The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob… and Muhammad?

       ___________________________________________________________

mosqueIt seems to me that there are few issues that are of greater importance here in middle of the second decade of the 21st century than the relationship between Muslims and Christians. There are 2.1 billion Christians worldwide, that’s 31.5% of the world’s population, and there are 1.3 billion Muslims, 23.2% of the world’s population.  That’s just a little bit better than half of all the people on earth.  Clearly, if we can’t figure out how to get along with each other as Muslims and Christians, then it’s going to adversely affect the rest of the world.

Both Islam and Christianity believe that they have a definitive revelation from God that makes exclusive claims that cannot easily be harmonized. Either Jesus Christ is God incarnate, or He is not.  Either Jesus Christ died for our sins, or He did not.  Either we are saved by grace through faith, or we are saved by our obedience to the things we believe that God has told us to do.  These are not inconsequential differences.  And it gets even more complicated because both Christianity and Islam seek converts.  We each want to convince people of the truth of our faith claims believing that salvation hangs in the balance, and that puts us in direct competition with each other. Layer on top of these important spiritual considerations national agendas and global situations, and things get tense and messy pretty quickly.

otherTwenty-five years ago Terry Muck, then the editor of Christianity Today, wrote about how Christians were no longer going to encounter faithful practitioners of the world’s other great religions just on their trips overseas.  Because of the way that the world was rapidly changing, Terry Muck told Christians that they would soon be rubbing shoulders with Muslims at the corner grocery store and working in cubicles next to Hindus and Buddhists at the office, and he was exactly right.  As the title of one of his books put it, “Those Other Religions (were now) in Your Neighborhood,” and so he told Christians that we were going to have to learn how to love them. Learning how to relate to people of other faiths was no longer going to be optional for us as people of faith ourselves.

This is why we have participated as a congregation in the Faiths in Conversation program for the past five years.  Once a month during the school year we get together with other Christians, Muslims and Jews in the area to hear presentations on a topic of shared interest or concern to our three faith traditions presented by a leader from these traditions, and then to formally and informally enter into conversation about it.

______________________________________________________________________

The first Faiths in Conversation program this fall will be at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church on Tuesday evening, August 30th, at 7 pm. The topic will be “Interfaith Marriage” from a Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspective.

______________________________________________________________________

What I have appreciated so much about these Faiths in Conversation programs through the years has been the way that the people who have made the presentations have not been squishy about their own faith convictions.  So many of the interfaith conversations that I have observed through the years have been syncretistic in spirit and practice.  You go away from them thinking that we’re all the same, that there’s not really anything all that important that’s keeping us apart. The distinctive faith claims and convictions of the participants seem to get dropped into a blender to become a spiritual smoothie where everything gets reduced to sticky syrupy goo.  But when the desire to be nice to each other matters more than the need to be clear with each other, then I believe that interfaith dialogue has become something less than an exercise in true understanding. As Timothy Tennant, President of Asbury Seminary in Kentucky explains, when Christians are neither clear about, nor committed to the historic beliefs of Christianity, then interfaith dialogue “loses its way.”  He quotes Grace Buford, a practicing Buddhist who has been involved in lots of interfaith conversations with Christians through the years who says of Christians – “If they are so taken by Buddhism, then why do they still hang on to their Christianity?”

Because I consciously approach my participation in these Faiths in Conversation as a Christian who is personally committed to the historic beliefs of Christianity, and who wants to be absolutely clear about them in my conversation with people of other faith traditions, when I find things on which I can make common cause – both morally and spiritually – with my interfaith conversation partners, then I want to take hold of those things just as firmly and enthusiastically as I possibly can and use them as planks in the bridge of mutual understanding that we have got to be building as we move into the future together, and one of these things that I have come across in my conversations with Muslims with which I can do this are the “99 Beautiful Names of God.”

hangingIn every mosque that I have visited here in the Dallas area there is always a beautifully calligraphied wall hanging somewhere in the building, usually prominently displayed, with Arabic writing on it – 99 short self-contained units. I asked Imam Zia about the one at his mosque in Irving one day as we were climbing the staircase where it hangs, and he told me that it was the 99 names of God that are found in the Koran, and he explained that it was a spiritual prayer practice of devout Muslims to recite these 99 names each day using a string of beads like a rosary to mark their progression through the recitation.  A “hadith” (a saying or story from tradition) from Muhammad says – “The Most High has ninety-nine names and whoever enumerates them will enter into Paradise”

Each name of God in the Koran celebrates a particular attribute of God, a characteristic of the Divine that then becomes part of the spiritual experience of the person who is reciting them. To know that God is “The Faithful One” leads the believer to trust God more completely.   To know that God is “The Bountiful One” leads the believer to count on God’s gifts for life more directly.  To know that God is “The Great Forgiver” leads the believer to seek mercy more readily.

A.W. Tozer wrote his classic little book The Knowledge of the Holy to do this same exact for Christians.  Each chapter is a devotional reflection from Scripture on some revealed aspect of God’s being –

The Holy Trinity
The Self-existence of God
The self-sufficiency Of God
The Eternity of God
God’s Infinitude
The Immutability of God
The Divine Omniscience
The Wisdom of God
The Omnipotence of God
The Divine Transcendence
God’s Omnipresence
The Faithfulness of God
The Goodness of God
The Justice of God
The Mercy of God
The Grace of God
The Love of God
The Holiness of God
The Sovereignty of God

The entire text of this book can be found online @ http://www.ntcg-aylesbury.org.uk/books/knowledge_of_the_holy.pdf, and I can highly recommend it as a wonderful resource for spiritual formation from my own personal use of it. And once you’ve done this, then here’s another suggestion of something else that you might think about doing out of your devotion to the one true and living God who is there.

greenNot long after my conversation with Imam Zia about the wall hanging at his mosque, I came across David Bentley’s book on The 99 Beautiful Names of God For all the People of the Book (William Carey Library – 1999).  A Christian who has lived and served in the Middle East, and who has written extensively on Islamic topics, David Bentley explains that every one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Koran that our Muslim neighbors and friends recite each day can also be found in the Bible!

He was quick to note that there are “some vital Biblical thoughts that are missing from these 99 names,” and, as you would expect, there are no references in them at all about Jesus Christ as our Savior or Redeemer.  Which is to say that we as Christians would not be well served to ignore our own sources.  But – and this is the keen insight of David Bentley’s book it seems to me – since there is nothing on this list of the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Koran with which we as Christians would have any quarrel at all, as a supplement to our own devotion to the God who has revealed Himself to us decisively in Jesus Christ, there might actually be something to be gained for us as Christians to spend some time mediating on the 99 Beautiful Names of God that our Muslim neighbors and friends pray every day, especially in this world where anything that builds mutual respect and serves a better understanding between our two faith traditions is something that we should enthusiastically embrace.

David Bentley wrote his book as a resource for Christians to be able to do this very thing. Each page of it is a meditation based on one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God that shows just exactly where in our own Bibles as Christians the attributes of God that this name of God from the Koran affirms can be found.  For instance, the very first Beautiful Name for God on the list from the Koran is “God the Beneficent, God the Most Gracious, God the Most Merciful.”

allah

This is what we are singing about as Christians when we sing “Amazing Grace”

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.

As David Bentley pointed out in his first mediation on this Beautiful Name of God –

hanger“Amazing Grace” is a glorious affirmation of a benevolent God converging with the human condition that constantly needs wholeness and salvation. …(And) “Ar-Rahman, the “Merciful One,” (in the Koran) describes the Divine who constantly reveals a compassionate nature toward His creation. “Ar-Rahmim” is what this Divine One does in a cosmos that perpetually requires providential, loving care. The Greek of the New Testament identifies this compassion with the person and ministry of Jesus, the Messiah. …His compassion for the world is found in the words He speaks to His followers about His mission – “I have come not to be served but to serve and to give me life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

More than once at a Faiths in Conversation event I have been able to establish a meaningful connection with a Muslim participant by beginning with this mutual affirmation of who we both think that God is, and by then going on to explain how I as a Christian understand the person and work of Jesus Christ – always a confusing and controversial idea for Muslims – to be nothing more than a concrete expression of this Divine beneficence, grace and mercy. I always tell my Muslim friends that how I know that God is beneficent, gracious and merciful because of what I believe that God did for us in Jesus Christ, and suddenly, rather than being an insurmountable barrier, Jesus as an expression of Divine beneficence, mercy and grace becomes a meaningful category for further conversation. And that’s just the first of 99 categories – 99 planks in a bridge of mutual understanding that we as Christians have got to be about building in a world where walls are so much more popular, and so much easier to build. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Soundings

“Do you hear what I hear?”

What Different Christians do with the Sermon on the Mount
_______________________________________________

greenIt’s a story that I have known for years, and used myself in preaching and teaching. It’s about three people who head into the forest one day for a walk.  One of them is a scientist, and as she walks through the forest what she sees is an intricate ecosystem.  She sees the dynamic interaction of flora and fauna, and she can hardly wait to get home to read up on the species that she has seen and to better understand the symbiotic relationships that she has observed.

One of them is a business executive, and as he walks through the forest what he sees are natural resources just waiting to be harvested and monetized for a profit. He tries to calculate board feet in his head as he walks, and he wonders about the real costs that would be involved in getting this raw material to market.  He can hardly wait to get home to put pencil to paper and get to a bottom line.

And one of them is a poet, and as she walks through the forest what she sees is a beauty that moves her deeply. She is inspired by the explosion of light and color, order and movement that she sees in the forest, and so she begins to play with words and images in her head, and she can hardly wait to get home to craft a joyful response to the glory that she has been privileged to witness.

Three people walk into a forest. One sees systems with the eyes of a scientist.  One sees profit with the eyes of a businessman.  One sees beauty with the eyes of an artist.  So, were they in the same forest?  Were they even looking at the same thing?

peopleI have these same thoughts as I listen to the way that different Christians I know use the Sermon on the Mount. Almost every Christian I know would agree that the Sermon on the Mount is “the most comprehensive ethical discourse to fall from the lips of Jesus Christ,” a virtual “ethical directory for Christians” (Carl F.H. Henry).  But from this common starting point, we all move out in different directions and make different uses of what Christ said.  Years ago I read an essay called the “Versions and Evasions of the Sermon on the Mount.”  In it the author explored some of the different ways that Christians through the years have used and abused the Sermon on the Mount, and I remember wondering to myself as I read his description of the dizzying array of their approaches – “Are we even in the same forest?” “Are we even looking at the same thing?”

JeffersonThomas Jefferson sat up at night in the White House with a copy of the New Testament, an exacto knife and some glue in front of him, cutting and pasting together his own version of Christianity. The result – the “Jefferson Bible” – is a moral code devoid of any supernatural claims, saving acts, or redemptive promises.  Jesus was a great teacher of ethical ideals who died a martyr’s death in their defense, and to be a Christian today is a matter of adopting what He taught, especially in the Sermon in the Mount, as our own personal moral code.  Insofar as we sound and look like what’s in the Sermon on the Mount, we’re Christian.  Insofar as we don’t, we’re not.

leoLeo Tolstoy took the Sermon on the Mount as the blueprint for a new social order. He began its actual implementation by ordering the life of his own country estate according to his understanding of what it was that he found in the Sermon on the Mount, and he viewed the whole enterprise as a kind of experimental prototype for what he hoped would be the eventual application of the teachings of Jesus to society at large.  He believed that if enough people would just commit themselves to the “simple, clear and practical commandments” of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, that what would soon be established in the world would be “a completely new order of human society,” the veritable coming of “the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

lutherMartin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, called the Sermon on the Mount “Mossimus Moses”  because he believed that it was “Moses quadrupled, Moses multiplied to the highest degree.” John R.W.  Stott, the popular Bible preacher and teacher of the last generation, discussing Luther’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount wrote – “It is a law of inward righteousness which no child of Adam can possibly obey. It can only condemn us, and make the forgiveness of Christ indispensable to us.” Every attempt at perfect obedience to the things that the Sermon on the Mount teaches leaves us both exhausted and frustrated. It is an “unattainable ideal,” and so it always send us back to Christ the Savior to be justified by His grace rather than by our works.

The Three Uses of the Law

Jefferson, Tolstoy and Luther – and all of us who are their spiritual descendants – agree that the Sermon on the Mount matters, and we are, each in our own way, trying to take it seriously.  We make different uses of it, to be sure, but at least we’re all reading it, and we’re all trying to heed it.

A tool from the Protestant Reformation has proven helpful for me as I have tried to honor this diversity of interpretation and application. Understanding the Law to be anything in the Bible with an “ought” or an “ought not” attached to it, any Divine instruction about what it is that we are supposed to do or not to do because of God’s righteousness, John Calvin and the Reformed tradition explained that those parts of the Bible like the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount have three basic functions.  This is called “The Threefold Use of the Law” in the history of Christian thought.

