The Abnormality of the World & the Sufficiency of Grace

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“My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

                                                                                                   ~ 2 Corinthians 12:9

We had a time for healing prayer in church on Sunday.  After the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the Bread and Cup of Communion, we invited people to come forward at the end of the service to put their special prayer request cards in a little basket on a table under a cross and to be prayed for by a minister with anointing with oil and the laying on of hands if so desired.  This is always such a powerful experience whenever we do it as a church.  People are usually so busy trying to persuade themselves and to convince others that they’re just fine, that when they are given an opportunity to actually let down their guard and to be ministered to at the point of their deepest wounds and greatest needs, something truly grace-filled and powerfully healing happens.

One time, years ago, a church member actually checked herself out of the hospital in order to be able to attend one of these healing prayer services, and then immediately checked herself back into the hospital when the service was over!  We certainly didn’t encourage this, but we were greatly encouraged by it, and I remember the example of her determination and effort now every time we plan a time of healing prayer in our life of worship as a church.  My heart tells me that this is a really good thing to do for people, and with people.   It is an affectively powerful experience.  People are deeply moved by it.  But I find that it is a profoundly “meaningful” experience as well, which is to say that it is an act that also closely conforms and firmly adheres to the truth of the Gospel, and it has been my experience that good things tend to happen when head and heart come together in this way.  For me the experience of Healing Prayer is like the flow of the river of the Holy Spirit between the two banks of head and heart.

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The “heart” bank of this river of the Spirit consists of our life experiences and the emotions that they generate in us.  Our hurts and hopes with their joys and sorrows firmly fix the “heart” bank of the river of the Holy Spirit in Healing Prayer.  It’s what’s happening to us and in us that directs the Spirit’s flow in this kind of praying.  This is not praying from a book or using set forms of any kind, but a praying that is by definition sensitive and responsive, more like jazz than a carefully orchestrated and well-rehearsed symphony.  You just step into its current and let it carry you along.

The “head” bank of this river of the Spirit consists of the revealed truths of Scripture and the way that the church has historically thought and talked about them.  Two of the big Biblical truths that are hard at work in the experience of Healing Prayer are the abnormality of the world and the sufficiency of God’s grace.  Part of my preparation for last Sunday’s sermon and service was listening again to Jerram Barr’s lecture on the “Basic Bible Study Themes, III” of Francis Schaeffer from his course “Francis Schaeffer: The Later Years” at http://www.covenantseminary.edu/resources/courses/francis-schaeffer-the-later-years/.  He says -

God is not responsible for the brokenness of the world. The world is not the way God created it, and human beings are not the way God created them.  Everything now is abnormal and is distorted by sin. Do not blame God for the way things are.  Human sin has made things the way they are…

(But) I hardly ever hear Christians talking about the abnormality of the world. If we do not talk about the abnormality of the world, we have absolutely no answer to give to people who have problems with suffering and evil. We end up saying that “it is okay.”  Someone dying of cancer might come to us, and we say, “This is really fine. God will take care of it.  Everything is going to work out well in the end.” This is an artificial answer that simply does not meet the person’s needs and is not true. It is not faithful to Scripture. Unless we understand the reality of the Fall, we have nothing to say to the person who suffers. Scripture forbids us to heal people’s wounds lightly or to try to soothe them with emollient words that pretend that things are not as bad as they are. One of the wonderful things about Scripture is that it takes the brokenness of our situation really seriously. It says it like it is. That is why it tells you to weep with those who weep, not to heal their wounds lightly. Just go and weep with them. Jesus is described as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. That is the way every Christian ought to be, those who really take people’s suffering to heart. We need to understand that people are having experiences that are abnormal. They are not the way God created them to be. Their reality and their experience of it is a broken one. Our call is to weep with them and have compassion on them rather than heal their wounds lightly.

And this big Biblical truth about the world’s abnormality has its direct counterpoint in the Bible’s equally big truth about the sufficiency of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  “The light shines in the darkness” is how the Gospel of John begins (1:5).  This is such good news.  There’s light and it’s shining on us!  But there’s darkness too, terrible darkness, and it’s this darkness that the light has been sent to penetrate and dispel.  70% of Christ’s public ministry reported in the four Gospels involved healing and exorcism according to the Rev. Jack Sheffield, an Episcopal priest with a ministry of healing from San Antonio.  Christ in Luke 9:2 said that we as His disciples are to preach the kingdom and heal the sick, and this is just exactly what we see Him doing throughout the Gospels.  Both by healing people’s sick and broken bodies and by forgiving their sins, Jesus Christ was God’s light shining in the darkness.  By actively challenging the abnormality of the world, Jesus Christ our Savior was forcibly pulling creation back into alignment with God’s original design, bringing wholeness to our bodies and souls.

The Biblical tension in all this is between the “already” and the “not yet” of it.   Just like the gap between D-Day and VE-Day during WW 2 in Europe, Christ’s work of dispelling the darkness has already begun but is not yet complete.   Our experience of it here and now is real but partial, substantial but fragmentary, and this shapes our believing and our praying.  Christian hope makes it clear that one day we will be delivered completely from the suffering of this world.  As Jerram Barrs puts it, “The whole goal of the work of Christ is to overcome the abnormality of this world.”  But our experience of this saving work will be incomplete until the consummation of Revelation 21 when God “shall wipe away every tear from our eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (v. 4).  And in experiences of Healing Prayer we feel this pull.  Even as we seek deliverance from the suffering that we are facing, we confess the truth that there will no permanent solution to the problem of pain until Christ returns, and so we ask for the hope that does not disappoint us that is born of the endurance in tribulation that produces godly character (Romans 5:3-5).

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The best illustration that I’ve ever come across of what this looks like is what the late Calvin Miller wrote in his fancifully imaginative book The Philippian Fragment (IVP – 1982).  In the style of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Calvin Miller used the vehicle of an imagined correspondence between some fictional characters to explore some of Christianity’s important ideas.

In the fourth chapter of “The First Letter of Eusebius of Phillip to his beloved Friend Clement” the church’s ministry of healing was closely examined.  Eusebius met a travelling healer named Helen.  “She rarely does anything one could call a miracle,” Eusebius wrote.  “Last week she laid hands on a little crippled boy and was not able to heal him,” he explained, “but she did get him a new pair of crutches and promised to take him for a walk in the park” (24).  And then he wrote about the healing of an amputee that he witnessed.

