Making the Gospel Visible

The late Vernon Grounds, President of Denver Seminary, said that the church is a lot like a pack of porcupines on a freezing winters’ night.  They pull in close to each other for warmth, only to drive each other apart because of their sharp jabbing quills. This is a familiar enough dance, isn’t it?  We need each other, and we hurt each other. We draw in close, then we drive each other away.  We ache for community, but it turns out that being in community is hard. The Church is a glorious ideal, and a less than glorious reality, and we’ve got to come to terms with this because the church is the “plausibility structure” for the Gospel.

When the Communists took over Poland in 1948 they immediately built a model city with sparkling buildings, first class schools, state of the art medical facilities, efficient public transportation systems, beautiful parks, and spacious athletic fields so that they had something they could point to show people what Communism was going to do for all of them. This model city was Polish Communism’s “plausibility structure,” the concrete demonstration of its utopian promise, and the tangible proof that it was possible.  And that’s what the church is to the Gospel, at least that’s what Jesus said.

In John 13:35, right after He washed His disciples’ feet, Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  And then in John 17,  right before He went out to take up His cross, Jesus prayed that His disciples would be one so that the world might believe that the Father sent Him (John 17:20-21).  Twice Jesus gave people the right to look at how we treat each other as Christians, and to conclude on the basis of what they see, whether or not Christianity is true. When somebody asks – “Why should I be a Christian?”  We’re supposed to be able to say, “Well, look at the church — look at the way that we love each other; look at the way that we accept each other; look at the way that we help each other; look at the way that we forgive each other — look at us — and you will see the truth of Christianity!”  Is your church a living demonstration of the truth and power of Christianity?  Before simply shrugging this off as some kind of unrealistic ideal that’s far beyond our capabilities, let me tell you a story from my denominational history.

In 1809, when Thomas Campbell wrote “Declaration and Address,” the document that began the “Disciples of Christ,” he told a story about a gathering of Native American chiefs in the Northeast whose people had been the evangelistic target of a succession of competing churches. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists had all sent missionaries to convert them.  But those chiefs told the missionaries from all those different churches that they were just going to sit back and watch them for a while before making any decisions about their Christianity.  The chiefs said that they wanted to see how loving the missionaries’ message about a loving God actually made Christians in their relationships with each other.  And Thomas Campbell said that they were exactly right to do so. Our proclamation of God’s unconditional love for people in Jesus Christ lacks complete credibility if we who proclaim it can’t get along with other Christians.  Why should anyone believe us when we tell them that God loves them, if we don’t, or won’t, love each other?  Thomas Campbell started the Disciples of Christ as a Movement of Christian unity and love.  He believed that when Christians relate to each other with affection and respect rather than with criticism and suspicion, that when we then preach the Gospel that the world will listen because they will be able to see its power and truth in the way we love each other.  But what does love look like?

Romans chapter 12:9-13 is one of the places where the New Testament tells us – specifically, concretely, constructively – what love looks like in 13 concise statements.

1. Let love be genuine…

On the Greek stage the same actor would often play different roles.   The way they pulled this off was by wearing masks.  The word for this practice in Greek is the word we translate “hypocrisy” in English.  To be a “hypocrite” is to wear masks, it is to be two faced.   Christian Love, in contrast is “genuine,” literally, “without hypocrisy.”  Christian love is not something that we can fake.  Just as God’s love for us never varies or wavers, so our love for others must be constant and authentic.

2. Hate what is evil…

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, and so we are told that Christian love hates evil.  But to do this we have to know what evil is, and that’s going to require us to make some moral judgments.  You’ve no doubt seem William Barber ll on TV making his call for a Moral Revival in America around the issues of poverty and racism.  What you may not know is that he is a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  He is one of us, and we should be proud of that because Christian love hates evil, and he is helping us recognize the shape that evil takes in our world today so that we can hate it.

3. Hold fast to what is good… 

My favorite description of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ is what Peter told Cornelius in Acts 10:38 – “He went about doing good.”  Paul told the Ephesians that God saves us to do good as well (2:10).   Christian love shows itself by Christians being good and doing good.  And when people see our good, Jesus said, they will be drawn to the goodness of God (Matthew 5:16).

4. Love one another with mutual affection…

If one of my sisters calls me this afternoon and tells me that she needs me, I’m on the next plane.  That’s what it means to be family, and it is not accidental or incidental that the New Testament consistently uses family language to describe what our relationships are supposed to be like in the church.  “Treat older men as you would treat a father; treat younger men like brothers,” Paul told Timothy, “treat older women like mothers, and younger women like sisters” (I Timothy 5:1-2).  The natural bond of family is the primary way that the New Testament would have us think about our relationships with each other around here. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the same forever family.

5. Outdo one another in showing honor… 

Last week when the President was in England visiting the Queen there was a small kafuffle over a minor breach of protocol.  You may have seen it.  While reviewing the Royal Guard at Windsor Castle, the President got out ahead of the Queen by a step or two before he stopped and motioned for her to go ahead.  “Outdoing one another in showing honor” means that we are constantly doing this with each other. We defer to each other.  I put your interests and concerns ahead of mine.  You put my interests and concerns ahead of yours.  And in this way all of our interests and concerns get taken seriously.

6. Do not lag in zeal…

I love that old story about the elderly couple who were leaving the church parking lot after a worship service one Sunday.  In the car in front of them was a young couple sitting just as close to each other on the front seat  as they possibly could.  The old woman wistfully said, “Dear, I remember when we used to sit like that.”  And the old man huffed in response, “Well, I didn’t’ move!”  C.S. Lewis said that something fundamental shifts when our Christianity becomes more a theory than a love affair.  At the end of a long week of workshops on church renewal and revitalization, Mark Pattie, an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor up in Minnesota, says that the Lord spoke to him in a dream. “Mark,” God said, “Do you want to know the steps are to a vital life and a vital church?” “Yes, Lord! Yes!” Mark said. And God told him, “Come back to Jesus… Come back to your first love.”

7. Be ardent in Spirit…

Be “aglow” with the Spirit is how the old Revised Standard Version of the Bible rendered this phrase.  Be “on fire” in the Spirit is how the new Contemporary English Version puts it.  Love is the fire in the belly of the life of faith.  It’s what drives the mission of the church.  In his inaugural lecture as a professor of Christian mission at Gordon Conwell Seminary in Boston Peter Kuzmic asked, “Why should we care about Syrian refugees, or the starving children of Africa, or the victims of sex trafficking in Southeast Asia?”  And for Christians, he said, there’s just one answer – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” There’s fire in those words.

8. Serve the Lord…

In his account of what happened in the Upper Room, John tells us that Jesus, “loving his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1), and so He got down on His knees and He washed His disciples’ feet. Love shows in specific and concrete acts of human service.  Richard Foster says that every morning when he wakes up that the very first thing that he does is to pray – “Lord, please send me someone I can serve today, someone who needs to feel your love.”

9. Rejoice in hope…

The love that holds us is the love that will never let us go and that will welcome us   home at the end.

10. Be patient in suffering…

Nothing has the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

11. Persevere in prayer… 

One of the things that I pray every morning is that God would be “be graciously pleased to take all who are dear to me under His Fatherly care and protection.”  And each morning as I pray these words I see in my mind’s eye those four friends in the Gospel story who carried their sick friend to Jesus and who wound up letting him down through the roof to get him to Jesus.  Nothing should stop us from bringing our loved ones  into the presence of Christ who can make them whole and keep them safe.

12. Contribute to the needs of the saints…

 One of the truly remarkable effects of the Gospel on the first Christians in Jerusalem was the way that they used their material resources to take care of each other.  “There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34), Luke tells us, and “great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). The Apostle John stated the principle that drove this practice (I John 3:17) – “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother or sister in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  It was this teaching that prompted St. Basil to tell Christians in the fourth century – The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; and the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”  When Tertullian said that people in his day were constantly saying, “See how these Christians love each other,” it was this concrete way that they were taking care of each other that they were talking about.  And it didn’t stop at the front door of the church.

13. Extend hospitality to strangers…

Francis Schaeffer said that Christian love gets real ugly real quick when it becomes exclusive, when it gets limited to just those of us who are on the inside the ark.  And so in Romans 12, right after telling us that genuine Christian love compels us to look out for the needs of our fellow Christians, it tells us that it also compels us to attend to the needs of the outsider and the stranger.  As Paul told the Galatians – “Let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (6:10).  Christian love is not either/or.  Christian love is always both/and.

Walter Brueggemann, one of the most highly respected  Bible Scholars of our day,  asks in one of his books – “Are we living our Christianity in such a way that our family members are convinced that there’s something different about us because of the Gospel?”  We can say that we’re Christians. We can say that our commitment to Jesus Christ is the most important thing about us. But our families know the truth of such claims. Trevor Hudson, a South African Methodist churchman says that he was visiting a ministerial colleague and his wife one day when the man got called out on a pastoral emergency.  Trevor said to his wife, “Your husband is such a devoted Christian.”  To which she replied, “Yes, but you don’t have to live with him.”

 “Do as we say and not as we do,” one of the ways that Christians have long excused themselves from taking responsibility for living what it is that they say they believe, has no place in Biblical Christianity.  The truth and the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ gets demonstrated in the loving quality of our relationships with each other in the Body of Christ, His church.  Jesus said that people have the right to look at how we treat each other around here, and then to decide whether Christianity is true based on what they see.  What will your church convince them to decide about Jesus?  DBS +

 

 

 

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“Go to Church!”

It’s because 10-year-old boys can be such animals that for many years the good women of the Tuesday Afternoon Club in my hometown of Glendale, California, sponsored “Cotillion.”  Every Thursday evening for months I was sent to their fancy clubhouse downtown together with all of my savage fifth-grade friends to be taught good manners and how to waltz.

We were given demonstrations at Cotillion on how to firmly shake a hand, how to make a proper introduction, and how to engage in polite small talk. We learned what all those extra pieces of silverware at a formal dinner setting are for. We were instructed to walk on the outside of a woman, closer to the street on the sidewalk, to protect her from runaway horses, and to shield her from the splatter of passing traffic.  We were shown how to offer a hand to a woman when climbing stairs, and how to open doors and hold chairs for them when they sit down.  We were told to sit up straight ourselves at the dinner table, to keep our elbows off the table, and to ask for things to be passed to us with a please and a thank-you rather than just reaching and grabbing.  And dancing… we were taught how to properly ask someone to dance, and where to put our hands, and what to do with our feet if they happened to say “yes.”  I hated every minute of Cotillion, but it stuck.  Today I know how to maneuver in most social settings because when I was ten years old and in the fifth-grade I was taught the basics of good manners and the social graces by the women of the Tuesday Afternoon Club.

Sometimes church feels like “Cotillion” to me.

“Cotillion” was where I was sent as an unruly boy to be taught my manners and to be shown what a true gentleman looks like, and church is where we go to see who Christians are, and to learn what Christians do. It’s where we pick up the “holy habits” of our faith.  We need demonstration and practice.  This is what Paulo Freire, the Latin American Liberation theologian, was talking about when he said that nobody learns to swim by reading a book about swimming in a library. You learn how to swim by jumping into a pool, and church is the pool into which we jump to learn how to be Christians. You can read all the books in the world about grace, but they’re just words on a page until somebody extends a little grace to you.  You can listen to hours of sermons on love, but it’s all just so much talk until you are loved in a specific, sacrificial, and concrete way.  And you can get together to discuss hope, and peace, and joy of Christ – all the fruit of the Spirit – in a Sunday School class week after week, but until and unless you see some evidence of hope, and peace, and joy of Christ in the lives of others, and begin to experience a little bit of the hope, and peace, and joy of Christ in your own life, it’s all just a theory.

Hebrews 10:19 is the closest that the Bible ever gets to telling us as Christians to go to church.  After describing the access to the throne of God that we have been provided through the saving work of Jesus Christ, the author of Hebrews issued this exhortation –

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (10:19-25)

Apostasy, the very real possibility of falling away from Christian Faith when it becomes too difficult or too dangerous to be a Christian, is what prompted the book of Hebrews to be written in the first place.  A group of Jewish Christians in Rome were beginning to suffer persecution for their commitment to Jesus as the Christ, and so they were rethinking things.  What if they just backed away from Christ and went back to the things that they had believed about God before.  Would they really be giving up all that much?

The book of Hebrews told those wavering Roman Christians to hold on, to constantly keep in mind and heart God’s saving work in Christ.  God is faithful, the book of Hebrews assures its readers.  God can be trusted. The God who makes promises is the God who keeps promises.  And when our promise to do this — to trust this God and His promises —- when our faith in Him starts to waver, well, that’s when the author of Hebrews tells us to go to church!

There are were two words in Hebrews 10:19-25 that speak of the way that we help other Christians by going to church.  The first word was in verse 24 – “…let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” and the other word was in verse 25 – “…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…”  “Stir up” means to poke, to prod, to provoke, to spur, to annoy.  I once heard an Aggie who became a preacher say that it means “gig ’em.”  “Encourage” means to come alongside someone to help them bear the heavy load that they are carrying. Taken together, these two words tell us why we need to go to church, and what we need to do when we are at church. The first word is about challenge, and the second word is about support.

We need to go to church to be challenged.  Paul described it as the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” that we never fully attain in this life, but for which we must never stop striving and towards which we must never stop straining (Philippians 3:12-14). Church is where we get to witness the struggle that others go through as they try to be faithful, and it’s where we find the strength and the courage to continue our own struggle with faithfulness as well.  I was captivated by the story of the rescue of that soccer team from the flooded cave in Thailand this week.  I’ve read that they made a conscious decision to take the strongest boys rather than the weakest ones out first because they really needed to succeed the first time they tried it.  They needed to show the ones who were still in the cave, the boys who weren’t sure that they could do it, that it could in fact be done.  The boys back in the cave needed to be poked and prodded, they needed to be spurred and stirred  So do we, spiritually, and so, the author of Hebrews tells us to go to church.  This is where our souls get gigged each week, this is where we are pushed to deeper obedience and prodded to greater faithfulness.  We need to be in church to stir up and to be stirred up.

But we also need to go to church because we are in constant need of love, forgiveness, and acceptance.  We need people in our lives who will always be there to pick us up when we stumble and fall, people who will bind up our wounds, and even carry us for a while if need be.  We need people in our lives who know everything that there is to know about us – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and who choose to love us and stand by us anyway.  We need to be in church to give and to receive this kind of encouragement.

“…let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…”

I was sent to “Cotillion” against my will when I was in the fifth grade not so that I would be well-mannered on Thursday nights when I was at the Tuesday Afternoon Women’s Club in downtown Glendale, California, but so that I would be well-mannered everywhere else I went for the rest of my life. And just as “Cotillion” was my training lab for the living of a well-mannered life, so church is our training lab for the living of the Christian life.  It’s in church that we see the patterns of faithfulness and hear the rhythms of grace that shape us spiritually.  It’s in church, week in and week out, as we sit under the preaching of the Word and gather around the Table of grace, that we are  “stirred-up” and “encouraged”  to be better Christians.  And since part of the genius of Christianity is that we are always blessed to be a blessing, when we are encouraged we will become encouragers, and when we have been stirred up we can then stir up others to deeper love and greater devotion. So, go to church!  You need to be there to get stirred-up and encouraged, and the rest of us who need a little encouraging and stirring-up will get it from you!  DBS+

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A “God with Muscles”

“Indeed, the LORD’s arm is not too weak to save, and his ear is not too deaf to hear.”  (Isaiah 59:1)

In my very first conversation with the Hispanic Pastoral Associate at the church that I am serving in the lower Rio Grande Valley as Interim Minister for the next year he referenced his belief in a “God with muscles.”  In my first six weeks in this ministry setting with this ministry partner, I have had more experience with this “God with muscles” in the requests for prayers of deliverance from evil and healing from disease than I have had in my previous 45 years of pastoral ministry.

The late Calvin Miller described many of the churches that he personally knew as hollow museums where God’s name gets invoked without any real expectation that God will  actually show up.  Similarly, Agnes Sanford said that she had a frequent vision in the churches she visited during the days of her healing ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ standing in their midst with His hands tied behind His back unable to move because the ministers of those churches were unwilling to ask Him to do His works of mercy and power, fearful that He couldn’t, or that He wouldn’t.

Were they talking about me?

The God of my expectation and experience has not always been my new Associate’s “God with muscles.”  Oh, this is the God that I have always theoretically believed in because this “God with muscles” is the God that I find on every page of the Bible.  But in actual pastoral practice, I have been much more of a Deist, someone who believed that God was there, but who acted as if it was highly unlikely that this God was actually going show to do something to help apart from offering some moral support from a distance.

Morton Kelsey said that he grew weary of making pastoral visits where all he did was pat the hands of the suffering mumbling the “there, there” of pious platitudes about generic courage and desperate hope.  It was when he started reading the Gospels with different eyes and a different heart, that he said that he started to come to terms with the God who doesn’t just suffer with us, but the God who actually does something about our suffering, and I find that I am having to come to terms with this same God in this ministry that I now have in this place with this pastoral partner.

When I join him to pray and anoint someone who is oppressed by a powerful sense of evil and who is desperate for some assurance of liberation from the forces that have held him and his family in fear and bondage for so long, or join more than 20 members of a family who have just shown at church on a weekday afternoon asking for some healing prayer because their needs are just so great, and they have nowhere else to turn, I find that as I am carefully processing in my head the gnarly theological questions about theodicy and providence that these situations pose, my Pastoral Associate has just jumped right in, reading a Scripture about the “God with muscles”  before asking Him to show up and get to work.

Driving home after one of these recent pastoral encounters where previously I would have offered a reading list, and during which my Associate offered a passionate prayer from his heart, I thought about Leo Tolstoy’s little story of “The Three Hermits”

On an island there lived three old hermits. They were so simple that the only prayer they used was: “We are three; Thou art Three; have mercy on us!” Great miracles were manifested during this naive prayer. The local bishop came to hear about the three hermits and their inadmissible prayer, and decided to visit them in order to teach them the canonical invocations. He arrived on the island, told the hermits that their heavenly petition was undignified, and taught them many of the customary prayers. The bishop then left on a boat. He saw, following the ship, a radiant light. As it approached, he discerned the three hermits, who were holding hands and running upon the waves in an effort to overtake the vessel. “We have forgotten the prayers you taught us,’ they cried as they reached the bishop, ‘and have hastened to ask you to repeat them.’ The awed bishop shook his head. “‘Dear ones,’ he replied humbly, ‘continue to live with your old prayer!’”

I find myself in the world of the hermits’ island these days, and I am privileged to be learning their prayer. DBS+

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I’m not Worthy (and that’s okay)

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“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…” (Ephesians 4:1)

 “…we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory….” (I Thessalonians 2:11-12)

 “…we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him…” (Colossians 1:9-10)

 “…let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…” (Philippians 1:27)

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I was raised in a church that celebrated Holy Communion every Sunday.  Right before going forward to receive the Bread and Cup, we would all get down on our knees to pray together something that was known as the “Prayer of Humble Access.”

“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”

I have literally prayed these words a thousand times in my life before receiving communion, and I have found that they have kept my heart firmly tethered to the Gospel of grace – that my place at the Table, and in the Kingdom, is not something that has been secured for me by my faithfulness to God, but rather, is something that has been provided for me by God’s great faithfulness to me in Jesus Christ.  The words of this prayer have kept me hyper-sensitive to the way that works-righteousness always lurks in the shadows of the Gospel.  In fact, it’s my soul’s default position. This is why “worthy” talk – even when I hear it in Scripture  – makes me spiritually nervous.

We are accustomed culturally to telling ourselves, and others, that there are no free lunches, that you only get what you deserve in this life, and so we spent our whole lives earning — earning grades, earning recognition, earning our salaries, earning respect, earning promotions, earning our place.  And then the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes along and tells us that spiritually we can’t earn a thing — that salvation comes to us freely as a gift.  That’s the meaning of “grace” – unmerited, undeserved, unearned favor.  As an evangelist I know puts it, “There’s nothing we can do that will cause God to love us any more than God already does, and there’s nothing we can do that will make God love us any less.”  God just loves us. That’s what makes grace so “amazing.

But when that word “worthy” gets introduced into the conversation, if we aren’t careful, then suddenly we’ll be thrown right back into thinking and acting as if we’ve somehow got to make ourselves “worthy” of what it is that God has done for us in Jesus Christ

I see this all the time in the way that some of us think about the Lord’s Table.

In I Corinthians chapter 11 the Apostle Paul warned that “whoever… eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27).  Rightly understanding that they don’t deserve – that they aren’t “worthy” of – what Jesus Christ did for them on the cross, of which the broken bread and poured cup of the Lord’s Supper are signs, I have had people in every church I’ve ever served wrongly conclude that they therefore shouldn’t eat the bread or drink the cup.  And if participating in the Lord’s Supper in a “worthy” manner means cleaning ourselves up to the degree that we are morally and spiritually acceptable to God, then I’m with them.  But I don’t believe that this is what Paul meant.

I have been enormously helped by what J.W. Hendryx wrote about what it means to participate in the Lord’s Supper in a “worthy manner” –

How many of us try to clean ourselves up before approaching the Lord’s Table, as if there were some degree or level of purity that we could reach that would make us acceptable to God? The command to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself should be sufficient to make you recognize your utter inability to do so… Who could ever clean himself up enough to make himself acceptable to God? And if someone could clean himself up to that degree, then what further need would he have of a Savior or the nourishment of the Lord’s Supper? He would be self-sufficient. The whole point of both the gospel and the Lord’s Supper for Christians is to continually recognize our own spiritual bankruptcy and dependency on the grace and promises of Christ… Grace is not something we can muster up ourselves. We approach the Lord’s Table because we need grace. If we were not dependent and needy then we would not need the gospel or the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Only Christ can give us such grace — this is what Christ wants us to recognize and a recognition of our own spiritual bankruptcy and His all-sufficiency is how we actually grow in grace.” 

Not just in Paul’s discussion of our participation in the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 11:27, but everywhere the New Testament raises the question of “worthiness,” it isn’t about what we have to do to try to be deserving of God’s favor, as if this was something that we could earn, but rather it’s about the grateful response that we are called to make to what it is that God has already done for us in Jesus Christ.  Underline Romans 5:6-8 in your Bibles and in your hearts –

“While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

We don’t do anything and we can’t give anything to compel God to love of us, but once we know that we are loved by God we are expected to make a response to it, and this is where this matter of “worthiness” comes into play in our spiritual lives.

In the same way that John the Baptist told the people he baptized to “bear fruit worthy of repentance,” to do things that “befit” their repentance, things that were “in keeping” with their repentance (Matthew 3:8), so Paul told King Agrippa that when he preached he called people to repent and turn to God and “perform deeds worthy of their repentance” (Acts 26:20).  These calls to action are not the condition of Biblical repentance, but they are rather the consequences of Biblical repentance.  We don’t do things to merit the grace of change that repentance brings about in our lives.  We do things because we have already experienced the grace of repentance, and we want to outwardly show the inward transformation that we have received.

Living lives worthy of the Gospel does not mean living in a way that tries to merit God’s favor, but rather, living lives worthy of the Gospel means living in a way that reflects the infinite worth of the favor that we have already received so freely from God in Jesus Christ. It’s when we understand that the worthiness of which the Bible speaks is a response to having already received God’s grace in Jesus Christ rather than a prerequisite that qualifies us for God’s grace in Jesus Christ, that we are set free from the heavy burden of thinking and acting as if a relationship with God is something that we have to establish by our own effort and then maintain in our own strength, and we are liberated into a life of grateful growth that is our heart’s response to the relationship with God that Jesus Christ establishes in His strength and maintains by His effort.

Here is the good news!

We discover our “worthiness” in the recognition of our unworthiness.  It’s only when we finally despair of ever being good enough, or enlightened enough, or doctrinally correct enough, or sufficiently right on all of the urgent social justice issues enough, or spiritually disciplined enough, or morally formed enough to somehow be “worthy” of God, that in that moment of the realization of the true depth of the poverty of our spirits, that the true worth of grace – God’s undeserved favor – breaks over us and sets us free from all the striving that has left us exhausted and despairing.  As Paul Tillich so eloquently proclaimed –

“A wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted… accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything now; do not perform anything now; do not intend anything now. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

 A life “worthy of the Gospel” is a life that never forgets that it is all because of God’s grace. DBS+

 

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“Odd and Interesting” ~ When You’re a Christian… it Shows

Keith Drury is a Religion Professor at Indiana Wesleyan University.  His grandfather, Walter, was a coal miner who migrated with his wife, Emmaline, from England to Pennsylvania in 1905.  Emmaline said that it was there in Pennsylvania that she met a woman at the Five and Dime store who was different from all the other women that she knew in town. That lady eventually asked Keith’s grandmother to a Wesleyan prayer meeting in her home, and it was there that she said that she found the Lord and experienced a peace, and a joy, and a hope that had not been in her life before. So, Emmaline went home and told her husband, “I got saved tonight.” And Walter said, “Well, that’s just fine Emmaline,” but inside he was thinking, “We’ll see about that.” 

Walter always come home from the mine and immediately went into the basement where he took off  his dirty clothes.  But the day after Emmaline’s announcement, when Walter came home from the mine he walked straight up the basement steps, through the kitchen, and upstairs into the bedroom where he took off his filthy mining clothes and dropped them on the bed.  Emmaline just followed him up the stairs, and without saying a word, she quietly cleaned it all up, taking everything outside to shake out.  Walter did this every day for two whole weeks just to test her claim of being a new person in Christ.  And Emmaline just smiled with a sweetness of spirit, never saying a word as she cleaned up after him each day.  Finally after two weeks of this, Walter was so impressed with the way that Emmaline had reacted to his boorish behavior that he asked her if he could go with her to her prayer meeting,  and when he did, he got saved there too.

I  love this story because it illustrates something that I’ve long thought. If you are a Christian, then it’s going to show.  Christians are walking, talking  billboards for Christianity (John Dickerson).  Everything a Christian does, everything a Christian says, is an advertisement for or against Jesus Christ.  Keith’s grandmother knew that there was something different about that woman she met at the Five and Dime, and that’s because her Christianity showed.  And then, after she got “saved,” Keith’s grandfather tested his wife’s claim to be a new person in Christ by watching how she reacted to his harsh behavior.  He looked for her Christianity to show.

In the King James translation of I Peter 2:10 Christians are called a “peculiar people.”  One of the meanings of the word “peculiar” is different, unique, even strange.  Picking up on this, the late Mennonite Theologian Alan Kreider, used to say that God wants us as Christians to be “odd and interesting.”  Alan pointed to Anna Geyer, one of his seminary students, to explain what he meant by “odd and interesting.”

Anna is a young mother who lives with her husband and children in a part of Iowa where there are very few Mennonite Christians.  Anna tends a large garden to which people are invited to come and take whatever they need, whenever they need it.  Through the years of tending this garden Anna has built up a remarkable network of people who don’t go to church but who do come to her wanting to talk about life and God.    They sit at Anna’s kitchen table, and they say, “Anna you’re different.  Why do you have this garden for us? Why are you and your husband so kind to each other?  Why are your kids so polite and respectful? Anna,” they say, “Anna you’re different.  Why do you have this garden for us? Why are you and your husband so kind to each other?  Why are your kids so polite and respectful? Anna,” they say, “you’re living in a way that I’m not used to. Why are you like this?” And tyhat’s when Anna smiles, and says – “It’s Jesus — I’m like this because I follow Him.”

When we’re Christians, it’s going to show. It’s going to show because of Jesus Christ.  It’s going to show because we’re following Him. DBS +

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Going to Church with Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a very small denomination on the American landscape, and yet, despite the smallness of our size, three members of our church have risen to the highest elected office of the land – James Abram Garfield – The 20th President (1881); Lyndon Baines Johnston – The 36th President (1963-1969); and Ronald Wilson Reagan – The 40th President (1981-1989).

Historically, I am most intrigued by President Garfield, the only preacher ever elected President of the United States, but spiritually, I am even more taken by the fact that both Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan – such polar opposites politically – were raised Disciples.  Frankly, I like being part of a spiritual tradition that can produce a Lyndon Johnson and a Ronald Reagan. In fact, I see this as concrete evidence that we really do practice what we say about pursuing unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things. We are at our best as a church, if you ask me, when people of widely divergent social and political conviction can sit down together around the same Table to break bread and share a cup in remembrance of God’s love made manifest in Jesus Christ for all people and not just for those people who think and vote like we do.

Our denominational identity statement says that we are a “Movement for Wholeness in a Fragmented World,” welcoming people to the Lord’s Table just as God in Jesus Christ has welcomed us.  We administer no litmus tests before making room at the Lord’s Table for people except for the Good Confession: “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Loving God, and your Lord and Savior?”  As Christopher Gehrz, a professor of history at  Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, observes in his book written with Mark Pattie III, a Pastor from the Evangelical Covenant Church  – The Pietist Option (IVP 2017) – there is a real tendency in this fragmented world of ours to “substitute political, racial, or socioeconomic uniformity for Christian unity” (83).

We naturally associate with people who look like us, who talk like us, who think like us, and who vote like us.  But a church with an open table at the center of its life to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcome is making a truly radical, counter-cultural, “prophetic” statement.  Instead of saying “I will associate with you if and when you agree with me on this or that,” our open table says, “I will associate with you because you are already the object of God’s sacrificial care and concern in Jesus Christ just as I am the object of that same sacrificial care and concern in Jesus Christ.”

In his book, Christopher Gehrz quoted the 19th century Swedish churchman C.O. Rosenius –

“Since we have a tendency to either lean to one side or the other, then it is quite healthy for is to keep company with brothers [and sisters] who have the opposite opinion from us.”

 And he quoted the Pietist missionary to America C.J. Nyall  –

“Peace within the group does not mean that all think alike and interpret all things alike, each wishing to see, as it were, his own self in another, but it does mean that each one recognizes his brother in Christ, whatever else the condition may be.” 

Welcoming people to the Lord’s Table whose social concerns and political convictions differ significantly from mine instead of just dismissing them because they don’t see things as I do requires patience and forbearance from me.  But it also offers me the gifts of greater understanding and continuing growth.  Instead of the intransigence of an absolutist “Here I stand, I can do no other” attitude and announcement that erects walls in community, Christopher Gehrz wonders if we wouldn’t all be better served by building the bridge of honest conversation about where we each stand, and why, and a fuller exploration of the question – “Can we do other?”  He explains –

“’Here I stand’ might feel more emotionally satisfying than the subtle, slow-arriving, and inevitably compromised joys of consensus – but that feeling isn’t always trustworthy… it tends to produce a kind of tunnel vision, blinding us to other possibilities… [and to the fact that] we still ‘see in a mirror dimly’ and ‘know only in part’ (I Corinthians 13:12).”

As the “centrifugal forces” of our culture in this political moment in time tear furiously at the fabric of our national unity, the witness of a church that produced a Lyndon Johnson and a Ronald Reagan within the same political generation is one that is desperately needed.

Now, just like me, I assume that you are a bigger fan of one of these two modern Disciple Presidents than you are of the other.  I know that one of them conforms more closely to my own personal political views than does the other, and that I could more easily vote for one of them than I could for the other.  And that’s okay because that’s what it means to be a citizen of this country.  I’m free to choose, to responsibly vote my conscience and convictions.  But what I am not free to do is to pray for one and not for the other.  That’s what it means to be a Christian.  Johnson or Reagan, Clinton or Bush, Obama or Trump – we get to choose between them politically in the voting booth, but we do not have a choice spiritually when we get down on our knees.

This is one of the things that I find most alarming about our present political climate.  The Republicans in church who refused to pray for President Obama during the years of his administration, and who were offended when you did in public worship, are no different from the Democrats in church who now refuse to pray for President Trump, and who get offended when you do in public worship. In I Timothy chapter 2 Paul told Timothy “that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” were to be “made for all people— for kings and all those in authority.”  This doesn’t mean just praying for the leaders that you have politically supported personally.  This means praying for all of our leaders, for all of those who are in authority over us.

So, what are we to pray for our Presidents?

Well, 2 Samuel 23:2-4 is offered to us as the last words of King David.  These verses serve as a kind of exclamation point on his reign over Israel, and in them David said that the Lord God of Israel told him that –

“When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.”

And there it is.  This is what we are to pray for our Presidents no matter who they are, and regardless of how we voted.  We are to pray that they will be like “the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless day.”  A new day brimming with possibilities — this is a picture of promise — and this is exactly what we should be praying every President brings to our nation and the world — the dawn of a new day of justice and liberty for all.  And we are to pray that they will be like “the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.”  It’s the sun and the rain that cause the crops grow — this is a picture of abundance and blessing — and this is exactly what we should be praying that every President is to our nation and the world – someone who promotes peace and prosperity for all.

I find that praying as a Christian and voting as a citizen are not mutually exclusive modes of being. When we have been praying 2 Samuel 23:2-4 for our elected leaders, that they will have the God-given wisdom and strength to be His agents of peace and prosperity, justice and equality, freedom and security, compassion and progress, then, in our participatory democracy, when it is time to vote we will have the God-given standard by which we can then assess whether our leaders have moved us toward our away from those very things.  And then, when the next election rolls around, these things that we as Christians have been praying that our leaders would embody and accomplish can serve as the standards by which we as citizens will cast our informed vote.  As C. C. Pecknold, an associate professor of Systematic Theology at the Catholic University of America and a political conservative, explained after the last Presidential election –

“As an American citizen, I will acknowledge the authority of the duly elected president of United States by resisting him when he acts unjustly and supporting him when he works for the common good of the country and the world. [And] as a Catholic [Christian], I will pray for him with fervor, not just because he is going to need God’s help but because we are going to need it, too.”

And I believe that this is always going to be true regardless of who wins an election and occupies the Oval Office. DBS +

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“Grant Us Wisdom… for the Living of Our Days” [Part 2]

In Ephesians  3:14 Paul said that he bowed his knees before the Father asking that from “the riches of His mercy” we might be “rooted and grounded in His love.”

“Bowing” our knees.

I was raised in a church that did this, literally.  We were taught to genuflect – to go down on one knee when we came into the church – and then, multiple times during the worship service, we were taught to kneel… to bow both of our knees.  It was an act of reverence, a way of outwardly showing what we said was inwardly true, that God was God, and that we were not.  Later on, I would read the writings of Francis Schaeffer, the popular Evangelical theologian in the 1960’s and 70’s who said that the way we become Christians is by consciously bowing the knees of our hearts three times: (1) to God’s reality (to the fact that God is God and we are not), (2) to God’s morality (to the fact that God establishes what is right and what is wrong), and (3) to God’s revelation (to the that God tells us what is true and what is not).

James 1:5 says that if we want wisdom that we needed to ask God for it. There’s a bow implied in this, the acknowledgement that we can’t get the wisdom that we need all by ourselves, on our own alone, but only with God’s help.  This is an idea with its roots deep in the Old Testament.

More than once the Hebrew Scriptures tell us that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). When we hear that word “fear” we think “fright” – the experience of being afraid.  But that’s not what the Bible means by the phrase “the fear of the Lord.”  What it means is reverence, taking God and His Word seriously in all of the demands and decisions of our lives.

Do you remember those rubber bracelets that were so popular twenty years ago, the ones with the letters – “W.W.J.D.” – embossed on them?  People wore them to remind themselves to consciously think about the question – “What would Jesus do?” – in all the circumstances and situations of their lives.   It was a fad.  It didn’t last, probably because it was easier to wear a bracelet than it was to constantly live with the question.  But that’s what wisdom requires of us – to intentionally live the question – “What does God want?”  To answer that question requires us to constantly be in touch with God.

Ervin Stutzman, when he was the Executive Director of the Mennonite Church in the United States, wanted his church to make God a bigger part of their lives. Traveling around the country Ervin says that he always asked the people he was visiting the same question – “What has God been doing in your life?”  And what he discovered was that it was difficult for them “to speak of God as the subject of an active verb.”  When he asked – “What has God been doing in your life?” – Ervin says that what he usually heard from people were things like –

  • Our church has started a new outreach to homeless people in our neighborhood.”
  • I’ve been attending a great Bible study.”
  • We had a very moving worship service last Sunday.”
  • I work as a volunteer a church thrift shop, and we set a new sales record last Saturday.”

It was the rare exception, Ervin says, when he heard something like –

  • Last week, God was with me during a very difficult transition at work.”
  • “When I was 20 years old, Jesus rescued me from a destructive lifestyle, and I’ve been walking with him ever since.”                                                          
  • “Recently I was at a loss for words when I was trying to comfort a friend, and then the Holy Spirit gave me the words to say.”     
  • God surprised us by bringing a group of new immigrants to our church who have helped us develop a new outreach.”

And Ervin asks –

“Do you see the difference between these two sets of responses? The last ones made God the actor or initiator in the situation, whereas the first ones put human beings in the driver’s seat.”

 When the Bible says things like – “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and – “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God,” what it’s telling us is that God has got to be more than just a theoretical doctrine that we say we believe.  God has got to become a conscious companion in our lives.  So – 

  • How often do you think about God when it’s not Sunday morning?
  • How aware are you of God’s presence and activity in the ordinary hours of your life?
  • How many times last week did God interfere in a choice that you were making?
  • Do you ever stop and think – “What does God want me to do or say in this situation?”
  • How many of your trains of thought pass through the station of God’s revealed Word and God’s known will?
  • Have you ever stopped doing something, or saying something, or thinking something because God showed you that it wasn’t something that He wanted you doing, or saying, or thinking?

God wants to be the subject of all the active verbs of our lives.

  • “God is telling me to…”
  • “God wants us to….”
  • “God is leading me to…”
  • “God is showing us that…”

Wisdom is how we find out how each of these statements end.  We can go to school or read a book to get knowledge.  But we will only get wisdom by getting down on our knees and asking God to be the God of our lives, and the God of our church, and the God of our world.

I really think we should.  DBS +

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