“To Labor Faithfully in Obscurity” 

It’s said that when Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist Pastor and the Father of the Social Gospel from a 100 years ago, prayed that it felt like if you stretched out your hands that you would actually touch God. Walter Rauschenbusch’s prayers created “thin places” – at least that’s what Celtic Christians call them. A “thin place” according to Celtic Christianity is a moment in time,an experience in life, or a spot on the map, where it feels like the distance between heaven and earth narrows just a little bit, and God draws in closer to us.  I’ve known a number of these “thin places”  in my life. There’s a favorite cove on the Oregon Coast.  There’s a little cinderblock church on a corner in Southern California.  There are half a dozen places in Israel, and there’s a monastery in the mountains just outside of Santa Fe.  All of these have been important “thin places” for me.  Oh yeah, and there’s a museum, an art museum in Pasadena, California – the Norton Simon Museum of Art.

If you’ve ever watched a Rose Parade on New Year’s Day, then you’ve seen the Norton Simon Museum.  It’s that building directly across the street from where all the national networks set up their cameras and position their celebrity commentators for their broadcasts.  Norton Simon was a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who assembled a truly impressive collection of art through the years.  In 1974 he took possession of this space in Pasadena to make his art collection available to the general public.  It’s a little gem of an art museum.  Mary Lynn and I visited it for the first time not long after it first opened, and it was as we were systematically making our way through its galleries moving from painting to painting that we eventually arrived at Giovanni Battista Gualli’s painting of “St. Joseph and the Infant Christ” tucked away in a quiet corner. (https://www.nortonsimon.org/art/detail/F.1973.36.P/)

Norton Simon said that he wanted his museum to be like a church.  He wanted it to be a place where people could have encounters with the eternal and the transcendent through the power and beauty of the art that he loved.  And that’s certainly what happened to me the first time that I stood in front of this little painting.  Spiritually, it transported me to another place and another time.  I wasn’t standing in an art museum in Pasadena any longer, suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I was standing in the presence of God.

 Now, I’ve had a lot of time through the years to think about why this painting had that effect on me the first time I saw it. It’s certainly beautiful, and masterfully painted.  But the Norton Simon Museum is full of beautiful and masterfully painted pictures, and none of them had the same effect on me that this one did on that day long ago.  Its content is a bit unexpected, maybe even surprising.  We’re much more accustomed to seeing paintings of Mary holding the infant Christ.  There just aren’t that many paintings out there of Joseph holding the baby Jesus. They exist, I’ve seen some, but none of them has touched me in quite the same way that this one did.  When Mary Lynn and I first saw this painting, a family of our own was just over the horizon of our future.  Standing there on the edge of fatherhood myself, I’m sure that I had a certain sensitivity to images of fatherhood, especially images of fatherhood drawn from the Biblical story, but I don’t remember any other image of fatherhood from those days having the same impact on me that this one had. So, if it wasn’t any of these things, then what was it that grabbed hold of me spiritually when I first saw this painting?  Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was Joseph’s face in this painting that “got”me.  It was the look in Joseph’s eyes as he stared down at that little baby in his arms that pulled me into the mystery of the Biblical story about the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem of Judea in such a powerful way.   What is that look?  What’s in those eyes?  Is it love, surprise, wonder, fear, doubt, shock, confusion, worry, dread? 

When I think about that look Joseph’s face in this painting, it’s Tisha Yearwood’s song “It Wasn’t his Child” that I hear playing somewhere softly in the background,

He was her man, she was his wife, and late one winter night, He knelt by her as she gave birth, but it wasn’t his child… It wasn’t his child.  Still he took him as his own, and as he watched him grow, it brought him joy. But it wasn’t his child, it wasn’t his child. Like a father he was strong and kind  and good, and I believe that he did his best. It wasn’t easy for him, but he did all that he could, his son was different from the rest, It wasn’t his child, it wasn’t his child… It was God’s child…

It’s easy for us to overlook what was emotionally and spiritually involved in Joseph’s decision to become part of the Divine arrangement that brought Jesus Christ into the world as Mary’s baby to be our Savior.  Joseph must have had his dreams.  Surely, he was busy making plans for his future, a future with his betrothed, Mary. In his time and place, women were passengers on the trains of their husband’s lives.  I’m not suggesting that this was right, I’m only saying that this is how it was in Joseph’s world, and the train of Joseph’s life was just about to leave the station with Mary onboard when that angel showed up one night in a dream with the news that there was going to be a change of trains. 

Joseph’s life had already started to unravel by this point in the story.  Joseph already knew that his betrothed, Mary, was pregnant, and that he wasn’t the father. We catch a whiff of the scandal that this created for Joseph with the talk of divorce in our Scripture lesson this morning (1:19).  The news of Mary’s pregnancy had exploded in Joseph’s life and heart like a bomb, and he was just trying to survive the wound it had created in him and his world. And that’s when that angel showed up and said, “Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).  Does this explain what’s on Joseph’s face in that painting?  Is this what that look in his eyes is all about?

In the icon of the Nativity in the Orthodox Christmas tradition you won’t find Joseph in the center of the picture with Mary beside the manger as he usually is in our standard creche scenes (https://www.orthodoxroad.com/nativity-icon-explained/).  In the Orthodox icon of the Nativity Joseph is down in the corner.  He’s been pushed to margins of the story.  It’s not about him.  You see, Mary and her baby are not taking a trip on the train of his life, he’s taking a trip on the train of theirs. 

Years ago, I read a little article in “Guideposts” magazine about a child who tried out for a role in her grade school play. After the auditions were over, and the little girl’s parents asked about the part she was going to play, she excitedly announced, “I’ve been chosen to stand and cheer!”  Well, Joseph isn’t standing and cheering in this icon.  He’s sitting and sulking.

The Orthodox Christmas Icon is full of details, and they all mean something.  For instance, down in the corner where Joseph is sitting and sulking, there’s someone else standing there talking to him.  It’s the devil disguised as a shepherd.  Just as the devil showed up in the story of the Garden of Eden as a snake telling Adam and Eve that they couldn’t trust what God had told them about not eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, the devil shows up in the Christmas story to taunt and tempt Joseph not to trust what God had told him about how Mary had gotten pregnant, and who this newborn baby in the manger really was.

It’s said that every temptation, at its heart, involves this decision not to take God at His word, not to believe what He has told us.  Is this the struggle that we see on Joseph’s face in the painting?  Our Orthodox brothers and sister would say “yes.”  They believe that what Joseph was wrestling with down in the corner of the icon of Jesus’ was whether or not what he had been told by the angel about this baby being the Son of God was really true.  They see him as a representative of all of us who have to come to terms with Christianity’s claim that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And I’m sure there’s something to this. But I’m also inclined to think that there’s something else going on here too.  Something less doctrinal and more personal.  Something much closer to the pathos in that song, “It wasn’t his Child.”

Michael Horton, a theologian whose works I read with great appreciation these days, likes to say that the thing we’ve all got to decide is whether God is going to be a supporting actor in the movie of our lives, or if we are going to be supporting actors in the movie of God’s life?  Putting Joseph down in the corner of the icon was a clear signal that this movie was not going to be about him.  He’s certainly got a role to play.  There’s clearly something that God needs him to do.  But he’s not going to be the star of this show.

