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 +

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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 +

fire

 

 

 

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Why don’t we Celebrate Pentecost like we do Christmas and Easter?

The Absence of a “Conscious Experience” of the Holy Spirit
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doveThe next big “event” in our life of faith and worship as a church will be Pentecost – Sunday, June 4th.  Pentecost doesn’t get the attention that Christmas and Easter do.  If the truth be told, Pentecost doesn’t even get the attention that Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July get in most of our churches.  And that’s a shame because this thing that we call Christianity just doesn’t work without what it is that Pentecost promises to provide.

In memorable language, E. Stanley Jones called the Holy Spirit the “adequate dynamic” we are offered for the living of the Christian life. He wrote – “I cannot imagine that Jesus, whose coming was specifically to baptize with the Holy Spirit, would lay before us the amazing charter of the new life [in the Sermon on the Mount] and then fail to mention the one power that could make the whole thing possible, namely, the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Pentecost marks the occurrence of an unrepeatable event in salvation history like the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, or the death of Christ on the cross, or His resurrection from the garden tomb. These things happened just once.  They have profound and continuing implications for our thinking, being and doing – to be sure – but they are events that happened in time and space once and for all.   Alister McGrath, the British Theologian, described them as “hard historical facts,” events, which if they did not happen, destroy the credentials and claims of Christianity.

The unrepeatable event of salvation history that Pentecost marks was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the sign of the inauguration of the new covenant that God’s Messiah came to establish. When the dramatic events of Pentecost Sunday began unfolding in Jerusalem 50 days after Easter (Acts 2:1-4), and people were beginning to ask what it all meant, Peter connected the dots between what was happening right in front of them with the promise that God had made to them long before through the Prophets about a coming day when God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh and a new way of relating to God would be created thereby (Joel 2:28-32//Acts 2:14-21).  The indwelling presence of God in each believer was part of the promised blessings of the new covenant (Ezekiel 36:22-27; Jeremiah 31:31-34), and it was part of the work of Christ as a “Spirit-person” who operated Himself in the fullness of the Spirit’s presence and power in the days of His public ministry (Matthew 3:16-17 ~ 4:1; Mark 1:10-11 ~ 1:12; Luke 3:21-22 ~ 4:1; John 1:32), and who promised to then bestow this same gift on His disciples (“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” – Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16 ~ 24:49//Acts 1:8; John 1:33; 7:39; 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:7) just as soon as He went away.

Pentecost marks the moment of the initial fulfillment of this promise in salvation history, and it signals the beginning of a new dispensation in our relationship with God (2 Corinthians 3:3; 5-8). The new thing that God did for the very first time on Pentecost Sunday has become a standard part of the normal Christian life ever since.  When we repent and are baptized, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).  The gift of the Holy Spirit when we first believe is now part of the normative pattern of conversion in the New Testament (Acts 19:2; Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 1:13-14; I John 2:20-27).  It’s part of the standard package.

The problem is that this is not something that most of us were told anything about when we became Christians.   Oh, the Holy Spirit was named in the baptismal formula (Matthew 28:19) that was spoken, and I believe that we were all given the promised gift of the Holy Spirit at that moment because that’s what the Scriptures say happens, but experientially, it seems to me that the gift of the Holy Spirit was something that arrived without instructions and that therefore got left unopened on the front doorsteps of our Christian lives, leaving us to try to manage the continuing Christian life and the church’s mission in our own strength without the “adequate spiritual dynamic” that that makes the whole thing possible in the first place.

wrapI had two great spinster aunts from out-of- state who sent me ties for Christians throughout my childhood and youth. Every year, it was a tie – hardly the heart’s desire of a little boy at Christmastime.  And so in the annual frenzy of present-opening on Christmas morning, when it came to their package, I’d smile, shrug and throw it, still in its holiday wrapping, onto the pile of presents that I’d amassed.   And then when all of that loot got transferred to my bedroom, that unopened box with its tie in it would get tossed into the closet where it disappeared in the detritus of a boy’s life that inevitably winds up on the floor buried under layers and layers of stuff, not to be seen or heard from again, that is, unless those spinster aunts suddenly make a surprise visit to Southern California!  Then you were sent scurrying to find one of those ties so that it could be worn appreciatively at a big family dinner.  This has become something of a parable of the Holy Spirit’s presence in my own life as a Christian.

I believe that I was given the Holy Spirit when I first believed, but I sure didn’t know who, or what, or why? I didn’t have a clue about what to do with the Holy Spirit that I had been given, so I just pushed the Holy Spirit to the side like an unwanted and unopened present on Christmas morning, and then I didn’t give the Holy Spirit another thought until years later, when spiritually exhausted and frustrated, I got to the end of my own natural abilities and capacities, and I went scrambling through the detritus on the floor of my soul for that gift that I had been given long before but had cast aside as my journey of faith had begun. It was only when it had become agonizingly clear to me that I wasn’t strong enough or smart enough to “run” either the church or my own life, that I went back looking for the “adequate dynamic” that had been offered to me when I first believed, and that had been refused by me in my ignorance and pride.

A.W. Tozer, one of my most trusted and enduring spiritual directors, wrote –

…Let me shock you at this point. A naturally bright person can carry on religious activity without a special gift from God. Filling church pulpits every week are some who are using only natural abilities and special training. Some are known as Bible expositors, for it is possible to read and study commentaries and then repeat what has been learned about the Scriptures. Yes, it may shock you, but it is true that anyone able to talk fluently can learn to use religious phrases and can become recognized as a preacher. But if any person is determined to preach so that his work and ministry will abide in the day of the judgment fire, then he must preach, teach and exhort with the kind of love and concern that comes only through a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit—something beyond his own capabilities…

…The Christian church cannot rise to its true stature in accomplishing God’s purposes when its members neglect the true gifts and graces of God’s Spirit. Much of the religious activity we see in our churches is not the eternal working of the Eternal Spirit but the mortal working of man’s mortal mind.” (A. W. Tozer – Tragedy in the Church: The Missing Gifts – 1978)

A church that fails to celebrate Pentecost, or that obscures the outpouring of God’s empowering Spirit on Christians and the church in the way that it actually does celebrate Pentecost, is a church whose “conscious experience” of the Holy Spirit is weak and at real risk.  It’s a month now until Pentecost on the church calendar. And just as the season of Lent prepares us spiritually for the event and experience of Easter, and just as the season of Advent prepares us spiritually for the event and experience of Christmas, so these next four weeks provide us with an opportunity to prepare ourselves spiritually for the event and experience of Pentecost. The monastic community with which I have had an association has a guide that they offer to people as a way of getting them spiritually ready for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Risen Christ told His disciples to “tarry” in Jerusalem “until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48), and it is my observation and experience that this fullness of the Spirit is something for which we must get prepared.  It’s something that must be sought –

“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish?  Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

Again, A.W. Tozer is helpful –

fly…It is in the preparation for receiving the Spirit’s anointing that most Christians fail… No one can be filled with the Holy Spirit until he is convinced that being filled with the Holy Spirit is a part of the total plan of God in redemption; that it is nothing added or extra, nothing strange or queer, but a proper and spiritual operation of God… The inquirer must be sure to the point of conviction. He must believe that the whole thing is normal and right. …Unless he is persuaded from the Scriptures he should not press the matter nor allow himself to fall victim to the emotional manipulators intent upon forcing the issue. God is wonderfully patient and understanding and will wait for the slow heart to catch up with the truth.

In these next few weeks leading up to Pentecost I will be sharing in my blog some of the things that I have learned about the Holy Spirit through my “conscious experience” of the Holy Spirit through the years.  And then in the nine days immediately before Pentecost this year, I will be sharing a day-by-day prayer experience designed to prepare all of us for afresh outpouring of the presence, power and provision of the God in us and on the church.  I invite you to join me on the journey. DBS +

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A Prayer for Revival by C H Spurgeon

O God, send us the Holy Spirit! Give us both the breath spiritual life and the fire of unconquerable zeal. You are our God, answer us by fire, we pray! Answer us both by wind and fire, and then we shall see You are God indeed. The Kingdom comes not, and the work is flagging. O, that You would send the wind and fire! You will do this when we are all of one accord, all believing, all expecting, all prepared by prayer. Lord, bring us to this waiting state! God, send us a season of glorious disorder. O, for a sweep of the wind that will set the seas in motion, and make our ironclad church, laying so quietly at anchor, to roll from stem to stern! O for the fire to fall again – a fire which shall effect the most stolid! O, that such fire might first sit upon the disciples, and then fall on all around! O God, You are ready to work with us today even as You did then. Stay not, we plead with You, but work at once. Break down every barrier that hinders the incoming of Your might! Give us now both hearts of flame and tongues of fire to preach Your reconciling word, for Jesus’ sake! Amen!”

 

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“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

“Balch Springs Police – Teen’s Shooting Death – Chief Changes Account…”
“Paramedic Shot; Suspect Dead…”
“UT Student Accused in Fatal Campus Stabbing…”

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There were just three stories on the front-page of the Dallas Morning News on Tuesday morning, May 2. 15 year old athlete and honor student Jordan Edwards shot and killed by a Balch Springs police officer who fired into a car leaving the scene of a loud party on Saturday night.  William An, a 10-year veteran of Dallas Fire-Rescue, shot and critically wounded on Monday morning responding to a call for help. And University of Texas freshman Harrison Brown from Graham, Texas, stabbed and killed in an unprovoked knife attack on campus on Monday afternoon that wounded three other students as well.

Each one of these stories triggers feelings of anguish and outrage.

Jordan Edwards’ death is another agonizing chapter in the completely unacceptable series of police shootings of young black men in our society. The critical wounding of William An is an intolerable assault on the social contract that asks first responders to run to and not away from trouble for all of us.  And the death of Harrison Brown is every parent’s worst nightmare, the loss of a beloved child on the brink of his life.

We can be selective in our response to these three tragedies. We can reserve our moral anger for the story that hits closest to “our” home.  We can channel our profound grief to the story that hits us where we are personally most vulnerable. And who could blame us?

Who could possibly object to those who in anger and pain are standing up right now and are saying that Black Lives Matter. They’re absolutely right.  They do.  And who could possibly object to those who in anger and fear are standing up right now and are saying that Blue Lives Matter.  They’re absolutely right. They do too.  And who could possibly criticize those who worry that if they send their kids off to school that they won’t come home again. As we often sing, there are “many dangers, toils and snares,” and so I will not dismiss the agony or disregard the anxiety of anybody right now.  These three stories on the front page of Tuesday morning’s paper are particular enough to hit all of our own particularities very hard and to make them hurt very deeply.  But I am finding that their convergence is striking a different chord in me right now, and producing a different kind of ache – an ache for our lost shalom.

I love the stories that the book of Genesis tells in its first eleven chapters as much as anything I find in the Hebrew Scriptures. These stories spiritually set the table at which I sit as a Christian each and every Sunday morning to break bread and pour a cup to remember what God in Christ has done for us. If the Gospel solves a problem, then I find that the problem gets stated for me most concisely and clearly in the stories told in the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

shalomThe shalom of God’s creative intention – everybody and everything working together in perfect harmony in a web of mutual well-being and thriving – has come undone, and now all of our relationships have been shattered. My relationship with God is broken. My relationship with myself is broken. My relationship with you is broken. My relationship with nature is broken.   My problem — our problem — is theological, psychological, sociological and ecological. And what the stories about Jordan, William and Harrison in Tuesday morning’s paper remind me of this week is just how painfully real and frustratingly persistent our divisions with each other are.

In the cycle of origin stories found in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis, the beginning of Jordan’s, William’s and Harrison’s stories goes back to a single episode, the very first story told about humanity after our expulsion from the shalom of the Garden –

cainCain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”  And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! (Genesis 4:8-10)

God directly answered Cain’s question about whether or not he was his brother’s keeper in another origin story told Genesis 9 – the story of Noah and the ark. After the flood and cosmic reboot it represented was accomplished, God sat His second human prototype –Noah – down and reprogrammed His design for creation, and part of the explicit instruction given was a divine response to the trajectory of violence between human beings that Cain’s act set in motion. God told Noah – Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Genesis 9:6). The morally necessary and urgent demands for justice that are being made right now on behalf of Jordan, William and Harrison find their Biblical legitimacy right here.

The shooting death of Jordan by a police officer on Saturday night was wrong, and cannot be tolerated in a moral society that intends justice for all. The attempt made on William’s life on Monday morning was wrong, and cannot be tolerated in a moral society that intends justice for all. And the stabbing death of Harrison on Monday afternoon was wrong, and cannot be tolerated in a moral society that intends justice for all. This needs to be said loudly, clearly and persistent by people of a faith that is deeply informed by the Biblical witness. The cry for justice is rooted and grounded in a clear “no” from God. We are not supposed to be killing each other as members of the same human family because we all bear the image of God and thereby have a divinely declared worth. Our voices cannot falter or equivocate on this. We must guard the image of human beings because human beings bear the image of God. But for the people of a faith that is deeply informed by the Biblical witness, this cry for justice is not all that we must say, because by itself it is just not enough.

If all that was needed to fix the things that got all twisted up inside us when Cain killed his brother Abel was just a clear and emphatic “no” to the rivalry and violence of brother against brother, then the problem should have been solved with the clear injunction of Genesis 9:6. But the Biblical narrative runs red with the blood of brothers still killing brothers in the chapters that follow God’s declaration of the value of human life at the end of the Noah story in Genesis 9. We certainly need moral instruction, but we need more than moral instruction.

I am intrigued by where and how the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4 shows up again in the New Testament and gets used “for our instruction” as Christians (I Corinthians 10:11). The primary occurrence is in I John 3:11-16 –

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.  We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.  Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you.  We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.  All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

Fully unpacking the scope and significance of these verses in the structure of John’s argument is well beyond the scope of this blog. A doctoral dissertation would be a better venue for that assignment. So all I would suggest here in closing is that the crucial key to understanding what it was that John was doing here can be found in the way that he rooted Cain’s evil deeds in the prior fact of Cain’s core identity as being “from the evil one,” just as John rooted the new command for us as Christians to love one another in the prior fact that we have already “passed from death to life” and now have eternal life “abiding” in us.

In assessing the human condition with its propensity for the violence of Cain, Jesus said – what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18-19). And so, if addressing murder is something that we think we need to address – and Jordan, William and Harrison all make the painful case this week that we certainly do – then it is to the heart that we must finally turn as people of a faith that is deeply informed by the biblical witness.

orangeAt the end of His Sermon on the Mount, a summary of the core teachings of Christ which included a powerful reaffirmation of the Divine prohibition on murder (Matthew 5:21-26), Jesus addressed how He thought that all of the behavioral changes that He expected of His disciples would come about – Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?  In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18). According to John, Cain committed his evil act because he was “from the evil one.” And John told Christians that they were not to behave like Cain, but instead that they were to love others, because they had been changed deep inside – they had “passed from death to life” and now had eternal life “abiding” in them. Cain was one kind of tree, and his violent act against his brother was just the fruit of the kind of tree that he was. To change the story of Cain, then he would have to become a different kind of tree! And the way that I read the New Testament, this is precisely what the Gospel offers us – a fundamental and consequential change of identity that results in fundamental and consequential changes in how we think and act.

Justice tells us that what happened to Jordan, William and Harrison this week was absolutely wrong and cannot be tolerated by a moral society. Justice can warn people not to do things like this, justice can establish laws to try to prevent people from doing things like this, and finally justice can punish people who do things like this. Justice is clearly necessary and even urgent in a world where people do things like this. But to change things, people are going to have to be changed – “born again” and “born from above” as Jesus put it (John 3:3) – and this requires nothing less that the power of the Gospel to save (Romans 1:16-17). People of faith informed by the Biblical witness need to stand up and speak out for justice in a week like this one, and then we need to share the Gospel as the solution to the problem that this week has so painfully exposed once again. The fruit of behavior comes from the root of identity, and the Good News of Jesus Christ is that our identities can in fact be fundamentally and consequentially changed. In Christ we become new creations, the old passes away and the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17). DBS+

 

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“All dressed up with nowhere to go, and nothing to do…”

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I grew up in the Episcopal Church, the high church variety. You know, “smells and bells.”  We took ourselves and our adherence to tradition quite seriously. In that old nature/nurture debate, I attribute my stalwart “SJ” temperament [matched by an “I” and a “T” for anyone who might be curious about my “type”] in no small measure to my being spiritually socialized in a church that actually had full rehearsals for all of its high holy day worship services so that we would “do it right” — that is, the way that it had always been done according to tradition.

Anyway, it was at the end of a long Lenten season and a marathon of intricate Holy Week worship services, that I was standing in the sacristy (the communion preparation room and worship staging area) with a couple of my fellow acolytes attending to all of the post-service details after the last Easter morning Worship, when I overheard our priest, getting out of his liturgical vestments, mutter – “Thank God that’s over.”

I’ve been through 40 Lents and Holy Weeks as a local church pastor now myself, so I know full well what he meant. He was tired.  He just wanted to go home and have a martini — what he had “given up” for Lent and go to bed.  He needed some down time.  I “get” that.  What I don’t “get” is the spiritual and Biblical myopia that his statement betrayed.

In the minds of way too many of us, Easter marks the end of the story. Get to Easter, and we’re finished until Advent and Christmas rolls around again in November and December.  This is our Christianity –

  • God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in Jesus Christ – the Christmas truth of the Incarnation – check – got it!
  • Jesus Christ going to the cross in a saving act of sacrificial love – the Good Friday truth of the Atonement – check – got it!
  • And Jesus Christ being raised from the dead on the third day triumphing over death and darkness – the Easter truth of Personal Regeneration and Cosmic Renewal – check – got it!

But if this is where we stop, then what we’ve got is Jesus back up on His feet and all dressed-up, but with nowhere to go and nothing to do! And if this is where your Christianity puts the period, then you’ve only got half of the Gospel.

bosch.pngDavid Bosch in his magisterial theology of the mission of the church Transforming Mission Orbis – 1991) identified the six Biblical moments in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ: (1) Christmas – the Incarnation – what God was doing to save us by becoming flesh in Jesus Christ; (2) Good Friday – the Atonement – what God in Christ was doing to save us by going to the cross; (3) Easter – the Resurrection – what God was doing to save us by raising Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day; (4) The Ascension –what God was doing to save us by seating Jesus Christ at His right hand as Lord; (5) Pentecost – what God was doing to save us by sending the continuing empowering presence of Christ to indwell individual Christians and the whole church; and (6) The Second Coming – what God is going to do to finish the work of salvation already begun in Jesus Christ when He comes again.

The “full” Gospel takes into account all six of these saving moments in the drama of God’s work in Jesus Christ.  And so, to pull up short and stop at Easter is to literally leave half of the Gospel on the table, and ironically, it’s the half of the Gospel that actually moves the story from history to our hearts!  As a prayer I am praying these days as part of my personal devotion puts it –

“Thou hast this day spread before us the fuller pages of revelation, and in them we see what thou wouldest have us do, what thou hast required of us, what thou hast done for us, what thou hast promised us, what thou hast given us in Jesus. [Now] we pray thee for a conscious experience of his salvation…” (The Sunday Evening Prayer from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions – Arthur Bennet, ed.  The Banner of Truth Trust. 1975. — Yes, I really am an “SJ”…)

For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the part of the Gospel that the Ascension, Pentecost and the promise of the Second Coming specifically offer us – that is, an awareness of the active Lordship of Christ over all of creation (Ascension); the experience of the indwelling and empowering presence of Christ assuring us of our identity as God’s children and driving us out to share in His mission in the world (Pentecost); and a deep aching for the final coming of the Kingdom when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (The Second Coming).  Without this awareness, this experience and this ache, our Christianity will always be more a theory than a love affair.  For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the whole Gospel. So, to my priest’s exhausted – “Thank God that’s over” – spoken in the sacristy of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California, 50 years ago, this veteran of 40 Lents and Holy Weeks now himself replies – “Not yet, Father… it’s not over yet.” Jesus Christ was raised on the third day to finish the work of salvation that His birth, life, death and resurrection began, and “finishing” it involves the Ascension, Pentecost and the Second Coming.

This all hit me with particular force a week ago at Sunday evening’s Ephesians Bible study (broadcast each week between 5:30 and 6:30 pm – Central Standard Time – on Facebook Live) as we dug into 1:17-21 –

17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Paul addressed these words to Christians, to people who already knew and fully trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In 1:15-16 Paul had affirmed and celebrated with the Ephesians what it was that he had heard about their faith and love.  They were already well-grounded believers, and what Paul wanted for them next was growth.  He didn’t want them to rest on their past laurels of faith and faithfulness, but rather Paul wanted them to keep on growing in their understanding and experience of the hope to which they had been called, of the value of the promises that God had made to them, and of the power that was available to them.  It wasn’t over yet, and Paul wanted these believers who had had such a good start not to stall out in the face of the challenges and conflicts that were yet to come their way.  And in his word of encouragement to them, Paul appealed to what God had already done for them by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, as well as anticipating what it was that God was still going to do for them because Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places.  In other words, Paul brought the “full” Gospel into play in his efforts to encourage the faith of the Ephesian Christians as they moved into the future, and it’s there for us as well.

godIn Romans 8, Paul grounded his affirmation of God’s love in Jesus Christ from which nothing can separate us in three Gospel moments: (1) In the fact that Christ died for us (8:32); (2) In the fact that Christ was raised for us (8:34b); and (3) In the fact that Christ now intercedes for us at the right hand of God (8:34c). Again, it’s the “full” Gospel – what Christ has already done for us, what Christ is presently doing for us, and what Christ has yet to do for us – and not some partial version of it that securely tethers us to the certainty of God’s love and that tightly attaches us to the promises of God’s faithful care and concern for us, and the whole world.

When Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, He had somewhere to go and something to do, and for a conscious experience of the salvation that He provides, it’s best to see this story through to its very end, and to build our faith on the complete foundation that we are being offered. DBS +

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Getting the Gospel Straight ~ Keeping the Gospel First

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It’s a familiar warning in certain parts of the church these days. They say that there are four steps in the process of a church “losing” the gospel.  First, the gospel is accepted and affirmed. Second, the gospel gets assumed and goes unreferenced. Third, the gospel gets confused with other things, many of them good and noble. And then finally, the gospel gets lost. People no longer remember why the church exists and does what it does. The example of the Mennonite Brethren Church is frequently cited as a classic picture of how this happens –

…the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments. (David Gibson – “Assumed Evangelicalism”Modern Reformation)

I thought about this observation again this past week with the controversy that was generated by something that Andrew Forrest, the minister who is leading the revitalization of Munger Place United Methodist Church over in East Dallas, said about community gardens and co-working spaces (http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8114/andrew-forrest-every-dying-church-in-america-has-a-community-garden) –

Every dying church in America has a community garden. Every dying church in America has a co-working space. What do I mean by that? I have no problem with community gardens; a garden is a beautiful thing. And I don’t have any problem with co-working spaces. But Jesus didn’t tell us to start a community garden, and he didn’t tell us to start co-working spaces; he told us to make disciples. That’s literally the mission of the church.

The problem is not the gardens… The problem is that we often want to substitute secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship.

What Andrew is doing here is a reversal of the field that David Gibson mapped out in his assessment of how the Mennonite Brethren Movement lost the Gospel.   Andrew is pushing back through that third generation mainline version of the church that has lost the Gospel and only has the social implications of the Gospel, and back through the second generation mainline version of the church that assumes the gospel and advocates the Gospel’s social implications, to a renewed mainline version of the church that believes and proclaims the Gospel and understands that it has some important social implications.

Of course, to do this one must have some real clarity about what the Gospel is. Andrew Forrest certainly does.  In that same article in which he names community gardens and co-working spaces as secondary concerns, he explains –

…Neither by background nor by training nor by inclination am I a fire-and-brimstone preacher. And yet the gospel itself makes no sense if it’s just vague feel-goodery. The gospel, as I understand it, is the good news regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that this “vague feel-goodery” substitution for the Gospel takes two forms in the church today.  In the traditional/conservative/Evangelical church it takes the form of the subjective experience of the individual Christian – the offer of forgiveness and personal peace of mind right now, and the promise of an eternity in heaven with God when we die.  And in the progressive/liberal/mainline church it takes the form of a focus on social action and a passion for social justice – changing the systems and structures of society so that people can thrive physically, relationally, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually in this world.  Personal spiritual experience and a conscientious engagement with social issues are neither unrelated nor unimportant to the Gospel, but, in the words of Andrew Forrest, they are “secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship” which is what Jesus told us to do.

Graeme Goldsworthy, an Australian Evangelical Anglican and Old Testament scholar, wrote these words to his own traditional/conservative/evangelical wing of the church that he sees as being at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of the subjective experience of the individual Christian –

The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Jesus Christ, is often downgraded today in favor of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual. Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of and commitment to the declaration that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now… But when we allow the whole Bible – Old and New Testaments – to speak to us, we find that those subjective aspects of the Christian life, which are undoubtedly important – the new birth, faith, and sanctification – are the fruits of the gospel. The gospel, while still relating to individual people at their point of need, is rooted and grounded in the history of redemption. It is the good news about Jesus, before it can become good news for sinful men and women. Indeed, it is only as the objective (redemptive-historical) facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood.

And I read Andrew Forrest’s article as a version of this same warning to his own progressive/liberal/mainline that is at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of social action and a passion for social justice.

The fruit of the Gospel is transformation. Traditional/conservative/Evangelical Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of personal transformation. Progressive/liberal/mainline Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of social transformation. We all want transformation.  The real question is, what effects this kind of transformation, personally and socially?

With Andrew Forrest and Graeme Goldsworthy I would argue that it’s the Gospel, the transformative message of new hearts, new values, new lives and a new world through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His indwelling and empowering presence in us, both individually and collectively as the church, through the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit. For the kind of transformation that we’re looking for, the Gospel is the power that we need. DBS +

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“Do Something Beautiful for God… Become Someone Beautiful for God”

Tradition says that after considering other religious options, that the Russians consciously chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be their state religion because when they experienced its worship for the very first time, they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth… for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty… and they could not forget that beauty.”

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I thought this about our worship at Northway on Easter Sunday morning. I cannot forget that beauty — the Choral Scholars’ Quartet singing Mendelssohn’s “O Come, Every One that Thirsteth,” the flowering of the cross, the y’all come and sing version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Margaret and Justin’s astonishing piano and organ duet during the Offertory, the spectacular spread of blooming Easter lilies, the choir’s lush anthem and stirring preface to our processional hymn, and the worship team singing “Beautiful Things” after my morning meditation on “Beauty from Ashes” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

I didn’t know if I was on earth or in heaven!

goodWe have tended to underestimate the power of beauty as one of the God-triggers in our souls. One of the three “transcendentals,” we’ve tended to rely on the other two so much more in practice. Our activist impulse, that God-implanted desire to do something, anything, to make the world a better place orients us towards the way of the good.  And our drive to understand things both great and small routinely puts us on the path of the true. But classically understood, beauty is just as sure a way into an awareness of God as is our drive to do what’s good and to know what’s true.

I based my Easter message this year on the line from Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” song about how the mission of God’s Messiah when He came would be to exchange “ashes for beauty” (61:3), and how this has become a familiar way for Christians to think and talk about the promise of Easter. After the brutality of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday, when Jesus was raised on the third day, this exchange occurred — the ashes of death, despair, and apparent defeat became the beauty of the resurrection to newness of life. At the lowest moment in the story of Jesus, “all of the shattered fragments of spiritual power were suddenly quickened, strengthened, and clothed with loveliness.” On Easter Sunday morning I said that this is what Christ came to do – “to bring a new life out of the old ashes” (James D. Wilson). And this is not some abstract theological concept.  No, this is immediate and personal.

It’s about the difference that Jesus Christ makes in your life as your Lord and Savior. It’s what we mean when we sing – “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” It’s about the ashes of death giving way to the beauty of life, both eternal and abundant. It’s about the ashes of despair giving way to the beauty of hope.   It’s about the ashes of shame and guilt giving way to the beauty of forgiveness.  It’s about the ashes of division giving way to the beauty of inclusion.   It’s about the ashes of defeat and discouragement giving way to the beauty of transformation and renewal.  It’s about the ashes of regret giving way to the beauty of regeneration.  The power of Easter is in how it takes our ashes and makes them into something beautiful.

Years ago Joseph Aldrich wrote about how it is the beauty of the Gospel and not just the Gospel’s words that has the real power to transform people. He wrote –

…The “music” of the gospel is the beauty of the indwelling Christ as lived out in the everyday relationships of our lives. We must become recipients of God’s blessing, begin to incarnate His beauty in our relationships, and open these relationships to the non-Christian… Once this “music” has been heard, then expect to be asked for the “reasons for the hope (beauty) that you have.”  Play the beautiful music, and they’ll listen to the words of the song. (Life-Style Evangelism 21)

motherMother Teresa was famous for telling her little brothers and sisters of charity all around the world to try to “do something beautiful for God” each and every day. This prompted Philip Kosloski to write an essay for the “National Catholic Register” on the beauty of Mother Teresa’s life and work for the weekend last September when she was canonized a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He asked —

…Will beauty save the world? Yes it will, but it must be a Beauty united to Truth and Goodness, and a beauty that encompasses all aspects of life. The Gospel we preach to the Modern World will not be found effective if it does not recognize the importance of beauty, especially the beauty of Christian witness.

…By drawing closer to God, our lives reflect a particular beauty, which has the capacity to attract others to the beauty of God. In seeing the beauty of God in our lives, others see that being a Christian is not something oppressive or burdensome, but is actually liberating and beautiful.

“… the Christian life is called to become, in the force of Grace given by Christ resurrected, an event of susceptible beauty to arouse admiration and reflection and incite conversion. The meeting with Christ and His disciples… must always and everywhere have the potential to become an event of beauty, a moment of joy in the discovery of a new dimension of existence, an invitation to put oneself on the road to the Father of Heaven to enjoy the vision of the Complete Truth, the beauty of the Love of God: Beauty is the splendour of the truth and the flowering of Love.” (The Via Pulchritudinis, §III.3 – Pope Benedict XVI)

You see, we don’t just believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christians, we live it. The Gospel’s exchange of ashes for beauty that Christ’s resurrection 2,000 years ago embodied now plays out in our lives as the ashes of the rebellion of our sin and the brokenness of our lives getting exchanged for the beauty of our transformation and personal renewal.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. And all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Because Christ is Risen and we are walking in newness of life through our share in it by faith (Romans 6:1-1-11), this Eastertide let’s go do something beautiful for God, or better yet, let’s become someone beautiful for God. Because of Easter, our ashes have a beauty appointment.  DBS +

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