“Speak, Lord, your Servants are Listening”

A Spiritual Check-Up                                                                                            “How’s Your Hearing?”

“Every Christian should be able to answer two questions,” says Gordon Smith, a Seminary President and Professor of Theology up in Calgary, Alberta.  First, he says, we should all be able to answer the question – “What is God saying to you right now, at this point in your life, in the context of the different challenges and opportunities that you are facing?”  And second, he says, but just as important, we should all be able to answer the question – “How do you know that it’s God who’s saying it rather than something or someone else?”   These are the two questions that the boy Samuel had to sort through in the story that’s told in I Samuel 3:1-11). 

I can’t tell you the number of times, through the years, in sermons and Bible Studies, that I have taken people to this story in I Samuel 3 and encouraged them to say the words that Eli told the boy Samuel to say to that mysterious voice that spoke to him in the night – “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”   And only once has anyone ever come up to me afterwards and asked, “So, just exactly how is this supposed to work?  How God going to speak to us?  Like Samuel in the story, should I be listening for an audible voice?”  It’s exactly the right question.

The late Urban Holmes used to tell a story about a minister he said he knew who was always telling people in his church to listen for God’s voice.  And then, one Sunday morning when a woman from his church came up to him after worship to tell him that she had actually heard from God, he gave her the name of a good psychiatrist!  Is it crazy to think that God is going to speak to us?  I know that the most hurtful things that I’ve seen happen in the church have occurred because people claiming to have heard directly from God about something have made demands that they thought should go unchallenged because of their sense of private inspiration.  “The assertion, ‘The Lord told me’ is regularly employed as a sanctified shield for all sorts of [nonsense]” (Buetell).

The biggest fight I ever had in any church I served in my more than 40 years of ministry was with an elder who told me one Sunday morning during a Bible Study, with his wife sitting right at his side, that if the Lord told him to commit adultery that he would have to go out and commit adultery!  I laughed, until I realized he wasn’t joking.  Quickly I told him that God would never tell him to commit adultery, and when he demanded to know how I could possibly know that, I simply opened my Bible to the book of Exodus and showed him the seventh commandment – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).  He was unimpressed.  He had greater confidence in his own private sense of the Lord’s leading, than he did in a clear Word from God that has been preserved for us in the Bible, and that’s the problem when it comes to hearing from God.

Christianity is premised on the big idea that the God who is there is not silent.  The God of the Bible is a speaking God, in fact, it’s one of God’s primary characteristics.   And so, the plot of most of the stories that the Bible tells is exactly the same.  Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Esther, Mary, Peter and Paul, it’s always the same story – God speaks to someone in such a way that he or she can understand what it is that God wants, and then they respond to what God told them appropriately, or not.  And it’s no different for us. 

“God is still speaking” – that’s the slogan of our sister denomination, the United Church of Christ.  “I am verily persuaded,” wrote John Robinson, the Pilgrim Pastor on the Mayflower, that “the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.”  Because God is God, God is free to address us in any way that God sees fit.   God can, and sometimes does, use voices and visions, signs and wonders, trances and dreams – “mystic sweet communion”  – to speak to us.  But in my experience, and by my observation, these special spiritual experiences are far and few between. 

The much more common way to hear from God is by just opening up our Bibles and reading.  As John Robinson told the Pilgrims, ordinarily it is going to be “out of His Holy Word” that God is going to “break out… more truth.”   This is why Nancy Guthrie, a well-known Christian Conference Speaker, says, “When somebody begins a sentence with ‘God told me…’ I have to admit that a silent alarm goes off somewhere inside me – unless that phrase is followed quickly by a verse of Scripture.”  This is how it ordinarily works, and we have an example of it in Hebrews chapter 4.

Right before telling us that the Word of God is living and active, like a sharp two-edged sword that penetrates our hearts and exposes our deepest thoughts and desires, the author of Hebrews quoted Psalm 95. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,” the author of Hebrews explained, “Today when you hear God’s voice do not harden your hearts” – in chapter 3.  Now understand, these words from Psalm 95 were written a thousand years before the book of Hebrews was written, and yet the author of Hebrews introduced them with the statement – “as the Holy Spirit says.”   That’s a present tense “says”  and not a past tense “said.”  The author of Hebrews was describing the way that the Holy Spirit was using ancient words written to other people in another time and place to speak directly to the people of his own place and time, how the written Word becomes the living Word.

Another description of how this works is the familiar story of the two forlorn disciples on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday that we’re told in Luke 24.  When the Risen Christ showed up beside them, Luke tells us that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures… how it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and then enter into His glory” (24:26-27).  A Bible study!  Jesus led them in a Bible Study on Easter.  And when Jesus was finished, those two disciples turned to each other and said – “Did not our hearts burn within us as He opened the Scriptures to us?” (24:32). 

Their hearts were “strangely warmed” as the Scriptures were explained, and “it is the Spirit who makes the heart burn as the Word is heard,” explained Bernard Ramm, an important 20th century American theologian. “God speaks into the heart while the ear listens to the outward Word… upon the objective truth of revelation must fall the subjective light of the Holy Spirit’s illumination.”   He called this “double structure” – “the hearing ear and the burning heart” – the way that God speaks to us from the Bible.  As an “external minister” of the Word like me reads and explains a text of Scripture, Bernard Ramm said that the Holy Spirit, the “internal minister” of the Word, comes and “speaks to the heart.”

In I Corinthians 14:3, Paul used three words – “edification, exhortation, and consolation” – to describe how the Holy Spirit, as the internal minister of the Word, takes the things that the Bible tells us are eternally true and “speaks them (individually) to our hearts.”  “Edification means ‘to build up,’ exhortation means ‘to call near,’ and consolation means ‘to cheer up’” (Vallotton).

What’s in the Bible edifies me – “builds me up” – when, as I’m reading it, the Holy Spirit alerts me to an example to follow, or to a truth about God for which I can be thankful.  During an “Inspiration Week” at the first seminary I attended, one of my professors was asked about his devotional life, and he told us that his best times with God came late at night when, after everybody else in his family had gone to bed, he could sit quietly in his study reading theology “loving God with all his mind.”  Most of my fellow students in the class groaned, but I nodded my head in complete agreement.

I find that theology, the discipline of trying to think God’s thoughts after Him, more so than almost anything else I do, is what brings me to the heart of God.  A few years ago I kept coming across the idea of the “apatheia” of God in my readings.  I was immediately offended by the idea that God is apathetic – without feelings.  As I have said any number of times from this pulpit, I am powerfully drawn to the idea of “Emmanuel” – that “God is with us,” that God’s heart “is touch by our grief.”  So, when I started reading about how many theologians insist that apathy is an important characteristic of the God of the Bible,  I immediately went to my Bible to try to wrestle this idea to the ground.

It was a wild ride, and when it was over, I found myself on my knees actually thanking God for His apatheia.  I was grateful that God is not like a fickle middle school kid whose affections are constantly shifting because of their surging hormones.  As an evangelist friend of mine likes to say, “God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  There’s nothing we can do to make God love us more than He already does, and there’s nothing we can do to that will make God love us any less.   God just loves us.  It’s already decided. It’s already settled.”  That’s what the theologians mean when they talk about the apatheia of God, and it’s a Biblical idea that the Holy Spirit has used to edify me, to build up my faith.

What’s in the Bible also exhorts me – “comes in close” – when, as I’m reading it, the Holy Spirit alerts me to a command that I need to obey, or points out a sin in my life that I need to confess and avoid.  Do you remember Dana Carvey’s “church lady” character on Saturday Night Live doing her “superiority dance”?  Well, she lives inside me, and when I feel her getting up to dance over somebody else’s mistaken idea or misguided action, the Holy Spirit routinely sits me down and shuts me up with Romans 14:4 –

Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

When I start feeling theologically smug and superior to someone else, I find that the Holy Spirit consistently “comes in close” with a Scripture to adjust my attitude and to change what I’m about to do or say.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” says I Corinthians 8:1. The Holy Spirit uses what’s in the Bible to exhort us.

Finally, what’s in the Bible consoles me – “cheers my heart” – when, as I’m reading it, the Holy Spirit alerts me to a promise that I can claim, or to an idea that helps me make sense of what’s happening in my life, or in the lives of the people I know and love.  Just a year after she became a Christian, Pastor Ben Haden’s sister got sick and was undergoing medical tests to determine whether or not she had Multiple Sclerosis.  Ben said, “She phoned me, almost frantic, and asked, ‘Do you think it’s possible that I have MS?”  And Ben explained, “In most cases, I answer that kind of question, “Yes.” Then the person cries and says, “Do you really think so?” And I say, “Let’s assume you do. If you don’t, there’s no problem – but let’s face the possibility and take it from there.” 

But when his own sister called and asked him this question, Ben told her, “You know I love you, and you know I hope you don’t have MS.  But if you do, then nothing has changed because nothing has changed about Jesus Christ.”  How did Ben know this?  How could Ben say this?  Well, it was because long before that day of trouble arrived, the Holy Spirit had already taken the Biblical truth of Romans 8, how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, not tribulation, not distress, not suffering, not pain, not even death (8:31-39), and personally and powerfully applied it’s truth to Ben’s heart so that he could then make its comfort available to others as their pastor and their friend in their hour of need.  The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to console us.

I’ve often thought that if we took out an ad in the paper, and bought air time to run commercials on TV, and put up some billboards around town announcing that God was going to speak at FCC on an upcoming Sunday morning, there wouldn’t be enough room in here for all the people who would show up wanting to hear from God.   But this, in fact, is what happens here every Sunday morning.  As an elderly Chinese woman told theologian J.I. Packer – “Reading my Bible is like having God talk to me.”  And, so it is. It’s when we open our Bibles and read that God speaks – building us up, coming in close, cheering our hearts, and changing us forever. So — “Speak Lord… your servants are listening.”


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“Making Connections that Fosters the Kind of Consideration that Leads to New Conclusions” – How do we respond as Christians to Violence Against our Muslim Neighbors?

Sometimes the church has embraced her God-given mission to go into all the world to preach the Gospel and make disciples as a kind of “slash and burn” project.  In Mexico and Latin America, the missionaries who accompanied the Conquistadors saw the subjugation of the people there and the leveling of their culture as the necessary first step for the introduction of the Gospel.  This approach begins with the assumption that there is nothing of spiritual value in the existing beliefs and practices of the people being engaged.  It must be reduced to rubble, and then, out of its ruin a new work can begin. But at other times, the church has embraced her God-given mission to go into all the world to preach the Gospel and make disciples as a repurposing, reusing, and upcycling process.  In Japan and China, the first missionaries began by getting acquainted with the existing religious traditions and then, using the shared concerns that they discovered, made connections that fostered the kind of consideration that led to new conclusions.  This approach begins with the belief that God has not left Himself without witness (Acts 14:17), that always and everywhere people have sought God “in the hope that they might feel after Him and find Him” (Acts 17:27), and that aspects of “the good, the true, and the beautiful” that are traces of God’s presence and purpose in the world are evident everywhere (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:20).  The light that people already possess must be honored, and their genuine faith that God is there and rewards those who seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) must be respected.

My first encounter with Islam in America was back in the mid-1980’s in Houston.  I’d pulled into a McDonalds on Westheimer one afternoon to get something to drink, and as I was wheeling into what I thought was an open parking space, I suddenly became aware of something on the asphalt right in front of me.  It was a man kneeling on a small rug beside his car.   Well, I slammed on my brakes, muttered something impolite under my breath, tried to calm my nerves, and then I just sat there — staring.  He was a Muslim.  It was an appointed time of prayer and so he had pulled into the McDonalds parking lot, gotten out of his car, faced east towards Mecca, rolled out his prayer rug on the ground and gotten down on his hands and knees to pray.  And as I sat there watching him, I became aware of the fact that my initial alarm was slowly distilling into something else — admiration, genuine admiration. It was his devotion to God that impressed me, and as sat there watching it, I found myself wondering if any of my church’s members would be willing to make such a public display of their faith in a McDonald’s parking lot on a busy afternoon?  If the truth be told, I had to ask myself if I would be willing to make such a public display of my faith in a McDonald’s parking lot on a busy afternoon?   And in that moment I felt the first tremor of what can only be described as a tectonic change.   The world as I knew it was shifting beneath my feet.

Terry Muck of “Christianity Today” in his 1990 book Alien Gods on American Turf (Victor Books) was the first person I heard say out loud what I had sensed in that McDonald’s parking lot a few years before.

“Ask people at work or in your neighborhood.  Almost everyone knows someone who belongs to a non-Christian faith.  Check the phone book of any medium to large American city.  There is almost sure to be a Muslim Mosque listed.  Nearly as likely there is also a Buddhist or Hindu Temple.  The Encyclopedia of American Religions lists more than 1,500 distinct religious groups in America, 900 have Christian roots; 600 have non-Christian roots. Demographic and religious experts predict the trend will (only) increase; no one suggests that America will return to being the Christian monolith that it was in 1790… (14) …Ten or twenty years from now (remember – he wrote this in 1990 — it’s now 2015 — that’s 25 years later), the full force of non-Christians religions (in America) will be felt.   They will be established features of our religious terrain, gaining both political and economic influence. (19) …We must expect a heightened visibility for the non-Christian world religions.  We must face up to the fact of a religiously plural culture”

In the last 30 years the world has changed, and changed dramatically.  What you once had to go to lectures at the University or read articles in “National Geographic” to learn  about has moved in next door.  Today there are more Muslims in the United States than there are Episcopalians, more Hindus than there are Presbyterians, and by far more Buddhists than there are Disciples of Christ.  What Terry Muck predicted back in 1990 has become our new reality, and that fact frightens some people; it scares them to death.

A few years ago I attended a seminar on Islam at a big church in Dallas. The speaker had been widely promoted as an international expert on Islam, and so I went hoping to learn something new and useful for my navigation of this new world in which we find ourselves.  Instead, all I heard were stereotypes and clichés, fear-mongering and blatant false witness — a sin in my book, one of the top ten, and so I left at the first break. 

E. Stanley Jones, one of my role models for spiritual integrity in interfaith relationships, described the approach that he inherited and then consciously rejected as a Christian missionary to India as being a matter of “long-distance dueling.”  He explained that for too long Christians had simply circled their wagons and tried to keep the religiously “other” at bay by bombarding their positions — or at least what they thought were their positions  — they really didn’t know what their positions were because they had never actually talked to any of them.   Instead, we just attack.   But as E. Stanley Jones noted, “The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and found in the end that Christ was not there… They had lost Him through the very spirit and methods by which they sought to serve Him.”

Jesus told us as His disciples that He expected us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39), in fact, He told one of His most famous stories, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, to illustrate this very point (Luke 10:25-37).  And it has been in obedience to this command that I have been a regular and enthusiastic participant in  Interfaith Conversations, especially with my Muslim neighbors, for the past decade.  I reject the popular cultural rhetoric that wants to indiscriminately define Muslims as my enemy who must be defeated and destroyed, and I consciously choose to embrace instead the teachings of my Lord and Savior who tells me that Muslims are my neighbors who are to be welcomed, respected and loved. The way I read the Gospel, I can’t be a follower of Jesus Christ and not be in a deliberate and ongoing relationship with them. 

Yesterday’s attack on the Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, counterpointed by the report of the slaughter of an equal number of Christian villagers in Nigeria by Muslim opponents (https://www.christianheadlines.com/blog/at-least-40-christians-killed-in-two-attacks-in-kaduna-state-nigeria.html) only underscores the urgency and importance of the choice before us.  We can go on a  “slash and burn” crusade.  The violence of yesterday is what that looks like, and the way that it is being excused by some in the Christian community with the flippant observation that “they were Muslims,” and the misguided appeal to 9/11, is what that sounds like. Or, we can “make connections that foster the kind of consideration that leads to new conclusions,”  and the witness that the late Dr. Lamin Sanneh gave at the Veritas event at Harvard University (“More Than a Prophet” in “Finding God at Harvard” – Kelly Monroe – Zondervan – 1997) is what that looks and sounds like. 

A convert from Islam to Christianity as a young man in Gambia. Dr. Sanneh  talked about how the purification beliefs and rituals of Islam, for which he never lost respect or affection, were what prepared his heart for the reception of Jesus Christ as his Savior and the experience of cleansing he so desperately sought.  I thought about this witness all day yesterday as I grieved the violence suffered by the Muslim community in New Zealand, and its justification by some in the Christian community as “just deserts.”  And last night before going to bed I read Psalm 103:8 – “The Lord is merciful and gracious, abounding in sustaining care,” and the first words of the Quran (repeated 113 times – at the beginning of all but one of its 114 chapters) – “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.”  And I prayed, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” understanding that how it will be answered, at least in part, is by our own commitment as Christians to be “merciful and gracious, abounding in sustaining care,” especially at this moment in time, to our Muslim neighbors and friends who are seeking the face of the Compassionate and Merciful God. Here is a connection that can foster the kind of consideration that can lead to new conclusions for Christians and Muslims alike. DBS+





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“How’s Your Appetite?” – Psalm 63 (Are you hungry and thirsty for God?)


It’s the 6 o’clock question when I’m home with Mary Lynn.  By that time, we’ve fed the cats, gotten the mail, changed out of our work clothes, watched the evening news, and started to think about dinner.  So, we head into the kitchen, open up the refrigerator door, take a quick look inside, and then look at each other and say – “What are you hungry for?” It’s a straightforward enough question.  Clearly, we’re talking about food.  We’re talking about meatloaf or spaghetti, tacos or chicken, soup or a salad.  But every time I hear the question, I’m always tempted, just for a second, to answer more metaphysically rather than culinarily. Instead of hamburgers, just once I’d like to say justice.  Instead of pizza, I’d like to say that the Kingdom would come and God’s will be done.   Instead of scalloped potatoes, I’d like to say the final salvation of the world.  But I’ve been married long enough to Mary Lynn know better.  She doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  “You can try that with your next wife,” she’d say if she were here, so I don’t.  But the truth of the matter is that I’m hungry for more than just food.

We human beings are made up of two parts.  We’ve got our bodies and we’ve got our souls.   There’s an outward and visible part to us, and there’s an inward and invisible part to us, and they both have their appetites.  After 40 days and nights of fasting in the wilderness, a physically hungry Jesus was tempted by the Devil to turn stones into bread.  And do you remember what Jesus said to him? Quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, Jesus’ favorite Old Testament book based on the number of times He quoted it, Jesus said   – “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4/Deuteronomy 8:3).   We’ve got physical appetites, but we’ve got more than just our physical appetites.

John doesn’t include the story of Christ’s Temptation in the wilderness in His Gospel.  But right after He fed the 5000 (John 6:1-14), John tells us that Jesus told the multitude that He was there to do more than just fill their empty stomachs with food.  Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life,” Jesus told them (6:27). When they heard this, they asked – “Lord, give us this bread” (6:34).  And that’s when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (6:35).  It was this deeper hunger and thirst that Jesus wanted to get to with them.  Without ignoring or denigrating the temporal, physical needs of our bodies, Jesus wanted to address the deeper eternal, spiritual needs of people’s souls.  He came to satisfy our hunger and thirst for a right relationship with God, for a right relationship with each other, and for a right relationship with our own inner selves (Matthew 5:6).  God has “put eternity in our hearts.” That’s how the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes put it (3:11).  It’s been described as a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and so this God-shaped vacuum in our hearts has got to be filled with something.  This is why John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer, said that the human heart is a factory constantly manufacturing idols.  We try to fill the God-shaped vacuum in our hearts with toys, popularity, beauty, strength, success, friends, family, careers, cars, euphoria, money, fame, power, sex.  We clog it up with so many things that are not God, that there’s little room left for what it really seeks and needs – God!

I’ve been asked a dozen times this week, “What did you give up for Lent?”  Giving something up for Lent is just a shorthand way for us to think about what it is that is clogging up our hearts.  What we’re supposed to give up for Lent are all those things that we’ve jammed into our hearts as a substitute for God.  It’s trivial to give up chocolate, or wine, or movies for Lent.  What this spiritual discipline is really after are those appetites that keep us from dealing with our deepest appetite for God, and that’s what Psalm 63 addresses too. 

The editorial note at the top of Psalm 63 tells us that it is a Psalm of David when he was in the wilderness of Judah.  We don’t know who wrote these headings.  All we know is that they have been there for a long, long time.  They are not part of the original inspired text of Scripture, but they are a voice from the ancient past that were put there to help us better understand Scripture, and that tradition tells us that David wrote Psalm 63 when he was running for his life from King Saul and had fled into the barren wilderness of the Judean desert to hide.

This Psalm has been called one of the great devotional masterpieces of the Hebrew Bible, and the first Christians thought it so important that they adopted the practice of praying it at the start of every day.  There’s something about the rhythm of this Psalm that touches something pretty basic in Biblical spirituality.  We might say that Psalm 63 gives us direct access to that God-shaped vacuum in our hearts.  The movement of Psalm 63 is from the description of the crisis of soul that David was experiencing in the wilderness, a wilderness that was for him literal and physical as well as symbolic and spiritual (Verse 1), to the naming of the remedy that David sought to change his spiritual condition and circumstance (Verses 2 & 5), to the final realization that David made that is the enduring spiritual “take-away” of this Psalm for us sitting here this morning  (Verses 7-8).  

Let’s quickly trace this movement for ourselves by following along with the words of the Psalm itself.  It starts in verse 1 with David telling God all about the condition of his soul –

“O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee;
my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is.”

This Psalm is a prayer.  When we read these words, we are eavesdropping on a private conversation that David was having with God, and what David wanted God to know was that the terrain of his soul perfectly matched the geography of the place where he was hiding out from King Saul and his army – “a dry and weary land where no water is.” 

I like deserts, I really do.  Mary Lynn says I like them because they’re organized.  What I’d say is that I like them because they reduce things to their basics.  I once heard someone say that we don’t really know how much we are depending on God until we’ve got nothing left but God to depend on, and this is what the desert does.  The desert is life stripped down.  There are no extras, nothing extraneous.  David’s wilderness experience reduced him to his life’s one basic need –  “O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee.”  And we are invited into the spiritual wilderness of Lent each year to make this same discovery.

After telling God about the shape that his soul was in, David told God what it was that he thought he needed for things to get better for him again spiritually.  Look at verse 2 — David told God that he wanted to “look upon Him in the sanctuary,” he wanted to “behold His power and glory” again.  Somewhere I’ve read that whenever someone approached Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of our spiritual tradition, and told him that they were spiritually stalled and wanted to know what they could do get things going for themselves again spiritually, that he would tell them – “Go to church. Listen to a sermon. Sing a hymn. Take Communion. Say a prayer.”  These are called the “ordinary means of grace.”  I’ve had my share of mountain-top experiences, extraordinary moments in my spiritual life when God has been especially present, and His grace has been uniquely at work.  I suspect that you have too.  But these special experiences are the exceptions and not the rule of the Christian life.  St. Francis de Sales said that while the taste of sugar is exquisite, that it was the ordinary taste of salt that sustains everyday life. David wasn’t asking God for sugar.  What he wanted was some salt, and where David knew that he would find that spiritual salt was in the sanctuary. 

The “sanctuary” was the Tabernacle, the place where God told His people that He would meet them.  This is where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the Holy of Holies.  It was regarded as the throne of God on earth, and it was the place where God was worshipped every day in the prescribed rituals of sacrifice and praise.  The “sanctuary” was a reference to the Old Testament “church,” and to the ordinary means of grace that were available to people there.  David wasn’t seeking some spectacular sign or wonder for the repair of his soul.  What he wanted was salt not sugar.  What David wanted was to be back in “church” again, and to be able to share in its routine life of worship.

“My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat” (63:5).  That’s the exact opposite of the condition of David’s soul at the beginning of this Psalm, and it’s the experience of being in the “sanctuary” that connects these spiritual dots.  David said that when he woke up in the middle of the night thinking about what his soul desperately needed and what God had graciously provided, memorialized by the sanctuary and its rituals, that he got what he needed to keep going –

“…Thou hast been my help, and in the shadow of thy wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to thee; thy right hand upholds me
…” (7-8)

Lewis Smedes was a professor at the first seminary I attended in California.  He suffered from depression, and he wrote that it was while he was on a retreat at an isolated cottage on Puget Sound that he made the discovery that saved his life.  He said that he had intentionally gone there to clear the clutter that had clogged the valves of his heart for so long.  There were no diversions – no ball games to listen to on the radio, no news to watch on TV, no magazine or newspapers to leisurely read, no Mozart to listen to before dinner, no telephone calls to make or take.  Just days and days of silence and solitude – Lewis Smedes alone with God, an experience of Lent – that’s what it was. It was in the middle of the second week of this, on a Wednesday afternoon, that Lewis said that God showed up. He wrote –

“I want to tell you how I felt God that warm afternoon on Fox Island, I want to tell you how that one hour’s experience has become a parable, for me, of how we can be sure, by experience, that it really can be all right, in the center of life, when everything on the surface is hellish.” (168)

“I was in the hands of God. I could live by grace.  I could lose all human support and not fall down. I was held and would not be dropped.  I was supported and would not sink.  I was held together and would not fall apart.  I was accepted and could not be rejected.  I was loved and would never be despised.  I was in hell, and God was there for me.” (170)

I don’t care what you’ve given up for Lent, or even if you’ve given up Lent for Lent. What I do care about is if you are in touch with that God-shaped vacuum in your heart.  Are you hungry and thirsty for God?  Or, are you trying to live by bread alone?   The reason why the church schedules Lent each year is so that we will have a chance to come to terms as Christians with the experience that Psalm 63 describes; to make the journey again from the emptiness of our souls to their fullness by way of the ordinary means of grace.  And so –

“I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

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“It’s Time for Your Annual Check-up” An Ash Wednesday Meditation

In a blog at “Desiring God,” John Piper’s ministry webpage, Christians are told that there are some Bible passages that we should have “down cold”  – the 23rd Psalm, Matthew 28 – the Great Commission, Galatians 5 – the Fruit of the Spirit, Romans 8 – “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” and I Corinthians 11:23-26, the Words of Institution for the Lord’s Supper. Because we are a church that observes the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, these are words we hear a lot. What we don’t often hear is the larger context in which these familiar words appear. 

The context of any verse in the Bible is crucial for knowing what that verse means, and the context of these verses is especially relevant for us because not only are they the key to preventing the Lord’s Supper from becoming and empty ritual to us, but they also provide us with the spiritual rationale for the observance of a holy Lent.  Let’s start by look at verses 17-22.

I Corinthians is the New Testament’s Encyclopedia of church problems.  The Apostle Paul wrote it from Ephesus after he got a report about some problems that the church back in Corinth was having after he’d moved on.   One of the things that they were messing up badly was the Lord’s Supper.  And so, Paul wrote –

17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

The Corinthian church was a divided church, in fact, this was the very first problem that Paul addressed in this letter.  The Corinthians were divided up into different cliques, each one thinking that it was spiritually superior to  the others (1:10-17; 3:1-4).  These splits were even showing up in the way that they were observing the Lord’s Supper.  They were coming at different times in order to avoid having to be with each other at the table!  Paul told them that this was not at all how the Lord’s Supper was supposed to work! 

In verses 23-26, Paul told the Corinthians why Christians observe the Lord’s Supper in the first place.  This is the earliest written account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper that we have in the New Testament, and it’s the one we use each Sunday morning.  

23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

The Lord’s Supper is a “Gospel Ordinance” – something that was instituted by Jesus Christ Himself as a way for us to remember His sacrifice of love on the cross, and to personally share in its spiritual benefits.  Because of the way that the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper are visible and tangible signs of the Gospel, Paul was deeply troubled by the way that the Corinthians were being so careless in the way that they were observing it. 

The author of Hebrews told his readers that because of their carelessness with the Gospel that they were at risk of “trampling on the Son of God, and treating the blood of the covenant, which made them holy, as if it were common and unholy, and insulting the Holy Spirit who was bringing God’s mercy to them” (10:29), and in verses 27 through 32, Paul told the Corinthians that they were at real risk of doing this same thing because of the spiritually careless way that they were approaching the Lord’s Supper –

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

Now we’re in the thick of it.  These six verses are a crash course on what it means to take Jesus Christ seriously.  They are the New Testament’s version of the third Commandment – “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.”   Taking God’s Name “in vain” and eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord “in an unworthy manner” is exactly the same sin, the sin of “irreverence.

After a night of riotous activity, it’s said that Voltaire and a young friend were making their way home when the young man, plagued by guilt,  asked, “Do you think God will forgive us?” And with a wave of his hand, Voltaire dismissed his whole crisis of conscience by flippantly saying, “Don’t worry, it’s God’s job to forgive us.”  The Old Testament and the New Testament agree, the God of the Bible is not someone to be trifled with. 

Diagnostically, Paul told the Corinthians that the reason why they were spiritually “weak, sick, and dying” was because they were “profaning the body and blood of Christ,” and prescriptively, Paul told the Corinthians that the way they could get better was by carefully examining themselves before coming to the Table.   Just as we regularly get physical check-ups to assess our physical well-being, so Paul told the Corinthians to start conducting regular spiritual check-ups on themselves to assess their spiritual well-being.  Paul ended his second letter to the Corinthians with this same exact instruction –

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith.                     Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? (13:5)

E. Stanley Jones used to say that he thought that only a third of the people in church on any given Sunday were there because they were in a vital relationship with Jesus Christ.  He said that two thirds of the people in church needed to be evangelized, and this means that we all need to examine ourselves to see if we have saving faith.   We need to test ourselves to see if Jesus Christ is in us.  

Doing this each week before receiving the Lord’s Supper is what makes communion a means of grace and growth for us spiritually, and not just an empty ritual, and annually the season of Lent on the church calendar, these 40 days before Easter, with its invitation to “self-examination and repentance; to prayer, fasting, and self-denial; to reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” is what makes these next five weeks such a wonderful opportunity for our spiritual growth and renewal.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent: by self–examination and repentance;  by prayer, fasting, and self–denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

A Prayer for the Growth in Grace of Lent

Wake us up, Loving God.  Stir us from the slumber of our cozy relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior that gives us peace now and that offers the promise of heaven when we die, and shift us to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord that shakes the foundations of our lives with His claims, and that challenges and changes the ways that we think, feel, and act as His disciples. 

Use these 40 days of Lent, Saving God, through the practice of the spiritual disciplines of honest self-examination, receptive Bible study, travailing prayer, and humble service to bring our heads and hearts more in line with what it is that you want, and with what it is that you are doing in us and the world around us.  Help us to grow in grace and to live lives of mercy because of Jesus Christ, whose life inspires us, whose death forgives us, and whose resurrection enables us to walk in newness of life. Amen.

Wake us up, Loving God.  Stir us from the slumber of our cozy relationship with Jesus Christ as Savior that gives us peace now and that offers the promise of heaven when we die, and shift us to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord that shakes the foundations of our lives with His claims, and that challenges and changes the ways that we think, feel, and act as His disciples. 

A Prayer for the Growth in Grace of Lent

Use these 40 days of Lent, Saving God, through the practice of the spiritual disciplines of honest self-examination, receptive Bible study, travailing prayer, and humble service to bring our heads and hearts more in line with what it is that you want, and with what it is that you are doing in us and the world around us.  Help us to grow in grace and to live lives of mercy because of Jesus Christ, whose life inspires us, whose death forgives us, and whose resurrection enables us to walk in newness of life. Amen.


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The Wisdom of “Numbering our Days”

The news this week has been full of stories of famous people dying “before their time” (Keith Flint – 49, Luke Perry – 52, Janice Freeman – 33, Clark James Gable III – 30), and of anonymous people dying suddenly, violently, and randomly by the uncontrollable forces of nature (23 dead in Alabama from tornados).  These sorts of stories touch our basic vulnerability as human beings – we are all going to die. 

It’s said that we are the only beings in the created order that lives with a sense of its own mortality.  Now, I’m not sure how we know this for a fact, I mean, who knows what elephants and dolphins are really thinking?  What I can say with some confidence is that my cats sleeping in the sun on the floor of the front room of our house appear to me untroubled by the fact that they are going to die, and that by way of contrast, there have been times in my life when I could not sleep, even as a child, because I knew that one day I was going to have to.  There is a Greco-Roman myth that says that human beings were originally born with an innate knowledge of the date of their death imprinted on their hearts, but that this knowledge filled us with such melancholy as human beings that it finally had to obliterated in us so as not to completely paralyze us.

In weeks like this one, with so many public deaths, my heart often circles back around to Psalm 90.  Here is where I find comfort and courage in the face of death.  This is a Psalm attributed to Moses.  Exodus 15 is known as the “Song” or “Psalm” of Moses, and Revelation 15:3 says that it gets sung in heaven for eternity, so it’s not like Moses has no notable Psalm resume.  Still, the attribution of Psalm 90 to Moses in the editorial heading is a bit surprising. The actual content of the Psalm gives this traditional attribution even greater meaning and power.

Moses was one of the greatest human beings in the Biblical story.  If Biblical Israel had a Mount Rushmore (a ludicrous idea because of the prohibition on graven images in the Second Commandment) Moses would certainly be on it with Abraham, David, and who?  Joseph? Samuel? Elijah?  As an exemplary human being, few are more exalted in  Scripture’s estimation than is Moses. But his Psalm contrasts humanity’s transience (including his own) with God’s permeance, and humanity’s contingency (including his own) with God’s sufficiency.  We are all like grass that sprouts in the morning, flourishes at midday, and withers in the afternoon sun (90:6). Our days pass like a watch in the night (90:4), they are soon gone, and we all fly away (90:10).  The whole of this Psalm attributed to the greatest of human beings is a warning about humanity’s temporality in the shadow of God’s eternity.  “As for the days of our lives, they contain seventy years, or if due to strength, eighty” (90:10), Moses counseled.  But they are passing like “yesterday gone” (90:4), he warned, and so we’d best learn to “number our days” in order to get “a heart of wisdom.”

Wisdom is not knowledge.  Knowledge is about information.  Wisdom is about formation.  Knowledge is about the “what?” and the “how?” of things.  Wisdom is about the “why?” Knowledge tells me that I am going to die.  Wisdom tells me how to live most authentically, most intentionally, and most faithfully.  And its’ by “numbering our days,” by living with an awareness of our finitude, that opens us up to the discovery of the things that “abide” – faith, hope, and love (I Corinthians 13:13).

I know that “going to heaven when you die” is widely denigrated as an unworthy motivation for being a Christian by many these days.  But I’ve got to tell you that the Gospel’s promise of liberation from our bondage to the fear of death by the Christ who triumphed over death (Hebrews 2:14-15) played no small part in my conversion.  The “heart of wisdom” I received from “numbering my days” was that the realization that if I live, I am the Lord’s, and if I die, I am the Lord’s, so then whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s (Romans 14:8). Held secure, in life and death, by my Savior, I found that –

My chains are gone; I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior has ransomed me.
And like a flood His mercy reigns — unending love, amazing grace.

Pastor Ben Haden used to say, “The world has a gurgle in its throat when it comes to death, but the Christian can speak with total confidence.” And the source of that confidence, Ben said, is the promise that Jesus Christ made to all of us as he stood at the grave of his best friend Lazarus. “I think the most overlooked portion of Scripture is the phrase right after ‘Whoever believes in me shall live even if he dies’ in John 11,” Ben said. “It continues, ‘Whoever believes in me shall never die.’ We forget that Christians are incapable of being dead for even one moment. When we pass from this life, we’re alive!

It’s when I am most acutely aware of just how thin the line is that holds my life, that I find that I am most grateful to have a Savior who says – “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18). DBS +

The Wisdom of Numbering our Days

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We are Loved. We are Forgiven. We are Safe.

The Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument sits on a couple of acres of High Plains prairie – you know, a grassy mesa, some scrub lined canyons, a mesquite tree here and there – completely unremarkable.   But hidden all over those two acres are these little circular quarries – some 700 of them in all – where for more than 12,000 years native Americans mined colorful flint – white, maroon, red, blue and orange – for use as arrowheads, spear points and scrapping tools.  Alibates Flint artifacts have been found at archeological digs 500 miles in every direction from that little plot of land above the Canadian River north of Amarillo.

Flint has been used since the days of the Stone Age by human beings to make tools.  It’s the nearly perfect material for arrowheads, spears and knives.  When chipped, it makes a sharp edge; sturdy, strong, and enduring. Physically, flint is a hard and unyielding substance, and so symbolically, flint became a picturesque way to describe somebody who had made up their mind, somebody who was firm in their resolve, focused and determined, somebody who was not going to be easily dissuaded, someone who was going to see things through to the bitter end no matter what it cost.

In ancient Hebrew circles, people like this were said to have “set their faces like flint,” and our three short Scripture readings this morning from the Gospel of Matthew would suggest that Jesus had.  In fact, a parallel text to our readings this morning from the Gospel of Luke actually says so.  Twice in Luke chapter 9, in verse 51 and then again in verse 53, Luke told us that Jesus had set His face like flint “to go to Jerusalem.”

One day Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  And Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”   And with that question settled, Jesus immediately moved on to the next question — the question of what it was that He had come as the Christ to do.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21)

That’s what Jesus said after Peter told Him that he was the Christ, and it’s what Jesus told His disciples again in Matthew 17:22-23, and then again in Matthew 20:17-19. Three times between Peter’s Good Confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi in Matthew chapter 16 and His triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in Matthew chapter 21, Jesus pulled His disciples in close and told them that going to the cross to die and be raised again on the third day was the reason why He came.  He’d “set His face like flint” to go to Jerusalem.

When the angel told Joseph that Mary, his betrothed, was with child by the Holy Spirit, and that he should not fear to take her to be his wife as they had planned, the angel also told Joseph to name Mary’s baby “Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  Reflecting on this, Dag Hammarskjold in his spiritual classic Markings observed that the manger is situated on Golgotha, and the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.

The cross wasn’t an afterthought, an unexpected development in the story of Jesus that the Gospels tell.  No, the cross was the whole point.  The cross is the event towards which all of the action in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John moves, in fact, in the book of Revelation, the cross is the event towards which, and from which, all of human history moves. In John’s vision of heaven, the only One who is “worthy” to break the seals on the scroll of history so that it can be opened and read is “the Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (5:6), and that Lamb had been  “slain from the foundation of the world” (13:8).  This is why it is impossible for me to think of Christ and not wind up at the foot of the cross.  No wonder Paul told the Corinthians that when he came to them to preach the Gospel that he had “decided to  know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2).  There is no Christianity without Christ, and there is no Christ without the cross.

There’s a wonderful painting by William Holman Hunt, the 19th century English artist, called “In the Shadow of Death.”  It shows a young Jesus before the days of His public ministry have begun, still at work in the carpentry shop in Nazareth.  In the painting, Jesus has gotten up from His cramped workbench and is stretching His arms, and the shadow He casts on the back wall of the carpentry shop falls on a wooden spar where all of His tools are hung, and it looks like He’s already on the cross. 

Jesus’ whole life and ministry were lived in the shadow of the cross, as is the whole life and ministry of His church.  There’s a great big cross above the front door of this building, and there’s a cross on top of its steeple.   The architectural focal point of this meeting room – what’s down front and high up at its center – is a cross.  There are crosses on it walls and around many of the necks of the people who gather here.  And one of the main things that we do every time we’re in this room is break bread and share a cup in remembrance of what it was that God did for us in Jesus Christ on the cross.

It’s not the cross all by itself that matters so much to us as Christians, but what the cross accomplished.  Not so much the “what?” but the “why?”  Don’t forget thaton the day when Jesus was crucified, the Gospels tell us that there were two other men who were crucified right beside Him!  There were three crosses on Calvary on Good Friday, and externally, the three men who were on them all went through the same experience.  Their pain and their shame were exactly the same.  But internally, at the point of meaning, what Jesus was doing on His cross and what those other two men were doing on their crosses could not have been more different

There is no community gathering anywhere in the world today in remembrance of, and appreciation for, the death of those other two guys on their crosses 2000 years ago.  We don’t even remember their names.  But we cannot forget the cross or ignore the Christ who suffered there and died for us, and for the whole world.  When we say that Christ died, we’re talking about history, about something that happened long ago and far away.  But when we say that Christ died for us, we’re talking about our lives right here and now, and about how what happened on that cross long ago is crucial in our understanding of who God is and what God does.

Through the ages, as Christians have thought and talked about what it was that God was doing on the cross in Christ, three big ideas have made their way to the forefront.  The cross of Christ is about how God shows His great love for us.  The cross of Christ is about how God deals with the problem of sin.  And the cross of Christ is about how God confronts and defeats everything and anything that seeks to work us woe.  Every Sunday morning when we sit in this room beneath that big cross up there with the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper in our hands, these are the three big truths that should be bouncing around in our heads and hearts – We are loved; we are forgiven; and we are safe.

We are loved. I remember going to the theater to see the movie “The Passion of the Christ” when it was first released. Apart from the aesthetic and theological debates that this movie generated, there was the emotional impact that it had on its audiences.  I remember that there was audible weeping in the theater where I saw it, and it made me think of a hymn that we will sing soon as a church, “Were You There?”

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Has the thought of Christ on the cross ever made you tremble? In 1965, while on a retreat with the men from my church, we stopped for a visit at the Mission in Ventura, California.  We traipsed as a group through the restored buildings and gardens of this historic mission as our tour guide rattled on and on about all the historic artifacts and lovely art works that could be found there.  And then as we turned to leave, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a crucifix at the altar on the left side of the church.  I had never seen anything quite like it before.  It was life-sized, anatomically correct and gruesome in every detail.  Where Christ had been pierced there was blood.  Where Christ had been beaten there was gore.  Where Christ had been bruised there was sweat.  It was all so realistic that it startled me, and so I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared.  And as I gazed on that image of Christ’s suffering that day, it dawned on me, for the first time in my life, that this was how much God really loved me.  Jesus Christ was on that cross for me!  I guess I had heard that all of my life.  I probably knew it in an abstract sort of way.  But standing there in front of that life-sized, physically accurate crucifix on the side altar in the sanctuary of the Ventura Mission in 1965, I got “it” for the first time, and I trembled.  And that’s the first meaning of the cross.  We are loved.

The second meaning of the cross is that we are forgiven.   As you know, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer around here we use the word “debts” rather than the word “trespasses.”  It’s a matter of translation, and I could make a case for the use of either word, but the fact that we use “debts” is a helpful way for us to think about what Christ on the cross has to do with our forgiveness.  This is how Tim Keller explains it –

If a friend of yours accidentally smashes a lamp in your house, one of two things can happen as a result. Either you can make him pay—“That will be $100, please”- or you can say, “I forgive you, that’s okay.” But in the latter case what happens to that $100? You have to pay it yourself, or you have to lose $100 worth of light and get used to a darker room. Either your friend pays the cost for what was done or you absorb the cost…  the debt of wrong doesn’t just vanish: either they pay or you pay.

And when we say that Christ died for our sins, what we are saying is that He paid the price to repair the damage that the moral and spiritual rebellion of our sins has caused in us and the world.  We’re forgiven.  That’s the second meaning of the cross.

And finally, we’re safe.  That’s the third big meaning of the cross.  In one of his books, Peter Berger, the religious sociologist, related an experience to which that anyone who has been a parent can certainly relate.   Your child wakes up in the night and – “surrounded by darkness” and “beset by nameless threats” – cries out in terror. And you, being a good parent, immediately go to your child, gathering her up into your arms and reassuring her saying, “Don’t be afraid – everything is all right.”  And Peter Berger asked – “Are you lying to your child?”

We live in “a world with devils filled” that “threaten to undo us.”   Can anyone who reads the morning paper or watches the evening news really say, “There’s nothing to worry about?”  Peter Berger said that the only way that such a statement is true is if God is really there and is actually doing something about the powers that “seek to work us woe.”  And one of the first ways that Christians thought and talked about what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross was as God’s decisive confrontation with evil, and His ultimate triumph over it in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. As Carl Henry put it –

When Jesus told His disciples – “Let not your hearts be troubled,  neither let them be afraid” – he was on his way to the cross.  Facing his crucifixion, Jesus had peace, whereas the disciples, who were not facing crucifixion had troubled hearts… A peace that can look beyond the terrors of crucifixion to resurrection morning is…  a peace adequate for any [circumstance or situation] that you or I will ever be called upon to face.

We’re safe, that’s the third big meaning of the cross.

Learning that he was golfer, Scott McKnight says that he was once asked by someone at a dinner party – “So, which one of your golf clubs is your favorite?”  And Scott writes –

I had never been asked that question before, and it struck me as odd.  My answer went something like this.  When I’m at 150 yards, I like to “knock down” with my 7-iron.  When I’m at 200 yards and there is no wind, I like my 3-iron.  When I’m on the tee box, if the fairway is open, I like my driver.  On the green, I like my putter.  When I’m in the bunker around the green, I like my sand wedge.  When I’m at 80 yards and in the fairway, I like my lob wedge.  So, I said to him, I don’t have a favorite club.  I use all fourteen clubs in my bag.

“We have a big bag of images in our Bible” when it talks about the meaning of the saving work of God in Christ on the cross, Scott explains, “and we need to pull each from the bag if we are to play out the fulsomeness of the redemptive work of God” (xiii).  Jesus set His face like flint towards Jerusalem and the cross that waited for Him there so that we might know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are loved, forgiven, and safe. DBS+

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How to Talk with a Theological Conservative

This is David Gushee’s guidance on how to advance the LBGTQ conversation with theological conservatives in such a way that it can actually become transformative.  David Gushee is a Baptist theologian who has changed his mind about the place of LBGTQ persons in the heart of God, and in the life and ministry of the church. 

It was by engaging with faithful partners who took me and my concerns, conclusions, and convictions as a theological conservative seriously in the work of the our work together on the denominational Task Force on the question of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the life of our church (“Listening to the Spirit”) that created a climate in which honest conversations could occur, and growth and change could become a real possibility. 

There is no way forward in this conversation for theological conservatives if the authority of Scripture is dismissed or if the content of Scripture gets demeaned.  It was by pushing on my interpretations of Scripture and not by undermining my confidence in Scripture that opened me up to new understandings of Scripture, and that led me to arrive at a different set of Biblical concerns, convictions and conclusions. DBS+  

“I want to make a few recommendations about how not to argue against traditionalists. These claims are made on theological, ethical and prudential grounds, and are directed mainly at my progressive friends.

  1. Please, friends: Do not dismiss the traditionalist-cited passages as “clobber verses,” deployed with malice in order to harm gay people. Certainly there are some who use the Bible in egregious ways to clobber others, but also remember the good-hearted Christian folks who are simply trying to be faithful Christians and aren’t trying to clobber anyone when they cite the passages they think are most relevant to the issue.  
  2. Do not dismiss whole authors (Paul) or sections (Old Testament) of scripture as if we good, contemporary folks know that they have little to say to our enlightened modern world, at least not if you want to be taken seriously by traditional Christians.
  3. Do not dismiss people who cite the Bible against your view simply as fundamentalists or some other derogatory phrase. It’s not helpful, and most of the time it’s not fair. Name-calling rarely advances the search for truth or the health of Christian community.
  4. Do not dismiss traditionalist Christian sexual ethics as simply part of an overall anti-body, anti-sex, anti-woman, anti-pleasure agenda. Surely this has been a strand of Christian history. But I can point you to a zillion Christians who love bodies, sex, women, men and pleasure, but read the Bible in a traditionalist way on this issue.
  5. Do not simply point to broad themes of liberation, justice or inclusion of the marginalized as if those important biblical imperatives ipso facto invalidate the need to deal with the texts cited on the traditionalist side.
  6. Do not assume that the issue is settled by making claims to being “prophetic.” This is a big claim, and it helps to remember that some on the other side of this issue are also making it. Only God can validate who is really being prophetic.
  7. Do not just say that it’s time for Christians to “catch up with the culture” or stop falling “behind the times.” The fact that a particular culture has moved to a particular point does not prove anything, because cultures are sometimes quite wrong.

The argument over sexuality today is a serious one. It requires serious work. But when progressives default to these responses and refuse to engage the real concerns of the other side, they come across as fundamentally unserious about Scripture—or theology—or ethics—or Christian discipleship. And I suspect that this is one primary reason for the level of passion about this issue on the traditionalist side.”

Gushee, David P. Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics (Kindle Locations 947-971).

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