Jesus Wept…

Jesus Wept

The news of another school shooting, this time in Southern Oregon, has produced all of the now familiar reactions and responses in us.

On the personal level we grieve.  Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ predictable stages are all playing out in our hearts once again – Shock, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance. This is a loss that we all feel to varying degrees, and grief is the healing process that we are given to survive such losses.  We are stunned that it’s happened again.   We are mad that it just keeps on happening.  We are sad for the families, and for ourselves, wondering -what’s become of us as a people? We are asking ourselves and each other – what can be done to stop this senseless violence?  And we are unsettled by just how familiar this has all become, how it is our “new normal.”  This is how grieve, and we will be grieving for some time to come.


On the public level we seek solutions.  Gun violence is a social problem that tears at the very fabric of our national life.  We are a country birthed in the recognition that human beings have certain “unalienable” rights given to them by their Creator – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” being just three of the ones that got explicitly named.  The establishment and defense of these rights for all is an important part of the nobility of our national agenda, and gun violence like that which left ten dead and thirteen wounded at the Umpqua Community College last Thursday morning is a clear violation of them for the slain, the wounded, their loved ones, that community and our nation.  This is a matter of deep concern for the body politic.

And so, frankly, I just don’t get the criticism of our elected government leaders for supposedly “politicizing” this tragedy. “Politicizing” is the politician’s job after all.  It’s what they are elected to do, and that’s not a “bad” thing in my mind. “Politics” is how we order our society. “Politics” is how we “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

If anything, I am frustrated that the national political conversation triggered by events like the shootings at the Umpqua Community College last week, and at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, and at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a few years back, just to name a few of the episodes of the kind of violence that we’ve got to address as a people, hasn’t been more robust and haven’t produced more and better results.  And so I say, “bring it on.”  It’s time – and many would say it’s long overdue – that we finally sorted out this question as a nation.  Too many people are dying.  Too many families are being ripped apart.  Too many communities are being devastated.  And so as a citizen of this country I am resolved to listen, and to think, and to debate the options with my family and closest friends, and to settle my own convictions, and then finally to vote my conscience on gun violence.


And so, I grieve personally as a human being, and I ponder politically as a citizen, but what am I supposed to be doing as a Christian, and more specifically, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of a local church?  Well, in the simplest of terms, I think that I as a Christian and as a pastor, and that we as a church are supposed to “help.” But, what should be the shape of that “help”?

Well, at the personal level of grief, I believe that the way we “help” most as Christians is by always remembering that it is the primary business of the church “to be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving and serving from our doorsteps ‘to the ends of the earth.’”   As Denny Burk, a Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky, puts it –

It is important for Christians to use this moment to bring the claims of the gospel to bear upon people’s reflection on this tragedy…  The gospel gives answers to the deepest questions raised by the shootings… (1) Why is there evil in the world? (2) How do people become capable of such heinous evil? (3) Where was God during the massacre? (4) Who’s going to make this right? (5) Who will care for the broken-hearted who were left behind?  These are all ultimate questions, and… as Christians, we announce the gospel of Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised for sinners and who will one day return to make all things new as the answer.  The coming kingdom of Christ is the only thing that will ultimately satisfy the instinctive human desire for “justice,” [and that can heal the deepest wounds of the human heart].

And then, at the public level of political discourse and decision-making, I believe that the way the church “helps” best is not by preaching a specific social policy as if it alone were God’s official position on an issue, but instead by helping the ordinary Christians who are in our care to think more deliberately and carefully about the general moral principles that are drawn from Scripture that are meant to inform the public policy debates.

If you ask me, far too many Christian leaders, both on the right and on the left, act as if the specific political conclusion that they have personally drawn on a pressing social question is the only legitimate “Christian” option when, in fact, Christians of equally “good faith” and sincere conscience can, and quite often do, draw very different conclusions. David VanDrunen, a Seminary Professor of Systematic Theology, explains how this happens by reminding his readers that nowhere does “Scripture set forth a political policy agenda or embrace a particular political party.” The Bible is not intended to be used as a textbook for civil policy” R. Scott Clark, one of Professor VanDrunen’s colleagues points out, “any more than it is intended as a ‘playbook for sports.” And so Professor VanDrunen concludes, “When it comes to supporting a particular party, or candidate, or platform, or strategy – individual believers have the liberty to utilize the wisdom that God gives them to make decisions they believe will be of most good to society at large.” And I believe that an important part of the “wisdom” that God has given us to make our decisions that we think will be of the most good to society at large are the “general principles of the second table of God’s law” (Exodus 20:12-17).  This is a resource we dare not neglect as Christians.

crossHonor your father and your mother…
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet…

Of course, the complicating factor in the use of this spiritual resource, as Jason Stellman has helpfully pointed out, is that “there is a big difference between a moral principle and the implementation of that moral principle” ( –

Just because we agree on a point of ethics, that doesn’t mean that we will agree on what to do next. …I don’t think that there are easy answers to the big questions we are facing, and therefore I will not pretend to provide them.  All I’m asking for is that, amid our pulpit-pounding and rally cries to one cause or another, we take the time to think a little bit harder than we are accustomed to doing, especially before calling an opponent’s faith or character into question.

Now, the obvious general moral principle drawn from the second table of the law that speaks directly to gun violence is – “You shall not murder.” On this, I suspect that everyone in the public political debate agrees.  But how is this general moral principle best implemented?  What shape should it take in actual public policy?

Just like you, I have some Christian friends who argue that tighter gun control legislation is the right way to give expression to this moral principle, and I don’t know, they may very well be right.  But I have other Christian friends, as I suspect you do too, who argue that open carry legislation is instead the right way to give it public policy expression, and I don’t know, they may very well be right.  Clearly, I need to give this some more thought.  But, here’s what I already know – I have equally faithful Christian friends who are conscientiously attending to the very same moral principle, and who have nevertheless arrived at very different conclusions about how to best implement it.  With them I believe that “You shall not murder” is a divinely inspired moral principle.  It’s not negotiable.  But the best way to give it expression in a modern society torn asunder by gun violence is a political conversation that needs to be had without one public policy posturing as the sole beneficiary of some imagined divine imprimatur.

