Kissing for Jesus

I wasn’t expecting it.  One minute I was standing there with my head bowed and my eyes closed in prayer, and the next thing I knew I was being gathered up into the arms of a great big bearded man who was planting scratchy kisses on both of my cheeks, and right behind him stood a cluster of other big bearded men who were all waiting their turn to do the very same thing to me.

The Holy Kiss is something that my wife’s mother’s people – the Dunkards (Old German Brethren Baptists) – believe is a sacrament on par with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and they can show you the verses in the Bible that they say make it so (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; I Thessalonians 5:26; and I Peter 5:14).  A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.  The outward and visible sign of the sacrament of Baptism is water. The inward and invisible grace to which it points is forgiveness – being washed thoroughly from our wickedness and cleansed from our sin (Psalm 51:2).  The outward and visible sign of Communion is the bread and cup.  The inward and invisible grace to which they point is the saving work and presence of Christ.  And the outward and visible sign of the Holy Kiss my Dunkard kin would tell you is the kiss itself, and the inward and invisible grace to which it points is the peace of reconciliation.  This is the blessing of the seventh Beatitude, the blessing of being a peacemaker because you are a child of God.

Paul told the Ephesians that this is what Jesus Christ came to do.  In Ephesians chapter 1:3-14 Paul blessed God the Father for all of the spiritual blessings with which He has blessed us in Christ (1:3).  These 12 verses are one of the most detailed explorations in the Bible of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and right in the middle of the list is this stunning announcement –

With full wisdom and understanding God let us know his secret plan. This was what God wanted, and he planned to do it through Christ.  God’s goal was to finish his plan when the right time came. He planned that all things in heaven and on earth be joined together with Christ as the head. [vs. 8-10 – ERV] 

This is a staggering announcement.  God has “let us in on” His secret plan.  We know what God wants!  We know what God’s doing!  In this world where everything seems to be flying apart and everybody seems to be at ever-deepening and angry odds, God came to us in Jesus Christ to pull it all back together again.  

The official Identity Statement of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) says –

We are  a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

That’s the mission statement of an Ephesians 1:8-10 church, and I became a Disciple of the basis of the promise that this is precisely the kind of church that we are – a seventh Beatitude kind of church, a blessed peacemaker church.

You’ve no doubt seen the bumper sticker that says, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!”  Well, I wasn’t born into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but I got here as fast as I could. I like to tell people that I ordered the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue.  Spiritually awakened and doing my own believing for the first time, I went looking for a spiritual home of my own when I was teenager.  I visited the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, and I found something in every one of these faith traditions that I could affirm, which only made my search that much more complicated.

Spiritually, I began to understand that I was not going to be an “easy fit” anywhere.  I wanted the compassionate activism of the Methodists, the sense of community of the Mormons, the spiritual fervor of the Pentecostals, the deep thoughtfulness of the Presbyterians, the beautiful tradition of the Catholics,  the personal freedom of the Congregationalists, the Biblical emphasis of the Baptists, and the blessed hope of the Adventists. I have a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” head and heart.  I am just not wired for “my way or the highway” kind of thinking. Instead I want to stay in communion and conversation with people who are different from me and my way of believing.  I want to know why they think what they think and do what they do. I want to see what they see, and how they see. To be sure, I have my own settled convictions which I would argue I  have learned from the Scriptures.  I believe some things deeply, and I try to preach and teach those things just as boldly and clearly as I possibly can.  But, I know that there are other ways of believing too, and equally committed believers who are just as passionate about what they’ve learned from their serious engagement with the Bible as well, conclusions which in some matters stand at wide variance with my own.

I experienced this during my search for a spiritual home when I was a young Christian.  As I sojourned among the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, I quickly came to two conclusions: (1) That there were some defining issues and insights that were characteristic of each of the various churches I visited to which they were fully committed and about which they were very passionate, and (2) That they didn’t agree with each other about these things.  And so at the end of my quest I knew that I needed a church home that nurtured both the passion of that first conclusion and the honesty of that second conclusion. Today they call what I went looking for 48 years ago “Generous Orthodoxy.”   But 48 years ago all I knew was that what I was going to need in order to spiritually thrive was a faith community that was absolutely clear and crazy about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,  and one that also honored the rich variety of ways that different people have experienced and understood Him through the years.

The most helpful resource I found in those days to help me navigate this journey “home” was Leo Rosten’s book Religions in America (Simon & Schuster – 1963).  This was a collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the faiths, churches and denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade.  This book functioned as a spiritual Sears Roebuck catalogue for me.  I’d read through the essays one after the other like a shopper eagerly searching for the perfect product to meet their needs, and it was when I got to James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that I caught my first glimpse of “home.”  It was this one line from that essay that captured my heart’s imagination –

There is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience.

This is the kind of church that I went looking for 48 years ago, and this is the kind of church that I still want to be part of today –  a church where “each person is responsible for his/her own believing according to the dictates of his/her own conscience,” and where they can “sit down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper.  But here 48 years later what I have learned is that it’s not easy to be and do church like this. The centripetal forces seem to be push harder these days than the centrifugal forces pull.  It feels more like things are flying apart than that they are coming together.  Maybe this is why Paul told the Ephesians that this unity that Jesus Christ came to establish was something that they were going to have to be “eager to maintain”  (4:3).  It was something that they were going to have to keep working on themselves.

The church in Ephesus was a divided church.  There were people who had come to Christ out of Judaism who were members of it, as well as people who had come to Christ out of paganism.  These were not people who naturally associated with each other before they found themselves standing side by side in Christian worship.  Jewish men their whole lives long had prayed a prayer every morning upon rising that thanked God that they had not been born Gentiles, and then suddenly, because they embraced Jesus as the Christ, they found themselves in spiritual community with Gentiles. They didn’t understand this, and they didn’t like it.  They felt spiritually superior to and more entitled than the Gentile Believers in the church.  They were, after all, the chosen people.  God had a special history and a special relationship with them that had found its fulfillment in Christ.  What they didn’t know was that God had history and a relationship with the Gentiles too.  God is “the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:15) Paul told them.  The Saving God does not delight in the death of any sinner.  The Saving God desires everyone to repent and receive the free gift of eternal life (Ezekiel 33:11).

In Ephesians chapter 2:14 Paul told the Ephesian Christians that Jesus Christ was their peace.  In Jesus Christ God broke down the dividing wall of hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles by reconciling both Jews and Gentiles to Himself through the same saving work that was done on the cross. As Billy Graham used to say, “The ground at the foot of the cross is level,” which is to say that it doesn’t matter who you are, a way to God has been opened for you in Christ.  And since I get to God through Christ in exactly the same way that you get to God through Christ, then who am I to start acting spiritually superior to you now, or to start thinking that it’s my job to put you in your place, or even to try to kick you out of the pool of God’s grace altogether?

Right before Paul told the Christians in Rome to greet one another with a holy kiss (16:16), he told them to stop passing judgement on each other (14:4;10).  God has welcomed the person with whom you disagree about something in exactly the same way that God has welcomed you (14:2-4), Paul told them, so stop building walls to keep these people away from you (14:13) and start tearing walls down instead.  Welcome them, Paul told the Romans, just as Jesus Christ has welcomed you (15:7).

It’s easier to go to church with people who look like me, who think like me, who talk the way I talk, who believe the way that I believe, who like the hymns that I like, and who vote the way that I vote.  But that kind of church is a flat contradiction of the work that Jesus Christ came to do according to the book of Ephesians.

