The “Double Structure” of the Gospel

A Holy Week Reminder
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In his popular commentary on the Gospel of John (John: The Gospel of Life – Judson Press – 1979) D. George Vanderlip, a Professor of New Testament at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote –

donkeyThe story is told in the imagination of the feelings of the donkey who bore Jesus into Jerusalem on the day of his so-called triumphal entry. The donkey was plodding along slowly with head down until he suddenly noticed a crowd gathering and then the people beginning to shout and throw palm branches into the street.  He immediately began to lift up his ears and quicken his pace, thinking, “They are glad to see me.  They are applauding me.” (37)

Dr. Vanderlip used this story to make the point that it’s not all about us.  As Michael Horton likes to say, “God is not a supporting actor in the movie about us; we’re supporting actors in the movie about God!”  Now, this cuts directly against the grain of our cultural preoccupation with self where we are daily bombarded with messages that say “have it your way.” 

80David Hubbard, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary when I was a student there in the mid 1970’s, said that he was troubled by the way that some churches, in an effort to be more “attractional,” were beginning to cater to the preferences of people outside the church in order to get them inside the church. Under the banner of being sensitive to “seekers” they were beginning to tailor their weekly worship experiences to better fit the expectations of those who were not there in order to increase their chances of getting them there.

The last thing you want to hear from people who have just come out of one of your worship services is: “I didn’t get anything out of it.”  Dr. Hubbard said that when we judge a church this way we typically use three criteria –

  • The “intellectual criterion” – Was the sermon as stimulating as it could have been?
  • The “emotional criterion” – How did the worship service leave me feeling?
  • The “aesthetic criterion” – Did the music, the décor, the style and the setting of worship suit my tastes?

Dr. Hubbard was concerned that this approach could easily lead a church to put the emphasis in the wrong place.  In the pursuit of customer satisfaction, he worried that product quality might begin to suffer.  When the focus shifts from Christ to the donkey, our desire for success can begin to interfere with our obligation to be faithful.  Trying to make people happy can lead you to lose touch with what it is that you are there to do in the first place.  It’s a fine line.

boatIn the Great Commission Christ sent his church “into the world” to “preach the Gospel.”  If we are to reach the “world” then clearly we’ve got to be sensitive to our audience and responsive to their needs.  But to faithfully preach “the Gospel” then we’ve got to be careful to “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) and preserve “the treasure that been entrusted to us” (2 Timothy 1:14).  Finding and then maintaining the balance between cultural relevance and Biblical fidelity is tricky.  It’s a horse that you can fall off from either side.  You can be too flexible at the point of culture, and you can get too rigid at the point of Scripture.  Fortunately, we are not left completely on our own in navigating this Scylla and Charybdis.

I’ve long been reassured by what Jesus said in the Upper Room in John 15:26-27.  Speaking to His disciples, Jesus said – “you will bear witness because you have been with Me from the beginning” (15:27).  They were to proclaim what they had seen and heard (I John 1:1-3).  They were custodians of the Gospel story, “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 4).  Fidelity to this charge could be measured rather straightforwardly – were they handing on the same message that they had received (I Corinthians 15:1-3; 2 Timothy 2:2)?  Deviations from this delivered tradition were not to be tolerated (Galatians 1:1-10).  This is on us.  A faithful church must always be taking the measure of its life and message by the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).  It must be consciously “tethered to the Word.” 

But in the Upper Room, in the Gospel of John, Jesus also said, “When the Helper comes… He will bear witness of Me” (15:26).  This is on God.  Just as we have our “witness” role to play, so the Spirit of God has a “witness” role to play as well.  Bernard Ramm explained what Jesus meant by saying that “upon the objective truth of revelation must fall the subjective light of the Holy Spirit’s illumination.”   This is what the two disciples on the road to Emmaus described as feeling their hearts “burning” within them as the Risen Christ explained the scriptures to them (Luke 24:32).  As Bernard Ramm put it – “It is the Spirit who makes the heart burn as the Word is heard.  Thus revelation always comes in this double structure – the inner and the outer, the objective and the subjective, the hearing ear and the burning heart.”

In this “double structure” there is a clear division of labor, God has His part to play and we have ours. It’s our job to tell the story of God’s redemptive involvement with human beings from creation through the covenant with Israel, the coming of Christ and the establishment of the church to the final consummation. Of course, we’ve got to tell this story in ways that people can actually understand it.  Our communication has to be comprehensible and just as compelling as we can possibly make it.  That’s on us.  But the impact that this story actually makes on the heads and hearts of those who hear us tell it is not our responsibility.  This is on God.  We tell the story of what God has done in Jesus Christ to bring us back into a right relationship with Himself, that’s our “witness” (John 15:27).  And then God takes what we’ve said, and through the Holy Spirit, applies it to people’s hearts where they are free to accept or reject it.  That’s His “witness” (John 15:26).

I think about these things every year at this time.

The church’s Holy Week services are always some of the best attended of the year.  As Elton Trueblood used to say, if a church member won’t come to church for Easter, they probably aren’t coming for anything!  And so the temptation is to pull out all the stops and do something spectacular while they’re here to convince them to come back the following week (almost always one of the worst attended Sundays of the year).  The count of nickels and noses during Holy Week worship services, especially on Easter, gives us a brief vision of what could be for our churches, and it is just so appealing, it makes us feel so good about ourselves as a church, so “successful,” that we start to think about what we could do to keep them coming.  And this is when the focus can begin to shift Dr. Hubbard warned. When the spotlight’s on the donkey, Christ can get lost in the shadows.

The “double structure” of the Gospel shows us another way.  Our job is to be clear, to point people unswervingly and unhesitatingly to Jesus Christ.  The promise is in John 12:32: “When I am lifted up… I will draw all people to myself.”  We witness to Christ, we “lift Him up,” and then the Holy Spirit uses that witness as the basis for His own witness in people’s hearts, “drawing people to Himself.”  Again, something that Bernard Ramm said is quite helpful – “God speaks into the heart while the ear listens to the outward Word” (21).  Our witness gets addressed to the outer ear, the Spirit’s witness gets addressed to the inner heart.  Our task is to be clear, consistent and compelling about who Christ is and what Christ has done.  The Spirit’s task is then to convict the hearts and convince the minds of those who listen to us.

This is why Stanley Hauerwas, the man Time magazine once called “America’s Best Theologian,” says that the future of the church is going to be found in “doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday.” Anthony D. Baker, a professor of Theology down at the Episcopal Seminary in Austin explains what this means –

It all depends, of course, on what “same thing” we are doing. If we mean the same failures of acculturation, then clearly this is wrongheaded: The future of the church very decidedly is not found in coughing with embarrassment during Gospel readings, or in nervous thumb-twiddling during prayer. But if “the same thing week after week” means proclaiming the gospel, forgiving sins, and attending to the various classical practices that form people’s lives within the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we must agree: The future of the church is found in doing this week in and week out, Sunday after Sunday, come rain, drought, hell, or high water.

cupIf we could surrender our anxiety-ridden need for novelty, we could think about how to “work with the words” of the gospel in a way that makes God’s loving call resound anew for children and adults alike. In learning to read the gospel, we would be giving ourselves the greatest and most formative gift possible: the gift of love for the fundamental story of the world, and a way of receiving and experiencing the divine love that story narrates. Imagine a church in which children and adults of all ages, races, and classes were bound together by their common love for the words of the gospel. If Christians can learn, week after week, to read the story of Jesus of Nazareth—to love what we read, to be loved by what we read—then surely the future of the church would look a bit more hopeful. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/december/learninggospelagain.html)

And so this week, Holy Week, we will just tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love again, just as we did last year during Holy Week, and just as we will next year during Holy Week.  We will try to tell the story clearly and compellingly, and our focus will on Christ because Holy Week is not about the donkey.  It’s about who was on the donkey, and what He was riding it into Jerusalem to do. DBS+

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Your Spiritual Temperament and Holy Week

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“Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…”

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There is a really clever posting online making the rounds in recent days called the “Holy Week Myers-Briggs” (March 17, 2015) by Trevor McMaken. Its “home” is an Episcopal Church up in Chicago, Illinois, The Church of the Resurrection to in Wheaton to be exact. It deserves a look.  You will find it at http://www.churchrez.org/news/holy-week-myers-briggs.

Trevor McMaken explains –

Everyone engages with Holy Week—the week leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection—in different ways. Some celebrate. Others contemplate. Some like it loud and laudable, others need things barely audible. And the beauty of Holy Week is that with so many different services, there are opportunities for all of these expressions of worship. You can be stretched in the less comfortable parts and be fully at home in the places where you connect easily, whether that’s with your hands in the air or in your pockets.

MeyerAccording to the Myers-Briggs assessment I am an “I.N.T.J.”  – and decisively so.  This is the supposed spiritual temperament of “St. Thomas Aquinas,” and so the “Holy Week Myers-Briggstells me –

You know exactly what liturgically appropriate clothing you are going to wear to each service.  The most emotional you get during Holy Week is when you feel a “stirring” at Maundy Thursday.  Also, you hate it when people mispronounce “Maundy.”

As they say, “if the shoe fits…”

The 16 Myers-Briggs spiritual types group under four very broad temperaments: The Ignatian “SJ” Temperament, the Augustinian “NF” Temperament, the Franciscan “SP” Temperament and the Thomistic “NT” Temperament.   Without too much squeezing these four spiritual temperaments match up pretty nicely with Corrine Ware’s four Spiritual Types that we’ve been working with this Lent here at Northway – Heart (Franciscan SP – feelings), Soul (Augustinian NF – depth), Mind (Thomistic NT – thinking) and Strength (Ignatian SJ – activist).  These four spiritual types and their “best” practices are what we are exploring in our Wednesday evening Lenten Series gatherings and in our Sunday morning electives classes.  We are thinking and talking together at every opportunity this Lent about what it means to love God with all of our heart, and with all of our soul, and with all of our mind, and with all of our strength.  And the “Holy Week Myers-Briggs” post got me to thinking about what Holy Week would be like if it was approached with all of our heart, and with all of our soul, and with all of our mind, and with all of our strength?

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Holy Week with “all your Heart”

At some point during Holy Week, perhaps more than once, we will sing the old spiritual “Were You There?”

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Holy Week with “all your heart” would, I suspect, involve such “trembling.”

Growing up in California, you don’t hear much about Santa Anna and the Alamo. Who you do hear about is Fr. Junipero Serra and the 21 Franciscan missions stretching from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north. Every kid raised in California gets his or her fill of missions before puberty.  I had personally visited 8 of them by the time I was ten, and had made the obligatory model of one of them out of play dough and popsicle sticks when I was in the fourth grade.  And so needless to say, I was less than thrilled when a group from my church insisted on stopping at the Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura, California, on the way home from a weekend retreat in Santa Barbara.

houseI drug myself through the restored buildings and gardens of this historic mission, the ninth and last that Father Serra himself personally founded.  We traipsed as a group through the sanctuary with its adobe walls 6½ feet thick as a precaution against earthquakes as our tour guide rattled on and on about all the historic artifacts and lovely art works that could be found there.  And then as we turned to leave, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a crucifix at the altar on the left side of the church.  I had never seen anything quite like it before.  It was life-sized, anatomically correct crucifixand gruesome in detail.  Where Christ had been pierced there was blood.  Where Christ had been beaten there was gore.  Where Christ had been bruised there was sweat.  I had seen lots of crosses before.  On most of them there was no body, and on those that had a body, the Christ who was nailed there seemed to reign with a look of calm repose on His face.  But on this cross I saw at the mission, Christ’s body was twisted in pain and His face was contorted with anguish.  It was all so realistic that it startled me.  I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared.  And as I gazed on that image of Christ’s suffering, it dawned on me, for the very first time in my life, that this was how much God really loved me.  Jesus Christ was on that cross for me!  I guess I had heard that all of my life.  I probably knew it in an abstract sort of way.  But standing there in front of that life-sized, physically accurate crucifix on the side altar in the sanctuary of the Mission San Buenaventura in 1965, I got it for the first time, and I trembled.  And Holy Week “with all your heart” will take you to that same place.

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Holy Week with “all your Soul”

This past Sunday in the worship rotation it was my turn to pray the Morning Prayer.  Being the last Sunday of Lent on the church calendar, I prayed –

Lord, our journey to Easter has turned the corner and is heading for home.  Today we find ourselves stand on the precipice of Holy Week.  From here we can hear the shouts of “Hosanna!” From here we can taste the bread and cup of the Last Supper, feel the wounds of the cross, see the sealed tomb and smell the fear and despair of shattered expectations.  This is familiar terrain.  We know this story well.  We know how it unfolds and where it winds up. 

Save us, Lord, from familiarity and complacency; from the boredom and inertia of being old hands at all of this.  We’ve sung all of the hymns before.  We’ve heard all of the sermons before.   We’ve gone through all of the rituals before.  We’ve prayed all of the liturgies before.  Our appetites have been honed by a culture that craves the new and improved, so teach us to love the old, old story.  Send your Spirit to close the circuit between the needs of our hearts and world, and the promises of grace that you made for us in Jesus Christ. 

Help us to discover the Gospel again, Lord, not just on the pages of Scripture and in the traditions of the church, but in the twists and turns of our lives and in the hopes and hurts of the world.

  • On Palm Sunday, when we hear about Christ’s triumphal entry, help us to join the shout of the crowd as they cry out for salvation.  Come as Prophet, Priest and King into our hearts and into this church to be our way, our truth and our life. 
  • On Maundy Thursday, when we hear about the Last Supper, make room at that table for us; a place where we can love and be loved; a place where we can belong and believe.
  • On Good Friday, as we hear about the way of the cross, gather up our suffering, and the suffering of the whole world, and carry it to the heart of the Father. 
  • On Holy Saturday, when we hear about Christ in the tomb and the disciples behind closed doors, come and sit with us in our own fears and disappointments.
  • And on Easter Sunday, when we hear about the empty tomb and the Risen Christ, shift our gaze from then to now, giving us hope for the possibilities of the newness of life, both abundant and eternal.

We don’t need another history lesson, Lord.  We need the assurance of your presence in our lives that are filled with struggle, and we need the provision of your grace to continue to live courageously and compassionately in this very scary world of ours.  We need to know where you are and what you are doing, Lord, so bring us to Holy Week where your story and our stories can intersect and intertwine once again, and then anchor us there where we can know that “resurrection is stronger than crucifixion, that forgiveness is stronger than bitterness, that reconciliation is stronger than hatred, and that light is stronger than darkness,” we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

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Holy Week “with all your soul,” while not disregarding the historicity of the events of salvation history, will nevertheless push past what happened to get at why it happened and why it matters.

cross  Holy Week with “all your Mind”

Scott Dawson Gerritt, a Presbyterian minister over in Louisiana, says that he reads lots of theology books.  He says that it’s his job to do so, and that it’s his passion as well.  “But every time I pick one up,” he writes, “I raise a silent challenge – “Make me sing.”  Scott explains –

The knowledge of God and the praise of God, theology and doxology, belong together. They are dance partners in the fulfillment of our chief end as human beings – to glorify and enjoy God forever. Theology that doesn’t make us sing has failed in its mission, no matter how correct it may be.

bookdAnd so, every Holy Week I read a book. That’s not news.  I read books every week.  But during Holy Week each year I choose to read a book that will take me deeper into my understanding of and appreciation for the Passion of Jesus Christ.   Some of the books that I’ve read about the Passion of Christ during Holy Week through the years include Cardinal Basil Hume’s The Mystery of the Cross (Paraclete Press – 1998), Archbishop George Carey’s The Gate of the Cross (Eedrmans – 1993), Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ Death on a Friday Afternoon (Basic Books – 2000), Leon Morris’ The Story of the Cross (Eerdmans – 1957), Jim Bishop’s The Day Christ Died (Harper – 1957),  Stephen Cottrell’s “I Thirst” – The Cross–The Great Triumph of Love (Zondervan – 2003), Alister McGrath’s What Was God Doing on the Cross?  (Zondervan – 1992), Tom Smail’s Windows on the Cross (Cowley – 1996), Geoffrey Rowell and Julien Chilcott-Monk’s Flesh, Bone, Wood: Entering into the Mysteries of the Cross (Canterbury Press – 2001) and Jerome Machar’s Cross of Death, Tree of Life  (Ave Maria Press – 1996).  The intention of this exercise each year is not “informational” but “formational.”  I want to sing.  I think that Holy Week “with all your mind” should help us to do this each year.

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Holy Week with “all your Strength”

fireThe late Calvin Miller in his book The Table of Inwardness (IVP 1984) wrote about a priest he knew who happened upon a terrible accident where a wrecked gasoline transport trapped a family in a small car while the engulfing flames burned them to death. Not knowing what else to do, that priest knelt down on the highway in the intense heat, his small frame silhouetted against the bright flames, and he prayed.  Calvin Miller called this “Christifying” the situation.

Christifying is consciously viewing people and circumstances with the eyes of Christ.   Ordinary events become cosmic when seen this way… In Christifying, the whole world will speak to us and shout to us of the reality of God…  I love sitting in an air terminal and looking at those scurrying by – unaware of the Christ who smiles and waits to show them his gracious love… I generally think of Christifying my world as painting the face of the Savior on the anxious, hurried faces about me.  I write “I.N.R.I.” (Latin: “Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum” ~ English: “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews) on the most tangled of circumstances.  As soon as they are autographed with his name, they yield to meaning and to life (75-76).

Dr. Frank Mabee of blessed memory used to tell me when he was my Area Minister in Houston that I should go out and find a good crucifixion when the demands and pressures of institutional church life got to be too much for me.  He said that nothing would restore my passion for Gospel ministry quicker than finding somebody somewhere who was suffering and trying to do something about it.  Holy Week with “all your strength” will get you busy “Christifying” the hopes and hurts of the world.

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So, with Holy Week just around the corner, what are you going to do to enhance your own observance of these defining days of our salvation in Jesus Christ?  This year I encourage you to approach Holy Week with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind, and with all of your strength.  See what happens when you bring all of yourself to experience of the Gospel.  I don’t think that you will be disappointed. DBS+

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Violence and Extremism

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Last night our monthly Faiths in Conversation gathering took on the difficult question of “The Religious Roots of Violence and Extremism.”  The shared perspectives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the three branches of the Abrahamic Tree were in full view as each of our spiritual traditions showed the sacred texts that “our” violent extremists have interpreted as their mandates for terror.  This is not just Islam’s problem, it is Judaism’s and Christianity’s problem as well.  All three branches of our family tree have dark texts and bloody histories.  Each of the speakers talked about how their texts have been used by certain segments of their own faith communities to support violent extremism, and showed how the proper interpretation of these same texts can result in very different conclusions and applications.

The direction our Faiths in Conversation session moved last night reminded me something Mark Juergensmeyer, one of the most eminent scholars on religious terrorism in the world today, said in an interview on “Cosmic War on a Global Scale” (posted by Nathan Schneider – “The Immanent Frame” – @ http://blogs.ssrc.org). After describing the religious roots of modern terrorism, the question was asked, “How should these religious claims and actions be addressed?”  The first two proposed answers were, (1) ignore the religious claims altogether and focus instead on the underlying political and economic conditions, and (2) they can’t be addressed religiously, these people won’t be reasoned with, they must be destroyed.  Dissatisfied with both of these answers, Mark Juergensmeyer proposed a third: “a conversion from within the religious community, one that persuades people (of faith) that they are not engaged in a cosmic war and should redirect their activities.”

This is the crucial conversation of faith to be had, it seems to me.  Instead of trying to name and correct the way that Muslim extremists are misinterpreting their texts and contradicting their own religious claims, we need to speak to those on the fringes godsviewof our own faith communities first and most.  Christianity’s violent extremists (see “Terror from the Right: Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City” @ www.plcenter.org and “Terrorist Acts by Christians and Members of Other Faiths” @ www.religioustolerance.org) need to be engaged in the conversation of faith with other Christians.  Now, having seen the Westboro Baptist Church at work up close and personal on more than one occasion, I know just how problematic this proposal is.  But that fact  doesn’t diminish its importance or urgency.  If for no other reason than to show people who think that “they” represent who Christians are and what Christians do that there is an alternative, we need to be clear, consistent and compelling.

Here at Northway two of our named congregational values are “Open Bibles” and “Open Minds.”   Now, I know some Christians who advocate “Open Bibles.”  And I know some other Christians who advocate “Open Minds.”  But here at Northway we want to be Christians who advocate both “Open Bibles” and “Open Minds.”  We intend to be Christians who take Scripture seriously by knowing both what it says and how it applies to our lives and the world.  Christian extremists didn’t get that way by reading their Bibles, but by not reading their Bibles carefully enough.  As Tim Keller puts it –

Think of people (Christians) you consider fanatical. They are over-bearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, harsh.  Why are they so?  It is not because they are too fanatically committed to Christ and his gospel, but rather because they are not fanatical enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding as Christ was. Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement moral framework they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) What strikes us as overly-fanatical is actually a failure be fully-orbed in our commitment to Christ. Extremism and fanaticism, which leads to abuse and oppression, is a constant danger within the body of believers. But the answer is not to toned down and ‘moderate’ faith, but a deeper and truer faith in Christ and his word. (https://www.facebook.com/notes/monergism-books/fanaticism-by-tim-keller-excerpt-from-the-reason-for-god/224327212550)

My presentation last night at the Faiths in Conversation session on “The Religious Roots of Violence and Extremism” was an attempt at modeling this “Open Bible” and “Open Mind” approach to Christianity.  I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not it succeeded at what was intended, and I’ll keep working on what it means to give voice to a deep and true faith in Christ and his word in the interfaith setting.  I think it matters. DBS+

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“The Religious Roots of Violence and Extremism”
A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
March 17, 2015 – 7 pm – The Islamic Association of Collin County

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Peace on earth, good will to men” is what the Christmas angels sang the night that Christ was born according to the Gospel of Luke (2:14), and so in the minds of many, Christianity doesn’t have much of a contribution to make to this evening’s conversation about extremism and violence.

Hanan’s got the book of Joshua that he’s got to deal with as a Jew, and Kahlil’s got the whole concept of “jihad” that he’s got to explain as a Muslim.  But as a Christian what I’ve got are the lilies of the valley, the birds of the air and the sweet by and by.  Oh, Christians can take extreme positions and participate in violent acts to be sure.  But such responses are widely thought of as being exceptions to, even contradictions of genuine Christianity which is a religion, as everyone knows, of love.

The general impression is that there is a kind of violence that is intrinsic to the teachings of the Hebrew and Muslim Scriptures, but not to the teachings of the Christian Scriptures.  And so Christians know all about the brutality of the conquest of Canaan by their spiritual parents, the Jews, and suspect that terrorism is in some way sanctioned, if not actually commanded, by the Koran.  But we have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to our own “dark passages” and bloody history.  This is the only way that I can account for the objections that have come from parts of the Christian community in recent days to the comments that President Obama made at the National Prayer Breakfast about the terrible deeds that have been committed in the name of Christ – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the 30 Years War – by Christians at times in our history.   We suffer a selective amnesia.

For instance, any Christian you ask here tonight can tell you that the birth of Christ is observed by us on December 25 and then sing you a sweet Christmas carol or two by heart in celebration of it.  But rare is the Christian who knows that December 26th, the day right after Christmas, is the day when the church deliberately remembers St. Stephen, the very first Christian to be put to death for his faith in Jesus Christ; or that December 27th is St. John the Evangelist’s Day, the Apostle who wrote the fourth Gospel, three New Testament letters, and quite possibly the Book of Revelation, who spent years of his life exiled on the Isle of Patmos as a punishment for his Christian faith; or that December 28th is the Day of the Holy Innocents when the church remembers King Herod’s brutal slaughter of all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem right after Jesus Christ was born.

Together, St. Stephen, St. John and the Holy Innocents are known as the “Christmas saints,” and their days, the three days right after “merry” Christmas each year on the church calendar, are days quite literally “drenched in blood.”   The days right after Christmas on the church calendar are amongst the most violent of the church year, and the church deliberately planned it that way to inject some realism into the sentimentality that the birth of the baby Jesus so easily stirs up in us.  When all we want to do is “ohhh” and “ahhh,” the church consciously shifts our focus away from that cute little baby to the fight that He came to join.

The Christian theologian Gustaf Aulen (1879-1977) said that Christianity “looks upon existence as a ‘dramatic struggle’ and sees the inner meaning of existence emerging out of this struggle where the divine will stands in conflict with hostile forces” (170).  That’s what those bloody days of violence after Christmas each year on the church calendar are there to remind us of as Christians, and Gustaf Aulen argued, I think persuasively, that any attempt to understand Christianity without giving sufficient attention to the reality of this conflict that is at the very heart of the New Testament “is doomed to failure” (176).

On the handout that I prepared for you this evening I have provided you with the climactic verses in the New Testament about this conflict from the book of Revelation – selections from chapters 12, 13, 17 and 19 on the first and second page.  What these passages describe is what is known in Christian circles as the battle of “Armageddon.”  “Armageddon” is the final battle in the “dramatic struggle” of the divine will that stands in conflict with all of those hostile forces.  But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

In the public ministry of Jesus, this “dramatic struggle” can be seen in Christ’s temptations in the wilderness right after His baptism in the Jordan River by John, and in His repeated confrontations with the demonic through the exorcisms that He performed.  All of those militant sayings at the top of the front page of my handout this evening, each one of them attributed to Jesus Christ, are expressions of His awareness of the nature of the fight that He was in.  This “dramatic struggle” was the context of Jesus Christ’s own life and public ministry, and this is what comes to its climax and finds its conclusion in “Armageddon.”

Now, some Christians take “Armageddon” quite literally, as a future event that will take place in space and time in the valley of Megiddo right below Mount Carmel in Northern Israel, while other Christians are much more inclined to take “Armageddon” symbolically, as the climax of the spiritual struggle between good and evil that has characterized human life right from the very beginning, since the serpent approached Eve in the Garden of Eden with his contradictions of what God has said (Genesis 3:1-7).  But either way, there is in Christianity this idea that there is a war between good and evil, truth and error that is constantly being waged and that will finally come to a climax resulting in the triumph of God that it is part of the conceptual framework of Christianity.  As one of my seminary professors put it when he was asked what the book of Revelation is about, “God wins.”

That “win” is described in the passage from Revelation chapter 20 on the last page of my handout this evening.  These verses are about what we Christians call the “Millennium” – the thousand year reign of Christ on earth after the final defeat of God’s enemies.   Again, different Christians have read these verses differently.  Some anticipate a literal thousand year reign of Christ that will commence when He comes again to vanquish His enemies.  Other Christians understand these verses as a description of the heavenly kingdom to which we go when we die.  And still other Christians understand them as a reference to the church and to the steady advance of her mission by changing hearts and changing the world.   And while I’m not particularly interested here this evening in sorting through these different interpretations to show you which one I think is correct, I am interested in getting in front of you this idea that it is out of Christ’s “dramatic struggle” with the hostile forces that God’s Kingdom finally comes that is part of the conceptual framework of Christianity.

That’s what those verses from I Corinthians 15 on the last page of my handout this evening describe, and this is what we pray for as Christians every time we say the Lord’s Prayer with its opening petition: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.”  This world as we know it is in a state of moral and spiritual rebellion against God and His ways.  The coming of Christ was the decisive moment of God’s invasion to get back what belongs to Him, the divine strategy for our liberation and restoration that goes all the way back to the call of Abraham in Genesis chapter 12.

Oscar Cullman, a 20th century German theologian, famously compared Christ’s coming to the allied invasion of Europe on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 – D-Day.  He called it the decisive battle of the war between good and evil that guaranteed the enemy’s final defeat. But, as you know, WW 2 didn’t end on D-Day.  VE-Day came almost a year later; eleven long months filled with some of the fiercest fighting of the war.  And Biblically, Christ’s “dramatic struggle” with the hostile forces is not finished until He comes again.  The spiritual and moral VE-Day of God’s campaign is the Second Coming of Christ.  And what this means for us as Christians is that we live in-between D-Day and VE-Day; in-between the “already” of Christ’s first coming and the “not yet” of Christ’s Second Coming.  And this is where our conversation this evening gets really interesting for Christians.

Against the backdrop of this conceptual framework of Christianity that I have just described, the questions that just beg to be asked are – “What is the Christian’s role in this ‘dramatic struggle?”  And – “What is the Christian’s responsibility for the ushering in of this kingdom?”  And – “How are we to conduct ourselves as Christians in-between Christ’s first coming and His Second Coming?”  Theologically the question with which Christians have to wrestle is how much does this defeat of the hostile forces and the establishment of the Divine Kingdom depend upon them and their efforts?

Violent Christian Extremists – and let there be no question here this evening that they exist – tend to coalesce around the position that it is their spiritual responsibility to actively engage the hostile forces and establish the Divine Kingdom by their own efforts.  Armageddon is an event that they believe that they will bring about by their own armed conflict with the hostile forces.  The Millennium is a dispensation that they believe that they will usher in by constantly pushing the world towards its catastrophic climax.

David Koresch, Jim Jones, Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik all saw themselves to one degree or another as “holy warriors in this sacred struggle” who believed that their acts of violence would hasten Armageddon and help to usher in the Kingdom.  There are Christians who think and sometimes act like this.  They are advocates of something that known as “power encounters.”  Believing that our God can beat up your God, they are always out looking for a fight, hoping that the next confrontation will be the apocalyptic tipping point that will finally unleash the cosmic forces that lead to Armageddon and the coming Kingdom.  But this is and always has been a minority position within the Christian community.

Most Christians, while no less informed by the conceptual framework of the “dramatic struggle” that I have quickly sketched out for you here this evening, have understood it in spiritual rather than in literal sorts of ways. The last passage on my handout tonight is from 2 Corinthians chapter 10 where Paul said that the “weapons of our warfare” as Christians are not literal swords and shields, spears and chariots, but the instruments of divine power. And what are these “weapons of our warfare”?   Well, go back through the full armor of God that the text from Ephesians chapter 6 on your handout this evening described – “the belt of truth,” “the breastplate of righteousness,” “the shield of faith,” “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit” – and the spiritual nature of the fight that we are in with these spiritual resources becomes abundantly clear.

A familiar hymn to most Christians is “Lead On, O King Eternal.” It begins with a rather militant statement of the “dramatic struggle” that we find ourselves in as Christians.

Lead on, O King eternal, the day of march has come;
Henceforth in fields of conquest Thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation Thy grace has made us strong;
And now, O King eternal, we lift our battle song.

That’s the battle cry, but then listen to where it takes us -

Lead on, O King Eternal, Till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords’ loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.

Instead of “power encounters” advancing the purposes of God, this hymn suggests that the church’s mission is actually better served by “love encounters,” and this is where most Christians I know come down these days. The extremism of Biblical Christianity is not the extremism of violence – with “swords’ loud clashing” and “roll of stirring drums” – but rather the extremism of “love and mercy” by which we believe “the heavenly kingdom comes.”

Sources

Aulen, Gustaf. The Faith of the Christian Church. The Muhlenberg Press. 1960.
Cullman, Oscar. Christ & Time. John Knox Press. 1964 .

The New Testament’s “Texts of Terror”

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. (Matthew 12:29)

And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18)

He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:36)

 Revelation 12

1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.  7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. 12 Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them!   But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!’ 13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. 18 Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore.

Revelation 13

1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound* had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4 They worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’  5 The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also, it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.

 Revelation 17

9 ‘This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain for only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14 they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.’

 Revelation 19

11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in* blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’.  17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in mid-heaven, ‘Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders—flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great.’ 19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. 21 And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.

 Revelation 20

1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.  2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. 4 Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.  5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection.  6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years.

I Corinthians 15

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection’, it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

 Ephesians 6

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole amour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

 2 Corinthians 10

3 We do not wage war according to human standards; 4 for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments 5 and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.

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The “Goodies” and the “Baddies”

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“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good
and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

What happened on that SAE party bus at the University of Oklahoma is just one more painful reminder in a long season of painful reminders that for all of our strides socially and politically as a nation, we still do not live in that nobly-imagined post-racist society.  The journey from Selma to Ferguson, Norman, and North Dallas is further than can be marched in 50 years.

The outrage and frustration are completely understandable.  The shame and guilt are perfectly appropriate.  But these are just beginning points.  When the indignation cools and conscience has been salved, the real work of reconciliation begins, and this crucial work can be short-circuited by thinking that those two young men from North Dallas who were seen in the video leading that racist chants are the problem and not just a symptom.  They have been expelled from the University and protestors have taken up their positions in front of their family homes here in Dallas with their cries of condemnation and their placards of censure. These boys are reaping what they have sown, one of the inevitable moral and spiritual laws of the universe (Galatians 6:7).  Nothing ultimately goes unnoticed.  In the end, we don’t get away with anything.  And so the scarlet letter “R” has been affixed to the University of Oklahoma jerseys of these two SAE frat boys whose blurry images flash across our television screens nightly as they prance and chant and laugh while singing the most outrageous and offensive things. Kick them out!  Shut them down! Cut them off! Banish them from decent society! Drive them forever from our midst! Problem solved!  But is it, really?

Will racism be eradicated once the overt racists in our midst have been publically identified and socially ostracized?  Once “they” have finally been banished and silenced, will the problem of racism thereby be solved?  What about the narcissism of my own heart which I suspect is one of the deep hidden springs of racism – the completely out of proportion idealization of me at the expense of you, the unquestioned elevation of my perspectives and concerns above your perspectives and concerns, getting and then keeping the spotlight on me by constantly edging you to the wings?   This self-love, self-absorption, self-obsession and self-centeredness of narcissism easily becomes chauvinism when the focus shifts from “me” to “mine.” Group-love, group-absorption, group-obsession and group-centeredness breaks out along the lines of race as well as those of gender, culture, status and creed without any effort at all.  All of which is to say that dealing with the most vulgar expressions of racism in our society, necessary as it is for us to do,  is not the same thing as dealing with the capacity for racism for which our hearts seem to have a very real disposition.  Those two University of Oklahoma party boys can become distractions if we’re not careful. When they’ve been dealt with – and it seems to me that they have been, and decisively, thank-you President Boren – then our outrage will be stilled and we’ll be comfortable going back to talking about the Cowboys, or the weather, or the price of gas, thinking that racism has been dealt with, when it still lurks in the hidden recesses of our hearts.

alexThat quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at the top of this blog rocked my world the very first time I read it when I was in college.  I was real busy at that particular time working on just exactly where the lines that separated us good “moral” Christians from everybody else in the world should be drawn.  I was pretty sure that it was somewhere in the middle of the street between the Christian College dormitory in which I was living at the time and the row of University of Oregon fraternity and sorority houses that my dormitory faced.  I was earnestly drawing the line between our Bible studies and their keggers, between our prayer meetings and their toga parties, when this somber Russian dissident sidled up to me and quietly suggested that perhaps instead of looking for it somewhere “out there,” that maybe I should start by looking for that line somewhere in my own heart!

My initial resistance to his suggestion was theological.  I was a senior in Christian College on the ministry track when I first bumped into Solzhenitsyn.   I’d taken enough courses in church history, theology and Scripture by that time to know that what he was suggesting had a name.  The idea that there is something dark at work in our hearts that invariably turns us away from God and His will and towards ourselves and our own selfish interests is called the doctrine of Original Sin, and we Disciples don’t believe in it, or at least that’s what I was told, or thought that it was something that I was told!  And so, just imagine my surprise when I was reading through Alexander Campbell’s (one of the “founders” of the “Disciples”) The Christian System (1839) one day and stumbled across this –

Man unregenerate is ruined in body, soul, and spirit; a frail and mortal creature. From Adam his father he inherits a shattered constitution. He is the child of a fallen progenitor; a scion from a degenerate stock. [“Regeneration”]

Many “Disciples” today may very well not believe in Original Sin, but Alexander Campbell, the founder of the “Disciples,” apparently did.  And then it was reading the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr early in seminary that finally forced me to concede the point. He’s the theologian who suggested that the doctrine of Original Sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”  The truth of the matter was that I knew from my own experience that I was capable of stunningly sacrificial goodness and staggeringly stupid wickedness, often on the very same afternoon! “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  I know how it cuts through the middle of mine, and coming to terms with this fact has proven to be one of the most liberating and constructive conceptual revolutions of my 61 years.

The British theologian Andrew Basden has written extensively about Original Sin and Original Blessing.  Just like me, he was initially put off by the idea as he heard it expounded by what he describes as some very “dour” Christians, but over time he came to actually appreciate what he now calls “The Beauty of Original Sin.”  His short essay on this topic by this title deserves a quick look and some extended thought (www.basden.demon.co.uk), but for our purposes here in this blog, I will only cite his first point.  The doctrine of Original Sin deals with our perpetual “line drawing” propensities.

We tend to divide humanity into two camps: “Goodies” and “Baddies.” “Goodies” are those who are ‘OK’ in our eyes; “Baddies” are those who are not. But, under the doctrine of original sin, all of us are infected… This makes me tolerant of others. If everyone is infected by Original Sin, then when someone does something wrong I’m not greatly fazed. But if I reject the idea of original sin, then I come to expect them – especially the “Goodies” – to be perfect, and get annoyed when I find they’re not.

black and whiteA book that garnered quite a reading audience 30 years ago was Will D. Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly (A Continuum Book of Seabury Press – 1979).  Will was a Baptist minister who took a position as a field officer for the National Council of Churches working in the American south during the Civil Rights Movement. Brother to a Dragonfly is the spiritual autobiography of those days seen through the lens of a family photograph – his strained relationship with his own racist alcoholic brother.  The story that Will told built to a climax – the death of a freedom rider named Jonathan Daniel, an Episcopal seminarian from Massachusetts, who was shot and killed by an Alabama special deputy named Thomas Coleman.  Grieving this loss of a friend and feeling the full force of the moral outrage that the situation well deserved, Will said that he learned “the most enlightening theological lesson” of his life in a confrontation with his brother (pages 217-225).

Earlier, when challenged, Will had told his brother who had demanded a simple definition of Christianity “in ten words or less,” that the blunt message of the Gospel is: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”  In the grief and outage of that moment, Will’s brother pushed back.  “Let’s see if your definition of the Faith can stand the test.”  He had overheard Will in his phone calls to the Department of Justice and the A.C.L.U. describe special deputy Thomas Coleman as a “redneck, backwoods, woolhat, cracker, Kluxer, ignoramus.” “Come on, Brother, let’s talk about your definition,” Will’s brother said, pushing hard. “Was Jonathan Daniel a bastard?”  And Will gave a theological answer, “Everyone is a sinner in one way or another,” but then quickly added, “But he was also one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.” “But was he a bastard?” Will’s brother demanded to know, his tone almost a scream. Knowing that if he said “no” that this conversation would never end, Will conceded and finally said “yes.”

bookAll right,” Will’s brother continued with the relentlessness of a prosecuting attorney with his suspect on the witness stand in open court, “Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”   And this time without hesitation or qualification, Will answered his brother’s question, “Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”  “Okay,” Will’s brother concluded, “Jonathan Daniels was a bastard.  Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”  And then, preaching for a decision, Will’s brother asked him – “So, which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most? Does God love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most?  Or does He love that living bastard Thomas the most?”  And Will said that in that moment “everything became clear, everything, it was a revelation,” and he began laughing and crying simultaneously.

I was laughing at myself, at 20 years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication…  an attempted negation of Jesus.  …Thomas Coleman.  Loved.  And if loved, forgiven.  And if forgiven, reconciled.  Yet sitting then in his own jail cell, the blood of one of his and my brothers on his hands… The lesson was over.  Class dismissed.

Will says that he became a Christian that day.  Being pushed by his brother to see Thomas Coleman, the murderer of his sweet friend Jonathan Daniel, in the light of the Gospel was the turning point for his life and ministry.  Understanding that the scandal of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is that God really does love bastards like Thomas Coleman was almost more than Will could stand, but the truth that he finally had to come to terms with because unless this is precisely the case “then there is no Gospel, there is no Good News.  Because unless that is the truth, we have only bad news, we are back with law alone.”  And for the rest of Will’s life he ministered that Gospel of God’s grace as comfortably and enthusiastically to the Thomas Coleman’s of this world as he had previously ministered it comfortably and enthusiastically to the Jonathan Daniel’s. And it seems to me that this is precisely the challenge of this moment for us as Christians.  We can join our voices to those expressing outrage and frustration, and, or, we can join our voices to those expressing shame and guilt.  But the message that’s distinctively ours as Christians is the Gospel, and that’s going to push us way past both the outrage and frustration, and the shame and guilt to a strangely unfamiliar place for most of us – grace. DBS+

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“No sermon says all that could be said…”

The title of my blog this week comes from a prayer that was written in honor of Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador (1917–1980). “No sermon says all that could be said…” In fact, I have never finished a Sunday morning message without thinking to myself, “Now, on the other hand.” This is the dilemma that being a “Biblical” preacher creates in me.

Blog_March_2015_image1Paul told the Ephesian elders that they were obliged to declare “the whole counsel of God’s Word” (20:27). The Canon of Scripture creates the boundaries within which the game of faith gets played. One verse, one story, one book, one idea, one doctrinal conclusion, one point of view does not exhaust what the Bible has to say on any given subject. Every truth that the Bible teaches is put into play with all of the other truth that the Bible teaches. “Scripture interprets Scripture” is how the Protestant Reformers put it, and what this means is that before drawing our conclusions of faith, we seek to understand the breadth with which the Bible speaks on a subject. Of course we are going to bring reason, tradition and experience into play in our theological reflection (the other “partners” in the “Quadrilateral”), but Scripture is where the conversation of faith begins, and so our very first obligation to Scripture is to read it “synthetically” – bringing together everything that the Bible says on any given topic to see where and how it all connects.

Gene Edward Veith, a Lutheran Theologian, in his book The Spirituality of the Cross (CPH – 1999), described where this commitment to the canon of Scripture finally leads us.

The distinctive characteristic of Lutheran theology is its affirmation of paradox… Luther developed his theologyBlog_March_2015_image2 in Bible Commentaries, following the contours of Scripture wherever they lead and developing its most profound polarities: Law and Gospel; Christ as both true God and true Man; the Christian as simultaneously saint and sinner; justification by faith and baptismal regeneration; Holy Communion as the real presence of Christ in material bread and wine. (115)

Anglicans attempt a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, which works through compromise, broad consensus and a tolerance for differences. The Lutheran way, on the other hand, is one of polarities. Each pole of the paradox must be maintained and heightened. What G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy of the paradoxes of Christianity is particularly descriptive of Lutheran theology: “We want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning.” Christianity does not approach doctrinal issues … in terms of the Aristotelian golden mean. Rather, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”(117)

I try to keep this in mind and heart as Mark and I are working our way through our shared Lenten Sermon Series – “What I really don’t get about prayer is…”  Each week we are trying to tackle one of the big questions that we all have about prayer that can get in the way of our praying if we don’t find spiritually satisfying answers.   The further along we go in this sermon series, the more convinced I am becoming that the fundamental question about prayer that we have is who does it finally effect and affect?

E. Stanley Jones posed the core question memorably – “If I throw out a boat-hook from the boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore?” Most of us in the mainline Protestant tradition have comfortably settled this question with the answer that E. Stanley Jones himself offered: “Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to the will of God.” Prayer affects and effects me, or as Oswald Chambers put it in one of his meditations in his classic devotional book My Utmost for His Highest:

To say that “prayer changes things” is not as close to the truth as saying, “Prayer changes me and then I change things.” God has established things so that prayer, on the basis of redemption, changes the way a person looks at things. Prayer is not a matter of changing things externally, but one of working miracles in a person’s inner nature.                                                                      

Evangelical and Charismatic Christians, while certainly not denying that it is true that prayer changes us, will insist that this affirmation alone does not tell the whole story Biblically.   Prayer also affects and effects God. As Philip Yancey wrote in his book on Prayer (2006) –

Karl Barth, the 20th-century theologian who pounded home the theme of God’s sovereignty, saw no contradiction at all in a God who chooses to let prayers affect him. “He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. That is what the word ‘answer’ means.” Barth continues, “The fact that God yields to man’s petitions, changing his intentions in response to man’s prayer, is not a sign of weakness. He himself, in the glory of his majesty and power, has so willed it.”

In a really helpful essay on prayer, Melvin Tinker (“Why Prayer Changes Things”http://www.thegospelcoalition.org) stated his conclusion first –

One of the most wonderful mysteries in the universe is that prayer changes things. God has so arranged his world that we have the ability to make significant choices, some good and some bad, which affect the course of history. One means God has given us to do this is prayer—asking him to act. Because he is all-wise and all-powerful, knowing “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10), he’s able to weave our requests into his eternally good purposes.

And then he described the two ways that “our thinking can seriously go astray” here. First by “overemphasizing” God’s sovereignty –

“If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and if everything is preordained, then he’s going to do whatever he wills anyway and thus our prayers can’t have any significant effect. Sure, they may help us psychologically, such that talking to God helps us get things off our chest that may help us feel better, but prayers don’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. So why bother?”

And second, by “overemphasizing” human freedom –

“If human beings are free to make up their own minds, then God can’t be absolutely sovereign; he must take risks such that human decisions can thwart his purposes, so there are severe limits to what we can ask for without undermining human freedom. …It’s out of order to pressure God to do more than he can do. So just give up on prayer.”

And then he stated the principle that must govern this and every conversation of faith for a “Biblical” Christian –

It’s always foolish and dangerous to play up one aspect of what the Bible teaches at the expense of something else it equally affirms. The God of the Bible is presented as the one who rules over all; he’s all-knowing, all-wise, and all-powerful. He isn’t surprised by anything we may think or do. On the other hand, Scripture also presents human beings as responsible moral agents who make significant choices, doing what we desire to do (“freedom of inclination”). God has chosen to relate to us personally without compromising the fact that he is God.

And now we’ve come back “full circle” to Gene Edward Veith’s observation about Lutheran theology’s willingness to follow the contours of Scripture wherever they happen to lead, and its comfort with paradox, keeping the Bible’s “furious opposites” both “opposite” and “furious.” When this approach to faith and Scripture is taken seriously, “No sermon says all that could be said…” And it means that a “good” sermon will not necessarily be the one with the conclusions with which you can most easily agree, but rather will be the one that invites you into the deeper conversation. DBS+

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Prayer as Supplication ~ Prayer as Contemplation

A Continuum…

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Or a Cycle?

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The February/March 2015 issue of AARP – The Magazine arrived in the mail this past week.  I always wonder – “How did this happen?” – when it shows up.  But there’s my name and address on the mailing label, and so I know it’s mine!

At first, when I was 50, I refused to read it.  It was a principle thing.  I’d tell myself, “This magazine isn’t for you.”  “It’s not your demographic.” “This is something your ‘older’ sister might be interested in” (after all, she’s a full 16 months older than I am!).  But now, in my early 60’s, it’s gotten so that I actually look forward to getting the AARP magazine in the mail every month or two.  It turns out that it’s a pretty good magazine.  There’s always an article or two in it that I find to be pretty interesting.  This was especially the case with this particular issue.

“The Paradox of Prayer” (pp. 44-47, 78, 82) was written by Bill Newcott.  Leading the essay were 12 photographs of real people at prayer – a Muslim woman, an African American Bishop, a Roman Catholic nun in full habit, a Buddhist monk, a native American shaman, a local Baptist preacher we all know, and a Jewish rabbi to name just seven of them.  They are all quite striking images, good reminders that prayer is not the “property” of Christians alone.  Prayer is an instinct of the human heart.  As Newcott puts it in the article, “As long as humans have endured the cares of the world, they have been praying.”

The heart of this essay is on the “paradox” of praying – how we instinctively turn to God in prayer for help with our lives, and how, “sooner or later,” we are all disappointed by God when He doesn’t do what we’ve asked Him to do for us in our prayers.  The “paradox,” according to Newcott, consists of the fact that such “disappointments” don’t dissuade most of us from continuing to pray.  In fact, Newcott quotes a Stanford University Anthropology professor who researches prayer.  Dr. Tanya Luhrmann explains: “Not getting what you need materially can lead you to understand that God wants you to depend on Him more deeply.”  And I don’t disagree.  I believe that prayer is an expression of our relationship of “absolute dependence” on God as our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, and that not getting what we ask for in prayer is an important reminder that there is only one God, and that we aren’t Him.  But what I find is that with this hard realization, out of this often painful experience, a shift in one’s praying often occurs.

Paul Tillich, one of the 20th century’s most important philosophical theologians, was once asked, “Do you pray?”  And it is reported that he answered, “No… I meditate.”  And that’s the shift that occurs.  We stop talking to God and start thinking about God instead, and we call it prayer.  As George Buttrick pointed out in his book Prayer (Abingdon – 1942) [65-66] – “We can hold no comradeship with an abstract noun.  We cannot talk to “The Life Essence” or “The Power Not Ourselves That Makes for Righteousness,” or even to “The Good, the Beautiful, and the True.”  …It is not in human nature to discuss life with a wall, or to plead earnestly with a fog…” 

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Urban Holmes in his book Spirituality for Ministry (Harper & Row – 1982) described this shift in praying as a necessary and beneficial consequence of spiritual maturation (21).  As we “grow up” spiritually, he argued, our prayers “move from a more to a less focused intentionality.”  In other words, we will stop asking God for things and we will start thinking about God more deeply, seeking to enter the silence of His presence more deliberately (Psalm 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God”).   Urban Holmes called this the “movement toward contemplation and union with God,” and I am an eager pilgrim on this journey.  I practice several forms of contemplative prayer and have taught sessions on the theology behind it on a number of occasions and in a variety of settings.  I am an advocate and not a critic of this spiritual discipline.  In fact, with Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., I would go so far as to name the contemplative practices as one of the “Pillars of the Spiritual Life” (See: Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life – Ignatius Press – 2008).  But I strongly disagree with the idea that prayer as supplication – praying with a more “focused intentionality,” talking things over with God and asking things from God – is an expression of a less mature spirituality that we will gradually outgrow as we advance to prayer as contemplation – praying with a less “focused intentionality,” learning to rest in God’s presence.  I don’t see these two ways of praying as the opposite poles of some kind of continuum of spiritual maturity.

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I am much more inclined to see them as parts of a cycle of praying to which we must return over and over again.  One of my favorite authors is Walter Wangerin, Jr., and one of my favorite Walter Wangerin, Jr., books is Whole Prayer (Zondervan – 1988).  “Whole Prayer,” he argued, “is made up of four acts, four discrete parts, two of which are ours, two of which are God’s.”

The parts may seem separated one from another by time or by the different nature of the acts; yet often all four acts occur in such swift succession that the complete prayer is revealed as a single, unbroken event…

- First, we speak,
– while second, God listens.
– Third, God speaks,
– while, fourth, we listen. 

If we initiate the first act, God will respond with the second.  That is sure and certain.  So, is the third act absolutely certain to follow the first two, because God’s love promises to speak to us by a Word.  But if we have never learned the fourth (and this is where contemplative practice enters the picture), if we are too impatient to perform the fourth act, too demanding and unsubmissive to watch and wait upon the Lord, then we will never even know that the second and third acts have been accomplished.  Without our truly listening, prayer will seem to have failed because communication, remaining incomplete, did in fact fail.  The circle stayed broken, and love was left unknown (29).

Walter Wangerin wrote as he did because what he saw was the neglect of the fourth act in this cycle of praying – “we listen.”  He was making the case for prayer as contemplation. But I see a different neglect, the neglect of the first act in this cycle of praying – “we speak.”  When prayer as supplication is downplayed, or even denigrated as a lesser or lower expression of Christian spirituality, then the circle of “whole prayer” is no less broken, and the communication between humanity and God is no less incomplete.

When Jesus was asked by His disciples to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), He didn’t teach them a technique of sitting meditation, He instead gave them a set of supplications that were appropriate to and expressive of the kind of relationship between God and human beings that He came to restore.  He urged His disciples to “ask” because God gives in response.    He urged us to “seek” because God allows Himself to be found as a result.  And He urged us to “knock” because God opens the door into His presence to those who do (Luke 11:9-10).  And that sounds to me more like a cycle that repeats every time I pray than a continuum that I advance along as I spiritually mature.  DBS+

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The Israel Pilgrimage 2015

 Saturday, November 14 –Tuesday, November 24
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Great promises accompanied my first pilgrimage to Israel 30 years ago.  They told me that it would deepen my faith and change the way that I read the Bible.  They told me that “praying for the peace of Jerusalem” would become a natural spiritual reflex within me after the trip (Psalm 122:6), that I would understand with my heart and not just my head why the Hebrew Scriptures extol the physical and spiritual beauty of Jerusalem (Psalm 48:1-3), and that I would appreciate why even the birds that nest in its portals are blessed (Psalm 84:3-4). I was skeptical.  I thought it was hype.  Oh, I was glad to be going.  I like to travel.  But I was pretty sure that the literature about the trip that I had been given was the work of marketers, you know, Chamber of Commerce hoopla.  And so I had my expectations well in check as I boarded the plane in New York and began the long flight to Tel Aviv.  10 days later as I boarded the long flight home back from Tel Aviv to the States, I realized that if anything, all of those things that they had told me before I left were understatements.

There are very few things that I have done in my 50 years of being a Christian that have had a deeper and more lasting impact on my spiritual life than going to the Holy Land has.  And so I am eager to invite you to go with me again this November in the two weeks before Thanksgiving.  This will be the fourth Pilgrimage to Israel that I have made, the fifth one that I have planned.  One was cancelled at the very last minute when tensions flared in the Region and the State Department discouraged travel.  But all of the others came off without a hitch, and are still the talk of those who went.  And while each trip is unique and has its own feel and “moments,” my complied “Top Ten” moments of Holy Land Pilgrimages would be –

Number 10 –

caveCommunion in the arches of the aqueduct at Caesarea looking out on the Mediterranean Sea from where Paul began his last journey to Rome. This is one of the first things we do on our first day in Israel and it powerfully sets the tone for the rest of the Pilgrimage – a tone of gratitude for the faithfulness of those who passed on the treasure of the Gospel to us, and a recommitment to our own responsibility of passing on the treasure of the Gospel to others;

Number 9 –

vaultSharing the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. This is the very first thing that we do when we get to Jerusalem.  We climb the stairs to break the bread and bless the cup in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and in celebration of Christ’s real presence with us.  For many, this is the highlight of the whole pilgrimage.  As “Disciples” who are a people of the Lord’s Supper, this is a powerful experience.

Number 8 –

aradReading the Sermon on the Mount together in a garden on the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  This is one of the more spectacular sites in all of Israel, and the setting is the perfect place to hear again Jesus Christ’s most important teachings.  The pilgrims on the last pilgrimage each claimed the Beatitude that most spoke to them and for them at that moment – it was a powerful and personal time of sharing;

Number 7 –

Picking up a rock in Caesarea Philippi where Peter told Jesus that he believed that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and Jesus told him that this was the rock on which the church would be built;

Number 6 –

brickPraying in the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus prayed.  For me this is where I most get the feeling of “walking where Jesus walked.”  I just like to sit quietly in this ruin along the wall and meditate on what it would have been like to have been there on a Sabbath with Jesus.  This is the power of the pilgrimage and how it changes the way that you read the Gospels;

Number 5 –

Renewing my baptismal vows on the sandy bank of a bend in the Jordan River;

Number 4 –

archSeeing the skyline of the old city of Jerusalem from the church on the Mount of Olives where it is said that Jesus stopped to weep on His way in on Palm Sunday.  This is my favorite vista in all of Israel, and knowing that it is on the path that Jesus would have taken into Jerusalem in those final days makes it holy ground.  I love to sit in this chapel quietly and think about how God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son;

Number 3 –

Singing Christmas carols with Christians from Nigeria, Poland, Brazil and Japan at the Shepherds’ church in Bethlehem.  They echo off the walls and fill the space with such joyful celebration;

Number 2 –

Walking the Via Dolorosa through the early morning streets of Jerusalem, reading the story of Christ’s passion and singing hymns about the cross.  This is the reason why you go make this pilgrimage;

Number 1 –

bruLike most pilgrims, I much prefer Gordon’s Calvary with its Garden Tomb even though it is highly unlikely that it is the real location of the events of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has the greater historical claim but less emotional resonance.    Nevertheless, on a previous pilgrimage I got shut up in the Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem for an extended period of time while the priests outside changed the oil in the lamps.  This was an absolutely braunprecedented experience.  Usually you are hustled through sites like this because of the crowds.  To be able to stand quietly and uninterruptedly in the place where tradition says that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead ranks among my life’s best very moments.

Now, I don’t know what your top “moments” will be if you make this trip; what I can promise is that you will have some.  A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is one of those things where everything is better than you can imagine, and where each day is better than the one that came before.

israelThe general itinerary that we follow is on our pilgrimage is –

Tel Aviv – Joppa – Caesarea – Haifa –  Mount Carmel – Meggido – Tiberias – Sea of Galilee – Caesarea Philippi – The Mount of Transfiguration – Nazareth – Capernaum – Cana – The Jordan River – Jericho – Qumran – En Geddi – The Dead Sea – Masada – Bethany – Jerusalem and Bethlehem before going back to Tel Aviv and heading for home. The food and hotels are great.  Our Tour Guide and Bus Driver are incredible.  The weather in November is cool.  It is an off season for tourists, and so the sites, while still crowded, and not overcrowded.  And security has never been an issue.  I have felt more uneasy in some American cities than I have ever felt anywhere in Israel on any of my trips.

Call me if you have any questions about where we will go and what we will see and do.  Barbara Saffle at Strong Travel Services (8214 Westchester Drive, Suite 670, Dallas, Texas 75225) is our local partner for Pilgrimage arrangements.  She can tell you all about the costs and the specific details of the trip, and she can be contacted at 214-361-0027 or at http://www.strongtravel.com

I want to invite you to join me on this trip in November.  We limit it to approximately 24 people, give or take a few, and so now is the time to start get on the list to go.  I expect the trip to fill.  I would love to share this experience with you, and I can promise that if you do, that it will be one of big events, not just of your spiritual life, but of your entire life.  DBS+

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jesFor anybody who might be thinking about making this pilgrimage with me, let me highly recommend Ft. James Martin’s wonderful spiritual journal of his trip to the Holy Land – Jesus: A Pilgrimage (HarperOne – 2014). An excellent writer, Fr. Martin is also a very fine spiritual director who knows how to skillfully lead people into deeper experiences with the holy.  This book is the very best introduction to the how’s, and the what’s, and the why’s of an Israel Pilgrimage that is out there.  But be warned, if you are on the fence about making this trip, this book will be the tipping point in the decision.  If you read it you will want to go, and I really hope that you do.

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