Now What?

flagToday at noon we get a new President. This makes some of us very sad, and this makes some of us very happy.  I “get” that.  What I don’t “get” is the “Not my President” response that seems to be so popular as this less than popular President takes office.  Deeper than the angry rhetoric and political posturing that this slogan expresses, I detect in it an alarming crack in our national life that weakens the very foundation of our Constitutional Republic.

I certainly get the disappointment of an election that doesn’t turn out the way that you had hoped. I get the very real concern about the changes that a new administration promises to make.  And I even get the rejection of the values and the criticism of the character of the people who have been elected to high public office.  All of these things have been part of my own personal political experience at one time or another as well.  In fact, if the truth be told, I’m rarely happy with Washington D.C., and I am almost always troubled politically.  Yes, I “get” it.  But what I don’t get is the absence of “Political Grace” that the “Not my President” slogan betrays.  It just seems to run so contrary to our best impulses and highest instincts as participants in the American experiment.

bookIt lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that Jimmy Carter displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Ronald Reagan, the candidate who had just defeated him in a bitter election. It lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that George H.W. Bush displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Bill Clinton, the candidate who had just defeated him in a bitter election. It lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that Bill Clinton then displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of George W. Bush who finally won the closest of elections on the basis of a controversial Supreme Court ruling.  It lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that George W. Bush displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Barack Obama who won the election campaigning on a repudiation of the Bush policies.  And it lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that Barack Obama has been putting on display as he has been facilitating the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Donald Trump who won the office without winning the popular vote and that is clouded with evidence of attempted foreign influence on our democratic process.   Donald Trump may or may not have been your candidate, but today at noon, he is going to be our President.

So, the question for all of us today, both the glad and the sad is – now what?

On Monday this week I posted a “Soundings” on “Partisan Praying.” If you haven’t read that blog yet, then I would certainly encourage you to do so now.  As a Christian speaking to other Christians, this is the most important thing that I would say we need to be doing today.  And then, only after saying that, as a citizen speaking to other citizens, I would then urge a quick civics lesson.

abeAfter hearing all about it on the news, I took a look last week at “Indivisible,” the political action manual that was recently put together by a group of progressive Congressional staffers on how to get and wield political power when the administration that is in in office doesn’t reflect your values and convictions. They based “Indivisible” on their observations of the emergence of, and their experience with the political effectiveness of the Tea Party in the early years of the Obama Administration.   At its core, “Indivisible” is just a basic guide to political organization and influence.  It pulls back the curtain of Washington D.C. and shows us how things actually get done there.  Its authors clearly have a political agenda, but the process that they describe does not.  It’s just as good for the gander, and it was for the goose.  In fact, these Progressives say that they learned it from watching the Tea Party!  I learned it in my high school civics class, and from my volunteer work at the headquarters of a major political party in my suburb of LA during a Presidential and Gubernatorial election in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when I was growing up.  There is nothing dangerous, subversive or particularly innovative here.  This is all just stuff that we should already know and be regularly doing as citizens.

A pretty good list of what involved and concerned citizens should be doing these days was recently put together and posted online by Evan McMullin, an Independent candidate for President in the last election.

  1. Read and learn the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Know that our basic rights are inalienable.
  2. Identify and follow many credible sources of news. Be very well informed and learn to discern truth from untruth.
  3. Pay attention to what the Administration says, decides and does.
  4. Be very vocal in every forum available to you if you think that rights are being violated and democracy is being threatened. Write, speak, and act.
  5. Support journalists, artists, academics, clergy and others who speak truth and who inform, inspire and unite us.
  6. Build bridges with Americans from the other side of the traditional political spectrum and with members of diverse American communities.
  7. Defend the rights of people who don’t look, think or believe like us. An attack on one is an attack on all.
  8. Organize online and in person with other Americans about the things that concern you.
  9. Hold members of Congress accountable for protecting our rights and democracy through elections and by making public demands of them now.
  10. And finally, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, have “malice toward none, with charity for all” and never ever lose hope!

And while he has been a political rival and remains a public critic of our new President, there is nothing on this list that I find to be particularly partisan or pointed. In fact, it seems to me that these are ten really good things for all of us to be doing as citizens no matter who is in office, and even if Evan McMullen himself had been elected to office!

And that’s the whole point.

Whether this is a day of rejoicing for you, or a day of despair, tomorrow’s another day. The election is over, the transition of administrations is complete, and now the hard work of governing begins with a new group of leaders at the helm.  You may have voted for them.  You may have voted against them.  They may fill you with hope.  They may fill you with dread. But either way, they are the ones who are now in office.  But they aren’t there as tyrants to unilaterally impose their will on us any more than the last administration was, or the next administration after this one will be.  They are there to cast a vision and then to try to implement it through a constitutionally established political process.

Choose to be part of that process!

A government of the people, by the people, and for the people, requires the people. In our system of government, being governed requires the consent of the governed, and that means people, all of the people, stepping up and conducting ourselves as responsible citizens in a participatory democracy.  So, whether you are glad or sad today, let the full exercise of your citizenship begin, and be grateful that we have the privilege.  DBS +

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Religion and Government

Religion and Government
“Faiths in Conversation”

church

Last night I was part of a Faiths in Conversation at the Islamic Seminary of America on the topic of “Government and Religion.” As I told them in my introductory remarks, the timing of this conversation could not have been more fortuitous.   To be thinking and talking about this topic during the week of a Presidential Inauguration was a powerful exercise of interfaith reflection and a meaningful experience in interfaith understanding.

The Conversation continues next Tuesday evening, January 24th, back at the Islamic Seminary of America (17740 Preston Road) at 7 pm when our topic will be “Being a Moral Witness.”

What follows is the manuscript of my presentation from last night. I offer it here as a way for us all to think about the question that I pose at the beginning of my remarks –

“This weekend religious leaders from all three of our faith traditions will be walking the corridors of political power and standing in the courts of Caesar, and that fact ought to raise an important question for all of us – What are they doing there? What are our expectations?  What is the proper relationship between religion and government?”

DBS +

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Religion and Government

Faiths in Conversation – January 17, 2017
Islamic Seminary of America – Dallas, Texas

A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Christian Church – Dallas, Texas
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We look like geniuses, I mean, scheduling a Faiths in Conversation on the topic of “Religion and Government” the week of the Presidential Inauguration!  Did we actually plan this, or was it just dumb luck?  Either way, our conversation this evening couldn’t possibly be more timely!

