Mea Culpa

A Religious Right “Mea Culpa(“I’m sorry”)
With Serious Ramifications for the Religious Left

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blindedI read Blinded by Might (Zondervan 1999) in the run-up to last November’s Presidential election as part of a Sunday evening topical Bible Study on “God and Politics” at the church I serve.  Written by Cal Thomas (raised a “Disciple”) and the late Ed Dobson, two of the strategic leaders in the early days of the Religious Right movement with Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority” at its forefront, this book was their “mea cupula” (a Latin phrase that means “through my fault” and is an acknowledgement of having done wrong).

Now, some of you hear that and probably think, “Well, what took you so long?” You learn that two of the highest profile early leaders of the Religious Right have publically recanted their commitments to that Movement, and have openly voiced regret over their part in helping to bring it about, and you feel a certain political vindication.  And odds are that if you feel like this, it’s because your own political proclivities are with the Religious Left, and you wrongly assume that in their abandonment of the Religious Right, that Cal and Ed switched teams and joined your side.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Ed and Cal didn’t abandon the Religious Right for the Religions Left, no, what the abandoned was the illusion of might that had blinded them into thinking that the Kingdom could come through the acquisition and application of political power.  They said that they abandoned the Religious Right so that the Church could be the Church. As the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert put it – “the dead are not raised by politics… our personal salvation and the forgiveness of sins do not and did not come by political decree… our very best political efforts will not reconcile us to the Father.

After hitching their faith and values wagon to the Reagan Revolution and the platform of the Republican Party, thinking that its victory in the political arena would serve their own particular understanding of righteousness, both Cal and Ed eventually had to reassess the confidence that they had placed in what they believed partisan political power could actually achieve.   While they both remained cultural, social and even political conservatives, neither of them continued to believe that “our individual or collective cultural problems could be altered exclusively, or even mainly, through the political process” (15), because, “politics and government cannot reach the soul” (9).

Cal and Ed both continued to believe that politics and government have a role to play in the creation of a just social order and in the promotion of the conditions that make for human thriving. Neither of them argued for a complete withdrawal from politics after they left the Religious Right.   They both continued to exercise their rights as citizens and to give voice to their moral vision as Christians.  But they no longer confused the aims and goals of their own political and social conservativism with the aims and goals of the Gospel.

On the eve of last November’s Presidential election, Theologian Scot McKnight wrote a blog about “Our Hope and Our Politics” (http://www.patheos.com) that echoed the reasons why Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas would up abandoning the Religious Right.

baldSomewhere overnight or this morning the eschatology [The Doctrine of “Last Things” – God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven] of American Christians may become clear. If a Republican wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian has an eschatology of politics. Or, alternatively, if a Democrat wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian too has an eschatology of politics… Where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on my political party? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. And it doesn’t matter to me if it is a right-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Republican wins, or a left-wing progressive wringing her fingers in hope that a Democrat wins. Each has a misguided eschatology… Participation in our election dare not be seen as the lever that turns the eschatological designs God has for this world.

In Blinded by Might Ed Dobson told about a meeting that Jerry Falwell convened in 1979 comprised of the ministerial staff of his church and the faculty of his Bible Institute to tell them of his decision to get involved in politics “in order to reverse the moral decline in American culture.”

haroldHarold Wilmington, the Dean of the Bible Institute established by the Thomas Road Baptist Church, begged Jerry not to get involved. Wilmington argued with passion that this new endeavor was a significant step away from preaching the Gospel and might in the process contaminate the Gospel.  Harold was the only contrary voice that day.  Jerry listened to him politely… thanked Harold for his concerns and added that he was going forward. (16)

 Several years later it was a chance encounter with Harold Wilmington at an airport where they were both changing planes that pulled Ed Dobson up short and forced him to start rethinking the investment of his life in politics. Harold asked Ed where he’d been, and Ed told Harold about all of the important meetings he’d attended and about all of the influential people that he’d been with on that trip, including an appearance on the Phil edDonahue show!  Harold listened to Ed quietly, and then when Ed was finished talking, Harold looked Ed in the eye and reminded him that God had originally called him to be a preacher, and that it is the Gospel and not politics that had the power to change people’s lives Romans 1:16-17).  It was that conversation that triggered something of a crisis in Ed’s soul.  He began to feel a growing tension between his original call to preach the Gospel and the all-consuming task of political involvement that had come to occupy his every waking hour. “I knew that God had called me to preach,” Ed wrote. “I had been ordained to the Christian ministry.” It was after a year of daily prayer in a chapel near his office during his lunch hour that Ed finally recommitted himself to a life of preaching the Gospel and teaching the Scriptures.  He resigned his position with the Moral Majority, accepted a call to pastor a local church in Michigan, and made four commitments that he kept until his dying day in 2015 from ALS –

  1. He said that he would avoid the public spotlight in order to go about the work of being a pastor quietly.
  2. He said that he would avoid all political entanglements. He explained –

I would not attend either Republican or Democrat events. I would not march for or against anything.   I was convinced that as a pastor I was called to reach Republicans and Democrats and Independents with the Gospel. I was called to reach pro-life people and pro-choice people.  I was called to reach pro-gay and anti-gay people.  (And) if I engaged in public political activities, I ran the risk of alienating the very people I was called to reach (before even getting to the Gospel).

3.  He said that he had decided to focus on teaching the Bible. He explained that he would not get off on tangents but would consistently teach the Bible verse-by-verse.
4. And he said that he had decided that he was going to love people unconditionally just as God has loved us in Christ. He said that he longed to be known again as one who preaches a message of love and forgiveness, and not a message of hate, division and condemnation. (152)

blogR. Scott Clark, the Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (California), wrote his blog “Let the Church be the Church” (https://heidelblog.net/2016/11/let-the-church-be-the-church/) after seeing Secretary Clinton in the pulpit of a church on a Sunday morning “preaching’ during last fall’s campaign. It disturbed him, and he guessed that it disturbed many of his readers as well. But Professor Clark asked them –

 Would you have been offended to see Marco Rubio, Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump behind a pulpit? If you answer no, then I think that we do not agree on principle. If your objection to seeing Secretary Clinton in a pulpit was based on your objection to her political philosophy and policy aims, then I suspect that we do not agree about the nature and mission of the visible, institutional church.

And then, after exploring the way that the church has consistently confused what Caesar’s legitimate God-given assignment is, and what it is that Jesus Christ specifically came to do (Matthew 22:15-22), Professor Clark concluded his blog by writing –

 Let Christians resist the impulse to draft the visible, institutional church for a social agenda, however laudatory and beneficial it may be. Let Christians energetically engage God’s world as citizens of a twofold kingdom. We do not have to choose between social engagement and a spiritual institutional church. We can and should have both, for the benefit of the earthly city and for the purity and peace of the embassy of the kingdom of heaven.

It was the loss of this understanding of the two kingdoms that led Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas into the Religious Right, and it’s rediscovery that eventually led them out of the Religious Right. And their book Blinded by Might is a cautionary tale for any Christian, leader on the right or on the left, who feels the very real temptation to bow down to any political candidate, party or platform thinking that by doing so you will gain all the kingdoms of the world and their glory (Matthew 4:8-10).  That’s not how the Kingdom comes.  DBS +

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Two Different Religions?

machenBack in 1921, J. Gresham Machen, then a professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, preached a sermon that later became an explosive book called “Christianity and Liberalism” (not political liberalism, mind you, but theological liberalism). Harry Emerson Fosdick responded in 1922 with his equally incendiary sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” And the fight was on for the soul of American Protestantism. The thesis of Machen’s sermon, and then book, was that the historic Christianity of Scripture and the church’s great ecumenical creeds, and modern Christianity were two entirely different religions.

The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism,’” Machen asserted. “Modern liberalism, then, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian message — the living God and the fact of sin,” he argued. “The liberal doctrine of God and the liberal doctrine of man are both diametrically opposite to the Christian view. But the divergence concerns not only the presuppositions of the message, but also the message itself.”  (http://www.albertmohler.com/2012/10/08/two-rival-religions-christianity-and-post-christianity/)

controversyBradley J. Longfield tracked the theological controversy of those days in his award winning 1991 book The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates (Oxford University Press). I personally found the experience of reading this book to be something of a theological self-sorter of my own spiritual temperament, convictions and conclusions, and I came out of the exercise– no big surprise here – as a passionate moderate. My “hero” in this story was Charles R. Eerdman, the theological conservative who tried, without success, to hold the warring factions of his beloved Presbyterian Church together.

I find much to admire about the faith and faithfulness of J. Gresham Machen. In fact, I learned my New Testament Greek from his standard textbook for “beginning students.” Still, I have long thought that his argument about the modernists and the fundamentalists of his day representing entirely different religions to be something of an exaggeration, a polemical overstatement of the facts of the situation. Clearly there were genuine Christians among the modernists, just as there were genuine Christians among the fundamentalists. I suppose that this is just my “Disciple” coming out in me.

True to my faith’s traditional conclusions and convictions, my centrist moorings and my moderate inclinations, I have tried to navigate, not just the polarized and polarizing political and cultural divide of this past election year, but my forty plus years as an Evangelically minded and hearted minister in a progressive mainline denomination, by steadfastly following the good counsel of Hebrews12:1-3 –

…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,…
Consider Him… so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

This is what I understand it to mean to be a big “D” “Disciple.” You know – “No Creed but Christ…,” “In essentials unity…,” “Where the Bible speaks…,”Not the only Christians, but Christians only,” and all that.

I truly believe that the basis for our unity as a church is Jesus Christ, and that so long as our eyes and hearts are mutually “fixed” on Him, that we can run the race of faith before us with endurance, without growing weary or losing heart.   But when Jesus gets left out of the picture, then it seems to me that there is nothing at the center that holds us together any longer, and all we have left are our jangling opinions that we feel free to offer up as the correct definition of Christianity. When the Christ of New Testament faith has been excised from the conversation, then the versions of Christianity that start to show up bear little resemblance to what the church has historically believed and proclaimed. Without our eyes and hearts “fixed” on Christ, the theological drift is dramatic, and I fear that this is the direction that things trending these days

In this era of hyper-politicized and partisanly divided Christianity, when people’s Christianity is determined more by who they voted for in the last election than by who they have confessed to be the Son of the Living God and have taken to be their Lord and Savior, I suddenly find myself rethinking that conclusion about Machen’s two different religions argument. With every passing day, I find that I have less and less in common with both the content and the spirit of the public positions that are being taken by so many of my denominational partners and peers. The tipping point in this for me was a ministerial colleague’s recent posting on Facebook. This old friend actually suggested the adoption of Bernice King’s (Dr. Martin Luther and Coretta King’s daughter) list of responses to the Presidency of Donald Trump as a “Lenten Discipline.

1. Don’t use his name; EVER (45 will do)
2. Remember this is a regime and he’s not acting alone;
3. Do not argue with those who support him–it doesn’t work;
4. Focus on his policies, not his orange-ness and mental state;
5. Keep your message positive; they want the country to be angry and fearful because this is the soil from which their darkest policies will grow;
6. No more helpless/hopeless talk;
7. Support artists and the arts;
8. Be careful not to spread fake news. Check it;
9. Take care of yourselves; and
10. Resist!

Keep demonstrations peaceful. In the words of John Lennon, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight! Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”

When you post or talk about him, don’t assign his actions to him, assign them to “The Republican Administration,” or “The Republicans.” This will have several effects: the Republican legislators will either have to take responsibility for their association with him or stand up for what some of them don’t like; he will not get the focus of attention he craves; Republican representatives will become very concerned about their re-elections.

Now, this is very different from the invitation to the Lenten disciplines that I heard each year from the Book of Common Prayer when I was a kid growing up in church, and still use each Ash Wednesday at the church I serve  –

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

In my mind and heart, I can’t avoid the conclusion that these two Lenten Invitations represent two very different religions. The first invitation makes no mention of God or Christ, has as its whole purpose partisan resistance, and reduces Christianity to a matter of opposing a certain President and supporting a progressive political agenda.   This is very different from the second invitation to the church’s traditional Lenten disciplines of penance, prayer, fasting, and a serious engagement with Scripture all in the interest of a renewal of the Gospel of our Savior in both our lives as individual Christians, and collectively in the whole life of the church.

William Ralph Inge famously observed – “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” My variation on this theme would be – “Whoever marries Christianity to a political party or candidate will find himself a widower by the next election cycle.” Scot McKnight, after the Presidential candidate debates but before the general election last fall, wrote (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/10/10/political-christianity-american-style/) –

Progressives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church and especially the “red letters” of Jesus with the Democrat or Social Democratic party. For them, Jesus’ being for the poor ineluctably means Jesus is for centralized government and federal relief, aid and support for the poor and that, for them, means Vote Left.

 Conservatives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church with the Republican party (or its Tea Party variation). For them, to be Christian means to be anti-Left and pro-Right. Jesus and the whole Bible, they seem to claim in one variation after another, are for decentralization, free markets, and the platform list goes on.

…the closer progressives or conservatives get to seeing the way to change the world is through the Powers in Washington DC the closer they become to being Constantinian — a conservative Constantine or a progressive Constantine is still a Constantine.

 American Christianity, during election season especially (and since it lasts so long and occurs so often that means always), spends its energies on who will be the Next Apocalyptically-crucial Power in DC and in so doing is failing to use its energies — a zero sum game seemingly — for the mission of God in this world and to this world.

Back in the 1980’s the Religious Right tried to marry historic Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, and as a person of historic Christian faith I found myself publicly and adamantly rejecting their attempt co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission. You can certainly be a Christian and a Republican, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Republican.  And today as the Religious Left tries to marry Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, as a person of Christian faith I find that I must just as publicly and adamantly reject their attempt to co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission.  You can certainly be a Christian and a Democrat, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Democrat.

Of course, this rejection of the machinations of both the Religious Right and the Religious Left to turn the church into a constituency group of their political ambitions and to reduce the mission of the church to acquisition of political power hinges on just exactly what is meant by those words – “historic Christianity.”  I will write more about this struggle for the definition of Christianity in the coming weeks, but for now, I will conclude by simply inviting you to give some thought to some questions –

What is the question that the Gospel answers?
What is the problem that the Gospel solves?
What is the saving work of Jesus Christ?
What are we saved from?  What are we saved to?
And how do we know any of these things?
How can we say anything certain about God or
about God’s purposes for us and the world?

It seems to me that how you answer these questions will say a whole lot about your own particular understanding of Christianity, and I’m pretty sure that the way the answers will generally sort out, that there will be two basic versions of Christianity that are at work, that maybe even compete in life and thought of the church and in the world today. Are they two entirely different religions, as Machen suggested back in his day?  Well, the striking contrast between the two Lenten disciplines recommended for adoption that I cited earlier would seem to suggest that the answer is “yes,” but let’s take a closer look, shall we?

DBS +

 

 

 

 

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“What Matters Most”

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It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

                                                                                                                                 Viktor E. Frankl

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fileI clip articles that grab my attention that I come across in my reading, and I throw them into a file that I keep on my desk. Then I go through that file later to pick topics the topics on which I intend to write in my weekly blog.  For months now there has been an article in that file about a high profile celebrity who got romantically involved with another high profile celebrity who had just gotten married.  Their affair resulted in the breakup of that marriage just a year after the wedding, and now those two celebrities are together.

It was the last line in that article that reached out and grabbed me. “They seem to be happy now,” it concluded, “and that’s really what matters the most.”

Now, I know that’s how we think, that being happy is “what matters most.”  But is it true?  Is the great goal of the universe my personal happiness?  Did God create the grand cosmos and put me in it just so that I could be happy? Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been happy, I’ve been unhappy, and I’d rather be happy.  Happy has always been a better experience for me, every single time.  But should being happy be my life’s focus?  Is it really “what matters most”?

happyWhen my journey through this world is over, and I stand before God, is God’s ultimate concern in that moment going to be my happiness? Is God going to want to know – “Doug, did you have a good time?” Is God going to ask – “Doug, did you have fun?” Again, hear me, I’m not anti-fun, nor am I happiness-adverse.  I’d rather be happy than not.  My concern is the pursuit of happiness at any cost as “what matters most” as that article I clipped suggested that it is.  Is it really “what matters most”? Is my happiness at your expense a good thing?  Is my happiness in contradiction to my faith’s convictions and values a worthy goal?  Is happiness our “summum bonum” – our “highest good” – as human beings?

Frankly, I think we get pulled off-sides in this conversation by a familiar cultural phrase.

Last week in my “Soundings” post I referenced the belief in the existence of truths that are self-evident and rights that are unalienable. This idea is rooted and grounded in the belief that the universe has a God-given moral structure and that human beings have a God-given moral constitution. Of course, the devil is in the details of this affirmation.  To say that a sense of “ought” has been hardwired into us and all of creation by God is one thing, but to start detailing the specific content of that universal sense of “ought” starts to muddle as you cross cultures and go back through time.  What has always and everywhere been right for everyone?  What has always and everywhere been wrong for everyone?

founderOur national Founders named three things that they believed were “self-evident” and “unalienable” –

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

And there it is – that hard count that pulls us off-sides – “the pursuit of happiness.”

Understanding “happiness” to be “a state of transitory physical or emotional pleasure,” many people believe that they are free “to pursue whatever provides them with pleasure, however misguided or immoral that pleasure might be” (Bradley Abramson). I have a God-given right to do or to have whatever it takes to make me happy. What I find in the Bible is an entirely different standard. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).  This verse would seem to suggest that there is something even more fundamental to life than my personal happiness.  So does Matthew 6:33 – “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” There’s something here that’s more important than me getting my way, and having my share.

franklI had a high school teacher who assigned Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning as a required text for a class that I was taking.  Reading this book when I was 16 years old was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning.  I’ve read thousands of books since reading this one in 1969, but only rarely have I had an experience comparable to the experience I had when I read this book.  I felt a gravitational pull as I turned its pages.  A path began to open up before with its words.  Suddenly there was something more important than making the team, having a car, getting a date, or going to the right college.  Life had a purpose, a meaning, and I knew that I was here for only a short time to find it.  Later I would read Paul Tillich call this our human concern for “ultimacy,” and appreciate his insight that it is “the state of being ultimately concerned” that is the essence of the spiritual life.  But at 16 all I knew was that something in the universe mattered more than my feelings, and that I had been put here to try to figure out what it was.

In January 2013 issue of The Atlantic published an article about Victor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning (https://www.theatlantic.com). In “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” Emily Esfahan Smith wrote –

In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”

From his experiences in the Concentration Camps of Nazi Germany during WW II, Victor Frankl said that he learned that –

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is…. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than just “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

The search for meaning that Victor Frankl alerted me to when I read Man’s Search for Meaning when I was 16 brought me more fully to Jesus.  When the church I serve now says that our mission is to share Jesus Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose, I know what it is offering because I have found it in my own experience.  In my first year of Christian College when Dr. Ward Rice of blessed memory told us that the most frequently repeated phrase from the lips of Jesus in the Gospels was –

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  (Matthew 16:24)

It was an offer of meaning that was being made.

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:25-26)

And here, almost 50 years later, I know the power of the truth that the article in The Atlantic proclaimed – “People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves.”  Being happy is not what matters most.  Finding meaning is, and for me, my meaning is Jesus.  DBS +

 

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Loving Our Muslim Neighbors

islam

I am convinced that one of the greatest issues of this day that we are living in is the relationship between Christians and Muslims, made even more difficult by global tensions and the current political climate. As the “Common Word” (www.acommonword.com) that was addressed to the Christian Community by 138 of the world’s most important Islamic leaders and scholars back in 2007 put it –

 Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. 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.

 What makes this such a complicated thing for us to do are our family ties and our strained history as Christians and Muslims. Christianity and Islam belong to the same Abrahamic family religions. We share some spiritual characteristics and have some common theological and moral perspectives. But we also have a long history with each other, and not much of it is good.  As the two great missionary religions of the world who equally believe that it is part of their God-given mandate to convince other to believe as they do, Christians and Muslims have been in nearly constant contact and direct competition with each other for centuries, and that’s crated some wounds and left some scars.

The late Vernon Grounds, one of the giant American Evangelical theologians of the last generation, liked to compare Christians to a pair of porcupines on a freezing winter’s night.

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He said that they pull in close to each other for warmth, but just as soon as they get close, they start to poke each other and that forces them apart.   Well, I think that this same dance characterizes Christian/Muslim relationships.  We are drawn in close to each other because we recognize a family resemblance in one another, but just as soon as we start to move in each other’s direction, we begin to poke and jab each other because of our differences and disagreements. We need to choreograph a different dance.  But to do so, I believe that two attitudes prevalent among Christians will need to be adjusted.

Some Christians, mostly from the progressive wing of the church, approach the Christian/Muslim relationship with the idea that our differences of belief are insignificant and unimportant. Peter Kreeft often points out that the only beliefs that separate Muslims and Christians are the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection.  But doctrinally, that’s pretty much the core of Biblical Christianity!  And just as convinced as I am about their truth, and just as passionate as I am about their proclamation as a Christian, in my five years of monthly public dialogue with Muslim Imams here in Dallas, I have yet to meet one who is not just as convinced that I am wrong about these things, and who is not just as passionate about telling me so. The approach to Christian/Muslim relations that begins with the idea that there’s really not anything important that separates us is a dead-end.

But so is the approach of other Christians, mostly from the conservative wing of the church, who argue that there is nothing that Muslims and Christians have in common spiritually, and that to even talk with them about the things of God is a dangerous compromise. More than once I have been accused of betraying Christ and denying the Gospel because I have entered into serious conversation with them about matters of faith and practice, and because I have chosen to related to my Muslim colleagues with respect and affection.  There’s got to be another step to this dance.

Back in 2012 our “Faiths in Conversation” series consisted of a cycle of fascinating presentations on what we as a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Minister and a Muslim Imam believe about Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.  What follows are my remarks from that conversation the night we talked about Muhammad.  In my presentation I tried to navigate a narrow path between wanting to honor the convictions of my Muslim friends about the status of Muhammad as a Prophet, and remaining true to my own commitment to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior.

In this historical moment when Islamophobia seems to be running rampant in the West, I offer here a different way of thinking and talking about Muhammad as a Christian that attempts to build a bridge rather than erect a wall, that wants to find a space where we can come together rather than closing a door that drives us even further apart. I’m not saying that I succeeded in this in what I said that night — but  I am saying that we’ve all got to try.  The whole world is watching.

DBS +

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Christians and Muhammad

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  Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Chistian Church
Dallas, Texas
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The Koran has a high regard for Jesus, affirming His claim to be the Messiah and numbering Him among the true Prophets of God. Why, there’s even an entire chapter in the Koran devoted to Mary the mother of Jesus where the Virgin Birth gets fully affirmed!  And then there’s the famous “Charter of Privileges” that Muhammad gave to the monks at the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula that offered them, and all Christians his respect and protection.  History tells us that Muhammad was nice to Christians, so why haven’t Christians been nice to Muhammad in return?

The history of anti-Semitism in Christianity is a shameful legacy of my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree. It is a contradiction of the Gospel of love that is the very heart of our faith as Christians.   And the history of anti-Islamism by my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree is no less shameful and no less a contradiction of the Gospel of God’s love.  And while most of the Christians I know will openly acknowledge and easily voice regret for the very real damage that we’ve done to our Jewish parents, we are not nearly as quick to acknowledge or apologize for the very real damage that we’ve done, and are doing to you, our Muslim siblings.

And so, as one Christian, let me begin by saying to my Muslim relatives in the Abrahamic Family who are here tonight, that I am sorry: I am sorry for the disrespect that we have shown you; I am sorry for the distortions of your beliefs that we have perpetuated; and I am sorry for the hatred that we have sanctioned if not actually encouraged against you. Our Lord and Savior told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and I confess that we have not always loved you, our Muslim neighbors, like that.  And our Lord and Savior told us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  And I confess that not only have we failed to do this with you; when you have done this with us – as with Muhammad’s “Charter of Privileges” – we have not even had the simple human decency to reciprocate.

And so I certainly don’t want to do or say anything here this evening that could be construed as an insult to you as a people of deep and genuine faith, or taken as a lack of respect for the beliefs that you hold sacred. But I am here as a Christian, and Christians, while we share some beliefs, practices and values with you who are Muslims, we don’t share all of the same beliefs, practices and values, otherwise we would be Muslims. My specific assignment here this evening is to talk for a few minutes about how Christians think of Muhammad; what Christians do with Muhammad.  And I suppose that I could just say that in the history of the world that Muhammad ranks as one of the great men, a fact that Christians can clearly see and easily acknowledge.  Politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally – Muhammad was one of greatest men who has ever lived.  His genius is obvious to anyone who takes the time to read his story and look at the facts.  And I suppose that I could say this, as a Christian, and then just sit down.  It would be accurate, I would be honest, and it would be a dodge.

You see, as great a man as Muhammad was politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally, these are the wrong criteria to be used by me in his assessment here tonight. I am here as a Christian believer, and it is as a Christian believer that you have asked me to tell you what I think of Muhammad, and what I do with Muhammad.  This is a religious question, and it deserves a religious answer.  And so, specifically, the question that I am going to try to respond to this evening is the one that Mahmut Aydin framed in his essays “Muhammad in the Eyes of Christian Scholars” published online at http://www.onislam.net-

Since we Muslims accept Jesus as a genuine prophet and messenger of God, can you Christians not reciprocate by accepting the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood?

Now, to answer this question as a Christian, I must first tell you briefly about an internal conversation that we Christians have among ourselves. It’s a debate over the question: “Does the gift of prophecy still operate in the church today, or has it ceased?”  In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he affirmed both the fact that there was a gift of prophecy operative in Christianity by which people spoke for God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (11:4; 12:10; 12:28-29; 14), and that this gift of prophecy would eventually “cease,” specifically when the “teleion” – the  Greek word for “the perfect” or “the complete” – “comes” (13:10).

Now, some Christians have interpreted the meaning of the “teleion” in this verse to be a reference to the Apostolic writings themselves, the books of the New Testament.  When it was finished, traditionally argued to have happened in the middle of the last decade of the first century, 95ish when the Apostle John finished his Gospel and letters – “the perfect” had come and so the gift of prophecy was said to have ceased.  It was no longer operative.

Known as the “cessationist” position, these Christians have a simple answer to the question about Muhammad’s status as a prophet of God, and it’s – “No, he’s not a prophet.”  But don’t take it personally – cessationists say this about anybody and to everybody who claims to have had a prophetic gift after the close of the first century, the Apostolic age – Montanus, Bahaullah, Joseph Smith, Mother Ann Lee, Mary Baker Eddy, Syung Yung Moon – any of them, all of them.  They can’t be prophets because there are no prophets anymore.  The gift of prophecy has ceased.  Case closed.

But not all Christians think this way.

With the rebirth of Pentecostalism at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the largest and fastest growing subsets of global Christianity, the belief in prophecy as one of the continuing gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes sovereignly according to the Divine purpose among believers for the building up of the church and the fulfillment of its mission in the world has been widely embraced. “Continuists” interpret the “teleion” – “the perfect” – of I Corinthians 13:10 as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and since that hasn’t happened yet, the gift of prophecy is still operational and that means that prophets still exist.

In another one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writing to the church at Thessalonica specifically told them not to “quench the Spirit” by “despising the words of prophets.” But neither did Paul want them to just blindly believe every prophetic claim.  And so, “test everything,” Paul told them, “holding fast to what is good” and rejecting what is not (I Thessalonians 5:19-21).  Christians who hold to this position – and I am one of them – would not reject the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood automatically out of hand as being impossible like “cessationist” Christians do, but would want to test the claim instead.  And the way that such a claim gets tested is by comparing the content of what has been “prophesied” to what has been previously accepted as a genuine revelation of God.

Just like you, Christians believe that God is really there and that the God who is there is not silent. God has spoken and acted in human history to make Himself known to us.   This is what we Christians mean by revelation, and when Christians think and talk about God’s revelation, we typically think and talk about it in two ways, in what’s called “General” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting generally in nature and conscience; and in what’s called “Special” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting specifically in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ, all of which has been preserved for us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.

It is against these two grids of revelation – “General” and “Special” – that the prophethood of Muhammad must be evaluated by me as a “continuist” Christian, and when I do, what I wind up with is a hung jury, a split decision.  You see, by the standards of the Special Revelation that I have as a Christian, I have some fundamental difficulties with Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet.

The New Testament tells me that Jesus is “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” the “Word made Flesh,” and that He went to the cross to die an atoning death for my sins and for the sins of the whole world, and that He was raised from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father from where He will come again at the close of the age.

Now I understand and can appreciate the fact that these are not things that you believe as Muslims. And I also know that you argue that your “Special” Revelation, the Koran, “corrects” what it believes are the distortions that we Christians have introduced into the record of the New Testament about Jesus.  You use your “Special” revelation as Muslims to correct what it is that I believe about Jesus Christ as a Christian.  But the very things that you would “correct” by your “Special” Revelation are the very things that I believe because of the “Special” revelation that I believe I have as a Christian.  And so beyond arguing the credibility of our respective sources of Special Revelation – which we have been known to do – I just don’t see much room for budge here.

There are fundamental differences, monumental differences, between the New Testament’s teachings about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does, and what the Koran teaches about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is. But as far apart as we are as Muslims and Christians with respect to the content of our respective “Special” Revelations, with respect to what we affirm about God from the source of “General” Revelation, we actually share a remarkable unanimity. And that’s not “nothing.”

David Bentley, a Christian scholar, has written an important book for Christians to see. It’s called The 99 Beautiful Names of God (William Carey Library – 2012). These are the 99 names of God that I see so beautifully calligraphied on the walls of the Mosques I visit, and that I am told you recite with your prayer beads.  Dr. Bentley wrote this book to show Christians that the God whom Muslims obey and adore is the same God whom we as Christians obey and adore.  Using the Bible as his source, Dr. Bentley showed that the 99 names you who are Muslims use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God are 99 names that we who are Christians use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God as well!

And the only way that I can explain this is to say that for all of the problems that I face as a Christian in accepting Muhammad as a genuine prophet of God because of the very real differences that exist between what our respective “Special” Revelations teach, at the point of “General” revelation there is no conflict and no question at all.

The Apostle Paul, preaching in the New Testament book of Acts, made it clear that there is a genuine knowledge of God available to us as human beings through “general” revelation.

“In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:16-17)

From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:26-28)

And at the beginning of his magnum opus – his letter to the Romans – Paul made the case for “special” revelation –

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:19-20)

And so, with these texts in support, without hesitation whatsoever I can affirm the conclusion that Muhammad was a prophet of God’s General Revelation.  He personally knew and publically proclaimed some important truths about the God who is there.  And while that’s not everything that you as Muslims believe about him, I would propose that it is way more than what many Christians have been willing to say in the past, and that it provides us with a real basis for our relationship with each other as we move ahead, together.

 

 

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Making Moral Witness

Last week we had a “Faiths in Conversation” on the question of how communities of faith are to make public moral witness.  This was a follow-up to the Faiths in Conversation gathering that we had the week before on the question of “Religion and Government.

moral

Bracketing these two conversation were the Inauguration of President Trump on Friday, January 20th and the Women’s March on Washington D.C. on Saturday, January 21st, and the March for Life on Friday, January 27th.

polAnd then over the weekend, spontaneous protests broke out at airports all over the country in response to the President’s Executive Order (“Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States“) signed on Friday that indefinitely suspends admissions for Syrian refugees and limits the flow of other refugees into the United States by instituting a policy that calls for the development of procedures for the “extreme vetting” of immigrants.  People of faith and conscience were involved in all of these events making their convictions known, and providing our “Faiths in Conversation” conversations with an immediate context in which to reflect on how people of faith are to respond to the positions and actions of government.

At all of these rallies I saw placards invoking the name and teachings of Christ as the basis for the action for which the protestor was calling. Their presence and passion for the cause that they were publically promoting were clearly expressions of their personal faith commitments.  These were Christians telling their government what to do on the basis of their beliefs as Christians.   This raises some questions for me.

Thirty years ago I was listening to a radio talk show in Houston. The host was a conservative Christian who liked to quote Scripture to his callers while making his arguments.  He was in the middle of doing this with a caller that day, when the caller suddenly interrupted him, saying: “But I don’t believe anything that the Bible says.” Well, this stopped that host dead in his tracks, mid-sentence.  There was a long silence, and then the host abruptly hung up on the caller, saying: “Well then, we’ve got nothing more to talk about!” That memory has been rattling around inside me as I prepared my remarks for the two “Faiths in Conversation” gatherings at which I spoke these past two weeks, and as I have been watching the protest marches and rallies of recent days.

martinAt the “Faiths in Conversation” about “Religion and Government” the blessed memory of Dr. Martin Luther King was invoked, and that iconic picture of him marching side by side, arm in arm with Jewish Rabbis, Catholic priests and nuns, Protestant ministers and secular humanist atheists was recalled, and rightly so.  This is one of the quintessential images of public moral witness in United States history.  And last week, after my presentation on the “Two Kingdoms” theory as one way that some of us who are Christians have tried to make sense of the complex relationship between religion and Government, Rabbi Schlesinger asked me if Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel weren’t in that picture as religious leaders making a religious statement to the government?  He was trying to make sense of what I had said in my presentation on the “Two Kingdoms” Theory (My presentation was posted at “Soundings” last week under “Religion and Government”). And my answer to the good rabbi was, “Of course they were.”

Looking mystified, I further explained that while the “Two Kingdoms” theory views religion and government as two different spheres with two different divinely given assignments, that’s not to suggest, not even for a moment, that they’re watertight compartments that never touch.  God is over them both, and human beings live in them both, and so my faith convictions and values as a Christian are necessarily going to inform my understandings of what I as a citizen think it is that the government should be doing to promote the common welfare in the interests of human thriving.

My faith as a Christian shapes my understanding of and my commitment to things like the value and dignity of each human life, justice, peace, equality, freedom, and righteousness, both personal and social. And as a Christian who is also a citizen who lives in this society, I appreciate having a voice and a vote when the government is making decisions and establishing policies that touch these concerns.  I want to be part of that conversation; in fact, I believe my faith requires me to do so.  But as that famous photograph shows, it’s not just Christians who have a moral vision for the world and its people.  It’s not just Christians who care about the value and dignity of human life, justice, peace, equality, freedom, and righteousness.  And it’s not just Christians who have voices and votes, and who want to be heard as citizens.

Let’s be very clear, I believe that Dr. King was there that day in the picture marching because of his commitment to Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. As anybody who has ever read his story knows, Dr. King’s public witness arose out of his sense of Christian discipleship and his work as the pastor of a church.  But Rabbi Heschel who was marching right beside him that day was clearly not there because of his love for and obedience to Jesus Christ.  He had a moral vision for the world and its people too, but one that was informed by Torah rather than Jesus.  As Biblically informed ethical monotheists, Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel shared some common moral perspectives that despite their rather significant differences of theological conviction enabled them to make common moral cause that day.  But what about that secular humanist atheist who marched with them that day as well?

One of my theology professors in seminary liked to show us this same picture of Dr. King and his fellow marchers from that day 50 years ago, and ask us to explain why that secular humanist atheist was there with them? This was my professor’s way of getting us to deal with the classic question of whether it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral.  To be sure, both Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were there that day because it was part of their faith in and obedience to God to do so.  But not the atheist!  He had a moral vision for the world and its people too, but it was one that didn’t involve God at all.  And this is where the public moral witness of people of faith gets tricky.

As people of faith we promote a moral vision for the world and its people that arises out of our particular faith convictions, but if we insist that people share those faith convictions in order to embrace that moral vision, then, just like that radio talk show host, at some point we’ll have nothing more to say to each other. And this is where Christian moral witness tends to get muddled, if you ask me.  The work that God assigns to the church gets confused with the work that God assigns to the government.

Public moral witness is not evangelism. My moral witness as a Christian is not about trying to make society more Christian, but rather, more moral.  Had Dr. King insisted that people believe in Jesus Christ as part of his public moral witness that day, then Rabbi Heschel would not, could not have stood with him.  And if Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel had insisted that people believe in God as part of their public moral witness that day, then that secular humanist atheist who marched with them would not, could not have joined them either.  And this is where that “Two Kingdoms” theory helps me to make sense of this as a Christian.

The “Two Kingdoms” theory does not allow me to think or talk about “Christian” nations.  To my way of thinking, a Christian nation is a non sequitur.  It’s people as individuals and not nations as collectives that become Christian by their personal decisions of faith, through repentance and baptism.  By this standard, there are Christians in every nation, but no Christian nations.  So, if I’m not looking for a Christian nation, what is it that I am looking for?  What is it that I want?  And as a Christian who lives in this nation I’ll tell you that what I want is for my nation to be more thoroughly and consistently moral.  In fact, that’s government’s assignment as I see it through my “Two Kingdoms” eyes.  It’s the government’s job to make our society free and fair for all.  And while my Christian faith certainly informs my moral sense of what that liberty and justice for all looks like, there’s nothing in my moral sense about this that’s distinctively Christian.

Another seminary professor I had back in the day startled a class I was in one day when he got up and announced that, “morally, Jesus Christ didn’t actually teach anything new…. Every moral thing He ever said had been said by the Hebrew prophets before Him.” And what this means is that Christ’s value to me as a Christian is not as a teacher of morality.  I don’t need Jesus to tell me what’s right and wrong.  I’ve got the Law for that, the Law and the way that it’s been written on my heart. What I need Jesus for is to be the Savior who deals with my shame and guilt for not consistently keeping faith with that moral vision that got explicitly cast for me in the Hebrew Law and Prophets, and that implicitly has been hardwired into me as a human being.

Every time my own particular community of faith gathers in worship on the Lord’s Day we break bread and bless a cup to share in remembrance of the sacrifice of God’s love in Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. This is the saving act that we as Christians believe reconciles us to God.  This is the Gospel message with which we are entrusted as a community of faith.   It’s predicated on a moral vision, in fact, I would argue as a Christian that it’s that moral vision that makes my theological convictions about Jesus Christ so spiritually compelling.  But you don’t have to share my Christian spiritual convictions in order to make common moral cause with me, because my moral vision is not uniquely Christian.

10-commandmentsMy Ten Commandments as a Christian are no different from Rabbi Schlesinger’s Ten Commandments as a Jew. This is our shared moral ground zero.  These are the basics of the Biblical moral vision that is common to both Jews and Christians, and to which we must bear public witness, especially when see them being violated, abused or ignored.  But as Paul argued in his letter to the Romans, long before these laws were ever written on tablets of stone and given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, they were written on Adam’s heart in the Garden of Eden.  Paul said that when those who do not have the law do “by nature” what the law requires, it just proves that the law was originally written on our hearts, something to which our consciences bear witness (2:14-15).  There’s this sense of moral “ought” that’s been hardwired into us as human beings, and I think that you can see it in that picture of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel and that secular humanist atheist marching arm in arm and side by side 50 years ago for civil rights.

dr-kingDr. King’s heroic example in that picture reminds me as a person of Christian faith that I have an obligation to bear public witness to the moral vision that’s mine as a follower of Jesus Christ. And the heroic examples of Rabbi Heschel and that unnamed secular humanist in that picture who were marching right beside him bearing public witness as well reminds me that I share this moral vision for a more just and peaceful world as a Christian with all of humanity regardless of whether or not we share my beliefs about Jesus Christ.

I am reminded of Tom Joad’s Shakespearean monologue at the end of John Steinbeck’s’ The Grapes of Wrath  –

grapesI’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

 Understand, Tom Joad didn’t say this because he was a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew. No, Tom Joad said this because he was a human being. It’s just part of the moral structure of the universe and the moral constitution of human beings to stand up for what we instinctively know is right, and good, and fair. My Christian faith certainly has this moral vision, but my Christian faith clearly didn’t create this moral vision, it merely underscored what has always been in my heart.

1And so, my moral appeal as a Christian can’t be – “What would Jesus do?” – because if you don’t care about Jesus, then you won’t care about what He would do, and we who are Christians would have nothing more to say.  My commitment to Christ can explain my moral concern and action as a Christian, and can even be the lynchpin in my appeal to other Christians to become more morally concerned and active about something.  But that’s an intramural conversation.  Intercollegiately, when I make my moral witness to a world that doesn’t share my faith commitments, just as Dr. King was doing in that famous picture, my moral appeal can’t be a “Christian” argument rooted and grounded in a Scripture like the Sermon on the Mount, instead it must be a human argument rooted and grounded in truths that are self-evident, and in rights that are unalienable.  And so, in church I’ll tell you that caring about the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the neglected matters because it matters to Jesus Christ.  But when I stand in the corridors of governing power where laws are being written and policies are being developed that I perceive threaten the life, liberty and/or just treatment of another human being, I’ll tell you that I am opposed not because it’s unchristian, but because it’s inhuman, and I will make common moral cause with all who see it as inhuman as well. DBS +

 

 

 

 

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The Most Important Thing That Church Can Do Right Now

On a Disciples’ Ministers’ Facebook Group Page to which I belong, a young minister recently posted a question about what we thought the church needed to be giving her attention to most in the coming days. As you might expect from a Disciples’ clergy group, the answers he got were a recital of all of the worthy justice causes that demand our attention and deserve our action.

What I read there reminded me of David Williams’ observation that without a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will shatter a soul.”

screamIt will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue. It’s an endless series of fractally complex cries, each one calling for the fullness of your attention, a chaotic din, an ocean’s roar of human suffering. No normal human can take that in. It creates popcorn soul, attention deficit justice disorder, as the well-meaning warrior frets and chases after whatever buzzes loudest and most impatiently on their #twitterfeed that day.

David Williams’ whole argument is that justice is “the fruit of grace, not the other way around” (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2016-04/why-social-justice-not-christian). David believes that “justice matters, deeply and significantly, for anyone who cares about what Jesus taught… It’s just that … well … social justice does not provide the teleological framework that integrates me existentially. Or to put that a less willfully obfuscatory way, it is not my purpose. It is not my goal. It just isn’t.”

chalice

And so when an earnest young Disciple minister asks a Facebook Group of Disciple Ministers what we think the church should be attending to most these days, I want at least one of us to say “the Lord’s Supper”! I want one of us to say that the most urgent task of the hour is to get more of our people to the Lord’s Table more regularly so that the Christ who meets us there can get the chance to form us spiritually and morally by His indwelling presence and through the empowering work of His self-giving love.

Carl Trueman, the Reformed Church Historian who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, casts a powerful vision of the formative potential of the “ordinary means of grace” when he writes –

I believe that as Christians hear the word each week and receive it by faith, as they grasp the significance of their baptism, as they take the Lord’s Supper, as they worship and fellowship with other believers, their characters are impacted and shaped; and that this will affect how they behave as members of civic society.   In short, they will be those whose faith informs how they think and behave as they go about their daily business in this world.   Christianity makes a difference.

Professor Trueman calls this the “Calvary Option.” Looking around at all the crises and changes in the world today, and after considering all of the cries for justice that make their insistent demands on our attention and action, he argued that the most important thing that a church can do right now is to just be the church!

As long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants.  The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are.  In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth. … The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides.  The tomb is still empty.   And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer. (https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/07/the-calvary-option)

This is not a pious escape from dealing with the world’s hopes and fears that he is calling for here, nor is it an argument for the evasion of our responsibility for serious moral witness and sustained moral action as Christians. Instead, it is a recognition, as Henri Nouwen put it, that “underneath all of the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world” that “there is a still point where my life in anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence” (The Genesee Diary [14] Image Books.1981).

In the “shattering” presence of all of the injustices that seem to dog our every step right now, what is the center out of which we are to operate as Christians in “hope and courage and confidence”? And I answer that I believe that it’s the Gospel of God’s saving presence and work in Jesus Christ that gets memorialized for us every time we come to the Lord ’s Table in remembrance and thanksgiving.

faithfulThis is why this year the Elders at the church I serve will be reading together and discussing together each month David Fitch’s new book Faithful Presence (IVP – 2016). David, the R.B. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary, is one of the most provocative and helpful thinkers about the life and ministry of the church here in the first few decades of the 21st century that I’ve come across. His blog @ www.missioalliance.org has been required and sustaining reading for me since first stumbling across it on my Sabbatical in the summer of 2014 when I was working on how established, aging and declining churches like ours can cultivate a “culture of evangelism” that leads to sustainable renewal. And it was one of his blogs at this site (www.missioalliance.org) that convinced me that our elders’ time and effort would be well spent this year carefully considering what David has to say about the “seven disciplines that shape the church for mission.” And the first discipline that David believes does this, that shapes Christians “to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world” is the Lord’s Supper.

Writing about this at “Missio Alliance” (“Discerning Christ’s Presence in the World: How We Learn This around the Table” – December 4, 2014) David says –

We need postures to discern Christ’s presence, and to then be able to participate in His work. I am convinced that this kind of training happens as we practice the Lord’s Table together. Around the Lord’s Table we learn to tend to the real presence of Christ …which in turn makes us fully present with each other at the Lord’s Table… It’s at the Lord Table that we learn the right postures which enable us to get out of our own way, to tend to what Christ is doing, and to cooperate.

In this article David describes five of these “postures” that he says open us to the experience Christ’s faithful presence at the Lord’s Table, and that then enable us to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world when we leave the Lord’s Table in mission.

Around the Lord’s Table we learn –

cupThe Posture of Surrendering…
The Posture of Receiving…
The Posture of Ceasing to Strive…
The Posture of Socialness among us
that enables us to be for each other…
And t
he Posture of Forgiveness…

And these are exactly the same “postures” that we need to learn to be a faithful part of God’s mission in the world. This isn’t magic. We aren’t mystically imbued with these qualities simply by ingesting the communion elements week in and week out. A careless and thoughtless participation in the Lord’s Supper holds more spiritual peril than spiritual benefit for us as Paul warned in in I Corinthians 11:17-34. This, David freely admits.

I admit most of us do not learn these postures through the rote ways we take Eucharist. But I contend, when done well, these are the postures we learn there and these are the same postures we take into the world.

But “when done well,” there are very few things that we do as a church each week that are more instrumental in spiritually and morally forming us at the Lord’s Table to be the kind of people that God can then use in the world to “sow love where there is hate; to sow pardon where there is injury; to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair; to sow light where there is darkness; to sow joy where there is sadness.”

And so when the question is What does the church need to be giving her attention to in the coming days? My answer will be – The Lord’s Supper… for when people come to the Lord’s Table

to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, they will then be sent from the Lord’s Table as God’s agents of the grace that they have received in Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs the fruit of that grace right now — Justice.

DBS +

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Now What?

flagToday at noon we get a new President. This makes some of us very sad, and this makes some of us very happy.  I “get” that.  What I don’t “get” is the “Not my President” response that seems to be so popular as this less than popular President takes office.  Deeper than the angry rhetoric and political posturing that this slogan expresses, I detect in it an alarming crack in our national life that weakens the very foundation of our Constitutional Republic.

I certainly get the disappointment of an election that doesn’t turn out the way that you had hoped. I get the very real concern about the changes that a new administration promises to make.  And I even get the rejection of the values and the criticism of the character of the people who have been elected to high public office.  All of these things have been part of my own personal political experience at one time or another as well.  In fact, if the truth be told, I’m rarely happy with Washington D.C., and I am almost always troubled politically.  Yes, I “get” it.  But what I don’t get is the absence of “Political Grace” that the “Not my President” slogan betrays.  It just seems to run so contrary to our best impulses and highest instincts as participants in the American experiment.

bookIt lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that Jimmy Carter displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Ronald Reagan, the candidate who had just defeated him in a bitter election. It lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that George H.W. Bush displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Bill Clinton, the candidate who had just defeated him in a bitter election. It lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that Bill Clinton then displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of George W. Bush who finally won the closest of elections on the basis of a controversial Supreme Court ruling.  It lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that George W. Bush displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Barack Obama who won the election campaigning on a repudiation of the Bush policies.  And it lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that Barack Obama has been putting on display as he has been facilitating the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Donald Trump who won the office without winning the popular vote and that is clouded with evidence of attempted foreign influence on our democratic process.   Donald Trump may or may not have been your candidate, but today at noon, he is going to be our President.

So, the question for all of us today, both the glad and the sad is – now what?

On Monday this week I posted a “Soundings” on “Partisan Praying.” If you haven’t read that blog yet, then I would certainly encourage you to do so now.  As a Christian speaking to other Christians, this is the most important thing that I would say we need to be doing today.  And then, only after saying that, as a citizen speaking to other citizens, I would then urge a quick civics lesson.

abeAfter hearing all about it on the news, I took a look last week at “Indivisible,” the political action manual that was recently put together by a group of progressive Congressional staffers on how to get and wield political power when the administration that is in in office doesn’t reflect your values and convictions. They based “Indivisible” on their observations of the emergence of, and their experience with the political effectiveness of the Tea Party in the early years of the Obama Administration.   At its core, “Indivisible” is just a basic guide to political organization and influence.  It pulls back the curtain of Washington D.C. and shows us how things actually get done there.  Its authors clearly have a political agenda, but the process that they describe does not.  It’s just as good for the gander, and it was for the goose.  In fact, these Progressives say that they learned it from watching the Tea Party!  I learned it in my high school civics class, and from my volunteer work at the headquarters of a major political party in my suburb of LA during a Presidential and Gubernatorial election in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when I was growing up.  There is nothing dangerous, subversive or particularly innovative here.  This is all just stuff that we should already know and be regularly doing as citizens.

A pretty good list of what involved and concerned citizens should be doing these days was recently put together and posted online by Evan McMullin, an Independent candidate for President in the last election.

  1. Read and learn the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Know that our basic rights are inalienable.
  2. Identify and follow many credible sources of news. Be very well informed and learn to discern truth from untruth.
  3. Pay attention to what the Administration says, decides and does.
  4. Be very vocal in every forum available to you if you think that rights are being violated and democracy is being threatened. Write, speak, and act.
  5. Support journalists, artists, academics, clergy and others who speak truth and who inform, inspire and unite us.
  6. Build bridges with Americans from the other side of the traditional political spectrum and with members of diverse American communities.
  7. Defend the rights of people who don’t look, think or believe like us. An attack on one is an attack on all.
  8. Organize online and in person with other Americans about the things that concern you.
  9. Hold members of Congress accountable for protecting our rights and democracy through elections and by making public demands of them now.
  10. And finally, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, have “malice toward none, with charity for all” and never ever lose hope!

And while he has been a political rival and remains a public critic of our new President, there is nothing on this list that I find to be particularly partisan or pointed. In fact, it seems to me that these are ten really good things for all of us to be doing as citizens no matter who is in office, and even if Evan McMullen himself had been elected to office!

And that’s the whole point.

Whether this is a day of rejoicing for you, or a day of despair, tomorrow’s another day. The election is over, the transition of administrations is complete, and now the hard work of governing begins with a new group of leaders at the helm.  You may have voted for them.  You may have voted against them.  They may fill you with hope.  They may fill you with dread. But either way, they are the ones who are now in office.  But they aren’t there as tyrants to unilaterally impose their will on us any more than the last administration was, or the next administration after this one will be.  They are there to cast a vision and then to try to implement it through a constitutionally established political process.

Choose to be part of that process!

A government of the people, by the people, and for the people, requires the people. In our system of government, being governed requires the consent of the governed, and that means people, all of the people, stepping up and conducting ourselves as responsible citizens in a participatory democracy.  So, whether you are glad or sad today, let the full exercise of your citizenship begin, and be grateful that we have the privilege.  DBS +

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