“I’ve Sent my Heart on Ahead”

Intro

A Reflection on Loss and Love, Hope and Reunion
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Loretta Lynn’s son, Jack, drowned while fording a river on his horse back in the late 1980’s. As you would expect, this was a devastating loss for her, and she wrote about the experience of her deep grief in an article for the Guideposts magazine published in August of 1990.  Now, I’m not really a Guideposts sort of Christian, and I certainly don’t look to country music artists for very much of my theology.   And yet, I have never forgotten this article that Loretta Lynn wrote for Guideposts back in 1990.   After telling her story, Loretta Lynn finished that article with these words –

lorettalynnIt’s been around five years now since Jack died. And I’ll tell you something: The bond I have with him is still as strong as the bond I have with my living children. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Jack’s death has changed my life, and the biggest way is this: My dreams are not here on earth anymore. Why spend precious time running around chasing after money or fame when we’re not going to be here that long? A blink of an eye and we’re gone. There are wonderful things here, all right. There’s… our family, and there’s music and flowers, lots of things that I love… But my biggest dream is living with God and what happens when we get there. The time we’re gonna have! …Momma and Daddy and Patsy Cline and Jack…the parts of me that have been missing won’t be missing anymore… The Bible tells us to store up our treasure in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” When the time comes for me to cross that ol’ river myself, don’t fret too much for me. It’ll be an easy trip—’cause you see, I’ve sent my heart on ahead.

In her own “down-home” folksy way, what Loretta Lynn said here is something that the church has long taught and believed.  Our identities survive death and our relationships find their final fulfillment in heaven.  This is how the Venerable Bede, an English monk from the eighth century, someone the church has officially named as an indispensable teacher of the Christian faith, wrote about it –

 A great multitude of our dear ones are there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now in their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, and longing for the day when we will come to them and embrace them. What joy there will be on that day when we are together again. (Paraphrased)

LL

Separated by more than a thousand years, one from the “hollers” of Appalachia and the other from the moors of Northumbria, one a Doctor of the Church and the other one a Country Music Superstar, two people possessing vastly different capacities for theological refection and expression, and yet, Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede, are two people who have shared a common faith, and who have looked to the future with a common hope. As Christians, they both believed that they would be with their loved ones again after death.  So, where did they get such an idea?  And the quick answer is Scripture.

bookNow, there is no single verse from the Bible that I know about that explicitly says the people we have known and loved here in this life will continue to be known and loved in the life to come. This cherished belief and consistent teaching of Christianity that our identities and relationships continue after we die is more a matter of the “preponderance of the evidence” than the citation of any single specific “chapter and verse.”

 To make the case for this idea that sustained both Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede in their seasons of sadness and loss, I would first point to the way that in the Bible’s earliest books and first stories the way that death routinely gets described is as a matter of being “gathered to one’s people” (Abraham – Genesis 15:15; 25:8; Isaac – Genesis 35:29; Jacob – Genesis 49:29; 33). Some say that this is just a reference to them being buried in a “family plot,” but others view it as a reference to the continuity of one’s community. The people with whom we are most intimately connected here are the same people with whom we will be most intimately connected there.

Second, to make the case for the church’s teaching that Christians will be with their loved ones after death, I would point to the way that Old Testament figures like Jacob, David and Job all talked about their own personal expectations that after they died that they would be reunited with somebody they loved and had lost in this life. For Jacob (Genesis 37:35) and David (2 Samuel 12:23) it was the death of a child that prompted them to both say, “I will go to him one day,” clearly voicing their belief that their most meaningful relationships in this world were going to continue in the next one. And in what is widely regarded as one of the most important affirmations of faith in life after death in the entire Old Testament, Job spoke of his own rock-bottom conviction that he himself would survive death as himself –

 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!  I will see him for myself.  Yes, I will see him with my own eyes.  I am overwhelmed at the thought! (19:25-27)

Redeemer

Third, to make the case for the cherished Christian belief that our relationships find their final fulfillment in eternity, I would point to the way that Old Testament characters like Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration showed up as themselves again in the New Testament long after their deaths, and that they were recognized as being the same people then as they had been before. In fact, all of the stories of Jesus’ own resurrection include this same element. Despite some significant changes – resurrection is not resuscitation, it involves more than just the reanimation of an old form but an actual transformation into a new one – Jesus was always eventually recognized by His friends to be the same person after His death that He had been before His death, and His relationships with those people He had known and loved and who had known and loved Him before He died continued after He had been raised from the dead.

orbAll of these strands of the Biblical witness combine to convince me that both we and our relationships as Christians will transcend death. We will be with our loved ones, our faithful departed, again. And for me, the exclamation point for this conclusion of faith is that story about the good thief in Luke’s account of Christ’s crucifixion that read as we began. “Remember me,” he begged Jesus in their dying throes, “when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus answered, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” “You” and “me” – this tells me that our individuality will continue. “You with me” – this tells me that our relationships will be preserved.

I’m old enough now to have crossed that mysterious line when I have just as many family members and dear friends on the other side of death as I have here on this side. Some of my most important people are over there now. I love them deeply. I miss them terribly. And from the depths of those feelings I suppose that it would be easy for me to project a belief in the continuity of personality and relationship after death because I so want it to be true. But, without denying these feelings and desires, I can honestly say that my confident hope in a heavenly reunion is at least as much a matter of what I find in the Bible as it is a matter of what I find in my heart.

Philipp Nicolai was a German Lutheran pastor in the 16th century who had to bury 1300 members of his congregation – men, women, and children – who died in the days of the plague. This pastoral circumstance forced Pastor Nicolai to think deep, and long, and hard about what becomes of us and our relationships when we die. And what he finally concluded, based on his own thoughtful and prayerful search of the Scriptures, was that what awaits us as Christians is in fact a heavenly reunion. He wrote –

…Parents and children, husbands and wives, bridegrooms and bides, brothers and sisters, neighbors, relatives and friends… will be reunited in heaven and they will love each other with an ardent cordial love that is a thousand times stronger, and with an embrace that is far more friendly than any that might be imagined here in this world… (paraphrased)

Is this right? My heart tells me “yes,” and I believe, so does my Bible. DBS +

 

 

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“Which Gospel?”

The Competing Versions that Vie for our Attention

tug of war

On Sunday, July 23, 2017, I had the privilege of preaching and teaching at the First Christian Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, as one of the guest presenters in their Summer Series. I was asked to reflect with them on how we as Disciples characteristically use the Bible. In the Forum I talked about Alexander Campbell’s “dispensational” way of reading the Bible and how the “canon within the canon” that it created for us as a church has not always serve us well.  And in worship I brought this message about the importance of embracing a “whole” Gospel.  DBS + _________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When Matt Chandler was just getting started as the lead pastor of the Village Church, he says that he kept hearing the same thing from the people who were being baptized. “I grew up in church,” they’d say.  “I went to church every Sunday… got baptized when I was 8, or 10, or 12, or whatever… I attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Youth Groups, went to Summer camps and conferences.  And then I just sort of drifted away until somebody invited me to The Village and I heard the Gospel for the very first time in my life, and it blew me away.”  And Matt says that when he heard people saying things like this that he didn’t believe them.

“How can you grow up going to church every Sunday and not hear the Gospel?” Matt wondered, and so he concluded that these people must have heard the Gospel before getting to the Village, but that they just didn’t have the spiritual ears to be able to truly “hear” it. So Matt said that he began talking with all of these new people who were getting baptized at the Village Church to hear their stories and to confirm his hypothesis.  He asked them to show him their Bibles from those days and any notes from any teachings or sermons that they might have heard.  And Matt says that while some of them did fit his theory, the vast majority of them did not.  Many of them had in fact grown up going to church every Sunday and had never heard the Gospel.  Of course, that begs the question: “What is the Gospel?”

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that knowing what the Gospel is, and being able to distinguish it from the other Biblical Word that God speaks to us – the Law – is the essential Christian distinction. Simplistically put, when you hear Scripture saying – “This is what you must do” – what you’re hearing is the Law.  And when you hear Scripture saying – “This is what God has already done for you” – what you’re hearing is the Gospel, and this is what Matt Chandler says that the people who were coming to the Village Church had never heard before.  They’d never heard anything about what God had done for them in Jesus Christ, but instead they had been fed a steady diet of sermons that urged them to nod at God, do good, be happy, and try harder.  Jesus was never offered to them as a Savior but rather as a life coach. With more information and a little motivation, they could be successful at life. The focus was not on forgiveness and eternal life, but rather on how people could live the best life possible right now, personally and socially.  The crisis in the church today, Matt concludes, is a crisis of the Gospel.  There are competing versions of it vying for our attention.

The first version says that Christianity is about the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced was breaking into this world through Him. This is the version of the Gospel that Christians in the mainline church typically prefer.  The Gospel is about justice; it’s about setting things right in this world.  It’s about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s about making life better for people right here and right now.  It’s about hungry people being fed, and sick people getting better, and oppressed people being set free, and marginalized people being welcomed in.  These are “red letter” Christians, those Christians who say that what they are paying attention to most are all of the things that Jesus actually said.

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 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
 competing versions of it vying for our attention.

Luke 4:18-19

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The second version of the Gospel that other Christians embrace says that it is about the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation that Christ’s death, burial and resurrection provides. This is the version that Evangelical Christians like those at the Village Church in Dallas prefer. The Gospel is about justification; it’s about getting right with God.  It’s about being saved from sin, and death, and darkness, and being saved to newness of life now, and to the promise of eternal life when we die.  These are “black letter” Christians, those Christians who say that what they are paying attention to what it was that Jesus Christ did, and to what the rest of the New Testament tells us that it means.

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 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

 Romans 5:1-5 _________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The way that many have framed this struggle to define the Gospel today, this tug-of-war between the “Social Gospel” of mainline churches, and the “Soul Gospel” of Evangelical churches, is to talk about it as a fight between Jesus and Paul.  Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, and Paul turned it into a conversation about the church, it’s said.  The simple religion of imitating Jesus who just went about doing good in this world became a complicated religion about having to believe in Jesus for eternal salvation in the hands of Paul, it’s argued.  And the assumption here is that there is this fundamental and irreconcilable difference between what we find in the Gospels of the New Testament and what we find in the Epistles of the New Testament.  But I’m not so sure that this is a safe assumption.

Take, for example, Jesus’ familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke chapter 15, and lay it side-by-side with one of the great summaries of the Gospel that Paul preached in Ephesians chapter 2. It was the Jesuit Bible Scholar David Stanley who pointed out that there are “striking resemblances” between the summary of the Gospel in Ephesians 2 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 (The Jerome Biblical Commentary – 345).