Yesterday with my own eyes I saw her pass an amputee selling styluses.  She touched his legs and cried, “Grow back! Grow back!” In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, grow back!”  Well, Clement, I so wanted to see the legs grow back, but they did not.  Poor Helen.  What’s a faith healer to do with an amputee that refuses to grow legs on command? Well, she sat down with the little man, crossed her legs on the cold pavement, and began selling styluses herself.  Soon she was talking to him, and before very long they were both laughing together.  For an hour they laughed together, and by nightfall they were having an uproariously good time.  And when it was time to go, Helen’s legs were so stiff from disuse, they refused to move.  Her legless, stylus-selling friend cried in jest, “Grow strong!  Grow strong! Grow strong!”  Helen only smiled and staggered upward on her unsteady legs.  And then she looked down at her lowly friend and said, “I offer you healing, you will see.  It is only one world away.  Someday…,” she stopped and smiled, “you will enter a new life and you will hear our Savior say to your legless stumps, ‘Grow long! Grow long!’ And then you will know that glory which Sister Helen only dreamed for you.”  He smiled and asked, “Do you heal everyone this way?” And she answered, “It is better to heal with promises than to promise healing.” To which he replied, “You are right, Sister Helen.  But more than right, you are evidence that our Father heals the spirit of amputees – even when they will not grow legs.  And, once the spirit is healed, the legs can be done without.” (24-26)

And between the banks of head and heart the river of the Spirit flows in times of Healing Prayer.  I felt its current pull last Sunday when praying with people for their wounds and the wounds of those they love. Between the depth of their pain and enormity of God’s promise, we found that promised peace that’s bigger than our circumstances (Philippians 4:7) and experienced the way that nothing we are facing has the power to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:38-39).  DBS+

 

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The “Bits and Pieces” Mentality

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It was Dr. David Naugle, a professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University, who introduced me to the problem of “bits and pieces.” In his book Worldview: The History of a Concept (Eerdmans 2002), he described the way that we fail to make connections as the “bits and pieces mentality.” He says that it is a characteristic of our age not to connect the dots. We tend to see things in complete isolation from each other. Our lives are a random series of events and experiences, actions and reactions, with nothing holding them together, nothing helping us to make sense of them as a unified whole. And so what happens in church on Sunday is completely separate from what happens in the office on Monday, or at home on Tuesday, or in the home owners’ association meeting on Wednesday, or in the conversation about the Refugee crisis on the Mexico border with friends on Thursday, or paying the monthly bills on Friday, or on the golf course on Saturday. And what happens in church this Sunday, at least in many of our minds, has absolutely nothing to do with what happens in church next Sunday. They are all completely disconnected, totally unrelated moments; each one existing in splendid isolation from all the others.

In The Genesee Diary ( Image Books – 1981), his reflections on his seven month stay at a Trappist Monastery in Western New York State, Henri Nouwen said that he went there to directly confront his “compulsions and illusions,” to answer the questions – “Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world? Is there a still point where my life is anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence?” (14). This is not just an assignment for a spiritual giant like Nouwen who had some time on his hands; it’s a project that all of us must undertake in our search for meaning and purpose.

Back now from my two month Sabbatical, the pace and demands of ministry in an active and busy congregation like Northway have forcefully reintroduced themselves to me. I didn’t ease back into it like stepping into a hot bath, a little bit at a time. No, it was more like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. From the first day back there have been meetings to attend, people to see, staff to be consulted, hospitals to visit, worship services to arrange, sermons to write, Bible Studies to prepare and conduct, pastoral contacts to be made, problems to be solved, reports to be prepared, planning to be done, funerals and weddings to be conducted, church visitors to be followed-up, outreach into the community to be undertaken. I’m not complaining – I love this life, I really do, and I know how blessed I am to have been able to do this work with this people for the past 17 years. But the shift from the rather leisurely and largely unstructured Sabbatical pace to the full-throttled, wide-open pace of a typical week of ministry around here has left me grappling with the question of the location of the still point around which everything else spins. What holds this life and its work together?

One of my favorite theologians is the late Donald Bloesch. An evangelical in a mainline denomination (the United Church of Christ), he has been something of a role model for me through the years for my own ministry as an evangelical in a mainline denomination. One of his books, perhaps my favorite, certainly the most used, is Faith and its Counterfeits (IVP – 1981). He called this book “a handbook on evangelical spirituality,” and he named its purpose as being “to show the difference between true Christianity and some counterfeit versions of the faith” (11).

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He named six “counterfeits” to “true religion” (“true religion” defined by the standards of James 1:27 – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”) –
1. Legalism – a relationship to a moral code rather than to a living Savior [25];
2. Formalism – preoccupation with propriety in worship and theology, the acceptance of doctrine without the Spirit, embracing the forms of godliness without the power (2 Timothy 3:5) [36];
3. Humanitarianism – the effort not to permeate the world with the leaven of the gospel, but to remold the world in the image of enlightened humanity [47-48];
4. Enthusiasm – the quest for a direct or immediate experience of God, seeking after a premature redemption, a dramatic anticipation of the glory that is yet to be revealed [62];
5. Eclecticism – the willingness to bend the Gospel to fit the preconceptions of the surrounding culture, upholding the spirit of religion over dogma, the quest for truth over a definitive witness to the truth [76-77];
6. Heroism – climbing the ladder of perfection and expecting mastery over self and triumph over the principalities and powers rather than being a humble recipient of divine grace who responds with acts of loving-kindness and mercy [90-91].

Any one of these six “counterfeits” can be dropped into the center of a church’s life and become “the still point” to which its life gets anchored and around which its work rotates, with disastrous consequence. And so Donald Bloesch concluded –

The bane of many churches today is an empty formalism or a barren Biblicism, either of which degenerates into an oppressive legalism. Other churches that seem more vital are plagued by a perfectionist enthusiasm or a frenetic activism that borders on humanism. What is needed is a recovery of the depth and breadth of apostolic faith, a revival of true religion. It is important to bear in mind that Jesus Christ is not just a moral ideal or a prophetic genius but a living Savior. He is not simply the human representative of God but God himself in human flesh. It is not enough to know the historical facts about the life of Christ, how he lived and died. Each person must know that Jesus died for him or her personally. (106-107)

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It is the Gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-19) that is the glue that holds the “bits and pieces” of our lives and world together. Historically, we who are “Disciples” have known this. Our life as a church centers around the Lord’s Table where every week the bread gets broken in remembrance of Christ’s body given for us, and the cup gets poured out in remembrance of His blood shed for us. Just to be clear, it’s not the Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup themselves and the act of eating and drinking them that is the glue that holds our “bits and pieces” together, but the Gospel of which they are the Lord’s appointed emblems. Communion is just a finger that points to the greater fact of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and it’s His death, burial and resurrection, how He died for our sins as our Savior and was raised for our transformation as our Lord and not the bite of bread and the sip of juice that anchors everything else we think and do as a community of Christian faith. All of which is to say that the Gospel must be “explicit.” As J. Mack Stiles makes clear in his writings, when the Gospel is “assumed,” it soon gets “confused,” and it will eventually get “lost” and will be “forgotten” (Marks of a Messenger – IVP – 2010).

In a time and place when “things are falling apart,” fragmenting into “bits and pieces,” because “the center does not hold” as Yeats put it, it is time that we be absolutely clear that there is a center to the church’s life and work, and that it holds. It’s not legalism, formalism, humanitarianism, enthusiasm, eclecticism, or heroism, it’s “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). He alone is the church’s and the world’s center of spiritual gravity, the one in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And it’s our job to be absolutely clear about it.  DBS+

 

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“It’s More Complicated than You Think”

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George Will began his 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft by telling his friends and critics to his political right and political left that “it’s more complicated than you think.” And this has become something of my mantra as I listen to politicians and people talking politics these days.

The bitter partisan divide of our country, its fragmentation into Red and Blue camps with membership assured only by a slash and burn mentality that can acknowledge no integrity and concede no intelligence to those who have lined up on the opposite side of a social, moral, economic and/or political issue from your own is not serving us well. The death of Howard Baker last week, and the affectionate eulogies of him as a strong partisan political leader who nevertheless understood the fine art of negotiation and the real value compromise in our governance process has left me longing for “the good old days.” As I said at the end of my sermon yesterday in our “Freedom and Democracy” Service at 8:30 am (see “When Christians Disagree” in the “Sermons” file under “Worship” @ northwaychristian.org)

Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen were lions of the Senate in their day. Politically, at the point of party, policy and legislation, they were almost always at odds. But when he was Vice President, Hubert Humphrey said of Everett Dirksen, his longtime political rival, that while he rarely agreed with him, that he never doubted the sincerity of his heart nor questioned the validity of his Christianity.

It’s that kind of honesty and modesty that I find to be so absent from the present political climate and in most of the current political debates. Today, the motives of those with whom you politically disagree are more likely to be impugned, their concerns dismissed, their sincerity questioned and their beliefs mocked. This is bad enough when it happens in society at large, but it is even more troubling to me when I see it happening between brothers and sisters inside the Christian community of faith.

As I have said before, I have a real problem with Christians, and especially ministers, becoming so partisan politically that it interferes with their ability to share Christ with and to offer God’s grace to those who have a different perspective. My August 28, 2012 blog “Frankly, I Don’t Care Who You Are Going to Vote For” still stands. I think that it is spiritual malpractice of the highest order when a minister holds and states his or her political opinions in such a way that those whose political conclusions differ feel like they cannot relate to them spiritually or trust them with their souls. But beyond this, it seems to me that if anybody should be able to appreciate the kind of complexity that George Will identified at the beginning of his book, it should be Christians who acknowledge the inspiration and authority of Scripture.

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One of the things that the evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer taught me was about how that the Bible teaches its truths. He included in the Appendix of his book The Church Before the Watching World an essay he called “Some Absolute Limits.” This is where he introduced me to the notion of “circles and cliffs.” He said that the Bible does not teach us its truths by providing us with “precisely worded” dogmatic statements which allow for no variation at all. “The Christian doctrinal and intellectual position” Francis Schaeffer explained, “lays down a circle rather than a point, or, to say it another way, doctrines are not merely lines to be repeated.” A circle has a line past which we “fall off the edge of the cliff,” but within which we have real freedom of exploration and expression. R. Paul Stevens, another evangelical theologian, takes this idea a step even further and suggests that within that circle of God’s truth found in Scripture there is a kind of “inspired ambiguity” that requires of us a “contemplative approach.”

Pick a topic of current political and social interest, and try to “think Christianly” about it (Harry Blarmires – The Christian Mind – 13), which is to say, go to Scripture and try to identify all of the relevant principles that have a bearing on the topic. Let these principles draw the circumference of the circle, and then when you’re finished, take a step back and see just how big the circle is. If you are true to Scripture, following the contours of its teachings past the neat and tidy doctrinal, moral and ethical packages that have become substitutes for actually having to look at the Bible for yourself, you will bump into what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called the Bible’s “furious opposites.” The Bible teaches all of its important truths by way of paradox: God is one and three; Christ is God and Man; we are saved by faith without works, but saving faith always includes works; The Kingdom of God has already come but is not yet here; the Bible is the Word of God and the words of men. Need I go on?

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The Jewish rabbis called this “halakic reasoning,” and they said that God’s truth is always found when both strands of a paradox are held in tension and balance (James R. Lucas – Knowing the Unknowable God – xiv). “It’s the process of firmly grabbing both ideas in a paradox and them merging the two into a greater understanding.” Our assignment as people of Biblical faith is to navigate these narrow passages between the Bible’s great opposite truths. R. Paul Stevens calls it “the contemplative approach” to Scripture.

This approach views the ambiguity of Scripture as a pointer to God, an indicator of truths so great that they can only be seen in full from God-height. A contemplative view takes seriously the fact that the Bible is more often historical than abstract, more often narrative and metaphorical than systematic. A contemplative approach welcomes the mystery…

When we fire off our political conclusions with black and white clarity and open and closed certainty, we are short-circuiting this process by letting go of the paradox, shutting down the conversation with those who have decided the question differently from us and confusing those for whom the answer to the question is just not so obvious. And, for a minister to occupy a political position, firing off his or her opinion like an MSNBC hostess or a FOX News host without any reference to the Biblical principles that are at work in their reasoning process of “thinking Christianly” is to abdicate the unique role that he or she has to play in this whole exercise.

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People learn how to make chicken cacciatorie not by seeing the final product beautifully plattered on a cooking show on the Food Network, but by seeing the step by step process of the prepping, chopping, sautéing and baking. And it’s not what a minister thinks about a topic of political and social interest that matters, but rather how a minister as a Christian trained in theology, ethics, church history and Biblical interpretation thinks that is massively important. Unfortunately, it’s easier to be a pundit than a pastor, and so the political broadsides fly, hitting their targets but failing to advance the cause of “thinking Christianly” that is the greatest need of the hour. DBS+

 

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Sabbatical Side Trips (2)

The Front Gate of the Saint Anthony the Great Monastery, Florence, Arizona

 

I made two side trips, both unplanned, to alternative faith communities that were not on the schedule when my Sabbatical began, but both of which have since become very much a part of the grist for my mill as I have been thinking about the ways that faith communities embrace and then express their own “evangelistic” mandates – the Vedanta Society Monastery of North Texas and the Saint Anthony the Great Monastery in Arizona. Last week I wrote about what I learned from the Vedanta Society; this week I want to write about what I learned at Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, Arizona.

My reflections here should not be taken as endorsements of what these two faith communities teach. I fully understand that they hold to beliefs and practices that are at wide variance with what we would regard to be New Testament Christianity. We could have that conversation, but this blog is not it.

What I am doing here is reflecting on how these alternate faith communities have gone about promoting their particular messages without getting into the validity of their messages. Last week I focused on the way that the Vedanta Society appeals to the spiritual hunger of people without putting the focus on trying to “corral people into its corridors of membership.”  These are two distinct things for them, and they are quite clear about which one has the priority. This raises important questions for us about the connection between evangelism and church growth. This week I want to focus on how the Saint Anthony the Great Greek Orthodox Monastery uses beauty to draw people to their message.