I can still feel the scratchy beard on my cheeks.  That holy kiss has become a powerful sacramental sign for me – the outward and visible of something that’s inward and invisible, and absolutely essential to the Gospel –Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). DBS+

 

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Just One Thing

My spiritual awakening occurred in a monastery in the hills above Santa Barbara, California, in 1965 when I was 12 years old.  I’d been raised in the church. My parents took my sisters and me every Sunday.  In fact, I was on that retreat at that monastery on that fall weekend in 1965 because it was one of the things that the men of that church did every year.  The best way to describe what happened to me on that retreat when I was 12 is to tell you how the Puritan preacher Thomas Goodwin (1600 – 1680) talked about his own experience of having been baptized in the Holy Spirit.  Imagine, he said –

A man and his little child walking down the road.  They are walking hand in hand, and that child knows that he is the child of his father, and he knows that his father loves him, and he rejoices in that, and he is happy in it. There is no uncertainty about it all, but suddenly the father, moved by some impulse, takes hold of the child and picks him up, embraces him in his arms, kisses him, showers his love upon him, and then he puts him down again and they go on walking together. …That child knew before that his father loved him, and he knew before that he was his child. But oh! the loving embrace, this extra outpouring of love, this unusual manifestation of it — that is the kind of thing. The Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” 

I went to that monastery on a Friday evening in 1965 already knowing that God loved me and that I was his child.  But when I left that monastery on Sunday afternoon — “oh! the loving embrace, this extra outpouring of love, this unusual manifestation of it.”

So powerful was my experience of God that weekend that I felt called to spend the rest of my life getting to know this God better, and to making this God better known.  Because my spiritual awakening had taken place in a monastery, I just naturally concluded that what God wanted me to become was a monk.  I’d seen the seriousness with which those monks at that monastery attended to their relationships with God.   Even then I understood that their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability were their ways of saying that nothing mattered more to them than knowing God and doing His will, and I knew that I had that same desire in me.  I still do.  And so, when I was 12 and all my friends wanted to be astronauts, and rock stars, and professional athletes when they grew up, I wanted to be a monk. I even wrote a letter to the abbot telling him all about my sense of call and seeking an early admission to his monastery.  He wisely declined my request while at the very same time taking my sense of call with compete seriousness.  He told me to test that call in the coming years.  He knew that wanting to be a monk was a fairly easy decision for a 12-year-old boy who still thought that girls had cooties and who had never driven a car.  “Check back with me in ten years,” he told me, “then we’ll talk.”

Ten years later I was married.  I was a brand-new graduate of Christian College.  I was in my first fulltime ministry at a church in Pocatello, Idaho, and I was making plans with Mary Lynn to go to seminary.  Ten years later I wasn’t about to join a monastery, but I still wanted to be a monk.  The word “monk” comes from the Latin word “monos” – a word that means “one.”  It’s the name that is used to describe a person who is single-minded in their desire to know God and to follow in God’s ways.  More than once I have stood in church and sung from my heart, often with tears in my eyes –

All to Jesus I surrender; all to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live.
I surrender all, I surrender all, all to thee my blessed Savior, I surrender all.

Every time I sing these words I am taken back to that monastery in 1965 when I was 12 and to that moment in time when God, the Maker of the heavens and the earth and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, gathered me up into His arms, assured me of His love for me, and asked me to follow where He would lead.  For 53 years now, my life has been a feeble attempt to do this.

I went sailing for the first and only time in my life some 30 years ago when I was preaching a Revival at our church in Orange.  After one of the evening services a leader of that church took me out on his boat, and after clearing the docks and getting out onto the open water of the bay he turned the “driving” over to me for a while.  And what I learned really quick is that sailboats don’t drive like cars do.  You point a car in a direction, hang onto the steering wheel firmly, and that’s where the car goes, but because of the push and the pull of the wind and the tides a sail boat doesn’t move in a straight line.  “Pick a point on the opposite shore” the man who took me sailing told me, and then “keep making adjustments, weave back and forth in that general direction.” Well, my life has been more like sailing a sailboat than driving a car.

When I was 12 and at the monastery I picked a point of the opposite shore and said that’s where I wanted to go, and for the past 53 years my life has had this focus.  It’s not been a journey in a straight line.  I’ve swung back and forth, pushed by the spiritual and emotional equivalents of the wind and the tides.  But there’s always been a direction.  There’s always been that point on the opposite shore towards which my life has moved.  And I think that’s what Jesus was talking about when He talked about being pure in heart.

It was a book I came across when I was in seminary that opened me up to this idea – Soren Kierkegaard’s “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.”  Up to that point I’d pretty much understood the sixth Beatitude in light of the idea that a Holy God cannot look upon sin (Habakkuk 1:13).  To see God we have to be morally and spiritually pure, and since we aren’t, then the sixth Beatitude prepares our hearts for the cleansing work that God does for us in Jesus Christ on the cross.  This is a part of the Gospel that I see very clearly in the elaborate sacrificial system of the Old Testament and on the pages of New Testament books like Romans and Hebrews. I won’t see God because I’m morally and spiritually pure all on my own.  No, I will see God because I am made pure by the saving work of God in Christ. I believe in the truth of this, in fact I am trusting it for my salvation. But I’m not sure that this is what the sixth Beatitude is talking about.

The word for “pure” in the sixth Beatitude was a word that was primarily used in the ancient world to describe things that were undivided or unmixed – grain that had been winnowed from chaff, gold and silver that had been refined of alloys, an army purged of its discontent soldiers, wine or milk that was uncut with water, an animal that had been bred from unblemished stock (Barclay 72). One of the most prominent scholars of New Testament Greek from the last generation [R.G.V. Tasker quoted in Stott 49] said that the word “pure” in the sixth Beatitude referred to “single-mindedness,” to someone who is not double-minded, unsteady and unstable in all their ways, like a rudderless boat on a stormy sea being tossed and turned by every blowing wind and crashing wave (James 1:7-8; Ephesians  4:14).  To be “pure” in this sense is to have a clear and uncluttered direction, focus, passion, and purpose in life.  People ought to be able to look at us, and without too much difficulty, be able to see just exactly who or what it is that we are living for. Purity of heart is to will one thing.  It is to seek one thing.  It is to live for one thing, and this is  what Jesus told Martha in Luke chapter 10.

I don’t know any passage in the Bible that’s been more willfully misinterpreted than this one has.  We’re either a “Mary”  – a “thinker” – or we’re a “Martha” – a “doer.”  One’s not better than the other one.  One’s not more important than the other. In fact, the world and the church need both “Mary’s” and “Martha’s,” so whichever one you are, you’re good, or so goes every sermon that I’ve ever heard preached on this Gospel story.  The only problem is that this is not what Jesus said.  In fact, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus said!  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by so many things,” Jesus told her, “but there is only one needful or necessary thing” (10:41).  Just one.  That’s single-mindedness.  So what is that one needful and necessary thing?  It’s not a complicated question, in fact, Jesus answered it right after he asked it.  “Mary has chosen the better part” (10:42), Jesus told Martha.  And what was the part that Mary chose?  Well, it was to sit at the Lord’s feet and to listen to Him (10:39). At the center of Christianity is an undivided and unmistakable focus on Jesus Christ.

It’s been said that you can be a faithful Muslim without concerning yourself in the least with the person of Mohammad.  You can be a true and faithful Buddhist without knowing anything about the Buddha at all.  You can be a follower of the teachings of Plato whether or not Plato ever actually existed.  But there is simply no Christianity without Christ (Griffith Thomas).  He was the content of His own preaching, which is why we as a church ask just one question of anyone who would join us  –  “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, your Lord and Savior?”

