“Sticks and Stones… and the Words that Hurt…”

We are studying Ephesians on Sunday evenings at church. This time through Ephesians I have been waylaid by what Paul said about the things that “grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30).

 Oh, I know… I know… there is a substantial argument between scholarship and tradition about this claim of Paul’s authorship of Ephesians. I am more than familiar with its sound and fury. What I’ve personally concluded is that regardless of where you happen to come down on the actual question, Ephesians still internally claims to have been written by Paul (1:1), and Ephesians is still in the canon of the New Testament, meaning that it is still part of the critical grist for the mill of our faith and faithfulness.  So, I’m perfectly willing to give Paul credit for it, if for no other reason than to establish its apostolic credibility, thereby reaffirming the necessity of our having to deal with it as part of “the deposit of faith” (2 Timothy 1:14).

So, doing that, taking Ephesians seriously, let’s take just a moment and ponder the rather startling fact that we can actually “grieve” the Holy Spirit!  Do you mean that we can make God sad?  Do you mean that we can hurt God’s feelings? Do you mean that by our choices we can cause God to weep (Luke 19:41-44)?  What extraordinary vulnerability on God’s part, and what an astonishing power for us to possess as human beings!  God cares so much about the choices we make that when we disregard God’s standards for what’s right, and good, and holy, and just, God actually gets offended — or is it “wounded.” Whenever I read about the “wrath” of God in Scripture – and it’s in the Bible a whole lot more than most of us are prepared to admit – it’s this deep sense of divine disappointment in the choices that we are making that informs my understanding of the concept.  The way I see it, the wrath of God is as much about the ways that we make God sad as it is about the ways that we make God mad.  We can grieve the Holy Spirit.

Just a little bit later in Ephesians, Paul told his readers to keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit (5:18), and when you put these two Holy Spirit mandates from Ephesians together – the negative “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30) with the positive “Keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit” (5:18) – the instrumentality of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in believers for the living of the Christian life begins to loom rather large in the critical conversation about what it means for us to be faithful Christians. In seminary one of my teachers talked often about the centrality of the Holy Spirit in New Testament ethics. “The Holy Spirit inwardly guides the behavior of believers,” he explained. “Christians should expect the Holy Spirit to show them what the right thing to do is in each circumstance and situation.” I understand this not in the sense that the Holy Spirit comes up with what is the good and right thing to do in each moment right there on the spot – a kind of ever-shifting situational ethic.  No, I believe that God has already shown us in the Law and the Prophets what is holy, just, right, and good (Romans 7:12; Matthew 22:34-40; Micah 6:8).  And so I find that how the Holy Spirit helps me in the moment is in the application of the letter of the content of the Law and the Prophets to the immediate context of the particular circumstances and situations of my life.  And in this internal Holy Spirit process that’s constantly going on inside me, I think that it’s my capacity to “yield” (Romans 6:12-19) that determines whether I wind up grieving the Holy Spirit, or being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Life is filled with very real choices. Christians who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ have made a commitment to process these choices with conscious and continuous reference to who it is that we know Him to be, and to what it is that we know Him to want of us, and from us.  This “knowing” of Christ and His purposes depends almost entirely on the Word and the Spirit.  The Word of Scripture is the trustworthy record of God’s self-disclosure in history – the how, and the when, and the where, and the what of God’s speaking and showing of Himself, first to Israel, and then in and through the life of the Apostolic church.  And the Spirit of God at work in the human heart is how these ancient stories and distant teachings get applied to our lives and circumstances today.

I experience God’s moral and spiritual demands as conscious choices, informed by Word and Spirit, to be made in each moment of my life. I can “yield” to what it is that I understand to be the “mind of Christ” in the choice that is to be made, or I can “yield” to the other pressures and influences in my life.  This is the whole frame of New Testament ethics.  It’s Adam or Christ, the old humanity or the new creation, the flesh or the Spirit in every single moral and spiritual choice that we must make as Christians, and the Spirit is the resource that we have been given to assist us in knowing and then doing the right, the just, the good, the “holy” thing in each and every situation.

Now, back to Ephesians and grieving the Holy Spirit…

When we “resist the Spirit” (Genesis 6:3; Acts 7:51) by refusing to yield to God’s wisdom in the moment of a decision (Acts 6:9-10), one of the results of that rebellion is that we wind up grieving the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 63:10).  And in Ephesians, in a place where Paul unpacked this idea with some specificity (4:17-5:20), it is simply startling to see how it is our speech – the things that we say – that so frequently grieves the Holy Spirit.

“…putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors…” (4:25)

 “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,
as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (4:29)

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling
and slander
, together with all malice…” (4:31)

“Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk;
but instead, let there be thanksgiving.” (5:4)

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things
the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” (5:6)

Empty words… coarse talk… evil speech… angry outbursts… wrangling… slandering… false witness… In the moral instruction of Ephesians (4:17-5:20) Paul brought into particular focus how the things that we say are some of the more specific and most consistent ways that we cause the Holy Spirit grief, and this hit me with particular force while teaching Ephesians this time round. Because we always read the Bible in one hand while holding the newspaper in the other, I’m not really surprised that our sins of speech as a primary source of the Holy Spirit’s grief is something to which I would be particularly sensitive.

Just like you, I am terribly bothered by the tone of public discourse in our culture these days. And while it would be very easy for us to point an accusing finger exclusively in one direction or another as the singular source of the precipitous decline of civility in our culture, the fact of the matter is that a lack of respect seems to pervade our social discourse at every level and across all platforms. It’s not just that we disagree, it’s that we feel like we have to demean. It’s not that we feel the need to publicly take principled stands, it’s that we think that we have to mock those who have taken the opposite principled public stand. It’s not that we have our own settled convictions, it’s that we’ve become smug. We don’t want the open exchange of ideas, we want to shut the other side up. We’re outraged when somebody says something cruel about us or crass about what we think, but that certainly doesn’t stop us from hitting back just as hard with crass comments of our own about what they think and cruel words about who they are. It’s not that we’re passionate, it’s that we’re mean. I rarely come away from the point/counter-point postings of Facebook, or from watching the partisan propaganda of the cable news networks without feeling a deep sense of sorrow about the tone and content of how we are choosing to address one another across the cultural, racial, theological, political, social, and sexual divides that are ever widening at our feet. And if this grieves me, then what do you suppose it is doing to the Spirit of the living God?

It was the late George Mallone who said that while becoming a Christian is something that happens in an instant, with the initial decision of faith, that being a Christian is a long and hard process that unfolds only slowly over a long period of time. He quoted Chuck Swindoll’s observation that the renewal of a life is much like the remodeling of a home. It’s a project that always going to “take longer than you planned, cost more than you figured, that’s going to be messier than you anticipated, and that will require even greater determination than you ever expected.” The general contractor for this transforming work that’s going on inside of us as Christians is the Holy Spirit, and this is why the things that we say have such an effect on the Spirit. Jesus said –

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)

When our speech does not reflect the values of the Gospel or the vision of the kind of people that we are becoming in Christ, then the quality and extent of the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts immediately becomes suspect. Our words grieve the Holy Spirit when they reveal hearts that are resistant to the change that the Holy Spirit is trying to engineer in them. So, listen carefully to what you are saying this week. If you hear Christ in your words, then that’s pretty good evidence of the work of God’s Spirit in you. But if what you hear when you speak is the sigh or sob of the Spirit instead, then that’s pretty good evidence that you are resisting the work of the Spirit in your heart, and that it’s breaking His. DBS +


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“To Know Jesus Christ More Intimately…”


 “At Covenant, we believe a Seminary Education is successful only if – at its end–
the student knows Jesus Christ more intimately than at its beginning.”

This is the mission statement of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. This is a school that was, and still is intimately associated with the ministry and legacy of Francis Schaeffer, the teacher on whom I cut my theological teeth. I am not the same person that I was when I first started seriously reading Francis Schaeffer as a college freshman in 1971, but in many ways he set the theological table at which I still sit and from which I still feast, and I am deeply grateful for the ways that he first pushed my thinking, and for the ways that he continues to shape my believing.

Because of this connection, when I first saw this mission statement in an advertisement for Covenant Seminary in Christianity Today some 40 years ago, I immediately clipped it and pinned it to the cork board that I keep on the wall beside my desk.  I appreciated its clarity of purpose, and it wasn’t long before I found that I had adopted it, and adapted it to fit my own sense of personal mission.

 “My ministry will be successful only if – at its end – the people in my care
know Jesus Christ more intimately than they did before.”

Yesterday, the church I serve, celebrated my 20th year with them as their pastor. It was a wonderful day. Half of my ministry has spent at this one church.  I could not be more blessed.   They have been patient, responsive, resilient, discerning, missional, and pastoral throughout this long journey we have made together.  We have shared joys and sorrows, accomplishments and failures, growth and decline, renewal and resolve. In the climactic moment in the movie “As Good as it Gets,” the Jack Nicholson character tells the Helen Hunt character, “You make me want to be a better man,” and this is what Northway has consistently done for me, in me.  This church has made me want to be a better minister.

When I am asked how you stay at the same church for 20 years, the first thing I say is that it has almost everything to do with the church and very little to do with the minister. In 80 years this church that I serve has had just 3 senior ministers — 3!  My immediate pastoral predecessor served here 20 years, and his pastoral predecessor served here for more than 40!  That’s a remarkable record of steadfastness.  Quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene Peterson named his collection of sermons on the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) A Long Obedience.  This comes from the Nietzsche quote –

The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

Through all of the “ups and downs” and the “ins and outs” of a ministry over two decades, a church must consciously cultivate this “long obedience” mindset if a minister is to survive, let alone thrive.  I have been given this gift from this church that I have been privileged to serve for these past 20 years.  They have “kept on keeping on.” But this same gift of perseverance, or “stick-to-it-iveness” as the chair of a search committee I once visited with put it, must also be consciously cultivated in a minister’s heart if s/he is to remain on that pastoral path of the long obedience in the same direction.

I keep a note card in one of the prayer books that I regularly use on which I wrote down the advice that Dr. Charles Kemp gave us in seminary about the four ways that we would find “repose” in our ministries. He said that peace in a minister’s heart comes by way of:

  1. Perseverance – That is, working steadily toward the goal;
  2. Patience – Ministry is relational, and relationships take time, so suppress the “I want it now” mentality that is always trying to take over our expectations and desires;
  3. Perspective – Always keep the long view of an entire ministry in mind, and not the just the present moment. Celebrate the moments of collaboration and cooperation; and
  4. Prayerfulness – Never forget that this is the Lord’s Work — we plant the seeds and we water the fields, but it is God who gives the growth (I Corinthians 3:6).

I know that I have reached the milestone of 20 years at Northway through perseverance, patience, perspective and prayerfulness, all that, and one more thing – purposefulness. From that first day on the job 20 years ago, to the anniversary celebration last Sunday, I have known who I am, why I am here, and what I have been called to do.

“My ministry will be successful only if – at its end – the people in my care
will know Jesus Christ more intimately than they did before.”

In the Reformed spiritual tradition (which I believe is our most natural spiritual habitat as Disciples) it was not uncommon for ministers to put the letters “V.D.M.” after their names.  F.F. Bruce explained the meaning of these three little letters –

“No letters indicating academic achievement or public honor can match in dignity the letters ‘V.D.M.’ applied to the pastor’s name in some Reformed churches – ‘Verbi Divini Minister’ – ‘Servant of the Word of God.’” 

A “V.D.M.” — That’s all I have ever wanted to be.  And when I am done, the most that I could possibly hope might be said of me is – “We know God in Jesus Christ just a little bit better because he was here with us for a little while.”  And I understand that the only way for me to be able do this – the only way that I know how to help people become “just a little bit better acquainted with God in Jesus Christ” – is to lead them to the Scriptures, and to let it facilitate the transformative encounter with Christ who is the living Word who changes how we think, what we value, why we act, and who we are.  DBS +

___________________________________________________________________________________________                                                           The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
Isaiah 40:8

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“You aren’t Christian!”
Confusing Sanctification with Justification


The Nashville Statement on human sexuality (https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement) issued last week by a “who’s who” of theologically conservative Christian personalities and spokespersons has now been predictably countered with statements soundly condemning it written by a “who’s who” of theologically progressive Christian personalities and spokespersons.

Closer to the ground, ordinary conservative Christians in their Facebook postings have privately concluded and publically announced that anyone who dares to take a position contrary to the conventionally traditional conclusions of the Nashville Statement could not possibly be Christian. As Jonathan Merritt pointed out in his own measured response to the Nashville statement last week (http://religionnews.com/2017/08/30/take-a-deep-breath-the-nashville-statement-wont-change-anything/) –

“You (could) hold to every doctrine in every Christian creed since Jesus’ resurrection but (if) you disagree with the signers on this issue, (then) you are no longer a faithful Christian.”

Not to be outdone, ordinary progressive Christians in their Facebook postings have privately concluded and publically announced that anyone who doesn’t join them in their outraged rejection of the Nashville Statement could not possibly be Christian either.

And in my mind, this all begs a question – “What does it mean to be a Christian?” It’s Jesus plus just exactly what that makes me Christian? Is it Jesus plus socially progressive values? Or, is it Jesus plus socially conservative convictions?  Is it Jesus plus a traditional understanding of sexual morality? Or, is it Jesus plus an open and affirming stance on human sexuality? Is it Jesus plus the Republican political platform? Or, is it Jesus plus the Democrat political platform? Tell me again, it’s Jesus plus just exactly what that makes me Christian?

At the church I serve when someone comes forward to become a Christian, they are just asked one thing – “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and your Lord and Savior?” I remember a time not so long ago when a person who came forward to make this good confession at church, had he been pressed, would have unhesitatingly signed on to the conclusions of the Nashville Statement, while another person who came forward to make this same good confession at roughly the same time, had he been pressed, would have unquailingly repudiated the conclusions of the Nashville Statement! So, tell me, which one of these two should I have sent away saying, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe what you’re telling me about your relationship with Jesus because of what you think about (fill in the blank)!”

My conservative Christian friends are pretty sure which one should have been shown to the door. And my progressive Christian friends are pretty sure which one should have been shown to the door. The problem is, depending on what gets added to the definition of who a Christian is, my conservative Christian friends and my progressive Christian friends would each have had me dismiss the one that they themselves would have kept!  So, again I ask, what exactly is it that makes us Christian, or not?

Thomas Erskine (1788 – 1870), the Scottish lay theologian, famously observed that, In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” And it’s this distinction between “religion” and “ethics,” and their differing sources in “grace” and “gratitude,” that reflects the careful distinction that was characteristically made in the theology of the Protestant Reformation between “justification” and “sanctification,” between “belief” and “behavior” that has helped me answer the question – What is it that makes us Christian?

It says that we become Christians through justification. Justification happens in an instant, with the decision of faith whereby God’s saving work in Jesus Christ moves from the category of being theoretically true as a general concept to becoming personally true for someone as an individual in their actual lived experience. Justification changes one’s standing or position. In justification the obstacles that have hindered one’s access to God get removed, and one is instantly restored to the status of a beloved child. Think of the father’s embrace of the prodigal, and of the immediate changes in his situation described in the word pictures of Luke 15:20-24. This is justification. One minute you’re totally estranged; the next minute you’re fully reconciled.

We start behaving like Christians through sanctification. Unlike justification that happens in an instant, sanctification is a process that unfolds gradually over time. In sanctification we start to live into the new status that we receive in our justification. We start becoming who we are. We start behaving in ways that are consonant with our new identity given to us through the saving work of Christ. We start loving others as we ourselves have been loved by God in Christ. We start forgiving others as we ourselves have been forgiven by God in Christ. We start giving more and more of ourselves away as God has given Himself to us in Jesus Christ.

Justification and sanctification are inseparable elements of the same work of redemption. Think of Jesus’ discussion of fruit and root in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16-18). The “root” is justification. It’s who we are. The “fruit” is Sanctification. It’s what we do. Justification is an either/or matter. Either you are justified or you are not.   But sanctification is a more or less matter. At any given moment we can be more or less sanctified.   We can behave in ways that are more or less consistent with our identity in Christ. And – here’s the rub – what this means is that we can be justified and still not be very sanctified in our attitudes and actions. Think about the Corinthians!

It’s really hard for me to read I Corinthians and not come away from the experience every time without thinking that the Corinthian Christians are the most “unsanctified” folk in the entire New Testament. They were really bad at being Christians. But they were still Christians! Go back and read Paul’s description of the Corinthian Christians in the greeting of I Corinthians (1:2), and his thanksgiving for them in the opening prayer (1:4-9).  As bad as the Corinthians were at being Christians, at no point did Paul ever stop thinking of them, or referring to them as Christians! Because of his confidence in the certainty of their new identity in Christ established by their justification, Paul trusted that the process of their sanctification, slow and spotty as it was when he wrote them, would eventually take hold and unfold in them. Paul believed that Jesus Christ would finish the sanctifying work of redemption that He began in them with their justification.

And what’s instructive for me in this is the spiritual truth that we can be Christians by justification, even while we are still struggling mightily with what it means to think and act like a Christian through sanctification. I find real encouragement in this because I know personally and painfully that I am not consistently or thoroughly Christian in my behavior, even though I have consciously and conscientiously been a Christian believer now for more than fifty years. The theological framework that helps explain how this works for me, and in me, is the Justification/Sanctification distinction.

Richard Lovelace writes that while justification and sanctification are “closely intertwined,” they are nevertheless “quite distinct” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life – IVP – 1979 –pp. 98-102). Being good and doing good, both personally in terms of my morality and socially in terms of my ethics, are the fruit of justification produced through the process of sanctification. But sanctification can’t be confused with justification, or collapsed into justification, without a dangerous legalism quickly ensuing that constantly pushes us to think that we must act as the judge of the genuineness of another Christian’s Christianity. I think that we can gauge the depth of someone’s commitment to Christ based on their observable actions and attitudes.  Based on what we see, I think that we can reasonably conclude that somebody is, or is not, a very good Christian just as Paul did with the Corinthians.   But in this, I think that we must be very careful, both as Christians with traditionalist answers to the pressing moral and ethical questions of the day, and as Christians with progressive answers to the pressing moral and ethical questions of the day, about showing to the door those with whom we disagree because they are not consistently Christian in their attitudes and actions according to the way that I – as either a traditionalist Christian or a progressive Christian – understand what those Christian attitudes and actions ought to be.

Let’s stop doubting that those Christians with whom we disagree are Christians, and let’s start risking respectful conversations with them instead, the sort of respectful conversations that begin with the good faith assumption that we are each securely justified, and that we all – traditionalist Christians and progressive Christians alike – still have lots and lots of room for growth in our own sanctification, and that that process would be well served by learning to listen to why another Christian thinks the way she thinks, and acts the way she acts, especially when she thinks and acts in ways that are very different from my own ways of thinking and acting as a Christian.

Rather than concluding that those Christians with whom I disagree are not really Christians, maybe by taking the time and making the effort to understand the ways that they are trying to live into the implications of their justification, my own sanctification, that is, the ways that I am trying to live into the implications of my own justification will be served.  DBS +



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“Around the Table of the Lord’s Supper”


Can Traditionalist and Progressive Disciples Still Sit Down Together? ______________________________________________________________________

I had lunch last week with two really good friends, one a Disciples minister who was a seminary classmate of mine, and the other one the Disciples church historian who had been our professor back in the day.  My minister friend has just announced his retirement, and so our table talk last week was twinged with a certain amount of nostalgia.  We talked about our life journeys and about how things were different back when we were all just starting out some 40 years ago, and one of the things that we each noted in our own way was just how much more polarized and polarizing the church has become of late.  Maybe this is just an example of the “good old days” syndrome, but things really do feel different today than ever before.  People were certainly no less opinionated in the church 40 years ago than they are today, and they were certainly no less passionate about those opinions, but it feels like something significant has changed.

The United Church of Christ theologian Gabriel Fackre wrote about the twin theological virtues of “mystery” and “modesty,” and that’s what’s been lost in the last 40 years, if you ask me.  Because we don’t know everything that there is to know, even about the things that we think we know, we all must leave some room for “mystery” in our convictions.  And because we don’t know everything that there is to know, then we need to hold what we think we know with some “modesty.”  There are always other ways of looking at things, and the people who look at things differently from the way that we do are not evil or stupid just because they do.

To honor “modesty” and “mystery,” I have always tried to accord to Christians whose convictions and conclusions differ from my own what’s been called the “Good Faith Assumption.” When I disagree with what another Christian is saying or doing, I consciously try to keep in mind that they are just as serious about their faith as I am about mine, that they are just as intent on knowing and doing the truth as I am, and that they are just as committed to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, as their Lord and Savior, as I am committed to Him as my Lord and Savior.  I became a Disciple based on the promise that this was going to be the characteristic way that we would think, talk, reflect, and relate as a church.

Last October I wrote about the impact that the collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s had on me.  I described how I, as a very young Christian, had eagerly read through all of these essays, one right after the other like a shopper earnestly searching for the perfect product to meet his needs, and how it was James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that was the one that made me sit down and pay attention.  It was this one line from that essay that thoroughly captured my heart’s imagination –

chaliceThere is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience.

That’s the kind of church that I went looking for 50 years ago, and it’s the church that I actually found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This was the church that I gladly joined then, and that I have wholeheartedly served ever since.  Not a perfect church; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was the perfect church for me because it was a church that honored careful thinking and respectful talking.  It was a church where people were not expected to agree on everything, but where they were expected to maintain unity in that diversity.   But this is a church that, sadly, I am seeing less and less evidence of these days. Increasingly, what I am seeing are traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples pulling away from each other, and what I am hearing both traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples say is that the terrain that they now separately occupy is the only one that is authentically and thoroughly faithful to what it means to be a Disciple.

Granville Walker exploded the hubris and ignorance of this kind of thinking for me in his 1954 book Preaching in the Thought of Alexander Campbell (Bethany Press).  After showing how Alexander Campbell believed in the full authority and inspiration of the Bible for the faith and practice of the church, and that the Bible had to be carefully interpreted using every critical grammatical and historical tool at his disposal, Granville Walker then argued that the conservative Disciple who puts the emphasis on “the absolutely binding character of the apostolic sanction,” and the liberal Disciple who champions “the thoroughly scientific approach to the Bible,” are both the spiritual heirs of Alexander Campbell, and are both members in good standing of his spiritual tradition. As Granville Walker put it, “It is no insignificant fact that both claim to be heirs of the genuine tradition” (138).

There was a time when both conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples truly believed this, and behaved accordingly.  There was a time when conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples could sit down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, and each one would let the other one be responsible for his or her own belief, and each one would allow the other one to serve God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.   We could, and we often did, disagree with each other.  We could, and we often did, talk with each other about those disagreements without ridicule, disdain, anger, or division.  And then we would all get up and go to the Lord’s Table together to find our unity in the shared love of God made visible in the person and work of Jesus Christ our Savior for all of us.  But today, it seems to me, our tendency is to disagree with each other, to talk at (i.e. “issuing” statements) each other, to dismissively talk about each other, and then to go our separate ways fully convinced in our own minds of the rightness of our answer and fully convinced in our own hearts of the righteousness of our stance. We are quick to organize protests, and slow to build bridges.

HolyBibleThe widely heralded release last week of a statement on human sexuality (“The Nashville Statement”) by a group of prominent traditionalist Christian leaders (none of them Disciples, but some of them teachers and theologians with whom conservative Disciples have a certain affinity), and the response of progressive Christian leaders with counter-statements of their own (“The Denver Statement” by Nadia Bolz Weber and “The Nashville Statement [A Plain Language Translation]” by John Pavlovitz), has had the predictable effect of both traditionalist and progressive Disciples taking public sides and then, looking out across the widening fissure in the church, thinking, and sometimes even saying out loud, that those on the other side could not possibly be their Christian brothers and sisters.

This bears little resemblance to the church that James Craig promised me 50 years ago, and it painfully tears at my heart as a traditionalist Disciple whose Gospel experience of the open Table of the Lord’s Supper to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcomed has moved me to become increasingly “progressive” on matters related to God’s grace and human sexuality.  Because I have a foot firmly planted in both of these worlds now, I think that I understand what those traditionalist Christians who issued the Nashville Statement were trying to say, and why they thought it so important to say it.  But I think that I also understand why what they have said caused such pain in the LGBTQ community, and has generated such outrage from the progressive Christian community.  And as a Disciple, I can’t help but think that if, as James Craig put it, we could just sit down together “around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience,” that with time and the forbearance of God’s love, the transformative power of Christ’s grace, and the convicting work of God’s Spirit, that we could find a way forward that excluded no one from the beloved community and that actually created space where all of us might grow.

bridgeTo see someone who is actually doing this in his own community of faith, we need look no further than Fr. James Martin, S.J.  An advocate of dialogue and encounter, Fr. Martin has been criticized by some in his church for being too progressive, outspoken, and inclusive, and by some in the LBGTQ community for not being progressive, outspoken, and inclusive enough.  Fr. Martin responds to every critic respectfully as part of his own spiritual discipline, and as a way of modeling how to advance the conversation and be truly respectful of people who disagree with one another.

After the issuing of “The Nashville Statement” last week, in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Fr. Martin didn’t rage or ridicule, but gently and thoughtfully offered  what he called “Seven Simple Ways to Respond to the Nashville Statement” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/30/seven-simple-ways-to-respond-to-the-nashville-statement-on-sexuality/?utm_term=.7fb1a51e809c).

Re #Nashville Statement –

  • I affirm: That God loves all LGBT people.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to insult, judge or further marginalize them.
  • I affirm: That all of us are in need of conversion. 
  • I deny: That LGBT people should be in any way singled out as the chief or only sinners.
  • I affirm: That when Jesus encountered people on the margins he led with welcome not condemnation. 
  • I deny: That Jesus wants any more judging.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are, by virtue of baptism, full members of the church.
  • I deny: That God wants them to feel that they don’t belong
  • I affirm: That LGBT people have been made to feel like dirt by many churches.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to add to their immense suffering.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are some of the holiest people I know.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to judge others, when he clearly forbade it.
  • I affirm that the Father loves LGBT people, that the Son calls them and that the Holy Spirit guides them. I deny nothing about God’s love for them.

I’ve read lots of blogs affirming “The Nashville Statement” from my traditionalist Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. And I have read lots of blogs condemning “The Nashville Statement” from my progressive Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. But it seems to me that none of the blogs on “The Nashville Statement” that I read last week better reflect James Craig’s classic vision of what it means to be a “Disciple” than did these “seven simple ways to respond to the Nashville Statement” offered by a Jesuit priest. Because what he wrote is so informed by the Gospel, and is so reflective of the Gospel, I can’t help but hope that we Disciples, both traditionalist and progressive, as Gospel people, might stop lobbing broadsides, climb down off our barricades, and commit ourselves to sitting again with one another at the Gospel’s Table where God’s grace has the power to transform us all.  DBS +

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When “The Waters Roar and Foam”

Trying to Make Sense of Natural Disasters as a Christian

“Philosophers and theologians recognize two kinds of evil: moral and natural. Moral evil stems from human action (or inaction in some cases). Natural evil occurs as a consequence of nature – earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, diseases, and the like. Natural evil seems to present a greater theological challenge than moral evil does. A skeptic might admit that God can be excused for the free-will actions of human beings who violate His standard of goodness. But natural disasters and disease don’t result from human activity, they reason. Therefore, this type of “evil” must be attributed solely to God.” (Fazale Rana – http://www.reasons.org)

boatIn church on Sunday morning as we were thinking and talking about what Jesus might have meant when he taught us to pray “Deliver us from Evil,” our family members and friends to the south in Houston were in the first hours of the great flooding disaster that Hurricane Harvey has generated with its epic rainfall totals in that region of the State.  As the ensuing days have unfolded, we have watched with growing concern for their welfare, and responded with designated giving through Week of Compassion for their relief.  But at a different level, we wondered, and may have even asked “why?”

We instinctively ask the question “why?” as Christians because our faith tells us that our God is loving and good, and that our God is powerful. But that’s hard to understand when bad things like what’s going on all along the Gulf Coast this week happen.  If God has the power to stop earthquakes, floods and storms, and doesn’t, then how can that God still be called good?  And if God wants to stop earthquakes, floods, and storms, but can’t, then how can that God still be called powerful?   This is the spiritual conundrum that our faith creates for us as Christians when flood waters rise.

I find that natural disasters even more than the bad things that happen to people because of what other people do (think terrorism) pose the greater challenge to my faith. While I cannot fathom the depth of the depravity that compels some people to do the unspeakable sorts of things that they do to other human beings, I can at least “fit” such kinds of aberrational behavior into my free will framework. I can make some sense of moral evil, but natural evil poses another challenge altogether.

Dr. Fazale Rana’s observation about moral and natural evil cited at the outset of this blog states the dilemma well. We know who to blame, or at least we think we do, when the violence of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity wreaks its havoc and breaks our hearts, but who do we blame for the death and destruction that nature causes when it becomes unhinged?  Dr. Rana’s article “Natural and Moral Evil”  (http://www.reasons.org/articles/natural-evil-or-moral-evil) takes a swing at human responsibility, or irresponsibility, for the unhinging of nature, and I don’t discount his argument. I agree with his point that there are some moral dimensions to natural evil. I have very little doubt that our abuse of the environment has accelerated the climate change environmental catastrophes that are on the rise, or that our hubris as human beings has convinced us to think that we are smart enough to manage mother nature and strong enough to manipulate natural processes for our convenience, comfort, and profit with disastrous  consequence.  But conceding this still doesn’t resolve the basic dilemma for me.

bridgeNeither does the argument that it is God who causes earthquakes, floods and storms. This was John Piper’s argument when the I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed in August of 2007.  Praying with his daughters the night this tragedy occurred, John Piper made an argument that his convictions as a Calvinist Christian who has a certain understanding of the Sovereignty of God compels him to make (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/putting-my-daughter-to-bed-two-hours-after-the-bridge-collapsed) –

We prayed during our family devotions. Talitha (11 years old) and Noël and I prayed earnestly for the families affected by the calamity and for the others in our city. Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God for this but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people ‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are saying that he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means — accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”

John PiperNow, I understand this argument. In fact I know exactly how John Piper got to it through his reading of the Scriptures. I’ve carefully weighed this interpretation as well. John Piper went to the same seminary in Southern California where I began my graduate theological education in the fall of 1976.  I attended Fuller five years after John Piper graduated, but I had some of the same teachers he had, and took some of the same classes that he took.  It was at this seminary that I read Calvin’s Institutes for the very first time, and to great and enduring spiritual benefit for me I might add!  I was captivated by the precision of Calvin’s mind, and moved by the passion of Calvin’s heart.  And so I don’t regard John Piper as some crazed theological extremist.  No, he is just a consistent Calvinist, and while that’s a theological position that I have honestly considered, truly respect, and in some ways envy, it is not mine, in large part because I can’t finally reconcile Calvinism’s understanding of God’s power with what I know to be true of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that the adjustment that John Piper’s Calvinism makes to the spiritual conundrum that natural evil creates for people of Biblical faith is to tinker with the “God is good and loving” end of the equation, while the part of the equation that I find actually has some “give” in it is at the opposite “God is powerful” end.  Oh, I certainly believe that God is powerful, and that God will ultimately get what God wants and intends for us and for all of creation. Leslie Weatherhead’s familiar categories of God’s Intentional Will, God’s Permissive Will, and God’s Ultimate Will from his book The Will of God have proven to be especially helpful for me on this question.  Living in the era of God’s permissive will means that, at least for now, God has limited the free exercise of His divine power in order to accord to us the dignity of choice as human beings created in God’s image, and to preserve the non-coercive nature of love as something that must be freely chosen.  I find that the Biblical bases for such a notion are both the freedom of choice accorded humanity in the second creation story (Genesis 2:4-17), and the example of Christ’s self-emptying of the divine prerogative that gets affirmed and celebrated by Paul in the hymn of Philippians 2:5-8 –

Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Practically speaking, what this means is that we live in a world where not everything that happens is going to be what God wants for us, at least not yet. As one of my Christian college professors was constantly telling us, “There’s more than one will at work in the world.” And the result is that for right now we live in a world that is, in many ways, “out of control.” Greg Boyd, the very fine pastor/theologian, has written extensively – and I find most helpfully – about how God’s self-imposed limitation on the exercise of His sovereign power in the interests of both love and freedom (See: “What is the Warfare Worldview”http://reknew.org/2014/06/what-is-the-warfare-worldview-2/ and “Six Theses of the Warfare Worldview”http://reknew.org/2007/12/six-thesis-of-the-warfare-worldview/) has resulted in a world where bad things are constantly happening.

GlassesThe early church fathers all saw creation as a war torn battlefield. It had been corrupted to its very core. And this is why nature is violent, both toward animals and people… These early fathers are simply working out the implications of the biblical view that Satan is the “lord of the earth,” the “ruler of the air” and the “god of this age” who “controls the entire world.” And if you ask me, they were on the right track. So, when a hurricane wipes out an entire village or an earthquake massacres thousands of people; next time you consider the millions dying from AIDS or the millions tortured by parasites; next time you hear about the millions suffering from drought and famine, or consider the untold pain of millions suffering and dying from any number of other diseases, don’t say “This is the work of God.” Say rather, “An Enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28). (http://reknew.org/2015/11/the-earth-is-a-spiritual-battlefield/)

crossBack in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, I conducted a series of theological conversations at Northway with church members and friends on the question of “why?” After looking closely at Luke 13:1-4 –

There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?  I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.  Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo′am fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?

I walked the participants through some of the different ways that Christians have tried to explain the theological “why?” of natural evil before ending each conversation with a more practical review of the “now what?” What I told the people who participated in these sessions was that when natural disasters strike, as Christians we are being afforded: (1) A Time for Reflection (I Peter 4:12-13); (2) A Time for Repentance (Luke 13:1-4); (3) A Time for Compassionate Response (Luke 10:25-37); and (4) A Time for Prayer (Habakkuk 3:17-19).

The events of this week in Houston, and the all up and down the Texas Gulf Coast, affords us with these four opportunities as Christians once again. So let’s use these days to think more clearly.  Let’s let this tragedy continue to challenge the way we are living our lives.  Let’s allow the suffering of others that we will share to soften our hearts and open our pocketbooks and wallets.  And let’s let the circumstances of this week drive us to our knees to cry out for help in our times of hurt and need.  I don’t believe that God caused this to happen, but I do believe that God can use it to make real changes in us and our world. DBS +


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My “War and Peace” Pilgrimage

B1My father was a combat soldier in the South Pacific during WW 2.  Dad graduated from Los Angeles High School on a Friday evening and then he was on a bus heading out to basic training the following Saturday morning.  He caught up with a combat unit as a replacement infantryman in New Zealand, fought on New Guinea and all across the Philippines.  He became a Sargent, earned a Purple Heart, and won a Bronze Star for Valor along the way.  He was scheduled to be part of the invasion of Japan, and then after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he served as part of the army of occupation.

I am named “Douglas” after Douglas MacArthur, my father’s General – at least that’s the way he always told the story.  My dad was a good citizen solder.  He did his duty, and I grew up believing in the rightness of his military service. I still do.  I believe in the nobility of the Allied struggle against the “big evil” of the axis powers, and if ever a case for a preemptive war could be made, then looking back on WW 2 through the twin lenses of the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor, then in my mind this would be it.  If Hitler and Tojo could have been stopped before they got started, how could that be anything but good?  But that’s easy to say from the vantage point of history.  And so preemptive war has only a theoretical morality in my mind.

When I was a freshman in Christian College I dutifully registered with the Selective B2Service on my 18th birthday as the law required, and then I was in one of the very last groups to actually go through the lottery for the draft.  Sitting in a dorm room in Eugene, Oregon, with all of my college friends listening to the radio broadcast of the numbers that were being pulled and called remains one of my life’s most vivid memories.  So much hung in the balance that night.

The Vietnam War was one of the great defining events of my late adolescence. Just as the Depression and WW 2 shaped my parent’s generation, Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement defined mine. I viewed the war in Vietnam through the nobility of the lens of my father’s WW 2 military service, and had my number come up in that lottery I would have seen it as my duty to serve.  I would have gone.  That was unquestioned by me at the time.  Today, however, it’s not nearly so clear.  With you, I know too much about the how’s and the why’s of what happened in Vietnam now to view it with the same conviction of the rightness of the cause with which I view WW 2.

B3To be sure, I honor the sacrifice and service of my generational peers who bled and died in Southeast Asia.  Their sense of duty is no less impressive and no less commendable to me than that which my father’s generation enthusiastically received and which they were shamefully denied.  But unlike WW 2, from the vantage point of history, if we could go back and make different choices as a people, I’ve got to wonder if we would still choose to expend the precious human resources that were poured into that war?  And because I suspect that most of us would not, I find that I now honor and respect those who conscientiously objected to the Vietnam War on moral grounds, something that I myself would have been reluctant to do back then.  I was blind to what they could see so clearly.  And that realization has dramatically tempered my views on the use of military force ever since.  In fact, an intellectual flirtation with pacifism in seminary was nurtured both by the writings of Thomas Merton and by my relationships with people I deeply respected who had been against the war in Vietnam.  Merton’s spiritual logic and my friends’ passion gave me real pause.

It was becoming a father that finally put the end to any thoughts of pacifism that I might have been entertaining.  In fact, it was sitting at a General Assembly of the church with one of my best friends from seminary who was himself a convinced pacifist and consciously deciding to vote against a resolution with decidedly pacifist overtones to it that was the moment when I knew that I was not and could not be a pacifist.  When my friend asked me to explain my surprising vote to him, I told him that I had come to the conclusion that if an intruder broke into my house intent on doing my baby girl harm that I would have no hesitation to do whatever it took, up to and including killing that intruder, to keep her safe, and that I would feel morally justified in doing so.  And if that was morally true for me as an individual, then I knew that it had to be morally true for us as a nation as well.

From my initial unhesitating affirmation of what my father’s generation had done in WW 2 that created in my mind, at the very least, a theoretical category for a morally legitimate preemptive war, through the later agonizing critique of my own generation’s war in Vietnam that led me to give pacifism some sustained and serious consideration, where I finally arrived, morally and spiritually, was on middle ground.

For 30 years now, with every war and rumor of war, I have operated as a Christian teacher and preacher in that gray area in-between the black and white certainties that preemptive war advocates occupy on the one side of the question, and that pacifists advocate occupy on the other side of the question. And this is not just a conversation about the events of history and the experiences of our lives for me, it’s a conversation about the meaning of Scripture as well.

In response to the most recent North Korean provocations, our President spoke of “fire” B4and “fury,” and of “power unlike any that the world has ever seen before,” and a high profile preacher right down the street from me here in Dallas immediately said that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un” based on his reading of Romans 13:4 – “the ruler does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (a text that originally applied to the Roman Emperor, and that curiously enough, applies equally to the North Korean dictator!) – and wide swaths of the traditionalist Christian community have dutifully nodded their heads and say “Amen!”   “It’s in the Bible” they say, and they really do want to be faithful to the Scriptures – a commendable goal, in fact, it’s one that I share with them.   Meanwhile, I have heard and seen lots of preachers from my own denominational tradition quoting Matthew 5:9 of late – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” – and then watched as they have figuratively dropped the microphone, folded their arms, and indicated that they were “out.”  And many from my own progressive wing of the church have immediately and uncritically signaled their approval.  “It’s what Jesus said,” they say, and they really do want to follow Him – a commendable goal, and again, it’s one that I share with them.  But, it seems to me, that all of us, traditionalists and progressives alike, have got to stop acting as if by quoting a single Bible verse, or by taking a single interpretive position, that we’ve settled this question, any question for that matter, once and for all.  Simple answers and half-truths are not going to serve us well in the complicated, confusing, and critical days that are coming.

If all I had in my Bible was Romans 13:4, and if the only war that I knew anything about was the WW 2 of my father’s experience, then that preemptive war position starts to make pretty good sense to me.  And if all I had in my Bible was Matthew 5:9, and if the only war that I knew anything about was the Vietnam of my generation with all of its ambiguities, then that pacifist position starts to make pretty good sense to me.  But I find that Romans 13:4 and Matthew 5:9 are both in my Bible, and that WW 2 and Vietnam are both part of my awareness.  And when I put them into serious conversation with each other – Romans 13:4 with Matthew 5:9, WW 2 with the War in Vietnam – where I wind up is in the morally and spiritually complex terrain known as the just war position, or as I prefer to think and talk about it, the selectively pacifist position.

In its simplest terms, the Just War Theory sadly but honestly acknowledges that the very real and persistent evil in the world requires the existence of some real force to constrain it, while at the same time acknowledging that the Divine quality of mercy means that when the use of this force in the suppression of evil becomes necessary, that it must be measured, limited, and proportionate in its response.  The Just War Theory not only insists that the actual use of force be constrained by some very clear moral standards, it actually creates a set of moral speedbumps to slow the momentum that builds for the use of force when a crisis erupts.

Bruce Ashford is the Provost and a Professor of Theology & Culture at SoutheasternB5 Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. A theological and social conservative, Bruce writes a blog – “Christianity for the Common Good” – on politics and public life from his perspective that because Jesus Christ is the Lord of all, the result is that Christians need to be thoughtful and intentional about how our faith in Him shapes our lives and our interactions with the world.  In a recent posting, in response to the comments that the high profile Baptist pastor down the street from me recently made about the divine right of the President to wage war, Bruce asked – “Has God given President Trump the authority to “take out” Kim Jong-un?” (http://bruceashford.net/2017/has-god-given-president-trump-the-authority-to-take-out-kim-jong-un/).  And in his answer, Bruce helpfully outlined the Just War Tradition’s eight guidelines for determining whether or not it is morally permissible to enter into war.

  1. Just cause: a nation should not go to war unless it is correcting a specific injustice; in other words, it may not go to war to (generally) “eradicate evil” or “promote democracy.”
  2. Competent authority: a decision to go to war should not be made by anybody other than the person or persons who are ultimately responsible for maintaining security and civil order. (In the case of the United States we have a Constitution that establishes who has this authority.)
  3. Comparative justice: a nation must weigh whether going to war might cause more injustice than existed in the first place; a nation must not cause more injustice going to war than would be suffered not going to war.
  4. Right intention: a nation may not engage in war, punish or humiliate its enemies, or seek to glorify and empower itself; it may only engage in war to restore a previous state of peace in the sense of civil order.
  5. Last resort: a nation must exhaust all realistic nonviolent alternatives before going to war; a nation should always prefer solutions that do not involve the use of deadly force. (This is the Just War Guideline that has been most often “rushed” in the wars of the past 50 years in my opinion.)
  6. Probability of success: a nation should not engage in war unless it has a realistic chance of victory; otherwise it wastes lives and resources.
  7. Proportionality of projected results: a nation must count the cost before going to war; if the costs of victory are more than the costs of non-engagement, the nation should not go to war.
  8. Right spirit: a nation must not go to war in a spirit of ideological zeal, bloodthirst, or hatred; it must engage in war with no sense of satisfaction other than that it is restoring peace, maintaining order, and protecting the innocent.

The criticism of the Just War Theory is that it has never actually stopped a war, and that’s probably right.  But just as G.K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found to be wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried,” and I would argue that the same thing could be said of the Just War Theory.  It has not stopped unjust wars because it has not been seriously or thoroughly utilized as a tool of moral discernment by those who have the authority to make the decisions about going to war.  The failure is not with the tool but with its use.

B6What the Just War Theory has done is to stop some Christians from publicly supporting specific wars and military actions, thereby slowing the rush to war. For instance, John R.W. Stott, one of the leading traditionalist preachers and teachers in my lifetime, was a pacifist during WW 2 based on his straightforward reading of the Sermon on the Mount when he was a young Christian, but later he became an advocate of the Just War Theory as he said that he began to listen more carefully to the faithful conversation between Biblical texts on the question of war and peace. And it was John Stott’s thoughtful use of the Just War categories that resulted in his very public promotion of Nuclear Pacifism back in the 1970’s and 80’s.  In fact, John Stott often gets credit for being the conversation partner of conscience who convinced Billy Graham to publically adopt the very same perspective (See: https://politurgy.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/billy-graham-and-nuclear-weapons/).  And it was because of his Just War sensibilities that John Stott publically opposed the Iraq War on the grounds that it failed to meet the eight conditions of a just war.  And it seems to me that this is the importance of knowing the Just War Theory today.

The “wars and rumors of wars” that swirl about us these days makes what we think about war as Christians more than just a theoretical exercise.  The drums of war are sounding right now, and the specter of a nuclear holocaust is being discussed as a very real possibility for the first time in decades. Because we live in a participatory democracy, we are the ones who elect those people who have the legitimate authority to wage war, and as Christians, as people of conviction and conscience, we have the civic and spiritual obligation to tell them what we think about the prospects of war, and as a proponent of the Just War Theory what I want to tell them is that there are a whole series of moral checkpoints along this road that need to be deliberately and deliberatively passed through. We dare not let the slow roll to armed conflict gather speed and barrel onward without the due caution of moral restraint. It needs to be morally difficult and spiritually complicated to get to the final decision to actually commit American lives and resources to an armed conflict.  And then, in the end, should it be necessary for us to fight, then it can never be prosecuted gleefully, but only regretfully, and always grievingly.    DBS +


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“Looking for a Changed Heart”


In the only class on preaching that I ever took, Dr. Hunter Beckelhymer of blessed memory warned about what he called the “Christ cliché.”   He said that there was a tendency in much of the preaching that he heard to name a human problem, be it personal or social, to explore its dimensions with the precision of a psychologist or a sociologist, and then in the last few sentences to superficially slap Christ onto the problem as the solution before saying “Amen” and sitting down.

Today I observe an entirely different tendency in much of the preaching that I hear. The human problem, be it personal or social, still gets named and probed with the precision befitting a psychologist or a sociologist giving a talk, and then, without mentioning Christ at all, the preacher just sits down.  This strikes me as an example of what Harvey Cox called “Christological heart-failure” – not the superficial introduction of Christ into a sermon at the very last minute as a kind of afterthought that Dr. Beckelhymer called the “Christ cliché,” but the complete failure to speak of Christ at all.

Speaking as a minister to ministers about ministry Karl Barth observed – “When they come to us for help they do not really want to learn more about living: they want to learn more about what is on the farther edge of living – God” (The Word of God and The Word of Man – 189).  Because this is just so easy for me to forget, especially when the personal wound is deep or the social crisis is immediate and intense, I often return to a story that Rebecca Manley Pippert told in her book Hope Has Its Reasons (Harper & Row – 1989).  This  story has served me well as a reminder of who I am and of what it is that I am called to do.

While I affirm the important work that psychologists do, and try to incorporate their insights into my thinking, I am not a psychologist. And while I affirm the important work that sociologists do, and try to incorporate their insights into my thinking, I am not a sociologist.  What I am is a preacher, a servant of the Word, and it is my job to frame the Gospel as the solution to the personal problems that people present, and as the answer to the social questions that the world asks.    DBS +


hopeOne of the courses I audited at Harvard was called “Systems of Counseling.” We were looking at a case study in which the therapist, using an approach called psychodynamic psychotherapy, helped the patient uncover a hidden hostility toward his mother.  Naming the problem and understanding the mechanisms of what really bothered him seemed to make the patient feel as if a great weight had been lifted.

Then the professor began to proceed to the next case. Mustering my courage, I raised my hand and said, “I don’t quite know how to phrase this in the appropriate psychobabble, but let’s say the patient returned a few weeks later and said, ‘I’m so relieved to understand what was bothering me. My mother did things that provoked my hostility.   But now I’d like to get beyond my anger.  I’d like to be able to love her and forgive her.  How do I do that?’  How does psychodynamic psychotherapy help a person with a request like this?”

There was silence. Then the professor answered, “I think the therapist would say, ‘lots of luck!’ It’s accomplishing a great deal in life just to be able to get past our feelings to uncover and name the hidden things that drive us, to identify our anxieties, fears, and problems at the root level and not the symptom level.   So to ask that his hostility magically disappear isn’t realistic.  He’ll have to learn to lie with it and hopefully not be driven by it.”

The professor’s frankness provoked the class. One of them said, “But isn’t the whole point of counseling, after diagnosing and naming the ailment, to help relieve suffering? And what causes more suffering than our inability to love and forgive those who’ve wounded us?”

That touched off an intense exchange. One student summarized what many of us were thinking: “It’s not that I expect problems to be instantly eliminated. Forgiving is a process.  But is the most we can hope merely the ability to name and understand our problems?  Can’t we ever be healed too?   Isn’t loving and forgiving a better way of living than not merely being controlled by anger?  If that’s the case, how do we help our clients find the power to change?”

The professor responded, “What we’re attempting to do is to help enable our patients to understand their true hidden feelings, to bring them to the surface and to experience them for what they are. So don’t force your values or neurosis about forgiveness onto the patient!”

I raised my hand again and said, “I’d like to make three observations. First, I agree completely that there will be no progress until we understand and experience our real feelings.  But having done that, how do we keep those feelings from destroying us?  Isn’t that why some of us have this ‘neurosis’ about seeking to forgive. The man needed to see he had more than a professed love for his mother.  But after he’s uncovered and identified his hostility, how does he keep it from devouring him?  Surely the answer isn’t to pretend he doesn’t hate or that his mother is perfect.  How can he be honest about his real feelings and yet get beyond them? Second, I wonder if you feel the words ‘love your enemy’ are rooted in neurosis.  And third, I’d like to say that I’m not taking this course for credit.”

The class exploded into laughter and the teacher, smiling, but with more candor than he may have realized, said, “If you guys are looking for a changed heart, I think you’re looking in the wrong department.”

But the truth is, we are looking for a changed heart. We have seen that there can be no positive growth where there is pretense; no solution until we identify and own our problem.  We have observed that robust living is more than the identification of problems.  After we see we need to change, how do we find the power to do it?  If the cross enables us to see our problem and how God solved it, then the resurrection is where we see whether human behavior can be changed, and if so, how.  (113-115)

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