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In the book of the Prophet Isaiah the image of the desert wilderness springing to life is used to describe the Divine future when God’s promises to His people are finally fulfilled.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

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No matter how desolate things might seem to be at the moment, God is not finished. The desert will blossom and the glory of the Lord will be seen, and it’s this connection that you see immediately when you drive up to the Saint Anthony’s Monastery in the desert between Tucson and Phoenix. It sits out in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere. You drive through miles and miles of barrenness to get there. And suddenly there it is, a lush oasis in a dry wilderness. It is a veritable picture of Isaiah 35, and the contrast between the surrounding terrain and the monastic compound is striking. Saint Anthony the Great Monastery is a cluster of Orthodox sanctuaries, each with its own regional architectural flavor (Russian, Greek, Slavic, Byzantine), surrounded by gardens, fountains and fruit orchards. It’s the last thing that you would expect to find in the desert, but there it is in glory.

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Alan Jones in his book Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality (Harper San Francisco 1985) wrote about his experience of visiting the Coptic Monastery of St. Macarius in Egypt. He had to make a long hard journey through the desert to get there. Upon his arrival, Alan was greeted by a member of the community, a Father Jeremiah, who proceeded to bestow on him three gifts. Alan said that they “came as a complete surprise.”

First, Father Jeremiah led me towards the refectory and stopped in front of a large trough filled with flowering shrubs. Without a word, he gave me a piece of jasmine, a carnation, a rose and a sprig of mint. It was as if he were saying, “We human beings need things that will lift the spirit and enlarge the heart.” …It reminded me of the Chinese proverb about wisdom: “If you have two loaves, go and sell one and buy a lily.”

The second gift was no less important than the flowers. I was very hungry, and was taken into the refectory for a meal. …I need beauty in my life, but I also need food and shelter. There was no danger here of hospitality being so “spiritualized” that basic necessities were ignored.

The third gift was handed to me so naturallyand spontaneoulsy that it took me a while to appreciate its full significance. Father Jeremiah gave me three phials of oil for healing the sick. The unspoken assumption was simply that we are all frail and suffer from all kinds of sickness of body asnd soul. This is a brute fact and we need all the help we can get. It was as if Fatherr Jeremiah has siad: “There, brother, take these for your wounds and for the healing of other’s hurts. We all need the saving and healing power of Christ.” (14-15)

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Hans Urs Von Balthasar, a Catholic theologian, wrote about the way of beauty as the neglected spiritual path for most Western Christians. We are big on the way of truth. So much of what we do is designed to speak logically to the mind of people. Close behind in the way of good. We put high stock in our convictions finding expression in ethical action and moral behavior. But the way of beauty has been largely ignored by us, and Von Balthasar said that we and our Christianity have been impoverished as a result. The Good, the True and the Beautiful are known as the “transcendentals” in philosophy and theology, and have been regarded as three equally valid and reliable ways of getting at spiritual reality. But in practice, we have tended to limit ourselves to just two – the True and the Good. Alan’s experience at the monastery in the Egyptian desert just like mine at the monastery in the Arizonan desert was a matter of the Beautiful grapping our souls by their lapels and giving them a good shake.

I talked about beauty with a minister whose church I visited early on my Sabbatical journey. Of all the churches I visited in my time away, his was the most appealing to me. The architecture, liturgy and music were all familiar and comfortable; they resonated with me deeply. And when I asked him about this, he talked about how so much of what passes for worship these days lacks depth, mystery and majesty. He told me that when the “junk food” that so many Christians are consuming these days starts to run thin, that they will be there with the alternative that will truly nourish and satisfy their souls. He was making the case for the Beautiful as a “main artery” (Von Balthasar) for the spiritual life. And it was while I was pondering what he said, and before I visited to Saint Anthony the Great’s Monastery that I came across a provocative essay by a Roman Catholic priest entitled, “How to Convert the Entire World to Christianity.”

There is a way to convert the entire world to Christianity, and it is by way of beauty… Beauty finds its source in God. And thus any display of beauty focuses the heart towards Him, whether the heart would have it or no…

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Speak on Christ, by all means, but speak beautifully. Paint beautifully. Sing beautifully. In a thing as small as a blog post or as groundbreaking as the next Great American Novel, strive to write beautifully. Are you aware that, by creating beauty, you are an ambassador for the infinite? Why is Flannery O’Connor read on secular campuses around the world? Why do public high-school choirs sing Mass Parts? Why do atheists and Catholics flock to Mumford and Sons’ concerts? Why is Gregorian Chant praised by atheistic liberals? Because beauty pierces through all the layers of crap we build up around us, and demands that we recognize that greater than ourselves.

So instead of bemoaning the lack of conversion, let us create beauty. Instead of freaking out over the empty pews at our church, let’s get rid of the modern cubist depictions of Christ and make our churches beautiful. Instead of getting grumpy that no one reads your story where “you find out at the end that the old man is actually Jesus, OMG,” write something as beautiful as The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Instead of being bitter and disappointed that no one seems to be praising God when we bust out “Give Us Clean Hands” at Mass, let’s play truly beautiful music, gorgeous music like “What Wond’rous Love Is This? In our writing, drawing, filming, building, organizing, singing, playing, dancing, acting, speaking, expressing, and in our very act of living each day, let us be beautiful. Then truly, every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, if only to join in the song. http://www.ignitumtoday.com

There is a famous story told about how it was finally determined that Orthodoxy would be the official religion of Russia. Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent emissaries to study the different religious options that were open to them and when they returned they gave this report –

When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque… The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither… and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow… Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. (The Russian Primary Chronicle – 987 – 6495)

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Such is the spiritual power and the potential of beauty that I experienced in Arizona. I cannot forget it.  DBS+

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Sabbatical Side Trips

A big part of my Sabbatical has been visiting other churches to see for myself how they have made the ministry of evangelism more than just another program – something they do. I have wanted to see for myself how churches with a reputation for having “a culture of evangelism,” have made it part of their DNA – something they are. In addition to visiting six churches here in Dallas, my quest has taken me to churches in Washington DC, Prescott, Arizona, San Francisco, California and this Sunday, the last Sunday of my Sabbatical, to a church in Houston. I have seen and experienced so much, and I am excited about trying to consolidate my learnings from this time away and then having some opportunities to visit with you about them.

The August Adult Forum during the Sunday morning church school hour (9:30 – 10:40 am) from August 3 through August 31 (5 consecutive weeks) will be one of the places where this will begin to happen. And every Sunday morning from July 13 through August 31 I will be preaching a sermon series on one of the really big ideas that my time away has made quite clear in churches and Christians for whom evangelism has become a way of life. They have “Confidence in the Gospel.” They know what the Gospel says and why it matters. In July and August this is what we are going to be talking and thinking about in worship – what the Gospel says and why it matters.

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On my travels there have been side trips. I got to see both of my sisters. I’ve been to used bookstores across the country. I went to the Bull Run battlefield, the Appomattox Courthouse and Fort Sumter, continuing but not completing my Civil War bucket list. I got to spend some time with Danny. And Mary Lynn joined us for a visit with her mother in Modesto, California.

I also made two visits, both unplanned, to alternative faith communities that were not on the schedule when my Sabbatical began, but both of which have since become very much a part of the grist for my mill – the Vedanta Society Monastery of North Texas and the Saint Anthony the Great Monastery in Arizona. These two unexpected side trips brought into focus for me some ideas that were vaguely bouncing around inside me from my other visits, but that needed the embodiment of some actual communities to help me get my head wrapped around them. This week I want to write about what I learned at the Vedanta Society, and next week I want to write about what I learned at Saint Anthony’s Monastery.

Ram

I got to the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Texas by the invitation of Pravrajika Brahmaprana, a nun of the Vedanta Society who is currently the Resident Minister of the Society in North Texas. She attends our Conversations among Faiths gatherings, and after the last one, she invited me over to the Monastery for tea. Their facility is at a home in Irving in a residential neighborhood just north of the airport freeway. Their chapel is a converted workshop. This is where they gather to meditate and receive instruction. They have plans to secure the property next door and build a fellowship hall.

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I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon with Pravrajika. After a tour of the facilities and an explanation of what happens when they gather as a community in them, we sat down and talked about our respective journeys of faith for several hours over tea. It was relaxed and unhurried. Being on Sabbatical pace allowed me to enter fully into the moment without having to think about where I needed to be and what I needed to do next. I could give myself completely to what was happening right then and there.

slow

One of the books that I have read during my Sabbatical is C. Christopher Smith’s and John Pattison’s Slow Church (IVP -2014), and at the heart of what they propose is giving ourselves again to the slow work of God through the spiritual discipline of conversation. This is how we are formed spiritually. It doesn’t happen instantly; it happens slowly. They write, “Slow church is about taking the time with God, with one another, and with yourself – and not only taking the time, but taking the time over time” (53). My favorite chapter in the book is called, “Dinner Table Conversation as a Way of Being Church.”The dinner table is a school for conversation” (211) Smith and Pattison write, and “sharing meals creates a space where the conversational life of the church community can flourish” and become “expressions of the Eucharist” (215). They call it a “means of grace” (219), and recalling the frequency of Jesus’ encounters with people over a meal, the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as the crowning narrative (Luke 24:13-35), I “get” it. In fact, I would describe my conversation over tea with Pravrajika about spiritual things as just that – as a “means of grace.” It was a way of being with God and knowing His goodness tangibly. And it happened because we had the time to talk.

In my conversation with Pravrajika, I was particularly interested in how a woman of my generation who was raised as an Episcopalian in Seattle and went to Occidental College in Los Angeles wound up as a nun in the Vedanta Society which is an expression of Hinduism. “Evangelism” is not a word in the Vedanta vocabulary, and yet the Society has a mission of introducing people in the west to the spiritual philosophy that finds its expression in the Vedas, the ancient and revered scriptures of India. And so, I was interested in learning more about how they actually do this. Pravrajika talked to me about the spiritual stirrings that she felt when she was growing up and the general disconnect that she experienced with the institutional church. It was during a World Religions class at University that she heard a teacher from the Vedanta Society speak, and she had the deep inward impression that she was in the presence of genuine holiness, a “spiritual” someone or something. This is what Rudolf Otto, a German theologian, called “the numinous,” and he called our encounters with it the “mysterium tremendum” – the tremendous or overwhelming mystery. It is a universal human experience not limited to just one religion. We don’t “own” this as Christians. And this is what prompted Pravrajika to explore the Vedanta tradition more fully, and it was while on a visit to the Vedanta monastery in Santa Barbara that her full spiritual awakening took place and her spiritual life got its direction.

One of the authors I’ve read on Sabbatical is John Drane, head of Practical Theology in the Department of Divinity at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He names the great paradox that we face as being the decline of the institutional church, especially in its mainline expressions, at precisely the moment when the search for personal identity and spiritual meaning in life is becoming one of the central concerns of the larger culture! Calvin Miller in his own indomitable described this as people coming to us searching for answers to their deepest questions as human beings and the church offering them a chance to usher or a place on the church softball team. John Drane says that he’s “frustrated” to see the growing spiritual search that is all around us in the wider culture and to find the church unable or unwilling to engage with it. This sounded like Pravrajika’s story!

As I left the monastery after a fascinating afternoon, Pravrajika gave me several books to read about Vedanta. In one of them, Vedanta: A Religion, A Philosophy, A Way of Life by Swami Atmarupananda (Vedanta Press 2010), their “evangelism” strategy got spelled put –

We can think of Vedanta as a huge department store of spirituality. When we go to a department store to buy clothing, we don’t but everything in the store. We
go to the men’s or women’s section, the youth or adult section, the sports-wear or casual-wear section or dress-wear section. Once we’ve this narrowed down the gender and age groups and level of formality, we seek a rack with a brand we like, then our size, and then a color or style. We leave the store with clothes that are appropriate in every way to our needs.
Similarly Vedanta is a vast religious tradition with a variety of ideas and ideals, numerous practices, various ways of looking on Reality and many ways of interacting with the world. No one can comprehend all of it. We find what is appropriate to us. (2-3)

atonement

John Driver’s 1986 book Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church (Herald Press) proposes a very similar understanding of how people come to Christianity. There’s just one Gospel, but there are multiple ways of accessing it; different doors or gates based on our own particular circumstances and needs through which we pass into the presence of the Savior. Summarizing John Driver’s argument, Duncan Macleod wrote -

How do you begin to explain the good news about Jesus to someone? What are the entry points through which people connect with the life, death, resurrection and ongoing life of Jesus today. One way of describing ‘entry points’ is imagining that the cross is surrounded by a wall with a number of gates or doors. Over time a person has the opportunity to walk around and see the cross from

1. The Forgiveness Gate speaks of the new relationship we have with God when we accept that the death of Christ has dealt with the impact of our sin.
2. The Release Gate speaks of Christ bringing freedom to the captives. People who are struggling with issues of sin, addiction and the power of evil, (personal or corporate) may find this gate relevant to them.
3. The Cleansing Gate takes the sense of forgiveness and goes deeper, dealing with a sense of uncleanness or shame. Those struggling with shame and rejection can find in Jesus the chance for a new start, a clean page to begin again.
4. The Suffering Gate focuses on Christ’s suffering for us, and meeting us in our times of suffering. It’s through this gate that people who are experiencing personal suffering in their lives may first connect with Jesus.
5. The Leadership Gate holds Jesus out to us as a representative person, pioneer, forerunner and leader. People who have a calling in terms of leadership may identify with this image of Christ.
6. The Courage Gate reminds us of how Jesus laid down his life for us. For those who are fearful for their lives in a violent society the martyr-witness picture can show them how to live with courage in the face of violence – and even to die for their faith.
7. The Change Gate connects our new Christian life with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our experience of God in Jesus can give us new goals, new hopes, and new dreams, helping us transform the world around us, praying “Your Kingdom come, on Earth as in Heaven”.
8. The Service Gate captures the life of service we owe to the One who purchased us from the slave-market of sin. The Service Gate may be good news for people who are searching for purpose, direction, calling, and affirmation of their commitment to serving others.
9. The Reconciliation Gate reminds us of how God turns his enemies into friends. People struggling with broken relationships, or who feel alienated from God, may find this aspect of the cross the most powerful to begin with.
10. The Belonging Gate focuses on the wonderful family privileges we now enjoy through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This is the gate most attractive to people who long for a sense of belonging, community and acceptance. (http://www.postkiwi.com)

Finally, this book that Pravrajika gave me, Vedanta: A Religion, A Philosophy, A Way of Life, spelled out their approach to “evangelism.” After describing itself as “a gateway, a point of entry” into the great spiritual wealth of the Vedanta tradition, it asked “For whom?” Who is their target audience? Who are they trying to reach? And “anyone interested” is their answer. Here is how they explain it –

Vedanta is not a missionary faith: it is open to all, but it doesn’t try to corral people into its corridors of membership. There’s no race to save souls, no competitive effort to recruit people from other traditions. If you are satisfied with your present path, good, continue. If you find something here that helps you in your own path, good, take it. If you find that this is your path, welcome! If you have no interest in the spiritual whatsoever, in any form, fine, leave it alone. Our conviction is that the latter – a person who feels no interest in the spiritual whatsoever – has not yet come to the point where she feels the need for something beyond this sensory universe. That will come through experience in its own time, and can’t be rushed… Some hear the call of the Infinite, and some of these will find this book of use. To such it is offered. (3-4)

Accounting for the very different conceptual bases in Vedanta and Christianity, there is nevertheless much in this description of how they go about their mission that transfers to us and that can actually help us think through our mission.

1. There is a fundamental difference between trying to “corral people into its corridors of membership” and introducing them to “the great spiritual wealth” of a particular tradition. Knowing and following Christ as Lord and Savior is not the same thing as being a member of Northway Christian Church. Being a member of Northway Christian Church can be a way of knowing and following Christ as Lord and Savior, but it is not the only way. Learning how to distinguish between these two things and to balance the demands of the overarching mandate of our mission to preach the Gospel and make disciples, and the subordinate need to remain a numerically vital and viable church that always needs new members is tricky. Our spiritual tradition as Disciples was birthed out of a struggle with this very question, and it would do us well to return to our sources and understand how Barton Stone, one of our founders finally resolved it (See – “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” – Barton W. Stone @ http://www.theexaminer.org).

2. Just because we aren’t spiritually imperialistic as Disciples, thinking that we alone have the truth and that everybody has to join us if they are to be truly Christian, doesn’t mean that we don’t have something to offer, something that’s good and true and that people need. There was something in our take on Christianity that was compelling enough for our founders to leave their stable, secure and settled denominational “homes” in order to establish this new thing! I myself am a “convert!” Like the Texas bumper sticker says, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here just as quickly as I could.” Being a Disciple, a member of Northway Christian Church, is not the only way to be a Christian, but it is one way of being a Christian, and it is a good way. Being able to name what is “good” about our way without it becoming arrogant or authoritarian is a challenge that we must all take up. You can’t give away what you don’t have. Do you know what you have as a Disciple and as a member of Northway?

3. Finally, it’s not our job to force people to believe. For many of us, our resistance to evangelism is a resistance to the aggressive and manipulative ways that we have seen it practiced. The way that some Christians badger and bully people in the name of evangelism is what convinces the rest of us that we don’t want anything to do with it. But what if evangelism is not about us engineering responses, pushing people to predetermined outcomes, but is rather about us just being willing to share with other people what Jesus Christ means to us our Lord and Savior and why He matters so much to us? As I said in my reflection at Richard Durrett’s funeral service this week (the whole message is in the sermon section of the church’s webpage – “What is Good”) -

If “Christians” are “little Christ’s” as it’s sometimes said, then what that means is that when Jesus Christ becomes someone’s Lord and Savior, that person will start resembling Him. Our emerging goodness is a reflection of His goodness. The goodness that we saw in Richard was the fruit of his life of faith, a faith that was first nurtured in the Catholic Church and schools of his childhood and youth to which his parents faithfully raised him, and a faith that was then nourished in more recent years by his membership and leadership in this church.

Our “parts” in the evangelistic mission are “presence” – living “question-posing lives” in front of others because of our personal commitment to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and “proclamation” – being both willing and able to explain to others that the reason why we are who we are and do what we do is because of Jesus Christ. “Persuasion” is God’s “part.” Unless and until the Holy Spirit goes to work inwardly on a person’s heart evangelism will just be an empty and futile exercise. When we know what God is doing, we are free and confident to do what’s asked of us. We can plant the seeds that God will use later to bring forth His fruit in people’s lives. The pressure’s off us.  DBS+

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The Big, Ugly Green Station Wagon

green

 

Eight weeks in, and eight different churches visited.

In my travels last week to the West Coast, I got to see two churches that I have read about for some time now and have long wanted to see for myself, the Cornerstone Church in Prescott, Arizona, and the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.  As with every church I have visited during my sabbatical, I went to these churches to learn something about how evangelism is not just another program in their life, but part of their very DNA.  And both of these churches, like all of the other churches on my sabbatical dance card contributed something to my growing understanding of how this all works.  I’ve got two more on the schedule, one here in North Dallas this Sunday, and then one down in Houston on the last Sunday of June, and then I’m back home with you.

I have much to think through and talk with you about as we take up the challenge of becoming more consciously and conscientiously evangelistic as a church, and I can hardly wait to get started.  And while I’ve learned so much from my church different visits, the most important thing that I may have learned on my sabbatical may very well have come not from a church visit but from an hour I spent at a Starbucks down in the West Village between the two worship services that I was visiting at an area church.

As I sat there with my Venti drip – two equals and whole milk – writing some notes to myself for the next chapter in my book about prayer, I began to become aware of just how busy the place was.  It was bustling.  In the hour I sat there, roughly 9:15 to 10:15 am on a Sunday morning, traditional “church time,” that Starbuck’s must have served 50 different people, most of them in their 20’s and 30’s, many of them with dogs.  And then, after my hour at Starbucks, on my drive back to the church for their second service, as I drove through the West Village, I was startled by just how alive it was.  The streets were literally jammed with people and the restaurants serving brunch were spilling over.  And it occurred to me that when we think about the evangelistic mission of the church, more than strategies and techniques, we’ve got to have all those people that I saw out there on the streets in our minds and on our hearts.

Too often the evangelism conversation has more to do with the church thinking about itself and caring for its own needs than it does thinking about them, and caring for their hurts and hopes.  Michael Green wrote –

Sometimes when a church has tried everything else – in vain – it comes reluctantly round to the idea that it is to stay in business it had better resign itself to an evangelistic campaign.   Usually, however, this achieves precious little, because of the image that our churches have and because of their lack of relevance.  They tend to be clubs for religious folklore.  So what the churches often do get involved in is not evangelism, but propaganda, that is, they reproduce carbon copies of themselves, and impart their own ghetto mentality to the people the “reach.”   In their evangelistic outreach, they often resemble a lunatic farmer who carries the harvest into his burning barn.

A story that Rick Richardson tells at the very beginning of his book Evangelism Outside the Box (IVP- 2000) has impacted me as profoundly as anything I have seen or read over these past eight weeks (11-12).

When I was six years old, I got an unforgettable picture of God’s heart.  My dad was in the military, stationed in North Carolina.  Across from our family’s home lived a family also in the military.  We had three boys.  They had three girls.  Each Friday in warm weather our moms drove the six kids an hour to the beach, where we spent the day building sand castles and wading in the waves.  Then we would pile back into a big, ugly green station wagon and return home.

On one of our trips back home, with us in the middle of the fifteenth verse of the song about Noah’s “Arky, Arky,” and the animals that came in by “twosies, twosies,” Allison, the youngest girl, asked where Chris was.  Chris was my youngest brother, three years old.  He was a trickster, so we thought he must be hiding somewhere in the car.  We looked under the beach blanket.  We looked in the tire well.  We searched the back of the car.  No Chris. He must still be at the beach.

“Mom, Chris isn’t here,” I reported.

“Wha-a-a-a-t?” my mother responded.  At that moment I began the ride of my life!.  My mother hit the brake with magnum force. She spun that big, ugly green station wagon in a 180-degree turn, tire screeching.  Then she put the petal to the metal.  What had been a thirty-minute trip from the beach took us fifteen minutes going back.  I think we hit a hundred miles per hour, and we stayed that low because it was an old car and just couldn’t go any faster.

At the beach we piled out and ran back through the archway and onto the sand.  We ran from guard station to guard station.  At the last one, my mother saw Chris and Chris saw my mother.  They called out to each other.  They ran toward each other.  And then it was like a scene from a movie. My mom caught Chris in her arms and twirled him, hugging him, laughing and crying all at the same time.

Chris was lost.  My mother braved the curves of North Carolina roads and (it felt like) risked all our lives to find him.  But that passionate mother-love for her lost child is only a glimmer of the passion of God for those who are lost and don’t know Jesus.  He wants to turn the big, ugly green station wagon (maybe an appropriate analogy for our church or ministry!) around and race to wherever these lost and hurting people can be found.  But he’s letting us drive.  We are at the steering wheel of the green station wagon. If we are happy with who is already in the car and who is not, we can continue on home singing our fun travel songs.

If, when you read this story, you think – “That’s right, that’s what Northway really needs to be and do!  We can’t just ‘be happy with who is already in the car,’ we’ve got to start thinking more about who’s not in the car, about “the lost and hurting” – then we’ve got the right mindset for evangelism.  Now, I’m not going to just automatically assume here that we have this mindset as a church.  I think that this is something that we’ve got to carefully and prayerfully think and talk about together, and we will start to just as soon as I get back.  But, if we do have it, or want to get it, then the really crucial thing is what happens next.  It’s what we ask next that really matters.  Do we wonder – “So, what can we do around here to make Northway more attractive to them so that they will come!” Or, do we wonder – “How can we turn this car around so that we can race to where they are?”   The whole point of the story, the whole point of the Gospel (read Luke 15), is that we who know Jesus Christ have got to go to where those who don’t know Him are.  It’s not about how to get them to come to us on Sunday mornings; it’s about how we can get to them, and then be present with them in authentic ways.

David Fitch, another author I have been reading on my sabbatical, wrote this in a recent blog.  It’s a clue as to how evangelism becomes part of our DNA as a church.

Recently, I heard it again. A pastor, lost his pastor job, then took a ‘regular’ job, started hanging out with non-Christianized people. Things started to happen as he became present with people outside the church.  Opportunities to minister into real issues, needs.  Openings for the gospel!! And then came the realization: “I did more ministry this past month that I did in the entire 15 years of my ministry.  Of course this pastor is talking about transformative ministry that extends the gospel beyond the boundaries of well-established Christians. I know for a fact he had a powerful and steady impact with Christians as he ministered with them.  But what is going on here? I call it the practice of being present in our contexts. It is a dynamic all churches must cultivate among their people if they are to extend the gospel into context, if they are to participate in what God is doing to bring the world to Himself. I call it the practice of being present. It is what this pastor was freed up to do. It is what we all should be leading our congregations into doing. http://www.reclaimingthemission.com

“Being present” That’s the assignment.  DBS+

 

 

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Faiths in Conversation: Human Sexuality – May 2014; A Christian Perspective

Russell Moore, the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention, has described the belligerence with which the church has traditionally spoken to culture about matters of sexual morality. Assuming that the culture at large shares the church’s convictions and conclusions, Dr. Moore described the church’s usual form of address to those who would dare to question its teachings as a version of, “Hey, you kids get off my lawn.”

In the past it was enough for the church to simply state her prohibitions and to make her affirmations.

Premarital Sex – No
Pornography – No
Promiscuity – No
Abortion – No
Sexual Violence & Abuse – No
Marriage – Yes
Adultery – No
Divorce – No
Monogamy – Yes
Polygamy – No
Heterosexuality – Yes
Homosexuality – No

I think of this as the algebraic approach to theology and ethics. It’s all about the bottom-line, about giving the “right” answer. We reduce complex moral and spiritual questions to “sound bite” answers which are then used to “litmus test” people, to determine which “side” they are going to be on in the fight. But I was never very good at algebra. In fact, when I was growing up, this time of the year was always the worst.

Mid-May was when my folks always got the note from school telling them that if little Dougie was going to advance with his class in the next school year that he was going to have to spend some time in remedial summer school in a math “do-over.” I struggled mightily with algebra. But when I took geometry, suddenly a switch was thrown in my head and I excelled. To the shock of everybody, not the least of whom was me, I was near the top of my geometry class! And when I think back on what that was all about, I have come to the conclusion that I did better in geometry than I ever did in algebra because they involved different kinds of thinking.

Algebra is about the “what?” Getting the answer “right” is what matters in algebra. But geometry is equally interested in the “why?” How you get to the “right” answer is just as important as the answer itself. And what I hear Dr. Moore saying is that spiritual algebra is not going to work for the church anymore. Because the traditional church is out of step with where most Americans are according to the public opinion polls, it’s not going to be enough for the traditional church to merely stake out the territory that she occupies. Dr. Moore is urging his part of the church to recognize that the era of spiritual geometry has arrived.

And this means that when the church speaks to culture about what it is that she believes and values, the church is going to have to talk with culture not just about what it is that she thinks, but about why she thinks the way she does. And when this conversation begins, it won’t be long before it becomes clear that apart from the divide that exists between the church and culture on questions of human sexuality, that there is an equally dramatic divide inside the church. The bottom-line is that we who are Christians don’t think alike on questions of sexual morality anymore. Where once there had been a rather broad consensus among Christians of all stripes, one no longer exists, especially within the Protestant family of churches.

I can’t think of a Mainline Protestant denomination that isn’t prayerfully and painfully sorting out urgent questions of human sexuality these days. Earlier this month I got a pastoral letter from the faculty of the seminary where I did my doctoral work, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church USA. In advance of their denominational General Assembly in Detroit later this summer at which matters of human sexuality will be vigorously debated and policies for the church concerning gay marriage and ordination will be considered, that faculty called on their denominational leadership to embrace “a season of mutual forbearance” in which, together, they “might seek the mind of Christ.”

Now, allow me to translate that for you non-Christians in the room here this evening. That means that they don’t agree on what they think, and they don’t want that fact to be the cause of another church split. They want their progressives and their traditionalists to stay in community with each other. And that’s where most Mainline Protestant Churches are today. Within our own communities of faith as Christians we don’t agree; our algebraic bottom-lines are different. And when you start to probe why this is the case, what you will discover pretty quickly is that we are working with very different theorems in our geometric calculations.

For more than five years I was part of my own denomination’s Task Force on the question of “What is the Gospel message to our church as we relate to gay and lesbian Christians?” Great effort was made to insure that voices from across the spectrum of conviction within my church were represented among the members of this Task Force. To use James Nelson’s standard typology of the representative stances on homosexuality that exist within the Christian community – “Rejecting-Punitive,” “Rejecting-Nonpunitive,”Qualified Acceptance” and “Full Acceptance” – three of these four positions were well represented by people on the panel.

The “Rejecting-Punitive” position was deemed from the outset of our conversation to be fundamentally inconsistent with our denominational commitment to “unity in the essentials; liberty in the non-essentials; and charity in all things.” The track record of my denomination has invariably been on the side of defending the civil rights of sexual minorities regardless of our interpretation of Scripture. It’s just hard for us who are members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to think in “punitive” sorts of ways. But the other three positions – “Rejecting-Nonpunitive,” “Qualified Acceptance” and “Full Acceptance” – were all in the conversation. And it is from that experience that I think that I can identify some of the watersheds that result in Christians winding up on opposite sides of the questions on human sexuality.

The first watershed has to do with the foundational question of whether or not we believe that we have access to the mind of God? This is a question about revelation. Has God spoken and acted in such a way that who God is and what God wants can actually be known by us?”  When a Christian says that the Bible is the Word of God, or contains the Word of God, or bears witness to the Word of God, this first watershed question is being answered affirmatively. But immediately on the heels of this “yes” there follows the second watershed question: “So, what does God think about human sexuality? Is this something that God really cares about?”

Just because you believe that God has spoken and acted, and that you have a reliable record of that speaking and acting in the Bible does not mean that you have to believe that God has spoken about everything. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” And this means that while I claim to have a reliable revelation of God in the Bible, I do not claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of God or God’s will, and this is where the debate about human sexuality in the Christian community rages most fiercely today.

“Does God have a design for our sexuality as human beings that norms our behavior?”  Some Christians, looking at the dizzying array of sexual expression found in the Hebrew Scriptures – polygamy, concubinage, endogamy, rape, incest, adultery, prostitution and divorce – conclude that there is nothing normative about it at all. But other Christians find a Divine design for our sexuality in the Order of Creation. Traditionally Christians have understood Genesis 1:27-28 – “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply…” – and Genesis 2:24 – “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” – to establish a heterosexual, monogamous and covenantal design for human sexual expression, and regard all of those other biblical descriptions of alternate sexual arrangements to be deviations from this norm, the deliberate and willful stepping over of a divinely established boundary. And this raises the next watershed question.

“Does the Bible ever address the question of sexual orientation, or does it regard all same sex behavior as always being a matter of something that a constitutionally heterosexual person willfully chooses to do as an act of sinful rebellion against their God given nature?”  What do we do with the idea, one which by the way is quickly becoming the consensus, that people are “created gay”? “When did you decide to be straight?” the gay panelists on my denomination’s Task Force often asked their straight counterparts. And then said, “If you say that when your sexual awakening occurred you just instinctively found yourself attracted to members of the opposite sex, then you need to know that our experience was exactly that same, it was instinctive, but our attractions were entirely different.” And this raises the next watershed question.

“How will we who believe that the Bible is the Word of God ‘weight’ other sources of knowledge about ourselves and our world as we draw our conclusions and settle our convictions?” A standard tool for Christian theological reflection is something called the “Quadrilateral.”  What the Quadrilateral says is that there are four sources for our knowledge of God – Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition. And the critical question in this system is which of the four has primacy?

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? Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to say tradition. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians tend to say experience. Mainline Protestant Christians tend to say reason. Evangelical and Confessional Protestant Christians tend to say Scripture. And how you answer this question will go a long way to determining how you will wind up doing the theological geometry on questions of human sexuality.

The last watershed question that I will quickly mention in closing here this evening concerns the proper response to what is determined in good faith to be a violation of what God intends. Understand, in today’s church this is something that cuts two ways. Those of us who wind up on the “rejecting” side of a question about human sexuality have got to then figure out what how we will relate to those who are on the “accepting” side of it, and vice versa. “When something is conscientiously determined to be a sin, be it homophobia or homophilia, what will you then do with those with whom you disagree? Will you, can you, stay in community with them?”

Because we do the geometry on questions of human sexuality using such different theorems, this is the critical question for those of us who are Christians in a Mainline Protestant Church today. The tools I’ve used to stay in mine are two. First, I accord those with whom I disagree a “good faith” assumption. This means that I start by trusting them when they tell me that they are just as committed as I am in knowing God, and that they are just as concerned as I am in wanting to know and do His will. And second, I remember that I am a Christian solely on the basis of forgiveness. God doesn’t love me because I get the answers right. God in Jesus Christ just loves me. And because I believe that God loves those with whom I disagree in exactly this same way, I choose to remain in communion and conversation with them, no matter how challenging that may prove to be for me.  DBS+

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