“For Such a Time as This”

Thinking Christianly” about Race, Money and Politics


 

dudeFrancis Schaeffer (1912 – 1984) wrote 23 books. He viewed the last book he wrote – The Great Evangelical Disaster (Crossway 1984) – published just months before his death, as a kind of theological last will and testament to those of us who had come under the sway of his teaching.  This book has the feel of the last chapters of Deuteronomy (31-34) in the Old Testament to it, Moses’s farewell speech to the people of Israel, or the Farewell Discourse of Jesus in the Upper Room with His Disciples in the Gospel of John (13-17), or 2 Timothy, the New Testament letter that presents itself to us as Paul’s swan song.  The totality of a teacher’s teachings gathered up and reduced down to their essence, a reminder of why the things that have been said mattered, and an argument for why they will continue to matter after the teacher is long gone.  That’s what The Great Evangelical Disaster was to Francis Schaeffer, and it explains why he called it the most important thing that he wrote, and I don’t disagree.  Speaking as someone who has been reading Francis Schaeffer with both real benefit and genuine appreciation since 1970 (that’s 46 years!) I think The Great Evangelical Disaster is the best “front door” into his body of work.

I mention all of this because it was in The Great Evangelical Disaster that Francis Schaeffer prophetically named the “three great weaknesses” that he observed have chronically plagued North American Christians and North American Christianity for generations – the matter of race, the use of wealth and the confusion of God with country.

First there is the matter of race, where there were two kinds of abuse. There was slavery based on race, and also racial prejudice as such.   Both practices are wrong, and often were present when Christians had a stronger influence on the consensus than they have now.  And yet the church, as the church, did not speak out sufficiently against them. (382)

Second, there is the question of the compassionate use of wealth… this means two things: first, making it with justice; and then using it with real compassion. (383)

Third, there is the danger of confusing Christianity with the country… we must not wrap Christianity in our country’s flag, and second we must protest the notion of “manifest destiny” that would permit our nation to do anything it chooses. (383)

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Race is in the news these days because of the recent shootings of Black men by police officers in Tulsa and Charlotte, just the latest in a long string of troubling stories about race, power and violence. Money is on my mind because we’ve just entered the stewardship season in the life of the church I serve. This is the time each year when the dots between what we say we believe and value and how we spend our money get consciously connected.  Politics dominates our national consciousness right now because in less than six weeks we will be voting for a new President.  And Francis Schaeffer, right before he died, warned us that these are three things that we who are Americans and Christians have never done very faithfully.  So, in my blog over the next few weeks I intend to do what Francis Schaeffer said we who are American Christians don’t do particularly well, and that’s to do some “believing thinking” on race, money and politics.

Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, in his September 2016 editorial calls it “a God moment.” He explains that many Christians are spiritually “sensitive” to the way that “circumstances fall together in a way that suggests that God is at work in our lives in fresh way,” and he says that he believes that that “we are currently experiencing a new ‘God moment’” on race.

God is shining his burning light on how our nation and our churches are fractured by racial division and injustice. In the past two years, we’ve seen image after image of injustice perpetrated against black Americans.  We’ve studied this ate statistics.  And more important, we’ve heard the anguished cry of a suffering community that is understandably hurting, angry, and demanding progress.  We see more clearly than ever how racism is embedded in many aspects of our society…  (And we have to admit that) we have been slow to hear what the black church has been telling us for a while. And in all of this, we hear God calling his church to seek justice and reconciliation in concrete ways.

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What he’s talking about here are what I was taught were “Kairos” moments.

“Kairos” is an ancient Greek word meaning the “right or opportune moment.” It refers to a special period of time that opens up within the regular routine of one’s life, during what’s known as “Chronos” time. A “Kairos” moment is when something divinely crucial is happening in one’s life, or in the life of the whole world.

The core conviction at work in the notion of “Kairos” is that God actively and persistently builds special moments into our lives when we are brought to the brink of faith decisions through experiences of special insight and invitation.  In the Evangelical tradition this is what is meant when somebody says that they have been brought “under the conviction of the Holy Spirit” about something.  In the Quaker tradition there is a strong teaching about “days of visitation” when they say that God shows up in people’s lives with an unmistakable intensity, making available to the visitant an opportunity to take the next decisive step in their journey of faith, taking them deeper in and further along in their experience of life with God.  Kennon Callahan said that it’s God who is at work in what we are thinking about when we’re stuck in traffic, or stopped at a red light, or when we’re up in the middle of a sleepless night.  God uses these interruptions and inconveniences to clear the space in our heads and hearts where He can then pose His invitations and challenge our presuppositions.  Personally, I experience my own strongest sense of “Kairos” when something I am reading and pondering scores a direct hit on something that’s actually happening in my life and/or world.  I sit up and pay closer attention when the questions that my experiences and observations of life are posing get answered immediately with the things that are being formed in me spiritually through what I am currently reading and considering.

And so, with the questions of race, money and politics being asked with such intensity and urgency these days, and with the earnest warning of the Evangelical “St. Francis” (Schaeffer) that these are each areas on the journey of faith where Christians like us have previously tripped and consistently fallen, I am sensing that these are topics demanding some of our very best “believing thinking.” So, in my next posting, we’ll start with race.

                                                                                                                                 DBS +

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Next “Soundings” ~ “Race, Christ and the Christian”

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The Dock and the Boat; Being “Biblical” in a Changing World

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boatHave you ever stepped from a dock into a rocking boat? Spiritually, the precariousness of this situation is where we live our lives as Christians.  Our mandate is to go into all the world to preach the Gospel (Mark 16:15).  The dock is the New Testament, the firm and fixed platform from which we operate.  It is our first source and primary authority for faith and practice as Christians. The world is the constantly shifting boat, rising and falling with the waves, rocking and rolling in the wind.  And we who have experienced and been entrusted with the Gospel message of God’s steadfast love in Jesus Christ are constantly being asked to step from the sure dock of the New Testament into the shifting boat of the world. The expectation is that we will carry the Gospel message that is rooted and grounded in the New Testament to the worlds where we live and move and have our being.   The trick in this is being able to “translate” the Gospel message into the language, thought-forms and felt needs of our changing world without “transforming” the Gospel message into something else in the process.

When I started ministry back in the 1970’s the pressing question of the day was women in the spiritual and pastoral leadership of the church. Back then I pastored churches that elected their first women elders and congregational chairs, and that called their first women ministers, and believe me when I tell you that there were some tense and terse meetings in those congregations as those decisions were being made, and some casualties. Some church members strongly and sincerely believed that the New Testament prohibited women in spiritual leadership, and they cited I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:11-14 as their proof.  They had their feet firmly planted on the dock of Scripture and they weren’t budging.  Other church members knew that the world around them had changed, that the cultural movement towards equal rights between the sexes was right, and that the church needed to “catch-up” and adjust to this new reality.  They had their foot in the moving boat and they were faithfully committed to keeping it firmly planted there.  Needless to say, this created some uncomfortable tension.  Passion was met by passion, and the trick from my perspective as their pastor was keeping the necessary conversation civil and sustained.  The temptation was always for somebody to pick up their ball and go home.  Rather than trusting that the Holy Spirit was the source of the whitecaps of controversy in the pond of their church, some were always looking for a quick exit, a premature resolution.  Either stay on the dock or get into the boat.   Enough of this straddling business!   But the Great Commission – going into all the world to preach the Gospel – by definition always has and always will position us with one foot on the dock and with our other foot in the boat.

Resolution finally came in those churches not by dismissing the Biblical concerns nor by ignoring the present cultural developments, but by remembering that the books of the Bible themselves were all written in a shifting cultural context too, and that by figuring out what was cultural in them and thereby negotiable, and what was Gospel in them and thereby nonnegotiable, was going to hold the key for us as Christians today trying to “translate” the eternal Gospel into our specific cultural context without “transforming” the content of the Gospel into something else.

pecansAppreciating the difference between the husk and the kernel of a pecan was the crucial distinction. Every Texan has had the unfortunate experience of putting a pig piece of pecan pie into your mouth and biting into a piece of shell when what you were expecting was the taste and texture of the soft sweet nut.  Well, the Biblical context is the shell and the Biblical content is the nut.   The shell in inedible and disposable.  The nut is edible and valuable.  The trick is figuring out which is which when you are looking at a Biblical text.

Sometimes it’s obvious. I’ll bet you a dollar or two that you didn’t see any women in church last Sunday morning with their heads covered even though the New Testament explicitly commands it (I Corinthians 11:1-16).  You don’t need a seminary degree to know there’s a kernel and a husk at work in this text, and the fact that there were no women in church last Sunday with their heads covered shows that we know what the husk of it is.  The real question is what is the kernel of this text?  The interpretive tools of scholarship were developed to help us figure this “kernel” question out more faithfully.

Historically, the church has always believed in a Bible that is both authoritative and that needs to be interpreted. It needs to be interpreted because as C. Leonard Allen put it –

The Bible is a collection of writings rooted deeply in a world that is remote to us. It reflects languages, cultures and world views as strange to us as those of rural Kenya or Kurdistan. Only as we realize that we are outsiders can we enter that strange world and to some degree become insiders.

To be able to do this requires us to undertake an interpretive journey across the barriers of time, culture, language, knowledge and worldviews. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays in their book Grasping God’s Word (Zondervan 2005) says that this journey involves asking and answering five question with every Biblical text –

bridgeStep 1: What did the text mean to the original audience?
Step 2: 
What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
Step 3: 
What is the theological principle in this text?
Step 4: How does this theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
Step 5: 
How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?

This is what’s involved in stepping from the dock of a Biblical text into the rocking and rolling boat of a culture in the world today with the message of the Gospel in your arms that you are trying to deliver from its original ancient setting to your present contemporary setting. It’s tricky, and it can’t be rushed.  Today, for most of us, the question of women in ministry has been settled by discovering what’s the kernel and what’s the husk of texts like I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:11-14, and we did that by following some version or variation of the 5 steps of the interpretive journey.

Today, the pressing question for us is the full inclusion of Gay and Lesbian Christians in the life and ministry of the church, and just like the question of women in ministry 40 years ago, the LBGTQ question today has some church members with their feet firmly planted on the dock of Biblical texts like Genesis 19:1-11, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, I Corinthians 6:9-10, I Timothy 1:10 and Romans 1:26-27, and other church members with their feet firmly planted in the boat of a culture in which the understanding of same sex identity and relationships have undergone a dramatic shift, a culture into which they know they have been sent with the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  And just like 40 years ago and the question of women in ministry, there is some uncomfortable tension in the church today about what it means to be Gospel inclusive?  Passion is meeting passion once again, and the trick for me as a pastor, once again, is to try to keep the conversation civil and going.

When people on the dock, and people in the boat, each threaten to take their ball and leave, we need to trust that the Holy Spirit is in fact the source of the whitecaps of controversy in the pond of the church, and to see it through to God’s resolution rather than seeking our own quick exit from the process. 40 years ago it was the question of women in ministry.  Today it is the question of the full inclusion of LBGTQ Christians in the life of the church. 40 years from now it will be another question. So long as Christ sends His church into the world with the message of the Gospel of God’s saving love, we who are Christians are going to feel the very real tension of having one foot on the dock of Scripture and the other one in the boat of culture. So, don’t fight it.  God is in it.  Trust the Holy Spirit’s work.  See it through.  DBS +

 

 

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Finding Common Ground

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A Little “Believing Thinking” on the Fifteenth Anniversary of 9/11 ___________________________________________________________________________

The world changed 15 years ago, or was it that we just noticed 15 years ago how much the world had changed?   On that morning when airliners began flying into buildings, we couldn’t imagine what was happening.  And here, 15 years later, many of us still can’t believe what has happened.  Nearly 3,000 people died on the morning of September 11, 2001, and since 9/11 the best estimate is that 1.3 million people have died in the ensuing “War on Terror.”

Because the 19 terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attack were all Muslim extremists, and because the Muslim community in the United States has become increasingly visible, vocal and vulnerable over these past 15 years, we who are American Christians have had to think through our response to and our relationship with our Muslim neighbors. This hasn’t been easy because we’ve got history.  “Emotions burn hot, and fears run high” for both Christians and Muslims.  From the moment that Islam was born, Muslims and Christians have been in competition with each other.  Each of us convinced of our own truth, each of us committed to our own mission, we’ve spent the last 1400 years trying to convert each other, sometimes by persuasion, at other times by force, even as we have contended with each other for the hearts and minds of the rest of the worlds’ people.  For these reasons, and so many more, Christians and Muslims have not always “shaken hands in friendship.”  In fact, more often than not we have behaved as bitter rivals looking on each other with suspicion and contempt.

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This makes all the more remarkable the letter that was issued in October of 2007 from 138 international Muslim scholars and religious leaders to Christians calling for honest dialogue and mutual respect. This Common Word said –

Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population… If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake… So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to one another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.

blckWho could possibly argue with this? The only real question is how?  How do we prevent our differences from becoming the cause hatred and strife between us?  I find the beginnings of an answer in Genesis chapter 25 – the story of the death and burial of Abraham.  This is a brief and direct narrative.  In verse 9 of Genesis 25 we’re told that after Abraham died, that Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him.  It’s so understated that it’s really easy to miss. Isaac and Ishmael, half-brothers, came together to bury their common father Abraham.  Now, the last time that Ishmael was mentioned in the story that the book of Genesis tells, Abraham was sending him and his mother, Hagar, away into the wilderness (Genesis 21).  It’s an ugly story, a “text of terror.”   All that the Biblical text tells us in the set-up to this story is that Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, the handmaid of Sarah his wife, was “mocking” Isaac her son.   The word translated “mocked” in this verse can also be translated as “played with,” and it’s this fuzziness of translation that led to the emergence of a Jewish tradition that says that what Ishmael did was to shoot arrows at his little half-brother Isaac!  This made Ishmael the object of Sarah’s rage, which was only layered on top of her shame for not having trusted the promise that God had made to her and Abraham that together they would have a son. The mere sight of Ishmael in their family must have been a painful reminder of their unfaithfulness, and so whatever happened in Genesis 21 between Ishmael and Isaac that day, Sarah immediately insisted that Abraham send Ishmael and his mother Hagar away. This was not a strategy designed to engender warm feelings between Abraham’s two sons, in fact, it’s customary in some circles to think and talk about the morass that is the Middle East today in terms of this ancient Isaac/Ishmael divide, the family feud between the children of Abraham.

But when Abraham died, these long separated and bitterly divided brothers came together again in their common grief for a moment of uncommon grace, and I think that therein lies the promise for us on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  You see, for all of the hostility and suspicion that surely must have existed between Isaac and Ishmael, when Abraham died, they found a way past their very real and quite substantial differences to stand together again, side by side.  And it seems to me that we who are Christians and Muslims, Abraham’s spiritual children, have got to find a way to do be able to do this same thing today.  Just like Ishmael and Isaac, there are things that bring Christians and Muslims together, and there are things that drive us apart.  When and where our beliefs and values are complimentary I believe that we need to gratefully embrace that commonality, and when and where our beliefs and values vary, we need to graciously own those important differences.

crossFor example, both Islam and Christianity agree that God is merciful. That’s a commonality that I believe we can claim and celebrate together as Muslims and Christians.  It’s the first and perhaps the most important plank in a bridge of mutual understanding.  But as a Christian I believe that I must go even further.  I must be very clear with myself and with my Muslim friends and neighbors that the way that I know that God is merciful is through the “suffering, redemptive love revealed in the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus who is the Christ” (Shenck 206).   You see, Jesus Christ is decisive for Christianity.

Now, I know that Jesus matters to Muslims too.   I know that Muslims believe that He was one of the six greatest prophets who ever lived, and that’s really saying something because Muslims believe that God has sent 124,000 prophets throughout history to speak His word to humankind (Elass).  I know that Jesus is accorded the same honor and dignity in Islam that is accorded to Mohammed.  In fact, I know that Muslims believe that Jesus was literally born of a virgin, preached the truth of God’s love, worked miracles during His lifetime and that He will come again before the end of the world.

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Servant of God (Prophet `Isa/Jesus Quote Calligraphy from Quran 19:30) ______________________________________________________________________________

These are all commonalities between us that I believe we can claim and use as even more planks in that bridge of mutual understanding that we must build. But, after celebrating and exploring these convictions about Jesus that we share as Muslims and Christians, as a Christian I believe that I’ve then got to go on to name those convictions that we don’t share, those core beliefs that the church has “culled from the Scriptures and believed for the last two thousand years” (Elass 54), what Peter Kreeft calls “the three crucial Christian doctrines that Islam denies – the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection” (87). What’s missing from Islam’s affirmation of Jesus, are the very things that I find to be so essential to historic Christianity’s classic affirmation of Christ, and what this means is that while I think that I can and must walk side by side with my Muslim brothers and sisters for just as long and for just as far as I possibly can, there nevertheless comes that moment when we must part company and go our separate ways because, for all of the things that we do hold in common, there are some other things, some pretty fundamental things, about which we couldn’t be further apart, and almost all of those things have to do with Jesus.

I really do believe that what the New Testament tells us about who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for us is true and that it needs to be believed. This is what makes us Christians, and what that means is that when and where Islam deviates from what the New Testament teaches about Jesus Christ, that’s when and where I must respectfully but conscientiously part company with them. And by the way, every Muslim conversation partner that I’ve ever had has told me the same exact thing.  It’s what we believe about Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God, our Lord and Savior as Christians, that compels Muslims to part company with us as well.

So, is that it? Is this how the story ends — each of us, Christians and Muslims, with our backs turned to each other walking away from each other in opposite directions?  Is 9/11 the natural and inevitable outcome to this clash of convictions and civilizations?  I doesn’t have to be.  You see, my affirmation of what Christianity teaches doesn’t require me to hate my Muslim neighbors and friends, or to think that I must destroy them because they don’t agree with what I believe and teach about Jesus Christ.  Sure, they think I’m wrong, and I think I’m right.  This is an impasse to be sure.  But if Jesus Christ is who Christianity says that He is, and who I believe that He is, then it follows, doesn’t it, that in addition to trusting Him as my Savior, that I’ve got to pay attention to the things that He taught and to follow the example that He set as my Lord?  And right at the top of that list is loving my neighbor, and then when my neighbors becomes frighteningly un-neighborly, to love them as my enemy.  And as that Common Word that the world’s Muslim leaders addressed to the Christian community back in 2007 pointed out, the Koran teaches them to do the very same exact thing.  And so, without either of us surrendering our heartfelt and carefully thought-through convictions, just like Ishmael and Isaac in our Scripture lesson this morning, in the experience of commanded and committed love, Muslims and Christians can find a meeting place, some common ground.

church“The basis for peace and understanding (between Christians and Muslims) already exists,” the Common Word observed.  “It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths… The necessity of love for… the One God… and the necessity of love of neighbor is the common ground between Islam and Christianity.”  The only question is, will we, like Ishmael and Isaac in Genesis 25, find the courage to make the long journey of the heart to stand together there on that common ground of love, side by side as Christians and Muslims.  The 15th anniversary of 9/11 last Sunday makes this one of the most urgent questions of our time.  DBS +

 

 

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Why Teaching Bible Study is the Most Important Thing I do each Week

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The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God stands forever.

                                                                                                                      ~ Isaiah 40:8

bibleheartThis coming Sunday morning I will resume teaching the Bible Survey Class that I began last Spring. This Fall we will cover the Wisdom and Poetry books of the Old Testament, to be followed by the Prophets.  This is one of three Bible Studies that I teach each week.  On Sunday evenings at 5:30 pm I teach a Topical Bible Study (This Bible Study is broadcast live on Periscope each week).  Right now we’re looking at “Politics According the Bible,” and that will be followed after the election with an Advent/Christmas Study of the Gospels’ birth narratives – “The First Days of Jesus.”  And then on Wednesdays at noon I teach an in-depth, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse, thought-by-thought Bible Study.  Right now were just about halfway through the Book of Revelation, and when we’re finished, we’ll immediately turn our attention to the Pastoral Epistles – to I Timothy, Titus and II Timothy.

To be sure, preparing and leading these Bible Studies are a big demand on my time and energy as a minister each week. You can’t just walk in unprepared to a room full of eager and thoughtful students and expect to engage them in a serious conversation about the meaning of ancient texts that are believed to be inspired and that are treated as authoritative for our Christian faith and practice.  Besides this purely human obligation to be an effective teacher, there is an enormous Divine expectation as well.  More than once the New Testament warns us about the spiritual dangers of being a teacher (James 3:1-2; Matthew 23:1-11; Matthew 18:1-7), and about how it is possible for us to “misrepresent God” (I Corinthians 15:15).  The New Testament says enough about false teachers – and none of it good – to know that I don’t want to be found in their number!

So, why do I do it? Why do I put myself out this way each week?  Why do I invest myself so heavily in the work of these three weekly Bible studies?  Why do I subject myself to the demands, both human and Divine?

Well, part of the answer has to do with spiritual gifts. You see, I know that my own particular call to ministry, and the capacities for ministry that I have, and have consciously developed, all have to do with teaching (Ephesians 4:11). Teaching is foundational to all Christian ministry (Matthew 8:20; Acts 2:42), and it is one of the spiritual gifts that God sovereignly distributes according to His purposes to build-up the church (I Corinthians 12:11).  This means that no minister is off-the-hook when it comes to teaching the faith – it’s part of how we “pay the rent” for our ministries in a church  – even as some of us “double-down” on the ministry of teaching as our own particular mission within the mission.  This is part of the reason why I do it.  This is who I am, and what I know that I am called to do, and I am truly blessed to be in a church and part of a pastoral team that allows for this kind of specialization in ministry.  But there is more to my commitment to the ministry of teaching than this.

briteIn my last semester at Brite Divinity School back in 1979 I stumbled across a little book from 1675 written by Philip Jacob Spener, one of the spiritual leaders of the Movement known as Pietism.   “Pia Desideria” (“Pious Desires”) was his pastoral assessment of the sad spiritual state of the church of his day, and his specific proposals to correct it.  And his first corrective proposal was a call for a “more extensive use of the Scriptures.” This lengthy excerpt is from pages 87-91 of my dog-eared and well worn copy of “Pia Desideria” (Fortress Press – 1964).   It is a call for Bible Study in the local church and a proposed model for actually doing it that broadly resembles the kind of Bible Studies that we have here at Northway.

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Thought should be given to the more extensive use of the Word of God among us… It would perhaps not be inexpedient to reintroduce the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings. In addition our customary services with preaching, other assemblies would also be held in the manner in which Paul describes them in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. One person would not rise to preach, but others who have been blessed with gifts and knowledge would also speak and present their pious opinions on the proposed subject to the judgment of the rest, doing all this in such a way as to avoid disorder and strife. This might conveniently be done by having …several members of a congregation who have a fair knowledge of God or desire to increase their knowledge meet under the leadership of the Minister, take up the Holy Scriptures, read aloud from them, and fraternally discuss each verse in order to discover its simple meaning and whatever may be useful for the edification of all.  Anybody who is not satisfied with his understanding of a matter should be permitted to express his doubts and seek further explanation.  On the other hand, those who have made more progress should be allowed the freedom to state how they understand each passage.  Then all that has been contributed, insofar as it accords with a sense of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, should be carefully considered by the rest, …and applied to the edification of the whole meeting.  Everything should be arranged with an eye to the glory of God, to the spiritual growth of the participants, and therefore also to their limitations.  Any threat of meddlesomeness, quarrelsomeness, self-seeking, or something else of this sort should be guarded against and tactfully cut off…

Not a little benefit is to be hope for from such an arrangement.  Preachers would learn to know the members of their own congregations and their weaknesses or growth in doctrine and piety, and a bond of confidence would be established between preachers and people which would serve the best interests of both.  At the same time, the people would have a splendid opportunity to exercise your diligence with respect to the word of God and modestly to answer their questions (which they do not always have the courage to discuss with their minister in private) and get answers to them.  In a short time, they would experience personal growth and would also be capable of giving better religious instruction to their children and servants at home.  In the absence of such exercises, sermons which are delivered in continually flowing speech are not always fully and adequately comprehended because there’s no time for reflection in between or because when one does stop reflect, much of what follows is missed (which does not happen in a discussion).  On the other hand, private reading the Bible, reading in the household, where nobody is present who may from time to time help point out the meaning and purpose of each verse, cannot provide the reader with sufficient explanation of all that he would like to know.  What is lacking in both of these instances (in public preaching and private reading) would be supplied by the proposed exercises. 

…This much is certain: The diligent use of the word of God, which consists not only a listening to sermons, but also reading, meditating, and discussing (Psalm 1:2 ), must be the chief means for reforming something, whether this occurs in the proposed fashion or in some other appropriate way.  The word of God remains the seed from which all that is good in us must grow.  If we succeed in getting the people to seek eagerly and diligently in the Book of life for their joy, their spiritual life will be wonderfully strengthened and they will become altogether different people….

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Believing what Spener said in that last paragraph about the word of God being the seed “from which all that is good in us must grow,” and how people are “wonderfully strengthened” and profoundly “reformed” through “reading, meditating and discussing” the Bible,  I made a conscious commitment back in 1979, during my last semester in seminary, to actually institute the kind of Bible Study that Spener proposed here in every church that I would ever serve as an ordained minister, and here, some 37 years later I can say that I have.

This commitment to congregational Bible Study was confirmed a couple of years ago when Willow Creek reported the results of their “Reveal” self-study.

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Over a period of four years, Willow Creek polled more than 1,500 churches representing more than 400,000 church attendees at various stages in their spiritual journeys, and Bible reading and reflection, the REVEAL survey found, is the No. 1 way to help people grow in their love for Christ.

 “When it comes to spiritual growth, nothing beats the Bible,” wrote Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins in their book, Move. The churches involved in the study ranged in size from under 100 to more than 5,000 and represented all 50 states. They were both denominational and non-denominational and represented a wide range of styles, including contemporary, Pentecostal, Catholic, traditional and mainline. Parkinson and Hawkins explain that key findings in the REVEAL survey suggest people fall along a spiritual continuum, from exploring Christ to being Christ-centered—and many things advance our walks with God along that continuum.

 “But of all the personal spiritual practices—prayer, confession, tithing, journaling, solitude, serving or worship we find that one stands out,” Parkinson and Hawkins state. “Scripture reflection—more than any other practice—moves people forward in their love for God and love for others.” Reflection on Scripture is much more influential than any other spiritual practice by a statistically significant and wide margin, Parkinson and Hawkins state. “For those who would say they are Christ-centered or working to stay close to Christ, Scripture reflection is twice as catalytic as any other factor. This means it has twice the power of any other spiritual practice to accelerate growth in spiritually mature people.” (http://www.americanbible.org)

 Of course, the kind of transformative Bible Study that Spener first proposed 400 years ago, and that Willow Creek has more recently affirmed as being the most spiritually catalytic factor in its own life and ministry as a church, is not just about filling the head of students with information, but rather, it’s about filling the hearts of believers with the promises, provisions and presence that a serious engagement with Scripture supplies.

It was A.W. Tozer (1897 – 1963) – one of my “paper spiritual directors” (somebody who shapes my soul and guides my spiritual growth through the things that they wrote) – who warned me about the academic “information-alone” kind of Bible Studies to which we who have been to seminary, can read the Biblical languages and who have shelves and shelves of critical commentaries are prone.  Now, don’t take this as a rejection of the academic study of the Bible.  I am someone who believes that the Bible is inspired and authoritative, and that it needs to be carefully and contextually interpreted.  I am a champion of theological education, and I turn to scholarship every week to try to better understand every jot and tittle that I find in the Bible.  But that’s not enough.  I’ll let A.W. speak –

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Charles G. Finney believed that Bible teaching without moral application could be worse than no teaching at all, and could result in positive injury to the hearers. I used to think that this might be an extreme position, but after years of observation I have come around to it, or to a view almost identical to it.

There is scarcely anything so dull and meaningless as Bible doctrine taught for its own sake. Truth divorced from life is not truth in its Biblical sense, but something else and something less. Theology is a set of facts concerning God, man and the world. These facts may be, and often are, set forth as values in themselves; and there lies the snare both for the teacher and for the hearer.

…The Bible … is more than a volume of hitherto unknown facts about God, man and the universe. It is a book of exhortation based upon those facts. By far the greater portion of the book is devoted to an urgent effort to persuade people to alter their ways and bring their lives into harmony with the will of God as set forth in its pages.

…What is generally overlooked is that truth as set forth in the Christian Scriptures is a moral thing; it is not addressed to the intellect only, but to the will also. It addresses itself to the total man, and its obligations cannot be discharged by grasping it mentally. Truth engages the citadel of the human heart and is not satisfied until it has conquered everything there. The will must come forth and surrender its sword. It must stand at attention to receive orders, and those orders it must joyfully obey. Short of this, any knowledge of Christian truth is inadequate and unavailing.

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It was Albert Schweitzer who said that the Bible was spiritually explosive in his life. Any verse of Scripture, he said, had the potential of blowing up in our hands, in our heads and in our hearts, thereby blasting us to places we never thought of going on our own, to do things that we never thought of doing before.  It’s catalytic.

worldGod’s word is alive and working and is sharper than a double-edged sword. It cuts all the way into us, where the soul and the spirit are joined, to the center of our joints and bones. And it judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts. (Hebrews 4:19)

And this is why teaching Bible Study is the most important thing I do each week as a minister. When people open their Bibles they are positioning themselves in front of the instrument that God has ordained to effect real change in people’s lives, and the through them, in the world.  DBS +

 

                                                                                                                                                

 

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“We All Want to Change the World”

AspectsIt’s a single line from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans) that has been as consequential for my thinking about the social implications of the Gospel as any line from any book written by any theologian/ethicist that I have ever read.  Dr. Henry asked, “In seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to what extend on grace?” And again, “How much shall we trust legislation and how much shall we trust regeneration to change the social setting?” (15).

What holds the greatest promise for the transformation of society? Is it education, legislation, agitation, redemption, or some combination thereof?  Well, Dr. Henry was clear about what he thought.  He argued – “What the social order needs most… are not people with new textbooks and new laws, but people with new hearts” (30).  That’s an affirmation of regeneration over education and legislation as the real key to social change.  Changed hearts change the world.

Now, Dr. Henry was not so spiritually naïve as to think that education and legislation, or even agitation, were completely devoid of value in the process of social change. He knew that they each had a part to play in the cause of change, and he said so.  In fact, Dr. Henry’s most famous book was The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) in which he took to task the social withdrawal of conservative Christians from the pressing social issues of the day.  But he was nevertheless insistent that Biblically, “personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in Christianity’s hope for the social order” (25). This is Christianity’s distinctive contribution to the conversation, if you ask me.

Buddhists and Muslims, Republicans and Democrats, Occupiers and Tea Partiests, Secularists and Socialists all have stakes in the struggle for a better world too, and rightly so. We’re all residents, and so we’ve all got our points of view and our ideas to argue, and in a vigorous democracy like ours, we should be glad for this cacophony of voices. It’s that old “public square” argument — in a marketplace of ideas, everybody needs to be present, and everybody needs to be talking just as clearly and convincingly as they possibly can.   The only question is, what is it that we as Christians should be saying?   What’s our distinctive contribution to the conversation?

Traditionalist Christians have become so identified with Republican politics these days that they are now popularly seen as one of “their” constituency groups, while progressive Christians have been identified with Democrat politics for so long that they are viewed as  one of “their” constituency groups.  But when this happens, what gets lost is what’s most distinctive for us as Christians.  You see, I believe that the real impetus for change is not political argument or social action alone, but an application of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to every sphere of life.  But this is precisely what I find is missing in so many of the arguments that I hear these days about how we as Christians need to change the world.

I hear the case for social change being made and the appeal for social change being issued by Christians without any reference being made to the Gospel at all, to this whole thing being rooted and grounded in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ whose birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit and coming again brings the Kingdom that will finally and fully heal all creation. I’m just not sure that I as a Christian can talk about justice without talking about Jesus.  I don’t think that I can cast a vision for social change as a Christian that is not deeply informed by the person and work of Christ.  He’s just that instrumental to this whole change project for me as a Christian.

Now, let me be absolutely clear this. I want peace.  I want justice.  I want freedom.  I want security. I want equality. I want a healthy environment.  I want compassion.  I want abundance.  I want opportunity. I want reconciliation.  I want healing and wholeness.  I want life, and all human beings to thrive.  I really want the world to change.  It seems to me that it’s really hard to read the Bible, and to believe what the Bible says, and not to be for these things.  As John Killinger put it, when you have heard from God, then –

You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear. You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things.  You yourself become committed to the kingdom humanity has always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness – 115)

The relevant question for me is “how?” How does the world change?  What initiates the introduction of this better social order, and then, what sustains its cultivation over the long haul?  Is it the “Law” that best serves the cause of social change, or is it the Gospel?  For me, this is the question that we who are Christians really need to be thinking about.

Gospel

It was the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther who said that God has only preached two sermons to us – the Law from the top of Mt. Sinai, and the Gospel from the top of Mt. Calvary. Mt. Sinai says: “You must do.” Mt. Calvary says: “Because you couldn’t, Jesus did.” This is a pretty standard division of the content that’s in the Bible.  Simplistically, it’s the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, although there is Gospel in the Old Testament to be sure, and Law in the New Testament.  When the Bible tells us to do this or that, by Luther’s distinctions, it’s Law.  And when the Bible tells us that God already did this or that for us in Christ, it’s Gospel. As Tim Keller explains, “The Gospel is news about what God has already done for you rather than instruction and advice about what you are to do for God.”

The way that Dr. Henry saw it, most of the appeals for social change that he heard coming from the Christians in his day was being voiced as Law rather than Gospel. It consisted of moral exhortation alone – shouted instructions to do this and to do that – rather than being the cultivated fruit of repentance (Matthew 3:8) and regeneration (Matthew 7:16-20).  The Gospel pattern for change – both personal and social – can be clearly seen in Romans 6:1-11, Ephesians 4:17-32 and Colossians 3:1-17.

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It begins with a change of heart – the death of an old way of being through a personal attachment by faith with the death of Christ, and the resurrection to a new way of being though our personal identification with the resurrection of Christ. All of the appeals for moral change that I find in the New Testament are predicated on the prior saving work of God in Christ that has been personally appropriated by the faith of those to whom the appeal is being addressed.  In other words, the appeal for change is addressed to those who have already been fundamentally and irrevocably changed by their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  So, if the appeal for moral change gets detached from the experience of regeneration in Christ, is it still Christian?  And how does the appeal for moral change get detached from the experience of regeneration in Christ anyway?  Well, David Gibson says that he thinks he knows how.  He described the process in his article – “Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel” (Sept./Oct. 2007 Vol. 16 No. 5 – 35-39).

“You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. One particular analysis goes like this: 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.”

And then Todd Pruitt from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals added his observations on the application of this process to the situation of churches today –

This story has been repeated, to one degree or another, many times over. One thinks of the United Methodist Church, The Disciples of Christ, The PCUSA, The Episcopal Church, The American Baptists… These denominations and others have experienced the devastating spiritual atrophy that comes with moving away from the church’s one essential message. But this is not only a problem with those denominations and groups that are typically considered “liberal.” It can happen to any group of so-called “conservative” Christians who find themselves ignorant of, bored with, or preoccupied with anything more than the Gospel and its concerns. It is not unusual to find legalism, moralism, political activism, and humanistic pop-psychology being proclaimed from “evangelical” pulpits. I would suggest that the enemy of our souls is happy with any preaching, liberal or conservative, that diminishes, misconstrues, or assumes the Gospel. (http://www.alliancenet.org)

If Dr. Henry was right, and I think he was, then the Gospel is instrumental and not incidental to the change that we want for our world. And it seems to me that the failure of Christians to mention the Gospel in their appeals for social action is to ignore the very dynamic that makes social change possible.  To “assume the Gospel” is to bury the lead.  It is to lose the distinctive contribution that we as Christians can make to the conversation.

DBS+

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The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob… and Muhammad?

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mosqueIt seems to me that there are few issues that are of greater importance here in middle of the second decade of the 21st century than the relationship between Muslims and Christians. There are 2.1 billion Christians worldwide, that’s 31.5% of the world’s population, and there are 1.3 billion Muslims, 23.2% of the world’s population.  That’s just a little bit better than half of all the people on earth.  Clearly, if we can’t figure out how to get along with each other as Muslims and Christians, then it’s going to adversely affect the rest of the world.

Both Islam and Christianity believe that they have a definitive revelation from God that makes exclusive claims that cannot easily be harmonized. Either Jesus Christ is God incarnate, or He is not.  Either Jesus Christ died for our sins, or He did not.  Either we are saved by grace through faith, or we are saved by our obedience to the things we believe that God has told us to do.  These are not inconsequential differences.  And it gets even more complicated because both Christianity and Islam seek converts.  We each want to convince people of the truth of our faith claims believing that salvation hangs in the balance, and that puts us in direct competition with each other. Layer on top of these important spiritual considerations national agendas and global situations, and things get tense and messy pretty quickly.

otherTwenty-five years ago Terry Muck, then the editor of Christianity Today, wrote about how Christians were no longer going to encounter faithful practitioners of the world’s other great religions just on their trips overseas.  Because of the way that the world was rapidly changing, Terry Muck told Christians that they would soon be rubbing shoulders with Muslims at the corner grocery store and working in cubicles next to Hindus and Buddhists at the office, and he was exactly right.  As the title of one of his books put it, “Those Other Religions (were now) in Your Neighborhood,” and so he told Christians that we were going to have to learn how to love them. Learning how to relate to people of other faiths was no longer going to be optional for us as people of faith ourselves.

This is why we have participated as a congregation in the Faiths in Conversation program for the past five years.  Once a month during the school year we get together with other Christians, Muslims and Jews in the area to hear presentations on a topic of shared interest or concern to our three faith traditions presented by a leader from these traditions, and then to formally and informally enter into conversation about it.

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The first Faiths in Conversation program this fall will be at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church on Tuesday evening, August 30th, at 7 pm. The topic will be “Interfaith Marriage” from a Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspective.

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What I have appreciated so much about these Faiths in Conversation programs through the years has been the way that the people who have made the presentations have not been squishy about their own faith convictions.  So many of the interfaith conversations that I have observed through the years have been syncretistic in spirit and practice.  You go away from them thinking that we’re all the same, that there’s not really anything all that important that’s keeping us apart. The distinctive faith claims and convictions of the participants seem to get dropped into a blender to become a spiritual smoothie where everything gets reduced to sticky syrupy goo.  But when the desire to be nice to each other matters more than the need to be clear with each other, then I believe that interfaith dialogue has become something less than an exercise in true understanding. As Timothy Tennant, President of Asbury Seminary in Kentucky explains, when Christians are neither clear about, nor committed to the historic beliefs of Christianity, then interfaith dialogue “loses its way.”  He quotes Grace Buford, a practicing Buddhist who has been involved in lots of interfaith conversations with Christians through the years who says of Christians – “If they are so taken by Buddhism, then why do they still hang on to their Christianity?”

Because I consciously approach my participation in these Faiths in Conversation as a Christian who is personally committed to the historic beliefs of Christianity, and who wants to be absolutely clear about them in my conversation with people of other faith traditions, when I find things on which I can make common cause – both morally and spiritually – with my interfaith conversation partners, then I want to take hold of those things just as firmly and enthusiastically as I possibly can and use them as planks in the bridge of mutual understanding that we have got to be building as we move into the future together, and one of these things that I have come across in my conversations with Muslims with which I can do this are the “99 Beautiful Names of God.”

hangingIn every mosque that I have visited here in the Dallas area there is always a beautifully calligraphied wall hanging somewhere in the building, usually prominently displayed, with Arabic writing on it – 99 short self-contained units. I asked Imam Zia about the one at his mosque in Irving one day as we were climbing the staircase where it hangs, and he told me that it was the 99 names of God that are found in the Koran, and he explained that it was a spiritual prayer practice of devout Muslims to recite these 99 names each day using a string of beads like a rosary to mark their progression through the recitation.  A “hadith” (a saying or story from tradition) from Muhammad says – “The Most High has ninety-nine names and whoever enumerates them will enter into Paradise”

Each name of God in the Koran celebrates a particular attribute of God, a characteristic of the Divine that then becomes part of the spiritual experience of the person who is reciting them. To know that God is “The Faithful One” leads the believer to trust God more completely.   To know that God is “The Bountiful One” leads the believer to count on God’s gifts for life more directly.  To know that God is “The Great Forgiver” leads the believer to seek mercy more readily.

A.W. Tozer wrote his classic little book The Knowledge of the Holy to do this same exact for Christians.  Each chapter is a devotional reflection from Scripture on some revealed aspect of God’s being –

The Holy Trinity
The Self-existence of God
The self-sufficiency Of God
The Eternity of God
God’s Infinitude
The Immutability of God
The Divine Omniscience
The Wisdom of God
The Omnipotence of God
The Divine Transcendence
God’s Omnipresence
The Faithfulness of God
The Goodness of God
The Justice of God
The Mercy of God
The Grace of God
The Love of God
The Holiness of God
The Sovereignty of God

The entire text of this book can be found online @ http://www.ntcg-aylesbury.org.uk/books/knowledge_of_the_holy.pdf, and I can highly recommend it as a wonderful resource for spiritual formation from my own personal use of it. And once you’ve done this, then here’s another suggestion of something else that you might think about doing out of your devotion to the one true and living God who is there.

greenNot long after my conversation with Imam Zia about the wall hanging at his mosque, I came across David Bentley’s book on The 99 Beautiful Names of God For all the People of the Book (William Carey Library – 1999).  A Christian who has lived and served in the Middle East, and who has written extensively on Islamic topics, David Bentley explains that every one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Koran that our Muslim neighbors and friends recite each day can also be found in the Bible!

He was quick to note that there are “some vital Biblical thoughts that are missing from these 99 names,” and, as you would expect, there are no references in them at all about Jesus Christ as our Savior or Redeemer.  Which is to say that we as Christians would not be well served to ignore our own sources.  But – and this is the keen insight of David Bentley’s book it seems to me – since there is nothing on this list of the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Koran with which we as Christians would have any quarrel at all, as a supplement to our own devotion to the God who has revealed Himself to us decisively in Jesus Christ, there might actually be something to be gained for us as Christians to spend some time mediating on the 99 Beautiful Names of God that our Muslim neighbors and friends pray every day, especially in this world where anything that builds mutual respect and serves a better understanding between our two faith traditions is something that we should enthusiastically embrace.

David Bentley wrote his book as a resource for Christians to be able to do this very thing. Each page of it is a meditation based on one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God that shows just exactly where in our own Bibles as Christians the attributes of God that this name of God from the Koran affirms can be found.  For instance, the very first Beautiful Name for God on the list from the Koran is “God the Beneficent, God the Most Gracious, God the Most Merciful.”

allah

This is what we are singing about as Christians when we sing “Amazing Grace”

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.

As David Bentley pointed out in his first mediation on this Beautiful Name of God –

hanger“Amazing Grace” is a glorious affirmation of a benevolent God converging with the human condition that constantly needs wholeness and salvation. …(And) “Ar-Rahman, the “Merciful One,” (in the Koran) describes the Divine who constantly reveals a compassionate nature toward His creation. “Ar-Rahmim” is what this Divine One does in a cosmos that perpetually requires providential, loving care. The Greek of the New Testament identifies this compassion with the person and ministry of Jesus, the Messiah. …His compassion for the world is found in the words He speaks to His followers about His mission – “I have come not to be served but to serve and to give me life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

More than once at a Faiths in Conversation event I have been able to establish a meaningful connection with a Muslim participant by beginning with this mutual affirmation of who we both think that God is, and by then going on to explain how I as a Christian understand the person and work of Jesus Christ – always a confusing and controversial idea for Muslims – to be nothing more than a concrete expression of this Divine beneficence, grace and mercy. I always tell my Muslim friends that how I know that God is beneficent, gracious and merciful because of what I believe that God did for us in Jesus Christ, and suddenly, rather than being an insurmountable barrier, Jesus as an expression of Divine beneficence, mercy and grace becomes a meaningful category for further conversation. And that’s just the first of 99 categories – 99 planks in a bridge of mutual understanding that we as Christians have got to be about building in a world where walls are so much more popular, and so much easier to build. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Do you hear what I hear?”

What Different Christians do with the Sermon on the Mount
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greenIt’s a story that I have known for years, and used myself in preaching and teaching. It’s about three people who head into the forest one day for a walk.  One of them is a scientist, and as she walks through the forest what she sees is an intricate ecosystem.  She sees the dynamic interaction of flora and fauna, and she can hardly wait to get home to read up on the species that she has seen and to better understand the symbiotic relationships that she has observed.

One of them is a business executive, and as he walks through the forest what he sees are natural resources just waiting to be harvested and monetized for a profit. He tries to calculate board feet in his head as he walks, and he wonders about the real costs that would be involved in getting this raw material to market.  He can hardly wait to get home to put pencil to paper and get to a bottom line.

And one of them is a poet, and as she walks through the forest what she sees is a beauty that moves her deeply. She is inspired by the explosion of light and color, order and movement that she sees in the forest, and so she begins to play with words and images in her head, and she can hardly wait to get home to craft a joyful response to the glory that she has been privileged to witness.

Three people walk into a forest. One sees systems with the eyes of a scientist.  One sees profit with the eyes of a businessman.  One sees beauty with the eyes of an artist.  So, were they in the same forest?  Were they even looking at the same thing?

peopleI have these same thoughts as I listen to the way that different Christians I know use the Sermon on the Mount. Almost every Christian I know would agree that the Sermon on the Mount is “the most comprehensive ethical discourse to fall from the lips of Jesus Christ,” a virtual “ethical directory for Christians” (Carl F.H. Henry).  But from this common starting point, we all move out in different directions and make different uses of what Christ said.  Years ago I read an essay called the “Versions and Evasions of the Sermon on the Mount.”  In it the author explored some of the different ways that Christians through the years have used and abused the Sermon on the Mount, and I remember wondering to myself as I read his description of the dizzying array of their approaches – “Are we even in the same forest?” “Are we even looking at the same thing?”

JeffersonThomas Jefferson sat up at night in the White House with a copy of the New Testament, an exacto knife and some glue in front of him, cutting and pasting together his own version of Christianity. The result – the “Jefferson Bible” – is a moral code devoid of any supernatural claims, saving acts, or redemptive promises.  Jesus was a great teacher of ethical ideals who died a martyr’s death in their defense, and to be a Christian today is a matter of adopting what He taught, especially in the Sermon in the Mount, as our own personal moral code.  Insofar as we sound and look like what’s in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re Christian.  Insofar as we don’t, we’re not.

leoLeo Tolstoy took the Sermon on the Mount as the blueprint for a new social order. He began its actual implementation by ordering the life of his own country estate according to his understanding of what it was that he found in the Sermon on the Mount, and he viewed the whole enterprise as a kind of experimental prototype for what he hoped would be the eventual application of the teachings of Jesus to society at large.  He believed that if enough people would just commit themselves to the “simple, clear and practical commandments” of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, that what would soon be established in the world would be “a completely new order of human society,” the veritable coming of “the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

lutherMartin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, called the Sermon on the Mount “Mossimus Moses”  because he believed that it was “Moses quadrupled, Moses multiplied to the highest degree.” John R.W.  Stott, the popular Bible preacher and teacher of the last generation, discussing Luther’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount wrote – “It is a law of inward righteousness which no child of Adam can possibly obey. It can only condemn us, and make the forgiveness of Christ indispensable to us.” Every attempt at perfect obedience to the things that the Sermon on the Mount teaches leaves us both exhausted and frustrated. It is an “unattainable ideal,” and so it always send us back to Christ the Savior to be justified by His grace rather than by our works.

The Three Uses of the Law

Jefferson, Tolstoy and Luther – and all of us who are their spiritual descendants – agree that the Sermon on the Mount matters, and we are, each in our own way, trying to take it seriously.  We make different uses of it, to be sure, but at least we’re all reading it, and we’re all trying to heed it.

A tool from the Protestant Reformation has proven helpful for me as I have tried to honor this diversity of interpretation and application. Understanding the Law to be anything in the Bible with an “ought” or an “ought not” attached to it, any Divine instruction about what it is that we are supposed to do or not to do because of God’s righteousness, John Calvin and the Reformed tradition explained that those parts of the Bible like the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount have three basic functions.  This is called “The Threefold Use of the Law” in the history of Christian thought.

The First Use of the Law

First of all, the Law shows us that we all fall short of the glory of God. This is the first use of the Law.  As expressions of God’s intentions for us as human beings, those parts of the Bible that tell us what to do – the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots” – are constantly taking our measure and driving us to grace, to the Gospel message of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.   This was Martin Luther’s use of the Law, and it is my own soul’s reflexive use of it as well. As an Evangelical Christian my first spiritual instinct is always to start with how Biblical teachings like the Sermon on the Mount shatter my illusions of moral superiority and imagined self-sufficiency, making me receptive to and entirely dependent upon God’s saving action in Christ.

The Second Use of the Law

Second, the Law alerts us to the fact that this is God’s world and that He has a moral will for humanity in general. This is the second use of the Law; its social or civil use.  Human thriving depends on the powers that be promoting what’s good and suppressing what’s evil, and it is God alone who gets to define what the shape of this good and evil is going to be.  But once we know what God wants, then it’s our job to try to embody it as best we can.  This was Tolstoy’s use of the Sermon on the Mount, and while unlike him, I’m not at all convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is a political manifesto with immediate and obvious public policy implications, I nevertheless want to stay in conversation with my activist brothers and sisters who are trying to bring the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to bear on the great social, political and economic issues that we face today.

The Third Use of the Law

Third, the Law provides our regenerated hearts with a trellis for our growth as Christians.   This is the third use of the Law.  As the Puritans put it – “The Law sends us to Christ to be justified (forgiven), and then Christ sends us back to the Law to be sanctified (transformed).”  Forgiven, then gradually we are changed (2 Corinthians 3:18).  Regenerated, then slowly we are conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).  Redeemed, then incrementally we start to grow up in every way into Christ who is our Head (Ephesians 4:15).  And this is what the third use of the Law does for us, and in us. It’s the blueprint for the change that Christ begins when we give Him our hearts.  And while I am not convinced that Thomas Jefferson understood this sequence at all, the way that he tried to use the Sermon on the Mount as a moral map for his life nevertheless points in the direction of this third use of the Law.  It reminds us that the moral life that the Bible describes is not just a set of ideals to be saluted from a distance with abstract appreciation, but rather they are actual instructions that are meant to be put into practice.

So, are we in the same Forest?

forSpiritually, we may very well be the equivalents of that scientist, business executive and poet who went for a walk in the woods one day. We may be seeing things from different vantage points when we look at the Sermon on the Mount, but we’re all in the same forest, so let’s start there with that shared experience.  To be sure, I may look at and make use of the Sermon on the Mount in a way that is very different from the way that you look at and make use of the Sermon on the Mount, but the fact that we are all looking at it, and are all trying to make use of it, puts us side by side in a common endeavor, and chances are that this means that I could learn something from you, and you could learn something from me, as together we are all try to make sense of some of the most important words that Jesus spoke. DBS +

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