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This week is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

500 Reformation

hatThis week is the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, that that the Roman Catholic priest and monk Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. While there had been previous attempts to reform the church, and there would be more to follow, including that of our own Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone on the American frontier in the early 1800’s (“The Reformation of the 19th Century” – J. H. Garrison) this dramatic and providential act of Martin Luther is as good as any event to officially mark the beginning of the spiritual movement of Protestantism that changed the face of the church and the world.

spiralThe Protestant Reformation was nothing less than a Copernican revolution in theology. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 –1543) fomented his revolution in the scientific world by removing the Earth from the center of the universe around which all of the other planets, including the Sun, revolved, replacing it with the Sun at its center around which all of the other planets, including the Earth, revolved. Before the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church with its dogmas and traditions was at the center of the spiritual solar system, and every other church and spiritual movement was put into rotation around it, their places determined by how close or how far their teachings were from the official teachings of Roman Catholicism. In contrast, Protestantism put the Bible at the center of the Christian solar system, and then aligned the planets of the churches and movements around its teachings, their place determined by how close or how far from the truth of Scripture their teachings were, and this gets to the spiritual nub of the revolution that was the Protestant Reformation.

MartinIn 1521, Martin Luther was called before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms to fully explain his views. “Diet” refers to an official meeting and “Worms” is a city south of Frankfurt.   At the end of this defense of his ideas, tradition says that Martin Luther stood before his opponents and boldly declared –

Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me.

“Convicted by Scripture” — “my conscience a captive to the Word of God” — “here I stand, I cannot do otherwise” — this is the Reformation in a nutshell. Dr. Scott H. Hendrix, the Emeritus Professor of Reformation History and Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, explains the significance of these famous words –

Luther asserted that his conscience was captive to the Word of God and that he could not go against conscience. This was not, however, a modern plea for the supremacy of the individual conscience or for religious freedom. Though already excommunicated by Rome, Luther saw himself as a sworn teacher of Scripture who must advocate the right of all Christians to hear and live by the gospel.

semperOne of the most important insights of the Reformation, as far as I am concerned, is that reformation is not something that is once done and forever thereafter settled, but rather, that reformation is an ongoing process for every Christian and every church in every generation. ”Ecclesia semper reformanda est” – “Reformed and always reforming” – or, in its more complete form – “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God” – is a familiar way for Protestants to think and talk about what the Reformation means. The “Word of God” (Incarnate in Christ, inscripturated in the Bible, and illumined in our hearts by the Holy Spirit) always confronts and corrects our thinking, feeling, and acting.  An important part of its function is to challenge us, our thinking and living.  As James Smart explained –

The Word of God has in it always elements that are congenial and elements that are uncongenial since it is at one and the same time God’s words of both judgment and grace, no grace without judgment and no judgment without grace. To eliminate the uncongenial may be to escape the judgment that makes ready to receive the grace. 

Reformation is the faithful consequence of the Word carefully taking our measure, us coming up short both individually as Christians and corporately as the church, and us rolling up our sleeves and getting to work to bring things into better conformity with the Mind of Christ as it has been revealed to us in the Word. This is why Pastor Jack Hayford says that we need to continuously “drive a nail” into the pulpit, the Lord’s Table, the pipe organ, the choir loft, and the pews of our churches today – into “any place both visible and sufficiently shocking to provide a counterpart to the ancient door at Wittenberg.”

Half a millennium ago the Church was shaken to its roots – dragged by the nape of the neck to confront the reality of God’s Word, and forced to face the fact that its forms had chained people rather than freed them. The dual truths of “justification by faith” and “the priesthood of the believer” were trumpeted forth and the true “church” – the people of God – was released through a recovery of the revelation of God’s Word.  We’re overdue for another one.

leTempleMore than one Reformation historian has pointed to Jean Perrissin’s painting – “Le Temple de Paradis, Lyon” (1564) – to help visualize the spiritual Copernican revolution that the Reformation was in the life of the church and Christians.  It shows a Protestant Church in France.  At the center of this little spiritual universe is the pulpit.  The preaching and teaching of the Word is the center around which everything else that is going on in this church turns – the children waiting to be instructed in the faith, the couple waiting to get married, the businessmen dressed for work, the baptism of a newborn baby, even the dog that has made its way to worship and sits attentively under the pulpit!

The point in these details is that all these people and all these activities centered on and revolved around the proclamation of God’s Word.   They believed the Bible was God’s message for them and to tem, sufficient not only to save but also to guide one in a life godliness.  As the Word from God, therefore, it had to be proclaimed, heard, and obeyed.  Indeed, it had to have the final say. (Matthew Barrett)

Back in 2012, Darryl Dash (https://dashhouse.com) called for a new a “Copernican Revolution of the Word that puts us in our place in orbit around God and His Word in our lives, our churches, and our preaching.” Instead of positioning ourselves at the center of the universe and demanding that “the Bible spin in orbit around our lives,” Darryl argued that “it’s far better to put God and His Word at the center, and to demand that our lives spin in orbit around Him.” And I couldn’t agree more.  The Reformation is not just an event that we remember and celebrate. Reformation is a commitment we make and a continuing process to which we give ourselves.  It is said that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther told the Renaissance scholar Erasmus – “The difference between you and me is that you sit above the Scripture and judge it, while I sit under Scripture and let it judge me.” And if you ask me, that the essence of what it means to be a Protestant.  It is to consciously “sit under Scripture.”  Drive a nail in it. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed…”

A Protestant Minister’s Confession on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation        _______________________________________________________________

The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will be observed on Tuesday, October 31st.  This was the day in 1517 when Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, launched his part of Protestant Reformation by nailing a series of 95 theological statements to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, calling for the church to look closely at her life and faith and to make any changes necessary in order to be more thoroughly Biblical.

I am a Protestant Christian by conviction and practice. I believe that when the Bible takes the measure of the church’s life and faith, that the Church will of necessity be “reformed and constantly reforming.” But in this continuous process of reflection, repentance, and renewal, I believe that we who are Protestants have not always been gracious to, or completely honest about, the faith and practices of our Catholic mothers and fathers in history, or of our Catholic brothers and sisters in the church just down the street now.

At the summer 2005 School for Spiritual Directors that I attended at the Pecos Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico I was asked as a Protestant minister to share in a Service of Reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Abbot of that community. We both made brief statements about our history of false witness against the other, and then we offered prayers of confession for the ways that our spiritual tradition had sinned against the other.

In my own denominational tradition of not thinking that me and mine are the only Christians, but that we just want to be “Christians only,” few moments have had greater power than that evening at the monastery when “separated brethren” were reconciled and stood together in unity, if only for that brief moment in time.  But that moment was enough to convince me that this is what God in Christ truly wants, and for which we who name Him as Lord must constantly strive.  In the interest of that eagerness “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” to which we are called (Ephesians 4:3), I offer here my statement and prayer from that Service of Confession and Reconciliation at Pecos in 2005 as a way of building a bridge on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation when what so many will be talking and thinking about are the walls that divided us then, and that still keep us apart now.   DBS +

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A Reflection for the Ecumenical Service of Reconciliation
Pecos Benedictine Monastery ~ Summer 2005

In a class on the book of Revelation that I took when I was a student in Christian College in the early 1970’s I was shown photographs of the Vatican with all the Cardinals in their scarlet robes, and I was told that this was evidence that the Pope was the antichrist and that the Roman Catholic Church was the great harlot on the seven hills, Babylon, clothed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold and jewels (Revelation 17). In doing this, my professor was simply following the lead of one of the founders of my denomination, Alexander Campbell, who in 1837 debated Bishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio, on the spiritual claims of Roman Catholicism. Alexander Campbell argued seven propositions in his debate with Bishop Purcell –

 1.  Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church was not then, nor had it ever been “holy, catholic, or apostolic.”

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I apologize for such an ignorant and arrogant suggestion, and affirm that as Catholics and Protestants together we are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

2.  Alexander Campbell argued that the notion of apostolic succession has no Biblical, logical, or historical validity.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I apologize for the disrespect of such a statement and affirm that the preservation of apostolic Christianity by the episcopacy, the canon, and the creeds is a gift we all share and from which we all benefit.

3.  Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church is neither uniform in faith nor united in membership.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I apologize for the way that this accusation was directed at you alone while completely ignoring the scandal of division within Protestantism, and I join you in praying for the unity of Christ’s whole church.

4.  Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church was “the Babylon of John, the ‘Man of Sin’ in Paul, and the Empire of the Little Horn of Daniel’s Sea Monster.”

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I recognize the fear and prejudice involved in such sectarian misinterpretations of the Bible’s prophetic symbols, and reject the way they have been used to demonize and dismiss you.

5.  Alexander Campbell argued that many of the things that the Roman Catholic Church has taught – purgatory, indulgences, auricular confession, the priestly remission of sins, transubstantiation – are spiritually immoral and injurious.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I admit that we have often spoken against beliefs and practices that you hold sacred from our own ignorance and misunderstanding, and I pledge myself to loving dialogue about, rather than malicious mischaracterization of any matter of Christian faith and practice where our convictions and perspectives may vary.

6.  Alexander Campbell argued that we Protestants have the Bible independent of the Roman Catholic Church’s stewardship of the written Word of God.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, and in contrast to his perspective, I gratefully acknowledge that the Bible I love so much as a Protestant was in fact placed in my hands by your faithful preservation, provision, and proclamation of its truths through the centuries, and as the lamp unto our feet, I pray that it will lead us into unity and truth.

7.  And finally, Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to infallibility rendered it unsusceptible to reformation.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I bear witness to the way that the Word and the Spirit continue to work in and through our different churches – breaking down false barriers, healing old divisions, leading us to new understandings, creating common appreciation for shared truths, and drawing us even closer to that unity of the Body of Christ that is God’s gift and our calling.

crossA Prayer of Protestant Confession – John 17: 20-24
An Ecumenical Reconciliation Service
Pecos Benedictine Monastery ~ Summer 2005
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O God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all; Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, prayed on the night before His atoning death on Calvary’s cross that we who would one day believe in Him through the word of His Apostles might be one so that the world could believe that You had sent Him.  The unity of the church was to be the key to the effectiveness of our mission.

O God, forgive us.

We Protestants have been so preoccupied with out “protests” of Catholic teachings, Catholic practices, Catholic traditions and Catholic interpretations that we have neither heard nor heeded Christ’s simple prayer, to our spiritual impoverishment and to the world’s spiritual detriment.  Our earnest proclamation of your unconditional love made visible and tangible in Jesus Christ has suffered a serious loss of credibility because of our mistrust of Catholic Christians and our misunderstanding of Catholic Christianity.

And so, tonight God, I confess as a representative Christian and churchman that we who are Protestants have sinned against the intention of Christ for the unity of His people by the things that we’ve thought, said and done to our Catholic brothers and sisters throughout the centuries.

  • We’ve harbored uncharitable thoughts about the sincerity and spiritual sensibilities of our Catholic brothers and sisters’ devotion to You; Why, sometimes we’ve even gone so far as to wonder whether or not Catholics are even Christians!

O God, forgive us.

  • We’ve publicly ridiculed Catholic traditions, maliciously mocked Catholic practices and openly questioned Catholic faithfulness.

O God, forgive us.

  • And too many times these uncharitable thoughts and unkind words have issued in actions of hatred and violence entirely inconsistent with your loving kindness. We’ve desecrated Catholic sanctuaries; persecuted Catholic communities; martyred Catholic clergy and laity; and urged wars of religion using Scripture as our justification.

O God, forgive us.

Here tonight, in this place, with these people, Protestants and Catholics in loving community together, help us all to hear and heed the prayer of Jesus Christ our common Lord and Savior. Touch our heads and hearts to see that our unity as Your people is not going to come about by trying to convert the other to our own settled convictions and faithful practices, but rather will be the precious fruit of our common confession of Jesus Christ as Your only begotten Son, our only Lord and Savior, and by our common possession of Your indwelling and empowering Spirit, freely and fully given to us all.

On this mountain, in this hour, may we experience the genuine miracle of brothers and sisters, Protestants and Catholics, dwelling together in unity, and thereby, blessing the whole world as it is promised (Psalm 133). Let the world see us, and believe. We ask this Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, to your honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.  

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“The Whole Counsel of God”

Cultivating and Celebrating a Faith
that is as Big as the Bible

candlebible

 “Why would you want a smaller Bible?”
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“In the Old Testament Jesus is predicted,
in the Gospels Jesus is revealed,
in the book of Acts Jesus is proclaimed,
in the Epistles Jesus is explained
and in the book of Revelation Jesus is anticipated.”   

Our tendency is to think that the person and work of Jesus Christ is confined to just the 33 years of His life on earth to which the New Testament’s four Gospels bear witness.  The way we think and act, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the Bible’s “Jesusy” books.  We think that they alone are where we are going to find Him in the Bible.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are where we go to hear Jesus speaking and to see Jesus acting.  But because the Gospels are about who Jesus was and what Jesus did in the past, the way we tend to approach them is as past history.

We think of Jesus in the same way that we think of Abraham Lincoln.  He lived. He mattered. But now he’s gone.  Oh, we still feel his influence.  We continue to be inspired by his example and we’re certainly grateful for his contributions, but now he’s just a dead, distant memory.  Our only access to Abraham Lincoln is through the historical records that we have that tell us something about what he said and did when he was here.  Knowing Lincoln is a matter of historical research.  But knowing Jesus it’s different.

“Dead as dead can be” on Good Friday afternoon, Jesus was “alive again and alive forever” come Easter Sunday morning.  That’s what the Gospel story tells us, and even this is not where the Gospel story about Jesus ends.  The way that many of us approach the Gospel story, Jesus gets up on Easter Sunday morning, but He’s got nowhere to go and nothing to do.   But the way the New Testament tells the Gospel story, the resurrection of Christ is just the prelude to His Ascension which in turn is the trigger for Pentecost and the outpouring of the empowering presence of God through the Holy Spirit who has been given to the church for mission and assurance. The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost are the three foundations to the church’s experience of the continuing presence and activity of Jesus Christ.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us about the 33 years of Jesus Christ’s ministry on earth.  But the book of Acts and the New Testament’s Epistles are the opening chapters on the Risen Christ’s continuing ministry in heaven that has now been underway for 2000 years.  And what this means is that the book of Acts and the Epistles are just as “Jesusy” as are the Gospels.  He was just as present and He was just as involved with the things that we find in the book of Acts and the Epistles as the Risen Glorious Lord in heaven as He was during the days of His earthly life as the historical Jesus.   We see Jesus and we hear Jesus everywhere in the Bible, and not just in the Gospels.  This is where I think “Red Letter” Christians get it wrong.

 “Red Letter” Christians are those Christians in the church today who, understandably weary of the disproportionate attention that has been paid to the book of Acts and to the Epistles of the New Testament by much of the church for so long, have consciously turned their attention back to the neglected Gospels, back to the “Red Letters” of Jesus’ teachings.  But rather than restoring a lost Biblical balance, the unintended consequence of this “Red Letter” initiative for many has been to now do to the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament what had previously been done to the Gospels. “Red Letter” Christians objected to the way that the Gospels had been marginalized in the preaching, teaching, and believing of some Christians and some segments of the church, and rightly so. But in their attempt to address this problem, many “Red Letter” Christians have now, in turn, marginalized the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament.

Whenever and however a pecking order for the authority of the books of the Bible gets created that excuses us from having to pay attention to their witness to the speaking and acting of God reduces the Bible by labeling some books as being “secondary” and “unnecessary.”  But we don’t need a smaller Bible, we need a fuller Bible.  We don’t want fewer colors in our crayon box to work with, we need more!  Any approach to the Bible that tries to convince us that there are parts of it that we don’t really have to deal with is going to finally restrict our knowledge of God and leave gaps in our spiritual experience because too much of the Bible has been pushed to the margins and left out of the conversation of faith.

What we need is a Bible that’s just as big as the canon of Scripture that has been placed in our hands.  What we need is a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t leave certain parts of it out, that doesn’t declare certain books in it to be irrelevant and unnecessary, that doesn’t diminish our expectation of being able to hear God speaking and to see God acting when we take up our Bibles, open them to any page, and read. The Bible’s library of the collected testimonies of witnesses to the presence and action of God in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ set the boundaries for the field on which the game of our faith gets played.  It’s big and expansive and rich and diverse, and deliberately so.  So, why would we want to settle for less?  Instead, let’s cultivate and celebrate a faith that’s just as big as the Bible.  DBS +

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“Building the Kingdom?”

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If you are true to Scripture, following the contours of its teachings past the neat and tidy doctrinal and moral packages that have become convenient substitutes for actually having to look at the Bible for ourselves, then you will eventually bump into what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called the Bible’s “furious opposites.” The Bible teaches all of its most important truths by way of paradox: God is one and three; Christ is fully God and fully Human; we are saved by faith without works, but saving faith always includes works; the Bible is the Word of God and the words of human beings.  A paradox is a statement that consists of ideas which on the surface appear to be logical contradictions but which are nevertheless mutually true, and the Bible is chock full of them, which is why no single Biblical verse is ever sufficient to establish a moral or theological position.  The word “canon” refers to standard measurement or collection.  The “canon” of Scripture says that the value of any Biblical book, Biblical text, or Biblical idea is not in what it says all by itself alone, but by what it contributes to the larger conversation of faith.

baseballI once heard the “canon” of Scripture compared to the lines on a baseball field. Balls that fall within those lines are “fair” and in play, while balls that fall outside those lines are “foul” and out of play, and it is only by knowing everything that’s in the Bible on any given topic that we will know where those lines are. And the fact is that the Bible’s “furious opposites” creates an enormous playing field.  There’s lots of room to roam between its lines.

I was reminded of this last week as I was preparing to preach on “Thy Kingdom Come” as part of a summer sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer.  The paradoxical ways of the Bible hit me full force once again as I thought about all of the “furious opposites” that are at work in what the Bible has to say about the Kingdom of God.

It’s “already” and “not yet.”
It’s spiritual and social.
It’s got something to do with the church,
and something to do with the world.
It’s personal and political.
It’s God’s doing and our responsibility.

As I was chasing after the complexity of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom of God this week for my sermon, I came across a letter that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote to one of his students –

karlDear N.N., Many thanks for your kind letter. But what an obstinate fellow you are! You write that you were very impressed with what I told you last week in the Theological School. And now you manage to put down on paper all that nonsense about the kingdom of God that we must build. Dear N.N., in so doing you do not contradict merely one ‘insight’ but the whole message of the Bible. If you persist in this idea I can only advise you to take up any other career than that of a pastor.

Karl Barth, from a letter to a theological student in Basel
Karl Barth: Letters: 1961-1968 (1981), p. 283.
http://theconnexion.net/wp/?p=8096#axzz4oJdsPptR

Ouch!

That would certainly have left a mark, but in all fairness, this was an idea that cut pretty close to Dr. Barth’s theological quick. He was a well-known critic of the overly optimistic view of human nature and potential that was so characteristic of the church in his day, and that made him, in turn, thoroughly skeptical of the widespread belief about the inevitable progress of human society. The World Wars in Europe had disabused Karl Barth of any lingering illusions that he might have been harboring from his classically liberal theological training about the perfectibility of this world by human strength and ingenuity alone. He saw precious little evidence of things getting better and better every day and in every way. His reading of the Scriptures – and especially Paul’s Epistle to the Romans – convinced him that humanity was completely incapable of saving itself. He understood that it was going to take nothing less than God Himself breaking in from the outside to rescue us. And so we do not “build the Kingdom” Karl Barth insisted, the Kingdom can only come to us, and clearly this is part of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom. In fact, I would argue that it is the part of the Biblical witness that is most noticeably absent from most of the conversations that I hearing in my part of the church these days. Karl Barth’s perspective is certainly not all that there is to the Biblical witness about the Kingdom, but it is nevertheless an important part of it. And as such, we should expect it to have its own “furious opposite,” and it was John Killinger who gave the most eloquent voice to its paradoxical Biblical counter-point in my experience –

breadThere is something about prayer, about letting the mind be still and waiting upon God, that sensitizes us to the world around us – to the glory of sunsets and the beauty of tears. …As Isaiah in the Temple (6:1-7) became aware of the need for a spokesperson for God, and said, “Here I am, send me,” [when you pray] you find yourself ready to help with the kingdom. …You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.   You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. You yourself become committed to the kingdom that human beings have always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness 115)

In my own life of faith, it was Karl Barth who drew the line on one side of the field where the meaning of the Kingdom of God was in play, while it was John Killinger who drew the line on its other side. To be sure, I’m more comfortable on Karl Barth’s side of the field, this is my more natural position spiritually. And so, just like Barth in that rather mean letter that he wrote to a student of his, my initial reflex is to kick, and to kick hard, when I hear somebody glibly talking about what it is that we must do as Christians to bring about or to build the Kingdom of God as if this was something that we are capable of doing as human beings! And then John Killinger yells a sharp “head up” at me from the other side of the field as he fires a fast ball straight at my head… and heart.

Even if building the Kingdom of God is well above my pay grade, John Killinger reminds me, in no uncertain terms, this doesn’t excuse me from doing whatever it is that I can do to personally and socially inhabit the coming Kingdom’s values that have been previewed for us so clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

  • When Christ fed the hungry it was to foreshadow that coming day when there will be no more hunger, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to feed hungry people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ healed the sick it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more sickness, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to heal sick people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ set the captives free it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more bondage, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to liberate people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.

francisIt was something that Francis Schaeffer wrote about in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale House – 1970) that put in place for me the category that I have operated with ever since about what it is that Christians can reasonably be expected to do about the world’s wounds even though they know that they will not be finally and fully healed short of the in-breaking of the Kingdom at the close of the age when Christ returns.

pollSo there are these multiple divisions (Theological – our division from God; Psychological – our division from ourselves; Sociological – our division from others; Ecological – our division from nature), and one day, when Christ comes back, there is going to be a complete healing of all of them, on the basis of the “blood of the lamb.” But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace substantially, upon the basis of the work of Christ, substantial healing can be a reality here and now… In all of the areas of our division (Theological, Psychological, Sociological, Ecological) we should expect to see substantial healing. I took a long time to settle on that word “substantial,” but it is, I think, the right word. It conveys the idea of a healing that is not perfect, but that is real, evident, and substantial. (67-68)

Karl Barth said that God is not just humanity speaking “with a loud voice.” What he meant by this was that it’s going to take more than just smart people, and more than just strong people, and more than just sincere people, and more than just busy people to save the world. It’s going to take God. But God goes missing pretty quickly in many of the most urgent appeals to build the Kingdom that I hear sounded. It all gets put on us – on our efforts, on our ingenuity, and on our abilities alone as human beings to fix things.

Karl Barth’s critique of the theology of his day was that it left God out of the equation as the active agent of the world’s salvation. In an essay for First Things on Karl Barth (Confusion of Humanity, Reign of God” https://www.firstthings.com – 9/22/16) Peter Leithart said that when the world spins out of control our first instincts are to rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” forgetting that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we know that “confusion is not the final word… confusion will itself be confused and dispelled.” God’s got this.  This is what Karl Barth wants us to know.

But this doesn’t mean that we are just to sit on our hands as God moves history towards His own final redemptive purposes. And this is what John Killinger wants us to know. We are not reduced to just being passive spectators because the Kingdom that’s coming is God’s doing.  No, the way that we show our confidence in what it is that we believe that God is doing is by working for what Francis Schaeffer called those “substantial healings” in every area of human brokenness and division that we face in our lives and in the world today.

We don’t bring the Kingdom by doing these things, but we do bear witness to its reality, and to our certainty that it is coming, and the “furious opposites” combine.   DBS +

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“I’ve Sent my Heart on Ahead”

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A Reflection on Loss and Love, Hope and Reunion
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Loretta Lynn’s son, Jack, drowned while fording a river on his horse back in the late 1980’s. As you would expect, this was a devastating loss for her, and she wrote about the experience of her deep grief in an article for the Guideposts magazine published in August of 1990.  Now, I’m not really a Guideposts sort of Christian, and I certainly don’t look to country music artists for very much of my theology.   And yet, I have never forgotten this article that Loretta Lynn wrote for Guideposts back in 1990.   After telling her story, Loretta Lynn finished that article with these words –

lorettalynnIt’s been around five years now since Jack died. And I’ll tell you something: The bond I have with him is still as strong as the bond I have with my living children. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Jack’s death has changed my life, and the biggest way is this: My dreams are not here on earth anymore. Why spend precious time running around chasing after money or fame when we’re not going to be here that long? A blink of an eye and we’re gone. There are wonderful things here, all right. There’s… our family, and there’s music and flowers, lots of things that I love… But my biggest dream is living with God and what happens when we get there. The time we’re gonna have! …Momma and Daddy and Patsy Cline and Jack…the parts of me that have been missing won’t be missing anymore… The Bible tells us to store up our treasure in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” When the time comes for me to cross that ol’ river myself, don’t fret too much for me. It’ll be an easy trip—’cause you see, I’ve sent my heart on ahead.

In her own “down-home” folksy way, what Loretta Lynn said here is something that the church has long taught and believed.  Our identities survive death and our relationships find their final fulfillment in heaven.  This is how the Venerable Bede, an English monk from the eighth century, someone the church has officially named as an indispensable teacher of the Christian faith, wrote about it –

 A great multitude of our dear ones are there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now in their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, and longing for the day when we will come to them and embrace them. What joy there will be on that day when we are together again. (Paraphrased)

LL

Separated by more than a thousand years, one from the “hollers” of Appalachia and the other from the moors of Northumbria, one a Doctor of the Church and the other one a Country Music Superstar, two people possessing vastly different capacities for theological refection and expression, and yet, Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede, are two people who have shared a common faith, and who have looked to the future with a common hope. As Christians, they both believed that they would be with their loved ones again after death.  So, where did they get such an idea?  And the quick answer is Scripture.

bookNow, there is no single verse from the Bible that I know about that explicitly says the people we have known and loved here in this life will continue to be known and loved in the life to come. This cherished belief and consistent teaching of Christianity that our identities and relationships continue after we die is more a matter of the “preponderance of the evidence” than the citation of any single specific “chapter and verse.”

 To make the case for this idea that sustained both Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede in their seasons of sadness and loss, I would first point to the way that in the Bible’s earliest books and first stories the way that death routinely gets described is as a matter of being “gathered to one’s people” (Abraham – Genesis 15:15; 25:8; Isaac – Genesis 35:29; Jacob – Genesis 49:29; 33). Some say that this is just a reference to them being buried in a “family plot,” but others view it as a reference to the continuity of one’s community. The people with whom we are most intimately connected here are the same people with whom we will be most intimately connected there.

Second, to make the case for the church’s teaching that Christians will be with their loved ones after death, I would point to the way that Old Testament figures like Jacob, David and Job all talked about their own personal expectations that after they died that they would be reunited with somebody they loved and had lost in this life. For Jacob (Genesis 37:35) and David (2 Samuel 12:23) it was the death of a child that prompted them to both say, “I will go to him one day,” clearly voicing their belief that their most meaningful relationships in this world were going to continue in the next one. And in what is widely regarded as one of the most important affirmations of faith in life after death in the entire Old Testament, Job spoke of his own rock-bottom conviction that he himself would survive death as himself –

 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!  I will see him for myself.  Yes, I will see him with my own eyes.  I am overwhelmed at the thought! (19:25-27)

Redeemer

Third, to make the case for the cherished Christian belief that our relationships find their final fulfillment in eternity, I would point to the way that Old Testament characters like Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration showed up as themselves again in the New Testament long after their deaths, and that they were recognized as being the same people then as they had been before. In fact, all of the stories of Jesus’ own resurrection include this same element. Despite some significant changes – resurrection is not resuscitation, it involves more than just the reanimation of an old form but an actual transformation into a new one – Jesus was always eventually recognized by His friends to be the same person after His death that He had been before His death, and His relationships with those people He had known and loved and who had known and loved Him before He died continued after He had been raised from the dead.

orbAll of these strands of the Biblical witness combine to convince me that both we and our relationships as Christians will transcend death. We will be with our loved ones, our faithful departed, again. And for me, the exclamation point for this conclusion of faith is that story about the good thief in Luke’s account of Christ’s crucifixion that read as we began. “Remember me,” he begged Jesus in their dying throes, “when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus answered, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” “You” and “me” – this tells me that our individuality will continue. “You with me” – this tells me that our relationships will be preserved.

I’m old enough now to have crossed that mysterious line when I have just as many family members and dear friends on the other side of death as I have here on this side. Some of my most important people are over there now. I love them deeply. I miss them terribly. And from the depths of those feelings I suppose that it would be easy for me to project a belief in the continuity of personality and relationship after death because I so want it to be true. But, without denying these feelings and desires, I can honestly say that my confident hope in a heavenly reunion is at least as much a matter of what I find in the Bible as it is a matter of what I find in my heart.

Philipp Nicolai was a German Lutheran pastor in the 16th century who had to bury 1300 members of his congregation – men, women, and children – who died in the days of the plague. This pastoral circumstance forced Pastor Nicolai to think deep, and long, and hard about what becomes of us and our relationships when we die. And what he finally concluded, based on his own thoughtful and prayerful search of the Scriptures, was that what awaits us as Christians is in fact a heavenly reunion. He wrote –

…Parents and children, husbands and wives, bridegrooms and bides, brothers and sisters, neighbors, relatives and friends… will be reunited in heaven and they will love each other with an ardent cordial love that is a thousand times stronger, and with an embrace that is far more friendly than any that might be imagined here in this world… (paraphrased)

Is this right? My heart tells me “yes,” and I believe, so does my Bible. DBS +

 

 

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“Where the Bible is Silent…”

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A Little “Believing Thinking” on the Church’s Response to Transgendered People
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The last Faiths in Conversation gathering for the spring took place on Tuesday evening, May 23rd, at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano.  Our topic that night was the response of our respective faith traditions to transgendered people.

What follows here are my prepared remarks for that evening. As in most things that come from the heart and mind of this Christian Moderate, there are things that I say here that those to my spiritual left will dislike, and there are things that I say here that those to my spiritual right will equally dislike. Some will object that I’ve gone too far, while others will object that I’ve not gone nearly far enough.  We who are “dead skunks in the middle of the road stinking to the high heavens” are familiar with this criticism.

My strongest conclusion from the evening is a renewed appreciation for the spiritual wisdom of my own Stone/Campbell tradition. I think it serves us well.  DBS +

 cross

Christianity’s Response to Transgendered People
Faiths in Conversation – May 23, 2017 – 7 pm

The Islamic Association of Collin County, Plano, Texas
Dr. Douglas B. Skinner, Northway Christian Church

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My denominational tradition has a saying – “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; and where the Bible is silent, we’re silent.”   For people who want a Biblically informed faith, it’s not bad advice.  And it speaks directly to our topic tonight.  You see, I can find nothing in the New Testament about transgendered people.  “There is no verse in my Bible that says, ‘Thou shalt not transition from a man to a woman, or from a woman to a man” (Kevin de Young). Look up the word “transgender” in a concordance of the New Testament and you will find nothing.

Jesus did talk once about Eunuchs (Matthew 19:12), and the book of Acts tells a crucially important story about an Ethiopian Eunuch who came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ and who was baptized into the life of the church (8:26-40), and lots of interpreters I know and deeply respect have used these two Biblical texts as ways to talk about the inclusion of sexual minorities within the scope of God’s saving purposes and the embrace of the church’s life and love.

But that’s the application of a principle derived from these texts and not a reference to anything that the New Testament directly says about the church’s response to transgendered people. And while such applications are a necessary and quite legitimate use of Scripture, again my denominational tradition urges some real caution in the way that we handle such inferences. The founders of my denominational tradition said that without an explicit command or an approved example from the Bible that directly addresses a particular circumstance or concern, our applications of a Biblical principle to those circumstances and concerns must be tentative, modest, and generous and never dogmatic, arrogant or authoritarian.  The best wisdom of my spiritual tradition for me this evening would probably be to just sit down and shut up.  And there’s something to be said for this approach.

We all have a real propensity to say too much too fast. Qoheleth” – the name of the Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible said that there’s a time “to keep silence,” and that there is “a time to speak” (3:7).   In the Christian Scriptures this became the counsel of the book of James to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (1:19).  Just about a year ago Father Bryan Massingale, a Roman Catholic priest, was a part of a conversation like this we are having here this evening about the place of transgendered people in the life of his church, and he said –

There is much that we do not understand about what is technically called ‘gender dysphoria,’ or the lack of congruence between one’s physical body and one’s gender identity. This ignorance leads to fear, and fear is at the root of the controversies in today’s so-called ‘bathroom wars.’ And there lies a major challenge that transgender people endure and that the faith community has to own: the human tendency to be uncomfortable and fearful in the face of what we don’t understand. It’s easier to ridicule and attack individuals we don’t understand than to summon the patience and humility to listen and to learn.

And then Fr. Massingale added –

But despite all that we do not know, this much I do believe: Jesus would be present to, among, and with transgender persons.

You see, while the authoritative texts of my spiritual tradition say nothing specifically about transgendered men and women, my authoritative texts do say things like “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), and “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7), and “judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and “by this people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And so, while I cannot give you a chapter and verse this evening on what the New Testament says to and about transgendered people, I can tell you about what the New Testament says to me as a Christian about how I am supposed to treat people, all people… transgendered people.

Back in July of 2015 when the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the legality of same sex marriages in the United States, John Pavlovitz, a well-known Christian pastor, wrote a blog he called “6 Ways Christians Lost This Week.” Of all the things that I heard Christians say that week, and of all the things I read that week that Christians had written, this was the one that got closest to the Spirit of the Christ I know –

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We who call ourselves Christians lost a great deal over the past few days, though it’s probably not in the way you might think.

 1)  We lost the chance to be loving. 

So many professed followers of Jesus spent the last week on the attack, desperately fighting a battle long after it had already been decided. Instead of simply looking for ways to personally affirm our faith in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, too many of us frankly just lost it. We spit out vitriol and we cursed strangers and we lamented America’s demise and we threatened with Bible verses and we treated others with contempt. Our response to the LGBT community and those who support them wasn’t compassion and decency and peacemaking, it was sour grapes, damnation, and middle fingers.

 
2)  We lost the chance to be good neighbors. 

Rather than using the events of this past week as the springboard for conversation with people around us; as a way to build relationship with those who may not share our beliefs or our worldview, we pushed them further away. We used our social media profiles and our workplaces and our cul-de-sac chats to create distance between us and those who disagree with us. We stood on principles and we walked all over people. We became really difficult to live with and be around.

3)  We lost the chance to be Good Samaritans.

We could have looked around at the hurt generated this past week; at the deep sadness so many LGBT people and their loved ones felt at being the center of such violent arguments and the horrible aftermath of them, and responded in love. We could have moved toward them with the mercy and gentleness of Christ, seeking to be the binders of the wounds. Instead, far too many of us felt compelled to rub salt deeply into them. We basically walked past those who were down—and we kicked them hard on the way.

4)  We lost the opportunity to show how big God is. 

With all the fatalistic sky is falling rhetoric and raw-throated “The End is Near” prognostications, what so many Christians did for the watching world was inadvertently paint the image of a God who is hopelessly on the ropes; not all-powerful, not all-knowing, not at all able to withstand the slightest changes in our world. We completely neutered God by horribly overstating the circumstances and crying wolf yet again.

5)  We lost the chance to reflect Christ.

Let’s be honest: some of us really dropped the ball this week on both sides of the discussions. Many of us crusaded on social media or staged tirades from the pulpit or spewed hatred across dinner tables. We argued and complained and petitioned and boycotted and protested, and we did just about everything but leave people with the sweet, restful essence of Jesus. We instead left them a Christ devoid of compassion or kindness or love, and we ensured that many who previously saw all Christians as judgmental, hypocritical jerks—felt completely correct in those assumptions. Faced with people who disagreed with us, we talked about them, shouted at them, yet failed to listen to them.

6)  And we lost people. 

We gave those who live outside of our faith tradition, very little reason to move any closer. By choosing to be rude and argumentative and hateful, we made Jesus fairly irrelevant; an option not really worth considering. Make no mistake, the eyes of the world were fully on the American Church this week, and too much of what they saw was a pretty lousy testimony to a God of love. Many people looked at the rotten fruit of our faith and simply turned away for good.

This stuff should simply break our collective hearts. All of us who claim Christ need to do some honest, invasive personal reflection. Regardless of our feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s clear that Christians lost far more valuable things than we realize this week; things we better fight to get back.

(http://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/07/01/6-ways-christians-lost-this-week/)______________________________________________________________________________

And it seems to me that we are right back here again with the controversy in our culture these days about transgendered people. There is so much to lose.

Early in his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis was asked “What kind of church do you dream of?”  And he answered –

I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.  It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds.  Then we can talk about everything else.  Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And to do this you have to start from the ground up. (Cavanaugh)

 

And this means being fully present to the confusion and pain of others, to be quick to hear and slow to speak.   The church is not real good at this.  As David Janvier, a Christian Therapist points out, “When people are different, [Christians] tend to want to make room for people who are alike. [But] we need to make room for people who do not fit into our categories… [and transgendered people] live their whole lives feeling like they don’t fit in” (Fowler).  As a Christian who knows what’s in the Bible, my assignment is “the hard work of listening to and loving those who struggle.” And so, as an act of faith I am now going to sit down now, shut up, and listen.

Sources

Cavanaugh, William T. Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World. Eerdmans. 2016.

De Young, Kevin. “What Does the Bible Say about Transgenderism?” https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org

Fowler, Megan. “Making Sense of Transgenderism.” May 14, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Pushy Holy Spirit

brilliant

 There’s an old saying about how God in Jesus Christ “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” and I see this clearly in the Biblical symbolism of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  Some of the images are tender and mild.  Others are “strong and pushy and relentless.”  The Holy Spirit “doesn’t just coddle and comfort” us, the Holy Spirit also confronts and challenges us.

The Bible opens with the Spirit of God moving on the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2), “bringing order and beauty out of chaos, bringing light into the darkness… That’s what the Spirit of God does. The Spirit of God moves! God’s Spirit is not inert or unmoving or static… God’s Spirit is not distant or aloof or imperceptible…  The Spirit of God moves!  The Spirit of God is living, moving, dynamic, connected, involved, even intrusive. It comes close to us, brushes up against us, blows through us, breathes into us”  (Ensworth).  And this is the Holy Spirit that we bump into in the Book of Acts on the day of Pentecost.

 The description of what happened on the first day of Pentecost is not quiet and peaceful.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (Acts 2:1-3)

It was noisy and chaotic. People were frightened and confused.  There was wind and fire.  The church was pushed out of its comfort zone and right into the mission of God.  One of the first things that Pope Francis said after his election was that when the Holy Spirit shows up the church is going to be pushed outward and onward, and chances are pretty good that the church is not going to like it one little bit.

The Holy Spirit annoys us. The Spirit moves us, makes us walk, pushes the church to move forward. [But] we want the Holy Spirit to calm down. We want to tame the Holy Spirit, and that just won’t do. The Holy Spirit gives us consolation and the strength to move forward and the moving forward part is what can be such a bother. People think it’s better to be comfortable, but that is not what the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit brings.

What the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit brings is momentum. Jesus told His disciples right before Pentecost that they would receive “power” when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and that they would then become His witnesses beginning in Jerusalem, and then expanding outwards to Judea, and then expanding outwards again to Samaria, and then finally expanding out to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  These ever widening circles of influence and impact are the work of the Holy Spirit. As John Howard Yoder pointed out, the church never sat down to strategize her mission, to work out the logic and logistics of it all.  No, Professor Yoder said, the church’s mission was subject entirely to the Holy Spirit’s initiative. In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit was always pushing the church past its present borders and across the thresholds to those who were standing just beyond its doors.

dove

The above image is, in my mind, the nearly perfect expression of what the Holy Spirit does. It’s abstract enough for different people to be able to see different things in it, but what I see is a boat on the crest of a wave with its sail set to catch the wind in a storm, and the shape of that billowing sail in the wind is the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove.  The way it looks to me, that boat has deliberately set its sail to catch the wind that is the Spirit in order to be propelled onward, and this has been, for me, one of the big defining images for my spiritual life.  In fact, it’s the basis for one of my favorite hymns, “I Feel the Winds of God Today”

I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray and torn with many a rift…
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be,
Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea…                    

The Holy Spirit does not drag us as a passive weight to go where God needs us to go to do what God needs us to do. To be sure, when the Holy Spirit “comes close to us, brushes up against us, blows through us, breathes into us,” it is as an active agent with a predetermined outcome in mind. The Holy Spirit pushes. But whether or not we let out the sail and catch the wind of the Spirit that’s blowing is a decision we’ve each got to make, and it is one of the great and painful truths of the Bible that we can “resist” the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), and we can “grieve” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and we can “quench” the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19).  I’m pretty sure that he was overstating the case for effect, but Morton Kelsey used to say that there is something that is even stronger than God in this world, and that it’s you and me, for we can shut God out should we so choose, and Pentecost is all about that choice.

Pentecost is about how the Holy Spirit blows into our lives – pushing us closer to Jesus, pushing us deeper into the Word, pushing us nearer to each other in love, and pushing us outward in God’s mission to the world. And so Pentecost leaves us each with a decision.  The next time we “feel the wind of God” blowing through our lives, pushing us in new directions, can you, will you pray – “Great Pilot of my onward way… today my sail I lift”?    Our faithfulness as individual Christians and the very future of the church depends, in no small measure, on how we respond when the Holy Spirit starts pushing. DBS +

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