“Around the Table of the Lord’s Supper”

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Can Traditionalist and Progressive Disciples Still Sit Down Together? ______________________________________________________________________

I had lunch last week with two really good friends, one a Disciples minister who was a seminary classmate of mine, and the other one the Disciples church historian who had been our professor back in the day.  My minister friend has just announced his retirement, and so our table talk last week was twinged with a certain amount of nostalgia.  We talked about our life journeys and about how things were different back when we were all just starting out some 40 years ago, and one of the things that we each noted in our own way was just how much more polarized and polarizing the church has become of late.  Maybe this is just an example of the “good old days” syndrome, but things really do feel different today than ever before.  People were certainly no less opinionated in the church 40 years ago than they are today, and they were certainly no less passionate about those opinions, but it feels like something significant has changed.

The United Church of Christ theologian Gabriel Fackre wrote about the twin theological virtues of “mystery” and “modesty,” and that’s what’s been lost in the last 40 years, if you ask me.  Because we don’t know everything that there is to know, even about the things that we think we know, we all must leave some room for “mystery” in our convictions.  And because we don’t know everything that there is to know, then we need to hold what we think we know with some “modesty.”  There are always other ways of looking at things, and the people who look at things differently from the way that we do are not evil or stupid just because they do.

To honor “modesty” and “mystery,” I have always tried to accord to Christians whose convictions and conclusions differ from my own what’s been called the “Good Faith Assumption.” When I disagree with what another Christian is saying or doing, I consciously try to keep in mind that they are just as serious about their faith as I am about mine, that they are just as intent on knowing and doing the truth as I am, and that they are just as committed to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, as their Lord and Savior, as I am committed to Him as my Lord and Savior.  I became a Disciple based on the promise that this was going to be the characteristic way that we would think, talk, reflect, and relate as a church.

Last October I wrote about the impact that the collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s had on me.  I described how I, as a very young Christian, had eagerly read through all of these essays, one right after the other like a shopper earnestly searching for the perfect product to meet his needs, and how it was James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that was the one that made me sit down and pay attention.  It was this one line from that essay that thoroughly captured my heart’s imagination –

chaliceThere is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience.

That’s the kind of church that I went looking for 50 years ago, and it’s the church that I actually found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This was the church that I gladly joined then, and that I have wholeheartedly served ever since.  Not a perfect church; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was the perfect church for me because it was a church that honored careful thinking and respectful talking.  It was a church where people were not expected to agree on everything, but where they were expected to maintain unity in that diversity.   But this is a church that, sadly, I am seeing less and less evidence of these days. Increasingly, what I am seeing are traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples pulling away from each other, and what I am hearing both traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples say is that the terrain that they now separately occupy is the only one that is authentically and thoroughly faithful to what it means to be a Disciple.

Granville Walker exploded the hubris and ignorance of this kind of thinking for me in his 1954 book Preaching in the Thought of Alexander Campbell (Bethany Press).  After showing how Alexander Campbell believed in the full authority and inspiration of the Bible for the faith and practice of the church, and that the Bible had to be carefully interpreted using every critical grammatical and historical tool at his disposal, Granville Walker then argued that the conservative Disciple who puts the emphasis on “the absolutely binding character of the apostolic sanction,” and the liberal Disciple who champions “the thoroughly scientific approach to the Bible,” are both the spiritual heirs of Alexander Campbell, and are both members in good standing of his spiritual tradition. As Granville Walker put it, “It is no insignificant fact that both claim to be heirs of the genuine tradition” (138).

There was a time when both conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples truly believed this, and behaved accordingly.  There was a time when conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples could sit down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, and each one would let the other one be responsible for his or her own belief, and each one would allow the other one to serve God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.   We could, and we often did, disagree with each other.  We could, and we often did, talk with each other about those disagreements without ridicule, disdain, anger, or division.  And then we would all get up and go to the Lord’s Table together to find our unity in the shared love of God made visible in the person and work of Jesus Christ our Savior for all of us.  But today, it seems to me, our tendency is to disagree with each other, to talk at (i.e. “issuing” statements) each other, to dismissively talk about each other, and then to go our separate ways fully convinced in our own minds of the rightness of our answer and fully convinced in our own hearts of the righteousness of our stance. We are quick to organize protests, and slow to build bridges.

HolyBibleThe widely heralded release last week of a statement on human sexuality (“The Nashville Statement”) by a group of prominent traditionalist Christian leaders (none of them Disciples, but some of them teachers and theologians with whom conservative Disciples have a certain affinity), and the response of progressive Christian leaders with counter-statements of their own (“The Denver Statement” by Nadia Bolz Weber and “The Nashville Statement [A Plain Language Translation]” by John Pavlovitz), has had the predictable effect of both traditionalist and progressive Disciples taking public sides and then, looking out across the widening fissure in the church, thinking, and sometimes even saying out loud, that those on the other side could not possibly be their Christian brothers and sisters.

This bears little resemblance to the church that James Craig promised me 50 years ago, and it painfully tears at my heart as a traditionalist Disciple whose Gospel experience of the open Table of the Lord’s Supper to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcomed has moved me to become increasingly “progressive” on matters related to God’s grace and human sexuality.  Because I have a foot firmly planted in both of these worlds now, I think that I understand what those traditionalist Christians who issued the Nashville Statement were trying to say, and why they thought it so important to say it.  But I think that I also understand why what they have said caused such pain in the LGBTQ community, and has generated such outrage from the progressive Christian community.  And as a Disciple, I can’t help but think that if, as James Craig put it, we could just sit down together “around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience,” that with time and the forbearance of God’s love, the transformative power of Christ’s grace, and the convicting work of God’s Spirit, that we could find a way forward that excluded no one from the beloved community and that actually created space where all of us might grow.

bridgeTo see someone who is actually doing this in his own community of faith, we need look no further than Fr. James Martin, S.J.  An advocate of dialogue and encounter, Fr. Martin has been criticized by some in his church for being too progressive, outspoken, and inclusive, and by some in the LBGTQ community for not being progressive, outspoken, and inclusive enough.  Fr. Martin responds to every critic respectfully as part of his own spiritual discipline, and as a way of modeling how to advance the conversation and be truly respectful of people who disagree with one another.

After the issuing of “The Nashville Statement” last week, in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Fr. Martin didn’t rage or ridicule, but gently and thoughtfully offered  what he called “Seven Simple Ways to Respond to the Nashville Statement” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/30/seven-simple-ways-to-respond-to-the-nashville-statement-on-sexuality/?utm_term=.7fb1a51e809c).