  • Ephesians 2:13 – “You who were once afar off have been brought near.”
  • Luke 15:15 – The son goes to a far-off country.
  • Ephesians 2:4 – “God the Father rich in mercy.”
  • Luke 15:20 – “His father saw him and was moved with compassion and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him.”
  • Ephesians 2:1 – “When you were dead… he made alive.”
  • Luke 15:24; 32 – “He was dead, and has come back to life again; he was lost, and is found.”

And David Stanley concluded, “It would seem that the theology of Luke 2 gets expressed in story form in Luke 15.” And so, while some Christians want to frame the Gospel through the category of justice based on their reading of the “red letters” of the New Testament, and while other Christians  want to frame the Gospel through the category of justification based on their reading of the “black letters” of the New Testament, there have got to be some Christians somewhere who insist that the Biblical Gospel is not properly framed by the categories of justice and justification alone, but only by the category of Jesus, and to get Jesus we need both the New Testament’s red letters and its black letters (Scott McKnight).

While some Christians insist on a “social” Gospel, and other Christians insist on a “soul” Gospel, there have just got to be some Christians who insist on the “whole” Gospel, and I can’t help but think that we who are Disciples ought be those Christians, after all, our denominational identity statement says that we are “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world,” that “part of the one body of Christ” that “welcomes all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” Look closely at this statement, listen carefully to what it’s saying, and I think that what you’ll see is justice and justification coming together in Jesus.  The Social Gospel and the Soul Gospel sit down across from each other at the Lord’s Table and become a Whole Gospel.

Richard Lischer is the Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School. A number of years ago his church was building a brand new sanctuary, and the architect approached the board one day with a question. “What do you want for the space’s central appointment,” he asked, “an altar or a table?” Most churches these days, Dr. Lischer points out, want tables — welcome tables — not altars in their sanctuaries, and for good reasons.

At the table there is the coziness of family relationships. One belongs at the table. Only for the most heinous of crimes is the child sent from the table. There, at table, one has direct access to the parent. …At table there is bread, wine and conviviality.

The inclusiveness of this Table symbolism appeals to “red letter” Christians.  It bears powerful witness to the meals of Jesus in the days of His public ministry and to the way that He deliberately sat down to eat with people His religious culture was consciously spurning.   Our heritage of open communion as Disciples, of having a Table to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcomed, is pretty close to the heart of who we are and what we do as a people.   And Dr. Lischer doesn’t disagree.

Although he is a Lutheran, Dr. Lischer is just as much as advocate of working for wholeness in a fragmented world as we are, and he is someone who wants to welcome all to the Lord’s Table just as much as we do as Disciples.  But Dr. Lischer is also concerned about the way that we are “shielded from origins.” “As an experiment, [he suggests] ask a child this question: “Where does that slice of bread on your sandwich come from?” And he says that they will likely say “from the store” and know nothing about the farm or farmers, nothing about a bakery or a baker.  That’s what it mean to be “shielded from origins,” and when it happens in church, what we get are communion services without the cross. What we get is a welcome to the Lord’s Table without any reference to how it is that God has actually welcomed us in Christ.  Bread gets broken without anything being said about how it is a sign of Christ’s body broken for us; a cup gets poured without anything being said about how it a sign of Christ’s blood poured out for the forgiveness of our sins.  We wind up where theologian H. Richard Niebuhr a generation ago feared we were heading, to a Christianity of “A God without wrath who brings men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

And so, when that architect asked Dr. Lischer’s church what it was that they wanted in their sanctuary, they finally told them. Make it a table — but make it a very substantial one.”  And Dr. Lischer explains –

Most churches today have tables… as the setting for their sacramental meals without remembering all that lay behind it. …But our theological instincts told us that that there is [in fact] something big and powerful behind the table… …[We understood that] our table-oriented family relationships in the church was only possible because behind the table, visible to the eyes of faith, there is the outline of something more substantial and more terrible… The table from which we receive the bread and wine is possible only because once, for all people, there was an altar on which God’s Son was sacrificed. … The table does not create the altar; the altar creates the table…

 You see, it’s not the altar or the table, it’s the altar and the table. It’s not Jesus or Paul, it’s Jesus and Paul. It’s not just the red letters or black letters of the New Testament, it’s both the red letters and the black letters of the New Testament.  It’s not a social Gospel or a soul Gospel, it’s a social Gospel and a soul Gospel – a whole Gospel. It’s not justice or justification, it’s Jesus.

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“Get Woke!”

“Sleeper, awake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
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Ephesians 5:14

 asleep

While some people are too grown-up to take themselves too seriously to engage with slang terms, the Oxford English Dictionary has officially added the word “woke” to its pages. It’s defined as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”, or (more broadly) politically and culturally aware. …The roots of the word date back.  Fiona McPherson of the Oxford English Dictionary told Dazed Digital that ‘woke’, with its current meaning, has a history in Black American slang that dates back to the 60s. …Wokeness is an ongoing process, I think, even for the very woke. …Discussions about the porous boundaries between becoming woke, being woke, staying woke, being selectively woke, not being woke enough – need to happen. …There’s substance enough here (in the word and concept of woke) to unpack the complexities of what it means to live deliberately as a culturally/politically aware person. New, evolving language is what makes this possible.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________ http://www.marieclaire.co.za/latest-news/woke-added-to-the-oxford-english-dictionary

You, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;  for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

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I Thessalonians 5:4-10

 cross
Surprising seasons of special spiritual sensitivity and heightened spiritual receptivity in the life and ministry of a church are sometimes called “revivals.” Our church – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – was actually born during just such a time (see: “Revival at Cane Ridge” – Mark Galli – http://www.christianitytoday.com). Another word that has been used to describe these times when God’s presence, power and provision are especially “thick” is “awakenings.”

The slang phrase “stay woke” that has just been added to the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary is used to describe someone who has become socially and politically aware. “Awakenings” is a word that describes a time in the life of the church when this same thing has happened to people spiritually.  They have become aware, and this is an idea that goes all the way back to the pages of the New Testament.

sleepI have an icon of the sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane hanging on a wall in my office that I look at every Sunday morning as I head down the hall to preach, teach and minister to my people. I deliberately put it there to tell me that I must be spiritually “woke” myself, and to remind me of the challenge that I face every single day as a local church pastor – spiritual sleepiness. “Could you not stay awake with me for even just one hour?” Jesus asked his disciples, and this torpor is the steady state of most of the churches and Christians that I know, and based on what Paul told the Thessalonian Christians in the first century, it seems that it always has been.

Richard Lovelace, an American church historian who has written extensively about spiritual awakenings, observes that “only a small fraction” of the Christians he knows, or for that matter, “only a small faction” of all the all Christians who have ever lived have “solidly appropriated the justifying work of Christ in their lives.” At best, he said that most of us have only what might be called “a theoretical commitment” to Christ, and it is from this lethargy that we must stirred.  We need to “get woke.

kellerA sleepy Christian may believe that they’re a Christian, but they don’t have a real sense of God’s holiness, their own sin, or the depth of his grace. They may be a moralist or a relativist, or living inconsistent lives. Nominal Christians may be going to church, but have never really been convicted of sin or received salvation personally. (Tim Keller @ https://www.redeemercitytocity.com) –

The question is how?
How are sleepy Christians awakened?

William Perkins (1558-1602) was a Puritan theologian and pastor who believed that the two primary instruments that God uses to stir us from our spiritual slumber are a sustained exposure to “the ministry of the Word” and the “Providences” – “some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God.” To “get woke” spiritually we first of all need to know what it is that God promises and provides for us by His grace, and second, we need to know our own desperate need for what it is that God promises and provides by His grace.

This spiritual dynamic was captured nicely by the title of Reuel Howe’s 1949 book Man’s Need and God’s Action.  Awakenings, personal and corporate, occur at this intersection. Where our deepest felt needs and God’s saving actions touch, people get stirred from their spiritual slumber and it will begin to show in their interests and concerns. Again, Tim Keller writes helpfully –

Let me give you what I would call my modernized American versions of the kinds of questions I would ask people if I was trying to get them to really think about whether or not they know Christ. These questions are adapted from The Experience Meeting by William Williams, based on the Welsh revivals during the Great Awakening. He would ask people to share about these types of questions in small group settings each week:

  • How real has God been to your heart this week?
  • How clear and vivid is your assurance and certainty of God’s forgiveness and fatherly love?
  • To what degree is that real to you right now?
  • Are you having any particular seasons of delight in God?
  • Do you really sense his presence in your life, sense him giving you his love?
  • Have you been finding Scripture to be alive and active?
  • Instead of just being a book, do you feel like Scripture is coming after you?
  • Are you finding certain biblical promises extremely precious and encouraging?
  • Which ones?
  • Are you finding God’s challenging you or calling you to something through the Word?
  • In what ways?
  • Are you finding God’s grace more glorious and moving now than you have in the past?
  • Are you conscious of a growing sense of the evil of your heart, and in response, a growing dependence on and grasp of the preciousness of the mercy of God?

I like these questions. As a “Justification Gospeler,” to use Scott McKinght’s language (https://bensonian.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/three-ways-of-framing-the-gospel-justice-justification-or-jesus/), they push and poke in all the right areas when you are concerned about being, or becoming, or staying spiritually awakened. But despite my decidedly “Justification Gospeler” commitments and inclinations, my desire for the “whole Gospel” and not just a “Soul Gospel” (again, thank-you Scott McKnight for the categories of my thinking) pushes me to frame some additional questions from the “Justice Gospeler” perspective that I believe would also challenge people “to really think about whether or not they know Christ.”

  • Are you washing anybody’s feet?
  • Are you as concerned about the interests of others as you are concerned about your own interests?
  • Do you prefer others in love?
  • Do you show mercy and prove neighborly to those who have fallen among the thieves?
  • Do you visit orphans and widows in their affliction?
  • Do you feed the hungry?
  • Do you give drink to the thirsty?
  • Do you welcome the stranger?
  • Do you clothe the naked?
  • Do you visit the sick?
  • Do you bring good news to the poor?
  • Do you proclaim release to the captives?
  • Do you recover the sight of the blind?
  • Do you set at liberty those who are oppressed?

Awakened people belong to the day. Awakened people walk in the light. And just one awakened person in a congregation can be the instrument of renewal that God uses to awaken the whole church. They shine and bring light to the whole house. Will that be you?  DBS +

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An Open Letter to the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

circlechalice

Dear Rev. Owens,

The news of your election as our new General Minister and President is a source of great pride and true joy for us as a church. When we voted to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church many General Assembles ago, it was with a day like this one in mind.

Of course, the election of an African American woman to this office does not signal the end of racism or diminish the hard work of reconciliation that remains for us to do as a church any more than the election of an African American man to the highest office in our land nine years ago signaled the end of racism or completed the work of reconciliation in our national life. And so, while not viewing your election as a panacea, I am nevertheless celebrating it as an important milestone in the life of our beloved community of faith where there cannot be gender, ethnic, social, economic, political, racial, generational, or sexual orientation distinctions between us because “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

I know that the challenges you will face as the leader of our denomination in the coming days will demand of you great wisdom and grace. I suspect that you are getting lots and lots of advice from every quarter right now about how best to guide us into God’s future for us as a church.  With all of these voices speaking to you at the same time, I imagine that it’s all just a little bit confusing and overwhelming.  Nevertheless, I believe that this is a good thing because it’s evidence of the great passion that so many of us feel for this church of ours.  So, allow me add my voice to that cacophony.

I believe that one of your most crucial tasks in the coming days will be to represent the whole church, to be a visible and vocal point of unity for all of us who call ourselves Disciples.   We talk about wanting to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world as a church, and I believe that what we are going to need you to be as our next General Minister and President is an embodiment of that same kind of wholeness for a fragmenting church.

Scott McKnight has written much about the struggle in the church these days over the meaning of the Gospel. There has been much said among Disciples in recent years about how the Gospel must be framed through the category of justice – the transformation of society by the values of the Kingdom.   But there are other Disciples, people like me, who believe that the Gospel is more properly framed by the category of justification – the transformation of individuals through the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which in turn makes us agents of God’s just transformation of society as a fruit of that justification.   The “justice gospelers” among Disciples know that there’s room for them in this church because they’ve heard their perspective publicly and frequently affirmed by Indianapolis.  What those of us who are “justification gospelers” among the Disciples really need to hear from you Rev. Owens, is that your vision of our church includes us too.   We need to know that you know that we’re here, and this is where Scott McKnight’s counsel might just be the most helpful thing for all of us to hear right now. He says –

“There are three’ J’s’ in the gospel debate. The right ‘J’ is Jesus. If you preach Jesus as the gospel you will get both justification and justice. If you preach justification you may get Jesus (but I see only some of Jesus and not the whole of Jesus) and you may get some justice (I’m skeptical on this one). If you preach justice you may get some justification (but I’m skeptical on enough justice ‘gospelers’ ever getting to justification) and you get Jesus, but again only some of Jesus (often only his teachings, his life, and his life as an example). If you preach the Jesus of Paul’s gospel (1 Corinthians 15) or the apostolic sermons in Acts or the gospel of the Gospels, you get all of Jesus and all of Jesus creates both justice and justification.”

So, talk about Jesus, Dr. Owens.   That’s my counsel to you in these exciting days as you begin your new ministry among us as our General Minister and President.  Talk about Jesus clearly.  Talk about Jesus often.  Talk about Jesus from Scripture and your heart.   For when you talk about Jesus I believe that both justice and justification will be served, and we will be about the work of the Great Commission that He has given us to do as a church – to preach the Gospel (justification) and to teach all that He has commanded (justice) – and thus, truly be His disciples.

Rev. Owens, I am looking to you to lead, and I am praying for you as you begin. DBS +

                                                                                                           

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Seven Reasons Why I think the Disciples of Christ Are Right

It is General Assembly week for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).   We are so focused on our congregational life and mission here at Northway that I fear that it is sometimes easy for us to miss the life and mission of the larger church, the General Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.  What follows here is part of a keynote address that I presented for a leadership training event in the Northeast Area of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region back in 2004.   What I say here was true for me in 2004, and it is still true for me today in 2017.

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chaliceBack in the 1920’s and 30’s a series of books called New Testament Christianity were privately published and freely distributed to the ministers of our churches.  It was our church’s version of The Fundamentals that were published at just about the same time and for exactly the same reason – to keep the church faithful to its historic convictions.

In the second volume of New Testament Christianity there is an essay by H.T. Morrison entitled “Twelve Reasons Why Disciple of Christ Are Right.” Now, that particular essay from 1926 doesn’t wear especially well today.  Its style is a tad bit more confrontational and its author a wee bit more argumentative than I am personally comfortable with being, but I sure don’t object to the concept.

If we didn’t think that we’re right about some things as a church, then why on earth, or should I say, why in the name of heaven, would we want to be Disciples of Christ?  I don’t know about you, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to be, or remain, part of a church that I thought was fundamentally wrong on the basic questions of faith.  So, what are some of the reasons why I think that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is right?

Well, here are seven of them –

  • First of all, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about having no creed but Christ.  As a church we’ve put all of our theological eggs in just one basket, and I think that’s proper. We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and we relate to Him personally as our Lord and Savior. Ours is a decidedly Christ-centered faith; of Him we’re passionately certain, and everything else flows from that basic commitment. I think that’s right.  

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  • Second, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the authority of the Bible. We’re not much interested as a church in a debate about alternate doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture. Don’t tell me about how you think the Bible got inspired; instead show me what you’re prepared to do with what the Bible actually teaches.   Our founders changed their settled convictions about the proper form and candidates for baptism once they got better clarity about what the Bible taught. Many of us in our lifetimes have changed our view on place of women in Christian ministry by reading the Bible more carefully. And our changing perspectives about human sexuality are being driven not by a neglect of Scripture as a church, but rather by a more careful reading of the Scriptures. This practical approach to the authority of Scripture serves us well as a church. We want to be doers of the Word. I think that’s right

 

  • Third, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the Gospel Ordinances – Baptism by immersion and weekly Lord’s Supper. When somebody voiced a desire to have a deeper experience of God’s grace and Christ’s presence, our church’s founders always sent them to the gospel ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They thought that it was spiritually silly for a Christian to think that he or she could be spiritually vital apart from the means of grace that Christ Himself instituted for our spiritual well-being. And nothing’s changed. Ours is a vital spirituality firmly rooted and grounded in the Gospel ordinances. I think that’s right.

 

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  • Fourth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the unity of the church. The late Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer used to say that Christian unity is the “final apologetic” of the Gospel. Jesus Christ gave the world the right to examine the love of Christians and the unity of the church as the evidence of the truth of the Gospel. The church’s witness to the unconditional love of God simply has no credibility when we can’t get along with or won’t cooperate with our brothers and sisters in other churches. We call the disunity of the church a sin. I think that’s right.

 

  • Fifth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ. As Disciples we cherish the freedom that we have to search the Scriptures for ourselves and to arrive at our own settled convictions without the overbearing interference of others. As individual Christians and congregations we want to be able to work out our life of faithfulness under the Lordship of Christ and in response to the guidance of the Word and Spirit. And this right that we claim for ourselves, we are in turn required to accord to others. In my relationship with you, I must begin with the assumption that you are just as committed to Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as concerned as I am about being faithful to Him. This community of faith is not created or maintained by an authoritarian insistence upon conformity in doctrine or morality, but in our common commitment to listen carefully to Jesus. I think that’s right.

 

  • Sixth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about not forcing a choice between the church’s spiritual mission of witness and the social mission of service. Evangelism and justice are twin mandates of Christ’s church. We are commanded to preach Christ and to feed the hungry; to make disciples and to shelter the homeless; to teach everything that Christ commanded and to tend to the sick; to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to work for the liberation of the oppressed.   Like “the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird” or the two pedals of a bike, Christ’s Church has two mandates. We are called to save souls and to serve society. We refuse to choose between them as a church, and I think that’s right.

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  • And finally I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the ministry of every believer. There is nothing that I am qualified or required to do as a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that you are not qualified and required to do as a member as well, and that’s Biblical. I can baptize; you can baptize. I can preach; you can preach. I can preside at the Table; you can preside at the Table. I can lead a person to Christ; you can lead a person to Christ. We believe that Christian ministry has been placed in the hands of every believer. You were ordained in the waters of baptism and equipped for ministry when you were filled with the Holy Spirit. Part of God’s eternal purpose has been entrusted to you. Each one of us has a place in the ministry of the church. And I think that’s right.

You don’t have to agree with me about what appears on my list, that’s what the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ means. But then again, you’d better have a list of your own, or start working on one, because that’s a big part of the responsibility of being a Disciple.   It was Socrates who said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” And I would argue that an unexamined church is not worth joining.   If you conclude that the Disciples are wrong, then, for conscience sake, you need to find a church that you think is right. And if you conclude that the Disciples are right, then you need to start acting like it — get excited, talk about it, and be prepared to make some sacrifices for it. And if you just don’t know, then isn’t it time to start figuring it out for yourself?   DBS +

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“They’re Both True”

“They’re Both True” | A Fourth of July Sermon
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A while back I watched a PBS special about the Tony award winning Broadway Musical – “Hamilton.”   For some reason I find myself really interested in Broadway Musicals these days.  My favorite part of this particular special were the interviews with the actors, most of them people of color, who play the roles of our Founding Fathers, people who were mostly white, and slave-owners to boot.  At one point in the special, the actors were taken to some of the historical sites where the story that they dance and sing on stage each night actually took place.  At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia home, standing in what would have been the slave quarters of the Father of our Country, the actors were asked to reflect on their feelings about being there.

George Washington became a slave owner when he was just 11 years old and his father died leaving him ten slaves.   When he died 56 years later, George Washington owned 317 slaves.  And he wasn’t unique in this.  At least half of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners.  Slavery was America’s Original Sin, that and the wholesale extermination of the America’s original residents.

Playing people who were responsible for doing such things on stage, those “Hamilton” actors confessed to being awed by the nobility, heroism, and genius of these historic figures.  But as people of color, they also admitted to feeling deep in their bones the ugliness, the ignorance and the evil to which these historical figures were culpably blind and willing perpetrators.  “So, how do you reconcile this?” the interviewer of the Hamilton cast in this PBS special kept asking the actors who play the parts of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr.  And their response was simple, direct, and spiritually profound – “They’re both true”  – they said.

The picture at the top of this posting is part of the glorious antiseptic version of American history that I was taught in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s at Glenoaks Elementary School in Glendale, California. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were all presented to us as flawless giants of virtue and vision.  They were uniformly noble and moral.  No shadow on their lives was ever seen.  No flaw in their character was ever discussed.   No contradiction of their values was ever exposed.

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In the dome of the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. there is a  fresco called “The Apotheosis of Washington.”  It shows our first President ascending into the heavens and sitting in an exalted state, draped in royal purple, a rainbow arch at his feet, flanked by the goddess Victoria to his left and the goddess Liberty to his right.  The word “apotheosis” literally means the elevation of someone to divine status.” And that’s how I was taught American history as a kid.  Our founders were transcendent heroes to be revered.

Today the pendulum has swung wildly in the opposite direction, and our tendency is to criticize and condemn them.  Their flaws have been fully revealed.  Their failures have been thoroughly exposed.  Their contributions have been minimized, and in some cases entirely dismissed,  because they believed things and did things that we now find – and rightly so – morally and socially repugnant.  The knowledge that they were all products of their times who suffered from all of the limitations of their age has left some of us unable to find any good in them at all.   The discovery that they were very real human beings with the same jumble of wisdom and stupidity that afflicts us still has contributed to the widespread desire to pull them down from their pedestals.

Recently Walter Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, has voiced his deep concern about what he calls the attempts to “rewrite American history” that he says he sees happening all around him today.

 Slavery is an undeniable fact of our history. So is the costly war fought to end it.  Neither can be denied.  Neither can be ignored.  Neither will go away through cultural cleansing… Removing statues and renaming buildings will not change the past.

But why would we want to change our knowledge of the the past?  As Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the British Statesman and Philosopher said – “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”  Neither the distortion of blind adulation nor the destruction of unrelenting criticism serves us well when looking at the past and its people.  I need neither worship nor devastate those who have come before.  There was greatness in our Founders, to be sure, and depravity, without a doubt, just as there is greatness in us too, in you and me, and a healthy dose of depravity as well.  Let go of either of these twin truths about our humanity, and you’ll wind up in the ditch of romanticism on the one side of the road, or in the ditch of despair on the other.  To keep the car in the middle of this road you’ve got to keep a steady eye on both the potential for greatness that resides in our being human, and on the reality of the misery and miserableness that is just as much a part of our being human.

Blog_Image3_7.3I remember an exchange that Randall Balmer had with Doug Frank at the Oregon Extension of Trinity College on his “journey into the Christian subculture of America” narrated in his 1989 book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (Oxford).  Doug Frank referenced the exclusionary tendencies of  those of us who are Christians to draw lines and make judgements about the spiritual condition of others.  He said –

 We put ourselves on the good side of that line and figure out who’s on the bad, so that we can take our shots across the line and justify ourselves.

Then he contrasted this way of thinking with what he found in the New Testament, concluding –

I’m to the point now when I know when I am in the presence of bad theology when I hear that line being drawn.  When I hear that line being drawn, I know that I’m not in the presence of the Gospel. … The Gospel says we’re all sinners, but God loves us anyway.

Instead of lines being drawn that divide us into good and bad categories, Doug Frank Blog_Image4_7.3argued that what we probably should be drawing instead is a great big circle that takes us all in as sinners, and that positions us all squarely under the umbrella if God’s grace.  And this is precisely what I see Jesus doing in the familiar story of the woman taken in adultery that only the Gospel of John tells  (John 8:1-11).  The Pharisees drew a line.  Jesus drew a circle.  The Pharisees wanted to exclude the sinner. Jesus wanted to forgive the sin.  The Pharisees saw the situation in terms of right or wrong, good or bad, in or out.   Jesus looked at the women, and at her accusers, and what He saw instead was what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther would much later call – “Simul justus et peccator” – the fact that we human beings are “simultaneously just or righteous, and sinful or pitiful.”  From the perspective of Reformation theology, the cast of “Hamilton” got it exactly right when they looked at the nobility of the ideals of our national founders and at the depravity of their actions as slave owners, and concluded that “they’re both true.” 

This is the kind of realism that needs to characterize the way that we as Christians both think about ourselves and look at others. The Bible harbors no illusions about human nature. It names both our potential for greatness and our capacity for corruption quite clearly.  The trick, it seems to me, is hanging onto these two parts of ourselves as human beings at the same time.

Blog_Image5_7.3Let go of our capacity for corruption and our potential for greatness inflates beyond all bounds and become a judgmental kind of perfectionism.  Francis Schaeffer in his sermon “The Weakness of God’s Servants” talked about the cruelty of perfectionism and the way that it shatters our relationships.  If you have to be perfect, then when I discover that you’re not, my relationship is going to wobble and maybe even crash.  Francis Schaeffer saw it clearly –

In the home, in the man/woman relationship, nothing is crueler than for the wife or the husband to build up a false image in his or her mind and then demand that the husband or wife measure up…

When a parent demands more from his child than the child is capable of giving, the parent destroys the child as well as alienating the child.  But the child can also expect too much of parents… And because the parent does not measure up to the child’s conception of perfection, the child smashes the parent…

How many pastors have been smashed because their people have expected them to live up to an impossible ideal?  And how many congregations have been injured by pastors who forgot that the people in their churches could not be expected to be perfect?

And how has our citizenship suffered when it dawns in us that our Founders weren’t perfect and that our embodiment of their noble national vision of justice and liberty for all has only been partially realized even in our own day?

“Bible-believing Christians should never have the reaction designated by the term ‘shocked’” Francis Schaeffer once explained.  “There is a type of Christian,” he said, “who constantly draws himself or herself up and declares, ‘I’m shocked’ and acts completely surprised when somebody actively demonstrates that they’re a sinner.”  “But we’re all sinners,” he said, “and we don’t need to look beyond ourselves to know this.”  But we also don’t need to look beyond ourselves to know that we are capable of greatness too, and so we must not let go of that impulse either.

Sin is serious business and we must never minimize that… but we must have compassion for each other, too… The realism of the Bible is that God does not excuse sin, but neither is God finished with us when He finds sin in us.

“They’re both true.” 

 That’s what the actors in “Hamilton” – almost all of them people of color – said when it was pointed out in that PBS special that the genius and courage of the historical characters they are immortalizing on stage were all deeply flawed individuals as well.  They refused to excuse the darkness that they found in them, even as they couldn’t ignore the nobility of what it was that they attempted and actually, if imperfectly, accomplished.  So look again at that picture of George Washington at the top of this posting.  We need neither deify nor demonize him.  See his moral greatness as the Father of this country.  Then see his great moral failing as a slave owner.  See that contradiction, and then see me, and see yourself, and see everyone you know and love.

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Jesus said “you without sin can cast the first stone,” and “go and sin no more” in the story of the woman taken in adultery. And it is only as we come to terms with both of these things that Christ said, one about our corruption and the other one about our genuine capacity for greatness, that we will understand the struggle that is in in our hearts, and the grace that is in His.  DBS +

 

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I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth…

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I spent last week with a group of 9th graders at camp teaching them about the God who made us in His image, who sought us in Christ when we went astray, and who wants to be in a conversational relationship with us every single day.  And this week I will play the role of the Apostle Paul in chains in a Roman jail cell at our church’s annual Vacation Bible School where I will get to tell the story of God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ no matter our circumstances to all the children who are there.

In both cases, I know that I am playing the long game.

There will likely be no immediate measurable results from the time and effort put into these two demanding weeks of ministry.  Peter preached one sermon on the day of Pentecost and saw 3,000 people repent, believe and get baptized as the result.   I will put in hours of preparation and expend tremendous amounts of energy in presentation during weeks of ministry like these, and only rarely do I see the needle of faith move appreciably in anybody’s life as a direct result.  Still, I consider weeks like these to be some of the most important of the year.  And that’s because I know that most of the work that I do as a minister is hidden, and only unfolds over time.  As Paul told the Corinthians (I Corinthians 3:6) – I plant, others water, and still others harvest.  Rarely does the same person get to do all three.

Oh, there have been seasons of return and stretches of quantifiable growth in my 40+ Blog_June_26_2years of ministry, to be sure, but never the Acts chapter 2 result of “3,000 souls on one day,” or anything ever even close to it.  No, my experience has been much more in line with what Ole Hallesby (1879 – 1961), the influential Norwegian Lutheran theologian from the last generation described in his lecture “How Can the Word of God Be Preached so as to Result in Awakening and Conversion?” delivered at an annual conference of “The Brotherhood of Pastors Faithful to the Confessions” in Norway.

It is generally conceded to be an incontrovertible fact that there has been, and is, very little spiritual awakening as a result …of the preaching of the ministers of Norway… who on the whole are both capable and conscientious… This raises the serious question: why has there been so little spiritual awakening resulting from this ministerial preaching?  …I would not hereby seek to disparage in the least the solid and faithful inspirational and educational work done by our pastors, and least of all would I hereby seek to add a single stone to their burdens—already difficult and heavy enough to bear. Nor am I forgetting that a believing pastor in many ways does the preparatory work for many a spiritual awakening which God calls into being and leads through others.  And I know, of course, that a believing pastor now and then is also permitted to lead individuals to conscious life in God.   … But, I can get no peace until I have brought this question into the foreground because it burns within my soul – If we desire spiritual awakenings, if we pray for such awakenings, if there is a cry in the souls of our pastors for spiritual awakenings, why then cannot God make use of us to bring them about?

Blog_June_26_3There is a mystery involved in soul work.  Jesus said so Himself in His Parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29) –

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,  and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.

All we can do is plant the seed.  It sprouts and grows all on its own, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. And then there’s the harvest.  Summer camp and Vacation Bible School are exercises in seed planting not harvesting.  My task in these settings is to sow the seed of the Word in the heads and hearts of the young so that it can eventually have its effect –

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,   and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;  it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,  and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The seed that I sow will grow to a harvest that I myself will likely not see.  I plant the seed, somebody else will harvest the crop, and I’ve got to trust the process.  Al Mohler has written about the peculiar strain and stress that all of this creates in ministers –

We who are pastors have a certain product envy. We envy those who build houses or sell cars or build great corporations or assemble automobiles, or merely those who cut the grass. Why? It is because they have something tangible to show for their labor at the end of the day. They may be fastening widgets and assembling automobiles, or they may be putting things in boxes and sealing them up and sending them out, or they may be cutting the grass. They can see the product of their hands. A carpenter or an artist or a building contractor has something to which he can point. What about the preacher? The preacher is robbed of that satisfaction. We are not given the sight to see what we would like to see. As a matter of fact, it seems like we stand up and throw out words and wonder, “What in the world becomes of them? What happens from it? What after all, is our product, and where in the world can you see it?” Words, words, and more words. And then, we sometimes feel like we are flattering ourselves that people even remember what it was we had to say. We are chastened from even asking our own church members and fellow believers for the identity of our text halfway through the next week. Why? Because we are afraid that we will get that shocked look of anticipated response when a person of good intentions simply says, “That was a fine message. I don’t remember exactly what it was about, and I have a very vague recollection of something you may have said, but I want you to know it was powerful.” I think the Apostle Paul responds to this, at least somewhat, in verse 23 when he writes to the Colossians saying, “All of this is true, if indeed, you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.” Paul understood that it was possible to hear in vain and he hoped that it I was not true of this church — that their response to his preaching was not just a succession of nice accolades and respectful comments. Rather, we would like to have an assembly line of maturing Christians go out the door of the church, wherein we could at least see something and note some progress. We could statistically even mark what kind of impact this sermon had over against another. But, we do not have that sight; it is largely a hidden work in the human heart. Such a work will bear good fruit, but this will take time to be evident.

Blog_June_26_4So, bring on the kids!  I’ve got a story to tell, “a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light,” a story that has the power to change them, and through them, to change the world.  Just like the Trojan Horse, my only task this week is to get the story past their defenses of the “ennui” of our age, and get it deep inside them so that when they least expect it, the bottom of it can drop out and the power of its beauty and truth can seize and save them.  I probably won’t be there to see how the Christ story finally leads them to a Christ-decision that makes them Christ-like, but I know that it happens… because it happened to me.  DBS +

 

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