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“Thoughts & Prayers” and “Pastoral Malpratice”, Part 3

thoughts

Part 3

The second crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves us in as Christians is the one that we have with God about the things that can be shown to be what the Bible teaches. This is the third step in the process that Richard Hayes identifies as being what it means to take the Bible seriously. We’ve got to relate the truth of what the ancient texts say to the reality and demands of our contemporary circumstances and situations. As Dr. Hayes explains –

Even if we should succeed in giving some satisfactory synthetic account of the New Testament’s ethical content, we will still find ourselves perched on the edge of a daunting abyss: the temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text.

There’s a familiar distinction that often gets drawn between the “letter” of a Biblical text and its “spirit” based largely on John 6:63 where Jesus says – The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life,” and on 2 Corinthians 3:4 where Paul describes the new covenant that comes to us not as a written code that kills but “in the Spirit who gives life.” And while I would not want to drive too deep a wedge between the “letter” and the “spirit” of a Biblical text, I fully appreciate the difference between wanting to know the “letter” of a Biblical text so that I can be intellectually informed, and wanting to experience the “spirit” of a Biblical text so that I might be spiritually transformed.

George Whitefield (1714 – 1770), the Anglican cleric who’s powerful preaching ministry did so much to stir the fires of the 18th century Evangelical Revival in both Great Britain and the American Colonies, explained –

I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light and power from above.

In my mind this is the perfect description of the second crucial conversation that a serious commitment to “thoughts & prayers” will generate in us as Christians. Once we know what’s in the Bible, then we’ve got to come to terms with how it actually applies to us and our lives, and that involves a prayerful conversation with God about what it is that we find in the Bible.

I remember singing the James Russel Lowell lyric in the classic hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” from the 1953 Disciple hymnal (the best one we ever produced) when I was in Christian College and serving my first few churches in the Pacific Northwest –

“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

It’s not that God’s truth changes, but the contexts, both personal and social, to which those ancient truths must speak certainly do. We ask questions today that the Bible never anticipated. We face situations now that the Bible did not foresee. Go to the concordance in the back of your Bible right now and look up every reference to assault rifles, school shootings, and the Second Amendment, and you will find none. But this doesn’t mean that the Bible is devoid of wisdom to guide us, or that it is without good counsel to instruct us as we seek solutions to contemporary problems.

We may not have chapters and verses to which we can turn to settle a question, but we do have principles that are deeply informed by the weight of the Biblical witness, and that can be prayerfully discerned by paying attention to the Spirit’s promptings in our minds, and by listening to the Spirit’s small still voice whispering in our hearts. As John Robinson (1576 – 1625), the Pastor to the Pilgrims in Holland told them in his farewell address as they left for the New World – the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.” And it’s the second crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” generates – the one that takes place between a Christian and God about what’s in the Bible – that’s when, and where, and how we find that truth and see that light.

The idea that we can do away with serious “thoughts & prayers” in the urgency of the demand for meaningful “policy & change” is an ignorant argument at best, and a dangerous argument at worst. And for those of us who are in the “thoughts & prayers” business to give the impression that “thoughts & prayers” are unnecessary and irrelevant is foolishness at best, and unfaithfulness at worst. It’s only as we do our “thoughts & prayers” work with integrity and intentionality as people of faith that we will have anything helpful to say in the public conversation about “policy & change.” DBS +

 

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“Thoughts & Prayers” and “Pastoral Malpratice”, Part 2

thoughts

Part 2

More than just some pious drivel, I find that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves me in two crucial conversations. The first one is the conversation that is Scripture itself.

What we have in the Bible are a series of serious conversations about scared subjects. The Hebrew Scriptures, or “First” Testament, are in a serious conversation with the Christian Scriptures, or “Later” Testament, about what God is doing. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are in a serious conversation with the Gospel of Mark about what Jesus did, and what it means, and the Gospel of John jumps in later to have an important conversation with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke about who Jesus is, and why He matters. Paul is in a conversation with James about the meaning of saving faith. Peter and Jude are in a conversation with each other about what faithfulness looks like in oppositional times. And the Book of Revelation is in an important conversation with all of the other books in the Christian collection about how God in Jesus Christ is finally going to complete His work of salvation begun in the Incarnation 2,000 years ago.

A real commitment to “thoughts & prayers” is a commitment to eavesdropping on the conversations that are already going on in the Bible on any given subject long enough to get a good sense of what’s at stake from God’s point of view, and to understand what faithful alternatives are actually open to us. The New Testament scholar Richard Hayes says that the first two steps that are involved in this process of taking the Bible seriously are – first, to read the texts carefully (a “descriptive” task) and, second, to look for the coherence that exists between them (a “synthetic” task). The first task is making sure that you have all of the relevant pieces of the puzzle that you are working on, and the second task is trying to figure out how they all fit together. The fact of the matter is that we all tend to proof text our preconceived positions when we open our Bibles. We know what we already think, and so we selectively go to the Bible looking for those verses that support it while discounting any verses that we might come across that don’t. The approach that Richard Hayes describes as “faithful” begins instead with a gathering of all of the relevant texts rightly understood in their proper literary, historical, and theological contexts.

For instance, in the Bible’s conversation about social violence, someone following Dr. Hayes’ approach is going to have to bring the sixth commandment about not killing (Exodus 20:13) into conversation with the Noahide commandment (“Noahidism” is a monotheistic ideology within Rabbinic Judaism that says that non-Jews are not obligated to convert to Judaism, but that they are required to observe the Seven Laws of Noah) to kill those who kill (Genesis 9:6). The Prophet Joel’s instruction to “beat your plowshares into swords” (3:10) is going to have to be put into conversation with the Prophet Isaiah’s instruction to “beat your swords into plowshares” (2:4). Jesus’ instruction to His disciples to put away their swords (Matthew 26:52) is going to have to be brought into conversation with His instruction to buy swords (Luke 22:36). And the angel’s announcement at His birth that Jesus is the bringer of peace (Luke 2:14) is going to have to be brought into conversation with Jesus’ own protest that He came “not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). And this just scratches the surface.

The first crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves us in as Christians is the one that Scripture has within itself – one text arguing with another text; one idea grappling with another idea; one truth challenging another truth. Every significant thing that the Bible teaches involves us in just this sort of complicated thinking – God is three and one; Jesus is fully God and fully human; the Kingdom has already come and is not yet here; we are saved by faith without works, but faith without works is dead; God is sovereign and we are free; the Bible is the Word of God and a thoroughly human word. It’s only as we wrestle with the Bible’s “furious opposites” that we begin to gain the mind of Christ, and start to think God’s thoughts after Him. But this doesn’t happen without being in conversation with God, and so tomorrow we’ll look at praying… DBS +

 

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“Thoughts & Prayers” and “Pastoral Malpratice”

thoughts

Part 1

When he was a young man who was spiritually seeking, George Fox (1624 – 1691), the man who would later go on to found the Society of Friends or “Quakers,” sought out the spiritual counsel of several prominent clergymen, and he was given spiritual counsel by each of them that Eugene Peterson has described as examples of “pastoral malpractice.” Those ministers said and did things that hindered rather than helped young George Fox address the deep stirrings in his soul.

Right now, in the aftermath of the shooting last week at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead, there is a deep stirring in the soul of the generation most directly affected by these school shootings — the students themselves — and a social movement for change is being birthed right before our eyes. They are critical of the inaction of our legislators and political leaders to address the epidemic of school shootings in our society, and so they are stepping up to be the leaders who will drive the national conversation.  It is an inspiring and truly hopeful thing to see.

One of the recurrent themes sounded in the first days of this resistance has been the rejection of “thoughts & prayers” as an inadequate response to the crisis. And when talk of “thoughts and prayers” is just a pious platitude that gets muttered by people in lieu of actually trying to do something… anything… about the causes and consequences of the inexcusable violence in our society, then it rightly deserves to be criticized. “Thoughts and prayers” as a panacea deserves our scorn, and I believe that it is surely pastoral malpractice for ministers to invoke “thoughts & prayers” as our only response to what happened in Florida last week, or any of a dozen places in the weeks before last. “Thoughts & prayers” can neither excuse the inaction nor bless the indifference of people of faith.

But honest “thoughts and prayers” are not an evasion of responsible action.  In fact, they are actually a crucial part of the process, and so I believe that it is an equally grievous example of pastoral malpractice for those of us whose job it is to nurture an awareness of God’s presence in, and perspective on, the events and experiences of life to cross out “thoughts & prayers” in our rush to be seen as being supportive of “policy and change.”

Late last week I posted a quick observation on Facebook that we human beings are creatures of “thought, affection, and will,” and noted that it is in the interplay of these three functions that we operate most fully as human beings. And then I wrote about the inward process that the English Puritan Preacher George Swinnock (1627-1673) promoted as a way of leading Christians to faithful action. He argued that it is “the serious application of the mind to some sacred subject that warms and quickens the affections and that heightens and strengthens our resolution against what is evil, and for that which is good.” It is the serious and sincere “thoughts and prayers” of our heads, that distills into the deep feelings of our hearts, that finally issues in the helpful and hopeful actions of our hands. I concluded my posting late last week by saying that in this approach, rather than something to be criticized, that our “thoughts and prayers” are actually something be encouraged because our “thoughts and prayers” are how our thinking gets shaped, and that leads to our passions becoming inflamed, and that results in our hands taking up the hard work of refashioning the world so that it better reflects what we know God wants.

Instead of merely sloganeering — publicly posting the crossed out “thoughts & prayers” and the capitalized “POLICY & CHANGE” image that is quickly becoming the logos of this new resistance movement — I would argue that we who are charged with soul care need to model a more reflective response than this sort of reactive retort. Rather than uncritically leaving the impression that it’s either “thoughts & prayers” or “policy & change,” we who are in the “thoughts & prayers” business need to show how our “thoughts and prayers” actually lead to meaningful “policy & change,” and this is what I will attempt to do in the two postings that will follow in the coming days.

It starts with some actual thinking, and then it involves some real praying.
Tomorrow we’ll look at thinking… DBS +

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“Looking for a Changed Heart”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christ, Charlottesville, and Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Churches Change the World” ~ But How?

Church

Churches change the world” is the theme for the Pentecost Offering of my denomination this year. This is the special offering that is directed to the support of new church development, and that’s an easy ministry for most of us to support.  Who doesn’t believe that churches are supposed to be spiritually and morally transformative. The only real question, it seems to me, is how?  How does the church actually go about changing the world?

The promotional materials for my denomination’s special offering for new church development this year names the importance of the church speaking to the world about her own faith’s values and convictions as one of the ways that the church goes about changing the world. In fact, this is how being “prophetic” is generally, if not singularly, understood by us “Disciples” these days.  We want to speak our truth to its power.  And so we have gotten pretty good at passing resolutions, and making public statements, and marching for social justice.  And while I certainly don’t discount the necessity or efficacy of the church’s public witness, it seems to me, that an equally important way for the church to go about trying to change the world is by the church speaking its truth to the church!  In fact I would argue that I would argue that this should probably come first.

Michael Horton, the Reformed theologian, has criticized the American Church’s historic failure to condemn slavery before and during the Civil War. And he is very clear that the “the racisms that still haunt our society” — “the New Jim Crow, broken window policing, and discrimination in every way imaginable” (Derrick Holmes) — are all the poisonous fruit from the tree of this historic moral and spiritual failure by the American church.  And at the heart of this failure, he argues, was not just the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the State, it was also the result of the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the church!  The evil of slavery persisted, he argues, not because the church wouldn’t address it publicly as a political matter, but rather because the church wouldn’t address it with its own members as a faith matter.   He notes, “the church itself was segregated – often more so than society at large.” And he wonders about how this might have been different had the church preached “the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery” to its own membership?  What would have happened had the church spoken prophetically to the church?

Wouldn’t the members (of that church) been shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney (a major American theologian of that era) had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson? (https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2013/09/two-kingdoms-and-slavery/)

It’s easy to think that the prophetic work of the church is what happens in the streets on days of protest, but I find that most of the prophetic work that I do as a local church pastor happens in the pews when I preach and preside at the Lord’s Table on Sunday mornings, and in the classrooms where I teach the Faith, and at the dinner tables and in the coffee shops where I talk about our beliefs and their consequences with people who are just trying to be faithful.

In a recent contribution to the “Rhetoric, Race and Religion Blog” at the “Patheos” Website (4/30/17), Derrick Holmes said that after he had participated in a public demonstration against social injustice at a city council meeting, another participant, grateful for his presence there, wanted to know why there weren’t other ministers with him?  And the clear implication was that if a minister wasn’t in the streets with them protesting or at a rally making a public statement, then he or she wasn’t really doing anything “prophetic” for the cause (http://www.patheos.com).

“Where are the pastors?” that essay asked, and my initial response was that where they really need to be is in their churches doing the slow steady work of the moral formation and the spiritual transformation of the people who are entrusted to their care. In my experience there is nothing more “prophetic” than the church preaching the message of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and then inviting “whosoever” would come to the Table of Remembrance of God’s sacrificial act of redemption and reconciliation in Christ each week  A church that is being consistently and consciously shaped by the Gospel’s word of God’s welcome and the sign of His saving inclusion will be a church that unhesitatingly speaks to the world about the worth of all people and that unambiguously speaks against the sins of prejudice and discrimination.

I understand that the single most transformative thing that I can do as a pastor is to get the people who are in my spiritual care to “to see what the Scripture says” about the big social and moral questions of the day with which we are wrestling, as Scott Cormode of Fuller Theological Seminary puts it  (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/one-basic-idea-get-people-see-scripture-says/). He says that for those of us with a high view of Scripture, the task is not to tell our people what we think, but to help them see how the Bible thinks. He explains –

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

And so the task is to get them to engage with the Scriptures. A Christian with a high view of Scripture who doesn’t know what’s in the Scriptures – like many in the American Church were before and during the Civil War on Slavery – is a menace and a contradiction. And they’re still around today.

In the June 2017 issue of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, its Editor in Chief, wrote about the criticism that white evangelicals are receiving these days for their reported widespread anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-others-in-dire-straits public attitudes. “You would think that a people steeped in the Bible,” Mark wrote, “would find closing the door to the world’s neediest people repulsive.” But he says that the research clearly shows that white evangelicals, “more than any other religious group, say that illegal immigrants should be identified and summarily deported.” “What’s wrong with these white evangelicals?” Mark Galli asks. “Who’s teaching them these unmerciful attitudes?” he wonders.  And he thinks he’s found the answer, and it’s not the church!

All those surveys that show white evangelicals to be anti-Muslim and anti-refugee also show that those who take these positions tend to be the white evangelicals who do not go to church. When asked by pollsters if they are “born again” and find the Bible to be true and authoritative in what it teaches, they say “yes.”  But when they are asked if they actually go to church, they often say “no.”  And Mark Galli wonders if there is a connection between the “mercy-shaped vacuum within them,” and the fact that they are not hearing “Scripture read and the Word preached, and sharing in the ‘breaking of bread’ and ‘prayer’ (Acts 2:42) – together in church.”   As Mark puts it –

This has been from the beginning the divinely commanded means that enables us to grow into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), so that we might become a people who act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Churches change the world. But the kid of churches that change the world are the kind of churches that have first been changed themselves by the very truths that they want to speak to power, and this means that the first place where “prophetic” ministers need to be are in their churches with their people consistently and conscientiously preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and fueling the vision of God’s coming Kingdom where His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

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“We All Want to Change the World”

AspectsIt’s a single line from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans) that has been as consequential for my thinking about the social implications of the Gospel as any line from any book written by any theologian/ethicist that I have ever read.  Dr. Henry asked, “In seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to what extend on grace?” And again, “How much shall we trust legislation and how much shall we trust regeneration to change the social setting?” (15).

What holds the greatest promise for the transformation of society? Is it education, legislation, agitation, redemption, or some combination thereof?  Well, Dr. Henry was clear about what he thought.  He argued – “What the social order needs most… are not people with new textbooks and new laws, but people with new hearts” (30).  That’s an affirmation of regeneration over education and legislation as the real key to social change.  Changed hearts change the world.

Now, Dr. Henry was not so spiritually naïve as to think that education and legislation, or even agitation, were completely devoid of value in the process of social change. He knew that they each had a part to play in the cause of change, and he said so.  In fact, Dr. Henry’s most famous book was The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) in which he took to task the social withdrawal of conservative Christians from the pressing social issues of the day.  But he was nevertheless insistent that Biblically, “personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in Christianity’s hope for the social order” (25). This is Christianity’s distinctive contribution to the conversation, if you ask me.

Buddhists and Muslims, Republicans and Democrats, Occupiers and Tea Partiests, Secularists and Socialists all have stakes in the struggle for a better world too, and rightly so. We’re all residents, and so we’ve all got our points of view and our ideas to argue, and in a vigorous democracy like ours, we should be glad for this cacophony of voices. It’s that old “public square” argument — in a marketplace of ideas, everybody needs to be present, and everybody needs to be talking just as clearly and convincingly as they possibly can.   The only question is, what is it that we as Christians should be saying?   What’s our distinctive contribution to the conversation?

Traditionalist Christians have become so identified with Republican politics these days that they are now popularly seen as one of “their” constituency groups, while progressive Christians have been identified with Democrat politics for so long that they are viewed as  one of “their” constituency groups.  But when this happens, what gets lost is what’s most distinctive for us as Christians.  You see, I believe that the real impetus for change is not political argument or social action alone, but an application of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to every sphere of life.  But this is precisely what I find is missing in so many of the arguments that I hear these days about how we as Christians need to change the world.

I hear the case for social change being made and the appeal for social change being issued by Christians without any reference being made to the Gospel at all, to this whole thing being rooted and grounded in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ whose birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit and coming again brings the Kingdom that will finally and fully heal all creation. I’m just not sure that I as a Christian can talk about justice without talking about Jesus.  I don’t think that I can cast a vision for social change as a Christian that is not deeply informed by the person and work of Christ.  He’s just that instrumental to this whole change project for me as a Christian.

Now, let me be absolutely clear this. I want peace.  I want justice.  I want freedom.  I want security. I want equality. I want a healthy environment.  I want compassion.  I want abundance.  I want opportunity. I want reconciliation.  I want healing and wholeness.  I want life, and all human beings to thrive.  I really want the world to change.  It seems to me that it’s really hard to read the Bible, and to believe what the Bible says, and not to be for these things.  As John Killinger put it, when you have heard from God, then –

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 humanity has always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness – 115)

The relevant question for me is “how?” How does the world change?  What initiates the introduction of this better social order, and then, what sustains its cultivation over the long haul?  Is it the “Law” that best serves the cause of social change, or is it the Gospel?  For me, this is the question that we who are Christians really need to be thinking about.

Gospel

It was the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther who said that God has only preached two sermons to us – the Law from the top of Mt. Sinai, and the Gospel from the top of Mt. Calvary. Mt. Sinai says: “You must do.” Mt. Calvary says: “Because you couldn’t, Jesus did.” This is a pretty standard division of the content that’s in the Bible.  Simplistically, it’s the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, although there is Gospel in the Old Testament to be sure, and Law in the New Testament.  When the Bible tells us to do this or that, by Luther’s distinctions, it’s Law.  And when the Bible tells us that God already did this or that for us in Christ, it’s Gospel. As Tim Keller explains, “The Gospel is news about what God has already done for you rather than instruction and advice about what you are to do for God.”

The way that Dr. Henry saw it, most of the appeals for social change that he heard coming from the Christians in his day was being voiced as Law rather than Gospel. It consisted of moral exhortation alone – shouted instructions to do this and to do that – rather than being the cultivated fruit of repentance (Matthew 3:8) and regeneration (Matthew 7:16-20).  The Gospel pattern for change – both personal and social – can be clearly seen in Romans 6:1-11, Ephesians 4:17-32 and Colossians 3:1-17.

cpr

It begins with a change of heart – the death of an old way of being through a personal attachment by faith with the death of Christ, and the resurrection to a new way of being though our personal identification with the resurrection of Christ. All of the appeals for moral change that I find in the New Testament are predicated on the prior saving work of God in Christ that has been personally appropriated by the faith of those to whom the appeal is being addressed.  In other words, the appeal for change is addressed to those who have already been fundamentally and irrevocably changed by their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  So, if the appeal for moral change gets detached from the experience of regeneration in Christ, is it still Christian?  And how does the appeal for moral change get detached from the experience of regeneration in Christ anyway?  Well, David Gibson says that he thinks he knows how.  He described the process in his article – “Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel” (Sept./Oct. 2007 Vol. 16 No. 5 – 35-39).

“You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. One particular analysis goes like this: the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.”

And then Todd Pruitt from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals added his observations on the application of this process to the situation of churches today –

This story has been repeated, to one degree or another, many times over. One thinks of the United Methodist Church, The Disciples of Christ, The PCUSA, The Episcopal Church, The American Baptists… These denominations and others have experienced the devastating spiritual atrophy that comes with moving away from the church’s one essential message. But this is not only a problem with those denominations and groups that are typically considered “liberal.” It can happen to any group of so-called “conservative” Christians who find themselves ignorant of, bored with, or preoccupied with anything more than the Gospel and its concerns. It is not unusual to find legalism, moralism, political activism, and humanistic pop-psychology being proclaimed from “evangelical” pulpits. I would suggest that the enemy of our souls is happy with any preaching, liberal or conservative, that diminishes, misconstrues, or assumes the Gospel. (http://www.alliancenet.org)

If Dr. Henry was right, and I think he was, then the Gospel is instrumental and not incidental to the change that we want for our world. And it seems to me that the failure of Christians to mention the Gospel in their appeals for social action is to ignore the very dynamic that makes social change possible.  To “assume the Gospel” is to bury the lead.  It is to lose the distinctive contribution that we as Christians can make to the conversation.

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