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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, A.W. Tozer is helpful –

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

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

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A Prayer for Revival by C H Spurgeon

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

 

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None of us are Sinners Emeritus

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In his first major interview after being elected pontiff, Pope Francis was asked to introduce himself to his wider audience.  “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” the interviewer asked him directly, and Pope Francis answered –

“The best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon… This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

This answer startled the interviewer, and it has startled many of the readers of that interview ever since.

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This just not the kind of admission that we’ve come to expect from Popes and preachers.  It reminds me of when President Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher and Deacon, talked about the “lust in his heart” (Matthew 5:28) in a magazine interview during his Presidential campaign.  This kind of candor is unusual, not just for people, but for institutions like the church as well.

We’re usually adverse to such honest admissions of our own moral and spiritual failure. It’s not the right image to project, or so we think.  Ordinarily we are so busy preening and posturing, positioning ourselves to give the appearance of perfection and success, that we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and become inaccessible to the vast majority of people who struggle and who simply can’t relate to our projected image of perpetual happiness, accomplishment and peace.  Keith Miller got it exactly right when he wrote –

Our churches are filled with people who outwardly look contented and at peace but inwardly are crying out for someone to love them … just as they are – confused, frustrated, often frightened, guilty, and often unable to communicate even within their own families. But the other people in the church look so happy and contented that one seldom has the courage to admit his own deep needs before such a self-sufficient group as the average church meeting appears to be.

This is why I welcome Lent each year.

Spiritually, Lent is the season when our illusions get shattered, when our pedestals get toppled and when our masks come off.  Jan Richardson, the prayer poet (http://paintedprayerbook.com), offers a re-visioned Ash Wednesday –

So let us be marked not for sorrow.
And let us be marked not for shame.
Let us be marked not for false humility
or for thinking we are less than we are
but for claiming what God can do within the dust,
within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made,
and the stars that blaze in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear

And there are certainly days and seasons when I need to hear this, but I find that day is not Ash Wednesday, and that season is not Lent.  No, with the ashes of repentance on our foreheads, and more importantly, in our hearts, Lent forces us to admit that our common spiritual denominator as Christians is that we are sinners who are in desperate and constant need of God’s great grace in Jesus Christ.  It was the church of my childhood and youth that first taught me this spiritual reflex.

Every Sunday when I was growing up, I would get down on my knees in church with all of my family and friends in that community of faith to pray out loud this no nonsense prayer of confession –

3.13.17_image3Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us; Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Now, that’s a mouthful of a prayer isn’t it, and a “heart-full.” You simply can’t pray words like these every week without them leaving a mark on you.  Their rhythm and cadence provided me with the conceptual frame that I needed to be able to think about my own condition as a human being, and with the vocabulary that I needed to be able to talk about the dissonance that was becoming increasingly apparent in my life – the gap between who I wanted to be and who I actually was – with each passing day.

I found that the real power of these words were that we prayed them in community.  They weren’t words that were used to isolate me, to cull me from the heard of the righteous where I could be isolated and vilified.  No, they were words that the people I knew best and loved most prayed with me.  These words gave me a comforting sense that we were in this thing together, that there was a solidarity in guilt and grace.  I heard my father pray them.  I heard my mother pray them. I heard my sisters pray them.  I heard my Sunday school teacher pray them.  And I even heard my priest pray them.  These words drew a circle that took all of us in, and not a wall that separated the righteous from the unrighteous, the good from the bad, the saints from the sinners.

In fact, it was seeing my minister get down on his knees to pray this prayer right beside us each Sunday morning that made the most powerful impression on me as a kid.  Hearing my pastor “bewail his own manifold sins and wickedness” each week reassured me that my moral and spiritual failures were not my problem alone, as well as disabusing me early on of any illusion that might have been developing in me about some kind of imagined perfection of preachers and priests.  It was praying this prayer that prepared me for Pope Francis’ honest admission of being a sinner at the outset of his ministry of the spiritual oversight of his Church, the Roman Catholic Church.  What he said in his interview didn’t startle me in the least. And the fact that it startled others exposes a truth about the church that we’ve got to name, and then confront.  Christians are not different from anybody else, we are not better than anybody else.  All we’ve got is grace.  Forgiveness is our only asset.

In my mind, nobody ever said it clearer than did the late pastor/author Bruce Larson –

The church, unfortunately, has become a museum to display the victorious life.  We keep spotlighting people who say, “I’ve got it made.  I used to be terrible, but then I met Jesus, got zapped by the Spirit, got into a small group, got the gifts and the fruit of the Holy Spirit…” and the implication is that they are sinners emeritus.  But that’s just not true.

What we need in the church are models who fail, because most of us fail more than we succeed.  We find success once in a while, and we praise God.   But much of what we do is flop.  Every parent knows that.  So does every spouse.  We all fail our cities, our world.  We need to admit this. Even the Biblical heroes failed.  Abraham had one puny kid; where was the great nation he dreamed of? Moses never entered the Promised Land.  Jesus died saying, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”  Neither Peter nor Paul saw the full flowering of the church.

In the East Africa revival of the past forty years, the church has flourished because people have freely confessed their failures and sin.   When we pretend that we once sinned but don’t now, we produce a church where loneliness is rampant, a place where I know I’m not making it but I assume that everyone else is.  But the church is not a museum for finished products.  It is a hospital for the sick.  (Leadership/84 – Fall Quarter – p. 15)

One of the ways that I try to keep this truth in mind and at heart is to frequently mull over 3.13.17_image4one of the more colorful and controversial things that the Protestant Reformer of the 16th century Martin Luther ever said.  In a letter to his temperamentally more cautious associate Philip Melanchthon, Luther counseled him to go out and “sin boldly!”  Needless to say, this piece of advice has been pilloried by Luther’s detractors and immortalized by his fans ever since.  But what did he really mean by it?  Well, to properly understand it, it’s probably best to read them in context, and in their entirety.  So, this is what Luther actually said to his friend and associate –

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [or sin boldly], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.

In other words, it’s by taking sin seriously that we will begin to take the cross seriously. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian from Martin Luther’s very own spiritual family, may have the clearest understanding of what Luther meant –

If Luther’s statement is used as a presupposition [the first word] for a theology of grace, then it proclaims cheap grace. But Luther’s statement is to be understood correctly not as a beginning, but exclusively as an end, a conclusion, a last stone, as the very last word. …”Sin boldly” – that could be for Luther only the very last bit of pastoral advice, of consolation for those who along the path of discipleship have come to know that they cannot become sin-free, who out of fear of sin despair of God’s grace. For them, “sin boldly” is not an affirmation of their disobedient lives. Rather, it is the gospel of God’s grace, in the presence of which we are sinners always and at every place. This gospel seeks us and justifies us exactly as sinners. [So] admit your sin boldly; do not try to flee from it, but “believe much more boldly.”

Theologian Fred Sanders explains –

Bonhoeffer’s exposition is perfect, but note the change he has slyly introduced: “Admit your sin boldly.” Pecca fortiter” [“sin boldly”] is not a plan of action; it’s a script for a prayer of confession. When confessing sins to God, don’t excuse your sins, minimize them, or treat them as fictitious. Things like that don’t need forgiveness, or at least not very much. Instead, identify your sins and state them boldly. Face the fact that you are not sin-free, and that, in yourself, you never will be. Keeping a perfect conscience is just not a realistic part of the Christian plan. Learning how to get daily forgiveness from God — That’s the plan. (http://scriptoriumdaily.com/sin-boldly/)

Christians and churches who with Pope Francis can say – “I am a sinner” – will have the kind of authenticity that can speak to the world, and more importantly, those kinds of Christians and churches will actually have something worth saying.  In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, and this where a penitential season like Lent on the church calendar is designed to deliver us — into the embrace of the Crucified and Risen Savior.  DBS +

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Religion and Government

Religion and Government
“Faiths in Conversation”

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Last night I was part of a Faiths in Conversation at the Islamic Seminary of America on the topic of “Government and Religion.” As I told them in my introductory remarks, the timing of this conversation could not have been more fortuitous.   To be thinking and talking about this topic during the week of a Presidential Inauguration was a powerful exercise of interfaith reflection and a meaningful experience in interfaith understanding.

The Conversation continues next Tuesday evening, January 24th, back at the Islamic Seminary of America (17740 Preston Road) at 7 pm when our topic will be “Being a Moral Witness.”

What follows is the manuscript of my presentation from last night. I offer it here as a way for us all to think about the question that I pose at the beginning of my remarks –

“This weekend religious leaders from all three of our faith traditions will be walking the corridors of political power and standing in the courts of Caesar, and that fact ought to raise an important question for all of us – What are they doing there? What are our expectations?  What is the proper relationship between religion and government?”

DBS +

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Religion and Government

Faiths in Conversation – January 17, 2017
Islamic Seminary of America – Dallas, Texas

A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Christian Church – Dallas, Texas
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We look like geniuses, I mean, scheduling a Faiths in Conversation on the topic of “Religion and Government” the week of the Presidential Inauguration!  Did we actually plan this, or was it just dumb luck?  Either way, our conversation this evening couldn’t possibly be more timely!

This weekend religious leaders from all three of our faith traditions will be walking the corridors of political power and standing in the courts of Caesar, and that fact ought to raise an important question for all of us – What are they doing there? What are our expectations?  What is the proper relationship between religion and government?

I have prepared a handout for you this evening, a documentary review of the cherished principle of the separation of church and state that has been enshrined in our national life from its first public articulation in the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657 to its formal statement by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. Anybody who tries to argue that this principle wasn’t at work in the minds and hearts of the Founders as they gave initial shape and structure to the American experiment are just being silly.  But that’s not what I want to argue here tonight.  No, what I want to argue instead is that this cherished principle of American democracy is actually the fruit of a Christian view of the world and how God is present and at work in it.

As you know there is no single Christian view of anything. As we like to say at my church, where two or three Christians gather, there will be seven or eight opinions.  In the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches there were 217 different denominations listed!  That’s 217 distinct Christian communities.  217 times a group of Christians somewhere decided that their interpretation of something was important enough to insist that they be viewed separately from all other Christians!  And so the idea that the position that I am just about to map out for you is “the” Christian position is completely untenable.  In fact, when I’m done, my guess is that the other Christians in the room will have as many questions about and objections to what I am about to say as any of you who belong to another faith tradition.

This position that I am about to describe for you has a name. It’s called the “Two Kingdoms” theory.  It’s a classically Protestant Christian perspective on the question of the proper relationship between religion and government that traces its intellectual lineage back through the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, Martin Luther and John Calvin, through St. Augustine, the great North African Christian thinker and churchman of the late 4th and early 5th century, to the pages of the New Testament itself.  The “Two Kingdoms” theory has lots and lots of variations, but it shares some very basic common assumptions.

For our purposes here this evening I am going to tether three of those basic shared assumptions of the “Two Kingdoms” theory to three very specific New Testament verses.  All of what I am about to say and all of the New Testament references that I am about to make are on the second handout that I’ve prepared for you this evening.

  • The first verse I want to introduce you to is John 18:36 –

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

The context for this saying from Jesus Christ was His trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea in the first century on the day He was crucified. This is the first shared assumption of the “Two Kingdoms” theory.  At this moment in history God’s Kingdom is spiritual.  It involves no national covenant.  There are no Christian nations, only Christians drawn from every nation.  This is why at no time did Jesus Christ or any of His apostles ever expect “the magistrate to establish the church, enforce Christian orthodoxy” or promote Christian morality.  And nowhere does the New Testament present any Christian leader ever telling Caesar how to do his job, or organizing public protests, or lobbying the governing authorities for a civil remedy to a social problem. They didn’t look to the government for the moral and spiritual renewal of the world.   No, they saw that as the church’s job.

  • The second verse that I want to introduce you to this evening is Revelation 11:15 –

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”

Every single day faithful Christians pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven,” and for many of us, Revelation 11:15 is the verse that tells us when this prayer will be answered – at the close of the age when Christ returns to finish the work of salvation that He began when He was born as Bethlehem’s baby, taught and healed on Galilean hillsides, died on Calvary’s cross, and was raised up out of a borrowed tomb on the third day.  In Revelation 11:15 we are told that the kingdoms of this world will one day become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, not gradually by human effort but suddenly by God’s very own direct action.  You see, we don’t build this Kingdom, we receive it.  And this is the second shared assumption of the “Two Kingdoms” theory – right now we live our lives leaning into that coming day when God’s spiritual Kingdom of which we are already citizens by faith will swallow up all of the human kingdoms in which we currently reside, and God’s reign over all of creation will be fully and finally restored. But that hasn’t happened yet.

  • This brings me to the third verse that I want to introduce you to this evening, Matthew 22:16-21 –

16 And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. 17 Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” 21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.

This is the veritable “proof text” of the “Two Kingdoms” theory.  It describes the state that we who are Christians live in between John 18:36 and Revelation 11:15, between the “already” of our citizenship in God’s spiritual Kingdom and the “not yet” of that day in God’s future when the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of the Lord, and of His Christ. In the in-between, we live, and move, and have our being in two kingdoms simultaneously, what Christ described as that which belongs to Caesar, and what He described as that which belongs to God.

For our purposes here this evening, let’s simplistically think of Caesar’s domain as the state, and of God’s domain as the church. According to the “Two Kingdoms” theory these are two different God-ordained spheres, with two different God-given assignments.  The “cultural mandate” that God gave to Adam and Eve in the stories of Creation to have dominion, to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:26-28), and to till and keep the Garden (Genesis 2:15) are an assignment given to all of humanity for all time. In fact, the Two Kingdoms theory would say that this is God’s assignment to the kingdom of the state. Simply put, God wants human beings to always and everywhere thrive in this world, and government is the divinely ordered mechanism that has been given to us to see that we do.

To my way of thinking, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better statement of what this “cultural mandate” looks like in actual political practice than these familiar and cherished words –

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Note that this is not distinctively Christian, or even particularly religious. In fact, God is not even mentioned in it at all.  And that’s because God has not created and ordered the state in order to make us believers, but rather to suppress chaos and promote order so that we might be truly human and free.

In the New Testament, when God’s other kingdom, the church, does talk about the governing authorities, it does so with the fervent desire that they are effectively doing their job creating public peace and maintaining social order so that the church can get on with its own particular assignment in God’s ordering of the universe – the “great commission” to go into all the world to preach the Gospel and make disciples.

Representative of the New Testament texts that make reference to the state is what Paul wrote to Timothy in his first letter –

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,  who gave himself as a ransom for all… (I Timothy 2:1-6)

Paul told Timothy to pray that “kings and all those who are in high positions” would do their job in creating a peaceful social order so that the church in turn could do its job in bringing people to a knowledge of the truth in Jesus Christ.  And here are the “Two Kingdoms” side by side, each one doing its own God-given assignment.

It’s not the state’s job to be a church.  As the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert said, “the dead are not raised by politics… our personal salvation and the forgiveness of sins do not and did not come by political decree.. our very best political efforts will not reconcile us to the Father”  (Cromartie).  And it’s not the church’s job to be the state.

Peter Berger, the eminent sociologist of religion, says that he went to a friend’s church in Boston one weekend.  His friend was dying of cancer, and Peter said that he just wanted to spend some time with him before he was gone.

That Sunday morning the minister preached a sermon on U.S. government policies in Central America, as the conflict was raging there. And Peter said that more disturbing to him than the misinformed views on Central America was how lonely his friend felt in his own church.  People there were so concerned about politics that no one noticed that his friend was dying.  And Peter said, “This false preaching denies ministry to those who desperately need it.  Our congregations are full of people with a multitude of afflictions and sorrows… who come to church to receive the consolation and solace of the Gospel, instead of which they get a lot of politics. (Cromartie)

The Two Kingdoms theory addresses this problem not by ignoring the concerns of the state for the concerns of the church, or by substituting the concerns of the church for the concerns of the state, but rather by assigning the concerns of both the church and the state to their proper God-ordained sphere. The Oxford Theologian Oliver O’Donovan gets it exactly right when he writes –

Western theology starts from the assertion that the kingdoms of this world are not the kingdom of God and of His Christ, not, at any rate, until God intervenes to make them soat the end… this does not mean that the secular state can be independent from God and His claims, or that the pious individual can cultivate a private (spiritual) experience without regard for the claims of his (larger) society. It simply means that earthly politics, because they do not have to reconcile the world, may get on with their provisional task of bearing witness to God’s justice. (Cromartie)

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So, to bring our conversation this evening about religion and government back around to this week’s context, and all of those Christian leaders who will be in Caesar’s Temple this weekend for the inauguration, what do I want them to do there?

  • Well, first of all I want them to pray that those who are in authority over us will do their job in the creation and maintenance of a social order where liberty and justice for all is affirmed and embodied.
  • And second, while they are there, if they are asked their opinion about what they think Caesar should do about this or that social problem, as citizens I would expect them to express their opinions, and I would hope that those opinions would be deeply informed by their faith in God and their knowledge of His word, His will, and His ways as Christians.
  • And finally, when the weekend is over I would expect them to get out of Caesar’s Temple and back to their churches where the real work that they are called to do awaits, to preach Christ and make disciples because that’s the real hope of the world as far as Christianity is concerned.

Sources

Cromartie, Michael. “Up to Our Steeples in Politics.” In No God but God.  Os Guinness & John Seel, eds. Moody. 1992.

Littlejohn, Brad. “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed.http://www.politicaltheology.com

Thomas, Cal & Ed Dobson. Blinded by Might. Zondervan. 1999.

Tuninga, Matthew. “The Two Kingdoms Doctrine: What’s The Fuss All About?http://www.reformation21.org

VanDrunen, David. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture.   Crossway. 2010.

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Appendix – A Documentary History of the Separation of Church and State

 he Flushing Remonstrance (1657)

The Flushing Remonstrance was a 1657 petition to Director-General of New Netherland Peter Stuyvesant, in which some thirty residents of the small settlement at Flushing requested an exemption to his ban on Quaker worship. It is considered a precursor to the United States Constitution’s provision on freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights. The Flushing Remonstrance was signed on December 27, 1657, by a group of English citizens who were affronted by persecution of Quakers and the religious policies of Stuyvesant. None of them were Quakers. The Flushing Remonstrance shows support for the separation of church and state as early as the mid-17th century, stating their opposition to religious persecution of any sort.

The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets.

Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent and shall remaine, your humble subjects, the inhabitants of Vlishing.

According to Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University, the Flushing Remonstrance was remarkable for articulating the freedom of religion as a fundamental right that is as basic as any other, and that it was publically addressed to a governmental official who was not known for tolerance by people for whom the articulation of this principle was of little discernible benefit to themselves.

A Letter Concerning Toleration – John Locke (1689)

The idea of a separation between church and state that so strongly influenced our Founders was developed by John Locke in his A Letter Concerning Toleration which argues for a complete separation between church and state.

For the commonwealth of the Jews, different in that from all others, was an absolute theocracy; nor was there, or could there be, any difference between that commonwealth and the Church. The laws established there concerning the worship of One Invisible Deity were the civil laws of that people and a part of their political government, in which God Himself was legislator. But there is absolutely no such thing under the Gospel as a Christian commonwealth.

There are indeed, many cities and kingdoms that have embraced the faith of Christ, but they have retained their ancient form of government, with which the law of Christ hath not at all meddled. He, indeed, hath taught men how, by faith and good works, they may obtain eternal life; but He instituted no commonwealth. He prescribed unto His followers no new and peculiar form of government, nor put He the sword into any magistrate’s hand.

The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
1779 (Thomas Jefferson)

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Article 6 of the United States Constitution
(Signed and Adopted – 1787; Ratified – 1788)

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

George Washington’s Letter to the Touro Synagogue,
Newport,
Rhode Island (1790)

Allowing rights and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

 The Bill of Rights – The First Amendment to the Constitution (1791)

 Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 Amendment 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (1797)

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Musselmen (Muslims); and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

The preliminary treaty began with a signing on 4 November, 1796 (the end of George Washington’s last term as president). Joel Barlow, the American diplomat served as counsel to Algiers and held responsibility for the treaty negotiations. Joel Barlow wrote the original English version of the treaty, including Amendment 11. Barlow forwarded the treaty to U.S. legislators for approval in 1797. Timothy Pickering, the secretary of state, endorsed it and John Adams concurred (now during his presidency), sending the document on to the Senate. The Senate approved the treaty on June 7, 1797, and officially ratified by the Senate with John Adams signature on 10 June, 1797. All during this multi-review process, the wording of Article 11 never raised the slightest concern. The treaty even became public through its publication in The Philadelphia Gazette on 17 June 1797. Although the Treaty of Tripoli under agreement only lasted a few years and no longer has legal status, it clearly represented the feelings of our Founding Fathers at the beginning of the American government.

 Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802)

To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the State of Connecticut.

 Gentlemen,

 The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

 Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

 I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem. Thomas Jefferson

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (1868)

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was intended to secure rights for former slaves. This amendment introduces the concept of the incorporation. The doctrine of incorporation is intended to ensure the equal application of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights in all of the states.

 

 

 

 

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Come and save us, O Lord our God!

O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of the Law,
the people await you, their Savior:

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Come and save us, O Lord our God!image1_blog_dec28

If you’ve been reading my “Soundings” these past few weeks of Advent, then you know that I have been steadily working my way through the “O” Antiphons as part of my personal preparation for, and spiritual pilgrimage to Christmas. I have wanted to better understand the different ways that the Scriptures talk about who Christ is, and what Christ does, and thereby, to deepen my own devotion to Him even as I welcome Him once again into my heart.

This Advent hymn is based on something that was sung in the monasteries of the image2_blog_dec28MiddleAges in the dark days right before Christmas.  Each evening from December 17 to December 23 a different monk, beginning with the Abbot and then descending through monastic rank and order right down to the most recently arrived novice, would lead the whole community in a sung petition for the Savior to come.

The version of the hymn that I used these past few weeks in my own devotional practice is the one that appears in the Chalice Hymnal (#120) right across the page from the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (#119).  This version comes from the liturgical life of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (Anglican).

  • Antiphon 1– O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of the Law, the people await you, their Savior:  Come and save us, O Lord our God!
  • Antiphon 2– O Wisdom, you came forth from the lips of God Most High and you reach from one end of the universe to the other, powerfully and gently ordering all things:  Come and teach us the way of prudence!
  • Antiphon 3 –O Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the flame of a burning bush and at Sinai you gave him the Law:  Come with your outstretched arm to save us!
  • Antiphon 4 – O Root of Jesse, you stand for a sign to the peoples; before you kings are silent, and Gentiles pray with longing:   Come now and set us free!
  • Antiphon 5 – O Key of David, and Ruler of the House of Israel, you open and none can shut; you shut and no one can open:   Come and lead out of the prison house the captives who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!
  • Antiphon 6 – O Morning Star, you are the splendor of eternal life; you are the dawning sun, the Sun of justice:  Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!
  • Antiphon 7– O King of the nations and the fulfillment of their longing, you are the Cornerstone and you make all one; you formed us from primeval clay:  Come, and save us!

image3_blog_dec28Having now made this spiritual journey, here at the beginning of Christmas week – remember… Christmas is a season and not just a single day – I just wanted to wrap back around for a second to the very first “O” antiphon, to the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” “O” antiphon, and to reflect on this Christ who has come into my life, the life of the church and the life of the world, before moving on into the New Year with Him as my Lord and Savior.

image4_blog_dec28With the first “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as God’s wisdom.   “Wisdom” is not knowledge.  Knowledge is information. Wisdom is insight.  Knowledge can tell what something is, but we need wisdom to understand what something means.  When we say that Christ is God’s wisdom what we’re saying is that He brings everything into focus for us.  God’s ways are not our ways, or so the Prophet Isaiah observed long ago (55:8), and so we are counseled not to rely on our own insight, or to lean on our own understanding, but rather to trust in the Lord with all our hearts  (Proverbs 3:5-8).  As 2017 begins with all of its uncertainties and ambiguities, we need God’s Wisdom in Christ now more than ever.  So, come Wisdom of God, come and show us the way!

image5_blog_dec28With the second “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as Adonai, as the strong Deliverer of God’s people.  Election years fuel Messianic expectations and trigger apocalyptic disappointments. This election year was no exception, in fact, if anything, this election year has been this pattern on steroids!   The unbridled giddiness of the winners and the utter despair of the losers is unlike anything that I have witnessed in my previous eleven Presidential contests.  Personally, I don’t think that the next 4 years are going to be as good as the winners think, or as bad as the losers fear.  I expect this administration to do some good things just like all administrations do, and some bad things, just as all administrations do.  And in 4 years we’ll be back doing this all over again.  And that’s because no administration is ever going to fix everything that needs fixing, or not make mistakes that others will have to fix later.  All of which is to say, I’m not looking for this President, or his successor to save us.  No, there’s only one qualified for that job.  So, come faithful Adonai, and with your strong outstretched arm rescue us!

image6_blog_dec28With the third “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as the Root of Jesse, as the fulfillment of God’s covenantal promise to King David.  This is the most important thing that I know about the God of the Bible — He is trustworthy.  God keeps His promises. When God tells us that He is going to do something, God keeps His word to us.  One way to read the Bible is through its covenants, through the agreements that God makes with people about how He will relate to them, what He expects of them, and what He will do for them.  Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, Christ and us – you and me.  There are Biblical Covenants that spell out how each one of these Divine/human relationships worked, and God was faithful to the terms of each one of them.  So, come gracious promise maker and faithful promise keeper, come and do what you have promised to do.

image7_blog_dec28With the fourth “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and life of the world this Christmas as the Open Door that none can shut.  I am at that point in my life when I know that not everything that I had dreamed of and planned for when I was a young man just getting started is going to come about in my life.   But even now I know that there is a door open to me that will never close, and that’s the door of God’s loving purpose in Jesus Christ for my own personal journey to final wholeness, and for the final wholeness of all creation.  So, come Key of David, the one who opens doors that never close, come and open the door of your future for this world, and for all of us who live in it!

image8_blog_dec28With the fifth “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as the bright morning star shining in the darkness.  On Christmas Eve we passed the light from the Christ Candle in our darkened sanctuary from person to person at the end of the worship service.  And with that worship space aglow we repeated the Christmas Gospel that in Him (Christ) was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Luke’s Gospel begins with the coming of Christ compared to a sunrise, to the light shining on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79).  The darkness of defeat, death and despair abounds these days.  What we need is the light.  So, come bright morning star, come and shine, come and dispel the encroaching darkness.

image9_blog_dec28And with the sixth “O” Antiphon I prayed for Christ to come into my life and the life of the world this Christmas as the fulfillment of all our longings.  We have our dreams.  We dream of peace.  We dream of justice.  We dream of abundance.  We dream of wholeness.  We dream of freedom.  We dream of righteousness.  We dream of a Kingdom come when and where God’s will is done on earth just as it is in heaven.  And when we awaken from our dreams we see a world that is far from these dreams that we have for it.  We throw ourselves into the struggle for peace, and justice, and abundance, and wholeness, and freedom, and righteousness.  But like miners trapped deep in a dark cave by a rock fall with only ballpeen hammers in our hands, it seems that our desperate chipping away at the boulders is accomplishing precious little. And it’s when we collapse exhausted and despairing of ever breaking through that we hear it — the rhythmic sound of digging from the other side (Fr. Louis Evely’s analogy fund in his book on the Lord’s Prayer – We Dare to Our Father – 1968).  Someone is coming toward us.  Someone is coming for us.  Our dreams are matched by God’s purpose, and by God’s action.  So, come powerful One, come and fulfill our longings for wholeness and healing, for ourselves, and for all of creation.

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As Christmas 2016 ends and Epiphany 2017 begins, it is in companionship with the Christ – our Wisdom, our Adonai, our Root of Jesse, our Key of David, our Morning Star, our King, and our Emmanuel. DBS + 

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Ora Et Labora (Pray and Work)

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Pray as though everything depended on God.
Work as though everything depended on you.

                                                                        ~ St. Augustine __________________________________________________________________________

I have been intrigued by the way that the results of last week’s election have exposed the roots of some of our most basic spiritual practices and convictions.  Some of my best Christian friends and most valued colleagues in ministry have been busy issuing calls for action after the election, while other good Christian friends and respected ministerial colleagues of mine have been busy issuing calls for prayer.  And I have noticed that in lots of subtle and not so subtle ways, some of my activist colleagues and friends have accused my prayerful colleagues and friends of a kind of pious irrelevance, or worse, an evasion of responsibility by calling people to pray before anything else.  Meanwhile, I have detected in some of my more prayerful colleagues and friends a suspicion that their activist colleagues and friends are guilty of confusing commotion with clarity, of doing something, doing anything, rather than doing something that is truly constructive and redemptive.  This is a familiar enough fight.  It’s been going on between Christians for millennia.  It’s that old contemplative/activist argument – the familiar pattern of the Mary/Martha divide, you know –

2The Lord and his disciples were traveling along and came to a village. When they got there, a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat down in front of the Lord and was listening to what he said. Martha was worried about all that had to be done. Finally, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!” The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

I myself posted two things on the day after the election – some of the liturgical resources that we used at our Tuesday evening Election Day Prayer & Communion Service at the church (borrowed and adapted from several sources), and a quote from John Stonestreet at the Colson Center –

Chuck Colson often shared: “Salvation doesn’t come on Air Force One.” The hope of the world is not dependent on an election outcome. Hope is secured because God is sovereign and Jesus Christ is risen.

My postings on the day after the election placed me squarely in the “call for prayer” camp, and some of my friends and colleagues in the “call to action” camp did not let this pass unnoticed or uncommented upon. The gist of their critique was that while I sat in a quiet corner somewhere thinking big thoughts about God that they would actually be out on the street trying to change things.  And my response to them is that this is a false spiritual dichotomy.

Going back to that familiar Mary/Martha story from Luke 10, here’s the detail that we routinely miss –

The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.” (10:42)

The standard sermon on this text says that some of us are busy Martha’s while others of us 3are thoughtful Mary’s, and that the church needs both.  And that’s a good message, completely true, but it’s not what this text says.  No, this text says that Mary alone, sitting attentively at Jesus’ feet, chose “the one necessary thing.”  To preach a sermon on the diversity and necessity of diverse gifts within the church go to I Corinthians 12.  The story of Mary and Martha makes a different point.

I think that it’s the same point that Jesus Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when He said –

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)

What’s being taught here is not the substitution of piety for action, but rather their proper sequence.  First it’s prayer, then it’s action.  Oh, I certainly understand the concern with this.  In the practice of the church prayer has often taken the place of action.  E. Stanley Jones observed that the “usual church climate” is – “We see a need; we pray about it; we discuss it.”  Then he offered a more Biblical alternative, the one he said that he saw operative in the YMCA Movement of his day – “We see a need; we pray about it; we go out and do something about it.”

4Carroll Simcox in his wonderful little book on prayer (Prayer: The Divine Dialogue. IVP. 1985) called this “Pecksniffian Praying” after a character in a Charles Dickens story who said “a short and pious grace, invoking a blessing on the appetites of those present, and committing all persons who had nothing to eat to the care of Providence, whose business (so said the grace, in effect) it clearly was, to look after them.”  Fr. Simcox explained, “Mr. Pecksniff’s grace is painless piety… the Pecksniffian will pray for the hungry as long as it is understood that God, not he, will do the feeding of the hungry” (36).  This is a “sanctimonious evasion of duty.”  Prayer is not our sole duty as Christians, but it is our first duty.  The relevant question is why?  Why pray first?

Well, just this week I read something that George Bullard, the church consultant, wrote about vision.  He observed that the commonly accepted position today is that it is a visionary leader who is singularly responsible for vision.  S/he sees something that others do not see, and then s/he casts that vision.  The image is that of a solitary prophet who alone sees and speaks, often at great personal cost.  But George Bullard argued that “our Triune God is the only appropriate source of vision,” and that the first responsibility of spiritual leadership is to encourage the exercise of the spiritual disciplines, not as ends in themselves (that is “Pecksniffian Praying”), but rather as the way that we get informed of, and then captured by the compelling and empowering vision of the Triune God.

A few weeks ago on Facebook I posted a quote from Scott Cormode’s essay One Basic Idea: Get People to See What the Scripture Says” in hopes of driving people to the full article at https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu

In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice 5among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.ch, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

I am an evangelical Christian.  This is not the only way to be a Christian, and it’s not even the dominant way that most Disciples are Christian, but it is the way that I am a Christian. And, in part, it means that my confidence that people can change in real and substantial sorts of ways does not reside in the passion and persuasiveness of the person making an argument and then calling for a specific action, but rather it rests on the power of what the Scriptures can be shown to teach to change the behavior of Christians through the convicting work of the empowering and indwelling Spirit of God applying it in their hearts.  Why do I believe this?  Well, I believe it because I think that it’s what the Scriptures themselves promise (Hebrews 4:12), and I believe it because it’s been my own personal experience of being changed.  My own convictions about race, gender and sexual orientation have all been challenged and changed through years of serious engagement with the Word in a faithful community of interpretation.

The contrast between Paul’s ministry in Berea where people “welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11) and his oratory in Athens where people “sneered,” and said “we shall hear you again concerning this” (Acts 17:32) is instructive. In Berea people were actually changed through their own personal engagement with the Word.  But in Athens people were only provoked by the passionate voicing of the convictions of one solitary visionary leader.  Because I’m interested in change, I’m invested in the Berean strategy, as evidenced by my “Soundings” in recent months –

We All Want to Change the World” (August 29)
Why Teaching Bible Study is the Most Important
Thing I do each Wee
k
(September 6)
The Dock and the Boat; Being “Biblical” in a Changing World (September 19)
The “Strange Silence” of the Bible (October 10) A “Christian” Vote? (October 24)

I believe that people who seek the mind of Christ through a serious and sustained engagement with Scripture nurtured by a diverse community of interpretation accompanied with prayer will begin to act in ways that serve the interests of justice and righteousness, life and peace, and equality and freedom.  It’s the truths fully considered by the head that distill into the passions that are embraced by the heart that direct the hands to act and the feet to move. It’s because the need is so great right now for Christians to act out of the Gospel’s truths, that the call to prayer is so urgent.   DBS +

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The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob… and Muhammad?

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mosqueIt seems to me that there are few issues that are of greater importance here in middle of the second decade of the 21st century than the relationship between Muslims and Christians. There are 2.1 billion Christians worldwide, that’s 31.5% of the world’s population, and there are 1.3 billion Muslims, 23.2% of the world’s population.  That’s just a little bit better than half of all the people on earth.  Clearly, if we can’t figure out how to get along with each other as Muslims and Christians, then it’s going to adversely affect the rest of the world.

Both Islam and Christianity believe that they have a definitive revelation from God that makes exclusive claims that cannot easily be harmonized. Either Jesus Christ is God incarnate, or He is not.  Either Jesus Christ died for our sins, or He did not.  Either we are saved by grace through faith, or we are saved by our obedience to the things we believe that God has told us to do.  These are not inconsequential differences.  And it gets even more complicated because both Christianity and Islam seek converts.  We each want to convince people of the truth of our faith claims believing that salvation hangs in the balance, and that puts us in direct competition with each other. Layer on top of these important spiritual considerations national agendas and global situations, and things get tense and messy pretty quickly.

otherTwenty-five years ago Terry Muck, then the editor of Christianity Today, wrote about how Christians were no longer going to encounter faithful practitioners of the world’s other great religions just on their trips overseas.  Because of the way that the world was rapidly changing, Terry Muck told Christians that they would soon be rubbing shoulders with Muslims at the corner grocery store and working in cubicles next to Hindus and Buddhists at the office, and he was exactly right.  As the title of one of his books put it, “Those Other Religions (were now) in Your Neighborhood,” and so he told Christians that we were going to have to learn how to love them. Learning how to relate to people of other faiths was no longer going to be optional for us as people of faith ourselves.

This is why we have participated as a congregation in the Faiths in Conversation program for the past five years.  Once a month during the school year we get together with other Christians, Muslims and Jews in the area to hear presentations on a topic of shared interest or concern to our three faith traditions presented by a leader from these traditions, and then to formally and informally enter into conversation about it.

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The first Faiths in Conversation program this fall will be at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church on Tuesday evening, August 30th, at 7 pm. The topic will be “Interfaith Marriage” from a Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspective.

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What I have appreciated so much about these Faiths in Conversation programs through the years has been the way that the people who have made the presentations have not been squishy about their own faith convictions.  So many of the interfaith conversations that I have observed through the years have been syncretistic in spirit and practice.  You go away from them thinking that we’re all the same, that there’s not really anything all that important that’s keeping us apart. The distinctive faith claims and convictions of the participants seem to get dropped into a blender to become a spiritual smoothie where everything gets reduced to sticky syrupy goo.  But when the desire to be nice to each other matters more than the need to be clear with each other, then I believe that interfaith dialogue has become something less than an exercise in true understanding. As Timothy Tennant, President of Asbury Seminary in Kentucky explains, when Christians are neither clear about, nor committed to the historic beliefs of Christianity, then interfaith dialogue “loses its way.”  He quotes Grace Buford, a practicing Buddhist who has been involved in lots of interfaith conversations with Christians through the years who says of Christians – “If they are so taken by Buddhism, then why do they still hang on to their Christianity?”

Because I consciously approach my participation in these Faiths in Conversation as a Christian who is personally committed to the historic beliefs of Christianity, and who wants to be absolutely clear about them in my conversation with people of other faith traditions, when I find things on which I can make common cause – both morally and spiritually – with my interfaith conversation partners, then I want to take hold of those things just as firmly and enthusiastically as I possibly can and use them as planks in the bridge of mutual understanding that we have got to be building as we move into the future together, and one of these things that I have come across in my conversations with Muslims with which I can do this are the “99 Beautiful Names of God.”

hangingIn every mosque that I have visited here in the Dallas area there is always a beautifully calligraphied wall hanging somewhere in the building, usually prominently displayed, with Arabic writing on it – 99 short self-contained units. I asked Imam Zia about the one at his mosque in Irving one day as we were climbing the staircase where it hangs, and he told me that it was the 99 names of God that are found in the Koran, and he explained that it was a spiritual prayer practice of devout Muslims to recite these 99 names each day using a string of beads like a rosary to mark their progression through the recitation.  A “hadith” (a saying or story from tradition) from Muhammad says – “The Most High has ninety-nine names and whoever enumerates them will enter into Paradise”

Each name of God in the Koran celebrates a particular attribute of God, a characteristic of the Divine that then becomes part of the spiritual experience of the person who is reciting them. To know that God is “The Faithful One” leads the believer to trust God more completely.   To know that God is “The Bountiful One” leads the believer to count on God’s gifts for life more directly.  To know that God is “The Great Forgiver” leads the believer to seek mercy more readily.

A.W. Tozer wrote his classic little book The Knowledge of the Holy to do this same exact for Christians.  Each chapter is a devotional reflection from Scripture on some revealed aspect of God’s being –

The Holy Trinity
The Self-existence of God
The self-sufficiency Of God
The Eternity of God
God’s Infinitude
The Immutability of God
The Divine Omniscience
The Wisdom of God
The Omnipotence of God
The Divine Transcendence
God’s Omnipresence
The Faithfulness of God
The Goodness of God
The Justice of God
The Mercy of God
The Grace of God
The Love of God
The Holiness of God
The Sovereignty of God

The entire text of this book can be found online @ http://www.ntcg-aylesbury.org.uk/books/knowledge_of_the_holy.pdf, and I can highly recommend it as a wonderful resource for spiritual formation from my own personal use of it. And once you’ve done this, then here’s another suggestion of something else that you might think about doing out of your devotion to the one true and living God who is there.

greenNot long after my conversation with Imam Zia about the wall hanging at his mosque, I came across David Bentley’s book on The 99 Beautiful Names of God For all the People of the Book (William Carey Library – 1999).  A Christian who has lived and served in the Middle East, and who has written extensively on Islamic topics, David Bentley explains that every one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Koran that our Muslim neighbors and friends recite each day can also be found in the Bible!

He was quick to note that there are “some vital Biblical thoughts that are missing from these 99 names,” and, as you would expect, there are no references in them at all about Jesus Christ as our Savior or Redeemer.  Which is to say that we as Christians would not be well served to ignore our own sources.  But – and this is the keen insight of David Bentley’s book it seems to me – since there is nothing on this list of the 99 Beautiful Names of God from the Koran with which we as Christians would have any quarrel at all, as a supplement to our own devotion to the God who has revealed Himself to us decisively in Jesus Christ, there might actually be something to be gained for us as Christians to spend some time mediating on the 99 Beautiful Names of God that our Muslim neighbors and friends pray every day, especially in this world where anything that builds mutual respect and serves a better understanding between our two faith traditions is something that we should enthusiastically embrace.

David Bentley wrote his book as a resource for Christians to be able to do this very thing. Each page of it is a meditation based on one of the 99 Beautiful Names of God that shows just exactly where in our own Bibles as Christians the attributes of God that this name of God from the Koran affirms can be found.  For instance, the very first Beautiful Name for God on the list from the Koran is “God the Beneficent, God the Most Gracious, God the Most Merciful.”

allah

This is what we are singing about as Christians when we sing “Amazing Grace”

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.

As David Bentley pointed out in his first mediation on this Beautiful Name of God –

hanger“Amazing Grace” is a glorious affirmation of a benevolent God converging with the human condition that constantly needs wholeness and salvation. …(And) “Ar-Rahman, the “Merciful One,” (in the Koran) describes the Divine who constantly reveals a compassionate nature toward His creation. “Ar-Rahmim” is what this Divine One does in a cosmos that perpetually requires providential, loving care. The Greek of the New Testament identifies this compassion with the person and ministry of Jesus, the Messiah. …His compassion for the world is found in the words He speaks to His followers about His mission – “I have come not to be served but to serve and to give me life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

More than once at a Faiths in Conversation event I have been able to establish a meaningful connection with a Muslim participant by beginning with this mutual affirmation of who we both think that God is, and by then going on to explain how I as a Christian understand the person and work of Jesus Christ – always a confusing and controversial idea for Muslims – to be nothing more than a concrete expression of this Divine beneficence, grace and mercy. I always tell my Muslim friends that how I know that God is beneficent, gracious and merciful because of what I believe that God did for us in Jesus Christ, and suddenly, rather than being an insurmountable barrier, Jesus as an expression of Divine beneficence, mercy and grace becomes a meaningful category for further conversation. And that’s just the first of 99 categories – 99 planks in a bridge of mutual understanding that we as Christians have got to be about building in a world where walls are so much more popular, and so much easier to build. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

congress

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+

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

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