Getting the Gospel Straight ~ Keeping the Gospel First

bluecross

It’s a familiar warning in certain parts of the church these days. They say that there are four steps in the process of a church “losing” the gospel.  First, the gospel is accepted and affirmed. Second, the gospel gets assumed and goes unreferenced. Third, the gospel gets confused with other things, many of them good and noble. And then finally, the gospel gets lost. People no longer remember why the church exists and does what it does. The example of the Mennonite Brethren Church is frequently cited as a classic picture of how this happens –

…the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments. (David Gibson – “Assumed Evangelicalism”Modern Reformation)

I thought about this observation again this past week with the controversy that was generated by something that Andrew Forrest, the minister who is leading the revitalization of Munger Place United Methodist Church over in East Dallas, said about community gardens and co-working spaces (http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8114/andrew-forrest-every-dying-church-in-america-has-a-community-garden) –

Every dying church in America has a community garden. Every dying church in America has a co-working space. What do I mean by that? I have no problem with community gardens; a garden is a beautiful thing. And I don’t have any problem with co-working spaces. But Jesus didn’t tell us to start a community garden, and he didn’t tell us to start co-working spaces; he told us to make disciples. That’s literally the mission of the church.

The problem is not the gardens… The problem is that we often want to substitute secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship.

What Andrew is doing here is a reversal of the field that David Gibson mapped out in his assessment of how the Mennonite Brethren Movement lost the Gospel.   Andrew is pushing back through that third generation mainline version of the church that has lost the Gospel and only has the social implications of the Gospel, and back through the second generation mainline version of the church that assumes the gospel and advocates the Gospel’s social implications, to a renewed mainline version of the church that believes and proclaims the Gospel and understands that it has some important social implications.

Of course, to do this one must have some real clarity about what the Gospel is. Andrew Forrest certainly does.  In that same article in which he names community gardens and co-working spaces as secondary concerns, he explains –

…Neither by background nor by training nor by inclination am I a fire-and-brimstone preacher. And yet the gospel itself makes no sense if it’s just vague feel-goodery. The gospel, as I understand it, is the good news regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that this “vague feel-goodery” substitution for the Gospel takes two forms in the church today.  In the traditional/conservative/Evangelical church it takes the form of the subjective experience of the individual Christian – the offer of forgiveness and personal peace of mind right now, and the promise of an eternity in heaven with God when we die.  And in the progressive/liberal/mainline church it takes the form of a focus on social action and a passion for social justice – changing the systems and structures of society so that people can thrive physically, relationally, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually in this world.  Personal spiritual experience and a conscientious engagement with social issues are neither unrelated nor unimportant to the Gospel, but, in the words of Andrew Forrest, they are “secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship” which is what Jesus told us to do.

Graeme Goldsworthy, an Australian Evangelical Anglican and Old Testament scholar, wrote these words to his own traditional/conservative/evangelical wing of the church that he sees as being at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of the subjective experience of the individual Christian –

The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Jesus Christ, is often downgraded today in favor of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual. Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of and commitment to the declaration that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now… But when we allow the whole Bible – Old and New Testaments – to speak to us, we find that those subjective aspects of the Christian life, which are undoubtedly important – the new birth, faith, and sanctification – are the fruits of the gospel. The gospel, while still relating to individual people at their point of need, is rooted and grounded in the history of redemption. It is the good news about Jesus, before it can become good news for sinful men and women. Indeed, it is only as the objective (redemptive-historical) facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood.

And I read Andrew Forrest’s article as a version of this same warning to his own progressive/liberal/mainline that is at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of social action and a passion for social justice.

The fruit of the Gospel is transformation. Traditional/conservative/Evangelical Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of personal transformation. Progressive/liberal/mainline Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of social transformation. We all want transformation.  The real question is, what effects this kind of transformation, personally and socially?

With Andrew Forrest and Graeme Goldsworthy I would argue that it’s the Gospel, the transformative message of new hearts, new values, new lives and a new world through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His indwelling and empowering presence in us, both individually and collectively as the church, through the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit. For the kind of transformation that we’re looking for, the Gospel is the power that we need. DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

“Do Something Beautiful for God… Become Someone Beautiful for God”

Tradition says that after considering other religious options, that the Russians consciously chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be their state religion because when they experienced its worship for the very first time, they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth… for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty… and they could not forget that beauty.”

eastercross

I thought this about our worship at Northway on Easter Sunday morning. I cannot forget that beauty — the Choral Scholars’ Quartet singing Mendelssohn’s “O Come, Every One that Thirsteth,” the flowering of the cross, the y’all come and sing version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Margaret and Justin’s astonishing piano and organ duet during the Offertory, the spectacular spread of blooming Easter lilies, the choir’s lush anthem and stirring preface to our processional hymn, and the worship team singing “Beautiful Things” after my morning meditation on “Beauty from Ashes” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

I didn’t know if I was on earth or in heaven!

goodWe have tended to underestimate the power of beauty as one of the God-triggers in our souls. One of the three “transcendentals,” we’ve tended to rely on the other two so much more in practice. Our activist impulse, that God-implanted desire to do something, anything, to make the world a better place orients us towards the way of the good.  And our drive to understand things both great and small routinely puts us on the path of the true. But classically understood, beauty is just as sure a way into an awareness of God as is our drive to do what’s good and to know what’s true.

I based my Easter message this year on the line from Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” song about how the mission of God’s Messiah when He came would be to exchange “ashes for beauty” (61:3), and how this has become a familiar way for Christians to think and talk about the promise of Easter. After the brutality of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday, when Jesus was raised on the third day, this exchange occurred — the ashes of death, despair, and apparent defeat became the beauty of the resurrection to newness of life. At the lowest moment in the story of Jesus, “all of the shattered fragments of spiritual power were suddenly quickened, strengthened, and clothed with loveliness.” On Easter Sunday morning I said that this is what Christ came to do – “to bring a new life out of the old ashes” (James D. Wilson). And this is not some abstract theological concept.  No, this is immediate and personal.

It’s about the difference that Jesus Christ makes in your life as your Lord and Savior. It’s what we mean when we sing – “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” It’s about the ashes of death giving way to the beauty of life, both eternal and abundant. It’s about the ashes of despair giving way to the beauty of hope.   It’s about the ashes of shame and guilt giving way to the beauty of forgiveness.  It’s about the ashes of division giving way to the beauty of inclusion.   It’s about the ashes of defeat and discouragement giving way to the beauty of transformation and renewal.  It’s about the ashes of regret giving way to the beauty of regeneration.  The power of Easter is in how it takes our ashes and makes them into something beautiful.

Years ago Joseph Aldrich wrote about how it is the beauty of the Gospel and not just the Gospel’s words that has the real power to transform people. He wrote –

…The “music” of the gospel is the beauty of the indwelling Christ as lived out in the everyday relationships of our lives. We must become recipients of God’s blessing, begin to incarnate His beauty in our relationships, and open these relationships to the non-Christian… Once this “music” has been heard, then expect to be asked for the “reasons for the hope (beauty) that you have.”  Play the beautiful music, and they’ll listen to the words of the song. (Life-Style Evangelism 21)

motherMother Teresa was famous for telling her little brothers and sisters of charity all around the world to try to “do something beautiful for God” each and every day. This prompted Philip Kosloski to write an essay for the “National Catholic Register” on the beauty of Mother Teresa’s life and work for the weekend last September when she was canonized a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He asked —

…Will beauty save the world? Yes it will, but it must be a Beauty united to Truth and Goodness, and a beauty that encompasses all aspects of life. The Gospel we preach to the Modern World will not be found effective if it does not recognize the importance of beauty, especially the beauty of Christian witness.

…By drawing closer to God, our lives reflect a particular beauty, which has the capacity to attract others to the beauty of God. In seeing the beauty of God in our lives, others see that being a Christian is not something oppressive or burdensome, but is actually liberating and beautiful.

“… the Christian life is called to become, in the force of Grace given by Christ resurrected, an event of susceptible beauty to arouse admiration and reflection and incite conversion. The meeting with Christ and His disciples… must always and everywhere have the potential to become an event of beauty, a moment of joy in the discovery of a new dimension of existence, an invitation to put oneself on the road to the Father of Heaven to enjoy the vision of the Complete Truth, the beauty of the Love of God: Beauty is the splendour of the truth and the flowering of Love.” (The Via Pulchritudinis, §III.3 – Pope Benedict XVI)

You see, we don’t just believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christians, we live it. The Gospel’s exchange of ashes for beauty that Christ’s resurrection 2,000 years ago embodied now plays out in our lives as the ashes of the rebellion of our sin and the brokenness of our lives getting exchanged for the beauty of our transformation and personal renewal.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. And all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Because Christ is Risen and we are walking in newness of life through our share in it by faith (Romans 6:1-1-11), this Eastertide let’s go do something beautiful for God, or better yet, let’s become someone beautiful for God. Because of Easter, our ashes have a beauty appointment.  DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

What Was God Doing on the Cross?

Cross.nail

It’s said that good theology properly issues in doxology. I know that a carefully reasoned theological argument always makes me want to sing!  And the day that I first read this statement by Barton W. Stone (1772 – 1844) – one of the founders of my own spiritual tradition – on the Atonement (the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross) when I was in Seminary, I was literally moved to thankful praise –

wigA father provides plentifully for a large family of children. Some of them may know the means by which the father got the provisions – others may not so well know, and the youngest may scarcely know anything more than that the father’s love provided these things. Yet they all eat and thrive, without quarreling about the means by which the provisions were obtained.  O that Christians would do likewise.

The generosity of this perspective seemed to me then to best fit the actual diversity of what the Bible says about what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross, the church’s “official” teaching (or, more technically, the church’s lack of an “official” teaching) on the atonement, and my own peculiar spiritual temperament.  What I really liked about Stone’s analogy of the father’s provision is that, if fully embraced, it can put a stop to the kind of theological imperialism that insists that you see things my way, and my way alone if you are going to sit with me at the church’s dinner table.

Back in the day this analogy liberated me from some spiritual bullying that I was experiencing from my fellow conservative colleagues and peers who insisted that the only way to be truly faithful to the Bible’s message of the cross was to think and talk about it exclusively through the grid of the substitutionary atonement interpretation of its meaning. This is the way that I was first taught to think about the cross, and it is still deeply ingrained in me spiritually.  It continues to inform the way that I think about the meaning of the cross on Sunday mornings when I go to the Lord’s Table.  It’s not the only way I think about the meaning of the cross, but it is invariably the first way that I do so. I have a deep appreciation for the truth of the substitutionary atonement theory of Christ’s saving work on the cross in my faith, and a genuine respect for its very real power in my life.  But, I know enough about the Bible and the history of Christian thought to know that this is not the only way to think and talk about the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, and that it never has been.

Today I find that Stone’s analogy has had to take up position on my left flank. Many of my progressive colleagues and peers don’t find the substitutionary atonement theory of Christ’s saving work on the cross to be either compelling or particularly helpful to them.  And that’s fine — Barton W. Stone didn’t either.  But what Stone’s analogy doesn’t allow for is for the kind of theological incredulity that its critics display at the very suggestion that any thinking Christian anywhere might still find the substitutionary atonement interpretation of the cross to be meaningful. It’s one thing to talk about how and why you don’t find this theory particularly useful for yourself, and another thing altogether to insist that nobody else dare find it useful for them.  Stone’s analogy of the family dinner table where different understandings of how the father provides for his children would seem to argue for greater freedom of thought and a better generosity of spirit.

I didn’t like it one little bit back in the day when my conservative brothers and sisters called into question the theological intelligence and spiritual integrity of those who needed a different way, or additional ways of thinking and talking about the meaning of the cross than the substitutionary atonement theory. And I don’t like it one little bit now when my more progressive brothers and sisters call into question the theological intelligence and spiritual integrity of those of us who still find the substitutionary atonement theory to be meaningful.

A much better approach, it seems to me, and one so much more consonant with Stone’s dinner table analogy, is Scot McKnight’s Golf bag analogy of atonement theories –

golfEach “theory” of the Atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like playing a round of golf. Just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter, the way we proclaim, teach, or share the Good News should be adapted to the situation. You can hit the ball out of a sand trap with your driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available? The strength of the golf-bag metaphor is that it asks us to stop being partisan toward one particular theory of the Atonement and to minister with the best tools at hand. [“Your Atonement Is Too Small” – David Neff – May 20, 2008 – www.christianitytoday.com]

Because I know myself to be a sinner of herculean potential and endless possibility, last Wednesday in the noon Bible Study that I teach I was moved in my spirit to doxology with Paul after some of his characteristic theological ponderings –

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

The “sure and worthy of full acceptance” phrase in these verses – “That Christ came into the world to save sinners” tees up the substitutionary atonement theory as a primary way for me to work with and make sense of what the Bible teaches about what God was doing in Christ on the cross.  But it’s not just that.  It’s also personal, deeply personal for me.  With Richard Mouw I conclude –

Our burdens of shame and guilt have been nailed to the cross. Evangelicals have always insisted on that message as central to proclaiming the gospel. Again, a variety of images capture this emphasis—debt-repaying, ransom, sacrifice, enduring divine wrath against sin. But all these images have this in common: They point us to the fact that on the cross of Calvary, Jesus did something for us that we could never do for ourselves as sinners. He engaged in a transaction that has eternal consequences for our standing before a righteous God.

This is the thought that will quite literally drive me to my knees and move me to tears, probably more than once, before this week, Holy Week, is through. If it doesn’t you, that’s okay. It confuses me, to be sure.  I don’t “get” how the power and beauty of this scheme of redemption can leave you untouched.  But I’m really not interested in arguing with you about it.  Instead I’m perfectly content to sit at the family dinner table with you and your alternate understandings of how our Father has provided us this rich banquet of grace, and for us just to enjoy it together as brothers and sisters.

What God did for us on the cross is big enough for us to be able to think different thoughts about its meaning and to experience it in different ways. But just as you don’t want me as a theological traditionalist to call into question your place at the family dinner table as a theological progressive, or to disrespect your perspective or disregard your interpretation, so don’t try to relegate me to the theological kid’s table, or worse, sent to my room just because you don’t find my perspectives convincing or my interpretations compelling. That’s not what families do at a dinner table that’s as big as ours is. DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

Seeing the Gospel

palm

Holy Week Worship
____________________________________________________________________________

There is tremendous confusion about the Gospel these days. J.C. Ryle (1816 – 1900) the 19th century Anglican Bishop and spiritual giant warned that the church can obscure the Gospel in at least three different ways:  By addition – that is, by adding beliefs and practices to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ; By substitution – that is, by making other things more interesting or more urgent than God’s saving work in Jesus Christ; and by disproportion – that is, by exaggerating the importance of the secondary things of Christianity, thereby diminishing the importance of the first thing of Christianity – God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.

When this happens, when the Gospel gets obscured, the church becomes “a trumpet that gives an uncertain sound,” as the Apostle Paul put it, and people don’t know what to do or where to turn (I Corinthians 14:8). And the tragedy of this is that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation for everyone who will believe” (Romans 16:16).  People all around us are desperately looking for meaning and purpose, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for courage and strength, for hope and peace.  And we are too!  The Gospel of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is what we’re all looking for, it’s what we all need, and if we’re not clear about what it is as a church, then what is it that we think we have to offer instead?

bbw

I’ve been haunted for 50 years now by something that the radical Episcopal Bishop James Pike told the Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. He said that what he went looking for was the bread of life and that what the church gave him instead were just stones. One of the big reasons why I am a Disciple of Christ is because of our practice of weekly Lord’s Supper.  Every Sunday morning in the breaking of the bread and in the pouring of the cup the Gospel gets preached again to me again.  Each week at the Lord’s Table I am reminded of and renewed by God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. And it holds that possibility for you too.  No matter what else may or may not be going on in a church on any given Sunday morning, there’s living bread and not stones being offered at the Lord’s table in a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where Christ’s sacrifice of love is remembered in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup.

The way I read the Gospels, Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to preach another sermon. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to organize a movement. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to topple a government. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to make an argument.  Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to work another miracle.  Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to offer Himself as “the one perfect Lamb of God willing to take away the sins of the world in one final sacrifice.” So, draw in close this week. Pay attention to what’s happening, to the story that’s being told, to the events that are remembered in worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This is the Gospel that we are seeing.  DBS +

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“I got an ‘A’ in God!”

god.png

The Importance of Humility in Knowing God

I recently took a theology test online. It consisted of 33 questions on the Trinity.  I got them all right, at least from the perspective of the test giver, and he gave me an electronic “attaboy” for doing so.  I was made to feel like I was in a select group of people who had accomplished this feat, numbered among those who really know God.  It reminded me of a conversation I’d had in seminary long ago.

It was the end of a semester. A fellow student stopped me in the hall one day to ask me about my grade.  “How did you do in theology?” he wanted to know. I told him, and then he said proudly, “I got an ‘A’ in God!”

An “A” in God?

Well, I’d gotten an “A” in that class too, but that’s not the same thing as getting an “A” in God, and that’s an important distinction if you ask me.

God is not an object that we examine.   God is not a subject we master.  God is a personal being whom we encounter, and with whom we can develop a relationship.  This is why Eastern Orthodox Christians don’t think of people who have read the books, gone to school, and passed the classes to be the real theologians, but rather those who know how to pray, those who are in a sustained relationship with the living God, and this is not an idea that is alien to our own spiritual tradition.

Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866) one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), frequently championed in his writings some basic rules for the proper interpretation of Scripture using the very best tools of scholarship at our disposal (http://www.thebiblewayonline.com/Studies/A-%20Bible%20Rules%20for%20bible.htm). And after naming six rules that require us to fully engage our minds when opening our Bibles to read, Alexander Campbell concluded with his all-important seventh rule –

RULE 7 – For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God [his way of talking about the Bible], the following rule is indispensable: We must come within the understanding distance. There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance, or the hearing distance; beyond which the voice reaches not, and the ears hear not. To hear another, we must come within that circle which the voice audibly fills. Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is an understanding distance. All beyond that distance cannot understand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of piety and morality. God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference… He… that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. Like Mary, he must sit at the Master’s feet, and listen to the words which fall from his lips. To such a one there is an assurance of understanding, a certainty of knowledge, to which the man of letters alone never attained, and which the mere critic never felt.

Now, I hear in this an echo of something that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) had written long before –

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way… You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal… Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through his dear Son, graciously to grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding… Although he knew the text of Moses well and that of other books besides and heard and read them daily, yet David desired to have the real Master of Scripture in order by all means to make sure that he did not plunge into them with his reason and become his own master.

Gabriel Fackre says that “mystery” and “modesty” are the two most undervalued theological virtues of all, and so I have tried to consciously cultivate them in my own life of faith.  Valuing “mystery” means that I try to constantly keep in mind the fact that there is always so much more to God and His ways than I could ever possibly comprehend.  As someone has put it, “If I had God completely figured out, then He wouldn’t be much of a God would He?” Valuing “modesty” means that I try to hold onto my own settled convictions just as generously and gently as I possibly can, appreciating the way that others have their settled convictions too, borne of their own struggles and experiences just as mine are borne of my own deep struggles and meaningful experiences.  And so, rather than using mine to clobber them with “the truth” that I “know,” I want to humbly put it into conversation with “the truth” that they “know,” in order that together we might be mutually engaged and enlarged.  And when this actually happens, inevitably I find that we wind up on our knees.

At a recent seminar I attended the speaker talked about the “4-D’s” of good theology – Drama, Doctrine, Doxology and Discipleship.

Doctrine grows out of the Biblical drama… then those doctrines rooted in the drama fill us with thankful hearts – doxology… and finally doxology yields the fruit of love and good works – discipleship. (Michael Horton)

That speaker argued that unity comes from getting the doctrine that is rooted in the drama right. But it seems to me that this is the approach that has gotten us to the hundreds and hundreds of denominations that currently litter the religious landscape of Christianity.  If I insist on a faith that says A-B-C-D, the minute you conclude that the way faith really goes is A-C-D-B, then we’ve got to part ways.  The more exact our doctrine becomes the more fragmented the church must be.

But what happens when we start from the other end? What happens when we start with doxology and discipleship?  By joining our hearts together in prayer and worship, and then by living out our faith together by joining our hands together in acts of concrete and specific service to one another and the world, I believe that we have a basis for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace that we are told as Christians that we need to maintain (Ephesians 4:3). But it’s going to take an appreciation for mystery and a commitment to modesty if this is to happen — a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our own knowledge while at the same time creating space for what others have come to know.

Os Guinness in his terrific 2014 book Renaissance (IVP) startled me when he wrote –

Few controversies among Christians are so fruitless as the perennial debate over God’s sovereignty and human significance… Overall, it is quite clear that the general discussion of the issue has commonly been unproductive. Far too many hours have been wasted, far too much ink has been split, and because of the disagreements far too many have dismissed others as not being true Christians and have been dismissed by other Christians in their turn.

Some simple truths are worth recalling…

First, the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths, and not just one or the other. God is sovereign, humans are significant, and it is God who made us so. 

Second, history shows equally plainly that human reason cannot explain both truths.   Those who try to do so almost always end up emphasizing one truth to the exclusion of the other, one side majoring on divine sovereignty and the other on human significance. 

Third, the lesson of the Scriptures and Christian history is that we should rely firmly on both truths, and apply the one we most need when we most need it. (90-91)

And then Os said it –

There is a mystery as to how God’s sovereignty and our human significance work together, and there always will be.

A recognition of “mystery” that fosters in us an attitude of “modesty” is what brings us within the hearing distance of the divine, and that’s the goal. DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

“Compel Them to Come In” (part 3)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church

bee

Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)____________________________________________________________________________________________________

This is the third and final part of a consideration of the arguments that I find “compelling” when making the case for why I think that someone should give the Disciples of Christ in general, and Northway Christian Church in particular, a good look when thinking about finding a church.  These are my reasons.  You can agree with them, or you can disagree with them, that’s fine.  What we can’t afford to do is not to carefully think through our reasons for being a part of this church.  We are at a critical moment in our ecclesiastical life when it is urgent that we each have some good and compelling reasons for being here, and that form the basis of inviting others, even urging others, to join us. DBS +

6.  We are honor the richness of our varied community of interpretation. Of course, for this “good faith assumption” (see #5 from yesterday’s posting) to actually work, we’ve got to be open and honest with one another about not just what it is that we believe, but also about how we have arrived at those conclusions that we cherish. This means creating and then defending a community of interpretation where every perspective in the family has a seat, is given a voice, and gets an honest hearing. The way we show our seriousness about Christ, and the way that we demonstrate our commitment to doing what He commands is by putting our own settled convictions into serious and sustained conversation with the settled convictions of others in the community with whom we do not agree. Mocking the convictions of others, disrespecting the conclusions of others, ridiculing the intelligence of others, standing in an imagined spiritual, intellectual and theological superiority over others stiff-arms the very people with whom we most need to be in conversation as well as short-circuiting the very process by which we can experience and express our core unity. I may disagree with you, but I don’t have to denigrate you. I may cherish a very different set of conclusions than you cherish, but this doesn’t require me to be mean-spirited and dismissive of you and your concerns and perspectives. Disciples at our best have been able to value charity in all things, but there are always strong forces at work to subvert this way of being church, and that seems especially so in these days of hyper-partisanship and painful cultural divide.

7.  We love God with our minds. Reasonable trust” – that’s what the author of a book whose seminar I recently attended argues is our high calling as Christians. “The firewall between faith and reason has to come down,” he says, so that “our hearts can embrace someone you actually know something about.” Before I became a Disciple, I was made to feel that my questions were akin to unfaithfulness.   I was being formed by an approach to faith that viewed it as a fragile thing that could not possibly bear up under hard examination. In that other community of faith that was vying to become my permanent spiritual home back in the day, I detected a certain fearfulness of ideas. Then I providentially attended a Christian College where I got to see “Disciples” teachers take on every challenge and welcome every question with intellectual rigor and respectful courtesy. Dr. William Richardson, Dr. Dennis Helsabeck, Dr. Ward Rice, Dr. Herb Miller, Dr. Song Nai Rhee, Dr. Lawrence Bixler – these cherished teachers of mine set a standard for Christian scholarship right from the beginning that I have tried to imitate in my life and ministry ever since. To be a “Disciple” is to do this — it is to love God with all our mind..

8.  We strive to be “doers and not just hearers of the Word.Each Sunday morning at Northway we finish the morning Scripture lesson with the reader saying – “May God bless us with understanding so that we might be doers of this Word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). More than just words, this aspiration speaks of a practical approach to the teachings of the Scriptures that expects them not just to fill our heads with interesting thoughts, but to fill our lives with values and truths that are meant to be lived. Jesus’ parable at the end of His Sermon on the Mount connects deeply with the “Disciple” approach to what’s in the Bible –

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

9.  We know that we are “not the only Christians.” This is part of one of the traditional slogans of the Disciples. It is the “good faith assumption” (#5 from yesterday) applied not just to all other “Disciples,” but to all other Christians as well. One of the real gems in our history is a letter that Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, wrote in 1837 that’s known as the “Lunenburg Letter” –

But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. … It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.

There was a time when this quote from our spiritual heritage was framed and prominently hung in all of our churches. It was a declaration of our intention to be generous and gracious with everyone who names Christ as Lord and Savior.  In this day when we are being torn apart into factions, it may be time to put it back up on the walls of our churches and get it back into the hearts of our people.  Anyone who regards Jesus Christ to be their Lord and Savior is a brother or sister to me – Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, 5 Point Calvinist Presbyterians, Arminian Wesleyans, Holiness Nazarenes, United Methodists, High Church Episcopalians, Inclusive Metropolitan Community Churches, non-dogmatic Quakers, Evangelical megachurches, Progressive United Churches of Christ – anyone, anywhere who names Christ. Treating them respectfully, listening to them eagerly in order to discover their unique perspectives, expectant of receiving a gift or grace from them that will expand my own Christian understanding and experience — I don’t have to agree with everything they say in order to treat them as my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Being a “Disciple” encourages this kind of generous engagement with other Christians. And not just with other Christians, but with all other human beings of genuine faith as well.

10.  We know that we are not the only people God in Jesus Christ loves, or who love God. The generosity of God in Jesus Christ that we affirm as Disciples fosters in us an optimism about how God is at work in the religious impulses of people everywhere and always. I don’t have to jettison my belief about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ when I engage in conversation and cultivate relationships with people of other faith traditions. I believe that the scope of God’s love in Jesus Christ includes them. I believe that the efficacy of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is sufficient for them. And I believe that the searching and convicting work of the Holy Spirit is operative in their hearts too. And so, in exactly the same way that I would never denigrate or dismiss the genuine faith of another Christian no matter how different their convictions are from my own, so I would never denigrate or dismiss the genuine faith of another human being from another faith tradition no matter how different their convictions are from my own either. Knowing that God loves them, and taking Acts 14:17 and 17:22-28 seriously, I look for bridges between people of different faith traditions that can bring us together rather than the buttressing the walls that keep us apart from each other and spiritually suspicious of each other. Our characteristic ecumenism as Disciples provides us with a way of managing our beliefs in a world where not everyone believes as we do.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“Compel Them to Come In” (part 2)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church

bee

Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

In Luke 14:23 the master of the house who was putting on the party sent his servants out to “compel” people to come in.   The word “compel” here refers to the act of making a convincing argument that will move another person to make an appropriate response, in the case of this story, to persuade them to come into the house.  So, what are the convincing arguments that we can make to persuade people to come to Northway?  Today I will provide you with my first five reasons, and tomorrow I will conclude with my last five.

  1. Because we believe in a generous God. Richard Mouw says that this is the first and most important theological decision that any one of us has to make – Do we believe that God is stingy or generous? Is God reluctant to love us and has to be convinced to save us, or is God so in love with us that it takes extraordinary effort on our part to keep Him out of our lives?   The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the church of a generous God because it is a church based on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  2. Because we are a church that has no creed but Christ and no book but the Bible. I found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at a moment in my young Christian life when I was being pulled in different directions by well-meaning brothers and sisters who were all insisting that “real” Christians believe this or that. No sooner would one of them tell me that one thing was true, than another one come along and tell me the exact opposite thing was true. It was all very confusing to me. And then a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor sat down and talked with me about how the “what” of doctrine always divides while the “who” of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, our Lord and Savior, always unites. He advised me to be certain of Christ and then to stay just as open as I possibly could about everything else, testing every faith claim and assertion by the teaching of Scripture. This approach – so characteristic of Disciples – has served me well.
  3. Because we observe open Communion each and every week. Going to the Lord’s Table each Sunday morning keeps me focused on the redemptive purposes of God in Jesus Christ, keeps me anchored to the Gospel experience of grace in Christ, and keeps me oriented to the mission of reconciliation through Christ with which the church has been entrusted and for which the church has been empowered by His indwelling Spirit. Weekly Lord’s Supper keeps the Gospel of Jesus Christ front and center in my own life, and in the life and mission of the whole church. The Disciples are a movement for wholeness in fragmented world. We welcome others to the Lord’s Table just as God in Jesus Christ has welcomed us.
  4. Because we respect the competency of each soul to do its own believing. Romans 14:4-5 looms rather large in our life of mutual encouragement and accountability as Disciples –

    Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.  One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind.

    In other words, we’ve all got to decide things for ourselves, and we will all have to answer for how we’ve decided them. This is the right of private interpretation and the freedom of conscience distilled into the concrete practice of mutual respect for which we as Disciples have been justly recognized.  As Disciples we honor the freedom and responsibility of each believer to “work out their salvation with awe and reverence” (Philippians 2:12).  We are not the kind of church that’s going to tell you what to think, but rather we are going to be the kind of church that’s shows you how to “think believingly,” and that then challenges you to get on with it.

  5. Because we make a “good faith assumption” about one another.  Because we are forever deciding things differently as Christians, there is a very real temptation to conclude that those whose conclusions are at variance with our own conclusions on any number of vital matters of faith and practice must be either stupid or wicked. The “good faith assumption” is the glue that holds us together in spite of those differences.  When we disagree about something, the “good faith assumption” says that I am going to believe and behave in such a way that shows that I think that you are just as serious about Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as committed to knowing and doing what Christ commands as I am.  And as Disciples, it is going to the Lord’s Table together each week with people who don’t necessarily think as I think, or believe as I believe, that seals the bond of this resolve for unity in love

 ________________________________________________________________________________________________

 Tomorrow I will post the last five reasons I use to make a compelling case for Northway Christian Church in particular, and the Disciples of Christ in general. DBS +

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings