Tag Archives: Christ

“More than watchmen for the morning…”

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 Between graduating from Christian college in May of 1975 and starting seminary in the fall of 1976, I got married and worked as a youth minister at our church in Pocatello, Idaho.   Now, in Idaho they think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t hunt and fish, backpack and camp, snowmobile and ski.  And so part of my job description at the church in Pocatello was to serve as the assistant Scout Master for the church’s troop.  That’s what I was doing at 7800 feet in the Grand Tetons camped next to Hechtman Lake in the shadow of Mt. Berry.

I was with my Boy Scout troop one day out on a scheduled weeklong trek through the backcountry. It had taken the better part of that first day just to get from the trail head up to Hechtman Lake, and on the second day we were planning to go up and over the Mt. Berry pass into the high Alpine Meadows beyond it. We pitched camp, caught our dinner – dozens and dozens of small Dolly Varden trout that went straight from the frigid lake into our frying pans and then into our bellies, and then we sat around the camp fire telling stories and talking about how hard the next day’s climb was going to be.  A few hours after dark everybody was fast asleep in their tents.

The storm came up suddenly and violently as they do high in the mountains. There was a flash of lightening followed almost instantly by a clap of thunder and then it began to pour.  Too late did we realize that we had pitched out tents in a natural runoff for the rain from the granite peaks above us to the lake below us.  And thus began the longest and most desperate night of my life.

I was awakened by the screams of some of my boys being washed into the lake in their tents with all of their stuff. There was a mad scramble to get the boys untangled from their tents and out of the water.  And then once everybody was accounted for, the next critical task was to get out of the rain and to save our campfire for some warmth.  We quickly rigged a canopy over it and slowly fed it firewood that was just barely dry enough to burn.  We unzipped the sleeping bags that we still had to make blankets that we draped over little clusters of boys who looked like drowned rats and then we huddled around the fire against the dark, and the cold, and the rain, impatiently waiting for the sun to rise.

Psalm 130:5-6 says –

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

 My terrible night on that mountain with those boys helps me appreciate what the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote these words. The trouble he was in that prompted him to write this familiar prayer is unspecified in the text. Lots of interpreters say that they appreciate this ambiguity because it allows each reader to fill in the blank with his or her own particular crisis.  Our “depths” are different, and this cry from “out of the depths” is vague enough to be able to take them all in.  This is a prayer that anybody can pray no matter what it is that is threatening to undo them.

What drives the spirituality of this Psalm is the experience of waiting. Simone Weil, one of the great Christian mystics of the 20th century, said that the experience of “waiting patiently with expectation” is the “essence” of the spiritual life in the Bible, and I think that’s right.  The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), and that means that faithful people are going to have to get comfortable with waiting because it concerns things that are “hoped for,” things that are “not yet seen.”

The God of the Bible hears our prayers and acts on our cries for help, to be sure, but always on His terms and in His time. And so, in this Psalm, we who believe get compared with “watchmen for the morning” who wait for the rising of the sun.  That’s literally what I did with my Boy Scouts high up on that mountain in Wyoming back in 1976.   We watched and we waited for the rising of the morning sun.  We understood that with the coming of its light and warmth that everything would get better for us, and this is why the Bible frequently uses the image of dawn as a way of talking about salvation.

The Christmas Canticle that Mark preached on last Sunday morning, the “Benedictus” (Luke 67-70), is the hymn of praise that Zechariah sang to God on the day when his son, the baby who would grow up to be John the Baptist, was born.   This is a song that gets sung in many parts of the church every single day as part of Morning Prayer, at the beginning of the day, just as the sun is rising.   From personal experience I can tell you that there’s some real power in saying – “Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” – as the first streaks of light are crossing a dark night sky.  The sunrise – the “day spring” – is a good picture of the true meaning of Christmas.  Just as the first streaks of light on the far horizon signal the start of a new day, so the humble birth of Christ in Bethlehem’s stable signaled the fulfillment of a promise, the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, the coming of God’s Savior to begin the work of repairing all of creation.  But it takes faith to see, and it takes time to unfold.

I know that we are living in a time of real “depths” – personal, social, political, and cosmic.  And I understand the very real feelings that many of us have that God has inexplicably absented Himself from the very real struggle in which we find ourselves these days. “Where is God?” is our cry in the face of terrorism, and natural catastrophe, and glaring injustice, and inconceivable violence, and abusive power, and blatant greed.  Why, there’s even a theological category for this feeling, it’s called Deus Absconditus,” and it refers to the way that God so often appears hidden in our experience and world. Reflecting on this, theologian Peter Leithart says that it’s when the world spins out of control and our instincts are to “rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” what we need to remember is that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we can know that “confusion is not the final word… that confusion will itself ultimately be confused and dispelled.” That’s the promise of Scripture.

dawnNo matter how dark the night, or chaotic the storm, God’s got this. And this is the kind of trust that the faithful waiting of Advent is meant to activate in us.  It’s by crying out from our depths, and then watching and waiting for God’s tender mercy to break upon us from on high like the dawn that we enter into the spiritual experience of Psalm 130, and the spiritual meaning of the season of Advent, and will wind up with hearts that are truly prepared for the celebration of the coming of Christ at Christmas. DBS +

 

 

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“Crystal Ball Polishers” and the Blessed Hope

“Crystal Ball Polishers” and the Blessed Hope

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
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Titus 2:11-13

meadeDavid Meade, a “Christian Numerologist,” recently predicted that the “Rapture” was scheduled for Saturday, September 23.  Now, the “Rapture” is the belief of some Christians – many of them right here in Texas – that Jesus Christ will secretly remove the church from the world before the Tribulation, the final period of human testing before the Second Coming and Final Judgment, begins.  The “Rapture” is not the Second Coming itself, but is rather just a prelude to it. This is a fine point of distinction in the minds of many.  Most hear “Rapture,” and think – the Second Coming and the end of the world. Eschatological (the study of last things) details and distinctions blend and blur in the popular imagination. And so, when David Meade said that the “Rapture” was Biblically scheduled for September 23rd, most people heard it as that’s when he thought that the world was going to end. When I heard him talk like this, it felt like déjà vu all over again for me.  And then, when it didn’t happen as he said that it would, and Mr. Meade began to make some quick recalculations to account for the delay, I felt like I had seen this movie before.

You see, a number of early Christian teachers believed that Jesus Christ would return in the year 500. Later, the year 1000 captured the end-times imagination of lots and lots of churchmen, just as the year 2000 did in our more recent past.  Joachim of Fiore, an Italian Catholic mystic, said that he believed that the world was going to end in 1260. Thomas Müntzer, an Anabaptist Reformation radical, said that he thought that the end-time events were all scheduled to begin in 1525. William Miller, an early Adventist, taught that Christ was coming back in October 1844, and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that he believed that it would happen in 1874. The late Harold Camping, a well-known fundamentalist radio Bible teacher, said that he believed that Jesus was coming back in September of 1994.  And then, when it didn’t happen, he quickly recalculated and rescheduled the Second Coming for 2011.  Meanwhile, Edgar Whisenant, a rival radio Bible teacher, was just as sure that it was all going to happen in 1988.

There has been no shortage of predictions like these in the long history of the church.

earthWhen I was in high school, Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth was all the rage.  If you read the “Left Behind” series then you got in narrative form what Hal Lindsey taught in The Late Great Planet Earth. We carefully went through this book page by page, detail by detail at more than one of the Bible Studies that I attended back in the early 1970’s.  I know firsthand the sense of power — and relief — that comes from thinking that you’ve got some inside information about the impending end of the world.  But I also discovered pretty quickly in those days just how speculative these timetables of the last day can be, and just how ridiculous the arguments can become between those who hold rival theories about the proper sequence of the events at the end of time, and just how obnoxious some Christians can be about what they think is going to happen next.

The day I get left on a highway shoulder while my friend got a ride from a van full of Jesus People who sorted out the acceptable hitchhikers from the unacceptable ones by conducting a kind of roadside inquisition of the eschatological convictions and conclusions of those requesting a ride from them, was the day that I decided to consciously come at the Bible’s teachings about God’s future promises for the church and the world in a way that was different from all of the calculations, and speculations, and arguments that engaged so many of the Christians that I knew back then.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to jettison my belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ itself because of all the petty and pushy ways that I saw other Christians holding this doctrine. The New Testament was just too clear, and too insistent, about Christ coming again for me to be able to dismiss this whole idea as just being crazy, or merely symbolic, or of secondary importance.  George Eldon Ladd’s observation that Christ’s saving work will be forever incomplete apart from Christ’s personal, glorious, triumphal return was, and still is, pretty persuasive to me. “At the center of redemption past is Christ on the cross,” he used to say, “and at the center of redemption future is Christ returning in glory.” And so, without letting go of the content of Christianity’s cosmic hope as it finds its standard expression in the church’s historic Creeds – “I believe that He shall come again… with glory… to judge the quick and the dead… Whose kingdom shall have no end” – I did want to get beyond the timetables, charts, and arguments.  And it was the great St. Augustine who showed me how to do this.

saint“He who loves the coming of the Lord is not he who affirms it far off, nor is it he who says that it is near,” St. Augustine carefully explained, “It is he who, whether it be far or near, awaits it with sincere faith, steadfast hope, and fervent love.” This idea was further advanced in me by Dr. William Richardson’s insistence when I was one of his students in Christian College that whenever the New Testament talks about the end times and Christ’s Second Coming, that it’s not to fuel speculation but rather to ground our hope and to promote our Christian living. “New Testament eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) is ethical” I often heard him say, and I think that’s right.  This is why every time the New Testament talks about the future tense of our salvation, it is immediately followed by an exhortation to faithfulness.

  • Jesus’ Olivet Discourse on last things in Matthew chapter 24 gets followed by the three parables of Matthew chapter 25: The parable of the ten wise virgins whose oil lamps were trimmed and ready for the bridegroom’s sudden arrival, and the ten whose lamps were not; the parable of the talents; and the parable of the sheep and the goats where we who are Christians are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, shelter the homeless, and visit the imprisoned. These are all “call to action” parables.
  • After his detailed discussion in I Thessalonians chapter 4 about what will happen when Christ comes back, in I Thessalonians chapter 5 Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to therefore keep awake and to be sober (v. 6), to consistently live and love as children of the light and not of the darkness.
  • And writing about the most end-times oriented book of them all in the New Testament, and perhaps in the entire Bible, Darrell Johnson explains – “No other book, in all of human literature, crystallizes what it means to belong to and follow Jesus in this world… Revelation is not a crystal ball revealing esoteric secrets that enable us to escape the harsh realities of life on earth, but a down-to-earth manual on how to be a disciple of Christ facing the harsh realities of life on earth; in particular, how to do this the way Jesus did and does.”

For this reason, in the past 40 years, whenever somebody like a David Meade has come along overconfidently announcing some newfangled speculative theory about how and when the end times are going to unfold, as if it were a self-evident truth and a well-established fact, my mind instantly goes back to the wisdom that Stephen Travis shared in his very fine little book – The Jesus Hope (IVP – 1974) –

Whenever the Bible speaks about the Second Coming its purpose is to challenge us to action. When the Biblical writers refer to it, their purpose is not to give us a detailed explanation of the doctrine, but rather to relate it to some practical needs… (92)

Respect for the natural world, love, community, justice – these are some of the values which the Christian vision of the future puts before us to aim at in human society…. The church is to be a sign of God’s kingdom, pioneering things which are God’s future intention for all people. This is what the church at its best has always been.  Who pioneered mass education?  Who pioneered hospitals?  Who pioneered the abolition of slavery?  In each case Christians played a leading role in causing progressive change… As a pioneer of progress towards the will of God, the church is a sign of the coming reality of God’s kingdom. (125)

The saddest feature of so many books about Christian hope is their failure to show how the hope of Christ’s return is supposed to affect lives right now.   Books that were written to comfort God’s people (Daniel and Revelation) in the face of vicious persecution, have become a happy hunting ground for religious extremists.  Instead of being sources of hope and encouragement, they have become objects of idle speculation… (80)

We want to know the date of Christ’s return. We want God to give us some infallible sign that his coming is just around the corner.  We want God to deal with our unanswered questions about the future. (106)

But Christian hope is not this kind of escapism. On the contrary, hope is a powerful motive for positive Christian living and for social change.  Christian hope is not for tickling our minds but for changing our lives and for influencing society. (7)

It is hope that drives Christians into situations of conflict and squalor, of injustice and inhumanity… It is hope that drives Christians to mission, to service and sacrificial love. (126)

JesusI’m not particularly interested in anybody’s pet theory about how and when Christ will return. In a startling confession of his own ignorance, Jesus told His disciples – “…of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36). It’s my hunch that if by accident some wild-eyed enthusiast just happened to get the date of the Second Coming right and then started widely publicizing it, that God would immediately change the date just to show us who’s really in charge and calling the shots!  No, what the New Testament tells us about God’s future for us, and for all of creation, is not so that we can form discussion groups where we can sit around all day arguing over our favorite speculative theories about the times and seasons that are fixed by God’s authority alone.  I think that the New Testament has a very different purpose in telling us about God’s future salvation.

It is reported that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that if he knew that the world was going to end tomorrow, that his duty today would still be to plant his garden and to collect the rent! The way we show our confidence in the promises that God makes in His Word about what’s coming for us and for all of creation tomorrow, is to start leaning by faith in the direction of the vision of that future with which we have been provided, and to start embodying its values right here and right now in this world where we live today.  We don’t need sensational announcements of impending doom.  What we need are hope-filled Christians making hope-shaped differences in the world informed by their hope-informed values and their hope-full vision of the future. DBS +

 

 

 

 

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“Looking for a Changed 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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Seven Reasons Why I think the Disciples of Christ Are Right

It is General Assembly week for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).   We are so focused on our congregational life and mission here at Northway that I fear that it is sometimes easy for us to miss the life and mission of the larger church, the General Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.  What follows here is part of a keynote address that I presented for a leadership training event in the Northeast Area of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region back in 2004.   What I say here was true for me in 2004, and it is still true for me today in 2017.

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chaliceBack in the 1920’s and 30’s a series of books called New Testament Christianity were privately published and freely distributed to the ministers of our churches.  It was our church’s version of The Fundamentals that were published at just about the same time and for exactly the same reason – to keep the church faithful to its historic convictions.

In the second volume of New Testament Christianity there is an essay by H.T. Morrison entitled “Twelve Reasons Why Disciple of Christ Are Right.” Now, that particular essay from 1926 doesn’t wear especially well today.  Its style is a tad bit more confrontational and its author a wee bit more argumentative than I am personally comfortable with being, but I sure don’t object to the concept.

If we didn’t think that we’re right about some things as a church, then why on earth, or should I say, why in the name of heaven, would we want to be Disciples of Christ?  I don’t know about you, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to be, or remain, part of a church that I thought was fundamentally wrong on the basic questions of faith.  So, what are some of the reasons why I think that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is right?

Well, here are seven of them –

  • First of all, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about having no creed but Christ.  As a church we’ve put all of our theological eggs in just one basket, and I think that’s proper. We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and we relate to Him personally as our Lord and Savior. Ours is a decidedly Christ-centered faith; of Him we’re passionately certain, and everything else flows from that basic commitment. I think that’s right.  

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  • Second, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the authority of the Bible. We’re not much interested as a church in a debate about alternate doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture. Don’t tell me about how you think the Bible got inspired; instead show me what you’re prepared to do with what the Bible actually teaches.   Our founders changed their settled convictions about the proper form and candidates for baptism once they got better clarity about what the Bible taught. Many of us in our lifetimes have changed our view on place of women in Christian ministry by reading the Bible more carefully. And our changing perspectives about human sexuality are being driven not by a neglect of Scripture as a church, but rather by a more careful reading of the Scriptures. This practical approach to the authority of Scripture serves us well as a church. We want to be doers of the Word. I think that’s right

 

  • Third, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the Gospel Ordinances – Baptism by immersion and weekly Lord’s Supper. When somebody voiced a desire to have a deeper experience of God’s grace and Christ’s presence, our church’s founders always sent them to the gospel ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They thought that it was spiritually silly for a Christian to think that he or she could be spiritually vital apart from the means of grace that Christ Himself instituted for our spiritual well-being. And nothing’s changed. Ours is a vital spirituality firmly rooted and grounded in the Gospel ordinances. I think that’s right.

 

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  • Fourth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the unity of the church. The late Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer used to say that Christian unity is the “final apologetic” of the Gospel. Jesus Christ gave the world the right to examine the love of Christians and the unity of the church as the evidence of the truth of the Gospel. The church’s witness to the unconditional love of God simply has no credibility when we can’t get along with or won’t cooperate with our brothers and sisters in other churches. We call the disunity of the church a sin. I think that’s right.

 

  • Fifth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ. As Disciples we cherish the freedom that we have to search the Scriptures for ourselves and to arrive at our own settled convictions without the overbearing interference of others. As individual Christians and congregations we want to be able to work out our life of faithfulness under the Lordship of Christ and in response to the guidance of the Word and Spirit. And this right that we claim for ourselves, we are in turn required to accord to others. In my relationship with you, I must begin with the assumption that you are just as committed to Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as concerned as I am about being faithful to Him. This community of faith is not created or maintained by an authoritarian insistence upon conformity in doctrine or morality, but in our common commitment to listen carefully to Jesus. I think that’s right.

 

  • Sixth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about not forcing a choice between the church’s spiritual mission of witness and the social mission of service. Evangelism and justice are twin mandates of Christ’s church. We are commanded to preach Christ and to feed the hungry; to make disciples and to shelter the homeless; to teach everything that Christ commanded and to tend to the sick; to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to work for the liberation of the oppressed.   Like “the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird” or the two pedals of a bike, Christ’s Church has two mandates. We are called to save souls and to serve society. We refuse to choose between them as a church, and I think that’s right.

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  • And finally I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the ministry of every believer. There is nothing that I am qualified or required to do as a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that you are not qualified and required to do as a member as well, and that’s Biblical. I can baptize; you can baptize. I can preach; you can preach. I can preside at the Table; you can preside at the Table. I can lead a person to Christ; you can lead a person to Christ. We believe that Christian ministry has been placed in the hands of every believer. You were ordained in the waters of baptism and equipped for ministry when you were filled with the Holy Spirit. Part of God’s eternal purpose has been entrusted to you. Each one of us has a place in the ministry of the church. And I think that’s right.

You don’t have to agree with me about what appears on my list, that’s what the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ means. But then again, you’d better have a list of your own, or start working on one, because that’s a big part of the responsibility of being a Disciple.   It was Socrates who said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” And I would argue that an unexamined church is not worth joining.   If you conclude that the Disciples are wrong, then, for conscience sake, you need to find a church that you think is right. And if you conclude that the Disciples are right, then you need to start acting like it — get excited, talk about it, and be prepared to make some sacrifices for it. And if you just don’t know, then isn’t it time to start figuring it out for yourself?   DBS +

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I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth…

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I spent last week with a group of 9th graders at camp teaching them about the God who made us in His image, who sought us in Christ when we went astray, and who wants to be in a conversational relationship with us every single day.  And this week I will play the role of the Apostle Paul in chains in a Roman jail cell at our church’s annual Vacation Bible School where I will get to tell the story of God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ no matter our circumstances to all the children who are there.

In both cases, I know that I am playing the long game.

There will likely be no immediate measurable results from the time and effort put into these two demanding weeks of ministry.  Peter preached one sermon on the day of Pentecost and saw 3,000 people repent, believe and get baptized as the result.   I will put in hours of preparation and expend tremendous amounts of energy in presentation during weeks of ministry like these, and only rarely do I see the needle of faith move appreciably in anybody’s life as a direct result.  Still, I consider weeks like these to be some of the most important of the year.  And that’s because I know that most of the work that I do as a minister is hidden, and only unfolds over time.  As Paul told the Corinthians (I Corinthians 3:6) – I plant, others water, and still others harvest.  Rarely does the same person get to do all three.

Oh, there have been seasons of return and stretches of quantifiable growth in my 40+ Blog_June_26_2years of ministry, to be sure, but never the Acts chapter 2 result of “3,000 souls on one day,” or anything ever even close to it.  No, my experience has been much more in line with what Ole Hallesby (1879 – 1961), the influential Norwegian Lutheran theologian from the last generation described in his lecture “How Can the Word of God Be Preached so as to Result in Awakening and Conversion?” delivered at an annual conference of “The Brotherhood of Pastors Faithful to the Confessions” in Norway.

It is generally conceded to be an incontrovertible fact that there has been, and is, very little spiritual awakening as a result …of the preaching of the ministers of Norway… who on the whole are both capable and conscientious… This raises the serious question: why has there been so little spiritual awakening resulting from this ministerial preaching?  …I would not hereby seek to disparage in the least the solid and faithful inspirational and educational work done by our pastors, and least of all would I hereby seek to add a single stone to their burdens—already difficult and heavy enough to bear. Nor am I forgetting that a believing pastor in many ways does the preparatory work for many a spiritual awakening which God calls into being and leads through others.  And I know, of course, that a believing pastor now and then is also permitted to lead individuals to conscious life in God.   … But, I can get no peace until I have brought this question into the foreground because it burns within my soul – If we desire spiritual awakenings, if we pray for such awakenings, if there is a cry in the souls of our pastors for spiritual awakenings, why then cannot God make use of us to bring them about?

Blog_June_26_3There is a mystery involved in soul work.  Jesus said so Himself in His Parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29) –

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,  and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.

All we can do is plant the seed.  It sprouts and grows all on its own, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. And then there’s the harvest.  Summer camp and Vacation Bible School are exercises in seed planting not harvesting.  My task in these settings is to sow the seed of the Word in the heads and hearts of the young so that it can eventually have its effect –

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,   and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;  it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,  and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The seed that I sow will grow to a harvest that I myself will likely not see.  I plant the seed, somebody else will harvest the crop, and I’ve got to trust the process.  Al Mohler has written about the peculiar strain and stress that all of this creates in ministers –

We who are pastors have a certain product envy. We envy those who build houses or sell cars or build great corporations or assemble automobiles, or merely those who cut the grass. Why? It is because they have something tangible to show for their labor at the end of the day. They may be fastening widgets and assembling automobiles, or they may be putting things in boxes and sealing them up and sending them out, or they may be cutting the grass. They can see the product of their hands. A carpenter or an artist or a building contractor has something to which he can point. What about the preacher? The preacher is robbed of that satisfaction. We are not given the sight to see what we would like to see. As a matter of fact, it seems like we stand up and throw out words and wonder, “What in the world becomes of them? What happens from it? What after all, is our product, and where in the world can you see it?” Words, words, and more words. And then, we sometimes feel like we are flattering ourselves that people even remember what it was we had to say. We are chastened from even asking our own church members and fellow believers for the identity of our text halfway through the next week. Why? Because we are afraid that we will get that shocked look of anticipated response when a person of good intentions simply says, “That was a fine message. I don’t remember exactly what it was about, and I have a very vague recollection of something you may have said, but I want you to know it was powerful.” I think the Apostle Paul responds to this, at least somewhat, in verse 23 when he writes to the Colossians saying, “All of this is true, if indeed, you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.” Paul understood that it was possible to hear in vain and he hoped that it I was not true of this church — that their response to his preaching was not just a succession of nice accolades and respectful comments. Rather, we would like to have an assembly line of maturing Christians go out the door of the church, wherein we could at least see something and note some progress. We could statistically even mark what kind of impact this sermon had over against another. But, we do not have that sight; it is largely a hidden work in the human heart. Such a work will bear good fruit, but this will take time to be evident.

Blog_June_26_4So, bring on the kids!  I’ve got a story to tell, “a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light,” a story that has the power to change them, and through them, to change the world.  Just like the Trojan Horse, my only task this week is to get the story past their defenses of the “ennui” of our age, and get it deep inside them so that when they least expect it, the bottom of it can drop out and the power of its beauty and truth can seize and save them.  I probably won’t be there to see how the Christ story finally leads them to a Christ-decision that makes them Christ-like, but I know that it happens… because it happened to me.  DBS +

 

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“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

 

 

 

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“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 +

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