Tag Archives: Bible

“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”

Intro

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 +

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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”

texas

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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