The Gospel in Christmas Cards

I remember the great care that my parents took every year with their Christmas cards. Early in the fall there was always a trip, and sometimes more than one, to the stationary store where together they poured over those big sample notebooks for hours looking for just the right Christmas card.  Mom and dad certainly had their standards.  It had to be traditional and not contemporary, religious and not secular, show Jesus and not Santa, and be about Bethlehem’s manger and not about Christmas trees, or reindeers, or snowy forests.  I learned my appreciation of Christmas cards from them, in fact, through the years I’ve become a kind of Christmas card connoisseur. While I appreciate every Christmas card that I’ve ever received, and honor the spirit of friendship and affection that they signal, purely on the level of image, symbol and art, I have my favorites.

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Years ago Mary Lynn and I received a Christmas card that was a print of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Census at Bethlehem.” It shows a typical 16th century Flemish village on a cold winter’s day.  There’s nothing distinctively “religious” or “Christmas-y” about it, except for a “wreath” over an open window where a crowd has gathered and seems to be conducting some kind of business with the official looking people inside the building. In the middle of the picture there’s a man with a basket of tools on his arm leading a donkey with a pregnant woman sitting on it toward the crowd at that open window, and only gradually does it dawn on you that this is Bethlehem and that is Joseph and Mary!  Mary Lynn and I liked this Christmas card so much that we later bought a print of the painting, had it framed and it now hangs in our home.

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Another favorite Christmas card of mine is one that shows Mary cradling her infant son against the cold of a winter’s night. Now that’s a familiar enough Christmas card image, isn’t it?  What makes this one so unique is where Mary and her baby happen to be.  You see, on this card she sits in the lap of the Sphinx in Egypt cradling the Christ, reminding us of the flight of the Holy family from Herod’s brutality.  It’s a powerful image, one made even more powerful today as a reminder that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were political refugees who had to flee the violence of a Middle Eastern tyrant and who found a home in a different culture where they were welcomed.

baby jesusI think my favorite Christmas card image is the one that I have of the baby Jesus reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a lamb with both of His hands. In my mind and heart, this is the perfect picture of what Christmas means. Now, technically, the Bible says nothing about there being any animals at the manger in Bethlehem.  Oh sure, we have them prominently positioned in our crèche scenes on the mantle at home, and they regularly show up in the Christmas carols that we sing in church.  But technically, there are no references to animals of any sort in the Bible’s story of the first Christmas apart from Luke’s note that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night (2:8).  But that wasn’t in Bethlehem at the manger.  No, that was in the fields outside of town.  The Bible actually says nothing about animals being present at the manger. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly logical to me to conclude that animals were there.

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In fact, when you go to Bethlehem and visit the church at the shepherd’s fields on its walls you will see a series of three wonderful frescoes that tell the story of the first Christmas, and prominent in them is another animal, a dog. In the first panel where the angels are making their announcement of the birth of Christ that dog cowers in fear behind a rock. In the second panel where the shepherds are shown going to Bethlehem see this thing that happened, that same dog runs ahead, leading the procession.  And in the third panel, that dog reverently sits at the side of the manger adding his devotion to that of his masters for Him who was born to be the Savior of all creation.  And as whimsical and attractive as all of this is, it is nevertheless a fanciful addition to the story.

We can only talk about sheep at the manger with any degree of Biblical certainty. And the symbolic significance of this for the Gospel comes later in the New Testament’s story of Jesus Christ when John the Baptist identified Him as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; 36).  Gary Burge, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, says that he once asked a mature Christian why Jesus is called “the Lamb of God.” The answer given was this: “Because Jesus is so gentle and nice.” But this is the wrong answer.  The right answer is that Jesus was called the Lamb of God because in the world of the Bible lambs were the animals of choice for sacrifice.  We’ve never seen an animal sacrifice, and would probably be horrified if we did.  And the problem with this is that sacrifice was an enormously important part of the Biblical world, and if we can’t get our heads wrapped around what sacrifice meant in the Biblical world, then we will never understand what John the Baptist and the rest of the New Testament means when it tells us that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God.

lambIn ancient Israel sheep drove the economy. Their wool kept people clothed and warm.  Their meat kept people fed.  And so, when it was time to show God just how much He meant to someone, or just how desperate a person really was for God’s help, then something of real value to that person would be offered in sacrifice.  And nothing was of greater value to the people of ancient Israel than were their sheep, especially an unblemished male lamb.  That was your money maker.  His reproductive capabilities was the key to one’s prosperity, and so when offered up in sacrifice, that lamb became a powerful outward and visible expression of the intensity of the inward and invisible intentions of a person’s heart.

In the ancient ritual of sacrifice no gesture was more important than the laying on of hands. “You are to lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you,” is what the Law prescribed (Leviticus 1:4).  This point of contact, this physical connection between the animal being sacrificed and the person who was offering it as an expression of what was in his heart, this is what made this whole ritual of sacrifice personal.  And in that picture on my favorite Christmas card of the Son of God reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a shepherd’s lamb what the artist was symbolically telling us that just like the lamb that He touched, Jesus Christ came to be our Savior through an act of sacrifice.

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Now, the Christmas Card that I really want to receive is the one with Benedetto Bonfigli’s (1420 – 1496) painting – “The Adoration of the Kings, and Christ on the Cross” (The National Gallery, London) – on it. This painting expresses my Christmas faith as powerfully and concisely as any image I have ever come across. The way that it surprisingly brings together Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the manger and the cross, the Magi’s Messianic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with Messiah’s self-offering on the cross reminds me of Dag Hammarskjold’s famous observation in Markings (1964) that – “the Manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”  Rodney Clapp argued that the best way to keep Christ in Christmas was by always keeping it clear that Easter and not Christmas is the central Christian holiday. He said that when Christians are known “for our Easter, then we will have our Christmas back.” And that’s why I love this image.  That baby who sits on Mary’s lap is the Savior who will die on Calvary’s cross (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11), and when this is clear, so is the Gospel. DBS +

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“More than watchmen for the morning…”

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 Between graduating from Christian college in May of 1975 and starting seminary in the fall of 1976, I got married and worked as a youth minister at our church in Pocatello, Idaho.   Now, in Idaho they think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t hunt and fish, backpack and camp, snowmobile and ski.  And so part of my job description at the church in Pocatello was to serve as the assistant Scout Master for the church’s troop.  That’s what I was doing at 7800 feet in the Grand Tetons camped next to Hechtman Lake in the shadow of Mt. Berry.

I was with my Boy Scout troop one day out on a scheduled weeklong trek through the backcountry. It had taken the better part of that first day just to get from the trail head up to Hechtman Lake, and on the second day we were planning to go up and over the Mt. Berry pass into the high Alpine Meadows beyond it. We pitched camp, caught our dinner – dozens and dozens of small Dolly Varden trout that went straight from the frigid lake into our frying pans and then into our bellies, and then we sat around the camp fire telling stories and talking about how hard the next day’s climb was going to be.  A few hours after dark everybody was fast asleep in their tents.

The storm came up suddenly and violently as they do high in the mountains. There was a flash of lightening followed almost instantly by a clap of thunder and then it began to pour.  Too late did we realize that we had pitched out tents in a natural runoff for the rain from the granite peaks above us to the lake below us.  And thus began the longest and most desperate night of my life.

I was awakened by the screams of some of my boys being washed into the lake in their tents with all of their stuff. There was a mad scramble to get the boys untangled from their tents and out of the water.  And then once everybody was accounted for, the next critical task was to get out of the rain and to save our campfire for some warmth.  We quickly rigged a canopy over it and slowly fed it firewood that was just barely dry enough to burn.  We unzipped the sleeping bags that we still had to make blankets that we draped over little clusters of boys who looked like drowned rats and then we huddled around the fire against the dark, and the cold, and the rain, impatiently waiting for the sun to rise.

Psalm 130:5-6 says –

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

 My terrible night on that mountain with those boys helps me appreciate what the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote these words. The trouble he was in that prompted him to write this familiar prayer is unspecified in the text. Lots of interpreters say that they appreciate this ambiguity because it allows each reader to fill in the blank with his or her own particular crisis.  Our “depths” are different, and this cry from “out of the depths” is vague enough to be able to take them all in.  This is a prayer that anybody can pray no matter what it is that is threatening to undo them.

What drives the spirituality of this Psalm is the experience of waiting. Simone Weil, one of the great Christian mystics of the 20th century, said that the experience of “waiting patiently with expectation” is the “essence” of the spiritual life in the Bible, and I think that’s right.  The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), and that means that faithful people are going to have to get comfortable with waiting because it concerns things that are “hoped for,” things that are “not yet seen.”

The God of the Bible hears our prayers and acts on our cries for help, to be sure, but always on His terms and in His time. And so, in this Psalm, we who believe get compared with “watchmen for the morning” who wait for the rising of the sun.  That’s literally what I did with my Boy Scouts high up on that mountain in Wyoming back in 1976.   We watched and we waited for the rising of the morning sun.  We understood that with the coming of its light and warmth that everything would get better for us, and this is why the Bible frequently uses the image of dawn as a way of talking about salvation.

The Christmas Canticle that Mark preached on last Sunday morning, the “Benedictus” (Luke 67-70), is the hymn of praise that Zechariah sang to God on the day when his son, the baby who would grow up to be John the Baptist, was born.   This is a song that gets sung in many parts of the church every single day as part of Morning Prayer, at the beginning of the day, just as the sun is rising.   From personal experience I can tell you that there’s some real power in saying – “Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” – as the first streaks of light are crossing a dark night sky.  The sunrise – the “day spring” – is a good picture of the true meaning of Christmas.  Just as the first streaks of light on the far horizon signal the start of a new day, so the humble birth of Christ in Bethlehem’s stable signaled the fulfillment of a promise, the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, the coming of God’s Savior to begin the work of repairing all of creation.  But it takes faith to see, and it takes time to unfold.

I know that we are living in a time of real “depths” – personal, social, political, and cosmic.  And I understand the very real feelings that many of us have that God has inexplicably absented Himself from the very real struggle in which we find ourselves these days. “Where is God?” is our cry in the face of terrorism, and natural catastrophe, and glaring injustice, and inconceivable violence, and abusive power, and blatant greed.  Why, there’s even a theological category for this feeling, it’s called Deus Absconditus,” and it refers to the way that God so often appears hidden in our experience and world. Reflecting on this, theologian Peter Leithart says that it’s when the world spins out of control and our instincts are to “rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” what we need to remember is that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we can know that “confusion is not the final word… that confusion will itself ultimately be confused and dispelled.” That’s the promise of Scripture.

dawnNo matter how dark the night, or chaotic the storm, God’s got this. And this is the kind of trust that the faithful waiting of Advent is meant to activate in us.  It’s by crying out from our depths, and then watching and waiting for God’s tender mercy to break upon us from on high like the dawn that we enter into the spiritual experience of Psalm 130, and the spiritual meaning of the season of Advent, and will wind up with hearts that are truly prepared for the celebration of the coming of Christ at Christmas. DBS +

 

 

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“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee…”

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee…”

The line I used as the title for this week’s “Soundings” comes from John Donne’s (1572 – 1631) 17th meditation in his book Devotions upon Emergent Occasions a book he wrote during the course of a grave illness from which he suffered in December of 1623.  It was on the 17th day of this illness that John Donne heard the bell of a nearby parish church tolling the death of someone in the community, and that prompted him to write –

blog1No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 John Donne didn’t specifically know who the person was for whom the bell tolled that day, but the very fact of its tolling stirred in him a deep sense of personal solidarity with the whole human family. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” he explained, because he was “involved in mankind.” This “involvement in mankind” was for John Donne, an Anglican Poet/Priest, a basic affirmation of his Christian faith.

Our shared humanity – our identity “in Adam” – creates a foundational bond that we share with everyone, everywhere, and always.  As Paul told the Athenians in his sermon on Mars Hill – “From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth…   We are [all] his offspring” (Acts 17:26; 28), and as he prayed in Ephesians – For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name…” (3:14-15). Furthermore, all of humanity as the object of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ puts a redemptive icing on this creation cake of “involvement” with all of humanity.  As Peter Kuzmic explained in his inaugural address as a Professor of World Mission at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, the reason why we who are Christians must care about the hurts and hopes of people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages is because “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16).

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Violent death is not sectarian. Neither is anguish, nor fear.  Terror has no religious preference. When Christians are slaughtered while they are praying at their house of worship in Central Texas, and when Muslims are slaughtered while they are praying at their house of worship in the northern Sinai Peninsula, our response must not be different.  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”  But I sense that our response has in fact been different.  Because of the long, complicated, and painful history that exists between Muslims and Christians, and the ongoing “War on Terror” by the West on ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militant expressions of global Islamic fundamentalism, I have detected a certain ambivalence about the horrifying news of the Islamic terrorist attack at the Mosque in Al-Arish, Egypt, last Friday.

There was no hesitation whatsoever in the moral outrage and spiritual concern that got voiced by us when a single armed gunman burst in on the morning worship service of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, November 5, leaving 26 dead and 20 wounded.  I doubt that there was a church anywhere in North America that didn’t pray for their slain and wounded brothers and sisters in the Christian community the following Sunday morning. But I’m pretty sure that there were significantly fewer expressions of solidarity in those same churches with the Muslim community after 25 armed gunmen burst in on the Friday prayers [the Muslim “Sabbath”] at the Al-Arish Mosque in Egypt leaving 305 worshippers, including 27 children, dead and another 128 people wounded, even though Muslims are our spiritual cousins in the Abrahamic family of faith.

Looking for a Biblical model of response to help frame our own response to this recent episode of unimaginable violence in Egypt, I gradually arrived at the story of David’s retrieval and burial of the remains of Saul, Jonathan, and their descendants that gets told in 2 Samuel 21.  This is a text of terror chock full of the kind of violence and vengeance that we find so problematic as Christians when we read the stories of the Old Testament.  Sometimes it takes everything I’ve got not to wind up with Marcion’s 2 Gods – an Old Testament God of death and destruction, and a New Testament God of love and grace. But buried deep in this story, if you will see it through to its very end, is a moment of a real grace and healing when David gathers up the remains of his rivals and pays them the final respect of giving them a proper burial – a religious obligation for a Jew.

12 David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. 13 He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. 14 They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded. After that, God heeded supplications for the land. 

In his truly insightful essay on this Biblical narrative – “David, Rizpah, and the Sons of Saul” –  written by Peter and posted @ https://eloquentmumbler.com/2016/09/02/david-rizpah-and-the-sons-of-saul/, 2 Samuel 21 is described as “an example of the beauty and complexity of the Old Testament – and a reminder of why Christians should still read it.”  It was not “getting even” with his long-standing enemies and their descendants that finally brought healing to the land in this story, instead it was David’s response of mercy to the anguish of a mother.

Rizpah bore two sons to Saul as his concubine, and they have just been executed. It’s possible she was there when it happened. When everyone else leaves and the bodies of her sons and five others lay rotting, she stays. She stays and mourns, fending off not only the birds that come by during the day, but the “beasts of the field” at night. Beasts of the field? This woman is not only mourning the loss of her two sons, but she’s fending off beasts of the field? At night?

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…I’m not the only one who is affected by Rizpah’s devotion – it moved King David to action as well. David went home after making his deal with the Gibeonites, but he heard about what Rizpah was doing. His response was to go get the bones of Saul and Jonathan, which had been buried in haste to stop the Philistines from desecrating them. Once he has these, he has the remains of Saul, Jonathan, and the seven sons of Saul taken to a proper burial ground and put to rest. It’s an act of kindness to Rizpah, a posthumous nod to his dear friend Jonathan and his master Saul, and probably a weight off of his mind. And then God ends the famine. [https://eloquentmumbler.com]

What David did in the end didn’t change the painful things that had happened in the past, and it didn’t undo the very real damage that had been done to everyone involved in the long years of their bitter rivalry, but it did write a different ending to the story, and that new ending created a new possibility.  It was the public anguish and courage of a grieving mother that opened the way to the healing of the land in the story that we are told in 2 Samuel 21, and I can’t help but think that this same possibility exists for us, or that this is the moment for a display of that kind of mercy that heals rather than another expression of the kind of hatred that just deepens old wounds and prolongs old conflicts.

When we weep for the Muslims of Al-Arish, Egypt, in the same way that we have wept for the Christians of Sutherland Springs, Texas, I truly believe that the terrain beneath our feet will begin shift and we will soon find ourselves standing on holy… healing ground. 

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”

DBS +

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Thanksgiving in a Time of Anger, Anxiety, and Anguish

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In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32).  And if you ask me, this is the perfect description of what the Bible means when it talks about God’s Providence.

Blog_image2The English root of the word “Providence” is the word “provide,” and the word “provide” comes from a combination of the Latin prefix “pro” which means “ahead,” and the Latin verb “videre” which means “to see.”  To “provide” literally means to “look ahead, to prepare, to supply, to act with foresight,” and the word “Providence” is how Christians have traditionally thought and talked about the way that the God of the Bible does this for His people.  The traditional doctrine of Providence tells us that God knows what we need even before we tell Him, and that God has every intention of providing for those needs even before we ask Him.

