Beyond the Bible

“Beyond the Bible”
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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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“From Victory unto Victory”

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Keeping Faith in Seasons of Church Decline
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Growing up we used to sing –

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross;
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.

We sang this hymn all the time in church when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, and it’s still in the hymnal (Chalice Hymnal – #613), but it’s been an awful long time since I can remember singing it.

Like most martial hymns, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” has fallen from grace.  Wars and rumors of war have made it increasingly difficult to use military images to describe “the kingdom of love and light” that Christ, the “Prince of Peace” is ushering in. Even if you can make the case for it being a spiritually appropriate and theologically legitimate expression of Christian faith, hymns like “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” still have to be explained, and that takes a tremendous amount time and effort, and so it’s just easier to skip it and sing something else.  I’m not saying that it’s right; I’m just saying that it is.

Beyond the moral sensibility and sensitivity issues that “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” poses for some these days, there’s the equally perplexing question of its “fittedness” for our lived experience as a church.  C.S. Lewis said that he always felt a certain dissonance when he stood up to recite the historic Creed with its lofty affirmation of the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” while looking around at the motley crew of his fellow worshippers in church on any given Sunday morning.  It’s hard to wax eloquent about the church of Divine intention when the church of human reality is embodied in the truck driver sitting next to you in the pew who is in desperate need of a bath. The gap between theological ideal and that kind of lived reality can be dizzying, and I’m pretty sure that this is how many of us would feel singing “from victory unto victory His army shall He lead” on a Sunday morning in this era of church decline in North America (see “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” – http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ ).

A more pertinent image for the church today might very well be that of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 –

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And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will be clothed in burlap and will prophesy during those 1,260 days. …When they complete their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the bottomless pit will declare war against them, and he will conquer them and kill them.  And their bodies will lie in the main street of Jerusalem, the city that is figuratively called “Sodom” and “Egypt,” the city where their Lord was crucified. And for three and a half days, all peoples, tribes, languages, and nations will stare at their bodies. No one will be allowed to bury them. All the people who belong to this world will gloat over them and give presents to each other to celebrate the death of the two prophets… (11:3; 7-10)

blotNow, I understand that much of the book of Revelation reads like a spiritual Rorschach test.  How people read it says as much about them as it does about the text, and that being the case, I can’t help but read what Revelation 11 says about the two witnesses lying dead in the street against the backdrop of the decline of the church in the west.  Oh, I certainly get some encouragement from the fact that the two witnesses eventually get up again (11:11).  But they’re dead and derided before that happens, and increasingly that’s what the present state of the church feel like to me.

These are real hard days for the church in the west. We are not moving “from victory unto victory.” I certainly cling to Jesus’ promise that the powers of hell will not conquer the church founded on the rock of His person and work as the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:17-18), and I truly believe that His light that shines in the darkness will not be overcome by that darkness (John 1:5).  But I make those two affirmations fully and painfully cognizant of both the very real force of those powers and the very deep gloom of that darkness.   Whoever those two witnesses in Revelation 11 are, they serve as timely reminders that the faithful witness of the church is never going to be easy or popular.  The message of the Gospel will finally prevail and the people of God will be eventually be vindicated, but on our way to that future there will be times when the church will look, to all appearances, dead, and the world will be hosting victory dances over our grave. This isn’t the final word, but it is a timely word.  So, what do we do in days like these? Well, I draw counsel and comfort from the observations of several folks who have been down this road before, or who are on it beside me right now.

jonesFirst, there’s Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the giants of the 20th century pulpit, the pastor of London’s Westminster Chapel for 25 years.  In his book Revival (1987), after noting that “it is obvious to us all that the Church is patently failing” and “that she does not count even as much as she did in the memory of many of us today” (9), the “Good Doctor” made this observation from church history –

 If you look back across the history of the Christian Church, you immediately find that the story of the Church has not been a straight line, a level record of achievement. The history of the church has been a history of ups and downs… When you read the history of the past you find that there have been periods in the history of the Church when she has been full of life, and vigor, and power… And when you read of these tremendous periods of life and vigor and power, what you notice is that these glorious periods of revival and of re-awakening have often followed periods of great drought, great deadness, apathy and lifelessness in the history of the Church. In every case, as you find these great peaks, you will find the troughs. You will see that the Church has many times been as she is today, counting so little in the life of the world and of society; so lacking in life, and vigor, and power, and witness, and all that accompanies it. You will find that has happened many and many a time before. There has been the same desperate, urgent need as confronts us today. And then, after that, has come this mighty uplift, this outpouring of the Spirit of God. (26-27)

This is the first thing that I try to keep in mind and heart in seasons of church decline and difficulty, the church’s march to Zion does not unfold in a straight line.  It zigs and it zags.  It dips and it rises.  It ebbs and it flows.  And often, when to all appearances, the church looks lifeless, lying dead in the street, the Spirit suddenly shows up and gives new life to the valley of dead bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). The history of the church shows us over and over how this happens, and reminds us that this is in fact how the church often makes her most dramatic advances, and it could certainly happen again, and so, we should be praying that it would.

“Revive your church, O Lord,” is a prayer that I was taught when I was a young Christian, and it ends with the phrase – “and begin with me.” And that just might be the best prayer for the revival of the church that I know.  But as we pray for it, and long for it, let’s recommit ourselves to the ordinary course of the church’s life.  Sure, the church makes huge strides in seasons of revival, and so we should prayerfully seek them.  But the church operates most days by the ordinary means of grace, and so we must not neglect them.

GospelIan Stackhouse’s The Gospel-Driven Church (Paternoster Press – 2004) is one of the most important books on the church that I’ve read in the past 10 years.  He is not unacquainted with the power of the Holy Spirit’s renewal.  In fact, he has experienced it personally in his own life, and he desires it for the whole church.  But he is highly critical of the way that so many of the churches he sees these days have abandoned the slow work of the ordinary means of grace that root and ground us in the finished work of Christ – prayer, Biblical preaching, the Lord’s Supper, and the fellowship of the church (Acts 2:42) – in anticipation of a revival brought about by other means, the latest fad and gimmick.  He calls this the illusion of “alchemy” – believing that our rocks can be turned into pure gold – mystically, effortlessly, instantly.  Without losing sight of the persistent possibility of Spirit-prompted and Gospel-serving revivals as a way that God periodically warp speeds His church into a new place, Ian Stackhouse leaves that to God and calls his readers instead to take up the steady and slow work of the church in days like these by means of prayer, proclamation and acts of compassion.

creepyOf course I would welcome a fresh move of the Spirit of God blowing through the corridors of the church I serve, and the denomination of which it is a part, stirring us from lethargy to life.  I want those two witnesses who are knocked down and knocked out to get up on their feet and start moving again (Revelation 11:3; 7-10).  But I know that I don’t control this.  That’s something only God can do.   But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for me to do.   I can pray.  I can preach.  I can break the bread and bless the cup of remembrance, presence and promise.  I can gather with the faithful remnant to witness and serve.  And because I know that the darkness will not overcome the light (John 1:5), that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church that Christ is building (Matthew 16:18), I will not lose heart. DBS+

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“Church Membership is a Lousy Substitute for Christian Discipleship”

The mission statement of the local church I serve says that we believe that our job is all about – “Sharing Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose.”  Now, like all such “statements,” these words were carefully chosen and deliberately crafted by a group of faithful church members who were charged by this congregation to enter into a deliberate planning and visioning process – in our case the “Church Unique” process.  And as far as Mission Statements go, I like this one as much as any and probably better than most. I appreciate its brevity and clarity.  But most importantly, I believe that it puts us in the “right jungle” to borrow Stephen Covey’s helpful idea*.

beheadAnd while all of this true, I’ve got to admit that spiritually I still strongly resist this whole idea that it is somehow up to us to decide what the mission of Christ’s church is going to be.  Theologically I believe that the Lordship of Christ, His headship over His body, the church, settles this question for us.  We don’t confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and then do what we want.  No, we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and then we get serious about doing what it is that He wants.  The only real question for us to consider, it seems to me, is: “What is it  does He want?”  And Biblically, this isn’t that much of a mystery, so long as we are involved in a serious engagement with Scripture.

Say whatever you will about Rick Warren and his “Purpose Driven Church” materials based on the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40), I still think that he got it exactly right.  I believe that the Church as the Body of Christ has five core functions: “Kerygma” – The Proclamation of the Gospel, or “Martyria” – Witness (Evangelism); “Diakonia” – Service (Outreach); “Didache” – The Apostles’ Teaching (Education); “Koinonia” – Sharing in Community (Fellowship); and “Leiturgia” – Worship.  In an earlier iteration of my congregation’s mission we defined our mission mandates to be a matter of (1) Proclaiming Christ Boldly (“Kerygma”/”Martyria”); (2) Teaching the Faith Effectively (“Didache”); (3) Creating Community Internationally (“Koinonia”); (4) Serving Others Enthusiastically (“Diakonia”); and (5) Worshipping God Passionately (“Leiturgia”).

 * Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.  The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies, and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders. The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!” [Leadership and Management by Stephen R. Covey – https://leadershipforlife.wordpress.com]

handThe image that you see here is a sculpture from Germany that visually represents these different functions of the church as the fingers of a single hand.  It was explained like this:

Leiturgia is the glue that binds the three fold emphasis together. In a sense, leiturgia is what flows out of witness (martyria), mercy (diakonia), and life together (koinonia). Leiturgia is the Lord at work through His church in the areas of witness, mercy, and life together. The three-fold emphasis is not really a new thing, but something the church has done ever since the Lord founded her; it simply describes what the church does. [http://abc3miscellany.blogspot.com]

Just like this image of the fingers of a hand, what I believe our church’s mission statement does is to put the five functions of the church (“Kerygma”/”Martyria” -“Didache” -“Koinonia” – “Diakonia” – “Leiturgia”)  in the service of a single purpose, namely to share Jesus Christ with those who are seeking meaning and purpose.

Now, the importance of all this came home to me with some real power recently at an incredible interfaith gathering of which I was privileged to be a part in Colorado.  Hearing some wonderful people share the stories of their personal faith journeys, one of the recurring themes that I heard was how many of these people who are now Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews started out as Christians, or at least, were raised in Christian homes and went to Christian churches.  And while they are all people of real faith now, men and women  who are just as serious about knowing God as I am – exemplary Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Hindus – as a Christian listening to their stories, I still couldn’t help myself from wondering about how Christianity, or is it the church, failed them.  They simply didn’t find what they were looking for, what they needed spiritually, in their experience of Christianity at church.  And as somebody who did find what I was looking for, what I needed spiritually in the experience of Christianity at church, and who now is a “church professional” himself who believes in the universality of Christinaity, I was left to wrestle with how and why the Gospel of Jesus Christ failed to touch their hearts, engage their minds and change their lives as it did mine.

Two quick answers are completely unsatisfying to me.

My Reformed friends would simply say that these people who left Christianity to become Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews were just not “elect.”  In other words, God never had any intention to “save” them anyway.  I find this impossible to reconcile with the Biblical witness.  The God I know in Jesus Christ is a God who loves the whole world (John 3:16), who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4), who “delights not” in the loss of a sinner (Ezekiel 33:11) and who has made full provision in atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of the whole world (I John 2:2).  I can’t resolve this dilemma by simply writing off some people.

Many of my interfaith friends would say that I really shouldn’t worry about which path a person finally winds up on because they’re all heading in the same direction anyway and  that they will all eventually wind up in the same place.  All the trails lead to the top of the mountain, or so they say.  And while I take a very generous view of the way that God is at work in all of the different religions of the world, believing that God has not left Himself without witness anywhere or in anyone (Acts 14:17), I still believe that at the end of the day everyone who is saved will be saved by what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.  As Peter put it is one of the early sermons in the book of Acts – “There is salvation in no one else… there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved” (4:12).  Now, I’m not sure that people have to necessarily know that it is Christ who is saving them, but I do believe that it is nevertheless Christ who is saving them.  I have written about this previously (see “Getting to the Top of the Mountain” – October 15, 2012; and my 5-part “What About Them?” series in the summer of 2012).  And so I can’t resolve this by simply writing off Christ either.

So, where does that leave me?  If I can’t explain this by writing off either people or Christ, what’s left?  And the thing that I see most clearly before me is the church.  If people didn’t find what they were looking for in their experience of Christianity at church, that leaves me wondering about the experience of Christianity that they had been offered at church.

jonesIn his spiritual autobiography, A Song of Ascents (Abingdon – 1968), E. Stanley Jones described his “half conversion” when he was just a kid.  At the end of an evangelistic meeting at his home church in Baltimore he went forward to give his heart to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.  He described it as fumbling for the latchstring on the gate to the Kingdom of God, and what he said that he came away from the whole experience with was church membership instead.  He went forward seeking life and love, forgiveness and reconciliation, and what they gave him instead was a chart of the church’s structure, a list of its committee chairmen, a pledge card and a chance to usher.  He got outwardly in the church without getting inwardly in Christ, and he said that the whole experience delayed his spiritual awakening by years.

chandlerMore recently, Matt Chandler has written about this phenomenon in his book The Explicit Gospel (Crossway – 2012).  When his church began to experience explosive growth and large numbers of people were confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and being baptized, Matt says that he began to hear a recurrent theme in their public testimonies.  Almost to a person they talked about growing up in church, going every Sunday morning and sometimes even on Sunday evenings and Wednesdays too, being part of Sunday School classes and youth groups, going to summer camps and conferences and on mission trips.  But when they got to Matt’s church, they said that it was then and there that they heard the Gospel preached for the very first time in their lives and gladly responded in faith!  Matt says that at first he didn’t believe them.  He chalked it up to hyperbole, overstatement, and enthusiasm.  But as he began talking to these new people individually and probed their stories more deeply, he came to the realization that they were telling the truth.

“How can you grow up going to church every week and not hear the Gospel?”  I quickly decided that these people had heard the Gospel but didn’t have the spiritual ears to truly hear it, to receive it.  Fortunately, the Holy Spirit wasn’t going to let it go that easily. The question began to haunt me.  I decided to have a few conversations and interviews with what we have called the de-churched men and women attending The Village Church.  A few of them confirmed that my hunch was correct. They could go back and read journals and sermon notes from when they were teenagers or college students and see that they had indeed heard the gospel.  However, what alarmed me most was the number of men and women who couldn’t do that.  Their old journals and student Bibles were filled with what Christian Smith in his excellent book Soul Searching called “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” …This mode of thinking is religious, even “Christian” in its content, but it’s more about self-actualization and self-fulfillment, and it posits a God who does not so much intervene and redeem but basically hangs out behind the scenes, cheering on your you-ness and hoping you pick up the clues he’s left to become the best you you can be.  The moralistic, therapeutic deism passing for Christianity in many of the churches these young adults grew up in included talk about Jesus and about being good and avoiding bad – and God factored into all of that, but the Gospel message simply wasn’t there. (12-13)

rockAs Paul explained in I Corinthians,  there is a “scandal,” literally a “stumbling block” to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1:23).  It is possible for sincere, thoughtful spiritual seekers to reject the message of what Christ has done for them and refuse the experience of reconciliation and peace that He offers, and it’s entirely possible that this describes some of my interfaith friends who recently shared their stories with me.   But what I am left wondering about is if what they rejected when they left church was not the Gospel, which E. Stanley Jones and Matt Chandler both suggest that they might not have even ever heard at church, but something else, something less than the message of God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ that I would argue is Biblical Christianity. And more directly relevant to us and our life together as a church, what are we offering to the people who come through our doors on Sunday mornmings who are looking for meaning and purpose, and what are you taking with you when Sunday mornings are over and you head back into the world? Church membership is a lousy substitute for Christian discipleship. In fact, I’ve personally found that knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection (Philippians 3:10) is the only thing that makes any sense of the church at all!  Here’s one of the things that I’ve learned in my 50 years of following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior – when you take Christ, the church comes as part of the package, but that sequence is critical. I don’t want a church without Christ, and I don’t get Christ without the church. And so the best way to serve the church is to be absolutely clear about who Christ is and what Christ has done.  We’ve got to be in the business of “Sharing Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose.”  DBS+

 

 

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“When Kindred Live Together in Unity…”

unityWhat happens when an eclectic and articulate group of Hasidic Jews, Sufi Muslims, Tibetan and Zen Buddhists, Trappist monks, Vedanta Hindus, Roman Catholic clergy and laity, Native American Shamans, spiritual “free agents,” and a Free Church Evangelical Protestant all get together in the mountains of Western Colorado?  Well, Psalm 133 perfectly describes what happened last week when this particular assortment of people came together for an Inter-Spiritual Dialog at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, under the guidance of Fr. Thomas Keating –

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
it is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

My participation in this gathering last week was set in motion by something that one of my high school teachers wrote in a yearbook long ago – “Stand firm in your faith, and keep searching for truth,” he counseled me, “I think you’ll find that the two do not finally conflict.”   And I have quite literally spent the last 45 years of my life consciously living into this advice.

“Standing firm in your faith” sent me to Christian College and then on to Graduate Seminary that eventually led to my ordination and lifelong ministerial vocation in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  “Keep searching for truth” sent me to read theology with the President of a Quaker Seminary in Houston, to receive training in Spiritual Direction at a Charismatically renewed Roman Catholic Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico and to become an oblate member of that community, to take catechetical instruction in Eastern Orthodox Christianity from a priest of that spiritual tradition and to learn how to pray with and eventually to write icons myself, and to be part of an interreligious conversation for more than 10 years now in which each participant is a fully committed member of his own faith community – Jewish, Christian and Muslim.

In the Preface to The Asian Journal (New Directions 1968) Amiya Chakravarty described Thomas Merton’s own interfaith journey as a matter of his “openness to other peoples’ spiritual horizons” that came from his own deep “rootedness of faith, an inner security that led him to explore, experience, and interpret the affinities and differences between religions in the light of his own religion” (vii).  Greeting card wisdom would describe this as “roots and wings,” the depth of being firmly anchored in one’s own spiritual tradition coupled with the breadth of remaining deliberately open to the insights and experiences of those from other spiritual traditions.  And whether I am talking to a Baptist or a Buddhist, a Methodist or a Muslim, this is the stance that I have consciously tried to adopt and maintain.  As one of my trusted guides, the 16th century Anabaptist churchman Balthasar Hübmaier (1480-1528) put it – “I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks.”  Last week in Snowmass at the Inter-Spiritual Dialog I was “taught better” by some new friends, and I am truly grateful for the experience.

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Over four days of deep conversation, honest sharing and deliberate “crossing over,” again and again I was brought “home” to a couple of foundational spiritual truths – first, that we are all hardwired for God, that we are constitutionally spiritual (“Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” – St. Augustine) and second, that God is not a dispassionate spectator of our human search for meaning and purpose, but it’s very “source and goal” as the author of Hebrews put it (12:2).

Living into these two presuppositions this past week with my new friends, when asked to prepare a statement of agreement that arose out of our shared experience, together we arrived at a set of commitments that we called an “Invitation for Contemplatives.”

ABCD

Now, as a product of group think and group write, while this statement is not exactly how I would say these things if it was left to me alone, this “Invitation for Contemplatives” is nevertheless a pretty good statement of some things that I truly believe and deeply value.  And its real power for me are the Inter-Spiritual experiences that we shared together in the mountains last week and the interfaith relationships that we formed as a community out of which this statement arose as an authentic expression.

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Each invitation on this list is bathed in a memory of faces, voices, insights and experiences. I can’t read these words or consider these ideas apart from the people who helped to bring them forth in me, with me, people of diverse spiritual perception and religious conviction, who showed themselves to be just as serious as I am about knowing who God is and who are just as eager as I am to live the truth about God that they know. And so, in closing, I am just going to briefly annotate each of these invitations from my own perspective and experience as a free church Evangelical Protestant Christian.  This is how they play out in my head and heart and find expression in the work of hands and the direction of my feet

  • To recognize we are united in the human condition.

When I hear a reference to the “human condition,” my initial spiritual instinct points me in the direction of our shared weaknesses and wounds as human beings, the limitations that we experience in ourselves and the suspicions that we harbor about each other.  We are all ignorant, guilty of breaking faith with God and God’s ways, and in terrible bondage to self and sin. This is the “human condition.”  But then again, so is the incredible potential of our humanity, our very real capacity for discovery, insight and transformation, our innate susceptibility to moral and spiritual renovation that is the very real consequence of having been created in the image of God.  To “recognize that we are united in the human condition” is to take a stance of openness to both the grandeur and misery of being human, to aspire to spiritual greatness while at the very same time exercising the incredible patience and understanding of grace.  One of the participants at the Retreat last week observed that some religions conceive of humankind as being essentially bad and then follows that suspicion out to its logical conclusion, whereas other religions conceive of humankind as being essentially good and then follows that affirmation out to its logical conclusion.  But my religion conceives of humankind as being a jumble of both good and bad, and that therefore invites growth while exercising grace.  This is the context for the second invitation –

  • To be living examples of love and forgiveness.

The example of love fuels the call to spiritual growth and moral transformation; the conscious exercise of forgiveness deals with the debris that weak and wounded people so easily generate.  Let go of either pole of this equation – the invitation to be an example of love or the invitation to consciously exercise forgiveness – and what you will be left with is a religion of half-truth.

  • To be open to experiencing others’ traditions.

Apart from the way that I believe God makes His way to us in revelation and redemption in Jesus Christ, I believe that because God made us for Himself that we all seek God to a greater or lesser degree, and that in our “groping” for Him that we all actually make some contact with God because God is not that far away from any one of us (Acts 17:27).  And because this is the case, by being present with you and by being open to your spiritual convictions and practices, I can have my own experience of God deepened and challenged.  The truth of my experience of God is not lessened in the least by my acknowledgment of the truth of your experience with God.  With E. Stanley Jones at the round table conversations between the religions of India, I believe that when you tell me about the God you know and how it is that you came to know Him, my own knowledge of God will be expanded and not diminished.

  • Within our own communities, and for the future generations, to have the courage to promote respect of others’ traditions.

“Courage” is the right word to use here.  In this present climate where the extremists in all of the great spiritual traditions of the world are pressuring their own adherents to further isolate, distort and condemn the “other,” it takes real courage to actively promote respect for another’s spiritual tradition. As a Christian, for me to speak with appreciation for the spiritual power, beauty and truth that I see in Islam is to put me at real risk, not from some imagined Muslim extremists somewhere, but rather from the impatient and intolerant extremists in my own Christian tradition instead.  I am not jettisoning Christ as my Lord and Savior when I say that I find in Hinduism and Buddhism some important ideas that help me better understand the saving message of my own faith as a Christian.  And I don’t believe that I am being unfaithful as a Christian to who I am or what I believe when in conversation with a person from another faith family, I discover some points of real correspondence between us and begin to experience a real sense of spiritual kinship as a result.

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  • Within our own communities, and for the future generations, to highlight the elements of our own traditions which open up to the validity of others’ traditions. 

The biggest task of the day, it seems to me, is not making big public statements about mutual respect and understanding between the world’s great religions, although  there is certainly a need for this in the world today.  No, it is my contention that the most important conversation to be had is the one within our very own communities of faith about how the mandate and the resources for respecting and understanding the religious faith and practice of another person are already there.  As I told the leadership team in my application to the Inter-Spiritual Retreat in Snowmass –

It is the Gospel – the “Evangel” – that makes me an “Evangelical” Christian.   And it is the God who is behind that Gospel – a God who made us for Himself; a God who sacrificed Himself in love in order that we might be reconciled with Him; and a God who strives with us to bring us back to Himself – who compels me to participate in interfaith dialogue.  I can’t know Him, and not be doing this.

A few years ago when Rob Bell upset lots and lots of Christians by writing about his optimism about God’s grace in his book Love Wins, Richard Mouw, then the President of Fuller Seminary, immediately sprung to his defense

In a book I wrote several years ago defending the basics of a Calvinist perspective, I told about an elderly rabbi friend who struck me as a very godly person. He would often write to tell me that he was praying for me and my family. When he died, I said, I held out the hope that when he saw Jesus he would acknowledge that it was Him all along, and that Jesus would welcome him into the heavenly realm.

 Some folks zeroed in on that one story to condemn me as a heretic. I find their attitude puzzling. Maybe they think that folks like Rob Bell and me go too far in the direction of leniency, but what about folks who go in the other direction? I just received an angry email from someone who pulled a comment out of something I wrote a few years ago in Christianity Today. A prominent evangelical had criticized those of us who have been in a sustained dialogue with Catholics for giving the impression that a person can be saved without having the right theology about justification by faith. My response to that: of course a person can be saved without having the right theology of justification by faith!  A straightforward question: “Did Mother Theresa go to hell?” My guess is that she was a little confused about justification by faith alone. If you think that means she went to hell, I have only one response: shame on you.

 Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people like that who want to keep too many people out?  Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?

In August 2006, Newsweek did an extensive report on an interview with Billy Graham. Graham made it clear that he is still firmly confident that Jesus is the only way to salvation. When asked, though, about the destiny of “good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people,” Billy had this to say: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”

Billy Graham is no universalist. But he has come to a theology of salvific generosity, a perspective that he combines with a passionate proclamation of the message that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. For me—and I am convinced for Rob Bell—it doesn’t get any better than that!

hariThe resources for “salvific generosity” already exist within the Biblical witness, the church’s tradition and many Christians’ very own experiences, and it is the spiritual responsibility of those of us who have found them, and are already using them to foster a greater openness to the spiritual validity of others’ traditions to explain them to the members of our own “tribes.”  The urgency and passion that I feel at this point in my life to be in deliberate relationship and sustained conversation with people of varied faith experiences and convictions is not the result of a loss of confidence in what the Bible tells me about who God is and what God is doing in Jesus Christ, but rather, it is a direct result of my confidence in what the Bible tells me about who God is and what God is doing in Jesus Christ! I can’t know Him, and not be doing this. DBS+

 

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“Patriotism Has Its Place In Church”

Blue Sky

The annual cycle of our national “high holy” days has begun.  The liturgical gap between Pentecost and Advent gets filled each year with observances that force us to grapple with questions about the legitimacy of patriotism in the sanctuary.

Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving all make their demands on our life of worship.

And since the events of September 11, these nationalistic impulses are even stronger.  So what shall we do with days like these as people of faith?

Should we adamantly ignore them as temptations which can dilute our primary allegiance to the kingdom of God?  Should we uncritically observe them, blurring the distinction between the claim of Christ and the claim of Caesar?  Or should we try to approach them as the celebration of a natural and legitimate allegiance that can actually serve our higher call as Christians?

A few years ago, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were in town for a concert.  This band, with its legacy of social protest, has become rather patriotic of late.  American flags have been featured prominently in their performances, patriotic songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” have been added to their repertoire.

David Crosby explains: “Here’s the deal: We criticize administrations and their policies very, very firmly, but we are staunch believers in this country and the Constitution and democracy.”  I find myself wishing that our position on patriotism in the church could be as nuanced as this observation from an aging rock star.

I have colleagues in ministry who regard any expression of patriotism in the life of the church as proof of idolatry, reference to the flag or national pride in the context of worship being condemned as the kind of thing that led to the state co-opting the church in the days of Nazi Germany.  I have other ministerial colleagues who indiscriminately wrap their faith in red, white, and blue, seemingly incapable of making any distinction between the claims of Christ and the claims of country.

I have very specific connections with and commitments to my family, my church, my country, and my world.  And while I suppose that these particular relationships could serve to isolate me from other responsibilities, I am not persuaded that they must.

In one of his wedding prayers, Malcolm Boyd asked that God bless the couple “with a concern for others that is nourished by their mutual concern.”  This phrase honors the legitimacy of a particular relationship while at the same time linking it to a larger context.  I would like to think that the legitimate passion I feel for my native land can work, too.

Hymn 722 in the Chalice Hymnal, “This Is My Song,” begins with an honest celebration of “my home, the country where my heart is” in the first stanza.  It continues with the reminder that “skies are everywhere as blue as mine” in the second stanza.  And then in the third stanza it concludes with the prayer that “in peace may all earth’s people draw together.”

The progression of this hymn transcends the simplistic divide of my colleagues and delivers us to a kind of nuanced patriotism that is worthy of the church.  DBS+

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Never “Shocked”

GrahamThe grandson of evangelist Billy Graham has resigned from his Florida megachurch pulpit after admitting he had an affair.  “I resigned from my position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church today due to ongoing marital issues,” Tullian Tchividjian said in a statement to The Washington Post Sunday. “As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated.”

Continued Tchividjian, 42: “Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself. Last week I was approached by our church leaders and they asked me about my own affair. I admitted to it and it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to resign. Both my wife and I are heartbroken over our actions and we ask you to pray for us and our family that God would give us the grace we need to weather this heart-wrenching storm.”

http://www.people.com

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On Father’s Day afternoon I preached the worship service at the Fowler Communities.  Keeping with the Father’s Day emphasis, I told them that I had prayerfully scoured the scriptures to identify the Biblical father who I thought might have the most to offer us gathered there that afternoon.  I was intending on preaching one of those familiar – “This is (insert the name of a name of a Biblical character here). Are you a (insert the name of that same Biblical character here)? Be more like (insert the name of the same Biblical character here) kind of sermons.  And where my heart finally settled was on “Father” Abraham.

Now, I chose Abraham because I knew that the room would be full of people in their twilight years.  I have an aversion to “pious platitude” sermons for every occasion. And so I approached my Fowler Father’s Day preaching assignment thinking seriously about the kinds of things that might be on the hearts of those who were closer to their endings than to their beginnings – people who know something about limitations, who had faced disappointments in their lives and who undoubtedly had some regrets.  “Father” Abraham struck me as the perfect Bible character to spend Father’s Day with at Fowler, not because he is such a striking example of what spiritual success looks like, but rather because he’s not, and yet he is still judged by Scripture to be faithful, the veritable “Father of Faith” in fact!

The Scripture I preached from was Hebrews 11:8-10; 13-16 –

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.   For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God… 

…All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

What I appreciate so much about this text is the way that it describes Abraham’s complete failure to actually arrive at the destination of his journey of faith.  In an observation that deeply resonated with me when I first read it a month or two ago, Os Guinness in his book Renaissance (IVP 2014) wrote about Christianity’s “doctrine of its own failure” as the source of its real spiritual power (79). Christians and churches are going to fail, and fail in appalling ways.  “We all often go wrong” Os explained, and so human sinfulness “is always a possibility and never a surprise.”

We expect it, we watch out for it, and whenever we can, we guard against it…  If we all admit that all of us can always go wrong, it still challenging but far less difficult to face the fact that we have done it again… Christian faith calls for an open and voluntary confession of our wrongs, whenever we are wrong.  This too is challenging and it may certainly 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 being does naturally and easily; to go on record against ourselves.” (80)

Morally and spiritually, we will simply never “arrive” in this life.  That’s the lesson I wanted my Fowler congregation to hear from me on Father’s Day.  I’m a father.  I tried to be a good one.  But on the day when culture fawns over us and promulgates its unrealistic standards of what fatherhood looks like, what I personally become most aware of is not how “good” I was at this most important of my life’s assignments, but when, and where and how I failed.  Without a “doctrine of its own failure” already well-established in my head and heart, cloying celebrations like Father’s Day could very well drive me to despair, exposing me as a fraud. In my secret place, I know that I’m not the guy that those Father Day cards I received describe and celebrate.  And that’s okay, because I come to the party already knowing that “none of our endeavors will meet with unalloyed and lasting success,” and that very few of them if any of them at all will be complete in this life.

pushThis doesn’t discourage me, for unlike Sisyphus who was condemned to the absurd rolling of the same stone up the hill only to have it to roll back down on him again and again, “under God and after the resurrection of Jesus” I know that although incomplete, “my work is never in vain… my endeavors will not be futile or forlorn but worthy and solid” (95).  Just like Abraham, my “father,” from a distance I can see and have greeted God’s promise, and that helps me manage the incomplete reality of my present.

gibAnd so on Father’s Day in my message to my Fowler congregation I described a button that was popular on the campus of the Christian College that I attended in Oregon in the early 1970’s. “P B P G I N F W M Y” is what it read. “Please be patient with me God is not finished with me yet” is what it meant.  That button always had the feel of the Gospel on it to me, and in my imagination I have tried to keep it pinned to my soul as a pastor.  In my ministry I have worked hard to avoid what Francis Schaeffer called “the cruelty of utopianism.” The Bible is a realistic book” he explained.  The stories of the men and women in the Bible are not tainted with false veneer of a shiny romanticism.   They are not sugarcoated.  They cannot be read through rose colored glasses.  He explained –

The Bible is ruthless in speaking about the lies of Abraham, the great father of faith. At least twice Abraham said that his wife Sarah was his sister.  Some critics have foolishly maintained that the instances of deception are really repetitions of one story, but they do not understand what God is communicating.  God is stressing that Abraham did not lie only once, but a number of times.

This is the “realism” of the Bible according to Francis Schaeffer.  “Even after redemption, we are not going to be perfect in this life.”  God’s servants are weak.  We are going to sin.  God does not excuse it when we do, but neither is God finished with us when we do.  Biblically, sin is always serious business.  It is never minimized nor negated by Scripture.  But an expectation of perfection is not the standard that it sets for us either.  While sin is “serious and terrible,” God does not abandon us when we sin.  God deals with it.  God convicts, corrects and redeems us.  And God’s people need to cultivate this same kind of spiritual realism about themselves and others, and then consciously and consistently practice both patience and compassion.

Utopianism can cause harm. In the home, in the man-woman relationship, nothing is more cruel than for the wife or husband to build up a false image in his or her mind and then demand that the husband or wife measure up to this false romanticism. Nothing smashes homes more than this.  Such behavior is totally contrary to the Bible’s doctrine of sin…

Utopianism is also harmful in the parent-child relationship.  When a parent demands more from his child than the child is capable of giving, the parent destroys him as well as alienates him. But – and this is a special twentieth-century malady – the child can also expect too much of his parents…  When a parent does not measure up to a child’s concept of perfection, the child smashes him.

Utopianism is also destructive with a pastor and people.  How many pastors have been smashed because their people have expected them to live up to an impossible ideal?  And how many congregations have been injured by pastors who forgot that the people in their churches could not be expected to be perfect?

Francis Schaeffer said that Biblically informed Christians “should never have the reaction designated by the term ‘shocked.’”  He explained, “There is a type of Christian who constantly draws himself or herself up and declares, ‘I am shocked.’”  And then he added, “If you are then you are not reacting to reality as you should, for it is as much against the teaching of Scripture to romanticize people as it is to try to explain sin away.”

And that was the gist of my Father’s Day message at Fowler on Sunday.

“Father” Abraham teaches us that faithfulness is not about arriving but rather it’s about always moving forward.  As Paul told the Philippians – “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (3:12).  Now, what I didn’t know on Sunday as I was preaching this message about Abraham’s faithfulness despite his glaring imperfections and persistent incompleteness, was the story that was just then breaking about the moral failure of Billy Graham’s grandson, the high profile Florida megachurch pastor Tullian Tchividjian.

Tullian’s supporters will no doubt be “shocked” by this news, and his critics will use it to mock his convictions and the convictions of those like him, and to delight in his very public disgrace.  But neither of these two responses, it seems to me, show much real awareness of the meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A healthy Christian “doctrine of its own failure” will save us from the incredibly inadequate and unattractive alternatives of shock and mock when a Christian fails (and we all will), and it can open wide the door of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ that really is the only thing that we have to offer anybody anyway. DBS+

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Responses…

EMS

This morning I am thinking about responses.

Since the violence that killed nine members and ministers of Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church, I have been watching the news, listening to the talk shows and reading the postings of friends and colleagues on the internet about where this kind of racial hatred comes from and how it might best be eradicated.  Because this is such an obvious and egregious moral offense to the vast majority of us, both black and white, the solutions that I have seen proposed have been both blunt and at times, simplistic. They have had a certain “duh” quality to them.  In my mind they have clumped together into three rather broad categories: (1) Legislate, (2) Educate, and (3) Agitate, and I truly believe that there is something to be said for each one of them.

Legislate

Since the racially motivated violence in Charleston last Wednesday night there have been lots of conversations about how events like this one can be adequately addressed by the law.  We can legislate our way out of this mess, or so some say.  And while I’m not sure that the external force of law can ever adequately or effectively touch the inner part of ourselves that is the spring of both our attitudes and actions, I’m not oblivious to the power of restraint that the law possesses.  Romans 13:1-7 looms large in my thinking about the role and function of government.  As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “It is the sad duty of government to establish and maintain order in a fallen world.”  Our structure of justice and our system of governance are both established by law, and in our participatory democracy, we have a direct hand in shaping those laws by who we elect, and so there is a crucial political dimension to this situation that cannot be denied. In a Presidential election season like this one that we are just now entering, alternate visions of how “liberty and justice for all” can be better established and best be served proliferate.  And so if you aren’t listening carefully, thinking critically and planning on voting conscientiously, then you are irresponsibly abdicating your civic responsibility and you are failing in an important part of your response to what happened last week in Charleston.

Educate

The second assumption that many have made since the horror of last Wednesday night in Charleston is that racism is a learned behavior and that it can therefore be unlearned with just the right educational technique and effort.  We can educate ourselves out of this crisis, or some say.  And while I’m not persuaded that this fully accounts for the complexities of human nature and the mysterious bend in the human heart towards selfishness and darkness, I’m nothing if not a fan of education.  Sometimes I facetiously say that I have been educated well beyond my intelligence.  Who would have ever imagined that that little boy at Glenoaks Elementary School who struggled academically would go on to earn a college degree with honors, a Masters of Divinity degree, a Doctor of Ministry degree, and be a published author?  I know the power of education and how a committed teacher or two along the way can change the world by changing the way that a little boy thinks, or, by teaching that little boy how to think.  I believe in education, and passionately so.  I value the challenging of assumptions, the exploration of alternate ideas, the intellectual force of inductive reasoning, and the wonderful gift of reading and the freedom to read widely, and so I believe that education has its part to play in addressing what continues to be America’s, or should I say, humanity’s “besetting sin” – racism.  And while I’m not at all sure that just knowing what’s good and right and true means that we will then automatically do what’s good and right and true, I don’t discount for a moment the foundational importance of first figuring out what’s good and right and true, and for this we need education – a good, rigorous and thoroughly engaging education.

Agitate

The third response that I have seen and heard since the shootings in Charleston last Wednesday night after a Bible Study has been the natural human instinct to give some kind of public expression to what one is privately thinking and feeling inside.  Some agitate by marching and protesting, others agitate by blogging.  Either way, there’s something inside us that compels us to make public our convictions and to give expression to what’s going on deep in our consciences.  We can agitate our way through these days of anguish and in this season of change, or so some believe.  I grew up in the 1960’s.  Twice I saw how public protest dramatically changed public policy.  The Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement both changed the direction of history.  In more recent years, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc of communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the remarkable changes that the Arab Spring brought to nations like Egypt are all concrete illustrations of the power of public protest and civil disobedience.  It seems to me that the name of the Movement that changed Communist Poland in the 1980’s – “Solidarity” – is the effective power inherent in such agitation, and the promise it holds every time people head for the streets in response to something that is happening in the course of human events on the stage of human history.  Don’t underestimate the power of public outrage.  Don’t discount the visual force of people massing to show their displeasure with the way that things are going and their identification with the victims of oppression, injustice and suffering.  And while not given to such public displays myself (I’m much more inclined to sit at a computer to write and post), I certainly understand the appeal of marches and rallies, especially at the beginning of a movement for social change.  They have a catalytic force.  They can push society towards a tipping points.  But I also understand that at some point they can become distractions from the hard work and evasions of the heavy lifting that real change requires.  The line between the sincere expression of conscience and self-serving and self-congratulatory grandstanding is both fine and elusive.  And so we must be vigilant in remembering that marching, and writing, are just the opening act in the long process of social change.  It’s always easier to hoist a placard, shout a slogan or post an opinion than it is to dismantle an oppressive system or navigate the middle path through competing values and differing perspectives.

One More Response

Most striking to me in the aftermath of what transpired in Charleston last week at Emanuel AME Church, has not been the expected calls to legislate, educate and agitate from people outside the event looking in at it, but rather the response of forgiveness and grace that has been made by people from inside the event, by fellow church members and the families of the slain.  They have had an extraordinary presence in the media throughout the days of this unfolding tragedy and they have given voice to an astonishing perspective, the perspective of their faith in a suffering Savior and Risen Lord.

amishThe only comparable public display of this kind of faith that comes to my mind is that which followed the shooting at the Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, back in 2006, that left 10 girls aged 6–13, dead.  Just like the folks associated with the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the folks in the Amish community of Lancaster County responded to their unimaginable loss and inconceivable grief out of the deep resources of the Gospel.  Their profound commitment to Jesus Christ provided them with the comfort and strength that they needed to respond to their painful circumstance with courage and hope. A white Amish community in rural Pennsylvania and an African American community in a major Southern American city, different in so many ways, and yet joined at the heart in the experience of loss and in the power of promise.

Carl F.H. Henry, one of the defining influences on my “thinking believing,” began his book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans 1964) by writing –

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-political-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to bring about rapid social fulfillment.  In the performance of its mission in the world, even the Christian Church was drawn to neglect its supernatural resources and – in an apostate mood – relied instead upon education, legislation and compulsive techniques to achieve social transformation. (9)

The Church certainly does have a vital stake in legislation; involvement in the social arena it neglects both to its own detriment and to the detriment of society… But how this social involvement is properly carried out – whether by the institutional Church acting in a political way, or by individual Christians conscientiously fulfilling their civic dirties – is a very important question. (10)

The problem may be stated this way: in seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to what extent on grace?  How much shall we trust legislation and how much shall we trust regeneration to change the social setting? (15)

The strategy of regeneration… relies primarily on spiritual dynamic for social change.  It aims not merely to reeducate man (although it knows that the Holy Spirit uses truth – particularly the truth of the Gospel – as a means of conviction), but to renew the whole man morally and spiritually through a saving experience of Jesus Christ.  The power on which it relies for social change is not totalitarian compulsion, nor is it the power, per se, of legislated morality, education and unregenerate conscience.  Regeneration rests upon spiritual power.  The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar dynamis for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration.  Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order. (24-25)

And to see what this looks like, one need look no further than Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  DBS+

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