Tag Archives: Bible

“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 +

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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

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 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.

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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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A “Christian” Vote?

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What’s been particularly dispiriting this year was how many people decided what they thought of an accusation of sexual misconduct based upon the partisan affiliation of the accused. When it’s a member of the other party, the message to the accuser is, “You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed. We’re with you.” When it’s a member of our own party, the talking heads confidently declare they’re just hunting their “fifteen minutes of fame.” Who could have guessed that guilt in sexual misconduct cases aligned so perfectly with party membership?

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Jim Geraghty – http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/441324/character-candidates-and-wrong-lesson-2012

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Now that we are beginning our final approach to the 2016 election, more earnest are the appeals and more urgent are the arguments from colleagues and acquaintances alike about which candidate and which party is more “Christian,” and therefore my only option as a voting “Christian” when I step into my polling booth on the morning of November the 8th.  My Republican friends insist that voting Republican is the only “Christian” option based largely on a law and order reading of Romans 13 and an emphasis on the personal morality strands of New Testament teaching.  Meanwhile, my Democrat friends insist that voting Democrat is the only “Christian” option based largely on a social activist interpretation of the ministry of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels, especially Luke’s, and an emphasis on the social justice strands of New Testament teaching.

My problem is that when I read my New Testament, I find both the strands of teaching that my Republican friends emphasize, and the strands of teaching that my Democrat friends emphasize. The way I read the New Testament, it’s not “either/or,” it’s “both/and.” And what troubles me so deeply about this is the way that partisan blinders seem to screen us from seeing and partisan rhetoric seems to deafen us from hearing the way that our Christian brothers and sisters on the other side of the partisan divide are reasoning from Scripture, making inferences and drawing conclusions just as we are. That quote from Jim Geraghty’s National Review article “Character, Candidates and the Wrong Lessons from 2012,” at the lead of my blog this week powerfully expresses the way that partisan affiliation hypocritically skews the way that we “hear” things, and then “use” what we’ve heard to dismiss and denigrate the other side.  This is bad enough when we do it with what we hear on the evening news and with what we read about in the morning paper, but when we do it with Scripture, well, that’s just spiritual malpractice if you ask me.

In seminary I was told that the very first task of being a truly “Biblical” Christian was to be able to identify your own deeply imbedded presuppositions, to recognize the way that those prejudices were slanting the way that you read the Biblical texts, and then to try to neutralize them as much as possible by the use of the critical tools of interpretation and by consciously choosing to be part of a community of interpretation where people from different backgrounds, with different life experiences, and with different presuppositions could respectfully and honestly talk with each other about what they found in the Biblical text, what it means for the way that they understood God, themselves and the world, and how it shapes the way that they were then making their way through life in light of what they understood the Bible to say and mean.  This is why I am a Disciple, when theologically I am probably better suited to be a Baptist of some variety (Remember, we Campbellites were Baptists once… “Christian Baptists” to be precise).  In fact, this was the exact struggle that I actually had when it was time to choose both the college that I would attend, and later on, the seminary.  I’d had Baptist experiences of faith and church, and Disciple experiences of faith and church.  And I had Baptist options open to me, and I had Disciple options, and I understood that whichever option I took would forever set the denominational dye of the color of my soul.

At both junctures, college and seminary, I consciously and conscientiously chose the Disciples, and I have truly loved being part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a classically Orthodox Christian (Chalcedonian and Nicaean) because I knew that as a Disciple, at the Sunday school table each week there would be rigorous conversations about what I believed, and why, while at the Lord’s Table, as a Disciple, I knew that there would be the embrace of a community that was deeply rooted and grounded in God’s work of saving love in Jesus Christ.  Billy Graham used to say that “the ground at the foot of the cross is level,” and that’s what I found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 45 years ago. It’s why I became an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 35 years ago.  And it’s how I have always tried to operate as a minister in the five Texas congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that I have had the honor of serving, including Northway for these past 20 years.

Our founders refused to “fence the Table” over doctrinal and polity disagreements, and today, I believe that our stewardship of that practice of settled conviction requires us to refuse to “fence the Table” over political and social disputes, formally by statement or informally by attitude.  The spiritual “Magna Carta” of the church was Paul’s passionate exclamation in Galatians 3:28 –

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

 And today, I think that sounds like –

There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer conservative or
progressive, there is no longer red or blue; for all of you are one in Christ.

And because I believe that this is true of the church in general, and of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in particular, especially right now on the eve of a deeply polarizing Presidential election, I think that it’s time for us to start acting like the Christians that our spiritual tradition says we are, and minimally, I believe that this demands some modesty of us.

And so instead of declaring our partisan conclusions as the obvious and only “Christian” choice announced with vitriol and absolutism, how about opting instead for the more difficult pathway of a faithful conversation that opens with all of us saying to each other, “This is the choice that I am making in this election as a Christian, and these are my reasons why. So, tell me about the choice that you are making in this election as a Christian, and what are your reasons why?”  Faithful, respectful conversation rather than conflict and political conceit seems to me to be so much more reflective who we are as sisters and brothers in Christ.

On November the 13th, the Sunday right after the election, we will gather at the Lord’s Table here at Northway just as we do every Sunday.  We will have a President-elect, and if the national statistics are correct, then just about half of us will have voted for that candidate and just about half of us will have not.  Some of us will have “won” politically, and the rest of us will have lost.  But as Americans, we will have our President for the next four years – the leader we are commanded to “honor” (Romans 13:7; I Peter 2:17), and for whom we commanded to pray regardless of how we voted (I Timothy 2:1-2).  And as Christians, our faith and trust will still be in Christ alone as our Lord and Savior, and everyone who has made this same commitment to Him will still be our sisters or brothers in Him, regardless of how they voted.  And because that will be true of us then and there, how about thinking, talking and acting like it’s true of us here and now in these two weeks before the election.  DBS +

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Election Day Communion Service
Northway Christian Church – F-101 – Fellowship Hall
Tuesday, November 8, 2016 – 6 pm

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Election Day Communion Services began with the concern that Christians in the United States were being shaped more by the tactics and ideologies of political parties than by their identity in and allegiance to Jesus. Northway is a diverse congregation in terms of political views, but spiritually we are still one in Jesus Christ, and so we participate in this Election Day Communion tradition gladly. By deliberately coming together at the Lord’s Table on the evening of the election before the results are announced, we are showing ourselves to be one people in Christ, and we are affirming that what unites us is far more powerful than anything that divides us. So, vote on Election Day morning and then on Election Day Evening come to church to affirm what matters most to us as Christians – the unity of the body of Christ. The most visceral way to express this unity is to share the cup and break bread with other Christian brothers and sisters.

We will be sharing communion together on November 8th in the Fellowship Hall at 6 pm.

 

 

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A “Movement for Wholeness”

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You’ve no doubt seen the bumper sticker that says, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!”  Well, I wasn’t born into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but I got here as fast as I could.

I often tell people that I ordered the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue (I just dated myself, didn’t I?)  Spiritually awakened and doing my own believing for the first time, I went looking for a spiritual home of my own.  I visited the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, and I found something in all of these faith traditions that I valued, which only made my search that much more complicated.  Spiritually, I began to understand that I was not going to be an “easy fit” anywhere.  I wanted the activism of the Methodists, the cohesiveness of the Mormons, the fervor of the Pentecostals, the thoughtfulness of the Presbyterians, the tradition of the Catholics,   the freedom of the Congregationalists, the focus of the Baptists and the hope of the Adventists.

I have a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” head and heart.  I never finish preaching a sermon, writing an article or teaching a class when at the end of my carefully considered presentation I don’t instinctively want to say, “But, on the other hand.”  This is not a lack of conviction on my part, but rather it is the recognition that there are intelligent people who are just as serious as I am about the matter at hand and who see things quite differently than I do.  I am just not wired in a “my way or the highway” sort of way. Instead I want to stay in communion and conversation with them.  I want to know why they think what they think and do what they do. I want to see what they see, how they see.

One of my life mottos since the first day I first accidently stumbled across it in a book in the stacks of the library at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon, in the early 10970’s is something that Balthasar Hubmaier (1480 – 1528), an Anabaptist Reformer, told his accusers when he was being tried for heresy –

saviourThese, brethren, are my opinions… which I have learned from the Holy Scriptures. But if there is any error in them, I pray and beseech you, by Jesus Christ our only Saviour, and the day of his last judgment, to condescend to set me right through the Holy Scriptures in a fraternal and Christian manner. I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks; I will confess the error, and in accordance with the decision of the divine word I will gladly and willingly, with greatest obedience, submit myself to you and follow you most carefully, as followers of Christ. I have spoken. It is yours to judge me and set me right. I will pray Christ to give you his grace for this purpose.

And this perfectly expresses what’s in my head and heart. To be sure, I have my opinions which I have learned from the Holy Scriptures.  I believe them deeply, and I try to preach and teach them just as boldly and clearly as I possibly can.  But, I know that there are other ways of believing, and equally committed preachers who passionately proclaim what they’ve learned from their serious engagement with the Bible as well, conclusions which in some matters stand at wide variance with my own.  I experienced this during my search for a spiritual home when I was a young Christian.  As I sojourned among the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, I quickly came to two conclusions: (1) There were some defining issues and insights that were characteristic of each of the various churches I visited to which they were fully committed and about which they were very passionate, and (2) They don’t agree with each other about these things.

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At the end of my quest I knew that I needed a church home that nurtured the passion of that first conclusion and the honesty of that second conclusion. Today they call what I went looking for 46 years ago “Generous Orthodoxy.”   Back then all I knew was that what I was going to need in order to spiritually thrive was a faith community that was absolutely clear and crazy about Jesus Christ, who He is and what He’s done “for us and our salvation,” and that also honored the rich variety of ways that people have experienced and understood Him.

religionOne of the most helpful resources I found in those days to help me navigate this journey “home” was Leo Rosten’s book Religions in America (Simon & Schuster – 1963).  This was a collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the faiths, churches and denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade.  This book functioned as a spiritual Sears Roebuck catalogue for me.  I’d read through the essays one after the other like a shopper eagerly searching for the perfect product to meet their needs, and it was when I got to James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that I caught my first glimpse of “home.”

It was this one line from that essay that captured my heart’s imagination –

There 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. (59)

That’s the kind of church that I went looking for 46 years ago, and that’s the kind of church that I still want to be part of today. But here, after 37 years of ordained ministry in this church family and approaching the end of my active stewardship of it, I am beginning to see just how fragile an ideal it is that I have given my life to.

A few years ago some of our denomination’s best and brightest leaders got together and after much prayerful consideration and careful conversation, issued this new version of our church’s Identity Statement –

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

I loved this way of thinking and talking about who we are as a church from the first minute I saw it. It took me right back to that moment long ago when as a young Christian I heard about a church where “literalists and liberals” could 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’s a powerful vision of our unity in Christ, but one that I sense is at real risk today.

Maybe it’s always been like this, maybe there have always been forces at work to weaken the center of gravity of the Lord’s Table in our church where we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.”  But right now – both pastorally and personally – I am acutely aware of just how powerfully those opposite forces pull at our unity.

Paul told the Corinthians that he wasn’t going to know anything among them “but Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2), – Christ alone as the “wisdom” and the “power” of God (I Corinthians 1:24).  But today, increasingly, I find that the standard has become Christ “plus” – Christ “plus” who you are voting for in the Presidential election; Christ “plus” what you think of the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court Ruling; Christ “plus” a specific stand on any one of the many pressing social questions of the day.  Elton Trueblood – one of my most trusted spiritual teachers liked to say – “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.”  And despite my great affection for the one who said this, I find that I must respectfully disagree with what he said.

Beyond this being a sheer impossibility for anyone who is trying to live responsibly in a world of real issues demanding real decisions, I’m not sure that it’s even what we’re called to do as Christians. I find that it’s my holding to Christ that has forced a whole set of other commitments, in fact, I’m not sure how firm my hold on Christ would really be if it wasn’t decisively shaping who I vote for, and what I think about Obergefell v. Hodges, and where I stand on the pressing social questions of the day.  I consciously draw conclusions from my commitment to Christ, what have been called “necessary inferences” in our interpretive tradition.  But – and, if you ask me, this is the crucial issue for us as a church today – our inferences, while necessary, valid, inescapable, and passionate, must not be allowed to become terms of communion or made binding on the consciences of other Christians.  So, here’s how I would restate that earlier quote –

Hold firm to Christ, and then fight to stay in community and conversation with everyone else who holds firm to Christ, especially when they draw inferences from their commitment to Christ that vary widely from the inferences that you have drawn from your commitment to Christ.

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It’s certainly not as quotable as that earlier statement is, but I think it more accurately reflects what I believe must be the position of a community of faith that says it’s “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” based singularly on the welcome that we all receive from God in Christ at the Lord’s Table.  It’s not Christ “plus.” Christ “plus” is fragmenting.  It’s just Christ – the way He loves and calls us all regardless of how we vote and what we think about this or that.  Our wholeness is found in His welcome – and it’s at that table of our unity in Him that the important conversations can then begin without anyone feeling like they are going to be kicked out for who they, what they think, how they vote, because we’re there, all of us, every last one of us, by grace.

DBS +

 

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The “Strange Silence” of the Bible

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So, here’s the quote that’s troubling me this week. It comes from Mark Galli’s article – “This is a ‘God Moment’ on Race” – in the September 2016 issue of Christianity Today

In 2012, only 13% of white evangelicals said they thought about race daily (41% of black evangelicals said that they did). Today, we’re thinking about race more than daily – due partly to the news cycle, and partly to our rediscovering biblical teaching. (32)

Partly to our rediscovering biblical teaching”? 

Oh, how I want to believe that this is so. I truly want to believe that we’re all committed to, and are even pretty adept as Christians at watching the evening news and reading the morning paper with an open Bible close at hand.  I hope that when current events pose their urgent questions of meaning and value to us, that we as Christians are instinctively turning to the Scriptures, wanting to know what it says about the matter at hand, and that we feel confident in our abilities to be faithful interpreters of that Word.  But here’s what I fear — it doesn’t even occur to us to do this.  It’s not just that we don’t know what the Bible says, it’s that we don’t seem to feel any obligation to find out what the Bible says.  We just don’t see the point of it.  As the title of a book I read in seminary put it, there is a “strange silence” of the Bible in the church, and among Christians.

cherryDallas Willard called this the “Great Omission.”  He said that we ignore that part of the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18-20) where Jesus called us to “make disciples” by “teaching everything that He commanded.” It’s this teaching that’s missing from our experience as Christians.  Msgr. Charles Pope laments it in his own Roman Catholic spiritual tradition as the problem of being “sacramentalized” (baptized and routinely communed) without being “catechized” (taught), or even, in some cases – his words, not mine – “evangelized.” People have gotten “outwardly in” the church without getting “inwardly in” Christ.  They have attached themselves to a teacher whose teachings they haven’t really bothered to examine.  They have named Christ as their Lord without considering what it is that He is going to ask of them, and worse, they are even bothered by how little it seems to matter that the One they look to as their Savior has such little influence on their thinking and acting as Lord.  To use the language of theologian David Wells, God in seemingly “weightless” in our calculations on behavior and beliefs.

Harry Blamires in his book The Christian Mind (SPCK Books, 1963) measured this by asking his readers to “take some topic of current political importance,” and to try to “establish in your mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it, and to do so in total attachment from any political alignment or prejudice,” but by trying instead to “form your conclusion by ‘thinking Christianly’” alone.  He observed that most of us can think pragmatically, and most of us can think politically, but that very few of us seem to be able or committed to “thinking Christianly.”

But Mark Galli voices a different perspective. He suggests that Christians are currently being “conscientized” about race “partly” by “rediscovering the biblical teaching.” If so, this is the best news that I’ve heard in a very long time.  If it’s a just, generous, and more compassionate world that you want, then nothing advances that ball further down the field than Christians reading their Bibles with understanding and then taking what they read seriously.  And this is what Mark Galli suggests is currently happening on the question of race. So, let’s test the hypothesis.

Set aside an hour of uninterrupted time. Go get your Bible, a clean sheet of paper and a sharpened pencil.  Put your cell phone up, find a quiet corner where you won’t be interrupted, get comfortable and write a “theme” – at least that’s what they called them back when I was going to grade school.  Your assigned topic is: “What does the Bible say about racism?”  Go!

bibOh, did I tell you that you could use the concordance at the back of your Bible, but nothing else. No Googling allowed.   No checking your Bible’s study notes.  No looking up references to race in any of the Bible resources that you may have on a bookshelf somewhere at home  – you know, Commentaries, Bible Dictionaries and Handbooks, Topical Bibles, or books on Christian beliefs.  No calling your Sunday School teacher for help, or the preacher who lives across the street.  No, this is just about you, your Bible, your knowledge of what it says, and your ability to relate those teachings to one of the more urgent questions of the day.

anglePerhaps this assignment intimidates you a tad. You don’t even know where to start. Okay, I’ll spot you an outline.  It’s customary when “thinking Christianly” about some topic of interest and/or controversy to organize your thoughts according to the Trinitarian structure of God’s revealed actions reported and interpreted by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  This “pattern” is enshrined in the historic Creeds of the church and it has functioned as the backbone of many systematic theologies through the centuries. So, when tackling a question like – “What does the Bible say about racism?” – break it down into the three “dispensations” of God’s dealings with us according to the Scriptures – Creation (the work of God the “Father”), Redemption (the work of God the “Son”), and our, and the whole wide world’s, continuing Transformation (the work of God the Spirit).

handStart by asking yourself, “What does our creation in the image of God say about the intrinsic worth of each and every human being?” Ponder the implications of the “shalom” that the Bible paints for us in its creation stories, and think about the damage that the “Fall” has done to this original picture of that God-intended harmony (all of the stories from Genesis 4 through Genesis 11 can be read as accounts of the spread of the damage to all of our relationships as human beings after the rebellion of Genesis 3 – Theological, Psychological, Social, and Ecological).   And don’t forget to factor in what texts like the Ten Commandments and the other moral demands that God makes on us say about the Creator’s original purpose for His creatures and all of Creation.  To know what the Bible says about racism, begin by thinking through what the Bible says about how creation is a picture of the way that things are supposed to be from God’s point of views.  We’ve got to come to terms with what it means that every person we meet bears the image of God.

circNext, ask yourself, “What does God’s saving work say about the intrinsic worth of each and every single human being?” Follow what’s been called the “scarlet cord” (Joshua 2:18) – the story of redemption that weaves throughout the full length of the biblical story.  Start with the call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3.  Ask yourself: “Who is the object of God’s concern here?” and “Who is included within the scope of God’s saving purposes?” Think of examples of people who were outside the covenant boundary of Israel were taken in and included in the promises that God makes.  This is a familiar biblical pattern, there are lots and lots of examples. John 3:16 is as “core” as any biblical text is to most of us as Christians.  So, what does John 3:16 say about who it is that God loves?  Then, using John 3:16 as your compass, tiptoe through the book of Acts and take note of every time the Gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ forced the church to jump a barrier that had previously existed to exclude some set category of people. Spend some time in Ephesians chapter 2 unpacking what just might be the most important text in the whole Bible when it comes to the sin of racism, and how God in Christ broke down the dividing wall.  And then don’t forget to poke around a little bit in the book of Revelation to see who it is that is included when God’s work of salvation is finally complete.  To know what the Bible says about racism, we’ve got to come to a better understanding of the scope of God’s saving actions in Jesus Christ.  We’ve got to come to terms with what Paul said about not despising anyone “for whom Christ died” (I Corinthians 8:11).

doveFinally, ask yourself, “What does the convicting, comforting, confirming, disturbing and transforming work of God’s Spirit say about the intrinsic work of each and every human being?” Just as the Spirit of God moved over the surface of the deep at Creation, so the Spirit of God continues to move over the hearts of people and the circumstances of life, ordering the chaos, giving life to change, and bending things in the direction of God’s future.  So, where do you sense the Spirit moving?  One of the critical Biblical moments is in Acts 10 when Peter was forced to welcome Cornelius and his household to the family of faith because Peter had witnessed the same experience of the empowering and indwelling Spirit in them as he himself had experienced in Himself on the day of Pentecost.  Their bond of unity was established by the workings of the Spirit of peace, and Paul’s familiar image of the church as Christ’s body made up of many members is premised on this same idea. Reconciliation depends on the unity that the Holy Spirit supplies (I Corinthians 12).  So, the critical question is – “In whom do you see the indwelling empowering presence of God’s Spirit, and what does that say about the racism that tries to pry people apart?”

It’s said that one of the defining characteristics of contemporary Christianity is its “bits and pieces” mentality.  Nothing touches.  Nothing connects.  Everything is just a “one off.” This week’s sermon, Sunday school lesson, Bible Study, morning devotional is completely unrelated to what has come before, and totally unrelated to what will follow.  We don’t see how ideas and experiences touch.  There’s no big picture, no unifying structure, no sense of one truth building upon the previous truth and preparing us for the next truth, no overarching vision of what it is that God is doing in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.  And so, is it any wonder then that when culture poses a question like “racism,” that we who are Christians are hard pressed to think Christianly about it, or to speak Biblically to the moment.

jengaIt was while playing “Jenga” with some of the children at Family Gateway during our recent “Family Mission Weekend” that I was powerfully reminded of how everything that the Bible teaches touches everything else that the Bible teaches, and how what the Bible teaches touches every situation and circumstance of our lives.  I’m not sure that Mark Galli is right when he says that Christians are “thinking about race more… due partly to our rediscovering biblical teaching.” But I do know that if this was true, if Biblical teaching was taken more fully into consideration by those of us who are Christians, then what we thought, said and did about racism would be more informed by the Gospel, and would do more to effect the kind of change that this moment requires.

DBS +

 

 

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Why Teaching Bible Study is the Most Important Thing I do each Week

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The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God stands forever.

                                                                                                                      ~ Isaiah 40:8

bibleheartThis coming Sunday morning I will resume teaching the Bible Survey Class that I began last Spring. This Fall we will cover the Wisdom and Poetry books of the Old Testament, to be followed by the Prophets.  This is one of three Bible Studies that I teach each week.  On Sunday evenings at 5:30 pm I teach a Topical Bible Study (This Bible Study is broadcast live on Periscope each week).  Right now we’re looking at “Politics According the Bible,” and that will be followed after the election with an Advent/Christmas Study of the Gospels’ birth narratives – “The First Days of Jesus.”  And then on Wednesdays at noon I teach an in-depth, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse, thought-by-thought Bible Study.  Right now were just about halfway through the Book of Revelation, and when we’re finished, we’ll immediately turn our attention to the Pastoral Epistles – to I Timothy, Titus and II Timothy.

To be sure, preparing and leading these Bible Studies are a big demand on my time and energy as a minister each week. You can’t just walk in unprepared to a room full of eager and thoughtful students and expect to engage them in a serious conversation about the meaning of ancient texts that are believed to be inspired and that are treated as authoritative for our Christian faith and practice.  Besides this purely human obligation to be an effective teacher, there is an enormous Divine expectation as well.  More than once the New Testament warns us about the spiritual dangers of being a teacher (James 3:1-2; Matthew 23:1-11; Matthew 18:1-7), and about how it is possible for us to “misrepresent God” (I Corinthians 15:15).  The New Testament says enough about false teachers – and none of it good – to know that I don’t want to be found in their number!

So, why do I do it? Why do I put myself out this way each week?  Why do I invest myself so heavily in the work of these three weekly Bible studies?  Why do I subject myself to the demands, both human and Divine?

Well, part of the answer has to do with spiritual gifts. You see, I know that my own particular call to ministry, and the capacities for ministry that I have, and have consciously developed, all have to do with teaching (Ephesians 4:11). Teaching is foundational to all Christian ministry (Matthew 8:20; Acts 2:42), and it is one of the spiritual gifts that God sovereignly distributes according to His purposes to build-up the church (I Corinthians 12:11).  This means that no minister is off-the-hook when it comes to teaching the faith – it’s part of how we “pay the rent” for our ministries in a church  – even as some of us “double-down” on the ministry of teaching as our own particular mission within the mission.  This is part of the reason why I do it.  This is who I am, and what I know that I am called to do, and I am truly blessed to be in a church and part of a pastoral team that allows for this kind of specialization in ministry.  But there is more to my commitment to the ministry of teaching than this.

briteIn my last semester at Brite Divinity School back in 1979 I stumbled across a little book from 1675 written by Philip Jacob Spener, one of the spiritual leaders of the Movement known as Pietism.   “Pia Desideria” (“Pious Desires”) was his pastoral assessment of the sad spiritual state of the church of his day, and his specific proposals to correct it.  And his first corrective proposal was a call for a “more extensive use of the Scriptures.” This lengthy excerpt is from pages 87-91 of my dog-eared and well worn copy of “Pia Desideria” (Fortress Press – 1964).   It is a call for Bible Study in the local church and a proposed model for actually doing it that broadly resembles the kind of Bible Studies that we have here at Northway.

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Thought should be given to the more extensive use of the Word of God among us… It would perhaps not be inexpedient to reintroduce the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings. In addition our customary services with preaching, other assemblies would also be held in the manner in which Paul describes them in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. One person would not rise to preach, but others who have been blessed with gifts and knowledge would also speak and present their pious opinions on the proposed subject to the judgment of the rest, doing all this in such a way as to avoid disorder and strife. This might conveniently be done by having …several members of a congregation who have a fair knowledge of God or desire to increase their knowledge meet under the leadership of the Minister, take up the Holy Scriptures, read aloud from them, and fraternally discuss each verse in order to discover its simple meaning and whatever may be useful for the edification of all.  Anybody who is not satisfied with his understanding of a matter should be permitted to express his doubts and seek further explanation.  On the other hand, those who have made more progress should be allowed the freedom to state how they understand each passage.  Then all that has been contributed, insofar as it accords with a sense of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, should be carefully considered by the rest, …and applied to the edification of the whole meeting.  Everything should be arranged with an eye to the glory of God, to the spiritual growth of the participants, and therefore also to their limitations.  Any threat of meddlesomeness, quarrelsomeness, self-seeking, or something else of this sort should be guarded against and tactfully cut off…

Not a little benefit is to be hope for from such an arrangement.  Preachers would learn to know the members of their own congregations and their weaknesses or growth in doctrine and piety, and a bond of confidence would be established between preachers and people which would serve the best interests of both.  At the same time, the people would have a splendid opportunity to exercise your diligence with respect to the word of God and modestly to answer their questions (which they do not always have the courage to discuss with their minister in private) and get answers to them.  In a short time, they would experience personal growth and would also be capable of giving better religious instruction to their children and servants at home.  In the absence of such exercises, sermons which are delivered in continually flowing speech are not always fully and adequately comprehended because there’s no time for reflection in between or because when one does stop reflect, much of what follows is missed (which does not happen in a discussion).  On the other hand, private reading the Bible, reading in the household, where nobody is present who may from time to time help point out the meaning and purpose of each verse, cannot provide the reader with sufficient explanation of all that he would like to know.  What is lacking in both of these instances (in public preaching and private reading) would be supplied by the proposed exercises. 

…This much is certain: The diligent use of the word of God, which consists not only a listening to sermons, but also reading, meditating, and discussing (Psalm 1:2 ), must be the chief means for reforming something, whether this occurs in the proposed fashion or in some other appropriate way.  The word of God remains the seed from which all that is good in us must grow.  If we succeed in getting the people to seek eagerly and diligently in the Book of life for their joy, their spiritual life will be wonderfully strengthened and they will become altogether different people….

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Believing what Spener said in that last paragraph about the word of God being the seed “from which all that is good in us must grow,” and how people are “wonderfully strengthened” and profoundly “reformed” through “reading, meditating and discussing” the Bible,  I made a conscious commitment back in 1979, during my last semester in seminary, to actually institute the kind of Bible Study that Spener proposed here in every church that I would ever serve as an ordained minister, and here, some 37 years later I can say that I have.

This commitment to congregational Bible Study was confirmed a couple of years ago when Willow Creek reported the results of their “Reveal” self-study.

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Over a period of four years, Willow Creek polled more than 1,500 churches representing more than 400,000 church attendees at various stages in their spiritual journeys, and Bible reading and reflection, the REVEAL survey found, is the No. 1 way to help people grow in their love for Christ.

 “When it comes to spiritual growth, nothing beats the Bible,” wrote Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins in their book, Move. The churches involved in the study ranged in size from under 100 to more than 5,000 and represented all 50 states. They were both denominational and non-denominational and represented a wide range of styles, including contemporary, Pentecostal, Catholic, traditional and mainline. Parkinson and Hawkins explain that key findings in the REVEAL survey suggest people fall along a spiritual continuum, from exploring Christ to being Christ-centered—and many things advance our walks with God along that continuum.

 “But of all the personal spiritual practices—prayer, confession, tithing, journaling, solitude, serving or worship we find that one stands out,” Parkinson and Hawkins state. “Scripture reflection—more than any other practice—moves people forward in their love for God and love for others.” Reflection on Scripture is much more influential than any other spiritual practice by a statistically significant and wide margin, Parkinson and Hawkins state. “For those who would say they are Christ-centered or working to stay close to Christ, Scripture reflection is twice as catalytic as any other factor. This means it has twice the power of any other spiritual practice to accelerate growth in spiritually mature people.” (http://www.americanbible.org)

 Of course, the kind of transformative Bible Study that Spener first proposed 400 years ago, and that Willow Creek has more recently affirmed as being the most spiritually catalytic factor in its own life and ministry as a church, is not just about filling the head of students with information, but rather, it’s about filling the hearts of believers with the promises, provisions and presence that a serious engagement with Scripture supplies.

It was A.W. Tozer (1897 – 1963) – one of my “paper spiritual directors” (somebody who shapes my soul and guides my spiritual growth through the things that they wrote) – who warned me about the academic “information-alone” kind of Bible Studies to which we who have been to seminary, can read the Biblical languages and who have shelves and shelves of critical commentaries are prone.  Now, don’t take this as a rejection of the academic study of the Bible.  I am someone who believes that the Bible is inspired and authoritative, and that it needs to be carefully and contextually interpreted.  I am a champion of theological education, and I turn to scholarship every week to try to better understand every jot and tittle that I find in the Bible.  But that’s not enough.  I’ll let A.W. speak –

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Charles G. Finney believed that Bible teaching without moral application could be worse than no teaching at all, and could result in positive injury to the hearers. I used to think that this might be an extreme position, but after years of observation I have come around to it, or to a view almost identical to it.

There is scarcely anything so dull and meaningless as Bible doctrine taught for its own sake. Truth divorced from life is not truth in its Biblical sense, but something else and something less. Theology is a set of facts concerning God, man and the world. These facts may be, and often are, set forth as values in themselves; and there lies the snare both for the teacher and for the hearer.

…The Bible … is more than a volume of hitherto unknown facts about God, man and the universe. It is a book of exhortation based upon those facts. By far the greater portion of the book is devoted to an urgent effort to persuade people to alter their ways and bring their lives into harmony with the will of God as set forth in its pages.

…What is generally overlooked is that truth as set forth in the Christian Scriptures is a moral thing; it is not addressed to the intellect only, but to the will also. It addresses itself to the total man, and its obligations cannot be discharged by grasping it mentally. Truth engages the citadel of the human heart and is not satisfied until it has conquered everything there. The will must come forth and surrender its sword. It must stand at attention to receive orders, and those orders it must joyfully obey. Short of this, any knowledge of Christian truth is inadequate and unavailing.

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It was Albert Schweitzer who said that the Bible was spiritually explosive in his life. Any verse of Scripture, he said, had the potential of blowing up in our hands, in our heads and in our hearts, thereby blasting us to places we never thought of going on our own, to do things that we never thought of doing before.  It’s catalytic.

worldGod’s word is alive and working and is sharper than a double-edged sword. It cuts all the way into us, where the soul and the spirit are joined, to the center of our joints and bones. And it judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts. (Hebrews 4:19)

And this is why teaching Bible Study is the most important thing I do each week as a minister. When people open their Bibles they are positioning themselves in front of the instrument that God has ordained to effect real change in people’s lives, and the through them, in the world.  DBS +

 

                                                                                                                                                

 

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“Keep a Level Head”

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“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
~ James 1:19

I’ve heard Dennis Prager say that politics has become a functional substitute for religion in the lives of lots and lots of folks these days.  People who dismiss God and who disregard God’s Word still seek meaning and purpose in their lives and for our world, but without a transcendent source to turn to, they often turn to political candidates, parties and causes to fill that void instead.  The devotion that was once reserved for God has been redirected to Presidential tickets with messianic fervor, and the direction that was once sought from Scripture has been redirected to the planks of party platforms, position papers and stump speeches. It’s an interesting proposal, and it helps to explain the passion that we witness, and perhaps even feel ourselves, every four years.

Presidential elections are secular revivals, and as such they are filled with the same potential for renewal, and are subject to the same propensity for excess.  Revivals stir up emotions.  They catch you up in a wave of feeling that wash over you and then carry you off to places you never expected to go.  I know.  I’ve been there.  I’ve done that.  And so, depending on your own settled political convictions and conclusions, be careful in the coming months when in a flash of political fervor you feel the pressure to yell at somebody whose political convictions and conclusions differ from your own, that, or you find yourself really tempted to write them off, to just cut them out of your life.  Because they disagree with you, they’re clearly stupid or wicked, right?  And who’s got room in their lives for more people like that?  So, “bye-bye!”

But this is a position that we as conscientious Christians must never to take.  WeDrawing_Lines’ve got to be “knock-down the dividing wall of hostility” sorts of people instead (Ephesians 2:15) because Jesus Christ, who is our peace, made it such a big part of His saving work to go to those who were far off, and to those who were close by, to knit them together into one new people in His love.  I believe that this is an important part of what Ephesians 1:9-10 means when it tells us that in Christ Jesus the mystery of God’s will to bring all things together in Him has been revealed.  It’s hard to know this, to believe this, and then to go around drawing lines, picking sides and writing off the people who disagree with you.  We have a different calling. We need another strategy.

In all of the noise of the political conventions of the past two weeks, a source of calm reason that I came across was Benjamin Mathes’ posting at “Urban Confessional” called “How to Listen When You Disagree: A Lesson from the Republican National Convention” – July 27, 2016 (http://urbanconfessional.org/blog/howtodisagree). He wrote –

Free_ListeningIf there’s one question I get asked more than any other question, it’s this: “How do I listen to someone when I disagree with them?” There are many ways to answer this. It takes a lot of forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage to listen in the face of disagreement. I could write pages on each of these principles, but let’s start with the one thing that makes forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage possible. We must work to hear the person not just the opinion.

My friend, Agape, says it like this: “Hear the Biography, not the ideology.” When someone has a point of view we find difficult to understand, disagreeable, or even offensive, we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view. Get their story, their biography, and you’ll open up the real possibility of an understanding that transcends disagreement. Like the roots of a tree, our stories, which can create our beliefs, are completely unique, and also connected. It is through story that we can find common ground enough to co-exist in the face of great, often necessary, tension. When you find yourself in disagreement, just ask one question: “Will you tell me your story?  I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”

The truth is, if our love can hold space for paradox, tension, and disagreement, there’s room for all types of beliefs and opinions. Division is a choice. Life isn’t a Facebook feed.  Our love, our listening, must “bring in,” not “edit out.”  Dare to listen, dare to be quiet, dare to seek understanding; in the end, it’s the people we need to love, not their opinions.

I hear an echo of James 1:19 in this – “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  In fact, this is exactly what Doug Wilson called for in his July 16thBlog & Mablog” posting on “Seven Principles for Navigating Times of Racial Animosity.” “In a Christian conversation, everyone talks,” he observed, “and everyone tries to listen.”  And to be able to do this, Doug said, requires “a level head

Doug_WilsWherever God has placed you in a time of tension, there will be people in your “tribe” who behave wickedly. A level-headed person knows and understands this. [And a level-headed person also knows and understands] that there are people in the “other” tribe who are laboring to keep a level head as well. Don’t make their job more difficult… You cannot avoid conflict with fools, but never willingly burn your bridges with those who are not fools…  Distinguish between irrational partisans of a position, and those who happen to hold convictions other than yours.  In the political/racial/economic mess that [we are in], make distinctions on the other side. (https://dougwils.com)

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It’s time we talk politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus
rather than mocks them.

                                                                                ~ Bryan Roberts   ______________________________________________________________________________

Some practical guidance for how to actually go about doing our “level-headed best” as Christians in election years comes from Bryan Roberts’ article in Relevant Magazine – 7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics: How to be in the world, not of the world, in a culture of political vitriol” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com).  He writes –

Political discourse is the Las Vegas of Christianity—the environment in which our sin is excused (You know – “What happens in Vegas…”). Hate is winked at, fear is perpetuated and strife is applauded. Go wild, Christ-follower. Your words have no consequences here. Jesus doesn’t live in Vegas. Not only are believers excused for their political indiscretions, but they are often applauded for committing them. Slander is explained away as righteous anger; winning arguments are esteemed higher than truthful ones (whether or not the “facts” align); and those who stir up dissension are given the pulpit. So I balk when pastors tell me the Church should engage in the political process. Why would we do that? The political process is dirty and broken and far from Jesus. Paranoia and vitriol are hardly attractive accessories for the bride of Christ. Rather than engage in the political process, Christians have a duty to elevate it. Like any other sin, we are called to stand above the partisan dissension and demonstrate a better way. Should we have an opinion? Yes. Should we care about our country? Yes. Should we vote? Yes. But it’s time we talk politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus rather than mocks them.

Roberts then goes on to name seven things that he thinks we need to remember about politics as Christians, and while all of them are certainly deserving of our consideration, I found that #1, #4 and #6 hit me with particular force as I am working right now on trying to keep “a level head” for the next 100 days.  Remember, Bryan Roberts wrote, that –

#1 – Both political parties go to church…  There’s a Christian Left and, perhaps even less well-known, there’s a secular RightParty lines are drawn in chalk, and they’re not hard to cross. The Church must be engaged in politics, but it must not be defined by the arbitrary lines in politics.

#4 – Thinking that your party’s platform is unflawed is a mistake… The social policies of your party were constructed by imperfect politicians fueled by ambition. It’s nearsighted to canonize them.

#6 – Don’t be paranoid… The country is not going to be destroyed if your candidate loses. As 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” So, stand up and demonstrate what God has given you. America has functioned—albeit, at varying levels of success—for years under the direction of alternating Democrat and Republican control, and at every flip, the other side thought it was the end of the world.  It’s not… We’re a Church that believes that God is in control… not whoever’s in office now, and not whoever succeeds them.

And so, the crazy season has begun, and if it hasn’t happened to you already, itBoxing_Gloves won’t be very long now before you are going to feel like your head is going to explode.  So take a deep breath, remember who you are, and more importantly, who’s you are. Resolve right not that you aren’t going to get pulled off sides by the loud voices, the strong feelings, or the pressure to give in to simplism, sarcasm or sectarianism.  Keep your wits about you.  “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Make it your highest objective this election season to keep a “level head.”  Remember that in Jesus Christ you already know the mystery of God’s will (Ephesians 1:9-10), and so get busy “tearing down the middle wall of partition” wherever you encounter it (Ephesians 2:15).  And come November 9th, no matter what happens at the polling booth, Jesus Christ will still be Lord, and His Kingdom will still come. DBS +

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