There’s a poignant petition in a Pastoral Prayer that was written by James Christensen,a respected Disciples Pastor from the last generation, for those who “labor faithfully in obscurity.”  This is what God called Joseph to in our Scripture lesson this morning, just as this is what God calls nearly all of us to in our own lives.  Laboring faithfully in obscurity.  There’s going to be no spotlight, and precious little applause.  As Robert Phillips,a Methodist minister in Illinois put it in sermon to fellow retired clergy –  

The curtain of obscurity drapes the stage upon which the drama of our faithfulness to Christ is played. The drama continues, the play unfolds, the players deliver their lines with passion, but the curtain never rises so that a larger audience can see what is happening. Is it enough that the Author of the drama sees?  Is it enough that the cast chosen by the Author to share the drama witness the actions and words?  Is it enough at the end of the play to hear the solitary voice say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant?”

Daniel Taylor, a professor of English at a Christian college up in Minnesota, says that “the fear of insignificance” is hardwired into all of us as human beings.  

“Will it matter, once I am gone, that I was ever here?”  This question, asked in one form or another by every reflective person, is an outgrowth of the basic human need  to feel that we count, that our lives have purpose, that we are not just a temporary configuration of atoms.  We may not need statues erected to our memories, but we want to feel we can say at the end of our lives, “My life was worth living.  Things are at least slightly better in the world because I was here.”


And Professor Taylor says that the only way we can do this with any certainty – the only way to ensure that our lives will have mattered – is to “entangle our daily lives with eternal values… to center [our lives] on those things that last forever, that will reverberate through eternity.” 

What’s the look on Joseph’s face in Giovanni Battista Gualli’s  painting “St.Joseph and the Infant Christ” that moved me so powerfully the first time I saw it back in the mid 1970’s?  Is it the look of a man who has entangled his life with eternal values?  I think the answer is”yes,” and because it is “yes,” I think it’s the look of a man who knows the “peace of his place.” 

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife… (1:24)

That’s how the story of Joseph’s annunciation in Matthew chapter 1 morning ends.  Joseph decided to center his life on the things that last forever, on the things that will reverberate down through eternity, and I believe that we can make that same choice, and know that same peace. 

John Wesley, the Founder of Methodism, wrote a prayer that he encouraged his people to pray at the beginning of every New Year. Biblically, it sounds to me like something that Joseph could have very easily prayed.  This how you make your way to “the peace of our place”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you, Praised for you or criticized for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and fully surrender all things  to your glory and service.  Amen.



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“Is this any way to save the world?” “You bet it is!”


Back in the 1960’s the commercials for now defunct National Airlines featured a pretty blond stewardess who answered the question – “Is this any way to run an airline?”  with a cheery – “You bet is!”  The same thing might very well be asked of God when we read the Bible. “Is this any way to go about saving the world?”

Noah got drunk and naked.  Abraham was way too old. David was way too young.  Moses stuttered.  Miriam gossiped.Aaron was an idolater. Isaac was a liar. Jacob was a cheat. Rahab was a prostitute. Samson was a womanizer.  Naomi was a widow.  Elijah got burned out.  Jeremiah was just plain weird. Jonah ran away from God. The Samaritan woman at the well was a divorcee, several times over.  Martha was a worrier. Timothy had ulcers.  The disciples fell asleep. John Mark was a terrible disappointment.  Thomas doubted. Paul was a murderer.  Peter was afraid to die, and Lazarus was dead.

God has a peculiar employment strategy.  God likes to hire the unqualified. God prefers working with the least likely to succeed.  “This has always been God’s way – using the lowly, the unassuming, the improbable to do His work in the world – it’s a conspiracy of the insignificant.”  Tom Sine called it the “Mustard Seed Conspiracy” based on Jesus’ teaching found in Mark 4:30-32 –

30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed,which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Mary was just such a mustard seed.  She could not possibly have been smaller – a young, poor, Jewish, rural, uneducated, peasant girl with scandalous pregnancy on her hands –  just the sort of person God looks at and says, “I can work with that… I can work through that!” As Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer liked to say – “God can ride the lame horse; God can carve the rotten wood.”

Do you remember that story back in the Old Testament book of Judges about the time when God raised up Gideon to deliver His people from the hands of the Midianites?  This is an important story to keep in mind when we’re thinking about how God gets things done.  Gideon was able to assemble an impressive army, and God told Gideon that he had too many soldiers.  Too many soldiers!  What army going to war has ever had too many soldiers?  But God told Gideon – “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand.”  God didn’t want young Israel getting too big for its britches, thinking that it could take on its enemies with its own resources and in its own strength. God told Gideon that He didn’t want “Israel to vaunt themselves against me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me’” (7:2).  And so, God told Gideon to send home anyone who was “fearful and trembling.”  This reduced Gideon’s enormous army by 2/3’s,and God said that it was still too big.  So, God told Gideon to take his army down to the river for a drink of water, and thereto separate the unsophisticated men who knelt down and lapped at the water like dogs from the more refined men who knelt down and cupped the water to their mouths with their hands. 3% of Gideon’s men lapped at the water like dogs, and God told Gideon that it was with this 3% that He would go to war.  300 men, that was it, and not the brightest bulbs in Israel’s bin I might add!  But that’s God’s way of doing things.  God prefers using the lowly, the unassuming, and the improbable to get His work done in the world.  This is what Paul told the Corinthians –

27 God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chooses the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 

Mary was one of those weak things.  Mary was one of those foolish things.  Mary was one of those lowly things, one of those things that was not, that God used to display His wisdom, purpose, and strength, and Mary knew it.  Have you heard the popular saying – “God doesn’t call people who are qualified, God calls people who are willing, and then He qualifies them”?  This is the key to understanding Mary and the role she played in salvation history.  Biblically, Mary’s whole story can be concentrated down to a single verse of Scripture, the last verse of our Scripture lesson this morning, Luke 1:38 – “Behold I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according you your word.” The only ability that God needed from Mary was her availability, in fact, after Mary gave her consent to become the mother of Jesus, the Son of the Most High, Luke tells us that Mary headed south, to the hill country of Judea, to spend some time with her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. And while Mary was there, reflecting on the events that had transpired in her life, Mary told Elizabeth that God her Savior had “regraded the low estate of his handmaiden… showing strength with His arm…scattering the proud…  pulling down the mighty… while exalting the lowly… and filling the empty with good things”(Luke 2:47-56).  She was talking about herself.

Mary was lowly and empty — what William Breault called a “hollowed-out space.”  “A cup must be empty before it can be filled,” he explains. “If it is already full, it can’t be filled again except by emptying it out.  In order to fill anything, there must be a hollowed-out space. Otherwise it can’t receive.” The way Luke tells the story, there was nothing special about her that qualified Mary to be the mother of our Lord apart from her willingness to cooperate with what it was that God asked her to do.  Mary was a “mustard seed.”  Mary was part of God’s conspiracy of the insignificant through which He does His work in the world. 

There’s a Gospel you’ve probably never heard of called the “Infancy Gospel of James.” Just last Sunday morning a small group of us here at the church finished a verse-by-verse study of the New Testament letter of James.  The claim was that the James who wrote this “Infancy Gospel” was the same James who wrote the New Testament letter of James we studied, and tradition tells us that this James was none other than James the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3).  Now, that’s a pretty impressive credential, I mean, who better to tell us about the birth of Jesus than another one of Mary’s kids?  Well, the early church knew all about the “Infancy Gospel of James,” and consciously decided not to include it in the final collection of books that make up our New Testament.  You see, they didn’t buy that claim that James the brother of Jesus wrote this Gospel, and they had some serious problems with what was actually in this Gospel.   The first 8 chapters of the “Infancy Gospel of James” are all about Mary’s birth and childhood, and in contrast to the lowliness of Mary that the Gospel of Luke emphasizes, the “Infancy Gospel of James” presents Mary as a spiritually precocious child who was walking when she was 6 months old, composing Psalms to sing to God when she was one, ministering at the altar of the Jerusalem Temple when she was three, and consecrated to the special service of the Lord when she was 12. 

According to the “Infancy Gospel of James” Mary was the most extraordinary little girl who ever lived.   And so, when it was time for the Word of God to become flesh and dwell among us, according to the “Infancy Gospel of James,”  Mary was chosen because she was uniquely qualified. She was a spiritual superstar. There was nobody quite like her.  But in the Gospel of Luke, Mary was chosen to be the mother of our Lord,  not because she was so special, but rather because she was so willing.  When she was called, Mary humbly said to the Lord – “Let it be done to me according to your word.”  And since the Gospel of Luke is in my Bible and the “Infancy Gospel of James” isn’t, I’m sticking with Luke’s portrait of the “mustard seed” Mary, and I’m backing the conspiracy of the insignificant and the improbable that the Bible tells us is the way that God gets things done in the world.

When Samuel was sent by God to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint Israel’s next King after Saul, one by one Jesse’s sons were all paraded in front of him, each one bigger, and stronger, and better looking than the previous one (I Samuel 16:6-10).  But as each one of Jesse’s first seven sons passed by, God whispered in Samuel’s ear – “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature… for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel16:7). And it was only when David, Jesse’s youngest son, the baby of the family, the runt of the litter, was brought in from the fields as an afterthought, that the Lord told Samuel, “Arise and anoint him; for this is he” (I Samuel 16:12).

 We’re old.  We’re small.  We’re sick. We’re slow.  We’re frail.  We’re limited in so many ways.  By all outward appearances, it would be easy to conclude that we are the least likely instrument that God has in His tool-kit for getting things done in the world.  But remember, God “sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  And what God sees when He look at our hearts are mustard seeds – “the smallest of all the seeds on the earth;  yet when it is sown and grows, it becomes the greatest of plants.”

The only other time that Jesus talked about a mustard seed in the days of His public ministry He was talking about faith.  “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed,” Jesus told His disciples, “you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

 In Luke 1:37 the angel Gabriel told Mary that “with God nothing is impossible.”  And then, in nearly identical language, in Matthew 17:20 Jesus told His disciples that for anyone with faith the size of a mustard seed – “nothing will be impossible for you.” 

There is no particular virtue in being small, frail, and limited. No, the virtue is in having faith when you are small, frail, and limited that God can still use you.  What makes the “Mustard Seed Conspiracy” work is a “mustard-seed-sized-faith.” When God called, Luke tells us that Mary was troubled and confused (1:29).  Who was she that an angel of the Lord should visit her?  Who was she that the Lord God would choose her of all the young women in Israel to be the mother  of the Savior?  And the answer to these questions hides in her response to God’s request – “Let it be done to me according to your word” (1:38).  That’s the mustard-seed-sized-faith of a mustard-seed-person, and that’s what God needs to hear from us to be what God needs us to be, and to do what God needs us to do.

President Kennedy kept a little wooden plaque on his desk at the White House that had been given to him by Admiral Rickover.  Called the “Breton Fisherman’s Prayer,” it came from the first line of a poem that was written by W.E. Garrison, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) historian.

Thy sea, O God, so great, my boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate will me befall
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.

Just like Mary, we’re all little boats on a great big sea. We’re clearly no match for its consuming vastness, but when the Lord opens a path before us, we’ve got a decision to make… 

“Let it be done to me according to your word, Lord… according to your word” (1:38).

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“Give of thy Sons to Bear the Message Glorious”

Trying to make sense of the death of John Allen Chau

Have you seen the Progressive Christian slogan on the tee shirt that says, among other things, that they aren’t trying to convert anybody to anything?  Well, that’s not been part of my Christian experience, and that’s certainly not part of my Christian commitment. My spiritual formation included a very clear, a very serious, and a very sustained commitment to the Great Commission. I grew up reading books about the Saints,and my favorites were always the missionary martyrs.  I still have copies of two of those books from my childhood in my personal library –“Saint Among the Hurons: The Life of Jean de Brébeuf” by Francis X. Talbot, S.J. (Image Books – 1956), and “Damien the Leper” by John Farrow (Image Books – 1937).  I kept these two books – I’ve had them now for more than 50 years – because they were critically important building blocks for my spiritual life. The stories of their self-sacrifice in the service of Jesus Christ and the advance of the Gospel profoundly shaped my soul. When I was growing up, I couldn’t imagine anything more heroic or meaningful than “bearing the message glorious that God is light; that He who made all nations is not willing that one soul should perish,lost in shades of night.”  When my friends in grade school all wanted to be the next ace pitcher for the Dodgers when they grew up, or the star quarterback of the Rams, or a rock and roll star like John, Paul, George, and Ringo, or an astronaut hurtling through outer space like John Glenn, I wanted to be a missionary.  I wanted my life to count for Christ.

I went through some pretty significant spiritual changes in early adolescence, and by the time I got to high school I had wound up in a church at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from the church of my childhood.  On the front wall of the church I attended when I was in high school there was an enormous map of the world with little glowing lights everywhere that church had a missionary we were supporting with our prayers and finances.  There was a light in Mexico, and a light in Peru, and a light in Polynesia, and a light in India, and a light in South Africa,and a light in Oregon… Oregon!  Calligraphied on the wall above this map with all its twinkling lights were some familiar verses from the Bible – Matthew 28:16-17 – the “Great Commission” –

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (KJV)

And at every service I ever attended at that church we prayed for our missionaries, for the people and places those little lights represented, that they would remain steadfast, safe, and true.  We didn’t have capital “S” Saints at that church like we did at the church of my childhood, but those missionaries came close. We were often told about the faithful examples of men and women who gave their all for Christ in the service of the Gospel.  I often heard it said and sung –

“Only one life, ‘twill soon be  past, only what’s done for Christ will last. Only one life, yes only one, soon will its fleeting hours be done; Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet, and stand before His Judgment seat; Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.” (C.T. Studd)

The story of Jim Elliot and his four missionary martyr colleagues –  Pete FlemingEd McCullyNate Saint, and Roger Youderian – who died while trying to reach the Huaorani tribe of eastern Ecuador told so powerfully in the 1957 book “Through Gates of Splendor” written by Elisabeth Elliot, his widow, was read, and known, and loved by everybody in that church. My copy of it sits right next to the copies of the books about the missionary martyrs of the church of my childhood – Jean deBrébeuf and Father Damien of Molokai.  All of which is to say I know nothing of a Christianity that isn’t missionary at its core, and by its very nature.  Emil Brunner (1889 – 1966), the Swiss Neo-Orthodox Theologian who had such a strong hand in my own spiritual formation, plainly and powerfully staked out the position that I’ve consciously occupied throughout the 45 years of my ministry, both ordained and unordained –

“The Word of God which was given in Jesus Christ is a unique historical fact, and, everything Christian is dependent on it; hence everyone who receives this Word,and by it salvation, receives along with it the duty of passing this Word on, just as a man who might have discovered a remedy for cancer which saved himself, would be in duty bound to make this remedy accessible to all… The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission,there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith… Mission, Gospel preaching, is the spreading out of the fire which Christ has thrown upon the earth. He who does not propagate this fire shows that he is not burning. He who burns propagates the fire. This ‘must’ is both things – an urge and a command. An urge, because living faith feels God’s purpose as its own. ‘Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel,’ says Paul.” (The Word and the World – Student Christian Movement Press, 1931 – 108 ).

In an era of  popular Christianity when there are Christians who say that they aren’t trying to convert anybody to anything, it’s hard to make sense of somebody like 26year-old John Allen Chau who died last week in what appears to have been a rather clumsy attempt to share the message of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ with the isolated indigenous people of the North Sentinel Island of India, a people who have emphatically and repeatedly made it very clear by their history of violence towards outsiders that they  want to be left alone. John Allen Chau knew this. In a letter that was tantamount to his last will and testament, John Allen Chau made it very clear that he understood the risks that he was taking by trying to reach the Sentinelese with the message of the Gospel.  He said that he didn’t want to die, and that he understood that he very well might.  Time will tell if John Allen Chau will be this generation’s Jim Elliot.  I suspect that the chances are pretty good that he will be in those parts of the church that still think that converting somebody to something, namely the least, the last, and the lost – in other words, everybody, everywhere – to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, is still a big part of the work that the Risen Christ commissioned His disciples to do, and sent the Holy Spirit to empower (Acts1:8), and that he won’t be in those parts of the church that aren’t trying to convert anybody to anything.  To them, I suspect that John Allen Chau will just be an enigma and an embarrassment.  And I find myself – as in most things for us “radical moderates” – straddling the  middle between John Allen Chau’s uncritical hagiographers and his mystified critics.

There is so much about this story that still needs to be told, and so it is far too early to either canonize or vilify John Allen Chau. But four thoughts have been bouncing around in my head and heart since first hearing about what John Allen Chau did last week, and what happened to him as the result –                                          

First, I have a thought about the continuing validity and urgency of the Great Commission for Christians and the church.  I haven’t quit watching football just because my teams are playing so poorly this season.  And I haven’t stopped listening to music even though much of what I hear these days is truly bad.  And I haven’t given up eating even though I have had some epically bad meals of late (I’m eating a lot of my own cooking these days).  Christians can be clumsy,crude, confused, and confusing in the ways that they go about trying to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others, but that doesn’t diminish the truth or power of the Gospel to save people, or excuse us as Christians and the church from finding faithful and effective ways to fulfill Christ’s mandate to go into all the world preaching the Gospel and making disciples.  

Second, I have a thought about the perennial danger of zeal without knowledge (Romans 10:2).  Somewhere I’ve read that at a certain point, the early church had to make it clear to Christians that throwing yourself under  the wheels of a passing Roman chariot was suicide and not martyrdom. It was  evidence of stupidity and not a qualification for sainthood. Whatever else “loving God with all your heart, mind, soul,and strength” means (Matthew 22:37), it minimally means that the passion of our devotion (“loving God with all our hearts”) has got to be matched with some careful and thoughtful consideration (“loving God with all our minds”).  Remember, Jesus told His first disciples that they needed to be “wise as serpents,” and as “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).   And this is just one of several places in the Jesus tradition where “prudence” is called for from the followers of Christ (Luke14:25-33; 16:1-9).  My favorite Professor in Christian College used to tell us not to give our hearts to anything that our minds couldn’t first endorse.  And I can’t help but wonder how John Allen Chau’s story would be different today had he heard and heeded this counsel?

Third, I have a thought about the importance of matching the Gospel’s missionary mandate with a Gospel-informed missionary methodology. From what little I know about how John Allen Chau went about trying to share Jesus Christ with the Sentinelese people, it sounds to me like it was the spiritual equivalent of a drive-by shooting.  Just shouting “Jesus loves you, and so do I” at somebody while quickly kayaking by, dodging arrows, hardly qualifies as effective Gospel evangelism strategy if you ask me.  There is a dangerous spiritual naivete in thinking that the deliverance of a formulaic Gospel message in a single encounter with people who neither know nor trust you is going to be evangelistically effective. I know.  I’ve tried it.   I’ve preached the Gospel on busy downtown street corners during rush hour.  I’ve knocked on strangers’ doors with a Bible in my hand and a rehearsed spiel in my head.  I’ve attempted to engage people in spiritual conversations on airplanes and in elevators.  I’ve been that guy, and I quit when I finally realized that it was doing more spiritual harm than it was doing any perceivable spiritual good.  It wasn’t “planting seeds,” it was just hardening hearts. I’ve since come to the conclusion that people need to see the Gospel before they can hear the Gospel.  Gospel visualization has got to precede Gospel verbalization.  You can’t just show up and expect people to listen to you.  You’ve got to move in and settle down.  You’ve got to share life with them.  Walk the same road.  Wear the same shoes.  You’ve got to earn a right to be heard. Paul’s discussion of how he went about his work as a missionary in I Corinthians 9:19-27 establishes the crucial “Incarnational” nature of the missionary assignment that we’ve been given, and from what I’ve read so far, John Allen Chau simply wasn’t prepared or equipped to do this with the Sentinelese people. He couldn’t speak their language.  He wasn’t acquainted with their ways.  He wasn’t sensitive to their situation.  But just because the missionary is clumsy, crude, confused and/or confusing doesn’t mean that the mission is therefore automatically invalid, illegitimate, and/or inappropriate.

I am truly sorry for John Allen Chau’s family and friends. This loss can’t simply be sanctified away.  And I’m sorry for the Christian community at large.  It sounds to me like John Allen Chau was a gifted, energetic, and committed young Christian from a generation that desperately needs people who can speak passionately and meaningfully to it. The loss of his passion, presence, and voice is a generational loss.  And spiritually, I worry about what happens now to the Sentinelese people.  God created them in His own image and because of His great love for them, and for all of us. Christ died for them, and the Holy Spirit broods over them. They are included within the scope of God’s saving purpose, and it is the church’s job to show and tell them so.

“Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.  But how are they to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?  And how can people preach unless they are sent? … So, faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. (Romans 10:13-17)

And this brings me to my fourth thought, how Biblically, the story of John Allen Chau could very well be this generation’s version of the story of Stephen in Acts 6-7.  Just like John Allen Chau, Stephen was a gifted, passionate, and seemingly reckless young man, whose dynamic voice and presence was lost to the mission of the church when he was martyred by the very people he was trying to reach for Jesus Christ. It didn’t make any more sense in the redemptive scheme of things for Stephen to be taken out so quickly in his day than it does to try to make sense of the early exit of someone like John Allen Chau from the redemptive scheme of things in ours.  But the crack of light in the darkness of the story of Stephen is found in Acts 7:58 where Luke, in something of an aside, told his readers that “the witnesses laid down their garments at  the feet of a young man named Saul.” And so I’m trusting that somewhere there is a Saul to John Allen Chau’s Stephen, and that out of the tragedy and mystery of this painful and rather confusing episode, that the story will continue, to the Glory of God and to the final well-being of everybody, everywhere, and always, including the people of India’s North Sentinel Island who don’t have a clue that they are featured actors in the spotlight on the stage of the story of God and His love at this particular moment in time.. but they are.  DBS +

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“Leaning More Directly into God”

WHY I PRAY

My two grandsons visited me last June. We did all the usual things.  We went to the Children’s Museum and the Zoo in Brownsville.  We went to the beach and the Sea Turtle Rescue Center on South Padre Island.  We went to the movies and to a really cool vintage game room.  We went to some neighborhood parks and playgrounds. We ate way too much pizza and we went swimming every day.  And I took them to the Basilica of our Lady of San Juan de Valle – National Shrine (www.olsjbasilica.org/). I really wanted them to see it while they were here.

We went into the Sanctuary where we sat and talked quietly about how it was different from our churches.  My grandsons know church.  You see, they’re not just “PGK’s” – “preacher’s grandkids,” they’re “PK’s”  – “preacher’s kids” as well. Their Dad is a Disciples minister too.   We walked through the room at the Basilica where little tokens and scribbled notes on scraps of paper are left in front of the statues of the Saints whose help people are desperately seeking.  Then we sat quietly in the Shrine itself for a little while and watched people kneeling there,lighting candles.  And finally we peered into the storeroom next to the Shrine where racks and racks of those lit candles that are taken from the Shrine each day continue to burn. 

On our way out of the Basilica and back to the car, one of my grandsons asked me – “Papa, why are they doing that?”  And so we talked about how prayer is a natural response of the human heart to the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that we all have as human beings.  We talked about how each one of those candles that we saw burning in the Basilica represented somebody’s prayer — a cry of help at the point of a very deep and real need in their lives.  I told my grandboys that there was something going on in the lives of  all those people that we had seen there at the Shrine that day.  I told them that they were worried about something, or afraid of something, something that they couldn’t fix by themselves, or manage on their own, and so they had come to that special place where they believed that God was especially close so that they could tell Him all about it.  And we talked about how those people lit candles while they were there that would continue to burn long after they left the Shrine to remind God that they had been there, and that they had asked for His help.  I told my grandsons that I really like to stop by the Shrine to see this kind of faith.  I think it’s beautiful, powerful, inspiring.  It moves me.  Richard Dawkins thinks it’s just silly. A very public and vocal atheist, Richard Dawkins openly ridicules prayer.  He talks about God as a “magical imaginary friend in the sky,”and he says that prayer is the pathetic activity of weak people.

 It would be lovely to believe in an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, who answers your prayers, who comforts and consoles you, who gives you life after death, and guidance for life right now.  It would be wonderful, but who wants to believe a lie?

“Don’t just read other Christians,”my favorite professor in seminary told me, “people who already believe what you believe and think like you think.”  “Instead, go out there and find yourself a good atheist,” my teacher told me, “somebody who doesn’t believe what you believe and who doesn’t think like you think, and see what they have to say!”  And so I listen when people like Richard Dawkins speak. I’ve never thought of my Christianity as some fragile dainty that’s got to be shielded from hard questions.  I’m glad that this church,the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), didn’t ask me to park my brains at the door when they invited me to come in, but expected me, even encouraged me as a Christian, to “love God with all my mind” instead.  And so, when someone like Richard Dawkins comes along and dismisses as ridiculous the expressions of faith that I find to be so powerful, rather than cowering in the shadow of his impressive intellect and silently slinking off to some quiet corner to nurse the tatters of my faith, my instinct is to push back. 

“Why do you pray?” Richard Dawkins wants to know, and I’ve got four pretty good reasons why I do.  I pray because I can’t help myself.  I pray because I really need help.  I pray because something happens when I pray.  And I pray because I’m grateful.

I PRAY BECAUSE I CAN’T HELP MYSELF 

Victoria Brezhnev was the First Lady of the Soviet Union, the wife of Premier Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Union was officially atheistic in those days. The Church simply did not exist for the Brezhnev’s.  Faith was seen as weakness.  Religion was the opioid of the people. Leonid Brezhnev imprisoned priests and believers, closed seminaries and churches whenever they got in his way. Leonid and Victoria Brezhnev were good examples of Soviet atheism. Religion played no role in their lives. But when Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, as Victoria stood beside her husband’s coffin, right before the lid was closed for the last time, she leaned over her husband’s body – and made the sign of the cross. There at the center of an atheist empire, in the spotlight on the world’s stage, Victoria Brezhnev traced the sign of salvation and hope over the body of the man she had loved for 54 years.  There in that moment of her life’s greatest loss, when she was floundering about, looking for something solid to hang onto, for something certain and sure to give her courage and hope, she instinctively made the sign of the cross.  She couldn’t help herself .  Neither can I.  And neither can you.  We can no more not pray as human beings than not breathe.  Kevin Ladd, a professor of psychology at Indiana University says, “Spin a globe and jab your finger at random. If you’re pointing to land, you’re pointing to a place where people are praying.”  We pray as human beings because our hearts demand it.

I PRAY BECAUSE I REALLY NEED HELP

I remember seeing a Peanuts cartoon that showed Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister, sitting at her desk in school hunched over a piece of paper, pencil in hand, deep in thought.  The thought bubble over her head in the first frame said, “So long as there are arithmetic tests in school,” and the thought bubble over her head in the second frame said, “There will be prayer in school!”  We pray when we reach the limits of our strength and understanding. We pray because we really need help. There’s a good reason why the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer that our Lord Himself taught us as His disciples to pray, is little more than a series of petitions – we ask for God’s Kingdom to come, we ask for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we ask or our daily bread, we ask for forgiveness, guidance and protection.  We pray as human beings because we are needy as human beings.

I PRAY BECAUSE SOMETHING HAPPENS WHEN I PRAY

It was William Temple, the archbishop of Canterbury during WW 2, who said to the people who told him that what he thought were answers to prayer were really just coincidences –  “Well, that may be so, but here’s what I do know – when I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”  There’s a mystery here that I don’t fully understand, but Scripture clearly teaches, and my experience repeatedly shows me that when people pray God does things that He would not have done, or could not have done, had we not asked.  As James 5:16 tells us – “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.”   When I ponder the mystery of this, I often find myself mulling over Watchmen Nee’s vivid words –

Prayer is to God’s will as rails are to a train. The locomotive is full of power: it is capable of running a thousand miles a day. But if there are no rails, it cannot move forward a single inch. If it dares to move without them, it will soon sink into the earth. It may be able to travel over great distances, yet it cannot go to any place where no rails have been laid. And such is the relation between prayer and God’s work. … Our prayers lay down the track on which God’s power can come. Like a mighty locomotive, God’s power is irresistible, but it cannot reach us without rails.

We pray as human beings because it works. Prayer changes things.

AND FINALLY, I PRAY BECAUSE I’M GRATEFUL

It was Thomas Erskine, the 19th century Scottish Theologian, who said that what Christianity teaches is grace, and that what Christianity requires from us in response is gratitude.  In my life I’ve found that it’s praying that keeps me most conscious of, and best connected to this essential Christian rhythm of grace and gratitude.  Do you “say grace”?   Growing up we never took a bite of food at the family dinner table until my father had said – “The eyes of all wait upon Thee, O Lord;” and my mother, sisters, and I had answered– “and Thou givest them their meat in due season.”  My father would then continue, saying -“Thou openest Thine hand, “ and the rest of the family would reply –  “and Thou fillest all things living with plenteousness.”  This is Psalm 145:16-17, and it was just the High Episcopal Church of my childhood’s way of saying grace, of saying– “God is great and God is good, now we thank him for this food.”   When we “say grace,” what we are doing is“giving thanks to God for our daily sustenance” and that’s gratitude. And when we “say grace,” what we are doing is “acknowledging our total dependence on God for his goodness,” and that’s grace. And where there’s grace and gratitude, there’s Christianity.

LEANING MORE DIRECTLY INTO GOD

Erwin Lutzer, pastor of Chicago’s historic Moody Church was visiting his good friend, Jim Cymbala, at the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City.  And Dr. Lutzer said that he watched with amazement as people lined up for blocks around the church before the doors opened for the Tuesday night Prayer Meeting. “Why do they do this?”  Dr. Lutzer asked Dr, Cymbala, and Dr. Cymbala replied, “People pray when the believe that God actually answers them!”   And Dr. Lutzer said that he was immediately convicted of the cynicism in his own heart when Pastor Cymbala said these words.  “How many times, “ he asked himself, “have I not bothered to pray because I didn’t believe it would make a difference? We’ve all had our share of disillusionment with unanswered prayer,and if we have enough of those experiences we’re tempted to say, ‘What’s the use?’ We forget that every unanswered prayer should be a reminder to lean more directly into God.”

I like to go to the shrine because, although I have some rather substantial quarrels with the way that my brothers and sisters in Christ over there are going about it, there are nevertheless very few places I’ve ever been where I’ve seen people who really believe that God answers prayer leaning more directly into His promises, presence, and provision. I’ve never come away from there unmoved. I’ve never come away from their unchallenged. I’ve never come away from there without a greater desire to lean more directly into God’s promises,presence, and provision myself.  “You have not because you ask not”James told us (4:2). So, what is it that keeps us from asking? Could it be expectation? Could it be that we’ve so convinced ourselves that the only thing that prayer ever changes is ourselves, that we’ve simply stopped asking God for anything, or expecting God to do anything?

“Papa,” my oldest grandson said to me as we drove back to the trailer park to swim after visiting the shrine, “Guess what I just did?”  And when I asked my grandson, “What did you just do?” he told me,  “I just prayed,” and then he added, “but I didn’t light a candle.” And then, after a moment of silence, my grandson spoke again. “Papa,” he asked, “Do you think God heard me even though I didn’t light a candle?”  “Do you think God will remember what I told Him?”  “I’m sure of it,” I told him, and I really am.  Let’s pray…

Father, we are so glad that you are a God who listens to your people praying, because we are people who really need to pray. We’re not big enough to be able to do this do this all by ourselves, and you aren’t so big that you wouldn’t come – first in Christ Jesus to dwell among us, and now in the Holy Spirit to dwell inside us – so that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in our times of need.  We thank-you, and trust you through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior. Amen.

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“Always” — “For Everything” — “Thankful”

Joey Adams – the old Vaudeville Comedian -told the classic joke about the woman who was at the beach with her little boy.  They were standing too close to the water when a great big wave crashed on shore and swept her little boy out to sea.  The woman prayed – “Oh God, please…please… please… please have mercy on me and bring back my beautiful little boy to me.  I promise that I will be eternally grateful to you.  I’ll go to church every Sunday.  I’ll never cheat on my taxes again.  I’ll be nice to my mother-in-law. I’ll stop smoking and drinking and carousing… anything… I’ll do anything… God, just my little boy back.  Just then another wave crashed on the shore, and there he was, her little boy, all safe and sound. And the woman looked up to God and said, “But he was wearing a hat… where’s his hat?” (Jerry Newcombe)

Ingratitude… ungrateful… even the words sound harsh, ugly, don’t they?  But it’s more than that.  Paul writing to the Romans said that God’s presence and power in the universe are obvious for anyone with eyes to see, and that this should elicit from us a response of thanks (Romans 1:20-21).  But it doesn’t. We are not awed by sunrises. We’re not impressed with our opposable thumbs.  We aren’t amazed by the abundance and variety of God’s bounty that’s on display in the produce section of the market where we shop.  Ingratitude… ungrateful… Paul argued that this is the root of all sin, the first crack in the dam that caused it to fail and flood the world with misery, sadness, and shame.

When my kids were young, and we were invited over to somebody’s house for dinner, Mary Lynn and I would always have to sit them down first, especially my son, and explain to them that we were going to be somebody’s guests for the evening, and that meant that we weren’t in charge. We were going to have to play by somebody else’s rules.  We were going to be polite, respectful, and grateful.  We were going to do what we were told.  We were going to sit still at the dinner table, eat whatever was put in front of us, and say “please” and “thank-you” for everything, even Brussel Sprouts if it came to that.  It was always necessary for us to say this because my kids thought  they were in charge when they were young.  They were accustomed to operating as the little gods of their own universes, always finagling to get their way, trying to arrange everything and everybody to suit their own preferences.  Stopping at nothing to get their way.  My kids were miserable human beings when they were little.   They couldn’t help it.  They got it from their mother… and from me.  You see, this is the human condition. And where this train jumped the tracks, Biblically, was in a Garden long ago and far away where our primal parents refused to honor God or give Him thanks. Now, we’re all infected with that virus. 

Humanity was placed in a perfect world of beauty, harmony, and abundance and they were told to enjoy it, but on the terms of the One who made it and put them there.  Everything they would ever need to thrive and be happy was right there in that garden at their fingertips, given to them as a gift, but they couldn’t hang onto it because they weren’t in charge of it.  Humanity wouldn’t honor God, or give God thanks, and without God at the center of things, holding it together, it all began to fly apart. The story of the rest of the Bible is the story of how God slowly but surely started putting everything back together again.  The New Testament book of Ephesians begins with Paul telling the church that God’s eternal purpose is to “unite all things in heaven and on earth” (1:10).  Putting everything back together again, this is what Jesus Christ came to do Paul said.  In Christ, God stepped into a fragmented and fragmenting world, into a world that was coming apart at its seams, and He began to pull it back together again.   

Now, this saving work of God in Christ requiresa proper response from us. We need to recognize that there only one God, andit’s not us. And the firstand best evidence that it’s actually happening in us is the thanks that startscoming from us.“Always and for everything giving thanksin the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father” – that’s what Ephesians 5:20 says is supposedto be characteristic of our lives as God’s people.  “Always”and “for everything” thankful.  That’s how Paul told us that we show God thatwe have acknowledged His presence, power, and provision.  So, how are we doing?

Thursday is the day on the national calendar when we as citizens are asked to pause and ponder once again the grace that God has shed on our country by remembering the story of the Pilgrims, and to give thanks.  Every Sunday on the church calendar is the day when we as Christians are asked to pause and ponder once again the grace that God has provided for us by coming to the Lord’s Table to break bread and pour a cup in remembrance of what was done for us on Calvary’s cross, and to give thanks.  Thanks-giving is all about pausing and pondering.  It’s all about being mindful.  It’s all about being aware of what it is that God has done for us. If the failure to honor God as God, and the refusal to give God thanks is where all of our trouble as human beings began, as Paul told the Romans it was, then it’s got to be the decision to honor God as God, and to start giving God the thanks that He deserves that aligns us with the work He is doing in Jesus Christ to put things in our lives and our world back together again.

Somebody who has helped me become more intentional and consistent about giving thanks is Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, who has focused his long ministry on teaching people gratefulness as a spiritual discipline.  I got to be spend a little time with him a few years ago at Thanksgiving Square up in Dallas, and although brief, it was absolutely transformative for me spiritually. Brother David’s keenest insight about the spiritual practice of gratitude is his observation that gratitude and thanksgiving are two different things. Gratitude is inward. Thanksgiving is outward. Gratitude is awareness.  Thanksgiving is response. Gratitude is something we feel.  Thanksgiving is something we do. Try to remember the last time you saw something truly spectacular in nature, something that caught you by surprise and took your breath away.  What did you feel in that moment?  Well, those feelings are gratitude Brother David says, and they are the deep well out of which thanksgiving arises. Brother David says that the key to being grateful is wonder.  We’ve got to be surprised – surprised by joy, surprised by beauty, surprised by majesty.  Spiritually, we can’t be sleepwalking through life.  In the same way that alarms clocks jolt us awake in the morning, so we need something to jolt us awake spiritually, something to shake us from our lethargy into awareness.  For me its Cardinals.

I didn’t see redbirds growing up in Southern California, and so their presence in the trees and on the fences of the North Texas world I’ve lived in for the past 20 years fascinates and delights me.  Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, whenever I see the red flash of a Cardinal I stop to watch.  Cardinals prompt wonder and awe in me, and so after spending some time with Brother David, I decided to use Cardinals as my gratitude trigger.  Now, whenever a Cardinal flashes through my field of vision and startles me into awareness, I take it as a “tug” from God, as a reminder that God is there thinking of me, and that I should be thinking of Him.  And from that inner awareness triggered by wonder and surprise at the beauty of a Cardinal, I  become outwardly and deliberately thankful.

When we are surprised by beauty, our hearts prompt us to say “thank-you.”  The awareness of gratitude becomes the expression of thanksgiving. The spiritual discipline of gratefulness needs both wonder and words.  One of my best friends is an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi.  When I am with Hanan I watch him practice the spiritual discipline of blessing.  It’s said that an observant Jew will bless God 100 times every day for the things that God gives to and does for them – the food they eat, the way their bodies work, their identity and heritage as the Chosen People.  100 times every day my friend Hanan stops what he is doing and offers a formal blessing to God.Now, assuming that you sleep eight hours a night, offering 100 blessings each day during your waking hours works out to be a blessing every nine minutes.  Try it.  Six times an hour, every hour from now until you go to bed tonight, try to consciously think of God and thank Him for something that He is doing for you or has given to you in that moment. Talk about living a God-focused life!  By praying 100 blessings each day, one blessing every 9 minutes or so, my friend is constantly aware of God’s presence, he is fully conscious of God’s provision, and he is always and for everything thankful to God, and Biblically, that sounds to me like the essence of the spiritual life.

Thursdayis Thanksgiving, our National Day for pausing and pondering as citizens.  It is the day each year when we are encouraged to be mindful of the Creator God’s goodness to us by giving us this land so graced by His bounty.   And every Sunday is the Lord’s Day, our spiritual day for pausing and pondering as Christians.  It is the day each week when we are encouraged to be mindful of the Redeemer God’s goodness to us by blessing us with every spiritual blessing in Jesus Christ.  And it is our task to figure out how we can make this pausing and pondering, this mindfulness of God’s goodness to us, more than just something that we do one day a year, or one day a week, but rather becomes the spiritual rhythm of every moment of every day so that “always and for everything we are giving thanks to God our Father in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” DBS +

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Why I am a “Disciple of Christ”

A Word of Personal Witness

You’ve seen that bumper sticker that says – “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could”?  Well, “I wasn’t born in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but I got here just as fast as I could.”  I was raised an Episcopalian.  My folks took my two sisters and me to church every Sunday morning when we were growing up.  We never missed. They had me baptized and confirmed.  I was outwardly in the church but not inwardly in Christ. I had been “sacramentalized” but not “evangelized.” It wasn’t until later that I actually invited Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior.

Keith Green said that a Christian is somebody who’s “bananas for Jesus,” and that was certainly me when I first became a Christian. Knowing Christ, and making Christ known, this has been my life’s passion and purpose from the first day that I met Him.  This is the first great spiritual fact of my life – “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my personal Lord and Savior” – and I believe that He wants to be your Lord and Savior too.

When Jesus Christ finally became real for me, I was like a starving man who hadn’t eaten in a long time.  I went to every Bible Study I could find, and I visited several churches every Sunday for the better part of a year.  It was because of my passion for Jesus Christ that I spent time with Catholics and Pentecostals, Mormons and Methodists, Baptists and Adventists, Presbyterians and Quakers.  And I learned something from every Christian tradition that I visited.  That’s the other great fact of my spiritual life.  Nobody owns Christ.  No church has a corner on Him.  Every Christian tradition has something valuable to contribute.

It was at a Bible Study when I was just getting started on my Christian journey that it was pointed out to me that there are four Gospels in my Bible, not just one, and that each one of those four Gospels has a slightly different take on the person and work of Jesus Christ.  God could have just given us one Gospel, but instead God gave us four.  God appreciates diversity. He built it into Christianity from the beginning.

I know that I know Christ better by holding together in my head and heart Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the promised Messiah, and Mark’s portrait of Jesus as the powerful Son of Man, and Luke’s portrait of Jesus as the Savior of the world, and John’s portrait of Jesus as the eternal Son of God.  There’s more than one way to look at Christ, and that requires me to be remain open and to stay humble.  I am eager to be taught more about Jesus from every Christian I meet, and if you will teach me more about Him, I will you a debt of gratitude.

My passion for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior became one bank of the river of my spiritual life.  My appreciation for faithful diversity became the other bank.  And it’s these two banks of my spiritual life that channeled and propelled me here to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).   I am a Disciple of Christ because of all the churches I know, this is the one that says that it has no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, and that expects and respects a faithful diversity among those who confess Christ and attend to His word.

Stanley Jones used to say that whenever he asked a group of Christians “What do you believe?” that they would faithfully fragment in a thousand different ways with no two people believing exactly the same thing. But when he would ask, “Who do you trust?” he said that they “would come together with the same word on their lips – Jesus Christ.” (144-145).   And this is why I am a Disciple of Christ.  This is a church where the “what’s” can and do differ, while the “who” unites.  And I’ll remain a Disciple so long as Jesus Christ and His saving work remains the clear focus of our passion, humility characterizes the way  we approach and handle the truth that God has revealed, and loving respect governs the way that we treat one another as Christians, and every other human being.  DBS +

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“People of the Prayer” ~ John 17:20-21

There are 2 ways of looking at the church.  You can look at what it is, and you can look at what it’s supposed to be.  This morning we’re going to take a look at our church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), from the perspective of what it was supposed to be.  Just as a stream is purest at its source, so I believe that we get our clearest view of why the Christian Church (Disciples of  Christ) exists by returning to our sources.

209 years ago, back in 1809, Thomas Campbell published his “Declaration and Address.”  “Declaration and Address” was the statement of principles that gave birth to the Movement of which we are now a part.  This is where the vision of the kind of church that we were supposed to be first got cast.  But it would be a huge mistake to think that this is the document that brought us into being as a church.

In Japan they have a saying – “A finger points to the moon.  If you focus on the finger, then you will never see the moon.”  This is a finger (hold up “Declaration and Address”),  This is the moon (hold up a Bible).  Read this (“Declaration and Address”) and what you’ll discover pretty quickly is that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a “Back to the Bible” Movement.  Tired of, and troubled by the way that the Christians and churches of his day seemed to be more interested in fussing and fighting with each other than they were with getting on with the mission that Jesus Christ gave His followers to do – to preach the Gospel and make disciples – Thomas Campbell proposed a different way, a way that he found in Scripture, and this morning we’re going to take a look at that Scriptural way of being and doing church that Thomas Campbell found.  As we get started, let’s pray, shall we –

Heavenly Father, we bow in your presence.
May your Word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher,
and your greater glory our supreme concern,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.                                                                                                              (John Stott’s Prayer before Preaching)

Do you remember the old Sesame Street song – “One of these things is not Like the Other”?  There would be a picture of a series of objects in a row like three apples and an orange, and the song would say –

Three of these things belong together
Three of these things are kind of the same
Can you guess which one of these doesn’t belong here?
Now it’s time to play our game (time to play our game).

 Well, our New Testament begins with four Gospels in a row – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and right from the beginning of the church, when people read these four Gospels, they came to the conclusion that –

Three of these things belong together
Three of these things are kind of the same
Can you guess which one of these doesn’t belong here?

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “Synoptic” Gospels. “Syn” means “one,” and “optic” means “to see.”  Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story of Jesus in pretty much the same way.  They tell many of the same stories about Jesus and repeat many of the same teachings of Jesus.  The differences between them can be attributed to their different target audiences – Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Jews, Mark wrote his for the Romans, and Luke wrote his for the Greeks.  But the Gospel of John is different.

The stories about Jesus and the teachings of Jesus that John tell us are, generally speaking, not found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  The very first Christians noticed this, and they explained it two ways.  First, they said that the Gospel of John was “supplemental.”   They said that because there were more stories about Jesus to tell, and more teachings from Jesus to share, that John, the “Beloved Disciple,” was asked to write his Gospel.  John didn’t write to contradict what had been written in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but to  complement it, and in some ways, even to “complete” it.

This brings us to the other thing that the first Christians said about the Gospel of John.  They called it the “spiritual” Gospel.   They said that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written to give us the “outward facts” of what Jesus Christ said and did, while the Gospel of John was written to give us the inner meaning of what Jesus Christ said and did.  This is why the traditional symbol of the Gospel of John is an eagle.  Just like an eagle, the Gospel of John soars giving us a heavenly perspective on who Jesus Christ is and why He came.

Now, the way that the Gospel of John was written, it has two parts. The first 12 chapters of the Gospel of John are known as the “Book of Signs,” and the last 9 chapters are known as the “Book of Glory.” John told us why he wrote his Gospel in chapter 20, verses 30-31 –

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 And the way that John actually went about doing this – convincing us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God so that we might have life eternal and abundant in His name – was by first telling us the stories of seven specific miracles that Jesus performed.  This is the “Book of Signs” in the first 12 chapters of the Gospel of John.  Each one of these seven “signs” functions as the introduction to a discourse, to a unit of Jesus’ teachings about what it means to say that He is the Son of God.   And once this idea that Jesus Christ is the Son of God was firmly established by the stories of those seven mighty works that He did, then the Gospel of John transitioned to the  “Book of Glory.”

The “Book of Glory” is the story of how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified for our sins and raised so that we might be given the gift of eternal life.  Four chapters of the “Book of Glory” are about the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and five chapters of the “Book of Glory” are about what Jesus said and did in the Upper Room on the night before He was crucified to get His disciples ready for what was about to happen.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room. It takes Matthew 19 verses to tell that story, Mark 21 verses, and Luke 32 verses.  It takes John 5 chapters and 155 verses to tell us about what Jesus Christ said and did in the Upper Room, and John doesn’t even mention the institution of the Lord’s Supper.  Remember, John’s Gospel is “supplementary.”  John assumes that we already know that part of the story because we’ve read Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s Gospels.  John wants to tell us about some of the other things that Jesus said and did on the night before He died for our sins on Calvary’s cross.

In the Upper Room, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet (13:1-30). Jesus gave His disciples the new commandment to love one another (13:31-33). Jesus told His disciples that He was going away to prepare a place for them, and that He would come again for them “so that where He was there they might be also” (14:1-11).  Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit – the Comforter, the Counselor, the Helper – to His disciples when He was gone (14:15-31; 16:4-15).  Jesus urged His disciples to stay connected to Him like branches to a vine so that they would be fruitful (15:1-11).  And after saying and doing all this in the Upper Room, John tells us that Jesus prayed.

Jesus prayed all the time in the days of His public ministry according to the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Jesus prayed at His baptism, during His temptation in the wilderness, before all His big decisions, after His long days of ministering to the multitudes, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the cross.   Jesus prayed all the time, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tells us.  But they don’t tell us very much about what Jesus Christ prayed.  We have little more than a word or two here and there from the prayers that Jesus prayed in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  But in John 17 we have 26 verses of a prayer that Jesus prayed.

This is the real Lord’s Prayer.  The “Our Father” is the “Disciples’ Prayer.”  They’re the words that Jesus Christ taught us to pray.  But John 17 are the words a prayer that Jesus Christ Himself prayed. John 17 has been called “the most sacred page in the Gospels” because this prayer gives us access to the heart – to the inner concerns – of Jesus Christ.  So, what did Jesus pray for in John 17?  Well, Jesus prayed for three things – (1) First of all, Jesus prayed for Himself.  Jesus came to do the Father’s will, and now that the Father’s will was leading Him to the cross, Jesus prayed that He wouldn’t flinch. (2) Second, Jesus prayed for His disciples.  Judas had  forsaken Him earlier in the evening, and so Jesus prayed for the rest of His disciples that they would stay strong and true in the days of testing that were coming.  And (3) third, Jesus prayed for us.  He prayed for you, and He prayed for me.  We were on Jesus’ mind, and in Jesus’ heart as He looked ahead to the work He came to do on Calvary.

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus prayed three specific things for us here.  First of all, Jesus prayed that we would believe in Him through the Apostles’ Word.  I’ve never seen Jesus Christ.  But I know Him.  And I’ve never heard Jesus Christ, but I’ve been following Him now for 53 years as the Lord of my life.  And this is because what I know about who Jesus Christ is and what it is that Jesus Christ wants from me has come to me through this (hold up a Bible).

This is the Apostles’ word through which I believe.  At the beginning of his first letter, the Apostle John said that he was going to tell his readers about Jesus Christ the Word of life, and that they should believe what he was about to tell them about Him because he, John, had seen Jesus with his own two eyes, and heard Jesus with his own two ears, and had touched Jesus with his own two hands.  He was an eyewitness to Jesus Christ, and I believe in Jesus Christ on the basis of his testimony, and the testimonies of all those who wrote these books.

The second thing that Jesus prayed for us was that we who believed in Him through the Apostles’ words would be one, just as He and the Father are one.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” is what Paul told the Galatians (3:28).  And, “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Jesus… for He is our peace, who made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” is what Paul told the Ephesians (2:14-15).  Jesus Christ went to the cross to make us one, so, how can we be indifferent to the things that tear at our unity and complicit  with the forces that are tearing us apart?

And the third thing that Jesus prayed for us was that we who believed in Him through the Apostles’ words would be one so that the world might believe that the Father had sent Him.  Jesus gave the world the right to look at us, at His disciples – to look at how we treat each other, to look at how we love each other, to look at how we relate to each other – and to make a decision about the truth of the Gospel based on what they see!   There’s no credibility to Christians preaching the message of God’s love for everybody everywhere when people who are already Christians can’t, or won’t love each other.

We – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – we are the “people of this prayer.” John 17:20-21 has been called “the crucial text” of our Movement.   In fact, it was John 17:20-21 that undergirded Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” in 1809.  The last paragraph of the “Address” is a reflection on John 17:20-21 –

“By this shall all men know that you are my disciples,” says he, “if you have love one to another.” And “This is my commandment, That you love one another as I have loved you; that you also love one another.” And again, “Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are”; even “all that shall believe in me; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me, I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them as thou hast loved me.” May the Lord hasten it in his time.

Thomas Campbell’s vision for what the church could be and should do was based on what Jesus Christ prayed in the Upper Room that that vision has been the foundation of what the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has historically tried to be and do. We’ve traditionally talked about it as our “Plea.”

“The plea of the Disciples is a plea for Christian unity on the basis of the New Testament in order to evangelize the world.”

 The “Plea” of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)  says that we exist to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission to preach the Gospel and make disciples.  Because it takes more than just getting the words of the Gospel right in order to do this, the church needs to be a place where people can see the kind of grace of which the Gospels speaks.  This is why in “Declaration and Address”  Thomas Campbell said that we “ought to receive each other as Christ Jesus hath also received us,” and  “love each other as children of the same Father…  members of the same family, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same Divine love, bought with the same price, and joint-heirs of the same inheritance.”  And it’s because this bond of unity and affection can be so elusive and fragile, that Thomas Campbell said the only way to maintain it is to go back to the New Testament, and to agree that there must be a clear and consistent “thus saith the Lord”  for everything that the church believes and practices.                                           

It was James DeForest Murch, a noted historian of the Stone/Campbell Movement from the last generation, who argued in the preface to his history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)  that “unless a movement remains true to the principles and purposes which brought it into being, it has no reason to exist.”   And in the same way, if we don’t know what the principles and purposes are that first brought a Movement into being, then we really aren’t a part of that Movement.  So, what are the principles and purposes that brought the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) into being?  Well, they’re what Jesus Christ prayed for us in John 17:20-21- that we who believe in Him through the witness of the New Testament would be one so that the world might believe that God sent Him to be the Savior of all.  How can we be Disciples today if we don’t know this, or worse, if we don’t care about it?

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