Re #Nashville Statement –

  • I affirm: That God loves all LGBT people.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to insult, judge or further marginalize them.
  • I affirm: That all of us are in need of conversion. 
  • I deny: That LGBT people should be in any way singled out as the chief or only sinners.
  • I affirm: That when Jesus encountered people on the margins he led with welcome not condemnation. 
  • I deny: That Jesus wants any more judging.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are, by virtue of baptism, full members of the church.
  • I deny: That God wants them to feel that they don’t belong
  • I affirm: That LGBT people have been made to feel like dirt by many churches.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to add to their immense suffering.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are some of the holiest people I know.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to judge others, when he clearly forbade it.
  • I affirm that the Father loves LGBT people, that the Son calls them and that the Holy Spirit guides them. I deny nothing about God’s love for them.

I’ve read lots of blogs affirming “The Nashville Statement” from my traditionalist Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. And I have read lots of blogs condemning “The Nashville Statement” from my progressive Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. But it seems to me that none of the blogs on “The Nashville Statement” that I read last week better reflect James Craig’s classic vision of what it means to be a “Disciple” than did these “seven simple ways to respond to the Nashville Statement” offered by a Jesuit priest. Because what he wrote is so informed by the Gospel, and is so reflective of the Gospel, I can’t help but hope that we Disciples, both traditionalist and progressive, as Gospel people, might stop lobbing broadsides, climb down off our barricades, and commit ourselves to sitting again with one another at the Gospel’s Table where God’s grace has the power to transform us all.  DBS +

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When “The Waters Roar and Foam”

Trying to Make Sense of Natural Disasters as a Christian
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“Philosophers and theologians recognize two kinds of evil: moral and natural. Moral evil stems from human action (or inaction in some cases). Natural evil occurs as a consequence of nature – earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, diseases, and the like. Natural evil seems to present a greater theological challenge than moral evil does. A skeptic might admit that God can be excused for the free-will actions of human beings who violate His standard of goodness. But natural disasters and disease don’t result from human activity, they reason. Therefore, this type of “evil” must be attributed solely to God.” (Fazale Rana – http://www.reasons.org)

boatIn church on Sunday morning as we were thinking and talking about what Jesus might have meant when he taught us to pray “Deliver us from Evil,” our family members and friends to the south in Houston were in the first hours of the great flooding disaster that Hurricane Harvey has generated with its epic rainfall totals in that region of the State.  As the ensuing days have unfolded, we have watched with growing concern for their welfare, and responded with designated giving through Week of Compassion for their relief.  But at a different level, we wondered, and may have even asked “why?”

We instinctively ask the question “why?” as Christians because our faith tells us that our God is loving and good, and that our God is powerful. But that’s hard to understand when bad things like what’s going on all along the Gulf Coast this week happen.  If God has the power to stop earthquakes, floods and storms, and doesn’t, then how can that God still be called good?  And if God wants to stop earthquakes, floods, and storms, but can’t, then how can that God still be called powerful?   This is the spiritual conundrum that our faith creates for us as Christians when flood waters rise.

I find that natural disasters even more than the bad things that happen to people because of what other people do (think terrorism) pose the greater challenge to my faith. While I cannot fathom the depth of the depravity that compels some people to do the unspeakable sorts of things that they do to other human beings, I can at least “fit” such kinds of aberrational behavior into my free will framework. I can make some sense of moral evil, but natural evil poses another challenge altogether.

Dr. Fazale Rana’s observation about moral and natural evil cited at the outset of this blog states the dilemma well. We know who to blame, or at least we think we do, when the violence of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity wreaks its havoc and breaks our hearts, but who do we blame for the death and destruction that nature causes when it becomes unhinged?  Dr. Rana’s article “Natural and Moral Evil”  (http://www.reasons.org/articles/natural-evil-or-moral-evil) takes a swing at human responsibility, or irresponsibility, for the unhinging of nature, and I don’t discount his argument. I agree with his point that there are some moral dimensions to natural evil. I have very little doubt that our abuse of the environment has accelerated the climate change environmental catastrophes that are on the rise, or that our hubris as human beings has convinced us to think that we are smart enough to manage mother nature and strong enough to manipulate natural processes for our convenience, comfort, and profit with disastrous  consequence.  But conceding this still doesn’t resolve the basic dilemma for me.

bridgeNeither does the argument that it is God who causes earthquakes, floods and storms. This was John Piper’s argument when the I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed in August of 2007.  Praying with his daughters the night this tragedy occurred, John Piper made an argument that his convictions as a Calvinist Christian who has a certain understanding of the Sovereignty of God compels him to make (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/putting-my-daughter-to-bed-two-hours-after-the-bridge-collapsed) –

We prayed during our family devotions. Talitha (11 years old) and Noël and I prayed earnestly for the families affected by the calamity and for the others in our city. Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God for this but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people ‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are saying that he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means — accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”

John PiperNow, I understand this argument. In fact I know exactly how John Piper got to it through his reading of the Scriptures. I’ve carefully weighed this interpretation as well. John Piper went to the same seminary in Southern California where I began my graduate theological education in the fall of 1976.  I attended Fuller five years after John Piper graduated, but I had some of the same teachers he had, and took some of the same classes that he took.  It was at this seminary that I read Calvin’s Institutes for the very first time, and to great and enduring spiritual benefit for me I might add!  I was captivated by the precision of Calvin’s mind, and moved by the passion of Calvin’s heart.  And so I don’t regard John Piper as some crazed theological extremist.  No, he is just a consistent Calvinist, and while that’s a theological position that I have honestly considered, truly respect, and in some ways envy, it is not mine, in large part because I can’t finally reconcile Calvinism’s understanding of God’s power with what I know to be true of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that the adjustment that John Piper’s Calvinism makes to the spiritual conundrum that natural evil creates for people of Biblical faith is to tinker with the “God is good and loving” end of the equation, while the part of the equation that I find actually has some “give” in it is at the opposite “God is powerful” end.  Oh, I certainly believe that God is powerful, and that God will ultimately get what God wants and intends for us and for all of creation. Leslie Weatherhead’s familiar categories of God’s Intentional Will, God’s Permissive Will, and God’s Ultimate Will from his book The Will of God have proven to be especially helpful for me on this question.  Living in the era of God’s permissive will means that, at least for now, God has limited the free exercise of His divine power in order to accord to us the dignity of choice as human beings created in God’s image, and to preserve the non-coercive nature of love as something that must be freely chosen.  I find that the Biblical bases for such a notion are both the freedom of choice accorded humanity in the second creation story (Genesis 2:4-17), and the example of Christ’s self-emptying of the divine prerogative that gets affirmed and celebrated by Paul in the hymn of Philippians 2:5-8 –

Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Practically speaking, what this means is that we live in a world where not everything that happens is going to be what God wants for us, at least not yet. As one of my Christian college professors was constantly telling us, “There’s more than one will at work in the world.” And the result is that for right now we live in a world that is, in many ways, “out of control.” Greg Boyd, the very fine pastor/theologian, has written extensively – and I find most helpfully – about how God’s self-imposed limitation on the exercise of His sovereign power in the interests of both love and freedom (See: “What is the Warfare Worldview”http://reknew.org/2014/06/what-is-the-warfare-worldview-2/ and “Six Theses of the Warfare Worldview”http://reknew.org/2007/12/six-thesis-of-the-warfare-worldview/) has resulted in a world where bad things are constantly happening.

GlassesThe early church fathers all saw creation as a war torn battlefield. It had been corrupted to its very core. And this is why nature is violent, both toward animals and people… These early fathers are simply working out the implications of the biblical view that Satan is the “lord of the earth,” the “ruler of the air” and the “god of this age” who “controls the entire world.” And if you ask me, they were on the right track. So, when a hurricane wipes out an entire village or an earthquake massacres thousands of people; next time you consider the millions dying from AIDS or the millions tortured by parasites; next time you hear about the millions suffering from drought and famine, or consider the untold pain of millions suffering and dying from any number of other diseases, don’t say “This is the work of God.” Say rather, “An Enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28). (http://reknew.org/2015/11/the-earth-is-a-spiritual-battlefield/)

crossBack in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, I conducted a series of theological conversations at Northway with church members and friends on the question of “why?” After looking closely at Luke 13:1-4 –

There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?  I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.  Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo′am fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?

I walked the participants through some of the different ways that Christians have tried to explain the theological “why?” of natural evil before ending each conversation with a more practical review of the “now what?” What I told the people who participated in these sessions was that when natural disasters strike, as Christians we are being afforded: (1) A Time for Reflection (I Peter 4:12-13); (2) A Time for Repentance (Luke 13:1-4); (3) A Time for Compassionate Response (Luke 10:25-37); and (4) A Time for Prayer (Habakkuk 3:17-19).

The events of this week in Houston, and the all up and down the Texas Gulf Coast, affords us with these four opportunities as Christians once again. So let’s use these days to think more clearly.  Let’s let this tragedy continue to challenge the way we are living our lives.  Let’s allow the suffering of others that we will share to soften our hearts and open our pocketbooks and wallets.  And let’s let the circumstances of this week drive us to our knees to cry out for help in our times of hurt and need.  I don’t believe that God caused this to happen, but I do believe that God can use it to make real changes in us and our world. DBS +

 

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My “War and Peace” Pilgrimage

B1My father was a combat soldier in the South Pacific during WW 2.  Dad graduated from Los Angeles High School on a Friday evening and then he was on a bus heading out to basic training the following Saturday morning.  He caught up with a combat unit as a replacement infantryman in New Zealand, fought on New Guinea and all across the Philippines.  He became a Sargent, earned a Purple Heart, and won a Bronze Star for Valor along the way.  He was scheduled to be part of the invasion of Japan, and then after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he served as part of the army of occupation.

I am named “Douglas” after Douglas MacArthur, my father’s General – at least that’s the way he always told the story.  My dad was a good citizen solder.  He did his duty, and I grew up believing in the rightness of his military service. I still do.  I believe in the nobility of the Allied struggle against the “big evil” of the axis powers, and if ever a case for a preemptive war could be made, then looking back on WW 2 through the twin lenses of the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor, then in my mind this would be it.  If Hitler and Tojo could have been stopped before they got started, how could that be anything but good?  But that’s easy to say from the vantage point of history.  And so preemptive war has only a theoretical morality in my mind.

When I was a freshman in Christian College I dutifully registered with the Selective B2Service on my 18th birthday as the law required, and then I was in one of the very last groups to actually go through the lottery for the draft.  Sitting in a dorm room in Eugene, Oregon, with all of my college friends listening to the radio broadcast of the numbers that were being pulled and called remains one of my life’s most vivid memories.  So much hung in the balance that night.

The Vietnam War was one of the great defining events of my late adolescence. Just as the Depression and WW 2 shaped my parent’s generation, Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement defined mine. I viewed the war in Vietnam through the nobility of the lens of my father’s WW 2 military service, and had my number come up in that lottery I would have seen it as my duty to serve.  I would have gone.  That was unquestioned by me at the time.  Today, however, it’s not nearly so clear.  With you, I know too much about the how’s and the why’s of what happened in Vietnam now to view it with the same conviction of the rightness of the cause with which I view WW 2.

B3To be sure, I honor the sacrifice and service of my generational peers who bled and died in Southeast Asia.  Their sense of duty is no less impressive and no less commendable to me than that which my father’s generation enthusiastically received and which they were shamefully denied.  But unlike WW 2, from the vantage point of history, if we could go back and make different choices as a people, I’ve got to wonder if we would still choose to expend the precious human resources that were poured into that war?  And because I suspect that most of us would not, I find that I now honor and respect those who conscientiously objected to the Vietnam War on moral grounds, something that I myself would have been reluctant to do back then.  I was blind to what they could see so clearly.  And that realization has dramatically tempered my views on the use of military force ever since.  In fact, an intellectual flirtation with pacifism in seminary was nurtured both by the writings of Thomas Merton and by my relationships with people I deeply respected who had been against the war in Vietnam.  Merton’s spiritual logic and my friends’ passion gave me real pause.

It was becoming a father that finally put the end to any thoughts of pacifism that I might have been entertaining.  In fact, it was sitting at a General Assembly of the church with one of my best friends from seminary who was himself a convinced pacifist and consciously deciding to vote against a resolution with decidedly pacifist overtones to it that was the moment when I knew that I was not and could not be a pacifist.  When my friend asked me to explain my surprising vote to him, I told him that I had come to the conclusion that if an intruder broke into my house intent on doing my baby girl harm that I would have no hesitation to do whatever it took, up to and including killing that intruder, to keep her safe, and that I would feel morally justified in doing so.  And if that was morally true for me as an individual, then I knew that it had to be morally true for us as a nation as well.

From my initial unhesitating affirmation of what my father’s generation had done in WW 2 that created in my mind, at the very least, a theoretical category for a morally legitimate preemptive war, through the later agonizing critique of my own generation’s war in Vietnam that led me to give pacifism some sustained and serious consideration, where I finally arrived, morally and spiritually, was on middle ground.

For 30 years now, with every war and rumor of war, I have operated as a Christian teacher and preacher in that gray area in-between the black and white certainties that preemptive war advocates occupy on the one side of the question, and that pacifists advocate occupy on the other side of the question. And this is not just a conversation about the events of history and the experiences of our lives for me, it’s a conversation about the meaning of Scripture as well.

In response to the most recent North Korean provocations, our President spoke of “fire” B4and “fury,” and of “power unlike any that the world has ever seen before,” and a high profile preacher right down the street from me here in Dallas immediately said that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un” based on his reading of Romans 13:4 – “the ruler does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (a text that originally applied to the Roman Emperor, and that curiously enough, applies equally to the North Korean dictator!) – and wide swaths of the traditionalist Christian community have dutifully nodded their heads and say “Amen!”   “It’s in the Bible” they say, and they really do want to be faithful to the Scriptures – a commendable goal, in fact, it’s one that I share with them.   Meanwhile, I have heard and seen lots of preachers from my own denominational tradition quoting Matthew 5:9 of late – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” – and then watched as they have figuratively dropped the microphone, folded their arms, and indicated that they were “out.”  And many from my own progressive wing of the church have immediately and uncritically signaled their approval.  “It’s what Jesus said,” they say, and they really do want to follow Him – a commendable goal, and again, it’s one that I share with them.  But, it seems to me, that all of us, traditionalists and progressives alike, have got to stop acting as if by quoting a single Bible verse, or by taking a single interpretive position, that we’ve settled this question, any question for that matter, once and for all.  Simple answers and half-truths are not going to serve us well in the complicated, confusing, and critical days that are coming.

If all I had in my Bible was Romans 13:4, and if the only war that I knew anything about was the WW 2 of my father’s experience, then that preemptive war position starts to make pretty good sense to me.  And if all I had in my Bible was Matthew 5:9, and if the only war that I knew anything about was the Vietnam of my generation with all of its ambiguities, then that pacifist position starts to make pretty good sense to me.  But I find that Romans 13:4 and Matthew 5:9 are both in my Bible, and that WW 2 and Vietnam are both part of my awareness.  And when I put them into serious conversation with each other – Romans 13:4 with Matthew 5:9, WW 2 with the War in Vietnam – where I wind up is in the morally and spiritually complex terrain known as the just war position, or as I prefer to think and talk about it, the selectively pacifist position.

In its simplest terms, the Just War Theory sadly but honestly acknowledges that the very real and persistent evil in the world requires the existence of some real force to constrain it, while at the same time acknowledging that the Divine quality of mercy means that when the use of this force in the suppression of evil becomes necessary, that it must be measured, limited, and proportionate in its response.  The Just War Theory not only insists that the actual use of force be constrained by some very clear moral standards, it actually creates a set of moral speedbumps to slow the momentum that builds for the use of force when a crisis erupts.

Bruce Ashford is the Provost and a Professor of Theology & Culture at SoutheasternB5 Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. A theological and social conservative, Bruce writes a blog – “Christianity for the Common Good” – on politics and public life from his perspective that because Jesus Christ is the Lord of all, the result is that Christians need to be thoughtful and intentional about how our faith in Him shapes our lives and our interactions with the world.  In a recent posting, in response to the comments that the high profile Baptist pastor down the street from me recently made about the divine right of the President to wage war, Bruce asked – “Has God given President Trump the authority to “take out” Kim Jong-un?” (http://bruceashford.net/2017/has-god-given-president-trump-the-authority-to-take-out-kim-jong-un/).  And in his answer, Bruce helpfully outlined the Just War Tradition’s eight guidelines for determining whether or not it is morally permissible to enter into war.

  1. Just cause: a nation should not go to war unless it is correcting a specific injustice; in other words, it may not go to war to (generally) “eradicate evil” or “promote democracy.”
  2. Competent authority: a decision to go to war should not be made by anybody other than the person or persons who are ultimately responsible for maintaining security and civil order. (In the case of the United States we have a Constitution that establishes who has this authority.)
  3. Comparative justice: a nation must weigh whether going to war might cause more injustice than existed in the first place; a nation must not cause more injustice going to war than would be suffered not going to war.
  4. Right intention: a nation may not engage in war, punish or humiliate its enemies, or seek to glorify and empower itself; it may only engage in war to restore a previous state of peace in the sense of civil order.
  5. Last resort: a nation must exhaust all realistic nonviolent alternatives before going to war; a nation should always prefer solutions that do not involve the use of deadly force. (This is the Just War Guideline that has been most often “rushed” in the wars of the past 50 years in my opinion.)
  6. Probability of success: a nation should not engage in war unless it has a realistic chance of victory; otherwise it wastes lives and resources.
  7. Proportionality of projected results: a nation must count the cost before going to war; if the costs of victory are more than the costs of non-engagement, the nation should not go to war.
  8. Right spirit: a nation must not go to war in a spirit of ideological zeal, bloodthirst, or hatred; it must engage in war with no sense of satisfaction other than that it is restoring peace, maintaining order, and protecting the innocent.

The criticism of the Just War Theory is that it has never actually stopped a war, and that’s probably right.  But just as G.K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has not been tried and found to be wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried,” and I would argue that the same thing could be said of the Just War Theory.  It has not stopped unjust wars because it has not been seriously or thoroughly utilized as a tool of moral discernment by those who have the authority to make the decisions about going to war.  The failure is not with the tool but with its use.

B6What the Just War Theory has done is to stop some Christians from publicly supporting specific wars and military actions, thereby slowing the rush to war. For instance, John R.W. Stott, one of the leading traditionalist preachers and teachers in my lifetime, was a pacifist during WW 2 based on his straightforward reading of the Sermon on the Mount when he was a young Christian, but later he became an advocate of the Just War Theory as he said that he began to listen more carefully to the faithful conversation between Biblical texts on the question of war and peace. And it was John Stott’s thoughtful use of the Just War categories that resulted in his very public promotion of Nuclear Pacifism back in the 1970’s and 80’s.  In fact, John Stott often gets credit for being the conversation partner of conscience who convinced Billy Graham to publically adopt the very same perspective (See: https://politurgy.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/billy-graham-and-nuclear-weapons/).  And it was because of his Just War sensibilities that John Stott publically opposed the Iraq War on the grounds that it failed to meet the eight conditions of a just war.  And it seems to me that this is the importance of knowing the Just War Theory today.

The “wars and rumors of wars” that swirl about us these days makes what we think about war as Christians more than just a theoretical exercise.  The drums of war are sounding right now, and the specter of a nuclear holocaust is being discussed as a very real possibility for the first time in decades. Because we live in a participatory democracy, we are the ones who elect those people who have the legitimate authority to wage war, and as Christians, as people of conviction and conscience, we have the civic and spiritual obligation to tell them what we think about the prospects of war, and as a proponent of the Just War Theory what I want to tell them is that there are a whole series of moral checkpoints along this road that need to be deliberately and deliberatively passed through. We dare not let the slow roll to armed conflict gather speed and barrel onward without the due caution of moral restraint. It needs to be morally difficult and spiritually complicated to get to the final decision to actually commit American lives and resources to an armed conflict.  And then, in the end, should it be necessary for us to fight, then it can never be prosecuted gleefully, but only regretfully, and always grievingly.    DBS +

 

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“Looking for a Changed Heart”

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In the only class on preaching that I ever took, Dr. Hunter Beckelhymer of blessed memory warned about what he called the “Christ cliché.”   He said that there was a tendency in much of the preaching that he heard to name a human problem, be it personal or social, to explore its dimensions with the precision of a psychologist or a sociologist, and then in the last few sentences to superficially slap Christ onto the problem as the solution before saying “Amen” and sitting down.

Today I observe an entirely different tendency in much of the preaching that I hear. The human problem, be it personal or social, still gets named and probed with the precision befitting a psychologist or a sociologist giving a talk, and then, without mentioning Christ at all, the preacher just sits down.  This strikes me as an example of what Harvey Cox called “Christological heart-failure” – not the superficial introduction of Christ into a sermon at the very last minute as a kind of afterthought that Dr. Beckelhymer called the “Christ cliché,” but the complete failure to speak of Christ at all.

Speaking as a minister to ministers about ministry Karl Barth observed – “When they come to us for help they do not really want to learn more about living: they want to learn more about what is on the farther edge of living – God” (The Word of God and The Word of Man – 189).  Because this is just so easy for me to forget, especially when the personal wound is deep or the social crisis is immediate and intense, I often return to a story that Rebecca Manley Pippert told in her book Hope Has Its Reasons (Harper & Row – 1989).  This  story has served me well as a reminder of who I am and of what it is that I am called to do.

While I affirm the important work that psychologists do, and try to incorporate their insights into my thinking, I am not a psychologist. And while I affirm the important work that sociologists do, and try to incorporate their insights into my thinking, I am not a sociologist.  What I am is a preacher, a servant of the Word, and it is my job to frame the Gospel as the solution to the personal problems that people present, and as the answer to the social questions that the world asks.    DBS +

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hopeOne of the courses I audited at Harvard was called “Systems of Counseling.” We were looking at a case study in which the therapist, using an approach called psychodynamic psychotherapy, helped the patient uncover a hidden hostility toward his mother.  Naming the problem and understanding the mechanisms of what really bothered him seemed to make the patient feel as if a great weight had been lifted.

Then the professor began to proceed to the next case. Mustering my courage, I raised my hand and said, “I don’t quite know how to phrase this in the appropriate psychobabble, but let’s say the patient returned a few weeks later and said, ‘I’m so relieved to understand what was bothering me. My mother did things that provoked my hostility.   But now I’d like to get beyond my anger.  I’d like to be able to love her and forgive her.  How do I do that?’  How does psychodynamic psychotherapy help a person with a request like this?”

There was silence. Then the professor answered, “I think the therapist would say, ‘lots of luck!’ It’s accomplishing a great deal in life just to be able to get past our feelings to uncover and name the hidden things that drive us, to identify our anxieties, fears, and problems at the root level and not the symptom level.   So to ask that his hostility magically disappear isn’t realistic.  He’ll have to learn to lie with it and hopefully not be driven by it.”

The professor’s frankness provoked the class. One of them said, “But isn’t the whole point of counseling, after diagnosing and naming the ailment, to help relieve suffering? And what causes more suffering than our inability to love and forgive those who’ve wounded us?”

That touched off an intense exchange. One student summarized what many of us were thinking: “It’s not that I expect problems to be instantly eliminated. Forgiving is a process.  But is the most we can hope merely the ability to name and understand our problems?  Can’t we ever be healed too?   Isn’t loving and forgiving a better way of living than not merely being controlled by anger?  If that’s the case, how do we help our clients find the power to change?”

The professor responded, “What we’re attempting to do is to help enable our patients to understand their true hidden feelings, to bring them to the surface and to experience them for what they are. So don’t force your values or neurosis about forgiveness onto the patient!”

I raised my hand again and said, “I’d like to make three observations. First, I agree completely that there will be no progress until we understand and experience our real feelings.  But having done that, how do we keep those feelings from destroying us?  Isn’t that why some of us have this ‘neurosis’ about seeking to forgive. The man needed to see he had more than a professed love for his mother.  But after he’s uncovered and identified his hostility, how does he keep it from devouring him?  Surely the answer isn’t to pretend he doesn’t hate or that his mother is perfect.  How can he be honest about his real feelings and yet get beyond them? Second, I wonder if you feel the words ‘love your enemy’ are rooted in neurosis.  And third, I’d like to say that I’m not taking this course for credit.”

The class exploded into laughter and the teacher, smiling, but with more candor than he may have realized, said, “If you guys are looking for a changed heart, I think you’re looking in the wrong department.”

But the truth is, we are looking for a changed heart. We have seen that there can be no positive growth where there is pretense; no solution until we identify and own our problem.  We have observed that robust living is more than the identification of problems.  After we see we need to change, how do we find the power to do it?  If the cross enables us to see our problem and how God solved it, then the resurrection is where we see whether human behavior can be changed, and if so, how.  (113-115)

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Christ, Charlottesville, and Change

charlottesvilleI spent most of Saturday at church. We had an elders’ meeting in the morning, and then later I had a premarital counseling appointment. When I was finished with all of that, I just puttered around the office for a couple of hours attending to lots of open-ended projects from the week just past.  I didn’t get home until nearly 3 pm, and when I walked into the house from the garage, Mary Lynn was watching TV in the den, and I could tell from the tone of the CNN reporter’s voice and the look on Mary Lynn’s face that something awful had happened. It was Charlottesville.

As the afternoon wore on, and the story grew, the more persistent and insistent were the stirrings inside me to change what I was going to preach in church the next morning. This has happened before. I keep a pretty tight sermon schedule. My sermon is almost always written by the Thursday of the week that it’s going to be preached.   That leaves some time for it to marinate.  I need to live with the sermons that I am going to preach before I actually preach them, and so I get pretty anxious if I don’t have that manuscript in my hands by Thursday.  But sometimes something happens in my personal life, or in our congregational, national or global life after my sermon is written on Thursday, and I know that I need to set aside that week’s prepared message in order to speak more directly to the immediate circumstance.  I believe that it’s the Holy Spirit who is behind these stirrings when they come, and so when I sense them, I have come to trust them.  I felt them Saturday as the afternoon unfolded.  And so after dinner, I sat down at the computer at home and I went to work on another sermon for Sunday morning. I know lots of preachers who were doing the same thing.

My prepared sermon for last Sunday was the sixth message on the Lord’s Prayer in our summer series – “Teach Us to Pray.” The scheduled petition for Sunday was “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And that remained my focus.  I still wanted to think and talk with my congregation about forgiveness because the way I see it, our only way forward as a people right now is going to be by grace.  We know what outrage in the streets looks like, we saw it on full display on Saturday in Charlottesville.  And we know how elected officials talk, or fail to talk about it; we heard them, or not, on Saturday evening.   But to change the hate and the hurt, the fear and the aggression, the frustration and the indignation that clashed so violently in the streets of Charlottesville on Saturday I believe that we are going to need more than just outrage and talk.  We are going to need something else, something more.

As I understand it, the trigger for the violence on Saturday was the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the campus of the University of Virginia. This is something that is happening all over the South these days, including right here in Dallas.  There is a debate brewing about the future of the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park where Arlington Hall, a reproduction of Robert E. Lee’s ancestral home in Virginia, sits and hosts some of this city’s most fashionable weddings. The original Arlington Hall was confiscated by Abraham Lincoln to become the grounds for our National Cemetery when Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army to become the Commanding General of the Army of Virginia in the Confederacy.  Trust me, there are going to be some tense debates at City Hall and some very vocal public protests along Turtle Creek about this before too long, and I get it.

horseI appreciate the wound that these monuments inflame. I see the offense that these memorials perpetuate. And personally I think that they more properly belong in a museum where they can be viewed and be interpreted as part of our history and not prominently displayed in a public space where their presence can be construed as some kind of lingering approval of slavery, or as some kind of latent longing for secession.  But here’s what I also think, even if all the monuments go, even if all the buildings, parks, streets, and schools get renamed, we are still going to have a problem.  Removing a statue and changing a name are ways of addressing the symptoms of a much deeper problem, the problem of racism.  And the crucial question as I see it, is, how do we address this deeper problem?  How do we put an end to racism?

The very first building block in the formation of my social conscience as a Christian was a book that Sherwood Wirt, the editor for many years of Billy Graham’s magazine Decision, wrote and that I read in 1968 when I was just 15 years old (The Social Conscience of the Evangelical – Harper & Row).  These were the days of the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam.  Big questions about peace and justice were churning in society at large then, and I was trying to figure out how someone like myself who had consciously named Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior and who was actively looking to the Bible for moral and spiritual guidance was supposed to respond.   Sherwood Wirt’s book helped me to make sense of things.  And this, in part, is what he wrote about racism – and remember that these words were written 49 years ago!

whiteyLove cannot be created by the enactment of statutes requiring people to display comradeship toward each other.   No such statute has been promulgated in the history of humanity…. The law can set bounds, but it cannot set an example… The passage of civil rights laws in America has given African American citizens greatly needed help… by clarifying their legal status and giving them a fuller possession of their national birthright.  Yet the civil rights laws have not increased in the slightest the respect and affection between people of different races in our society; and respect and affection are the very qualities that are supremely needed to ease the existing tensions.  Experts in race relations are surprised to find tensions in parts of America worsening rather than lessening.  The Christian is not surprised for the Christian knows what legislation can and cannot do.  A sociologist was astonished to find that after teaching a course on racial prejudice, some of his students were more prejudiced at the end than at the beginning.  The Christian is not astonished, for the Christian understands that the answer is not education alone. (82-83)

I truly value education. I strongly advocate for legislation that is just.  And I can even admit to the fact that agitation has its place.   And while I believe that they all have their roles to play, I don’t believe that agitation, education, or legislation are finally going to be the way that racism will be brought to an end. Carl F.H. Henry in his 1964 book on Christian Social Ethics said that it was regeneration – the embrace of God’s grace in Jesus Christ – that alone has the power to change hearts, and thereby to change society. He explained –

The strategy of regeneration… relies primarily on a spiritual dynamic for social change.  It aims not merely to re-educate man… but to renew the whole man morally and spiritually through a saving experience of Jesus Christ.  The power on which it relies for social change is not the power, of legislated morality… The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “power” for changing the world.  Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is an optional consideration.  Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order. (24-25)

 And this is the spiritual principle that I see so clearly at work in the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It was Father Louis Evely who explained –

“As we forgive our debtors” is not a bargain that we are striking with God. It doesn’t mean, “Lord, see how well I haven forgiven, now forgive me!”  No, what it means is: “Lord, forgive me, and then I will know how to forgive like that.”

We learn how to forgive by going through the process of being forgiven by God in Jesus Christ ourselves. Think about that parable of the King and His Debtor that Jesus told in Matthew 18:21-35. Once the king had forgiven his debtor, the king then expected his debtor to turn around and forgive his debtors.  The king didn’t wait for his debtor to forgive his debtors before forgiving his debt.  But once the king had forgiven his debtor’s debt, he fully expected him to live out of that same grace that he himself had already received.  And that’s precisely what I think Jesus was talking about when He taught us to pray saying, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is the spiritual revolution of grace experienced by us as forgiveness that has the power to change our attitudes and actions.

The events of last Saturday in Charlottesville are just the latest installment in the long history of racism that tears at our unity and dignity as members of the same human family who all share the image of God. To get justice I believe that we need good legislation and even better enforcement of that legislation.  And as a citizen I will support candidates regardless of their party affiliation who believe this and who promise to work for it, and I will oppose candidates who equivocate on this. But I am more than just a citizen.  I am a Christian, and it is as a Christian that I believe that if there is to be healing and reconciliation, then we’re going to need the grace of forgiveness.  We’re going to have to be forgiven ourselves, and then we are going to have become consciously and relentlessly forgiving of others, and I can already hear the objections.

Doug, you’re just spiritualizing a social problem.”

 “Doug, you’re just shifting the focus away from the human dimensions
of this problem, and away from what it is that we can and must do,
to some harebrained notion of a Divine solution that you
expect God to bring about.”

“Doug, to talk of grace and forgiveness right now
is to weaken the cry for justice and soften the call to action.”

 “Doug, you’re being so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.”

Oswald Chambers directly challenged this notion that talk of grace in the face of social injustice was soft, and that talk of forgiveness in the face of real human suffering is cheap by reminding his readers of the costliness of grace to God –

Beware of the pleasant view of God that says that God is so kind and loving that of course He will forgive us. That thought, based solely on emotion, cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament. The only ground for forgiveness and reconciliation is the Cross of Christ. There is no other way! Forgiveness, which is so easy for us to accept, meant the agony of Calvary for God. We should never take the forgiveness of sin, and then forget the enormous cost to God that made it possible.

 On the cross we see the costly display of God’s love. On the cross we witness God’s struggle with the evil that inhabits us and surrounds us.  On the cross we see what God was prepared to do to break down the walls that separate us from Himself, and from one another.  So, don’t tell me that grace is soft or that forgiveness is cheap.  God’s self-sacrifice on Calvary’s cross was God’s way of stepping into the brokenness of this world and into the anguish of human suffering to do something about it.  And it’s this grace that changes hearts.  It’s this grace that heals wounds.  It’s this grace that restores lives.  It’s this grace that beachheads shalom.  And once we’ve experienced this grace ourselves, then we become its agents.   Once we have been forgiven, then we know how forgiveness works, what forgiveness costs, and why forgiveness matters.  It’s forgiveness that turns hearts around.  It’s forgiveness that turns hate to hope.  It’s forgiveness that turns hurt to healing.  It’s forgiveness that turns alienation to reconciliation.  It’s forgiveness that turns fear to moral courage. It’s forgiveness that restores relationships, rebuilds trust, and refashions the future.

So, I’m glad that I was in church last Sunday. I was glad to be able to go to the Lord’s Table on that painful, troubling, confusing weekend to get my bearings.  I needed to share in the breaking of the break in remembrance of what God’s grace did for us in Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross.  And I needed to share in the pouring out of the cup in remembrance of what God did in Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross to accomplish forgiveness. And then from that experience of forgiveness at the Lord’s Table, I needed to be sent from that place of grace into the Charlottesville right outside the front doors of my church.  Christians need to be sent from the Table of love into the world of hate where we can show angry, violent, frightened, disentranced people that there is another way to be, the way that Jesus Christ as Lord showed us, and then died and was raised as Savior to make possible for us.  DBS +

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“On Not Losing our Souls”

Two Christians; Two Responses

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Kennan Jones was savagely beaten by a gang of passengers on a Dallas Area Rapid Transit light rail train a few weeks ago. When Kennan asked them to stop smoking pot on the train, they turned on him.  The beating eventually spilled out onto a train platform.  It was a brutal scene, and Kennan Jones is still recovering from his injuries.  But on Thursday afternoon, August 10th, accompanied by his lawyer, Kennan Jones held a news conference to say that he hopes that what happened to him will turn into some kind of redemption for his attackers, three of whom have now been arrested.  He says that he doesn’t want to see their lives ruined over this.  When asked what he would say to those who attacked him if they were sitting across from him, Kennan Jones said, “I would probably gather a bunch of rocks in my hand, lay them out in front of me and say, ‘Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.’”   Kennan Jones says that it’s not his job to be their judge and jury. “I’ll let the courts handle that,” he said. “What I want for them is what the Lord wants for them,” Kennan Jones explained, “whatever process they have to go through to learn right from wrong.”

What a remarkable witness! And what a striking contrast to the tone of the pronouncements of the high profile Dallas Pastor who has been in the news all week.  No sooner had the President spoken of “fire” and “fury,” and of “power unlike any that the world has ever seen before,” than the preacher down the street from me had enthusiastically sprung to his defense and said that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un” based on his reading of Romans 13:4.  Apart from the larger question of whether or not Romans 13 (or the United States Constitution for that matter) actually gives this, or any President, the singular authority to wage war (something that I will address in next week’s blog), there is the inner question of the spirit with which we as Christians are supposed to think and talk about the use of force in the establishment of justice.

It is important to note that Kennan Jones in his graceful response to his attackers doesn’t think that they should just go free. “He doesn’t want them to not be held accountable,” Kennan Jones’ lawyer explains, “but he doesn’t want them thrown into this mass-incarceration system.” And that’s the fine line that I think we dance on as Christians, the fine line that separates justice from mercy. I have long agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous assessment that “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” It is sad, and it is a duty — a moral obligation. In a sinful world justice has to be established, but I don’t think that means a rush to judgment or the enthusiastic use of force.

Somewhere I’ve read that when the author Robert Louis Stevenson, a Christian himself, received word of a war among the people of his adopted country of Samoa, that he fell to the floor writhing in pain and weeping uncontrollably.   And while this is not all that there is to a Christian’s response to war, this is at least where it must begin.  Sadness and not anger, regret and not eagerness, the stubborn hope of redemption and not the quick pronouncement of damnation is what must lie beneath the surface of a Christian’s response to war.  When in the course of human events a war in the cause of justice becomes necessary, Christians can only support it with tears in our eyes, anguish in our hearts, and with a caution that has been deeply informed by grace.

I hear it in what Kennan Jones said at the news conference on Thursday, and it sounded like the Gospel to me. And I heard it in a Fred Craddock story that has been making the rounds this week.-

fredYears ago I received a letter from Washington asking if I would join hundreds of other ministers in holding prayer breakfasts around the world. Wherever there were American citizens or soldiers, there were going to be President’s Prayer Breakfasts. I wrote back and said I would be honored to do it. I waited a while, and then I got a letter saying that my station for the prayer breakfast would be in Seoul, Korea. I said, “Wonderful, I’ll just stop by there on the way to the office and have a prayer breakfast!” I went to Seoul, where I was the guest of General Richard Stilwell, who commanded 40,000-to-50,000 American soldiers in South Korea. The officers and troops had gathered in great numbers. Before I spoke, a private who’d been brought over from Formosa played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. It was moving and beautiful. General Stilwell said, “I love that song.”

When the breakfast was over and everybody was leaving, General Stilwell turned to me and said, “I want you to pray for us.” I said, “I will.” He said, “I don’t mean for power. We have the power. In one afternoon we could wipe out North Korea. We have the power. What we need you to pray for is that we have the restraint.” “That we have the restraint?” I asked. “Yes,” the general said, “the restraint. The mark of a civilized society is not power. It is restraint.”

In these frightening and confusing days, as Americans we cannot afford to lose our heads, and as Christians we dare not lose our souls. DBS +

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“Ordinary Courage”

Last week at the White House James McCloughan was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Trump – the highest honor bestowed by the United States military – for “conspicuous gallantry” and “distinguished action” in saving the lives of 10 American soldiers and their Vietnamese interpreter during the battle of Tam Ky in Vietnam in May of 1969.

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Wounded himself three times, at one point Pfc. McCloughan was ordered by his captain onto one of the evacuation helicopters and he refused to go because he was the last medic who was still alive at that point and he knew “that they were going to need him.” So, he stitched up his own wounds and ran back into the battle to take care of more of his fallen comrades.  When I say the word “courage” it’s people like James McLoughan who first come to mind; people who run towards trouble when most of us are trying to run away from it.  Who isn’t impressed by, and grateful for people like him?  James McCloughan deserves all of the recognition that he is only now getting for his heroism as a young man.  It’s a shame that it took so long.

We all need heroes. We all need role models.  We all need good examples to follow.  And James McCloughan certainly deserves to be one of them.  But when our understanding of courage is so closely tied to extraordinary acts of bravery like James McCloughan’s that transpire in a moment of time, I fear that we are at risk of missing the more ordinary displays of courage that people are living all the time, moment by moment, day after day, all around us. Without disrespecting the courage of extraordinary people like James McCloughan, I must say that the most courageous people I have personally known in my lifetime have been some rather ordinary men and women who, burdened with unimaginable difficulties, challenges, and sorrows in their lives, nevertheless got up every morning, washed their faces, put on their clothes, and headed out the door to face the new day with faith, and hope, and love.  There will be no award ceremonies for them.  Their courage goes largely unnoticed.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, or that it isn’t impressive.

This week I conducted the memorial service of one of these courageous people whom I have known. Three and a half years ago I conducted the memorial service for her husband.  On the day of his service a picture was taken of her.  She had just been widowed.  She wore a head scarf because she was in treatment for the reoccurrence of cancer, something that she had lived with, and fought for 20 years.  And yet, there she sat in her recliner that day, surrounded by her grandchildren, smiling.  It’s a picture of courage, not the extraordinary kind of courage that emerges in the moment of a crisis when a single heroic decision must be made in an instant like James McCloughan did on that battlefield in Southeast Asia nearly 50 years ago, but the ordinary kind of courage that only becomes visible gradually over a long period of time because of some carefully considered decision made long before the actual circumstances of one’s life begin to unfold.

nietzscheIt was Friedrich Nietzsche who described life as “a long obedience in the same direction,” and it seems to me that you can’t undertake this journey without courage, without that sort of ordinary courage that empowers you to constantly put one foot down in front of another and to just keep moving forward, not through the world of your dreams, but through the world of your actual circumstances.

The first verses of the fifth chapter of Romans describe the initial decision of faith that Christians make. This is where our journey begins as believers.

 …since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

 Justification by faith” is one of the ways that the New Testament talks about that carefully considered decision made beforehand that sets the direction for everything else that follows in the life of a Christian.  Romans 5:1-2 is about that initial decision of faith whereby Jesus Christ becomes one’s personal Lord and Savior. And it’s that decision that determines how we will react to whatever it is that comes next in our lives.  It’s “foundational,” which is why Paul said that it’s the source of our peace, and the basis of the grace in which we stand and by which we live, and the ground of our hope.  In fact, the next three verses of Romans chapter 5 builds the staircase to hope that sooner or later we’ve all got to climb.

steps …we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…

Do you see the stair steps there – the step up from suffering to endurance, and then the step up from endurance to character, and then finally the step up from character to hope? It takes real courage to make this climb.

In many translations of the Bible that word “suffering” gets rendered “tribulation.” In the ancient mills the “tribulum” was the threshing sled that got pulled over the grain scattered on a hard surface to crack it open so that the husk could be separated from the kernel.   Tribulation is the crushing weight of life’s circumstances that break our hearts.  It was C.S. Lewis who said that there’s nothing about this kind of suffering that in and of itself guarantees the outcome of hope that Paul wrote about in Romans chapter 5.  Tribulation doesn’t inevitably and invariably produce hope. In fact, it can just as often result in bitterness, you know – “Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the mud, the other saw stars.”

What makes the difference, it seems to me, is navigating the second step of that stair case that Paul constructed in Romans 5 – that step up from tribulation to endurance. So, what is it the enables some people to do this, to be able to step up out of their tribulations into endurance while other people just get stuck in their struggles and sorrows?  And I think the answer’s courage.

heartBrené Brown likes to point out that the root word for “courage” – “cor, cordis”– is the Latin word for “heart.” “Courage is a heart word” she says, and Paul in those verses from Romans chapter 5 said that the hope we find on the top step of that staircase “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

The thing that we discover at the very beginning of the Christian life when we are first justified by faith is that God loves us, and that we had nothing to do with God’s decision to do so. We didn’t somehow make God love us.  We certainly can’t make God stop loving us.  God just loves us, all of us, it was settled once and for all on Calvary’s cross.  And I believe that the courage of endurance that moves us from tribulation to hope is made possible for us because we know this; because we know that God loves us, and that nothing – not tribulation, not distress, not persecution, not famine, not nakedness, not peril, not sword, not life, and not even death – has the power to separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

anchorFor good reason the Christian symbol for hope is the anchor.   An anchor is what holds a boat safely in place when the winds howl, and the waves beat, and the storms surge.  And I’m thinking of that picture of my friend taken three and a half years ago.  The winds were howling that day.  The waves were beating. The storm was surging.   She was a brand new widow with cancer, and there she sat, surrounded by her grandchildren, smiling.  It’s a picture of courage, the courage of a faith that had been settled long before that day ever arrived, the courage of someone who knew that she was loved by God no matter what may come.  I believe that she was smiling in that picture because she could sense even then that her anchor holding, and she knew that it always would. DBS +

 

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