The First Use of the Law

First of all, the Law shows us that we all fall short of the glory of God. This is the first use of the Law.  As expressions of God’s intentions for us as human beings, those parts of the Bible that tell us what to do – the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots” – are constantly taking our measure and driving us to grace, to the Gospel message of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.   This was Martin Luther’s use of the Law, and it is my own soul’s reflexive use of it as well. As an Evangelical Christian my first spiritual instinct is always to start with how Biblical teachings like the Sermon on the Mount shatter my illusions of moral superiority and imagined self-sufficiency, making me receptive to and entirely dependent upon God’s saving action in Christ.

The Second Use of the Law

Second, the Law alerts us to the fact that this is God’s world and that He has a moral will for humanity in general. This is the second use of the Law; its social or civil use.  Human thriving depends on the powers that be promoting what’s good and suppressing what’s evil, and it is God alone who gets to define what the shape of this good and evil is going to be.  But once we know what God wants, then it’s our job to try to embody it as best we can.  This was Tolstoy’s use of the Sermon on the Mount, and while unlike him, I’m not at all convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is a political manifesto with immediate and obvious public policy implications, I nevertheless want to stay in conversation with my activist brothers and sisters who are trying to bring the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to bear on the great social, political and economic issues that we face today.

The Third Use of the Law

Third, the Law provides our regenerated hearts with a trellis for our growth as Christians.   This is the third use of the Law.  As the Puritans put it – “The Law sends us to Christ to be justified (forgiven), and then Christ sends us back to the Law to be sanctified (transformed).”  Forgiven, then gradually we are changed (2 Corinthians 3:18).  Regenerated, then slowly we are conformed into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).  Redeemed, then incrementally we start to grow up in every way into Christ who is our Head (Ephesians 4:15).  And this is what the third use of the Law does for us, and in us. It’s the blueprint for the change that Christ begins when we give Him our hearts.  And while I am not convinced that Thomas Jefferson understood this sequence at all, the way that he tried to use the Sermon on the Mount as a moral map for his life nevertheless points in the direction of this third use of the Law.  It reminds us that the moral life that the Bible describes is not just a set of ideals to be saluted from a distance with abstract appreciation, but rather they are actual instructions that are meant to be put into practice.

So, are we in the same Forest?

forSpiritually, we may very well be the equivalents of that scientist, business executive and poet who went for a walk in the woods one day. We may be seeing things from different vantage points when we look at the Sermon on the Mount, but we’re all in the same forest, so let’s start there with that shared experience.  To be sure, I may look at and make use of the Sermon on the Mount in a way that is very different from the way that you look at and make use of the Sermon on the Mount, but the fact that we are all looking at it, and are all trying to make use of it, puts us side by side in a common endeavor, and chances are that this means that I could learn something from you, and you could learn something from me, as together we are all try to make sense of some of the most important words that Jesus spoke. DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

“My Candidate is More Christian than Your Candidate”

What Does being a “Christian” Really Mean?
_________________________________________

Jesus

At the Lord’s Table last Sunday morning I was powerfully struck by the fact that the Sermon on the Mount was not read out loud to us before the emblems of Christ’s body broken for us and His blood shed for us were shared. In fact, in my experience it never has been, and I’ve been going to the Lord’s Table every Sunday morning for at least the past 50 years. No, the Scripture that was referenced at the Lord’s Table yesterday morning, just as it has been every Sunday morning for as long as I can remember was I Corinthians 11:23-26-

23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

crossAs I came to the Lord’s Table last Sunday morning this text directed my attention to what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem one Friday afternoon rather than on what Jesus Christ taught on top of a hill above the Sea of Galilee. We didn’t come to the Lord’s Table last Sunday morning on the basis of our imagined obedience to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount in the past week, or because of our good intentions to become more obedient to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount in the coming week. No, we came to the Lord’s Table on Sunday morning solely on the basis of our need for grace. We came to “celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.” As an old Gospel hymn puts it –

Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night, Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into Thy freedom, gladness, and light, Jesus, I come to Thee;
…Out of myself to dwell in Thy love, Out of despair into raptures above…
Out of my sin and into Thyself, Jesus, I come to Thee.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount isn’t an important part of New Testament Christianity. One of the truly defining books for me and my faith throughout these past 45 years has been E. Stanley Jones’ The Christ of the Mount (1931).  It was an assigned text for the Life of Christ course that I took in my first year of Christian College back in 1971, and it has been on my bookshelf and in my head and heart ever since.

In The Christ of the Mount E. Stanley Jones argued that Biblical Christianity has both a redemptive dimension – a message about who God is and what it is that God has done for us in Jesus Christ – and an ethical dimension – what it is that we are supposed to be and do in response to who God is and what God has done for us in Christ.  E. Stanley Jones was insistent that “if the ethical side of our Gospel is unworkable, then by that very fact the redemptive side is rendered worthless” (17).  And E. Stanley Jones was very clear that he believed that “the center and substance” of Christianity’s ethical dimension was the Sermon on the Mount, and he deeply lamented the fact the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t in the church’s historic creeds!

As the Apostles’ Creed now stands you can accept every word of it and leave the essential self-untouched. Suppose we had written it in our creeds and repeated each time with conviction: “I believe in the Sermon on the Mount and in its way of life, and I intend, God helping me to embody it!”  What would have happened?  I feel sure that if this had been our main emphasis, the history of Christendom would have been different. (12)

I don’t disagree. There is an ethical shape to the Christian Life, and I believe that the Sermon on the Mount is the standard New Testament summation of what that ethical life looks like.  But having said that, I don’t believe that it is the Sermon on the Mount that makes us Christians, rather I believe that the Sermon on the Mount shows just how Christian we are becoming.  This is the careful distinction that Ephesians 2:8-10 makes between being saved “by” grace “through” faith “apart” from works, and being saved “for” good works.  These are two very different things in my mind.

First there is the matter of “becoming” a Christian – that matter of being saved by grace through faith apart from works; and then there is that matter of “being” a Christian – of doing the good works that God has prepared beforehand that “we should walk in.” If you are a Christian then it’s “predestined” that it’s eventually going to show in the things that you do.  But this doesn’t happen instantly, or automatically.  We have to “grow up” as Christians in every way into Christ (Ephesians 4:15), and that suggests a gradual process to me, as does Paul’s conversation in I Corinthians 3 about the difference between Christian believers who are spiritually maturing, and those who have gotten spiritually stuck.  Paul didn’t throw the spiritually immature in Corinth – not even those who had become unnaturally stunted – out of the Christian pool.  In fact, Paul went so far as to call even them “saints” (I Corinthians 1:2)! They were still “babies” long after they should have outgrown their spiritual infancy, but they were nevertheless still “in Christ” (I Corinthians 3:1).

dudes

This is what James Dobson was talking about recently when he called Donald Trump a “baby Christian” (“A Born-Again Donald Trump? Believe It, Evangelical Leader Says” – Trip Gabriel and Michael Luo – http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/us/politics/a-born-again-donald-trump-believe-it-evangelical-leader-says.html?_r=0), and it’s the context for Max Lucado’s recent criticisms in the media of Donald Trump’s disturbing behavior as a self-professed Christian (Why Max Lucado broke his political silence for Trumphttp://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/february-web-only/why-max-lucado-broke-his-political-silence-for-trump.html?start=3). Neither one of these two guys believe that Donald Trump is an exemplary Christian, and neither do I.  In fact, I’ve written about this previously here (See: “Fruit Inspectors” – “Soundings” – March 1, 2016). But neither of them is prepared to throw Donald Trump out of the Christian pool, and neither am I.

Hold the Sermon on the Mount up to Donald Trump, or to Hillary Clinton for that matter, and I think that what it will show pretty quickly is that they, just like you and me, fall well short of how it is that God intends for any of us to behave as His people. This is, in fact, what I believe one of the real purposes of the Sermon on the Mount is as an expression of God’s “Law.”  It was Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, who said that God only speaks two words to us as human beings – either “Law” or “Gospel.” “Law” is God’s word spoken to us about what it is that He wants us to do. “Gospel” is God’s word spoken to us about what it is that He has already done for us in Jesus Christ.  And while the Sermon on the Mount is not completely devoid of “Gospel” (take another look at the Beatitudes – Matthew 5:3-12), it is nevertheless primarily “Law” in my judgment.  In my next blog I want to explore how the “Threefold Function of the Law” – another useful Reformation idea – helps us to make sense of what it is that we are actually supposed to be doing with the Sermon on the Mount as Christians.

Suffice it for now to say that if it is our personal conformity to what the Sermon on the Mount teaches that makes us Christians, then – “Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3).  By the standard of the Sermon on the Mount, who among us could claim to be a “good” Christian?  This is not just a problem for our two current major political party Presidential candidates, both of whom tell us that they are Christians.   This is a problem for every Christian I know, and for anyone who has ever been a Christian!  “But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared” (Psalm 130:4). And that’s why I Corinthians 11:23-26 and not Matthew 5-6-7 gets read each Sunday morning at the Lord’s Table.

You see, the Lord’s Supper is not a Tribute Dinner at which we are the honorees who are being recognized for our own superior righteousness. No, the Lord’s Supper is where we return each week to be told again and again that it was while we were yet sinners that God demonstrated His great love for us in the death of Christ (Romans 5:8).  So let’s stop with the “my candidate is more Christian than your candidate” rhetoric that fills Facebook and elicits our automatic “like” responses and gleeful forwards, not because of any particularly thoughtful Biblical/theological reflection about what it actually means to be a Christian on our part, but rather because it just suits our already settled partisan preferences better. Go ahead and make the argument for your candidate on the basis on those partisan conclusions if that’s what you want to do.  Just don’t try to turn it into a referendum on the genuineness of the Christianity of any candidate.  Nobody wins when that’s the game that gets played.

unparalelledJared Wilson began his book Unparalleled (Baker – 2016) with a fascinating discussion of what people in his unchurched mission field of Vermont think that the message of Christianity is.  He says that the only answer he ever gets when he asks this question is some variation of the same “be good, do good” theme that gets used online to lambast some Presidential candidates, and to lionize others.  And when he hears somebody saying this, Jared says that he always replies by saying, “What if I told you that the message of Christianity was that none of us is really good deep down, including pastors like me, and that we can never be sure that our good stuff is greater than our bad stuff, but that God loves us anyway?” And then Jared explains, “The essential message of Christianity is not that we should be religious or try to do lots of good works, but rather that God loves us so much that Christ died to forgive us” (16-17).  He says that this usually confuses his unchurched listeners.  It shouldn’t confuse us.  This is, after all, what we’re being told every Sunday morning at the Lord’s Table.  DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“Keep a Level Head”

Blog_Image_1038
“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
~ James 1:19

I’ve heard Dennis Prager say that politics has become a functional substitute for religion in the lives of lots and lots of folks these days.  People who dismiss God and who disregard God’s Word still seek meaning and purpose in their lives and for our world, but without a transcendent source to turn to, they often turn to political candidates, parties and causes to fill that void instead.  The devotion that was once reserved for God has been redirected to Presidential tickets with messianic fervor, and the direction that was once sought from Scripture has been redirected to the planks of party platforms, position papers and stump speeches. It’s an interesting proposal, and it helps to explain the passion that we witness, and perhaps even feel ourselves, every four years.

Presidential elections are secular revivals, and as such they are filled with the same potential for renewal, and are subject to the same propensity for excess.  Revivals stir up emotions.  They catch you up in a wave of feeling that wash over you and then carry you off to places you never expected to go.  I know.  I’ve been there.  I’ve done that.  And so, depending on your own settled political convictions and conclusions, be careful in the coming months when in a flash of political fervor you feel the pressure to yell at somebody whose political convictions and conclusions differ from your own, that, or you find yourself really tempted to write them off, to just cut them out of your life.  Because they disagree with you, they’re clearly stupid or wicked, right?  And who’s got room in their lives for more people like that?  So, “bye-bye!”

But this is a position that we as conscientious Christians must never to take.  WeDrawing_Lines’ve got to be “knock-down the dividing wall of hostility” sorts of people instead (Ephesians 2:15) because Jesus Christ, who is our peace, made it such a big part of His saving work to go to those who were far off, and to those who were close by, to knit them together into one new people in His love.  I believe that this is an important part of what Ephesians 1:9-10 means when it tells us that in Christ Jesus the mystery of God’s will to bring all things together in Him has been revealed.  It’s hard to know this, to believe this, and then to go around drawing lines, picking sides and writing off the people who disagree with you.  We have a different calling. We need another strategy.

In all of the noise of the political conventions of the past two weeks, a source of calm reason that I came across was Benjamin Mathes’ posting at “Urban Confessional” called “How to Listen When You Disagree: A Lesson from the Republican National Convention” – July 27, 2016 (http://urbanconfessional.org/blog/howtodisagree). He wrote –

Free_ListeningIf there’s one question I get asked more than any other question, it’s this: “How do I listen to someone when I disagree with them?” There are many ways to answer this. It takes a lot of forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage to listen in the face of disagreement. I could write pages on each of these principles, but let’s start with the one thing that makes forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage possible. We must work to hear the person not just the opinion.

My friend, Agape, says it like this: “Hear the Biography, not the ideology.” When someone has a point of view we find difficult to understand, disagreeable, or even offensive, we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view. Get their story, their biography, and you’ll open up the real possibility of an understanding that transcends disagreement. Like the roots of a tree, our stories, which can create our beliefs, are completely unique, and also connected. It is through story that we can find common ground enough to co-exist in the face of great, often necessary, tension. When you find yourself in disagreement, just ask one question: “Will you tell me your story?  I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”

The truth is, if our love can hold space for paradox, tension, and disagreement, there’s room for all types of beliefs and opinions. Division is a choice. Life isn’t a Facebook feed.  Our love, our listening, must “bring in,” not “edit out.”  Dare to listen, dare to be quiet, dare to seek understanding; in the end, it’s the people we need to love, not their opinions.

I hear an echo of James 1:19 in this – “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  In fact, this is exactly what Doug Wilson called for in his July 16thBlog & Mablog” posting on “Seven Principles for Navigating Times of Racial Animosity.” “In a Christian conversation, everyone talks,” he observed, “and everyone tries to listen.”  And to be able to do this, Doug said, requires “a level head

Doug_WilsWherever God has placed you in a time of tension, there will be people in your “tribe” who behave wickedly. A level-headed person knows and understands this. [And a level-headed person also knows and understands] that there are people in the “other” tribe who are laboring to keep a level head as well. Don’t make their job more difficult… You cannot avoid conflict with fools, but never willingly burn your bridges with those who are not fools…  Distinguish between irrational partisans of a position, and those who happen to hold convictions other than yours.  In the political/racial/economic mess that [we are in], make distinctions on the other side. (https://dougwils.com)

 ______________________________________________________________________________

It’s time we talk politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus
rather than mocks them.

                                                                                ~ Bryan Roberts   ______________________________________________________________________________

Some practical guidance for how to actually go about doing our “level-headed best” as Christians in election years comes from Bryan Roberts’ article in Relevant Magazine – 7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics: How to be in the world, not of the world, in a culture of political vitriol” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com).  He writes –

Political discourse is the Las Vegas of Christianity—the environment in which our sin is excused (You know – “What happens in Vegas…”). Hate is winked at, fear is perpetuated and strife is applauded. Go wild, Christ-follower. Your words have no consequences here. Jesus doesn’t live in Vegas. Not only are believers excused for their political indiscretions, but they are often applauded for committing them. Slander is explained away as righteous anger; winning arguments are esteemed higher than truthful ones (whether or not the “facts” align); and those who stir up dissension are given the pulpit. So I balk when pastors tell me the Church should engage in the political process. Why would we do that? The political process is dirty and broken and far from Jesus. Paranoia and vitriol are hardly attractive accessories for the bride of Christ. Rather than engage in the political process, Christians have a duty to elevate it. Like any other sin, we are called to stand above the partisan dissension and demonstrate a better way. Should we have an opinion? Yes. Should we care about our country? Yes. Should we vote? Yes. But it’s time we talk politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus rather than mocks them.

Roberts then goes on to name seven things that he thinks we need to remember about politics as Christians, and while all of them are certainly deserving of our consideration, I found that #1, #4 and #6 hit me with particular force as I am working right now on trying to keep “a level head” for the next 100 days.  Remember, Bryan Roberts wrote, that –

#1 – Both political parties go to church…  There’s a Christian Left and, perhaps even less well-known, there’s a secular RightParty lines are drawn in chalk, and they’re not hard to cross. The Church must be engaged in politics, but it must not be defined by the arbitrary lines in politics.

#4 – Thinking that your party’s platform is unflawed is a mistake… The social policies of your party were constructed by imperfect politicians fueled by ambition. It’s nearsighted to canonize them.

#6 – Don’t be paranoid… The country is not going to be destroyed if your candidate loses. As 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” So, stand up and demonstrate what God has given you. America has functioned—albeit, at varying levels of success—for years under the direction of alternating Democrat and Republican control, and at every flip, the other side thought it was the end of the world.  It’s not… We’re a Church that believes that God is in control… not whoever’s in office now, and not whoever succeeds them.

And so, the crazy season has begun, and if it hasn’t happened to you already, itBoxing_Gloves won’t be very long now before you are going to feel like your head is going to explode.  So take a deep breath, remember who you are, and more importantly, who’s you are. Resolve right not that you aren’t going to get pulled off sides by the loud voices, the strong feelings, or the pressure to give in to simplism, sarcasm or sectarianism.  Keep your wits about you.  “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Make it your highest objective this election season to keep a “level head.”  Remember that in Jesus Christ you already know the mystery of God’s will (Ephesians 1:9-10), and so get busy “tearing down the middle wall of partition” wherever you encounter it (Ephesians 2:15).  And come November 9th, no matter what happens at the polling booth, Jesus Christ will still be Lord, and His Kingdom will still come. DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

“Halftime”: Some Thoughts between the Conventions

Republicans down.

TP

Democrats to go.

clinton

As I write we are in-between the National Political Conventions. Last week the Republicans met in Cleveland to nominate their ticket of Trump/ Pence.  This week the Democrats will meet in Philadelphia to nominate their ticket of Clinton/Kaine.  And I hope that you’re watching.  For all of the hype and hoopla that these gatherings generate every four years, I still think that what happens at them matters for our country and the world.  So, I hope that you’re watching.

But it’s how you are watching the conventions that I am particularly thinking about here at halftime.

Partisans watch the doings partisanly. We just can’t help ourselves.  We’re tuned to Fox or MSNBC, depending on our proclivities, to mock or cheer, to revile or rejoice.  And we find ourselves predictably stirred or repulsed.  I know I am.  That, and some of us blog.  That’s what this thing is that you’re reading right now.  Blogs are where some of us publicly comment on public things regularly.  I do.  Descartes said that he knew that he was because he thought.   Well, bloggers know they are because we post.  But if you’ve read my comments here previously, especially on the topic of Faith and Politics, then you know that as a local church pastor I have some very real concerns about the partisanship of Christians, and especially ministers, both those to my right and those to my left.

A pastoral colleague and I were talking about this very thing the other day over coffee, and he told me that in his prior life, when he was a high school teacher, that he always knew that he had kept faith with his vocation as a shaper of young minds when his Republicanly-inclined students were absolutely convinced that he was one of them, while his Democratically-inclined students believed the exact opposite, just sure that he was one of them.

principleThis principled political neutrality stands in stark contrast to the string of preachers, pastors and religious leaders who stood on the stage in Cleveland last week confusing the Republican candidates, party and platform with the Kingdom of God, and to the string of preachers, pastors and religious leaders who will stand on the stage this week in Philadephia confusing the Democrat candidates, party and platform with the Kingdom of God.

A ministerial predecessor of mine in a previous congregation sold health supplements, synthetic oil and life insurance on the side. And congregants there often told me that when he walked up to their front door that they never knew what he was there to do.  Was he there to inquire after their souls, or to try to sell them something?  And I worry that a minister’s political passions and partisan postings have the potential to create this same sort of confusion.  I don’t want my vote for this or that candidate in the latest election (and I will vote) to obscure my life’s passion for Jesus Christ, and I don’t want there to be any confusion of my political leanings (and I ceratinly have some) with my higher commitment to the Kingdom.  And so in the interest of the Gospel I conscientiously choose to be circumpect about my political conclusions.  Of course, this raises the question of just exactly what is the Gospel doesn’t it?

Well, I believe that the Gospel is the message of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.  It’s about forgiveness, transformation and eternal life through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The concerns of humanitarinism and social justice are certainly not incidental to this Gospel, but I understand them to be the “fruit” and not the “root” of the Gospel, part of the good works that cannot save us, but that we are saved to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).  John Piper writes –

 William Wilberforce, who derived decades of persevering political labors of love from his joyful justified standing with God, argued in his book A Practical View of Christianity that all the immoral behavior of the nominal Christians of his age resulted from their mistaken conception of the fundamental principles of Christianity.

They consider not that Christianity is scheme “for justifying the ungodly” [Romans 4:5], by Christ’s dying for them “when yet sinners” [Romans 5:6-8], a scheme “for reconciling us to God—when enemies” [Romans 5:10]; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled.  

This error is especially common right now in our day. People, in order to create greater moral seriousness (especially with the radical commands of Jesus) are making morality part of the ground of justification.  But this backfires, because it destroys the joyful confidence which alone can bear the fruit of Christ-exalting love. It takes away the one and only ground and source of the very transformation they long for.

Get this wrong, oscure it or reverse it, and then I believe that the Gospel is put at risk. And I fear that  this is what happens when preachers talk more, or as much, or as enthusiastically about Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein, as they do about Jesus Christ.

hoodA while back the Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood posted a blog entry at his web page (http://revjeffhood.com) that I found absolutely compelling. I’ve referenced this posting before. As I wrote the first time – I suspect that Jeff and I would find much to disagree about if we ever sat down together over a cup of coffee as brothers in Christ, but on this I couldn’t be more in agreement with him –

In 2008, I got excited about Barack Obama. I bought the shirt, hat and bumper sticker. I was two years past my ordination as pastor. Early one Saturday morning, I’ll never forget sitting down with a cherished mentor. As I proudly wore my Obama shirt, my mentor leaned in and said, “How are you going to demand that Obama not bomb some poor nation after you have run around with his shirt on? How are you going to minister to those who hate Obama after they see you with that shirt on? True pastors don’t endorse candidates!” I believed her then. After seeing President Obama violate my Christian conscience by bombing countless nations and watching our nation become as polarized as I’ve ever seen it, I believe her more now. … I don’t remember Jesus ever endorsing any candidates. I think he was smart enough to know that an endorsement limits your ability to speak prophetically to whoever is elected and limits your ability to minister to the whole populace after the election.

Theologically, this is exactly the position that the German Lutheran Preacher/Teacher Helmut Thielicke (1908 –1986) argued in his book on “Politics” in his Theological Ethics series.

headWhile the preaching of the church may speak to general situations [political, social and economic], it can only sketch the themes of the special situtations and of the decisions which they demand. The preaching of the church cannot be specific in the sense of making decisions for the individual and in his stead… The church can speak speak about an election as such. It can show how the duty of voting derives from the character of the state as a theological fact.  It can even discuss particular Christian concerns (social, educational and others).  But normally the church cannot tell the individual how to vote… The church stands above the political parties, providing pastoral care to all members irrespective of their various party affiliations… (620)

Early in my ministry a trusted mentor told me that it wasn’t my job to tell people what to think, but rather to help them to be able to think. And for him this meant helping to resource people’s conversations, considerations and consciences with the best possible information available.  When it came to Politics, my friend told me that he saw himself as the spiritual equivalent to the League of Women’s Voters.  Just like them, my friend told me that it was none of his buisness how his people actually voted, but it was his business to make sure that they did vote, and that their votes were well-informed.  Of course, it’s so much easier just to tell people what you think.  It’s easier to just amass talking points and to adopt debate tactics.  It’s easier to launch rhetorical broadsides and to try to win the argument.  But there’s so much more to all of this than just that.

“Spirtual Formation” is the new term that people are using for Christian education, and I really like this way of thinking and talking about matters of faith and values, and how they’re nurtured in us. There is no shortcut to spiritual formation.  Formation speaks of a process that matters at least as much as the outcome.  And so, for all of the spin and soundbites, for all of the marketing and mudslinging, for all of the the punditry and posturing at the Conventions, it’s still part of the only process we have for  getting at the truth of things, and getting at that truth is our assignment if being informed is our goal.  So, we’ve got to put in the work, and that means watching closely, listening carefully, thinking critically and deciding conscientiously.

godI read Mark Devers book God and Politics last week.  In it he quoted King David’s last prayer in 2 Samuel 23:1-4 as a statement of what it is that we are all hoping for when the next President of the United States gets inaugurated on January 20, 2017.

The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me – “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.”

When I cast my vote for President on November 8, 2016, it will be for the person I have decided from among the alternatives is the one who is most likely to be like the morning breaking, the sun shining and the life-giving rain falling for our nation at this moment in time. To that end, I plan on paying attention now, and I urge you to, too.  DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“What’s Happened to the World?”

peep

 “Not the Way it’s supposed to be…”

In the 1991 film Grand Canyon, an immigration attorney breaks out of a traffic jam and tries to drive around it. He doesn’t know where he’s going and he’s alarmed to note that each street seems darker and more deserted than the last. Then, a nightmare. His fancy sports car stalls. He manages to call for a tow truck, but before it arrives, five local toughs surround his car and threaten him. Just in time, the tow truck shows up and its driver—an earnest, genial man – begins to hook up to the sports car. The toughs protest. So the driver takes the group leader aside and gives him a five-sentence introduction to sin:

 Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without asking you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is here.

The driver’s summary of the human predicament is just about perfect. He understands the way things are supposed to be. They are supposed to include friendly streets that are safe for strangers. They are supposed to include justice that fosters peace, mutual respect and goodwill, deliberate and widespread attention to the public good. Of course, things are not that way at all. Human wrongdoing or the threat of it mars every adult’s workday, every child’s school day, every vacationer’s holiday. The news online, the news from our friends, and our own experience give us all the examples we need.

 Cornelius Plantinga Jr.
http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/cci/Pantinga.pdf  

 ______________________________________________________________________________

 It’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve just heard the news that three more police officers have been ambushed and killed, this time in Louisiana, and this on the heels of the episode of truck terrorism in Nice last Thursday night that left more than 80 people dead, which came on the heels of the shooting of the police officers a week ago Thursday right here in Dallas, which came on the heels of the shooting deaths of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis and Alton Sterling at the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge earlier that same week, which came on the heels of…

On and on it goes.

Some people hear the news and wonder what’s happened to the world? They act as if just a moment ago everything was all sweetness and light, and then, all of a sudden, something went terribly wrong and disrupted that equilibrium. But when has the world ever been all sweetness and light in your actual experience of it?  I don’t think that the world has gotten any worse than it’s ever been, instead I think that we’ve just gotten so much better at reporting on what’s going on in it.  Oh, I think that I have a memory of a world of sweetness and light it in my soul.  In fact, sometimes I can hear the soft echoes of Eden in my heart and catch glimpses of it in scenes of beauty and moments of harmony.  But the truth of the matter is that I have no actual, firsthand, sustained experience of the world in perfect shalom that Genesis 1 and 2 reports.  No, the only world that I read about in history and experience in my own life is the world of Genesis 3, a world where nothing is the way that it’s supposed to be.

beard

I cut my theological teeth on the writings of Francis Schaeffer, and Jerram Barr in a lecture from his course “Francis Schaeffer: The Later Years” at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis captured one of the things that Francis Schaeffer characteristically emphasized in his teachings –

God is not responsible for the brokenness of the world. The world is not the way God created it, and human beings are not the way God created them.  Everything now is abnormal and is distorted by sin. Do not blame God for the way things are.  Human sin has made things the way they are.

The assumption behind this statement is a conceptual frame that comes from a particular reading of Scripture. And while it is not the only way to read the Bible, it is the conceptual frame that that I find helps me make the most sense of this painful world in which we live.  David Kelsey called it the “health-disease-healing plot structure.” The basic “gist” of the Christian message according to this understanding of the Bible’s “plot-structure” is “a single narrative history having three temporally successive moments.”

First, in love, God created humankind as part of a good world of finite creatures. Then, when some creatures sinned against God, the world as a whole was corrupted.  At the right time, the same God, in love, took the initiative to save the fallen world by way of the election of a particular people, among whom God became incarnate and among whom the incarnate one was then crucified and raised in order to restore finite creatures to wholeness.

For me, this “Created – Fallen – Redeemed” cycle is the Biblically determined frame for both understanding and experiencing Christianity.  Jack Rogers in his intellectual “coming of age” book, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical, said that the “main theme in Scripture” that he found was the threefold message of “God’s creation, man’s fall into sin, and Christ’s redemptive work.”  Me too.  And this frames my thoughts this afternoon at the news of the shooting deaths of those three police officers over in Louisiana this morning.

As we were in worship this morning at the 8:30 am service, sitting under the Word and gathering at the Lord’s Table, over in Baton Rouge those three police officers were bleeding and dying, as was the young man who shot them, and that’s not the only violence that tore at people’s hearts this morning, it’s just the episode that made the front page.  What seizes my spiritual imagination so powerfully this afternoon is that as the world was being shattered once again so violently over in Louisiana this morning, we were right here in church in Dallas at exactly the same moment celebrating with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ. Somehow these two things have just got to touch.  That’s our only hope. The brokenness of the world and the saving work of God in Jesus Christ have just got to touch.  In a memorable turn of phrase, Calvin Miller once wrote about the urgent necessity of what he called “Christifying the world.”

I generally think of Christifying my world as painting the face of the Savior on the anxious, hurried faces about me. I write “I.N.R.I.” (the letters “I.N.R.I.” are initials for the Latin title that Pontius Pilate had written over the head of Jesus Christ on the cross (John 19:19).  The words were “Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm.” The English translation is “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews“). As soon as they are autographed with His name, they yield to meaning and to life.  A priest in our town, some years ago, happened on an accident where a wrecked gasoline transport trapped a family in a small car while the engulfing flames burned them alive.  The priest “Christified” the crisis.  He knelt by the intense heat, his small dark frame silhouetted against the flames, and prayed.  “What good did it do?” That is not the issue.  His prayer “Christified” the event.  It called to mind the nature of true reality.  Here is a world more real than this where God watches, and cares, and loves, (and saves).

That’s the world we touched in church this morning, and it urgently needs to intersect with the world where people hate, and curse, and bleed, and die. The Gospel is the message that God in Jesus Christ has entered into the fullness of this world with all of its suffering and sadness, and that He has confronted, and is even right now in the process of defeating all of the forces that are in it that seek to work us woe. Apart from the first coming of Christ as that little baby in Bethlehem’s manger, His atoning death on Calvary’s cross, His triumphant resurrection on the third day, His glorious ascension as Lord of all, His purposeful sending of the Holy Spirit and His promised Second Coming in final victory to finish the work of salvation at the close of the age, I don’t have anything particularly helpful to say to, or anything especially constructive to do about the abnormality of the world other than to curse and cry.  But because of who Jesus Christ is, and because of what Jesus Christ has done, is doing, and has yet to do, I find that I do have something helpful to say to, and I do have something constructive to do about the abnormality of the world.

  • Because Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among us, Christians and the church have got to get off the sidelines and into the world for an active engagement with people’s deepest hurts and highest hopes.
  • Because Jesus Christ died on the cross in His contest with evil, Christians and the Church have got to fearlessly face the evil that they see, and because it was on the cross that Jesus Christ did the work of mercy, Christians and the Church have got to be about the work of forgiveness.
  • Because Jesus Christ was raised on the third day, Christians and the Church have got to embrace the newness of life that Christ offers to all of creation. We have got to find ways to live the shalom that we seek.
  • Because Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father in Glory, Christians and the Church have got to give active expression to the Lordship of Christ over every sphere of life.
  • Because Jesus Christ sent the Holy Spirit, Christians and the Church have got to become more conscious of the Spirit’s indwelling presence and more reliant upon the Spirit’s empowering resources for the work that God has laid on our hearts and placed in our hands.
  • And because Jesus Christ will come again in glory to establish His Kingdom that has no end, Christians and the Church have got to not only pray for that Kingdom to come, they have also got to lean into it right now by doing whatever they can to give concrete expression to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Christians are fallen people who live in a fallen world, to be sure. We are part of the problem.  But Christians are also people who believe that in Jesus Christ God is busy fixing what’s gone wrong in the world and is actively repairing the damage that’s been done to the world.  And this means that Christians themselves are projects of restoration and reconciliation – we ourselves are numbered among the broken things that God is making whole. And Christians are agents of restoration and reconciliation – we are the vanguard of the future that God is bringing.

So, yes, the world is broken. Things are not the way they’re supposed to be. And the abnormality of the world as we experience it is both frightening and painful.  But in Jesus Christ God is at hard at work setting right what’s gone wrong and healing what’s been wounded, and as Christians we are called to be God’s collaborators in this work of grace.  And so, when the brokenness of the world knocks the wind out of you and drops you to your knees, look for Christ – see where He is, listen to what He is saying, watch what He is doing, and then take your lead from Him.  This moment is just too critical for Christians to forget who God is in Jesus Christ, or to get fuzzy about what it is that God in Jesus Christ is doing. Christians… church… it’s time to “Christify the world!”  DBS +

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

The Hard Work of Hope Begins…

obama

A colleague and friend responded to my blog last week about “Patriotic Grace” by asking, Should we just sit back and accept things, as is, to continue on the road our world is traveling on or should we speak up for our Lord and Savior and His teachings? Political Grace, how do they intermingle?” These are the right questions, Debbie.

What I wrote in “We’re All in This Thing Together” was a thought piece, the elucidation of what I believe is a Biblical principle.  I’m a pastor/preacher, a practical theologian, this is what I do. I live in a world of big thoughts that I find in Scripture about God, and humanity, and how it is that we connect with and relate to each other. What you want is for me to put some wheels on the concept so that it can get some traction on the road of real life.  What you’ve asked reminds me of something I heard my friend Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger say earlier this year at one of our Faiths in Conversation programs.

coffinHe told a story about William Sloane Coffin, one of the previous ministers of New York City’s historic Riverside Church. After another one of his many appearances before a congressional panel in Washington D.C. on some pressing social issue where he had prophetically tried to speak truth to power, he was chided by one of the congressmen for always speaking in abstractions at the level of what someone has called “big hairy truths.”  “Talking about peace, and justice, and equality, and compassion is fine,” that congressman said, “but specifically… practically… concretely… at the point of policy and law, just exactly what was it that you want us to do?”  And Dr. Coffin reportedly said that figuring that out wasn’t his job.  That was their job. “Amos thundered ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ (5:24),” he said, “but Amos didn’t draw up any plans for the construction of reservoirs and irrigation systems.”

mineIn my July 1 blog – “Is the Fourth of July a Religious Holiday?” – I referenced the thinking of the Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper who said that “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” but who also believed that God does different things in and through the church than God does in and through culture. I explained, “Just as you wouldn’t go to a bank to get a loaf of bread, or take your dog to an auto mechanic to treat him for fleas, so while God is at work in and through both church and culture, God is not doing the same thing in both places.

This is a gross oversimplification of what Kuyper taught, but we could say that the assignment that God has given to the church concerns the eternal needs of our souls as human beings, while the assignment that God has given to the culture concerns the temporal needs of our bodies. The Great Commission sets the agenda for the life and work of the church. To teach what Christ commanded and to make disciples is the church’s job.  And it’s something called the “Cultural Mandate” that sets the agenda for the work that God expects culture to do. The “Cultural Mandate” is what the Creation stories of Genesis are talking about when they call all human beings everywhere and always to the tasks of “filling and subduing” (Genesis 1:28) and “tilling and keeping” (Genesis 2:15). These are God’s assignment for culture. Creating and then maintaining the conditions that are most conducive to human thriving in this world, that’s the assignment that God has given to culture.

So, within this framework, back to your good questions Debbie.

What is it that we as Christians are supposed to do? Within the “sphere” of the church’s assignment, what should we be doing, especially right now and right here in this moment of violence, anger and fear?  Well, last Sunday morning I preached on the Sixth Commandment – “No Killing” (Exodus 20:13). This sermon series on the Ten Commandments was planned three months ago.  The intersection of this specific text with the events that played out in downtown Dallas, and in Minneapolis, and in Baton Rouge last week, are what I can only describe as a “Godcidence” (as opposed to a coincidence).

The decision that I preached for last Sunday morning was this –

Jesus said that while the prohibition of the Sixth Commandment still stands, that we must understand that killing is never just an outward act. “Murder comes from the heart” Jesus said (Matthew 15:19).  Long before it’s an external act, murder is an inward attitude rooted in envy, anger and hatred.  When another person has been judged to be worthless by us, then their life is of no longer of any concern to us.  And when this happens, then we’ve already committed the hidden murder of the heart.  And so, this is where Jesus Christ dug in His holy heels and intervened with His “transforming initiative of grace.”  Long before another person has been denigrated and dismissed, Jesus told us to interrupt this slide of them becoming dead to us by choosing to deliberately relate to them as a human being instead.

 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

 It’s not unimportant that people of Biblical faith take principled moral stands against killing in any of its familiar forms in our current culture of death. The Sixth Commandment is supposed to be one of the points on our moral compasses as Christians, and in our American context, I believe this means that it needs to be taken into serious consideration as we make our choices about who it is that we want making the life and death policy decisions of our nation.  But if that’s where you stop, then it seems to me that what you’ve got is an Exodus chapter 20 kind of faith, but not a Matthew chapter 5 kind of faith.  What you’ve got is the law, but not the Gospel.

 So, what does the Gospel look like in this specific situation? Well, I think that it looks an awful lot like that picture from Tuesday’s memorial service at the Meyerson.  Blacks and whites, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, police officers and Black activists, Jews and Muslims, Christians and secularists, all standing side by side and hand in hand.  This is a powerful picture of the kind of “Patriotic Grace” of which I wrote last week, and I believe that it’s a picture of the kind of work that the church is called to do, and about which I preached last Sunday morning.

My “Disciple” conscience and conviction, shaped as it is by the open Lord’s Table with the emblems of God’s saving grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ to which everyone is invited by faith on it, creates a passion in me to work to want to help people who are pulling apart to find the common ground where they can come within “hearing distance” of Christ and one another, and find their peace.

And so, while I believe that it’s important to oppose killing in our society as a person of Biblical faith, I believe that it is just as important as people of Biblical faith that we consciously and consistently choose to concretely love those people who, for whatever reason, we are most tempted to treat with contempt and disdain.  It’s because anger and hate are the roots of the kind of killing that the Sixth Commandment prohibits that Jesus told us as His disciples that it’s right there in those difficult relationships that the Gospel’s transforming work of grace must begin.

 Debbie, this is what we do. This is how we live “Patriotic Grace.” This is the work that I believe we are called to be doing right now as Christians.  This is how, and this is where the hard work of hope begins.  DBS +

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings