“As a Dying Man to Dying Men”

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I regularly tell my ministerial partners at Northway that no Sunday morning can afford to be wasted, no worship service can be approached as if it were unimportant or inconsequential, and no sermon is ever just an empty exercise that can be approached without passion, conviction and even urgency.  If it is the Lord’s Day, then we have just got to be “on our game.” Walter Wangerin Jr. understands.  He says that he paces before he preaches.

On the night before I preach, I pace—back and forth in my room, mumbling sermonic thoughts, testing them, scorning a hundred thoughts, exulting in one or two that shine like coin, investing those.  I grow breathless when I pace. I make strange noises. But the house must be as silent as death. And the mighty God must stand by to save me, because there surely will come great waves of doubt to drown me, and then I will splutter, “Help me, Lord!” and gasp, “What do you want me to say?”

… It is Christ who saves. But in human community, it is this particular vessel whose voice, whose person, and whose preaching proclaim that Christ… and so on Saturday night, I worry: Will they hear it? Will they let the hard word hurt them, the good word heal them, the strong word lead and redeem them? …So I pace. [http://www.sermoncentral.com/pastors-preaching-articles/walter-wangerin-jr-why-i-pace-before-i-preach-1070.asp]

baxterRichard Baxter (1615 – 1691), the English Puritan preacher, once said: “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”   He understood all too well how the eternal could very well hang in the balance in the life of someone who was sitting in a pew whenever he preached, and so he never took the assignment lightly.  He knew that his words about who God is, and what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, and what God expects of us, could be the very last that a person ever heard before they actually faced God, and that gave him great pause.

It was the goal of every sermon that Richard Baxter preached to point people unswervingly to Jesus Christ so that they might know the way of salvation and “flee” to Him.  To this end Richard Baxter practiced what the Puritans called “plain preaching.”  Joel Beeke, the President of the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary up in Michigan, explains that the “plain preaching” of the Puritans had three primary characteristics: first, it “addressed the mind with clarity,” second, it “confronted the conscience pointedly,” and third, it “wooed the heart passionately.”  That’s a pretty high standard for the sermon every Sunday morning, but how could it be lower when you think about what at stake?

This came home to me this last Sunday with some real force.  When I got back to the office after lunch, there was a phone call informing me that a man who had been in worship with us just hours before was now in the ER at the hospital on life support and was not expected to survive for long once he was unplugged.   He had gone from worship to a restaurant down the street from the church for a lunch with his family, suffered a massive stroke and would be gone without regaining consciousness before the afternoon was over.  And it made me think about the worship service that had filled the last hour of his life – the hymns that were sung, the Scriptures that were read, the prayers that were offered, the Lord’s Supper that was celebrated, the message that was preached.  Had somebody pulled me aside and told me that someone who was going to be with us in church that morning would be dying that afternoon right after the service was over, would I have changed anything? Should I have said or done something differently?

I’ve always liked the old story that’s told about the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther.  Working in the garden one afternoon, a wild-eyed man rushed up to him to breathlessly announce that he had it on very good authority that Jesus Christ was going to be coming back within the hour!  “What are you going to do” the man demanded to know of Luther?  And turning back to his work in the garden, Luther answered, “Well, I think that I’ll do my very best to finish hoeing this row.”

I take this to mean that if we are already doing what we know that are called to do, then it doesn’t require drastic adjustments at the last minute to right the ship or correct the course.  The whole message that I preached “unaware” last Sunday as “a dying man to a dying man” can be found on the church webpage (www.northwaychristian.org – follow “worship” to “sermons”).  But this is what I said in its conclusion –

What God want of us as human beings is pretty basic.  God want us to “know” Him (I Corinthians 1:21; Galatians 4:9; I John 2:13).  “This is our goal in life, that we might be God-centered in our thoughts and …God-honoring in all that we do” (Wells 15-16).  And nothing gauges the depth with which this is actually happening in us better than does gratitude.  Giving thanks in everything is God’s will for us in Jesus Christ because there is simply no better test of our spiritual condition than this; no better way to take stock of how God-centered and God-honoring our lives are becoming.

Thomas Erskine, the 18th century Scottish theologian, said that “in the New Testament religion is grace and ethics is gratitude” (Hunter 121).  And there you have Biblical Christianity in a nutshell; grace – what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and gratitude – the response we make to God from the heart.   And to be able to give thanks to God in all things is evidence that we “get” this; that we know God is really there, and is hard at work in even the most tangled circumstances of our lives and in the most difficult situations of our world to bring about His good and loving purposes.  Our capacity to give thanks is directly proportionate to the degree to which we are actually trusting God with our lives and our world no matter what’s going on around us and in us. 

I wouldn’t have changed a word.  And in my meditation for my friend who died on Sunday afternoon, I talked about a hymn that we had sung together in our Thanksgiving worship service on Sunday morning.

After singing about his harvest home on Sunday morning, when he would be safely gathered in, free from sorrow, free from sin, in God’s presence to abide, quite unexpectedly on Sunday afternoon Brady actually passed into it, his “glorious harvest home,” and that’s where Brady is this afternoon.  The Lord took Brady as part of His harvest home, and that’s where Brady will be, with the Lord, until that day when we as part of His harvest too will step into the Lord’s presence to abide in our final harvest home.   As the angels told the women at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, “Why are you looking for someone who is alive among the dead?  He is not here” (Luke 24:5-6).  And because he belonged to the Risen Christ by faith, neither is Brady.

When everything that’s said and done on Sunday morning in worship points unswervingly to Jesus Christ who is the Savior, then you’ve broken and shared the Bread of Life that the church has been given, and there are no regrets.  DBS+

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“The Center of Our Attention”

In God in the Whirlwind (Crossway – 2014) theologian David F. Wells characterized our age as one of “distraction.”  He writes -david

Our life is now punctuated by incessant computer pings, cell phone jingles, and beeps of one kind or another… Our attention shifts, on average, every three minutes… we suffer from a kind of cultural ADD. (36)

The remedy, according to Dr. Wells, is the self-discipline of “focus.”   He says that we need to learn how to pay attention again.

Attention and focus are the fuels that actually enable us to get things done… Withdrawal and ordering are the two keys to attention – being able to withdraw from alternatives, at least for periods of time, and to focus the mind on something that we have isolated.   (37)

And then he turned his concern for such “focus” to the spiritual life –

If we are convinced that we need, above all, to know God, to know who he is in his character, that will trump every competing interest.  But we have to be utterly convinced.  Being halfhearted and divided in our focus will not get us to where we want to be.  As Jonathan Edwards observed a long time ago, we act on our strongest motive.   If our strongest motive, our deepest desire, is to know God, it will generate the discipline we need to pursue this, because we will
want to know God more than anything else.  If this is not our strongest motive, we will find ourselves with multiple, alternative and competing foci.  These will inevitably distract us… (37)

And “distracted” we are, both externally and internally.

…This lack of attention, from one angle, is the result of having to answer too many e-mails, too many phone calls, wanting to visit too many blog sites, having to choose between too many products, needing  to keep up too many relationships (perhaps many of them virtual) and to do too many other things.  However, from another angle, all of this speaks to what we really want… Would we prefer merely to have the pose of being Christian, living only with our appearances, or do we want the real thing, God himself? (38)

Thanksgiving Day is the annual starting gate for the frenzy of the holiday season.  Be prepared to get distracted.  This week the chase for the perfect Christmas begins, the one that memories are made of and that songs are written about. And so the gauntlet of shopping, spending, wrapping, sending, cooking, driving, visiting and celebrating commences.    We won’t come up again for air until well after New Year’s Day.  And when it’s all over, and the tree and boxes have been drug to the curb for heavy trash pick-up, we will experience the spiritual equivalent of “buyer’s remorse.”  We always do.

Wasn’t this supposed to have meant more to me?
Wasn’t this supposed to have been more about Christ than gadgets and trinkets?
Wasn’t I supposed to have grown spiritually?
Shouldn’t I have experienced some increase in my love for God and neighbor?
Why do I feel so empty inside?

To avoid this annual outcome, this seasonal “let-down,” we’ve got to get our “focus” now before it all starts.  In Psalm 16:8 David said: “I have set the Lord continually before me.”  And Jesus memorably told us to – “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).  These are invitations to avoid distraction by deliberately deciding to give our attention to God.  This is a spiritual discipline that Frank Laubach taught in his little booklet “The Game with Minutes – Christ is the Only Hope of the World” (you can find it at: http://www.dunedin.elim.org.nz).

boobFrank Laubach was a missionary in the Philippines in the 1930’s.  While coming to terms with his own spiritual “weakness” (“Although I have been a minister and a missionary for 15 years, I have not lived the entire day of every day in minute-by-minute effort to follow the will of God” he once confessed in a letter to his father) Frank Laubach began to figure out a way “to live all my waking moments in conscious listening to the inner voice, asking without ceasing, ‘What, Father, do you desire said?  What, Father, do you desire done this minute?’”  He experimented with ways to make a “more complete surrender” of himself to God and God’s will by taking some time from each conscious hour “to give God much thought.”  For him this focus and attentiveness was a “deliberate act of the will.”  He began to call this spiritual discipline “The Game with Minutes.”  It was necessary in his mind because -

Few people are getting enough of Christ to save either themselves or the world. Take the United States, for example. Only a third of the population belongs to the Christian church. Less than half of this third attend service regularly. Preachers speak about Christ in perhaps one service in four —thirty minutes a month! Good sermons, many of them excellent, but too infrequent in presenting Christ. Less than ten minutes a week given to thinking about Christ by one-sixth of the people is not saving our country or our world; for selfishness, greed, and hate are getting a thousand times that much thought. What a nation thinks about, that it is. We shall not become like Christ until we give Him more time.

To give Christ more time in our lives, Frank Laubach proposed his “game with minutes.”

We call this a “game” because it is a delightful experience and an exhilarating spiritual exercise; but we soon discover that it is far more than a game… You have hitherto thought of God for only a few seconds or minutes a week, and He was out of your mind the rest of the time. Now you are attempting, like Brother Lawrence, to have God in mind each minute you are awake…. to make Christ your inseparable chum.

To play the “Game with Minutes” Frank Laubach told his readers to discipline themselves to consciously call Christ to mind for one second out of every sixty second minute, and then to calculate just exactly how many minutes in a sixty minute hour you have actually succeeded in being aware of Christ for a second.  He explained -

Your score will be low at first, but keep trying, for it constantly becomes easier, and after a while is almost automatic…  Each time we try we shall do better until at last we may be able to remember God as high as ninety per cent of the whole day. Eventually we will develop what Thomas A. Kempis calls a “familiar friendship with Jesus.” Our Unseen Friend becomes dearer, closer and more wonderful every day until at last we know Him as “Jesus, lover of my soul” not only in songs, but in blissful experiences. Doubts vanish, we are more sure of Him being with us than of anybody else. This warm, ardent friendship ripens rapidly until people see its glory shining in our eyes—and it keeps on growing richer and more radiant every month.

Frank Laubach understood that this spiritual exercise, just like all spiritual exercises, could feel external and artificial.   But he also understood that “good resolutions aren’t enough… we need to discipline our lives to an ordered regime,” and so he was open to using “any aid” that might prove “useful” in helping him consciously “cling” to the presence of Christ understanding that because it was finally about “fixing our eyes upon Jesus” that eventually this discipline would give way to a “new freedom,” and we would find ourselves not so much “tied down” to an external practice as being caught up in the glory of an ongoing encounter with the living God.  The whole point of the “Game with Minutes” is to train our eyes to see the face of God in our ordinary moments and to tune our hearts to hear the music of God that is playing as the soundtrack to our lives.

fireThe person who first introduced me to the “Game with Minutes” said that once he had received its great benefit in his spiritual life by helping to make his desire to “practice the presence of God” a more practical reality in his life, that just like we are told to do at the end of a time of Ignatian Prayer, he “plucked” a fruit from the experience to carry with him to nibble on and be nourished by throughout the rest of the day.  He said that just as the “Game with Minutes” helped him to become more conscious of the way that Jesus Christ was constantly present in his life and his world, so he “plucked” a practice from the spiritual exercise to carry forward with him into the rest of his life.  After he “won” his “Game with Minutes,” my friend decided that to remain sensitive to the presence of God, that he would choose an external stimulant, something outside himself that periodically broke in upon him, to “poke” him into a new awareness of God’s presence.  He chose sirens. He said that whenever he heard the siren of a police car, fire engine or ambulance, day or night, that it would trigger his consciousness that Jesus Christ is “Emmanuel,“God with us,” and that in his awakened awareness of Christ’s companionship, he would then “Christify” the situation to which that emergency vehicle was heading.  He would pray for the people who were in trouble and had called for help, and he would pray for the helpers who were right then in the process of responding.  He would pray the presence of Christ that the siren had alerted him to into the situation to which that siren was going.

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I chose Cardinals for my “external stimulant.” I didn’t see redbirds growing up in Southern California, and so their presence in the trees and on the fences of my Texas world fascinated and delighted me.  Their flash of color always gets my attention.  When I see one, it always causes me to pause and watch.  And so I determined long ago that whenever a Cardinal flew into my life that I would take it as a “tug” from God that He was still there, that He was thinking of me and that I should be thinking of Him.

It’s all about “focus,” about learning how to pay attention, and perhaps no spiritual discipline is more urgently needed as the race to Christmas now begins.  DBS+

 

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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)].

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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).

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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.

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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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