Category Archives: Soundings

“Your Labor is not in Vain”

“Your Labor is not in Vain”
Corinthians 15:51-58


Closing Reflections on a Ministry

dreamJohn Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical account of the Christian life. It’s regarded by many to be the single most important piece of religious writing in the history of the English language. It tells the story of a dream that a man named Christian had about a long journey from his home in the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City” of heaven that he undertook to find relief from a heavy burden that he was carrying.  And as he crossed over the final river, John Bunyan said that the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

pilgrimI cross a river this week – not the final river, mind you – but a river nonetheless. I received my call to ministry in 1965 when I was 12 years old. I had my first paying ministry job in the summer of 1972.  I was ordained to ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1979, and I have been in vocational ministry every day ever since. But this week, things change. I’ll still be a minister, but I will not be the minister of a church for the first time in four decades, five if you count the ministry jobs I had before I was ordained.  And while I suspect that there will be other kinds of ministries in my future, come this Tuesday morning I will not be a minister in the way that I have always been a minister before.  I will cross over a river, but unlike Christian in A Pilgrim’s Progress, I don’t hear any trumpets.

In the last days of every ministry that I’ve ever had, my heart has returned to a prayer that I found a long time ago in a prayer book for ministers. “Lord God, merciful and mighty: Help those whom I have neglected to help,” it begins…

Set aright those whom I have caused to stumble;
Visit those whom I have neglected to visit;
Bring back those whom I have led astray;
Cheer the hearts of those whom I have made sad;
Draw with the cords of thy love those for whom my love has grown cold.
Save them all, O Lord, and have mercy upon me, the chief of sinners…

 I don’t know, maybe it’s just my personality’s “wintry” soul, but it has always been so much easier for me to see how, and when, and where I’ve come up short, or missed the mark altogether, in my ministry than it is for me to fall prey to easy self-congratulation and feelings of self-satisfaction.  This is not a bad thing.  In fact, just like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” I’ve found that my wintry soul has actually served to keep me consciously tethered to God’s grace, and entirely dependent upon the promise of God’s power being made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The preacher at the church I attended in high school used to say that he would rather go into the pulpit in his underwear than to try to minister without the assurance of God’s promise to use our weakness to His glory (2 Corinthians 4:7-12). And one of the ways that this promise has been kept at the forefront of my consciousness as a minister across the years of my ministry has been the experience of ministry itself.   This week I am acutely aware of four great truths about my work for the Lord as a vocational minister, and about your work for the Lord as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and about our work for the Lord together as a church – (1) it’s always imperfect; (2) it’s always unfinished; (3) it’s quite often hidden; but (4) it’s never in vain.

  • Our work for the Lord is always imperfect.

angelWhen I was a kid they used to show a cartoon version of Charles Tazewell’s classic Christmas story The Littlest Angel every December in school. Theologically, it’s a mess of a story. But spiritually, I have found encouragement in this story of a little boy who dies and goes to heaven as the “littlest angel” and who doesn’t quite fit in. The littlest angel was such a disruption to the peace of heaven that he was finally sent to the angel of peace to straighten him out. And when the angel of peace asked the littlest angel what he could do to make his adjustment to heaven smoother, the littlest angel told him about a crude wooden box under his bed back home that was filled with treasures – a butterfly’s wing, a blue egg, a couple of ordinary white stones, and a well-worn dog collar. If he could just have that rough wooden box with its strange assortment of treasure in it, the littlest angel told the angel of peace, then surely he would be happy in his new heavenly home. And so the angel of peace made arrangements to get it for him, and things quickly improved for the littlest angel. And then the day came for Jesus, the Son of God, to be born to Mary, in Bethlehem, and every angel in heaven prepared a special gift to celebrate the miracle. But what did the littlest angel have that would please the holy infant? And then he remembered his box filled with all of those wonderful things that even the Son of God would surely treasure. And so on the day of days the littlest angel added his small, rough, unsightly wooden box to all of the glorious gifts from the other angels of paradise, but seeing the rare and radiant splendor of the other angels’ gifts, the littlest angel felt deeply ashamed. Compared to the glory of their gifts, his crude wooden box filled with such ordinary things looked shabby, worthless, even insulting. And so the littlest angel tried to take it back, but it was too late, the hand of God was already moving slowly over that bright array of shining gifts until it finally rested over the littlest angel’s lowly gift. The littlest angel cowered in a dark corner as the Heavenly Father opened the rough wooden box and looked at the odd assortment of worthless objects inside. And then to the surprise of the heavenly host, God said, “Of all the gifts of all the angels, I find that it’s this small ordinary box that pleases me most… its contents are of earth and men, and my Son, who is born to be King of both… These are the things that my Son will know and love too,” and with that the rough, unsightly wooden box filled with the ordinary treasures of the littlest angel began to glow and rise from its place before the throne of God to become the star over the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.   Now, for all that’s wrong with this story theologically, here’s what it got exactly right spiritually – God takes what we have to offer Him, ordinary and imperfect though they are, and God transforms them into something powerful and glorious. Even our best work for the Lord is flawed, but it’s through the cracks of those flaws that the grace of God shines forth.

  • Our work for the Lord is always unfinished.

I keep a prayer that was written in memory of Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, in a place where I will come across it regularly.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

When it was time after 40 years of ministry for Dr. Henry to step away, Northway wasn’t finished. When it was time after 20 years of ministry for Dr. McKenzie to step away, Northway wasn’t finished.  And now that it’s time after 20 years of my ministry for me to step away, Northway still isn’t finished, and that’s okay because “we’re all prophets of a future not our own.”

  • Our work for the Lord is quite often hidden.

Al Mohler told a gathering of preachers that “product envy” is something of a vocational hazard for ministers.

creamWe envy those who build houses or sell cars or build great corporations or assemble automobiles, or merely those who cut the grass. Why? It’s because they have something tangible to show for their labor at the end of the day. They may be fastening widgets and assembling automobiles, or they may be putting things in boxes and sealing them up and sending them out, or they may be cutting the grass. But they get to see the product of their hands. A carpenter or an artist or a building contractor has something to which he can point. What about the preacher? …We would love to have an assembly line of maturing Christians go out the door of the church, wherein we could at least see something and note some progress. We wish that we could statistically mark the kind of impact that our sermons have. But, we do not have that sight. The work we do is largely a hidden work in the human heart. Such a work will bear good fruit, but this will take time to be evident. 

And so Paul told Timothy to preach the Word “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2), when you can see the results, and when you can’t.  As a church historian, Carl Trueman is often asked about how the church should respond to the difficulties and decline that it faces in the west these days.  And he says –

As long as I live I will still be baptizing people, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. …The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides.  …In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ… and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth. … The tomb is still empty…

  • And so, while our work for the Lord both as Christians and as a church is always going to be imperfect and unfinished, and quite often hidden, it is never going to be done in vain.

boxThe word “vain” means worthless, wasted, of little or no consequence. In I Corinthians 15 Paul talked about how some thought that the Gospel’s offer of salvation was vain (2), and that his preaching of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was in vain (14), and that their faith in it was vain (14). And then in verse 58, at the climax of Paul’s whole argument in I Corinthians, he said that their work for the Lord, seemingly so compromised and insignificant, was nevertheless not in vain because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and the future is in His hands. He who has begun this good work in you – and through you – will bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).


Recently I heard a preacher reference a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien called “Leaf by Niggle.” “Niggle was a painter.  Not a very successful one,” it begins.

grenn“He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of the dewdrops on its edges. [And] Yet Niggle wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.”  He tried to paint this tree, but it always seemed to him to be “wholly unsatisfactory.” And then one day, before his painting of his tree was finished, Niggle was called away.  He was gone for years.  And when the decision was being made about his return someone in authority said, “He was a painter by nature. In a minor way, of course; still, a Leaf by Niggle has a charm of its own.  He took a great deal of pains with leaves, just for their own sake.”  When Niggle was finally allowed to go home again, he found his bicycle right where he’d left it when he’d been called away, and he rode it down the old path to where his home had always been. Rounding a familiar corner, an unfamiliar shadow came between Niggle and the sun.  “Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle. Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished… all the leaves he had ever labored at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had the time… [all of them] exquisite leaves… [And] Niggle gazed at the tree, and then he slowly lifted his arms and opened them wide.  ‘It’s a gift! He said.”


And so it is…



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A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Continued)


 Reflections at the end of a 20 Year Ministry

As I have been up packing books and sorting out papers in preparation for the move of my church office home, I have had plenty of time to remember and reflect on the ground that we’ve been covered together in these last 20 years, and I am sharing some of the highlights this week in my blog. This certainly isn’t everything that these last 20 years have been about, but here are some of the things that are closest to my heart, in no particular order.

  • The Leaders

In my first full-time church ministry back in Idaho in the summer of 1974 I heard a guest speaker at a church conference say that the difference between churches are their leaders, and that a church will never rise above the vision and passion of those leaders. Well, here 44 years later I fully understand the truth of these statements. Northway has long been gifted with skilled and visionary leaders. The Elders, Diaconate, Ministry Chairs, Trustees, and Executive Committees that I have had the privilege of working with over these past 20 years have been among the finest Christians I have ever known. You have consistently blessed me and this church with your commitments, and you have kept faith with the part of God’s purpose that has been placed in our hands as a community of faith. “Well done Thou good and faithful servants.”  

  • The Communion of the Saints

The closing scene of the movie “Places in the Heart” shows a communion service taking place in a small country church and all of the characters from the story – the living and the dead – are gathered there in the pews as the trays of bread and cup are being passed.  The doctrine of the Communion of the Saints refers to the way that the church exists in two dimensions at once across time – those Christians who are alive on earth right here and now in this present moment, and those Christians who have died and are now alive in God’s nearer presence.  Hymn #654 in the Chalice Hymnal is based on a poem that was written by Frederick Hosmer in 1882 –

I cannot think of them as dead, who walk with me no more;
along the path of life I tread they are but gone before…

And still their silent ministry within my heart hath place,
as when on earth they walked with me, and met me face to face…

Their lives are made forever mine; what they to me have been
has left henceforth its seal and sign engraven deep within…

Mine are they by an ownership nor time nor death can free;
for God hath given to love to keep its own eternally…

In my mind and heart I see the faces of all those dear Northway members who are no longer present with us physically, but who remain alive and dynamically present with us still. As St. Augustine put it, “we never lose those we love when we trust them to the God whose love we never lose.”

  • The Ordinations

By my count there have been 12 Northway people ordained to Christian ministry in the past 20 years, there is 1 person who is currently scheduled to be ordained in May, and there are 2 people who are currently in the ordination process. 15 men and women have gone out, or soon will go out into lives of Christian ministry from the membership of this congregation in the last 20 years! That’s a remarkable record, and I am grateful for each one of these servants we have had a hand in shaping for ministry.

  • The Ministerial Team

From Richard English, Marilyn Dickson, and Rod Fisher when I first got here in 1997 to Mark Bender, Barry Preston, and Megan Turner today, I have been blessed with the best ministerial partners anybody could ever ask for.  And in-between then and now – Jack Arrington, Rochelle Richards, Lea McCracken, Micah James, Shari Sims, Jennie Churchman, J.T. Tucker, Casey Tanguay, Jamie Plunkett, Cheryl Scramuzza, Mike Johnston, George Patterson, Leslie Irwin, Zena McAdams, Kristal Seid, Regina Franklin-Basye, Ruby Henry, Dana Lobaugh, Casey McCullough, Bill Morgan, John O’Neal, and Justin West have all shared part of this journey with me.  I respect each one of these people deeply and honor their gifts and graces greatly.  What joy is mine to have labored in the Vineyard beside each one of them.  Of special note is Margaret Mulvey-Claiborne who was at the organ when I arrived in 1997 and who will be at the organ after this Sunday when I am finished.  Thank-you my dear and talented friend.


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A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Continued)


 Reflections at the end of a 20 Year Ministry

 As I have been up packing books and sorting through papers in preparation for the move of my church office home, I have had plenty of time to remember and reflect on the ground that we’ve been covered together in these last 20 years, and I am sharing some of the highlights this last week of my church blog. This certainly isn’t everything that these last 20 years have been about, but these are some of the things that are closest to my heart, in no particular order.

  • The Missional Outlook and Commitment

From the first mission trip to Honduras in 1998 to the most recent one last January, Northway has consistently and generously embraced the mission of sharing and being the Good News of Jesus Christ from our front doorsteps to the ends of the earth. Some of our primary mission partners over these past 20 years have been –

The North Texas Area of the Christian Church in the Southwest
The Fowler Communities
Disciples Crossing  (Athens)
Jarvis Christian College
Oasis de Esperanza (Jose Almanza)
Week of Compassion – Disaster Relief
National Benevolent Association – XPLOR Program
Good Samaritan Ministry (Feliberto
Church World Service – Refugee Resettlement
Honduras Outreach International
Heifer Project International
Family Gateway
North Dallas Shared Ministries
Austin Street Center
City Square
Hotchkiss Elementary
The North Texas Food Bank
The Wilkinson Center

The way that Northway has opened heart and hand to share time, talent, and treasure with and through these ministries that touch human hurts and hopes and that deliver specific and concrete help is a powerful witness to the deep impact that our foot-washing Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has on us as a community of faith.

  • Interfaith Conversation

Kennon Callahan talked about discovering your mission passion by paying close attention to the things that keep you awake at night, and that occupy your thoughts in the gaps of your waking hours. Attending to this counsel is what led to my involvement with Hospice ministry in Houston, to ministry with the homeless in Amarillo, and to my interfaith work here in Dallas. The way that Northway has supported the conversations in faith with the Jewish and Muslim communities in a time when and a place where the pressures to ostracize and stereotype the “other” have alarmingly increased has been exemplary, and anticipated our denomination’s call for all Disciples to –“unequivocally affirm that to be faithful to God’s call in today’s religiously pluralistic world summons Disciples intentionally and whole-heartedly to engage in interfaith relations and work.” My most recent partners in this work – Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, Dr. Mohammed Lazzouni, and Dr. Robert Hunt – are the some of the most gracious, engaging, articulate, and intelligent people I know, and I am privileged to call them my friends. 

  • The Elders’ Discernment Process

The most difficult and controversial experience of my time as Northway’s minister was the Elders’ Discernment Process on the question of same sex marriage. I was part of the denomination’s task force that designed the discernment process – “Listening to the Spirit” – on the question of the full inclusion and participation of gay and lesbian Christians in the life of the church back in the 1990’s.  I had a theoretical understanding of, and appreciation for, this process.  I believed in its promise as the right way to faithfully work through divisive questions in the church.  And then when the Supreme Court issued the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in June of 2015, and immediately a request for a same sex marriage to be performed at Northway was made, it was time for us to actually engage in this discernment process itself. Northway’s ministers, elders, and elders emeriti were faithful to the process. With Liz Hermann’s amazing leadership and gracious spirit we prayerfully processed the teachings of Scripture, the experiences of our fellow gay and lesbian church members, and the reflections of the larger church, and concluded that the open table where the love of God in Jesus Christ for all gets affirmed and embraced each week requires us to open our arms and hearts to everyone God in Jesus Christ loves. Not everyone has agreed. Precious friends have left our beloved community because of this decision to stand on the side of welcome, inclusion, and grace.   It has been painful and hard, but I remain convinced that it was right for us to take a pastoral approach, and to act in grace as a church. As Brennan Manning said, “If it is a flaw to be loving, then it’s a flaw I learned from Jesus Christ.” (To be continued)



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A Long Obedience in the Same Direction


 Reflections at the end of a 20 Year Ministry

What a wonderful party we had after church last Sunday. Mary Lynn and I are both overwhelmed by the affection that you have extended to us, by the appreciation that you have voiced for us, and by the affirmations of this ministry that you have offered to us so generously.

Half of my ordained ministry has been right here with you at Northway.  I spent close to 20 years in ordained ministry at Lubbockview Christian Church in Lubbock (1979-81),  First Christian Church of Plainview, Texas (1981-84), Memorial Drive Christian Church in Houston, Texas (1984-1993), and First Christian Church of Amarillo (1993-97), Texas, before getting to Dallas. The Central Christian Church in Pocatello, Idaho, before starting seminary, and the Melissa Christian Church up in Collin County during seminary were the two churches that first took a chance on me when I was young and green, and I would not have gotten here without their faith and support.  All of the credit and none of the blame for my ministry can be given to these seven congregations.

The gift of a long pastorate is the depth of the relationships that get formed, and the ups and downs, the twists and turns in the journey of faith that gets shared. Eugene Peterson in one of his book of sermons, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, talked about “the long obedience in the same direction” that’s involved in faithfulness. I thank Northway for the opportunity to have shared this “long obedience in the same direction” with you.  Mary Lynn and I will always be grateful, and while we won’t be around, we will always think of Northway as our spiritual “home.”

As I have been up packing books and sorting through papers in preparation for the move of my office home, I have had plenty of time to remember and reflect on the ground that we’ve been covered together in these last 20 years, and over the next few days I would like to share some of the highlights in the last week of my church blog. This certainly isn’t everything that these last 20 years have been about, but here are some of the things that are closest to my heart, in no particular order –

  • Bible Study

This week I will conduct my last Bible Study of my ministry at Northway. This all began on a Sunday evening in the fall of 1997 and has continued uninterrupted ever since.  All four Gospels in harmony, the Gospel of Luke all by itself, Acts, Romans (twice), I & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1,2,3 John, Jude, and Revelation (twice) – we have studied every word of the New Testament together over the past 20 years!   It has been one of my highest aspirations to be a “V.D.M.” – a “Verbi Dei minister” – a “Minister of the Word of God” – and you have made this aspiration actual for me.

  • The Northway “Reservoir” and “River”

Churches exist in two forms – as “reservoirs” and as “rivers.” The church as a “reservoir” exists as a core community of people who belong, support, and participate in its life and work. The Northway “reservoir” is committed, connected, and involved. It is your loyal prayers, presence, gifts, and service that upholds Northway. Thank-you for your faithfulness. The church as a “river” refers to all of those people who pass between its banks of ministry and mission on their way from somewhere else to somewhere else. These are the people who were with us for a while, and who then moved on. While they did not become, or remain, part of our “reservoir,” we were nevertheless allowed to share the journey of faith with them for a little while, and we were able to contribute to their sacred search for meaning, direction, and purpose even as they made real contributions to our life and faith as a church. This is a privilege that we should never take for granted or discount because they didn’t stay. I am grateful for every opportunity that we have had to travel with all of these beloved people for a while together.

  • The Ministry of Place and the Property Sale

From the athletic fields and green spaces that have served our community as parks for years, to the Meals on Wheels that are delivered daily from our front parking lot, to the community groups like the Hillcrest High School Young Life, and AA, and the early morning boys Bible Club for the families at the school next door that meet in our facilities, to our church’s weekday children’s program, to the property sale and the new possibilities for reaching out to and meeting our neighbors through the school that we now share this block with, I am grateful for the way that our campus has had a ministry and makes a powerful witness of hospitality, cooperation, compassion, and concern for human thriving and well-being.  To be continued…


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“Come and See”

wind“Come and see.” That’s the Easter invitation. It’s found in Matthew 28:7 – “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said,” the angel told the women at the tomb, “come and see the place where He was lying.”  This isn’t the only time that we hear this invitation extended in the Gospels.  When John the Baptist was in prison and sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if He was really the Christ or should they start looking for someone else, Jesus told them to come and see what He was doing and then go back and tell John all about it before they made up their minds (Matthew 11:4-6).  And in the Gospel of John, on four separate occasions (1:39; 1:46; 4:29; 11:34), people were invited to “come and see” for themselves what Jesus was doing before making any decisions about who He was.

We don’t have access to what the angel invited those first disciples to “come and see.” And so our journeys of faith begin with a decision about the credibility of what those who actually went and saw have told us about it.  And when we do, when we trust what they have told us, then there are some other things that begin to emerge in our lives that people can actually “come and see” as evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not just in a garden tomb 2,000 years ago, but also in our lives right here and right now.

T.R. Glover (1869-1943), a Cambridge University scholar from the last generation, famously observed that Christianity finally prevailed in the ancient marketplace of ideas because the first Christians “out-thought, out-lived and out-died” the competition.  And I am convinced that their capacity to do this, to “out-think,” “out-live,” and “out-die” their rivals, resided in the three claims about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ that Christianity makes, namely that He is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).  Theologian Gabriel JesusFackre argues that “the resurrection is the validation… of these [three] assertions about the uniqueness of Christ.” And this is where the resurrection shows today.  This is what people can still “come and see.” The resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s claim to be “the way,” and that changes the way that we live as Christians.  The resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s claim to be “the truth,” and that changes the way that we think as Christians.  And the resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s claim to be “the life,” and that changes the way that we die as Christians.

People today can “come and see” how the Resurrection of Jesus Christ impacts the way that we live as Christians.  In Acts chapter 4, after describing the pattern of economic sharing the emerged in life of the early church with the result that it could be said of them that there was not a needy person among them (4:34), Luke tells us that “with great power” they bore witness “to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33).  Connect the dots.

The power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the lives of those first Christians completely transformed their values. They had been raised by Christ to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4), and it showed in their compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness and love (Colossians 3:12-14).  Pope Francis, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, our own Feliberto Periera down in the Valley, and the dozens and dozens of quietly compelling Christians you know personally – the power of their lives is the power of the resurrection in them.  Raised with Christ, they are now living like Christ, and this is something that people can “come and see!”

People can also “come and see” how the resurrection of Jesus Christ impacts the way that we think as Christians.  When putting together a jigsaw puzzle you always start with the corners don’t you?  Once those corners are in place then you’ve got some clear reference points within which you can get to work.  And this is precisely what the Resurrection of Jesus Christ establishes for us as Christians.

History is loaded with accounts of saviors – messiahs – who made extravagant claims, who have espoused cure-all answers to life’s greatest dilemmas. In fact, Arnold Toynbee in his monumental work, The Study of History, devotes one entire chapter to the subject of saviors.  He broke them down into four categories: (1) The savior with a scepter – the political savior; (2) The savior with a book – the philosopher, teacher, theologian; (3) The savior with a sword – the military conqueror and strategist; and (4) The man-god or god-man saviors – the saviors of Greek and Norse mythology.  After this review, Professor Toynbee pointed out that each of these saviors ultimately capitulated to the last great enemy, death.  Politicians, kings, generals, philosophers and teachers all die.  And each of the demi-gods of history have likewise succumbed to the same enemy – they have ceased to be and ceased to matter. And then Professor Toynbee concluded this significant chapter with the words – “When the last civilization shall have crossed the river of death, there on the other side filling up the whole horizon with Himself will be the Savior.”  (Richard Halverson)

Paul began his letter to the Romans with the announcement that Jesus Christ was “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection” (1:4). When Jesus began His public ministry by getting baptized by John in the Jordan, the Gospels tell us that there was a voice from heaven that said, “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22).  And according to Paul, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was that same kind of divine announcement.  Christ’s resurrection was God’s validation of His claims and His teachings, and when you believe that they’re true you are going to act on them, and this is something people can “come and see!”

Finally, people can “come and see” how the resurrection of Jesus Christ impacts the way that Christians die.  Somewhere I’ve read that in the ancient world there was the belief that people were born knowing just exactly how long they were going to live. The exact day of their deaths always loomed large in front of them, but that knowledge proved to be so painful, so paralyzing, that eventually it was erased from our souls. Well, the knowledge may be gone, but not the fear.  As the author of the book of Hebrews put it, we human beings are held in bondage by our fear of death (2:14-15).  But the good news is that Jesus Christ came as our deliverer to break the power of its hold on us.

Donald Grey Barnhouse was the pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for more than 30 years and was one of America’s leading Bible teachers in the first half of the 20th century. Cancer took his first wife, leaving him with three children all under 12. The day of the funeral, he was driving his family to the service when a large truck passed them, casting a noticeable shadow across their car. Turning to his oldest daughter, who was staring sadly out the window, he asked, “Tell me, sweetheart, would you rather be run over by that truck or its shadow?” Looking curiously at her father, she replied, “By the shadow, I guess. It can’t hurt you.” And then speaking to all his children, he said, “Your mother has not been run over by death, but by the shadow of death. [And] that’s nothing to fear.”

 Christians die and Christians grieve just as all human beings do. But because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians have the promise that even though they die, yet shall they live (John 11:25-26).  And this enables Christians to die and to grieve differently – hopefully (I Thessalonians 4:13), and this is something that people can “come and see!”

We were born too late to be able to heed the invitation of Matthew 28:6 to “come and see” for ourselves. But the witness of those that did has convinced me that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and believing this has changed absolutely everything for me forever.  It has changed the way that I live.  It has changed the way that I think.  It will change the way that I die.  And these differences that Jesus Christ has made, is making, and will make in my life is something that you can “come and see!”  DBS +



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“Because He Lives”

ignatusWe don’t have patron saints in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but if we did, then Saint Ignatius of Antioch would be mine.  His Feast Day, October 17th, is my birthday, and that’s the way that most people figure out who their patron Saint is.  The Saint you share a day with is yours.

While we may not have patron Saints as a church, the idea is not entirely devoid of value if you ask me. The way you get to be a Saint is by being pretty good at being a Christian, and who couldn’t use some help with that?  The Apostle Paul told the Corinthian Christians to follow his example of following Christ (I Corinthians 11:1), and it seems to me that’s just exactly what patron Saints can do – they can provide us with individualized, concrete examples of what following Jesus Christ looks like in the life of another human being, and Saint Ignatius of Antioch is a pretty good one for this.

Ignatius grew up in the days of Jesus and the early church. He became a leader just as all of the apostles were dying off. He was the second leader of the church in Antioch, the second most important center of early Christianity in the ancient world after Jerusalem. When the persecution of Christians began in earnest early in the second century, Ignatius was arrested and taken to Rome to be martyred. He wrote a series of letters back to his churches while he was on that final journey to his death. In them he encouraged his flock to remain faithful in the face of the suffering that was coming their way. And then, when Ignatius got to Rome, tradition tells us that he was fed to the lions in the coliseum.

redThis is why the iconography of St. Ignatius of Antioch almost always shows him being eaten by lions. One of them is taking a bite out of his shoulder while the other one gnaws on an ankle. And St. Ignatius just stands there, looking cool and collected, as if nothing much was going on. Icons are teaching tools for the Christians who use them as part of their devotion. Icons spiritualize the people they represent, exaggerating the qualities that we are supposed to be emulating as followers of Jesus Christ ourselves, and the serenity on the face of St. Ignatius as he is being eaten by those lions is the whole point of his icon.

Writing about the way that people like St. Ignatius of Antioch died, Misty Callahan, a C.S. Lewis Fellow, says that “the fortitude and patience of the early Christians in suffering was notorious.”  What could have induced people to be Christians under such circumstances?” Misty wondered. Well, nothing but a “thorough conviction of its truth” is what she concluded. Misty Callahan calls the way that people like Saint Ignatius of Antioch died a “sign that Christianity is true.”  Saint Ignatius is peaceful in the icons that show him being eaten by lions because he knew something. He knew that Jesus Christ had confronted death on the cross, and defeated death on the third day when He arose. Death no longer held any fear for him.


By way of contrast, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were anything but composed, calm, cool, or collected (Luke 24). Luke tells us that they were walking away from Jerusalem on Easter Sunday morning “looking sad” (24:17). The word Luke used for “sad” in our text was a word that meant “downcast” — “having a look suggestive of gloom.” Geoff Thomas, the pastor of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Aberystwyth, Wales, captured this moment in the Biblical story and its mood perfectly when he wrote –

The longest walk you’ll ever take is the walk away from the grave of someone you loved. If you’ve never done that, you can’t imagine how grievous it is. To walk away and feel as if the world has come to an end. To walk away and think about what used to be, and what might have been. To walk away and realize, “I’ll never be the same again.” …To reach out to touch a face and to find it gone forever. To cry until you can’t cry any more. To watch them bury your dreams and hopes and all that was good about life. To know it’s over, done, finished, the end, and there is nothing you can do about it. …It is the longest walk and the saddest day. Every step takes you away from the tombstone of a broken dream.

And this is what those two disciples on the road to Emmaus were doing. They were walking away from their broken dreams and shattered hopes.  You can hear it in their voices.  They spoke in the past tense — Jesus “was” (24:19) — they “had hoped” (24:21).  They were on that “longest walk.”  They were in that “saddest day.” Jesus was dead and gone.  The One they believed was the long awaited Messiah, the promised Deliverer of God’s people, had come to an inglorious end on a Roman cross and had been put away in a borrowed tomb.  There was nothing left for them to do but to go home; to go back to the lives that they had led before Jesus had shown up and filled them with such excitement and anticipation.  And so they were on the road to Emmaus. They were walking away, looking sad.

Now, at the end of this story that Luke tells us about these two forlorn disciples, things were completely different. In the end, we see them rushing back to Jerusalem with burning hearts and opened eyes to tell the other disciples that they had been with Jesus who was back from the dead, adding their testimony to the building body of evidence for the Resurrection of Christ.  And the pivot, the turning point for these two in the story that Luke tells us this morning were verses 25-27.  After listening to the two disciples tell their tale of woe on the road to Emmaus, the Risen Christ interrupted them and said –

25 “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

It was the Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer who said that Christian hope is not something that’s “pinned up in a vacuum.” Christian hope is not a cross your fingers and hope for the best sort of thing, a leap without a reason to jump, a stance without anywhere solid to stand.  No, Christian hope is something that’s rooted and grounded in the record of what God has already done, and in the promise of what God tells us that He intends to do next.  When those two despairing disciples on the road to Emmaus bumped into the Risen Christ, He didn’t tether their future to their wishful thinking and His sympathetic feelings, but rather to the Biblical record and the Biblical promise.

 Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:27)

As Misty Callhan put it –

While it may be true that other religions believe in life after death, only Christianity anchors that hope in a historical claim.

anchorIt’s the credibility of that historical claim that gives us courage and confidence in the face of the challenges that our circumstances create. Without a firm spiritual center of gravity we will be thrown by every change and crisis that comes our way. It is not without good reason that the traditional symbol for hope in Christianity is an anchor. Just as it is the anchor that keeps a ship from smashing into the rocks in a storm when the winds are blowing and the waves are crashing, so it’s our hope as Christians that keeps us straight and steady when “all around our souls gives way.”

In 1736 John Wesley and his brother Charles were on their way to America to serve as Anglican missionaries in Georgia. Aboard ship with them were a group of German Moravian Christians who were also going to America to share their deeply personal and passionate faith in Jesus Christ. In the middle of the Atlantic during their crossing a terrible storm came up and threatened to sink the ship. John Wesley was terrified, thinking that he was about to die. But in the hold of the ship the Moravians calmly sang their hymns and prayed their prayers. Wesley wrote about it in his journal –

shipIn the midst of the Psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards; “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked: “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied mildly: “No, our women and children are not afraid to die.”

colloseumSome of us are facing lions today. We’re in the Coliseum days of our lives. Death is circling us, staring us in the face. If this is you then what you need to know is that Easter is for you. Jesus went to the cross to confront death. Jesus was raised from the dead to defeat death. Just like Ignatius with those lions hanging off him, you can know and show real peace because of what Jesus Christ has done and promises to do for you.

duckBut the fact of the matter is that most of us don’t have lions stalking us at the moment. Most of us are facing ducks instead. Lions devour. Ducks nibble. It’s not one big thing; it’s a hundred little things, a nibble here and a nibble there. The car, the kids, the house, the job, the bills, the schedule, the doctor’s appointment, the taxes, the meetings, the traffic, the roof, the market, the waistline — those hundred little things that constantly demand your attention and that, bit by bit, wear you down, and wear you out. A nibble here, a nibble there, and then one day you wake up, and you’re missing an arm, or a leg! Hope is not just needed for that last day when we’re thrown to the lions. Hope is needed most every day just to get out of bed, and to get dressed, and to step back again into our worlds full of their demands, and dreams, and deals, and disappointments.   In just a moment now were going to turn in our hymnals to #562 –

“Because He Lives” has become something of a contemporary Easter standard. It was written nearly 50 years ago by Bill and Gloria Gaither. In 1971 Gloria was pregnant, Bill was sick, their church was in a crisis, and the world around them was unraveling – politically, socially, and spiritually. Gloria says that she remembers sitting in their living room in Alexandria, Louisiana, on New Year’s Eve, and feeling truly panicked about life and the future of her family. She worried about the world into which she would soon be bringing her new baby.

One sunny day in the early spring, Bill, Gloria and Bill’s father George walked across the paved parking lot at their small A-frame offices. George called Bill and Gloria’s attention to a spot they had not noticed. He pointed out a tiny blade of grass that had pushed aside layers of dirt, rock and concrete to reach the sunshine of the world above. It had such a strong will to live; it had overcome all the odds to fulfill its destiny. That blade of grass became a symbol to the Gaithers of how God works… And it inspired Gloria to write a song expressing the hope that was shaped by the resurrection of Jesus… (McDowell)

“God sent His Son, they called Him Jesus;
He came to love, heal and forgive.
He lived and died to buy my pardon;
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives…

How sweet to hold a newborn baby;
and feel the pride and joy that gives;
but greater still, the calm assurance:
This child can face uncertain days because He lives.

… Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because He lives!”

It’s because there was an empty grave on that first Easter Sunday morning that we can face our uncertain days now. It’s because of Christ’s Resurrection that our lives are worth living. It’s because He lives, and holds the future, that all fear is gone. This is what Easter means. This is what Easter does for those who believe it, and who live by it. DBS +



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Christianity without the Cross

Did the Church get the Gospel all wrong?


A Good Friday Reflection

It happens every Easter.

The news media picks up on some story from the world of scholarship that in the popular imagination subverts the church’s traditional faith in the saving result of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The implication is always the same. We who are Christians have gotten it all wrong, either because we are sinister and are attempting to perpetrate some grand fraud on the world for our own greedy, power-mongering, selfish interests, or because we are stupid and have never really thought about our faith, or considered alternative interpretations.

This year it’s the “discovery” that the church didn’t have crucifixes in its first millennium.  This is a debatable point. The British New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado makes a compelling case for the church’s use of a stylized form of the crucifix in the earliest stages of its life ( But this is a rather specialized argument for a rather limited audience.  Besides it’s not really the point.

The real challenge that this popular news story is making to Easter this year is not about the presence or absence of crucifixes in the first thousand years of the church’s life and faith, but rather it’s about the interpretation of its meaning. The scholars who are promoting this “discovery” about the dearth of crucifixes in the church’s first thousand years argue that what it means is that Christianity’s emphasis on the cross and the saving work that Jesus Christ did on it as our Savior is a late development in the church’s life and faith, and if Christians didn’t need Christ on the cross for their Christianity in the first thousand years, then we certainly don’t need it now. Christianity is too atonement-centered, they say, too focused on the cross.

Three responses…

First, insofar as this “discovery” about crucifixes in the life of the church enlarges our understanding of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, then hooray!  Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson’s 2012 book The Cross is not Enough (Baker Books) argues – from solidly within the Evangelical camp – that while the cross and what Jesus Christ did on it “for us and our salvation” is absolutely essential and crucial to Christianity, that the cross is not all that Jesus Christ did “for us and our salvation.” In his magisterial Transforming Mission (1991), David Bosch wrote about the six moments in Christ’s saving work: (1) The Incarnation; (2) The Crucifixion; (3) The Resurrection; (4) The Ascension; (5) The Sending of the Holy Spirit; and (6) The Second Coming. But the way I see this “discovery” being popularly used is not for this kind of addition, but rather for a subtraction. Rather than expanding our understanding of, and appreciation for, God’s saving work in Christ to the full scope of the Biblical witness, this “discovery” is being used to try to eliminate the scandal of the cross instead.  I am all for addition.  I am adamantly opposed to subtraction.

Second, even if the “discovery” about the absence of crucifixes in the first thousand years of the church’s life is correct (and I’m not at all convinced that it is), then there needs to be a much closer examination of the reasons why than simply concluding that it was because the death of Christ on the cross was just not all that important to them.  There are no crucifixes at the church I currently serve. In fact, there have been no crucifixes in any of the churches that I have served in my 40 years of ordained ministry.  But the reason why is not because “Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2) is inconsequential to our life and faith!  The reason why has a whole lot more to do with a particular understanding about the prohibition of graven images (Exodus 20: Deuteronomy 5:8-10) that has been popularly and uncritically embraced by Christians of my ilk.  Even if the churches I have served through the years have not had crucifixes, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t sung hymns about the death of Christ on the cross, or read Scriptures about the death of Christ on the cross, or preached sermons about the death of Christ on the cross, or observed sacraments monumental of the death of Christ on the cross.  And that brings me to my third observation.

I remember sitting in the sanctuary of one of our churches (a Disciples of Christ congregation) listening to one of the theologians of this “discovery” (a Disciples of Christ scholar) make her case for a de-emphasis of the violent death of Christ on the cross while standing in the pulpit of an “Akron Style” sanctuary with the pulpit in the center of a raised platform directly above the Lord’s Table.  And I was struck by the incongruity of the words she was speaking with the fact that on that Lord’s Table there was bread which would soon be broken in that very gathering in remembrance of Christ’s body broken for us on Calvary’s cross, and a cup which would soon be poured in remembrance of Christ’s blood poured out for us on Calvary’s Cross.

We have not needed, nor have we ever used crucifixes as a church to keep the saving work of God in Jesus Christ at the center of our attention, reflection, and devotion. It has been the three “Gospel Ordinances” of Baptism by immersion, the Lord’s Day, and the Lord’s Supper that have kept us focused on the three facts of the Gospel – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – with their single message – God is love. No new “discovery” can shake my complete confidence in and utter dependence on this truth that is Christianity. DBS +



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The Tears of Jesus

Will you make Jesus Christ cry or smile this week?
Will you break or console His heart?

weptIt’s a trivia question that’s familiar to anyone who’s been around the church for any length of time – “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?” “Jesus wept” we say, “John 11:35.” By definition, “trivia” is “a piece of information that’s of little value.” And that’s what we’ve done to John 11:35.  We’ve “trivialized” it.  We’ve reduced it to a Sunday School riddle, to a piece of amusing but unimportant information.  But to my way of thinking, “Jesus wept,” John 11:35 is one of the most important things that the New Testament tells us about Jesus Christ.

In the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday, right after Jesus told His disciples that He was the way, the truth, and the life, how we get to God, Philip, one of Christ’s very first disciples, made what must rank right up there with the great understatements of all times. “Just show us God,” he said, “and that will satisfy us” (John 14:9).  Really, Philip?  That’s all you want? To see God? That will make you happy?  We can’t hear the inflection of the voice in the things that Jesus said in the Gospels, but I can’t help but think that there’s just a little bit of exasperation when Jesus answered Philip with — “Have I been with you all this time, and you still don’t get it?” And then Jesus made the statement on which all of Christianity rests – “Whoever sees me sees God” (John 14:9). Explaining what this means, E. Stanley Jones said that just as our words are the expression of our thoughts, so Jesus Christ is the expression of God.

Just as we look up through a person’s words to understand their thoughts, so we look up through Jesus to know what. God is like that which we see in Jesus.  And if God is, then He is a good God and trustable.  I can ask for nothing better. (28-29)

So, what do the tears of Jesus tell us about who God is?

JesusWell, in John 11:35, the tears of Jesus tell us that God completely understands the pain that the death of a loved one produces in us. Jesus wept at the tomb of his good friend Lazarus.  Even though Jesus knew that He was on the verge of bringing him back from the dead, still Jesus wept as He stared the reality of His friend’s death in the face, and that’s because death is an enemy, the New Testament tells us, the last enemy to be destroyed (I Corinthians 15:25).  Even when death comes as the blessed release of a loved one from their suffering and struggle, death is still unnatural, not part of God’s original design for us as human beings.  It’s intrusive, destructive, and malevolent. That’s what the tears of Jesus tell us in John 11:35.   God doesn’t want us to die, and Jesus Christ came to see to it that we don’t have to. He’s the resurrection and the life, and whoever believes in Him, Jesus promised, though he dies, yet shall he live, in fact, whoever lives and believes in Him “shall never die” (John 11:25-26).  Imagine that, Pastor Ben Haden said, we who are Christians – we who believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior – we won’t be… we can’t be dead… not even for a minute!  That’s what the tears of Jesus mean in John 11:35, but this isn’t the only place in the Gospels where Jesus cried.  He wept on Palm Sunday as He approached Jerusalem for His final week (Luke 19:41-44)–

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying…
“You did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

glassHalfway down the Mount of Olives today, directly opposite the walls of Jerusalem, there’s a little church known as “Dominus Flevit” – Latin for “Our Lord wept.” This is where tradition tells us that Jesus Christ stopped on that first Palm Sunday to grieve the fact that “He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not” (John 1:11). The tears of Jesus in Luke 19:41 were the tears of rejection, the tears of unrequited love.  As Morton Kelsey used to say, “There’s something more powerful in this world than God is, and it’s us, for we have the power to keep God out of our lives should we choose to.” Jesus, it would seem, came to terms with this fact halfway down the Mount of Olives on His way into Jerusalem for the last time, and it caused Him to stop and weep.  His tears were the tears of God, in fact, those tears had flowed before.

Jeremiah 8 is where we’re told about the tears of God. The prophets of the Old Testament operated with a profound sense of — “Thus saith the Lord.”  They didn’t speak on their own initiative or from their own insight.  God put His thoughts in their hearts; His words in their mouths.  At least that’s the claim made by the Bible’s prophetic books.  And so, in the book of Jeremiah when we read –

For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn,
and dismay has taken hold of me…
O that my head were a spring of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night for…
my poor people!

The right interpretive question for us to ask when hearing these verses is – “Who’s speaking?” Who is the “me,” and the “my,” and the “I”?  Is it Jeremiah speaking, or is it God?  Is this the anguish of Jeremiah for his people, or is it the anguish of God for His people? Are the tears these verses describe the tears of Jeremiah the prophet, or are they the tears of the God who sent the prophet? Christopher J.H. Wright in his commentary on the book of the prophet Jeremiah, after acknowledging the difficulty that interpreters have had trying to sort out the words of the prophet from the words of God in these verses, finally concluded that when they are read backwards from the – “thus saith the Lord” – in chapter 9, verse 3 back to what’s said in chapter 8, verses 18-22, that the “me” who speaks is “unquestionably God himself.”

The brutal fact is, God himself breaks down in agonizing sorrow (8:18). God is crushed (8:21)… God dissolves in tears (9:1)… God holds his head in his hands, and sobbing through the tears says – “My people, my people, my poor, poor people.” (127)

We can break God’s heart. We can make Christ cry.  We can grieve the Holy Spirit.

bookOur Catholic brothers and sisters have an entire devotional tradition that’s based on this idea. It’s called “consoling the heart of Jesus,” and it goes back to a 17th century French nun who said that while she was meditating on the death of Christ on the cross one day that she had a vision of His heart and heard a voice saying, “Behold this heart which loves so much yet is so little loved.” At the center of “Consoling Spirituality” is the realization that our indifference, our ingratitude, our inattentiveness, and our irreverence makes God incredibly sad.  Christ’s heart aches because so many for whom He’s dying ignore His goodness and love. “Behold this heart which loves so much yet is so little loved.” This is not just a Catholic idea.

kennedyG. A. Studdert Kennedy was a much beloved Church of England minister during WW 1. He won the Military Cross for bravery in his service to the wounded during the war, and then when the war was over, he threw himself into the ministry of the church with the same energy and passion, especially with the inner city poor of England. Never healthy, he pushed himself in his service of Christ to the point of physical exhaustion, and in 1929, just short of his 46th birthday, G.A. Studdert Kennedy died. A poet as well as a pastor, G.A. Studdert Kennedy’s poem “Indifference” is probably his best known –

When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by,
They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,”
And still it rained the wintry rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.

It’s said that Christ would rather be rejected than ignored. In the book of Revelation the Risen Glorious Christ told the Christians in Laodicea that they were neither “hot” nor “cold” – indifferent.

So because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of My mouth! (3:15-16)

Jesus stopped to weep on His way into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday not because of the cross that was waiting for him there at the end of Holy week, but because He knew that what He was going to do on that cross was something that could so easily ignored by the people for whom He was doing it. “Behold this heart which loves so much yet is so little loved.”

In the Gospel of John, right after the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000, Jesus gave His Bread of Life discourse, and it proved to be something of a watershed moment in His ministry. Because of what Jesus said about being the bread from heaven that must be consumed by people who are desiring eternal life, many in the crowd of fans who were just following Him for the show and the snacks turned away from Jesus because they found what He was saying to be too confusing, too demanding, and too disturbing.  And John tells us that as the crowd thinned, Jesus turned to His disciples, to the people who had been with Him from the very beginning, and asked – “Are you going to leave me now too?” Again, we can’t hear the inflection in the words that Jesus spoke in the Gospels, still, I hear sorrow.  And Peter answered – “Lord, to whom we can go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:66-69).

“Consoling Spirituality” is nothing more and nothing less than us telling the sorrowful Christ that we aren’t leaving Him, that we know He has the words of eternal life, and that we believe He is the Holy One of God. If Christ is hurt by our rejection, then surely Christ is bolstered by our devotion.  In fact, Robert Boyd Munger said that we can make God smile (84). In a 1986 interview, this pastoral giant said that all he ever wanted from the Lord in return for his more than 60 year ministry on the West Coast was His smile. “If I know you’re there and you’re pleased,” he said, “that’s all I need.” So, if it’s our inattentiveness, indifference, ingratitude, and irreverence that grieves Christ, then it’s our attentiveness, responsiveness, gratitude, and reverence that pleases Him.

So, will you spend time in Scripture this week reading again the story of Christ’s
passion, about how He died and was raised for you?

Will you gather with the community of faith to offer God praise and thanks
for what He has done for us and our salvation?

Will you spend some time talking to God from your heart about
where you are right now in your life and what it is that He wants for you?

 And will you find some specific and concrete ways to take up your cross
and follow Christ on the way of self-sacrifice and service?

This is the week for paying attention, giving thanks, taking take up our crosses, and making God smile. DBS +



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“Wanted, Not Worthless”

foundWhen I was just starting seminary back in 1976, there was a national evangelistic campaign that featured yellow bumper stickers that boldly announced “I found it!” “It” was salvation – redemption, the forgiveness of sins, life eternal and abundant. On the bulletin board outside the dining hall where students posted announcements and advertisements, someone plastered one of these yellow “I found it!” bumper stickers, and others in the community took this as an invitation to comment, a chance to come up with some facetious slogans of their own.  It started innocently enough with a simple question– “What is it?” That got the ball rolling. “If you find it, please turn it into the office immediately,” one said, and that was followed with a – “No, I found it — it’s mine now.” “Well, if you found it, then you can have it because I don’t want it!” was answered with – “Well, you may have found it, but I never lost it.” And so it went day after day until finally one day someone posted – “He found me.”

sheepDr. George Eldon Ladd, the world class New Testament scholar who taught at that school was famous for saying that the only truly “new element” in Jesus Christ’s teachings about God was that He was a “seeking God” — a God who “takes the initiative to seek out the sinner, to bring the lost into the blessing of His reign” (80).  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day taught that while God “was always [at least theoretically] willing to take the first step towards us, that in actual practice the initiative was almost always left up to the sinner to return to God.” The people in Jesus’ day thought that it was up to them to find God, but Jesus Christ said that it’s God who actually comes to find us, so that whoever posted – “He found me!” –clearly understood Dr. Ladd’s point.  In fact, I sometimes wondered if it wasn’t Dr. Ladd himself who posted it!  And where Dr. Ladd said that he found this great truth of God seeking the sinner most clearly was in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  There are three parables about God seeking and saving the lost in Luke chapter 15.  The first one is the Parable of the Lost Lamb.  And the truth that this parable firmly establishes is the idea that what gets lost gets sought!  The shepherd doesn’t scold, or shame, or spank his little lamb for getting lost; no, he just went after it and brought it back home again joyfully.

Jonathan Dahl’s father died 30 years ago. On his death bed, Jonathan’s father made a final request of him. “Find Jeff” he said.  Jeff was the oldest boy in the Dahl family, and he had vanished one hot August afternoon six years before his father died.  Strung out on drugs after years of failed rehabs, Jeff exploded when his parents refused to give him $35.  He smashed some furniture, kicked in a car door, and threatened to burn down the house.  His father told him to leave, to just go and not come back.  And Jeff did.  He left and had not been seen or heard from by anybody in his family after that day.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

jeffJeff was the oldest and brightest son of an IBM executive who lived in Darien, Connecticut. Jeff was absolutely adored by his kid brother Jonathan.  Jeff was the kind of big brother who would stop to tie his little brother’s shoes at the bus stop, sit with him during lunch in the school cafeteria, and play with him after school.  Jeff was a good athlete and a great student.  Some of his poems were published when he was still in Middle School.  He won trophies for swimming and tennis. He had a steady girlfriend and a full tuition scholarship to college.   Jeff Dahl was every parent’s dream, the picture of success.  He was bright, popular, and gifted — a kid full of promise.

It was when he was a freshman at college that Jeff began experimenting with drugs. It changed him.  He became moody and withdrawn, disinterested and unmotivated. To buy drugs he started stealing things.  He got into trouble with the law, and that’s when he began an endless cycle of drug treatment programs.  During one of these hospitalizations he was diagnosed with a mental illness that’s characterized by uncontrollable urges and sudden emotional outbursts. But the doctors weren’t really sure if Jeff’s behavioral problems were caused by his drug problem or by his mental illness.  They said they needed Jeff to be drug free for six months to know for sure.  Jeff never was drug free for six months.

Jeff was 27 years old when he got kicked out of the family. Later, when things calmed down a bit, Jeff’s father regretted what he’d said to him. He knew that if Jeff had cancer, or had become a paraplegic, that he would never have thrown him out. But Jeff was gone. He’d vanished without a trace.  And then Jeff’s dad got sick himself, and as he lay dying, he made his final request – “Find Jeff.”

The burden of this request fell squarely on Jonathan’s shoulders, Jeff’s little brother.   A writer for the Wall Street Journal who travelled the country chasing stories, Jonathan was in the best position to conduct the search.  And so Jonathan would add an extra day or two onto every trip he took for business so that he could poke around the kind of places where homeless people were likely to be known – shelters, police stations, public libraries, churches with ministries to street people.  Flashing Jeff’s picture to the people in those places, Jonathan would ask, “Do you know him?” “Have you seen him?” In every city he visited, Jonathan would call every Jeff Dahl he found listed in the phone book, hoping against hope that he might just accidently stumble upon his brother. At one homeless shelter he visited somebody finally recognized Jeff’s picture and told him that he thought that he’d gone to Colorado with some friends. Jonathan booked the first flight to Denver he could find.  When he got there, Jonathan tracked down the mother of one of Jeff’s friends, and he got the name of a clerk at an X rated bookstore who know Jeff really well.  After a long conversation with that guy late into the night, Jonathan finally got a phone number, and he sensed that his long search was nearly over.

Jonathan drove around Denver the rest of that night in his rented car waiting for the sun to come up. At dawn he found a pay phone at a convenience store and punched in the number that he had been given.  The phone rang once, twice, three times.  Finally a groggy voice answered – “Yeah,” it said, “What do you want?” Jonathan panicked and hung up without saying a word.  It was Jeff’s voice.  He’d done it.  He’d found his brother.  But after all the years, through all the pain, what was he going to say?  He dialed the number again, and when it got picked up at the other end, Jonathan quickly said, “Jeff, this is your brother Jonathan. I love you.  We miss you. Please come home.”  There was a long pause, and the sound of sobbing.

Luke 19:10 is one of the Gospel’s purpose statements, Jesus telling His disciples why He’d come and what He was there to do – “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” This verse is the punch line to the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho who climbed up in a Sycamore tree to try to see Jesus who was passing by that day.  Zacchaeus was “lost.” He’d betrayed his people, denied his identity, and sold his soul.  It had made him rich, and it had left him isolated, inhabiting the margins of society, estranged from his people and their God.

parnellJonathan Parnell takes Zacchaeus climbing up the tree to get to Jesus as a symbol of all the ways that we as human beings try to get right with God in our own strength and by our own effort. It’s popular to talk about the spiritual life as a ladder that we have got to climb in order to get into God’s presence and to win God’s favor. “Religion tells us to seek. We are advised to climb trees like Zacchaeus, to depend upon our own exertion for any hope of ascending to the divine.  We are told to bridge the gap by our effort.  If you want salvation, they say, seek it.”  And then one day Jesus comes to town and says, “Hurry up and come down” (19:5).  He’s the seeker.  He’s the Savior.  Zacchaeus didn’t find Jesus by climbing up the tree. Jesus found Zacchaeus by telling him to come down out of the tree and going home with him. “Our seeking – our trying to reach the divine on our own – is silenced when we learn that the divine has reached down to us… by becoming one of us. Here we are, spinning our wheels in hopes of getting to God, and then God… comes to get us. 

“Lost” doesn’t mean “worthless” but “wanted.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “passed over” but “pursued.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “inferior” but “valuable.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “loathed” but “loved.”
“The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve gotten yourself off to, whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, He’ll come. He’s already looking for you.  And when He finds you, what He’s going to say is – “I love you. We miss you. Please come home.” DBS+



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God’s “No” & God’s “Yes”

I started Christian College with a guy who was there studying to become a minister just like I was. But after a couple of years he dropped out and disappeared. Years later I found out from a mutual friend that he had become a police officer, and when my friend asked him why, that guy told my friend that he discovered that he didn’t have enough mercy in him to be a minister, but that he did have enough justice in him to go into law enforcement. I’ve thought a lot about these words in my 40 years as a minister, and about the interplay between justice and mercy.

hatMartin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, believed that God only speaks two words to us – the Law and the Gospel. The Law came to Moses by way of Mt. Sinai and it tells us what God wants us to do. The Gospel came through Jesus by way of Mt. Calvary and it tells us what God has done for us. In Christian College I was told that the most important page in my Bible was the one that separates the book of Malachi from the book of Matthew, the Old Testament from the New Testament.  Drawing the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is more complicated than this, but generally speaking, this is where it starts. “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came though Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

noThe Law usually gets heard by us as a “no.” Growing up I prayed a prayer of confession when I was in church that said – “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” The Law is God’s moral instructions to us, and so it was the Law that made clear to us what we had done and left done for which we needed to be sorry.  As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, the Law takes our moral measure and shows us just exactly where and how we come up short (Romans 3:19-23).

I hear this “no” most clearly in the Bible’s “woes.” A “woe” is the exact opposite of a blessing.  In fact, in Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (6:20-26), after four Beatitudes, after four “blessed are you if…,” we are given four corresponding “woes,” four “woe to you if….”   A “woe” is a prophetic word of judgment.  It’s not a word that gets spoken lightly.  It’s a word that only gets spoken with great seriousness and sadness. A “woe” is a very clear, and a very emphatic – “don’t do this!”  And it begs a question, at least in my mind – “When do we say this about anything?”

Racism certainly demands a clear and emphatic woe. So does the random slaughter of our children in school, as does sexual abuse in the workplace, or anyplace for that matter.  The book The Death of Outrage was published some 20 years ago. In it the author wondered about why more people weren’t more alarmed by the moral decline of our society.  And at least part of the answer he offered was “relativism,” the idea that nobody is really evil, and that nothing is finally wrong, because we don’t really have a sure way of knowing what’s good and bad.

The Bible disagrees, in fact, this viewpoint even gets a “woe.” Isaiah 5:20 says – “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” The whole point of the Law is moral clarity, knowing what’s right and wrong. “You have no right to say that Hitler was wrong,” a teacher reports hearing from a student in her class during a discussion, “because he thought he was right.” That’s relativism, and it’s outrageous because Hitler was wrong, and so is racism, and gun violence, and sexual predation. How do I know? Well, the Law tells me so.

The Law is God’s “no” to anything and everything that’s contrary to God’s good intentions for creation, to anything and everything that diminishes our dignity as bearers of God’s image, to anything and everything that threatens our well-being or that interferes with our flourishing as human beings. God says “no,” and we should not be reluctant to repeat it. But we shouldn’t just stop with the “no” either.

yesGod says “no.” But “no” is not the only word that God says, nor is it that last word that God says. God also says “yes.” In fact, the “no” of God’s Law is a preparation for the “yes” of God’s second word to us – the Gospel. Rather than being opposed to each other, the “no” of God’s Law and the “yes” of God’s Gospel actually “require” each other. It’s the “no” of the Law that actually opens our hearts to receive the “yes” of the Gospel.

cookJerry Cook, the pastor of a church in Portland, Oregon, for many years, was soundly criticized by a number of his ministerial colleagues in that city for welcoming into worship one Sunday morning a high profile minister he knew from the community who had left his wife for another woman, and who had lost his ministry and reputation as the result. That man called Jerry to ask if he could come to church. It seems that he had gone to other churches and had been asked from the pulpit to leave. Some pastors had actually called him and told him that he would not be welcome at their churches. And so this man called Jerry to ask if he, his new wife, and their little baby could slip into church after the service started, sit quietly on the back row, and then leave during the closing hymn without drawing any attention to themselves? Jerry told him to come and that he would be at the front door to greet them. And when he came, and Jerry was there to welcome him, this man grabbed Jerry, and buried his head into Jerry’s shoulder. Weeping like a baby, he held onto Jerry like a drowning man. “Jerry,” he asked, “can you love us? I’ve spent my whole life loving broken sinful people, and right now I really need someone to love us.”

People who have heard the “no” of the Law need to hear the “yes” of the Gospel. Their hearts are ready for it. In fact, they’re desperate for it. Its love, acceptance, and forgiveness, not hatred, rejection, and condemnation that change people. This is why Jerry made a “minimal guarantee” to anyone who showed up at his church –

First, we are going to love you – always, under every circumstance, without exception.   Second, we are going to accept you, totally, without reservation. And third, no matter how miserably you fail, or how blatantly you sin, unreserved forgiveness is yours for the asking with no bitter taste left in anyone’s mouth. (11)

God speaks two words to us. It’s not just one or the other – a “no” or a “yes” – the Law or the Gospel.  It’s both – it’s both “no” and “yes” – it’s both Law and Gospel.  And as hard as it is for us to do, we’ve got to hang onto both of these words. The “no” of the Law is not harsh and unyielding, God’s only and final word. Without becoming sentimental, or being indifferent to the wrong done by us, or to us, God’s “compassion grows warm and tender.” In the “yes” of the Gospel God’s mercy prevails. As the old Gospel hymn put it so well –

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

Understand this, and you will know what it means to be forgiven. Understand this and you will find in your own heart, and discover in your own experience the tools that are necessary for you to be forgiving.  DBS+


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