This weekend religious leaders from all three of our faith traditions will be walking the corridors of political power and standing in the courts of Caesar, and that fact ought to raise an important question for all of us – What are they doing there? What are our expectations?  What is the proper relationship between religion and government?

I have prepared a handout for you this evening, a documentary review of the cherished principle of the separation of church and state that has been enshrined in our national life from its first public articulation in the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 to its formal statement by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. Anybody who tries to argue that this principle wasn’t at work in the minds and hearts of the Founders as they gave initial shape and structure to the American experiment are just being silly.  But that’s not what I want to argue here tonight.  No, what I want to argue instead is that this cherished principle of American democracy is actually the fruit of a Christian view of the world and how God is present and at work in it.

As you know there is no single Christian view of anything. As we like to say at my church, where two or three Christians gather, there will be seven or eight opinions.  In the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches there were 217 different denominations listed!  That’s 217 distinct Christian communities.  217 times a group of Christians somewhere decided that their interpretation of something was important enough to insist that they be viewed separately from all other Christians!  And so the idea that the position that I am just about to map out for you is “the” Christian position is completely untenable.  In fact, when I’m done, my guess is that the other Christians in the room will have as many questions about and objections to what I am about to say as any of you who belong to another faith tradition.

This position that I am about to describe for you has a name. It’s called the “Two Kingdoms” theory.  It’s a classically Protestant Christian perspective on the question of the proper relationship between religion and government that traces its intellectual lineage back through the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, Martin Luther and John Calvin, through St. Augustine, the great North African Christian thinker and churchman of the late 4th and early 5th century, to the pages of the New Testament itself.  The “Two Kingdoms” theory has lots and lots of variations, but it shares some very basic common assumptions.

For our purposes here this evening I am going to tether three of those basic shared assumptions of the “Two Kingdoms” theory to three very specific New Testament verses.  All of what I am about to say and all of the New Testament references that I am about to make are on the second handout that I’ve prepared for you this evening.

  • The first verse I want to introduce you to is John 18:36 –

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

The context for this saying from Jesus Christ was His trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea in the first century on the day He was crucified. This is the first shared assumption of the “Two Kingdoms” theory.  At this moment in history God’s Kingdom is spiritual.  It involves no national covenant.  There are no Christian nations, only Christians drawn from every nation.  This is why at no time did Jesus Christ or any of His apostles ever expect “the magistrate to establish the church, enforce Christian orthodoxy” or promote Christian morality.  And nowhere does the New Testament present any Christian leader ever telling Caesar how to do his job, or organizing public protests, or lobbying the governing authorities for a civil remedy to a social problem. They didn’t look to the government for the moral and spiritual renewal of the world.   No, they saw that as the church’s job.

  • The second verse that I want to introduce you to this evening is Revelation 11:15 –

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”

Every single day faithful Christians pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven,” and for many of us, Revelation 11:15 is the verse that tells us when this prayer will be answered – at the close of the age when Christ returns to finish the work of salvation that He began when He was born as Bethlehem’s baby, taught and healed on Galilean hillsides, died on Calvary’s cross, and was raised up out of a borrowed tomb on the third day.  In Revelation 11:15 we are told that the kingdoms of this world will one day become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, not gradually by human effort but suddenly by God’s very own direct action.  You see, we don’t build this Kingdom, we receive it.  And this is the second shared assumption of the “Two Kingdoms” theory – right now we live our lives leaning into that coming day when God’s spiritual Kingdom of which we are already citizens by faith will swallow up all of the human kingdoms in which we currently reside, and God’s reign over all of creation will be fully and finally restored. But that hasn’t happened yet.

  • This brings me to the third verse that I want to introduce you to this evening, Matthew 22:16-21 –

16 And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. 17 Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” 21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

This is the veritable “proof text” of the “Two Kingdoms” theory.  It describes the state that we who are Christians live in between John 18:36 and Revelation 11:15, between the “already” of our citizenship in God’s spiritual Kingdom and the “not yet” of that day in God’s future when the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of the Lord, and of His Christ. In the in-between, we live, and move, and have our being in two kingdoms simultaneously, what Christ described as that which belongs to Caesar, and what He described as that which belongs to God.

For our purposes here this evening, let’s simplistically think of Caesar’s domain as the state, and of God’s domain as the church. According to the “Two Kingdoms” theory these are two different God-ordained spheres, with two different God-given assignments.  The “cultural mandate” that God gave to Adam and Eve in the stories of Creation to have dominion, to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:26-28), and to till and keep the Garden (Genesis 2:15) are an assignment given to all of humanity for all time. In fact, the Two Kingdoms theory would say that this is God’s assignment to the kingdom of the state. Simply put, God wants human beings to always and everywhere thrive in this world, and government is the divinely ordered mechanism that has been given to us to see that we do.

To my way of thinking, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better statement of what this “cultural mandate” looks like in actual political practice than these familiar and cherished words –

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Note that this is not distinctively Christian, or even particularly religious. In fact, God is not even mentioned in it at all.  And that’s because God has not created and ordered the state in order to make us believers, but rather to suppress chaos and promote order so that we might be truly human and free.

In the New Testament, when God’s other kingdom, the church, does talk about the governing authorities, it does so with the fervent desire that they are effectively doing their job creating public peace and maintaining social order so that the church can get on with its own particular assignment in God’s ordering of the universe – the “great commission” to go into all the world to preach the Gospel and make disciples.

Representative of the New Testament texts that make reference to the state is what Paul wrote to Timothy in his first letter –

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,  who gave himself as a ransom for all… (I Timothy 2:1-6)

Paul told Timothy to pray that “kings and all those who are in high positions” would do their job in creating a peaceful social order so that the church in turn could do its job in bringing people to a knowledge of the truth in Jesus Christ.  And here are the “Two Kingdoms” side by side, each one doing its own God-given assignment.

It’s not the state’s job to be a church.  As the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert said, “the dead are not raised by politics… our personal salvation and the forgiveness of sins do not and did not come by political decree.. our very best political efforts will not reconcile us to the Father”  (Cromartie).  And it’s not the church’s job to be the state.

Peter Berger, the eminent sociologist of religion, says that he went to a friend’s church in Boston one weekend.  His friend was dying of cancer, and Peter said that he just wanted to spend some time with him before he was gone.

That Sunday morning the minister preached a sermon on U.S. government policies in Central America, as the conflict was raging there. And Peter said that more disturbing to him than the misinformed views on Central America was how lonely his friend felt in his own church.  People there were so concerned about politics that no one noticed that his friend was dying.  And Peter said, “This false preaching denies ministry to those who desperately need it.  Our congregations are full of people with a multitude of afflictions and sorrows… who come to church to receive the consolation and solace of the Gospel, instead of which they get a lot of politics. (Cromartie)

The Two Kingdoms theory addresses this problem not by ignoring the concerns of the state for the concerns of the church, or by substituting the concerns of the church for the concerns of the state, but rather by assigning the concerns of both the church and the state to their proper God-ordained sphere. The Oxford Theologian Oliver O’Donovan gets it exactly right when he writes –

Western theology starts from the assertion that the kingdoms of this world are not the kingdom of God and of His Christ, not, at any rate, until God intervenes to make them soat the end… this does not mean that the secular state can be independent from God and His claims, or that the pious individual can cultivate a private (spiritual) experience without regard for the claims of his (larger) society. It simply means that earthly politics, because they do not have to reconcile the world, may get on with their provisional task of bearing witness to God’s justice. (Cromartie)

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So, to bring our conversation this evening about religion and government back around to this week’s context, and all of those Christian leaders who will be in Caesar’s Temple this weekend for the inauguration, what do I want them to do there?

  • Well, first of all I want them to pray that those who are in authority over us will do their job in the creation and maintenance of a social order where liberty and justice for all is affirmed and embodied.
  • And second, while they are there, if they are asked their opinion about what they think Caesar should do about this or that social problem, as citizens I would expect them to express their opinions, and I would hope that those opinions would be deeply informed by their faith in God and their knowledge of His word, His will, and His ways as Christians.
  • And finally, when the weekend is over I would expect them to get out of Caesar’s Temple and back to their churches where the real work that they are called to do awaits, to preach Christ and make disciples because that’s the real hope of the world as far as Christianity is concerned.

Sources

Cromartie, Michael. “Up to Our Steeples in Politics.” In No God but God.  Os Guinness & John Seel, eds. Moody. 1992.

Littlejohn, Brad. “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed.http://www.politicaltheology.com

Thomas, Cal & Ed Dobson. Blinded by Might. Zondervan. 1999.

Tuninga, Matthew. “The Two Kingdoms Doctrine: What’s The Fuss All About?http://www.reformation21.org

VanDrunen, David. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture.   Crossway. 2010.

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Appendix – A Documentary History of the Separation of Church and State

 he Flushing Remonstrance (1657)

The Flushing Remonstrance was a 1657 petition to Director-General of New Netherland Peter Stuyvesant, in which some thirty residents of the small settlement at Flushing requested an exemption to his ban on Quaker worship. It is considered a precursor to the United States Constitution’s provision on freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights. The Flushing Remonstrance was signed on December 27, 1657, by a group of English citizens who were affronted by persecution of Quakers and the religious policies of Stuyvesant. None of them were Quakers. The Flushing Remonstrance shows support for the separation of church and state as early as the mid-17th century, stating their opposition to religious persecution of any sort.

The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets.

Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent and shall remaine, your humble subjects, the inhabitants of Vlishing.

According to Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University, the Flushing Remonstrance was remarkable for articulating the freedom of religion as a fundamental right that is as basic as any other, and that it was publically addressed to a governmental official who was not known for tolerance by people for whom the articulation of this principle was of little discernible benefit to themselves.

A Letter Concerning Toleration – John Locke (1689)

The idea of a separation between church and state that so strongly influenced our Founders was developed by John Locke in his A Letter Concerning Toleration which argues for a complete separation between church and state.

For the commonwealth of the Jews, different in that from all others, was an absolute theocracy; nor was there, or could there be, any difference between that commonwealth and the Church. The laws established there concerning the worship of One Invisible Deity were the civil laws of that people and a part of their political government, in which God Himself was legislator. But there is absolutely no such thing under the Gospel as a Christian commonwealth.

There are indeed, many cities and kingdoms that have embraced the faith of Christ, but they have retained their ancient form of government, with which the law of Christ hath not at all meddled. He, indeed, hath taught men how, by faith and good works, they may obtain eternal life; but He instituted no commonwealth. He prescribed unto His followers no new and peculiar form of government, nor put He the sword into any magistrate’s hand.

The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
1779 (Thomas Jefferson)

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Article 6 of the United States Constitution
(Signed and Adopted – 1787; Ratified – 1788)

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

George Washington’s Letter to the Touro Synagogue,
Newport,
Rhode Island (1790)

Allowing rights and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

 The Bill of Rights – The First Amendment to the Constitution (1791)

 Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 Amendment 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (1797)

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen (Muslims); and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The preliminary treaty began with a signing on 4 November, 1796 (the end of George Washington’s last term as president). Joel Barlow, the American diplomat served as counsel to Algiers and held responsibility for the treaty negotiations. Joel Barlow wrote the original English version of the treaty, including Amendment 11. Barlow forwarded the treaty to U.S. legislators for approval in 1797. Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, endorsed it and John Adams concurred (now during his presidency), sending the document on to the Senate. The Senate approved the treaty on June 7, 1797, and officially ratified by the Senate with John Adams signature on 10 June, 1797. All during this multi-review process, the wording of Article 11 never raised the slightest concern. The treaty even became public through its publication in The Philadelphia Gazette on 17 June 1797. Although the Treaty of Tripoli under agreement only lasted a few years and no longer has legal status, it clearly represented the feelings of our Founding Fathers at the beginning of the American government.

 Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802)

To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the State of Connecticut.

 Gentlemen,

 The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

 Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

 I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem. Thomas Jefferson

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (1868)

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was intended to secure rights for former slaves. This amendment introduces the concept of the incorporation. The doctrine of incorporation is intended to ensure the equal application of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights in all of the states.

 

 

 

 

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Partisan Praying

obama

Eight years ago I started seeing this bumper sticker around town, and my first response was one of complete agreement. I mean, I know what the Bible says about praying for those who are in authority over us, and I try to practice it.

“Praying the news” is a spiritual discipline that I appreciate. Whenever an elected leader is on television as a talking head, or there’s a report about some congressional hearing, legislative initiative, judicial ruling or political squabble in Congress or at the White House, as I’m listening, rather than just getting agitated  I try to pray that our elected leaders will be given hearts of wisdom as they seek to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Praying for President Obama eight years ago as the first line of that bumper sticker enjoined is just part of our Biblical obligation as Christians if you ask me, just as praying for President Bush before him was part of my spiritual obligation as well. It was only later, when I looked up what Psalm 109:8 actually says, that I was given pause.

May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership.

Shocked? I certainly was. And frankly, I wondered, if you’re going to honestly pray that verse from Psalm 109, with stop there?  Psalm 109 continues (verses 9 -12) –

May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil. May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.

Beyond the problem of wrenching verses from their historical and literary context to make a contemporary political application that is questionable at best, there is the larger problem of using a random verse from the Bible to twist the meaning of a Biblical teaching into something that is no longer spiritually recognizable.

When it finally dawned on me what this bumper sticker was saying, and the ugly spirit with which it was saying it, I was deeply offended as a Christian. And as offended as I was with the way that eight years ago some Christians were using the Bible and their beliefs as a club to clobber newly elected President Obama, so now I find myself equally bothered by the way that some other Christians are using the Bible and their beliefs as a club to clobber newly elected President Trump. I know that those who were so agitated by the new Obama Administration eight years ago had some deep moral and spiritual convictions as the basis for their fierce opposition just as those who oppose the new Trump Administration today have some deep moral and spiritual convictions as the basis for their fierce opposition as well.  I respect, even encourage that.  Politics is a contest of ideas and values, so have at it.  Tell me what you think, and why just as clearly and passionately as you possibly can.  Convince me.  Just don’t dehumanize and demonize those with opposing points of view in the process.

In an essay he wrote for the Christian Century (“Why Social Justice is Not Christian” – April 10, 2016), David Williams warned about the danger of our souls “calcifying” in the long struggle for truth, liberty and justice when our political opponents become the “other.

The anxiety that arises from the immensity of human brokenness creates within those who resist it a shadow of that brokenness. The perpetrators of injustice become the Other. We cease to see the soul blight that curses them as fully as it curses those who suffer. They are commies and fascists, racists and mooching parasites. It hardens us to them, and to the possibility of their being called and convicted to be part of the change. We would rather fight and mock and attack. Without a vision of grace to guide us, we would take up the sword. We would wear that ring of power. And when we do, we might imagine we are fighting the good fight. But it is a fantasy. Because without grace as both our intent and our method, all we’re doing is fighting.

What guards against this for me as a Christian is the Biblical mandate to pray for those who are in authority over us. I have prayed for President Obama.  I will pray for President Trump.  Praying is not partisan.

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I don’t know Pastor Joe McKeever personally, but I feel like I do because of his blog (http://joemckeever.com). I really like this guy and the way he thinks.  Right after the election last November, he posted a provocative blog that he called “10 Reasons not to pray for Donald Trump – and one “huge” one for.” He began by saying said that there are lots of reasons why you may not feel like praying for our new President.

  1. You don’t like Mr. Trump.
  2. You didn’t vote for him.
  3. You dislike some of his staunchest supporters.
  4. To you, he represents the worst in human nature and will lead this country poorly.
  5. You feel he doesn’t have the wisdom, maturity, self-control, and judgment to lead the free world. 
  6. As for praying, you don’t feel your prayers would make a difference. The man is who he is.
  7. You often feel your prayers are weak. What good would they do?
  8. Somehow, you feel that group prayer would be more effective than soloing.  Something about praying with others makes our prayers seem bigger, greater.
  9. You’ve prayed for leaders in the past and can’t see what that accomplished.
  10. To pray for Trump now would feel like admitting you were wrong in your judgment about the man, like you are throwing in the towel.

“Any of that hit home?” Pastor McKeever asked.
And then he asked, “Can I admit something here?”

 

“I did not vote for Barack Obama either time.  And yet, he was my President, all eight years.  I honored him constantly (I Peter 1:17 instructs us to honor the king) and I prayed for him often (I Timothy 2:1-2 instructs us to pray for the king and others in authority over us). Christ-followers have our orders.  Scripture is clear on this.  Remember that when the Apostle Peter said to “honor the king,” Nero sat on the throne. Donald Trump ain’t no Nero, thank the Lord. So, you can do this.  You will honor the President, and you will pray for him. I believe in you.”

And if I had been writing that blog, that’s where I would have ended it. God commands us to pray for those in authority over us.  You know, as another bumper sticker puts it –

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But not Pastor Joe McKeever. No, he had more to say, and what he had to say gets to the very heart of why our praying for those in authority over us cannot be, must not be partisan.

There is one massive, over-riding reason for praying for Mr. Trump, and it is not just that we are commanded to do so, although that should be enough.

So much is riding on him getting this right.  The stakes are so high.  Not just this land, but millions throughout the world look to America’s leaders to do the right thing, to hold their rogue nation accountable, to stand up to the oppressors, to help the helpless.  The opportunity is limitless, the responsibility enormous.

And Donald Trump is weak. He does not have what it takes to do this right.  No one does. Please don’t miss that.  No. One. Does. The job is too big, the pressures too great, the needs too overwhelming. That’s why you and I are going to pray for him. Whether he asks for it or not, we will lift him in prayer.  Whether he feels he needs it or not.  Whether he ever knows it or appreciates it. We will pray for him.

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Tim Savaloia, a church worker, stood on the bank of a river in Asia “watching the bustling activity on the other side,” and he says that what he felt was a heaviness in his spirit.

The percentage of people in this region who know about Jesus is frighteningly low. How can that be? Jesus’ words came to my mind:’” … I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’” (Matt. 16: 18). I believe that with all my heart, and yet, as I gazed across the river, it seemed that hell was indeed prevailing, at least for a time. While we talk about pushing back the darkness, it seemed to me that the darkness was doing some pushing back. (http://www.cmalliance.org)

And then, remembering both Biblical teaching and his own personal spiritual experience, Tim says that he began to imagine what “the crushing weight of a praying church” pushing back against that darkness would look like.  And he wrote –

Without trying to be too simplistic, it seems to me that the core problem relates to our understanding of prayer. If we truly understood our divine call to pray, we would pray much differently. If we truly believed prayer can unleash the power of God, we would pray with greater passion.   And if we truly believed prayer can alter the course of history, we would pray with greater fervency.

This is the week that we get a new President. This makes some of us very sad, and this makes some of us very happy.  But whether you are sad or glad, as Christians, our first spiritual obligation is to pray for him — no ifs, ands, or buts. As Pastor Joe says, “Come on, I know you can do this!”   DBS +

 

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I say “To-may-to”, You Say “To-mah-to” ~ Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off…

horseI preached on the story of the Wise Men from Matthew chapter 2 last Sunday morning, and then I taught the very same text that evening in a Bible Study. In my preparations for preaching and teaching this text, I came across an article written by Kate Jones Calone and published at Sojourners online (01-06-2017) entitled “When the Wise Men Refused to Collaborate with Empire” (https://sojo.net).

What Kate wrote intrigued me.

After a brief reference to the broad outline of the familiar story, Kate gleaned this as her primary learning from the narrative –

Throughout human history, individuals and institutions have had to make difficult and risky decisions in response to unjust directives — especially those directives framed as required cooperation, “for the good of the country.” Resistance can take many forms: Dissent, protest, civil disobedience. Sometimes, though, what should be done is simply declining to participate.

And then she made this application –

This new year, conversations are taking place all around the country about whether local law enforcement agencies will assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in tracking down and turning over undocumented individuals living in the United States. As political discourse and top-down pressure threatens to move us further toward mass deportations, those political leaders seeking to find and arrest those without documents hope that local law enforcement officers will become de facto agents of ICE…  The wise men decided not to collaborate in facilitating Herod’s raid on the holy family… the wise men realized, whether by recognizing Herod’s duplicitousness or taking seriously the warning that came to them in a dream, that it would be unjust and unwise to serve as Herod’s enforcers. We are called to empower our local law enforcement leaders to make the same decision today.

drBack in seminary Dr. William Baird, one of my New Testament professors, warned us to be careful about turning Biblical texts into “springboards to Washington D.C.”  What he meant by this was the political use of a Biblical text.  I don’t know, but I suspect that Dr. Baird would view what Kate did with the story of the Magi in her essay as an example of this.  When she read Matthew 2 she made an immediate political application. To her credit, Kate also made reference, in passing, to the redemptive dimensions of this narrative. She pointed out that “Jesus grew up to accomplish his saving work in the world,” and said that she believes that “God chose to move this salvation story forward through these holy non-collaborators.” But there is no doubt that Kate read this text primarily through political lenses.

I didn’t.

What Kate featured as primary in her exposition of Matthew 2 – the non-collaboration of the Magi with Empire in this narrative – would have been noted in passing as a secondary theme – an implication, an interpretation, an inference – of the text in my exposition of it, if I mentioned it at all. And what Kate noted in passing as a secondary theme – an implication, an interpretation, an inference – of the text in her exposition of it – the historical redemptive dimensions of this narrative – was primary in my exposition of it.  And I know how this story ends.

ballAll of my “progressive” peers and colleagues are shaking their heads at those of us who read the text primarily through redemptive lenses, and wonder how we could be so blind to its obvious political references.  And all of my “traditional” peers and colleagues are shaking their heads at those of you who read this text primarily through political lenses, and cite it as evidence of what’s wrong with the church today.  Like children on the blacktop at recess getting up a kickball game, we’re all busy choosing sides. “Redemptives” over here, “politicals” over there.  Kate will captain one team. I’ll captain the other!  The only problem is that I don’t want to play.

Oh, there’s no question about my “redemptive” sensibilities when it comes to my reading of the Biblical text.  It is primary in my hermeneutic because I find it to be primary in the sources themselves.  When I read the Bible what I find is a single narrative that holds together around the question of God’s saving work, a  narrative that climaxes in Jesus Christ, His death, burial and resurrection, and it mystifies me that others don’t see this as clearly as I do.

Getting ready for another assignment recently brought me to Wilfred McClay’s 1988 essay on “Religion in Politics; Politics in Religion” in Commentary.  I alternated between mad and sad as I read –

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A couple of years ago, I attended a funeral service for a young woman, a secretary at the university with which I was then affiliated. She was an attractive, generous, incandescent soul, beloved by everyone she worked with, no mean feat in such a contentious setting. She had died, tragically, in giving birth to her second child—a death even more bitterly shocking than an automobile accident or a street-corner shooting, for it seemed almost too atavistic to be possible. How, in this day and age, in a major American city with all the most advanced medical technologies available, could such a thing still happen?

Evidently the same question was on the mind of the minister who stepped up to deliver the eulogy to the overflow crowd of mourners that day. But where the rest of us had been stunned into reflective silence, awed and chastened by this reminder of the slender thread by which our lives hang, the minister had other things in mind. He did not talk about the deceased, except to praise her laughter briefly and imprecisely, leaving one with the feeling that he had not even known her. (I later found out this was not so.) He did not try to comfort her family and friends. Nor did he challenge us to remember the hard words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Will be done.” Instead, he smoothly launched into a well-oiled tirade against the misplaced priorities of our society, in which billions of dollars were being poured into “Star Wars” research while young women such as this one were being allowed to die on the operating table.

That was all the minister had to say. His eulogy was, in effect, a pitch for less federal spending on defense and more spending on the development of medical technology. There was also an unmistakable hint that the young woman’s doctors might well have been guilty of malpractice, but would of course be insulated from the consequences of their mistakes by our corrupt system. The only thing omitted was an injunction that we write our Congressman, or Ralph Nader, about this outrage.

I could hardly believe my ears. Had the minister set out to desecrate her memory rather than honor it, he could hardly have done a better job. But leave aside the eulogy’s unspeakable vulgarity, and its unintentional cruelty to the woman’s family. Leave aside the flabby and clichéd quality of language and speech. Leave aside the self-satisfied tone of easy moral outrage. Leave aside the fashionable opinions, too, since honorable and intelligent men and women can disagree about these things. I am even willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that the minister may have been right in everything he said. All these considerations are beside the point.

Nothing can alter the fact that he failed us, failed her, and failed his calling, by squandering a precious moment for the sake of a second-rate stump speech, and by forcing us to hold our sorrow back in the privacy of our hearts, at the very moment it needed a common expression. That moment can never be recovered. Nothing that religion does is more important than equipping us to endure life’s passages, by helping us find meaning in pain and loss. With meaning, many things are bearable; but our eulogist did not know how to give it to us. All he had to offer were his political desiderata. For my own part, I left the funeral more shaken and unsteady than before. Part of my distress arose from frustration, that my deepest thoughts (and those of many around me, as I later discovered) were so completely unechoed in this ceremony and in these words. But another part of my distress must have stemmed from a dark foreboding that I was witnessing another kind of malpractice, and another kind of death.      (www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/religion-in-politics-politics-in-religion/)

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That’s how we “redemptives” think, and that’s what we “redemptives” feel.  But clearly, as Kate’s essay on the Magi proves, we “redemptives” aren’t the only Christians in the church.   And I’m quite sure that you “politicals” could come up with an equally compelling story of the spiritual malpractice of a “redemptive” that made you just as mad and just as sad.  And I as a “redemptive” need to hear that story, just as you “politicals” need to hear mine.

This is our problem in the church today, if you ask me. We’ve stopped listening to each other.  So convinced are we of the rightness of our own positions as “redemptives” or “politicals,” that we’ve stopped listening to each other.  And the tragedy of this, again, if you ask me, is that in doing this, we’ve both settled for just half of Biblical Christianity.

bookIt was reading E. Stanley Jones’ book The Christ of the Mount (Abingdon 1931) when I was a freshman in Christian College that persuaded me that Christianity has both a redemptive side and an ethical side, and that “if the ethical side of our gospel is unworkable, then by that very fact the redemptive side is rendered worthless” (17).  To be sure, I find the redemptive side of the Gospel to be primary in my thinking and believing.  You may find the ethical side of the Gospel to be primary.  But so long as we both acknowledge that the Gospel is bigger than just what we ourselves regard as primary, that there is an ethical side to our redemptive side, or vice versa, depending on our perspective, then we’re potentially within “hearing distance” of each other, and the possibility of the formation of a vital community of interpretation exists.

But, for this to move from the potential and the possible to the actual and the experienced, we’ve all got to act on it. “Politicals” need to show that they are just as interested in talking to “redemptives” as they are in talking to other “politicals,” and we “redemptives” have got to show that we are just as interested in talking to “politicals” as we are in talking to our fellow “redemptives.” As a first step, as a gesture of good will, we could begin by refusing to caricature each other, erecting stereotypes to be smugly and gleefully dismantled with our respective airs of spiritual superiority.  This is the “good faith assumption” that I find to be so missing from recent theological and political rhetoric. It says that I will begin with the assumption that the person with whom I disagree is just as interested in and serious about the matter at hand as I am.  And as a second step, we could be deliberate in sending signals, just as Kate was in her essay, that we are aware of the others in the interpretive community who see the texts with different lenses, and to embrace the idea that there is always more to the text than my experience, perspective and presuppositions allow me to see.

magiOn Sunday night in my Bible Study on the Magi in Matthew chapter 2, I actually said the word “Empire,” and I noted the politically subversive nature of the Magi’s response to Herod’s sinister request, and the challenge it poses for us today.  And it was Kate’s respectful nod to the redemptive substructure of her political reading of this text that persuaded this “redemptive” to hang with her argument long enough to be able to see it as a valid dimension of the story’s meaning that needs to be included in any honest conversation about it.

When I am just as committed to listening to you and your interpretation of the Gospel, as I am in trying to explain to you my interpretation of the Gospel, and to persuade you that I’m right, I believe that it is the Gospel that is actually served.  DBS +

 

 

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Some of the “Great Rocky Facts of Being”

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A Spirituality of New Year’s Resolutions
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New Year’s Resolutions expose the “holy discontent” with which most of us live our lives.  It’s just part of what it means to be human. In fact, the Catholic Philosopher Peter Kreeft goes so far as to say that this desire for “something more” is actually hardwired into us.  We are all innately equipped with what he called “haunt detectors.” This world of ours is “haunted” by a sense of the divine, and an experience of divine absence.  We carry around deep inside us the echoes of Eden, a memory of that intimacy and immediacy. And something sounds inside us when we get in its vicinity once again through music, art, literature, poetry, nature, and love, but they’re all just signposts of the divine rather that the divine itself.  They are given to us to keep us moving in its direction.

The New Year provides us with a moment to recollect the journey so far. We are all given a chance to think about where we’ve been, and where we’re going.  And this annual review provides us with the opportunity to “simplify” to use the category that Lewis Joseph Sherrill introduced me to in his book The Struggle of the Soul (1951). This is the essential spiritual assignment of the adult stage of the pilgrimage of our lives, he said, to figure out what matters and what doesn’t, and then to move what matters to the center of our daily existence while pushing to the margins of our lives the things that don’t.

As I did this myself last weekend, I found myself reflecting on the Gospel accounts of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan by John followed by His temptation in the wilderness by the devil (Matthew 3:13-4:11). I’m quite sure that it was my own experience of beginning this New Year that led me to a contemplation of these narratives about the beginning of Christ’s own public life and ministry.  And what arose out of my time with these texts were a reminder of three of “the great rocky facts of (my) being” (Augustus Hopkins Strong) as a Christian that are especially relevant as this particular year with all of its peculiar challenges and widely heralded uncertainties begins.

  1. You are My Beloved Child” (3:17)

 

belovedThe Baptism narrative describes the Spirit of God descending like a dove, coming upon Jesus as He came up out of the water, and a voice from the heavens saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” This is a unique event in salvation history – a Trinitarian moment of the disclosure of the Divine identity and intention.   My baptism as a Christian did not have reference to this Gospel event of the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry as the Christ, but rather to the climactic Gospel event of His ministry as the Christ – His death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11). But my personal reception of Christ’s saving work on Calvary’s cross and out of the empty tomb by faith that found initial expression in my own baptism has given me the same assurance that Christ had when He came up out of the waters of His baptism.  In Acts 2, after the Gospel had been preached for the very first time in the power of the Spirit, and people asked what they needed to do in order to be saved, Peter told them to be baptized for, or with reference to, the forgiveness of their sins, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38). By faith I have the assurance that I am a forgiven child of God — “beloved” — and I have the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in me tethering me to all of the “precious and magnificent” promises that God has made to us, and to all of creation, in Christ and is, right now, in the process of fulfilling.  As this year begins, I know that no matter what may come, nothing has the power to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).  In Christ I am already called, justified and glorified (Romans 8:30).  I am a child of God, and if God is for me, then what can possibly be against me (Romans 8:31)?

2.   “Driven” by the Spirit into the Wilderness to be “Tested” (4:1)

 

assuranceIn this assurance, I don’t expect cloudless days or easy paths. After His baptism Jesus was immediately driven into the wilderness where He was tested and tired by the adversary, and I personally recall this every time I pray the Lord’s Prayer with its petition not to be led into temptation, but to be delivered from evil.  In Luke 22:31, we are told that in the Upper Room Jesus told Peter –“Satan desires to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not: and when you are converted, you will strengthen your fellow believers.” Strikingly, Jesus did not tell Peter here that He was going to remove Him from the whole experience of sifting, but rather that He was going to strengthen him in the experience of his sifting so that his faith would not fail, and that he might then be an example of faithful endurance for others later. In the same way, in the classic New Testament text where we are assured that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, we are not offered immunity from the possibilities of suffering that surround us.  There’s “hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword” (8:35). We’re like sheep being led to the slaughter all day long (8:36).  But none of these potential treats to our physical well-being can touch the certainty of our eternal well-being in Christ.  In fact, Paul told the Romans that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (8:18).  And so, as this year begins, while I don’t expect any exemptions from the vagaries of the human condition because of my faith in Christ, I do expect the peace of Christ that is bigger than any adverse circumstance that may come, and I do expect to be more than a conqueror over them through Him who loved me and gave Himself for me (8:37).

3.   “Angels came and began to minister to Him” (4:11)

 

angelFinally, just as angels came to minister comfort and strength to Christ at the end of His testing in the wilderness, so I fully expect that God will supply all of the resources that I will need this year to be faithful. As the last two stanzas of the most theologically dense, and the most spiritually honest hymn that we sing puts it –

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;                                                                              his kingdom is forever.

So, what is this “one little word” that fells the devil and thwarts all the plans he has to “work us woe”?  Well, it’s Jesus Christ, the name given to us under heaven by which we are saved (Acts 4:12).  More than just the recitation of some kind of a magical formula or mystical incantation, the name of Jesus is a reference to our access to His person, His presence, His power and His provisions.  There will be a fight with darkness this year, to be sure.  There is one every year. But we need not fear the fight for in Christ we already have all of the resources we will need to triumph.  As another hymn we sing puts it –

Rise up, O saints of God! The church for you doth wait, with strength unequal to her task; rise up, and make it great!

The Spirit and the gifts are ours. That’s what gives us the strength we need. And it is by our continuous reception and conscious reliance on them that Christ will triumph through us over all that is hostile or indifferent to God’s will.

So, here as a New Year begins, are three of the “great rocky facts of (my) being” that will shape the living of my days in the coming days: I am a beloved child of God, as are you; There will be adversity, days of real discouragement and defeat; and I have the resources of faith at my disposal to not merely endure those difficulties, but to actually triumph over them.  Whatever resolutions I make for this coming year, these three great rocky facts will be their foundation. On my journey to wholeness – to being and doing what it is that God has always intended me to be and do – I know that I already belong to Him, an identity that is secure regardless of the struggles that may come, and that serves as the basis for my sure reliance upon Him to always come and help in the hour of my need. It is with these three “great rocky facts of (my) being” in mind,” that I step out into the New Year confident that no matter what may come, I am going to be fine because of whose I am.

Lead on, O King eternal; we follow, not with fears,
for gladness breaks like morning where’er your face appears.
Your cross is lifted o’er us, we journey in its light;
the crown awaits the conquest; lead on, O God of might.

                                                                                                           DBS +

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Come and save us, O Lord our God!

O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of the Law,
the people await you, their Savior:

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Come and save us, O Lord our God!image1_blog_dec28

If you’ve been reading my “Soundings” these past few weeks of Advent, then you know that I have been steadily working my way through the “O” Antiphons as part of my personal preparation for, and spiritual pilgrimage to Christmas. I have wanted to better understand the different ways that the Scriptures talk about who Christ is, and what Christ does, and thereby, to deepen my own devotion to Him even as I welcome Him once again into my heart.

This Advent hymn is based on something that was sung in the monasteries of the image2_blog_dec28MiddleAges in the dark days right before Christmas.  Each evening from December 17 to December 23 a different monk, beginning with the Abbot and then descending through monastic rank and order right down to the most recently arrived novice, would lead the whole community in a sung petition for the Savior to come.

The version of the hymn that I used these past few weeks in my own devotional practice 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!

image3_blog_dec28Having now made this spiritual journey, here at the beginning of Christmas week – remember… Christmas is a season and not just a single day – I just wanted to wrap back around for a second to the very first “O” antiphon, to the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” “O” antiphon, and to reflect on this Christ who has come into my life, the life of the church and the life of the world, before moving on into the New Year with Him as my Lord and Savior.

image4_blog_dec28With the first “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as God’s wisdom.   “Wisdom” is not knowledge.  Knowledge is information. Wisdom is insight.  Knowledge can tell what something is, but we need wisdom to understand what something means.  When we say that Christ is God’s wisdom what we’re saying is that He brings everything into focus for us.  God’s ways are not our ways, or so the Prophet Isaiah observed long ago (55:8), and so we are counseled not to rely on our own insight, or to lean on our own understanding, but rather to trust in the Lord with all our hearts  (Proverbs 3:5-8).  As 2017 begins with all of its uncertainties and ambiguities, we need God’s Wisdom in Christ now more than ever.  So, come Wisdom of God, come and show us the way!

image5_blog_dec28With the second “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as Adonai, as the strong Deliverer of God’s people.  Election years fuel Messianic expectations and trigger apocalyptic disappointments. This election year was no exception, in fact, if anything, this election year has been this pattern on steroids!   The unbridled giddiness of the winners and the utter despair of the losers is unlike anything that I have witnessed in my previous eleven Presidential contests.  Personally, I don’t think that the next 4 years are going to be as good as the winners think, or as bad as the losers fear.  I expect this administration to do some good things just like all administrations do, and some bad things, just as all administrations do.  And in 4 years we’ll be back doing this all over again.  And that’s because no administration is ever going to fix everything that needs fixing, or not make mistakes that others will have to fix later.  All of which is to say, I’m not looking for this President, or his successor to save us.  No, there’s only one qualified for that job.  So, come faithful Adonai, and with your strong outstretched arm rescue us!

image6_blog_dec28With the third “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as the Root of Jesse, as the fulfillment of God’s covenantal promise to King David.  This is the most important thing that I know about the God of the Bible — He is trustworthy.  God keeps His promises. When God tells us that He is going to do something, God keeps His word to us.  One way to read the Bible is through its covenants, through the agreements that God makes with people about how He will relate to them, what He expects of them, and what He will do for them.  Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Christ and us – you and me.  There are Biblical Covenants that spell out how each one of these Divine/human relationships worked, and God was faithful to the terms of each one of them.  So, come gracious promise maker and faithful promise keeper, come and do what you have promised to do.

image7_blog_dec28With the fourth “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and life of the world this Christmas as the Open Door that none can shut.  I am at that point in my life when I know that not everything that I had dreamed of and planned for when I was a young man just getting started is going to come about in my life.   But even now I know that there is a door open to me that will never close, and that’s the door of God’s loving purpose in Jesus Christ for my own personal journey to final wholeness, and for the final wholeness of all creation.  So, come Key of David, the one who opens doors that never close, come and open the door of your future for this world, and for all of us who live in it!

image8_blog_dec28With the fifth “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as the bright morning star shining in the darkness.  On Christmas Eve we passed the light from the Christ Candle in our darkened sanctuary from person to person at the end of the worship service.  And with that worship space aglow we repeated the Christmas Gospel that in Him (Christ) was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Luke’s Gospel begins with the coming of Christ compared to a sunrise, to the light shining on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79).  The darkness of defeat, death and despair abounds these days.  What we need is the light.  So, come bright morning star, come and shine, come and dispel the encroaching darkness.

image9_blog_dec28And with the sixth “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as the fulfillment of all our longings.  We have our dreams.  We dream of peace.  We dream of justice.  We dream of abundance.  We dream of wholeness.  We dream of freedom.  We dream of righteousness.  We dream of a Kingdom come when and where God’s will is done on earth just as it is in heaven.  And when we awaken from our dreams we see a world that is far from these dreams that we have for it.  We throw ourselves into the struggle for peace, and justice, and abundance, and wholeness, and freedom, and righteousness.  But like miners trapped deep in a dark cave by a rock fall with only ballpeen hammers in our hands, it seems that our desperate chipping away at the boulders is accomplishing precious little. And it’s when we collapse exhausted and despairing of ever breaking through that we hear it — the rhythmic sound of digging from the other side (Fr. Louis Evely’s analogy fund in his book on the Lord’s Prayer – We Dare to Our Father – 1968).  Someone is coming toward us.  Someone is coming for us.  Our dreams are matched by God’s purpose, and by God’s action.  So, come powerful One, come and fulfill our longings for wholeness and healing, for ourselves, and for all of creation.

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As Christmas 2016 ends and Epiphany 2017 begins, it is in companionship with the Christ – our Wisdom, our Adonai, our Root of Jesse, our Key of David, our Morning Star, our King, and our Emmanuel. DBS + 

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O King of the nations…

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:

o-jpg

Come, and save us!
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christmas“What do you want for Christmas?”

That’s the question of the hour isn’t it? Soon it will be Christmas morning and all those people in your life who have posed this urgent seasonal question will have done their loving best to get you just exactly what it was that you told them that you wanted.  I once heard an “expert” say that if you really want to get somebody the perfect gift for Christmas, then it’s really a very simple matter — just get them what they told you they wanted!  One’s longings are a pretty reliable guide to their happiness.

It was C.S. Lewis who first introduced me to the idea that our deepest “longings” as human beings are actually a God given mechanism by which He tethers us to Himself. He called this idea “Sehnsucht,” a German word that means “longing” or “desire.” He described it as “that unnamable something, the desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire — the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves” (https://blog.logos.com/2015/08/c-s-lewis-ingenious-apologetic-of-longing/). Perhaps C.S. Lewis’ most memorable statement about “Sehnsucht” was this one –

 csThere have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words… Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all of your life… Are not all life-long friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling of that which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? (The Problem of Pain)

Peter Kreeft, the Roman Catholic Philosopher who teaches at Boston College, is the ablest interpreter of this argument from longing that I’ve come across today.   In his 1980 book Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (Ignatius), Peter Kreeft said that our hearts  are “haunted” by an innate awareness of God, and that the desires of our hearts are really just  expressions of our desperate need for God.

carWe think that if we could just get this, or achieve that, that then we’d be truly happy: a spouse, a job, a car, a house, and then, it’s a different spouse, a better job, a newer car, a bigger house. This cycle of desire never ends.  There’s always more.  There’s always more “different.” There’s always more “newer.” There’s always more “bigger.”  And there’s always more “better.” And so St. Augustine prayed – Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

Spiritually, our reach as human beings will always far exceed our grasp, and that’s because what we are always reaching for is God, and what we grasp, no matter how good and valuable they might be in and of themselves, are always going to be less than God, and therefore they cannot finally or fully satisfy our deepest human longing. I believe that some of them can certainly be sacraments of what’s ultimate, outward and visible signs of the inward and inviable object of our longing, but finally even they must fade as we get lost in wonder, love and praise.

So, what do you want for Christmas? And however you answer that question, whatever it is that you say you want, behind and beneath that desire is something even more basic, and the petition and affirmation of the sixth “O” Antiphon prepares the eyes of our hearts to be able to see it –

aO 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!

God has indeed made us for Himself forming us “from primeval clay,” and He has filled us with a longing for Himself which is experienced by us as a profound ache for unity – to be brought back into the harmony of the original shalom (what’s pictured for us in the Garden of Eden) in which everything and everyone fit together perfectly like the pieces of a beautiful puzzle under the gracious sovereignty of God’s reign.

So we say that what we want for Christmas is a brand new smart phone, but what we really want, what we deeply want is to be meaningfully connected with others. We say that what we want is that piece of jewelry, but what we really want, what we deeply want is to know that we are valued and loved.  We say that what we want is a big screen TV, but what really want, what we deeply want is just to be happy.  And we say that what we want for Christmas is that new piece of exercise equipment, but what we really want, what we deeply want is to have life, and to have it more abundantly.  Our longing for community, companionship, contentment and wholeness are all expressions of our longing for God, and Christmas is about when and where and how God actually went about fulfilling them.

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Come, Desire of nations, come, Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed, Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power, Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
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“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
Charles Wes­leyHymns and Sac­red Po­ems – 1739, alt

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