“What’s Happened to the World?”

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 “Not the Way it’s supposed to be…”

In the 1991 film Grand Canyon, an immigration attorney breaks out of a traffic jam and tries to drive around it. He doesn’t know where he’s going and he’s alarmed to note that each street seems darker and more deserted than the last. Then, a nightmare. His fancy sports car stalls. He manages to call for a tow truck, but before it arrives, five local toughs surround his car and threaten him. Just in time, the tow truck shows up and its driver—an earnest, genial man – begins to hook up to the sports car. The toughs protest. So the driver takes the group leader aside and gives him a five-sentence introduction to sin:

 Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without asking you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is here.

The driver’s summary of the human predicament is just about perfect. He understands the way things are supposed to be. They are supposed to include friendly streets that are safe for strangers. They are supposed to include justice that fosters peace, mutual respect and goodwill, deliberate and widespread attention to the public good. Of course, things are not that way at all. Human wrongdoing or the threat of it mars every adult’s workday, every child’s school day, every vacationer’s holiday. The news online, the news from our friends, and our own experience give us all the examples we need.

 Cornelius Plantinga Jr.
http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/cci/Pantinga.pdf  

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 It’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve just heard the news that three more police officers have been ambushed and killed, this time in Louisiana, and this on the heels of the episode of truck terrorism in Nice last Thursday night that left more than 80 people dead, which came on the heels of the shooting of the police officers a week ago Thursday right here in Dallas, which came on the heels of the shooting deaths of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis and Alton Sterling at the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge earlier that same week, which came on the heels of…

On and on it goes.

Some people hear the news and wonder what’s happened to the world? They act as if just a moment ago everything was all sweetness and light, and then, all of a sudden, something went terribly wrong and disrupted that equilibrium. But when has the world ever been all sweetness and light in your actual experience of it?  I don’t think that the world has gotten any worse than it’s ever been, instead I think that we’ve just gotten so much better at reporting on what’s going on in it.  Oh, I think that I have a memory of a world of sweetness and light it in my soul.  In fact, sometimes I can hear the soft echoes of Eden in my heart and catch glimpses of it in scenes of beauty and moments of harmony.  But the truth of the matter is that I have no actual, firsthand, sustained experience of the world in perfect shalom that Genesis 1 and 2 reports.  No, the only world that I read about in history and experience in my own life is the world of Genesis 3, a world where nothing is the way that it’s supposed to be.

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I cut my theological teeth on the writings of Francis Schaeffer, and Jerram Barr in a lecture from his course “Francis Schaeffer: The Later Years” at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis captured one of the things that Francis Schaeffer characteristically emphasized in his teachings –

God is not responsible for the brokenness of the world. The world is not the way God created it, and human beings are not the way God created them.  Everything now is abnormal and is distorted by sin. Do not blame God for the way things are.  Human sin has made things the way they are.

The assumption behind this statement is a conceptual frame that comes from a particular reading of Scripture. And while it is not the only way to read the Bible, it is the conceptual frame that that I find helps me make the most sense of this painful world in which we live.  David Kelsey called it the “health-disease-healing plot structure.” The basic “gist” of the Christian message according to this understanding of the Bible’s “plot-structure” is “a single narrative history having three temporally successive moments.”

First, in love, God created humankind as part of a good world of finite creatures. Then, when some creatures sinned against God, the world as a whole was corrupted.  At the right time, the same God, in love, took the initiative to save the fallen world by way of the election of a particular people, among whom God became incarnate and among whom the incarnate one was then crucified and raised in order to restore finite creatures to wholeness.

For me, this “Created – Fallen – Redeemed” cycle is the Biblically determined frame for both understanding and experiencing Christianity.  Jack Rogers in his intellectual “coming of age” book, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical, said that the “main theme in Scripture” that he found was the threefold message of “God’s creation, man’s fall into sin, and Christ’s redemptive work.”  Me too.  And this frames my thoughts this afternoon at the news of the shooting deaths of those three police officers over in Louisiana this morning.

As we were in worship this morning at the 8:30 am service, sitting under the Word and gathering at the Lord’s Table, over in Baton Rouge those three police officers were bleeding and dying, as was the young man who shot them, and that’s not the only violence that tore at people’s hearts this morning, it’s just the episode that made the front page.  What seizes my spiritual imagination so powerfully this afternoon is that as the world was being shattered once again so violently over in Louisiana this morning, we were right here in church in Dallas at exactly the same moment celebrating with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ. Somehow these two things have just got to touch.  That’s our only hope. The brokenness of the world and the saving work of God in Jesus Christ have just got to touch.  In a memorable turn of phrase, Calvin Miller once wrote about the urgent necessity of what he called “Christifying the world.”

I generally think of Christifying my world as painting the face of the Savior on the anxious, hurried faces about me. I write “I.N.R.I.” (the letters “I.N.R.I.” are initials for the Latin title that Pontius Pilate had written over the head of Jesus Christ on the cross (John 19:19).  The words were “Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm.” The English translation is “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews“). As soon as they are autographed with His name, they yield to meaning and to life.  A priest in our town, some years ago, happened on an accident where a wrecked gasoline transport trapped a family in a small car while the engulfing flames burned them alive.  The priest “Christified” the crisis.  He knelt by the intense heat, his small dark frame silhouetted against the flames, and prayed.  “What good did it do?” That is not the issue.  His prayer “Christified” the event.  It called to mind the nature of true reality.  Here is a world more real than this where God watches, and cares, and loves, (and saves).

That’s the world we touched in church this morning, and it urgently needs to intersect with the world where people hate, and curse, and bleed, and die. The Gospel is the message that God in Jesus Christ has entered into the fullness of this world with all of its suffering and sadness, and that He has confronted, and is even right now in the process of defeating all of the forces that are in it that seek to work us woe. Apart from the first coming of Christ as that little baby in Bethlehem’s manger, His atoning death on Calvary’s cross, His triumphant resurrection on the third day, His glorious ascension as Lord of all, His purposeful sending of the Holy Spirit and His promised Second Coming in final victory to finish the work of salvation at the close of the age, I don’t have anything particularly helpful to say to, or anything especially constructive to do about the abnormality of the world other than to curse and cry.  But because of who Jesus Christ is, and because of what Jesus Christ has done, is doing, and has yet to do, I find that I do have something helpful to say to, and I do have something constructive to do about the abnormality of the world.

  • Because Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among us, Christians and the church have got to get off the sidelines and into the world for an active engagement with people’s deepest hurts and highest hopes.
  • Because Jesus Christ died on the cross in His contest with evil, Christians and the Church have got to fearlessly face the evil that they see, and because it was on the cross that Jesus Christ did the work of mercy, Christians and the Church have got to be about the work of forgiveness.
  • Because Jesus Christ was raised on the third day, Christians and the Church have got to embrace the newness of life that Christ offers to all of creation. We have got to find ways to live the shalom that we seek.
  • Because Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father in Glory, Christians and the Church have got to give active expression to the Lordship of Christ over every sphere of life.
  • Because Jesus Christ sent the Holy Spirit, Christians and the Church have got to become more conscious of the Spirit’s indwelling presence and more reliant upon the Spirit’s empowering resources for the work that God has laid on our hearts and placed in our hands.
  • And because Jesus Christ will come again in glory to establish His Kingdom that has no end, Christians and the Church have got to not only pray for that Kingdom to come, they have also got to lean into it right now by doing whatever they can to give concrete expression to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Christians are fallen people who live in a fallen world, to be sure. We are part of the problem.  But Christians are also people who believe that in Jesus Christ God is busy fixing what’s gone wrong in the world and is actively repairing the damage that’s been done to the world.  And this means that Christians themselves are projects of restoration and reconciliation – we ourselves are numbered among the broken things that God is making whole. And Christians are agents of restoration and reconciliation – we are the vanguard of the future that God is bringing.

So, yes, the world is broken. Things are not the way they’re supposed to be. And the abnormality of the world as we experience it is both frightening and painful.  But in Jesus Christ God is at hard at work setting right what’s gone wrong and healing what’s been wounded, and as Christians we are called to be God’s collaborators in this work of grace.  And so, when the brokenness of the world knocks the wind out of you and drops you to your knees, look for Christ – see where He is, listen to what He is saying, watch what He is doing, and then take your lead from Him.  This moment is just too critical for Christians to forget who God is in Jesus Christ, or to get fuzzy about what it is that God in Jesus Christ is doing. Christians… church… it’s time to “Christify the world!”  DBS +

 

 

 

 

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The Hard Work of Hope Begins…

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A colleague and friend responded to my blog last week about “Patriotic Grace” by asking, Should we just sit back and accept things, as is, to continue on the road our world is traveling on or should we speak up for our Lord and Savior and His teachings? Political Grace, how do they intermingle?” These are the right questions, Debbie.

What I wrote in “We’re All in This Thing Together” was a thought piece, the elucidation of what I believe is a Biblical principle.  I’m a pastor/preacher, a practical theologian, this is what I do. I live in a world of big thoughts that I find in Scripture about God, and humanity, and how it is that we connect with and relate to each other. What you want is for me to put some wheels on the concept so that it can get some traction on the road of real life.  What you’ve asked reminds me of something I heard my friend Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger say earlier this year at one of our Faiths in Conversation programs.

coffinHe told a story about William Sloane Coffin, one of the previous ministers of New York City’s historic Riverside Church. After another one of his many appearances before a congressional panel in Washington D.C. on some pressing social issue where he had prophetically tried to speak truth to power, he was chided by one of the congressmen for always speaking in abstractions at the level of what someone has called “big hairy truths.”  “Talking about peace, and justice, and equality, and compassion is fine,” that congressman said, “but specifically… practically… concretely… at the point of policy and law, just exactly what was it that you want us to do?”  And Dr. Coffin reportedly said that figuring that out wasn’t his job.  That was their job. “Amos thundered ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ (5:24),” he said, “but Amos didn’t draw up any plans for the construction of reservoirs and irrigation systems.”

mineIn my July 1 blog – “Is the Fourth of July a Religious Holiday?” – I referenced the thinking of the Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper who said that “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” but who also believed that God does different things in and through the church than God does in and through culture. I explained, “Just as you wouldn’t go to a bank to get a loaf of bread, or take your dog to an auto mechanic to treat him for fleas, so while God is at work in and through both church and culture, God is not doing the same thing in both places.

This is a gross oversimplification of what Kuyper taught, but we could say that the assignment that God has given to the church concerns the eternal needs of our souls as human beings, while the assignment that God has given to the culture concerns the temporal needs of our bodies. The Great Commission sets the agenda for the life and work of the church. To teach what Christ commanded and to make disciples is the church’s job.  And it’s something called the “Cultural Mandate” that sets the agenda for the work that God expects culture to do. The “Cultural Mandate” is what the Creation stories of Genesis are talking about when they call all human beings everywhere and always to the tasks of “filling and subduing” (Genesis 1:28) and “tilling and keeping” (Genesis 2:15). These are God’s assignment for culture. Creating and then maintaining the conditions that are most conducive to human thriving in this world, that’s the assignment that God has given to culture.

So, within this framework, back to your good questions Debbie.

What is it that we as Christians are supposed to do? Within the “sphere” of the church’s assignment, what should we be doing, especially right now and right here in this moment of violence, anger and fear?  Well, last Sunday morning I preached on the Sixth Commandment – “No Killing” (Exodus 20:13). This sermon series on the Ten Commandments was planned three months ago.  The intersection of this specific text with the events that played out in downtown Dallas, and in Minneapolis, and in Baton Rouge last week, are what I can only describe as a “Godcidence” (as opposed to a coincidence).

The decision that I preached for last Sunday morning was this –

Jesus said that while the prohibition of the Sixth Commandment still stands, that we must understand that killing is never just an outward act. “Murder comes from the heart” Jesus said (Matthew 15:19).  Long before it’s an external act, murder is an inward attitude rooted in envy, anger and hatred.  When another person has been judged to be worthless by us, then their life is of no longer of any concern to us.  And when this happens, then we’ve already committed the hidden murder of the heart.  And so, this is where Jesus Christ dug in His holy heels and intervened with His “transforming initiative of grace.”  Long before another person has been denigrated and dismissed, Jesus told us to interrupt this slide of them becoming dead to us by choosing to deliberately relate to them as a human being instead.

 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

 It’s not unimportant that people of Biblical faith take principled moral stands against killing in any of its familiar forms in our current culture of death. The Sixth Commandment is supposed to be one of the points on our moral compasses as Christians, and in our American context, I believe this means that it needs to be taken into serious consideration as we make our choices about who it is that we want making the life and death policy decisions of our nation.  But if that’s where you stop, then it seems to me that what you’ve got is an Exodus chapter 20 kind of faith, but not a Matthew chapter 5 kind of faith.  What you’ve got is the law, but not the Gospel.

 So, what does the Gospel look like in this specific situation? Well, I think that it looks an awful lot like that picture from Tuesday’s memorial service at the Meyerson.  Blacks and whites, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, police officers and Black activists, Jews and Muslims, Christians and secularists, all standing side by side and hand in hand.  This is a powerful picture of the kind of “Patriotic Grace” of which I wrote last week, and I believe that it’s a picture of the kind of work that the church is called to do, and about which I preached last Sunday morning.

My “Disciple” conscience and conviction, shaped as it is by the open Lord’s Table with the emblems of God’s saving grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ to which everyone is invited by faith on it, creates a passion in me to work to want to help people who are pulling apart to find the common ground where they can come within “hearing distance” of Christ and one another, and find their peace.

And so, while I believe that it’s important to oppose killing in our society as a person of Biblical faith, I believe that it is just as important as people of Biblical faith that we consciously and consistently choose to concretely love those people who, for whatever reason, we are most tempted to treat with contempt and disdain.  It’s because anger and hate are the roots of the kind of killing that the Sixth Commandment prohibits that Jesus told us as His disciples that it’s right there in those difficult relationships that the Gospel’s transforming work of grace must begin.

 Debbie, this is what we do. This is how we live “Patriotic Grace.” This is the work that I believe we are called to be doing right now as Christians.  This is how, and this is where the hard work of hope begins.  DBS +

 

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Jesus Wept…Yes, But then He raised Lazarus from the grave…

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…Yes, but then He raised
Lazarus from the grave…
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I am noticing something of a trend.

Whenever there is a tragic circumstance, Christians are increasingly posting on Facebook the two word response, “Jesus wept.”  And I completely believe that He does.  In fact, personally, my “Emmanuel” Christology (“God with us”) revolves around the absolute truth of this Gospel fact.  God’s full identification with us in the human condition through the incarnation is the biggest single reason why I am a Christian by conviction and not just by acculturation.

I deeply and desperately believe that God became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ (John 1:14), sharing our flesh and blood, facing all of the same threats and fears that we must face in this life (Hebrews 2:14-18), so that He can fully sympathize with us in our struggles, and give us the confidence we need to be able to draw near to God’s throne of grace to receive mercy and find help in our times of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). And so, while I believe that “Jesus weeps” when we, or the world suffers, I nevertheless don’t believe that it is, all by itself, enough.  It’s only a partial Biblical truth.  It’s an insufficiently Christian response.

yiedPeter Kreeft, the very fine Roman Catholic Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, discussed this as the question of what it is that we really need when our car careens in a snowbank. He argued that while it’s wonderful to have a good friend come and sit beside us in our cold car, sharing our discomfort while we wait, that what we really need in that moment is for someone in a tow truck to come along and pull us out of the mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into!  Now, if that tow truck driver is courteous and compassionate, then all the better!  But what we really need in that moment is not somebody’s sympathy, but their specific and concrete help at the point of our very real need.  And that’s why I find that the “Jesus wept” response, as valuable and as true as I honestly believe it is, is just not enough.  It’s less than the Gospel.

cryIn context, right after we’re told in John 11:35 that “Jesus wept,” we’re told that Jesus ordered the stone to be moved (11:39) so that Lazarus could get up and get out (11:43).  The whole setting of this story about Christ’s tears were His prior claim to be the resurrection and the life (11:25).  It was through His tears that Jesus Christ promised that those of us who would believe in Him, though we die yet shall we live, and that whoever lives and believes in Him shall never die (11:25-26).  This is what I think Paul had in mind when he told the Thessalonian Christians that because of their faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they could “grieve hopefully” (I Thessalonians 5:13).

To say that “Jesus wept” is to grieve, and that’s a wonderful heartfelt response to human suffering.  It’s humanizing and compassionate; a completely commendable reaction.  But to always be clear that it was through those tears that Jesus Christ confronted and then defeated death by raising Lazarus from the dead is to “up the spiritual ante” of Christianity significantly.  It is to consciously step out onto the Gospel terrain of “grieving hopefully,” and I wonder… even worry… about why it is that so many of my Christian brothers and sisters fail to go here these days in the things that they post online in response to the suffering and sadness of the world.

Paul told the Romans that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because he knew personally that it was the power of God to “save,” that is, Paul believed that the Gospel is how God in Jesus Christ heals what is broken, fixes what’s gone wrong, and answers the painful questions that confuse and crush us as human beings.  To forget to mention this as Christians in our response to the human suffering that we see and experience, it seems to me, is to flinch at the very moment when the Gospel needs to be heard most loudly and clearly.   It is to fumble the ball on the goal line.

Harvey Cox wrote about how, for the longest time, he had a bad case of “Christological heart-failure.” What he meant by this provocative term was his general reluctance to talk about Jesus Christ in settings where Jesus Christ was not well known, or among people who had not already embraced Him by faith.  But it was “those people” who finally called him out on this.  If he was really a Christian, they told him, someone who was truly trusting God in Christ with his own deep hurts and highest hopes, then why didn’t he have the courage of his convictions and tell them about it?  People who need hope, people who are looking for hope, want to know where you found your hope if you’ve got some.  By failing to talk about Jesus Christ, Harvey Cox was told by his non-Christians friends and acquaintances that he was failing to tell them the very thing that made him who he was, and that they found most interesting about him.

redSo, go ahead and let people know that Jesus Christ Himself wept when His heart was personally and powerfully touched by the anguish of the world. That’s good to know.  Just don’t stop there as if sympathy is all that there is to Christianity –  as if all we have to offer a hurting world is a God who sits beside us in the waiting rooms and at the gravesides of life, patting our hand and saying over and over, “Ain’t it awful… Ain’t it just awful.” Yes, Jesus wept, but then Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, and that’s what Lazarus really needed.  DBS +

 

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“We’re All In This Thing Together”

Patriotic Grace in a Season of Political Posturing

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Krista Tippett began her interview with Richard Mouw, the previous President of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of America’s premier Evangelical institutions, by noting that “American public life feels as fragile and divided today as at any time in recent memory.” She noted the “political and social chasms between us that give no evidence of being resolved any time soon.” And she wondered about how we might “build a flourishing common life, even while holding deep disagreements on so many issues?”  (http://www.onbeing.org/program/restoring-political-civility-evangelical-view/163).

Dr. Mouw’s focus in the interview was on our “common life” as citizens.  He worries that serious conversation about and genuine concern for our common life have almost become “foreign in the American cultural discourse,” and to make his point, Dr. Mouw took the conversation all the way back to Aristotle (384–322 BC).

munTo be civil comes from the Latin word “civitas” a word meaning that we know how to live together in a city. It was Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, who said that as little children we have a natural sense of kinship. We have strong positive feelings toward those who are our blood relatives – “my” mother, “my” father, “my” sisters and brothers, “my” cousins and the like. And then as we grow up, some of those same positive feelings begin to develop about our friends.  So we go from kinship and we build on that to a broader sense of friendship where you have that same sense of bonding or something like it that isn’t just based on being a blood relative.  But Aristotle said that to really grow up, to become a fully mature human being, then we have to have in the public square that same sense of bonding to people from other cities, to people who are very different than yourself.  It’s not just toleration.  Rather, it is a sense that what I owe to “my” mother because she brought me into this world, what I owe to “my” friends because of our shared experiences and memories and delights, I also owe to the stranger. Why? Because they’re human beings just like I am, and therefore I’ve got to begin to think of our shared humanity as something that binds us all together.

peggyOn June the 9th, 2004, Peggy Noonan, the Political Columnist who was one of President Reagan’s speechwriters, was in Washington D.C. for his funeral.  She writes that about 100 of the people who had been instrumental in his administration – cabinet heads, party elders, political allies and operatives were altogether in a big room on the Senate side of the Capitol for a reception when armed security officers burst in and forcefully announced: “We are evacuating the Capitol right now! This is not an exercise!  We are evacuating the Capitol. Now. Everyone out.”  Startled, people looked at each other, began to gather up their stuff and started ambling toward the doors. That’s when a second security officer burst into the room and shouted at the top of his lungs: “We’ve got an unidentified incoming aircraft – sixty seconds out… move!” People began to run.

When Peggy got to the top of the Capitol steps she saw someone point and shout – “There it is… aircraft incoming!” As she hurried down the steps a Capitol guard at the bottom implored everyone to run for their lives. “Ladies, take off you high heels and run just as fast and as far as you possibly can.”  And Peggy says that as she turned to look back at the Capitol, at the top of the stairs there was an old woman in a wheelchair – stranded – unable to get down by herself – just sitting there as people rushed by her.  And then Peggy said that she saw two big burly men come alongside her wheelchair, hoist it up and carry her down the long steps and then wheel her away to safety.

And Peggy wrote –

Something happened as I watched her being carried down the Capitol steps. A thought came to my mind with the force of an intuition, and in time that thought sank in and did not leave…  It was – “Before this is over we’ll all be helping each other down the stairs… before this is over… Americans all around me, whoever they are, whatever their politics… will be helping me down the stairs, and I’ll be helping them.”

Peggy explains –

I am a political conservative, but I am in this thing we call America with political liberals. You may be a political liberal, but you’re in this thing with political conservatives.  They’ll be helping you down the stairs.  You’ll be helping them down the stairs.  We’re in this thing together… Republicans and Democrats… Conservatives and liberals… we’re all in this thing together.

And then Peggy concluded –

What we need most right now, at this particular moment in our history, is a kind of patriotic grace – a grace that takes the long view – a grace that eschews the politically cheap and manipulative – a grace that takes the deep view – a grace that admits affection and respect for others – that in fact encourages affection and respect for others – that agrees that the things that divide us are not worthy of this moment – while the things that encourage our cohesion as a nation must be encouraged.

“Patriotic Grace” does not require me to abandon my political convictions and conclusions, but it does require me not to view those who disagree with me as being either stupid or evil.  And “Patriotic Grace” demands that I put my concern that my country continues to work to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” above my concern for any transient political victory and my candidate’s turn at the exercise of elusive partisan power. There’s something so much bigger at work here. There’s something much more important at stake now. We’re all in this thing together. DBS +

 

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“Is the Fourth of July a Religious Holiday?”

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I had a friend in Christian College who loved comic books. His collection was amazing.  But he was ashamed of this passion.  He pursued it only in the shadows of his life, keeping it hidden, especially from his Christian friends.  And when I asked him why, he told me that when his grandmother – a devout Christian woman he absolutely adored – found him looking at his comic books one day when he was just a kid, she spoke words that got forever branded on his soul – “If you have time to read that kind of trash, then you’ve got time to read your Bible!” And that’s the day he said that he began to shield his passion for comic books from the eyes of others, especially his Christian family and friends.  He’d been conditioned to think that comic books and God were fundamentally incompatible.

Personally, I love major league baseball and college football, action movies, the music of Mozart, the paintings of Van Gogh, Lee Child’s novels, Carl Dennis’ poems, and here recently, I’ve been developing something of a passion for Broadway musicals, especially one about a porous yellow sponge that lives in a pineapple under the sea. None of these things are “Christian,” and sometimes, even while I am enjoying one of them, I will faintly hear the whisper of my friend’s grandmother – “If you’ve got time for this trash, then you’ve got time for Bible Study, Church, prayer or whatever other ‘Christian’ activity you might think of.” Now, there’s something really important, and very dangerous at work in this.

I don’t know why, maybe it’s that separation of church and state mentality that’s been so carefully ingrained into us, but we’ve gotten really good at compartmentalizing our lives as Christians into “sacred” and “secular” bins.  Sunday mornings are “sacred,” Monday mornings are “secular.” Hymns are “sacred,” but the music you listen to on your radio driving to work is “secular.” How we earn our money is “secular,” giving some of it to the church is “sacred.” Reading your Bible is “sacred,” reading the newspaper is “secular.” Talking to God and ministers is “sacred,” talking to the teller at the bank or the cashier at the store is “secular.” We seem to instinctively know how this works. There are parts of our lives that God gets, and there are parts of our lives that are none of His business.

Just like you, this is how I was brought up to think and act. I certainly wasn’t raised to be dismissive of God. We said grace before dinner every night and we were in church every Sunday morning when I was growing up, but we weren’t fanatics about it. There was a place for God, and we were pretty good at keeping God in His place. Then Abraham Kuyper came along and ruined this all for me. Abraham Kuyper was an early 20th century Dutch theologian who founded a new Christian denomination and was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands for a while.

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If I were 40 years younger I think that I would try to learn some Dutch and then go over to the church-related University that Abraham Kuyper founded in Amsterdam where I could study his ideas even more closely. Anyway, when I was 40 years younger I stumbled across something that Abraham Kuyper said, and it forever rocked my worldview – “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” This is what it means when we say that “Jesus is Lord,” and we say this not just when me make the Good Confession and join the church, but every Sunday morning when we break the bread and drink the cup at His Table in remembrance of and in obedience to Him. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that we believe that He’s in charge and involved in all of life, or at least, that He is actively engaged in the struggle to get back in charge and be involved in every part of our lives. And once this idea gets hold of you, then that old “sacred/secular” divide that we’ve been raised with starts to crumble.

Now, we don’t usually think of the Fourth of July as a Religious Holiday, do we? It’s not on the church calendar like Christmas and Easter are.   In fact, I have friends in ministry who will make no reference whatsoever to this being the weekend of the 240th celebration of the birth of American Independence. They argue that their affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ prohibits them from making too much of a fuss about any of the lesser loyalties in their lives, things like citizenship, especially at church, during worship, lest it become idolatrous. And so they throw the Fourth of July into the “secular” bin and quickly move on to more “spiritual” things. And while I certainly “get” what they are saying, and even share their very real concern for idolatry, ironically, I find that it is my very affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ that actually compels me to reflect on the religious implications of a national celebration like the Fourth of July.

When Abraham Kuyper observed that “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” I think that what he was saying was that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is not just relevant for what happens in church on Sunday morning, but it’s also relevant for what happens in culture every other morning of the week. There is just one God who is sovereign over both church and culture, but – and here’s the real genius of Kuyper’s teaching as far as I am concerned – God is doing different things in and through the church than God is doing in and through culture. There’s no compartmentalization here in the sense that there are parts of life that God cares about and other parts of life that God doesn’t care about. No, God cares about and has a claim on “every square inch of the whole domain of our human existence.”

Rather, it’s a matter of understanding the different things that God is doing in and through His work with the church, and in and through His work with culture. Just as you wouldn’t go to a bank to get a loaf of bread, or take your dog to an auto mechanic to treat him for fleas, so while God is at work in and through both church and culture, God is not doing the same thing in both places. This is how Abraham Kuyper himself could be a theologian and church reformer in one part of his life, and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands in another part without confusing the two roles or blurring their responsibilities.

This is a gross oversimplification of what Kuyper taught, but we could say that the assignment that God has given to the church concerns the eternal needs of our souls as human beings, while the assignment that God has given to the culture concerns the temporal needs of our bodies. The Great Commission sets the agenda for the life and work of the church –

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

And it’s something called the “Cultural Mandate” that sets the agenda for the work that God expects culture to do. The “Cultural Mandate” is what the first Creation story in Genesis chapter 1 is talking about when God told the first human couple to –

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (1:28)

And it’s what the Second Creation story in Genesis chapter 2 means when it tells us that – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (2:15).       “Filling and subduing” — “tilling and keeping” — that’s God’s assignment for culture. Creating and then maintaining the conditions that are most conducive to human thriving in this world, that’s the assignment that God has given to culture, and that’s what makes the Fourth of July “religious,” if you ask me.

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The American experiment to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” had its birth 240 years ago when 56 men gathered in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia in July and signed a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, mutually pledging to each other their Lives, their Fortunes and their sacred Honor.”  This is not about Christians doing the work of eternal salvation that God has given the church to do.  No, this was the work of some ordinary human beings doing the noble work of trying to make life better for people in this world, and that’s the assignment that God has given culture to do.  And I don’t have to confuse what happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, with what happened on a cross and in a borrowed tomb outside of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago to be able to see and appreciate how the Fourth of July is “religious.”

I’m not much of a fan of wrapping up the cross in the American flag. But I am a pretty big fan of both the cross and the American flag.  And it’s because “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” that I find that I can hold in my head and my heart, simultaneously, a genuine appreciation for the ways that God is at work in the church, and for the ways that God is at work in the culture, without confusing the two.

And so I will celebrate the Fourth of July as a religious holiday of God’s common grace. As a Christian I can be truly grateful for the way that God has clearly been at work in this nation that “is my home, this country where my heart is.” It’s our historic commitment to “liberty and justice for all… under God” that inspires and that frankly still challenges me, in the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg back in 1863, “to be dedicated… with increased devotion… to the unfinished work… [of securing justice and liberty for all] for which so many have given their last full measure of devotion.” But on the third of July I will be in worship at church. And even though our services that day will take note of the national holiday that this weekend has been set apart for us to celebrate, and even as we are thinking and talking about the religious ramifications of this nation’s stewardship of the “cultural mandate” that God has given to it, there will come a moment on Sunday morning when we will consciously turn from the flag to the cross; from thinking and talking about the work that God is doing in and through culture by common grace, to thinking and talking about the work that God is doing in and through the church by saving grace.

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The bread that we break and the cup that we share in church will be a reminder on this red, white and blue weekend that our final citizenship as Christians is in heaven from which we eagerly await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:20). And so, while I’m truly glad to be an American in this life, I will be eternally grateful to be a Christian in the life to come. It’s the work that God is doing through culture that makes life so good and fulfilling for us here and now, and for that we should be truly grateful as Americans on this national holiday weekend.  We are truly blessed.  But it’s the work of the Gospel that God in Christ does in and through the church that makes life possible forever, and for that, as Christians, we will sing God’s praise throughout eternity. DBS +

 

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“We Do Not Lose Heart”

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Archibald Hart, the longtime Dean of the Graduate School of Psychology of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, said that he thought that depression was an occupational hazard of ministry. In his 1984 book Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions (Word), Dr. Hart explained –

The work of ministry, when it is undertaken with great sincerity and earnestness, is bound to open the way to attacks of despondency. The weightiness of feeling responsible for the souls of others and of longing to see others experience the fullness of God’s gift; the disappointment of seeing believers turn cold and pull away; the heartbreak of watching a married couple destroy each other, unable to utilize love and the grace of God in repairing the broken relationships – all will take their toll on sensitive and dedicated ministers. (17)

In a really insightful essay on ministry that he wrote back in 2011, Kevin DeYoung, one of the leaders of the “young, restless and Reformed” Movement in the church today, wrote about Paul’s “Apostolic Anxiety” (http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/apostolic-anxiety/). He began it by saying that 2 Corinthians 11:28 had always been one of the stranger Bible verses to him, that is, until he became a minister himself. This verse is preceded in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 by Paul’s recital of the very real and tangible threats to his life that he had faced as a minister –

24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.

And then, at the zenith of his list comes this –

28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

And Kevin writes –

Ever since I became a pastor, I have found unusual comfort in this verse… I’m not surprised that Paul felt daily pressure for the churches… every earnest minister feels this burden for the church… Ask any pastor who really takes his work seriously and he will tell you of the pressures he feels in ministry — people in crisis, people leaving, people coming, people disappointed by him, people disappointing to him… And most pastors feel a burden for all those other things that they could be doing: more evangelism, more for the poor, more for missions, more to address global concerns, and more to address social concerns. There are pastors reading this who wonder if the church is still responsive to their preaching; if the leadership will ever be responsive to their leading; and if the congregation will ever grow like the churches they hear so much about. On top of all this, every pastor has his own personal hurts, his own personal mistakes, and his own spiritual health to attend to. We are all weak.

Some say that the primary theme of 2 Corinthians – one of Paul’s most personal and heartfelt letters – is about how easy it is for us to “lose heart” as people of faith.  It’s not just ministers who suffer from this “Apostolic Anxiety,” it’s everyone who loves Christ, belongs to the church, knows the Great Commission and is trying to reach their world.  2 Corinthians 4:1 reads like the letter’s thesis statement, and the bedrock of a Christian’s assurance –

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

To this end, throughout 2 Corinthians Paul spoke encouragement into the lives and ministries of Christians who were growing discouraged in the struggle of faithfulness –

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God,  who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.. (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… (2 Corinthians 4:7-9)

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,  because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.  (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

Recently, in a moment of my own “Apostolic Anxiety” and ministerial despondency, in my devotional readings I stumbled across a pastoral word “to a discouraged minister” from a ministerial colleague of a previous generation, Friedrich Zündel (1827–1891).  His counsel has provided me with some solid handholds of encouragement on the steep climb and sharp winds of ministry in the church today, and so, with hope that they will help you as they have helped me, I offer them now to you knowing just how hard this life can be. DBS +

“To a Discouraged Minister”

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Friedrich Zündel (1827–1891
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When difficulties pile up before you like insurmountable mountains… When behind you, you see nothing but failures.  When before you, you see nothing but trouble . . . 

  1. Do what is at hand to do.  Consider each single day to be your appointed task.  Leave to God the care of the future.
  2. Don’t desire to harvest.  You are only a sower.
  3. Remember that on the island of Nias the missionaries prayed for 25 years for an awakening.
  4. If you can be comfort and strength to even one single person, then even fifty years of no success have not been in vain.
  5. It is no help to a struggling person for you to be annoyed with him or her.  What he or she needs is seeking love.
  6. Even for Paul, the “thorn in the flesh” remained.  His grace is sufficient . . . 
  7. Christ can fight his battles even with broken swords.
  8. It is not ability but faithfulness that counts (I Corinthians 4:2).  “He dared to believe his way through the deepest gloom.”  

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Why “The World needs a SpongeBob Musical”

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So, for the two of you I still haven’t told, my son Danny is in a “bound-for-Broadway” musical – “The SpongeBob Musical” – that officially opened on Father’s Day at the Oriental Theater in Chicago to rave reviews.  Mary Lynn and I were there for the Opening and we watched with real pride and sheer amazement as our “little” boy Danny danced, sang, flew – yes, that’s right, I said flew – and acted his heart out as “Patrick Star” – SpongeBob’s dimwitted but “charming” best friend.  We laughed. We cried. We pinched ourselves to make sure that this was really happening.

Mary Lynn and I took Danny to Broadway when he was in Middle School to see Phantom of the Opera.  When he told us after the show that he thought that this was what he wanted to be and do, we were pretty sure that this was probably something that lots of kids say when they are walking out of their first Broadway show.   But there was a look in his eye that was convincing.  And now for that dream to have become a reality, and in such a powerful way, is still hard for us to fathom.

Mary Lynn and I always thought that Danny was funny, creative and talented, but we’re his parents. It’s our job and our joy to believe in him.  But now to hear a theater clap and cheer his performance, and to watch as people – especially eager wide-eyed children –  stop him outside the stage door of the theater and on the street to ask him for his autograph, well, this is not something that we could have ever imagined.

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Danny has been working on this project quietly and slowly for the past four years. He was hired as the workshop actor to help develop the role of Patrick Star shortly after graduating from theater school at Syracuse University, and he has been working on and off for the last four years to help bring this character to life with an amazing team of writers, designers, choreographers, musicians and fellow actors.  For those of you who may may be interested, you can read more about this long behind-the-scenes journey at – http://www.playbill.com/article/get-to-know-the-cast-of-the-spongebob-musical

For those who you who don’t know, SpongeBob Squarepants is a cartoon, the beast of the Nickelodeon lineup. When this project began, I thought that it would make for an amusing show – a diversion – and it certainly is that.   In fact, it’s laugh out loud funny, and consistently so.   What I wasn’t counting on was it being “significant.”  It’s SpongeBob Squarepants after all!  Boy howdy was I wrong.  While it may not be Shakespeare or Sophocles, SpongeBob has nevertheless got something.  The mantra repeated in all of the promotional videos for the show that I’ve seen begin with Tina Landau, the show’s co-conceiver and director, saying, “I think the world needs a SpongeBob Musical!” That’s a funny thing to say about a cartoon, isn’t it?  But she was serious, and now I get it.

On the flight up to Chicago last Friday evening I was reading Os Guinness’ 2015 book Fool’s Talk (IVP).  It opens with a quote from William Hazlitt –

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps;
for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference
between what things are, and what they ought to be.

In the fourth chapter – “The Way of the Third Fool” – Os Guinness probed this suggestion of a theology of laughter that was the perfect theological set-up for the show that Mary Lynn and I saw and enjoyed on Sunday evening.  At a lecture I attended a few years ago I heard Os Guinness say that every social movement and any artistic expression that trended toward utopianism – toward the creation of a more just, compassionate, peaceful and free world – ought to be warmly embraced by people of Christian faith.  This deep desire that is hardwired into the human soul both individually and collectively is one of the big itches that the Gospel scratches.  Rather than dismissing utopianism as naïve, Os Guinness urges us to view it as the “echo of Eden” in the human heart that causes us all to ache for “the best day ever.” And laughter is its midwife.  Os wrote –

There is always a vital tension between what is immediate and what is ultimate. The immediate, which is formed by our present circumstances and our short-term prospects, may sometime be horrific.  We may be suffering a job loss, a health crisis, a public scandal, the death of a child or close friend, a Job-like combination of disasters.  But however bad the immediate, the ultimate is always hopeful, and in the tension between the immediate and the ultimate lies the possibility of this resilience of faith. (71)

Humor, Os Guinness argues, is one of the gifts that heaven gives us to help balance the miseries of life. Humor can be hopeful, it “turns on the grotesque mismatch between the bleakness of the immediate prospects and the brightness of their ultimate prospects” (72). Os Guinness quoted the 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr – “Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer” (74). “It’s genius,” Os Guinness suggests, “lies in its capacity to open up a vantage point from which the world looks different” (75).  And this is what the SpongeBob Musical does so brilliantly – through silliness and laughter it opens up a vantage point that allows us to look at the world differently.

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On Sunday, June 12th, there was a preview of the show in Chicago.  That was the day we all woke up to the news of the Orlando shooting.  By the time that the curtains opened in Chicago that afternoon, the full magnitude of the horror that had unfolded in Florida in the middle of the night was just beginning to dawn on us all.  And there were these gifted actors on stage, putting on a show that’s designed to make people laugh when their hearts, the hearts of those who were in the audience, and the hearts of the whole nation were breaking.  As the Psalmist so poignantly asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (137:4)

When the show was over, one of Danny’s cast mates tweeted that on such a sad and confusing day, it was only the performance of such a funny and hopeful show that gave him any help to make sense of the world and find any comfort in the moment. And that’s why the reason why the world needs a SpongeBob Musical right now.

Here’s how Os Guinness explains it –

Both tragedy and comedy turn on the deep contradiction and discrepancies between the world as it is and the world as we humans wish that it would be… But whereas tragedy only reminds us of the iron bars of the prison of reality from which not one of us can ever escape, comedy shows us a way to break out.  In comedy the pratfall and the setback are not the end, and in the Christian faith even death, the ultimate setback, is not the end.  Because of the cross and the resurrection there is always a way out.  Which means of course that when the contradictions are subverted and reality is turned right way up, the outcome can be gratitude, joy and hope, rather than pity and fear.  Needless to say, the dynamic of the resurrection and a God who cannot be buried for long is the dynamic of a child’s jack-in-the-box writ large in golden cosmic letters. (78)

And so, as a parent I am incredibly proud of my son’s accomplishment, and I can only hope that this project that he’s a part of will soon realize its full promise on a Broadway stage where it will reach an even bigger audience and have an ever greater impact. But it is as a pastor that I am deeply grateful that the good work that my son has given himself to is full of such wonderful humor and hope.  Because it lives at the intersection of the immediate and the ultimate, on the corner of the world as it is and the world as we all know somewhere deep inside that it’s supposed to be, the world needs a SpongeBob Musical.  DBS +

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