“The Arc of Repentance”


Some Thoughts as Lent Begins _________________________________________________

Psalm 51 is a standard part of the Ash Wednesday “script.”  We will use a version of it in our own Ash Wednesday service here at Northway. The editorial notes that preface this text in Scripture provide a specific context from the life of David for this penitential Psalm that the church traditionally prays on the threshold of Lent – “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

All of the sordid details of this story can be found in 2 Samuel 11 and 12.

Now, whenever I read stories like this one about the “falleness” of Biblical “heroes” I am reminded of the way that Francis Schaeffer actually made a case for the Bible’s inspiration from the way that it refuses to “clean up” the stories of its main characters like David.  In his sermon on “The Weakness of God’s Servants” (No Little People – IVP – 1974) Francis Schaeffer explained –

If someone asked us, “What is the Bible?” we would probably not begin our answer by saying, “The Bible is a realistic book.” Yet in the twentieth century this might be the best place to start – to stress the realism of the Bible in contrast to the romanticism which characterizes the twentieth –century concept of religion. (43)

Among religious writings the Bible is unique in its attitude to its great men. Even many Christian biographies puff up the men they describe.  But the Bible exhibits the whole man, so much so that it is almost embarrassing at times… Of course, usually we think about the strong points of the biblical characters… But let us not be embarrassed by the other side – the Bible’s candor (even about its greatest leaders), its portrayal of their weakness quite without embarrassment and without false show.   Paul wrote to the Romans, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). …This is the biblical picture even of its own “heroes.” (50)

davidDavid was a mess, and it wasn’t just his tryst with the neighbor’s wife that was memorialized by Psalm 51. Why there’s hardly an episode from the story of David’s life that the Bible tells us that hasn’t got some serious shadow to it.  I remember coming to the deathbed scene from David’s story in I Kings 2 the very first time that I ever read through the Bible and being ripped from the lofty heights of the spiritual nobility of his charge to his son Solomon (2:1-4) to being plunged to the depths of human depravity with David’s “Godfather-like” hit list that he left for Solomon to “handle” just the minute that he was gone (2:5-9). What do you do with that?  I know that I’ve never used it for a children’s sermon!

Both the Old Testament (I Samuel 13:14) and the New Testament (Acts 13:22) extols David as “a man after God’s own heart,” but I’ve got to tell you that this isn’t the first thing that occurs to me whenever I read David’s story in Scripture.  When I read the story of Job I can’t find his proverbial patience anywhere, and when I read the story of David his God-centered heart, quite frankly, eludes me.  Maybe it’s his “custody” of the Psalms that establishes this as David’s defining characteristic, at least this is how R.C. Sproul trties to make the case for it –

It’s in the Psalms that we see the heart of a penitent unveiled and in that I think we see most clearly the greatness of David the Great. If you read Psalm 51 and read it carefully and thoughtfully, that Psalm will reveal more than anything else in the history of David why David was called a man after God’s own heart. Because here it reveals the broken heart of a sinful man who sees his sin clearly.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, especially here at the beginning of Lent.

Before the frenzy of all those Lenten vows for self-improvement begins – a kind of baptized version of the tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions – let’s be clear about why the church does Lent in the first place. Calvin Miller’s warning always sounds in my ears and heart the week of Ash Wednesday – “We serve Christ while we worship Narcissus.” He knew that there is real danger in conceiving of Christianity as “the fastest way to personal gain.” We don’t fast because it will help us lose weight.  We don’t impose ashes because it will cleanse our complexions.   We don’t cultivate spiritual discipline because it will make us more efficient and effective at work.  Lent isn’t about making us better. Lent is about us coming to terms with what’s wrong with us.  And in this, David may be the perfect teacher.

Lots of popular preaching I hear these days consists of taking biblical characters like David and offering them to the faithful as moral examples. The standard three point sermon I hear says — “This is David.” — “Are you a David?” — “Be a David!”  C. FitzSimons Allison, the retired Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, calls this the “Roger Bannister” approach to Christianity.

rogerOnce Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier in 1954, the very first human being to ever do so competitively, suddenly everybody everywhere seemed to be able to do it as well. And spiritually, morally, this “Roger Bannister” approach to Christianity says that all we really need to become better people is just a good example and a little bit of exhortation. So we pick a Biblical character like David, that man “after God’s own heart,” and we hold him up to the faithful as an example to emulate, and like a Zumba coach we start shouting – “Do more!” “Try Harder!” “Come on, you can do it!”  And in doing this, I think, we completely miss the point.  As Michael Horton points out – “In the biblical view, the biblical characters are not examples of their victory, but of God’s! The life of David is not a testimony to David’s faithfulness, surely, but to God’s.”

Go back and read again the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. This may be the perfect antidote to our Lenten tendency towards works righteousness and its schemes of self-salvation under the guise of “giving something up.”   The boast of the Pharisee about fasting and tithing (18:12) sounds for all the world to me like somebody who’s “observing a holy lent,” and who’s pretty pleased with himself for doing so!  But he’s not the “hero” in this story that Jesus told.  No, the one we’re told to pay attention to was the Publican, the one who stood far off, eyes downcast, beating his chest and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (18:13).  That’s “David-like.” That’s the Cliff Notes for Psalm 51.  And that’s why the Church tells us that we really need Lent… and Good Friday… and Easter Sunday.  Not because we’re such dynamic little bundles of potential and promise, but because we’re such big messes, jumbles of real contradiction and compromise.

In an essay that he wrote on Sanctification, J.W. Hendryx gave me a spiritual tool that I now use almost every week as I personally approach the Lord’s Table. This has the true wisdom of “a holy lent” all over it –

ChaliceHow many of us try to clean ourselves up before approaching the Lord’s Table, as if there were some degree or level of purity that we could reach that would make us acceptable to God? The command to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself should be sufficient to make you recognize your utter inability to do so. …What man could ever clean himself up enough to make himself acceptable to God? And if he could clean himself up to that degree, then what further need would he have of a Savior or the nourishment of the Lord’s Supper? He would be self-sufficient. The whole point of both the gospel and the Lord’s Supper for Christians is to continually recognize our own spiritual bankruptcy and dependency on the grace and promises of Christ. [“Pietistic Versus Biblical Sanctification” – http://www.reformationtheology.com%5D.

And so Lent begins. These 40 days are often the most important 40 days of my spiritual life each year, but only when I disabuse myself of the illusion of the Pharisee’s boast and personally inhabit the Publican’s plea.  Something that helps me do this each year as Lent begins is Helen W. Mallon’s soul-wrenching essay “The Arc of Repentance” that you can find online at: http://www.marshillreview.com/menus/extracts.shtm. Just like David before her, Helen is someone “after God’s own heart,” and who understands that this is not a boast of spiritual prowess but a painful confession of her absolute dependence on God’s grace.  And it’s the way that Lent has the potential for teaching us this each year that prepares us for what Christ did for us by dying on the cross and then getting up out of His grave three days later. DBS+


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Faith and Politics, Part 3 – “Can My Vote be Christian?”



The world in which the New Testament was written was ruled by Rome, and the Roman State was not elected by popular vote every couple of years. Christians weren’t determining who was in political power and the Church wasn’t involved in making policy decisions for the Empire.  Unless a government official converted to Christ, in the days of the New Testament, Christians were largely on the outside of the government looking in.  Recognizing this fact, R. Scott Clark, the Church Historian at Westminster Seminary California, asks –

Where did the apostles commission the visible, institutional church to lobby any government for or about anything?

Where in the New Testament did any of the apostles institute a lobbying arm in Rome or in any regional governmental center (e.g., Ephesus)?

Where in the New Testament does one find a single unequivocal (or even good and necessary inference) of the visible, institutional church speaking to any one of the social ills that plagued the Greco-Roman world?

In the first century a Christian’s relationship with the State consisted of the New Testament’s three-fold instruction to “pray, pay and obey.” Recognizing that the State existed by Divine design (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26; John 18:33-38 19:8-11; Acts 25:10-11; Romans 13:1-7) the writers of the New Testament told Christians to pray for those who were in authority over them (I Timothy 2:1-4), to pay their taxes (Matthew 17:24-27), and insofar as it did not violate their obedience to Christ (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29) to submit to the government’s authority (I Peter 2:13-17).  The Book of Revelation is an important New Testament exploration of what happens when the State becomes demonic.  It has much to say about Christian resistance to the principalities and powers when they have gone astray and it holds out the foundational promise that God in Christ will finally right all wrongs and fully establish His Kingdom.  But you would be hard pressed to find anything in the New Testament about how Christians are supposed to vote because voting wasn’t even an option for Christians when the New Testament was being written. Politics as we understand the term and experience the reality today was simply not part of the frame of reference for those first Christians.  But this is not to say that early Christianity was not political at all.

The values and beliefs of the first Christians had profound social, economic and political implications. The astonishing claim of the Gospel is that God the Son reveals and redeems. Jesus Christ by His life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit and coming again both reconciles us to God and makes God known.  As an expression of this truth, more than once, the New Testament announces that we have “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5; Romans 12:12; Colossians 3:1-4; John 1:18).  In other words, as Christians we actually know something about who God is and what it is that God wants for us and for the whole world.  Life, both abundant and eternal, is God’s plan for us.

In Creation, God put our well-being as human beings, in a web of interconnected relationships with everything and everyone else – “Shalom” – at the very center of His purpose.  In Redemption God did the heavy lifting in Jesus Christ to repair the damage that the rebellion of sin had done to that Divine intention.  And the promise of the Consummation says that the day is coming when God’s will is going to be done on earth as it is right now in heaven.  The Kingdom will come. God’s Shalom will be restored – God’s will done on earth as it is right now in heaven.

The critical question for us to consider in all of this is how will we operate as Christians between this redemption that was inaugurated with the Incarnation and that redemption that will finally and fully accomplished with the Consummation? Knowing, as we do, something of God’s intentions for all of creation, how then shall we live? I really like the way that John Killinger, for so many years the professor of preaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School, put it in his book Bread for the Wilderness; Wine for the Journey (Word).  He said that as a Christian –

You find yourself wanting to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want hungry people to be fed and the infirm to walk.   You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.  You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things.

Alan Kreider in his truly insightful work on “Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom” described how Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage in the middle of the third century described the church of his day as an “enclosed garden” (Solomon 4:12) in which Christian virtues and graces were being cultivated.  Thus formed by this “Jesus-shaped distinctiveness,” those Christians then functioned in the world where they lived and worked “as instruments that God was using to construct a new world.” People learned about that new world not because those Christians were angry combatants in a culture war who went about scolding and condemning those whose beliefs and behaviors ran contrary to their own, but rather because those Christians quietly embodied the Gospel values of compassion and sacrifice in their everyday lives, and the people who saw them do this wanted to know why they were like that?

Bill Baird, one of my New Testament professors in seminary, used to criticize the way that he said he often heard his students use Biblical texts as “springboards to Washington D.C.” as if they were detailed public policy prescriptions intended for immediate political implementation.   Craig Carter, a Canadian theologian, in his really insightful book on how church and culture will need to relate in this “post-Christendom” era, fleshed out what I suspect drove Dr. Baird’s complaint –

What could be more irrelevant than Christian leaders who beg the government to pass laws to … to tax the capitalists in their own flocks and redistribute the money to the poor… when those Christian leaders cannot convince their own flocks to do this things on the basis of the Bible? …No wonder politicians often have so little respect for religious lobbyists.

When the New Testament speaks – especially in the Epistles – it speaks to the believing community, to people who have already surrendered to the Lordship of Christ. The social ethics of the New Testament are the ethics of the church, the ethics of people who are personally committed to the person of Christ and who are being actively shaped by the values of Christ.  And this means that the world is not going to be changed by the church making public pronouncements and issuing resolutions. The world is going to be changed by Christians who are being transformed by the renewal of their minds so that they know the will of God (Romans 12:1) and who are then keeping faith with what they know to be good, and right, and true in their everyday lives and relationships.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called this “the principle of cellular infiltration.”

Just a little salt can affect the great mass. Because of its essential quality it permeates everything… One truly saintly person radiates influence; that person will permeate any group in which he or she happens to be… Though the church makes her great pronouncements on the great social questions of the day, the average unchurched outsider is completely unaffected.  But if the person working beside that unchurched outsider is a true Christian whose life has been saved by Christ and transformed by the Holy Spirit, then everyone around will be directly affected.

From this perspective, the critical assignment given to the church is the cultivation of the Christian conscience – teaching disciples to observe all that Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:20).  At the church I serve we talk about this as our congregational value of having an “Open Bible” – “Exploring Scripture to be formed, informed and transformed.” Just like light in the darkness, salt in the soup and leaven in the loaf, Christians who are being actively formed by the mind of Christ penetrate the social, economic and political systems in which they live so that those social, economic and political systems will begin to better reflect what they know as Christians to be God’s final intention in Christ for justice, righteousness and peace for all of creation.  And in our political system this means voting.

Recently a group of Northway members were in Honduras on a mission trip. This is the 22nd time in the last 18 years that a mission team has travelled from Northway to Central America to work side by side with the people there in a model villages program.  We do this because we have the mind of Christ, and there are few texts in the Scriptures that have had a greater impact on our consciousness and conscience as Christians than has Matthew 25 where Jesus said –

And the righteous will say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

Reflecting on these Gospel verses led Adolf von Harnack (1851 – 1930), one of the most important German theologians and church historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to conclude that they “have shone so brilliantly for so many generations in Christ’s church and exerted so powerful an influence, that one may describe all Christian preaching as the preaching of love and charity.”  His development of this idea bears repeating –

Among the extant words and parables of Jesus, those which inculcate love and charity are especially numerous, and with them we must rank many a story of his life. Yet, apart altogether from the number of such sayings, it is plain that whenever he had in view the relations of mankind, 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. …[And] while Jesus himself was exhibiting this kind of love, and making it a life and a power, his disciples were learning the highest and holiest thing that can be learned in all religion, namely, to believe in the love of God. To them the Being who had made heaven and earth was “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.” … But this was more than just words, it was a thing of power and action. The Christians really considered themselves [to be] brothers and sisters, and their actions corresponded to this belief. … The gospel thus became a social message. The preaching which laid hold of the outer man, detaching him from the world, and uniting him to his God, was also a preaching of solidarity and brotherliness. …[And] thus had this saying became a fact: “Hereby shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

This is what compelled the Northway members to go to Honduras, and now that they are back home, this is what will inform what they do next. You see, in just a matter of weeks now there will be a Presidential primary in Texas, and all of those people from Northway who went to Honduras because of the mind of Christ will be asked to make a political choice between candidates who are talking an awful lot about refugees and immigration, and the mind of Christ will inform the choice that they will make then as well.  Those Northway members are going to connect the dots between their faith commitments and values, their relationships with the very people who so often find it necessary to flee the violence and poverty of their homeland to find safety and opportunity in another, and what the politicians are saying.

This is how Christian service that the New Testament explicitly commands of Christians and the church becomes a movement of justice in society at large. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action described this dynamic memorably in his “Parable of the Ambulance Drivers and the Tunnel Builders.”

A group of devout Christians once lived in a small village at the foot of a mountain. A winding, slippery road with hairpin curves and steep precipices without guard rails wound its way up one side of the mountain and down the other. There were frequent fatal accidents. Deeply saddened by the injured people who were pulled from the wrecked cars, the Christians in the village’s three churches decided to act. They pooled their resources and purchased an ambulance. Over the years, they saved many lives although some victims remained crippled for life. Then one day a visitor came to town, puzzled, he asked why they did not close the road over the mountain and build a tunnel instead.

Those Northway members went to Honduras to be “ambulance drivers.” They did this because they are Christians whose Lord and Savior told us that His disciples are people who welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry as an expression of their obedience and devotion to Him (Matthew 25:13-18).  And ambulance drivers who bind up the wounds of humanity from the wreckage of life look for the tunnel builders who are committed to refashioning the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. Ambulance drivers partnering with tunnel builders, that’s how a vote becomes Christian.  DBS+




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Faith and Politics, Part 2 – “Changed Hearts… Changed World”


I actually toyed with the idea of going into politics for a while back when I was in high school. I needed something to do in the summer of 1968 and so my dad dropped me off at the precinct headquarters of the political party that he supported one day on his way to work, and then every day on his way to work thereafter for the rest of the summer. All that summer and well into the fall I stuffed envelopes, made phone calls, canvassed neighborhoods, attended precinct meetings, worked rallies, put up yard signs, met candidates, got invited to Sacramento to meet the Governor, got elected to the leadership team for the youth chapter of that political party in my region of Southern California and was eventually named the first runner-up in the contest for the junior member of that political party for all of Los Angeles County in 1970. I’ve still got the plaque. I enjoyed every minute of it, and that got me to thinking.

What if I went to the California State College in Sacramento, studied Political Science, and parlayed my political contacts there to get a job at the Capitol? What if some State representative or senator would “mentor” me? Maybe I could become somebody’s “protégé,” serve as part of his team and go where it took him. If I could just get in on the ground floor of some local politician on the rise, I calculated, it could open some important and strategic political doors for me later in life. And so I applied, got accepted at Sacramento State, and started making plans to go. I know this is what my folks, and especially my dad, expected me to do.

But in the fall of 1971 where I wound up instead was at a small Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. There I started studying the Bible for the first time in my life in a serious and sustained sort of way, and I began to prepare myself for a life of Christian ministry. And while there were lots and lots of reasons why this worked out the way that it did, right near the top of the reasons why was a book that I read that was written by Sherwood Wirt, then the editor of Billy Graham’s magazine  Decision, right at that time when I was making the crucial choices about college and vocation.

bookThat book was called The Social Conscience of the Evangelical (Harper & Row – 1968), and my tattered, coverless, dog-eared, highlighted and heavily underlined copy still sits on my shelf. Sherwood Wirt’s book was a call for Bible-believing Christians like myself to get more actively involved in answering the great social questions of those days – the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the War in Vietnam, the Sexual Revolution, the Counter-Cultural Movement. His book was a sustained argument for faithful Christian involvement in the world and not for a retreat from the world.

Now, you might think that this argument would have been one designed to tip the balance and send me straight down the Sacramento State/Political Science trajectory that was wide open to me as a high school senior. But it didn’t, and the reason why was the last chapter in Sherwood Wirt’s book, a chapter he called “The Horse and the Cart.”

This chapter opened with a quote from Edward Beecher (1803 – 1895), the noted theologian who was a son of the preacher Lyman Beecher and a brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Great changes do not begin on the surface of society,” he observed, “but in prepared hearts, in people who by their communion with God …give life to the community and tone to the public mind.” With this as his springboard into the question of how real change is effected in the world, Sherwood Wirt mapped out an approach to social transformation that I found persuasive way back then in 1968, and that I still do now almost 50 years later. Sherwood Wirt wrote –

The greatest fact about man is that God loves him in Jesus Christ. When a convert has “put on the new man” in Christ he starts putting legs under the compassion that God has sensitized. All the potential given to the original Adam, and lost, is now his again, because he is living in obedience as God intended him to live – not for himself but for his fellow. He looks at his fellow man in his magnificent misery through the eyes of Christ. He seeks to apply the redeeming Spirit of Christ to the hidden springs of man’s behavior, to the seat of motivation and activation that is known in God’s Word as the “heart.” (149)

What Sherwood Wirt meant by this was that he believed that the best way to change the world was by changing the hearts of women and men with the Gospel. He argued that when people become new creations by faith in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17), that their new life would then get channeled “into avenues of service which are fruitful for Christ and beneficial for all of humanity” (151). The theologian Carl F.H. Henry in his book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans – 1964) called this “the spiritual dynamic for social change” (24), and he argued that “personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in Christianity’s hope for the renewal of the social order” (25).

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (Greek: “power”) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. (25)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and an indignation at injustice… Evangelicalism, which saw in the death of Christ the means of free salvation for fallen humanity, caused its adherents to take the front rank as champions of the weak… Prison reform, the prohibition of the slave trade, the abolition of slavery, the Factory acts, the protection of children, the crusade against cruelty to animals, are all the outcome of the great Evangelical revival of the 18th century. (29)

Christianity knows – and it dare not forget nor let the world forget – that what the social order needs most is a new race of men – men equipped not simply with new textbooks (education) and new laws (legislation), but with new hearts (regeneration). (30)

I believe this. However, I’ve also been around the world and the church long enough now to know that conversion to Christ without subsequent formation in Christ, what we used to call “discipleship” back in the day, is just as inadequate a basis for real social transformation as is any attempt to change the world without a real concern for changing hearts by the power of the Gospel. In 1966 Dr. Horace L. Fenton, Jr. speaking at Wheaton College’s “Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission” said –

It is all too possible for an individual believer to fail to see the connection between his love for God and his responsibility to his fellow men, unless it is pointed out to him – not just once, but many times.

This is the “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” component of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:20). Before Christians can penetrate social, economic and political systems like light in the darkness, salt in the soup, and leaven in the loaf with the Gospel’s concern for justice, righteousness, reconciliation and peace, those Christians must first have their own vision and values deeply informed, formed and transformed by the Gospel. It must penetrate them. As A.W. Tozer used to say – “Our Lord wants us to learn more of Him before we become busy for Him.” He explained –

The task of the church is twofold: to spread Christianity throughout the world and to make sure that the Christianity she spreads is the pure New Testament kind…. Christianity will always reproduce itself after its kind. A worldly-minded, unspiritual church, when she crosses the ocean to give her witness to peoples of other tongues and other cultures, is sure to bring forth on other shores a Christianity much like her own…. The popular notion that the first obligation of the church is to spread the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth is false. Her first obligation is to be spiritually worthy to spread it. Our Lord said “Go ye,” but He also said, “Tarry ye,” and the tarrying had to come before the going. Had the disciples gone forth as missionaries before the day of Pentecost it would have been an overwhelming spiritual disaster, for they could have done no more than make converts after their likeness, and this would have altered for the worse the whole history of the Western world and had consequences throughout the ages to come. (Of God and Men, 35-37).

Before Christians can have a “significant Christian influence” in the world, they must first be “significantly influenced” by Christianity themselves. Donald Whitney illustrates the principle quite memorably –

teaYour mind is like a cup of hot water. A tea bag is like Scripture. Hearing God’s Word read in church on a Sunday morning is like one dip of that tea bag into the cup. Some of the tea’s flavor is absorbed by the water, but not as much as would occur with a more thorough soaking of the bag. Reading, studying, and memorizing God’s Word are like additional plunges of the tea bag into the cup. The more frequently the tea enters the water, the more permeating its effect.

Next week in the third and final installment in my pre-Iowa Caucus series on “Faith and Politics,” I want to explore how someone who has been “significantly influenced” by Christianity might think and act politically. When tea has fully seeped in a cup of hot water, how should it taste? DBS+

Next Week: “Faith and Politics – Part 3” – “Can my Vote be Christian?”

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Faith and Politics

Part 1 – “My Citizenship is in Heaven”


In just a matter of weeks now the voting will officially begin. First come the primaries and the caucuses this winter and throughout the spring.    Then come the national conventions this summer.  And finally on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the 58th quadrennial United States presidential election will take place.

voteI’ve voted in 11 of these elections since I was first eligible 1972. Eleven times I have cast a vote to elect a candidate to the most powerful office in the world.  Six times in those 11 elections the person I voted for won.  5 times the person I voted for lost.  I have voted for Democrats.  I have voted for Republicans.  And I even voted once for an Independent.  And except for one “messianic” vote that I wistfully cast only to be sorely disappointed by the performance of the winner in the actual task of governance, I can honestly tell you that no Presidential candidate from any party that I have ever voted for has ever fully represented my values or embodied my views as a Christian when I’ve checked their name on the ballot.  And already having paid some attention to the debates and speeches of the slate of candidates in this election cycle from both parties, I can say with some confidence that come November it doesn’t look like it’s going to be any different this year.  Clearly there are some better choices, and there are some “badder” choices, but from where I sit, there aren’t any perfect choices.  There never are.  And the reason for this, I have concluded, is that I am fundamentally and foundationally more a Christian than I am either a Republican or a Democrat, and who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is doing as the Lord and Savior of the world doesn’t fit neatly or easily into any existing partisan categories.

Oh, I have some traditional Christian friends who give every appearance of having confused their commitment to Jesus Christ with their political attachment to the Republican Party just as I have some progressive Christian friends who give every appearance of having confused their commitment to Jesus Christ with their political attachment to the Democrat Party. But this is spiritually dangerous as far as I am concerned, and I have tried studiously to avoid it as a Christian and especially as a minister for the last 40 years.


When George W. Bush was our President I read lots of blogs and postings from my traditional Christian friends extolling his faithfulness as a Christian just as I now read lots of blogs and postings from my progressive Christians friends extolling Barak Obama’s faithfulness as a Christian as he finishes his terms of service as our President. It feels to me an awful lot like a version of that silly game that some of us played as little children on the schoolyard – “my dad could beat up your dad”“my” President is a better Christian than “your” President.”

Just for the record, I believe that George W. Bush is a Christian because he tells me that he is. And I believe that Barak Obama is a Christian because he tells me that he is. I am so glad that I belong to a spiritual tradition that accords a “good faith assumption” to anybody who makes the “good confession” that they believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and their personal Lord and Savior.  There are no other hoops for you to jump through, no further tests for you to pass before I embrace you as my Christian brother or sister.  But just as I as a Christian who has made this good confession can say and do glaringly unchristian things, and with alarming frequency I might add, so I do not hold my “brother” Presidents to a different standard or have of them a different expectation than I have for myself.

There are things that both George W. Bush and Barak Obama have said and done as President that I would argue have reflected well on their commitment to Jesus Christ as their Lord and that are good indications of their concern for His Kingdom, just as there are things that they both said and did as President that I would argue obscured and at times even contradicted their commitment to Jesus Christ as their Lord and their concern for His Kingdom. And this is why I have consciously adopted a stance throughout my life and ministry of political neutrality, and why I get spiritually anxious whenever I see or hear my ministerial peers and colleagues becoming politically partisan.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood recently posted a blog entry at his web page (http://revjeffhood.com) that I found absolutely compelling. Now, I suspect that Jeff and I would find much to disagree about if we ever sat down together to share a cup of coffee as brothers in Christ, but on this I couldn’t be more in agreement with him –

Back in October, I was absolutely appalled at the spectacle of seeing a room full of evangelical pastors fawning all over Donald Trump. Not long after the circus, the Pastor of First Baptist Dallas Dr. Robert Jeffress stood in front of another circus to pray for and practically endorse Trump at one of his rallies. On the other side, pastors are also rushing out to endorse and champion Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. To make matters worse, pastors also seem to think that they need to make state and local endorsements. Over and over, I continue to watch pastors sell off their potential prophetic voices to the highest bidder. I don’t remember Jesus ever endorsing any candidates. I think he was smart enough to know that an endorsement limits your ability to speak prophetically to whoever is elected and limits your ability to minister to the whole populace after the election.

In 2008, I got excited about Barack Obama. I bought the shirt, hat and bumper sticker. I was two years past my ordination as pastor. Early one Saturday morning, I’ll never forget sitting down with a cherished mentor. As I proudly wore my Obama shirt, my mentor leaned in and said, “How are you going to demand that the Obama not bomb some poor nation after you have run around with his shirt on? How are you going to minister to those who hate Obama after they see you with that shirt on? True pastors don’t endorse candidates!” I believed her then. After seeing President Obama violate my Christian conscience by bombing countless nations and watching our nation become as polarized as I’ve ever seen it, I believe her more now.

earthThe late Church of the Brethren theologian Vernard Eller used to say that people who believe that the earth is flat and people who believe that the earth is round can look alike in lots and lots of ways and may even go about their business every day in exactly the same way, but he insisted that at the level of what “flat-earth-ers” and “round-earth-ers” truly and deeply believe, the two couldn’t be more different!   And so he warned Christians who look and act like Democrats, and Christians who look and act like Republicans, to be very careful because although there are ways in which Christianity can look and act like what Democrats want, and in other ways, Christianity can look like and act like what Republicans want, that what Jesus Christ wants and is doing is altogether different from what you will find in any political platform or party.

Vernard Eller said that he believed that while Christians can and must make common cause with political movements and causes in order to advance the ball of justice, righteousness, compassion and peace in this world, that Christians must nevertheless conscientiously choose to “sit loose” in their political attachments lest they be co-opted by a political party or candidate and thus lose their distinctive voice and vision.  This is just an application of what Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount about salt losing its zing and becoming worthless (Matthew 5:13), and this is why I consistently and conscientiously try to publicly be a Christian and not a Republican or a Democrat.  I want you to know that my commitment is to Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of the world and not to this candidate or to that party.

Somewhere I have read that in the days of the Roman persecution of the church, that when Christians were ordered to tell the authorities where they were from, that their standard answer was – “My home is heaven.” I hear in this an echo of Paul’s reminder to the Philippians that – “our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). A letter from an unknown Christian in the second century explains how some of those first Christians thought about the world and their place in it as clearly as anything we have –

Christians dwell in their own countries, but as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet they endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. …What the soul is in the body, that is what Christians are in the world. …The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.

This whole argument can be found at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0101.htm, see – “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus – Chapter V — The Manners of the Christians, and Chapter VI — The Relation of Christians to the World.” It deserves a look and some thought.

Over the next few weeks I want probe the spiritually complicated relationship between faith and politics in my weekly blogs. The urgency of this in a Presidential election year should be obvious to all.  And because I believe that this is one of those proverbial horses that we as Christians can fall off of from either side – by being too partisanly engaged in the political process and by being too spiritually indifferent about political matters and decisions – I hope that you will make this journey with me. DBS+

NextWeek: Part 2 – “Changed Hearts… Changed World”







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“Wake Up!”

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Vision of Saint Paul to come in Macedonia, icon by Artsome Studio, from St. Ilija Macedonian Orthodox Church, Mississauga, Canada

The beginning of a New Year and the ongoing work of a discernment process at the church that I serve brought me to Acts 16:6-10 in the opening weeks of January 2016. Henry and Richard Blackaby in their book Spiritual Leadership (Broadman & Holman – 2001) said that spiritual leaders regularly fill their hearts and minds with Scripture through regular reading and careful study, and thus filled with God’s Word, they find themselves starting to think according to its principles.

When a difficult situation arises, the Holy Spirit will being appropriate Scriptures to mind. When they prepare to make a decision, the Holy Spirit will bring to memory a Scripture verse that provides relevant guidance. (182)

This is how Acts 16:6-10 got “in,” and why Acts 16:6-10 hasn’t budged from my head or heart since the ball dropped in Times Square almost two weeks ago now.

6 Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

The immediacy and clarity of God’s guidance of Paul and his companions in these verses has always startled me, and, frankly, left me feeling rather envious. You see, this has just not been my experience, at least not very often.

At the end of I Corinthians Paul explained his future travel plans to the Corinthians by writing – “I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me…” (16:8-9). This notion of “open doors” looms rather large in the traditional conversation about how God guides us to know and do His will in our lives.  The opportunities that providentially present themselves to us are widely interpreted to be good indications of what it is that God wants us to do and where God needs us to be.  They are the “open doors.”

GarfieldJames Abram Garfield (November 19, 1831 – September 19, 1881), a Disciples of Christ preacher, a Civil War Major General in the Union Army, a College Professor and President, a United States Congressman for almost 20 years and the 20th President of the United States, said that he never once actively sought any of these positions in his life, but rather he just simply walked through the doors that the Lord opened to him.  That thought has long appealed to me, and I have tried to do this myself.  I have both sought “open doors” when trying to make faithful decisions about my life and ministry, and I have claimed “open doors” to explain the decisions I have finally made.

paulActs 16:6-10 is a text about open and closed doors. Twice in these verses Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Jesus kept Paul and his companions from entering certain regions of Asia Minor to preach the Gospel, only to open a completely unexpected door of ministry to them in Europe through a vision and a voice calling them to “come over and help us.”  The wonderful icon at the beginning of my blog this week is this story in line and color.  The image of the man who is beckoning Paul and his companions to come over is the Risen Christ.  This is the Christ of the Mount of Transfiguration in the Gospels and Revelation chapter 1. He speaks from inside a nimbus – a kind of body halo – that signifies the Shekinah – the Glory of God that shines forth like light during a theophanies – God appearances in time and space.

Gordon T. Smith began his book on discernment – The Voice of Jesus (IVP 2003) – with the statement that “every Christian should be able to answer two questions — first, what do you think Jesus is saying to you at this point in your life, in the context of the challenges and opportunities that you are facing, and second (and just as critical) what indicators give you some measure of confidence that it is indeed Jesus speaking to you rather than someone or something else?” (9)  The power of this story from Acts chapter 16 for me at this particular moment in my life and the life of this church – “in the context of the challenges and opportunities that you are facing” – is the way that it answers these two questions with such clarity and confidence.  I want this kind of clarity and confidence for the decisions that I face in my own life personally, and for the decisions that we face together in our life congregationally.  I want doors that are clearly and unmistakably open. I want the vision and the voice.

Carrying this story and its icon with me into the prayer closet of my heart these first few weeks of 2016 has been deeply meaningful to me. One of the important openings that this exercise has created within me has had to do with my own receptivity to God’s guidance.  Oh, I say that I want the clarity and confidence of open doors — but what am I actually doing to recognize them when they come? How am I positioning myself for receptivity?  What am I doing to train the eyes of my heart to be able to see a door when it appears, and to tune the ears of my heart to be able to hear the invitation to walk through it when it opens?

Pondering all of this, the contrast between Paul and his companions in the icon became that proverbial 2×4 up the side of my head.


In the icon Paul’s companions sleep while Paul lies awake, eyes open wide, waiting and watching. In I Thessalonians Paul wrote – you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…” (I Thessalonians 5:5-6). The context of these verses is a conversation about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ that Paul said would  break in upon us as “a thief in the night” (I Thessalonians 5:2).  But the “middle comings” of Christ – all of those moments when Christ breaks into our lives and our worlds in-between His first coming in the Incarnation and His Second Coming at the close of the age – I have found that all of these middle moments are no less like the unexpected appearance of that final thief in the night.

Jesus said: “If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch” (Matthew 24:43), and there lies Paul in this icon, the only one with his eyes open wide, and therefore the only one who can see the vision when He appears and who can hear the voice when He speaks.  That’s who I want to be.  Only the one who is awake has any chance of answering Gordon Smith’s two questions: What it is that Jesus Christ is specifically calling you to be or do, and how do you know that it’s actually Jesus Christ who is calling to be or do that?

SchnaseRobert Schnase, the Bishop of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church, says that right before Christmas he was at a church where the morning Scripture was Mark 13, that “mysterious, almost code-like apocalyptic text that baffles, provokes, irritates, electrifies, terrifies, or mystifies so many readers.” And he explained that one phrase kept jumping out at him from this otherwise confusing text as it was being read that morning, three times in quick succession, the imperative – “Keep awake!” Bishop Schnase writes–

For Jesus to repeat this so emphatically three times in a row implies that one of the great hazards of the faith journey is spiritual acquiescence, a kind of grogginess that dulls us to what is true, and truly important. Sleepiness of spirit means we miss out on what God is doing, and perhaps overlook the presence of Christ right in our midst. By simply falling asleep, spiritually speaking, we miss God, and miss out on what God is calling us to be and do. The peril of spiritual stupor is real, and we see this theme repeated in scripture many times. The disciples who hiked to the mountaintop with Jesus almost missed the transfiguration because they were sleepy! One story tells about someone whom others assumed was dead, but Jesus says, “He’s not dead; he’s sleeping.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night which the disciples knew would be Jesus’ last among them, they fell asleep. Even after Jesus implored them to stay awake with him, they nodded off. Scripture also records one poor follower who dozed during a sermon and fell out the window. (Let that be a warning to the people in the pews!).  If it hadn’t been for Mary and company on Easter morning, the disciples would have slept through the resurrection of Christ.

In Ephesians 5:14 Paul told the church – “Awake, sleeper, and arise, for Christ is shining upon you like the dawn and wants to give you light.” And I can’t help but wonder how would I as an individual, and how we as a congregation would be different if this year we made it our goal to stay awake?  What doors would open for us? DBS+

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Thinking “Christianly” about Guns and Church


At a previous church I served there was a member who was an officer in the Sheriff’s Department. He was on duty most Sunday mornings, but he nevertheless made a real effort to stop by the church to take communion each week with his family.  Sitting on the chancel, I would see him arrive through the sanctuary doors during the singing of the communion hymn. His timing was impeccable.  Standing at the threshold he would respectfully remove his department issued cowboy hat, scan the congregation looking for his wife and kids, and then quietly move to their pew where he would sit down to share the bread and cup with them before getting up and heading back out.  He was always armed.  His gun in its holster was clearly visible, and that bothered some church members. It bothered them very much.

They thought it a violation of our sacred space and that scared hour to have someone present with a deadly weapon, even if he was an officer of the law on duty. They wanted him to leave his gun in his patrol car when he showed up at church for communion, and they wanted me to tell him so for them.  Others completely disagreed.  They appreciated his effort to be with his family – both spiritual and biological – in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day for the Lord’s Supper each week, and they honored his office as part of the authority established by God to maintain order in a fallen world, including that part about  him “not bearing the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4).  They had no qualms whatsoever about him being armed in church. As with so many things, that church was simply not of one mind of this matter, and so we lived with that diversity.

Now, this disagreement in that church never rose to the level of a public debate. It was not officially discussed at a board meeting.  It was never an item of business for the elders to consider at one of their monthly meetings.  But I sensed the tension every Sunday morning when the sanctuary doors opened during the communion hymn and he walked in with his gun strapped to his hip.  I felt both support for him and concern about his gun ripple through the congregation every time he was there. I knew who it bothered, and who it didn’t, and why.  You see, both advocates and opponents had made their positions known to me in private conversation at one time or another, and like almost everything in the faith and practice of a church’s life, I found that there were two sides to the question, and merits to both sets of arguments, and so we simply lived with the unresolved tension of different convictions.  It was complicated.

In his “Peace Proposal” for the divided church of his day (The “Irenicum”), the Puritan Preacher Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) offered a vivid picture of what this kind of unity in diversity looks like –

lakeI have read of two rivers in the east, Sava and Danube, that run along in one channel threescore miles together without any noise, and yet they keep themselves distinct; the color of the waters remain distinct all along. Why should we not think it possible for us to go along close together in love and peace, though in some things our judgments and practices are apparently different from one another?  (368)

And without a doubt this is my preferred mode of operation for the church. Maybe this is why I am a “Disciple,” or maybe it’s what being a “Disciple” has done to me, but I just don’t expect us as Christians to agree on very much apart from Christ.  If you can make the “Good Confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and your Lord and Savior, then I feel some compulsion to stay in familial relationship with you even though I may disagree with you – and strenuously – on any number of the doctrinal, moral and social positions that you have taken.  I’m a strong advocate of the right of private interpretation and for the freedom of individual conscience and conviction.  I want church members to live together in love and peace even though in some things our judgments and practices differ.  As Jeremiah Burroughs counseled Christian believers some 350 years ago, when we have “labored to get our opinions into one, but they will not come together,” we need to back up and start all over again at the other end. “Labor to join your hearts to engage your affections to one another,” he argued.  He believed that a “variety of opinions” and the “unity of those who hold them standing together” could be a real possibility for Christians in the church.  And we are a church as “Disciples” that has specifically and emphatically named this as our “raison d’etre.”

cupWe are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

Nevertheless, sometimes actions taken by the larger culture force a church like ours to make policy decisions on matters where freedom of conscience and diversity of practice is consciously preferred and had previously prevailed. The United States Supreme Court ruling last summer on the legality of same sex marriage as a matter of equal protection under the law and the new open carry handgun legislation that became Texas State law on January 1, 2016 (see the Texas Impact “Overview” of the impact of this law on houses of worship like Northway at the end of this blog) are two examples of how churches like ours suddenly find themselves having to set official policy on matters where people of “good faith” can and do conscientiously disagree, and where previously they had been perfectly content to live in the difficulty unity of people who choose to remain in fellowship with Christ and one another despite their diverse convictions and  practices.  The necessity of suddenly having to take official procedural positions on matters of conscience where freedom had previously prevailed in the life of a community of faith like ours pushes us in ways that are neither familiar nor particularly comfortable.

In the coming days Northway’s Board will be called upon to sort out the question of how we as a church will operate in light of these developments in the surrounding culture. But unlike the way that decisions are made in the larger society through political debate and vote, we as a church have to make our operational policy and procedure decisions not on the basis of just what we think alone, but rather on the basis of what we think God thinks, as far as what God thinks has been made known to us and has been correctly understood by us.

Harry Blamires in his book The Christian Mind (Servant Books – 1978) proposed this little exercise to illustrate just how hard this assignment is for us in the church today –

Take some topic of current political importance. Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relationship to it; and do so in total detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form you conclusions by thinking Christianly [Defined by Blamires as not “the opinionated self as the only judge of truth,” but rather the acceptance of “the given revelation — discovered by careful inquiry — as the final touchstone of truth” (107)]. Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation.  The full loneliness of the thinking Christian will descend on you.  It is not that people disagree with you — some do and some don’t.  In a sense that does not matter.  But they will not think Christianly.  They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly.   In almost all cases you will find that views are wholly determined by political allegiance.  Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average Churchman to the Conservative Party or the Labour Party (Blamires was British, so translate his remarks to the Republican Party or the Democrat Party) is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the Church (with its commitment to the Christ and the apostolic teachings). (14)

headlessIn a democracy the majority rules, but in a “Christocracy” (Jürgen Moltmann) Christ rules — and insofar as Christ is the head of His body the church (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:15; Colossians 1:18), the church is a Christocracy.  And an important aspect of the way that Jesus Christ exercises this headship over His body, the church, is by His revealed will that has been preserved for us in the pages of Scripture.  If we don’t know what the Bible, properly interpreted, says about something, then we simply don’t have the “mind of Christ” on the matter.

Henry Blackaby in a book written with his son Richard Blackaby – Spiritual Leadership (Broadman & Holman – 2001) – said –

The problem for so many church leaders is that they are unfamiliar with the Bible. They don’t really know what it says, so it doesn’t guide them.  They don’t read it regularly, so it really doesn’t influence their thinking.  When a crucial decision is required, leaders have no alternative but to do what makes sense to them and hope it does not violate the teachings of Scripture.  True spiritual leaders recognize their utter dependence on God.  So they regularly fill their heart and mind with His Word.  When leaders’ minds are filled with Scripture, they find themselves thinking according to biblical principles.  When a difficult situation arises, The Holy Spirit will being appropriate Scriptures to mind.  When they prepare to make a decision, The Holy Spirit will bring to memory a Scripture verse that provides relevant guidance. (182)

Right before Christmas John Piper, the Minister Emeritus of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis responded to the widely publicized and highly criticized remarks of Jerry Falwell, Jr., to the students of Liberty University about guns on campus. Dr. Falwell’s call for the students of his University to arm themselves legally and then to go to class prepared to use their weapons should the circumstances ever dictate was condemned by most of the people I know, especially the church people.  They expressed outrage at what he said.  They expressed disgust at what he said. They ridiculed what he said.  They called what he said “unchristian.”   There was sound and there was fury, but there was very little “thinking Christianly” in the reactions that I heard and read.  The whole episode, at least in mind, only confirmed Blamires’ observations about “the full loneliness of the thinking Christian.” And then John Piper wrote-

Now, you need to know that there is much about John Piper that concerns me. Even though we play the same position (we are both “Evangelical” Christians), and we learned the game from many of the same coaches (both of us spent time studying at Fuller Theological Seminary), we don’t play the game of Christianity in exactly the same way – in fact, I’m pretty sure that if he had his way I would be benched, and maybe even traded to another team.  But still I respect him, and I read him because John Piper makes me think.  Jesus told His disciples not just to invite your friends over when you are having a party, those who will return the favor, but instead to invite those who are different from you and who would probably never think of having you over to their place (Luke 14:12).  Based on that counsel I read with real benefit people who think about Christ and Christianity differently than I do, people to my theological left and people to my theological right. Enter John Piper from my theological right.

You can find John Piper’s response to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks at http://www.desiringgod.org under the title “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?” It is an important read.  As Harry Blamires explained, you may agree with what Dr. Piper writes, or you may disagree, “in a sense that does not matter.” What matters is how Dr. Piper makes his argument.  If you ask me, what Dr. Piper gives us in this essay is a textbook example of what it means to “think Christianly.” Because culture is always going to be asking questions that the church will have to answer, and taking positions to which the church will have to respond, it is important that the church finds her distinctive voice that speaks from a mind that has been formed and informed by “thinking Christianly.” And I deeply appreciate John Piper for showing us what that looks and sounds like on the question of guns and self-defense.  There is much to learn here for the conversations that we are going to have to have in the coming weeks among ourselves, and with the world.  DBS+


Brief Overview of Current Law concerning Handguns in Texas Houses of Worship

Beginning January 1, 2016, concealed handgun license holders will be allowed to openly carry handguns into houses of worship. Although “concealed carry” has been Texas law for 20 years, visible handguns may alarm parishioners and prompt conversation. Under Texas law, congregations wishing to prevent concealed or openly carried weapons must ensure an individual has “received notice” that entry with a handgun is forbidden.

According to the law, “notice” must be provided orally, on a written card, or by means of a posted sign. Provision of oral notice or a written card requires confrontation, and for this reason is not recommended.  Posting of appropriate signage minimizes risks to staff and greeters, and enables immediate enforcement of the law by police.  If a person disregards properly posted signage, it is appropriate to call the police immediately.

  • To be legally enforceable, signage must adhere exactly to specifications prescribed by the Texas Penal Code:
  • If a congregation wishes to prohibit “open carry,” the signage needs to meet the requirements of Section 30.07 of the Penal Code.
  • If a congregation wishes to prohibit “concealed carry,” the signage needs to meet the requirements of Section 30.06 of the Penal Code.
  • Congregations wishing to prohibit both open and concealed handguns must post both signs.
  • According to legal experts, it is not sufficient to post one sign making reference to both sections of the law—the two sections must be posted separately.
  • Legally enforceable signage reviewed by prosecutors is available for purchase atwww.texasimpact.org/gunsigns.

To ensure that notice is “received,” legal experts recommend that signage be posted at every entrance to the building that is open to the public. Congregations are encouraged to use this opportunity to examine their security practices and to identify which of their doors should be public entrances and which doors should remain locked from the outside.  Often local law enforcement will help congregations to conduct safety assessments and develop preparedness plans.

Questions often arise as to whether posting notice creates a “gun-free zone.” The trespass by license holder laws apply only to the general public who are license holders.  Therefore, posting notice does not apply to trained professionals such as peace officers (on or off-duty) or contracted private security.

Under current law, houses of worship cannot prevent open or concealed carry on portions of their properties that are not buildings—such as parking lots, playgrounds, or sidewalks. However, congregations may still have individuals removed from any private property under the general trespass statute found in Section 30.05 of the Penal Code for a reason unrelated to the handgun license.  In such an instance, work closely with your local law enforcement.

Invariably, congregations will discover unique circumstances in their properties or operations about which they require specific guidance. Local law enforcement agencies are the entities best positioned to offer situation-specific counsel about safety and security for congregational property.



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At the Beginning of a New Year

new year
The late Batsell Barrett Baxter, the preacher for the Herald of Truth Television program for so many years, paraphrased what the German theologian Helmut Thielicke wrote at the very beginning of his 1956 book of sermons on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount “Life Can Begin Again” –

The real trouble of modern man expresses itself in two kinds of fear: Fear of the past and fear of the future.” Fear of the past—how can I get away from guilt for things I can never undo? Right and wrong decisions which I have made, and which are unalterable now, shape the course of my present life. Time seems to be a one-way street leading to the future, never allowing me to turn back to the past and make corrections. My relationship to the future is just as difficult. The time seems past when men imagined bright new Utopias just over the horizon. Our scientific technology and our humane concern for one another was supposed to lead mankind to paradise. But our world keeps getting more complex and less secure and no one knows how the future will turn out. What we need is something that will free us from our paralyzing fear of the past and of the future, and help us gain a new attitude toward what lies behind and ahead of us. Christianity’s words for these two needs are forgiveness and hope.

I always think about this during the week when one year ends and another one begins. At this annual intersection of the past and the future I find that regret and anxiety seem to mix inside me in a particularly noxious stew.  Looking back over the year just past I find that it’s the failures that demand the bulk of my attention.  In the same way that a single critic’s voice can drown out the chorus of the affirming words of the many, so I find that any accomplishments that I might have from the year just past tend to hide in the dark shadow of its disappointments.  And then, turning to look ahead to the year just beginning to dawn, I find that it’s not the possibilities that enthusiastically step up to greet me, but rather it’s that whisper of skepticism from somewhere deep inside that wants to argue that things never really change.

Maybe this is just me, the dark labyrinthine configuration of my own head and heart. I have long ago come to terms with the fact that I possess a “wintry” soul.  It’s mine. It’s who I am.  It’s how I think.  It’s what I feel.  I own it.  But I don’t think that is this.  I’m not convinced that this melancholy of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is something unique to me and my temperament alone.  I think that there’s something universal here, something that’s “common to man.” I believe that Carl Rogers was right when he observed that what’s most personal is also most general, and so I suspect that’s what true of me this week is, in some ways, true of you as well. I don’t believe that the fear of the past and the fear of the future that I sense so powerfully this week are my unique burdens to be borne by myself alone.  In fact, when I first read Helmut Thielicke’s description of them in his book “Life Can Began Again” I had the powerful experience of reassurance that C.S. Lewis clearly had in mind when he observed that “we read to know that we are not alone.” And if this is true of his diagnosis of my soul – our souls –  so then it must also be true of his prescription.

If you find that the fear of the past and the fear of future are stalking you this week, as they are me, then forgiveness and hope are what we need. And the only source of forgiveness and hope that I know anything about is Jesus Christ. And so here at the confluence of the past and the future, at that moment when and in that place where “the hopes and fears of all the years” meet, let us turn to Him who is the “same yesterday, today and yes, forever” (Hebrews 13:8).


This is why I am looking forward to being at the Lord’s Table this coming Sunday morning. Virtually every theology of the Lord’s Supper that I’ve ever read makes the point that it combines the three emphases of the past, the present and the future in a single act. As a table of remembrance it points us to the past.  As a table of presence it situates us fully in the present.  As a table of hope it orients us to the future. And so on the first Sunday of a new year with the dust from the one just past still settling and the possibilities of the one just beginning to open like the bloom of a new flower to the sun, it is to the Lord’s Table that I turn to find the mercy that I need for all of my regrets for what lies behind and the courage that I will need to move with confidence into what lies ahead.

At an earlier stop on my journey of faith we often sang a hymn that said –

Living, he loved me; dying, he saved me;
Buried, he carried my sins far away;
Rising, he justified freely, forever:
One day he’s coming—O, glorious day!

And it’s this perspective of what God in Jesus Christ has already done for me in the past, is doing for me right now in the present, and will do for me in the glorious future that I find get powerfully focused for me now every time I come to the Lord’s Table. When my fear of the past and my fear of the future have the power to paralyze me in the present – as they are wont to do in this week when one year gives way to another – it is only my security in the unchanging Christ that keeps me on my feet and moving forward. I’ll see you at the Lord’s Table this Sunday morning – the first Sunday morning of a new year.



anchorThe Anchor Cross is formed when the top part of an anchor is in the shape of a cross. The cross symbolizes the hope we have in Christ and the firm faith which keeps us steady in the storms of life. In ancient times, to people who navigated the sea, the anchor had long been a symbol of stability and security, even in stormy seas. During the early days of the church, Christians facing persecution used the Anchor Cross as a symbol of identity. Christians saw hope and strength in the symbol, and their enemies saw only an anchor.  Our hope is secure and immovable, anchored in God, just as a ship’s anchor holds firmly to the seabed.



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