“Patriotism Has Its Place In Church”

Blue Sky

The annual cycle of our national “high holy” days has begun.  The liturgical gap between Pentecost and Advent gets filled each year with observances that force us to grapple with questions about the legitimacy of patriotism in the sanctuary.

Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving all make their demands on our life of worship.

And since the events of September 11, these nationalistic impulses are even stronger.  So what shall we do with days like these as people of faith?

Should we adamantly ignore them as temptations which can dilute our primary allegiance to the kingdom of God?  Should we uncritically observe them, blurring the distinction between the claim of Christ and the claim of Caesar?  Or should we try to approach them as the celebration of a natural and legitimate allegiance that can actually serve our higher call as Christians?

A few years ago, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were in town for a concert.  This band, with its legacy of social protest, has become rather patriotic of late.  American flags have been featured prominently in their performances, patriotic songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” have been added to their repertoire.

David Crosby explains: “Here’s the deal: We criticize administrations and their policies very, very firmly, but we are staunch believers in this country and the Constitution and democracy.”  I find myself wishing that our position on patriotism in the church could be as nuanced as this observation from an aging rock star.

I have colleagues in ministry who regard any expression of patriotism in the life of the church as proof of idolatry, reference to the flag or national pride in the context of worship being condemned as the kind of thing that led to the state co-opting the church in the days of Nazi Germany.  I have other ministerial colleagues who indiscriminately wrap their faith in red, white, and blue, seemingly incapable of making any distinction between the claims of Christ and the claims of country.

I have very specific connections with and commitments to my family, my church, my country, and my world.  And while I suppose that these particular relationships could serve to isolate me from other responsibilities, I am not persuaded that they must.

In one of his wedding prayers, Malcolm Boyd asked that God bless the couple “with a concern for others that is nourished by their mutual concern.”  This phrase honors the legitimacy of a particular relationship while at the same time linking it to a larger context.  I would like to think that the legitimate passion I feel for my native land can work, too.

Hymn 722 in the Chalice Hymnal, “This Is My Song,” begins with an honest celebration of “my home, the country where my heart is” in the first stanza.  It continues with the reminder that “skies are everywhere as blue as mine” in the second stanza.  And then in the third stanza it concludes with the prayer that “in peace may all earth’s people draw together.”

The progression of this hymn transcends the simplistic divide of my colleagues and delivers us to a kind of nuanced patriotism that is worthy of the church.  DBS+

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Never “Shocked”

GrahamThe grandson of evangelist Billy Graham has resigned from his Florida megachurch pulpit after admitting he had an affair.  “I resigned from my position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church today due to ongoing marital issues,” Tullian Tchividjian said in a statement to The Washington Post Sunday. “As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated.”

Continued Tchividjian, 42: “Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself. Last week I was approached by our church leaders and they asked me about my own affair. I admitted to it and it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to resign. Both my wife and I are heartbroken over our actions and we ask you to pray for us and our family that God would give us the grace we need to weather this heart-wrenching storm.”

http://www.people.com

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On Father’s Day afternoon I preached the worship service at the Fowler Communities.  Keeping with the Father’s Day emphasis, I told them that I had prayerfully scoured the scriptures to identify the Biblical father who I thought might have the most to offer us gathered there that afternoon.  I was intending on preaching one of those familiar – “This is (insert the name of a name of a Biblical character here). Are you a (insert the name of that same Biblical character here)? Be more like (insert the name of the same Biblical character here) kind of sermons.  And where my heart finally settled was on “Father” Abraham.

Now, I chose Abraham because I knew that the room would be full of people in their twilight years.  I have an aversion to “pious platitude” sermons for every occasion. And so I approached my Fowler Father’s Day preaching assignment thinking seriously about the kinds of things that might be on the hearts of those who were closer to their endings than to their beginnings – people who know something about limitations, who had faced disappointments in their lives and who undoubtedly had some regrets.  “Father” Abraham struck me as the perfect Bible character to spend Father’s Day with at Fowler, not because he is such a striking example of what spiritual success looks like, but rather because he’s not, and yet he is still judged by Scripture to be faithful, the veritable “Father of Faith” in fact!

The Scripture I preached from was Hebrews 11:8-10; 13-16 –

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.   For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God… 

…All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

What I appreciate so much about this text is the way that it describes Abraham’s complete failure to actually arrive at the destination of his journey of faith.  In an observation that deeply resonated with me when I first read it a month or two ago, Os Guinness in his book Renaissance (IVP 2014) wrote about Christianity’s “doctrine of its own failure” as the source of its real spiritual power (79). Christians and churches are going to fail, and fail in appalling ways.  “We all often go wrong” Os explained, and so human sinfulness “is always a possibility and never a surprise.”

We expect it, we watch out for it, and whenever we can, we guard against it…  If we all admit that all of us can always go wrong, it still challenging but far less difficult to face the fact that we have done it again… Christian faith calls for an open and voluntary confession of our wrongs, whenever we are wrong.  This too is challenging and it may certainly be embarrassing for anyone who has to do it, but it is in fact an act of moral courage.  For in confession we are called to do what no human being does naturally and easily; to go on record against ourselves.” (80)

Morally and spiritually, we will simply never “arrive” in this life.  That’s the lesson I wanted my Fowler congregation to hear from me on Father’s Day.  I’m a father.  I tried to be a good one.  But on the day when culture fawns over us and promulgates its unrealistic standards of what fatherhood looks like, what I personally become most aware of is not how “good” I was at this most important of my life’s assignments, but when, and where and how I failed.  Without a “doctrine of its own failure” already well-established in my head and heart, cloying celebrations like Father’s Day could very well drive me to despair, exposing me as a fraud. In my secret place, I know that I’m not the guy that those Father Day cards I received describe and celebrate.  And that’s okay, because I come to the party already knowing that “none of our endeavors will meet with unalloyed and lasting success,” and that very few of them if any of them at all will be complete in this life.

pushThis doesn’t discourage me, for unlike Sisyphus who was condemned to the absurd rolling of the same stone up the hill only to have it to roll back down on him again and again, “under God and after the resurrection of Jesus” I know that although incomplete, “my work is never in vain… my endeavors will not be futile or forlorn but worthy and solid” (95).  Just like Abraham, my “father,” from a distance I can see and have greeted God’s promise, and that helps me manage the incomplete reality of my present.

gibAnd so on Father’s Day in my message to my Fowler congregation I described a button that was popular on the campus of the Christian College that I attended in Oregon in the early 1970’s. “P B P G I N F W M Y” is what it read. “Please be patient with me God is not finished with me yet” is what it meant.  That button always had the feel of the Gospel on it to me, and in my imagination I have tried to keep it pinned to my soul as a pastor.  In my ministry I have worked hard to avoid what Francis Schaeffer called “the cruelty of utopianism.” The Bible is a realistic book” he explained.  The stories of the men and women in the Bible are not tainted with false veneer of a shiny romanticism.   They are not sugarcoated.  They cannot be read through rose colored glasses.  He explained –

The Bible is ruthless in speaking about the lies of Abraham, the great father of faith. At least twice Abraham said that his wife Sarah was his sister.  Some critics have foolishly maintained that the instances of deception are really repetitions of one story, but they do not understand what God is communicating.  God is stressing that Abraham did not lie only once, but a number of times.

This is the “realism” of the Bible according to Francis Schaeffer.  “Even after redemption, we are not going to be perfect in this life.”  God’s servants are weak.  We are going to sin.  God does not excuse it when we do, but neither is God finished with us when we do.  Biblically, sin is always serious business.  It is never minimized nor negated by Scripture.  But an expectation of perfection is not the standard that it sets for us either.  While sin is “serious and terrible,” God does not abandon us when we sin.  God deals with it.  God convicts, corrects and redeems us.  And God’s people need to cultivate this same kind of spiritual realism about themselves and others, and then consciously and consistently practice both patience and compassion.

Utopianism can cause harm. In the home, in the man-woman relationship, nothing is more cruel than for the wife or husband to build up a false image in his or her mind and then demand that the husband or wife measure up to this false romanticism. Nothing smashes homes more than this.  Such behavior is totally contrary to the Bible’s doctrine of sin…

Utopianism is also harmful in the parent-child relationship.  When a parent demands more from his child than the child is capable of giving, the parent destroys him as well as alienates him. But – and this is a special twentieth-century malady – the child can also expect too much of his parents…  When a parent does not measure up to a child’s concept of perfection, the child smashes him.

Utopianism is also destructive with a pastor and people.  How many pastors have been smashed because their people have expected them to live up to an impossible ideal?  And how many congregations have been injured by pastors who forgot that the people in their churches could not be expected to be perfect?

Francis Schaeffer said that Biblically informed Christians “should never have the reaction designated by the term ‘shocked.’”  He explained, “There is a type of Christian who constantly draws himself or herself up and declares, ‘I am shocked.’”  And then he added, “If you are then you are not reacting to reality as you should, for it is as much against the teaching of Scripture to romanticize people as it is to try to explain sin away.”

And that was the gist of my Father’s Day message at Fowler on Sunday.

“Father” Abraham teaches us that faithfulness is not about arriving but rather it’s about always moving forward.  As Paul told the Philippians – “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (3:12).  Now, what I didn’t know on Sunday as I was preaching this message about Abraham’s faithfulness despite his glaring imperfections and persistent incompleteness, was the story that was just then breaking about the moral failure of Billy Graham’s grandson, the high profile Florida megachurch pastor Tullian Tchividjian.

Tullian’s supporters will no doubt be “shocked” by this news, and his critics will use it to mock his convictions and the convictions of those like him, and to delight in his very public disgrace.  But neither of these two responses, it seems to me, show much real awareness of the meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A healthy Christian “doctrine of its own failure” will save us from the incredibly inadequate and unattractive alternatives of shock and mock when a Christian fails (and we all will), and it can open wide the door of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ that really is the only thing that we have to offer anybody anyway. DBS+

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Responses…

EMS

This morning I am thinking about responses.

Since the violence that killed nine members and ministers of Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church, I have been watching the news, listening to the talk shows and reading the postings of friends and colleagues on the internet about where this kind of racial hatred comes from and how it might best be eradicated.  Because this is such an obvious and egregious moral offense to the vast majority of us, both black and white, the solutions that I have seen proposed have been both blunt and at times, simplistic. They have had a certain “duh” quality to them.  In my mind they have clumped together into three rather broad categories: (1) Legislate, (2) Educate, and (3) Agitate, and I truly believe that there is something to be said for each one of them.

Legislate

Since the racially motivated violence in Charleston last Wednesday night there have been lots of conversations about how events like this one can be adequately addressed by the law.  We can legislate our way out of this mess, or so some say.  And while I’m not sure that the external force of law can ever adequately or effectively touch the inner part of ourselves that is the spring of both our attitudes and actions, I’m not oblivious to the power of restraint that the law possesses.  Romans 13:1-7 looms large in my thinking about the role and function of government.  As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “It is the sad duty of government to establish and maintain order in a fallen world.”  Our structure of justice and our system of governance are both established by law, and in our participatory democracy, we have a direct hand in shaping those laws by who we elect, and so there is a crucial political dimension to this situation that cannot be denied. In a Presidential election season like this one that we are just now entering, alternate visions of how “liberty and justice for all” can be better established and best be served proliferate.  And so if you aren’t listening carefully, thinking critically and planning on voting conscientiously, then you are irresponsibly abdicating your civic responsibility and you are failing in an important part of your response to what happened last week in Charleston.

Educate

The second assumption that many have made since the horror of last Wednesday night in Charleston is that racism is a learned behavior and that it can therefore be unlearned with just the right educational technique and effort.  We can educate ourselves out of this crisis, or some say.  And while I’m not persuaded that this fully accounts for the complexities of human nature and the mysterious bend in the human heart towards selfishness and darkness, I’m nothing if not a fan of education.  Sometimes I facetiously say that I have been educated well beyond my intelligence.  Who would have ever imagined that that little boy at Glenoaks Elementary School who struggled academically would go on to earn a college degree with honors, a Masters of Divinity degree, a Doctor of Ministry degree, and be a published author?  I know the power of education and how a committed teacher or two along the way can change the world by changing the way that a little boy thinks, or, by teaching that little boy how to think.  I believe in education, and passionately so.  I value the challenging of assumptions, the exploration of alternate ideas, the intellectual force of inductive reasoning, and the wonderful gift of reading and the freedom to read widely, and so I believe that education has its part to play in addressing what continues to be America’s, or should I say, humanity’s “besetting sin” – racism.  And while I’m not at all sure that just knowing what’s good and right and true means that we will then automatically do what’s good and right and true, I don’t discount for a moment the foundational importance of first figuring out what’s good and right and true, and for this we need education – a good, rigorous and thoroughly engaging education.

Agitate

The third response that I have seen and heard since the shootings in Charleston last Wednesday night after a Bible Study has been the natural human instinct to give some kind of public expression to what one is privately thinking and feeling inside.  Some agitate by marching and protesting, others agitate by blogging.  Either way, there’s something inside us that compels us to make public our convictions and to give expression to what’s going on deep in our consciences.  We can agitate our way through these days of anguish and in this season of change, or so some believe.  I grew up in the 1960’s.  Twice I saw how public protest dramatically changed public policy.  The Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement both changed the direction of history.  In more recent years, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc of communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the remarkable changes that the Arab Spring brought to nations like Egypt are all concrete illustrations of the power of public protest and civil disobedience.  It seems to me that the name of the Movement that changed Communist Poland in the 1980’s – “Solidarity” – is the effective power inherent in such agitation, and the promise it holds every time people head for the streets in response to something that is happening in the course of human events on the stage of human history.  Don’t underestimate the power of public outrage.  Don’t discount the visual force of people massing to show their displeasure with the way that things are going and their identification with the victims of oppression, injustice and suffering.  And while not given to such public displays myself (I’m much more inclined to sit at a computer to write and post), I certainly understand the appeal of marches and rallies, especially at the beginning of a movement for social change.  They have a catalytic force.  They can push society towards a tipping points.  But I also understand that at some point they can become distractions from the hard work and evasions of the heavy lifting that real change requires.  The line between the sincere expression of conscience and self-serving and self-congratulatory grandstanding is both fine and elusive.  And so we must be vigilant in remembering that marching, and writing, are just the opening act in the long process of social change.  It’s always easier to hoist a placard, shout a slogan or post an opinion than it is to dismantle an oppressive system or navigate the middle path through competing values and differing perspectives.

One More Response

Most striking to me in the aftermath of what transpired in Charleston last week at Emanuel AME Church, has not been the expected calls to legislate, educate and agitate from people outside the event looking in at it, but rather the response of forgiveness and grace that has been made by people from inside the event, by fellow church members and the families of the slain.  They have had an extraordinary presence in the media throughout the days of this unfolding tragedy and they have given voice to an astonishing perspective, the perspective of their faith in a suffering Savior and Risen Lord.

amishThe only comparable public display of this kind of faith that comes to my mind is that which followed the shooting at the Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, back in 2006, that left 10 girls aged 6–13, dead.  Just like the folks associated with the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the folks in the Amish community of Lancaster County responded to their unimaginable loss and inconceivable grief out of the deep resources of the Gospel.  Their profound commitment to Jesus Christ provided them with the comfort and strength that they needed to respond to their painful circumstance with courage and hope. A white Amish community in rural Pennsylvania and an African American community in a major Southern American city, different in so many ways, and yet joined at the heart in the experience of loss and in the power of promise.

Carl F.H. Henry, one of the defining influences on my “thinking believing,” began his book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans 1964) by writing –

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-political-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to bring about rapid social fulfillment.  In the performance of its mission in the world, even the Christian Church was drawn to neglect its supernatural resources and – in an apostate mood – relied instead upon education, legislation and compulsive techniques to achieve social transformation. (9)

The Church certainly does have a vital stake in legislation; involvement in the social arena it neglects both to its own detriment and to the detriment of society… But how this social involvement is properly carried out – whether by the institutional Church acting in a political way, or by individual Christians conscientiously fulfilling their civic dirties – is a very important question. (10)

The problem may be stated this way: in seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to what extent on grace?  How much shall we trust legislation and how much shall we trust regeneration to change the social setting? (15)

The strategy of regeneration… relies primarily on spiritual dynamic for social change.  It aims not merely to reeducate man (although it knows that the Holy Spirit uses truth – particularly the truth of the Gospel – as a means of conviction), but to renew the whole man morally and spiritually through a saving experience of Jesus Christ.  The power on which it relies for social change is not totalitarian compulsion, nor is it the power, per se, of legislated morality, education and unregenerate conscience.  Regeneration rests upon spiritual power.  The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar dynamis for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration.  Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order. (24-25)

And to see what this looks like, one need look no further than Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  DBS+

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“And forgive…”

dead

In 1979, Bahram Dehqani-Tafti, the son of the Anglican Bishop of Iran, the Rt. Rev. H.B. Dehqani-Tafti, was murdered during the revolution that brought the Ayatollah to power. Exiled from the country and unable to attend his son’s funeral, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti composed this prayer and had it broadcast live into the service.

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A Father’s Prayer Upon the Murder of his Son

O God, we remember not only Bahram but also his murderers;
not because they killed him in the prime of his youth
and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow.
Not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace
on the name of our country among the civilized world;
But because through their crime we now follow thy foot- steps
more closely in the way of sacrifice.
The terrible fire of the calamity burns up
all selfishness and possessiveness in us;
Its flame reveals the depth of depravity and meanness and suspicion,
the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature;
It makes obvious as never before our need to trust in God’s love
as shown in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection;
Love which makes us free from hate towards our persecutors;
Love which brings patience, forbearance, courage,
loyalty, humility, generosity of heart;
Love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory
and his eternal designs for the Church and for the world;
Love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death.

O God, Bahram’s blood has multiplied the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls;
so when his murderers stand before thee on the Day of Judgment,
remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives.

And Forgive…

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In the avalanche of emotions that we feel and responses that are being made to the horror of what happened in a Bible Study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night, the shape of this prayer frames my thinking as a Christian more powerfully than anything else I have ever come across.  It’s challenge has the weight of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the push of the Holy Spirit in it.

Anger today is certainly legitimate, but it’s not enough.
Anguish today is clearly appropriate, but it’s not enough.
Guilt today is entirely proper, but it’s not enough.
Shame today is completely fitting, but it’s not enough.
A cry for social justice today sounds totally right, but it’s not enough.
Calls for new legislation are undoubtedly timely, but they are not enough.

Nothing short of a change of heart is what is needed, and that’s what this prayer seeks. And so I invite you to join me as a Christian in praying it for Charleston, McKinney, Baltimore, Staten Island, Norman, Ferguson… me and you.  DBS+

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Is the Christian church finished?

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Is the Christian faith headed for the great museum of history?
________________________________________________________________

guinessThese are the two questions with which Os Guinness opened his 2014 book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (IVP – p.13).  And quoting G.K. Chesterton ~ “At least five times the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs, and in each of these cases it was the dog that died” ~ Os Guinness answered them both with a resounding “no.”

Let there be no wavering in our answer.  Such is the truth and power of the Gospel that the church can be revived, reformed and restored to be a renewing power in the world again.  There is no question that the good news of Jesus has effected powerful personal and cultural changes in the past. There is no question too that it is still doing so in many parts of the world today. And by God’s grace it will do so again even here in the heart of the advanced modern world where the Christian church is presently in sorry disarray. (14)

Of course, Os Guinness understood that he just couldn’t say these things and then leave it at that, and so the rest of his book is a carefully reasoned essay about his continuing confidence in the Gospel in this age of church decline.  With characteristic precision and insight, he mapped out the contours of the age and the crises of faith that they have fomented.  But at its heart, Os Guinness’ book Renaissance is about how the Gospel continues to be the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, and how, so long as people still need saving, the Gospel and the church that consciously and consistently serves it will still have a place in the eternal purpose of God.

I’m so glad that I read Renaissance before the release of the Pew Foundation report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” just about a month ago (see: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/). Here’s the bottom line –

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

As you can imagine, the response to this report has been massive and intense. Lots of responses have been penned by lots of church leaders about what’s gone wrong with the church and her mission, and what needs to be done now to fix it.  The progressives are saying that the fault lies with the traditionalists and their unwillingness to move with the times, and the way to fix this is for us all to become progressives.  The traditionalists say that the fault all lies with the progressives and their failure to hold fast to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), and the way to fix this is for us all to become traditionalists.  But either way, numerically the church – both progressive and traditionalist – is in decline in the west and the trend seems likely to continue.  We are in what Robert Thornton Henderson calls a “liminal” space.  Church as we have known it is going away, and church as it will next be has not yet arrived. And so, we are in that frightening and uncomfortable in-between. Things are changing.

We know this in our own experience congregationally, but it is not “our” problem alone. What we are facing locally is part of a much larger cultural trend.  Now, knowing that doesn’t really “help.”  We’ve still got to navigate these choppy waters ourselves.  But that larger conversation does keep us from thinking that we are in this thing alone, and from making the big mistake of believing that cosmetic changes will somehow turn this trend around.  There is not a program or a hire that will “fix” Northway.  Success will not come by building a gymnasium, getting a band, opening a coffee shop or becoming more like that bigger church down the street.

Two recent intensive consultations with Auxano and Ministry Architects have been both encouraging and challenging.  There are things we can do to better position ourselves for a different kind of future, but this won’t happen automatically or effortlessly. There are no quick fixes.  George Mallone said that the renewal of a church is a lot like the remodeling a house.  It will always take longer and cost more than you think.  The good news for Northway is that we have the resources, leaders, circumstances and will to effect the changes that must be made, and we are getting some real clarity about the vision of that different kind of future for us as a church.

Years ago when Chris Kelley was writing for the Dallas Morning News he published a series of award winning articles about how major North American cities had reinvented themselves and experienced a kind of renaissance.   One day Chris and I were talking about what he had learned, and something he said stuck with me.  He explained that what all of these renewed cities had successfully done was to create the climate for change and then encouraged it when it began to happen.

sailIt’s like a sailing ship setting its sails to catch the wind to propel it forward through the waves.  We don’t control the wind.  We can’t make it blow. Jesus was clear about this (John 3:8).   The Spirit is going to do what the Spirit chooses to do and go where the Spirit chooses to go.  There are parts of this thing that are completely beyond our control.  But what we can do is trim our sails and orient our ship in such a way that it can take full advantage of any wind that might be blowing.  And that’s what we are in the process of doing right now as a church.

As one of my favorite hymns puts it –

I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,
though heavy oft with drenching spray and torn with many a rift;
if hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at his behest, and brave another cruise.

It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years;
if cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be,
O let me feel your freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.

If ever I forget your love and how that love was shown,
lift high the blood-red flag above; it bears your name alone.
Great pilot of my onward way, you wilt not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift.

Those winds are blowing. It’s time to lift our sails.   DBS+

 

 

 

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Goodbye Old Friend

old

I knew him first as an opponent on the football field.  My little college in Oregon didn’t play intercollegiate football, and so the intramural competition between houses on campus had an importance all out of proportion to its quality or any kind of common sense.  After my house team trounced his house team on the way to the school championship one year, Steve stopped by my room for a visit.  It was a recruitment trip.  He ventured down the street and into the enemy’s camp because, as he later told me, he was tired of looking up at me after I had knocked him down on the football field.  Steve was a quarterback and I was a defensive lineman.  And so he made all kinds of promises about how great my life could be on campus if only I would agree to move into his house before the next football season.  Why, we could even be roommates Steve told me!  It was laughable, quintessential Steve.  But out of that sheer nonsense a genuine friendship was born.

Steve was the very first person to greet me when I got to Ft. Worth.  Literally, on the day when Mary Lynn and I pulled into the Brite parking lot at TCU, Steve was there to welcome us to our new “home” and take us out to dinner that night – pizza at Crystals.  At TCU we finally got to play ball together on the same team – the Brite “Bombers.”  A year ahead of me, Steve and I were in graduate school together for only two years.  But our friendship deepened greatly during that time.  His signature is on my ordination certificate, and mine is on his.

We were always something of an odd couple.   I’ve always been big and slow, Steve was trim and athletic.   I’m something of a bookworm, Steve was anything but.  I reveled in the intellectual stretching that seminary afforded me, taking every course on Bible, theology and church history that I could.  Steve viewed seminary as something that he just had to get through so that he could be ordained and then work in a church.  He took every practical ministry class that he could.  But somehow the friendship worked, and endured.

Steve’s journey through life didn’t unfold in a straight line.  There were some failed marriages and some failed ministries.  We saw each other pretty regularly through the years.   He would suddenly call out of nowhere and say that he was going to stop by.  I remember waiting at a little airport in far West Houston for hours one evening because Steve had called and told me that he had hitched a ride and was coming in for a visit.  He wanted me to meet his new wife.  He didn’t show.  That marriage didn’t last, but our friendship still did.

We lost touch for a while.  Steve just disappeared.   And then one day he was back, in Maine of all places. And our pattern of occasional phone calls and e-mails picked up again right where it left off.  He was forever making a wisecrack about something I wrote.  But the fact is that Steve still read everything I wrote and watched everything I we posted on the church’s Facebook page.  I knew that he was out there paying attention to what I was doing because he would respond to the pictures, web devotionals and blogs. Steve was my friend, a good friend.

Well, I got the word last Saturday that my friend Steve died.  I didn’t even know that he was sick.  I sure wish that I could have visited with him before he left.  Steve was not the easiest friend that I’ve had, but he was one of truest, and I just wish that I had had the chance to tell him that.  I would have liked the chance to tell Steve that I loved him, I really did.  But then again, I’m pretty sure that Steve knew.

topless

After a good friend of his unexpectedly died, Philip Yancey wrote that the only thing that could really have helped him in that moment of his loss would have been to somehow get his friend Bob back again.  And that prompted this profoundly meaningful meditation on the Gospel –

On the day Bob made his last dive, I was sitting, oblivious, in a cafe at the University of Chicago, reading My Quest for Beauty by Rollo May. In that book, Rollo recalls a visit to Mt. Athos, a peninsula of monasteries attached to Greece. There, he happened to stumble upon an all-night celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter. Incense hung in the air. The only light came from candles. At the climax of that service, the priest gave everyone three Easter eggs, splendidly decorated and wrapped in a veil. “Christos Anesti!” he said — “Christ is Risen!” Each person present, including Rollo May, replied according to the custom, “He Is Risen Indeed!” Rollo May writes, “I was seized then by a moment of spiritual reality: What would it mean for our world if he had truly risen?” Rollo May’s question kept floating around in my mind, hauntingly, after I heard the terrible news of Bob’s death. What did it mean for our world that Christ had risen?”

…When I spoke at Bob’s funeral, I rephrased Rollo May’s question in the terms of our particular grief.  What would it mean for us if Bob rose again?   We were sitting in a chapel, numbed by three days of sorrow, death bearing down on us like a crushing weight.  How would it be to walk outside to the parking lot and there, to our utter astonishment, find Bob. Bob! With his bounding walk, his crooked grin, his clear gray eyes.  It could be no one else but Bob, alive again!

That image gave me a hint of what Jesus’ disciples felt on the first Easter.  They too had grieved for three days.  On Sunday they heard a new, euphonious sound, clear as a bell struck in mountain air.  Easter hits a new note of hope and faith that what God did once in a graveyard in Jerusalem, he can and will repeat on a grand scale.  For Bob.  For us.  For the world.  Against all odds, the irreversible will be reversed.

Because of Easter, Philip Yancey talked about the day when he was going to get his friend back.  And today as I write, thinking about my old friend Steve, all I can say is… me too.  DBS+

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The “Nudge” of the Holy Spirit

kid1Greg Nettle was in Columbia with his wife Julie on a church planting visit when they visited an orphanage run by Compassion International.  They were looking for children that their new church starts there might sponsor, and as they reviewed the packets, looking at pictures and reading the details about the children – who they lived with, what they liked, how they were doing in school – Greg said that he just wasn’t “moved.”  He told his wife, “I just don’t feel the Holy Spirit nudging us to sponsor any of these children.”   And that’s when Greg’s wife Julie rather pointedly told him, “You don’t need to feel the Holy Spirit’s nudge… Jesus already told you to care for these children because it’s the right thing to do.” (http://gregnettle.com/)

Last Sunday I preached about how the Holy Spirit pushes us both as individual Christians and as the church out of our own particular comfort zones and into the mission of God in Christ.  I quoted something Pope Francis recently said –

The Holy Spirit annoys us. The Spirit moves us, makes us walk, pushes the church to move forward.  [But] we want the Holy Spirit to calm down. We want to tame the Holy Spirit, and that just won’t do. The Holy Spirit gives us consolation and the strength to move forward and the moving forward part is what can be such a bother. People think it’s better to be comfortable, but that is not what the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit brings.

eagleAnd I believe this, in fact, I’ve felt it myself.  Fr. George Montague, a Biblical Scholar who teaches down in San Antonio, says that the push of the Holy Spirit is like “riding the wind.”  Growing up on a ranch out in West Texas, George says that he has watched the buzzards catch the wind and glide for hours without flapping their wings, being carried to the far horizon, and he said that that’s what it felt like to him when he was finally caught up in the renewing and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit after a particularly barren stretch in his spiritual life.  And this experience is supposed to be the “normal Christian life.”

When we become Christians, two things happen.  We are forgiven and we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).  This is what Jesus as the Christ came to do according to the intial witness of John the Baptist.  He said that it was as the Lamb of God that Christ came to take away our sins (John 1:29).  And then he said that it was as the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit that Christ came to empower us to walk in newness of life (John 1:33).  These are two different things.  Forgiveness happens in an instant.  Either we are or we aren‘t. But our transformation unfolds only gradually over time.  It’s a gradual process.  It’s underway.  And so Paul told the Galatians that as they “lived by the Spirit” – in the experience of God’s forgiveness in Christ already applied to their hearts by the Holy Spirit – so they needed to then “walk by the Spirit” – step by step, day after day growing into an entirely different kind of person, someone who thinks like, looks like, talks like and acts like Jesus Christ (Galatains 5:25). And it’s this exhortation to  “walk by the Spirit”  that creates in us the expectaion of guidance, that God will in fact “communicate with us, nudge us, move us along, and speak to us” (Andrew Haslam). The question is how?

Now, back to what Julie Nettle told her husband Greg in Columbia – “You don’t need to feel the Holy Spirit’s nudge… Jesus already told you to care for these children because it’s the right thing to do.”  And as far as I am concerned, the key to this matter of being guided by the Holy Spirit is found in this story.  In one of his essays in Modern Reformation Michael Horton touched on the basic problem –

We must avoid the temptation to regard the Holy Spirit as a freelance operator working independently of the Word. …A common misunderstanding of the Spirit’s leading in our day is that believers can decipher God’s secret plan by way of “hunches,” “nudges,” and “promptings.”…In this age, the Spirit does not inspire new revelations but illuminates our hearts to understand what he has already given us. …From Genesis to Revelation we find practical wisdom and guidance for our lives and the Spirit who inspired these commands inwardly illumines our understanding and, through the gospel, animates our will to follow them. …The Spirit, therefore, leads and guides us, to be sure, but it is mediated through his Word… [“I’ll Pray About It.” Jan./Feb. 2004 Vol. 13 No. 1.26-27]

This has been the traditional perspective of Reformed Christianity (and remember, that’s our natural branch on the family tree of churches).  The Word and the Spirit work together, always in tandem. When the Word falls on the ears and begins to get processed by the head, the Spirit goes to work on the heart.  Paul told the Ephesian Christians that the Word of God was the “sword of the Spirit” (6:17), the tool that the Spirit uses to lay open our hearts (Hebrews 4:12).  And so the nudges that we feel from the Holy Spirit will be set into motion through an enagement with the Word.

Now, frankly, I fear that this perspective, which was fully operative in the theology of Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has gradually gotten lost in the shuffle of the general loss of confidence in the authority of Scripture by so many in the mainline church these days and by the elevation of religious feelings as the new replacement “control” for our faith’s convictions and practices.  The tendancy that I see at work in the church today might best be described as being a matter of all Spirit with little or no Word at all.  And this is no better, it seems to me, than the old fundamentalism of all Word and no Spirit.  We desperately need both Word and Spirit. R.T. Kendall, the Pastor Emeritus of London’s Westminmster Chapel, has written extensively and, I think, insightfully about what he calls the “divorce” in today’s church between the Word and the Spirit.

scaleThere’s been a silent divorce in the church–not between a man and a woman, but between the Word of God and the Spirit of God.  As with any divorce, sometimes the children stay with the mother, and sometimes they stay with the father. In this divorce, some have embraced the Spirit and others the Word. However, I believe that our teaching and preaching will only be effective if it is firmly grounded in the Word of God and entirely saturated with the Spirit of God. What is the difference? Those on the “Word” side emphasize sound doctrine, expository preaching, contending for the faith. Those on the “Spirit” side emphasize the prophetic word, signs, wonders, miracles and the power demonstrated in the book of Acts.  But it is not one or the other that is needed, but both. [http://www.pneumafoundation.org]

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Kendall’s predecessor at Westmister Chapel put it, “I spend half my time telling Christians to read their bibles, and the other half telling them that just reading their Bibles is not enough” (paraphrased).

I have a series of four art books (The New Testament Series), all of them perfectly lovely. Published by Phaidon, each of these books show how a particular Gospel event has been portayed by some of the great artists from across time and from around the world.  There are more than 100 colorful images in each of these books drawn from the very beginnings of Christian art right up through modern times. One of these books is about the Last Supper.  One of these books is about the Crucifixion. One of these books is about the Descent (the removal of Christ’s body from the Cross after His death).  And one of these books is about the Annunciuation – the Angel telling Mary that she has been chosen by God to be the Mother of our Lord.  I think that it’s this last one – the one of the Annunication – that is my favorite, maybe because it is the least developed image in my spiritual imagination.

The death, burial and resurrection of Christ, the subject matter of the first three books in the series are all events that are vivid in both my head and my heart.   Sacrament and Scripture, ritual and liturgy have impressed them solidly on my soul.  But who among us Protestant Christians even knows that March the 25th – 9 months before the church’s traditional date of Christ’s birth, December 25 – is Annunciation Day, let alone what to do with it?  Maybe its our hesitation to make too much of Mary lest we be tarred with the suspicion of being “too Catholic,” but the Annunciation is just not that much of a player in the faith of most Protestant Christians like us.  And that’s too bad because, frankly, it is a pretty big player in the Biblical narrative (Luke 1:26-56).  And I find that the way that it has traditionally been portayed in the Christian art of the Annunciation has helped me better understand and thereby become more receptive to the nudges of the Holy Spirit in my own experience.

angelThis image is a pretty standard presentation of the Annunciation in Christian art.   You’ve got the angel breathlessly arriving on the scene with the big announcement of God’s intentions, and Mary devoutly, receptively kneeling.  These are standard features in all of the paintings of the Annunciation in my book.  But so are the two other things that you see on prominent display here in this painting – the open book, presumably a Bible, in front of Mary from which she’s clearly been reading, and the Holy Spirit as a dove hovering or brooding just over Mary’s head.  Word and Spirit, both are at work here.  It’s a picture of the spiritual experience of “illumination” that’s supposed to be part of the normal Christian life for all of us.  Mary was receptive to the Spirit’s nudges because she already knew what God had purposed because it had already been revealed in the giving of the Law and in the Prophetic Word and had become part of the record of Scripture.  What Mary read in Scripture, the Holy Spirit used to nudge her heart in the direction of God’s purpose. Go back and reread Jesus Christ’s famous encounter with the discourged disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and you’ll see the same exact dynamic at work.

First of all, the Risen Christ explained to them “the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and with all of the prophets” (v. 27), and then the two disciples reported that their hearts burned within them as He spoke to them on the road, explaining the Scriptures to them (v. 32).  And this is how I think that the nudging of the Holy Spirit in my life and in your life is still going to work today.  As we open our Bibles and read, our heads fully enagaged in the process of understanding, the Holy Spirit is going to be at work in our hearts, prompting responses that serve His purposes for both us and the whole world.

“Let it be done to me according to your word,” was what Mary prayed at the Annunciation (Luke 1:38), and I think that it will be our prayer too when the Word and the Spirit do their work in us. DBS+

 

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