 “What think ye of Jesus?” That’s what we need to know.  We certainly know what the first followers of Jesus though of Him. Acts 11:26 tells us that it was in Antioch that the disciples were called “Christians” for the first time.  Michael Green, a New Testament scholar at Oxford University, observes –“they did not call themselves Christians, they were called it by others.  It was  a nickname.”

The nickname was based, no doubt, on the way [that people popularly talked about] the household of the Emperor.  They were known as “Augustians” because they belonged to Augustus, they were loyal and devoted to him.  And so it was just reasonable for the people of Antioch to call Christ’s people, the people who were loyal and devoted to Him “Christians” following the familiar pattern.

What was it about the followers of Jesus that made this association with the followers of the Emperor so obvious Professor Green wondered?  And he concluded –

It must have been because they kept speaking of Christ, and kept working for Christ, and kept trying to please Christ, and kept acting as they thought Christ would have acted.  What a testimony this bears to the faithfulness and wholehearted dedication of the early church in Antioch.  They were consumed with a passion  for Jesus Christ.   He was  their Lord, he was their first love; nothing else was so important to them.  And the people in Antioch knew it.

Ernest Boyer, in his book Finding God at Home, describes an event at which Mother Teresa was speaking to persons from all over the world who had come to meet her. Among them was a group of nuns from many of the North American religious orders. After Mother Teresa had finished, she asked if there were any questions. “Yes, I have one,” a woman sitting near the front said. “As you know, most of the religious orders represented here have been losing members lately. But your order is growing. How are you doing this?”  And without hesitating, Mother Teresa answered, “I give them Jesus.” “Yes, I know,” said the woman. “But take habits, for example. Do your women object to wearing habits? And the rules of the order—how are you modifying them?” “I give them Jesus,” Mother Teresa replied. “Yes, I know, Mother,” said the woman, “but could you be more specific?” “I give them Jesus,” Mother Teresa repeated. “Mother,” said the woman, “we’re all aware of your fine work. But I want to know if there’s something else, something more.” And Mother Teresa quietly said, “There is nothing else, nothing more. I give them Jesus.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

 

 

 

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The In and Out of Mercy

Bobby Clinton is a Professor of Christian Ministry at the seminary I attended out in California some 43 years ago.  He’s an advocate for what’s known as “Bible-Centered” Leadership. Staring with the promise of Isaiah 44:8 that –

“The grass withers, the flower fades but the Word of our God will stand forever.”

 Dr. Clinton argues that enduring, effective leadership will always build on the unfading and unfailing Word.

A Bible-Centered Leader refers to a leader whose leadership is informed by the Bible, to someone who has been personally shaped by Biblical values, who has grasped the intent of Scriptural books and their content in such a way as to apply them to current situations and who uses the Bible in ministry so as to impact others.

And so Dr. Clinton urges his students to identify those parts of the Bible that God has used mightily in their lives.  Which books of the Bible have spurred your growth as a Christian, he asks?  Which passages of the Bible have proven most helpful in solving your problems and calming your fears? And where do you turn in your Bible first to hear God speaking to you personally and powerfully?  Dr. Clinton says that  it’s these specific parts of the Bible that will form the basis for much of what a Christian leader will have to share with others in the course of their ministries, and that for most of us there will be between 5 and 20 books from the Bible that will fit this bill. The Gospel of Matthew is one of those books for me, as are the letters to the Romans and the Hebrews, and the book of Revelation. And from the Old Testament there’s the book of Genesis, the Psalms, and the book of Jonah.

Now, I know, when the book of Jonah comes up the big fish gets all the attention.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve heard sermons on the book of Jonah when all the preacher did was to tell one story after another about how other people in history got swallowed by a big fish and lived to tell the tale.  I understand why they did this.  If the Bible says that something happened that didn’t in fact happen, then that undermines the credibility of the Biblical witness in general.  And if we can’t trust what’s in the Bible to be true, then the very foundation on which our faith is built becomes pretty precarious, pretty quick.   I get it. The problem is that when we spend all our time talking about the packaging we never get around to actually examining the product.  There’s a traditional saying in Japan – a finger points to the moon; if you focus on the finger, you’ll never see the moon.  Well, the “big fish” in the book of Jonah has become the finger that draws our focus away from the moon to which it points, and that “moon” is the truth of God’s great mercy.  The reason why the book of Jonah is in my core of essential Biblical books is because of what it tells me about the love of God for everyone, everywhere, and always.

Richard Mouw, one of the finest Christian teachers I know, says that the first and most important theological decision that any of us must make is whether we think that God is stingy or generous?  Do we start with an angry God, a God who doesn’t really like us and who is reluctant to save us, or do we start with a loving God, a God who is just crazy about us and who is reluctant to condemn us?   This isn’t a hard question for me to answer.  In fact it was settled by the very first verse that I memorized as a kid in Sunday School –

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

And that’s not all there is to it!  John 3:17 says –

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

The God I know from Scripture is a generous God.  And this is the God who sent Jonah to Nineveh, and this and not marine biology is what the book of Jonah is in the Bible to teach us.

In structure, Jonah is a sandwich of a book. Just four short chapters long, the book of Jonah is a slab of Psalm between two slices of narrative.  We heard Jonah’s Psalm read this morning as part of our Scripture lesson, and without the narratives that surround it, we might easily conclude that it is just a lovely expression of praise and thanksgiving for the Lord’s deliverance of Jonah from the belly of the great fish.  Wrench the Psalm in Jonah chapter 2 from its context, and I could preach it here this morning as a model prayer:

  1. When you’re in trouble, cry out to God;
  2. When you cry out to God in your distress, God will hear you and act;
  3. When God delivers you from trouble, then God deserves your praise and thanks.

 It’s a “three points and a poem” kind of sermon, and there would be nothing in it that’s theologically wrong. In fact, more than one Old Testament scholar has pointed out that Jonah’s Psalm is a masterful cobbling together of familiar phrases and ideas from other Old Testament Psalms.  Every verse of Jonah chapter 2 is a Sunday school answer – a familiar, well-worn, Biblical truism.  But even as you read it, you’re aware that there’s something wrong with it.  It’s just slightly out of tune.  And the closer you look, the more you realize that it’s not the content of Jonah’s Psalm that’s the problem.  It’s the context.

For all of the proper praise and thanksgiving that Jonah’s Psalm expresses for his deliverance, there’s no acknowledgement from Jonah anywhere in this Psalm of the rebellion that got him into trouble in the first place.  There’s not a word of repentance in this Psalm.  There’s not so much as a squeak of surrender to God’s will voiced anywhere in it.   Jonah doesn’t tell God that he’s sorry for trying to run to Tarshish when it was to Nineveh that God told him to go, and even after God answered his cry for help, Jonah gave no indication that he was then prepared to go to where God needed Jonah to go, or to do what God needed Jonah to do. No, what Jonah tells God is that what he intends to do just as soon as his feet touch dry ground again is to head for the Temple in Jerusalem to worship Him.  Now, that sounds holy doesn’t it?  That sounds so good and right, until you remember that what God has made clear to Jonah right from the beginning of this story is that where God needs Jonah to be is in Nineveh, not Jerusalem.  Even in his praying Jonah is still running from God and His will, and so God deposits Jonah not in Jerusalem but on the outskirts of Nineveh.

And the Lord spoke to the fish,  and it vomited out Jonah on the dry land. (2:10)

 In Revelation 3:16 the Risen Christ told the Christians at the church in Laodicea that their tepid commitment to Him and His will made Him sick –

Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.

