“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

emman

Why I am Welcoming Advent more this Year than Ever Before
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Adam Hamilton, the Pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in the United States, writes that before a church does anything else it must first answer the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Clearly, there’s an assumption being made with this question, namely that the church has something to do with Jesus Christ.  That in some way, He is instrumental to the church’s life and mission.

jesusOn the road to Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked His disciples “Who do people say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” And Jesus received this answer, adding the cryptic “And I also say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock I will be my church” (Matthew 16:13-19).  The interpretive question is – “What is the rock upon which Christ is building His church?” There are two traditional ways of answering – Peter himself is the answer that our Catholic brothers and sisters affirm.  They teach that the church is built on him as the first among the equals that were the Apostles, and John 17:20, Ephesians 2:20, and I John 1:1-5 can all be cited as further evidence in support of this position.

There is no question that Historic Christianity rests on the claim of apostolic witness. The canon of the New Testament to preserve the original apostolic voice, the emergence of Bishops in the life of the church as a continuation of apostolic authority, and the production of creeds to capture the essence of the apostolic teaching, were all ways of making sure that the church would forever be “Apostolic” as one of the marks of her life.  Indeed the church is built on an apostolic foundation, and this is what our Catholic brothers and sisters are affirming in their identification of Peter as the rock on which Christ will build His church.  But the way that Protestants in general, and we who are Disciples in particular, have answered the question about the rock upon which Christ will build His church has been to identify it with the confession that Peter offered rather than Peter himself, a confession that did not arise from his own intellectual capacities or processes, but rather, that arose from a flash of revelatory insight given by God Himself.  Here is a classic statement of the argument from John MacArthur –

petraPeter is from petros, a masculine form of the Greek word for small stone, whereas rock is from petra, a different form of the same basic word, referring to a rocky mountain or peak. Perhaps the most popular interpretation is therefore that Jesus was comparing Peter, a small stone, to the great mountainous rock on which He would build His church. The antecedent of rock is taken to be Peter’s divinely inspired confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (http://www.gty.org)

I Corinthians 3:10-11 and I Peter 2:4-8 can both be mustered in support of this position. Christ is the foundation upon which the church is built. This is the position that I was taught in Christian College, and that still holds considerable sway in my soul.

But at the end of the day, I’m not sure that either position is really wrong. It seems to me that the rock upon which Christ is building His church is the witness of the Apostles about who Jesus Christ is, and what it is that Jesus Christ has done for “us and our salvation.”  Because I believe in Jesus Christ through the Apostles’ word (John 17:20), I find it hard to figure out with any real precision as to where the Apostolic office ends and where the Apostolic witness begins, and so I’m not particularly interested in that old Catholic/Protestant kerfuffle anymore.  No, what I am so much more interested in these days is what theologian Gabriel Fackre says currently afflicts the church, something he calls “Christological heart failure.” By this he meant the church’s increasing hesitation to overtly name Jesus Christ as the basis of her inspiration, the content of her creed, the source of her salvation, the center of her reflection and the spring of her actions.

In contrast to Adam Hamilton’s first question, I find Christ missing from so many of the church’s teachings, appeals, publications and programs these days. He’s just not there.  And I suspect that He’s gone missing by the same process that J. Mack Stiles describes as “assuming the Gospel.” He says that this doesn’t happen overnight.   It’s a gradual process. First the gospel is accepted. Then the gospel is assumed. Then the gospel is confused. Then the gospel is lost, and I wonder if Jesus hasn’t gone missing at church by this very same process?

“You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. One particular analysis goes like this: the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.”

David Gibson
“Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel”                

It feels and sounds for all the world to me like we are at real risk these days of becoming a third generation church when it comes to Jesus. Right now it’s all about the “entailments,” the inferences and implications, and not Jesus. Now, understand, I’m not against the entailments, the inferences and the implications at all, it’s just that I’m just concerned that as they’ve seized the spotlight on stage of the church’s attention that Jesus Christ who is the One who forces us to think through all of those entailments, inferences and implications when He becomes our Lord, has been pushed to the margins of the church’s life.

Early in my preparation for ministry I was told by a trusted mentor that if a sermon could be preached without a reference to Christ, or if an action could be taken by a church without any serious consideration being given to Christ, then that sermon and that course of action would be far less than Christian. I guess this is why I’m just so startled by the absence of “Jesus talk” in so much of what I read and hear coming from the church today.  Whatever else Jesus Christ meant about that rock upon which He would build His church, I believe that He meant that He Himself would be foundational to what it means to be a Christian, and one of my core convictions is that when we’re clear about this as Christians individually and as a church corporately, then all of those other things that tear at the fabric of our unity will begin to get rightly ordered.  Not automatically, mind you.  It still takes work, the hard work of an “in-the-process-of-being-sanctified” imagination and conscience. But it is work that is gladly taken up as part of our response to Christ, and it is work that is sustained by Christ’s indwelling and empowering Spirit in us, which is to say that it is work that is done collaboratively by us, and God in us.  And my, how this work needs doing these days.

The tensions we feel at the church I serve about what it means to be truly welcoming, and about what it means to be compassionate and just, and about just how inclusive and diverse we should be in our worship life, and about the best ways to reverse the “graying and thinning” trend that we are experiencing in our membership, all of these “controversies” and “challenges” get framed differently when they become less about us and what we want, and more about Jesus Christ and what He wants.  When we have clarity about Jesus Christ, I believe that we will then get better clarity about who we are supposed to be, and what it is that we are supposed to be doing as His disciples. This is why I am welcoming the arrival of Advent this year more than ever before.

oIt struck me with some force last Sunday morning as our worship service began with the singing of the somber “O Come, O come, Emmanuel.” This Advent hymn is based on something that was sung in the monasteries of the Middle Ages in the dark days right before Christmas.  Each evening from December 17 to December 23 a different monk, beginning with Abbot and then descending through monastic rank and order down to the most recently arrived novice, would lead the whole community in a sung petition for the Savior to come.  The structure of these petition was always the same.

It began with an acclamation of some aspect of the Savior they needed to come – His wisdom, power, authority, faithfulness or mercy. That acclamation was always famed by the same invocation – “O Come.” “O” is such an evocative word.  It’s loaded with emotional depth.  This is not some academic exercise, it is borne of felt need.  We desperately need this Savior to come. This is a cry from the heart.  And so the third part of this nightly sung prayer in the monasteries before Christmas was a supplication that arose out of the aspect of the Savior that was named in the acclamation.  “Wise One…come and teach us.” “Liberating One… come and free us.” “Bright and Shining One… come and enlighten us.” “Powerful One… come and reign over us.” “Companioning One… come and save us.”  As Oliver Treanor writes in his wonderful little book on the “O Antiphons” (Seven Bells to Bethlehem – Gracewing – 1995) –

These petitions are not composed for aesthetic pleasure or for mere literary appreciation. They are carefully planned to articulate the very real need of the whole of mankind, a fallen race which, though redeemed, is not yet fully saved.  What they request corresponds to the state of the human condition as revealed in Scripture and confirmed by the experience of every thinking person. The antiphons are the fruit of the Church’s prolonged examination of conscience. (15)

antiphons.png

If the prior question to everything else that the church says and does is “Who is Jesus?” then the season of Advent is a four week season that gets carved out of our lives as Christians and churches at the very beginning of every new church year to give us some space for a sustained reflection to this crucial question, and the “O Antiphons” are a carefully structured way for us to go about this process prayerfully.  More than ever I believe that the church needs Jesus Christ, and so this Advent I am making the “O Antiphons” part of my daily spiritual practice, and I invite you to do the same.

The version I am using is the one that appears in the Chalice Hymnal (#120) right across the page from the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (#119).  This version comes from the liturgical life of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (Anglican).

  • Antiphon 1 – O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of the Law, the people await you, their Savior:  Come and save us, O Lord our God!

 

  • Antiphon 2 – O Wisdom, you came forth from the lips of God Most High and you reach from one end of the universe to the other, powerfully and gently ordering all things:  Come and teach us the way of prudence! 

 

  • Antiphon 3 – O Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the flame of a burning bush and at Sinai you gave him the Law:  Come with your outstretched arm to save us! 

 

  • Antiphon 4 – O Root of Jesse, you stand for a sign to the peoples; before you kings are silent, and Gentiles pray with longing:   Come now and set us free!

 

  • Antiphon 5 – O Key of David, and Ruler of the House of Israel, you open and none can shut; you shut and no one can open:   Come and lead out of the prison house the captives who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!

 

  • Antiphon 6 – O Morning Star, you are the splendor of eternal life; you are the dawning sun, the Sun of justice:  Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death! 

 

  • Antiphon 7 – O King of the nations and the fulfillment of their longing, you are the Cornerstone and you make all one; you formed us from primeval clay:  Come, and save us!

 

oooAs I make this Advent Journey of Faith using the “O Antiphons” as my road map to the heart of God made visible and tangible in Jesus Christ this year, I will be using my “Soundings” blog between now and Christmas to share the discoveries I make as I try to answer the question afresh – “Who is Jesus?”  I invite you to join me on this journey of discovery.   DBS +

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Half-Full or Half-Empty?

A Meditation on Thanksgiving in
a Time of National Conflict
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glassThey say that there are two kinds of people in this world – those who see glasses half-full, and those who see glasses half-empty. My sense is that it would be more accurate to say that sometimes all of us see the glass half-full, while at other times we see it half-empty.  I don’t think of half-full/half-empty glasses as rigid, permanent, impermeable “either/or” categories.  No, whether I see a glass as being half-full or half-empty depends on lots of things, things that can change.  And so I’m reluctant to see either half-full glasses or half-empty glasses as “steady states.” And just as this is true of us as individuals, so it seems to me that it is equally true of us as societies at large and in seasons of life.  There are times when things generally feel half-full for us as a people or a nation, and there are other times when things feel half-empty for us as a people or a nation.

Right now things feel half-empty to me. It has been a long and jarring election season, and a conflicted and volatile couple of weeks since the votes were counted and a winner declared.   Regardless of how you voted, whether your candidate won or lost, the fact is that we are a painfully divided nation right now with very little confidence in the wisdom or goodness of those with whom we disagree.  We suspect the worse about each other, we resist listening to each other, and without some “patriotic grace” the task of governing is going to prove to be nearly impossible for the foreseeable future.

Patriotic Grace” is a phrase that political speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan coined.  This is how she explained its meaning in her 2008 book by the same name –

What we need most right now, at this particular moment in our history, is a kind of patriotic grace – a grace that takes the long view – a grace that eschews the politically cheap and manipulative – a grace that takes the deep view – a grace that admits affection and respect for others – that in fact encourages affection and respect for others – that agrees that the things that divide us are not worthy of this moment – while the things that encourage our cohesion as a nation must be encouraged.

As a step in this direction, I am consciously and conscientiously approaching Thanksgiving Day this year as a glass “half-full” oasis in an otherwise glass “half-empty” season in our national life.  I am building a list of things for which I am grateful right now at this particular moment in our history, and I am claiming them as the basis for my very real hope that no matter how half-empty the glass might appear to be right now, that it won’t be very long before its “half-fullness” becomes apparent to us all again as a people.

So, here’s my list so far –

I am grateful for the Promise of America, a promise most concisely stated for me in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance when it says that “liberty and justice” are for all.  Now I know that for some Americans – people of color, immigrants, Native Americans, the LBGTQ community to name just a few – this promise rings pretty hollow.  But I’ve always thought that aspirational values, those things that we say we want to be and do as a people, have a real power for concentrating our attention and directing our efforts.  Promises become projects.  And so, even as I affirm the aspiration that we be one nation under God with liberty and justice for all, I find that I must recommit myself in the present historical circumstance to doing the hard work of making the promise a fact for every single American.  I believe that it is incumbent upon all of us who pledge allegiance not to rest until every American has been extended the freedom and personally experiences the justice that it extols.

I am grateful that three days after the election this year we observed Veterans’ Day and had the opportunity to think about the men and women in our history, and who right now, are serving so selflessly and sacrificially to help keep us safe and secure as a nation. I recently saw the movie “Hacksaw Ridge” and I was viscerally reminded once again of what conscience and courage in uniform looks like, and I was grateful.  I am grateful for my father of blessed memory who served in the South Pacific during World War 2, for my Brother-in-Law who served in both Korea and Vietnam, and for my nephew who right now serves in the Global War on Terror.  I do not take the dangers and risks they faced, and are facing for us for granted.  I honor their service.

I am grateful for the Rule of Law and not the Rule of Men. A few years ago I devoured a series of books about the Founders – David McCullough’s John Adams, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life and Alexander Hamilton, and Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.  These books sent me back to the original sources of our Constitutional Republic in The Federalist Papers.  And the more I read them the deeper my appreciation became for the peculiar genius and sober wisdom of the generation of Founders who had a vision for this Constitutional Republic of ours, and who then had the astonishing ability to actually draft the enabling documents that moved it from the realm of a noble ideal to a functioning governing structure and system.  It’s certainly not perfect.  It must not be viewed an object of worship.  But it’s far better than any of the alternatives that are out there.  As Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” And the greatest feature of our particular version of it, if you ask me, are its deliberate separation of powers and its careful system of checks and balances that prevent unilateral action by a tyrant be s/he in the Executive, Legislative or Judicial branch of government.  Our Constitution compels consultation, cooperation and compromise to get anything substantive done.  To be sure, this frustrates the winners of elections, even as it reassures the losers, and it’s something for which I am truly grateful today.  Although I am impatient with the deadlock that has afflicted Washington D.C. for the past decade, I am a nevertheless a real fan of divided government, in fact, I vote for it all the time.  I want the exchange of different ideas and the clash of passions.  I frankly think it makes us better as a nation.

I am grateful for the peaceful transfer of power that we are witnessing once again, and for the very real grace with which it is happening right now when the forces to hinder it are running so hot. I have long ached for the emergence of a new class of national Statesmen in our Republic “who more than self their country loved,” and I think that I have actually caught a glimpse of some from both sides of the aisle in these last few weeks, and that gives me some real hope for the days ahead.

I am grateful for the Bill of Rights, and especially for the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of religion/conscience and freedom of speech, and that provides for a free press, the right of free assembly, and the freedom to redress our grievances. The Amendments to our Constitution are how we “mend thine every flaw,” and the fact that we even have such a mechanism in our governing documents tells me everything I need to know about our capacity to change and grow as a society, to expand liberty and establish justice for all. Our Founders knew that we would need to be able to do this.  We still do.

I am also grateful for the individual human capacity to grow and change, and for the gracious chances that we give to one another to do so. I am certainly not naïve about human nature.  My working doctrine of Original Sin and Total Depravity tempers the optimism in the ability of human beings that I detect in so many of my colleagues and peers.  I am a strict Calvinist in these matters.  We cannot lower our guard with each other, or ourselves.  But, and this is not a contradiction of what I just said, I am also a firm believer in the Imago Dei, not just as the transcendent fact that establishes the worth of every single human being, but also as an affirmation of our innate capacity as human beings to make selfless choices and to reach for transcendent goals.  We stand in the mud, but we see the stars, and so long as we do, there’s always hope for nobility from the most improbable of sources.

Finally, I am grateful for the sovereignty of God that assures me that God’s will is going to finally be done on earth as it is in heaven, and for the providence of God that assures me that God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse – which is to say that God always finds a way to take our confused choices and jumbled circumstances and turns them into His good.  The famous moral to the Joseph and his Brothers story in Genesis – “You intended this for evil, but God turned it to good” (50:20) – is a safeguard against despair for people of Biblical faith.  The story is not over until it’s over.  It’s way too early to give up, or to give over to the inertia of discouragement when things happen that we didn’t expect, and that don’t make any sense to us from our own particular point of view.  Kennon Callahan, the Church Consultant, said that the most important question a church must answer is: “Do you believe that your best years are before you, or behind you?” And I believe that the same question must be asked of Republics.  I personally believe that the best years for this Republic of ours are still before us, not because of who’s President, or not, but because of the God under whom I believe this nation, and all nations exist.  My confidence is in Him, and in His way of conforming, first His people, and then His world, to His purposes.  And so while I am certainly concerned these days, and cautious about what will happen next, I am not announcing the end of the world or making Hitler comparisons. No, despite all of the legitimately anxious and angry voices declaring the glass to be not just half-empty, but bone dry, I have cause to see it half-full.  And this Thanksgiving, I invite you, no, I urge you, to undertake the same spiritual exercise for your own sake, and for the sake of our national future together.  DBS +

 

 

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Ora Et Labora (Pray and Work)

1

Pray as though everything depended on God.
Work as though everything depended on you.

                                                                        ~ St. Augustine __________________________________________________________________________

I have been intrigued by the way that the results of last week’s election have exposed the roots of some of our most basic spiritual practices and convictions.  Some of my best Christian friends and most valued colleagues in ministry have been busy issuing calls for action after the election, while other good Christian friends and respected ministerial colleagues of mine have been busy issuing calls for prayer.  And I have noticed that in lots of subtle and not so subtle ways, some of my activist colleagues and friends have accused my prayerful colleagues and friends of a kind of pious irrelevance, or worse, an evasion of responsibility by calling people to pray before anything else.  Meanwhile, I have detected in some of my more prayerful colleagues and friends a suspicion that their activist colleagues and friends are guilty of confusing commotion with clarity, of doing something, doing anything, rather than doing something that is truly constructive and redemptive.  This is a familiar enough fight.  It’s been going on between Christians for millennia.  It’s that old contemplative/activist argument – the familiar pattern of the Mary/Martha divide, you know –

2The Lord and his disciples were traveling along and came to a village. When they got there, a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat down in front of the Lord and was listening to what he said. Martha was worried about all that had to be done. Finally, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!” The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

I myself posted two things on the day after the election – some of the liturgical resources that we used at our Tuesday evening Election Day Prayer & Communion Service at the church (borrowed and adapted from several sources), and a quote from John Stonestreet at the Colson Center –

Chuck Colson often shared: “Salvation doesn’t come on Air Force One.” The hope of the world is not dependent on an election outcome. Hope is secured because God is sovereign and Jesus Christ is risen.

My postings on the day after the election placed me squarely in the “call for prayer” camp, and some of my friends and colleagues in the “call to action” camp did not let this pass unnoticed or uncommented upon. The gist of their critique was that while I sat in a quiet corner somewhere thinking big thoughts about God that they would actually be out on the street trying to change things.  And my response to them is that this is a false spiritual dichotomy.

Going back to that familiar Mary/Martha story from Luke 10, here’s the detail that we routinely miss –

The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.” (10:42)

The standard sermon on this text says that some of us are busy Martha’s while others of us 3are thoughtful Mary’s, and that the church needs both.  And that’s a good message, completely true, but it’s not what this text says.  No, this text says that Mary alone, sitting attentively at Jesus’ feet, chose “the one necessary thing.”  To preach a sermon on the diversity and necessity of diverse gifts within the church go to I Corinthians 12.  The story of Mary and Martha makes a different point.

I think that it’s the same point that Jesus Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when He said –

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)

What’s being taught here is not the substitution of piety for action, but rather their proper sequence.  First it’s prayer, then it’s action.  Oh, I certainly understand the concern with this.  In the practice of the church prayer has often taken the place of action.  E. Stanley Jones observed that the “usual church climate” is – “We see a need; we pray about it; we discuss it.”  Then he offered a more Biblical alternative, the one he said that he saw operative in the YMCA Movement of his day – “We see a need; we pray about it; we go out and do something about it.”

4Carroll Simcox in his wonderful little book on prayer (Prayer: The Divine Dialogue. IVP. 1985) called this “Pecksniffian Praying” after a character in a Charles Dickens story who said “a short and pious grace, invoking a blessing on the appetites of those present, and committing all persons who had nothing to eat to the care of Providence, whose business (so said the grace, in effect) it clearly was, to look after them.”  Fr. Simcox explained, “Mr. Pecksniff’s grace is painless piety… the Pecksniffian will pray for the hungry as long as it is understood that God, not he, will do the feeding of the hungry” (36).  This is a “sanctimonious evasion of duty.”  Prayer is not our sole duty as Christians, but it is our first duty.  The relevant question is why?  Why pray first?

Well, just this week I read something that George Bullard, the church consultant, wrote about vision.  He observed that the commonly accepted position today is that it is a visionary leader who is singularly responsible for vision.  S/he sees something that others do not see, and then s/he casts that vision.  The image is that of a solitary prophet who alone sees and speaks, often at great personal cost.  But George Bullard argued that “our Triune God is the only appropriate source of vision,” and that the first responsibility of spiritual leadership is to encourage the exercise of the spiritual disciplines, not as ends in themselves (that is “Pecksniffian Praying”), but rather as the way that we get informed of, and then captured by the compelling and empowering vision of the Triune God.

A few weeks ago on Facebook I posted a quote from Scott Cormode’s essay One Basic Idea: Get People to See What the Scripture Says” in hopes of driving people to the full article at https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu

In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice 5among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.ch, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

I am an evangelical Christian.  This is not the only way to be a Christian, and it’s not even the dominant way that most Disciples are Christian, but it is the way that I am a Christian. And, in part, it means that my confidence that people can change in real and substantial sorts of ways does not reside in the passion and persuasiveness of the person making an argument and then calling for a specific action, but rather it rests on the power of what the Scriptures can be shown to teach to change the behavior of Christians through the convicting work of the empowering and indwelling Spirit of God applying it in their hearts.  Why do I believe this?  Well, I believe it because I think that it’s what the Scriptures themselves promise (Hebrews 4:12), and I believe it because it’s been my own personal experience of being changed.  My own convictions about race, gender and sexual orientation have all been challenged and changed through years of serious engagement with the Word in a faithful community of interpretation.

The contrast between Paul’s ministry in Berea where people “welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11) and his oratory in Athens where people “sneered,” and said “we shall hear you again concerning this” (Acts 17:32) is instructive. In Berea people were actually changed through their own personal engagement with the Word.  But in Athens people were only provoked by the passionate voicing of the convictions of one solitary visionary leader.  Because I’m interested in change, I’m invested in the Berean strategy, as evidenced by my “Soundings” in recent months –

We All Want to Change the World” (August 29)
Why Teaching Bible Study is the Most Important
Thing I do each Wee
k
(September 6)
The Dock and the Boat; Being “Biblical” in a Changing World (September 19)
The “Strange Silence” of the Bible (October 10) A “Christian” Vote? (October 24)

I believe that people who seek the mind of Christ through a serious and sustained engagement with Scripture nurtured by a diverse community of interpretation accompanied with prayer will begin to act in ways that serve the interests of justice and righteousness, life and peace, and equality and freedom.  It’s the truths fully considered by the head that distill into the passions that are embraced by the heart that direct the hands to act and the feet to move. It’s because the need is so great right now for Christians to act out of the Gospel’s truths, that the call to prayer is so urgent.   DBS +

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“God Reigns, and the Government at Washington Still Lives!”

garfieldJames A. Garfield was a 33-year old freshman congressman when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  …Over the years, a story emerged about Garfield’s actions in New York after learning of Lincoln’s death.  Like so many other places across the North, New York City was in chaos after the news of the President’s murder began to spread.  Anger, sadness, and fear gripped many of the city’s residents as suspicions of a conspiracy and the expectation of more killings ran rampant.  Supposedly, a mob of some 50,000 people filled Wall Street and screamed for the heads of southern sympathizers.  As the story goes, the crowd had just resolved to destroy the offices of The World, a Democratic newspaper, when a single figure appeared above them on a balcony and began to speak – “Fellow citizens!  Clouds and darkness are round about Him!  His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies!  Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne!  Mercy and truth shall go before His face!  Fellow citizens!  God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives!” These are the words supposedly spoken that day by Congressman James A. Garfield.  A supposed eyewitness to this event reported “The effect was tremendous,” and that Garfield’s words brought calm to the crowd (and saved The World’s office from destruction, one assumes).  This witness then turned to someone close to ask who the speaker was, and was told, “It is General Garfield of Ohio!” …This story became famous and, as historian Allan Peskin relates, “an enduring aspect of the Garfield mythology.”  Regularly re-told by newspapers under the heading “Garfield Stills the Mob,” it was widely circulated in Garfield’s later political campaigns, including his 1880 run for the presidency.  Sadly and ironically, it was also regularly mentioned in memorial pieces after Garfield was, like Lincoln, murdered by an assassin.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________     https://garfieldnps.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/james-a-garfield-and-the-lincoln-assassination/

I just love this story about James A. Garfield, apocryphal or not. Remember, he is a “Brother” President, one of the three Presidents of the United States with a direct “Disciples” connection.  Garfield was actually a preacher in our churches as well as the President of one of our church-related colleges in Ohio before his election to political office.  Lyndon Baines Johnson was a lifelong member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and his Washington D.C. funeral was actually conducted at the National City Christian Church, a church that was begun in James Garfield’s home when he was a Congressman.  And Ronald Reagan was raised a Disciple, went to one of our church-related colleges in Illinois, and held membership in a Southern California Disciples congregation for many years.

This week the United States will elect our next President. Depending on your politics, this will either be a week of great rejoicing for you, or a week of deep distress.  You are either going to feel like the Kingdom of God has come, or else that the world is about to end.  Either way, I’d advise you to tap the brakes.

The next four years are neither going to be as good as you imagine, nor as bad as you fear.

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Remember, the United States survived both the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s best Presidents, and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s immediate successor, and one of America’s worst Presidents. I certainly hope our next President is more a Lincoln than a Johnson, but either way, I have every confidence that the Government in Washington will live because God reigns.

This was Max Lucado’s point in a recent post. He wrote –

I have a prediction. I know exactly what November 9 will bring. Another day of God’s perfect sovereignty. He will still be in charge. His throne will still be occupied. He will still manage the affairs of the world. Never before has His providence depended on a king, president, or ruler. And it won’t on November 9, 2016. (https://maxlucado.com/prediction-november-9/)

God’s sovereignty refers to God’s will and how it actually gets done in the vagaries of human history. Leslie Weatherhead’s three categories in his classic 1944 book The Will of God have long proven to be useful in my thinking on this matter –

godGod’s Intentional Will – This is God’s ideal purpose, what God intends for us and our temporal well-being in any given moment.

God’s Circumstantial Will – This is what God actually does when our free choices set up circumstances that are contrary to God’s ideal purpose for us. Rather than giving up on us, God finds the best way to cooperate with us in those circumstances to continue to advance His good purposes.

God’s Ultimate Will – This is God’s final goal. It is the same goal as would have been reached if God’s intentional will would have not been frustrated by our free choices, and it is the goal that will finally be achieved because God and His purposes cannot be finally defeated.

What these careful distinctions in the will of God try to hold in balance is the mystery of how God can ultimately be in charge of the universe while human beings still remain truly free. Someone has said that Weatherhead’s answer turns God into a kind of master chess player who is in a game with a rank amateur.  The amateur freely moves his pieces on the board just as he chooses, but the master knows what the amateur is doing, and he is always thinking seven and eight moves ahead of him.  The master sees the whole board all the time, and he knows how he will be able to turn every move that the amateur makes to his own advantage.  And so, while I don’t believe that God has a candidate in this or any election — that’s our “move” — I do believe that God has a purpose for the whole world that He will finally bring about regardless of who wins the election.

It was the Protestant Reformer who observed that “God can ride the lame horse and carve the rotten wood.” And in his reflection on what will happen on November 9th, Max Lucado cited Proverbs 21:1 – “The LORD can control a king’s mind as he controls a river; he can direct it as he pleases.” All of which is to say that no matter who gets elected President this week, God is still going to be God, and His will — His Ultimate Will — is going to get done no matter how poorly or wisely we vote, and no matter how nobly or ignobly the one who gets elected governs.  Oh, we can certainly make things harder than they need to be.  History is proof of that.  God’s Intentional Will can be, and often is, frustrated by the poor choices we make.  But in those less-than-ideal-circumstances that our free choices create, I believe that God still finds a way, just like a master chess player, to cooperate with us where we are, and to advance the accomplishment of His will on earth as it is in heaven.

There have been 11 men elected President of the United States in my 63 years of life – 6 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Counting this one, I have now voted in 12 Presidential elections.  The candidates I have voted for have won 6 times, lost 5 times, and we’ll see what happens this year.   Without exception, the Presidents I have voted for have pleased me, and they have disappointed me, just as the Presidents I haven’t vote for have pleased me, and they have disappointed me as well.

King David’s last words were a reflection on Rulers –

“When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth” (2 Samuel 23:3-4).

This is what I want for every President of the United States, the ones I vote for and the ones I don’t. I want them all to be “like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.” And the fact is that sometimes they have been, and sometimes they haven’t — all of them, the Republicans and the Democrats, the ones I voted for and the ones I didn’t.  And my hope for #12 is that s/he will be, even though I already know that sometimes s/he will be, and sometimes s/he won’t.

And so, while I expect to be pleased sometimes, and disappointed at other times during the next four years by whoever gets elected President next this week, my faith is not in him or her, but in the God who never disappoints (James 1:17), which is why, with my “Brother” President, #20, James A. Garfield, I will wake up on the morning of November the 9th, and know that whoever has been elected President #45, that –

“Clouds and darkness are round about Him!  His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies!  Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne!  Mercy and truth shall go before His face!  Fellow citizens!  God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives!” 

DBS +

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“Casting the First Stone”

hamLast week I watched the PBS special about the Tony award winning Broadway Musical – “Hamilton.”  For some reason I find myself really interested in Broadway Musicals these days.  What struck me the most about this particular special were the interviews with the actors and actresses, most of them people of color, who are playing the roles of the Founding Fathers, people who were mostly white males, and slave-owners to boot.

They all admitted to powerfully and personally feeling the “push/pull” of this fact.  Playing these characters on stage, they confessed to being awed by the nobility, heroism and genius of these historic figures.  But as people of color, they also admitted to feeling deep in their bones the ugliness, ignorance and evil to which these historical figures were culpably blind and willing perpetrators. “So, how do you reconcile this?” the interviewer of the Hamilton cast in this PBS special kept asking the actors who play the parts of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr.  And their response was simple and direct – “They’re both true.”

There was greatness in our Founders, to be sure, and depravity, without a doubt. But then again, there is greatness in us too, in you and me, and depravity as well.  Let go of either of these twin truths about our humanity, and you’ll wind up in the ditch of romanticism and utopianism on the one side of the road, or in the ditch of despair and apathy on the other.  To keep the car in the middle of road and moving forward you’ve got to keep a steady eye and firm hold on both the possibility of grandeur that resides in our being human, and on the reality of the misery and miserableness of our being human as well.

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I remember an exchange that Randall Balmer had with Doug Frank at the Oregon Extension of Trinity College on his “journey into the Evangelical subculture in America” narrated in his 1989 book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (Oxford).  Doug Frank referenced the exclusionary tendencies of Evangelical Christians in drawing lines and making judgments about the spiritual condition of others.  He said –

We put ourselves on the good side of that line and figure out who’s on the bad, so that we can take our shots across the line and justify ourselves.

Then he contrasted this way of thinking with what he found in the New Testament, concluding –

I’m to the point now when I know when I am in the presence of bad theology when I hear that line being drawn. When I hear that line being drawn, I know that I’m not in the presence of the Gospel. … The Gospel says we’re all sinners, but God loves us anyway.

pointInstead of lines being drawn that separate us into good and bad categories, Doug Frank argued that we should drawn a big circle instead that takes all of us in as sinners. And isn’t this the big point of the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11)? Christ’s invitation for the sinless in the crowd to throw the first stone drew a pretty big circle, big enough in fact to take them all in. And because there are no “sinners emeriti,” it’s a circle that just keeps expanding to take all of us in today.  Sure, Christ called for change, for real transformation.  He told that woman at the end of the story to “go and sin no more.”  But that’s a word that can only be heard when it spoken inside that circle. Nobody, except for Christ (Hebrews 4:15 – He is the One without sin), can stand on the outside of that circle and say it to people who are on the inside.  This is the crucial difference between something being judgmental, and something becoming redemptive.

“Simul justus et peccator” the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther used to say. We are at one and the same time righteous or just, and sinners. Both things are true of us as Christians all the time, and it is cruel to think, speak or act otherwise, at least that’s what Francis Schaeffer said –

In the home, in the man/woman relationship, nothing is more cruel than for the wife or husband to build up a false image in his or her mind and then demand that the husband or wife measure up…

When a parent demands more from his child than the child is capable of giving, the parent destroys the child as well as alienating the child. But the child can also expect too much of parents… And because the parents does not measure up to the child’s conception of perfection, the child smashes the parent…

How many pastors have been smashed because their people have expected them to live up to an impossible ideal? And how many congregations have been injured by pastors who forgot that the people in their churches could not be expected to be perfect?

In his sermon “The Weakness of God’s Servants,” Francis Schaeffer explained –

Sin is serious business and we must never minimize that… (But) even after redemption, we are not perfect in this present life. It is not that we avoid saying that sin is sin, but we must have compassion for each other, too… The realism of the Bible is that God does not excuse sin, but neither is God finished with us when He finds sin in us.

A theologian whose writings I find both provocative and helpful is Andrew Basden. He has a rather startling essay – at least to my “Disciple” ears – on “The Beauty of Original Sin” posted at http://www.basen.co.uk. He begins –

The idea, or doctrine, of Original Sin got a bad name, probably because of dour Calvinists (who were very unlike the real Calvin). But, in fact, it’s a very liberating notion.

And then, in quick succession, Andrew named seven ways in which the idea of Original Sin, “linked with God’s redemption, is a real blessing… profoundly beautiful, and completely practical” –

  • No more goodies versus baddies… Goodies are those who are “OK” in our eyes; Baddies are those who are not. But, under the doctrine of Original Sin, all of us are infected, (and) all of us still bear some of God’s image. 
  • It can make me tolerant of others. If everyone is infected by original sin, then when someone does somnething wrong I’m not greatly fazed. But if I rejevct the idea of Original Sin, then I come to expect them – and especially the Goodies – to be pefect, and I get annoyed when I find they’re not. 
  • It helps me with fellow Christians. We tend to impose too high and unrealistic standards on fellow Christians, leading to all sorts of disunity. But if we remember that everyone is infected, even after salvation has hit a person, then I can lower my expectations, and love them more. 
  • I no longer have to justify myself. If I am only accepted (by God or others) when I’m “OK,” then I will try to hide my flaws or try to justify them, trying to make myself and others believfe they’re not flaws. But if I’m accepted by the Living God in spite of my deeply ingrained sin, then I… no longer need to justify myself, or pretend to myself, to others or to God. 
  • I am more able to accept criticism. If we are all tainted, so am I. So, if someone criticizes me then, in principle, they are only pointing out a detail of what I know is already wrong with me – thus, I can accept it, and even welcome it. 
  • It puts attacks in perspective. When people attack or undermine me it’s very painful. But the idea of Original Sin helps me see that their propensity to attack does not make them my enemy, but rather is just part of their portion of Original Sin. 
  • It can help me keep myself in perspective. No longer do I need to believe that I am somehow better than others… My real value comes, not by being better, but by being saved. And all can be saved by God.

heart“They’re both true.” That’s what the actors in “Hamilton” – almost all of them people of color – said when it was pointed out in that PBS special that the genuis and courage of the historical characters they are immortalizing on stage were all deeply flawed individuals as well.  They refuse to excuse the darkness that they find in them, and they can’t ignore the nobility of what they attempted and actually accomplished.  The line between good and evil, between darkness and light, between human grandeur and human misery is a line that transects each one of our hearts, and it would be dishonest for us to think, act or speak as if this wasn’t true of us, just as it would be cruel for us to think, act or speak of others as if it weren’t true of them as well.

DBS +

 

 

 

 

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A “Christian” Vote?

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What’s been particularly dispiriting this year was how many people decided what they thought of an accusation of sexual misconduct based upon the partisan affiliation of the accused. When it’s a member of the other party, the message to the accuser is, “You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed. We’re with you.” When it’s a member of our own party, the talking heads confidently declare they’re just hunting their “fifteen minutes of fame.” Who could have guessed that guilt in sexual misconduct cases aligned so perfectly with party membership?

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Jim Geraghty – http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/441324/character-candidates-and-wrong-lesson-2012

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Now that we are beginning our final approach to the 2016 election, more earnest are the appeals and more urgent are the arguments from colleagues and acquaintances alike about which candidate and which party is more “Christian,” and therefore my only option as a voting “Christian” when I step into my polling booth on the morning of November the 8th.  My Republican friends insist that voting Republican is the only “Christian” option based largely on a law and order reading of Romans 13 and an emphasis on the personal morality strands of New Testament teaching.  Meanwhile, my Democrat friends insist that voting Democrat is the only “Christian” option based largely on a social activist interpretation of the ministry of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels, especially Luke’s, and an emphasis on the social justice strands of New Testament teaching.

My problem is that when I read my New Testament, I find both the strands of teaching that my Republican friends emphasize, and the strands of teaching that my Democrat friends emphasize. The way I read the New Testament, it’s not “either/or,” it’s “both/and.” And what troubles me so deeply about this is the way that partisan blinders seem to screen us from seeing and partisan rhetoric seems to deafen us from hearing the way that our Christian brothers and sisters on the other side of the partisan divide are reasoning from Scripture, making inferences and drawing conclusions just as we are. That quote from Jim Geraghty’s National Review article “Character, Candidates and the Wrong Lessons from 2012,” at the lead of my blog this week powerfully expresses the way that partisan affiliation hypocritically skews the way that we “hear” things, and then “use” what we’ve heard to dismiss and denigrate the other side.  This is bad enough when we do it with what we hear on the evening news and with what we read about in the morning paper, but when we do it with Scripture, well, that’s just spiritual malpractice if you ask me.

In seminary I was told that the very first task of being a truly “Biblical” Christian was to be able to identify your own deeply imbedded presuppositions, to recognize the way that those prejudices were slanting the way that you read the Biblical texts, and then to try to neutralize them as much as possible by the use of the critical tools of interpretation and by consciously choosing to be part of a community of interpretation where people from different backgrounds, with different life experiences, and with different presuppositions could respectfully and honestly talk with each other about what they found in the Biblical text, what it means for the way that they understood God, themselves and the world, and how it shapes the way that they were then making their way through life in light of what they understood the Bible to say and mean.  This is why I am a Disciple, when theologically I am probably better suited to be a Baptist of some variety (Remember, we Campbellites were Baptists once… “Christian Baptists” to be precise).  In fact, this was the exact struggle that I actually had when it was time to choose both the college that I would attend, and later on, the seminary.  I’d had Baptist experiences of faith and church, and Disciple experiences of faith and church.  And I had Baptist options open to me, and I had Disciple options, and I understood that whichever option I took would forever set the denominational dye of the color of my soul.

At both junctures, college and seminary, I consciously and conscientiously chose the Disciples, and I have truly loved being part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a classically Orthodox Christian (Chalcedonian and Nicaean) because I knew that as a Disciple, at the Sunday school table each week there would be rigorous conversations about what I believed, and why, while at the Lord’s Table, as a Disciple, I knew that there would be the embrace of a community that was deeply rooted and grounded in God’s work of saving love in Jesus Christ.  Billy Graham used to say that “the ground at the foot of the cross is level,” and that’s what I found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 45 years ago. It’s why I became an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 35 years ago.  And it’s how I have always tried to operate as a minister in the five Texas congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that I have had the honor of serving, including Northway for these past 20 years.

Our founders refused to “fence the Table” over doctrinal and polity disagreements, and today, I believe that our stewardship of that practice of settled conviction requires us to refuse to “fence the Table” over political and social disputes, formally by statement or informally by attitude.  The spiritual “Magna Carta” of the church was Paul’s passionate exclamation in Galatians 3:28 –

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

 And today, I think that sounds like –

There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer conservative or
progressive, there is no longer red or blue; for all of you are one in Christ.

And because I believe that this is true of the church in general, and of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in particular, especially right now on the eve of a deeply polarizing Presidential election, I think that it’s time for us to start acting like the Christians that our spiritual tradition says we are, and minimally, I believe that this demands some modesty of us.

And so instead of declaring our partisan conclusions as the obvious and only “Christian” choice announced with vitriol and absolutism, how about opting instead for the more difficult pathway of a faithful conversation that opens with all of us saying to each other, “This is the choice that I am making in this election as a Christian, and these are my reasons why. So, tell me about the choice that you are making in this election as a Christian, and what are your reasons why?”  Faithful, respectful conversation rather than conflict and political conceit seems to me to be so much more reflective who we are as sisters and brothers in Christ.

On November the 13th, the Sunday right after the election, we will gather at the Lord’s Table here at Northway just as we do every Sunday.  We will have a President-elect, and if the national statistics are correct, then just about half of us will have voted for that candidate and just about half of us will have not.  Some of us will have “won” politically, and the rest of us will have lost.  But as Americans, we will have our President for the next four years – the leader we are commanded to “honor” (Romans 13:7; I Peter 2:17), and for whom we commanded to pray regardless of how we voted (I Timothy 2:1-2).  And as Christians, our faith and trust will still be in Christ alone as our Lord and Savior, and everyone who has made this same commitment to Him will still be our sisters or brothers in Him, regardless of how they voted.  And because that will be true of us then and there, how about thinking, talking and acting like it’s true of us here and now in these two weeks before the election.  DBS +

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Election Day Communion Service
Northway Christian Church – F-101 – Fellowship Hall
Tuesday, November 8, 2016 – 6 pm

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Election Day Communion Services began with the concern that Christians in the United States were being shaped more by the tactics and ideologies of political parties than by their identity in and allegiance to Jesus. Northway is a diverse congregation in terms of political views, but spiritually we are still one in Jesus Christ, and so we participate in this Election Day Communion tradition gladly. By deliberately coming together at the Lord’s Table on the evening of the election before the results are announced, we are showing ourselves to be one people in Christ, and we are affirming that what unites us is far more powerful than anything that divides us. So, vote on Election Day morning and then on Election Day Evening come to church to affirm what matters most to us as Christians – the unity of the body of Christ. The most visceral way to express this unity is to share the cup and break bread with other Christian brothers and sisters.

We will be sharing communion together on November 8th in the Fellowship Hall at 6 pm.

 

 

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A “Movement for Wholeness”

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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 often tell people that I ordered the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue (I just dated myself, didn’t I?)  Spiritually awakened and doing my own believing for the first time, I went looking for a spiritual home of my own.  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 all of these faith traditions that I valued, 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 activism of the Methodists, the cohesiveness of the Mormons, the fervor of the Pentecostals, the thoughtfulness of the Presbyterians, the tradition of the Catholics,   the freedom of the Congregationalists, the focus of the Baptists and the hope of the Adventists.

I have a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” head and heart.  I never finish preaching a sermon, writing an article or teaching a class when at the end of my carefully considered presentation I don’t instinctively want to say, “But, on the other hand.”  This is not a lack of conviction on my part, but rather it is the recognition that there are intelligent people who are just as serious as I am about the matter at hand and who see things quite differently than I do.  I am just not wired in a “my way or the highway” sort of way. Instead I want to stay in communion and conversation with them.  I want to know why they think what they think and do what they do. I want to see what they see, how they see.

One of my life mottos since the first day I first accidently stumbled across it in a book in the stacks of the library at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon, in the early 10970’s is something that Balthasar Hubmaier (1480 – 1528), an Anabaptist Reformer, told his accusers when he was being tried for heresy –

saviourThese, brethren, are my opinions… which I have learned from the Holy Scriptures. But if there is any error in them, I pray and beseech you, by Jesus Christ our only Saviour, and the day of his last judgment, to condescend to set me right through the Holy Scriptures in a fraternal and Christian manner. I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks; I will confess the error, and in accordance with the decision of the divine word I will gladly and willingly, with greatest obedience, submit myself to you and follow you most carefully, as followers of Christ. I have spoken. It is yours to judge me and set me right. I will pray Christ to give you his grace for this purpose.

And this perfectly expresses what’s in my head and heart. To be sure, I have my opinions which I have learned from the Holy Scriptures.  I believe them deeply, and I try to preach and teach them just as boldly and clearly as I possibly can.  But, I know that there are other ways of believing, and equally committed preachers who passionately proclaim 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) 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) They don’t agree with each other about these things.

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At the end of my quest I knew that I needed a church home that nurtured the passion of that first conclusion and the honesty of that second conclusion. Today they call what I went looking for 46 years ago “Generous Orthodoxy.”   Back then 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, who He is and what He’s done “for us and our salvation,” and that also honored the rich variety of ways that people have experienced and understood Him.

religionOne of the most helpful resources 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. (59)

That’s the kind of church that I went looking for 46 years ago, and that’s the kind of church that I still want to be part of today. But here, after 37 years of ordained ministry in this church family and approaching the end of my active stewardship of it, I am beginning to see just how fragile an ideal it is that I have given my life to.

A few years ago some of our denomination’s best and brightest leaders got together and after much prayerful consideration and careful conversation, issued this new version of our church’s Identity Statement –

chaliceWe are Disciples of Christ, 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.

I loved this way of thinking and talking about who we are as a church from the first minute I saw it. It took me right back to that moment long ago when as a young Christian I heard about a church where “literalists and liberals” could sit 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.” That’s a powerful vision of our unity in Christ, but one that I sense is at real risk today.

Maybe it’s always been like this, maybe there have always been forces at work to weaken the center of gravity of the Lord’s Table in our church where we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.”  But right now – both pastorally and personally – I am acutely aware of just how powerfully those opposite forces pull at our unity.

Paul told the Corinthians that he wasn’t going to know anything among them “but Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2), – Christ alone as the “wisdom” and the “power” of God (I Corinthians 1:24).  But today, increasingly, I find that the standard has become Christ “plus” – Christ “plus” who you are voting for in the Presidential election; Christ “plus” what you think of the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court Ruling; Christ “plus” a specific stand on any one of the many pressing social questions of the day.  Elton Trueblood – one of my most trusted spiritual teachers liked to say – “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.”  And despite my great affection for the one who said this, I find that I must respectfully disagree with what he said.

Beyond this being a sheer impossibility for anyone who is trying to live responsibly in a world of real issues demanding real decisions, I’m not sure that it’s even what we’re called to do as Christians. I find that it’s my holding to Christ that has forced a whole set of other commitments, in fact, I’m not sure how firm my hold on Christ would really be if it wasn’t decisively shaping who I vote for, and what I think about Obergefell v. Hodges, and where I stand on the pressing social questions of the day.  I consciously draw conclusions from my commitment to Christ, what have been called “necessary inferences” in our interpretive tradition.  But – and, if you ask me, this is the crucial issue for us as a church today – our inferences, while necessary, valid, inescapable, and passionate, must not be allowed to become terms of communion or made binding on the consciences of other Christians.  So, here’s how I would restate that earlier quote –

Hold firm to Christ, and then fight to stay in community and conversation with everyone else who holds firm to Christ, especially when they draw inferences from their commitment to Christ that vary widely from the inferences that you have drawn from your commitment to Christ.

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It’s certainly not as quotable as that earlier statement is, but I think it more accurately reflects what I believe must be the position of a community of faith that says it’s “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” based singularly on the welcome that we all receive from God in Christ at the Lord’s Table.  It’s not Christ “plus.” Christ “plus” is fragmenting.  It’s just Christ – the way He loves and calls us all regardless of how we vote and what we think about this or that.  Our wholeness is found in His welcome – and it’s at that table of our unity in Him that the important conversations can then begin without anyone feeling like they are going to be kicked out for who they, what they think, how they vote, because we’re there, all of us, every last one of us, by grace.

DBS +

 

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