“Incompetence is what we’re good at…”

crossAs part of my Lenten discipline this year I have been reading Christopher J.H. Wright’s new book To the Cross (IVP -2017).  This book is based on Holy Week sermons that he has preached through the years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London.  Dr. Wright is a Cambridge University trained Old Testament scholar who is now the international director of the Langham Partnership, the successor to the late John R.W. Stott.  After reading his prophetic keynote address at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010, Dr. Wright has become one of my “go to” sources on all matters Biblical, missional and theological.

The chapter in To the Cross that has most stirred my head and heart so far is the one on “Peter’s Denial” based on Matthew 26:69-75.  This text is the familiar Gospel story of Peter’s threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest after Jesus’ arrest in the garden.  Dr. Wright’s sermonic reflections on this text get organized under the big idea that “failure is a fact in the Bible” (37).  Quoting from his favorite book (The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile), Dr. Wright observes that “incompetence is what we’re good at.”


He asks his readers to “think about it,” to “do a mental scan of the Bible.”  When he did this himself, Dr. Wright concluded that “the whole Bible, from beginning to end, is a story of human failure (with the single exception of then Lord Jesus Christ himself)” (38).  And the evidence that he amassed in support of this conclusion included these Biblical citations –

Adam and Eve failed, even though they were in a perfect environment. Abraham failed; he told lies about his wife and he abused Hagar. Samuel failed to get his own sons to behave properly, even though he started out his own career condemning Eli for the same thing.  Gideon failed, even after his great victory over the Midianites, when he said he wouldn’t become a king and then behaved as if he was one and made an idolatrous object.  Moses failed in the wilderness, to his own great regret.  David failed appallingly, not only in his acts of adultery and planned murder, but in failing to control his own family during the rest of his life.  Every king of Israel failed in one way or another.  The people of Israel as a whole – God’s covenant people, God’s redeemed people – failed for generation after generation through the Old Testament.  Failure runs through the Old Testament like a ragged thread.  [And] the New Testament shows us people failing all over the place as well. (37)

Failure is a fact in the Bible, and in each of our lives. Consciously following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior now for more than 50 years now, I can tell you that much of my journey has been a matter of travelling the same ground over and over again.  The terrain of my failure is familiar.  I know the line from the poet/priest George Herbert’s poem “Discipline” by heart – “Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace.” In fact, I live these words.

The unknown author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote about “the sin that so easily entangles us” (12:1).  In the parlance of Christianity spirituality this is what’s meant by a “besetting sin.” This is the sin that just seems to have our number, it’s the sin that is our Achilles’ heel, our particular weakness.  It’s “the sin that so easily entangles us.”

Christian wisdom often pairs this notion of our “besetting sin” with that of the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. These seven “deadly sins” are the headings of seven broad categories under which all of the different ways that we offend against God’s holy laws, leaving undone those things which we ought to have done and having done those things which we ought not to have done” can be organized. The guide for Self-Examination in Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book: A Book of Devotion for Members of the Episcopal Church (Holy Cross Publications -1967) is a good example of how this works (pp. 112-121).  And when you undertake this spiritual discipline, a frequent discovery that people make is that while we all certainly have a capacity for the sins in all seven of these categories that nevertheless we each seem to be particularly adept at the sins in one of them – and that’s our “besetting sin” – “the sin that so easily entangles us.”   This is the sin will become our familiar foe, our lifelong struggle.

A story is told of a holy man who was dying. Satan appeared before him and, looking abject, said “At last, you have beaten me.”  And the old man, near death but still alert, replied, “Not yet!” (Alan Jones in Soul Making – Harper San Francisco – 1989 – p.98)

silence-movie-poster.pngI thought about this one evening last December when I sat in a theater all by myself watching Martin Scorsese’s lifetime project, the movie “Silence.”  Hardly anybody saw this film, and there were good reasons why.  It was too long.  It was too slow.  It was too demanding of the viewer.  And I loved it.  In fact, it wasn’t just the best movie that I saw last year, it was the best movie that I’ve seen in the last decade.

The story of Jesuit missionary priests in Japan in an era of the violent suppression of the church and the martyrdom of Christians, Silence is a sustained meditation on the mystery and the meaning of what it means to be faithful before the silence of God.  One of the characters in the story is a Japanese Christian named Kichijiro.  He is a confusing character in the story, a jumble of contradictions – at once faithful and unfaithful, brave and cowardly, advocate and adversary.  Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest himself, has written about him in the magazine of which he is the editor-at-large, America: The Jesuit Review

I’ve heard that the figure of Kichijiro, initially Rodrigues’s and Garupe’s (the Jesuit missionary priests) Japanese guide, and later Rodrigues’s friend, elicited some chuckles in movie theaters. Kichijiro is, by his own admission, a sinful man. He repeatedly apostatizes and cravenly turns Rodrigues in to the Japanese authorities. Time and again, Kichijiro returns to Rodrigues for confession, and towards the end of the film, after Rodrigues’s apostasy, he seeks out the former priest to hear his confession. Some viewers have found Kichijiro’s manifold weaknesses and his repeated desire for confession amusing. I found it human. Who hasn’t struggled with a sin that comes back to haunt us? Who hasn’t felt embarrassed about repeatedly confessing the same sins? Who hasn’t longed for God’s forgiveness? Towards the end of the film, this seemingly weak man also helps to bring Father Rodrigues back to his priesthood by seeking confession. In a moving scene, Father Rodrigues places his head on Kichijiro’s head, as if in prayer. Or absolution. Kichijiro’s final scene may be the most mysterious. A Japanese authority notices a necklace around Kichijiro’s neck and rips it off. He opens the leather pouch and discovers a Christian image. Kichijiro is revealed as a Christian and is swiftly led away, presumably to die. It took me three viewings to realize something: Kichijiro would become a traditional Christian martyr. Kichijiro would become the kind of person that Catholics would later venerate. How ironic that this “weak” man becomes the inadvertent hero, while the “stronger” man, Rodrigues, whose “martyrdom” is of a different type, will not be venerated. It is a mysterious meditation on sacrifice and martyrdom. (http://www.americamagazine.org)

In Kichijiro I caught the reflection of myself.

On a webpage where Disciple ministers talk, a young colleague recently asked if any of us thought that ministers should be held to a higher standard of morality than the members of our churches. It’s the wrong question.  There’s no two-tiered morality in the Bible, one for serious Christians like ministers, and another one for everyone else.  As Gene Getz pointed out, all of the moral and spiritual prerequisites for elders found in I Timothy 3 appear elsewhere in the New Testament as moral and spiritual expectations of every believer.  No, there’s not a higher standard, and that standard doesn’t function differently for a minister than it does for a church member.

Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.  But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… (Romans 3:19-24)

After watching a seagull circle round and round a crust of bread floating on the water, Helen Mallon said wrote – “repentance is the stillness around which I turn; this arc is my true shape.” She said, “I will move forward, my need for grace orienting me toward the true Center.” And finally she asks, “Can I find a better name than this: to be called One Who Returns?” (http://www.marshillreview.com/menus/extracts.shtm)

And this is where Dr. Wright ended his sermon on Peter’s failure in his book To the Cross.

Have you failed Jesus? Of course you have. The more appropriate question to ask would be: When did you most recently fail Jesus?  Then the key question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you let Jesus down again? Of course you have.  Of course I have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you felt the shame of that failure? And the embarrassment of it?  Have you found yourself almost unable to face Jesus in prayer again because of it? Of course you have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

And this is the question that Lent comes round each year posing with a certain intentionality and urgency – Do you still trust Jesus? The answer that Easter is requires us to wrestle with this question right now. DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

None of us are Sinners Emeritus


In his first major interview after being elected pontiff, Pope Francis was asked to introduce himself to his wider audience.  “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” the interviewer asked him directly, and Pope Francis answered –

“The best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon… This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

This answer startled the interviewer, and it has startled many of the readers of that interview ever since.


This just not the kind of admission that we’ve come to expect from Popes and preachers.  It reminds me of when President Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher and Deacon, talked about the “lust in his heart” (Matthew 5:28) in a magazine interview during his Presidential campaign.  This kind of candor is unusual, not just for people, but for institutions like the church as well.

We’re usually adverse to such honest admissions of our own moral and spiritual failure. It’s not the right image to project, or so we think.  Ordinarily we are so busy preening and posturing, positioning ourselves to give the appearance of perfection and success, that we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and become inaccessible to the vast majority of people who struggle and who simply can’t relate to our projected image of perpetual happiness, accomplishment and peace.  Keith Miller got it exactly right when he wrote –

Our churches are filled with people who outwardly look contented and at peace but inwardly are crying out for someone to love them … just as they are – confused, frustrated, often frightened, guilty, and often unable to communicate even within their own families. But the other people in the church look so happy and contented that one seldom has the courage to admit his own deep needs before such a self-sufficient group as the average church meeting appears to be.

This is why I welcome Lent each year.

Spiritually, Lent is the season when our illusions get shattered, when our pedestals get toppled and when our masks come off.  Jan Richardson, the prayer poet (http://paintedprayerbook.com), offers a re-visioned Ash Wednesday –

So let us be marked not for sorrow.
And let us be marked not for shame.
Let us be marked not for false humility
or for thinking we are less than we are
but for claiming what God can do within the dust,
within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made,
and the stars that blaze in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear

And there are certainly days and seasons when I need to hear this, but I find that day is not Ash Wednesday, and that season is not Lent.  No, with the ashes of repentance on our foreheads, and more importantly, in our hearts, Lent forces us to admit that our common spiritual denominator as Christians is that we are sinners who are in desperate and constant need of God’s great grace in Jesus Christ.  It was the church of my childhood and youth that first taught me this spiritual reflex.

Every Sunday when I was growing up, I would get down on my knees in church with all of my family and friends in that community of faith to pray out loud this no nonsense prayer of confession –

3.13.17_image3Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us; Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Now, that’s a mouthful of a prayer isn’t it, and a “heart-full.” You simply can’t pray words like these every week without them leaving a mark on you.  Their rhythm and cadence provided me with the conceptual frame that I needed to be able to think about my own condition as a human being, and with the vocabulary that I needed to be able to talk about the dissonance that was becoming increasingly apparent in my life – the gap between who I wanted to be and who I actually was – with each passing day.

I found that the real power of these words were that we prayed them in community.  They weren’t words that were used to isolate me, to cull me from the heard of the righteous where I could be isolated and vilified.  No, they were words that the people I knew best and loved most prayed with me.  These words gave me a comforting sense that we were in this thing together, that there was a solidarity in guilt and grace.  I heard my father pray them.  I heard my mother pray them. I heard my sisters pray them.  I heard my Sunday school teacher pray them.  And I even heard my priest pray them.  These words drew a circle that took all of us in, and not a wall that separated the righteous from the unrighteous, the good from the bad, the saints from the sinners.

In fact, it was seeing my minister get down on his knees to pray this prayer right beside us each Sunday morning that made the most powerful impression on me as a kid.  Hearing my pastor “bewail his own manifold sins and wickedness” each week reassured me that my moral and spiritual failures were not my problem alone, as well as disabusing me early on of any illusion that might have been developing in me about some kind of imagined perfection of preachers and priests.  It was praying this prayer that prepared me for Pope Francis’ honest admission of being a sinner at the outset of his ministry of the spiritual oversight of his Church, the Roman Catholic Church.  What he said in his interview didn’t startle me in the least. And the fact that it startled others exposes a truth about the church that we’ve got to name, and then confront.  Christians are not different from anybody else, we are not better than anybody else.  All we’ve got is grace.  Forgiveness is our only asset.

In my mind, nobody ever said it clearer than did the late pastor/author Bruce Larson –

The church, unfortunately, has become a museum to display the victorious life.  We keep spotlighting people who say, “I’ve got it made.  I used to be terrible, but then I met Jesus, got zapped by the Spirit, got into a small group, got the gifts and the fruit of the Holy Spirit…” and the implication is that they are sinners emeritus.  But that’s just not true.

What we need in the church are models who fail, because most of us fail more than we succeed.  We find success once in a while, and we praise God.   But much of what we do is flop.  Every parent knows that.  So does every spouse.  We all fail our cities, our world.  We need to admit this. Even the Biblical heroes failed.  Abraham had one puny kid; where was the great nation he dreamed of? Moses never entered the Promised Land.  Jesus died saying, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”  Neither Peter nor Paul saw the full flowering of the church.

In the East Africa revival of the past forty years, the church has flourished because people have freely confessed their failures and sin.   When we pretend that we once sinned but don’t now, we produce a church where loneliness is rampant, a place where I know I’m not making it but I assume that everyone else is.  But the church is not a museum for finished products.  It is a hospital for the sick.  (Leadership/84 – Fall Quarter – p. 15)

One of the ways that I try to keep this truth in mind and at heart is to frequently mull over 3.13.17_image4one of the more colorful and controversial things that the Protestant Reformer of the 16th century Martin Luther ever said.  In a letter to his temperamentally more cautious associate Philip Melanchthon, Luther counseled him to go out and “sin boldly!”  Needless to say, this piece of advice has been pilloried by Luther’s detractors and immortalized by his fans ever since.  But what did he really mean by it?  Well, to properly understand it, it’s probably best to read them in context, and in their entirety.  So, this is what Luther actually said to his friend and associate –

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.

In other words, it’s by taking sin seriously that we will begin to take the cross seriously. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian from Martin Luther’s very own spiritual family, may have the clearest understanding of what Luther meant –

If Luther’s statement is used as a presupposition [the first word] for a theology of grace, then it proclaims cheap grace. But Luther’s statement is to be understood correctly not as a beginning, but exclusively as an end, a conclusion, a last stone, as the very last word. …”Sin boldly” – that could be for Luther only the very last bit of pastoral advice, of consolation for those who along the path of discipleship have come to know that they cannot become sin-free, who out of fear of sin despair of God’s grace. For them, “sin boldly” is not an affirmation of their disobedient lives. Rather, it is the gospel of God’s grace, in the presence of which we are sinners always and at every place. This gospel seeks us and justifies us exactly as sinners. [So] admit your sin boldly; do not try to flee from it, but “believe much more boldly.”

Theologian Fred Sanders explains –

Bonhoeffer’s exposition is perfect, but note the change he has slyly introduced: “Admit your sin boldly.” Pecca fortiter” [“sin boldly”] is not a plan of action; it’s a script for a prayer of confession. When confessing sins to God, don’t excuse your sins, minimize them, or treat them as fictitious. Things like that don’t need forgiveness, or at least not very much. Instead, identify your sins and state them boldly. Face the fact that you are not sin-free, and that, in yourself, you never will be. Keeping a perfect conscience is just not a realistic part of the Christian plan. Learning how to get daily forgiveness from God — That’s the plan. (http://scriptoriumdaily.com/sin-boldly/)

Christians and churches who with Pope Francis can say – “I am a sinner” – will have the kind of authenticity that can speak to the world, and more importantly, those kinds of Christians and churches will actually have something worth saying.  In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, and this where a penitential season like Lent on the church calendar is designed to deliver us — into the embrace of the Crucified and Risen Savior.  DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“You are Dust and to Dust you shall Return.”

ashI was in Modesto, California, on Ash Wednesday.   My wife’s mother died on Monday afternoon, and we spent the week taking care of all the things that must be attended to when a loved one dies.  And so on Wednesday I found a Catholic Church nearby that had an early morning Imposition of Ashes service and slipped in quietly to receive the mark that signals the beginning of Lent.

I’ve noticed a curious trend in recent years — the Ash Wednesday selfie. Smiling faces and smudged foreheads; ministers mugging and parishioners posing for the camera. Jesus specifically warned us about this sort of thing, about doing something overtly religious “to be seen of men” (Matthew 6:1-18).  To wear ashes as a spiritual badge of honor misses the whole point.  The inward and invisible of Ash Wednesday, of which the ashes are an outward and visible sign, is the death of self. “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

When a minister makes the sign of the cross on a forehead on Ash Wednesday, the traditional liturgy specifies that what gets said is – Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The full force of this hit me the first time I marked my wife and kids with ashes and told them that they were going to die. The people I love most in this world do not get a pass.  Even they are going to die, and Ash Wednesday comes around each year as a reminder of their, and my own mortality. The point of this is not to kill the buzz of life, but rather to remember that there is in fact a reason for life.  We are here for the shaping of our souls. And because we are not going to be here forever, it is important for us to get on with the task.

It’s just so easy for us to get distracted, to fill our lives with little luxuries and pleasures that keep us from seeing the true shape of things. In his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation written in 1534 from his cell in the Tower of London, St. Thomas More observed –

St.ThomasI have seen some in their last illness sit up – propped up by pillows – on their deathbed, gather their playfellows around them, and comfort themselves with card games. And this, they said, did very much help them to put troubling images out of their heads. And what troubling images, do you suppose? …Images of heaven and hell, images that irked them to think about.  So they cast them out with card-playing as long as they possibly could, until the pure pangs of death pulled their heart from their play and put them in such a state that they could not think about their game.  Then their playfellows left them, slyly slinking away, and it was not long before they gave up the ghost..  And what game they then came into, that I don’t know; only God knows, I hope to God it was a good one, but I very much doubt it. (70)

A couple of summers ago I spent a week with Fr. Thomas Keating at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, at the Snowmass Interreligious Conference. Each spiritual tradition represented at the Conference (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Native American) was asked to model a spiritual practice for the others to experience.  The Zen Buddhists led us in a time of silent sitting meditation, and then concluded the session by chanting their Night Prayer.  It says –

Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed – do not squander your life.

It was a stunning moment. And that’s what Ash Wednesday is supposed to be for us in the Christian tradition.  It’s our annual spiritual wake-up call, our reminder that life is fleeting, that the stakes are high, and that we should not squander our opportunities.

Brigid E. Herman wrote an underappreciated devotional book – Creative Prayer – that told the story of “The Nun of Lyons,” a story that perfectly captures, at least in my mind, the true spirit of Ash Wednesday and Lent –

She was dancing at a fashionable ball. None was gayer or lovelier: her marriage to the most eligible man of her set was due within the week. Suddenly, in the midst of a minuet, she saw a vision of the world dying – for lack of prayer. She could almost hear the world’s gasping, as a drowning man gasps for air. The dance now seemed macabre, a dance of death. In the corner a priest, smiling and satisfied, discussed the eligibles with a matchmaking mother: even the Church did not know that the world was dying – for want of prayer. As instant as a leaping altar flame, she vowed her life to ceaseless intercession, and none could dissuade her. She founded a contemplative order of prayer – lest the world should die. Was she quite wrong? Was she wrong at all? Or is our world saved by those who keep the windows open on another world? [“The Nun of Lyons” – Creative Prayer -E. Hermann (1921)]

The smudge of ashes on the forehead each year while a minister looks you straight in the eye and tells you that you are going to die is meant to be an honest piece of truth-telling that drives us to the only Savior who has conquered death. Lent is the season of spiritual preparation for Holy Week, for our annual recital of the Gospel facts of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.  It’s our annual call to die with Him so that we might be raised with Him to walk in newness of life and in the assurance of life everlasting (Romans 6:1-11).

alanAlan Jones, the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California, describes it as a “stopping the world” experience in his book Soul Making (Harper 1985). He defines the experience as “receiving the salutary shock of a revelation,” a “way of breaking open a person’s consciousness” that results in them “seeing the world in a new way” (69). Biblically, this is what happened to Moses and the People of Israel when they were trapped at the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them, and the waters parting made a way for them where just moments before there had been no way (Exodus 14). It’s what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus when he got knocked off his donkey and wound up at the feet, and in the embrace of the Risen Christ (Acts 9). These experiences are terribly disorienting at first, but with time, they become profoundly renewing. They open us up to new possibilities with greater freedom and responsibility. As Alan Jones puts it: “’Stopping the world’ is an exhilarating experience. Just for a moment we have no choice but to see all of our dogmatic and philosophical baggage thrown overboard as we stand shipwrecked on an unknown island. There we are, naked, stripped of the fig leaves of our prejudices and presuppositions. …(All of) the really creative and free souls that I have encountered have been shipwrecked at one time or another. They have had their world taken from them and lived to tell the tale” (71).

Observing Ash Wednesday the week that a loved one dies, and in the middle of planning a funeral, managing complicated relationships and difficult emotions while boxing up the remnants and the fragments of a life, has been for me one of these “stopping the world” experiences.  As I begin my journey to Good Friday and Easter this year, it is with a clarity and an intensity that has not always been present in my previous Lents.  Dealing with a death on Ash Wednesday brings into focus what it is that I need the most, and who it is that has it. DBS +




Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

A Pharisee’s Lent; A Publican’s Lent



The beginning of Lent always fills me with some feelings of spiritual dread, both as a Christian myself, and as a shepherd of the souls of others. You see, this is tricky ground onto which we are about to step.  If observed with the right spirit and within a proper Biblical framework, then I believe that Lent truly can be an helpful tool in our continuing process of spiritual formation, our being rooted and grounded in Christ so that we might know the breadth and length and height and depth of His love for us, and for all of creation (Ephesians 3:17-18).  I have kept Lents in the past that have produced this result in me.  But if observed with the wrong spirit and without a proper Biblical framework, then I know that Lent can be positively dangerous to a soul.  I know this because I have also kept Lents in the past that have damaged me spiritually. The simplest way I know to distinguish between a Lent that is spiritually constructive and a Lent that is spiritually destructive is to remember one of the more familiar parables that Jesus told — the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Luke alone of the four Gospel Evangelists tells us the story (18:9-14) –

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

A Pharisee’s Lent will hinder your relationship with God.
A Publican’s Lent will serve it.

A Pharisee’s Lent is a Lent of works righteousness, a promotion of all those things that we do for God that we think will somehow demand His attention and deserve His appreciation — “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Spiritually, this is our default position.  Some would say that it’s actually hardwired into us. We always think that if we’ll just “do more” and “try harder,” then God will love us “more” and “harder.”  The premise of this notion is that God loves us because of something meritorious in us – something we think, something we believe, or something we do. This takes a variety of forms: doctrinal, denominational, moral, political, experiential and liturgical.  I’ve played this game in most of these arenas at one time or another in my 50+ years of following Jesus.

orangeThere have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if I could curry God’s favor because my Christology is totally orthodox by Nicene/Chalcedonian standards. There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if God loves me more because I belong to the right church that baptizes in the right way and that observes communion on the right schedule.  There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if God accepts me more completely because of the political party that best represents me and my concerns, or because of the candidate that I voted for in the last election, or because of the positions that I have taken on the pressing social questions of the moment.  There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if I am a better Christian than you are because I have or have not prayed in tongues, because I do or do not exclusively use the King James Version of the Bible, because I drink or do not drink adult beverages, because I go or do not go to movies, because I prefer pipe organs and hymns to guitars and choruses, or vice versa, because I believe or do not believe in a Premillennial, post-tribulation rapture of the church, or don’t, because I pray “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer, or “trespasses.”   In every case, I’ve acted as if it’s what I do, or what I think, or what I believe that convinces God to love me.  I make myself “worthy” of God’s affection and attention by being “right” on any number of issues and practices. I think myself as being more “deserving” His care and concern because I am correct about the things that I believe matter to Him, and to me.

A Pharisee’s Lent is a Lent during which extra spiritual disciplines are taken on and little luxuries and pleasures are deliberately given up in order to show God just how serious we really are about Him. And while we would probably never admit it out loud, at some deep level we do these things thinking that God will notice our herculean sacrifice, especially when compared to others, and that God will then bless us in some special way — “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” They’re a way of earning “brownie points” with the Divine.  If I don’t have a drink for the 40 days of Lent, or eat a dessert, or say a cuss word, or tell a lie, or say my prayers, or read my Bible, or go to church every Sunday, then God will owe me some special favor come Easter.

lentThe Publican’s Lent is a different kind of experience altogether. The Publican’s Lent is an honest admission of guilt and a simple cry for help – “‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  It’s the same spiritual experience that’s at work in the first 4 steps of the 12 Steps recovery program – (1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable; (2) We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; (3) We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him; (4) We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  The dynamic of the Publican’s Lent is human helplessness and the availability and sufficiency of Divine mercy.   It starts with the recognition that something is fundamentally disordered about us, and it leads us on the path of despair to the personal embrace of grace.

My staff at the church reads an article together each week, and then discusses it. Last week, in anticipation of Lent, we read a “Lenten Spirituality Reflection” written by Laura Sheahen for the “Faith in Focus” section of the March 13, 2006, issue of the Jesuit publication America (http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/564/faith-focus/lenten-spirituality-reflection). In my mind, Laura powerfully identified the truth that is at the very heart of the Publican’s Lent –

Most of us go about our lives feeling pretty sure we are not desperate sinners. We do not murder, embezzle or kidnap children. Our lies are mild, a few embellishments on the 1040 or forgivable: “What surprise birthday party?” Our cruelties are unambitious: a coworker snubbed or a clerk snapped at. And most everything can be chalked up to tiredness or psychology or the bad weather. And yet. Occasionally after a crisis, or just a sleepless night, we start to suspect there is something deeply wrong not just with the world or life in general, but with ourselves….

 The nagging suspicion grows. Why can’t we shake destructive patterns? Why do we keep yelling at the children about stuff that doesn’t matter? Why do we spend hours watching television, instead of working on the career change that would make us a better person? Why do we hurt the same people over and over? We never settle for less comfort. Why do we always settle for less kindness and honor and compassion? The patterns are so ingrained, so a part of our daily lives, that they are almost impossible to recognize as dangerous. But every now and then, someone shouts to us and we realize there is something we have unwittingly or wittingly let in and fed.

 Lenten sacrifices like fasting and giving something up are not about French fries. They are about paying attention, about looking directly at the waste and fatal sluggishness and venom that even decent folks have inside. They are about recognizing that something inside of us, left to its own devices, would choke off the best we can be.

ratIn his marvelous history of the “Jesus People Movement” – God’s Forever Family by Larry Eskridge  (Oxford -2013) – one of the Movement’s earliest leaders said that the realization that reordered his life and turned his world right side up again was the “revelatory insight” that there’s a “rat that lives in the cellar of our soul.” Reflecting on his own spiritual condition, this future leader of the last genuine spiritual awakening in American church history came to this “profound realization” –

I finally got it.  I was the rat.  And it was my soul that was repenting.  I thought to myself, “Maybe there is a God.”  I hadn’t considered that possibility in a number of years, when suddenly a peace came over me, my breathing became easier.  My chest became lighter.  And I said, letting out a long sigh, “Oh, Father forgive me.”  And immediately the entire weight that was on my chest was gone, and the rush of relief from my heart was one of exultation… I had never known anything like this before… I understood in an instant that God is my Father and I am His child… The joy, the peace, the love that I had in my heart for God and others was incredible.  Never had I realized anything comparable before…”

This is the Publican’s Lent — a Lent that doesn’t try to impress God with our own spiritually disciplined efforts, but a Lent that instead sends us to our knees and that prompts us to cry out ~ “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!” And if this is where the 40 days of Lent can deliver us, then come Holy Week we will be ready for the Holy Spirit’s fresh application of Christ’s objective saving work on the cross and out of the Empty Tomb.



Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

Mea Culpa

A Religious Right “Mea Culpa(“I’m sorry”)
With Serious Ramifications for the Religious Left


blindedI read Blinded by Might (Zondervan 1999) in the run-up to last November’s Presidential election as part of a Sunday evening topical Bible Study on “God and Politics” at the church I serve.  Written by Cal Thomas (raised a “Disciple”) and the late Ed Dobson, two of the strategic leaders in the early days of the Religious Right movement with Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority” at its forefront, this book was their “mea cupula” (a Latin phrase that means “through my fault” and is an acknowledgement of having done wrong).

Now, some of you hear that and probably think, “Well, what took you so long?” You learn that two of the highest profile early leaders of the Religious Right have publically recanted their commitments to that Movement, and have openly voiced regret over their part in helping to bring it about, and you feel a certain political vindication.  And odds are that if you feel like this, it’s because your own political proclivities are with the Religious Left, and you wrongly assume that in their abandonment of the Religious Right, that Cal and Ed switched teams and joined your side.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Ed and Cal didn’t abandon the Religious Right for the Religions Left, no, what the abandoned was the illusion of might that had blinded them into thinking that the Kingdom could come through the acquisition and application of political power.  They said that they abandoned the Religious Right so that the Church could be the Church. As the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert put it – “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.

After hitching their faith and values wagon to the Reagan Revolution and the platform of the Republican Party, thinking that its victory in the political arena would serve their own particular understanding of righteousness, both Cal and Ed eventually had to reassess the confidence that they had placed in what they believed partisan political power could actually achieve.   While they both remained cultural, social and even political conservatives, neither of them continued to believe that “our individual or collective cultural problems could be altered exclusively, or even mainly, through the political process” (15), because, “politics and government cannot reach the soul” (9).

Cal and Ed both continued to believe that politics and government have a role to play in the creation of a just social order and in the promotion of the conditions that make for human thriving. Neither of them argued for a complete withdrawal from politics after they left the Religious Right.   They both continued to exercise their rights as citizens and to give voice to their moral vision as Christians.  But they no longer confused the aims and goals of their own political and social conservativism with the aims and goals of the Gospel.

On the eve of last November’s Presidential election, Theologian Scot McKnight wrote a blog about “Our Hope and Our Politics” (http://www.patheos.com) that echoed the reasons why Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas would up abandoning the Religious Right.

baldSomewhere overnight or this morning the eschatology [The Doctrine of “Last Things” – God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven] of American Christians may become clear. If a Republican wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian has an eschatology of politics. Or, alternatively, if a Democrat wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian too has an eschatology of politics… Where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on my political party? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. And it doesn’t matter to me if it is a right-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Republican wins, or a left-wing progressive wringing her fingers in hope that a Democrat wins. Each has a misguided eschatology… Participation in our election dare not be seen as the lever that turns the eschatological designs God has for this world.

In Blinded by Might Ed Dobson told about a meeting that Jerry Falwell convened in 1979 comprised of the ministerial staff of his church and the faculty of his Bible Institute to tell them of his decision to get involved in politics “in order to reverse the moral decline in American culture.”

haroldHarold Wilmington, the Dean of the Bible Institute established by the Thomas Road Baptist Church, begged Jerry not to get involved. Wilmington argued with passion that this new endeavor was a significant step away from preaching the Gospel and might in the process contaminate the Gospel.  Harold was the only contrary voice that day.  Jerry listened to him politely… thanked Harold for his concerns and added that he was going forward. (16)

 Several years later it was a chance encounter with Harold Wilmington at an airport where they were both changing planes that pulled Ed Dobson up short and forced him to start rethinking the investment of his life in politics. Harold asked Ed where he’d been, and Ed told Harold about all of the important meetings he’d attended and about all of the influential people that he’d been with on that trip, including an appearance on the Phil edDonahue show!  Harold listened to Ed quietly, and then when Ed was finished talking, Harold looked Ed in the eye and reminded him that God had originally called him to be a preacher, and that it is the Gospel and not politics that had the power to change people’s lives Romans 1:16-17).  It was that conversation that triggered something of a crisis in Ed’s soul.  He began to feel a growing tension between his original call to preach the Gospel and the all-consuming task of political involvement that had come to occupy his every waking hour. “I knew that God had called me to preach,” Ed wrote. “I had been ordained to the Christian ministry.” It was after a year of daily prayer in a chapel near his office during his lunch hour that Ed finally recommitted himself to a life of preaching the Gospel and teaching the Scriptures.  He resigned his position with the Moral Majority, accepted a call to pastor a local church in Michigan, and made four commitments that he kept until his dying day in 2015 from ALS –

  1. He said that he would avoid the public spotlight in order to go about the work of being a pastor quietly.
  2. He said that he would avoid all political entanglements. He explained –

I would not attend either Republican or Democrat events. I would not march for or against anything.   I was convinced that as a pastor I was called to reach Republicans and Democrats and Independents with the Gospel. I was called to reach pro-life people and pro-choice people.  I was called to reach pro-gay and anti-gay people.  (And) if I engaged in public political activities, I ran the risk of alienating the very people I was called to reach (before even getting to the Gospel).

3.  He said that he had decided to focus on teaching the Bible. He explained that he would not get off on tangents but would consistently teach the Bible verse-by-verse.
4. And he said that he had decided that he was going to love people unconditionally just as God has loved us in Christ. He said that he longed to be known again as one who preaches a message of love and forgiveness, and not a message of hate, division and condemnation. (152)

blogR. Scott Clark, the Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (California), wrote his blog “Let the Church be the Church” (https://heidelblog.net/2016/11/let-the-church-be-the-church/) after seeing Secretary Clinton in the pulpit of a church on a Sunday morning “preaching’ during last fall’s campaign. It disturbed him, and he guessed that it disturbed many of his readers as well. But Professor Clark asked them –

 Would you have been offended to see Marco Rubio, Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump behind a pulpit? If you answer no, then I think that we do not agree on principle. If your objection to seeing Secretary Clinton in a pulpit was based on your objection to her political philosophy and policy aims, then I suspect that we do not agree about the nature and mission of the visible, institutional church.

And then, after exploring the way that the church has consistently confused what Caesar’s legitimate God-given assignment is, and what it is that Jesus Christ specifically came to do (Matthew 22:15-22), Professor Clark concluded his blog by writing –

 Let Christians resist the impulse to draft the visible, institutional church for a social agenda, however laudatory and beneficial it may be. Let Christians energetically engage God’s world as citizens of a twofold kingdom. We do not have to choose between social engagement and a spiritual institutional church. We can and should have both, for the benefit of the earthly city and for the purity and peace of the embassy of the kingdom of heaven.

It was the loss of this understanding of the two kingdoms that led Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas into the Religious Right, and it’s rediscovery that eventually led them out of the Religious Right. And their book Blinded by Might is a cautionary tale for any Christian, leader on the right or on the left, who feels the very real temptation to bow down to any political candidate, party or platform thinking that by doing so you will gain all the kingdoms of the world and their glory (Matthew 4:8-10).  That’s not how the Kingdom comes.  DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

Two Different Religions?

machenBack in 1921, J. Gresham Machen, then a professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, preached a sermon that later became an explosive book called “Christianity and Liberalism” (not political liberalism, mind you, but theological liberalism). Harry Emerson Fosdick responded in 1922 with his equally incendiary sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” And the fight was on for the soul of American Protestantism. The thesis of Machen’s sermon, and then book, was that the historic Christianity of Scripture and the church’s great ecumenical creeds, and modern Christianity were two entirely different religions.

The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism,’” Machen asserted. “Modern liberalism, then, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian message — the living God and the fact of sin,” he argued. “The liberal doctrine of God and the liberal doctrine of man are both diametrically opposite to the Christian view. But the divergence concerns not only the presuppositions of the message, but also the message itself.”  (http://www.albertmohler.com/2012/10/08/two-rival-religions-christianity-and-post-christianity/)

controversyBradley J. Longfield tracked the theological controversy of those days in his award winning 1991 book The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates (Oxford University Press). I personally found the experience of reading this book to be something of a theological self-sorter of my own spiritual temperament, convictions and conclusions, and I came out of the exercise– no big surprise here – as a passionate moderate. My “hero” in this story was Charles R. Eerdman, the theological conservative who tried, without success, to hold the warring factions of his beloved Presbyterian Church together.

I find much to admire about the faith and faithfulness of J. Gresham Machen. In fact, I learned my New Testament Greek from his standard textbook for “beginning students.” Still, I have long thought that his argument about the modernists and the fundamentalists of his day representing entirely different religions to be something of an exaggeration, a polemical overstatement of the facts of the situation. Clearly there were genuine Christians among the modernists, just as there were genuine Christians among the fundamentalists. I suppose that this is just my “Disciple” coming out in me.

True to my faith’s traditional conclusions and convictions, my centrist moorings and my moderate inclinations, I have tried to navigate, not just the polarized and polarizing political and cultural divide of this past election year, but my forty plus years as an Evangelically minded and hearted minister in a progressive mainline denomination, by steadfastly following the good counsel of Hebrews12:1-3 –

…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,…
Consider Him… so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

This is what I understand it to mean to be a big “D” “Disciple.” You know – “No Creed but Christ…,” “In essentials unity…,” “Where the Bible speaks…,”Not the only Christians, but Christians only,” and all that.

I truly believe that the basis for our unity as a church is Jesus Christ, and that so long as our eyes and hearts are mutually “fixed” on Him, that we can run the race of faith before us with endurance, without growing weary or losing heart.   But when Jesus gets left out of the picture, then it seems to me that there is nothing at the center that holds us together any longer, and all we have left are our jangling opinions that we feel free to offer up as the correct definition of Christianity. When the Christ of New Testament faith has been excised from the conversation, then the versions of Christianity that start to show up bear little resemblance to what the church has historically believed and proclaimed. Without our eyes and hearts “fixed” on Christ, the theological drift is dramatic, and I fear that this is the direction that things trending these days

In this era of hyper-politicized and partisanly divided Christianity, when people’s Christianity is determined more by who they voted for in the last election than by who they have confessed to be the Son of the Living God and have taken to be their Lord and Savior, I suddenly find myself rethinking that conclusion about Machen’s two different religions argument. With every passing day, I find that I have less and less in common with both the content and the spirit of the public positions that are being taken by so many of my denominational partners and peers. The tipping point in this for me was a ministerial colleague’s recent posting on Facebook. This old friend actually suggested the adoption of Bernice King’s (Dr. Martin Luther and Coretta King’s daughter) list of responses to the Presidency of Donald Trump as a “Lenten Discipline.

1. Don’t use his name; EVER (45 will do)
2. Remember this is a regime and he’s not acting alone;
3. Do not argue with those who support him–it doesn’t work;
4. Focus on his policies, not his orange-ness and mental state;
5. Keep your message positive; they want the country to be angry and fearful because this is the soil from which their darkest policies will grow;
6. No more helpless/hopeless talk;
7. Support artists and the arts;
8. Be careful not to spread fake news. Check it;
9. Take care of yourselves; and
10. Resist!

Keep demonstrations peaceful. In the words of John Lennon, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight! Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”

When you post or talk about him, don’t assign his actions to him, assign them to “The Republican Administration,” or “The Republicans.” This will have several effects: the Republican legislators will either have to take responsibility for their association with him or stand up for what some of them don’t like; he will not get the focus of attention he craves; Republican representatives will become very concerned about their re-elections.

Now, this is very different from the invitation to the Lenten disciplines that I heard each year from the Book of Common Prayer when I was a kid growing up in church, and still use each Ash Wednesday at the church I serve  –

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

In my mind and heart, I can’t avoid the conclusion that these two Lenten Invitations represent two very different religions. The first invitation makes no mention of God or Christ, has as its whole purpose partisan resistance, and reduces Christianity to a matter of opposing a certain President and supporting a progressive political agenda.   This is very different from the second invitation to the church’s traditional Lenten disciplines of penance, prayer, fasting, and a serious engagement with Scripture all in the interest of a renewal of the Gospel of our Savior in both our lives as individual Christians, and collectively in the whole life of the church.

William Ralph Inge famously observed – “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” My variation on this theme would be – “Whoever marries Christianity to a political party or candidate will find himself a widower by the next election cycle.” Scot McKnight, after the Presidential candidate debates but before the general election last fall, wrote (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/10/10/political-christianity-american-style/) –

Progressives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church and especially the “red letters” of Jesus with the Democrat or Social Democratic party. For them, Jesus’ being for the poor ineluctably means Jesus is for centralized government and federal relief, aid and support for the poor and that, for them, means Vote Left.

 Conservatives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church with the Republican party (or its Tea Party variation). For them, to be Christian means to be anti-Left and pro-Right. Jesus and the whole Bible, they seem to claim in one variation after another, are for decentralization, free markets, and the platform list goes on.

…the closer progressives or conservatives get to seeing the way to change the world is through the Powers in Washington DC the closer they become to being Constantinian — a conservative Constantine or a progressive Constantine is still a Constantine.

 American Christianity, during election season especially (and since it lasts so long and occurs so often that means always), spends its energies on who will be the Next Apocalyptically-crucial Power in DC and in so doing is failing to use its energies — a zero sum game seemingly — for the mission of God in this world and to this world.

Back in the 1980’s the Religious Right tried to marry historic Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, and as a person of historic Christian faith I found myself publicly and adamantly rejecting their attempt co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission. You can certainly be a Christian and a Republican, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Republican.  And today as the Religious Left tries to marry Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, as a person of Christian faith I find that I must just as publicly and adamantly reject their attempt to co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission.  You can certainly be a Christian and a Democrat, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Democrat.

Of course, this rejection of the machinations of both the Religious Right and the Religious Left to turn the church into a constituency group of their political ambitions and to reduce the mission of the church to acquisition of political power hinges on just exactly what is meant by those words – “historic Christianity.”  I will write more about this struggle for the definition of Christianity in the coming weeks, but for now, I will conclude by simply inviting you to give some thought to some questions –

What is the question that the Gospel answers?
What is the problem that the Gospel solves?
What is the saving work of Jesus Christ?
What are we saved from?  What are we saved to?
And how do we know any of these things?
How can we say anything certain about God or
about God’s purposes for us and the world?

It seems to me that how you answer these questions will say a whole lot about your own particular understanding of Christianity, and I’m pretty sure that the way the answers will generally sort out, that there will be two basic versions of Christianity that are at work, that maybe even compete in life and thought of the church and in the world today. Are they two entirely different religions, as Machen suggested back in his day?  Well, the striking contrast between the two Lenten disciplines recommended for adoption that I cited earlier would seem to suggest that the answer is “yes,” but let’s take a closer look, shall we?






1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

“What Matters Most”


It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

                                                                                                                                 Viktor E. Frankl


fileI clip articles that grab my attention that I come across in my reading, and I throw them into a file that I keep on my desk. Then I go through that file later to pick topics the topics on which I intend to write in my weekly blog.  For months now there has been an article in that file about a high profile celebrity who got romantically involved with another high profile celebrity who had just gotten married.  Their affair resulted in the breakup of that marriage just a year after the wedding, and now those two celebrities are together.

It was the last line in that article that reached out and grabbed me. “They seem to be happy now,” it concluded, “and that’s really what matters the most.”

Now, I know that’s how we think, that being happy is “what matters most.”  But is it true?  Is the great goal of the universe my personal happiness?  Did God create the grand cosmos and put me in it just so that I could be happy? Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been happy, I’ve been unhappy, and I’d rather be happy.  Happy has always been a better experience for me, every single time.  But should being happy be my life’s focus?  Is it really “what matters most”?

happyWhen my journey through this world is over, and I stand before God, is God’s ultimate concern in that moment going to be my happiness? Is God going to want to know – “Doug, did you have a good time?” Is God going to ask – “Doug, did you have fun?” Again, hear me, I’m not anti-fun, nor am I happiness-adverse.  I’d rather be happy than not.  My concern is the pursuit of happiness at any cost as “what matters most” as that article I clipped suggested that it is.  Is it really “what matters most”? Is my happiness at your expense a good thing?  Is my happiness in contradiction to my faith’s convictions and values a worthy goal?  Is happiness our “summum bonum” – our “highest good” – as human beings?

Frankly, I think we get pulled off-sides in this conversation by a familiar cultural phrase.

Last week in my “Soundings” post I referenced the belief in the existence of truths that are self-evident and rights that are unalienable. This idea is rooted and grounded in the belief that the universe has a God-given moral structure and that human beings have a God-given moral constitution. Of course, the devil is in the details of this affirmation.  To say that a sense of “ought” has been hardwired into us and all of creation by God is one thing, but to start detailing the specific content of that universal sense of “ought” starts to muddle as you cross cultures and go back through time.  What has always and everywhere been right for everyone?  What has always and everywhere been wrong for everyone?

founderOur national Founders named three things that they believed were “self-evident” and “unalienable” –

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

And there it is – that hard count that pulls us off-sides – “the pursuit of happiness.”

Understanding “happiness” to be “a state of transitory physical or emotional pleasure,” many people believe that they are free “to pursue whatever provides them with pleasure, however misguided or immoral that pleasure might be” (Bradley Abramson). I have a God-given right to do or to have whatever it takes to make me happy. What I find in the Bible is an entirely different standard. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).  This verse would seem to suggest that there is something even more fundamental to life than my personal happiness.  So does Matthew 6:33 – “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” There’s something here that’s more important than me getting my way, and having my share.

franklI had a high school teacher who assigned Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning as a required text for a class that I was taking.  Reading this book when I was 16 years old was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning.  I’ve read thousands of books since reading this one in 1969, but only rarely have I had an experience comparable to the experience I had when I read this book.  I felt a gravitational pull as I turned its pages.  A path began to open up before with its words.  Suddenly there was something more important than making the team, having a car, getting a date, or going to the right college.  Life had a purpose, a meaning, and I knew that I was here for only a short time to find it.  Later I would read Paul Tillich call this our human concern for “ultimacy,” and appreciate his insight that it is “the state of being ultimately concerned” that is the essence of the spiritual life.  But at 16 all I knew was that something in the universe mattered more than my feelings, and that I had been put here to try to figure out what it was.

In January 2013 issue of The Atlantic published an article about Victor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning (https://www.theatlantic.com). In “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” Emily Esfahan Smith wrote –

In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”

From his experiences in the Concentration Camps of Nazi Germany during WW II, Victor Frankl said that he learned that –

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is…. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than just “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

The search for meaning that Victor Frankl alerted me to when I read Man’s Search for Meaning when I was 16 brought me more fully to Jesus.  When the church I serve now says that our mission is to share Jesus Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose, I know what it is offering because I have found it in my own experience.  In my first year of Christian College when Dr. Ward Rice of blessed memory told us that the most frequently repeated phrase from the lips of Jesus in the Gospels was –

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  (Matthew 16:24)

It was an offer of meaning that was being made.

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:25-26)

And here, almost 50 years later, I know the power of the truth that the article in The Atlantic proclaimed – “People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves.”  Being happy is not what matters most.  Finding meaning is, and for me, my meaning is Jesus.  DBS +


Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings