Living in the Communion of Saints

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…”


cursiveI learned to write cursive by standing at a school chalk board looking up at a strip of green paper that ran all around the room above the chalk boards on which was printed the letters of the alphabet.  Remember? I followed their curves and loops and flairs to write my own letters.  Well, similarly in I Peter 2:21 we are told that Jesus Christ left us an example or model for us to follow “in His steps.”  The Greek word translated “model” or “example” in this verse is “hupogrammos” which literally means “to write” (“grammos”) “under” (“hupo”).  It was a word that referred to a writing-copy that was given to beginning students as an aid in learning to write their letters. It means to trace in outline, to sketch out, to write beneath. It was just like that strip of green paper with the letters on it above the chalk boards around the classroom in elementary school where we learned to write – an example to follow.

We all need examples, not just to write our letters but to live our lives.  And so Paul told the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” (I Corinthians 11:1).  That’s what we need as Christians.  Jesus Himself is our example for life.  He is the new Adam, the template for the new humanity.  My “aha” moment with this came in Christian College while reading E. Stanley Jones’ study of the Sermon  on the Mount – The Christ of the Mount.  As he explained, this is not Jesus giving us a set of some abstract moral and spiritual principles by which to live our lives — a set of rules.  No, this is Jesus telling us about how He actually lived His own life — an example for us to follow.

But Jesus is the Son of God.  Sure, He’s “fully man,” but He is also “fully God.”  And so, while perhaps not doctrinally correct, pragmatically I can’t help but think that His “active obedience” to the Father’s commands for how to live the life of a human being is not an exact comparison with me and you and our situation no matter how thoroughly He “partook of our flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14).  I can’t help but think that His divinity changed the equation in some way.  And so I appreciate what the church has called “subordinate mediators.”

“There is only one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).  But there have been lots and lots of men and women in my life and throughout church history whose lives have been windows through which I have been able to peer and see Christ.  This is what a “subordinate mediator” does.  If Jesus Christ is the One who ushers us into the presence of God the Father (that’s what a “Mediator” does), then all of those men and women who have had a hand in ushering us to the side of Jesus Christ are our “subordinate mediators.”  Like Paul who invited the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitated Christ, so there are people in our lives we can imitate in faithfulness and obedience.  This is one way to understand what the Creed by its affirmation of “the communion of the saints.”

We are in community with everybody, everywhere and always who has ever confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Some of them are still sitting in the pews right beside us on Sunday mornings – the “church militant” – still alive and kicking.  And some of them have passed into God’s nearer presence – the “church triumphant” – the faithful departed.  Christ’s church consists of both of these groups.  It is one community in two dimensions.  Knowing this, Gary Thomas in his book, Seeking the Face of God (Thomas Nelson – 1994) says that he tries to consciously live in the communion of the saints.

I’ll post a picture here or a quote there of someone whose faith and life has encouraged me…  [And] when a contemporary saint does, I will live with that person’s death for weeks…  I admire them for what they have done and I thank the God who conquered their rebellion and blessed them with the call to become His children and servants.   Wise shoppers clip coupon.  Wise Christians clip obituaries. (153-154)

leiIn my office on a shelf where I can always see it I keep an icon of Blessed Damien of Molokai.  I’ve just gotten back from a 40th wedding anniversary trip with Mary Lynn to Hawaii.  On the flight there I read again a book that I read for the first time when I was a kid of 12 – John Farrow’s Damien the Leper (Image Books).  We didn’t go to Molokai on this trip, but just being in Hawaii made me want to reconnect with this important “subordinate mediator” of mine.  I was called to ministry when I was 12, and one of the first books that I read after I heard this call was this book.  In many respects, Fr. Damien “set the standard” of ministry for me.  Like that green strip of paper above the chalk board where I learned to write, the story of his life is what I looked up to for a pattern to follow.

So, who are yours?
Who do you look up to for your patterns of faithfulness to follow?

In the life of our church, the month of November opened with our Service of Remembrance.  All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2 afford us with our annual opportunity to remember our faithful departed.  And then Thanksgiving Day on the 26th at the end of November brings the month to a close with the spirit of gratitude.  And it seems to me that we need to consciously connect these dots by taking a little time this week to consciously live in our own particular configuration of the communion of the saints.  My recent trip to Hawaii gave me the opportunity to reclaim and be grateful for the impact that Fr. Damien has had on my being and doing as a minister.  I have pinned his picture up on the wall of my heart.   And this week I am bringing to heart and mind others, both famous and hidden, who have nurtured my faithfulness as a Christian and a minister. I am consciously looking for their faces in the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) who surround me, and I am giving thanks for their examples. My imitation of their imitation of Christ makes me a better Christian.  And for that I am truly grateful.  DBS+















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Islam & Christianity

mosque A Beginning Conversation

 On Thursday evening, November 12, I was part of the “Hot Topics” program at the First Christian Church in Lewisville, Texas.  Together with our good friends from the Dialogue Institute Southwest, we presented “A Beginning Conversation” on Islam and Christianity. My presentation was a statement of my rationale as a Christian as to why I am involved in interfaith conversations, especially with our Muslim friends and neighbors. DBS+


My first encounter with Islam in America was back in the mid-1980’s down in Houston.  I’d pulled into a McDonalds on Westheimer one afternoon to get something to drink, and as I was wheeling into what I thought was an open parking space, I suddenly became aware of something on the asphalt right in front of me.  It was a man kneeling on a small rug beside his car.   Well, I slammed on my brakes, muttered something impolite under my breath, tried to calm my nerves, and then I just sat there — staring.

He was a Muslim.  It was an appointed time of prayer and so he had pulled into the McDonalds parking lot, gotten out of his car, faced east towards Mecca, rolled out his prayer rug on the ground and gotten down on his hands and knees to pray.  And as I sat there watching him, I became aware of the fact that my initial alarm was slowly distilling into something else — admiration, genuine admiration.

It was his devotion to God that impressed me, and as sat there watching it, I found myself wondering if any of my church’s members would be willing to make such a public display of their faith in a McDonald’s parking lot on a busy afternoon?  If the truth be told, I had to ask myself if I would be willing to make such a public display of my faith in a McDonald’s parking lot on a busy afternoon?   And in that moment I felt the first tremor of what can only be described as a tectonic change.   The world as I knew it was shifting beneath my feet.

Terry Muck of Christianity Today in his 1990 book Alien Gods on American Turf (Victor Books) was the first person I heard say out loud what I had sensed in that McDonald’s parking lot a few years before.

Ask people at work or in your neighborhood.  Almost everyone knows someone who belongs to a non-Christian faith.  Check the phone book of any medium to large American city.  There is almost sure to be a Muslim Mosque listed.  Nearly as likely there is also a Buddhist or Hindu Temple.  The Encyclopedia of American Religions lists more than 1,500 distinct religious groups in America, 900 have Christian roots; 600 have non-Christian roots. Demographic and religious experts predict the trend will (only) increase; no one suggests that America will return to being the Christian monolith that it was in 1790… (14) …Ten or twenty years from now (remember – he wrote this in 1990 — it’s now 2015 — that’s 25 years later), the full force of non-Christians religions (in America) will be felt.   They will be established features of our religious terrain, gaining both political and economic influence. (19) …We must expect a heightened visibility for the non-Christian world religions.  We must face up to the fact of a religiously plural culture. (20)

Today, my doctor is a Buddhist.  My mechanic is a Muslim.  My secretary is a Hindu, and one of my closest friends is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi.  In the last 30 years the world has changed, and changed dramatically.  What you once had to go to lectures at the University or read articles in National Geographic to learn something about has moved in next door.  Today there are more Muslims in the United States than there are Episcopalians, more Hindus than there are Presbyterians, and by far more Buddhists than there are Disciples of Christ.  What Terry Muck predicted back in 1990 has become our new reality, and that fact frightens some people; it scares them to death.

I was at a seminar on Islam a year ago at a big church in Plano. The speaker had been widely promoted as an international expert on Islam, and so I had gone hoping to learn something new and useful for my navigation of this new world in which we find ourselves.  Instead, all I heard were stereotypes and clichés, fear-mongering and blatant false witness — a sin in my book, one of the top ten, and so I left at the first break.  E. Stanley Jones, one of my role models for interfaith relationships, described the approach that he inherited and then consciously rejected as a Christian missionary to India as being a matter of “long-distance dueling.”  He explained that for too long Christians had simply circled their wagons and tried to keep the religiously “other” at bay by bombarding their positions — or at least what they thought were their positions (15) — they really didn’t know what their positions were because they had never actually talked to any of them.   Instead, we just attack.   But as E. Stanley Jones noted, “The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and found in the end that Christ was not there… They had lost Him through the very spirit and methods by which they sought to serve Him” (11).

Jesus told us as His disciples that He expected us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39), in fact, He told one of His most famous stories, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, to illustrate this very point (Luke 10:25-37).  And it has been in obedience to this command that for the past eight years I have been a regular and enthusiastic participant in a series of Interfaith Conversations, especially with my Muslim neighbors.  I reject the popular cultural rhetoric that wants to indiscriminately define Muslims as my enemy who must be defeated and destroyed, and I consciously choose to embrace instead the teachings of my Lord and Savior who tells me that Muslims are my neighbors who are to be welcomed, respected and loved. The way I read the Gospel, I can’t be a follower of Jesus Christ and not be in a deliberate and ongoing relationship with them.  And it’s because I have been in this deliberate and ongoing relationship with my Muslim neighbors and friends for a number of years now that I have learned some important things along the way.

First of all, I’ve learned that I have much in common with my Muslim neighbors and friends.  Together with the Jews, Christians and Muslims are branches on the same family tree, the Abrahamic family tree, and we bear a strong family resemblance.   We are all “ethical monotheists.”  We all believe that there is just one God, that He has spoken and acted in human history, and that He has some very clear expectations of us as human beings.  God makes moral and spiritual demands on us, and as Peter Kreeft, the Catholic philosopher at Boston College points out, when you start comparing what Jews, Christians and Muslims each believe about what it is that God expects of their behavior that there’s more than enough there for us to make common cause.   Rather than pulling against each other, he says that we need to start pulling together out of our common commitments to a Divinely ordered sense of justice, compassion, righteousness, and peace.

Second, I’ve learned that there are some very real and quite substantial differences between what my Muslim neighbors and friends believe and what I believe as a Christian, and that’s okay — we don’t have to pretend otherwise in order to get along with each other.  What I really appreciate about my Muslim friends and conversation partners is that, as a general rule, they are just as convinced of the truth of their faith as I am convinced of the truth of mine.  Now, what this means is that there’s not a lot of standing in a circle swaying and singing “Kum Ba Yah” in the Christian/Muslim Interfaith dialogues that I’ve participated in.  I don’t check Jesus and my belief in Him as Lord and Savior of the world at the door as the price of admission to the party.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.

And except for that part about Him being born of the Virgin Mary, my Muslim neighbors and friends disagree with everything that I believe is important and essential about Jesus Christ, and rather than that being a problem, I find that that fact has power, real power.

Back in 1985 Ari Goldman took a year’s leave from his job as a religion reporter for The New York Times and enrolled at Harvard Divinity School.  He went to seminary to make him a better religion reporter, but he says that he also went to Harvard Divinity School because as an Orthodox Jew he wanted to match his religious passion with the religious passion of Christians.  He wanted to see his convictions and beliefs go head to head and heart to heart with their convictions and beliefs.  And every time I get together with my Muslim neighbors and friends I find that my passion and their passion are evenly matched, and that makes for a powerful exchange.  I find that the opportunity to talk regularly about God with my Muslim neighbors and friends forces me to be a better Christian both in terms of what I believe and in terms of how I behave, and that brings me to the last big learning that I’ll mention here this evening.

I believe that the intersection between Islam and Christianity – the two great missionary religions in the world today – is the great new fact of our age, and because of all the bad history that exists between us, we’ve got to figure out how to do this, and how to do it well.  I suspect that the global future depends in no small measure on Christians and Muslims learning how to mutually and respectfully coexist.  Now, “conventional wisdom says that Christians and Muslims cannot get along and have never gotten along; the Crusades, the Inquisition and September 11 have all fueled the flames of constant religious intolerance” (Skye Jethani).  But I know better, and so should you.

Yes, there is a painful and hateful history between Christians and Muslims, but there is also a history of promise and hope, and just like that Native American parable about the two wolves inside us that are pitched in battle, and how the one that wins is the one you feed, so we have to decide which script we are going to follow in our relationship with each other. But for this to happen, every Christian here needs to know the stories of Christians from across time who took the risk to respectfully engage Islam as “a high and honorable faith” – St. John of Damascus in the eighth century who served in the Caliph’s court even while defending Christ, Christians and Christianity; St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century who crossed a battlefield in Egypt during the Crusades to meet with the Caliph in an attempt to end the violence, and who won his admiration and affection; Blessed Charles de Foucauld the 20th century “holy man” who lived and died as a Christian witness in the Muslim world radiating God’s love for them in Christ; and the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Cragg the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem who did more in my lifetime to help Christians understand and respect Islam than any other Christian leader I know+. Just as the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” (I Corinthians 11:1), so we can learn the gentle and gracious steps of this interfaith dance from people like them.

The first time that I read Lessing’s  “Parable of the Rings” was in a class on Modern Christianity in seminary back in 1976.  Like any story, it has its limitations – it can’t be pressed too hard or be taken too far – still, every time I sit down my Muslim neighbors and friends for a talk about matters of faith I find myself thinking about this little story about a very wise king.  The secret to his effectiveness as a ruler resided in the ring that he wore, a ring that had been handed down throughout the generations, from fathers to sons, a ring that had the power to make the wearer beloved of both God and man.

Knowing that it would soon be time for him to hand the gift of this ring on, the King was stymied because he had three sons all of whom he loved deeply and equally.  And so secretly the king went to a master jeweler and had him craft 2 exact replicas of the ring that he wore, and then he called his sons to his side and gave them each a ring – one of them the genuine article and the other two exact replicas.  But before giving them these rings the king jumbled them up so that neither he nor his sons knew which one was getting the original one with the power to make the wearer beloved of God and man!

Wondering what to do, the king finally spoke, telling all three of his sons that since it was now impossible for any of them to know which one of them had the real ring, that all three of them therefore needed to live his life from that point forward as if it were him alone.  Each son, believing that he had the one true ring, needed to live wisely and justly according to the dictates of that conviction and thereby fulfill its promise by becoming beloved of both God and man.  And what I can tell you is that when Christians and Muslims sit down together to talk honestly and respectfully about what it is that they believe and value as we are doing here tonight, that it feels like this — like the fulfillment of the very best promise of our respective faiths — and I believe that this is one of the most hopeful things that we can do.


Goldman, Ari.  The Search for God at Harvard.  Ballantine. 1992.
Jethani, Skye.   “Why I Defend Muslims.”
Jones, E. Stanley.   Christ at the Round Table.  Abingdon. 1928.
Kreeft, Peter.  Ecumenical Jihad. Ignatius.   1996.
Muck, Terry. Alien Gods on American Turf.  Victor Books. 1990.



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benBen Patterson, a Presbyterian Pastor who is now the Campus Minister of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, remembers a Sunday morning when he made a dramatic sweeping gesture with his arm during a sermon and he says that he watched as the head of every person in church that morning turned to follow it.  That was the Sunday morning when Ben says that he “discovered” his power.  If he had the power to turn heads with a simple gesture like that, Ben wondered, then what could he get people to do if he really put his mind to it!  For the first time in his ministry Ben understood that he had the power of persuasion, and that it could easily become pure manipulation.  Ben came to the realization that he could use his power for good or for ill, in the service of his own petty interests or for the sake of God’s eternal purposes revealed in Jesus Christ, and so he had better be careful… very careful.

I thought about this story recently while reading Timothy George’s intriguing essay on “Gimmicks and God” in First Things (6/15/15).  After “confessing” some of his own “hot gospel antics” from a much earlier day in his life – dressing up like the devil to publicize a youth revival at his church and allowing a blindfolded “karate for Christ” champion to slice a raw potato off his head – Dr. George, now the highly regarded President of a highly respected Seminary, wonders where the line is?  Does anything go in our desire to gather a crowd?  Are there any limits at all on our drive for numerical success – to be the biggest and the best?  When do the gimmicks that we use to draw a crowd “for Christ” become ends in themselves, stunts that feed our own egos?  And what’s the tipping point when persuasion tumbles off into manipulation?

In I Corinthians Paul explained that he was prepared to become all things to all people so that by all means he might save some (9:22).  These verses could and often have been used to justify an “anything goes” approach to the church’s ministry.  And so I have known ministers who have been dunked in big vats of soupy jello as a stunt in church on a Sunday morning, who have had their heads shaved in worship, who have preached in their underwear, who have been dressed up in every and any silly costume that you can possibly imagine, and who have led worship from a bed drug into the sanctuary for a morning, or while suspended from the ceiling by wires, or from the roof of a church tethered by ropes to the steeple.  It’s all good fun they say.  They’re just being “fools for Christ” (I Corinthians 4:10) they argue.  And who am I – a preacher in a plateaued church in a dying denomination – to say anything.  And so I won’t.

But I will let Paul speak.  You see, for all his talk in I Corinthians about being willing to become all things to all people in order to reach some of them, Paul still had his limits.

beardFor we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word; but as people of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:17)

…Having this ministry by the mercy of God… We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:1-2)

Paul criticized those he described as being “peddlers of God’s word.” He renounced their “disgraceful, underhanded ways,” and he refused “to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” like them. It wasn’t “anything goes” for him in his ministry.  Paul imposed some limits, and I think he hinted at the parameters of those limits that he set for himself at the very beginning of I Corinthians when he wrote –

When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (2:1-5)

johnI think another New Testament conversation about where the “limits” can be found is in the story of Jesus with the woman at the Samaritan well (John 4). The conversation that Jesus had with her worked its way around to a specific question about worship (John 4).  Jews and Samaritans had different sanctuaries, different scared mountains, and different worship traditions, and the woman, having perceived that Jesus was a “prophet,” decided that while she was with someone who could speak for God that it would be the perfect opportunity to settle a nagging religious question. “Who’s right?” she wanted to know. “Which mountain does God prefer?” And Jesus told her that the externals of religious observance were less important to God than the inward dispositions of the worshippers.

The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father
in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to worship Him.

Here are the “limits” according to Jesus in this text – “spirit and truth.” In my mind’s eye I can see “spirit” and “truth” as the banks of a river through which the life and ministry of a church flow. They set its direction and channel its flow.  A popular Bible Study site explains the meaning of “spirit and truth” this way –

greenTrue worship must be “in spirit,” that is, engaging the whole heart. Unless there’s a real passion for God, there is no worship in spirit. At the same time, worship must be “in truth,” that is, properly informed. Unless we have knowledge of the God we worship, there is no worship in truth. Both are necessary for satisfying and God-honoring worship. Spirit without truth leads to a shallow, overly emotional experience that could be compared to a high. As soon as the emotion is over, when the fervor cools, so does the worship. Truth without spirit can result in a dry, passionless encounter that can easily lead to a form of joyless legalism. The best combination of both aspects of worship results in a joyous appreciation of God informed by Scripture. The more we know about God, the more we appreciate Him. The more we appreciate, the deeper our worship. The deeper our worship, the more God is glorified.   (

Truth is objective.  Spirit is subjective.
Truth is about the facts.  Spirit is about the feelings.
Truth engages the mind.  Spirit engages the heart.

Truth is about what God in Jesus Christ has done for us in human history – His Incarnation (Christmas), the Atonement (Good Friday), His Resurrection (Easter), and the pouring out of His empowering and indwelling presence (Pentecost).  Spirit is the personal application of what Jesus Christ has done for us to our hearts individually so that we can become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4), and lean into the coming of the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1).

Recently, after keynoting a church retreat, one of the participants approached to thank me for what I had just shared in my message.  He told me that the content was good and helpful (“truth”) and that I had delivered it with passion and commitment (“spirit”), and that’s the standard that I aim for every time I stand to preach or teach.  Those are the banks between which my ministry flows.  I want to be faithful with the treasure of the Gospel that has been entrusted to me (2 Timothy 1:13-14), and I want to share it “in power and the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5).  This, it turns out, was also the standard of one of the founders of my own spiritual tradition.  Barton W. Stone wrote –

I not only advise you to preach the Word, but also preach it in the Spirit. In vain we attempt to preach in the Spirit, unless we have the Spirit, and experience the force of that truth we deliver to others. A man may preach the truth in the letter without the Spirit. Such preaching is vain-useless to saint and sinner. Apathetic and moral lectures on religion have almost ruined the world, and swelled the number of skeptics. For they thus argue: Did these people believe what they preach or read, would they be so cold and unfeeling in their addresses? Would they not cry aloud and spare not? Did you ever know one such preacher convert a sinner from the error of his ways? A person may also preach with a great vociferous zeal and manner. This may be and often is nothing more than mere animal nature, without the spirit. Live and walk in the spirit, and preach in the Spirit; then will the attention of your hearers be arrested, and good effects will follow. (The Christian Messenger 5 – July 1831 – 164-7)

And Leonard Hodgson agreed –

As I listen to sermons I am impressed by the fact that over and over again preaching fails in effectiveness not because of defects in the preparation of the subject matter, but because the preacher is not putting his/her whole self into the delivery of the message.  One recognizes that the material is good, well and carefully thought out and put together.   But it fails to catch fire and kindle answering sparks in the congregation because its utterance gives the impression of being the performance of a routine duty. (David Larsen – The Evangelism Mandate – Kregel – 1992 – p. 111)

And so it’s both spirit and truth I seek to serve in my preaching and teaching.  Those are my standards, the masters I serve.  I want what I say to be settled as truth in my mind and to be fired with spirit in my heart.  Not stunts and gimmicks but substance and passion.  Not style and flash but Spirit and truth.  DBS+


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“What Christ Promised”

An All Souls’ Day Reflection


John 11:25-26

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die,
yet shall he live, 26 and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”


rockThe founders of the spiritual tradition of which the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a part – the Stone/Campbell Movement – believed that there were three and not just two sacraments, or as they preferred to call them “ordinances” — “Gospel ordinances.”   Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two that everybody knows.  The Lord’s Day — Sunday morning worship — that’s the one that very few of us can name.  But our founders were insistent.  It’s only all together like the pieces of a puzzle that combine to make a beautiful picture that Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Day combine to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s love established by the three facts of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.

The Lord’s Supper with its broken bread and poured out cup bears witness to Christ’s saving death on the cross.  The watery grave of baptism by immersion from which we are raised bears witness to both Christ’s resurrection and ours, and so does Sunday morning worship each week.  You see, Sunday is the Lord’s Day because Sunday was the day when Jesus Christ rose.  As our founders liked to say, “Every Sunday morning is a little Easter,” and that’s what makes the Lord’s Day a Gospel Ordinance.

Every time we make the effort to get ourselves up and to get ourselves to church on a Sunday morning, we are consciously reorienting our lives to and conscientiously reordering our priorities by the event that we say as Christians is the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.  Jesus Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, and by faith, we believe that we now get a share in that victory.  Because He is the resurrection and the life, Jesus said that “though we die, yet shall we live,” and that “whoever lives and believes in Him shall never die” (John 11:25-26).   If you are a Christian, what this means is that you are never going to die.  That’s what Christ promised.

Actually there are two promises made in John 11:25-26, and I think they correspond to the two things that Christ said He was.  “I am the Resurrection and the Life” Jesus told us.  And then Jesus promised, “Though you die, yet shall you live,” and “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”  At first glance, these two promises can seem rather contradictory.  I mean, which is it?   Am I going to die and then live again, or is it that I am never going to die?  There’s a pretty big difference between these two things if you ask me.  And I think that the answer lies in the way that the Bible talks about death.   You see, Biblically, we are told that our bodies die, but so can our souls.  The Scriptures talk about both physical death and spiritual death, and so did Jesus Christ.

When Jesus told us that He is the Resurrection I think that what He was talking about was physical death.  When He said “I am the Resurrection,” I’m pretty sure that He was telling us that He is our victory over the death of our bodies.  What He was promising us was that after our bodies die that they will be raised again when the Kingdom finally and fully comes at the close of the age.  And then when Jesus told us that He is the Life, I think that what He was talking about was spiritual death.  When He said “I am the Life,” I’m pretty sure that what He was telling us was that He is our victory over the death of our souls.  What He was promising was that because of what He has done for us spiritually by His life, His death, and His Resurrection, that we need never die.  We “pass from death to life” when we believe in Him (John 5:24; I John 3:14), and spiritually, what this means is that we will never see death (John 8:51).

hadenThis is why Ben Haden, for so many years the minister of Chattanooga’s Historic First Presbyterian Church, always used to say that rather than being a spiritually draining experiences, that he always found the funeral service of a Christian to be a spiritually strengthening experience instead.  “The world has a gurgle in its throat when it comes to death,” he liked to say, “but the Christian can speak with total confidence.”  And the reason why he believed this was because of what Jesus promised in John 11:25-26.  As he put it –

I think the most overlooked portion of Scripture is that phrase right after Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me shall live even if he dies” in John 11.  It continues, “Whoever believes in me shall never die.”   We forget that Christians are incapable of being dead for even one moment.   When we pass from this life, we’re alive!

Right after Jesus told us said that He was the Resurrection who solves the problem that we have as human beings with physical death, and that He was the Life who solves the problem that we have as human beings with spiritual death, Jesus posed the question: “Do you believe this?

When I hear this question I think about an editorial that I read years ago in Christianity Today about an ordination interview in which the candidate had been theologically nuanced in all of his responses to all of the committee’s questions.  For hours he had danced around their questions about the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus and His Second Coming with intellectual flights of fancy and sleights of hand.  Finally one exasperated building contractor on the committee blurted out: “Did Jesus walk on water or did he not? No trick answers!”

James Morgan was a very popular professor of theology at Fuller Seminary back in the late 1960’s.  He died of stomach cancer when he was just 36 years old.  At his funeral, one of his faculty colleagues, Dr. Lewis Smedes, was preaching from John 11, and when he got to the part where Jesus said “whoever lives and believes in me will never die,” he just stopped, looked up at this young man’s family and friends all sitting there, at his heartbroken wife and their four little children, and with a startled look on his face, Dr. Smedes cried out as if the truth of these words had just hit him full force for the first time: “James Morgan is not dead!” “James Morgan is NOT dead!”


In John 11 Jesus Christ told us that He was going to defeat death, both physically and spiritually, because He is the Resurrection and the Life.  “Though you die, yet shall you live,” and “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” That’s what He promised, and I believe it.

No trick answers.  DBS+

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Never Underestimate “The Abnormality of the World”


stillSTILLWATER, Oklahoma – A fourth victim has now died from injuries received in a car crash at the Oklahoma State University Homecoming Parade on Saturday. A vehicle drove into the crowd of spectators causing the deaths and dozens of injuries. Three people were pronounced dead shortly after the crash, the fourth victim died at OU Medical Center. Along with the four killed, eight are critically injured, nine seriously injured and 17 others “walking wounded.” That’s a total of 37 victims.                                              


frankI cut my theological teeth reading Francis Schaeffer in the early 1970’s, and he remains an important influence on my thinking and believing to this very day.   This is why, a while back, I listened to Jerram Barrs’ lecture on the “Basic Bible Study Themes of Francis Schaeffer” from his course “Francis Schaeffer: The Later Years” taught at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis (   I had worked my way through Schaeffer’s “Basic Bible Study” materials between Christian College and the beginning of seminary back in the mid-1970’s to great personal benefit. It helped me to see how all the pieces of the puzzle of Scripture “fit” together in a single picture, a picture of God’s redemptive love.  And so, when I discovered that Covenant had put Professor Barr’s entire course on Francis Schaeffer online (just one of an astonishing number of high quality seminary level courses that they make available free of charge) I signed up.  In this lecture, Jerram Barrs emphatically made the point –

God is not responsible for the brokenness of the world. This world is not the way that God created it, and human beings are not the way that God created them. Everything now is abnormal and distorted by sin. Do not blame God for the way things are.  Human sin has made things the way they are… (But) I hardly ever hear Christians talking about the abnormality of the world. If we do not talk about the abnormality of the world, we have absolutely no answer to give to people who have problems with suffering and evil. We end up saying that “it is okay.”  Someone dying of cancer might come to us, and we say, “This is really fine. God will take care of it.  Everything is going to work out well in the end.” This is an artificial answer that simply does not meet the person’s needs and is not true. It is not faithful to Scripture. Unless we understand the reality of the Fall, we have nothing to say to the person who suffers. Scripture forbids us to heal people’s wounds lightly or to try to soothe them with emollient words that pretend that things are not as bad as they are. One of the wonderful things about Scripture is that it takes the brokenness of our situation really seriously. It says it like it is. That is why it tells you to weep with those who weep, not to heal their wounds lightly. Just go and weep with them. Jesus is described as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. That is the way every Christian ought to be, those who really take people’s suffering to heart. We need to understand that people are having experiences that are abnormal. They are not the way God created them to be. Their reality and their experience of it is a broken one. Our call is to weep with them and have compassion on them rather than heal their wounds l lightly.

I have referenced this once before in a blog, and I’m pretty sure that I will reference it again before I’m through.  You see, the only way I can make sense of the world is from this vantage point, the vantage point of a good creation gone bad and that is in the process of being restored by God in Jesus Christ the Savior.

David Kelsey explained that the “gist” of the Christian message according to this understanding of the Bible’s “plot-structure” is that it is “a single narrative history having three temporally successive momentsCreation, the Fall, and Redemption.” Of course, this is not the only way that people can read the Bible.  But it is the way that I read the Bible.  It is the way that makes the most sense to me, or, should I say, it’s the way that helps me make the most sense of this world, and where God is in it, and what God is doing about what’s gone so terribly wrong with it.  And this is what frames my reaction to an event like the tragedy that unfolded last Saturday morning during the OSU Homecoming parade in Stillwater.  When bad things happen, and bad things do happen, they happen every single day and absolutely everywhere, I’m never mystified.  Horrified, yes.  Staggered, yes.  Empathetic, yes. Mystified, no… never.

davidIn what I regard to be the very best thing that he ever wrote, Harry Emerson Fosdick defended this tragic vision of life in an essay he called “Six Paradoxes Concerning Trouble” in his book Successful Christian Living (Harper – 1937).  He began by explaining that “Nothing more deeply influences the quality of our lives than the way that we handle trouble.” And then he proceeded to offer some sage spiritual guidance for how to handle trouble, things he said that many people miss because they are truths that are just “so paradoxical.”

The first paradox is that if we would be happy we had better take trouble for granted and accept life as essentially tragic and difficult.   Many people make impossible the constructive handling of adversity because they start by thinking that an untroubled life is the ideal, so that all their disasters become intruders to be resented.  Beginning this with a picture of life embowered in pleasure and quite weedless, they soon discover they cannot get on well with it.  For hardship outwits them, adversity climbs their stoutest walls, and their ideals of an untroubled life go to pieces in disillusionment.  They started wrong.

Let us, then, begin with the alternative proposition that life is essentially difficult and tragic. It begins with a painful birth and ends in painful death, and its fabric in between has dark threads running through.   That is why a great tragedy like Hamlet lives on and, generation after generation, holds a mirror up to nature.  Life is essentially difficult.

Concerning this proposal many will feel at once that it presents a gloomy view of life. No, my friends, not gloomy, but the only basis for happiness.  If we start by thinking that the idea; is an untroubled life, then adversity seems a wretched intruder to be resented, a miserable trespasser that has no business here.  But if we start by accepting life as difficult and tragic, then our blessings, the joy, beauty and love that enrich us, will appear so marvelous that it will seem a miracle to have them.

Here is a man who starts with the ideal of pleasure only – no disaster, no difficulty, only pleasantness and peace. Well, he is preparing to be miserable.  For he begins by thinking that ideal weather involves a cloudless sky, and every cloud will be an insult to him…

Indeed, does happiness really lie in an untroubled life?   Of course it doesn’t.  Some of the most tingling happiness we know is victory over opposition.  Give us a hard task, a towering difficulty, and strength to win the day – there is the secret of our realest happiness.  Happiness is not mostly pleasure, it is mostly victory. …Great happiness takes off like an able aviator against a head wind.  …Great happiness often has difficulty for its setting and adventure for its strength.  Even when heavy griefs come, there is a radiance on those who transcend and transmute them and find “some soul of good ness in things evil” that all the hedonists on earth cannot achieve.  This, then, is the first paradox, that if we would be happy, we had best accept life as essentially difficult and tragic.

Somewhere I’ve read that Billy Graham was once asked if he was an optimist or a pessimist.  And he is reported to have answered “yes.” He explained that he was a pessimist in the short term and an optimist over the long haul.  And that’s what I hear Fosdick saying as well.   It’s certainly the perspective that I take from Scripture.

comedyBack in 1977 Frederick Buechner, everybody’s favorite spiritual author, was invited to deliver the annual Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School.  Those lectures were later published in his wonderful book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale (Harper & Row).   And here is how that Created, Fallen and Redeemed plot-structure of Scripture plays out in the lived faith of a Christian and a church –

The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts thicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy. And yet, so what? So what if even in his sin the slob is loved and forgiven when the very mark and substance of his sin and of his slobbery is that he keeps turning down the love and forgiveness because he either doesn’t believe them or doesn’t want them or just doesn’t give a damn? In answer, the news of the Gospel is that extraordinary things happen to him just as in fairy tales extraordinary things happen. …Lear goes berserk on a heath but comes out of it for a few brief hours every inch a king. Zaccheus climbs up a sycamore tree a crook and climbs down a saint. Paul sets out a hatchet man for the Pharisees and comes back a fool for Christ. It is impossible for anybody to leave behind the darkness of the world he carries on his back like a snail, but for God all things are possible. That is the fairy tale. And all together they are the truth.

In Stillwater, Saturday was the day of tragedy, a senseless, unspeakable tragedy.  Sunday, in churches all over Oklahoma, and the entire nation for that matter, the message that was both spoken in the Word that was preached and embodied in the sacramental signs of bread and cup that were shared, the people of that shattered community, and all of us, were “loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. And that is the comedy.”  And what we await now is the fairy tale, the “extraordinary” unexpected thing that will happen next, arising out of the tragedy and the comedy, something that we can’t even begin to anticipate now, or maybe we can.

The recent tragedy in our own neighborhood, the senseless abduction and murder of Zoe Hastings, has poignantly and powerfully sketched out for us the way that the Gospel of Jesus Christ inexplicably moves us from tragedy through comedy to fairy tale.

Zoe HastingsAt the funeral for his slain teenage daughter, James Hastings said he refused to be tortured by the way that she died. He said he would lean on his faith to pull him back from “the black abyss” and move past the day when he learned that Zoe had been killed.  “Her life was tragically taken, and to be quite honest, I don’t know why she had to endure what she did,” he said. “But I do know that her Savior was there to meet her in the end and that she was not alone.”  (

And after the arrest of the suspect in her murder, Zoe’s family had one more thing to say.

A spokeswoman for Hastings’ relatives said they were relieved that a suspect had been captured, but they continue to struggle with the tragedy. “They’re emotionally drained and spent,” Shonn Brown said. “They didn’t just lose their daughter; they lost her in a senseless way.” “This family, as you can imagine, is grieving,” Brown said, “but is also happy about the way that this community has come together, because it is representative of the way that Zoe lived her life, a life that she lived for others.” (

Created, fallen, redeemed.
Tragedy, Comedy, Fairy Tale.

When things happen that shatter your sense of order and leave your heart broken, don’t underestimate the abnormality of the world, or the power of the Gospel to raise us up to a place we never could have imagined before. DBS+

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“Inspired Ambiguity”


One of my favorite blogs is “Think Theology” written by the British theologian Andrew Wilson []. He consistently delivers on this title, he makes me “think theology.”  Last week as I was preparing for the “Listening to Scripture” component of the discernment process that the elders of the church I serve have undertaken in faithful response to the Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage, I came across a blog entry that Andrew Wilson wrote back in 2013 called “How to Get Rid of Awkward Bible Passages: An Eight Step Guide.”   It begins –

boyIf you’re going to be a widely-read Bible teacher, you have to have a few tricks up your sleeve. It won’t be long before the people you’re teaching realize, with or without your help, that there are some biblical passages they don’t like very much. What will you do with them? That question keeps many of us awake at night. If you teach them as they are, then not only will people not like the Bible, but they won’t like you. But if you are to get rid of them somehow, then you will need some clever hermeneutical sleight of hand.

Whenever I am teaching or preaching I often remember what James Smart of Union Theological Seminary in New York City a generation ago said about the Bible always having in it elements that are “congenial” and elements that are “uncongenial” to our ordinary ways of thinking and being, and how it is in those “uncongenial” things that the Bible says that we will often hear the living Word of God being addressed to us most directly and most powerfully.  At least in part, I think that this is what the author of Hebrews meant when he wrote – “The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing souls and spirit, joints and marrow, it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

costaBack in 1988 Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, was interviewed by the editors of Leadership for their “Sex” issue (Winter Quarter).  Because Chuck had such an amazing impact for Christ on the youth culture in Southern California during the days of the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, they wanted to know how he handled the “hot potato” topics of what the Bible says on sexuality.  The interview was called “Treating the Casualties of the Sexual Revolution,” and in it Chuck was asked about how he handled the “clobber” texts – those parts of the Bible that directly address matters of sexual behavior in rigorously uncompromising ways – knowing that they were not going to sit well with what many of those who were there in church listening to him preach and teach?   The Apostle Paul warned about how people will accumulate spiritual teachers for themselves who will just tell them what they already think, or what they just want to hear. “Tickling their ears” is how he put it (2 Timothy 4:4).  And so, the folks at Leadership were interested in knowing how Chuck handled the parts of the Bible that would directly challenge the sexual attitudes and actions of the people sitting under his teaching ministry.  Chuck answered –

My method of teaching the Word of God is to go straight through the Bible.  As I’m covering a book, whenever I get to the issues of fornication or adultery, I don’t dodge them.  They’re not always popular subjects, but I’ve got to relate what the Word of God has to say on these issues.  I don’t soften it.  I try to be just as straight as God’s Word in declaring the standards that God has set.  (132)

And this brings us back around to Andrew Wilson’s observation that there are some biblical passages that people don’t like very much, and that “if you teach them as they are, then not only will people not like the Bible, but they won’t like you.” The rest of Andrew’s blog posting on “How to Get Rid of Awkward Bible Passages” was his facetious counsel to people like me – no doubt gathered from his own observation and experience as a Bible teacher – about how to dodge the difficult texts, or what John Alexander of The Other Side  described as trying to convince people that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it most clearly says.  Andrew had an eight step strategy for doing this –

  1. Introduce the text as a “Difficult Passage” (capital letters are the new scare quotes). This will immediately set your readers on high alert; after all, who wants “Difficult Passages” in their Bibles?

  2. Populate your discussion with as many synonyms for “difficult” as you can: debated, disputed, confusing, controversial, awkward, challenging, obscure, demanding, etc.

  3. Mention a really, really stupid interpretation that some oddball in church history has come up with. For those who don’t know about the fallacy of the excluded middle, this will make it seem that the only two options are the really stupid view and your view. Never, ever, mention a nuanced presentation of the view you don’t like by a credible scholar. This is fatal.

  4. Transition quickly to explain what you want the text to mean, preferably using language like “A more probable view is …” or “More likely, we should …” Your reader will breathe a sigh of relief that the text doesn’t mean what it says.

  5. Make it clear that the author of the text isn’t oppressive, abusive or incompetent. Some readers will immediately assume that all alternatives to your view are somehow oppressive, abusive or incompetent.

  6. Quote the maxim that “clear passages interpret unclear ones”, which is the standard euphemism for “other texts can drown out this one, if you bring enough of them into play”.

  7. Mention an obscure bit of background information, ideally one for which there is scant evidence, that appears to support your interpretation. Fortunately, when people want to believe what you’re saying, they don’t check things like this with primary (or even secondary) sources.

  8. Conclude your discussion with a confident wave of the hand: “For all the debate that surrounds this passage, the main thing we must remember is …”


I stand deeply convicted by Andrew’s observations and Chuck’s – “of blessed memory” – example.  I also live daily with the burden of James 3:1 – “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” One of my greatest burdens in 40 years of preaching and teaching has been a fear of misrepresenting God, “to be found to be a false witness about God” as Paul put it in I Corinthians 15:15.

drownJesus said that it would be better to have a large millstone hung around your neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea than to lead “a little one – someone who believe in Him” astray (Matthew 18:6).  I take this to mean that Bible preaching and teaching is indeed serious stuff, and it informs my greatest desire as a preacher and a teacher “to be found faithful as a steward of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:2).

And so I hold up Andrew’s list as a mirror to what I say when I preach and teach.  I don’t want to be known as “an ear tickler.” As a preacher and a teacher I want to be someone who “rightly handles the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). And it is from this desire to be faithful that I find myself pushing back – gently to be sure, but pushing nonetheless – at the implication that Andrew seems to be making, that what the Bible says on any given topic is uniformly clear and obvious.

The Protestant Reformers taught that the Bible speaks with a loud and unmistakable voice when addressing its main point, namely that Jesus Christ – “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate” (The Nicene Creed 325/381).  They called this the “perspicuity” of Scripture, and the Puritan Westminster Assembly defined it in 1646 as – “…Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” And I believe this.  You don’t need a seminary degree in order to understand the meaning or the importance of John 3:16.  But there are other things in Scripture that lack this kind of clarity, lots of other things.  In fact, Scripture itself freely acknowledges this. The Apostle Peter said of the Apostle Paul’s writings that while he wrote “with the wisdom that God gave him,” that nevertheless “his letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16), and to suggest otherwise is seriously mislead the Bible’s readers from the outset.

dudeIn the early history of my own spiritual tradition is was customary for our founders to speak and write about the Bible as if it were a “blueprint” or a “constitution.”   By these terms they meant that we had in the Bible a clear picture of what it was that God wanted His church to be and to do, and a complete and exact set of instructions about how we were to actually go about being and doing that kind of church.  All we needed to do was follow the directions.  But even with everyone agreeing on this general approach to things, it wasn’t very long before churches and Christians in my spiritual tradition were ferociously arguing with each other about what the “directions” actually said and what they really meant.  We had some pretty good clarity when it came to answering the Biblical question, “What must I do to be saved?”  But on lots and lots of other Biblical matters, there was very little consensus, and sometimes even less civility.  And this wasn’t just because we are a particularly stubborn and opinionated lot as readers of the Bible.  It had something to do with the Bible itself.

In a watershed article on the use of the Bible in the Stone/Campbell tradition, Russ Dudrey (“Restorationist Hermeneutics Among the Churches of Christ: Why Are We at an Impasse?”Restoration Quarterly) concluded that the model of Scripture that our founders adopted was “ill-suited to the nature of biblical literature.”  He observed that the “the New Testament documents are far less systematic and far more historical, particular, and occasional – far more “missionary” – that we have recognized.” And then he warned that if we were to “handle these documents [more] responsibly [in the future, then] we need to develop a much greater literary and historical sensitivity than the restorationist hermeneutic tradition has this far demonstrated.” No less convinced of the Bible’s authority for Christian faith and practice than were our founders, Dudrey was just saying that for the Bible to truly function authoritatively for Christian faith we needed to have a much better understanding of the Bible actually is.  As he put it, “The New Testament is not an abstract treatise of systematic theology written in the quiet confines of the study.   … [And so rather than] approaching Scripture as a revelation of propositional truths… [we must learn to approach it instead as a revelation] of the heart of the Father.” It has to do with what we see the Bible’s primary purpose to be.

holyHave we been given the Bible in order to have all the “right answers” to our questions about God?  Or, have we been given the Bible to guide us into a “right relationship” with God?  With Russ Dudrey I believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not that we are saved “by doctrinal correctness.” Now, this is not to say that doctrinal correctness is unimportant. Wrong ideas about who Christ is and what Christ has done can lead to some very dangerous dead-ends for us spiritually.  It can interfere with our relationship with the God who is there. Still, I believe that the purpose of the Bible is not to give us an encyclopedic knowledge about God so that we can be the smartest kids in the room, the winners of some kind of cosmic theological spelling bee, but it is rather to usher us into a relationship of love and trust with God through Jesus Christ.  And with this being the case, I am then neither surprised nor am I alarmed by just how complicated some of the things that I read about in the Bible turn out to be.  With Peter I can honestly say that I find in the Bible “some things that are hard to understand.” And this is what makes me so uneasy about Andrew Wilson’s wholesale dismissal of “difficult” as a legitimate category when talking about what the Bible teaches.

  • In the very first lecture that I heard in seminary, the professor told us that a five minute synoptic lesson would disabuse us of any illusions that we might have of the Bible being anything but complicated.  Matthew, Mark and Luke (the “Synoptic” Gospels) cover the same ground, but each with their own particular point of view.  While they  are looking at the very same event, they saw very different things, and so they have very different emphases, and it’s a mistake to harmonize them too quickly or too easily.
  • The Gospel of John and the Synoptic Gospels are very different animals, and modern critical scholarship was not the first to notice this fact and report it.   In the early church it was widely recognized that John was, well, different, and in some ways even “difficult.” Early church fathers described John as the “spiritual” Gospel, and as the “supplemental” Gospel in order to try to account for the differences in the stories it told and the meanings it attached to the Christ event.
  • Paul with his “saved by grace and not by works” emphasis seems to be a direct counterpoint to James’ insistence that “faith without works is dead.”  Genesis chapter 1 and Genesis chapter 2 are clearly different stories of creation.  The book of Job is a story that was told about how bad things happen to good people at a time when most people were operating with the big assumption of the Deuteronomic historian that bad things happen when bad people make bad choices, and that good things happen when good people make good choices.  I and II Kings cover the same exact ground as I and II Chronicles cover, and when the books of the Bible were being collected it was consciously decided that there was real spiritual value in being told these same stories twice, from different points of view.
  1. Paul Stephens, a professor of applied theology at a very fine Canadian seminary, wrote an article for Christianity Today back in January of 1992 about how equally faithful and competent students of the Bible can and often do wind up on very different sides of a question on what the Bible says about a particular issue [“Breaking the Gender Impasse” – January 13, 1992 – p.p. 28-31).

Both groups claim the authority of the Bible.  It is a frustrating situation.  The debate seems to hit an impasse, with many people “solving” the problem by finding churches where everyone already agrees with their position.  To me, this seemed to be less than ideal.  And yet, what were the alternatives?  I did not want merely to add my voice to the polemical chorus.  And then I had a thought:  What if the ambiguity at the root of these differences is not accidental but God-inspired?


“Inspired ambiguity”?


R. Paul Stephens then continued his astonishing argument –

[On any number of questions] Scripture presents us with seemingly irreconcilable truths… [Our]  unconfessed [and unchallenged] presupposition is that the fundamental truths of Scripture can be systematized, which will then eliminate all paradoxes and yield unequivocal answers.  [But] I am proposing an alternative method – a “contemplative” approach. This approach views the ambiguity of Scripture as a pointer to God, an indicator of truths so great that – they can only be seen in full from God-height.   …The deepest issues of our life in Christ resist reduction to manageable ideas…  [And] Biblical teaching is often ambiguous in just these areas. …These tensions can generate friction and frustration. Or, they can be resolved by an artificial choice to live out only one side of the Biblical witness.  Alternatively, the tension can be embraced in a contemplative manner.  The ambiguity can be seen as pointing to a God-sized issue.

Reading, thinking and writing about “what is the Gospel message to our church as we relate to Gay and Lesbian Christians” has been one of the dominant considerations “on my watch” as a member, minister and, at times, leader of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The discernment process that the elders of Northway are currently working through is based on the denominational discernment process that I helped to develop more than 15 years ago together with a group of some of the finest Christians and clearest thinkers in our church that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  Getting ready to lead the elders of the church I serve through a survey of what the Bible says about sex, marriage, divorce and inclusion over the last few weeks was a journey through familiar territory, across well-travelled terrain for me. I have worked with these texts, their interpretation and application for more than 30 years now.  And my keenest insight about them is that they are complicated, which is why I am so impatient with the absolutism of both my traditionalist peers and my progressive colleagues who announce their positions with the imprimatur that “it’s what the Bible really says,” or “it’s what the Bible really means.”  I know way too much about these texts and their use by the church to find such simplistic claims to be credible.  Frankly, I am much more “taken” by Dr. Stephens’ suggestion of “inspired ambiguity,” and with the idea that when we find ourselves straddling a biblical paradox that we are being pointed to something important in the person and purpose of God Himself.

god small

One of the most important books I’ve read in recent years is David Wells’ God in the Whirlwind (Crossway – 2014).  At its core it is an argument for people of Biblical faith not to let go of the revealed paradox that’s at the heart of God’s very being, what he calls God’s “holy-love.” It seems to me that the traditionalists I know and love have hold of God’s holiness, and the progressives I know and love have hold of God’s love.  As for myself, I’m trying my hardest to hang onto both God’s holiness and His love.  And because I am, the more convinced I am becoming that the key text in the conversation about same sex marriage is Matthew 19:3-12.

Having just spent five hours in a marathon Bible Study with a couple of dozen elders putting the Bible’s “clobber” texts on homosexuality into direct conversation with some of the key texts in the Bible’s “glorious vision” of the created goodness of human sexuality and its proper expression, and then putting all of that “sex” talk in the Bible into direct conversation with the Gospel’s overarching message of God’s actively inclusive love in Jesus Christ, I am more convinced than ever about just how complicated all of this really is when you take the Bible seriously, and that the one passage in the Bible that seems to me to recognize, and even “honor” this complexity, is Matthew 19:3-12.  Here is a picture of God’s “holy/love” at work.  Here is the Bible’s “inspired ambiguity” in black and white.  And so this is where I will be “contemplatively” hunkering down for a while as I continue to wrestle with this “God-sized issue” from a “God-sized height.”  And believe me, with all due respect to Andrew Wilson, it is difficult.


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“Will There Be Baseball in Heaven?”


When he was just a little boy of 11, David Holmquist, the Athletic Director and longtime Basketball coach – one of just 17 coaches to win 800 or more games, and the only active NAIA Division I coach with 800-plus wins – at Biola University in La Mirada, California, decided that it was time to get right with God.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding on the international stage, and every night for two weeks David went to bed not sure if he would awaken in the morning to see another day.  And so David finally decided that things in the world around him were just so uncertain that it was probably time for him to ask Jesus Christ into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior.   But before he could, there was one thing he really needed to know.  And so approaching his dad one evening after dinner, David explained that he was ready to accept Jesus Christ. This seemed to please his dad, and he immediately began to lead his son through the steps of a well-rehearsed “plan of salvation.”  When they got to “the sinner’s prayer” step, David interrupted the process to ask his question.  “Before we get to that,” David asked his dad, “there’s just something that I’ve really got to know — Will there be baseball in heaven?” David was sorely disappointed when his father said “no.” But trying to help, David’s dad quickly added, “But there will be lots of things in heaven so much better than baseball.”  Something better than baseball?  At the age of 11, David says that he couldn’t imagine what any of those “better than baseball” things might be.

Well, David says that he finally prayed the prayer of salvation with his dad that night asking Jesus Christ into his heart even though it was something of a disappointment for him. “I just couldn’t imagine how heaven was going to be any fun,” David explains, “without baseball.” And there are some of us who are right there with him. [David Holmquist – “Will There Be Baseball in Heaven?”Christianity Today 38 (10 – January – 1994): 30-33].


When my dad died, the only spiritual question that my mother seemed to have for me as her minister son concerned their dog – “Barney” – who had been put to sleep right before dad’s health took its final and irrevocable last turn. “Will your father and Barney be together again in heaven?” was all that my mother wanted to know.  She asked with such intensity and earnestness, that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I really didn’t think so.  But, “There will be things so much better that Barney in heaven for dad” was what I was thinking in my head, but what came out of my mouth was, “I really don’t know for sure, but let me see what I can find out for you.”  That’s something I learned in seminary.

When you’re uncertain, stall.  Invoke the “mystery” clause of faith, the Deuteronomy 29:29 “secret things belong to the Lord” trump card to every question that stumps you.   And so I extricated myself from my mother’s grief-filled question with that well-rehearsed response.  She nodded her head, told me okay, but quickly added, “So, we’ll talk about it again later.”  I may have bought some time, but I wasn’t off the hook.  I knew that this question would circle back around again and again until I came up with an answer.  I knew that my mother, relentless in that motherly sort of way, was going to hold me to my promise to look into the prospects of dogs in heaven.  And what I found out surprised me.

HeavenYou see, there are lots of Christians who actually believe that when we get to heaven we’re going to find our most cherished pets waiting there for us, and C.S. Lewis, the formidable British Christian whose books about Christianity remain bestsellers 50 years after his death, was one of them.  He reasoned from 2 Corinthians 2:9 – “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Based on this verse which promises unimaginable bliss when we get to heaven, C.S. Lewis argued that if what it’s going to take to make you truly happy in heaven is having your special dog, or cat, or parakeet right there with you, then God will see to it that it happens.  And Biblically, it doesn’t hurt that when God’s promised future for us and for all creation got pictured in the Hebrew Scriptures, the picture included animals – “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6), or that the praise of “every living thing” surrounds God’s eternal throne (Psalm 150:6).

Is this argument persuasive?
I don’t know.

It certainly satisfied my mother, and I suppose that I’m grateful for the thought if for no other reason than that it gave her some peace after dad, and Barney were gone.  What C.S. Lewis’ argument about dogs in heaven has done for me is to remember the Bible’s promise that heaven is going to be a state of unimaginable bliss for those who love God.  It’s going to be so good that our eyes and ears won’t believe it, and our hearts won’t be able to fathom it, and now, at least in my head and heart, we’re talking about baseball in heaven again.


Another idea that C.S. Lewis had that I find compelling is that God gives us little foretastes of what heaven is eventually going to be like throughout our lives here and now so that we will continue the journey towards it. They are partial and fragmentary glimpses of it at best, but they point us in the direction of what God has in store for us in eternity because He loves us.  For some people its music that points their hearts to what’s coming next.  For others it’s a great painting or a masterpiece of literature. For nearly all of us it’s our relationships with our loved ones that alerts our hearts to what awaits us in eternity.  The preacher in Ecclesiastes said that “God set eternity in the human heart” (3:11), and for some of us, what stirs eternity in our hearts is baseball.

Am I making too much of baseball? Perhaps…
But is it not also a possibility that you’re making too little of baseball?

The nationally syndicated political columnist George Will once observed that people who say that baseball is only a game are the same people who say that the Grand Canyon is only a great big hole in the ground.


Ken Burns in his PBS series on Baseball pointed out that this game has “mythic proportions” in the American soul because it’s all about “getting home,”  and as the Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft reminds us, all of the great stories of Western Civilization are stories about people trying to get home – The Odyssey, The Exodus, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.


The late Bart Giamatti, the seventh commissioner of baseball who was a professor of renaissance literature at Yale University before leading major league baseball, always made it a point to say that one of our most common words for heaven, the word “paradise,” is a Persian word that means “an enclosed park,” or a “green space.”  He argued that baseball matters spiritually because ballparks remind us of the Garden from which we were expelled and of the paradise to which we are going.


Tim Stafford in an article on baseball in Christianity Today a number of years ago suggested that the spiritual significance of baseball is like that of the Passion plays of medieval times.  It is the story of the noble struggle that leads to victory and the hope that is born of defeat — themes intrinsic to the Gospel story of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection itself.


And finally, Richard Mouw in his study of common grace – God’s delight in everything that He made and not just in what He saves – suggested that what common grace means is that God can enjoy a good baseball game for reasons that “stand alongside of, rather than being subservient to” His work of eternal salvation.  He “shines in all that’s fair” as the title of his book on common grace borrowed from a line of the hymn “This is My Father’s World” (#59 in the Chalice Hymnal) puts it.  And in some mysterious way, as Revelation 21:24 hints at, in the final restoration of all things, “the kings of the earth will bring their splendors into” the New Jerusalem for the glory of God and the eternal joy of His redeemed people.  And since baseball is one of the true splendors of this earth, I’m not counting out the possibility that there is going to be baseball in heaven.  DBS+


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