Tag Archives: Christ

“Something More”

phoenix

I actually have a certificate signed by the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles that says I received the Holy Spirit together with His Sevenfold Gifts (Isaiah 11:1-2) when he laid his hands on me at my Confirmation in 1965 when I was 12 years old. But up to that point, and for a number of years afterwards, my experience of the Holy Spirit was just about as flat as that piece of paper.

In 1974 Catherine Marshall wrote her book Something More in which she explained that there is “a big difference between being indwelt by the Spirit and being ‘filled’ with His presence.” She explained that “for years (and sometimes for a lifetime) a Christian can keep the Spirit at a sub-basement level by the insistence on running one’s own life. Then through teaching or need – or both – that person recognizes his divine Guest’s presence, opens hitherto closed doors into crayon rooms in his being so that the Spirit can enter there too… It is not God’s attitude toward us that needs to be changed, but our attitude toward Him.  He will not give us anything new; rather we are to receive in a new and far fuller sense that which He has already given us at Pentecost… Sunlight can be kept out only by erecting barriers against it.  All we need do then, is take down our shutters and barriers and walk out into the sunlight already given” (276).  Until and unless this happens, she said, we will operate at a level well below what God intends for us spiritually, and we will experience this deficit as “an aching void in our hearts.”

It was a feeling of this kind of emptiness that brought J. Rodman Williams, a well-known and highly respected Presbyterian theologian, to the place of seeking “something more.”  In his 1972 book The Pentecostal Reality he wrote –

At the heart of much of our life and activity a deep spiritual crisis exists. Despite multiple attempts by the church at reassessment and relevance, there remains the haunting sense of something lacking or unfulfilled and a feeling of spiritual impotence… Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality of God’s presence? In an article appearing in “The Christian Century” (May 13, 1979) entitled “The Power of Pentecost: We Need it More Now Than Ever,” the author asks, “Why in every sector of Christianity today… [is] there so little evidence of spiritual power…?” “I am haunted,” he continues, “by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the disciples long, long ago.  Where is that power today?  Can it come among us again?”  Then, finally, he adds, “It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

I believe that it is this awareness of “something missing” that prepares us for the “something more” that the experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit brings into our spiritual lives.  It’s when we hunger and thirst for the reality of the things that we believe are true that we will start to ask, and knock, and seek, and that’s when Jesus said that the fullness of the Holy Spirit will be given to us (Luke 11:13).

My spiritual awakening happened in 1965.  That’s when I was “born again,” and I believe that it was at that time that I was forgiven and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is just “part of the package” of Christian conversion Biblically.  You can’t be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38; Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:1-5). But in my experience it wouldn’t be for another six years that I would “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit who indwelt me when I first believed.  For six long years the Holy Spirit had been living in the house of my life, but I wasn’t aware of His presence or consciously plugged into His power.  This happens because, as the Reformed Biblical Theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) explained –

In (the) great redeeming process two stages are to be distinguished. First come those acts of God which have a universal and objective significance, being aimed at the production of an organic center for the new order of things. After this had been accomplished, there follows a second stage during which this objective redemption is subjectively applied to individuals.

I’d believed the objective work of God in Christ to save me, but I’d not had a conscious experience of this saving work of God in Christ subjectively applied to me. I see this dynamic at work in the great “Apostolic Benediction” of 2 Corinthians 13:14 –

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
 

Salvation is the work of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It originates in the love of the Father.  It is accomplished by the grace of the Son in the finished work of His atoning death, burial and resurrection.   And it is applied by the communion of the Holy Spirit, by the way that the Holy Spirit communicates God’s grace in Christ to us and facilitates our sharing in it.  When we resist (Acts 7:51), quench (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), we close the door on the Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in our lives, and miss the conscious experience of the adequate spiritual dynamic for the living of the Christian life that God in Christ intends for us.

Jeffrey Simmons was an Episcopal Priest who was irritated when some members of his parish kept urging him to go to a certain conference where he could “get the Spirit.”   He finally wound up going, but resolved that he wasn’t going to let anybody pray for him while he was there.  Dodging offers to be prayed over at every turn, and becoming increasingly irritated by the whole idea, he finally retreated to a quiet garden where he could hide.

Sitting with my back against the trunk of a tree, I tried to sort out my feelings. I felt trapped (someone else had driven and I didn’t have a car.)  I felt pressured and manipulated… But as the sunlight sparkling through the cool green leaves started to calm me, I became aware that I (also) felt curious and a little ashamed of myself for not being more adventurous.  The theme of the conference, boiled down to the essentials, was nothing more than, “God wants to have a closer and more productive relationship with you, if you will just open yourself to receive it.”  I couldn’t argue with that… so I sat under that tree fir an hour and a half praying the hardest I had ever prayed in my life, “Dear God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.”

Several decades later, I still look back at that time of prayer with gratitude. I was not aware, when I emerged from under the tree, that anything had changed.  It was not an emotional experience at all.  The changes happened gradually over the next six months.  Prayer became a hunger, and the sense of God’s presence far more intense.  The amount of money I spent on Christian books increased dramatically. The biggest change, however, was what happened when I read the Bible.  Passages I had read fifty times took on a vividness and urgency that were almost disorienting.  All I had said was, “God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.” …It simply says, as I think Christians should always say, that God always has more for me, and I am standing before him with empty, receptive hands.

Biblically, I believe that the normal Christian life consists of both being “born again” (John 3:3) and of being “Spirit-filled” (Ephesians 5:18). Jesus Christ as the Savior came to do both.  He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and He is the “One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  But my spiritual life had been artificially truncated because nobody ever told me this, or showed me in Scripture how this was so.  As the disciples of John the Baptist told Paul outside of Ephesus in Acts 19:2 – I hadn’t even been told “that there was a Holy Spirit!”  And then, everything changed for me when at a prayer meeting when I was encouraged to “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit.  I did, and what I had known for a long long time was true suddenly became just as real to me, in me, and that’s the promise that Pentecost holds for each one of us.  “Come Holy Spirit, Come!DBS +

fire

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“All dressed up with nowhere to go, and nothing to do…”

cardinal

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, the high church variety. You know, “smells and bells.”  We took ourselves and our adherence to tradition quite seriously. In that old nature/nurture debate, I attribute my stalwart “SJ” temperament [matched by an “I” and a “T” for anyone who might be curious about my “type”] in no small measure to my being spiritually socialized in a church that actually had full rehearsals for all of its high holy day worship services so that we would “do it right” — that is, the way that it had always been done according to tradition.

Anyway, it was at the end of a long Lenten season and a marathon of intricate Holy Week worship services, that I was standing in the sacristy (the communion preparation room and worship staging area) with a couple of my fellow acolytes attending to all of the post-service details after the last Easter morning Worship, when I overheard our priest, getting out of his liturgical vestments, mutter – “Thank God that’s over.”

I’ve been through 40 Lents and Holy Weeks as a local church pastor now myself, so I know full well what he meant. He was tired.  He just wanted to go home and have a martini — what he had “given up” for Lent and go to bed.  He needed some down time.  I “get” that.  What I don’t “get” is the spiritual and Biblical myopia that his statement betrayed.

In the minds of way too many of us, Easter marks the end of the story. Get to Easter, and we’re finished until Advent and Christmas rolls around again in November and December.  This is our Christianity –

  • God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in Jesus Christ – the Christmas truth of the Incarnation – check – got it!
  • Jesus Christ going to the cross in a saving act of sacrificial love – the Good Friday truth of the Atonement – check – got it!
  • And Jesus Christ being raised from the dead on the third day triumphing over death and darkness – the Easter truth of Personal Regeneration and Cosmic Renewal – check – got it!

But if this is where we stop, then what we’ve got is Jesus back up on His feet and all dressed-up, but with nowhere to go and nothing to do! And if this is where your Christianity puts the period, then you’ve only got half of the Gospel.

bosch.pngDavid Bosch in his magisterial theology of the mission of the church Transforming Mission Orbis – 1991) identified the six Biblical moments in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ: (1) Christmas – the Incarnation – what God was doing to save us by becoming flesh in Jesus Christ; (2) Good Friday – the Atonement – what God in Christ was doing to save us by going to the cross; (3) Easter – the Resurrection – what God was doing to save us by raising Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day; (4) The Ascension –what God was doing to save us by seating Jesus Christ at His right hand as Lord; (5) Pentecost – what God was doing to save us by sending the continuing empowering presence of Christ to indwell individual Christians and the whole church; and (6) The Second Coming – what God is going to do to finish the work of salvation already begun in Jesus Christ when He comes again.

The “full” Gospel takes into account all six of these saving moments in the drama of God’s work in Jesus Christ.  And so, to pull up short and stop at Easter is to literally leave half of the Gospel on the table, and ironically, it’s the half of the Gospel that actually moves the story from history to our hearts!  As a prayer I am praying these days as part of my personal devotion puts it –

“Thou hast this day spread before us the fuller pages of revelation, and in them we see what thou wouldest have us do, what thou hast required of us, what thou hast done for us, what thou hast promised us, what thou hast given us in Jesus. [Now] we pray thee for a conscious experience of his salvation…” (The Sunday Evening Prayer from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions – Arthur Bennet, ed.  The Banner of Truth Trust. 1975. — Yes, I really am an “SJ”…)

For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the part of the Gospel that the Ascension, Pentecost and the promise of the Second Coming specifically offer us – that is, an awareness of the active Lordship of Christ over all of creation (Ascension); the experience of the indwelling and empowering presence of Christ assuring us of our identity as God’s children and driving us out to share in His mission in the world (Pentecost); and a deep aching for the final coming of the Kingdom when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (The Second Coming).  Without this awareness, this experience and this ache, our Christianity will always be more a theory than a love affair.  For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the whole Gospel. So, to my priest’s exhausted – “Thank God that’s over” – spoken in the sacristy of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California, 50 years ago, this veteran of 40 Lents and Holy Weeks now himself replies – “Not yet, Father… it’s not over yet.” Jesus Christ was raised on the third day to finish the work of salvation that His birth, life, death and resurrection began, and “finishing” it involves the Ascension, Pentecost and the Second Coming.

This all hit me with particular force a week ago at Sunday evening’s Ephesians Bible study (broadcast each week between 5:30 and 6:30 pm – Central Standard Time – on Facebook Live) as we dug into 1:17-21 –

17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Paul addressed these words to Christians, to people who already knew and fully trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In 1:15-16 Paul had affirmed and celebrated with the Ephesians what it was that he had heard about their faith and love.  They were already well-grounded believers, and what Paul wanted for them next was growth.  He didn’t want them to rest on their past laurels of faith and faithfulness, but rather Paul wanted them to keep on growing in their understanding and experience of the hope to which they had been called, of the value of the promises that God had made to them, and of the power that was available to them.  It wasn’t over yet, and Paul wanted these believers who had had such a good start not to stall out in the face of the challenges and conflicts that were yet to come their way.  And in his word of encouragement to them, Paul appealed to what God had already done for them by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, as well as anticipating what it was that God was still going to do for them because Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places.  In other words, Paul brought the “full” Gospel into play in his efforts to encourage the faith of the Ephesian Christians as they moved into the future, and it’s there for us as well.

godIn Romans 8, Paul grounded his affirmation of God’s love in Jesus Christ from which nothing can separate us in three Gospel moments: (1) In the fact that Christ died for us (8:32); (2) In the fact that Christ was raised for us (8:34b); and (3) In the fact that Christ now intercedes for us at the right hand of God (8:34c). Again, it’s the “full” Gospel – what Christ has already done for us, what Christ is presently doing for us, and what Christ has yet to do for us – and not some partial version of it that securely tethers us to the certainty of God’s love and that tightly attaches us to the promises of God’s faithful care and concern for us, and the whole world.

When Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, He had somewhere to go and something to do, and for a conscious experience of the salvation that He provides, it’s best to see this story through to its very end, and to build our faith on the complete foundation that we are being offered. DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“Do Something Beautiful for God… Become Someone Beautiful for God”

Tradition says that after considering other religious options, that the Russians consciously chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be their state religion because when they experienced its worship for the very first time, they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth… for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty… and they could not forget that beauty.”

eastercross

I thought this about our worship at Northway on Easter Sunday morning. I cannot forget that beauty — the Choral Scholars’ Quartet singing Mendelssohn’s “O Come, Every One that Thirsteth,” the flowering of the cross, the y’all come and sing version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Margaret and Justin’s astonishing piano and organ duet during the Offertory, the spectacular spread of blooming Easter lilies, the choir’s lush anthem and stirring preface to our processional hymn, and the worship team singing “Beautiful Things” after my morning meditation on “Beauty from Ashes” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

I didn’t know if I was on earth or in heaven!

goodWe have tended to underestimate the power of beauty as one of the God-triggers in our souls. One of the three “transcendentals,” we’ve tended to rely on the other two so much more in practice. Our activist impulse, that God-implanted desire to do something, anything, to make the world a better place orients us towards the way of the good.  And our drive to understand things both great and small routinely puts us on the path of the true. But classically understood, beauty is just as sure a way into an awareness of God as is our drive to do what’s good and to know what’s true.

I based my Easter message this year on the line from Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” song about how the mission of God’s Messiah when He came would be to exchange “ashes for beauty” (61:3), and how this has become a familiar way for Christians to think and talk about the promise of Easter. After the brutality of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday, when Jesus was raised on the third day, this exchange occurred — the ashes of death, despair, and apparent defeat became the beauty of the resurrection to newness of life. At the lowest moment in the story of Jesus, “all of the shattered fragments of spiritual power were suddenly quickened, strengthened, and clothed with loveliness.” On Easter Sunday morning I said that this is what Christ came to do – “to bring a new life out of the old ashes” (James D. Wilson). And this is not some abstract theological concept.  No, this is immediate and personal.

It’s about the difference that Jesus Christ makes in your life as your Lord and Savior. It’s what we mean when we sing – “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” It’s about the ashes of death giving way to the beauty of life, both eternal and abundant. It’s about the ashes of despair giving way to the beauty of hope.   It’s about the ashes of shame and guilt giving way to the beauty of forgiveness.  It’s about the ashes of division giving way to the beauty of inclusion.   It’s about the ashes of defeat and discouragement giving way to the beauty of transformation and renewal.  It’s about the ashes of regret giving way to the beauty of regeneration.  The power of Easter is in how it takes our ashes and makes them into something beautiful.

Years ago Joseph Aldrich wrote about how it is the beauty of the Gospel and not just the Gospel’s words that has the real power to transform people. He wrote –

…The “music” of the gospel is the beauty of the indwelling Christ as lived out in the everyday relationships of our lives. We must become recipients of God’s blessing, begin to incarnate His beauty in our relationships, and open these relationships to the non-Christian… Once this “music” has been heard, then expect to be asked for the “reasons for the hope (beauty) that you have.”  Play the beautiful music, and they’ll listen to the words of the song. (Life-Style Evangelism 21)

motherMother Teresa was famous for telling her little brothers and sisters of charity all around the world to try to “do something beautiful for God” each and every day. This prompted Philip Kosloski to write an essay for the “National Catholic Register” on the beauty of Mother Teresa’s life and work for the weekend last September when she was canonized a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He asked —

…Will beauty save the world? Yes it will, but it must be a Beauty united to Truth and Goodness, and a beauty that encompasses all aspects of life. The Gospel we preach to the Modern World will not be found effective if it does not recognize the importance of beauty, especially the beauty of Christian witness.

…By drawing closer to God, our lives reflect a particular beauty, which has the capacity to attract others to the beauty of God. In seeing the beauty of God in our lives, others see that being a Christian is not something oppressive or burdensome, but is actually liberating and beautiful.

“… the Christian life is called to become, in the force of Grace given by Christ resurrected, an event of susceptible beauty to arouse admiration and reflection and incite conversion. The meeting with Christ and His disciples… must always and everywhere have the potential to become an event of beauty, a moment of joy in the discovery of a new dimension of existence, an invitation to put oneself on the road to the Father of Heaven to enjoy the vision of the Complete Truth, the beauty of the Love of God: Beauty is the splendour of the truth and the flowering of Love.” (The Via Pulchritudinis, §III.3 – Pope Benedict XVI)

You see, we don’t just believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christians, we live it. The Gospel’s exchange of ashes for beauty that Christ’s resurrection 2,000 years ago embodied now plays out in our lives as the ashes of the rebellion of our sin and the brokenness of our lives getting exchanged for the beauty of our transformation and personal renewal.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. And all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Because Christ is Risen and we are walking in newness of life through our share in it by faith (Romans 6:1-1-11), this Eastertide let’s go do something beautiful for God, or better yet, let’s become someone beautiful for God. Because of Easter, our ashes have a beauty appointment.  DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

Seeing the Gospel

palm

Holy Week Worship
____________________________________________________________________________

There is tremendous confusion about the Gospel these days. J.C. Ryle (1816 – 1900) the 19th century Anglican Bishop and spiritual giant warned that the church can obscure the Gospel in at least three different ways:  By addition – that is, by adding beliefs and practices to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ; By substitution – that is, by making other things more interesting or more urgent than God’s saving work in Jesus Christ; and by disproportion – that is, by exaggerating the importance of the secondary things of Christianity, thereby diminishing the importance of the first thing of Christianity – God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.

When this happens, when the Gospel gets obscured, the church becomes “a trumpet that gives an uncertain sound,” as the Apostle Paul put it, and people don’t know what to do or where to turn (I Corinthians 14:8). And the tragedy of this is that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation for everyone who will believe” (Romans 16:16).  People all around us are desperately looking for meaning and purpose, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for courage and strength, for hope and peace.  And we are too!  The Gospel of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is what we’re all looking for, it’s what we all need, and if we’re not clear about what it is as a church, then what is it that we think we have to offer instead?

bbw

I’ve been haunted for 50 years now by something that the radical Episcopal Bishop James Pike told the Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. He said that what he went looking for was the bread of life and that what the church gave him instead were just stones. One of the big reasons why I am a Disciple of Christ is because of our practice of weekly Lord’s Supper.  Every Sunday morning in the breaking of the bread and in the pouring of the cup the Gospel gets preached again to me again.  Each week at the Lord’s Table I am reminded of and renewed by God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. And it holds that possibility for you too.  No matter what else may or may not be going on in a church on any given Sunday morning, there’s living bread and not stones being offered at the Lord’s table in a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where Christ’s sacrifice of love is remembered in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup.

The way I read the Gospels, Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to preach another sermon. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to organize a movement. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to topple a government. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to make an argument.  Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to work another miracle.  Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to offer Himself as “the one perfect Lamb of God willing to take away the sins of the world in one final sacrifice.” So, draw in close this week. Pay attention to what’s happening, to the story that’s being told, to the events that are remembered in worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This is the Gospel that we are seeing.  DBS +

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“I got an ‘A’ in God!”

god.png

The Importance of Humility in Knowing God

I recently took a theology test online. It consisted of 33 questions on the Trinity.  I got them all right, at least from the perspective of the test giver, and he gave me an electronic “attaboy” for doing so.  I was made to feel like I was in a select group of people who had accomplished this feat, numbered among those who really know God.  It reminded me of a conversation I’d had in seminary long ago.

It was the end of a semester. A fellow student stopped me in the hall one day to ask me about my grade.  “How did you do in theology?” he wanted to know. I told him, and then he said proudly, “I got an ‘A’ in God!”

An “A” in God?

Well, I’d gotten an “A” in that class too, but that’s not the same thing as getting an “A” in God, and that’s an important distinction if you ask me.

God is not an object that we examine.   God is not a subject we master.  God is a personal being whom we encounter, and with whom we can develop a relationship.  This is why Eastern Orthodox Christians don’t think of people who have read the books, gone to school, and passed the classes to be the real theologians, but rather those who know how to pray, those who are in a sustained relationship with the living God, and this is not an idea that is alien to our own spiritual tradition.

Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866) one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), frequently championed in his writings some basic rules for the proper interpretation of Scripture using the very best tools of scholarship at our disposal (http://www.thebiblewayonline.com/Studies/A-%20Bible%20Rules%20for%20bible.htm). And after naming six rules that require us to fully engage our minds when opening our Bibles to read, Alexander Campbell concluded with his all-important seventh rule –

RULE 7 – For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God [his way of talking about the Bible], the following rule is indispensable: We must come within the understanding distance. There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance, or the hearing distance; beyond which the voice reaches not, and the ears hear not. To hear another, we must come within that circle which the voice audibly fills. Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is an understanding distance. All beyond that distance cannot understand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of piety and morality. God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference… He… that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. Like Mary, he must sit at the Master’s feet, and listen to the words which fall from his lips. To such a one there is an assurance of understanding, a certainty of knowledge, to which the man of letters alone never attained, and which the mere critic never felt.

Now, I hear in this an echo of something that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) had written long before –

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way… You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal… Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through his dear Son, graciously to grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding… Although he knew the text of Moses well and that of other books besides and heard and read them daily, yet David desired to have the real Master of Scripture in order by all means to make sure that he did not plunge into them with his reason and become his own master.

Gabriel Fackre says that “mystery” and “modesty” are the two most undervalued theological virtues of all, and so I have tried to consciously cultivate them in my own life of faith.  Valuing “mystery” means that I try to constantly keep in mind the fact that there is always so much more to God and His ways than I could ever possibly comprehend.  As someone has put it, “If I had God completely figured out, then He wouldn’t be much of a God would He?” Valuing “modesty” means that I try to hold onto my own settled convictions just as generously and gently as I possibly can, appreciating the way that others have their settled convictions too, borne of their own struggles and experiences just as mine are borne of my own deep struggles and meaningful experiences.  And so, rather than using mine to clobber them with “the truth” that I “know,” I want to humbly put it into conversation with “the truth” that they “know,” in order that together we might be mutually engaged and enlarged.  And when this actually happens, inevitably I find that we wind up on our knees.

At a recent seminar I attended the speaker talked about the “4-D’s” of good theology – Drama, Doctrine, Doxology and Discipleship.

Doctrine grows out of the Biblical drama… then those doctrines rooted in the drama fill us with thankful hearts – doxology… and finally doxology yields the fruit of love and good works – discipleship. (Michael Horton)

That speaker argued that unity comes from getting the doctrine that is rooted in the drama right. But it seems to me that this is the approach that has gotten us to the hundreds and hundreds of denominations that currently litter the religious landscape of Christianity.  If I insist on a faith that says A-B-C-D, the minute you conclude that the way faith really goes is A-C-D-B, then we’ve got to part ways.  The more exact our doctrine becomes the more fragmented the church must be.

But what happens when we start from the other end? What happens when we start with doxology and discipleship?  By joining our hearts together in prayer and worship, and then by living out our faith together by joining our hands together in acts of concrete and specific service to one another and the world, I believe that we have a basis for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace that we are told as Christians that we need to maintain (Ephesians 4:3). But it’s going to take an appreciation for mystery and a commitment to modesty if this is to happen — a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our own knowledge while at the same time creating space for what others have come to know.

Os Guinness in his terrific 2014 book Renaissance (IVP) startled me when he wrote –

Few controversies among Christians are so fruitless as the perennial debate over God’s sovereignty and human significance… Overall, it is quite clear that the general discussion of the issue has commonly been unproductive. Far too many hours have been wasted, far too much ink has been split, and because of the disagreements far too many have dismissed others as not being true Christians and have been dismissed by other Christians in their turn.

Some simple truths are worth recalling…

First, the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths, and not just one or the other. God is sovereign, humans are significant, and it is God who made us so. 

Second, history shows equally plainly that human reason cannot explain both truths.   Those who try to do so almost always end up emphasizing one truth to the exclusion of the other, one side majoring on divine sovereignty and the other on human significance. 

Third, the lesson of the Scriptures and Christian history is that we should rely firmly on both truths, and apply the one we most need when we most need it. (90-91)

And then Os said it –

There is a mystery as to how God’s sovereignty and our human significance work together, and there always will be.

A recognition of “mystery” that fosters in us an attitude of “modesty” is what brings us within the hearing distance of the divine, and that’s the goal. DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

“Compel Them to Come In” (part 3)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church

bee

Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)____________________________________________________________________________________________________

This is the third and final part of a consideration of the arguments that I find “compelling” when making the case for why I think that someone should give the Disciples of Christ in general, and Northway Christian Church in particular, a good look when thinking about finding a church.  These are my reasons.  You can agree with them, or you can disagree with them, that’s fine.  What we can’t afford to do is not to carefully think through our reasons for being a part of this church.  We are at a critical moment in our ecclesiastical life when it is urgent that we each have some good and compelling reasons for being here, and that form the basis of inviting others, even urging others, to join us. DBS +

6.  We are honor the richness of our varied community of interpretation. Of course, for this “good faith assumption” (see #5 from yesterday’s posting) to actually work, we’ve got to be open and honest with one another about not just what it is that we believe, but also about how we have arrived at those conclusions that we cherish. This means creating and then defending a community of interpretation where every perspective in the family has a seat, is given a voice, and gets an honest hearing. The way we show our seriousness about Christ, and the way that we demonstrate our commitment to doing what He commands is by putting our own settled convictions into serious and sustained conversation with the settled convictions of others in the community with whom we do not agree. Mocking the convictions of others, disrespecting the conclusions of others, ridiculing the intelligence of others, standing in an imagined spiritual, intellectual and theological superiority over others stiff-arms the very people with whom we most need to be in conversation as well as short-circuiting the very process by which we can experience and express our core unity. I may disagree with you, but I don’t have to denigrate you. I may cherish a very different set of conclusions than you cherish, but this doesn’t require me to be mean-spirited and dismissive of you and your concerns and perspectives. Disciples at our best have been able to value charity in all things, but there are always strong forces at work to subvert this way of being church, and that seems especially so in these days of hyper-partisanship and painful cultural divide.

7.  We love God with our minds. Reasonable trust” – that’s what the author of a book whose seminar I recently attended argues is our high calling as Christians. “The firewall between faith and reason has to come down,” he says, so that “our hearts can embrace someone you actually know something about.” Before I became a Disciple, I was made to feel that my questions were akin to unfaithfulness.   I was being formed by an approach to faith that viewed it as a fragile thing that could not possibly bear up under hard examination. In that other community of faith that was vying to become my permanent spiritual home back in the day, I detected a certain fearfulness of ideas. Then I providentially attended a Christian College where I got to see “Disciples” teachers take on every challenge and welcome every question with intellectual rigor and respectful courtesy. Dr. William Richardson, Dr. Dennis Helsabeck, Dr. Ward Rice, Dr. Herb Miller, Dr. Song Nai Rhee, Dr. Lawrence Bixler – these cherished teachers of mine set a standard for Christian scholarship right from the beginning that I have tried to imitate in my life and ministry ever since. To be a “Disciple” is to do this — it is to love God with all our mind..

8.  We strive to be “doers and not just hearers of the Word.Each Sunday morning at Northway we finish the morning Scripture lesson with the reader saying – “May God bless us with understanding so that we might be doers of this Word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). More than just words, this aspiration speaks of a practical approach to the teachings of the Scriptures that expects them not just to fill our heads with interesting thoughts, but to fill our lives with values and truths that are meant to be lived. Jesus’ parable at the end of His Sermon on the Mount connects deeply with the “Disciple” approach to what’s in the Bible –

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

9.  We know that we are “not the only Christians.” This is part of one of the traditional slogans of the Disciples. It is the “good faith assumption” (#5 from yesterday) applied not just to all other “Disciples,” but to all other Christians as well. One of the real gems in our history is a letter that Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, wrote in 1837 that’s known as the “Lunenburg Letter” –

But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. … It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.

There was a time when this quote from our spiritual heritage was framed and prominently hung in all of our churches. It was a declaration of our intention to be generous and gracious with everyone who names Christ as Lord and Savior.  In this day when we are being torn apart into factions, it may be time to put it back up on the walls of our churches and get it back into the hearts of our people.  Anyone who regards Jesus Christ to be their Lord and Savior is a brother or sister to me – Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, 5 Point Calvinist Presbyterians, Arminian Wesleyans, Holiness Nazarenes, United Methodists, High Church Episcopalians, Inclusive Metropolitan Community Churches, non-dogmatic Quakers, Evangelical megachurches, Progressive United Churches of Christ – anyone, anywhere who names Christ. Treating them respectfully, listening to them eagerly in order to discover their unique perspectives, expectant of receiving a gift or grace from them that will expand my own Christian understanding and experience — I don’t have to agree with everything they say in order to treat them as my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Being a “Disciple” encourages this kind of generous engagement with other Christians. And not just with other Christians, but with all other human beings of genuine faith as well.

10.  We know that we are not the only people God in Jesus Christ loves, or who love God. The generosity of God in Jesus Christ that we affirm as Disciples fosters in us an optimism about how God is at work in the religious impulses of people everywhere and always. I don’t have to jettison my belief about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ when I engage in conversation and cultivate relationships with people of other faith traditions. I believe that the scope of God’s love in Jesus Christ includes them. I believe that the efficacy of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is sufficient for them. And I believe that the searching and convicting work of the Holy Spirit is operative in their hearts too. And so, in exactly the same way that I would never denigrate or dismiss the genuine faith of another Christian no matter how different their convictions are from my own, so I would never denigrate or dismiss the genuine faith of another human being from another faith tradition no matter how different their convictions are from my own either. Knowing that God loves them, and taking Acts 14:17 and 17:22-28 seriously, I look for bridges between people of different faith traditions that can bring us together rather than the buttressing the walls that keep us apart from each other and spiritually suspicious of each other. Our characteristic ecumenism as Disciples provides us with a way of managing our beliefs in a world where not everyone believes as we do.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

A Pharisee’s Lent; A Publican’s Lent

black

______________________________________________________________________________

The beginning of Lent always fills me with some feelings of spiritual dread, both as a Christian myself, and as a shepherd of the souls of others. You see, this is tricky ground onto which we are about to step.  If observed with the right spirit and within a proper Biblical framework, then I believe that Lent truly can be an helpful tool in our continuing process of spiritual formation, our being rooted and grounded in Christ so that we might know the breadth and length and height and depth of His love for us, and for all of creation (Ephesians 3:17-18).  I have kept Lents in the past that have produced this result in me.  But if observed with the wrong spirit and without a proper Biblical framework, then I know that Lent can be positively dangerous to a soul.  I know this because I have also kept Lents in the past that have damaged me spiritually. The simplest way I know to distinguish between a Lent that is spiritually constructive and a Lent that is spiritually destructive is to remember one of the more familiar parables that Jesus told — the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Luke alone of the four Gospel Evangelists tells us the story (18:9-14) –

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

A Pharisee’s Lent will hinder your relationship with God.
A Publican’s Lent will serve it.

A Pharisee’s Lent is a Lent of works righteousness, a promotion of all those things that we do for God that we think will somehow demand His attention and deserve His appreciation — “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Spiritually, this is our default position.  Some would say that it’s actually hardwired into us. We always think that if we’ll just “do more” and “try harder,” then God will love us “more” and “harder.”  The premise of this notion is that God loves us because of something meritorious in us – something we think, something we believe, or something we do. This takes a variety of forms: doctrinal, denominational, moral, political, experiential and liturgical.  I’ve played this game in most of these arenas at one time or another in my 50+ years of following Jesus.

orangeThere have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if I could curry God’s favor because my Christology is totally orthodox by Nicene/Chalcedonian standards. There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if God loves me more because I belong to the right church that baptizes in the right way and that observes communion on the right schedule.  There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if God accepts me more completely because of the political party that best represents me and my concerns, or because of the candidate that I voted for in the last election, or because of the positions that I have taken on the pressing social questions of the moment.  There have been times when I‘ve thought and acted as if I am a better Christian than you are because I have or have not prayed in tongues, because I do or do not exclusively use the King James Version of the Bible, because I drink or do not drink adult beverages, because I go or do not go to movies, because I prefer pipe organs and hymns to guitars and choruses, or vice versa, because I believe or do not believe in a Premillennial, post-tribulation rapture of the church, or don’t, because I pray “debts” in the Lord’s Prayer, or “trespasses.”   In every case, I’ve acted as if it’s what I do, or what I think, or what I believe that convinces God to love me.  I make myself “worthy” of God’s affection and attention by being “right” on any number of issues and practices. I think myself as being more “deserving” His care and concern because I am correct about the things that I believe matter to Him, and to me.

A Pharisee’s Lent is a Lent during which extra spiritual disciplines are taken on and little luxuries and pleasures are deliberately given up in order to show God just how serious we really are about Him. And while we would probably never admit it out loud, at some deep level we do these things thinking that God will notice our herculean sacrifice, especially when compared to others, and that God will then bless us in some special way — “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” They’re a way of earning “brownie points” with the Divine.  If I don’t have a drink for the 40 days of Lent, or eat a dessert, or say a cuss word, or tell a lie, or say my prayers, or read my Bible, or go to church every Sunday, then God will owe me some special favor come Easter.

lentThe Publican’s Lent is a different kind of experience altogether. The Publican’s Lent is an honest admission of guilt and a simple cry for help – “‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  It’s the same spiritual experience that’s at work in the first 4 steps of the 12 Steps recovery program – (1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable; (2) We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; (3) We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him; (4) We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  The dynamic of the Publican’s Lent is human helplessness and the availability and sufficiency of Divine mercy.   It starts with the recognition that something is fundamentally disordered about us, and it leads us on the path of despair to the personal embrace of grace.

My staff at the church reads an article together each week, and then discusses it. Last week, in anticipation of Lent, we read a “Lenten Spirituality Reflection” written by Laura Sheahen for the “Faith in Focus” section of the March 13, 2006, issue of the Jesuit publication America (http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/564/faith-focus/lenten-spirituality-reflection). In my mind, Laura powerfully identified the truth that is at the very heart of the Publican’s Lent –

Most of us go about our lives feeling pretty sure we are not desperate sinners. We do not murder, embezzle or kidnap children. Our lies are mild, a few embellishments on the 1040 or forgivable: “What surprise birthday party?” Our cruelties are unambitious: a coworker snubbed or a clerk snapped at. And most everything can be chalked up to tiredness or psychology or the bad weather. And yet. Occasionally after a crisis, or just a sleepless night, we start to suspect there is something deeply wrong not just with the world or life in general, but with ourselves….

 The nagging suspicion grows. Why can’t we shake destructive patterns? Why do we keep yelling at the children about stuff that doesn’t matter? Why do we spend hours watching television, instead of working on the career change that would make us a better person? Why do we hurt the same people over and over? We never settle for less comfort. Why do we always settle for less kindness and honor and compassion? The patterns are so ingrained, so a part of our daily lives, that they are almost impossible to recognize as dangerous. But every now and then, someone shouts to us and we realize there is something we have unwittingly or wittingly let in and fed.

 Lenten sacrifices like fasting and giving something up are not about French fries. They are about paying attention, about looking directly at the waste and fatal sluggishness and venom that even decent folks have inside. They are about recognizing that something inside of us, left to its own devices, would choke off the best we can be.

ratIn his marvelous history of the “Jesus People Movement” – God’s Forever Family by Larry Eskridge  (Oxford -2013) – one of the Movement’s earliest leaders said that the realization that reordered his life and turned his world right side up again was the “revelatory insight” that there’s a “rat that lives in the cellar of our soul.” Reflecting on his own spiritual condition, this future leader of the last genuine spiritual awakening in American church history came to this “profound realization” –

I finally got it.  I was the rat.  And it was my soul that was repenting.  I thought to myself, “Maybe there is a God.”  I hadn’t considered that possibility in a number of years, when suddenly a peace came over me, my breathing became easier.  My chest became lighter.  And I said, letting out a long sigh, “Oh, Father forgive me.”  And immediately the entire weight that was on my chest was gone, and the rush of relief from my heart was one of exultation… I had never known anything like this before… I understood in an instant that God is my Father and I am His child… The joy, the peace, the love that I had in my heart for God and others was incredible.  Never had I realized anything comparable before…”

This is the Publican’s Lent — a Lent that doesn’t try to impress God with our own spiritually disciplined efforts, but a Lent that instead sends us to our knees and that prompts us to cry out ~ “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!” And if this is where the 40 days of Lent can deliver us, then come Holy Week we will be ready for the Holy Spirit’s fresh application of Christ’s objective saving work on the cross and out of the Empty Tomb.

DBS +

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings