Then we can talk…

francisFranciscan scholars have scoured all of the known writings of St. Francis of Assisi and have concluded that he never actually said – “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary use words.”

That’s okay.

This saying still “fits” St. Francis and his spirituality quite nicely.  Called the most “Christ-like” man to have ever lived, it was what St. Francis did and not what St. Francis said that makes him so memorable.  And that’s the whole point of the invented quote, isn’t it?

Earlier this week I wrote about the importance of the ministry of presence in my blog – “First, you have to show up…” As David Wells put it, “It is Christian service – in all its many varieties – that provides the context that lends a human authenticity to the word of the Gospel.” Joseph Aldrich called this “the music of the Gospel.”  Just as songs have both lyrics and a melody, so the Gospel has both content and a context.  And just as the melody makes the lyrics “sing,” so the visualization of the Gospel in the ministry of presence makes the verbalization of the Gospel in the ministry of proclamation “authentic.”

The ministry of presence (the “melody” of the Gospel) sets the context for the content of the ministry of proclamation (the “lyrics” of the Gospel).  The familiar talk about the “cool cup of water that is given in Jesus’ name” (Matthew 10:42; 25:31-46) is about the visualization of the Gospel (“the cool cup of water”) that is supposed to correspond to the verbalization of the Gospel (“in Jesus’ name”).  The problem is that we have been led to believe that once we are done with the visualization of the Gospel that our assignment has been completed.   No verbalization is necessary.

The way the faux St. Francis quote gets popularly used, the ministry of presence is offered as a substitute for the ministry of proclamation.  Just give people cool cups of water and you never even have to mention Jesus’ name at all.  But this is something that St. Francis himself would never have agreed to.  He was a preacher and the founder of an Order of preachers after all!  He was not silent. Never. Not once.  Why, tradition tells us that St. Francis even preached a sermon to the birds for heaven’s sake, so don’t try to reduce him to some kind of Gospel mime.  He talked out loud about Jesus Christ to everyone he could every chance he got.  And it was the way he lived his life in Gospel simplicity that gave powerful credibility to his Gospel proclamation.  It was not a matter of good deeds as a replacement for a good word; it was a matter of good words and good deeds together.

Alan Kreider, the Mennonite professor of Church History and Mission, explained how all of this works quite well –

If we are living hopefully and interestingly, then we can talk. Verbal articulacy will then point to God and will be our testimony to God’s saving grace and life-transforming vision that God has shared with us in Jesus Christ. Why is this verbal explanation necessary? Because it’s simply a fact that an unexplained action allows people to draw all kinds of explanation. And if they are impressed with our unexplained action, they will basically glorify us! A friend of mine recently spent time serving at one of Mother Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta. As he reflected later on his experience there, he noted, “It struck me that without a knowledge of Bengali, I could only point to myself.” Words without action are hollow, but actions without words are also limited. They are either incomprehensible or they only glorify ourselves.

But this is just part of the problem with a ministry of presence when there is no corresponding ministry of proclamation.  To be sure, our attempts at Gospel incarnation require the benefit of Gospel explanation in order to be correctly understood.  But they also need the benefit of Gospel explanation because no attempt at Gospel incarnation is ever going to be as complete or as consistent as it needs to be to be truly credible.  If it is my embodiment of the Gospel that is going to be the deciding factor in your relationship with Christ, then we are both in trouble.  You see, I just don’t know any perfect Christians, and I don’t know any perfect churches.   We all fail, all the time.  And when we do, we need to admit it without hesitation or obscuration.  As Os Guinness writes –

Christians are realistic about human fallibility.  We all often go wrong – Christians and Christian leaders included.  So human evil is always a possibility and never a surprise.  We expect it, we watch out for it, and whenever we can, we guard against it… [And when it happens] the Christian faith calls for an open and voluntary confession of our wrongs, whenever we are wrong. This is challenging, and it may be embarrassing for anyone who has to do it, but it is in fact an act of moral courage. For in confession we are called to do what no human does naturally or easily: to go on record against ourselves.

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These are the dynamics of I John 1:5- 2:2.  John’s argument runs like this –

1. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all (5:5).
2. If we say that we are in fellowship with this God of light but walk in darkness, then we are deceived (5:6).
3. The way that we get into His light is through the saving work of Jesus Christ (5:7).
4. The way that we personally access the benefit of Christ’s saving work is through the confession of our sins (5:9).
5. So, don’t sin – don’t walk in darkness (2:1).
6. But when you do sin, turn to Christ and receive the forgiveness that He makes available to all (2:2).

handThe punch line to the story of the woman taken in adultery needs to be engraved over each one of our hearts as Christians, and over all of our Facebook postings online — “Whoever is without sin among you, let that person be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7).  This applies whether we are talking about Bill Clinton 18 years ago or Josh Duggar just last week.  There’s just way too much selective stoning that goes on in the Christian community. When a public Christian with progressive leanings fails morally and spiritually, traditional Christians are just way too eager to start casting stones.  And when a public Christian with traditional leanings fails morally and spiritually, progressive Christians are just way too eager to start casting stones.   But where is the Gospel – visualized or verbalized – in any of this?

What our ministry of presence must bear witness to is not some kind of imagined moral or spiritual superiority, or a sense of our own socio-political correctness on the issues of the day.  Whenever I hear people trying to “sell” their church on the basis of the fact that it is composed of such “good” people, or such “nice” people, or such “enlightened” people, or such socially “progressive” people, or such spiritually “mature” people, or such doctrinally “correct” people, I always tell them that such a sales pitch only works until their people aren’t “good,” or “nice,” or “enlightened,” or socially “progressive,” or spiritually “mature,” or doctrinally “correct.” And that moment comes; it always comes.  And when it does, when a church fails to keep faith with its own values and message, in the disappointment of that moment, it has a chance to make the great discovery. All they’ve ever had to offer anybody anyway is God’s grace made known in Jesus Christ.  Forgiveness is all that any church finally has to offer.

In a blog I read recently about “Ten Ways to Grow Your Church” (http://www.mbird.com) the author said –

Only ever preach one sermon, which is the forgiveness of sins, the absolution of every human “as is,’ through the suffering and passion of the Christ.”                                                                      

ChaliceI thought about this last Sunday morning when the Words of Institution for the Lord’s Supper were spoken at the Lord’s Table –

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:27-28)

There’s not a Sunday that we don’t say this in church, and there’s not a Sunday that I don’t need this in my life.  The only Gospel I believe that I am Biblically authorized and personally competent to verbalize is the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins offered in Jesus’ name, and the only way I know how to make this Gospel visible is to live in forgiveness, and by forgiveness.  When God’s grace is made visible in the ministry of presence, then the verbalization of God’s grace in the ministry of proclamation has an authenticity that will garner a hearing.  DBS+

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First, you have to show up…

songIt was an off-handed comment made by my college professor of Old Testament, Dr. Song Nai Rhee at Northwest Christian College.  We were looking at the book of Job, specifically at the “pastoral malpractice” of Job’s three friends – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite (Job 2:11).  Dr. Rhee contrasted the power of their initial silence (Job 2:13) with the foolishness of their subsequent “lectures” throughout the rest of the book.

Dr. Rhee related a story about a time that he went to visit the parents of a student who had tragically died in an accident.  A modest man, Dr. Rhee had arrived at the house of sadness without great fanfare, and sat quietly with the grieving parents for a while.  He didn’t say much.  He simply sat with them in their grief, and then he took his leave.  Weeks later he told us that he received a thank-you note from those parents saying that of all the visits that they had received in their time of loss and sadness, that none had meant more to them, or done more to actually help them, than had Dr. Rhee’s.  And then he told us, budding ministers one and all, don’t worry about what you are going to say, just go.  The words you speak are far less important than the fact that you are there.

Later I would hear this idea discussed as the ministry of presence.  At the School of World Mission at Fuller where I started Seminary, they often talked about the three levels of ministry – Presence, Proclamation and Persuasion – the “3P’s.” And they argued that most of us begin thinking that ministry is going to consist mostly of Proclamation – telling people what’s true about God in Christ – and Persuasion –  trying to convince them to believe it.  But the fact of the matter is, they said, most of our ministry was going to consist of Presence.

We live in a word-resistant age, the late great John Claypool used to say. Before people are going to listen to what we have to say, they first have to see it credibly matter in our own lives. “Becoming” precedes “Broadcasting” in effective ministry. If people can’t see the difference that Jesus Christ makes in our lives, then they are never going to consider it as a viable option for their own lives no matter how intelligent and persuasive we have made the case for it.

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This was driven home to me last week.  Flying out to California to be with my sick sister for a couple of days, I finished reading David Well’s God in the Whirlwind (Crossway – 2014) on the plane.  I think this is an important book, a timely corrective to so much of the mush that I hear and read from so many these days.  It is a timely call to take the Biblical God of “holy-love” seriously once again.  Not an easy read, Dr. Wells (the Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston) pushes his audience past the culturally soft and sentimental ways that we have popularly come to think about and relate to God (this book is the follow-up to his series of critical books – No Place for Truth [1993], God in the Wasteland [1994], Losing our Virtue [1998], and Above all Earthly Powers [2004]) about what culture has done to contemporary Christianity), and carefully reconstructed the traditional Biblical portrait of a holy God whom we have alienated by our choices and actions, who nevertheless reaches out to us in grace through Jesus Christ.  And in the final chapter, after carefully arguing his case, Dr. Wells challenged those who found it convincing to embrace it by consciously and consistently choosing to become servants of this living God.

It is Christian service – in all its many varieties – that provides the context that lends a human authenticity to the word of the Gospel.  …The reason, quite simply, is that authentic Christian practice signals the presence of another world, a different world, one that is making itself known in our own.  This other world, though, does not intrude loudly.  It does not raise its voice.  It is as gentle as an evening breeze.  This is the remarkable thing about God.  Though he holds all things together, though he is the very center of reality, though he is the very measure of all that is right and true, and though he sovereignly rules over all of life, he nevertheless stoops and makes himself known through others.

…Truth that is practiced is the way in which Christ is often glimpsed for the first time.  It is in his people.  It is here that he takes to himself hands and voices, hearts and feet in the cities of our world, on its corporations, its industry, its hospitals, and its places of suffering.  It is in those who serve, who serve in a thousand different ways, that glimmers of the holy-love of God are often seen for the first time by our skeptical world. (241-242)

We’ve talked about this before.

The “question-posing lives” that Christians live are the “secret” to effectiveness in the church’s ministry according to the Mennonite theologian Alan Kreider.  He has researched and written extensively about the early church.  And it is his conclusion that the early church gathered in worship to shape Christians with Christ-like virtues and values so that when they scattered back into the world to minister they would live “question-posing lives.”  Here is the gist of what he said –

If our lives are to speak, they must somehow be question-posing…

How distinctive are we? Does God want us to live differently? Is God calling us to live more oddly, more interestingly? Does God want us to live in such a way that others can see that we are odd, individually odd, corporately odd?

I have learned a lot from Anna Geyer, a student of mine at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Iowa extension. Anna is a 30-year-old mother who lives with her husband and children north of the Black Diamond road, in an area where few Mennonites live. Anna tends a large garden, “The Cutting Garden,” to which people can come and cut flowers. They may pay if they wish. A wide variety of women gather at her kitchen table. Anna reports that people look at her and ask questions: “Anna, you’re living in a way that I’m not used to. Why are you and your husband so kind to each other? Why do your kids talk politely? …Why do you live like you do?” And at the right moment, which may take years in coming, Anna will say, “Because of Jesus.” Anna is a radical, who lives simply, who is committed to a peacemaking lifestyle, who is a good friend and an excellent listener. She has built up a remarkable network of women who don’t go to church but who want to talk about life — and about God. Anna is odd and interesting.

The New Testament writers don’t tell their readers to “evangelize” others. They tell them to live   with hope. And if we have hope, and express that hope in deviant behavior (“odd” and “interesting”), people will ask questions that lead to testimony. Peters puts this in classic form in his first letter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It is hopeful incarnation of the way of Christ that leads people to ask questions and demand explanation. If we are hopeful, people will want to know why. [www.mennonitemission.net]

Presence before Proclamation and Persuasion.   First, you have to show up… DBS +

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oldSomeone along the way – it might have been Eugene Peterson – suggested that every minister he knew could benefit mightily from reading Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days (1882), his diary from the days that he served the wounded and dying in Washington D.C. during the Civil War.  He went to Washington to look for his brother who had been reported missing at the battle of Bull Run, and then he stayed to do what he could for the men and boys from both sides of the conflict who crowded the hospitals there.  It is an extraordinary account of the importance of the ministry of presence and the power of simple acts of kindness in the healing of the body and soul of people broken by the tragedies of life.

If I were teaching men and women who were becoming ministers, I would make sure that every one of them had a copy of this book, and that they had read it.  And for any Christian who is thinking about taking up the ministry of visitation – and every Christian should be (Matthew 25:31-46) – I can think of few better places to begin preparation than this beautiful and deeply moving narrative.

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“We are Prophets of a Future not our Own”

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This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development…

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, drafted for a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in November 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.

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athensI spent last week at our camp down in Athens, Texas, as the Keynoter for the Tri-Area (the North Texas Area [Dallas], the Trinity Brazos Area [Ft. Worth and Waco] and the Northeast Area [Tyler]) Junior Youth Fellowship – Camp 2. I have worked Summer Youth Camps and Conferences from the earliest days of my ministry in the early 1970’s in Oregon and South Idaho right up to the present time.  I believe that this annual investment of time, effort and energy is as important as any that I make all year as a minister.

Because of the present patterns of church attendance and what constitutes “active” participation, I know that in the intensive experience of Christian community that a week at summer camp affords them, that you will get more time – both quantitatively and qualitatively – with kids than you’ll get with most of them the rest of the year at Sunday School and Youth Groups combined.  And so I am always ready to go to camp when I am asked.  It is one of the ways that I try to affirmatively answer the question that our August Adult Forum at church is posing this year ~ “Will Our Children Have Faith?” I view my assignment at Summer Camps and Conferences each year as a way of doing my part to see that they will.

sowIn Matthew 13 Jesus compared the work of the Kingdom to that of sowing good seed in a field.  That seed falls on different conditions of soil with different results, and I always think about this while I am at camp. With elementary-aged kids you just never really know what’s getting through. And so you bring the goods just as creatively and memorably as you possibly can every time you get up to teach, knowing that the results of your efforts won’t show, often for years.

In another Kingdom Parable that Jesus told, the mystery of this was specifically named –

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29)

The farmer scatters the seed on the ground and then he goes to sleep.  There’s nothing more that he can do.  He doesn’t even know how the seed grows.   That’s not something that he controls.  The seed grows all on its own in the soil that has received it, and all the farmer can do is wait and watch.  And when there’s crop, he harvests it.

In the Upper Room on the night before He was crucified, John tells us that Jesus told His disciples that it would be their responsibility to “bear witness” to the things they saw and heard of Him “from the beginning” (15:27).  But this external witness would be matched, in fact, preceded by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit who would be sent when Jesus went away (15:26).

I try to keep all of this in mind while at camp with the kids — and in the pulpit at church.  You don’t really know the impact that you’re having.  The seed that gets sown will have to take root and develop.  But that takes time, and it is largely hidden.  And so all you can do is wait and watch, trusting that the Holy Spirit is inwardly bearing witness to the hearts of those to whom you have outwardly borne witness to their ears.

Al Mohler has written about our “product envy” as preachers and teachers of the Word.

We envy those who build houses or sell cars or build great corporations or assemble automobiles, or merely those who cut the grass. Why? It is because they have something tangible to show for their labor at the end of the day. They may be fastening widgets and assembling automobiles, or they may be putting things in boxes and sealing them up and sending them out, or they may be cutting the grass. They can see the product of their hands. A carpenter or an artist or a building contractor has something to which he can point. What about the preacher?

The preacher is robbed of that satisfaction. We are not given the sight to see what we would like to see…. We would like to have an assembly line of maturing Christians go out the door of the church, wherein we could at least see something and note some progress. We could statistically even mark what kind of impact this sermon had over against another. But, we do not have that sight; it is largely a hidden work in the human heart. Such a work will bear good fruit, but this will take time to be evident. [http://www.preaching.com/sermons/11565862/]

It’s not a style of Christian Music that I often gravitate to, and I find the imagery a little bit too literalistic and sentimental for my usual tastes, nevertheless I find that Ray Boltz’s 1990 Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award for “Thank-You” as the “Song of the Year” still touches something very deep inside me.

I dreamed I went to heaven and you were there with me.
We walked upon the streets of gold beside the crystal sea.
We heard the angels singing, then someone called your name.
You turned and saw this young man, and he was smiling as he came

And he said, “Friend you may not know me now.” And then he said,
“But wait, you used to teach my Sunday School when I was only eight.
And every week you would say a prayer before the class would start.
And one day when you said that prayer, I asked Jesus in my heart.”

Thank you for giving to the Lord.  I am a life that was changed.
Thank you for giving to the Lord.  I am so glad you gave.

The measure of our work is not something that can be figured now.  As Bishop Ken Untener put it in his tribute piece to Archbishop Oscar Romero –

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

I don’t know who taught Einstein how to count, but I know that somebody diligently did. I don’t know who taught Mozart the musical scale, but I know that somebody patiently did. I don’t know who taught Shakespeare the alphabet, but I know that somebody consciously did.  I don’t know who taught Monet his colors, but I know that somebody lovingly did. I don’t know who taught Billy Graham in Sunday School, but I know that there was somebody there along the way who planted the seeds of faith in his heart and who then prayerfully waited for them to grow.  And I know that I want to be that person for some child somewhere in North Texas today, and so I go to camp each summer when I am asked to plant seeds and then I prayerfully wait.

Will our children have faith?

Well, I don’t control the condition of the soil of their hearts, but I do control the sowing of the seed.  And so I can’t say for sure that our children have faith.  But what I can say for sure is that if we aren’t in the business of sowing the seed, then we’re not doing our part, and the possibilities for faith to take root and grow are thereby reduced.  As they say about the lottery – buying a ticket doesn’t mean that you’ll win, but 100% of those who win have bought a ticket!  All of which is to say, we’ve got to be in the game.  And so I am willing to go to camp each summer to do my part to see that our kids will have faith, and as a church, Sunday in and Sunday out, I know that we’ve all got to be prepared to  consistently, creatively and conscientiously do our part to see that they will as well.   DBS+

 

 

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Tactics Need a Mission

We are having a crucial conversation at the church these days about how to reach young families and children more effectively than we have been doing in recent years.  This is the near universal conversation that’s being had in Mainline churches like Northway.   Fortunately, Northway has the resources both to have this conversation and then to act on its conclusions. This is a hopeful and not a desperate season in the life of this church.  Good people are doing thoughtful work about how to make this church more effective in this area of ministry, and I am fully supportive of this process and truly grateful for the effort that is being made.  Our future depends on it, and we believe that our best years are still out there in front of us, and so we “follow, not with fears.”

But there is a real danger in a process like this one we are in.  It is just so easy to reduce it to a functional conversation alone.  If we are not just as clear about why we are reaching out as we are about who it is that we are going to try to reach out to, and how, then this is a conversation about tactics and not mission.  A mission needs tactics – good, solid tactics.  But more than that, tactics need a mission, and that has got to push us into deeper relational conversations and considerations.  In addition to strategizing about the most effective ways to reach young families and minister to their children, we’ve all got to actually start connecting with the young families in our own kinship and friendship spheres, and begin to actively minister to their children.  And we need to know why we are making this effort; why it matters.

Kennon Callahan in his work on effective churches made the important distinction between the “functional” strengths and the “relational” strengths of a congregation. At the risk of oversimplification, a church’s “functional” strengths are the delivery systems of its “relational” strengths.  A church’s “relational” strengths will tell you all about how that church understands its mission, and a church’s “functional” strengths will tell you all about how skilled and disciplined that church is in actually fulfilling that mission.  This distinction is crucial because when a church is in trouble the natural reflex is to tinker with the functional aspects of its life, forgetting that it’s the relational aspects of its life that are its true engine.

As Os Guinness put in his recent book Renaissance – The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (IVP – 2014) –

America as the lead society in the modern world is awash with numbers and metrics, and with statistics, opinion polls, surveys, targets, pie charts, scorecards, big data, game theory and measurable outcomes – all at the expense of the true, the good, the beautiful, the faithful, and the significant. (39)

…Metrics are quantitative and not qualitative, so they measure performance but not relationships.  They tell us about the externals of religion and say nothing about the heart.  Metrics, for instance, can tell us what husbands spent this year on Valentine’s cards and gifts for their wives, but not whether the cards and gifts expressed their love or their guilt for not loving their wives as they once did.  Metrics could have recorded the tonnage of the sheep and oxen sacrificed in Solomon’s Temple, but not what it was about them that made God say that He was sick of them.  In the same way, metrics can record the frequency of our church attendance, the regularity of our Bible reading and the exact amount of our tithing, but they can never gauge the genuineness of any of them… (43)

…We need to trace the overall damage that this trend toward numbers does to the church.  It develops Christians with an eye for the quantitative rather than the qualitative, for externals rather than inner reality, for performance rather than relationship, for the shallow rather than the deep, for evangelism in terms of the number of decisions rather than discipleship and growth in character, for the bandwagon rather than the Bible, for popularity rather than principle, and with greater sensitivity to horizontal pressure than vertical authority.

…The result is a church befuddled over the difference between success and faithfulness. (44)

This year’s August Forum about how to minister effectively across the generations that are present in both the culture and the church builds deliberately on last year’s August Forum on the necessity of consciously and conscientiously cultivating a culture of evangelism within the life of this church.   We need to connect these dots and pull tight the edges of these two conversations into one seamless garment.

Last year we said –

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CULTURE OF EVANGELISM

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“Overflow”

“Sharing Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose…”  

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Spiritual

A culture of evangelism in a church begins with the spiritual formation of its own members. The God of the Bible is a missional God, and those who are in relationship with Him will become missional as part of their faithful response to Him.

Incarnational

Spiritually formed church members live question-posing lives as part of a question-posing community.

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Spiritually formed church members will cultivate a “salvific mindset” – an outlook on life that cares deeply for the spiritual well-being of others – and so, like salt and light, they will begin to intentionally and relationally position themselves in order to be able to engage and have influence with others.

Invitational

Knowing from their own experience the truth of the Gospel and the value of the church, spiritually formed church members will look for opportunities to invite and ways to include others in the life of their church.

Meaningful

The church, always expecting newcomers and inquirers to be present in its life, will be constantly “on its game.”  It will be welcoming.  It will make its values, both congregational and denominational, transparent.  It will make its message accessible.  And it will provide specific ways for people to connect and the take next steps in the spiritual life.

Conversational

Spiritually formed church members will intentionally companion people on their spiritual journeys not as salesman looking to close a deal but as fellow pilgrims who know the terrain that’s being covered because they’ve already been there themselves.  They will know how to patiently listen and when to appropriately and authentically share what they know.

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When we ask – “Will the next generation have faith?” – as we are in this year’s August Forum, we are not just having a theoretical conversation.  As a preacher in chapel when I was in Christian College nearly 40 years ago put it, “Christianity is always just one generation away from extinction.” Reaching the next generation for Christ is our mission as a church.  It’s built into our congregational commitment to “Share Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose.” And we will need some good, solid “functional” strategies and tactics to accomplish this, and some specific programmatic and personnel proposals will soon be forthcoming from the Task Force that has been studying our congregational ministry to families and children to this end.   But it would be an enormous mistake to think that once these “functional” decisions have been made and published that everything will thereby have been fixed in our ministry to families and children.

When the “functional” decisions are made, then the real “relational” work begins, and that calls each and every one of us to the six assignments that are involved in cultivating a culture of evangelism at Northway – (1) Being deliberately and continuously formed spiritually ourselves; (2) Living incarnationally so that people will ask questions about why we are the way we are; (3)  Making ourselves available so that we might engage and have influence with others; (4) Looking for opportunities to invite and ways to include others in the life of this church; (5) Providing specific ways for people to connect and to  take next steps in the spiritual life through the life of this church; and (6) Knowing how to patiently listen and when to appropriately and authentically share what it is that we know to be true and powerful about how Jesus Christ is both Lord and Savior of the world.

When the “functional” decisions are finally made, the places where, the times when, and the ways how each one of us is then going to have to step up in faith to minister creatively and sacrificially to families and children are going to be clear, but no clearer than the reason why — because Jesus Christ is the way ,the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and anyone who is looking for meaning and purpose in this life, regardless of their generation, needs to be shown how what they are looking for is Him. DBS +

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“There was no one left to speak out…”

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Had I had been a colonist in America early in the early 17th century, I think that I would have made way to Rhode Island just as quickly as I could.  A spiritual community in Rhode Island today has posted this account of their state’s origins on their webpage online –

rogerRoger Williams came to the New World in 1631 with much the same hopes as the first Pilgrim Separatists. His heart’s desire was to see a pure church raised up, with no ties to the Church of England and its corruption, compromise, and oppression. Ironically that desire is what led to his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the end of 1635. His outspoken zeal for “soul liberty” proved too radical for the Puritan leaders of the colony, who had brought with them the same spirit of religious intolerance from which they had fled.  Slipping away just before his arrest, Roger Williams fled into the wilderness and found refuge among the Indians. In later writings, Williams recalls how he was “denied the common air to breathe… and almost without mercy and human compassion, exposed to winter miseries in a howling wilderness [for fourteen weeks] not knowing what bread or bed did mean.” During this time, whatever shelter he found was in the dingy, smoky lodges of the Indians. Their hospitality to him in his time of need was something he sought to repay with kindness all the rest of his life.  In early 1636, Williams purchased land from the Indians and with a few friends founded a settlement they called Providence Plantations, which soon became a refuge for those “distressed of conscience.” Williams eventually obtained a royal charter for the colony, which later became the State of Rhode Island, based on this mandate:

No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion … but that all persons may … enjoy their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernments. (https://twelvetribes.com/articles/roger-williams-religious-freedom)

imamThe relevance of this history for us today can be measured by what’s been happening up in Farmersville in recent weeks, just 35 miles to our north.  Our friends at the Islamic Association of Collin County – they have hosted some of our Faiths in Conversation gatherings through the years, and their spiritual leader, Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid, has been one of the most articulate and generously-spirited participants in the series – have been involved in the legal process of purchasing some new land for a cemetery for their community of faith.   There is nothing sinister, secretive or subversive about this effort.

Just like our Orthodox Jewish friends, our Muslim friends have certain burial requirements, and so they have been seeking some land of their own where those religious requirements and the spiritual needs of their community of faith can be met.  burialThey found what the needed in Farmersville, and began the process of securing the land and meeting the legal requirements to establish their cemetery. But when a segment of the Farmersville community learned about these plans, they rose up in opposition.   Now, nobody is, or should be questioning their right to object.  This is, after all, what it means to be an American.  Dissent is an important part of our rich and noble national heritage.  What is objectionable is the fear-mongering and false witness (that is one of the Ten Commandments after all) that has been stirred-up by some, but certainly not all of the Christian leaders in Farmersville.

Islamophobia is a very real problem in the United States today, and not without cause. The events of 9/11 and the decade long war on terror have generated some very deep feelings of anger, fear and mistrust in many of us.  The rise of ISIS and the very real treat that they pose to regional and global stability these days cannot be brushed away with a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya” with everybody standing in a circle holding hands. There is a problem, a serious problem with radical Islamic terrorism in the world today.  But that problem only gets compounded when every Muslim in America gets suspected of being a collaborator with the actions of a few.

The agenda of the radical Islamic fringe is no more representative of Imam Khalil and his community of faith in Plano than the actions 40 years ago in Guyana of Jim Jones (a Disciples of Christ minister) and the People’s Temple ( a Disciples of Christ congregation) were representative of who we are and what we believe here at Northway. Today we are deeply ashamed of the way that we treated our citizens of Japanese descent during WW 2.  It was a terrible mistake, an injustice of gigantic proportion, to tar a whole population of people with the same brush then, and it is just as enormous a mistake and grave an injustice to do it again now with our Muslim neighbors and friends.  Instead of suspecting the worst and stoking the fires of fear, this is a teachable moment when mutual understanding must be sought so that mutual respect might be gained.

This is what our long commitment as a congregation to Faiths in Conversation has been about.  Whether it is the fears about the establishment of Sharia law by our friend Imam Zia over at the Irving Mosque stirring up that community, or the controversy over the purchase of some land for a Muslim Cemetery up in Farmersville by Imam Khalil and his Plano Mosque, stoolwe have learned that the right approach is neither to ignore the fears, nor to scold the fearful, but rather to address the fears by entering into a constructive conversation with each other.  And the motives for doing this, at least from “our” end, it seems to me, are three-fold.  I think that I can make a compelling case for constructive engagement with the Islamic Association of Collin County and their pursuit of land for a cemetery in Farmersville by three of the most defining dimensions of my identity – by the fact that I am Texan, by the fact that I am an American, and by the fact that I am a Christian

  • Because I am a Texan…

texasWhenever I see one of our Texas highway signs with the motto – “Drive Friendly” – on it, I think of the driving etiquette I used to routinely experience on the back roads of the Panhandle.  When you pass by a driver in the other lane coming at you on one of those long stretches of open highway between Muleshoe and Floydada, or Hereford and Dimmitt, you raise a finger in greeting.  Now I’ve driven in LA and New York City as well, and I have had fingers raised at me there too.  But the Texas finger is the finger of greeting, it’s the finger of “howdy” there friend, it’s the finger of “I see you” and “You’re not alone out here in these wide open spaces.”  This is one of the reasons why I love Texas the way I do and never plan on leaving.  Sure. it can get way too hot in the summer and way too cold in the winter in Texas.  The bugs can be a real nuisance, from the cockroaches in Houston, to the cicadas in Lubbock, to the mosquitos with West Nile Virus right here in Dallas.  Most of the state is too flat and too dry for my tastes.  But ah, the people!  As a general rule, the people of Texas are some of the nicest and most helpful people you’ll find anywhere in the world.  Oh, they can be loud and proud without a doubt, but they are an extremely good-hearted and open-handed lot as well.  We are used to giving people a chance, and the benefit of a doubt around here.  And so, to treat a whole group of people like some of the folks up in Farmersville are treating the good people of the Islamic Association of Collin County is simply “un-Texan.”  It’s completely out of step with that “Drive Friendly” mentality that we are so proud of around here.

  • Because I am an American…

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

That’s the beginning of the first Amendment to the Constitution, the very first words of what we know and cherish as the Bill of Rights.  This “free exercise of religion” is guaranteed to us – to all of us.  And when this right gets threatened in one religious tradition, it threatens all of us in every religious tradition. As the German Pastor Martin Niemöller learned the hard way in a Concentration Camp during WW 2 –

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

In an article by Sharon Grigsby that was published in the Dallas Morning News this week, the parameters of the “free exercise of religion” and its roots in the noble experiment that was Rode Island in 1636 were explored.

Marv Knox, editor of The Baptist Standard, penned this editorial on the issue. Check out this excerpt addressing those who oppose the Muslim cemetery plan:

Some old-time Baptists must be rolling in their graves … They would remember Baptists have been champions of religious liberty and the rights of minorities for 400 years—dating to the days when Baptists were a tiny minority wherever they went. They would know the first Baptist in America, Roger Williams, founded Rhode Island as a haven of religious freedom, not only for fellow Baptists, but for “Turks,” as he called them. That’s right, Muslims.

Knox takes on the “so what” question I referenced earlier:

The correct answer to any lamenting about Muslims building a mosque is simple: So what? Baptists historically have believed all people have a right to worship according to the dictates of their consciences. Baptists who remain true to their principles will continue to defend Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and others who want to build houses of worship.

The freedom of religion that allows me to believe and behave according to the dictates of my own conscience and conviction is the same freedom of religion that allows my friend Imam Khalil to believe and behave according to the dictates if his own conscience and conviction.   Threaten his freedom to do this and you are threatening my freedom to do this, and you’ll get a fight – not just from him… but from me too.

  • Because I am a Christian…

The opposition to the establishment of a Muslim Cemetery in Farmersville that is rooted in willful misunderstanding and blatant false witness is both un-American and un-Texan, and we who are Americans and Texans ought to be ashamed of it.  We’re so much better as a people than this. But it is as a Christian, as someone who is trusting Jesus Christ as my Savior and who is trying to serve Jesus Christ as my Lord, that I am most moved to stand with my friend Imam Khalil and his community of faith at the Islamic Association of Collin County in this controversy about the establishment of a cemetery in Farmersville.

You see, I don’t say that “Jesus is Lord,” and then go off and do as I please.   No, when I say that “Jesus is Lord,” my commitment is to learn what it is that pleases Him, and then to do that very thing, and Mark 12:31 is as clear as any word spoken in Scripture about what it is that pleases Him – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus Christ commands me to love my neighbor.  He commands us as Christians to love one another within the Christian family too, but not at the expense of failing to actively love our neighbors outside the Christian family.  As Francis Schaeffer used to say, when Christian love gets exclusive it becomes ugly.  It is only when we are actively loving our neighbors around us that Christian love can have its full effect.  As John put it in his first letter, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:18).  Christian love in action is called “mercy,” and the church has traditionally spoken of the works of mercy in two distinct ways.

First, there are the “Spiritual” Works of Mercy – our spiritual ministry to spiritual needs with our spiritual resources –

To instruct the ignorant;
• To counsel the doubtful;

• To admonish sinners;

• To bear wrongs patiently;
• To forgive offences willingly;

• To comfort the afflicted;

• To pray for the living and the dead.

And then there are the “Corporal” Works of Mercy – our practical ministry to physical needs with our material resources –   

• To feed the hungry;
• To give drink to the thirsty;
• To clothe the naked;
• To harbor the harborless;
• To visit the sick;
• To ransom the captive;
• To bury the dead
.

And it was this last work of mercy – the commitment to burying the dead with real dignity and care – that uniquely branded the earliest Christians as compassionate in the eyes of the ancient world.

In his magisterial volume, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, the German Church Historian Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) specifically named the way that the early church took “care of poor people requiring burial, and of the dead in general” as being one of the big reasons why they were so effective in advancing the cause of the Gospel.

We begin here with the words of Julian, in his letter to Arsacius (Soz., v. 15): “This godlessness (i.e., Christianity) is mainly furthered by its philanthropy towards strangers and its careful attention to the bestowal of the dead.” Tertullian declares that the burial of poor brethren was performed at the expense of the common fund, and Aristides (Apol. xv.) corroborates this, although with him it takes the form of private charity. “Whenever,” says Aristides, “one of their poor passes from the world, one of them looks after him and sees to his burial, according to his means.” We know the great importance attached to an honorable burial in those days, and the pain felt at the prospect of having to forego this privilege. …[And so] the deacons [of the church] were specially charged with the task of seeing that everyone was properly interred (Const. Ap. iii. 7), and… they did not restrict themselves to the limits of the brotherhood. “We cannot bear,” says Lactantius (Instit. 6.12), “that the image and workmanship of God should be exposed as a prey to wild beasts and birds, but we restore it to the earth from which it was taken, and do this office of relatives even to the body of a person whom we do not know, since in their room humanity must step in.” (http://www.ccel.org/ccel)

As powerful as this ministry of burying the dead by the early church was in the ancient world, so it is just as scandalous today that Christians would be at the forefront of an effort to try to restrict the burial of dead.  This failure of neighbor love is a stain on the church and a source of grief to God.  It is a contradiction of the Gospel, and we who are Christians need to say so clearly and repeatedly.  DBS+

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“When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad…”

commonMy default prayer discipline is the Book of Common Prayer (1945).  You can take the boy out of the Episcopalians it seems, but you can’t take the Episcopalian out of the boy.

I was profoundly shaped by the rhythm and cadence of the prayers that I prayed at the very beginning of my spiritual life, and so just like the swallows returning to Capistrano, or is it more a case of the buzzards returning to Hinckley, I find myself going back to them when I am spiritually sick, or stuck, or stalled, or stifled. I especially love the “Forms of Prayers to be used in Families with Additional Prayers” (587-600).  I have prayed these prayers with some regularity now for more than half of a century, and they have left their mark.

“Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.”  I pray this petition, and my heart roams to south Fort Worth and to New York City, to Los Angeles and to Modesto in the central valley of California, to Garland next door and to Oklahoma City up the road, to North Carolina and to wherever the Special Forces have put a nephew in harm’s way this week.  I pray these words and I think of my family – my wife, my son and my daughter, my grandsons and my son-in-law, my sisters and their families, my brothers-in-law and their families, my mother-in-law and her husband.  I so want God to “take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection,” but there are weeks when, to be perfectly honest, it feels like anything but this, and this has certainly been one of those weeks.

Without bogging down in all of the messy details, suffice it to say that over and over again these past few weeks my heart has been wrenched by the painful and difficult circumstances that some of the people I love the most in this world have been forced to face.  I have been afraid and anxious for them.  I have worried, and I have wept, and I have prayed – “Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.”

The very first Bible verse that I ever consciously memorized (thank-you Billy Graham) was I Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares about you.” And so I am in the long habit of translating my fears into prayers (Philippians 4:6).  But in a season of upset like this one that I and my loved ones currently find ourselves in, even as I pray I ponder. “Just exactly what are you expecting will happen because you are doing this?” I ask myself. “What do you think that God is going to do about it?” I am leery of what Vernon Grounds of blessed memory used to call “the heavenly helicopter” notion of Christianity.  Neither my experience nor my theology convinces me that Jesus Christ is going to automatically and invariably swoop into the rising flood waters of my discouraging circumstances and magically whisk me and mine away unscathed.  Of course, God could do this.  But God doesn’t always, and from my own personal point of view, God doesn’t often do this.  So, just exactly what then am I expecting of God?  What is that does God does?

kingdomActs 14:22 is another one of those Bible verses that I have deliberately committed to memory because I am a pastor, and a human being – “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” This is the realism of the Bible that only serves to reinforce my confidence in its inspiration and authority.  I don’t expect things to be easy for me, but I do expect that God in Christ through the Spirit will accompany and empower me in all of the twists and turns of my life, and finally bend it in the direction of  wholeness, peace, and joy.

So, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad,” as the song from “The Sound of Music” puts it, what sustains me spiritually?  As this week has unfolded, I’ve been trying to consciously keep track of how my being a Christian has supplied me with resources that have strengthened my faith and fueled my hope.  And so, in no particular order, here are some of the things that my Christian faith has provided me with, and that have proven sustaining to me as the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew.  This is how my Christianity has “worked” for me in the midst of my recent storms –

  • doveThe indwelling Holy Spirit is called the Comforter, at least that’s one of the ways that the word that Jesus used in the Upper Room in the Gospel of John to talk about the Holy Spirit’s coming sometimes gets translated (John 14:16; 26; 15:26; 16:7).  And I have felt this Spirit’s comforting presence.  It’s not continuous, but it is real.  Paul described it as the assurance we have that we are children of God when God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirits (Romans 8:16).  And that’s it.  That’s what sweeps over me from time to time quite unexpectedly and inexplicably. It’s like a hug out of nowhere.  A reminder that I’m not alone; the reassurance that I have not been abandoned or forsaken.
  • The keys that the Holy Spirit plays on the instrument of my heart are the promises of God’s Word.  Bible verses will just pop into my consciousness like song melodies that get stuck in your ear, and I savor them.  My long love for Scripture has stocked my head and heart with lots of raw material for the Spirit to use.  I’ve sometimes heard this described as the experience of receiving a “living” Word, and that certainly “feels” right.  It feels like God speaking directly to me from the pages of the Bible.  Is this what Jesus meant when He told us that “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63)?
  • Finally, in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 Paul described an important dynamic that’s at work in the experience of comfort that we receive from God in Christ –

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.  If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. (1:3-6)

When we receive God’s comfort in our own times of personal struggle we are being equipped to share God’s comfort with people we will meet later who are struggling with the same sorts of things we have already been through.  Our comfort comes with a ministry assignment.  At the end of his life, when debilitated by a series of strokes, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was asked to reflect on what he had learned in his years of decline.  And this man of massive intellect and tremendous influence talked about what he called “the charismatic gift of love.”  After years of writing, teaching, traveling and leading, when health “dismissed him from the battle” and “relegated him to the sidelines,” Reinhold Niebuhr said that in the end it was the simple kindness and support of ordinary people who went out of their way to help him that was the most effective expression of the Gospel that he knew anything about it.   And it has in fact been the kind words, the offers of support and the expressions of care from Christian brothers and sisters who have travelled these same roads of sadness and carried these same burdens of fear and pain that have made God’s love so tangible and visible to me over and over again.

Paul in a season of struggle was able to say (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) –

lightWe have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed

And in the end, was bold to say (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)–

The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

And in this season of struggle, it is because of the comforting Spirit, the comforting Word, and the comforting community that I have experienced the sufficiency of grace.  DBS+

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Beyond the Bible

“Beyond the Bible”
Blog_Topimage

Moving from Scripture to Faith & Practice
in Times of Controversy
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I am a self-avowed “Evangelical” Christian. I certainly don’t think that this is the only way to be a Christian, and it’s clearly not the dominant approach to Christianity among my own “tribe,” the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but it is the way that I am consciously and conscientiously a Christian. The late Donald Bloesch once suggested that to be an Evangelical is to “hold to a definite doctrine” as well as to “participate in a special kind of experience.”  And I find that to be a useful definition. I find that being an “Evangelical” Christian means that I believe certain things to be true and that I have a certain lived experience of those truths.

Central to my “Evangelical” experience of Christianity is the awareness that my sins have been forgiven because of Jesus Christ. This is the evangelical take on the Gospel. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about regeneration. It’s about reconciliation. It’s about how lost and guilty sinners can stand before a holy, just and loving God, and personally this is brought home to me weekly in church when I break the bread and pour the cup at the Lord’s Table in remembrance of and in thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s a big part of the reason why I am a “Disciple” and an “Evangelical.”

Central to my “Evangelical” theology is the conviction that the Scriptures rightly interpreted will be the defining authority for my faith and practice. In his “liberal-evangelical dialogue” with David Edwards back in 1988, the late John Stott observed –

I think I would characterize Evangelicals as those who, because they identify Scripture as God’s word, are deeply concerned to submit to its authority in their lives (whatever their precise formulation of the doctrine of Scripture may be). In other words, the hallmark of Evangelicals is not so much an impeccable set of words, as a submissive spirit, namely their a priori resolve to believe and obey whatever Scripture may be shown to teach. They are committed to Scripture in advance, whatever it may later be found to say. They claim no liberty to lay down their own terms for belief and behavior.   They see this humble and obedient stance as an essential implication of Christ’s lordship over them.

And so it is as an “Evangelical” Christian that I find myself becoming increasingly troubled by the way that the Bible is being bandied about by both proponents and opponents of the Supreme Court’s recent same sex marriage decision. With magisterial authority I have heard both critics and proponents of this decision make sweeping pronouncements about what is and isn’t on the Bible on this subject, and about what the Bible does or does not actually mean. The proof–texting has been coming fast and furious from both sides, and as an Evangelical who tries to take the Bible seriously, I have been deeply dismayed by what I’ve seen and heard. Take the case what happened recently in a community just south of Ft. Worth, Texas.

When the Supreme Court handed down their ruling on the legality of same sex marriage throughout the United States, anBlog_Image2 e-mail exchange almost immediately broke out between Burleson’s politically conservative mayor, Ken Shetter, a self-identified Christian, and some of his vocal critics. It seems that Mayor Shetter took to Facebook right after the Court’s ruling to congratulate the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgendered citizens of his community for the new legal protection of their civil rights. But, as you might expect, not everyone in Burleson was thrilled that he did this. In fact, one of his constituents publicly challenged the Mayor to cite just one Bible verse to justify his views. And unfortunately the good mayor took the bait. He quoted I Corinthians 13:13 – “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” And so it began.  Christians lobbing Bible verses back and forth at each other thinking that the verse they just cited, yanked from its context and with no meaningful interpretation, could settle the matter once and for all.

This is not how I was taught to use the Bible as an Evangelical.

Richard Hayes is the Dean and the George Washington Ivey Blog_Image3Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, and a self-identified “Evangelical.”   In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Harper-SanFrancisco 1996) he argues that there are four overlapping critical operations in our use of Scripture to form our theological and moral judgments. Larry Lichtenwalter, an Adventist minister, summarized this four-fold task in an article he wrote for the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society in 2000 that he called – “Living Under the Word” (http://www.andrews.edu).

  1. The Descriptive Task – The descriptive task has to do with reading the text carefully. The descriptive task is fundamentally exegetical in character. It has to do with the question, “What does the Scripture say?” We read the individual New Testament or Old Testament texts or passages with the purpose of understanding the distinctive moral vision embodied in each text, and in time, in each individual book in the biblical canon. We do this without prematurely harmonizing them. We are simply to note the distinctive moral themes and patterns of reasoning in the individual New Testament or Old Testament witnesses.
  2. The Synthetic Task -The synthetic task means placing the individual text, passage, or book in its larger canonical context. This has to do with finding coherence in the moral vision of Scripture as a whole. Is it possible to describe a unity of ethical perspective within the diversity of the Old and New Testament canon? What, if anything, makes these diverse writings hang together as a guide to the moral life? Care needs to be taken that the synthetic task does not create homogenizing interpretation that neutralizes any particularly challenging passage we may encountered. We assume a vast theological and moral unity between the Old and New Testaments, and within Scripture as a whole. This common moral vision, however, does not neutralize or homogenize the individual witnesses.
  3. The Hermeneutical Task – How do we bridge the temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text? What does Scripture mean for us? Thesis the hermeneutical task—relating the text to our own contemporary situation. In particular, how do we appropriate the moral vision of Scripture as a word addressed to us? How do we actually use Scripture in doing ethical reflection?
  4. The Pragmatic Task – Christian ethics ultimately comes down to the very practical question: how shall Christians shape their life in obedience to the moral vision of Scripture? In other words, what shall we do? How concretely does the moral vision of Scripture speak to our contemporary exigencies? The pragmatic task has to do with living out the Word in concrete everyday life.

This is just too crucial a moment in the life of the church for proof-texting by anybody. Paul Tillich used to say that the world poses the questions that the church then has to answer. And if this is the case, then the world is waiting for the church’s answer. But what I’ve heard so far from the two wings of the church – the “progressive” and the “traditional” – leaves me pretty unsettled and unsatisfied.

Thinking that we have heard from Scripture just because some Bible verses have been quoted in defense of an already arrived-at position is spiritually irresponsible. Now is not the time for anyone to be collapsing Hayes’s four-fold process for the use of Scripture in the formation of moral and theological conclusions into sound-bite snippets of “the Bible says” or “the Bible doesn’t say,” thinking that the conclusions that we have drawn and not the careful, Biblically-informed process by which we have arrived at those conclusions are all that anybody really needs to know. I’m not interested in hoisting a flag so that people can salute it and take a side in the coming fight. I’m really so much more interested instead in the crucial conversation of faith that arises when our experiences as human beings, our encounters with the authoritative Biblical text, and the reality of the living, loving God intersect and interact. It would be hard for me to be an “Evangelical” Christian, and for me to think or to do otherwise.

DBS+

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