rounds last week was an article published at Hemant Mehta’s “Friendly Atheist” web page (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist) called “8 Things Your Pastor Will Never Tell You About the Bible” by Richard Hagenston, a United Methodist minister.  It apparently caused Richard little or no concern that something he wrote was being promoted and published on a “friendly atheist” webpage! It wouldn’t have been there if it didn’t serve their interests or bolster their case!  That alone is troubling to me and makes me wonder why it didn’t give Richard more pause?

In this essay Richard made the accusation that “ministers keep secrets about the Bible, lest things they learned in seminary hurt church attendance and the Sunday offering.”  So, what are these supposed “secrets about the Bible” that Richard says that we who are ministers learned in seminary and are afraid to tell our people?  Well, he named 8 –

1) The Apostles of Jesus Seem to Have Known Nothing about a Virgin Birth.
2) Jesus Said He Wanted to Offer Nothing to Gentiles.
3) Jesus Tells Everyone Not to Think of Him as God in the First Three Gospels.
4) The Resurrection Appearances in the Gospels Have Irreconcilable Differences.
5) Jesus Was Against Public Prayer.
6) Some Books of the Bible Are Forgeries.
7) Parts of the Bible Were Intentionally Written to Disagree with Other Parts of the Bible.
8) Apostles Who Had Been Taught by Jesus Himself Insisted that Paul Was Wrong about the Gospel.

Now, I’m pretty sure that Richard thinks that he was just being a faithful “disruptor” by writing this article.  Richard ended his essay by saying, “I am still a Christian, but I don’t believe we should hide from the facts about our own faith,” and that tells me everything that I need to know about his mindset and his motives.  And if it didn’t, then the title of Richard’s book, Fabricating Faith: How Christianity Became a Religion Jesus Would Have Rejected,” would.  The controversial retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey wrote a book in 1999 that set the agenda for “disruptors” in its title: Why Christianity Must Change or Die. “Disruptors” in the church have taken this challenge to heart.  The theologian Paul Tillich in one of his books wrote about how the content of our faith as Christians is contained in fragile containers that can be easily shattered.  It’s the old kernel and husk argument, the one that says that our faith consists of timeless truths held in temporary time-bound shells.  Nobody wants to bite into a shell after shoveling a forkful of Thanksgiving pecan pie into their mouths!  The shell certainly serves a purpose but it is clearly not the point.  And so, returning to Tillich’s “fragile vessel” analogy, lots of ministers come out of seminary thinking that it is their job to go around shattering people’s containers.  They take their seminary degree and use it as a hammer to gleefully obliterate what they have concluded is ignorance in the church at best, or deception, as Richard Hagenston accuses some ministers of promoting by their silence, at worst.  Being a “disruptor” is what they think they are in the church to do and be, and right now “disruptors” are all the rage.

CNBC goes so far as to publish an annual list of the 50 top “disruptors” in the business world, “companies that have entered traditional sectors and turned them upside down… displacing the established incumbents in their own industry, prompting a ripple effect throughout their economic ecosystem… disrupting the public giants.” Last Saturday’s paper had a full page promoting an upcoming seminar with Steven Wozniak of Apple fame that painted him as the ultimate “disruptor.”  We need to go hear him speak, so the ad suggested, because he is an intellectual anarchist, someone who has changed the world by challenging accepted norms and settled assumptions, someone who has, to use the now tired slogan, “thought outside the box.” And I don’t doubt that he has, or that we have benefitted from his “disruption.” I’m certainly not opposed to innovation, creativity, progress and success. But by both temperament and conviction I am conservative, I am someone who, by definition, possesses “the disposition to preserve or restore what is established and traditional.” And so when a disruptor starts disrupting I instinctively find myself pushing back.

My first instinct after reading Richard Hagenston’s essay was to immediately start writing the “counterpoint” argument to each of his eight “points.”  You see, there’s nothing on Richard’s list that is nearly as certain as he has stated it.  Every one of his 8 points can be and has been countered with intelligent arguments made by competent scholars who would disagree with his conclusions. His dogmatic certainty, the absolutism of his assertions is just a different version of the kind of “shut-down-and shut-up-the-opposing-point-of-view” fundamentalism that I’m quite sure that in his mind he was writing to oppose.  The truth is that there is plenty of room for a faithful conversation on each one of the 8 assertions that Richard makes in his article, but you would never know that from the way that Richard stated his conclusions about what’s in the New Testament.  His list reads as if all 8 of his points were already completely settled and incontrovertible facts with which only an idiot would disagree.

They’re not.

And so, my conservative head and heart both react strongly to Richard’s essay. My head says that things are not nearly as black and white as Richard’s conclusions might lead a reader of his essay to believe, and my heart says that his enthusiasm for playing the role of the “disruptor,” of shattering traditional points of view that have served well people’s confidence in the Bible as a trustworthy witness to the act of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ through the years, is unseemly.  I hear whispers of Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that “knowledge puffs up — makes arrogant” whereas “love edifies — builds up” (I Corinthians 8:1).

I have been haunted by Bishop James Pike’s – the Bishop Spong of his generation – lament since I first read it back in 1979 as a freshly minted minister just weeks out of seminary. He said that he had gone to seminary seeking the bread of life, but what they gave him instead were stones (see Matthew 7:9 for the Biblical reference).  They taught him how to be suspicious of what he found in the Scriptures without showing him how to be trusting of what he found in the Scriptures at the same time.  They deconstructed his traditional faith, “throwing the Bible under the bus” is how it has been described, without providing him with any guidance for how to put it all back together again.

In a staggeringly insightful and important essay published in The Christian Century (“Salvation by Trust? Reading the Bible Faithfully” – February 26, 1997 – pp 218-223), Richard Hayes, a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, stakes out the alternative -

The Protestant reformers of the 16th century proclaimed that God’s word in scripture must serve as the final judge of all human tradition and experience. Left to our own devices we are capable of infinite self-deception, confusion and evil. We therefore must turn to scripture and submit ourselves to it, the Reformers insisted, in order to find our disorders rightly diagnosed and healed. Only through the biblical writers’ testimony do we encounter the message of God’s grace; only the revelation of Jesus Christ, disclosed uniquely and irreplaceably through the testimony of the evangelists and apostles, tells us the truth about the merciful God and our relationship to that God. Without this word which comes to us from outside ourselves, we are lost. …[And] to get our bearings on the question of our fundamental attitude toward scripture [today] I propose that we take our cue from the Reformers and return to scripture itself.

In order to read scripture rightly, we must trust the God who speaks through scripture. …Like Abraham, like Mary, like Jesus, like Paul, we stand before God with empty and open hands. That is the posture in which the reading of scripture is rightly performed. The German New Testament scholar Peter Stuhlmacher describes it as a “hermeneutics [the proper interpretation of texts, especially the texts of the Bible] of consent”—a readiness to receive trustingly what a loving God desires to give us through the testimony of those who have preceded us in the faith. …Our minds must be transformed by grace, and that happens nowhere more powerfully than through reading scripture receptively and trustingly with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

If Richard Hagenston’s “8 Things Your Pastor Will Never Tell You About the Bible” helped us to do this better, to “read scripture receptively and trustingly with the aid of the Holy Spirit,” then I’m all in.  If Richard’s 8 points can help us sit more attentively under the Word, then let’s have that conversation, point by point, conclusion by conclusion and see where it leads.  But if it’s just a “drive-by” disruption intended to upset the traditional apple cart, then I’m really not interested.  In a world where people are spiritually starving to death, it is bread they need to be given and not stones.  DBS+

 

 

 

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“Do You Need God to do Church?” (3)

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The “Antithesis” of Human Intelligence, Initiative
and Ingenuity in Making the Church Effective
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From an earlier blog –

Over the next few weeks I am going to be thinking out loud here about the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective, and the part that the Divine presence, power and provision plays. Using Hegel’s dialectic, I am going to move from an examination of the thesis of Divine action, to an exploration of the antithesis of human action, to a consideration of the shape that some kind of synthesis of the two might take? And along the way I hope to bump into some truths that might actually serve the church and its ministry today.  DBS+

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While doing some research for my Doctor of Ministry Integrative Project some 20 years ago at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary I stumbled across this assessment of frontier revivalism by a professor at a Stone/Campbell Movement University –

Periods of increased evangelism, called “revivals,” occurred on the American Frontier, following the Second Great Awakening.   Frontier religionists usually explained these cycles of increased “conversions” as times when God poured out His grace in an abundant way to sinners.  They believed that man had little to do with these “revivals” occurring.  God alone made the decision concerning these “special outpourings of His Spirit.” Today, as we look objectively at these revival periods, most of them can be explained by greater zeal on the part of the evangelists themselves. Occasionally, however, an outbreak of some dreaded disease or a financial crisis caused frontier people to be more receptive to God’s message.  [Ronald Bever – “The Influence of the 1827-29 Revivals in the Restoration Movement” – Restoration Quarterly – Vol. 10; No. 3, Third Quarter, 1967 (134)]

I was struck then, as I am struck now, by the startling anti-supernaturalist bias at work in this assessment of our history. The author sniffed at the thought of revivals being the result of God’s direct action, a “special outpouring of His Spirit.”   “Objectively,” God wasn’t really needed for the renewal of the church according to this scholar.  Human beings just needed to “do more” and “try harder” in order to bring about revival – master some techniques – or else wait for social circumstances to get frightening enough to create a general condition of anxious receptivity in people.

Tim Spivey, a Stone/Campbell church planter in Southern California confronted this anti-supernaturalist bias in our spiritual heritage directly in a recent blog.

In his conversations with leaders in Churches of Christ, Pat Keifert noted that God was used as the subject of an active verb less roughly 5% of the time. Here’s what that means in part: leaders in Churches of Christ generally view God as passive. That finding doesn’t surprise me at all. As I hear churches discuss their futures, deal with crises, debate theological or textual issues–there is a sense that God indeed spoke, but doesn’t speak. He did, but doesn’t do. He lives, but isn’t living. [http://timspivey.com/deism-in-churches-of-christ/]

Now, contrast this with the reformational perspective of Martin Luther.

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Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble…. I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.”  [http://www.reformationtheology.com]

And here is the thesis of the necessity of the Divine presence, power and provision in order to do church effectively countered by the argument of the antithesis of the indispensability of human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity if the church is to be successful. So, which is it?  What makes the church effective?  Is it the action of God or the action of human beings?  Is it God’s sovereign grace or humanity’s obedient faithfulness?

A book that I stumbled across on my Sabbatical earlier this year that has greatly enriched my understanding of these questions was Ian Stackhouse’s The Gospel-Driven Church: Retrieving Classical Ministries for Contemporary Revivalism (Paternoster 2004). Ian is a British Baptist Pastoral Leader with firsthand experience in the Charismatic Renewal Movement.  In the words of another British churchman from an earlier generation, Ian “believes in the Holy Ghost not merely vaguely as a spiritual Power, but as a Person indwelling believers… who justifies our faith in Him” [Roland Allen – Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? – 1962 (149-150)].

Gospel

In the first part of this book called “The Pathology of Revival” Ian critiqued both the utter passivity of those Christians who are entirely comfortable with the “tarrying” in Jerusalem until they have been endued “with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), and the frenetic busyness of other Christians who embrace every fad and pursue every new technique that’s guaranteed to produce numerical increase and congregational effectiveness.

There are Christians who intend nothing and initiate nothing until and unless the Holy Spirit has been released with power in them to make them witnesses (Acts 1:8). Some believers are always “looking for the alchemist’s stone” that will instantly and effortlessly renew the church.  It’s a kind of magical thinking.  And at the other extreme there are those Christians who think that they can automatically and invariably engineer spiritual growth by the discovery and application of the right techniques.  They are in a perpetual quest for “the ingredient, the program, the plan, the strategy that will bring about the breakthrough” (Stackhouse 19).  Church effectiveness is an entirely “predictable process.” Once you’ve mastered the method, just like a favorite recipe, it can be successfully repeated again and again.

To the first group of Christians it’s all about God and what God does. Go back and read that Martin Luther quote – “the Word did it” is their motto.   This is the thesis of Divine action (see my last blog for a further exploration of this idea).  And to the second group of Christians it’s all about us and what we do.  Go back and read that Stone/Campbell scholar’s naturalistic explanations for the revival on the American frontier. It was “the greater zeal” of the evangelists that brought it about.   And this is the antithesis of human action.  It’s point, counter-point; thrust and parry.  And it is in the push and pull of these “furious opposites” that the middle ground of a new synthesis emerges, and that’s what we will explore next week.  DBS+

 

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Do You Need God to do Church? (2)

 

The “Thesis” of the Primacy of the Divine Presence,
Power & Provision in Making the Church Effective

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From last week’s Blog –

Over the next few weeks I am going to be thinking out loud here about the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective, and the part that the Divine presence, power and provision plays. Using Hegel’s dialectic, I am going to move from an examination of the thesis of Divine action, to an exploration of the antithesis of human action, to a consideration of the shape that some kind of synthesis of the two might take? And along the way I hope to bump into some truths that might actually serve the church and its ministry today. DBS+

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 fireplace

It is one of those defining metaphors for me. It was Sam Shoemaker, the Episcopal Priest and Spiritual Renewal Leader, who first used it.

In 1952 Shoemaker was the main speaker for Religion-in-Life Week at the University of Pittsburgh. Representatives from a wide variety of denominations – Baptist and Presbyterian, Episcopal and Roman Catholic – were invited to share their faith.  …During his address at a closing dinner for speakers and student leaders, Shoemaker surprised us by remarking, “Some have likened the Episcopal Church to the fireplace and the Methodist Church to the fire.”  After pausing for laughter at his own expense, he continued, “You’ll have to admit, however, that the best place for a fire is in the fireplace, and not out in the middle of the floor!”

…This is a problem that has plagued all churches: the relationship between the organization and the life it is supposed to encourage. Every organism requires some degree of organization to channel its energy and fulfill its mission.  So it is natural for the church to develop confessions of faith, services of worship and programs of activity.  Imperceptibly, however, the inner life tends to wane even though the outward form persists.  Throughout church history the flame in many organizational fireplaces has flickered and died.  Though the fireplace was designed initially to foster a blaze, accumulations of soot eventually clogged the flue and smothered the fire.

…Eventually another generation, feeling the cold, tries to rekindle the fire. Unfortunately, it does not burn well, the flue is clogged and the hearth no longer fosters a blaze.  Yet the custodians of the fireplace often resist the cleaning or painful remodeling which is now necessary.  …So the kindlers of the flame are tempted – or even forced – to move their fire out into the middle of the floor.  There, one of two things is likely to happen.  Either the fire rages out of control, or its isolated coals die down for lack of a proper hearth.  Samuel Shoemaker was right: the best place for a fire is in the fireplace. (Charles Hummel – Fire in the Fireplace – IVP – p.p. 14-16).

firehouse

One of the reasons that this metaphor has such power for me is that I have lived it.

I was raised in the “fireplace.” Mom and Dad took my two sisters and me to church every Sunday morning when I was growing up, and the church they took us to was the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California, a “high” Episcopal church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition – “smells and bells.” And then, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when I was in High School, I caught on “fire.” These were the heady days of the Jesus People Movement in Southern California, and its heat and light touched my heart.  I was not the Prodigal who had wandered off into the far country, the typical “Jesus Freak.”  I was more of an “older brother” who had stayed home and gotten just as lost.  And in the same way that God’s love in Jesus Christ found the prodigal, so it found me.  And from that moment until now, I have struggled constantly with the “fire” and the “fireplace.” This is part of the reason why I think I would up as a member and minister in the Disciples of Christ.

The Disciples are part of what’s known as the Stone/Campbell Movement.  The “Stone” comes from Barton W. Stone (1772 – 1844), founder of the “Christian” Church in Kentucky – a product of the “fire” of the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting during the Second Great Awakening.  The “Campbell” refers to Thomas Campbell (1763 – 1854) and his son Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866), the founders of the “Disciples of Christ” Church in what is today West Virginia – the strudiest of the “fireplaces” built in early America.  When these two movements shook hands and became one church in 1832 in Louisville, Kentucky, the “fire” and the “fireplace” were joined, and the struggle between structure and passion, Spirit and form, organization and organism in the heart of our Movement was set in motion.  Our heritage hardwired the “fire” and the “fireplace” into our very denominational DNA, and I’m glad for it.

This spiritual struggle constantly serves as a reminder of the “both/and” rather than the “either/or” nature of reality. I have found that my life and faith are so much better served by hanging onto “furious opposites” rather than by championing one-sided half-truths, and this has proven particularly true for me with the “fire” and the “fireplace.” As Sam Shoemaker pointed out, “the best place for a fire is in the fireplace, and not out in the middle of the floor!”

 

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But, to my way of thinking, the “fire” has a certain primacy.  It comes first.  It’s the reason why the “fireplace” gets built.  This is the “thesis” in my dialectic.  It’s where I start.

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The late Calvin Miller in one of his books lamented the way that so many churches he knew had become “hollow museums” where the curator invoked the name of God with no expectation of God ever actually making an appearance.  In contrast, writer Annie Dillard in one of her essays observed that based on her reading of the Bible, ushers in church really ought to be issuing crash helmets at the door before lashing congregants into their pews. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), for proof, just stroll with Moses up the side of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-25) or spend the morning with Isaiah in the Temple (Isaiah 6:1-7).  There is “fire,” and we don’t kindle it.  At best, we can provide the “fireplace” to contain the “fire” when and where it falls.  This is not nothing, as I will explore next week in my “antithesis” blog on the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective.  But the fanciest “fireplace” there is just gathers dust unless and until there is a “fire” in it, and that “fire” is not something we engineer, it’s something we receive.

churchbook

Samuel D. Rima (Rethinking the Successful Church – Baker Books – 2002) says that he had to “rethink the successful church” when, after leading one congregation in a season of significant numerical growth, he got called to another church where they wanted him to do the same thing all over again with them.  And Sam said that as he began that he really did believe that “if only he did the right things, applied the proper techniques, and raised enough money,” that he could “manufacture church growth just like a mortgage banker increases his or her market share.” He saw it as a favorite “recipe” that if followed precisely would get the same results every time (25).  But what Sam discovered in his new church was that although he was the same minister as he had been before with exactly the same skill sets and the same vision and commitments, that he didn’t get the same results.  He eventually left that church “feeling like an unmitigated failure,” “wounded and shaken to his very soul” (47).  And in his recovery Sam says that he began to come to terms with the great Biblical truth that he had failed to take into account in his previous “success” and “failure” in ministry, what he calls “the Sovereignty of God.”

We must realize that there are much greater forces at work in our ministry than simply our own will power, enthusiasm, determination, giftedness, vision and passion.   The reality is that the church in which we serve is God’s church.  And God has some very definite ideas of what success looks like in his church.  …It is not up to us to determine what will ultimately take place in the church we serve – that’s God’s job – and we forget or neglect that reality at our own emotional and spiritual peril. (52)

In one of only three places where the word “church” actually appears on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels, after telling Peter that his confession of Him as being the Christ, the Son of the Living God, was correct, Jesus told His disciples that it would be “upon this rock that I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).  And I hear an echo of this promise in I Corinthians 3:6, where Paul, discussing the different functions that different ministers had performed in the life of that church, observed: “I (Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” It’s a different metaphor, but I think that it’s the same truth as the “fire” and the “fireplace” comparison makes.  To get a crop a farmer has to plow, and plant, and water.  But nothing the farmer does causes the seed to grow.  In the same way, I believe that we can help to create the conditions that are conducive to conflagrations, but the “fire” still has to “fall.” It is something that God is going to have to do when, and where, and how God so chooses, and that’s what Divine sovereignty means.  It means that God is in charge and that we have to be patient, expectant and responsive.  This is why everyone who has studied the great moves of God in church history, looking for the causes and conditions that preceded their arrival, always come back to prayer.

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Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 – 1892), a British Baptist preacher was one of the true giants of the church. His church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle of London, was a congregation of over 6,000 and added well over 14,000 members during his thirty-eight-year London ministry. During his lifetime, Spurgeon is estimated to have preached to 10,000,000 people, and he remains history’s most widely read preacher. There is more available material written by Spurgeon than by any other Christian author, living or dead. His sixty-three volumes of sermons stand as the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity, comprising the equivalent to the twenty-seven volumes of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica” (http://areuserious.org).

When people would walk through the Metropolitan Tabernacle (as New Park Street Church became known), Spurgeon would take them to a basement prayer room where people were always on their knees interceding for the church. Then the pastor would declare, “Here is the powerhouse of this church.” (www.christianhistoryinstitute.org)

The church as a “fireplace” doesn’t make much sense and isn’t of much use apart from the “fire.” Just like the wind of the Spirit that Jesus said “blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going” (John 3:8), the “fire” is not something that we can create or control, but it is something that we can desire and seek, and that will necessitate prayer.  We can’t force the hand of God, but we can open ours to receive what God wants to give us on His terms and in His time.  DBS+

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A PRAYER FOR REVIVAL
C. H. Spurgeon

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O God, send us the Holy Ghost! Give us both the breath of spiritual life and the fire of unconquerable zeal! O Thou art our God, answer by fire we pray Thee! Answer us both by wind and fire, and then we shall see Thee to be God indeed. The kingdom comes not, and the work is flagging. Oh, that Thou woudst send the wind and the fire! Thou wilt do this when we are all of one accord, all believing, all expecting, all prepared by prayer.

Lord, bring us to this waiting state! God, send us a season of glorious disorder. Oh, for a sweep of the wind that will set the seas in motion, and make our ironclad brethren, now lying so quietly at anchor, to roll from stem to stern!

Oh, for the fire to fall again— fire which shall affect the most stolid! Oh, that such a fire might first sit upon the disciples, and then fall on all around! O God, Thou art ready to work with us today even as Thou didst then. Stay not, we beseech Thee, but work at once.

Break down every barrier that hinders the incoming of Thy might! Give us now both hearts of flame and tongues of fire to preach Thy reconciling word, for Jesus’ sake! Amen!  

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Do you need God to do Church?

bug eyes

The triad – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is often used to describe the thought of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel stresses the paradoxical nature of consciousness; he knows that the mind wants to know the whole truth, but that it cannot think without drawing a distinction. Unfortunately, every distinction has two terms, every argument has a counter-argument, and consciousness can only focus on one of these at a time. So it fixes first on the one, then under pressure fixes second on the other, until it finally comes to rest on the distinction itself. Hegel refers to this process of alternation and rest as dialectic. [http://militantlibertarian.org]

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This familiar philosophical category serves me quite well.

I am an inveterate moderate. I deplore the extremes.  I never finish preaching a sermon without wanting to immediately say, “Now, on the other hand…” I never vote without wishing that I could take some of the positions and qualities of each candidate, and just like Frankenstein, use those parts to fashion an entirely new and different kind of being.   I get impatient with people who stake out their positions with clarity and passion, and who then refuse to listen to alternate points of view that are being staked out by people who can match their clarity and passion.  I can’t understand how people fail to see the complexity of things, and who become comfortable championing one-sided half-truths.  In his introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou (judged to be one of the 20th century’s foundational documents), Walter Kaufmann lamented the way that we tend to settle all too easily for black and white conclusions.  The alternatives before us are always myriad and manifold, he said, requiring us to be perpetually open and inquisitive, which brings me to the great wrestling match that’s been going on in my head since my Sabbatical earlier this year.

Scroll back through my blog posts to May 20, 2014, and take a quick look at “Human-Centered Church Growth ~ Christ-Centered Church Growth: A Collaboration or a Conflict?” In my examination of how some churches have been able to successfully shift their understanding and practice of evangelism from just being one of the many things that they do to actually becoming part of who they are, part of their culture as a church, the tug-of-war, at least for me, always returned to the same issue: when it comes to evangelism, what’s God’s part and what’s ours?  This is a perennial theological tussle – it’s Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin and Arminius, Wesley and Whitefield, Edwards and Finney.

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The conundrum gets distilled quite nicely for me in the comment that an Episcopal priest once made to R.T. Kendall, the Minister Emeritus of London’s historic Westminster Chapel – “If the Holy Spirit were taken completely from the Church, 90% of the work of the Church would go right on as if nothing had happened!” (The Anointing – 3).  Exploring this idea, just about a year ago Geoff Surratt, a church planter in Colorado, in a blog on his web page – “Inner Revolution” (http://geoffsurratt.com), asked “How long could you do ministry without God?”

I wonder how long I could be successful in ministry without God? I’ve been in vocational ministry for 31 years, and I seldom encounter a situation I haven’t seen before. I have a stockpile of sermons to pull from, and many other places where I can grab a complete sermon with a moment’s notice. I do strategy, staffing and structure in my sleep. My experience, connections and the internet give me all the tools I need to do ministry, and do it at a very high level. God is good, but often not all that necessary.

How about you? How long could your church function, and function well, without God? You have your sermons planned through Easter, your song lists loaded into Planning Center and your small group resources online. You have well-trained volunteers and the best staff money can buy. Your IT and weekend tech have redundancies built in to handle any contingency. The people who attend your church know that they will have a quality experience every weekend regardless what might happen behind the scenes. Certainly God is welcome at your church, but is he really necessary?

I am all for policies, procedures, strategy, training, planning and technology. If fact, except for policies and procedures, these are the things I love the most. And I am amazed to see how effectively churches use these tools to reach people far from God and lead them into biblical discipleship. What scares me, shakes me to my core, however is how easily we can substitute the tools of worship for genuine worship. How often we find ourselves worshipping the creation rather than the creator. How many weekends we leave church feeling satisfied because the music was good, the sermon was well received and the attendance was up without even considering if God was pleased.

How long has it been since I have been on my face before God, desperate to hear from him, knowing that I am absolutely toast without him. When was the last time I was so hungry to experience the power and presence of God that I could not eat, I could not sleep until I felt the supernatural touch of his Holy Spirit? When was the last time I was so overwhelmed by the responsibility of preaching the Word that I could barely breathe?

It is not all that hard to build a ministry without God.                                                                                                    

What a terrifying place to be.

Over the next few weeks I am going to be thinking out loud here about the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective, and the part that the Divine presence, power and provision plays. Using Hegel’s dialectic, I am going to move from an examination of the thesis of Divine action, to an exploration of the antithesis of human action, to a consideration of the shape that some kind of synthesis of the two might take? And along the way I hope to bump into some truths that might actually serve the church and its ministry today.  DBS+

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If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today,
95% of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference.

 

dove


If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church,
95% of what they did would stop and everybody would know the difference.

                                                                                                                                                                               ~ A.W. Tozer

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“W.W.J.D.” & Ebola

Ebola
The news this week of the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States in our very own backyard – Presbyterian is Northway’s neighborhood hospital, Vickery Meadows where the afflicted man lived is part of our congregation’s “front doorstep” Mission field through the work of Oasis de Esperanza, and Hotchkiss Elementary School where some of the children in the family of the afflicted man attend is one of our “Signature Outreach Ministries” – has given us all pause.

The traditional five stages of grief provide a helpful roadmap to understanding the range of reactions and responses that we are experiencing in ourselves and observing in others.

Denial: The initial state of disbelief that this is really happening and the refusal to accept its full reality.
Anger: The frustrated and frightened outpouring of raw emotion.
Bargaining: Looking for someone or something to blame, and the offer to change behaviors in the hope that it might change circumstances.
Depression: The dawning realization of the full reality of the situation and its dire consequences.
Acceptance: Finding a way to live in the hope, love and peace that God in Jesus Christ supplies that is bigger than the circumstances that we face.

These are the natural and normal inward responses to our outward experiences of loss and threat. They are part of the path that inner healing takes when we are wounded or worried.  Our commitment to Christ certainly doesn’t exempt us from such experiences of difficulty or emotions of distress.  Even the most cursory reading of Jesus’ response to the death of his good friend Lazarus (John 11), and the accounts of the deep personal crisis that Paul found himself facing during the Second Missionary Journey  (2 Corinthians 1:3-2:4; 4:7-18; 11:21-10) are sufficient Biblical grounds for the spiritual legitimization of grief.

Because we are human beings, when we get bad news or face difficult circumstances, we will find ourselves launched out onto the sea of grief where we are forced to weather the storm. But because we are Christians, we are called to be and do something more than just grieve, spiritually and emotionally legitimate as grief may be.  Paul described what we are capable of and called to as Christians to be a matter of “hopeful grieving” (I Thessalonians 4:13). Not ignoring our pain and fear, in faith we are exhorted to push through it into something else.

Black white

When an explosion and fire destroyed the music room of Cleveland Hill Junior High School in Buffalo in 1953, the Rev. Charles B. Smith visited the homes of the parents who lost children in the tragedy. The shock of the community, and the anguish of those who had to go find a casket for eleven and twelve year old children was almost too much to bear.  Fathers and mothers spoke of the comfort and caring and prayerful support that Rev. Smith gave as a Christian and neighbor.  He spoke to their condition out of the resources of his faith, and out of his understanding for their grief in a personal way, for one of the fourteen children lost in the school fire was his youngest daughter, Reba. [Told by David Poling in his Sermon “The Last Fraud” in The Gift of Easter, Floyd Thatcher, editor, Word Books, 1976].

Our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior pushes us into an entirely different gear as we make our way through life as Christians.   “The love of Christ constrains us” is how Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14.  That word “constrains” in Greek is a word that describes the action of “compressing forcibly all of our energies into one channel.”

fire

In your imagination see the concentration of water flowing through the nozzle of a fire hose, how it focuses and directs all of that potential and power into a particular direction. In exactly the same way, the love of Christ “compresses forcibly” all of our energy as Christians into a channel of response.  This explains the remarkable record of how Christians have reacted through the centuries to the difficult circumstances that have broken upon them as part of their life in this world.

When a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease. (http://www.earlychurch.com/unconditional-love.php)

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Around A.D. 260 Dionysius wrote:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”

Large numbers of pagans, including rulers, priests and physicians, having no hope or anchor for their souls, fled to get away from the plague. They left their sick behind, alone, without care or the basic necessities of life. The Christians, as a whole, tended to remain and care for their loved ones, and for each other. In many cases the love of God in them stretched far enough to also enter the deserted houses of the pagans and care for those sick as well. This individual act, resulting from asking themselves what Jesus would do in the same situation, had a profound impact. (http://www.gci.org/gospel/evang/ordinary)

And this isn’t just ancient church history. All of the medical professionals who have been in the news in recent weeks for having contracted Ebola while serving in West Africa and then being care-flighted home to receive treatment in the United States were serving through missionary agencies as part of their own commitment to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

ebola vic

In our own spiritual tradition, the Stone/Campbell Movement, we have the example of David Lipscomb (1831-1917) who served sacrificially during the Cholera Epidemic in Nashville in 1873 when 1 out of every 25 people died in that city. Because David Lipscomb was a leader in that part of our church that asked to be counted separately in the 1906 United States Census, he is better known in the Church of Christ than he is among the Disciples of Christ, but for all of our differences, we are still part of the same spiritual family of churches, and so he is “ours” too.

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Even though he lived well outside the city of Nashville, safe from the devastating effects of the Cholera outbreak, David Lipscomb moved into the city during the Cholera outbreak when so many with means were fleeing it in panic. This left the poor at the greatest risk, and David Lipscomb as a Biblical Christian knew all about “God’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” how they are the special objects of God’s care and concern, and therefore of the church’s as well.

C. Leonard Allen in his book Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church (ACU 1993) described the work that David Lipscomb did in those harrowing days.

Though Lipscomb himself was not physically strong at the time, he worked for days among the poor and sick, placing his own life at risk. He helped distribute food and supplies.  He went into the homes of destitute black residents of Nashville and helped to clean and feed them.  And he used his buggy to carry a group of nuns – whom he deeply respected for their courage – to and from the places where they were needed. (93-94)

In his periodical, The Gospel Advocate, David Lipscomb addressed the spiritual crisis that the Nashville Cholera Epidemic posed for Christians. As trite and hackneyed as it has become in the church today as a gimmick and a merchandizing platform, David Lipscomb positioned the decision of Christians in his day as to how they would respond to the crisis they faced in terms of simple obedience to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ – “W.W.J.D.?”

To reproduce the life of Christ in our own lives is to act as Christ would act, were he in our places. We thus become Christ’s representatives to the world. The solemn pledge of our lives is to act to the best of our ability in the various relationships that we occupy in the world, and in the exigencies and circumstances in which we are placed as Christ would act, were he here situated as we are…

Recently the Cholera made a fearful visitation upon our people. It fell with especial severity upon the poor…

Now in view of these things and the wild panic that seized the population, what would Christ have done in the emergency? Had he been a resident of Nashville with ten, twenty or a hundred thousand dollars, what would he have done? What did he do in the person of his representatives here?   Would he have become panic stricken with fear—fear of death, and have used his means to get himself and family, with their fashionable and luxurious appendages out of danger, to some place of fashionable resort and pleasure, and left his poor brethren and neighbors to suffer and perish from neglect and want?

That is just what he did do in the person of many of his professed representatives. In the person of others he retired to the cool shades of his own luxurious and spacious city mansion elevated above the noxious miasms [sic] that destroyed the poor and unfortunate and left them to die, in want and neglect, without attention from him. Did you who so acted bear true testimony to the world for him for whom you profess to act? Was not your course a libel upon him and his character? How can those who so acted again profess to be his children?

The religion of our Savior was intended to make us like Christ, not only in our labor of love—of our self-sacrifice for the good of others, but also in raising us above a timid, quaking fear of death. If it does not make us willing to brave death and spend our time and money for the good of our suffering fellow-creatures, off cast and sinners though they be, it does not raise us above a mere empty profession that leaves us scarcely less than hypocrites. The religion that does not induce us to do this essential work of a true Christian cannot save us.

I don’t know what the days ahead hold for us as a community of faith in the part of this city where Ebola has made its American debut. I am inclined to believe the assurances we are being given that everything is under control and that the situation is contained and being managed.  But even if that’s true for here and now, it’s not true for “there” – West Africa – and it’s far from certain for “then” – the coming days both in Dallas, Texas, and throughout the global community.

It is only natural for us as human beings to worry about our personal safety and to think about the frightening possibilities when a threat the size of Ebola moves into the neighborhood. But as Christians, our personal safety and continuing well-being cannot be our only consideration. “The love of Christ constrains us,” and that strips “W.W.J.D.” from being a snappy slogan on a bumper sticker or a tee shirt, and positions it in our hearts as the critical and urgent question of our commitment to follow Christ. “What would Jesus do?”  DBS+

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These fatal scourges, under God, become opportunities to show the superior excellence of the Christian religion, in giving true courage, love and self-sacrifice to its votaries. Alas what is it judged by the course of a majority of its professors? What do we better than others, in these days of sorrowful visitation?

~ David Lipscomb

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