For God’s sake – the God who commanded “You shall not murder” – let’s have the urgent political conversation in the public square that this moment in our social history as a people demands, free of the illusion that only this or that public policy proposal is “God’s position” on the matter.  What God wants is for the school shootings to stop.  What God is asking right now is – What are you prepared to do about it now?  DBS+



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Another Day After…

Umpqua Community College – October 1, 2015


The fact that there are prayer and worship resources for moments like these in our hymnal says something sad and alarming about our world.  As you process the aftermath of another mass casualty shooting and think about how you as a Christian need to respond, I invite you to spend some quiet time today with the text  of this hymn from the Chalice Hymnal –

When Aimless Violence Takes Those We Love [Chalice Hymnal #512]
Words: Joy F. Patterson, 1992 – Hope Publishing Company, 1994

When aimless violence takes those we love,
when random death strikes childhood’s promise down,
when wrenching loss becomes our daily bread,
we know, O God, you leave us not alone.

When passing years rob sight and strength and mind
yet fail to still a strongly beating heart,
and grief becomes the fabric of our days,
dear Lord, you do not stand from us apart.

Our faith may flicker low, and hope grow dim,
yet you, O God, are with us in our pain;
you grieve with us and for us day by day,
and with us, sharing sorrow, will remain.

Because your Son knew agony and loss,
felt desolation, grief and scorn and shame,
we know you will be with us, come what may,
your loving presence near, always the same.

Through long, grief-darkened days help us, O Lord,
to trust your grace for courage to endure,
to rest our souls in your supporting love,
and find our hope within your mercy sure.

As far as prayer goes on a day like today, my “go to” text for reflection is the prayer that was written by Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the Anglican Bishop of Iran, after his son, Bahram, was killed during the Iranian Revolution in 1980.   When he received the news of the death of his son, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti wrote his wife from his exile on Cyprus –

I feel bewildered but very calm. May God forgive those who have murdered our son.  For, plainly, ‘they knew not what they did’.  What had Bahram ever done to them? May God use the death of our dear son to free people from hatred and enmity in our country, in whatever way He knows. What an educated and cultured man our country has lost. The seed of this sacrifice somehow, sometime, somewhere in the whole plan of God for his world, will blossom and bear fruit. How and when and where we cannot know but we believe that the sacrifice will not be wasted. We must not have hatred in our hearts –only sorrow, pity, mercy and compassion, for those callous murderers. May God awaken their souls so that they realize the depth of their prejudice and hatred and so be saved from their sin.

And on the day of the funeral, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti broadcast this prayer into the service which he could not personally attend –

O God, we remember not only Bahram but his murderers, not because they killed him in the prime of his youth and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow, not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace on the name of our country among the civilized nations of the world: but because through their crime we now follow more closely thy footsteps in the way of sacrifice. The terrible fire of this calamity burns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us: its flame reveals the depth of depravity, meanness and suspicion, the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature. It makes plain to us as never before our need to trust in thy love as shown in the Cross of Jesus and his Resurrection, love that makes us free from all hatred towards our persecutors: love which brings patience, forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity and greatness of heart, love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and thy eternal designs for the Church and for the world: love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death.

O God, Bahram’s blood multiplies the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls: so when his murderers stand before thee on the Day of Judgment remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives, and forgive.


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The Leap of Faith


In a sermon at church I recently quoted something that Hendrikus Berkhof (1914 – 1995) wrote.  Berkhof was an important Dutch Reformed theologian from the last generation, and in one of his books he described that what he found in the Bible – in both the Old Testament and the New – as being a matter of “faith-religion.” He explained what this meant by saying that the Bible asks us to “reach beyond (our own personal) experience, (to) hold on against the evidence, (it’s) a trust which at times can become totally blind, (it’s something that) always has the undertone of the ‘not yet’ in it, (it’s all about) living by a promise” (Christian Faith – 16).

  • God asked Abraham to leave everyone who was familiar and everything that was secure to venture out to the place where God would lead him.  “Trust me,” God asked Abraham.
  • God asked Moses to go back to Egypt where he was a wanted man in order to set His people free.  “Trust me,” God asked Moses.
  • God asked David to become a King when he was just a boy and while Saul still raged from the throne. “Trust me,” God asked David.
  • God asked Jesus to go to Jerusalem where He would be betrayed by His friends and killed by the powerful.  “Trust me,” the Father asked the Son.
  • And God asks us to believe that He is there, that He knows all about our needs, and that He loves us in spite of ourselves.  “Trust me,” God asks us.

boatIt was Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855), the Danish Philosopher, who said that faith is like a leap in the dark.  He said that it’s sort of like being asked to step out of a boat knowing that there is nothing but 10,000 fathoms of water beneath your feet!  And he was right — sometimes faith does feel like this, and that’s what I think Hendrikus Berkhof was trying to tell us.  Thinking and talking like this takes me back to my days as a youth minister in Southeastern Idaho.

One of the staples in my bag of tricks back then was something called a “faith walk.”  I would pair up all of the kids in the youth group, blindfold one of them in each pair, and then send them off on a kind of obstacle course.  There would always be trees to avoid, creeks to be crossed, fences to be gotten over, or around, and other people on the course to be dodged.  And because one of the pair was always blindfolded, unable to see a thing, he or she had to rely entirely on the directions given by his or her partner — hence the name for this little exercise: a “faith” or “trust” walk.

grassNaturally, there was always that one kid in the youth group who delighted in deliberately walking his or her partner into walls and off of cliffs, but generally speaking, this group building exercise always taught the kids something important about what it means to have to trust somebody else.  Of course, it never hurt to let the kids know that just as soon as the one who had been blindfolded had gotten through the course that the roles would immediately be reversed and it would become the other person in the pair’s turn to have to wear the blindfold. I always wanted my kids to learn to trust each other, and this exercise helped in that process.  But more than that, I wanted them to learn how to trust God.

I’ve heard it said that “when we come to the end of all the light that we possess, and all we can see in front of us is darkness, to take another step means that we’ve got to believe that one of two things will happen next — either there will be something solid there for us to strand on, or else God will teach us how to fly.”  And I think that this is right.  I agree with the Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof: the Bible is a “faith-religion.” And I agree with the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: there comes a moment for each one of us when we’ve actually got to step out of the boat, take the leap of faith.  But what could possibly convince us to do this?   Is this just a desperate, irrational choice, or is there more to it than that?

The late Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer used to tell this story –

Suppose we are climbing in the Alps and are very high on the bare rock, when suddenly the fog rolls in. The guide turns to us and says that the ice is forming and that there is no hope; before morning we will all freeze to death here on the shoulder of the mountain. Simply to keep warm the guide keeps us moving in the dense fog further and further out on the shoulder until none of us have any idea where we are. After an hour or so, someone says to the guide, “Suppose I dropped and hit a ledge ten feet down in the fog. What would happen then?” The guide would say that you might make it until the morning and thus live. So, with absolutely no knowledge or any reason to support his action, one of the group hangs and drops into the fog. This would be one kind of a leap of faith.

But suppose, however, that after we have worked out on the shoulder in the midst of the fog and the growing ice on the rock, we had stopped and we heard a voice which said, “You cannot see me, but I know exactly where you are from your voices.  I am on another ridge. I have lived in these mountains, man and boy, for over sixty years and I know every foot of them. I assure you that ten feet below you there is a ledge. If you hang and drop, you can make it through the night and I will get you in the morning.  Would you?

And Francis Schaeffer explained –

I would not hang and drop at once, but would ask questions to try to ascertain if the man knew what he was talking about.  In the Alps, for example, I would ask him his name. If the name he gave me was the name of a family from that part of the mountains, it would count a great deal to me. In the Swiss Alps there are certain family names that indicate mountain families of that area. In my desperate situation, even though time would be running out, I would ask him what to me would be the adequate and sufficient questions, and only when I became convinced by his answers, then I would hang and drop. [He is There & He Is Not Silent – Appendix #2 – “Faith” Versus Faith – 99-100]

Just like that blindfolded kid on a faith walk during youth group in Pocatello, Idaho, 40 years ago, or that climber stranded on the side of a mountain in Switzerland, we’ve each got to decide for ourselves whether or not we’re going to move out believing what we’re being told when we can’t see what’s in front of us.  And more often than not, it seems to me, that what finally determines whether we do or we don’t is the credibility of the one who is extending the invitation, the reliability of the one who’s asking us to trust him.  Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of my own spiritual tradition, argued that – “Faith is the simple belief of testimony.’’ He said that saving faith is nothing more and nothing less than having confidence in what we are being told because we trust the one who is doing the telling.  And this explains my relationship with Scripture.

John 17:20 says that we now believe in Christ “through the word” of the Apostles. Ephesians 2:20 says that our faith is built on the foundation of the Apostles. I John opens with its author asking us to believe what he has to say about Jesus Christ because he had seen Him with his own two eyes, heard Him with his own two ears and touched Him with his own two hands (1:1-4).  2 Peter urges us not to “follow cleverly devised tales,” but to believe instead in what he had to say about Jesus Christ because he himself had been there with Him as an “eyewitness” (2 Peter 1:16).  And in the Gospel of John, right after Thomas reached out and touched the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side a week after Easter, persuading him that Christ was indeed risen from the dead, Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).  But instead of this being the invitation to a completely “blind faith” as it is usually explained, I recognize that my capacity to believe even though I have not seen rests to a significant degree on the fact that Thomas did see, and that his doubt was turned to faith as a result, and that I know that this happened because it is in the New Testament.  This is how I believe “through their word,” and it is the basis of my Biblical Christianity.

The believers’ “beatitude” is I Peter 1:8 – “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.” And I find that the only way this works for me is when I have a Bible in my hands, head, and heart. DBS+


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“How I Love Your Word, O Lord”



Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a love poem. Structured on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each one of the 22 sections of Psalm 119 offers another reason why the Psalmist loved God’s Word so much.  And every time I read Psalm 119 I am struck again by the intensity of the feelings of devotion and affection that the Psalmist had for the word that God had spoken to Israel, and I am left to wonder about the disposition of my own heart to the word that God has spoken to us.

popeIn the Episcopal Church of my childhood and youth I watched the priest every Sunday morning kiss the pages of Scripture at the end of the Gospel reading.  It was always a curious thing to see.  And there was a season in my spiritual life when I would have told you that that this gesture was a dangerous thing for a Christian to do, a confusion of the gift for the giver, of the word spoken for the one speaking it.   I know all about the dangers of what’s been called “Bibliolatry,” the way that some Christians have made an idol out of their Bibles, a functional substitute for God.  Being right about what the Bible says matters more to some believers I know than actually being in a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Jesus specifically warned us about this.  In John 5:39 He observed that some of His critics were searching the Scriptures because they thought that in them they would find eternal life, but in fact what the Scriptures bore witness to was Him.  It is Jesus who is the Word of God (John 1:1), and I believe that the Bible shares in this designation of the Word of God as the divinely superintended witness (this is what I understand “inspiration” to mean) to God’s speaking and acting (John 13:26; 16:12-15).  My love for the Bible is just as simple as the children’s song says – “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” I appreciate the way that John Piper (this is not a blanket endorsement of everything that he says and does) explains it –

I love the Bible the way I love my eyes—not because my eyes are lovely, but because without them I can’t see what’s lovely.  Without the Bible I could not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). Without the Bible I could not know “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Without the Bible I would not know that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior. I love the Bible because it gives the wisdom that leads to salvation, and shows me that this salvation is nothing less than seeing and savoring the glory of Christ forever. And then provides for me inexhaustible ways of seeing and knowing and enjoying Christ. (John Piper –

piperMy view of Scripture these days tracks pretty much along the lines that were first staked out by James Denney (1856–1917) the Scottish Congregationalist theologian.  He had a “sacramental” take on Scripture.  He regarded them as the outward and audible expressions of the invisible and eternal God.  He called the Bible a “means of grace,” and he explained that what he meant by this was that “it is the means through which God communicates with man, making him know what is His heart towards him.” He called the Bible “the medium through which God speaks to the believer.” (1856–1917) Quoting a Professor Robertson Smith, James Denney concurred –

If I am asked why I receive Scripture as the Word of God, and as the only perfect rule of faith and life, I answer with all the fathers of the Protestant Church, “Because the Bible is the only record of the redeeming love of God, because in the Bible alone I find God drawing near to man in Jesus Christ, and declaring to us in Him His will for our salvation.  And this record I know to be true by the witness of His Spirit in my heart, whereby I am assured that none other than God Himself is able to speak such words to my soul.”

Believing this to be true, and then having the personal experience of it myself over and over again when I open my Bible and read, I find myself in the spiritual vicinity of the same kind of devotion and affection that the Psalmist extolled for God’s Word in Psalm 119.  Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the Protestant Reformer, once described the Bible as the straw in which he found the baby Jesus.  And so, while I don’t kiss the pages of Scripture, I find that I truly love them because they bring me to Jesus.  And like any lover, I find that I often take offense when I hear the object of my devotion being slighted, real or imagined.  I am put on edge by any dismissive attitude or flippant comment that have the effect of undermining people’s confidence in the Bible because what is being diminished is the instrument that we have been given that brings us into a saving encounter with the living Word, Jesus Christ.

kneeJust like when my doctor taps my knee with her little rubber hammer and I kick reflexively, I find that I tend to kick spiritually too when I hear the Bible or people’s sincere attention to it being dismissed or ridiculed.  For instance, I reacted strongly at a recent denominational meeting I was at to a young colleague’s jaunty public observations about what I suspect we both would both easily put in “a matter of interpretation” category where unanimity of conviction is neither expected nor required, and where honest and searching debate is welcome. Far from being an “essential,” I nevertheless kicked when this topic was tapped.  And as I have reflected on why I reacted as I did, I have found myself circling back around to Psalm 119.

I don’t suspect my young colleague of not loving the Scriptures or Jesus Christ as I do.  Despite our differences, substantial as they are, I know that he does.  But I took his flip comment about the authorship of a New Testament letter that has long been disputed by scholarship as a swipe (see: Andrew Wilson – “Why it Matters That Paul Wrote the Pastoral Epistles”  It felt like he was calling my girlfriend fat, or telling me that my beloved was ugly, and I took them as fighting words.  I rose in her defense.  Now, in all fairness, I don’t think that he was intentionally doing this, but his irreverence just tapped the knee of my soul in such a way that it reflexively kicked.

When the dust settled from our little kerfuffle, what I was able to name for my friend was my increasingly urgent concern as a theological conservative in an ever more progressive denomination that our stated pluralism as a church has to be taken seriously and sensitively.   For all of our vaunted appreciation for unity in diversity, the way that we actually make room for somebody with whom we disagree is by what we say to them and by how we say it.  And for people with a more traditional faith like mine, the flash point is often going to be anything that threatens the credibility of our confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture.  And that’s because when the Bible is in dispute it is not some abstract and theoretical ideas that we are debating but something that we deeply love, and upon which we truly rely for our spiritual vitality.  When we hear it being diminished or feel like it is being undermined, then we are likely to react spiritually. We traditionalists are certainly not adverse to rigorous conversations about the Bible, but our souls require that there be some degree of reverence in the conversation as well because the word that we are examining so closely is “full of the Spirit and life” for us (John 6:63).

dukeIn my last year of seminary I was part of  a Council of Southwest Theological Seminaries seminar.   COSTS seminars brought together students and faculty from the major seminaries around Texas – Perkins at SMU, Brite at TCU, Austin Presbyterian, the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio – for shared research and a sustained conversation on a theological topic of current interest.  The faculty member from Brite who accompanied us on our COSTS seminar back in 1979 was Dr. Duke, the church historian at Brite.  On one of our drives home from Austin following a COSTS session, I remember Dr. Duke sitting in the backseat of the car quietly reading the Bible.  We asked him what he was doing. “Are you preparing a sermon?” “Are you getting ready for a lecture?” “Was this in preparation for the teaching a class?” I’ve heard it said that when W.C. Fields was caught reading the Bible one day, he explained away his behavior by saying that he was just “looking for the loopholes.” Well, our assumption as seminarians was that a critical scholar of Dr. Duke’s stature would only be reading the Bible in pursuit of some academic interest or assignment — “looking for some loophole” so to speak.   But instead,  Dr. Duke simply looked up from his Bible and said, “No, I’m just reading the Bible for myself” he explained, “I do this for my spiritual well-being.”  And with that he looked back down at his Bible and continued to read it for the rest of the trip back to Ft. Worth.

That image and those words are vivid and impactful in my memory.  The example of reverence for the Biblical text from this scholar of enormous intellect and learning has remained in my imagination one of the more powerful examples of what it means to love God with all your mind.  So much so that now, at the beginning of almost every Bible Study that I teach, I offer a prayer that includes the specific petition that the spiritual exercise in which we are about to enagage might not just fill our heads with more information so that we would be smarter, but that it might also fill our hearts with a greater awareness of who God is and what God is doing so that we might learn to trust and thank Him more.  And as I pray this, in my mind’s eye I often see Dr. Duke sitting in the backseat of a car reading his Bible.  Intellectual rigor and heartfelt reverence are not mutually exclusive categories for the Christian.  In fact, they desperately need each other.   DBS+



Imagine a lover who has received a letter from his beloved. I assume that God’s Word is just as precious to you as this letter is to the lover. I assume that you read and think you ought to read God’s Word in the same way the lover reads this letter. Yet you perhaps say, “Yes, but Scripture is written in a foreign language.” Let us assume, then, that this letter from the beloved is written in a language that the lover does not understand. But let us also assume that there is no one around who can translate it for him. Perhaps he would not even want any such help lest a stranger be initiated into his secrets. What does he do? He takes a dictionary, begins to spell his way through the letter, looks up every word in order to obtain a translation. Now let us imagine that, as he sits there busy with his task, an acquaintance comes in. He knows that the letter has come, because he sees it lying there, and says, “So, you are reading a letter from your beloved.” What do you think the other will say? He answers, “Have you gone mad? Do you think this is reading a letter from my beloved! No, my friend, I am sitting here toiling and moiling with a dictionary to get it translated. At times I am ready to explode with impatience; the blood rushes to my head, and I would just as soon hurl the dictionary on the floor—and you call that reading! You must be joking! No, thank God, as soon as I am finished with the translation I shall read my beloved’s letter; that is something altogether different.” (Soren Kierkegaard – For Self-Examination/Judge for Yourself, ed. and trans. by Howard V. and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990], 26-27)


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Where “Creative Compassion” Begins

kurdi3 year old Alyan Kurdi drowned last week with his 5 year old brother Galip, their mother, and nine other Syrian refugees during an attempted crossing of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece fleeing from the violence and hopelessness of their Civil War torn homeland.  More than 2,500 others have been lost at sea in recent months trying to make this same dangerous crossing.  The decision to publish the picture Alyan’s lifeless body being tenderly retrieved by a Turkish policeman has been criticized by some on the grounds that it is just too graphic. But Peter Bouckaert, the emergency director of Human Rights Watch, defended the decision to circulate the picture by saying, “What is offensive is dead kids washing up on our beaches when these deaths could have been prevented.”

When I see a picture like this one, my instincts, due in large measure, I suspect, to my temperament and training, is to try to make sense of it theologically.  It grabs me by my emotional and spiritual lapels and gives me a good hard shake.  Albert Camus, the French Existentialist novelist, reduced the rationale for his atheism down to a single argument given voice by a character in one of his stories – “Until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” I hear the challenge in that, and so I feel a certain urgency to try to defend God in the face of such suffering.

jobsI suspect that this was this was the motive of Job’s friends in the Old Testament story.  As you know, they rushed to his side in his days of suffering out of their genuine concern for their friend, and then they just couldn’t help themselves to try to explain it.   Their answers, not entirely devoid of Biblical insight, nevertheless sounded glib and shallow in the setting.  The moment would have been so much better served by the simple solidarity of their silence (see my blog – “First you have to show up…”).

popeAnd so I try to be sensitive to the suggestion of Rowan Williams, the immediate past Archbishop of Canterbury, that “it actually might be immoral to try to ‘solve’ the problem of evil, because just as soon as you say, ‘There, look, that makes it all right, doesn’t it?’ you have radically belittled the problem, blinding yourself to the real, powerful, radical nature of evil” (N.T. Wright).   Earlier this year when a little homeless girl in the Philippines had her audience with Pope Francis she asked him why God allowed children to suffer.  In response he hugged her and wept, saying, “There are some realities that you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears.”   It is only when we have wept with those who are weeping (Romans 12:15), that I believe that we then have any right to reflect on the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15).  We must lead with our hearts and not our minds when they have been shattered by great suffering, either experienced by ourselves or observed in others.  The deep emotional response that we make to make to photographs like that of Alyan Kurdi is a good and necessary prelude to action.

Colin Morris explained it like this –

I saw a starving man and there was no gnawing pain in my belly. I saw a hunchback and my own back did not ache.  I watched a pathetic procession of refugees, being herded back and forth sleeplessly, and I slept well that night.   The theologians call it “Identification” and it is worth fifty pages in a reputable text book.  But it is easier to read fifty pages than to feel one pang.

And then Stanley Mooneyham of World Vision added –

Both for your sake and the world’s, I hope you will allow yourself to feel as you read (or look at a picture).  For feeling will lead to identification and it is here that creative compassion begins.

And so, if you have been deeply impacted by the picture of that little Syrian refugee boy who drowned last week in the Aegean Sea, then let those feelings push you into creative compassion.


Here is a three step “graduated” approach to making an appropriate response –

  • First Steps – A Personal Response
  1. Pray –

Heavenly Father, you are the source of all goodness, generosity and love. We thank you for opening the hearts of many to those who are fleeing for their lives.  Help us now to open our arms in welcome, and reach out our hands in support.  That the desperate may find new hope, and lives torn apart be restored.  We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Your Son, Our Lord, who fled persecution at His birth and at His last triumphed over death.  Amen

A Prayer for the Refugee Crisis

  1. Give

100% of your gifts to Week of Compassion designated “Syria Humanitarian Crisis” will directly go to help Syrian refugees and those who are internally displaced in the Middle East and in Europe. (

  • Next Steps – A Church-wide Response
  1. Lead your Church to get involved in a Refugee Ministry

It is the vision of Gateways of Grace here in Dallas to see the practical and spiritual needs of refugees in our communities met through compassionate, meaningful, Christ-centered relationships with the local Church.  Check out their web page @ and then look for ways that your community of faith might get involved in this ministry or in other ministries like it that would give the global refugee crisis a voice and a face.

  1. Lead your Church to Consider Sponsoring a Refugee Family as a Congregation

Learn more about what it takes to resettle a Refugee Family as a church by going to the web page of Refugee Ministries @

  • Going Even Further – A Society Response
  1. Vote

We are in a Presidential Election season and questions about refugees, immigration and the crisis in the Middle East are some of the hot topics that are being publically debated.  This feels like a “Kairos” moment to me – a moment in history pregnant with divine possibilities. “Think Christianly” about the issues, and then vote your conscience and conviction.

  1. Support

Sign the Petition for the United States to increase the resettlement of more Syrian refugees at –

To feel deeply when you see a picture of the lifeless body of little Alyan Kurdi is good, but it is not enough.  Those feelings are supposed to be the trigger to action, to expressions of creative compassion.  Grieve — and then act.  We can all do something.  DBS+


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“Owning” Our Part

interfaithWe began our fall series of “Faiths in Conversation” last week with a session on the “Religious Sources of Extremism and Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam” at the brand new East Plano Mosque. We’ve been doing this together long enough now that we are comfortable challenging each other when something is said that doesn’t sit well with someone else.  This happened last week.

A longtime participant in the conversations approached me after my presentation to say that what I had said – or had not said – had offended her.  Now, nobody likes to hear this, especially in this kind of setting.  And I suspect that everybody just naturally gets a little defensive when criticism like this comes their way.  But this woman and I have been conversation partners long enough now – one of the powerful values of this program if you ask me – to trust each other enough to be honest.  And so she felt free to tell me where she thought that I had completely missed the point in my presentation on “The Religious Sources of Extremism and Violence in Christianity.” Pushing past my initial reflex of shame at not doing a good job with my assignment in her opinion, an opinion I value, and then working hard to suppress my natural response to want to defend myself and what I had said, I really tried to listen to what she was telling me.

Her point was that I hadn’t “owned” the violence of Christian extremism as fully or as explicitly as she thought that I should have.  She is Jewish, and the history of Christian violence against her people, our spiritual mothers and fathers, is just so egregious that she thought that I as a Christian should have been clearer about it than I was.  I think that she wanted me to say less about the sources within the Christian tradition – our “texts of terror” – that are used by violent Christian extremists to justify their actions, and more about where Christians continue to behave in ways that threaten the spiritual legitimacy, and in some cases, the very existence of people of other faith perspectives like hers.

And I get her point, in fact, it was the very point that I was trying to make. Clearly, I did not succeed in doing this in her mind, but my honest intention was to name the way that we who are Christians have a real tendency to evade our own horrifying track record of violence in the name of Christ.  And so, I began my presentation –

“Peace on earth, good will to men” is what the Christmas angels sang the night that Christ was born according to the Gospel of Luke (2:14), and so in the minds of many, Christianity doesn’t have much of a contribution to make to this evening’s conversation about extremism and violence.  Hanan (“our” rabbi) has the book of Joshua that he’s got to deal with as a Jew, and Nadim (“our” Imam) has the whole concept of “jihad” that he’s got to explain as a Muslim.  But as a Christian what I’ve got are the lilies of the valley, the birds of the air and the sweet by and by.  Oh, Christians can take extreme positions and participate in violent acts to be sure.  But such responses are widely thought of as being exceptions to, even contradictions of genuine Christianity which is a religion of love.

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

I used this admission as my entry point into an exploration of the New Testament texts that I think have historically fueled the violent oppression of non-Christians throughout history and into the present age.   As I explained, I believe that the book of Revelation is the New Testament’s equivalent to the Old Testament’s book of Joshua, and that the concept of the Kingdom of God – Jesus Christ’s central message – is the spiritual truth that has been most often fashioned into a club by some Christians to clobber others.

Violent Christian Extremists – and let there be no question here this evening that they exist – tend to coalesce around the position that it is their spiritual responsibility to actively engage the hostile forces and establish the Divine Kingdom by their own efforts.  Armageddon (Revelation 19) is an event that they believe that they will bring about by their own armed conflict with the hostile forces.  The Millennium (Revelation 20) is a dispensation that they believe that they will usher in by constantly pushing the world towards its catastrophic climax.  David Koresch, Jim Jones, Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik all saw themselves as “holy warriors in this sacred struggle” who believed that their acts of violence would hasten Armageddon and usher in the Kingdom.  There are Christians who think and sometimes act like this.  They are advocates of what are known as “power encounters.”  Believing that our God can beat up your God, they are always looking for a fight, hoping that the next confrontation will be the apocalyptic tipping point that will finally unleash the cosmic forces that lead to Armageddon and that will result in the coming of the Millennium.

Of course, I argued that these people represent a radical fringe position within contemporary Christianity, in the same exact way that Hanan, while acknowledging that violet Jewish extremists currently exist who use “texts of terror” from the Hebrew Scriptures to warrant their actions, argued that they represent a radical fringe position within contemporary Judaism, and Nadim, while acknowledging that violent Muslim extremists currently exist who use “texts of terror” from the Muslim Scriptures to warrant their actions, argued that they represent a radical fringe position within contemporary Islam.  All of which is to say that each one of our spiritual traditions can be used by some of “our” very own people in ways that the rest of us find alien and abhorrent.  And our common task as custodians of our traditions is to “own” these fringe movements – privately challenging and correcting their claims, publically condemning and vigorously countering their actions, and earnestly seeking different ways of believing and behaving.

To this end I offer you in closing a version of G.E. Lessing’s “Parable of the Rings.” I read it for the first time 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 – but there is nevertheless a wisdom in this little story that I suspect has the power to change the way that we think and relate to one another, especially as Jews, Christians and Muslims, if we would all just agree to heed its lessons.  DBS+


Nathan the Wise, the last play written by the eighteenth-century philosopher and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, contains a fascinating reworking of the classic parable of the three rings… Lessing’s version of the story is set in Jerusalem in the twelfth century during the Third Crusade. The play revolves around the complex relationships of three characters, each representative of one of the three great monotheistic religions: Nathan, a Jew; Saladin, the Muslim sultan; and a Christian Templar Knight.

Nathan finds himself in the great Saladin’s palace. The sultan tests Nathan by asking him which of the three monotheistic religions is the best. “You are so wise,” he says to Nathan, “now tell me, I entreat, what human faith, what theological law hath struck you as the truest and the best?” Nathan prudently avoids a direct response and instead tells the parable of the three rings.

There was a man, says Nathan, who had an opal ring of supreme beauty and unusual powers. Whoever wore the ring was beloved by God and man. This ring had been passed down from generation to generation and now was the possession of this man who had three sons, each of whom he loved equally. At one time or another, the man had promised the ring to each of his sons. Sensing that he was about to die and realizing that he could not give the one ring to each of the three sons, the man secretly asked a master jeweler to make two perfect copies of the ring. The jeweler did such a good job that the man himself could not tell which was the original. At his deathbed, the man called each of his sons and gave him a ring and a blessing. After the father’s death, the sons discovered that each one had a ring, and they began to argue among themselves as to which one possessed the original ring. Commenting on their bickering, Nathan links their inability to identify the original ring to our inability to judge which is the one true religion:

[The brothers] investigate, recriminate, and wrangle—all in vain—
Which was the true original genuine ring
Was undemonstrable—
Almost as much as now by us is undemonstrable
The one true faith.

The brothers then approach a wise judge to settle the dispute, but the judge responds by saying,

If each of you in truth received his ring
Straight from his father’s hand, let each believe
His own to be the true and genuine ring.

After admonishing the brothers to quit trying to determine which is the original, the judge exhorts each son to accept his ring as if it were the true one and live a life of moral goodness, thereby bringing honor both to their father and to God.

(Harold A. Netland - )



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THE “PRAYER FOR INDIFFERENCE” IN DISCERNMENT: Avoiding “Eisogesis” in the Use of Scripture when Addressing “Hot Potato” Issues

“Be it hereby enacted: That every three years all people shall forget whatever
they have learned about Jesus, and begin the study all over again”  
Robert M. Brown quoted by Brennan Manning in The Signature of Jesus (159)


We are in a discernment process at the church I serve about same sex marriage.  The Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer significantly shifted the cultural terrain, or is it, responded to the significant shift on the cultural terrain that has been well underway since the sexual revolution of the late 1960’s?  Either way, within 15 minutes of the court’s ruling I had my first request to perform a same sex wedding, and I knew that neither I nor the church I serve was very clear about what to do next.

listenAnd so, using the denominational resource Listening to the Spirit: A Handbook for Discernment (Chalice Press – 2001) that was created for “such a time as this,” the elders at the church I serve have begun a deliberate process of discernment by listening to the voices of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters, to the voice of God through the Word of Scripture, to the wisdom of the church across time, especially to that of our own spiritual tradition in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in each one of our hearts.  As the words of a familiar Thanksgiving hymn put it ~ we are seeking “a wisdom surpassing our own.”

potAfter putting all of these ingredients together into a great big pot and letting them simmer for a while, our elders will gather for a weekend of prayerful conversation right after the first of the year.  And just like the church in the book of Acts who had to discern the place of Gentiles in the plan and people of God, we anticipate that our elders will come out of that retreat in January speaking a “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) kind of word to this particular community of faith about how we should faithfully respond to future requests for same sex weddings in our facilities and performed by our ministers.

pursueIn our preparation for this process, one of the resources that I looked at was Ruth Haley Barton’s book on the practice of discernment by leadership groups called Pursuing God’s Will Together (IVP – 2012). Ruth spent some time with us as a church a couple of years ago and we highly respect her spiritual wisdom.  She insists that “discernment takes place in the context of friendship with God as it is cultivated through prayer” (42), and she explains that one of the kinds of prayer that is specifically associated with discernment is “the prayer for indifference.”

In this prayer we ask God to work in our hearts to make us indifferent to anything but the will of God.  This kind of indifference was Mary’s response when the angel came to her and told her that she would give birth to the Messiah.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  It was Jesus’ prayer after he struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

And this matches exactly the position that the Listening to the Spirit process takes.

This process assumes no specific outcome.  That will be determined by the Holy Spirit.  In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8). This process does assume that the Holy Spirit is at work in your midst, but no one can predict what the Spirit will do. (4)

Of course, this is so much easier said than done.  Most of us already have our settled and passionate positions staked out on the great social, moral and theological questions of the day.  And so we’re always ready to debate and we’re always eager to persuade.  We’re accustomed to picking our side and then launching barrages designed to obliterate the positions that others have taken, thinking them either stupid or wicked because they don’t agree with us.  Well, discernment is an altogether different approach.  Again, as Listening to the Spirit puts it –

…As you gather to listen you acknowledge that a discernment process is not about convincing others that you are right, but listening for the message God has given your group… recognizing that God can speak to you even through those with whom you disagree… and listening for the word that God has for your group in what others have to say. (4)

Now, for this to happen there has got to be a conscious and conscientious suspension of our prior convictions, or, if that’s a “bridge too far” — and to be perfectly honest, it usually is for me — then we’ve at least got to try to muster up enough humility in ourselves to be able to admit that we don’t know it all, and that the person with whom we disagree the most could very well be our most important teacher.

johnIn a recent sermon I quoted something that John Wooden, the heralded coach of the UCLA Bruins during their unprecedented run of National College Basketball Championships in the 1960’s and 70’s and a longtime elder in a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said about wisdom – “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” And that’s what discernment requires of us – the honest acknowledgement that we’ve all still got more to learn after we think that we “know it all.”

Because we’re not the only church having this conversation these days, I’m reading lots and lots of blogs from pastoral colleagues about what the Bible “really” says about homosexuality.  They are all preaching sermons and teaching classes on it, and it’s what they’re saying that deeply concerns me.  You see, my conservative friends are all telling their people that the Bible is against homosexuality while my progressive friends are all telling their people that the Bible does no such thing.  Coming to the Bible with their minds already made up, they are finding what they already believe, or at least, they are shaping what they find in the Word to fit with their convictions.

albertAlbert Schweitzer critiqued the quest for the historical Jesus in his day by saying that the Bible was being used by the scholars he read as a kind of deep dark well into which they peered, caught glimpses of their own reflection, and called what they saw there “the Historical Jesus.  And what I see is that the Bible is being used in much this same way by lots and lots of my ministerial peers in the current conversation about same sex marriage.

I’d feel so much better about things if my progressive friends would take the time and make the effort to honestly understand the traditionalist’s point of view, and then if they would go out and try to make the case for it for their people just as fairly and faithfully as they possibly could.  And I would feel so much better if my traditionalist friends would take the same time and make the same effort to understand the progressive’s point of view, and then if they went out and tried to make the case for it for their people just as fairly and faithfully as they possibly could as well.  But as it is, what I see everybody – traditionalists and progressives alike – doing is just making their own cases, teaching their own conclusions, and leaving the impression that this is the only way to faithfully think and talk about things.  But isn’t this just propaganda?

James Smart used to tell his students at Union Theological Seminary that the Bible always has in it things that are congenial and uncongenial to our cherished settled beliefs, and then he added that it was the uncongenial things that always held that greatest potential for our own personal spiritual growth.   I have found that it’s where the Word pinches and scrapes me that the Spirit is usually most at work in my life.  That discomfort forces me to think thoughts that are not my own.  But it is precisely because this is just so uncomfortable to do that I always find that it easier for me to try to flatten out the Bible’s sharp edges so that they don’t bang so hard against my heart and soul.  I try to push the uncongenial and inconvenient truths that I find in the Bible to the margins and the shadows. And so, just like Thomas Jefferson with his exacto knife carving up the Gospels to get a Jesus that he could live with, I let my preconceived ideas screen what I read and even the way that I read the Bible.  Even though I know that I’m not supposed to, I find that I’m nevertheless pretty good at creating a God in my own image and after my own likeness.  More than once along the way I was warned about the dangers of “eisogesis” when it comes to Biblical interpretation, and I really needed to hear this because it turns out that I have a good aptitude for it!  I’m a natural when it comes to “eisogesis,” but “exegesis” is the goal.

The key to exegesis is found in the prefix “ex” which means “from” or “out of.”  To exegete Scripture is to get out of the words the meaning that is there… On the other hand, eisogesis has the same root but a different prefix, the prefix “eis” means “into.”  Thus, eisogesis involves reading something into the text… [R.C. Sproul – Knowing Scripture – IVP -1977 –p. 39]

Through the years I have found that my best safeguard against “eisogesis” has been to consciously position myself in a community of interpretation where I understood that my conclusions would be faithfully challenged and where I knew that different interpretations  – including my own – would be welcomed and respected.  I think of my New Testament Theology class at Brite Divinity School in 1977 in which Dr. Bill Baird had us reading Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament and George Eldon Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament at the same time!  It was dizzying, and exhilarating, and I remembering thinking to myself back then that if this is what it means to be a “big ‘D’ Disciple” then sign me up!


And to do this same thing today in the present faithful conversation about same sex marriage means that we have all got to read, understand, appreciate and be able to fairly represent both points of view as they are articulated by their brightest and most convincing representatives. It’s just way too easy to demolish the arguments of the dogmatically unreflective representatives of the position opposite your own – both traditionalist and progressive – and to think that you have thereby done your job.  Stereotypes and caricatures are spiritually unbecoming and theologically irresponsible.  And so my traditionalist friends need to be just as familiar with and impressed by Matthew Vine’s book God and the Gay Christian (Convergent Books 2014) as my progressive friends need to be familiar with and impressed by Richard Hayes’ arguments in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFranciso 1996).  Progressives who only offer their people the arguments that Matthew Vines makes are failing their people in exactly the same way that traditionalists who only offer their people the arguments that Richard Hayes makes are failing their people.  They are both guilty of a dangerous kind of ministerial “eisogesis” – of only offering their people half of the argument, the half that they themselves have already embraced.

allenRoland Allen (1868 – 1947) – one of my true theological heroes – said that one of the real keys to understanding the mission and message of the Apostle Paul is to appreciate the fact that he truly “believed in the Holy Ghost, not merely vaguely as a spiritual Power, but as a Person indwelling his converts” (Missionary Methods 149).  And then Roland Allen turned this observation right back on his readers. “When we believe in the Holy Ghost” ourselves, he said, then “the Holy Ghost will justify our faith in Him” as well (Missionary Methods 150).

The “Prayer of Indifference” that Ruth Haley Barton calls for in the Discernment Process is only possible when you believe in the Holy Ghost as Roland Allen described.  Without the reality of the Holy Ghost we’re all left arguing our respective points of view, always trying to convince the other that he or she is wrong and needs to change.  But with the reality of the Holy Ghost, we’re all drawn into the heart and mind of God where new perspectives can become real possibilities, and where we all have an equal chance of being changed by a fresh encounter with God’s holy-love.  DBS+


blue biblePracticing what I preach, the “balance” for the Bible Study component of the Discernment Process that we have undertaken as a church is being facilitated by putting a copy of Homosexuality and the Bible – Two Views by Dan O. Via and Robert A.J. Gagnon (Fortress Press – 2009) in the hands of every elder who is involved in our process.  The scholarship in this volume is first-rate without being so academic as to make its arguments inaccessible to the average reader.  The tone is respectful without being mushy.  The very real and substantial interpretive issues that are at stake in the Biblical witness on human sexuality are clearly named here, and they are explored with just enough depth to make this volume a great starting place for those who agree with me that it is pure pastoral malpractice these days for any of us to be preaching and teaching our own conclusions on this crucial question in such a way that people are left thinking that there are not equally thoughtful and faithful Christians who have a different point of view.

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