Now, I believe that this is generally true in the sense that God has structured the universe in ways that are designed to sustain our lives and promote our physical well-being as human beings, and I believe that it’s particularly true in the way that God pays special attention and takes specific care of those who belong to Him by faith.  As Romans 8:28 famously says – We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  John R.W. Stott used to say that this Biblical doctrine of Providence is the “pillow on which the head of faith rests,” and what he meant by this was that no matter what might be happening to us or in our world, as Christians we can trust that God has hold of us and isn’t letting go.

Daniel Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great 20th century British preacher, said that in different places and at different moments in the long history of the church that different Biblical teachings have assumed greater importance and required greater attention.  He said that the doctrine of the person of Christ was this Biblical idea in the first few centuries of the church’s life, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was it during the Reformation, and that the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture was it at the beginning of the modern era.  And Dr. Lloyd-Jones said that in our day “the most important doctrine, in many ways, is the doctrine of providence.”

All the time people I hear people say – “You tell me that God is a God of love and care, but look at the world, look at all the bad the things that are happening.  Where’s God? What’s He doing?  How can you possibly believe in a God of love and care when people get gunned down in church and run over by trucks on bike paths?”  And I’ll admit it, personally and pastorally, my confidence in the providential love and care of God gets shaken every time something bad happens – when I see people being ravaged by disease, brutalized by violence, crushed by their circumstances, victimized  by injustice, and abandoned by help and hope.  But rather than giving into despair in those moments, I find that it’s precisely “when all around my soul gives way,” as an old hymn puts it, that I make the discovery once again that “He alone is my hope and stay.”  

My peace and patience, my strength and hope as a Christian come from knowing that God is neither absent nor indifferent.  In the vagaries of my own life, and our whole history in this world as human beings, I truly believe that God is always at work in hidden and mysterious ways, and that when the dust finally settles, that what will finally become clear are the ways that God has always been present in every circumstance, no matter how difficult and confusing those circumstances might be in the moment. As they say – “It’s difficult to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something. It’s only with hindsight that we can see things for what they are” (S.J. Watson).  And so my belief in God’s providential care and concern does not demand that everything make perfect sense to me right now, or make me completely happy in the present moment, but rather, that one day it all will. “Faith is not saying: ‘I understand,’ but rather that: ‘I believe that I will understand.’ Faith is not declaring: “Oh, I’ve got it, I see what this all means,’ but rather that: ‘I believe there is going to be a meaning” (Louis Evely).

I have kept a little piece of paper tucked between the pages of the Bible that I take with me on pastoral calls with this quote from St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) on it –

Blog_image3Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; And when you cannot stand, God will carry you in His arms. [So] do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow, and in every day to come. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to be able to bear it. So, be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.  

It’s in many of those pastoral situations that my confidence in God’s Providence gets most severely tested.  In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for me to get back to my car after one of those calls sad, or mad, about the suffering that I have been allowed to share for a moment, and with an angry fist, or a broken heart, I have cried out to God demanding to know here He is, and wanting to get some explanation about what He is doing. And that’s when this little slip of paper with St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual wisdom scrawled on it becomes a link in the chain that holds my anchor of hope in God during the storms of human suffering and sorrow that I face as a person and a pastor.  And right now it sort of feels to me like we are sitting in our car as a society after having been given access to human suffering and sadness on a scale previously unimagined.  It feels like “all around our soul is giving way,” and that what we desperately need right now is some assurance that “God is still our hope and stay.”  So this Thanksgiving I would encourage to sit down, write out St. Francis’ words on a slip of paper, and then to put it somewhere it can be found easily when life comes at you hard, leaving you sad or mad, and you need to know where God is and what it is that God is doing.

You see, I believe that the other St. Francis got it exactly right. I believe that God is in fact  with us right here and right now in this moment, and that what God is doing is slowly bending our lives, and the life of the whole world, in the direction of His intended and eternal shalom.  And my Thanksgiving Prayer for you this year is for the faith to be able to catch just a tiny glimpse of this, and then for you to be able to give real thanks for the promises that God has made to us, and is in the process of keeping.   DBS +

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Let’s Talk about Sex

Something momentous is happening in the larger culture right now to which the church of Jesus Christ really needs to be paying attention. I have long been haunted by something that Stanley Mooneyham of World Vision wrote in his 1975 book What do You Say to a Hungry World? (Word).

It is reported that on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution two conferences were held in hotels on the same Moscow street. One was sponsored by the Orthodox Church: the principal item on the agenda was vestments for the clergy. In the other meeting, Lenin and his friends drew up the final plans to overthrow the czarist regime. (31)

“Let the church take care!” Stanley Mooneyham warned. “A church preoccupied with trivialities (or its own institutional well-being) soon becomes blind to the basic needs of the age.”

scumIt seems to me that one of the basic issues of this age is just now coming into view in the avalanche of troubling accounts of the sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse, and crimes that have been perpetrated by highly public people – celebrities like Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, and Louis C.K.; entertainment industry executives like Harvey Weinstein, James Taback, and Ray Price; media leaders like Mark Halpern and Michael Oreskes of NPR; and politicians like Roy Moore, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. These stories are just beginning to surface. There will be more.

Just like the sex abuse scandal in Roman Catholicism a decade ago that snowballed from what were originally said to be a handful of “isolated” incidents into a full-blown and widespread scandal that shook the Church right down to her very foundations and that has had consequences with which she is dealing still, so the curtain is just now rising on the patterns of sexual abuse that permeate our society in all of its different sectors. The surface of this story has just been scratched.

metooThe scope of this scandal will only grow in the coming days. The sheer number of “Me too” notices that have been posted by victims of sexual abuse across the various platforms of social media is stunning anecdotal evidence of the staggering scale of this moral crisis in our society, a crisis to which the church must neither be silent nor stupid in response.

It was the theologian Paul Tillich (1886 –1965) who said that culture poses the questions that the church then needs to be able to answer cogently and compellingly, and I’m quite sure that this was the case in his day, in the twilight of Christendom when culture was the dissenting voice that challenged the church’s spiritual and intellectual hegemony in Western Civilization. Those days are gone.

Culture doesn’t care what the church thinks anymore. These days the roles have been reversed. Today the church is the dissenting voice to an increasingly secular cultural hegemony that has largely removed God from the equation, except maybe as a mascot.  Culture may no longer care what the church thinks, but I believe that when the world that it has constructed without reference to God begins to teeter on its shaky foundations, as it appears to be doing at this very moment, then a church that can speak clearly to that culture about the difference that God makes to personal and social well-being will get a hearing from people who are frightened and frustrated.  And so the church needs to start thinking and talking about sex.

This is going to require more from us than just a recitation of our rules in a scolding manner. If we are to engage the larger culture in an intelligent conversation about the meaning of human sexual identity and behavior from our distinctive perspective as Christians, then we are first going to have to become reacquainted with that distinctive Christian perspective ourselves.  When we aren’t conversant with the church’s historic perspective on human sexuality, then we default into posturing as Christians instead, and there’s a fair amount of this going on right now.

Since the dam on sexual abuse in our society broke flooding the nightly news with one outrageous story of sexual misconduct after another, some Christians I know have begun to exude a certain air of moral and spiritual superiority with a smug “I told you so” look on their faces. They know the rules and so they have concluded that this breaking sex abuse scandal is a pretty simple matter of culture just reaping what it has sown.

Sexual abuse is part of the toxic harvest from the destructive seed that was sown during the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Elevating the pursuit of physical pleasure and the right of personal self-expression to the highest good while at the same time eradicating the traditional moral and spiritual boundaries that helped to channel human behavior and control powerful human urges has created a climate of sexual permissiveness in which all of our fallen instincts have been allowed to thrive. And so some Christians see the solution to this current crisis in our society in a pretty straightforward sort of way – just restore those boundaries, just rebuild those barriers, and everything will be fine.   But it’s too late for that, besides, it never really worked anyway.

Simply knowing the rules has never been enough, not even for those of us who are Christians. The fact is that there is little appreciable difference between the sexual attitudes and behaviors of Christians and the sexual attitudes and behaviors of their counterparts in the larger secular culture. We have premarital sex in virtually identical numbers. We have children out of wedlock in virtually identical numbers. We have extramarital affairs in virtually identical numbers.  We use pornography in virtually identical numbers.  We get divorced in virtually identical numbers. The only real difference between us seems to be guilt.

We who are Christians are familiar with, at least in principle, the traditional rules about sexual expression, and so we tend to feel some real remorse when our sexual behaviors deviate from the standards that come with the territory of faith. This is actually how it’s supposed to work.  As Paul explained in Romans (3:21-31), the Law prepares our hearts for the Gospel.  God’s word of grace is a word best received by people who know and who are troubled by the moral and spiritual poverty that they find in the depths of their spirits.

The Gospel is a word of healing spoken to our injuries. The Gospel is a word of hope spoken to our despair. The Gospel is a word of forgiveness spoken to our sinfulness. The Gospel is a word of transformation spoken to our shattered lives and worlds. When God’s grace in Christ finally breaks through to us, in that moment we discover who we were always meant to be, we see just how far short we have actually fallen from that identity, and we are set on the path of a gradual restoration of that true image in us. And it’s this pattern that creates the basic frame for the distinctive Christian perspective on sex.

sexThe late Dr. Lewis Smedes, professor of ethics at the Seminary where I began my graduate theological education in Southern California, in his book – Sex for Christians (Eerdmans 1976) – addressed the distinctive Christian vision for human sexuality under three broad headings – “its created goodness, its sinful distortions, and its redeemed potential.” Every question of sexual identity and behavior must be pushed through this grid. What was originally intended for us and our sexuality by the God who made us? How has that intention become distorted by the rebellion of our sin and the ensuing brokenness of our world?  And how does the healing work of God in Christ take hold of us and change us sexually?

Dr. Smedes noted the very real complexity that’s involved in this for us –

Christians must forever pick their way between delight in creation’s gifts and sorrow for sin’s distortions. We want to rejoice in everything God has given; we want to change all that has gone wrong. Our problem is that we are often hard put to tell the difference between what God has made and what we or nature has bungled. 

What God wants, how we’ve made an absolute mess of it, and what God is doing now in Christ to fix it is the theological frame through which I believe that we as Christians need to view what’s happening in us, to us and all around us sexually, and out of which we need to speak to culture with clarity and grace. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gun Violence & “Painless Piety”

gunOn Facebook, since the shooting on Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs just outside of San Antonio, I have read appeals for prayer posted by some of my friends, and appeals for action posted by other friends. I know and care for many of these people who are posting – both the pray-ers and the doers, and I know, because I know them, that these are predictable and authentic responses from them. There is nothing new in this.

What is new this time – and isn’t it a deeply troublesome thing to even have to say “this time”? – is that some of those who are calling for action are actually shaming the moral seriousness of those who are calling for prayer, and some of those who are calling for prayer are questioning the spiritual sincerity of those who are calling for action. This is such an unseemly and unnecessary fight.

The New Testament book of James that puts such a high spiritual premium on prayer and its efficacy (1:5-8; 4:3; 5:13-18) is the same New Testament book that explicitly rejects “painless piety.” In his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens introduced a memorable character named Mr. Pecksniff.  He is the epitome of what’s been called “painless piety,” the kind of prayer that asks God to do something that will cost the one who is doing the  praying nothing at all (Carroll Simcox – Prayer: The Divine Dialogue – IVP – 1985 – p. Prayer : The Divine Dialog 35).  For example, Mr. Pecksniff was real good about offering a prayer before he sat down to eat that remembered the needs of all the hungry people in the world, but it was very clear from his actions that Mr. Pecksniff believed that it was God’s responsibility and not his to do something about actually feeding them (Carroll Simcox 36). This is what the book of James rejects –

14 My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? 15 Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. 16 What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? 17 So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead. (James 2)

Two years ago, after the shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded, I wrote a blog I called “Why I Pray.”  It was an attempt to speak to the moment then, and I believe that it still speaks to the moment now, in fact, with the public carping between pray-ers and doers that has erupted online, it may speak an even more direct word to the moment that we presently find ourselves in.  Prayer is neither an evasion of responsibility, nor an excuse for inaction. And our actions are neither a denial of God’s concern or involvement, nor an adequate response all by themselves. DBS +

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“Why I Pray”

By the time that Jesus was born, some Jews had already left Jerusalem, moved to the very edge of the desert to pray and wait for God’s Kingdom to break in on them from the outside.  Other Jews had taken up arms.  “Terrorists” is how we would describe them today, or “freedom fighters,” depending on your perspective I suppose.  Anyway, other Jews carried small curved knives and used them to assassinate their oppressors, Romans and Roman sympathizers like tax collectors, every chance they got.  They were going to usher in God’s Kingdom by their own efforts and in their own strength.  And somewhere on the line between these two poles on the continuum of response everyone else fell.  Religious folk still do today.

In 1968 Robert Raines’ Voight Lectures were published under the title The Secular Congregation (Harper & Row).  What he said has become an important part of the architecture of my heart and mind.  Reflecting on social events of his day like the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Johnson/Goldwater Presidential race, Dr. Raines noted the two Christian responses that he observed, what he called the “Pietist” response and the “Secularist” response.

By “Pietist” he meant “church-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the church, its Word and sacraments and communal life,” and who see the priority as being a matter of “loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength.”   It was Jewish “Pietists” who went to the desert to wait and pray for the Kingdom to come in Jesus’ day.

By “secularist” he meant “world-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the world, its words, events and communal life of the Nation, and nations,” and who regard the priority to be a matter of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  It was Jewish “Secularists” who armed themselves with knives and went hunting for Romans to bring the Kingdom in Jesus’ day.

A Pietist’s first instinct is to pray.  A Secularist’s first instinct is to sign a petition, to organize a protest rally and/or to write a congressperson.   And Dr. Raines’ contention was not that one of these “types” was “good” and that the other one was “bad,” but rather that they really need each other in order for us to be fully Christian.  He believed that the critical challenge of the church in that day – in the 1960’s – was “to keep the Pietist and the Secularist within hearing distance of each other and to reconcile them.”  Our challenge is no different today.

Since the atrocity that unfolded in San Bernardino on Wednesday, I have read the responses of friends, associates and strangers in their blogs and on their Facebook postings, and what’s being said galvanizes around these same two poles.  There are Pietists, and there are Secularists.  Some want to pray and others want to legislate.  Some turn to God for answers, and others to Washington D.C.  Some believe that God alone is going to have to fix this, and others – as the Daily News’ provocative headline on Thursday put it – believe that this is all on us.

Leon Uris wrote about this same divide in his novel Mila 18 (1961), a story about the Jewish resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto during WW 2.   Some of the people there believed that they should pray and wait for God to deliver them while others argued that it was time to do something to resist the evil that was threatening them.  And I remember, when I read this book as a teenager, wondering about which argument I would have made, which side I would have taken?  Even then I sensed the nobility and courage of each position.

I believe in God. I really think that God breaks into human history to reveal and redeem.  And I don’t take lightly God’s promises that the Kingdom will finally and fully come in His time and by His singular action.  When I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my first “take” on this petition is always eschatological, that is, I pray it as an acknowledgement of our own limitations as human beings to either completely or permanently “fix” anything, and as a desperate appeal for God’s climactic saving action to occur – for God’s Kingdom to break in upon us in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  In days like these I pray for God’s help and deliverance because I am a Pietist.

But I also believe that we as human beings who bear the image of God are charged with the responsibility of working and keeping creation (Genesis 2:15).  With Paul I readily affirm that we are God’s “fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:9).  I don’t take lightly what the Bible says about justice, righteousness, peace or compassion, and the part that we have to play in their establishment and preservation as human beings.  And so when I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my second take on this petition in thoroughly ethical, that is, I pray it as a recognition of my responsibility as someone who has access to the mind of God through Jesus Christ preserved for us in the Biblical record to do what I can to try to refashion the world in such a way that it better reflects the coming Kingdom of God’s eternal will here and now.  And so, in days like these I pray for God’s wisdom and resolve to do something because I am a Secularist.

Robert Raines in his Voight Lectures in 1968 argued that the only fully Christian position was the one that was simultaneously “Pietist” and “Secularist,” one that was equally adept on its knees in prayer as it was with its sleeves rolled on the frontlines of action and service.  And this is the ground that I have conscientiously tried to occupy in my life and ministry.  Just like the opposites on the continuum of personality traits on the Myers-Briggs test, I will admit to being more comfortable on one end of this spectrum than I am on the other.  I am a hardwired Pietist.  My first instinct is always to pray and engage Scripture.  But when I do, I find that my “shadow” Secularist is always activated.  When I close my Bible and get up off of my knees, it is always to step into the world where I know that I am called to cooperate with what it is that God is doing in anticipation of where it is that God is ultimately moving all of creation.

With the Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly (1893 -1941) I consistently experience the Christian life as a double movement: first, as God pulling me out of the world and into His heart where He names me as His own and lavishes on me His love (the way of the “Pietist”), and second, as God hurling me out of His heart and back into the world where He is asking me to help Him carry its hurts and hopes with Him in infinitely tender love (the way of the “Secularist”). And maybe it’s because I am more naturally a Pietist than I am a Secularist, someone who has to be more intentional and deliberate about the second movement of the Christian life as Thomas Kelly described it than I have to be about the first, that I find myself so impatient with my fellow Christians who try to reduce Christianity to just one of these two movements, either the Pietist or the Secularist.  If I have to work on it – and I do – then I think that they should have to work on it too.

When Francis Schaeffer, one of my theological muses, wrestled with all of this – with what is God’s part in bringing about the healing of the world that talk of the Kingdom of God signifies, and what is our part as human beings – he coined the memorable phrase “substantial healing” in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale – 1970) to describe his expectations. After exploring the full extent of the Fall in the brokenness of creation theologically (God and humanity separated from one another), psychologically (human beings separated from their own true selves), sociologically (human beings separated from one another) and ecologically (human beings separated from nature), and naming the coming of the Kingdom as the final healing of all of these breaches, Francis Schaeffer probed the question, that in a week like this one that we’ve just come through with all of its terror, violence and loss, gets posed so urgently, namely: What am I supposed to do?  How am I supposed to respond?  Should I be praying for God to sovereignly act, or should I be getting busy doing something, anything to get things moving in a Kingdom direction right now?  Am I supposed to be fixing this on my own, or am I supposed to be waiting and watching for God to fix this for us?  Here’s how Francis Schaeffer answered –

So there are these multiple divisions (theological, psychological, social and ecological), and one day, when Christ comes back (eschatologically), there is going to be a complete healing of all of them…  But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace… substantial healing can be a reality here and now… I took a long time to settle on that word “substantially,” but it is, I think, the right word.  It conveys the idea of a healing that is not yet perfect, but that is real, evident and substantial.   Because of past history and future history, we are called to live this way now by faith. (67-68)

In the face of history, in the light of faith, should we be taking the Pietist’s option, or the Secularist’s?  Yes!  The faithful answer is yes.  DBS+

 

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Building Bridges in Days of Hatred

Last night at the Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano we had our October Faiths in Conversation program on prayer in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish spiritual traditions. There was something powerful about coming together as Christians, Jews, and Muslims to seek mutual understanding and to find common ground on a day when an act of terrorism in New York City that was rooted in misguided religious extremism and that was met, from some quarters, by an equally misguided extremism, was the story of the day.  As I asked in my presentation –

Does the Lord’s Prayer tap the subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? Is the spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive, something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews?  More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family (Muslim and Jewish), and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?

“Relating to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level” — could anything be more important for us as Christians to learn to do, especially with our Muslim cousins, in a day when misunderstanding is the rule and violence is increasingly becoming the way. What follows is my presentation from the program last night. May it serve the cause of understanding and respect. DBS +

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Prayer – Faiths in Conversation
A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas Skinner
Custer Road UMC – Plano – Tuesday, October 31, 2017 – 7:00 pm

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In wide swaths of the church, baptism is viewed as a covenantal sign much like circumcision is in Judaism. Infants are baptized into the community of faith on the promise of family and church to raise them in “the fear and admonition of the Lord.” Later on, at an “age of accountability,” they are then expected to make their own decision about the faith in which they have been raised.  This act of faith’s personal acceptance is called “Confirmation.” It’s when and how the faith of the family and church that was the basis for their baptism as infants gets personally “confirmed” by them when they can think and decide for themselves.

I was confirmed by the Right Rev. Francis Bloy, the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles back in 1966 when I was 12 years old. I had been baptized as an infant, and on that occasion my parents and their church promised to raise me in such a way that I would grow into a faith of my own.   Specifically, what they promised to do was to teach me three things – the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

In the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church there is a Catechism which is the official curriculum that is to be taught to every person before they can be confirmed, and the backbone of this standard teaching tool, not surprisingly, are these same three things. The Apostles’ Creed spells out the core convictions of the Christian faith.  The Ten Commandments establish the basic code of conduct for the Christian life.  And the Lord’s Prayer serves as the basic guide to a Christian’s communion with God.

Now, I tell you all of this in order to say that whenever the Christian Church has talked about prayer, it has always talked first and foremost about the Lord’s Prayer, and that’s because for Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is the Model Prayer. It’s the prayer that Jesus gave His disciples when they asked Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), and it has been a prayer that has been prayed by His disciples ever since.  In fact, no prayer has been prayed by more Christians over a longer period of time than has the Lord’s Prayer.

In many of the denominational families of Christianity the Lord’s Prayer is prayed publicly every week in worship. For instance, at the church I serve we pray the Lord’s Prayer together out loud every Sunday morning.  I think it’s safe to say that the Lord’s Prayer is the most widely shared liturgical text in all of Christianity.  But it’s not just limited to our public acts of shared worship.  Many Christians also pray the Lord’s Prayer individually when we are all by ourselves.  For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a primary text for our life of public worship as well as for our life of private devotion.

The “Didache” is a second century document that describes the some of the practices of the early church right after the close of the New Testament era, and it instructed Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times each day.  This was the first Christian Rule of Prayer:  pray the Lord’s Prayer first thing in the morning, then pray it again at midday, and then finally, pray it one more time at night right before going to bed.  Now, understand, there was more to this practice than just mechanically rattling-off the 70-or-so words of the Lord’s Prayer.

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition they say that we learn how to pray first with our lips – by saying the words; and then we learn how to pray with our heads – by understanding the meaning of the words that we are saying; and then finally we learn how to pray with our hearts – by experiencing the reality of the God who is behind the concepts and beneath the words. And it is this movement from mouth to head, and then from head to heart, that informs the use of the Lord’s Prayer by Christians.

There is more to the Lord’s Prayer than its words, beautiful and meaningful as they are. In this prayer that takes less than a minute for us to recite what we who are Christians are given is a summary of the spiritual life from the perspective of Christianity. In the affirmations and petitions of this prayer taught to us by Jesus Christ Himself, the building blocks of our relationship with God as Christians get spelled out for us simply and specifically.  This is why the church has, right from the beginning of her life, insisted that knowing and praying the Lord’s Prayer is an indispensable part of what it means to be a Christian.

On the handout that I prepared for you this evening you will find the text of the Lord’s Prayer as we pray it each week at my church.

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Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

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The Lord’s Prayer consists of a combination of affirmations about the God to whom we pray as Christians, and petitions addressed to this God that inform our expectations of what it is that He wants for us as human beings. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us absolute confidence” in God, and “total dependence” on God as human beings.

I find that who you think God is will largely determine how you pray. If you think that God is distant and disinterested, then you pray to get that God’s attention. And if you think that God is fastidious and stern, then you pray to try to win that God’s favor. But if you think that God is personal and affectionate, then you pray as a conversation with a friend, and this is exactly the kind of God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer.  Christians pray to God as “Father.” Now, the picture that immediately comes to my mind and heart when I think about what this looks like is the one that Genesis chapter 3 paints for us of God coming to the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening to go for a walk with Adam and Eve (3:8). This is a picture of intimacy and affection, and this is a picture of the kind of relationship that I as a Christian believe God wants to have with all of us.

When Genesis chapter 1 tells us that we are created in the image of God as human beings (1:27), I think that part of what we’re being told is that we are made with a capacity and a need for a relationship with God. We are intrinsically and incurably religious as human beings. I just love the way that St. Augustine put it, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” he prayed, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Just like a reflection in a mirror, we are created to correspond to God, we are built to respond to Him.  We are created to talk with God face to face and as friend with friend (Exodus 33:11).  And the God who is addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is just this kind of God, a God of intimate and affection relationship, a parental God.  This is a God in whom I can have “absolute confidence.”  And because I do, this is a God on whom I can “totally depend.”

When I was a kid growing up, once everyone was seated at the family dinner table every evening, my father would fold his hands, bow his head and say – “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,” and then my mother, my sisters and I would immediately answer saying – “and you give them their food in due season.” “You open wide your hand,” my father would continue, and again we would all respond, “and you satisfy the needs of every living creature.”  These words come from Psalm 145, and they were an important part of the nightly dinner table ritual for my family when I was growing up, and I’m glad they were because they taught me something important about God that I have never forgotten – He is the source of every good and perfect gift that I have in my life and that I see in the world.  And the Lord’s Prayer is built on this same conviction.

When I pray the Lord’s Prayer asking for God’s provision, pardon, and protection, the confidence I have that I am actually being heard, and that my requests are going to be taken seriously, rests singularly on what it is that I know to be true of the God to whom I am praying. The God to whom Jesus Christ taught His disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer is a God who knows us by name and need.  The “Heavenly Father” God addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is a God that we as Christians believe has both the intention and the ability to do good for us and for all of creation.  And it’s on the basis of these affirmations that we then make our needs known to Him.

In the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer there is a mix of human needs mentioned, some of them are material, some of them are spiritual, but all of them of real concern to the God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer. I had a professor in seminary who liked to say that if we can’t trust God with the temporal needs of our bodies then why should we bother trusting Him with the eternal needs of our souls? And that question nicely reflects the scope of God’s concern for us as human beings in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

Our spiritual needs get gathered up and voiced in the petition for God’s kingdom to come, for things to be on earth as God has always intended them to be from eternity. This is a prayer for shalom, for human beings and all of creation to thrive in a harmonious web of mutual interdependence. And the petitions for forgiveness, guidance, and deliverance from evil are all cries to God to help us move in this direction. And our material needs all fall under the umbrella of the petition for daily bread.  Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is about everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body – food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money… good weather… health… a loving family… good friends… [and] faithful neighbors.

“Total dependence” on a God in whom we have “absolute confidence” is what the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian. And in teaching me this, I believe that it is teaching me the essence of how Christianity understands the spiritual life.  The intriguing question for me as a Christian is how expressive of the essence of the Abrahamic spiritual tradition is this “total dependence” and “absolute confidence” that the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian?

When you look around and listen, the two biggest conversations that are being had on prayer when Christians, Muslims, and Jews talk are: (1) Are we praying to the same God? and (2) Can and should Jews and Muslims pray the Lord’s Prayer when it is being offered as the “universal” prayer in public non-sectarian settings like Alcoholics Anonymous?  My question is different.  It’s not about the God we are praying to, a God I believe we in fact share as Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  And it’s not about whether or not you as Jews and Muslims can or should pray the actual words of the Lord’s Prayer.  No, my question is different.  It has to do with the spiritual dynamics that are at work in the Lord’s Prayer. You see, from my years of being involved in interfaith conversations like this one here this evening, I have learned that when we talk about doctrine, what we believe, that’s when our greatest differences become evident, but when we talk about spirituality, how we believe, that’s when our greatest similarities show.

For example, when we talk about Jesus Christ and who we think He is, that’s when I find that we’re furthest apart as Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and I don’t see any way of closing that gap without one of us changing what we believe.   But when my Jewish friends talk about their long experience of “chesed” – God’s steadfast covenantal love for them, and when my Muslim friends open up their Korans and read – “I begin with the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. All praise is to God, Lord of all the worlds, Most Gracious, Most Merciful…” – my heart can easily say, “that’s the God I know too in Jesus Christ.”

We have a hymn we like to sing at my church about how in shared devotion “true hearts everywhere their high communion find.” This hymn is about how Christians of different races and backgrounds find our unity in the relationship that we all share with Christ. And my question is, does the Lord’s Prayer with its spirituality of “absolute confidence” in and “total dependence” upon God create a similar kind of “shared devotion” in which we as the three branches of the Abrahamic family tree of faiths can find “a high communion” from “true hearts”?

Does the Lord’s Prayer tap a subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? You see, whether or not you can pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer with me, what I’m really interested in knowing is if this spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive is something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews?  More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family, and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?

 

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