The Witness of the Moon: A Reflection on the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

“God is more glorious than the moon; he shines brighter than the stars.” (Job 25:5)

Where were you?

The weekend we landed on the moon I was on Catalina Island.  Every summer my paternal Grandmother and Aunt took my sisters and me to this little Southern California getaway 30 miles from Los Angeles out in the Pacific.  It was, and is, a magical place.  Saltwater taffy, abalone sandwiches, diving for coins tossed by people from the pier, the glass bottom boat, flying fish, the Wrigley Mansion, the “Big White Steamer,” the shops and the shopping. Catalina Island was one of my favorite places in the world when I was a kid.

The “Eagle,” the Lunar Module, landed on the surface of the moon early on Sunday afternoon (Pacific Daylight Time) July 20th just as we were heading back across the channel for home.  Neil Armstrong opened the hatch and climbed down the ladder onto the surface of the moon nearly seven hours later.  By that time, I was in the den with the whole family crowded around a black and white TV with “uncle” Walter Cronkite narrating the event.  My dad was an engineer who worked in the space program, in fact, there was piece of equipment on the “Eagle” that he had actually helped to develop.  He always said that was one of the proudest achievements of his career, and so, we felt like we had a personal stake in what was happening on the moon that day.  I remember experiencing it as a moment of family pride – pride as a member of the Skinner family, pride as a member of the American family, and pride as a member of the human family.

A Woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet

Before leaving Catalina that day for home 50 years ago, in one of the little gift shops that crowd the narrow streets along the beachfront in Avalon, I found a little figurine of Mary standing on the moon.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this is a potent Biblical symbol –

“And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery.” (Revelation12:1-2)

Here in the Southwest we’re all pretty familiar with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  In fact, the Dallas Catholic Cathedral is the “Santuario de la Virgen de Guadalupe,” and in its courtyard there is this big statue of Mary standing on a crescent moon. This moon is a standard part of the traditional iconography of the Virgin Mary in the Western Church, but I bought that little figurine of Mary standing on the moon the day we landed on the moon in 1969 completely unaware of its Biblical/Theological significance.  It just seemed to me to be an appropriate way to mark that historic moment.  That little figurine has long since gone missing, but my memory of it, and of the momentous occasion of its acquisition, has become a cherished one, and here on the 50th anniversary of that day of the first man on the moon, I’m thinking about it and its meaning.

The Moon in the Bible

References to the moon in the Bible fall into two general categories: literal and symbolic.  Genesis 1:16 announces the creation of the literal moon as “the lesser light to the rule the night,” and the creation of the sun, moon, and stars routinely get mentioned in Biblical texts that talk about God as the Creator.  They establish His mighty power and great wisdom (Job 38).  The literal moon in the Bible marks the “times and seasons” that are fixed by God’s authority.

“Thou hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.” (Psalm 104:19)

The lunar cycle was a standard way of setting dates in the ancient world.  For our spiritual parents, the Jews, the date for their most important holy day each year, Passover, was established by the keeping track of when the first full moon after the northern vernal equinox took place. 

Symbolically, the moon was viewed in Scripture as a witness to God, sometimes as a rival to the one, true, and living God, and as a consistent and cautionary sign of the times.”  Psalm 19 is the classic Biblical text for what’s known as “general revelation,” the way that God makes Himself known through the order of creation, and while this Psalm does not explicitly reference the moon, the moon is clearly implied in it when the Psalmist wrote –

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (19:1-4)

Theologically, the moon “talks about” two things – God and human beings. 

What the Moon “Says” about Us

Psalm 8 describes what the moon “says” about us as human beings –

“When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (8:3-4)

That sense of awe we feel in the presence of the magnitude and majesty of the universe when looking out into space on a dark night in a remote place is the feeling that the Psalmist was describing here.  It can accentuate our sense of cosmic smallness, feeling like a speck of dust in a vast universe. Stephen Crane, one of the great American novelists, wrote a poem that speaks for many –

“A man said to the universe: ‘Sir, I exist!’ ‘However,’ replied the universe, ‘That fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.’”

Biblically, the experience of looking at the heavens, at the work of God’s fingers, at the moon and the stars that God has established, while initially generating these feelings of insignificance, doesn’t leave us there.  Looking at the glory of the moon might make us legitimately wonder, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?”  But the Biblical witness is that the God who made those stars and that moon has made us just a “little less than” Himself, “crowned us with glory and honor,” and given us “dominion over the works of thy hands; putting all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:5-6).  This is an affirmation of the stewardship mandate of our Creator to be His “fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:4).  

After the creation of all that is, including the sun, moon, and stars, human beings, male and female, were given dominion over it and were told to subdue it (Genesis 1:24-30).   In the second creation story, after God made the earth and the heavens, the LORD God told His human being to “till and keep” creation (2:15).  The enormity of outer space and our audacity as human beings to think that we can explore its darkest corners and penetrate its deepest mysteries is hardwired into us.  It’s part of God’s image in us, and part of God’s mandate to us. The moon in the sky is a perpetual witness our God-given potential.

What the Moon “Tells” us about God

Psalm 137 explains what the moon “tells” us about God –

“[Give thanks] to him who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever; the sun to rule over the day, for his steadfast love endures forever; the moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (136:7-9)

Paul, in his first mission to the Gentiles (Acts 14), found a point of contact with his target audience by pointing to God’s faithfulness in the order of creation –

God did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (14:17)

When this idea “grew up,” it became part of Paul’s classic argument in Romans 1 –

“…what can be known about God is plain… because God has shown it…Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (1:19-20)

The roots of this idea go back to Old Testament texts like Psalm 136:7-9 in which the psalmist said that it was by watching the constancy and regularity of things in nature like the moon’s regular cycle of waxing and waning that helped him see and affirm the “steadfast love of God” – God’s unconditioned and unchanging commitment to us and care of us. The order and beauty of creation is not just a “proof” of the existence of God, as St. Thomas Aquinas so famously argued in the thirteenth century, but for God’s goodness as well, and this should easily elicit from us the response of praise.  As Psalm 148 puts it, our voices should join in the chorus of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” –

“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights…Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens… (148:1-4)

But we don’t, and Biblically this gets at the heart of our problem as human beings –

“Although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him…” (Romans 1:21)

We are forever “exchanging” our worship of the Creator God for the worship of created things  (Romans 1:23), and one of the things that was frequently worshiped in the ancient world were the planets.  Old Testament Law explicitly warned God’s first covenant people about “lifting up their eyes to heaven, seeing the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and being drawn away and worship them and serve them” (Deuteronomy 4:19).  This is a thought deeply imbedded in the soul of our Biblical parents, the Jews, and passed on to us as Christians by their spiritual DNA (John 4:22; Romans 11:18).

“There is a well-known Midrash that says that as a small child Abraham looked up at the sun and wondered if that could be the force which brought the world into existence. But then the sun set and the moon rose. Abraham likewise asked if the moon and stars could be the heavenly forces guiding the world. But then the night ended and the sun returned. In time, Abraham recognized that there must be a greater force which created and guided the beauty and harmony of creation. Perfect design implies a perfect Designer. Only an infinite God could have created a universe of such infinite beauty and precision.” (https://www.aish.com)

When the world’s rejection of God reaches its terminus resulting in final judgment, among the signs of its imminent approach that the Bible consistently describes is the darkening of the moon (Matthew 24:29; Acts 2:20; Revelation 6:12; 8:12).  If the constancy of the moon’s cycle bears witness to the steadfastness of God’s care and concern for us, then the disruption of that cycle warns us of an impending and disastrous change.

The Woman on the Moon

So, what about Revelation 12:1-2 and the image of that woman in the throes of childbirth, clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, and that fearsome red dragon just waiting to devour her child when born?  Trying to make sense of the vivid symbols of the book of Revelation can sometimes feel like a Rorschach test – what you see often says more about you than about the text.  One of the well-established keys to a proper understanding of what we find in the book of Revelation is to understand that John paints his verbal pictures with familiar colors drawn from the palette of the Old Testament.  The meaning of the word pictures found in the book of Revelation are often suggested by their previous appearances in Scripture, which is why many interpreters have found the key to understanding John’s vision in Revelation 12:1-2 in Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37:9-11 –

“Then he dreamed another dream, and told it to his brothers, and said, ‘Behold, I have dreamed another dream; and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, ‘What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?’ And his brothers were jealous of him…”

In Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37 the sun, moon, and stars represented his brothers bowing down to him.  This idea so offended them that they plotted to destroy Joseph intending to remove him from his role as a leading man in the story of God’s saving work.  And in John’s vision in Revelation 12 the woman who is clothed with the Sun, crowned with the stars, and who stands on the moon is bearing a child that the dragon must similarly destroy.  That child is the Christ, the promised Son of Israel who bears Him, embodied in the person of Mary. In Genesis chapter 37 Joseph was chosen to carry the promise that Revelation chapter 12 makes clear is the Christ who was born of Mary.  He is the radiance of God’s glory (Hebrews 1:3). Just like the moon reflecting the sun’s light, so Jesus reflects the glory of the Father (2 Corinthians 3:18), giving us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).  The final word picture in the book of Revelation brings this all into focus when the Kingdom has finally come, and John is shown a world where there will be no need for the sun or moon to shine upon it because “the glory of God will be its light, and the Lamb of God will be its lamp” (Revelation 21:22-23). 

“Their voice goes out…”

On this anniversary of our landing on the moon, as I gaze into the nighttime sky, I am listening to the witness of the moon, and what I hear is a word about God’s creation of the universe, and our place as human beings in it.  What I hear is a word about God’s constant care for every living thing, and about our duty as human beings to always praise and thanks Him.  What I hear is a word about how easy it is for our hearts to be turned as human beings from the glory of the Creator to the grandeur of the creation, and about the dire consequence of such idolatry. But most importantly, what I will hear is a word about how Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary and the promised Son of Israel, is the light who shines in the darkness, and about how the darkness will never overcome Him.

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (19:3-4)

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Back to Where I First Believed”

I’ve been “home” for a little over a month now.   After finishing a 21-year ministry at a church in Dallas, I immediately went down to a church in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas for a year’s interim ministry.  That ministry ended a month ago, and now I am home again.  There’s been a lot of settling in over these past few weeks, and one of the things that I’ve had to do – for the first time in a very long time – is to find a new church home. 

In this search, I stumbled across a church in the part of town where Mary Lynn and I live that has a service of Holy Communion every Wednesday at noon.  Lots of churches do this, but what makes this particular midweek service of Holy Communion so unique is that it uses the liturgy from the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  This is the Prayer Book that the church my family attended in Southern California used when I was growing up.  This was the very first vocabulary of my faith as a Christian and praying it again each Wednesday at noon these past few weeks has been a surprisingly life-giving and soul-satisfying experience for me. 

Andre Crouch, the late, great, Gospel music superstar, had a song that said –

“Take me back, take me back dear Lord, to the place where I first received you.                   Take me back, take me back dear Lord, to where I first believed.”

And this is exactly what those Wednesday Communion services each week at that church in my neighborhood have been doing for me.  They have been taking me back to the place where I first received Christ, back to when I first believed. 

I love the rich texture of the Elizabethan vocabulary of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the surprising turns of phrase in the liturgy that give me pause and make me think, and the feelings of deep peace and real joy that I feel every time I am on the familiar terrain of my soul’s native soil.  But those midweek Communion services are more than just a sentimental journey for me, an exercise in spiritual nostalgia, or the indulgence of my personal preferences, like pitchers batting in major league baseball and never under any circumstance putting pineapple on pizza.  But there is something much bigger to it than just this. 

It’s been said that Christianity solves a problem, and that it’s how you identify the problem that it solves that determines the kind of Christianity that you will wind up with.  In the introduction to his commentary on the book of Galatians, the late Leon Morris (a very fine Australian Evangelical New Testament scholar) pointed out that “how one understands the issues and teachings of Galatians determines in large measure what kind of theology is espoused, what kind of message is proclaimed, and what kind of lifestyle is practiced.”  There are different versions of Christianity out there, and as J. Gresham Machen argued nearly 100 years ago in Christianity and Liberalism (1923), their concerns and convictions can vary so greatly as to seem like entirely different religions.  I’m convinced that it’s where you start, it’s what you think the question is that the Gospel answers, that “determines in large measure what kind of theology is espoused, what kind of message is proclaimed, and what kind of lifestyle is practiced.” 

In his 1964 book Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans), Carl F.H. Henry considered the alternative strategies for transformation that are championed by different parts of the church: education, legislation, agitation and redemption. The method adopted relates to the way that our core problem as human beings gets diagnosed.  If our big problem is thought to be ignorance, a lack of knowledge, then education will be the adopted as the key to our transformation, both personal and social.  If our big problem is thought to be the failure of our social systems and the political structures of our governance, then legislation will be adopted as the key to our transformation.  If our big problem is “them,” then agitation, getting rid of “them,” will be adopted as the key to our transformation.  But if our big problem is thought to be sin with its consequent separations from God, from ourselves, from one another, and from creation,  then redemption – the saving work of God in Jesus Christ – will be adopted as the key to our transformation.  This redemption path doesn’t ignore or exclude the utility of education, legislation, or agitation as important components in the process of transformation, but they are seen as secondary, as “fruit” of the “root” of redemption.

Increasingly in my own church circle I am witnessing a disturbing trend towards “cross-less” communion services.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have been in one of our churches recently and heard the Lord’s Supper framed as a message of welcome and inclusion (the “fruit”) without any reference to how it is the saving work of Christ on the cross that makes this welcome possible and that inclusion necessary (the “root”).  It is mystifying to me how a Gospel ordinance that was instituted by Jesus Christ Himself “on the night when He was betrayed” (I Corinthians 11:23-26)so that we would remember how He died “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:1-4) could lose its essential and instrumental connection to the cross. Richard Lischer’s marvelous essay – “Altar or Table” – that was originally published in the Christian Century on April 7, 1982 (https://www.religion-online.org/article/altar-or-table/) was clearly prescient –

“Most churches have adopted the table, fittingly, as the setting for the sacramental meal without, however, remembering all that lay behind it. The table from which we receive the bread and wine is possible only because once, for all peoples, there was an altar on which God’s son was sacrificed… Our table-oriented family relationships in the church are possible because behind the table, visible to the eyes of faith, is the outline of something more substantial and more terrible. The table does not create the altar; the altar creates. the table.”

In Requiem (Abingdon 1995), the late Thomas Oden wrote about “The Feast I Left.”  He said that one Thursday morning he went to the regular Service of Holy Communion in the chapel of the seminary where he taught.  He came from “a strong tradition of liturgical toleration that views Holy Communion as a uniting and converting sacrament,” but on that particular Thursday morning he said that he was forced to conscientiously withdraw from Communion because the theological innovations that were made to the liturgy by those who were presiding left him wondering whether he was in “in a place where some other lord than Jesus Christ was being worshiped.”  And more than once I have found myself in exactly this same spiritual quandary in recent days when I have been in a church where the Lord’s Table has been set and the invitation to commune has been extended without any reference whatsoever being made to how the bread broken and the cup poured is a “participation” in the body and blood of Christ that we share (I Corinthians 10:16). 

When the Lord’s Table is presented as a place of harmony, unity, conviviality, and cozy family relationships” (Lischer), without any reference to how “those who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ who is our peace, who makes us one” (Ephesians 2:13-14), I am left wondering about how a welcome to a table that sidelines Christ as the agent of that welcome is any different from the welcome that I am extended at the meal of any civic or service club to which I have ever been invited? I’m not being critical or dismissive of the value of such community-creating efforts by human beings regardless of their creeds, and might even be convinced that Christ as “the hidden logos” ala Karl Rahner is at work in them.  It’s just that I’m not sure that this enough for the welcome that we extend in church.  In church, Jesus Christ should be more than just implied, and His saving work on the cross, especially at the Lord’s Table, ought not be assumed.  This is, after all, when and where and how we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (I Corinthians 11:26).

In 2 Timothy 1:13 Paul told Timothy to “hold to the pattern of sound words which you heard from me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus,” and I find that “The Order for the Administration of Holy Communion” in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, especially in light of the increase of those “cross-less” Communion service in my own church circle, to be an important counterweight for my faith.  You see, there is no mistaking the redemptive center of Christianity in the Wednesday noon Communion services at that church I am attending each week.  Here is “the pattern of sound words.”

I could point to many things in the Communion liturgy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer that consciously and consistently tether me to the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross, but the one that has made the deepest impression on me in recent weeks is when, after confessing my sins and being told that it is “of his great mercy” that God “hath promised forgiveness to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him,” the presiding minister says –

“Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him –

Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.  (St. Mathew 11: 28)   

So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  (John 3:16)

Hear also what Saint Paul saith –   

This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  (1 Timothy 1:15)

Hear also what Saint John saith –

If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 2: 1, 2)

These “comfortable words” are an unmistakable affirmation of Christianity as a religion of redemption, and this is what determines the content of the Gospel that this church proclaims, and the shape of the kind of life to which it calls its people.   

Mark Noll, a Church Historian who has taught at the University of Notre Dame and who now teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, says that he is “captivated” by the way that the Scriptures tell “the story of salvation as perfectly as could be imagined.”  And Dr. Noll says that where he finds the most intense personal expression of this salvation is at the Lord’s Table. He explains – “The experience that has prompted the deepest reflection on the nature of Christianity in my own life as a Christian has been the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper.”  He’s even written a poem about it. 

Called “Scots’ Form in the Suburbs,” it’s about a distinctive way of taking communion in the tradition of Scottish Presbyterianism.  In “Scots’ Form” Communion you come forward and sit down at a table where you are served the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper  with others, often in groups of twelve, in remembrance of the Upper Room where Christ first instituted the Lord’s Supper with his 12 disciples.  It was after participating in just such a communion service at his own church, that Mark Noll wrote –

The sedentary Presbyterians awoke, arose, and filed to tables spread with white, to humble bits that showed how God Almighty had decided to embrace humanity, and why these clean, well-fed, well-dressed suburbanites might need his grace.

The pious cruel, the petty gossipers and callous climbers on the make,  the wives with icy tongues and husbands with their hearts of stone,  the ones who battle drink and do not always win,  the power lawyers mute before this awful bar of mercy,  boys uncertain of themselves and girls not sure of where they fit,  the poor and rich hemmed in alike by cash, physicians waiting to be healed, two women side by side –  the one with unrequited longing for a child, the other terrified by signs within of life,  the saintly weary weary in pursuit of good, the academics (soft and cossetted) who posture over words, the travelers coming home from chasing wealth or power or wantonness,  the mothers choked by dual duties, parents nearly crushed by children died or children lost, and some with cancer-ridden bodies, some with spikes of pain in chest or back or knee or mind or heart.

They come, O Christ, they come to you. They came, they sat, they listened to the words, “for you my body broken.” Then they ate and turned away—the spent unspent, the dead recalled, a hint of color on the psychic cheek – from tables groaning under weight of tiny cups and little crumbs of bread.

I love the way this poem begins by asking why these “clean, well-fed, well-dressed suburbanites might need his grace,” and how it develops by cataloguing their particular hurts and hopes, and how it ends with the affirmation that it is at a communion service with its “tiny cups and little crumbs of bread” that they come to Christ and receive God’s grace. I do too every Wednesday at noon, and I am grateful for the pattern of sound words it prays that makes this clear. DBS+

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”

When Moses asked the Lord what he should say if the people asked him for the name of the God who sent him to them, the Lord told Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:15).  A dozen times in the Bible this is the name that gets used to talk about who God is.   He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

I once heard a preacher explain that when we talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that what we’re literally talking about is the God of a liar, a cheat, and a scoundrel, in other words, a God of people just like us!  I like this.  It reminds me of the list of notorious sinners in the genealogy of Jesus with which the Gospel of Matthew begins.  Sin is serious business, to be sure, but God does not delight in the death of sinners and, in fact, God wants us all to turn from our wicked ways and live  (Ezekiel 33:11).  The unvarnished Biblical accounts of the “acts” of the “fathers” – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – make it clear that they were accomplished sinners, and the way that God wants to be known as “their” God makes it clear that He is a God of sinners.  This should be heard as good news by us, in fact, it’s the “set-up” for the Gospel – “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  This is a great big Biblical truth, but as big as it is, I’m not sure that it’s the primary reason why the Bible invites us to think and talk about God as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley in their new “Reformed Systematic Theology” (Crossway – 2019), as part of the preliminary considerations, write about what they call “the structural principles of the Bible” that are critical for a proper understanding of its content, and the very first thing that they mention is “God’s faithfulness to his covenants” (110).  “Covenant is the framework that shapes all biblical revelation,” and covenant is what structures all of God’s dealings with human beings (11).  This is why God told Moses to introduce Him to the people of Israel as “the God of the fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants long before they wound up in Egypt as slaves (Genesis 15), and this covenant-making God is the covenant-keeping God as well.  Covenant is what explains God’s dealings with Abraham, and with Isaac, and with Jacob, and with Moses, and with the Israelites in Egypt, and with us, both you and me.

Have you ever noticed how Luke introduces us to his story of Jesus?  Luke’s Gospel opens with an angel appearing to Zechariah in the Temple, where he was ministering as a priest, to tell him that Elisabeth, his aged wife, was with child (Luke 1:5-17). The explanation for this unexpected development in their lives that Zechariah offered when their son John, who later would become “the Baptist,” was born was that it happened because God was “performing the mercy promised to our fathers… to remember his holy covenant, the oath which he swore to our father Abraham” (1:72-73). Luke wanted us to know that the birth of John the Baptist was the result of God’s covenantal faithfulness to His promises.  And then, just a little bit later in the Gospel of Luke, when it was Mary who had to explain how and why she was with child when she was still a virgin, she said that it was “in remembrance of the Lord’s mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever” (1:55-56).  Luke wanted us to know that the birth of Jesus was the result of God’s covenantal faithfulness.  Covenantal faithfulness is the frame through which Luke wants us to look at the person and work of Jesus Christ.

When God makes a promise, God keeps that promise.  That’s what it means when we talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  This is a God who can be trusted.  This is a God who will follow through on His commitments.  This is a God who will take care of His people by His grace.  And this is the idea that I see at work in the story about Isaac and the wells of Gerar (Genesis 26).

Gerar was Philistine territory.  In a time of famine, Isaac, just as his father Abraham had done before him, sojourned in Gerar (Genesis 12:10; 20; 21:22-34) and prospered there. The stories we’re told of Isaac deliberately mirror the stories we’re told of his father Abraham so that we would understand that the covenant that God made with Abraham was made to Isaac as well (Genesis 26:3-5).  And so, Isaac wound up in a valley that his father Abraham before him had occupied (26:17-18), and there Isaac “dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father” (21:25-34). 

These wells had been filled in by the Philistines (26:15).  Because these wells were tangible and visible proof of God’s covenantal faithfulness to His people, the Philistines resented them.  And when Isaac redug these wells that they had clogged up, and they began to flow full and free again, the Philistines became resentful all over again and began to trouble Isaac and his clan, wanting them gone.  Water was a precious commodity in the wilderness of Gerar, and the fact that Isaac found it in such abundance in that place of such scarcity,  was a covenantal blessing that made the Philistines both envious and angry. 

This story can be read on the surface as a witness to the material blessings that God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob specifically entailed.  God always does what God says He’s going to do.  God keeps His covenantal promises, and that’s good for us to know who relate to God on the basis of the new covenant that God established with us through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and that gets renewed every time we share in the Lord’s Supper. We will have every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3-14) that we’ve been promised by God in Jesus Christ. If this story about Isaac and the wells at Gerar can help us think more clearly about the way that God is always faithful to His covenantal promises, and if it will send us to our New Testaments so that we would look more closely at what the promises are that God has actually made to us in the new covenant, then it has done its job.  But Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the great English preachers of the 20th century, said that there’s something else for us to take away from this story.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that in addition to being a story about a particular incident in the history of our redemption that the Bible tells, that this story about Isaac redigging Abraham’s wells in the valley of Gerar also has the force of an “enduring parable.” The “great lesson” that this story teaches us, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, can be found in what Isaac did when he needed water in the valley of Gerar.  Responsible for his family, his servants, and his livestock, Isaac understood that if they did not find water when they got to the valley of Gerar, and fast, that they would all die. This was not a time for experimentation, for the hit and miss of prospecting for new wells, or for digging the dry wells of the water-diviners.  What they needed was a sure thing, and so Isaac said, “My father, Abraham, used to live here, and he was an expert on this question of where to find water.  If we can just find where he sank his wells in this valley, we can go there with confidence and find the water that we need to keep us alive” (a paraphrase of Martyn Lloyd-Jones – 23-24 – Revival).   

“It’s foolish to ignore the past” – is what Martyn Lloyd-Jones said was the message of the  “enduring parable” that lies hidden in this story about Isaac and the wells of his father in the valley of Gerar from the Bible’s history of redemption (24).  When we’re in trouble, rather than looking for the next big thing, something new and novel to get us out of the fix that we’re in, this story wants us to know that there’s real wisdom in going back to “dig again the wells that had been dug in the days of Abraham” where we can be certain there is a full supply of what we desperately need.

Ten years ago, Francis Chan was the pastor of a thriving successful church. Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California, was a church with a couple of thousand people in attendance and a multi-million-dollar budget that enabled them to do some really good things.  But Francis Chan was troubled.

“Imagine you find yourself stranded on a deserted island with nothing but a copy of the Bible” he explains.  “You have no experience with Christianity whatsoever, and all you know about the church will come from your reading of the Bible.  How would you imagine a church to function” he asks?  “Seriously,” he says.  “Close your eyes for two minutes and try to picture ‘Church’ as you would know it” (if all you had to base it on was what you read in the Bible).  “Now,” he says, “think about your present church experience.  Is it even close? (And) can you live with that?” (9)  Francis Chan couldn’t, and so he resigned.

He spent his time away studying the Bible and visiting missionary churches in Southeast Asia.  What he learned in his time away from the church in North America can be distilled into a little exercise that he now uses when he works with church leaders (46).  First, he asks them to make a list of everything that people expect of a church today – a dynamic worship “experience,” a certain style and volume of music, an entertaining sermon dynamically delivered by a celebrity preacher, fun children and youth ministry programs, good coffee, a state-of-the-art nursery, clean bathrooms, convenient parking.  Then he asks them to write down everything that God commands the church to be and do in the Bible.  And when they’re done, he has them put these two lists side by side, and he asks – What would upset their people more – if the church didn’t provide the things on the first list, or if the church didn’t obey the commands on the second list?

Concerned that he had built a church on what “works,” and on what people “want,” rather than on what God commands, when Francis Chan got back to the United States from his time away, he started planting house churches in San Francisco based on what he believes God wants, on what God has commanded.  They key text for his new approach to ministry is Acts 2:42-47, what Francis Chan describes as  church “built on the things that pleased God most.”  He believes that it was “their focus on the right things that actually made them attractive.”  As he puts it – “you can’t read through the book of Acts without thinking, ‘That’s a community of people I want to be part of.’”

“Rather than busying themselves with countless endeavors,” Francis Chan says that “the early followers devoted themselves to just a few, and it changed the world” – the Apostles’ teaching (Bible Study), the breaking of bread (the Lord’s Supper), the fellowship (the Spirit of unity in the bond of peace), and the prayers (not just a formal “nod at God,” but the opening of our hearts to the heart of God). Rather than always looking for the next exciting new thing to make the church more relevant and popular, Francis Chan has returned instead to “dig again the wells that had been dug,” and if all this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the strategy for the renewal of the church and the world that has been championed by Protestant Christianity in general, and, historically, by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in particular as part of what was once known as the Restoration Movement.  Both Martin Luther and Alexander Campbell led what could rightly be called “Back to the Bible” Movements, and now, so does Francis Chan.

God has given us a road map for seeking and finding Him,” he explains, “and we have forsaken it because we think we have better ideas.”  But rather than using marketing strategies, the lures of entertainment, and the excitement of pep rally worship experiences to get people to go to church, Francis Chan says that it’s now time for us to devote ourselves instead to the Word, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper and prayer – the things that God commands His church to do – so that people will come to Christ. The Word, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer –  these were the wells that flowed full of the presence and power of God in the first days of the church. It’s time to redig them so that they can flow again. DBS+

_______________________________________________

Francis Chan. Letters to the Church. David C. Cook. 2018.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Is the Fourth of July a Religious Holiday?”

I had a friend in Christian College who loved comic books.  His collection was amazing.  But he was ashamed of this passion.  He pursued it only in the shadows of his life, keeping it hidden away especially from his Christian friends.  And when I asked him why, he told me that when his grandmother – a devout Christian woman he absolutely adored – found him looking at his comic books one day when he was just a kid, she spoke words that got forever branded on his soul – “If you have time to read that kind of trash, then you’ve got time to read your Bible!”   That’s the day my friend said that he began to shield his passion for comic books from the eyes of others, especially from his Christian family and friends.  He’d been conditioned to think that comic books and God were fundamentally incompatible.

I love major league baseball and college football, action movies, the music of Mozart, the paintings of Van Gogh, Tom Clancy’s novels, and Carl Dennis’ poems, None of these things are particularly “Christian,” and sometimes, while I am enjoying one of them, I will faintly hear the whisper of my friend’s grandmother – “If you’ve got time for this, then you’ve got time for Bible Study, Church, prayer or whatever other ‘Christian’ activity you might think of.”  There’s something going on here.  There’s something spiritually dangerous at work in this.

I don’t know why, maybe it’s that separation of church and state mentality that’s been so firmly impressed upon us, but we’ve gotten really good at compartmentalizing our lives as Christians into “sacred” and “secular” bins.  Sunday mornings are “sacred,” Monday mornings are “secular.”  Hymns are “sacred,” but the music you listen to on your radio driving to work is “secular.”  How we earn our money is “secular,” giving some of it to the church is “sacred.”  Reading your Bible is “sacred,” reading the newspaper is “secular.”  Talking to God and ministers is “sacred,” talking to the teller at the bank or the cashier at the store is “secular.”  I could go on all day.  We seem to instinctively know how this works.

There are parts of our lives that God gets, and there are parts of our lives that are none of His business, or, are just not what He’s interested in.  Just like you, this is how I was brought up to think and act.  I wasn’t raised to be ignorant or dismissive of God.  We said grace before dinner every night and we were in church every Sunday morning when I was growing up, but we weren’t fanatics about it.  There was a place for God, and we were pretty good at keeping God in that place.  Then Abraham Kuyper came along and ruined this all for me.

Abraham Kuyper was an early 20th century Dutch theologian who founded a new Christian denomination and was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands for a while.  If I were 40 years younger, I think that I would try to learn some Dutch and then go over to the church-related University that Abraham Kuyper founded in Amsterdam where I could study his ideas even more closely.  Anyway, when I was 40 years younger I stumbled across something that Abraham Kuyper said, and it forever rocked my worldview – “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

This is what it means when we say that “Jesus is Lord,” and we say this not just when we make the Good Confession and join the church, but every Sunday morning when we break the bread and drink the cup at His Table in remembrance of and in obedience to Him.  To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that we believe that He’s in charge and involved in all of life, or at least, that He is actively engaged in the struggle to get back in charge and to be involved in every part of our lives.  And once this idea gets hold of you, well then that old “sacred/secular” divide that we’ve been raised with starts to crumble.

Today is the Fourth of July.  All day long there will be parades and cookouts, and tonight there will be concerts and fireworks. We don’t usually think of the Fourth of July as a Religious Holiday. It’s not on the church calendar like Christmas and Easter are.   In fact, I have friends in ministry who make no reference to our nation’s birthday in church on the Sunday of the week of its celebration.  They argue that their affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ prohibits them from making too much of a fuss about any of the lesser loyalties in their lives, things like citizenship, especially at church, in worship, lest it become idolatrous.  And so, they throw the Fourth of July into the “secular” bin and quickly move on to more “spiritual” things.  And while I certainly “get” what they are saying, and even share some of their concern for idolatry, ironically, I find that it is my very affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ that actually compels me to reflect on the religious implications of a national celebration like the Fourth of July. 

When Abraham Kuyper observed that “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” I think that what he was saying was that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is not just relevant for what happens in church on Sunday morning, but also for what happens every morning in culture.  There is just one God who is sovereign over both church and culture, but, and here’s the real genius of Kuyper’s teaching as far as I am concerned, God is doing different things in and through the church than God is doing in and through culture.  

There’s no compartmentalization here in the sense that there are parts of life that God cares about and other parts of life that God doesn’t care about.  No, God cares about and has a claim on “every square inch of the whole domain of our human existence.”  Rather, it’s a matter of understanding the different things that God is doing in and through His work with the church, and in and through His work with culture. Just as you wouldn’t go to a bank to get a loaf of bread, or take your dog to an auto mechanic to get him “fixed,” so while God is at work in and through both church and culture, God is not doing the same thing in both places. This is how Abraham Kuyper himself could be both a theologian and church reformer in one part of his life, and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands in another part without confusing the two roles or blurring their responsibilities.

This is a gross oversimplification of what Kuyper taught, but we might say that the assignment that God has given to the church concerns the eternal needs of our souls as human beings, while the assignment that God has given to culture concerns the temporal needs of our bodies.  The Great Commission sets the agenda for the life and work of the church –

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

And it’s something called the “Cultural Mandate” that sets the agenda for the work that God expects culture to do.  The “Cultural Mandate” is what the first Creation story in Genesis chapter 1 was talking about when God told the first human couple to –

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (1:28)

This is what the second creation story in Genesis chapter 2 meand when it tells us that – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (2:15). “Filling and subduing” — “tilling and keeping” — that’s God’s assignment for culture.  Creating and then maintaining the conditions that are most conducive to human thriving in this world is what God expects culture to do, and that’s what makes the Fourth of July “religious,” if you ask me.

The American experiment to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” had its birth 243 years ago when 56 flawed men with all of the limitations and sinful biases of their time and place gathered in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia in July to sign a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, mutually pledging to each other their Lives, their Fortunes and their sacred Honor.”  This is not about Christians doing the work of eternal salvation that God has assigned to the church, no, this was just some ordinary but noble human beings doing the work of trying to make life better for people in this world, and that’s the assignment that God has given to culture to do.  And I don’t have to confuse what happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, with what happened on a cross and in a borrowed tomb outside of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago to be able to see and appreciate how the Fourth of July is “religious.” 

I’m not much of a fan of wrapping up the cross in the American flag.  But I am a pretty big fan of both the cross and the American flag.  It’s because “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” that I find that I can hold in my head and my heart, both at the same time, a genuine appreciation for the ways that God is at work in both church and culture without confusing the two.  And so, I  celebrate the Fourth of July as a religious holiday of God’s common grace.  I am truly grateful for the way that God has been at work in this nation that “is my home, this country where my heart is.”  It’s our historic commitment to “liberty and justice for all… under God” that inspires and challenges me, in the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg back in 1863, “to be dedicated… with increased devotion… to the unfinished work… [of securing justice and liberty for all] for which so many have given their last full measure of devotion.”  There are clear and compelling religious ramifications of this nation’s stewardship of the “cultural mandate” that God has given to it.  But it is spiritually critical to remember that there comes a moment when I must consciously turn as Christians from the flag to the cross; from the work that God is doing in and through culture by common grace to the work that God is doing in and through the church by saving grace.  Our final citizenship as Christians is in heaven from which we eagerly await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:20).  And so, while I’m truly glad to be an American in this life, I will be eternally grateful to be a Christian in the life of the world to come.  It’s the work that God is doing through culture that makes life so good here and now, and for that we should be truly grateful as Americans on this national holiday weekend.  We are blessed.  But it’s the work of the Gospel that God does through the church that makes life possible forever, and for that, as Christians, we will sing God’s praise throughout eternity. DBS+

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“The Weightlessness of God”

“The fool says in his heart ‘there is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1)

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” (9). That’s the very first sentence in A.W. Tozer’s classic of 20th century devotional literature – “The Knowledge of the Holy” (Harper & Row, 1961).  In saying this, Tozer was affirming the essential link between our beliefs and our behavior.

Based on the Biblical pattern that we see at work in Paul’s letters – an exploration of some deep theological truth followed by a practical exposition of its ethical implications – Tozer was sure that when the character of the God who is revealed in Scripture was properly understood and fully embraced by us that it would in turn inform, form, and transform our values and actions.  “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus explained (Matthew 7:16 & 20), and that’s this idea in a nutshell.  From the roots of our theology come the fruit of our changed attitudes and behaviors, and ultimately, a changed world.

“Politics are downstream from culture” is a slogan that gets used by some these days to defend the necessity and urgency of culture wars.  The world is not changed by political machinations, their argument goes, but by cultural engagement, so, get out there and fight to change the culture.  It’s our values and not our votes that make the real difference is what they say. But there’s something “upstream” from our values as well – namely, God.  That was Tozer’s point, and I believe that it’s theoretically true – “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  But, if this is true, then why aren’t more Christians more transformed and transforming?

This is the most devastating critique of Christianity, if you ask me.  For all our talk about being “born again” (John 3:3) and becoming “new creations” with “the old passed away” and “the new come” (2 Corinthians 5:17), there is very little to actually distinguish the typical Christian from his or her secular neighbor in either values or conduct.  More than once I’ve been told the story about the Jewish rabbi in Jerusalem who, on the Monday morning after the first Easter, opened up his bedroom window, looked out onto the street, saw merchants still cheating their customers, husbands still cheating on their wives, big kids still picking on little kids, and Roman soldiers still brutally occupying his homeland, and concluded that all of the claims being made about Jesus as the Christ couldn’t possibly be true because – “nothing’s changed!” 

We’re way too comfortable with not practicing what we preach, with that old “do as I say and not as I do” evasion of personal moral and spiritual responsibility.  Oh, I understand the Romans 7 struggle (“I can will what’s right, but I cannot do it… I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” – Romans 7:18-19).  This struggle is deep in my bones. But I also know that Romans 8 immediately follows Romans 7, and that means that pushing back against the frustration and defeat of that Romans 7 spiritual struggle is the “equal and opposite force” of the Romans 8 witness to the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit who is busy “conforming us to the image of God’s Son.” 

I certainly don’t expect moral and spiritual perfection, but I do expect some moral and spiritual progress.  As John Newton of “Amazing Grace” fame put it – “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”  Francis Schaeffer called this realistic assessment of the redemptive change that we can expect to take place in the life of a believer – “substantial healing.”  While always partial and imperfect in this life, our salvation in Christ is to be nevertheless evident and real to others – “substantial.”  And when it’s not, as was the case of the Corinthians in the New Testament (I Corinthians 3:1-4), it is a symptom of there being something wrong.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,” and when it’s not, well, then, there’s something wrong, and from the look of things in both the church and the world these days, it would appear that there is something terribly wrong. John Frame began the second volume of his “Theology of Lordship” series [“The Doctrine of God” – R&R Publishing – 2002] by writing – “A large percentage of people today would say that they believe in God, but they rarely give him a thought, and they routinely make their decisions as if he didn’t exist” (1).  David Wells called this “the weightlessness of God.”  He explained –

“It is one of the defining marks of our time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost his saliency for human life. Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgment no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertisers’ sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness.” (“God in the Wasteland” – 88)

David Wells believes that it’s this “weightlessness of God” that’s at the root of some of our greatest struggles these days. “God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common” (“God in the Wasteland” – 30).

The third commandment tells us not to take the name of the Lord our God in vain (Exodus 20:7). Growing up I thought that this was about cussing.  It’s not.  It’s about taking God seriously.  It’s about God resting consequentially upon us. I’ve been told that the Old Testament book of Malachi is best understood as a commentary on the third commandment.  God’s people were cutting corners and going through the motion of devotion, and this sloppiness in their life of worship was symptomatic of their failure to take God seriously in the rest of their lives as well.  So, God sent His servant Malachi (A Hebrew name meaning “My Messenger”) to tell His people that they weren’t fooling Him with their empty rituals and hollow affirmations in the least, and to warn them that the way that He “rested too inconsequentially” upon them was getting in the way of the flow of blessings that He had in store for them.

The book of Malachi is a cry for God’s people “to lay it to heart to give glory to God’s name” (2:2).  The Hebrew word for “glory” in this text means “weight” or “heaviness.”  When something has “glory” it has “weight.”  It matters.  It has impact.  It leaves an impression. To “lay it to heart to give glory to God’s name” means to take God into full consideration with every decision that we make, not because we are told that we have to by the command of some external authority, but rather because we want to from our innermost being (from the “heart”). 

I think of the terrific 1997 Jack Nicholson/Helen Hunt movie “As Good as it Gets” and the climactic line that he speaks to her – “You make me want to be a better man.”  That’s what God does. God makes us want to be better people.  The very first thing that book of Malachi says is this word from God to His people – “I have loved you” (1:1-2). Everything flows from this. God doesn’t voice His expectations for us and our behavior as a condition of being loved but rather as the consequence of being loved. The gracious presence and provision of God in our lives are meant to shape our values and guide our actions.  God is “upstream” from culture, and politics, and ever other consideration and decision in life. To get to them you first have to go through Him.  It’s who He is, and what He wants, and how He operates that will determine who we are, and what we want, and how we operate.  And because the first and best source for our knowledge of God is what He has said and shown us about Himself, and the Bible is the reliable record of that speaking and showing, for God to have the weight that He deserves and demands means that we are going to have to open up our Bibles and read with understanding.

In their book on spiritual leadership (Broadman & Holman – 2001), Henry and Richard Blackaby explained the function of Scripture in the life of a Christian as well as anybody recently has –

“Spiritual leader [Christians] make two choices every time they make one decision.  First, they choose to rely on their own insights or on God’s wisdom in making their decision.  Their second choice is the conclusion they reach, or the action they take (79)…  The problem for many leaders [Christians] is that they are unfamiliar with the Bible.  They don’t know what it says, so it doesn’t guide them. They don’t read it regularly, so it doesn’t  influence their thinking. When a crucial decision is required, leaders [Christians] have no alternative but to do what makes sense to them and hope that it does not violate the teachings of Scripture.  True spiritual leaders [Christians]  recognize their utter dependence on God.  So they regularly fill their heart and mind with his Word.  When leaders’ [Christians’] minds are filled with Scripture, they find themselves thinking according to Biblical principles.  When a difficult situation arises, the Holy Spirit will bring appropriate Scriptures to mind.  And when they prepare to make a decision, the Holy Spirit will bring to memory a Scripture verse that provides relevant guidance.” (182)

Karl Barth used to say that we “cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.”  Whatever else he meant by this, he meant that we don’t just automatically know what God wants because we know what we want.  As the prophet Isaiah explained, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (55:8-9).  But this doesn’t mean that we don’t have access to God’s ways or to God’s thoughts. God has spoken His thoughts and shown us His ways, and then actively preserved a record of them in Scripture so that we can know who He is and what He wants.

This is how God becomes “weighty” for us again.  We get the mind of God from studying the Word of God (Philippians 2:5; Romans 12:2; I Corinthians 2:12-16), and when we have the mind of God we start to think God’s thoughts after him, and we begin to refashion our lives and the world in ways that better reflect God’s intentions.  It’s true that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,” but only if what comes into our minds when we think about God is what God has told us and shown us about Himself and His ways. DBS+

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Widening the World”

There are people with whom we have what can only be described as an aversion.  There are people for whom we have no patience.  There are people with whom we want nothing to do.  I suspect that it’s a different list for each one of us, but I’m pretty sure  that we all have a list.  Our lists are both personal and cultural.

Society gives us its list.  There are whole categories of people who, because of the choices they’ve made, or because of the stigmas that we’ve attached to them because of who they are or what they’ve done, have been relegated to the margins of polite society where we just don’t have to deal with them. And then we have our own personal lists as well.  I’m pretty sure that I got my personal list from my parents, who got it from their parents before them.  There were people they told me to avoid when I was growing up, and then as time went on, through my own experiences and observations, that list expanded to include others.  There were people who scared me, and people who hurt me, and people who confused me when I was a kid, and my experiences with them convinced me to have nothing to do with people like them later in life.  I now have this early warning system that just automatically goes off inside me whenever I find myself with people from the categories of people who are on my list.  “Be careful,” it says. “Don’t get too close.” “Don’t trust them.”  “Don’t let down your guard around them.”  

The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 would have set all the buzzers to buzzing and all of the lights to flashing in the warning system of the early church.  He would have been at the very top of their “list.”  In fact, lots and lots of New Testament scholars these days will tell you that this is why this story is in the Bible!  It’s there to set off our alarms so that we can begin to rethink our lists. The three details that Luke told us about this man would have all been terribly disconcerting to people in the mainstream of first century Jewish society. 

First of all, he was an Ethiopian.  Ethiopia was in Africa. This man was no doubt black.  He would have literally been from the ends of the earth to a first century Jew. Racially and culturally. The Ethiopian Eunuch would have been strange to the early church. 

Second, he was a eunuch. This meant that he was a sexual minority.  Jewish law actually excluded eunuchs spiritually.  They were not permitted to enter the assembly of Yahweh according to Deuteronomy 23:1.  Scholars debate the reasons why this was so, and there are several plausible explanations.  But what’s absolutely clear is that they were spiritual outcasts because of their sexual “otherness.”  They were considered odd by almost everybody.  And so, they were pushed to the very margins by people from the mainstream of first century Jewish society.  Sexually, the Ethiopian Eunuch would have been strange to the early church. 

Third, he was “a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure.” This means that he would have been wealthy in a world of poverty.  He would have been powerful in a world of oppression.  He would have been privileged in a world of scarcity.  He would have been a stranger in a world where “belonging” mattered most.  The Ethiopian Eunuch would have been the kind of person who was most despised in first century Jewish society, and he would have been strange to the early church.

All of these factors would have been in play in this story that Luke told, but as far as Luke was concerned, the only relevant fact about the Ethiopian Eunuch was that he was a “seeker.”  He had made the long and difficult trip to Jerusalem from Ethiopia, Luke tells us, “to worship,” which is interesting because everything else that we know about this man tells us that he would have been excluded from gaining any kind of meaningful access to the Jewish Temple.  He was racially, culturally, sexually and socially strange.  But still he came. 

The theologian Paul Tillich liked to describe human beings as “homo religiosus.”  By this he meant that we human beings are inherently religious. We just can’t help ourselves from wondering about God and looking for meaning and purpose in life.  As the Psalmist put it, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1).  And St. Augustine famously wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  And what this means is that no matter how exclusionary religion can be to some people, no matter how hard we try to stiff-arm them, their spiritual needs, no less real and no less urgent, continue to fuel their search for God.  Just because they’re not here doesn’t mean that they’re not looking.

The Holy Spirit pushes people to God, but the Holy Spirit also pushes the church towards people, to establish contact and broker conversations with them.  “Widening the world” – that’s what the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder called this work that the Holy Spirit does.  The Holy Spirit “widens the world” both geographically and sociologically. The Holy Spirit pushes Christians outside their comfort zones to the people and places where Jesus Christ needs us to witness and serve.  And so, three times in the story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch  (Acts 8:26; 29; 39), Luke made it explicitly clear that it was all being orchestrated by the Holy Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit is still orchestrating these sorts of encounters, especially with people on our “lists.” 

Thirty years ago, I got a call one Saturday night from a social worker I knew.  She worked at a Psychiatric Hospital not far from the church I pastored in Houston in the 1980’s. She told me that she had a patient who had indicated to her that he wanted to go to church the next day, and so she called to ask me what I thought.   “If I brought him to your church tomorrow morning,” she wanted to know, “how would he be received?”  Now, what made this question necessary was that young man’s appearance, she told me.   It seems that he had been a “skinhead,” a member of a local white supremacist group, and he had the tattoos to prove it, including a swastika on the side of his shaved head.  He was pierced, and inked, and “pretty scary” looking, she explained, but he was honestly trying to start over.

A drug addiction and a court order are what had gotten him into the hospital, and while he was there, after getting clean and sober, an underlying personality disorder was diagnosed and addressed.  This proposed field trip to church would be his first venture out of the hospital and back into the world since his journey began. “So, would he be welcomed at your church?” that social worker wanted to know.

It has been my experience that just as soon as I am tempted to write off a whole category of people, the Holy Spirit starts bringing people from that category into my life, forcing me to deal with them.  The “pushy” Holy Spirit whispers three things into the ears of my heart whenever I see these people coming.  This is someone the Father created in His very own image is the first thing that the Holy Spirit whispers to me.  And this is someone for whom Christ died is the second.  And third, the Holy Spirit whispers, this is someone over whom I am brooding just like a mother bird does when hatching her eggs in the nest.  I am stirring this person to life the Holy Spirit tells me, and you’d better not screw it up with your ignorance and insensitivity.

“So, if I brought him to your church in the morning, what do you think would happen?” my social worker friend from the psychiatric hospital wanted to know.  And I flinched.  I told her that I thought that we would be polite enough, but that I wasn’t sure that we would be truly welcoming in the way that this young man needed.  A.W. Tozer said that he could always tell the difference when the person who greeted him at the door of a church was truly glad that he was there, or if he was just shaking the flipper of a trained seal.  And so, out of an abundance of caution and a recognition of the stakes involved, I referred her to another church in the area, one more accustomed to dealing with troubled people like this young man. 

I regretted it just as soon as I said it. 

I now know that this was the Holy Spirit pushing – pushing me, pushing my church – and I had deflected the overture.  When I told the elders of the church about it the next morning before services, with real sadness they asked me why I hadn’t trusted them or the Holy Spirit more?  And in that moment, I resolved never to make that mistake again.  Isaiah 56 says –

“Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will never let me be part of his people.’ And don’t let the eunuchs say, ‘I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future.’ For this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bless those eunuchs who keep my Sabbath days holy and who choose to do what pleases me and commit their lives to me. I will give them – within the walls of my house – a memorial and a name far greater than sons and daughters could give.  For the name I give them is an everlasting one. It will never disappear!’”

God looks at our lists and says of every single person on them –  “This is someone I love deeply, value greatly, and intend to include in my family.”  And then, the Holy Spirit starts pushing to make it so. DBS+

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is”

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is peace.                                          Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is love.                                                           There is comfort in life’s darkest hour,                                                          there is light and life.                                                                                  There help and power in the Spirit,  in the Spirit of the Lord.”

I have a little booklet in my library that talks about the “Six Pentecosts” in the New Testament.  The language is imprecise, but the point is well taken.  There are several episodes of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit recorded in the New Testament, six of them according to the count of the author of that little booklet that I have [“Six Pentecosts” – Dr. Josephine Massyngberde Ford, Associate Professor of Sacred Scripture, the University of Notre Dame –  Dove Publications, 1976]

Dr. Ford counts the presence and work of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation as one of the New Testament’s “Pentecosts” (Luke 1:26-38), as well as the Resurrection appearance of the Risen Christ to His disciples in the Upper Room on the first Easter evening when He breathed on them, told them to “receive the Holy Spirit,” and gave them the ministry of reconciliation (John 20:19-23).  These are both important New Testament Holy Spirit texts, but I’m not sure I would put either of them under the “Pentecost” banner.   I have a hard time thinking or talking about any account of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament before Acts 2 as a “Pentecost” event or experience.

In the economy of redemption, Acts 2 is something of a pivot.  The Holy Spirit is present and active one way before Acts chapter 2, and then present and active in a different way after Acts chapter 2.   This means that the stories of the Spirit’s presence and action in Luke 1 and John 20 belong to the arrangements of the first Covenant while the stories of the Spirit’s presence and activity after Acts chapter 2 belong to the arrangements of the New Covenant (Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:3; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Joel 2:28; John 1:33; 7:37-39; I John 2:26-27; Luke 24:49; Galatians 3:2-5).  Reading the Bible with the particular promises and provisions of the Covenants in mind is crucial to correctly understanding a text according to my interpretive tradition.  It’s a big part of what our founders called “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 – KJV).

Four of the “Six Pentecosts” described in that little booklet that I have “fit” under this “New Covenant” banner – what Dr. Ford called the “Jerusalem Pentecost” (Acts 2), the “Samaritan (Acts 8:14-17) and Gentile (Acts 10:44-48) Pentecost” (combined as one event in her assessment, but in my mind, two distinct events), the “Pauline Pentecost” (Acts 9, 22, 26, and Galatians 1:11-2:10), and the “Ephesian Pentecost”  (Acts 19:1-7). 

I would remove the account of Paul being filled with the Holy Spirit as a part of his conversion/commissioning story from this list of New Testament “Pentecosts” because it is a personal account of the normal Christian experience as set forth in Acts 2:37-39 (what my spiritual tradition has often called “the plan of salvation”).   There is a sense in which Acts 9 describes the “personal Pentecost” that’s available to and needed by us all, but it functions differently in the argument that Luke was making in the book of Acts (Acts 1:8) than do the rest of the “Pentecost” stories that he tells, and so, while I do not ignore it as an important example of how the Holy Spirit becomes normatively present and active in the life of a Christian believer, I do not think of it as a distinct New Testament “Pentecost” event, but rather as a story of how the Holy Spirit ordinarily operates according to the provisions of the New Covenant.

This leaves 3 “Pentecosts” (or 4 by my count) – “The” Pentecost in Jerusalem 50 days after Easter (Acts 2), the extension of salvation to the Samaritans and the “Pentecost” sign of their inclusion within the purposes, promises and provisions of God (Acts 8:14-17), the extension of salvation to the Gentiles and the “Pentecost” sign of their inclusion within the purposes, promises and provisions of God (Acts 10:44-48), and finally the completion of the experience of salvation in Christ for the disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus signaled by the “Pentecost” sign after their water baptisms and the laying on of hands (Acts 19:1-7).  

I think that a pretty good case could be made that the story told in Acts chapter 8 about the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch (verses 26-40) was intended by Luke as an account of the extension of salvation in Christ to a marginalized population (sexual minorities).  But without an explicit reference to the “Pentecost” sign of their inclusion like the other stories in the book of Acts have (despite it being an explicitly Spirit-driven narrative – 8:29 and 8:39), it falls out of this conversation (although I will take it up in my next “Soundings”).

So, what we have is the Day of Pentecost in a Jewish setting (at the Jerusalem Temple during one of the Pilgrimage Feasts) as a distinct event in the history of salvation narrated in Acts chapter 2, followed by a series of accounts of its deliberate duplication as the Gospel crossed cultural/ethnic/spiritual boundaries – to the Samaritans (Acts 8), to the Gentiles (Acts 10), and to the disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19).  The thesis statement for the book of Acts is chapter 1, verse 8 – “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”  Do you see it?  Beginning in Jerusalem and in all Judea (Acts 2), to Samaria (Acts 8), to the ends of the earth (Acts 10). 

In the book of Acts, when it was time for the church to push past its comfortable and familiar boundaries, the Holy Spirit orchestrated a duplicate Acts 2 “Pentecost”  experience for the excluded “undesirables” so that the beloved “chosen” could see and unmistakably understand that God’s saving purposes included “them” too.  Wherever there was “Pentecost” evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity just beyond its already existing borders, the church was compelled to cross over in order to be faithful to the mission of God, and Amos Yong says that it still works this way.

Dean of School of Theology and School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary, Dr. Yong reasons from the Biblical truths of the Holy Spirit’s omnipresence in creation and providence (Psalm 139:7-10) and agency in a work of redemption that excludes no one (John 3:16; I Timothy 2:3-6; 2 Peter 3:9), that wherever we see evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and action in the world today, that this is where God in Christ is at work and expects us to join in. 

Raised in a rather narrow sectarian Pentecostal tradition comprised of people who thought that they were the only “true” Christians, Dr. Yong says that it was during his graduate theological studies that he began to realize that were genuine Christians beyond the boundaries of his own church family.

“My studies at a Wesleyan Holiness seminary raised the intra-Christian ecumenical question for me with great force, challenging me to confront the very sectarian and exclusive form of Christian self-understanding which characterized the Chinese American Pentecostal churches of my upbringing. Further graduate studies expanded the ecumenical question: If it was possible that those whom I considered before as outside the pale of Christianity (e.g., Catholics, Orthodox, even Lutherans) did indeed have a saving relationship with God, what about others also categorized as pagan, heathen, or non-Christian?”

There are three big affirmations that we make as Christians (just look at the church’s historic creeds) –

God made everybody, everywhere.  His image is in us all.                                               Christ died for everyone, everywhere. He offered Himself as a sacrifice of love for all.  The Spirit is at work in everyone, everywhere, drawing us all.

All equally true, Dr. Yong suggests that we begin with that third affirmation about the Spirit, and see where it leads.  He suggests that when we start by paying attention to where we see evidence of the Spirit’s presence and activity, just like the church in the book of Acts, we will find ourselves with people in places beyond the borders that currently define us.  Pondering Dr. Yong’s work, Roger Olsen, the very fine Professor of Theology at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, asks, “What criteria should we use for discerning the Spirit’s work?”  Because the Holy Spirit spotlights the person and work of Jesus Christ (John  14:25-26; 16:12-15), the surest sign of the Spirit’s work will always be where we see Jesus Christ exalted. 

In his book of sermons on the Holy Spirit, David Hubbard asked, “Do you have a favorite portrait of Jesus?  A picture that captures for you the remarkable characteristics of the One whom we call Lord and Savior?”  After touring the gallery in his heart of some of his favorite paintings of Jesus Christ, Dr. Hubbard said that his favorite portrait of Him was the one “painted by Paul  in Galatians”“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”  “It takes no great insight,” he explained, “to see that Paul; was summing up the personal qualities of Jesus Christ (here), who Himself sat for this portrait.”  And so, wherever we see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control being cultivated the Holy Spirit is spotlighting how Jesus Christ is present there and what Jesus Christ is doing there, and that’s always an invitation for us to show up and join in that work.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, that’s where we need to be too. DBS+

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized