Thanksgiving in a Time of Anger, Anxiety, and Anguish

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In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32).  And if you ask me, this is the perfect description of what the Bible means when it talks about God’s Providence.

Blog_image2The English root of the word “Providence” is the word “provide,” and the word “provide” comes from a combination of the Latin prefix “pro” which means “ahead,” and the Latin verb “videre” which means “to see.”  To “provide” literally means to “look ahead, to prepare, to supply, to act with foresight,” and the word “Providence” is how Christians have traditionally thought and talked about the way that the God of the Bible does this for His people.  The traditional doctrine of Providence tells us that God knows what we need even before we tell Him, and that God has every intention of providing for those needs even before we ask Him.

Now, I believe that this is generally true in the sense that God has structured the universe in ways that are designed to sustain our lives and promote our physical well-being as human beings, and I believe that it’s particularly true in the way that God pays special attention and takes specific care of those who belong to Him by faith.  As Romans 8:28 famously says – We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  John R.W. Stott used to say that this Biblical doctrine of Providence is the “pillow on which the head of faith rests,” and what he meant by this was that no matter what might be happening to us or in our world, as Christians we can trust that God has hold of us and isn’t letting go.

Daniel Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great 20th century British preacher, said that in different places and at different moments in the long history of the church that different Biblical teachings have assumed greater importance and required greater attention.  He said that the doctrine of the person of Christ was this Biblical idea in the first few centuries of the church’s life, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was it during the Reformation, and that the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture was it at the beginning of the modern era.  And Dr. Lloyd-Jones said that in our day “the most important doctrine, in many ways, is the doctrine of providence.”

All the time people I hear people say – “You tell me that God is a God of love and care, but look at the world, look at all the bad the things that are happening.  Where’s God? What’s He doing?  How can you possibly believe in a God of love and care when people get gunned down in church and run over by trucks on bike paths?”  And I’ll admit it, personally and pastorally, my confidence in the providential love and care of God gets shaken every time something bad happens – when I see people being ravaged by disease, brutalized by violence, crushed by their circumstances, victimized  by injustice, and abandoned by help and hope.  But rather than giving into despair in those moments, I find that it’s precisely “when all around my soul gives way,” as an old hymn puts it, that I make the discovery once again that “He alone is my hope and stay.”  

My peace and patience, my strength and hope as a Christian come from knowing that God is neither absent nor indifferent.  In the vagaries of my own life, and our whole history in this world as human beings, I truly believe that God is always at work in hidden and mysterious ways, and that when the dust finally settles, that what will finally become clear are the ways that God has always been present in every circumstance, no matter how difficult and confusing those circumstances might be in the moment. As they say – “It’s difficult to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something. It’s only with hindsight that we can see things for what they are” (S.J. Watson).  And so my belief in God’s providential care and concern does not demand that everything make perfect sense to me right now, or make me completely happy in the present moment, but rather, that one day it all will. “Faith is not saying: ‘I understand,’ but rather that: ‘I believe that I will understand.’ Faith is not declaring: “Oh, I’ve got it, I see what this all means,’ but rather that: ‘I believe there is going to be a meaning” (Louis Evely).

I have kept a little piece of paper tucked between the pages of the Bible that I take with me on pastoral calls with this quote from St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) on it –

Blog_image3Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; And when you cannot stand, God will carry you in His arms. [So] do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow, and in every day to come. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to be able to bear it. So, be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.  

It’s in many of those pastoral situations that my confidence in God’s Providence gets most severely tested.  In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for me to get back to my car after one of those calls sad, or mad, about the suffering that I have been allowed to share for a moment, and with an angry fist, or a broken heart, I have cried out to God demanding to know here He is, and wanting to get some explanation about what He is doing. And that’s when this little slip of paper with St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual wisdom scrawled on it becomes a link in the chain that holds my anchor of hope in God during the storms of human suffering and sorrow that I face as a person and a pastor.  And right now it sort of feels to me like we are sitting in our car as a society after having been given access to human suffering and sadness on a scale previously unimagined.  It feels like “all around our soul is giving way,” and that what we desperately need right now is some assurance that “God is still our hope and stay.”  So this Thanksgiving I would encourage to sit down, write out St. Francis’ words on a slip of paper, and then to put it somewhere it can be found easily when life comes at you hard, leaving you sad or mad, and you need to know where God is and what it is that God is doing.

You see, I believe that the other St. Francis got it exactly right. I believe that God is in fact  with us right here and right now in this moment, and that what God is doing is slowly bending our lives, and the life of the whole world, in the direction of His intended and eternal shalom.  And my Thanksgiving Prayer for you this year is for the faith to be able to catch just a tiny glimpse of this, and then for you to be able to give real thanks for the promises that God has made to us, and is in the process of keeping.   DBS +

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Let’s Talk about Sex

Something momentous is happening in the larger culture right now to which the church of Jesus Christ really needs to be paying attention. I have long been haunted by something that Stanley Mooneyham of World Vision wrote in his 1975 book What do You Say to a Hungry World? (Word).

It is reported that on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution two conferences were held in hotels on the same Moscow street. One was sponsored by the Orthodox Church: the principal item on the agenda was vestments for the clergy. In the other meeting, Lenin and his friends drew up the final plans to overthrow the czarist regime. (31)

“Let the church take care!” Stanley Mooneyham warned. “A church preoccupied with trivialities (or its own institutional well-being) soon becomes blind to the basic needs of the age.”

scumIt seems to me that one of the basic issues of this age is just now coming into view in the avalanche of troubling accounts of the sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse, and crimes that have been perpetrated by highly public people – celebrities like Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, and Louis C.K.; entertainment industry executives like Harvey Weinstein, James Taback, and Ray Price; media leaders like Mark Halpern and Michael Oreskes of NPR; and politicians like Roy Moore, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. These stories are just beginning to surface. There will be more.

Just like the sex abuse scandal in Roman Catholicism a decade ago that snowballed from what were originally said to be a handful of “isolated” incidents into a full-blown and widespread scandal that shook the Church right down to her very foundations and that has had consequences with which she is dealing still, so the curtain is just now rising on the patterns of sexual abuse that permeate our society in all of its different sectors. The surface of this story has just been scratched.

metooThe scope of this scandal will only grow in the coming days. The sheer number of “Me too” notices that have been posted by victims of sexual abuse across the various platforms of social media is stunning anecdotal evidence of the staggering scale of this moral crisis in our society, a crisis to which the church must neither be silent nor stupid in response.

It was the theologian Paul Tillich (1886 –1965) who said that culture poses the questions that the church then needs to be able to answer cogently and compellingly, and I’m quite sure that this was the case in his day, in the twilight of Christendom when culture was the dissenting voice that challenged the church’s spiritual and intellectual hegemony in Western Civilization. Those days are gone.

Culture doesn’t care what the church thinks anymore. These days the roles have been reversed. Today the church is the dissenting voice to an increasingly secular cultural hegemony that has largely removed God from the equation, except maybe as a mascot.  Culture may no longer care what the church thinks, but I believe that when the world that it has constructed without reference to God begins to teeter on its shaky foundations, as it appears to be doing at this very moment, then a church that can speak clearly to that culture about the difference that God makes to personal and social well-being will get a hearing from people who are frightened and frustrated.  And so the church needs to start thinking and talking about sex.

This is going to require more from us than just a recitation of our rules in a scolding manner. If we are to engage the larger culture in an intelligent conversation about the meaning of human sexual identity and behavior from our distinctive perspective as Christians, then we are first going to have to become reacquainted with that distinctive Christian perspective ourselves.  When we aren’t conversant with the church’s historic perspective on human sexuality, then we default into posturing as Christians instead, and there’s a fair amount of this going on right now.

Since the dam on sexual abuse in our society broke flooding the nightly news with one outrageous story of sexual misconduct after another, some Christians I know have begun to exude a certain air of moral and spiritual superiority with a smug “I told you so” look on their faces. They know the rules and so they have concluded that this breaking sex abuse scandal is a pretty simple matter of culture just reaping what it has sown.

Sexual abuse is part of the toxic harvest from the destructive seed that was sown during the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Elevating the pursuit of physical pleasure and the right of personal self-expression to the highest good while at the same time eradicating the traditional moral and spiritual boundaries that helped to channel human behavior and control powerful human urges has created a climate of sexual permissiveness in which all of our fallen instincts have been allowed to thrive. And so some Christians see the solution to this current crisis in our society in a pretty straightforward sort of way – just restore those boundaries, just rebuild those barriers, and everything will be fine.   But it’s too late for that, besides, it never really worked anyway.

Simply knowing the rules has never been enough, not even for those of us who are Christians. The fact is that there is little appreciable difference between the sexual attitudes and behaviors of Christians and the sexual attitudes and behaviors of their counterparts in the larger secular culture. We have premarital sex in virtually identical numbers. We have children out of wedlock in virtually identical numbers. We have extramarital affairs in virtually identical numbers.  We use pornography in virtually identical numbers.  We get divorced in virtually identical numbers. The only real difference between us seems to be guilt.

We who are Christians are familiar with, at least in principle, the traditional rules about sexual expression, and so we tend to feel some real remorse when our sexual behaviors deviate from the standards that come with the territory of faith. This is actually how it’s supposed to work.  As Paul explained in Romans (3:21-31), the Law prepares our hearts for the Gospel.  God’s word of grace is a word best received by people who know and who are troubled by the moral and spiritual poverty that they find in the depths of their spirits.

The Gospel is a word of healing spoken to our injuries. The Gospel is a word of hope spoken to our despair. The Gospel is a word of forgiveness spoken to our sinfulness. The Gospel is a word of transformation spoken to our shattered lives and worlds. When God’s grace in Christ finally breaks through to us, in that moment we discover who we were always meant to be, we see just how far short we have actually fallen from that identity, and we are set on the path of a gradual restoration of that true image in us. And it’s this pattern that creates the basic frame for the distinctive Christian perspective on sex.

sexThe late Dr. Lewis Smedes, professor of ethics at the Seminary where I began my graduate theological education in Southern California, in his book – Sex for Christians (Eerdmans 1976) – addressed the distinctive Christian vision for human sexuality under three broad headings – “its created goodness, its sinful distortions, and its redeemed potential.” Every question of sexual identity and behavior must be pushed through this grid. What was originally intended for us and our sexuality by the God who made us? How has that intention become distorted by the rebellion of our sin and the ensuing brokenness of our world?  And how does the healing work of God in Christ take hold of us and change us sexually?

Dr. Smedes noted the very real complexity that’s involved in this for us –

Christians must forever pick their way between delight in creation’s gifts and sorrow for sin’s distortions. We want to rejoice in everything God has given; we want to change all that has gone wrong. Our problem is that we are often hard put to tell the difference between what God has made and what we or nature has bungled. 

What God wants, how we’ve made an absolute mess of it, and what God is doing now in Christ to fix it is the theological frame through which I believe that we as Christians need to view what’s happening in us, to us and all around us sexually, and out of which we need to speak to culture with clarity and grace. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gun Violence & “Painless Piety”

gunOn Facebook, since the shooting on Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs just outside of San Antonio, I have read appeals for prayer posted by some of my friends, and appeals for action posted by other friends. I know and care for many of these people who are posting – both the pray-ers and the doers, and I know, because I know them, that these are predictable and authentic responses from them. There is nothing new in this.

What is new this time – and isn’t it a deeply troublesome thing to even have to say “this time”? – is that some of those who are calling for action are actually shaming the moral seriousness of those who are calling for prayer, and some of those who are calling for prayer are questioning the spiritual sincerity of those who are calling for action. This is such an unseemly and unnecessary fight.

The New Testament book of James that puts such a high spiritual premium on prayer and its efficacy (1:5-8; 4:3; 5:13-18) is the same New Testament book that explicitly rejects “painless piety.” In his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens introduced a memorable character named Mr. Pecksniff.  He is the epitome of what’s been called “painless piety,” the kind of prayer that asks God to do something that will cost the one who is doing the  praying nothing at all (Carroll Simcox – Prayer: The Divine Dialogue – IVP – 1985 – p. Prayer : The Divine Dialog 35).  For example, Mr. Pecksniff was real good about offering a prayer before he sat down to eat that remembered the needs of all the hungry people in the world, but it was very clear from his actions that Mr. Pecksniff believed that it was God’s responsibility and not his to do something about actually feeding them (Carroll Simcox 36). This is what the book of James rejects –

14 My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? 15 Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. 16 What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? 17 So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead. (James 2)

Two years ago, after the shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded, I wrote a blog I called “Why I Pray.”  It was an attempt to speak to the moment then, and I believe that it still speaks to the moment now, in fact, with the public carping between pray-ers and doers that has erupted online, it may speak an even more direct word to the moment that we presently find ourselves in.  Prayer is neither an evasion of responsibility, nor an excuse for inaction. And our actions are neither a denial of God’s concern or involvement, nor an adequate response all by themselves. DBS +

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“Why I Pray”

By the time that Jesus was born, some Jews had already left Jerusalem, moved to the very edge of the desert to pray and wait for God’s Kingdom to break in on them from the outside.  Other Jews had taken up arms.  “Terrorists” is how we would describe them today, or “freedom fighters,” depending on your perspective I suppose.  Anyway, other Jews carried small curved knives and used them to assassinate their oppressors, Romans and Roman sympathizers like tax collectors, every chance they got.  They were going to usher in God’s Kingdom by their own efforts and in their own strength.  And somewhere on the line between these two poles on the continuum of response everyone else fell.  Religious folk still do today.

In 1968 Robert Raines’ Voight Lectures were published under the title The Secular Congregation (Harper & Row).  What he said has become an important part of the architecture of my heart and mind.  Reflecting on social events of his day like the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Johnson/Goldwater Presidential race, Dr. Raines noted the two Christian responses that he observed, what he called the “Pietist” response and the “Secularist” response.

By “Pietist” he meant “church-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the church, its Word and sacraments and communal life,” and who see the priority as being a matter of “loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength.”   It was Jewish “Pietists” who went to the desert to wait and pray for the Kingdom to come in Jesus’ day.

By “secularist” he meant “world-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the world, its words, events and communal life of the Nation, and nations,” and who regard the priority to be a matter of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  It was Jewish “Secularists” who armed themselves with knives and went hunting for Romans to bring the Kingdom in Jesus’ day.

A Pietist’s first instinct is to pray.  A Secularist’s first instinct is to sign a petition, to organize a protest rally and/or to write a congressperson.   And Dr. Raines’ contention was not that one of these “types” was “good” and that the other one was “bad,” but rather that they really need each other in order for us to be fully Christian.  He believed that the critical challenge of the church in that day – in the 1960’s – was “to keep the Pietist and the Secularist within hearing distance of each other and to reconcile them.”  Our challenge is no different today.

Since the atrocity that unfolded in San Bernardino on Wednesday, I have read the responses of friends, associates and strangers in their blogs and on their Facebook postings, and what’s being said galvanizes around these same two poles.  There are Pietists, and there are Secularists.  Some want to pray and others want to legislate.  Some turn to God for answers, and others to Washington D.C.  Some believe that God alone is going to have to fix this, and others – as the Daily News’ provocative headline on Thursday put it – believe that this is all on us.

Leon Uris wrote about this same divide in his novel Mila 18 (1961), a story about the Jewish resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto during WW 2.   Some of the people there believed that they should pray and wait for God to deliver them while others argued that it was time to do something to resist the evil that was threatening them.  And I remember, when I read this book as a teenager, wondering about which argument I would have made, which side I would have taken?  Even then I sensed the nobility and courage of each position.

I believe in God. I really think that God breaks into human history to reveal and redeem.  And I don’t take lightly God’s promises that the Kingdom will finally and fully come in His time and by His singular action.  When I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my first “take” on this petition is always eschatological, that is, I pray it as an acknowledgement of our own limitations as human beings to either completely or permanently “fix” anything, and as a desperate appeal for God’s climactic saving action to occur – for God’s Kingdom to break in upon us in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  In days like these I pray for God’s help and deliverance because I am a Pietist.

But I also believe that we as human beings who bear the image of God are charged with the responsibility of working and keeping creation (Genesis 2:15).  With Paul I readily affirm that we are God’s “fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:9).  I don’t take lightly what the Bible says about justice, righteousness, peace or compassion, and the part that we have to play in their establishment and preservation as human beings.  And so when I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my second take on this petition in thoroughly ethical, that is, I pray it as a recognition of my responsibility as someone who has access to the mind of God through Jesus Christ preserved for us in the Biblical record to do what I can to try to refashion the world in such a way that it better reflects the coming Kingdom of God’s eternal will here and now.  And so, in days like these I pray for God’s wisdom and resolve to do something because I am a Secularist.

Robert Raines in his Voight Lectures in 1968 argued that the only fully Christian position was the one that was simultaneously “Pietist” and “Secularist,” one that was equally adept on its knees in prayer as it was with its sleeves rolled on the frontlines of action and service.  And this is the ground that I have conscientiously tried to occupy in my life and ministry.  Just like the opposites on the continuum of personality traits on the Myers-Briggs test, I will admit to being more comfortable on one end of this spectrum than I am on the other.  I am a hardwired Pietist.  My first instinct is always to pray and engage Scripture.  But when I do, I find that my “shadow” Secularist is always activated.  When I close my Bible and get up off of my knees, it is always to step into the world where I know that I am called to cooperate with what it is that God is doing in anticipation of where it is that God is ultimately moving all of creation.

With the Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly (1893 -1941) I consistently experience the Christian life as a double movement: first, as God pulling me out of the world and into His heart where He names me as His own and lavishes on me His love (the way of the “Pietist”), and second, as God hurling me out of His heart and back into the world where He is asking me to help Him carry its hurts and hopes with Him in infinitely tender love (the way of the “Secularist”). And maybe it’s because I am more naturally a Pietist than I am a Secularist, someone who has to be more intentional and deliberate about the second movement of the Christian life as Thomas Kelly described it than I have to be about the first, that I find myself so impatient with my fellow Christians who try to reduce Christianity to just one of these two movements, either the Pietist or the Secularist.  If I have to work on it – and I do – then I think that they should have to work on it too.

When Francis Schaeffer, one of my theological muses, wrestled with all of this – with what is God’s part in bringing about the healing of the world that talk of the Kingdom of God signifies, and what is our part as human beings – he coined the memorable phrase “substantial healing” in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale – 1970) to describe his expectations. After exploring the full extent of the Fall in the brokenness of creation theologically (God and humanity separated from one another), psychologically (human beings separated from their own true selves), sociologically (human beings separated from one another) and ecologically (human beings separated from nature), and naming the coming of the Kingdom as the final healing of all of these breaches, Francis Schaeffer probed the question, that in a week like this one that we’ve just come through with all of its terror, violence and loss, gets posed so urgently, namely: What am I supposed to do?  How am I supposed to respond?  Should I be praying for God to sovereignly act, or should I be getting busy doing something, anything to get things moving in a Kingdom direction right now?  Am I supposed to be fixing this on my own, or am I supposed to be waiting and watching for God to fix this for us?  Here’s how Francis Schaeffer answered –

So there are these multiple divisions (theological, psychological, social and ecological), and one day, when Christ comes back (eschatologically), there is going to be a complete healing of all of them…  But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace… substantial healing can be a reality here and now… I took a long time to settle on that word “substantially,” but it is, I think, the right word.  It conveys the idea of a healing that is not yet perfect, but that is real, evident and substantial.   Because of past history and future history, we are called to live this way now by faith. (67-68)

In the face of history, in the light of faith, should we be taking the Pietist’s option, or the Secularist’s?  Yes!  The faithful answer is yes.  DBS+

 

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Building Bridges in Days of Hatred

Last night at the Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano we had our October Faiths in Conversation program on prayer in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish spiritual traditions. There was something powerful about coming together as Christians, Jews, and Muslims to seek mutual understanding and to find common ground on a day when an act of terrorism in New York City that was rooted in misguided religious extremism and that was met, from some quarters, by an equally misguided extremism, was the story of the day.  As I asked in my presentation –

Does the Lord’s Prayer tap the subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? Is the spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive, something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews?  More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family (Muslim and Jewish), and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?

“Relating to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level” — could anything be more important for us as Christians to learn to do, especially with our Muslim cousins, in a day when misunderstanding is the rule and violence is increasingly becoming the way. What follows is my presentation from the program last night. May it serve the cause of understanding and respect. DBS +

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Prayer – Faiths in Conversation
A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas Skinner
Custer Road UMC – Plano – Tuesday, October 31, 2017 – 7:00 pm

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In wide swaths of the church, baptism is viewed as a covenantal sign much like circumcision is in Judaism. Infants are baptized into the community of faith on the promise of family and church to raise them in “the fear and admonition of the Lord.” Later on, at an “age of accountability,” they are then expected to make their own decision about the faith in which they have been raised.  This act of faith’s personal acceptance is called “Confirmation.” It’s when and how the faith of the family and church that was the basis for their baptism as infants gets personally “confirmed” by them when they can think and decide for themselves.

I was confirmed by the Right Rev. Francis Bloy, the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles back in 1966 when I was 12 years old. I had been baptized as an infant, and on that occasion my parents and their church promised to raise me in such a way that I would grow into a faith of my own.   Specifically, what they promised to do was to teach me three things – the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

In the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church there is a Catechism which is the official curriculum that is to be taught to every person before they can be confirmed, and the backbone of this standard teaching tool, not surprisingly, are these same three things. The Apostles’ Creed spells out the core convictions of the Christian faith.  The Ten Commandments establish the basic code of conduct for the Christian life.  And the Lord’s Prayer serves as the basic guide to a Christian’s communion with God.

Now, I tell you all of this in order to say that whenever the Christian Church has talked about prayer, it has always talked first and foremost about the Lord’s Prayer, and that’s because for Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is the Model Prayer. It’s the prayer that Jesus gave His disciples when they asked Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), and it has been a prayer that has been prayed by His disciples ever since.  In fact, no prayer has been prayed by more Christians over a longer period of time than has the Lord’s Prayer.

In many of the denominational families of Christianity the Lord’s Prayer is prayed publicly every week in worship. For instance, at the church I serve we pray the Lord’s Prayer together out loud every Sunday morning.  I think it’s safe to say that the Lord’s Prayer is the most widely shared liturgical text in all of Christianity.  But it’s not just limited to our public acts of shared worship.  Many Christians also pray the Lord’s Prayer individually when we are all by ourselves.  For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a primary text for our life of public worship as well as for our life of private devotion.

The “Didache” is a second century document that describes the some of the practices of the early church right after the close of the New Testament era, and it instructed Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times each day.  This was the first Christian Rule of Prayer:  pray the Lord’s Prayer first thing in the morning, then pray it again at midday, and then finally, pray it one more time at night right before going to bed.  Now, understand, there was more to this practice than just mechanically rattling-off the 70-or-so words of the Lord’s Prayer.

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition they say that we learn how to pray first with our lips – by saying the words; and then we learn how to pray with our heads – by understanding the meaning of the words that we are saying; and then finally we learn how to pray with our hearts – by experiencing the reality of the God who is behind the concepts and beneath the words. And it is this movement from mouth to head, and then from head to heart, that informs the use of the Lord’s Prayer by Christians.

There is more to the Lord’s Prayer than its words, beautiful and meaningful as they are. In this prayer that takes less than a minute for us to recite what we who are Christians are given is a summary of the spiritual life from the perspective of Christianity. In the affirmations and petitions of this prayer taught to us by Jesus Christ Himself, the building blocks of our relationship with God as Christians get spelled out for us simply and specifically.  This is why the church has, right from the beginning of her life, insisted that knowing and praying the Lord’s Prayer is an indispensable part of what it means to be a Christian.

On the handout that I prepared for you this evening you will find the text of the Lord’s Prayer as we pray it each week at my church.

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Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

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The Lord’s Prayer consists of a combination of affirmations about the God to whom we pray as Christians, and petitions addressed to this God that inform our expectations of what it is that He wants for us as human beings. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us absolute confidence” in God, and “total dependence” on God as human beings.

I find that who you think God is will largely determine how you pray. If you think that God is distant and disinterested, then you pray to get that God’s attention. And if you think that God is fastidious and stern, then you pray to try to win that God’s favor. But if you think that God is personal and affectionate, then you pray as a conversation with a friend, and this is exactly the kind of God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer.  Christians pray to God as “Father.” Now, the picture that immediately comes to my mind and heart when I think about what this looks like is the one that Genesis chapter 3 paints for us of God coming to the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening to go for a walk with Adam and Eve (3:8). This is a picture of intimacy and affection, and this is a picture of the kind of relationship that I as a Christian believe God wants to have with all of us.

When Genesis chapter 1 tells us that we are created in the image of God as human beings (1:27), I think that part of what we’re being told is that we are made with a capacity and a need for a relationship with God. We are intrinsically and incurably religious as human beings. I just love the way that St. Augustine put it, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” he prayed, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Just like a reflection in a mirror, we are created to correspond to God, we are built to respond to Him.  We are created to talk with God face to face and as friend with friend (Exodus 33:11).  And the God who is addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is just this kind of God, a God of intimate and affection relationship, a parental God.  This is a God in whom I can have “absolute confidence.”  And because I do, this is a God on whom I can “totally depend.”

When I was a kid growing up, once everyone was seated at the family dinner table every evening, my father would fold his hands, bow his head and say – “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,” and then my mother, my sisters and I would immediately answer saying – “and you give them their food in due season.” “You open wide your hand,” my father would continue, and again we would all respond, “and you satisfy the needs of every living creature.”  These words come from Psalm 145, and they were an important part of the nightly dinner table ritual for my family when I was growing up, and I’m glad they were because they taught me something important about God that I have never forgotten – He is the source of every good and perfect gift that I have in my life and that I see in the world.  And the Lord’s Prayer is built on this same conviction.

When I pray the Lord’s Prayer asking for God’s provision, pardon, and protection, the confidence I have that I am actually being heard, and that my requests are going to be taken seriously, rests singularly on what it is that I know to be true of the God to whom I am praying. The God to whom Jesus Christ taught His disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer is a God who knows us by name and need.  The “Heavenly Father” God addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is a God that we as Christians believe has both the intention and the ability to do good for us and for all of creation.  And it’s on the basis of these affirmations that we then make our needs known to Him.

In the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer there is a mix of human needs mentioned, some of them are material, some of them are spiritual, but all of them of real concern to the God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer. I had a professor in seminary who liked to say that if we can’t trust God with the temporal needs of our bodies then why should we bother trusting Him with the eternal needs of our souls? And that question nicely reflects the scope of God’s concern for us as human beings in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

Our spiritual needs get gathered up and voiced in the petition for God’s kingdom to come, for things to be on earth as God has always intended them to be from eternity. This is a prayer for shalom, for human beings and all of creation to thrive in a harmonious web of mutual interdependence. And the petitions for forgiveness, guidance, and deliverance from evil are all cries to God to help us move in this direction. And our material needs all fall under the umbrella of the petition for daily bread.  Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is about everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body – food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money… good weather… health… a loving family… good friends… [and] faithful neighbors.

“Total dependence” on a God in whom we have “absolute confidence” is what the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian. And in teaching me this, I believe that it is teaching me the essence of how Christianity understands the spiritual life.  The intriguing question for me as a Christian is how expressive of the essence of the Abrahamic spiritual tradition is this “total dependence” and “absolute confidence” that the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian?

When you look around and listen, the two biggest conversations that are being had on prayer when Christians, Muslims, and Jews talk are: (1) Are we praying to the same God? and (2) Can and should Jews and Muslims pray the Lord’s Prayer when it is being offered as the “universal” prayer in public non-sectarian settings like Alcoholics Anonymous?  My question is different.  It’s not about the God we are praying to, a God I believe we in fact share as Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  And it’s not about whether or not you as Jews and Muslims can or should pray the actual words of the Lord’s Prayer.  No, my question is different.  It has to do with the spiritual dynamics that are at work in the Lord’s Prayer. You see, from my years of being involved in interfaith conversations like this one here this evening, I have learned that when we talk about doctrine, what we believe, that’s when our greatest differences become evident, but when we talk about spirituality, how we believe, that’s when our greatest similarities show.

For example, when we talk about Jesus Christ and who we think He is, that’s when I find that we’re furthest apart as Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and I don’t see any way of closing that gap without one of us changing what we believe.   But when my Jewish friends talk about their long experience of “chesed” – God’s steadfast covenantal love for them, and when my Muslim friends open up their Korans and read – “I begin with the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. All praise is to God, Lord of all the worlds, Most Gracious, Most Merciful…” – my heart can easily say, “that’s the God I know too in Jesus Christ.”

We have a hymn we like to sing at my church about how in shared devotion “true hearts everywhere their high communion find.” This hymn is about how Christians of different races and backgrounds find our unity in the relationship that we all share with Christ. And my question is, does the Lord’s Prayer with its spirituality of “absolute confidence” in and “total dependence” upon God create a similar kind of “shared devotion” in which we as the three branches of the Abrahamic family tree of faiths can find “a high communion” from “true hearts”?

Does the Lord’s Prayer tap a subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? You see, whether or not you can pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer with me, what I’m really interested in knowing is if this spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive is something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews?  More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family, and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?

 

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This week is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

500 Reformation

hatThis week is the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, that that the Roman Catholic priest and monk Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. While there had been previous attempts to reform the church, and there would be more to follow, including that of our own Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone on the American frontier in the early 1800’s (“The Reformation of the 19th Century” – J. H. Garrison) this dramatic and providential act of Martin Luther is as good as any event to officially mark the beginning of the spiritual movement of Protestantism that changed the face of the church and the world.

spiralThe Protestant Reformation was nothing less than a Copernican revolution in theology. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 –1543) fomented his revolution in the scientific world by removing the Earth from the center of the universe around which all of the other planets, including the Sun, revolved, replacing it with the Sun at its center around which all of the other planets, including the Earth, revolved. Before the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church with its dogmas and traditions was at the center of the spiritual solar system, and every other church and spiritual movement was put into rotation around it, their places determined by how close or how far their teachings were from the official teachings of Roman Catholicism. In contrast, Protestantism put the Bible at the center of the Christian solar system, and then aligned the planets of the churches and movements around its teachings, their place determined by how close or how far from the truth of Scripture their teachings were, and this gets to the spiritual nub of the revolution that was the Protestant Reformation.

MartinIn 1521, Martin Luther was called before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms to fully explain his views. “Diet” refers to an official meeting and “Worms” is a city south of Frankfurt.   At the end of this defense of his ideas, tradition says that Martin Luther stood before his opponents and boldly declared –

Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me.

“Convicted by Scripture” — “my conscience a captive to the Word of God” — “here I stand, I cannot do otherwise” — this is the Reformation in a nutshell. Dr. Scott H. Hendrix, the Emeritus Professor of Reformation History and Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, explains the significance of these famous words –

Luther asserted that his conscience was captive to the Word of God and that he could not go against conscience. This was not, however, a modern plea for the supremacy of the individual conscience or for religious freedom. Though already excommunicated by Rome, Luther saw himself as a sworn teacher of Scripture who must advocate the right of all Christians to hear and live by the gospel.

semperOne of the most important insights of the Reformation, as far as I am concerned, is that reformation is not something that is once done and forever thereafter settled, but rather, that reformation is an ongoing process for every Christian and every church in every generation. ”Ecclesia semper reformanda est” – “Reformed and always reforming” – or, in its more complete form – “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God” – is a familiar way for Protestants to think and talk about what the Reformation means. The “Word of God” (Incarnate in Christ, inscripturated in the Bible, and illumined in our hearts by the Holy Spirit) always confronts and corrects our thinking, feeling, and acting.  An important part of its function is to challenge us, our thinking and living.  As James Smart explained –

The Word of God has in it always elements that are congenial and elements that are uncongenial since it is at one and the same time God’s words of both judgment and grace, no grace without judgment and no judgment without grace. To eliminate the uncongenial may be to escape the judgment that makes ready to receive the grace. 

Reformation is the faithful consequence of the Word carefully taking our measure, us coming up short both individually as Christians and corporately as the church, and us rolling up our sleeves and getting to work to bring things into better conformity with the Mind of Christ as it has been revealed to us in the Word. This is why Pastor Jack Hayford says that we need to continuously “drive a nail” into the pulpit, the Lord’s Table, the pipe organ, the choir loft, and the pews of our churches today – into “any place both visible and sufficiently shocking to provide a counterpart to the ancient door at Wittenberg.”

Half a millennium ago the Church was shaken to its roots – dragged by the nape of the neck to confront the reality of God’s Word, and forced to face the fact that its forms had chained people rather than freed them. The dual truths of “justification by faith” and “the priesthood of the believer” were trumpeted forth and the true “church” – the people of God – was released through a recovery of the revelation of God’s Word.  We’re overdue for another one.

leTempleMore than one Reformation historian has pointed to Jean Perrissin’s painting – “Le Temple de Paradis, Lyon” (1564) – to help visualize the spiritual Copernican revolution that the Reformation was in the life of the church and Christians.  It shows a Protestant Church in France.  At the center of this little spiritual universe is the pulpit.  The preaching and teaching of the Word is the center around which everything else that is going on in this church turns – the children waiting to be instructed in the faith, the couple waiting to get married, the businessmen dressed for work, the baptism of a newborn baby, even the dog that has made its way to worship and sits attentively under the pulpit!

The point in these details is that all these people and all these activities centered on and revolved around the proclamation of God’s Word.   They believed the Bible was God’s message for them and to tem, sufficient not only to save but also to guide one in a life godliness.  As the Word from God, therefore, it had to be proclaimed, heard, and obeyed.  Indeed, it had to have the final say. (Matthew Barrett)

Back in 2012, Darryl Dash (https://dashhouse.com) called for a new a “Copernican Revolution of the Word that puts us in our place in orbit around God and His Word in our lives, our churches, and our preaching.” Instead of positioning ourselves at the center of the universe and demanding that “the Bible spin in orbit around our lives,” Darryl argued that “it’s far better to put God and His Word at the center, and to demand that our lives spin in orbit around Him.” And I couldn’t agree more.  The Reformation is not just an event that we remember and celebrate. Reformation is a commitment we make and a continuing process to which we give ourselves.  It is said that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther told the Renaissance scholar Erasmus – “The difference between you and me is that you sit above the Scripture and judge it, while I sit under Scripture and let it judge me.” And if you ask me, that the essence of what it means to be a Protestant.  It is to consciously “sit under Scripture.”  Drive a nail in it. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“What will please the Almighty when we no longer work?”

A Reflection on the Retirement of a Minister

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Last week, on my birthday, I submitted a letter to the official board of Northway Christian Church informing them of my intention to conclude my ministry as their Senior Minister in the weeks following Easter in 2018. For 20 years it has been my privilege to be the pastor and teacher of Northway Christian Church.  Half of my vocational life has been spent with this one congregation.   I have been grateful for every single day of it.  And now it is time to turn the page, and begin the next chapter, for me and for them.

Mary Lynn and I plan on remaining in Dallas. Mary Lynn is still the Director of Learning Media Services for the Plano Independent School District, and she will continue that meaningful work. And I do not plan to sit idly by for the next few years until she is ready to retire. I have books to write. I hope to get some opportunities to preach and teach in a variety of settings.  And I will certainly remain open to new ways of serving Christ and His church.  This is not the end of my ministry, just a change in it.

A few years ago I preached the sermon at the retirement service of my dear friend and pastoral colleague, the Rev. Dr. Zena McAdams. I recently pulled that sermon out of the file so that I could begin preaching it to myself.  This week I offer it to you. DBS +

celticcross

“Reaching Forward to what’s Ahead”
Philippians 3:7-14 ~ Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
A Sermon in Honor of the Rev. Dr. Zena McAdam’s Retirement
Sunday, April 22, 2012 – Northwest Christian Church – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

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What is it that we’ve come here this morning to do? What do you call this carefully orchestrated event to which family members and friends have travelled long distances to be with someone they love who has made a decision that is going to affect the rest of her life?  What do you call it when all of those people prepare carefully worded statements and find themselves on the verge of tears just thinking about telling her what’s on their hearts – how they feel about who she is and what she’s doing to herself?  Good grief Zena — I think we’re having an intervention!

Now, before dismissing this idea completely out of hand, perhaps we should take a moment to think about it. Does retirement hold peril?  Zena, is this really a wise decision that you’re making? Well, the late Ralph Winter of the U.S. Center for World Mission didn’t think so.  When two of his missionary friends told him that they were coming home after years of faithful service abroad because they had found a nice place to retire right across the street from each other, he wrote an editorial he called “The Retirement Booby Trap.” He mentioned the health risk that retirement statistically poses, but his real concern was for the spiritual consequences of retirement.

“Retire”? Where in the Bible do you find that? Did Moses retire? Did Paul retire? Peter? John? Do military officers retire in the middle of a war? Have we now so far imbibed the [wisdom of the world] that says ‘your life is yours to use as you please”? And, “after the age of “X” you can forget about the problems of the world and the pressing challenges of the ends of the earth? What kind of… theology is it that “frees” us from obedience to God at some arbitrary age?

More recently, as he has gotten older, John Piper of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has begun to think and write some about what he sees as the spiritual issues that are involved in retirement for a Christian. For him the crucial question is not “can I retire,” but rather “should I retire?”

In his booklet Rethinking Retirement he notes that many Americans believe “we must reward ourselves now in this life for the long years of our labor.” Retirement—playing, traveling, sleeping late—is “the world’s substitute for heaven since the world does not believe there will be heaven beyond the grave.”

And so retirement beckons to many just as pretty fruit enticed Eve. Many people bite it and then find many of their days to be empty. Christians should understand that, as John Piper writes, “most of the suggestions this world offers us for our retirement years are bad ideas. They call us to live in a way that would make this world look like our treasure.” …And so he urges us to resolutely resist the typical American dream of retirement . . . to reject the cravings that create so much emptiness and uselessness in retirement. (Olaskey)

Consider life at “The Villages.” “The Villages” is a retirement community of some 100,000 residents that sprawls over three counties just outside of Orlando, Florida, about which the award winning author Andrew Blechman wrote his book Leisureville. He described life in “The Villages” as a “geriatric spring break” where people come to “live out their unfulfilled dreams from earlier in life.” It promises sunshine, air conditioning, low taxes, dancing, shopping, lives free from irritation, and golf — lots and lots of golf.  There are 486 holes of golf at “The Villages,” 9,000 tee times a day, and enough courses to play a different one every day for an entire month.

The friend whose move to “The Villages” first got Andrew Blechman interested in writing about it told him that it had been “love at first sight” for him.  He told Andrew that it was just like living in the movie “The Stepford Wives.” “Everyone has a smile on their face like it’s too good to be true; but it really is.”  And another resident Andrew met during his research especially wanted him to know about the accommodations that are available for the terminally ill at “The Villages.” “The rooms overlook a golf course!” she told him.  “’The Villages’ have even made dying a little more pleasant,” she explained.

This would be the “substitute for heaven” view of retirement that John Piper described as a “bad” idea, one that we as Christians must “resolutely resist.” Because we say that Jesus Christ is Lord, our lives are not our own to do with as we please.  We live our lives instead with reference to Him, in response to who Jesus Christ is and to what Jesus Christ wants.  And that has consequences for retirement.

Years ago when the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. asked the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr about how much money their members should be expected to give to the cause of the Kingdom, he told them that the answer would be found by comparing their lifestyles to those of their unbelieving neighbors. If you are a Christian, Reinhold Niebuhr told them, and you are living at the same level of affluence as people who do not share your commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then you are probably not giving enough away.  And this same principle, when applied to the question of retirement, would warn us that if we are Christians and our retirement plans look just like the retirement plans of our peers who do not share our faith and values, then something’s wrong.

Philippians is a letter that Paul wrote from jail, probably from Rome. Philippians is a thank-you note.  The Philippian church was a source of great encouragement to Paul.  They contributed to his support, financially and spiritually, and this letter was an expression of that special relationship that they shared.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was facing his own end of days. He was in prison on a capital offense; death was a very real possibility.   Now, I happen to think that Paul survived this particular ordeal; that he was found innocent of the charges that had been levied against him, and that he had another 4 or 5 years of active ministry before he wound up again in that same Roman jail cell that ended this time with his execution.  But either way, when Paul wrote to the Philippians he was closer to the end of his life’s work than he was to its beginning.  And that’s what I find so striking about what he had to say.  Standing on the brink of what he knew could very well be the closing act of his life; Paul gave no thought to backing off, to slowing down, or to taking it easy.  From that dark, dank Roman prison cell Paul told the Philippians what he was about, what he had always been about:-

10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3)

Os Guinness says that a Christian’s “calling” is as vital to our ending as it is to our beginning (241).  He defines one’s “calling” as “the truth that God calls us to Himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to His summons and service” (29).  In Philippians 3 Paul told the Philippians about his call.  Before anything that Paul did, and beneath every action that Paul ever undertook, there was this call to “know Christ and the power of His resurrection” (3:10).  And so, even sitting in prison, sidelined from his active ministry, and facing the end of his life, Paul was still thinking and talking about his call.  Your calling not only “precedes” your career, it “outlasts” it too. As Os Guinness puts it – “Vocations never end, even when occupations do. We may retire from our jobs but never from our calling.  We may at times by unemployed, but no one ever becomes uncalled” (244).

Zena, today is about your decision to make some changes in your life. You’ve determined that now is the right time for you to put some things up, to put some things away, to do some things differently than you have before, and all that’s just fine so long as it’s very clear that your calling isn’t one of them.

richesA children’s book I dearly love is Esther Hautzig’s story Riches.  It’s about an aging Jewish shopkeeper in an Eastern European village who decides that it’s finally time for him to retire. “But what useful deeds will we perform when we no longer work?” his wife asked him. “What will please the Almighty when we no longer work?” she wondered.  And so consulting with a very wise rabbi, he was told to take his horse and cart out every day onto the deserted roads around his village for three months.  Mystified by the advice, he nevertheless complied with the rabbi’s instructions, and soon he found himself praising God for the beauty of the landscape through which he passed every day, and helping his neighbors through little acts of kindness and service.

Finally returning to the rabbi at the end of the three months, the old man was asked about what he had seen from his cart. And the old man “recounted his trips on deserted roads… he described the beauty of nature, the changing seasons, cloud formations, falling snow and fields glistening in the sun.” “I never did have time to see God’s world in all its beauty before… but is this enough to please the Almighty?” he asked the wise rabbi, who answered, “Seeing, really seeing… that pleases the Almighty.”

And then the rabbi asked the old man about what he had done with his cart, and the old man talked about all of the different people he had met and helped along the way. And when the old man asked the rabbi if he should have done more for the people he’d met, giving them money instead of just rides, the rabbi answered, “To give of yourself and not (just) your money is God’s special way of bestowing riches on the giver and the receiver.” And with that the rabbi sent the old man on his way to fill the rest of his days with the riches of seeing, really seeing, and of giving, not just of his possessions, but of himself.

Zena, the only way that this retirement decision of yours is the right thing for you to do, and for this not to be an intervention but a celebration, is for you not to forget who you are, and why you are here. Your schedule can change.  Your setting can change.  Your position can change. But your calling can’t.  Your whole life has been about knowing God in Jesus Christ, and making God in Jesus Christ known.  You whole life has been about seeing and giving, and tomorrow morning when you wake up, that’s still going to be your call.

Sources

Guiness, Os. The Call. Word. 1998.
Olaskey, Marvin. “Where is our Treasure?” 9/10/11. www.worldmag.com
Winter, Ralph. “The Retirement Booby Trap.” 7/1/85. www.missionfrontiers.org

 

 

 

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Hugh Hefner, Harvey Weinstein, Me and You

There is disgust and outrage at the recent public revelations of Hollywood Mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexually predatory patterns of behavior, and rightly so. The things he has been accused of doing to women are immoral and illegal, and now he is now reaping what he has sown. This is right and just.  As Paul told the Galatians (6:7), we are fools to ignore the fact that there is a moral order to the universe and that a holy God is this universe’s source and sovereign.

In our fragmented culture there is a tendency to view everything through partisan eyes and to use news stories like this one to keep score. Some of the people who excused the sexually predatory patterns of behavior of Donald Trump as “locker room talk” and “boys just being boys” when they were publically revealed during the Presidential Campaign, are now some of the loudest voices condemning Democrat benefactor Harvey Weinstein just as some of the people who were publicly outraged by President Trump’s sexually charged accounts of his behavior were not similarly outraged when President Clinton’s sexual transgressions were revealed. This politicization of our moral sensitivities is a moral outrage in and of itself!

The things that are morally wrong and outrageous when political and social progressives do them, are the same things that are morally wrong and outrageous when political and social conservatives do them, and I believe this because the standard of morality, the sense of right and wrong that serves as my moral compass, is not something that I have subjectively selected by looking into my own self-centered and self-seeking heart but that has rather been objectively established by a God who speaks and shows Himself in time and space. I believe that it is the Law that takes the moral measure of both me and the world, and that the moral crisis of this, and every moment, is the Genesis 3:1-7 strand of rebellion to what God says is “holy, right, and good” (Romans 7:12) that’s woven deeply into our spiritual DNA as human beings.   “Did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1) is the pivot on which I believe morality turns.  Has God told us what He expects of us as human beings, or are we left to our own devices?

Hugh Hefner died at the end of September, and most of the national news reports of his passing that I heard, surprisingly – at least to me – eulogized him as a “good” man.  Now, let me go on record and say that I didn’t know him personally.  And while I am personally familiar with his work, I certainly didn’t know his heart.  But using the Gospel’s – “you will know them by their fruits” – criteria (Matthew 7:16), I’m not sure that “good” is the word that I would have used to describe Hugh Hefner. “Rich” – to be sure. “Famous” – without a doubt. “Influential” – certainly!  Even – “iconic” — culturally “defining.” But “good”?  Probably not.

In Christian College I had a professor who, when I’d say “I’m good” in response to his frequent question about how I was doing, would always tell me – “I wasn’t looking for a moral judgment!”  You see, that word “good” has moral implications, and traditionally minded Jews and Christians, not to mention Muslims, would all agree that the moral content of what’s “good” gets defined for us by the character and the command of God.

Part of what it means when I as a Christian address God as “holy” is my acknowledgement that I believe that He has some clear expectations for my behavior as an individual, and for our behavior as a society, and that as our Maker, God has every right to have these moral expectations and to make these moral demands on us.  It is His world after all – we “live in His house” – and so He gets to make the rules.  Fortunately, the rules He makes for us are neither arbitrary nor oppressive.  In fact, they actually serve my well-being individually, and promote the “common welfare” for our society at large.  As the late Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel put it –

God gave us his laws to protect us.   People so often view the Law of God in such a wrong way – condemning and restricting – rather than as something that brings beneficial and enjoyable results.  In reality, violating God’s Law brings sorrow, misery, hopelessness, and despair.

When I individually, and when we collectively, fail to live up to God’s expectations as they find expression in the Law, not only is God displeased, but I find that I am being self-destructive and that we are undermining the “common good.”

In an order for Morning Prayer that I often use, I make this petition –

Imprint upon our hearts such a dread of thy judgments,
and such a grateful sense of thy goodness to us, as may make
us both afraid and ashamed to offend thee.

“Afraid” and “ashamed.” That’s what I inwardly feel whenever I transgress the Law of God.  When I do things that God has told me not to do, and when I fail to do things that God has told me to do, there is guilt, and there is shame.  Guilt because of what I have, or have not actually done.  And shame because of who I have become when viewed from the vantage point of who I was created to be.  And that gap widens with every choice I make and with every action I take that rejects what God has told us is “good.”

The power of the Gospel, on the personal level, is that the saving work of God in Jesus Christ, to borrow the language of a familiar hymn, is of sin the double cure.” It saves “from wrath and makes me pure.” The Gospel “saves from wrath,” which is God’s inner opposition to anything that is, or to anyone who is “hostile or indifferent to His will.”  This is the result of the rebellion of our sin in the heart of God – it displeases Him and thereby creates a barrier between us.  The cross of Christ removes this hindrance (Ephesians 2:14-18; Hebrews10:19-22).  Furthermore, the Gospel “makes me pure,” which has to do with my own sense of self–identity and self-worth that gets damaged when I behave in ways that are less than that for which I was made.  The Gospel deals with the shame of this as well by restoring me to my true status and standing as a child of God.  In the language of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it brings me back to “my senses” (Luke 15:17).

A preacher in chapel in Christian College told us that we should stop excusing our bad behavior by always saying that we are “only human” when we sin. “No,” he said, “When we sin we are actually being less than human.” There is a dignity and grandeur to our humanity in the “original goodness” of Creation, nothing diminished or debased about it at all.  It’s only in Genesis chapter 3, with the story of the fall, that this changes and the shine on our humanity gets tarnished.  The rebellion of our sin not only separates us from God, it also separates us from our own true selves, and it is in the saving work of Christ by which we become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17-21) that we are “born again” so that we can walk in “newness of life” – becoming who we were always meant to be.

So, what does any of this have to do with Hugh Hefner and Harvey Weinstein?

Well, Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” involved a conscious rejection of what God tells us is right and good.  It removes the good gift of our sexuality (read the Song of Solomon to get an accurate perspective on the Bible’s view of sex) from the proper context of consensual, monogamous, permanent, and covenantal relationships. Hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence), promiscuity, and a lack of reverence for the personhood of women are just some of the more blatant ways that the “Playboy Philosophy” has shattered lives and caused painful injury to people. And for a picture of what this looks like we need look no further than the sordid stories of how Harvey Weinstein related to women for decades.

My theologically traditional friends are all pretty clear about the way that the “Playboy Philosophy” damages us as individuals by reducing us to our urges and by encouraging a self-serving permissiveness while my progressive friends are all equally clear about how the “Playboy Philosophy” damages society by degrading women and commoditization of sex. And as a Christian whose faith is consciously being formed and informed by a continuing engagement with Scripture, I’ve got to say that I think they’re both right because this is all clear.

Chuck Smith started Calvary Chapel in Southern California in the mid-1960’s, and he described its ministry in those early days as being a field hospital where the casualties of the sexual revolution came to be treated with God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance in Jesus Christ. He explained –

The misuse of our sexuality is a cause-and-effect proposition. God says, “If you do these things, then you’re going to hurt yourself and others.”  I want people to learn the wisdom of the Law of God: God isn’t trying to keep us from having a great time; God’s trying to protect is from calamity.  Sometimes when I’m driving on the freeway and somebody recklessly cuts in on me, I feel tremendously angry.  My temptation is to lean on the horn and shake my fist at the jerk.  After all, he’s endangering my life and the lives of my grandchildren with me, and even his own life.  I want to protest loudly. 

But then as God deals with those feelings, He replaces them with prayer: “O God, help us all get home safely. People like that guy are crazy.  It’s only a matter of time before they’re going to hurt someone if they continue like that, so Lord, please get us and him home safely.”

And when I see the devastation, the wreckage, that sexual promiscuity has wrought, again I want to scream” “You fools! Don’t you know that you’re going to hurt yourselves and those around you?  Can’t you see that we’ll all lose if you keep on like that?”  But again, God calms me down and replaces my frustrated cry with a prayer: “Lord, they’re crazy.  They’re going to hurt somebody.  Help them to get home safely.  And help me to show them the way.”

For many of us, one of the greatest sources of our personal shame and guilt is our sexual history. I don’t know anybody, preachers included, who wouldn’t be mortified if the ways that sin has distorted our own sexuality and damaged our sense of self should ever come to light.  We are all ashamed, and we are all guilty. Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” says that the best way to rid yourself of these feelings of shame and guilt is to rid yourself of any repressive thoughts or beliefs that would restrict the free expression of your sexual desires. “If it feels good, do it” is how the old slogan of the sexual revolution went.  Hugh Hefner was its chief promoter and Harvey Weinstein is its most current poster child.

In contrast, the traditional teaching of Christianity is that the right way to deal with our guilt is to get it forgiven, and the right way to deal with our shame is to be changed. As A.W. Tozer used to say, we all need to be “saved from,” and we all need to be “saved to.”  We all need to be “saved from” the damaged and damaging patterns of our distorted sexualities.  And we all need to be “saved to” lives that are being transformed in ways that better reflect God’s original creative intent for us.  Christians are not perfect people, but we are people in whom the trajectory of our lives is moving towards wholeness in every dimension, including our sexuality. DBS +

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