That’s a rather unsettling image, isn’t it?  Well, it’s supposed to be.  You vomit when something makes you sick to your stomach, and there’s something that makes God sick to His stomach.  Quoting Isaiah (29:13), Jesus said –

“These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8)

God would prefer us to raise a defiant fist and shout an unambiguous “no”  than to hear us wrap up our rebellion with pretty professions of faith and flowery ascriptions of praise.  God sees through our appearances of piety to what’s really going on in our hearts.  And what God saw in Jonah’s heart was an all-consuming self-focus.  It was all about Jonah and what Jonah wanted.  As Irene Sun writes –

Jonah began his prayer by quoting the first verse of Psalm 120, which reads, “To God in my distress I called.” Jonah, however, changed the order of the words. He prayed, “I called from my distress to God” (Jonah 2:2). He moved God’s name to the end of the phrase and his own action to the front. Jonah was focused on himself and what he was doing. A subtle change, but it initiates the tone and pattern for the rest of the chapter.

 In Jonah’s eyes, he was the one who approached God. Jonah emphasized his “call,” his “cry,” and his “voice.” He believed that God had heard and answered him, and he was right. Yet Jonah had neither answered nor heeded God’s words when he was commanded to go to Nineveh.

…Jonah’s prayer ended the same way it began. He quoted Psalm 3:8, which reads, “To God belongs salvation.” Again, Jonah changed the order of the words and proclaimed, “Salvation belongs to God.” God’s name was the last word of Jonah’s prayer. Jonah’s prayer captured what was true in his life: Jonah came first,  God last. (Irene, Sun. “Jonah and the Art of Being Broken.” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/jonah-art-of-being-broken/)

Where the story of Jonah and the fifth Beatitude – “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” – touch each other is right here.  The proof of Jonah’s spiritual self-absorption was the way that the mercy he received from the Lord was the mercy that Jonah then refused to extend to the Ninevites. As Jonah’s Psalm made clear, Jonah reveled in his own personal experience of God’s deliverance, but there was no room for others in Jonah’s experience of God’s deliverance. Jonah got his, and that’s all that really mattered to Jonah.  He wanted to be “safe and secure from all alarms,” but he wasn’t all that concerned about others being safe and secure from those very same alarms.  He got to a lifeboat when the Titanic went down, and then he was perfectly content to sit there while hundreds of others  around him drown.

I had a teacher in Christian College who said that spiritually we all have a tendency to become little Jack Horners sitting in our corners enjoying our Christian pies, sticking in our thumbs and pulling out plums and thinking how blessed am I!   Whenever the focus becomes “my” salvation, without having any concern for “your” salvation, then something has fundamentally gone askew from the Biblical perspective.

The book of Jonah is in the Bible to always keep before us the inescapable connection between receiving mercy and being merciful.  God’s quarrel with Jonah was his failure “to allow his own experience of darkness to nurture within him a deeper compassion towards others.”  Jonah’s spiritual failure was his inability “to connect his own story to the story of the people of Nineveh” (Ian Adams. “In the Belly of the Fish with Jonah.” https://churchmissionsociety.org/resources/belly-fish-jonah-part-4-blessed-are-merciful).  And it’s when we understand this that we are ushered into the truth of the fifth Beatitude.

Most interpreters recognize that there’s a difference between the first four Beatitudes and the last four Beatitudes.  Being poor in spirit, and mournful, and meek, and hungry and thirsty for righteousness are not a list of things that we have to go out and do in order to get God’s blessing, but rather, they are all aspects of the human condition, just part of who we are, that make us receptive to the blessing of God that is freely given in Jesus Christ. They are the cracks in our lives that let the light of God’s grace in.

The last four Beatitudes – being merciful, and pure in heart, and peacemakers, and persecuted – these are less passive and more active spiritual qualities.  If the first four Beatitudes are states of being, then the last four Beatitudes are patterns of behavior.  Think of them as spiritual reflexes.  When I go to my doctor she pulls out a little rubber hammer and she starts tapping on my knees and elbows.  And when she does, I kick and jerk involuntarily.  And when the blessing of God gets into my life through the cracks that the first four Beatitudes name, then I spontaneously react in the ways that the last four Beatitudes describe. Don’t read the fifth Beatitude as a condition — “If I expect to be forgiven then I have to become forgiving.”   Instead, hear it as a consequence — “When I have been forgiven then I will become forgiving.”   When mercy gets in, mercy will get out.

Over the past three months I’ve watched the lime tree outside my front door produce limes.  I didn’t have to talk that lime tree into doing this.  I didn’t have to go out each morning and beg that tree for fruit. Lime trees produce limes.  Forgiven people forgive.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

 

 

 

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We’re all “Leaky Jars”

I’ve had a little success in my life, and I’ve had my share of failures.  The surprising thing that I’ve discovered is that by different routes, my successes and my failures have both brought me round to exactly the same place.  No success has ever fully satisfied me.  No failure has permanently sidelined me. Like that old Peggy Lee song put it, every experience of my life, both the house-fires and the circuses, have left me wondering – “Is that all there is?”  When I’ve finally achieved something to which I’ve given myself body and soul, it’s never very long after the celebration of having reached that goal that I start to wonder about what’s next?  And whenever I’ve failed at something spectacularly, once the pain and the shame of it have subsided just a little bit, I also begin to wonder about what’s next?  Whether I get there by way of a success, or by way of a failure, it’s what’s next that concerns me most the following morning.

It was the Greek Philosopher Plato (428/427 – 348/347 BC) who said that we do this as human beings because we’re “leaky jars” (Alister McGrath).  No sooner do we get filled up with something than we start emptying out again.  It makes no difference whether we’ve been filled up with success or with failure,  once we’re full, we start leaking, and it won’t be long before we have to be filled again.  This emptiness has been a constant for me in my life. I experience it as an ache deep inside, as a longing that never completely goes away.  No success ever fills it.  No failure ever stills it.  I’m never fully, finally satisfied. The Bible talks about this emptiness inside as hunger and thirst.

We get hungry and thirsty in different ways as human beings.  One of the traditional slogans of the Salvation Army is “soup, soap, and salvation.”  This is their way of saying that they recognize that our needs as human beings are both physical and spiritual.  We need literal bread to fill our empty stomachs, and we need the bread of life to fill our empty souls.  We need literal water to refresh our parched bodies, and we need the still waters of the Spirit to restore our souls.  And so, the Bible takes our experience of literal hunger and thirst uses them to talk about that inner emptiness that we feel, our spiritual hunger and thirst.  To the woman at the well Jesus said –

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,  but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” [John 4:13-14]

After feeding the 5,000, Jesus said –

 “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you… I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  [John 6:27;35]

And the fourth Beatitude – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6) – follows in this very same train.   The Beatitudes are not calls to action, instructions from Jesus about the things that we have to start doing if we are going to get God’s blessing. The Beatitudes are not a “to do list” from God. They don’t issue any commands.  Instead, the Beatitudes are descriptions of who we already are as human beings. They name the needs in us that God addresses with His grace.  They are the “cracks that let the light in,”  and what this means when it comes to the fourth Beatitude is that we don’t have to go out and do something to work up a good hunger and a thirst for God, no, what it means is that we just need to listen to our hearts, to pay better attention to the things that we are already hungry and thirsty for spiritually.

The fourth Beatitude suggests that common to us all as human beings is an ache, a longing, a hunger and a thirst for righteousness. That word “righteousness” is one of the Bible’s big words.  The simplest way to think and talk about its meaning is to always keep in mind that it’s a word about what’s “right.”  It’s a word that starts with who God is and what God does.  God is righteous, which is to say that God always does what is moral, just and good – God always does what’s right – because that’s who God is – moral, just, and good.  And because we are made in this God’s image, and after this God’s likeness, we are called to be moral, just and good as human beings as well, to also do what’s right.  This is hardwired into us.

We are created with a strong sense of “ought,” with what we call the conscience.  Have you ever heard your kids, or your grandkids, or your great grandkids cry out “that’s not fair” when they’re playing a game or dishing out bowls of ice cream after dinner?   Kids operate with what’s been called  “a fundamental sense of fairness.”   If one slice of cake is bigger than another slice of cake, you’ll hear about it.  If one turn lasts longer than the next turn, you’ll hear about it.  This characteristic in our kids has actually been studied.  A team of researchers spent the better part of a decade going to public spaces in lots of different cities around the world to ask children to play a simple game with them –

“Two children who do not know each other are paired up and given an unfair distribution of candy. One child gets four candies, the other gets one candy. Here’s where things get interesting.  One of the two children—the decider—is told that they can accept or reject the allocation. If the decider accepts the offer, then both children get their candy, the child in power gets four and their partner gets one. But if the decider rejects the offer, then both children get nothing. What will they do? Well, you probably think that the decider will happily accept the four pieces of candy, creating a stark inequality with their peer. Children only focus on getting more for themselves, right? Well, to the surprise and delight of the researchers, lots of children rejected this unfair advantage. They were willing to sacrifice their own rewards to prevent someone else from getting the short end of the stick. Getting nothing seems better than getting more than a peer, even a child whom they have just met.”

And while this moral compass inside us gets dinged and damaged as life goes on, I don’t think that it ever gets completely destroyed.  “That’s not fair” may not shout in us, or from us like it once did, but it never stops whispering to us from somewhere deep inside.  Another black kid inexplicably gets shot dead in the street, and “that’s not fair” whispers from some painful place deep inside.  Families seeking asylum get separated at the border, and “that’s not fair” whispers from some concerned place deep inside. A sick relative gets denied a necessary treatment for a medical condition by an insurance company that has taken their money for years, and “that’s not fair” whispers from some worried place deep inside.  Your sister or your daughter, your mother or your wife faces sexual harassment at work, and “that’s not fair” whispers from some angry place deep inside.  You hear about access to resources and opportunities being limited by somebody’s gender, or ethnicity, or net worth, and “that’s not fair” whispers from some confused place deep inside.

We all hunger and thirst for what’s right, and Jesus just whets those appetites.  In the days of His public ministry, when Jesus fed the hungry, it was a preview of that coming day when there will be no more hunger.  And when Jesus healed the sick, it was a preview of that coming day when there will be no more sickness.  And when Jesus raised the dead, it was a preview of that coming day when death will be no more death.  And when Jesus cast out demons, it was a preview of that coming day when evil will be eliminated.  And when Jesus stilled the storms, it was a preview of that coming day when all of the destructive forces that threaten to undo us in this world will themselves be destroyed. We are instinctively drawn to texts like Revelation 21 with its familiar description of the new heaven and the new earth where there will be no more suffering and dying, there is no more pain and loss, there is no more sin and evil, and there is no more struggle and sorrow.  We ache for this world where things are “right” again.

I heard the influential Christian theologian and social commentator Os Guinness at a Conference in Dallas a couple of years ago tell a roomful of Christian leaders to stop denigrating the “naïve idealism” of the Millennial generation with their utopian visions of love, peace, freedom, and justice because, as he put it, we want those things as Christians too. We may disagree about the methods and the means by which love and peace, freedom and justice will finally come about, but we have absolutely no quarrel with their vision of a world where they are all fully operative.

Every time we pray – “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – we’re speaking from our hunger and out of our thirst for the establishment of what’s right, and out of the painful recognition that the world as we presently experience it is not right.  And as John Killinger explained in his book on prayer, we can’t pray “Thy Kingdom come,” without wanting to do everything we can to help that Kingdom come. As he put it when you pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” –  

 “…You will want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You will want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You will want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.   You will want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. You will become committed to that kingdom that human beings have always dreamed of.”

 Our deep hunger and thirst for what is right will always put us as Christians on the side of the Kingdom that’s coming, on the side of love, and peace, and freedom, and justice.  As Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, explained, the fourth Beatitude requires us to “offer our hands and our feet… our whole bodies… to wager everything we have and can do” because “a hunger and thirst for righteousness can never be curbed, or stopped, or sated… it looks for nothing and it cares for nothing except the accomplishment and maintenance of the right.”  And Luther concluded that if we can’t make everything completely right in the world, then as Christians we must at least do whatever we can to try to move the world in the right direction (Stott 45).  There must be no question about which side we are on.  DBS +

 

 

 

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“Don’t let them see you Sweat”

I played a little ball when I was younger, more of the sandlot and intramural variety than the competitive and the organized, but it was the same game with the same passions and intensity.  As a defensive lineman it was my job to knock people down and break things.  But sometimes it was me that got knocked down and broken.  And that’s when I learned that you can’t let it show.  If you expected to survive, let alone win the game, you couldn’t  afford to appear weak.  You couldn’t let them know that they had gotten to you.  And so, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how staggered a hit left you, you needed to jump up just as quickly as you could with a smile on your face and a posture that said – “Is that all you’ve got?”

These lessons I learned playing ball translated seamlessly into my life, and so I approached adulthood believing that I always had to be strong, or at least to give the impression that I was strong, no matter what was going outside me, or what I was feeling inside me.  I stuffed a lot of feelings in the days of my young adulthood believing that if people knew that I really was afraid, or sad, or anxious, or wrong about something, or unsure of myself, that I was giving them an advantage that they could then, and no doubt would, use against me. “Don’t appear weak,” I could hear the voice inside my head saying,  “or else they’ll beat you.”  And then one day, I heard another voice.  “If I must boast,” Paul told the Corinthians, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness,” the Lord told Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9).   And so Paul said, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses… for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Ordinarily Paul is a picture of absolute confidence in Scripture.  Not everyone in the early church was convinced that Paul was an Apostle on par with people like Peter, John, and James.  Paul wasn’t around with Jesus during the days of His public ministry like they had been.  Paul wasn’t in the Upper Room with them on the night when Christ was betrayed, or three nights later when the Risen Christ showed up again, back from the dead.  In fact, the first time we meet Paul in the salvation story is at the stoning of Stephen, and there he was on the wrong team!  Paul was a persecutor of the church who was on his way to Damascus to round up some more Christians when the Risen Christ knocked him off his donkey and told him that He had other plans for him.  “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles,” the Lord told Ananias when He was trying to persuade him against his better judgment to go to find Paul on a street named “Straight” to heal and baptize him (Acts 9:15). In virtually every letter Paul wrote that we have in our New Testaments, Paul had to start out by trying to convince his readers that he was a genuine Apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God on par with the other 12.  But the cumulative effect of these arguments when you read them is that Paul was arrogant — a man full of himself.  The first impression that many people get when reading Paul is that he was a proud and argumentative little man, someone who never dodged a fight, or ever backed down from an argument, or ever showed even the slightest sign of weakness.  The guys I played ball with would have loved him!  And then you come to 2 Corinthians.

20 years ago I was leading a Bible Study at a denominational meeting in Indianapolis with some of the most prominent leaders of our church.  I asked them what their favorite letter of Paul’s was, and every single one of them, without exception, said 2 Corinthians!  I was that it was because they could more easily identify with the Paul of 2 Corinthians than they could with the Paul of Romans, or Galatians, or Ephesians.  They told me that the vulnerability of Paul in 2 Corinthians, his admission of weakness and fear in the face of the difficult challenges that he was facing, was more like them than the Paul who beats his chest and challenges all comers in his other letters.

I once read about a young minister who was plagued by terrible feelings of self-doubt.  He finally called for his elders to meet him one day in his office to pray for his healing.  He told them all about his terrible inferiority complex, and how it was undermining his ability to minister to the church effectively, and so they gathered round, laid hands on him, and prayed.  And when they were finished praying that young minister said that he had in fact been healed — not of his inferiority, mind you, for that was a fact that was never going to change, but rather of the feelings of inferiority that were paralyzing him. And that’s what I think we can learn from Paul in 2 Corinthians.  Rather than a problem that has to be hidden away and denied, our weakness is the canvass on which God paints His masterpieces of grace to put on display in the world.

The Beatitudes are the cracks in our lives that let the light of God’s grace in.  But in 2 Corinthians Paul flips the third Beatitude – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) – all around and tells us that it is our weakness as human beings that not only lets the grace of God shine in, but that also lets the power of God shine out.

It is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;… (2 Corinthians 4:6-9)

Cracked pots!  That’s what we are according to Paul in 2 Corinthians.   The light of God’s grace that gets into our lives through the cracks – through our poverty of spirit – is the light that then shines out of our lives through those very same cracks for others to see – through our meekness.  The light of God’s presence in our lives – the sufficiency of His power, and of His provision, and of His peace – shines out to others through our weaknesses and our flaws.

Do you remember Lulu Roman?  She’s one of the most recognized stars from the very popular 1970’s TV series “Hee Haw.”  Big and loud, Lulu filled the stage with her presence, but off stage she was a mess. Anxious and insecure, Lulu became a victim of her compulsions and addictions.  Lulu says that it was only when she found Christ as her Lord and Savior that her life finally began to come together.  I once heard Lulu give her testimony and she said that anybody could tell just by looking at her that she was a helpless and hopeless case.  Lulu said that she couldn’t walk into a room and act like she had it altogether because it was obvious to everybody that she didn’t. There was no disguising her weaknesses or concealing her flaws. But Lulu said that this also meant that when Jesus Christ finally got a hold of her, that His presence and power were just that obvious too.  Her needs might have been right there for all to see.  But then again so was the grace of God that finally found Lulu, and I think that this is how this thing called Christianity is supposed to work. 

Personally, I think it’s good that the word “meek” rhymes with the word “weak” in English, because it’s only when we acknowledge our weakness as human beings that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can get into us, and then shine out of us.  When Jesus said – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” – I think that what He was telling us is that it’s not the people who act as if they’ve got it altogether who will be the recipients and channels of His grace, but rather it will be those people who know that they don’t.  As Jesus put it –  “Healthy people don’t need a doctor; sick people do. I didn’t come to invite good people to be my followers. I came to invite sinners” (Mark 2:17)

Jared Wilson says that he was getting a haircut in the little Vermont town where he was planting a new church when the hairstylist, just making casual conversation, asked him what he did?  Jared said that in that most unchurched State in the Union, when he told people that he was a pastor it was almost always met with a long, awkward silence, and then an explanation.  “I don’t go to church,” people would tell him.  “I don’t need to go to church to be a good person,” they would explain.  And Jared agrees.  The “confusing” but “intriguing” message of Christianity, Jared tells people, is not that we need to go to church in order to be good, but rather that we need to go to church because church is where we’re told that we can be forgiven. The essential message of Christianity is that none of us… including pastors… is as good as we think we are, or does as much good as we know that we should, but that God loves us anyway!

You’ve heard that old saying about the church not being a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners?   This image has found some real energy in the past few years because of Pope Francis. “What kind of church do you dream of?” he was asked as he began his ministry as the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and he said –

…The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds… [And so] I see the church as a field hospital after a battle… [There are] so many people who need their wounds healed!  …This is the mission of the church – to heal the wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to saythat God is good, to say that God forgives, to say that God is a Father, to say that God is affectionate, to say that God always waits for us… Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. …You have to heal the wounds…

Every minister of my generation sat and learned at the feet of Henri Nouwen.  A Professor of Pastoral Care at the seminaries of Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, Henri Nouwen challenged the dominant model of ministry that was identical to what my old football coaches used to say – “Don’t show them any weakness… Don’t let it get to you… Never let them see you cry.” In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen told a story from the Talmud about how the Messiah would be recognized when he finally came.  It said that he would be found sitting with the poor and the suffering at the gates of the city.  And the way he would be recognized this story said was that while everybody else at the gate would unbind all of their wounds at once to show people just how desperate their situation was, the Messiah would be the one who kept his wounds bound, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed: and if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.’”  And if this is true of the Messiah, if He comes to us as One who is lowly and meek Himself (Matthew 11:29), subject to all of the same struggles we face, completely vulnerable and completely available, then His community, the church must be lowly and meek too, a gathering of wounded and weak people who have found their healing in Christ, and who now just want to offer that same healing to others.

So, is this what people see when they come to church?                                                                Is this what the church offers people when they show up?

The kind of church that God needs, the kind of church that God can use is a third Beatitude kind of church, a church that knows the blessing of its own meekness.

When someone stands to speak at an AA meeting they always begin by saying, “My name is… and I am an alcoholic.”  This honest confession creates a community of the weak and the wounded that in turn becomes the crucible for real and lasting change.  And when the church learns to do this, when we can all stand and say, “My name is… and I am a sinner,” weak and wounded people will start to trust us, and they will be open to hearing about the healing that Christ offers. “If I must boast,” Paul told the Corinthians, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). For “my grace is sufficient for you,” the Lord told Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9), “my power is made perfect in your weakness.” DBS +

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“Dying Like a Christian”

Somewhere along the way I read something that told me that Barton Warren Stone, one of the “Founders” of my spiritual tradition, had “died like a Christian.”  I was either in Christian College or in seminary when I came across this statement, and I remember thinking to myself when I saw it, “what a curious thing to say.”  You see, Barton Warren Stone “lived like a Christian” too, and that seemed to me to be so much more important to say. In fact, while I have some rather substantial issues with Stone’s theology – particularly his view of the nature of Christ and His saving work on the cross, I have no issues whatsoever with Stone’s life of Christian devotion and discipleship.  Everything I know about Barton Warren Stone only bolsters my opinion that he was the most compellingly Christian man among our Founders.  And in my early 20’s, the proof of this was the way that he had lived his life so generously, so justly, so righteously… so, well, Christianly!  When I was twenty-something, the fact that Barton Stone had “lived like a Christian” was so much more important to me than the observation that he had “died like a Christian.”  But now I’m in my 60’s, and as I recently told the church I’m serving in a sermon on the second Beatitude – “Blessed are those who morn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4) –

Death is no longer an abstraction for me.  I’ve buried my mother and my father, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law, a nephew, some ministerial colleagues, lots of church members, a number of strangers, and some of my very best friends.  And I know that one day I am going to die too. I’ve entered the zone when this ordinarily happens to people.  There will be no escaping it.

Right now, as I write this, I’m nearly as old as Barton Warren Stone was when he “died like a Christian,” and rather than the curiosity that this statement was to me in my early 20’s when I first read it, I now hear it as a comforting thought, and a timely challenge.

I am preaching through the Beatitudes right now at the church I am serving as an Interim Minister. I don’t believe that the Beatitudes are prescriptions for our behavior, a list of moral and spiritual things that we must work on in order to get God’s blessing.  No, what I believe is that the Beatitudes are descriptions of our actual present condition as human beings.  They are the “cracks that let the light in.”  And the reason why I’m taking eight weeks to work through them with this church is because I believe that the Beatitudes map out the terrain of the human heart that needs the Gospel.  For a church like this one that’s looking to renew its Gospel ministry, there are few ways of getting at the core needs of human beings, or at the ways that God heals those wounds more directly, or helpfully, than by an understanding of the Beatitudes. To be a Church of the Beatitudes (which I believe that every church in the 21st century is going to have to become) is to be a church that deliberately positions itself in compassionate proximity to these human hurts and hopes where it can specifically and concretely extend the kind of help that the Gospel of Jesus Christ offers. The crack that the second Beatitude opens up in us is death, and comfort is the way that the Gospel goes about healing this most grievous of all wounds.

It was as I was processing this idea last week in preparation for preaching that the old claim that Barton Stone had “died like a Christian” flitted across the screen of my memory, and I knew that I needed to know what it mean to say such a thing about somebody. I found the answer in “The Biography of Elder Barton Warren Stone, Written by Himself – With Additions and Reflections by Elder John Rogers” (1847) in Chapter XIII – “Notice of the death and Character of B. W. Stone.”  Jacob Creath, an early preacher in our Movement, was actually with Barton Stone in his dying hours, and he gave this report of what he saw –

Being confined to bed through indisposition, I did not see him till the 9th. He suffered much without murmuring. He was quite rational, though evidently dying, when I saw him. After prayer and singing a hymn, I asked him if he felt any fear at the approach of death. ” O, no, brother Creath,” said he, ‘ I know in whom I have believed, and in whom I have trusted ; and I am persuaded he is able to keep that I have committed to him. I know that my Redeemer lives. All my dependence is in God, and in his Son Jesus Christ.” He quoted sundry passages and commented on them. But, said he, ” my strength fails, but God is my strength and portion forever.”

…He exhorted his friends and the family to live like Christians—to obey the Savior, and prepare to meet him in eternity. I observed that I almost envied his situation, and desired that my last end should be like his. “Brother Creath,” said he, “if so great and so holy a man as Paul was afraid that he might be a cast-away, may not so frail and poor a man as I fear too? But my God is good and merciful, and my Savior is strong and mighty to save me.” He continued in the same strain till his strength failed, and I had to leave. Bidding him farewell, he said, ” God bless you, my brother. I hope to meet you in heaven.” Kindly and faithfully attended by his relatives, friends, and physicians, he continued to converse with them

…In a little time after I left, he requested to be placed in an arm chair, where, after smoking his pipe, and conversing on the love of God, on reclining his head on the shoulder of his son Barton, he fell asleep in the Lord.

…Thus expired, as he had lived, this decided, intelligent and devout Christian, who had for forty years professed the Christian faith. He was interred in his own locust grove, where repose his remains till the morning of the resurrection.” [https://archive.org /stream/biographyofeldba01ston/biographyofeldba01ston_djvu.txt]

In I Timothy 4:6 Paul said that “the time of my departure has come.” The Greek word for “departure” here was a nautical term that was used in the ancient world to describe a ship setting sail.  It was also used by the military to describe the breaking of camp. For a Christian, Paul said, death would be like “setting sail,” like “breaking camp.” It meant being freed.  It meant going home [Bible.org].  This is certainly how Jacob Creath described the way that Barton Stone approached his dying. To “die like a Christian” is to face it with the firm assurance that death is not the end of things, but merely a change in things.

While searching last week for more information on Barton Warren Stone’s “death as a Christian,”  I came across a fascinating little booklet written by D.P. Kidder in 1854 – 10 years after Barton Stone’s death – for the Carlton & Phillips Sunday-School Union of New York in 1854 called “The Dying Hours of Good and Bad Men Contrasted” in which the description of someone “dying like a Christian” appears on almost every page. “Dying like a Christian” was apparently a 19th century Christian “thing.”  As D.P. Kidder put it, “Religion makes people die well.”

Perhaps in no instance is the value of religion more fully exhibited, than it is in the final departure of the saints… The dying hour is said to be an honest hour. It is a period in which we view things in their proper light… When everything else fails… we see can see more clearly the value of the Christian religion. …Then Christianity appears in its true glory in the comfort, support, and triumph, it affords its votaries in a dying hour. There it shines forth in its peculiar brightness. There it enables its subjects to exclaim, “O death, where is thy sting!” [www.swcs.com.au/uploads/dying_hours_of _good_and_bad_men_contrasted_by_d_p_kidder.pdf]

It was said of the early Christians in the age of martyrdom that they “out-lived” and “out-died” their rivals, and that that’s what helps to explain the emergence of Christianity as the big winner in the marketplace of ideas that was the ancient world in the first century.  But this isn’t just ancient history.  Barton Warren Stone “died like a Christian,” as have countless other believers, the famous and the obscure, across the ages.  In my ministry I have been with people who have died like Christians, men and women who “like aged Simeon in Luke 2:29-32 declared himself ready to go… who looked death in the face cheerfully without terror… and who rested his hopes in that salvation which God has prepared before the face of all people” (Kidder).  I’m thinking of my pastor in Houston, Bob Beaman of blessed memory. When I asked Bob on his deathbed while holding his hand if he was afraid to die, he told me, “Doug, I’m not afraid, I’m excited.  After a lifetime of assuring other people at their bedsides and gravesides that Jesus Christ is truly the Resurrection and the Life, the One in whom we never die, it’s now my turn to trust that promise.  And I do.  Soon my faith will be sight, and I can hardly wait!”  He died like a Christian, and when it’s my turn, I intend to as well. DBS+

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Comfort When We Mourn

“The longest walk you’ll ever take is the walk away from the grave of someone you loved,” writes Geoff Thomas, pastor of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Aberystwyth, Wales. “If you’ve never done that,” he says, “you can’t imagine how grievous it is.”

To walk away and feel as if the world has come to an end. To walk away and think about what used to be, and what might have been. To walk away and realize, “I’ll never be the same again.” …To reach out to touch a face and to find it gone forever. To cry until you can’t cry any more. To watch them bury your dreams and hopes and all that was good about life. To know it’s over, done, finished, the end, and there is nothing you can do about it. …It is the longest walk and the saddest day.  Every step takes you away from the tombstone of a broken dream.”

Jesus felt these things. “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  We’re familiar with these two words as the answer to a Sunday School riddle – “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?”  But it’s not just these two words that describe Christ’s response to the news of the death of His good friend Lazarus.  In John 11:33 we’re told that when Jesus met Mary the sister of Lazarus after his death, that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”  And then again, in John 11:38, as Jesus approached the tomb of Lazarus, we are told that He was “deeply moved again.”  The Greek word translated “deeply moved” is a word that literally refers to the snorting of a horse.  It’s a word that describes a passionate outburst – the outward expression of a deep inward emotional convulsion.  And the word that gets translated as “troubled” is a word that means  “to get agitated, stirred up, disquieted, unsettled, consternated.”  Jesus’ tears were not a polite, delicate, measured response to the news of the death of His friend.  No, He was “agitated and irritated” (Maxey).  Jesus “sighed in sympathy and shook with emotion.”  His tears were public, piercing, and intense.

Now, right before Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” in this way, He told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (11:25-26).  Jesus on His way to Lazarus’ tomb to raise him from the dead when He broke down and wept.  This confuses some people. If Jesus knew that He was just about to restore His dear friend to life again, then why did He get so upset?  The answer, I think, has to do with how Scripture views death. We get introduced to death for the first time back in Genesis 2:15-17.  This is the story of the Garden, the Bible’s picture of the “Original Blessing” – the world and all that’s in it just as God intended it to be.  And God commanded Adam – the Hebrew word for “man” or “human being” – not to eat of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” for “of the day that you eat of it you shall die” (2:17).  You see, death was not originally part of the plan. Death is punitive, the penalty for the rebellion of human disobedience – for doing what God told humanity not to do. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  This is why we experience death as such a threat as human beings, something to deny, something to delay, and something to avoid at all costs.  The New Testament goes so far as to call death our “enemy,” our “last” enemy (I Corinthians 15:26). A rather obscure Czech philosopher voiced the threat that death represents to us as human beings just about as clearly and poignantly as anybody I’ve ever read has –

That I die means that I cannot complete my work. I will no longer see those I have loved. I will no longer experience beauty or sorrow.  The unrepeatable music of this world will no longer ring in my senses; never again will I anywhere move out beyond myself. (Vitezslav Gardavsky in Thielicke 7)

Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” as He made His way to Lazarus‘ tomb because the death of His dear friend brought into sharp focus the problem that He was sent to solve.

Jesus was angry, upset, and troubled over the misery that sin and death had inflicted upon humankind, and in this case upon a dear friend. Death is an enemy, and here Jesus was facing it down over the body of a loved one! …It was the great enemy Death that stirred the deepest parts of His being, and perhaps these inner stirrings were exacerbated by His knowledge that in just a very short time He Himself would be facing that same enemy at the cross, and He Himself would be laid in a tomb. Yes, Jesus was stirred up, He was angry, He was looking for a fight. “Where have you laid him?!” [11:34], He demanded. And then He headed for the tomb of Lazarus with a fierce resolve — He would take on death, and He would defeat it. (Al Maxey –  “The Tears of Jesus:  A Reflective Analysis.”  Reflections. Issue #279 – 12/13/06. www.zianet.com/maxey/reflx279.htm)

The Gospel of Jesus Christ solves a problem, and one of the ways that the New Testament defines the biggest problem that we have as human beings is death.  The book of Hebrews actually tells us that the reason why Jesus Christ came into the world was to deliver us from the fear of death that holds us in lifelong bondage (2:14-15).  And I think that the second Beatitude points us in this same direction – “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

Each one of the Beatitudes describes a specific broken place in us as human beings, a crack that lets the light of God’s grace into our lives.  And that’s certainly what death does.  It exposes our greatest vulnerability as human beings.  Death shows us just how fragile we all finally are.  In my 45 years as a local church minister I have done a thousand funerals.  I have buried men and women.  I have buried the young and the old.  I have buried the strong and the sick.  I have buried those who knew that death was coming for them and those who thought that they still had all the time in the world left. There has not been a week in my adult life that I haven’t had to stare death in the face at hospitals and at gravesides, in the dying and in the grieving.  Death is not an abstraction for me.  I’ve buried my mother and my father, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law, a nephew, ministerial colleagues, lots of church members, a number of strangers, and some of my best friends.  And I know that one day I am going to die too. I’ve entered the zone when this ordinarily happens to people.  There will be no escaping it, and so I have learned to pray – “Grant me grace always to live in such a way that I may never be afraid to die; so that, living and dying, I may be yours, O Lord.”  Rather than pushing me deeper into anxiety and fear, knowing that I will die has actually opened me up to greater grace and a deeper trust.  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Death is a crack that lets the light in.

I know of a young seminarian who wrote about an encounter he had with a visitor in one of his classes at school. This stranger had just shown up  one day in the middle of a semester. The young seminarian introduced himself and began a conversation with the stranger, and what he learned was that this man was an alum of the school who was home from serving a church in Europe.  He’d decided to sit in on some classes while he was there. As they visited, the young seminarian learned that when this man graduated from the seminary that he’d accepted a call to join the staff of a young, growing, dynamic congregation in a major European city. But after a couple of years of serving that church, he’d resigned in order to become the pastor of another church, a state church – a small, struggling, declining congregation in a great big, empty, cold, historic building. Why?” the seminarian asked him. Why would anybody in their right mind leave a dynamic growing congregation for a small struggling one?  And the visitor answered – “funerals!”  He explained that he’d accepted that call because he knew that the main thing that he would be doing as the pastor of that state church was funerals.  That’s when they would need him, he explained, and that’s when he would have an opportunity to minister God’s love and grace to people at the one of the most vulnerable and receptive moments of their lives. “That’s what I got into ministry to do,” that minister told that young seminarian, “and that old state church gives me the perfect place to do it.”

The “comfort” that God offers those who “mourn” changes the way that we approach death as Christians. Some of us are studying I Thessalonians together at the church I am currently serving.  One of the things that makes I Thessalonians such a compelling read to me is the way that it was written to bolster the courage of a group of early Christians who were facing some severe opposition (1:6-7; 2:14-16).  Some of them had died (4:13), and there was real concern among them about what had become of their family and friends.  So, Paul wrote, he said, so that they would not “grieve as those who have no hope” (4:13).  To do this Paul didn’t just pat their hands and speak some pious platitudes.  No, what Paul did was to walk them once again through the basics of the Gospel.  He reviewed with them the death, the resurrection, and the promised Second Coming of Jesus Christ to finish the saving work that He had begun (4:14-17) so that they would know what God has done, is doing, and will do about death. In the Eucharistic liturgy of many churches, this is part of the “so what?” in the “what?” of the familiar Christological acclamation – “Christ has died!  Christ is risen! Christ shall come again!” 

“Comfort one another with these words” (4:18) Paul told them.  The “comfort” that God offers those who “mourn” is the assurance of the “death of death in the death of Christ.”  Just as Jesusheaded to the tomb of Lazarus with a fierce resolve” to defeat death by prying him from its icy grasp, so Jesus heads to all of the tombs in our lives and loves with that same “fierce resolve.”   Those who “mourn” can be comforted because what makes us “mourn” – death – has been defeated by Christ.

William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century, was eventually executed by order of Parliament. In the moments right before his death, tradition tells us that Archbishop Laud prayed –

Lord, I am coming [just] as fast as I can. I know [that] I must pass through the shadow of death before I can come to you, but it’s…. just a shadow… a little darkness… By your Passion, you have broken the jaws of death. So, Lord, receive my soul, and have mercy upon me. (paraphrased) 

It’s because God has broken “the jaws of death” in the saving work of Jesus Christ that there is a source of real comfort available to us when we mourn.

Jesus wept at the grave of His friend Lazarus.  “His heart is touched with our grief,” and I’m certainly glad that it is.  It’s good not to be alone when the shadows lengthen, and the evening of our lives comes. But it’s not just sympathy that we get from Jesus Christ in our times of sorrow, but a solution to the source of that sorrow – death.  Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, says that when our cars careen into a snowbank, that it’s nice to know that we have a friend who will come and sit with us in the dark and the cold.  But we need more than that. We need someone who will come and pull us out of the snowbank. We need someone who will come and fix what’s gone wrong.  And that’s what the Gospel of Jesus Christ offers us – 

Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about those Christians who have died so you will not grieve as those who have no hope. 14 Jesus died and rose again, and because of this, [we know that] God will raise with Jesus those who have died… 18 So, comfort each other with these words… (I Thessalonians 4) 

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

DBS +

 

 

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