“We tell people about Jesus, that’s what we do…”

campI was at youth camp all last week. When I got home on Saturday afternoon, I sat down and went through a week’s worth of morning papers and evening news broadcasts. I am something of a news junkie, and so my beloved bride saved and recorded all of the requisite materials that she knew I would want and need to get caught up with current events. I sat down with a sandwich and an iced tea at about 12:30 pm on Saturday to watch and read the news, and by 3 pm I was in something of a funk.

It was not a “good news” week.

There was the observance of the first year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando. There was the targeted political shootings of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise, one of his Congressional Aides, and two Capitol Police Officers. There was the horrific mass casualty fire at London’s Grenfell Tower. There was the truly mystifying and deeply disturbing “not guilty” verdict of the police officer involved in the shooting of Philando Castile, another young African American man. There was the inexplicable collision of the USS Fitzgerald and a cargo ship off the coast of Japan that left seven American sailors dead in their sleeping quarters. And there were the unprecedented climate change wildfires in Portugal that killed at least 61 people as they tried to flee the flames fast advance.

On Saturday afternoon I read more than one of my ministerial colleagues post something on Facebook to the effect that if you didn’t hear about any of this in your church on Sunday morning, then it might be time to start looking for a new church! And I couldn’t agree more, but I had to wonder, what did they think that we should be saying about these things in church in the morning? How do we reflect as people of Christian faith on the painful and pressing issues of the day?

On Sunday morning at the church I serve I began the early service by explaining that the theologian Karl Barth said that in order to be faithful, Christians needed to learn how to read their Bibles in one hand while holding the morning paper in their other hand. That’s certainly the standard. We aren’t just social commentators. No, our assignment is to bring the Word of God to bear on the events of the day. So, after quickly running through the list of what’s been in the morning paper over the past week, I suggested that while it would be easy to come to church as an escape from all the bad news, that the real reason why we needed to be in church on a Sunday morning after a week like the one that we’d just come through was to find a way to make sense of it all, and to begin to frame our faithful response to the world’s hurts and hopes with the Gospel’s message of “Emmanuel” – the “God who is with us” – and with the Gospel’s message of “Christus Dolor” – the Christ who Suffers with and for us – and with the Gospel’s message of “Christus Victor” – the Christ who triumphs over all of the powers that seek to work us woe – cosmically, socially and personally.

ableWill Willimon told the story in one of his books about his days as a local church pastor in South Carolina. Will said that he had planned a joint Christmas Eve service with the Episcopal priest of a nearby parish. Everything was ready to go, and then the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam began in mid-December of 1972. Will didn’t feel like they could just go ahead and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the coming of the Prince of Peace, as they had planned while this egregious escalation of the war was taking place in the day’s right before Christmas. So Will called his colleague over at the Episcopal Church and explained to him what he was thinking. Will insisted that they needed to take a stand. They needed to make a statement. They couldn’t let this moment pass without a prophetic word for peace being publicly and boldly spoken. And Will’s Episcopal colleague said that he agreed completely with everything that Will was saying. “So, what do you think that we should do?” Will asked finally asked him. And after a moment’s silence, Will’s friend said, “I’ve got it!”

“Let’s pull out all the stops and worship like we’ve never worshipped before!” he said. “Let’s sing hymns, and pray prayers, and read Biblical texts like we’ve never sung, prayed or read them before! Let’s tell our people all about the Kingdom that’s coming because of that little baby who’s slumbering in Bethlehem’s manger this night!”

Now, this was not at all what Will expected to hear. He was thinking of organizing some sort of a public protest, while his Episcopal colleague was thinking about casting a vision of God’s kingdom for the people in the church. Will was plotting a social action, while his Episcopal friend was plotting a Gospel celebration that would rearrange priorities and realign values. Will was focused on challenging and changing the attitudes and actions of the power brokers in Washington D.C., while his Episcopal ministerial peer was focused on challenging and changing the beliefs and values of the people who were sitting in the pews of their churches.

blubIn his keynote address for a National Conference on Youth Ministries for the Churches of Christ a few years ago, Scot McKnight challenged his audience by saying: “…In our church culture today, the Kingdom has come to mean good things that Christians do in the public sector …through the political process. …It has nothing to do with the church.

And then he asked –

… Is your local Bible study, when you gather together with people, Kingdom work? If you struggle with saying it is, then we need to go back to the New Testament. Is a worship service on Sunday morning, Kingdom work? …The most profound act of Kingdom work that you do in your local church is when you celebrate the Eucharist. That’s Kingdom work. And until we see that as Kingdom work, until we embrace that as Kingdom work, then we’re not really being Biblical Christians.

…Jesus came to establish a whole different social order. He called it the “Ekklesia” – the church (Matthew 16:18)… The church is the place where the Kingdom is manifested in our world today… because it’s the only place where Jesus is named as Lord. And this means that the Kingdom is more than just an ethic, because Jesus is more than just a prophet. The Kingdom is about embracing Jesus …the Messiah who saves. …And so if people come to your church and they don’t hear about Jesus, then you’ve failed them …because Jesus is all we’ve really got to offer them.

We tell people about Jesus, that’s what we do. …We tell people that… He’s the Savior. …And we summon people into the church as the place where God’s redemptive work in Christ is now alive and active… The most significant thing that we can accomplish for the Kingdom right now is to share the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper …with those people that you have to worship with…who are really difficult to love… When the Lord’s Table creates a fellowship of unlike people, that fact sends off a message of the redemption of God in this world… That’s the Kingdom that Jesus embodied in His table fellowship, and that’s what we’re called to do here and now.”  (http://www.christianchronicle.org/article/social-justice-vs-kingdom-work-full-text-of-mcknight-remarks-and-mccarty-response)

And this means that if you didn’t hear about Jesus in church last Sunday morning, then it might be time to go and find a new church.   DBS +

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“Where the Bible is Silent…”

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A Little “Believing Thinking” on the Church’s Response to Transgendered People
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The last Faiths in Conversation gathering for the spring took place on Tuesday evening, May 23rd, at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano.  Our topic that night was the response of our respective faith traditions to transgendered people.

What follows here are my prepared remarks for that evening. As in most things that come from the heart and mind of this Christian Moderate, there are things that I say here that those to my spiritual left will dislike, and there are things that I say here that those to my spiritual right will equally dislike. Some will object that I’ve gone too far, while others will object that I’ve not gone nearly far enough.  We who are “dead skunks in the middle of the road stinking to the high heavens” are familiar with this criticism.

My strongest conclusion from the evening is a renewed appreciation for the spiritual wisdom of my own Stone/Campbell tradition. I think it serves us well.  DBS +

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Christianity’s Response to Transgendered People
Faiths in Conversation – May 23, 2017 – 7 pm

The Islamic Association of Collin County, Plano, Texas
Dr. Douglas B. Skinner, Northway Christian Church

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My denominational tradition has a saying – “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; and where the Bible is silent, we’re silent.”   For people who want a Biblically informed faith, it’s not bad advice.  And it speaks directly to our topic tonight.  You see, I can find nothing in the New Testament about transgendered people.  “There is no verse in my Bible that says, ‘Thou shalt not transition from a man to a woman, or from a woman to a man” (Kevin de Young). Look up the word “transgender” in a concordance of the New Testament and you will find nothing.

Jesus did talk once about Eunuchs (Matthew 19:12), and the book of Acts tells a crucially important story about an Ethiopian Eunuch who came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ and who was baptized into the life of the church (8:26-40), and lots of interpreters I know and deeply respect have used these two Biblical texts as ways to talk about the inclusion of sexual minorities within the scope of God’s saving purposes and the embrace of the church’s life and love.

But that’s the application of a principle derived from these texts and not a reference to anything that the New Testament directly says about the church’s response to transgendered people. And while such applications are a necessary and quite legitimate use of Scripture, again my denominational tradition urges some real caution in the way that we handle such inferences. The founders of my denominational tradition said that without an explicit command or an approved example from the Bible that directly addresses a particular circumstance or concern, our applications of a Biblical principle to those circumstances and concerns must be tentative, modest, and generous and never dogmatic, arrogant or authoritarian.  The best wisdom of my spiritual tradition for me this evening would probably be to just sit down and shut up.  And there’s something to be said for this approach.

We all have a real propensity to say too much too fast. Qoheleth” – the name of the Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible said that there’s a time “to keep silence,” and that there is “a time to speak” (3:7).   In the Christian Scriptures this became the counsel of the book of James to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (1:19).  Just about a year ago Father Bryan Massingale, a Roman Catholic priest, was a part of a conversation like this we are having here this evening about the place of transgendered people in the life of his church, and he said –

There is much that we do not understand about what is technically called ‘gender dysphoria,’ or the lack of congruence between one’s physical body and one’s gender identity. This ignorance leads to fear, and fear is at the root of the controversies in today’s so-called ‘bathroom wars.’ And there lies a major challenge that transgender people endure and that the faith community has to own: the human tendency to be uncomfortable and fearful in the face of what we don’t understand. It’s easier to ridicule and attack individuals we don’t understand than to summon the patience and humility to listen and to learn.

And then Fr. Massingale added –

But despite all that we do not know, this much I do believe: Jesus would be present to, among, and with transgender persons.

You see, while the authoritative texts of my spiritual tradition say nothing specifically about transgendered men and women, my authoritative texts do say things like “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), and “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7), and “judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and “by this people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And so, while I cannot give you a chapter and verse this evening on what the New Testament says to and about transgendered people, I can tell you about what the New Testament says to me as a Christian about how I am supposed to treat people, all people… transgendered people.

Back in July of 2015 when the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the legality of same sex marriages in the United States, John Pavlovitz, a well-known Christian pastor, wrote a blog he called “6 Ways Christians Lost This Week.” Of all the things that I heard Christians say that week, and of all the things I read that week that Christians had written, this was the one that got closest to the Spirit of the Christ I know –

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We who call ourselves Christians lost a great deal over the past few days, though it’s probably not in the way you might think.

 1)  We lost the chance to be loving. 

So many professed followers of Jesus spent the last week on the attack, desperately fighting a battle long after it had already been decided. Instead of simply looking for ways to personally affirm our faith in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, too many of us frankly just lost it. We spit out vitriol and we cursed strangers and we lamented America’s demise and we threatened with Bible verses and we treated others with contempt. Our response to the LGBT community and those who support them wasn’t compassion and decency and peacemaking, it was sour grapes, damnation, and middle fingers.

 
2)  We lost the chance to be good neighbors. 

Rather than using the events of this past week as the springboard for conversation with people around us; as a way to build relationship with those who may not share our beliefs or our worldview, we pushed them further away. We used our social media profiles and our workplaces and our cul-de-sac chats to create distance between us and those who disagree with us. We stood on principles and we walked all over people. We became really difficult to live with and be around.

3)  We lost the chance to be Good Samaritans.

We could have looked around at the hurt generated this past week; at the deep sadness so many LGBT people and their loved ones felt at being the center of such violent arguments and the horrible aftermath of them, and responded in love. We could have moved toward them with the mercy and gentleness of Christ, seeking to be the binders of the wounds. Instead, far too many of us felt compelled to rub salt deeply into them. We basically walked past those who were down—and we kicked them hard on the way.

4)  We lost the opportunity to show how big God is. 

With all the fatalistic sky is falling rhetoric and raw-throated “The End is Near” prognostications, what so many Christians did for the watching world was inadvertently paint the image of a God who is hopelessly on the ropes; not all-powerful, not all-knowing, not at all able to withstand the slightest changes in our world. We completely neutered God by horribly overstating the circumstances and crying wolf yet again.

5)  We lost the chance to reflect Christ.

Let’s be honest: some of us really dropped the ball this week on both sides of the discussions. Many of us crusaded on social media or staged tirades from the pulpit or spewed hatred across dinner tables. We argued and complained and petitioned and boycotted and protested, and we did just about everything but leave people with the sweet, restful essence of Jesus. We instead left them a Christ devoid of compassion or kindness or love, and we ensured that many who previously saw all Christians as judgmental, hypocritical jerks—felt completely correct in those assumptions. Faced with people who disagreed with us, we talked about them, shouted at them, yet failed to listen to them.

6)  And we lost people. 

We gave those who live outside of our faith tradition, very little reason to move any closer. By choosing to be rude and argumentative and hateful, we made Jesus fairly irrelevant; an option not really worth considering. Make no mistake, the eyes of the world were fully on the American Church this week, and too much of what they saw was a pretty lousy testimony to a God of love. Many people looked at the rotten fruit of our faith and simply turned away for good.

This stuff should simply break our collective hearts. All of us who claim Christ need to do some honest, invasive personal reflection. Regardless of our feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s clear that Christians lost far more valuable things than we realize this week; things we better fight to get back.

(http://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/07/01/6-ways-christians-lost-this-week/)______________________________________________________________________________

And it seems to me that we are right back here again with the controversy in our culture these days about transgendered people. There is so much to lose.

Early in his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis was asked “What kind of church do you dream of?”  And he answered –

I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.  It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds.  Then we can talk about everything else.  Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And to do this you have to start from the ground up. (Cavanaugh)

 

And this means being fully present to the confusion and pain of others, to be quick to hear and slow to speak.   The church is not real good at this.  As David Janvier, a Christian Therapist points out, “When people are different, [Christians] tend to want to make room for people who are alike. [But] we need to make room for people who do not fit into our categories… [and transgendered people] live their whole lives feeling like they don’t fit in” (Fowler).  As a Christian who knows what’s in the Bible, my assignment is “the hard work of listening to and loving those who struggle.” And so, as an act of faith I am now going to sit down now, shut up, and listen.

Sources

Cavanaugh, William T. Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World. Eerdmans. 2016.

De Young, Kevin. “What Does the Bible Say about Transgenderism?” https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org

Fowler, Megan. “Making Sense of Transgenderism.” May 14, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Churches Change the World” ~ But How?

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Churches change the world” is the theme for the Pentecost Offering of my denomination this year. This is the special offering that is directed to the support of new church development, and that’s an easy ministry for most of us to support.  Who doesn’t believe that churches are supposed to be spiritually and morally transformative. The only real question, it seems to me, is how?  How does the church actually go about changing the world?

The promotional materials for my denomination’s special offering for new church development this year names the importance of the church speaking to the world about her own faith’s values and convictions as one of the ways that the church goes about changing the world. In fact, this is how being “prophetic” is generally, if not singularly, understood by us “Disciples” these days.  We want to speak our truth to its power.  And so we have gotten pretty good at passing resolutions, and making public statements, and marching for social justice.  And while I certainly don’t discount the necessity or efficacy of the church’s public witness, it seems to me, that an equally important way for the church to go about trying to change the world is by the church speaking its truth to the church!  In fact I would argue that I would argue that this should probably come first.

Michael Horton, the Reformed theologian, has criticized the American Church’s historic failure to condemn slavery before and during the Civil War. And he is very clear that the “the racisms that still haunt our society” — “the New Jim Crow, broken window policing, and discrimination in every way imaginable” (Derrick Holmes) — are all the poisonous fruit from the tree of this historic moral and spiritual failure by the American church.  And at the heart of this failure, he argues, was not just the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the State, it was also the result of the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the church!  The evil of slavery persisted, he argues, not because the church wouldn’t address it publicly as a political matter, but rather because the church wouldn’t address it with its own members as a faith matter.   He notes, “the church itself was segregated – often more so than society at large.” And he wonders about how this might have been different had the church preached “the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery” to its own membership?  What would have happened had the church spoken prophetically to the church?

Wouldn’t the members (of that church) been shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney (a major American theologian of that era) had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson? (https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2013/09/two-kingdoms-and-slavery/)

It’s easy to think that the prophetic work of the church is what happens in the streets on days of protest, but I find that most of the prophetic work that I do as a local church pastor happens in the pews when I preach and preside at the Lord’s Table on Sunday mornings, and in the classrooms where I teach the Faith, and at the dinner tables and in the coffee shops where I talk about our beliefs and their consequences with people who are just trying to be faithful.

In a recent contribution to the “Rhetoric, Race and Religion Blog” at the “Patheos” Website (4/30/17), Derrick Holmes said that after he had participated in a public demonstration against social injustice at a city council meeting, another participant, grateful for his presence there, wanted to know why there weren’t other ministers with him?  And the clear implication was that if a minister wasn’t in the streets with them protesting or at a rally making a public statement, then he or she wasn’t really doing anything “prophetic” for the cause (http://www.patheos.com).

“Where are the pastors?” that essay asked, and my initial response was that where they really need to be is in their churches doing the slow steady work of the moral formation and the spiritual transformation of the people who are entrusted to their care. In my experience there is nothing more “prophetic” than the church preaching the message of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and then inviting “whosoever” would come to the Table of Remembrance of God’s sacrificial act of redemption and reconciliation in Christ each week  A church that is being consistently and consciously shaped by the Gospel’s word of God’s welcome and the sign of His saving inclusion will be a church that unhesitatingly speaks to the world about the worth of all people and that unambiguously speaks against the sins of prejudice and discrimination.

I understand that the single most transformative thing that I can do as a pastor is to get the people who are in my spiritual care to “to see what the Scripture says” about the big social and moral questions of the day with which we are wrestling, as Scott Cormode of Fuller Theological Seminary puts it  (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/one-basic-idea-get-people-see-scripture-says/). He says that for those of us with a high view of Scripture, the task is not to tell our people what we think, but to help them see how the Bible thinks. He explains –

I think it is easier to preach on uncomfortable topics in an evangelical congregation than it is in other kinds of churches. In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

And so the task is to get them to engage with the Scriptures. A Christian with a high view of Scripture who doesn’t know what’s in the Scriptures – like many in the American Church were before and during the Civil War on Slavery – is a menace and a contradiction. And they’re still around today.

In the June 2017 issue of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, its Editor in Chief, wrote about the criticism that white evangelicals are receiving these days for their reported widespread anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-others-in-dire-straits public attitudes. “You would think that a people steeped in the Bible,” Mark wrote, “would find closing the door to the world’s neediest people repulsive.” But he says that the research clearly shows that white evangelicals, “more than any other religious group, say that illegal immigrants should be identified and summarily deported.” “What’s wrong with these white evangelicals?” Mark Galli asks. “Who’s teaching them these unmerciful attitudes?” he wonders.  And he thinks he’s found the answer, and it’s not the church!

All those surveys that show white evangelicals to be anti-Muslim and anti-refugee also show that those who take these positions tend to be the white evangelicals who do not go to church. When asked by pollsters if they are “born again” and find the Bible to be true and authoritative in what it teaches, they say “yes.”  But when they are asked if they actually go to church, they often say “no.”  And Mark Galli wonders if there is a connection between the “mercy-shaped vacuum within them,” and the fact that they are not hearing “Scripture read and the Word preached, and sharing in the ‘breaking of bread’ and ‘prayer’ (Acts 2:42) – together in church.”   As Mark puts it –

This has been from the beginning the divinely commanded means that enables us to grow into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), so that we might become a people who act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Churches change the world. But the kid of churches that change the world are the kind of churches that have first been changed themselves by the very truths that they want to speak to power, and this means that the first place where “prophetic” ministers need to be are in their churches with their people consistently and conscientiously preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and fueling the vision of God’s coming Kingdom where His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

DBS +

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The Pushy Holy Spirit

brilliant

 There’s an old saying about how God in Jesus Christ “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” and I see this clearly in the Biblical symbolism of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  Some of the images are tender and mild.  Others are “strong and pushy and relentless.”  The Holy Spirit “doesn’t just coddle and comfort” us, the Holy Spirit also confronts and challenges us.

The Bible opens with the Spirit of God moving on the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2), “bringing order and beauty out of chaos, bringing light into the darkness… That’s what the Spirit of God does. The Spirit of God moves! God’s Spirit is not inert or unmoving or static… God’s Spirit is not distant or aloof or imperceptible…  The Spirit of God moves!  The Spirit of God is living, moving, dynamic, connected, involved, even intrusive. It comes close to us, brushes up against us, blows through us, breathes into us”  (Ensworth).  And this is the Holy Spirit that we bump into in the Book of Acts on the day of Pentecost.

 The description of what happened on the first day of Pentecost is not quiet and peaceful.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (Acts 2:1-3)

It was noisy and chaotic. People were frightened and confused.  There was wind and fire.  The church was pushed out of its comfort zone and right into the mission of God.  One of the first things that Pope Francis said after his election was that when the Holy Spirit shows up the church is going to be pushed outward and onward, and chances are pretty good that the church is not going to like it one little bit.

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

What the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit brings is momentum. Jesus told His disciples right before Pentecost that they would receive “power” when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and that they would then become His witnesses beginning in Jerusalem, and then expanding outwards to Judea, and then expanding outwards again to Samaria, and then finally expanding out to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  These ever widening circles of influence and impact are the work of the Holy Spirit. As John Howard Yoder pointed out, the church never sat down to strategize her mission, to work out the logic and logistics of it all.  No, Professor Yoder said, the church’s mission was subject entirely to the Holy Spirit’s initiative. In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit was always pushing the church past its present borders and across the thresholds to those who were standing just beyond its doors.

dove

The above image is, in my mind, the nearly perfect expression of what the Holy Spirit does. It’s abstract enough for different people to be able to see different things in it, but what I see is a boat on the crest of a wave with its sail set to catch the wind in a storm, and the shape of that billowing sail in the wind is the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove.  The way it looks to me, that boat has deliberately set its sail to catch the wind that is the Spirit in order to be propelled onward, and this has been, for me, one of the big defining images for my spiritual life.  In fact, it’s the basis for one of my favorite hymns, “I Feel the Winds of God Today”

I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray and torn with many a rift…
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be,
Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea…                    

The Holy Spirit does not drag us as a passive weight to go where God needs us to go to do what God needs us to do. To be sure, when the Holy Spirit “comes close to us, brushes up against us, blows through us, breathes into us,” it is as an active agent with a predetermined outcome in mind. The Holy Spirit pushes. But whether or not we let out the sail and catch the wind of the Spirit that’s blowing is a decision we’ve each got to make, and it is one of the great and painful truths of the Bible that we can “resist” the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), and we can “grieve” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and we can “quench” the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19).  I’m pretty sure that he was overstating the case for effect, but Morton Kelsey used to say that there is something that is even stronger than God in this world, and that it’s you and me, for we can shut God out should we so choose, and Pentecost is all about that choice.

Pentecost is about how the Holy Spirit blows into our lives – pushing us closer to Jesus, pushing us deeper into the Word, pushing us nearer to each other in love, and pushing us outward in God’s mission to the world. And so Pentecost leaves us each with a decision.  The next time we “feel the wind of God” blowing through our lives, pushing us in new directions, can you, will you pray – “Great Pilot of my onward way… today my sail I lift”?    Our faithfulness as individual Christians and the very future of the church depends, in no small measure, on how we respond when the Holy Spirit starts pushing. DBS +

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“Any man’s death diminishes me…”

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The violence in Manchester on Monday evening fills us with anguish, anger and sympathy. Interviews with grieving parents and surviving friends on the evening news are just too painful to watch.  And once again we are left to struggle with big questions about the presence – or absence – of God, His purposes and actions in history, the abnormality of the world, and something, anything that might help us understand how this keeps happening, something, anything that could help explain the inhumanity of human beings to other human beings.

To be able to perpetrate an act of violence like this one that exploded in an arena concourse in Northern England, and in our hearts, on Monday evening, the targeted people have to get reduced to objects – they have to become depersonalized, dehumanized, and debased. How else could anyone do such a thing to another human being?  They have to be stripped of their humanity becoming people without faces, or names, or families, or dreams, or stories.  How could “they” do this to “us”?

And then it dawned on me – painfully – that “we” do this to “them” too.

I’ve read innumerable statements of solidarity with and sorrow for the Manchester victims and their families online this week, and rightly so.   But I have not read similar statements of solidarity with and sorrow for the Wadi al Shatii District attack victms and their families (141 people killed, 100 people wonded), the Baghdad suicide bombing victims and their families (39 people killed, 45 wounded), or the Zabul, Afghanistan, assault victims and their families (20 people killed, 15 people wounded) that all happened in the 48 hours right before Manchester.

Go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_May_2017.   This is a day-by-day, month-after-month accounting of the victims of global terrorism.  It is a disturbing and sobering read.  Just looking at the numbers of people who have been wounded and killed by terrorists this month – May 2017 – was eye-opening and heart-wrenching for me.  Stories of the Manchester victims fill the front-page of the paper and open the evening news broadcasts.  We easily identify with them and openly weep for them.  But who weeps for the May 2nd  Hasakah, Syria, victims (37 Killed, 100 wounded), or the May 12th Mastung, Pakistan,victims (29 killed, 37 wounded), or the May 18th Hama Governorate, Syria, victims (67 killed, 100 wounded)? Who even knows about them? John Donne (1573 – 1631), the English poet/priest, wrote –

No 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.

This was an affirmation that came from deep within his faith as Christian. David Langness, a Baha’i believer, wrote a commentary on this text that I found to be richly insightful and deeply moving (http://bahaiteachings.org/the-spiritual-quote-that-started-it-all-no-man-is-an-islan)

“Because I am involved in mankind…” the poet says, telling us that he has discovered his relationship with all people. In the 17th century, this was a radical and even revolutionary belief. Donne said it during a time of rampant slavery, enormous class distinctions and the complete subjugation of certain kinds of people based on gender, race and circumstances of birth. In the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” the poet’s collective “thee” refers to the entire unified race of humanity…

…Many of the people who hear Donne’s most famous line at a wedding or a funeral may think it just means that we need each other as human beings. This simplistic interpretation – that human beings do not thrive when isolated from others – takes the most literal path, which probably would have insulted the poet. Donne meant more than that – he meant, in the broadest sense, that the personal and the political are one; that the boundary between you and I does not ultimately exist.”

Now, if a Baha’i believer (some of the loveliest people of faith that I know) reading a “Christian” text can see this so clearly and say this so powerfully, what could possibly explain our confusion and hesitation as Christians?

20 years ago Peter Kuzmic, the Distinguished Professor of Missions and European Studies at Gordon Conwell Seminary in his inaugural lecture said something that I have never forgotten. He said that when we are asked as Christians to say why we should care about a famine in Africa, or a violent coup by an oppressive dictator in Latin America, or the outbreak of a deadly virus in Asia, or the continuing violence of racial hatred in the United States, our answer should be clear and conscientious – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son!”

This week that world that God loves in Jesus Christ encompasses Manchester, England, the Minya Province of Egypt, the Wadi al Shatii District of Libya, Baghdad, Iraq, and Zabul, Afghanistan.

“…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…”

                                                                                                              DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Faiths in Conversation

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Last night our Faiths in Conversation event at the Turquoise Center in Richardson focused on the subject of “The Rich and the Poor.” Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Shaykh Khalil Abdur-Rashid presented the perspectives of Judaism and Islam on the questions of poverty and possessions from their Scriptures and traditions, and I presented from my Christian perspective. It was an insightful and lively evening.  They always are.

Next Tuesday evening, May 23, at the Islamic Association of Collin County (6401 Independence Pkwy, Plano) at 7 pm, we will have our last Faith in Conversation event until the fall.  Our topic will be “Transgender Identity.”  These are powerful evenings of interfaith conversation and relationship, and I hope that you will join us. DBS +

________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Rich and the Poor: A Christian Perspective
Faiths in Conversation – May 16, 2017 – 7 pm
The Turquoise Center, Richardson, Texas
Dr. Douglas B. Skinner, Northway Christian Church ________________________________________________________________________________________________

The public face of Christianity in my lifetime has been Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta.   As you know, the Roman Catholic Church fast-tracked her path to canonization, officially recognizing her as a saint in September of 2016, a mere 19 years after her death. By way of contrast, it took the great St. Bede, the Father of English History and a Doctor of the Church, 1,164 years to accomplish this same feat.  But it happened in just 19 years for Mother Teresa because of the widespread popular impression that there was something undeniably “Christian” about her.

“At the end of life,” St. Teresa of Calcutta once famously said, “we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, by how much money we have made, by how many great things we have done. We will be judged by – ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”  And there it is.  There is something intrinsic to Christianity about serving the poor.

When the late 19th/early 20th century German Lutheran Theologian and prominent church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851 – 1930) explained why he thought that Christianity had won the day in the marketplace of ideas that was the Roman Empire in the first three centuries of the Common Era, he quoted Matthew 25, the very same verse that Mother Teresa did – “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.”  And then he explained –

These words of Jesus have shone so brilliantly for many generations… and exerted so powerful an influence, that one may… describe… Christian preaching as the preaching of love and charity…  Among the extant words… of Jesus, those which inculcate love and charity are especially numerous…. it is plain that… the gist of his preaching was to enforce brotherliness and ministering love, and the surest part of the impression he left behind him was that in his own life and labors he displayed both of these very qualities.

In April of 2015, John Barclay, the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in England opened the Houston Baptist University Theology Conference with a lecture he entitled – The Poor You Will Always Have with You: Why It Mattered to the Church to Give to the Poor.”   He began that lecture by directing his audience to Paul’s account of the Jerusalem Conference in his letter to the Galatians.

The Jerusalem Conference was the first gathering of the whole church to sort out an urgent question of Christian faith and practice, and what triggered it was the Gentile Mission.  Paul and Barnabas had just returned from their first missionary journey to the island of Cyprus and Southern Asia Minor during which they had received Gentiles into the church on the basis of their faithful response to the preaching of the Gospel.  This prompted the Jerusalem Church to ask about the scope of God’s saving intent.  Did it really include Gentiles, or was it just limited to Jews?  This was a huge question for the early church, and so about the year 48, all of the key leaders of the church gathered in Jerusalem to sort it out.

They concluded that God’s saving love in Jesus Christ did in fact include everybody everywhere, and in the second chapter of his letter to the Galatians, one of the churches that he had planted on that first missionary journey and a church whose very existence triggered the need for the conversation in Jerusalem in the first place, Paul gave this account of what had happened and what had been decided there –

…when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised…  and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

Dr. Barclay’s lecture at Houston Baptist University in 2015 was an exploration of the premise that this phrase – “remember the poor” – was the expression of a commitment that was essential to the identity and activity of the first Christians, and that has remained an integral part of Christianity ever since. After reviewing the documentary evidence of the church’s response to the poor in the first few centuries of her life, Dr. Barclay concluded his lecture by saying that the first Christians took the reality of the poor into the very heart of their churches and made the alleviation of poverty one of their core spiritual practices. “To remember the poor was not just some early passing phase of Christianity,” Dr. Barclay concluded, it was one of the ways that they became “most fully Christian.” And I would argue that this remains true for Christians today.

My faith in Jesus Christ connects me deeply with an act of God’s generosity. The Christian Gospel is the message of how, in Jesus Christ, God gave Himself to us in our spiritual need as our Savior, and when this message gets believed, when this gift gets received, then it just naturally begins to cascade into a response of generous acts by which we who believe in Him start giving to others in their need.  We give as God has given to us in Christ. This makes our giving a sign of Christian faithfulness.

Reviewing the breadth of what the New Testament says about giving, about wealth and possessions, about being rich and being poor, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church says that the poor are a special focus of God’s loving concern.   They say that thus is an idea that’s “inspired by the Beatitudes, by the (actual) poverty of Jesus Christ’s (own life), and by His (focused) attention to the poor (during the days of His public ministry).” And they say that this is something to which the whole tradition of the church bears witness.

Now, for a Protestant Christian like myself who grew up singing – “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world” – I have to admit to feeling a certain resistance to this idea that God has favorites, that God has a special concern for one group of people over another, the first time I heard it.  But as someone who has been a serious student of the Christian Scriptures now for nearly 40 years, I have now also come to the place where I have to admit that it’s an idea that’s clearly present in our Scriptures as Christians.

In the daily prayers historically prescribed by the church, every evening the “Magnificat” – the song that Mary sang in response to the angel’s news that she was going to be the mother of the Christ – gets prayed.  This is as eloquent a statement of God’s preferential concern for the poor as you will find anywhere in the New Testament.  Mary, a poor Jewish girl prayed –

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and He has sent the rich away empty…

When you pray these words every single day, month after month, you find your concerns starting to be shaped by the things that concern God. And this brings God’s special concern for the poor, the weak, the hungry and the lowly into clear focus for you, and it helps to explain the remarkable actions of the early church.

When John the Baptist preached his message of repentance at the beginning of the Gospel story of Jesus, he told those who were responding favorably to his preaching that they needed to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).  And one of the fruit in keeping with the repentance that the Christian faith produced in the early church according to the book of Acts was an extraordinary pattern of economic sharing. Luke reported in Acts 2:44-45. And then he followed that up with an even more astonishing report in Acts chapter 4 –

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (4:32-35)

 That’s the momentum of grace that the Gospel launches, and it’s what makes “remembering the poor” such a core practice of Christianity.

Now, if Christianity is a message of welcome and compassion for the poor, then it is a message of warning and concern to the wealthy. Every Wednesday at noon I teach a Bible Study at the church I serve, and right now we are working our way verse-by-verse through the first letter of the Apostle Paul to his young ministerial associate named Timothy. Some of the New Testament’s sternest warnings to the rich come from this letter.

After criticizing false teachers who were working their way into the church as a way of advancing themselves financially, Paul warned Timothy that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (6:9-10). This is as familiar as anything that the New Testament says about wealth, although it regularly gets misquoted.  It is “the love of money,” and not money itself that is “the root of all evil.”

After warning those who wanted to get rich about greed, Paul then wrote a word to Timothy about how those who were already rich could be faithful with their great wealth.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (6:17-19)

 This is a direct echo of the teachings of Jesus in these words. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus named money as being a rival god to which people were tempted to give their trust and devotion (Matthew 6:24).  To break its hold on us, Jesus told His disciples to seek first God’s Kingdom (Matthew 6:33), and to stop worrying about their material possessions (Matthew 6:25).  And as a strategy for actually doing this, Jesus instructed His disciples to be recklessly generous in the giving of alms (Matthew 6:2-4) as the way of laying up for themselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21).  All of which is to say that Jesus Christ expected His followers to generously share their material resources as an expression of their devotion to Him, and of their confidence in the certainty of His promises to provide for them in this life and the next. And this is how the use of our wealth as Christians becomes one of the surest signs of just how profoundly we have been grasped by the power of the Gospel.

There is no question that there are serious and urgent conversations to be had in our society about the best ways to address the problem of poverty and the needs of the poor. The current healthcare debate in Congress is fueled by competing ideas about the best way to actually provide for people’s needs – federal or state programs, private or public funding, government or free market control – and I’m not sure that Christianity’s source documents are particularly helpful in settling this debate.  The New Testament is addressed to Christians and churches and not to Caesar and the State.   But what the New Testament tells Christians and churches is that God has a very special concern for the poor, and that the way we love and serve God as Christians is by loving and serving the poor, and this has clear political consequence.

As a Christian who is a citizen of this country, my votes will always be shaped my values, and one of my values because I am a Christian is the welfare of the poor. In his very last speech, Hubert H. Humphrey said – “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” As a Christian whose faith and values are being shaped by the Biblical witness, this is part of the criteria that I will use to determine which public policies and elected leaders I can conscientiously support.

Christians can and do argue about which policies best serve their values. Hubert Humphrey said that he and Everett Dirksen, his conservative Republican colleague in the Senate, hardly ever agreed on how to actually solve a problem like poverty, but that neither of them ever questioned that the other one was just as concerned about the problem as he was, or just as committed to finding a solution.  Biblical principles do not automatically or obviously translate into planks in a political platform, but they must inform Christian conscience and conviction, and because they do, Jesus’ observation that “the poor you will always have with you” is not an excuse for us to do nothing, but is rather a challenge for us to do absolutely everything we possibly can do as Christians, churches and a society at large to make sure that the needs of the poor are being equitably and constructively addressed.  To borrow the language of the Apostle Paul, the love of God as I know it in Christ “constrains” me to do so (2 Corinthians 5 14). “Remembering the poor” is part of what it means for me to be “most fully Christian.”

 

 

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“Something More”

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I actually have a certificate signed by the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles that says I received the Holy Spirit together with His Sevenfold Gifts (Isaiah 11:1-2) when he laid his hands on me at my Confirmation in 1965 when I was 12 years old. But up to that point, and for a number of years afterwards, my experience of the Holy Spirit was just about as flat as that piece of paper.

In 1974 Catherine Marshall wrote her book Something More in which she explained that there is “a big difference between being indwelt by the Spirit and being ‘filled’ with His presence.” She explained that “for years (and sometimes for a lifetime) a Christian can keep the Spirit at a sub-basement level by the insistence on running one’s own life. Then through teaching or need – or both – that person recognizes his divine Guest’s presence, opens hitherto closed doors into crayon rooms in his being so that the Spirit can enter there too… It is not God’s attitude toward us that needs to be changed, but our attitude toward Him.  He will not give us anything new; rather we are to receive in a new and far fuller sense that which He has already given us at Pentecost… Sunlight can be kept out only by erecting barriers against it.  All we need do then, is take down our shutters and barriers and walk out into the sunlight already given” (276).  Until and unless this happens, she said, we will operate at a level well below what God intends for us spiritually, and we will experience this deficit as “an aching void in our hearts.”

It was a feeling of this kind of emptiness that brought J. Rodman Williams, a well-known and highly respected Presbyterian theologian, to the place of seeking “something more.”  In his 1972 book The Pentecostal Reality he wrote –

At the heart of much of our life and activity a deep spiritual crisis exists. Despite multiple attempts by the church at reassessment and relevance, there remains the haunting sense of something lacking or unfulfilled and a feeling of spiritual impotence… Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality of God’s presence? In an article appearing in “The Christian Century” (May 13, 1979) entitled “The Power of Pentecost: We Need it More Now Than Ever,” the author asks, “Why in every sector of Christianity today… [is] there so little evidence of spiritual power…?” “I am haunted,” he continues, “by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the disciples long, long ago.  Where is that power today?  Can it come among us again?”  Then, finally, he adds, “It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

I believe that it is this awareness of “something missing” that prepares us for the “something more” that the experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit brings into our spiritual lives.  It’s when we hunger and thirst for the reality of the things that we believe are true that we will start to ask, and knock, and seek, and that’s when Jesus said that the fullness of the Holy Spirit will be given to us (Luke 11:13).

My spiritual awakening happened in 1965.  That’s when I was “born again,” and I believe that it was at that time that I was forgiven and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is just “part of the package” of Christian conversion Biblically.  You can’t be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38; Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:1-5). But in my experience it wouldn’t be for another six years that I would “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit who indwelt me when I first believed.  For six long years the Holy Spirit had been living in the house of my life, but I wasn’t aware of His presence or consciously plugged into His power.  This happens because, as the Reformed Biblical Theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) explained –

In (the) great redeeming process two stages are to be distinguished. First come those acts of God which have a universal and objective significance, being aimed at the production of an organic center for the new order of things. After this had been accomplished, there follows a second stage during which this objective redemption is subjectively applied to individuals.

I’d believed the objective work of God in Christ to save me, but I’d not had a conscious experience of this saving work of God in Christ subjectively applied to me. I see this dynamic at work in the great “Apostolic Benediction” of 2 Corinthians 13:14 –

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
 

Salvation is the work of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It originates in the love of the Father.  It is accomplished by the grace of the Son in the finished work of His atoning death, burial and resurrection.   And it is applied by the communion of the Holy Spirit, by the way that the Holy Spirit communicates God’s grace in Christ to us and facilitates our sharing in it.  When we resist (Acts 7:51), quench (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), we close the door on the Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in our lives, and miss the conscious experience of the adequate spiritual dynamic for the living of the Christian life that God in Christ intends for us.

Jeffrey Simmons was an Episcopal Priest who was irritated when some members of his parish kept urging him to go to a certain conference where he could “get the Spirit.”   He finally wound up going, but resolved that he wasn’t going to let anybody pray for him while he was there.  Dodging offers to be prayed over at every turn, and becoming increasingly irritated by the whole idea, he finally retreated to a quiet garden where he could hide.

Sitting with my back against the trunk of a tree, I tried to sort out my feelings. I felt trapped (someone else had driven and I didn’t have a car.)  I felt pressured and manipulated… But as the sunlight sparkling through the cool green leaves started to calm me, I became aware that I (also) felt curious and a little ashamed of myself for not being more adventurous.  The theme of the conference, boiled down to the essentials, was nothing more than, “God wants to have a closer and more productive relationship with you, if you will just open yourself to receive it.”  I couldn’t argue with that… so I sat under that tree fir an hour and a half praying the hardest I had ever prayed in my life, “Dear God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.”

Several decades later, I still look back at that time of prayer with gratitude. I was not aware, when I emerged from under the tree, that anything had changed.  It was not an emotional experience at all.  The changes happened gradually over the next six months.  Prayer became a hunger, and the sense of God’s presence far more intense.  The amount of money I spent on Christian books increased dramatically. The biggest change, however, was what happened when I read the Bible.  Passages I had read fifty times took on a vividness and urgency that were almost disorienting.  All I had said was, “God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.” …It simply says, as I think Christians should always say, that God always has more for me, and I am standing before him with empty, receptive hands.

Biblically, I believe that the normal Christian life consists of both being “born again” (John 3:3) and of being “Spirit-filled” (Ephesians 5:18). Jesus Christ as the Savior came to do both.  He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and He is the “One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  But my spiritual life had been artificially truncated because nobody ever told me this, or showed me in Scripture how this was so.  As the disciples of John the Baptist told Paul outside of Ephesus in Acts 19:2 – I hadn’t even been told “that there was a Holy Spirit!”  And then, everything changed for me when at a prayer meeting when I was encouraged to “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit.  I did, and what I had known for a long long time was true suddenly became just as real to me, in me, and that’s the promise that Pentecost holds for each one of us.  “Come Holy Spirit, Come!DBS +

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