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Thanksgiving in a Time of Anger, Anxiety, and Anguish

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In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32).  And if you ask me, this is the perfect description of what the Bible means when it talks about God’s Providence.

Blog_image2The English root of the word “Providence” is the word “provide,” and the word “provide” comes from a combination of the Latin prefix “pro” which means “ahead,” and the Latin verb “videre” which means “to see.”  To “provide” literally means to “look ahead, to prepare, to supply, to act with foresight,” and the word “Providence” is how Christians have traditionally thought and talked about the way that the God of the Bible does this for His people.  The traditional doctrine of Providence tells us that God knows what we need even before we tell Him, and that God has every intention of providing for those needs even before we ask Him.

Now, I believe that this is generally true in the sense that God has structured the universe in ways that are designed to sustain our lives and promote our physical well-being as human beings, and I believe that it’s particularly true in the way that God pays special attention and takes specific care of those who belong to Him by faith.  As Romans 8:28 famously says – We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  John R.W. Stott used to say that this Biblical doctrine of Providence is the “pillow on which the head of faith rests,” and what he meant by this was that no matter what might be happening to us or in our world, as Christians we can trust that God has hold of us and isn’t letting go.

Daniel Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great 20th century British preacher, said that in different places and at different moments in the long history of the church that different Biblical teachings have assumed greater importance and required greater attention.  He said that the doctrine of the person of Christ was this Biblical idea in the first few centuries of the church’s life, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was it during the Reformation, and that the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture was it at the beginning of the modern era.  And Dr. Lloyd-Jones said that in our day “the most important doctrine, in many ways, is the doctrine of providence.”

All the time people I hear people say – “You tell me that God is a God of love and care, but look at the world, look at all the bad the things that are happening.  Where’s God? What’s He doing?  How can you possibly believe in a God of love and care when people get gunned down in church and run over by trucks on bike paths?”  And I’ll admit it, personally and pastorally, my confidence in the providential love and care of God gets shaken every time something bad happens – when I see people being ravaged by disease, brutalized by violence, crushed by their circumstances, victimized  by injustice, and abandoned by help and hope.  But rather than giving into despair in those moments, I find that it’s precisely “when all around my soul gives way,” as an old hymn puts it, that I make the discovery once again that “He alone is my hope and stay.”  

My peace and patience, my strength and hope as a Christian come from knowing that God is neither absent nor indifferent.  In the vagaries of my own life, and our whole history in this world as human beings, I truly believe that God is always at work in hidden and mysterious ways, and that when the dust finally settles, that what will finally become clear are the ways that God has always been present in every circumstance, no matter how difficult and confusing those circumstances might be in the moment. As they say – “It’s difficult to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something. It’s only with hindsight that we can see things for what they are” (S.J. Watson).  And so my belief in God’s providential care and concern does not demand that everything make perfect sense to me right now, or make me completely happy in the present moment, but rather, that one day it all will. “Faith is not saying: ‘I understand,’ but rather that: ‘I believe that I will understand.’ Faith is not declaring: “Oh, I’ve got it, I see what this all means,’ but rather that: ‘I believe there is going to be a meaning” (Louis Evely).

I have kept a little piece of paper tucked between the pages of the Bible that I take with me on pastoral calls with this quote from St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) on it –

Blog_image3Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; And when you cannot stand, God will carry you in His arms. [So] do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow, and in every day to come. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to be able to bear it. So, be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.  

It’s in many of those pastoral situations that my confidence in God’s Providence gets most severely tested.  In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for me to get back to my car after one of those calls sad, or mad, about the suffering that I have been allowed to share for a moment, and with an angry fist, or a broken heart, I have cried out to God demanding to know here He is, and wanting to get some explanation about what He is doing. And that’s when this little slip of paper with St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual wisdom scrawled on it becomes a link in the chain that holds my anchor of hope in God during the storms of human suffering and sorrow that I face as a person and a pastor.  And right now it sort of feels to me like we are sitting in our car as a society after having been given access to human suffering and sadness on a scale previously unimagined.  It feels like “all around our soul is giving way,” and that what we desperately need right now is some assurance that “God is still our hope and stay.”  So this Thanksgiving I would encourage to sit down, write out St. Francis’ words on a slip of paper, and then to put it somewhere it can be found easily when life comes at you hard, leaving you sad or mad, and you need to know where God is and what it is that God is doing.

You see, I believe that the other St. Francis got it exactly right. I believe that God is in fact  with us right here and right now in this moment, and that what God is doing is slowly bending our lives, and the life of the whole world, in the direction of His intended and eternal shalom.  And my Thanksgiving Prayer for you this year is for the faith to be able to catch just a tiny glimpse of this, and then for you to be able to give real thanks for the promises that God has made to us, and is in the process of keeping.   DBS +

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“Sticks and Stones… and the Words that Hurt…”

We are studying Ephesians on Sunday evenings at church. This time through Ephesians I have been waylaid by what Paul said about the things that “grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30).

 Oh, I know… I know… there is a substantial argument between scholarship and tradition about this claim of Paul’s authorship of Ephesians. I am more than familiar with its sound and fury. What I’ve personally concluded is that regardless of where you happen to come down on the actual question, Ephesians still internally claims to have been written by Paul (1:1), and Ephesians is still in the canon of the New Testament, meaning that it is still part of the critical grist for the mill of our faith and faithfulness.  So, I’m perfectly willing to give Paul credit for it, if for no other reason than to establish its apostolic credibility, thereby reaffirming the necessity of our having to deal with it as part of “the deposit of faith” (2 Timothy 1:14).

So, doing that, taking Ephesians seriously, let’s take just a moment and ponder the rather startling fact that we can actually “grieve” the Holy Spirit!  Do you mean that we can make God sad?  Do you mean that we can hurt God’s feelings? Do you mean that by our choices we can cause God to weep (Luke 19:41-44)?  What extraordinary vulnerability on God’s part, and what an astonishing power for us to possess as human beings!  God cares so much about the choices we make that when we disregard God’s standards for what’s right, and good, and holy, and just, God actually gets offended — or is it “wounded.” Whenever I read about the “wrath” of God in Scripture – and it’s in the Bible a whole lot more than most of us are prepared to admit – it’s this deep sense of divine disappointment in the choices that we are making that informs my understanding of the concept.  The way I see it, the wrath of God is as much about the ways that we make God sad as it is about the ways that we make God mad.  We can grieve the Holy Spirit.

Just a little bit later in Ephesians, Paul told his readers to keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit (5:18), and when you put these two Holy Spirit mandates from Ephesians together – the negative “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30) with the positive “Keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit” (5:18) – the instrumentality of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in believers for the living of the Christian life begins to loom rather large in the critical conversation about what it means for us to be faithful Christians. In seminary one of my teachers talked often about the centrality of the Holy Spirit in New Testament ethics. “The Holy Spirit inwardly guides the behavior of believers,” he explained. “Christians should expect the Holy Spirit to show them what the right thing to do is in each circumstance and situation.” I understand this not in the sense that the Holy Spirit comes up with what is the good and right thing to do in each moment right there on the spot – a kind of ever-shifting situational ethic.  No, I believe that God has already shown us in the Law and the Prophets what is holy, just, right, and good (Romans 7:12; Matthew 22:34-40; Micah 6:8).  And so I find that how the Holy Spirit helps me in the moment is in the application of the letter of the content of the Law and the Prophets to the immediate context of the particular circumstances and situations of my life.  And in this internal Holy Spirit process that’s constantly going on inside me, I think that it’s my capacity to “yield” (Romans 6:12-19) that determines whether I wind up grieving the Holy Spirit, or being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Life is filled with very real choices. Christians who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ have made a commitment to process these choices with conscious and continuous reference to who it is that we know Him to be, and to what it is that we know Him to want of us, and from us.  This “knowing” of Christ and His purposes depends almost entirely on the Word and the Spirit.  The Word of Scripture is the trustworthy record of God’s self-disclosure in history – the how, and the when, and the where, and the what of God’s speaking and showing of Himself, first to Israel, and then in and through the life of the Apostolic church.  And the Spirit of God at work in the human heart is how these ancient stories and distant teachings get applied to our lives and circumstances today.

I experience God’s moral and spiritual demands as conscious choices, informed by Word and Spirit, to be made in each moment of my life. I can “yield” to what it is that I understand to be the “mind of Christ” in the choice that is to be made, or I can “yield” to the other pressures and influences in my life.  This is the whole frame of New Testament ethics.  It’s Adam or Christ, the old humanity or the new creation, the flesh or the Spirit in every single moral and spiritual choice that we must make as Christians, and the Spirit is the resource that we have been given to assist us in knowing and then doing the right, the just, the good, the “holy” thing in each and every situation.

Now, back to Ephesians and grieving the Holy Spirit…

When we “resist the Spirit” (Genesis 6:3; Acts 7:51) by refusing to yield to God’s wisdom in the moment of a decision (Acts 6:9-10), one of the results of that rebellion is that we wind up grieving the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 63:10).  And in Ephesians, in a place where Paul unpacked this idea with some specificity (4:17-5:20), it is simply startling to see how it is our speech – the things that we say – that so frequently grieves the Holy Spirit.

“…putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors…” (4:25)

 “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,
as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (4:29)

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling
and slander
, together with all malice…” (4:31)

“Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk;
but instead, let there be thanksgiving.” (5:4)

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things
the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” (5:6)

Empty words… coarse talk… evil speech… angry outbursts… wrangling… slandering… false witness… In the moral instruction of Ephesians (4:17-5:20) Paul brought into particular focus how the things that we say are some of the more specific and most consistent ways that we cause the Holy Spirit grief, and this hit me with particular force while teaching Ephesians this time round. Because we always read the Bible in one hand while holding the newspaper in the other, I’m not really surprised that our sins of speech as a primary source of the Holy Spirit’s grief is something to which I would be particularly sensitive.

Just like you, I am terribly bothered by the tone of public discourse in our culture these days. And while it would be very easy for us to point an accusing finger exclusively in one direction or another as the singular source of the precipitous decline of civility in our culture, the fact of the matter is that a lack of respect seems to pervade our social discourse at every level and across all platforms. It’s not just that we disagree, it’s that we feel like we have to demean. It’s not that we feel the need to publicly take principled stands, it’s that we think that we have to mock those who have taken the opposite principled public stand. It’s not that we have our own settled convictions, it’s that we’ve become smug. We don’t want the open exchange of ideas, we want to shut the other side up. We’re outraged when somebody says something cruel about us or crass about what we think, but that certainly doesn’t stop us from hitting back just as hard with crass comments of our own about what they think and cruel words about who they are. It’s not that we’re passionate, it’s that we’re mean. I rarely come away from the point/counter-point postings of Facebook, or from watching the partisan propaganda of the cable news networks without feeling a deep sense of sorrow about the tone and content of how we are choosing to address one another across the cultural, racial, theological, political, social, and sexual divides that are ever widening at our feet. And if this grieves me, then what do you suppose it is doing to the Spirit of the living God?

It was the late George Mallone who said that while becoming a Christian is something that happens in an instant, with the initial decision of faith, that being a Christian is a long and hard process that unfolds only slowly over a long period of time. He quoted Chuck Swindoll’s observation that the renewal of a life is much like the remodeling of a home. It’s a project that always going to “take longer than you planned, cost more than you figured, that’s going to be messier than you anticipated, and that will require even greater determination than you ever expected.” The general contractor for this transforming work that’s going on inside of us as Christians is the Holy Spirit, and this is why the things that we say have such an effect on the Spirit. Jesus said –

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)

When our speech does not reflect the values of the Gospel or the vision of the kind of people that we are becoming in Christ, then the quality and extent of the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts immediately becomes suspect. Our words grieve the Holy Spirit when they reveal hearts that are resistant to the change that the Holy Spirit is trying to engineer in them. So, listen carefully to what you are saying this week. If you hear Christ in your words, then that’s pretty good evidence of the work of God’s Spirit in you. But if what you hear when you speak is the sigh or sob of the Spirit instead, then that’s pretty good evidence that you are resisting the work of the Spirit in your heart, and that it’s breaking His. DBS +

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“You aren’t Christian!”
Confusing Sanctification with Justification

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The Nashville Statement on human sexuality (https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement) issued last week by a “who’s who” of theologically conservative Christian personalities and spokespersons has now been predictably countered with statements soundly condemning it written by a “who’s who” of theologically progressive Christian personalities and spokespersons.

Closer to the ground, ordinary conservative Christians in their Facebook postings have privately concluded and publically announced that anyone who dares to take a position contrary to the conventionally traditional conclusions of the Nashville Statement could not possibly be Christian. As Jonathan Merritt pointed out in his own measured response to the Nashville statement last week (http://religionnews.com/2017/08/30/take-a-deep-breath-the-nashville-statement-wont-change-anything/) –

“You (could) hold to every doctrine in every Christian creed since Jesus’ resurrection but (if) you disagree with the signers on this issue, (then) you are no longer a faithful Christian.”

Not to be outdone, ordinary progressive Christians in their Facebook postings have privately concluded and publically announced that anyone who doesn’t join them in their outraged rejection of the Nashville Statement could not possibly be Christian either.

And in my mind, this all begs a question – “What does it mean to be a Christian?” It’s Jesus plus just exactly what that makes me Christian? Is it Jesus plus socially progressive values? Or, is it Jesus plus socially conservative convictions?  Is it Jesus plus a traditional understanding of sexual morality? Or, is it Jesus plus an open and affirming stance on human sexuality? Is it Jesus plus the Republican political platform? Or, is it Jesus plus the Democrat political platform? Tell me again, it’s Jesus plus just exactly what that makes me Christian?

At the church I serve when someone comes forward to become a Christian, they are just asked one thing – “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and your Lord and Savior?” I remember a time not so long ago when a person who came forward to make this good confession at church, had he been pressed, would have unhesitatingly signed on to the conclusions of the Nashville Statement, while another person who came forward to make this same good confession at roughly the same time, had he been pressed, would have unquailingly repudiated the conclusions of the Nashville Statement! So, tell me, which one of these two should I have sent away saying, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe what you’re telling me about your relationship with Jesus because of what you think about (fill in the blank)!”

My conservative Christian friends are pretty sure which one should have been shown to the door. And my progressive Christian friends are pretty sure which one should have been shown to the door. The problem is, depending on what gets added to the definition of who a Christian is, my conservative Christian friends and my progressive Christian friends would each have had me dismiss the one that they themselves would have kept!  So, again I ask, what exactly is it that makes us Christian, or not?

Thomas Erskine (1788 – 1870), the Scottish lay theologian, famously observed that, In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” And it’s this distinction between “religion” and “ethics,” and their differing sources in “grace” and “gratitude,” that reflects the careful distinction that was characteristically made in the theology of the Protestant Reformation between “justification” and “sanctification,” between “belief” and “behavior” that has helped me answer the question – What is it that makes us Christian?

It says that we become Christians through justification. Justification happens in an instant, with the decision of faith whereby God’s saving work in Jesus Christ moves from the category of being theoretically true as a general concept to becoming personally true for someone as an individual in their actual lived experience. Justification changes one’s standing or position. In justification the obstacles that have hindered one’s access to God get removed, and one is instantly restored to the status of a beloved child. Think of the father’s embrace of the prodigal, and of the immediate changes in his situation described in the word pictures of Luke 15:20-24. This is justification. One minute you’re totally estranged; the next minute you’re fully reconciled.

We start behaving like Christians through sanctification. Unlike justification that happens in an instant, sanctification is a process that unfolds gradually over time. In sanctification we start to live into the new status that we receive in our justification. We start becoming who we are. We start behaving in ways that are consonant with our new identity given to us through the saving work of Christ. We start loving others as we ourselves have been loved by God in Christ. We start forgiving others as we ourselves have been forgiven by God in Christ. We start giving more and more of ourselves away as God has given Himself to us in Jesus Christ.

Justification and sanctification are inseparable elements of the same work of redemption. Think of Jesus’ discussion of fruit and root in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16-18). The “root” is justification. It’s who we are. The “fruit” is Sanctification. It’s what we do. Justification is an either/or matter. Either you are justified or you are not.   But sanctification is a more or less matter. At any given moment we can be more or less sanctified.   We can behave in ways that are more or less consistent with our identity in Christ. And – here’s the rub – what this means is that we can be justified and still not be very sanctified in our attitudes and actions. Think about the Corinthians!

It’s really hard for me to read I Corinthians and not come away from the experience every time without thinking that the Corinthian Christians are the most “unsanctified” folk in the entire New Testament. They were really bad at being Christians. But they were still Christians! Go back and read Paul’s description of the Corinthian Christians in the greeting of I Corinthians (1:2), and his thanksgiving for them in the opening prayer (1:4-9).  As bad as the Corinthians were at being Christians, at no point did Paul ever stop thinking of them, or referring to them as Christians! Because of his confidence in the certainty of their new identity in Christ established by their justification, Paul trusted that the process of their sanctification, slow and spotty as it was when he wrote them, would eventually take hold and unfold in them. Paul believed that Jesus Christ would finish the sanctifying work of redemption that He began in them with their justification.

And what’s instructive for me in this is the spiritual truth that we can be Christians by justification, even while we are still struggling mightily with what it means to think and act like a Christian through sanctification. I find real encouragement in this because I know personally and painfully that I am not consistently or thoroughly Christian in my behavior, even though I have consciously and conscientiously been a Christian believer now for more than fifty years. The theological framework that helps explain how this works for me, and in me, is the Justification/Sanctification distinction.

Richard Lovelace writes that while justification and sanctification are “closely intertwined,” they are nevertheless “quite distinct” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life – IVP – 1979 –pp. 98-102). Being good and doing good, both personally in terms of my morality and socially in terms of my ethics, are the fruit of justification produced through the process of sanctification. But sanctification can’t be confused with justification, or collapsed into justification, without a dangerous legalism quickly ensuing that constantly pushes us to think that we must act as the judge of the genuineness of another Christian’s Christianity. I think that we can gauge the depth of someone’s commitment to Christ based on their observable actions and attitudes.  Based on what we see, I think that we can reasonably conclude that somebody is, or is not, a very good Christian just as Paul did with the Corinthians.   But in this, I think that we must be very careful, both as Christians with traditionalist answers to the pressing moral and ethical questions of the day, and as Christians with progressive answers to the pressing moral and ethical questions of the day, about showing to the door those with whom we disagree because they are not consistently Christian in their attitudes and actions according to the way that I – as either a traditionalist Christian or a progressive Christian – understand what those Christian attitudes and actions ought to be.

Let’s stop doubting that those Christians with whom we disagree are Christians, and let’s start risking respectful conversations with them instead, the sort of respectful conversations that begin with the good faith assumption that we are each securely justified, and that we all – traditionalist Christians and progressive Christians alike – still have lots and lots of room for growth in our own sanctification, and that that process would be well served by learning to listen to why another Christian thinks the way she thinks, and acts the way she acts, especially when she thinks and acts in ways that are very different from my own ways of thinking and acting as a Christian.

Rather than concluding that those Christians with whom I disagree are not really Christians, maybe by taking the time and making the effort to understand the ways that they are trying to live into the implications of their justification, my own sanctification, that is, the ways that I am trying to live into the implications of my own justification will be served.  DBS +

 

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“Around the Table of the Lord’s Supper”

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Can Traditionalist and Progressive Disciples Still Sit Down Together? ______________________________________________________________________

I had lunch last week with two really good friends, one a Disciples minister who was a seminary classmate of mine, and the other one the Disciples church historian who had been our professor back in the day.  My minister friend has just announced his retirement, and so our table talk last week was twinged with a certain amount of nostalgia.  We talked about our life journeys and about how things were different back when we were all just starting out some 40 years ago, and one of the things that we each noted in our own way was just how much more polarized and polarizing the church has become of late.  Maybe this is just an example of the “good old days” syndrome, but things really do feel different today than ever before.  People were certainly no less opinionated in the church 40 years ago than they are today, and they were certainly no less passionate about those opinions, but it feels like something significant has changed.

The United Church of Christ theologian Gabriel Fackre wrote about the twin theological virtues of “mystery” and “modesty,” and that’s what’s been lost in the last 40 years, if you ask me.  Because we don’t know everything that there is to know, even about the things that we think we know, we all must leave some room for “mystery” in our convictions.  And because we don’t know everything that there is to know, then we need to hold what we think we know with some “modesty.”  There are always other ways of looking at things, and the people who look at things differently from the way that we do are not evil or stupid just because they do.

To honor “modesty” and “mystery,” I have always tried to accord to Christians whose convictions and conclusions differ from my own what’s been called the “Good Faith Assumption.” When I disagree with what another Christian is saying or doing, I consciously try to keep in mind that they are just as serious about their faith as I am about mine, that they are just as intent on knowing and doing the truth as I am, and that they are just as committed to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, as their Lord and Savior, as I am committed to Him as my Lord and Savior.  I became a Disciple based on the promise that this was going to be the characteristic way that we would think, talk, reflect, and relate as a church.

Last October I wrote about the impact that the collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s had on me.  I described how I, as a very young Christian, had eagerly read through all of these essays, one right after the other like a shopper earnestly searching for the perfect product to meet his needs, and how it was James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that was the one that made me sit down and pay attention.  It was this one line from that essay that thoroughly captured my heart’s imagination –

chaliceThere is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience.

That’s the kind of church that I went looking for 50 years ago, and it’s the church that I actually found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This was the church that I gladly joined then, and that I have wholeheartedly served ever since.  Not a perfect church; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was the perfect church for me because it was a church that honored careful thinking and respectful talking.  It was a church where people were not expected to agree on everything, but where they were expected to maintain unity in that diversity.   But this is a church that, sadly, I am seeing less and less evidence of these days. Increasingly, what I am seeing are traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples pulling away from each other, and what I am hearing both traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples say is that the terrain that they now separately occupy is the only one that is authentically and thoroughly faithful to what it means to be a Disciple.

Granville Walker exploded the hubris and ignorance of this kind of thinking for me in his 1954 book Preaching in the Thought of Alexander Campbell (Bethany Press).  After showing how Alexander Campbell believed in the full authority and inspiration of the Bible for the faith and practice of the church, and that the Bible had to be carefully interpreted using every critical grammatical and historical tool at his disposal, Granville Walker then argued that the conservative Disciple who puts the emphasis on “the absolutely binding character of the apostolic sanction,” and the liberal Disciple who champions “the thoroughly scientific approach to the Bible,” are both the spiritual heirs of Alexander Campbell, and are both members in good standing of his spiritual tradition. As Granville Walker put it, “It is no insignificant fact that both claim to be heirs of the genuine tradition” (138).

There was a time when both conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples truly believed this, and behaved accordingly.  There was a time when conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples could sit down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, and each one would let the other one be responsible for his or her own belief, and each one would allow the other one to serve God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.   We could, and we often did, disagree with each other.  We could, and we often did, talk with each other about those disagreements without ridicule, disdain, anger, or division.  And then we would all get up and go to the Lord’s Table together to find our unity in the shared love of God made visible in the person and work of Jesus Christ our Savior for all of us.  But today, it seems to me, our tendency is to disagree with each other, to talk at (i.e. “issuing” statements) each other, to dismissively talk about each other, and then to go our separate ways fully convinced in our own minds of the rightness of our answer and fully convinced in our own hearts of the righteousness of our stance. We are quick to organize protests, and slow to build bridges.

HolyBibleThe widely heralded release last week of a statement on human sexuality (“The Nashville Statement”) by a group of prominent traditionalist Christian leaders (none of them Disciples, but some of them teachers and theologians with whom conservative Disciples have a certain affinity), and the response of progressive Christian leaders with counter-statements of their own (“The Denver Statement” by Nadia Bolz Weber and “The Nashville Statement [A Plain Language Translation]” by John Pavlovitz), has had the predictable effect of both traditionalist and progressive Disciples taking public sides and then, looking out across the widening fissure in the church, thinking, and sometimes even saying out loud, that those on the other side could not possibly be their Christian brothers and sisters.

This bears little resemblance to the church that James Craig promised me 50 years ago, and it painfully tears at my heart as a traditionalist Disciple whose Gospel experience of the open Table of the Lord’s Supper to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcomed has moved me to become increasingly “progressive” on matters related to God’s grace and human sexuality.  Because I have a foot firmly planted in both of these worlds now, I think that I understand what those traditionalist Christians who issued the Nashville Statement were trying to say, and why they thought it so important to say it.  But I think that I also understand why what they have said caused such pain in the LGBTQ community, and has generated such outrage from the progressive Christian community.  And as a Disciple, I can’t help but think that if, as James Craig put it, we could just sit down together “around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience,” that with time and the forbearance of God’s love, the transformative power of Christ’s grace, and the convicting work of God’s Spirit, that we could find a way forward that excluded no one from the beloved community and that actually created space where all of us might grow.

bridgeTo see someone who is actually doing this in his own community of faith, we need look no further than Fr. James Martin, S.J.  An advocate of dialogue and encounter, Fr. Martin has been criticized by some in his church for being too progressive, outspoken, and inclusive, and by some in the LBGTQ community for not being progressive, outspoken, and inclusive enough.  Fr. Martin responds to every critic respectfully as part of his own spiritual discipline, and as a way of modeling how to advance the conversation and be truly respectful of people who disagree with one another.

After the issuing of “The Nashville Statement” last week, in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Fr. Martin didn’t rage or ridicule, but gently and thoughtfully offered  what he called “Seven Simple Ways to Respond to the Nashville Statement” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/30/seven-simple-ways-to-respond-to-the-nashville-statement-on-sexuality/?utm_term=.7fb1a51e809c).

Re #Nashville Statement –

  • I affirm: That God loves all LGBT people.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to insult, judge or further marginalize them.
  • I affirm: That all of us are in need of conversion. 
  • I deny: That LGBT people should be in any way singled out as the chief or only sinners.
  • I affirm: That when Jesus encountered people on the margins he led with welcome not condemnation. 
  • I deny: That Jesus wants any more judging.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are, by virtue of baptism, full members of the church.
  • I deny: That God wants them to feel that they don’t belong
  • I affirm: That LGBT people have been made to feel like dirt by many churches.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to add to their immense suffering.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are some of the holiest people I know.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to judge others, when he clearly forbade it.
  • I affirm that the Father loves LGBT people, that the Son calls them and that the Holy Spirit guides them. I deny nothing about God’s love for them.

I’ve read lots of blogs affirming “The Nashville Statement” from my traditionalist Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. And I have read lots of blogs condemning “The Nashville Statement” from my progressive Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. But it seems to me that none of the blogs on “The Nashville Statement” that I read last week better reflect James Craig’s classic vision of what it means to be a “Disciple” than did these “seven simple ways to respond to the Nashville Statement” offered by a Jesuit priest. Because what he wrote is so informed by the Gospel, and is so reflective of the Gospel, I can’t help but hope that we Disciples, both traditionalist and progressive, as Gospel people, might stop lobbing broadsides, climb down off our barricades, and commit ourselves to sitting again with one another at the Gospel’s Table where God’s grace has the power to transform us all.  DBS +

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When “The Waters Roar and Foam”

Trying to Make Sense of Natural Disasters as a Christian
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“Philosophers and theologians recognize two kinds of evil: moral and natural. Moral evil stems from human action (or inaction in some cases). Natural evil occurs as a consequence of nature – earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, diseases, and the like. Natural evil seems to present a greater theological challenge than moral evil does. A skeptic might admit that God can be excused for the free-will actions of human beings who violate His standard of goodness. But natural disasters and disease don’t result from human activity, they reason. Therefore, this type of “evil” must be attributed solely to God.” (Fazale Rana – http://www.reasons.org)

boatIn church on Sunday morning as we were thinking and talking about what Jesus might have meant when he taught us to pray “Deliver us from Evil,” our family members and friends to the south in Houston were in the first hours of the great flooding disaster that Hurricane Harvey has generated with its epic rainfall totals in that region of the State.  As the ensuing days have unfolded, we have watched with growing concern for their welfare, and responded with designated giving through Week of Compassion for their relief.  But at a different level, we wondered, and may have even asked “why?”

We instinctively ask the question “why?” as Christians because our faith tells us that our God is loving and good, and that our God is powerful. But that’s hard to understand when bad things like what’s going on all along the Gulf Coast this week happen.  If God has the power to stop earthquakes, floods and storms, and doesn’t, then how can that God still be called good?  And if God wants to stop earthquakes, floods, and storms, but can’t, then how can that God still be called powerful?   This is the spiritual conundrum that our faith creates for us as Christians when flood waters rise.

I find that natural disasters even more than the bad things that happen to people because of what other people do (think terrorism) pose the greater challenge to my faith. While I cannot fathom the depth of the depravity that compels some people to do the unspeakable sorts of things that they do to other human beings, I can at least “fit” such kinds of aberrational behavior into my free will framework. I can make some sense of moral evil, but natural evil poses another challenge altogether.

Dr. Fazale Rana’s observation about moral and natural evil cited at the outset of this blog states the dilemma well. We know who to blame, or at least we think we do, when the violence of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity wreaks its havoc and breaks our hearts, but who do we blame for the death and destruction that nature causes when it becomes unhinged?  Dr. Rana’s article “Natural and Moral Evil”  (http://www.reasons.org/articles/natural-evil-or-moral-evil) takes a swing at human responsibility, or irresponsibility, for the unhinging of nature, and I don’t discount his argument. I agree with his point that there are some moral dimensions to natural evil. I have very little doubt that our abuse of the environment has accelerated the climate change environmental catastrophes that are on the rise, or that our hubris as human beings has convinced us to think that we are smart enough to manage mother nature and strong enough to manipulate natural processes for our convenience, comfort, and profit with disastrous  consequence.  But conceding this still doesn’t resolve the basic dilemma for me.

bridgeNeither does the argument that it is God who causes earthquakes, floods and storms. This was John Piper’s argument when the I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed in August of 2007.  Praying with his daughters the night this tragedy occurred, John Piper made an argument that his convictions as a Calvinist Christian who has a certain understanding of the Sovereignty of God compels him to make (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/putting-my-daughter-to-bed-two-hours-after-the-bridge-collapsed) –

We prayed during our family devotions. Talitha (11 years old) and Noël and I prayed earnestly for the families affected by the calamity and for the others in our city. Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God for this but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people ‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are saying that he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means — accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”

John PiperNow, I understand this argument. In fact I know exactly how John Piper got to it through his reading of the Scriptures. I’ve carefully weighed this interpretation as well. John Piper went to the same seminary in Southern California where I began my graduate theological education in the fall of 1976.  I attended Fuller five years after John Piper graduated, but I had some of the same teachers he had, and took some of the same classes that he took.  It was at this seminary that I read Calvin’s Institutes for the very first time, and to great and enduring spiritual benefit for me I might add!  I was captivated by the precision of Calvin’s mind, and moved by the passion of Calvin’s heart.  And so I don’t regard John Piper as some crazed theological extremist.  No, he is just a consistent Calvinist, and while that’s a theological position that I have honestly considered, truly respect, and in some ways envy, it is not mine, in large part because I can’t finally reconcile Calvinism’s understanding of God’s power with what I know to be true of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that the adjustment that John Piper’s Calvinism makes to the spiritual conundrum that natural evil creates for people of Biblical faith is to tinker with the “God is good and loving” end of the equation, while the part of the equation that I find actually has some “give” in it is at the opposite “God is powerful” end.  Oh, I certainly believe that God is powerful, and that God will ultimately get what God wants and intends for us and for all of creation. Leslie Weatherhead’s familiar categories of God’s Intentional Will, God’s Permissive Will, and God’s Ultimate Will from his book The Will of God have proven to be especially helpful for me on this question.  Living in the era of God’s permissive will means that, at least for now, God has limited the free exercise of His divine power in order to accord to us the dignity of choice as human beings created in God’s image, and to preserve the non-coercive nature of love as something that must be freely chosen.  I find that the Biblical bases for such a notion are both the freedom of choice accorded humanity in the second creation story (Genesis 2:4-17), and the example of Christ’s self-emptying of the divine prerogative that gets affirmed and celebrated by Paul in the hymn of Philippians 2:5-8 –

Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!

Practically speaking, what this means is that we live in a world where not everything that happens is going to be what God wants for us, at least not yet. As one of my Christian college professors was constantly telling us, “There’s more than one will at work in the world.” And the result is that for right now we live in a world that is, in many ways, “out of control.” Greg Boyd, the very fine pastor/theologian, has written extensively – and I find most helpfully – about how God’s self-imposed limitation on the exercise of His sovereign power in the interests of both love and freedom (See: “What is the Warfare Worldview”http://reknew.org/2014/06/what-is-the-warfare-worldview-2/ and “Six Theses of the Warfare Worldview”http://reknew.org/2007/12/six-thesis-of-the-warfare-worldview/) has resulted in a world where bad things are constantly happening.

GlassesThe early church fathers all saw creation as a war torn battlefield. It had been corrupted to its very core. And this is why nature is violent, both toward animals and people… These early fathers are simply working out the implications of the biblical view that Satan is the “lord of the earth,” the “ruler of the air” and the “god of this age” who “controls the entire world.” And if you ask me, they were on the right track. So, when a hurricane wipes out an entire village or an earthquake massacres thousands of people; next time you consider the millions dying from AIDS or the millions tortured by parasites; next time you hear about the millions suffering from drought and famine, or consider the untold pain of millions suffering and dying from any number of other diseases, don’t say “This is the work of God.” Say rather, “An Enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28). (http://reknew.org/2015/11/the-earth-is-a-spiritual-battlefield/)

crossBack in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, I conducted a series of theological conversations at Northway with church members and friends on the question of “why?” After looking closely at Luke 13:1-4 –

There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?  I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.  Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo′am fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?

I walked the participants through some of the different ways that Christians have tried to explain the theological “why?” of natural evil before ending each conversation with a more practical review of the “now what?” What I told the people who participated in these sessions was that when natural disasters strike, as Christians we are being afforded: (1) A Time for Reflection (I Peter 4:12-13); (2) A Time for Repentance (Luke 13:1-4); (3) A Time for Compassionate Response (Luke 10:25-37); and (4) A Time for Prayer (Habakkuk 3:17-19).

The events of this week in Houston, and the all up and down the Texas Gulf Coast, affords us with these four opportunities as Christians once again. So let’s use these days to think more clearly.  Let’s let this tragedy continue to challenge the way we are living our lives.  Let’s allow the suffering of others that we will share to soften our hearts and open our pocketbooks and wallets.  And let’s let the circumstances of this week drive us to our knees to cry out for help in our times of hurt and need.  I don’t believe that God caused this to happen, but I do believe that God can use it to make real changes in us and our world. DBS +

 

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“On Not Losing our Souls”

Two Christians; Two Responses

jeffress

Kennan Jones was savagely beaten by a gang of passengers on a Dallas Area Rapid Transit light rail train a few weeks ago. When Kennan asked them to stop smoking pot on the train, they turned on him.  The beating eventually spilled out onto a train platform.  It was a brutal scene, and Kennan Jones is still recovering from his injuries.  But on Thursday afternoon, August 10th, accompanied by his lawyer, Kennan Jones held a news conference to say that he hopes that what happened to him will turn into some kind of redemption for his attackers, three of whom have now been arrested.  He says that he doesn’t want to see their lives ruined over this.  When asked what he would say to those who attacked him if they were sitting across from him, Kennan Jones said, “I would probably gather a bunch of rocks in my hand, lay them out in front of me and say, ‘Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.’”   Kennan Jones says that it’s not his job to be their judge and jury. “I’ll let the courts handle that,” he said. “What I want for them is what the Lord wants for them,” Kennan Jones explained, “whatever process they have to go through to learn right from wrong.”

What a remarkable witness! And what a striking contrast to the tone of the pronouncements of the high profile Dallas Pastor who has been in the news all week.  No sooner had the President spoken of “fire” and “fury,” and of “power unlike any that the world has ever seen before,” than the preacher down the street from me had enthusiastically sprung to his defense and said that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un” based on his reading of Romans 13:4.  Apart from the larger question of whether or not Romans 13 (or the United States Constitution for that matter) actually gives this, or any President, the singular authority to wage war (something that I will address in next week’s blog), there is the inner question of the spirit with which we as Christians are supposed to think and talk about the use of force in the establishment of justice.

It is important to note that Kennan Jones in his graceful response to his attackers doesn’t think that they should just go free. “He doesn’t want them to not be held accountable,” Kennan Jones’ lawyer explains, “but he doesn’t want them thrown into this mass-incarceration system.” And that’s the fine line that I think we dance on as Christians, the fine line that separates justice from mercy. I have long agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous assessment that “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” It is sad, and it is a duty — a moral obligation. In a sinful world justice has to be established, but I don’t think that means a rush to judgment or the enthusiastic use of force.

Somewhere I’ve read that when the author Robert Louis Stevenson, a Christian himself, received word of a war among the people of his adopted country of Samoa, that he fell to the floor writhing in pain and weeping uncontrollably.   And while this is not all that there is to a Christian’s response to war, this is at least where it must begin.  Sadness and not anger, regret and not eagerness, the stubborn hope of redemption and not the quick pronouncement of damnation is what must lie beneath the surface of a Christian’s response to war.  When in the course of human events a war in the cause of justice becomes necessary, Christians can only support it with tears in our eyes, anguish in our hearts, and with a caution that has been deeply informed by grace.

I hear it in what Kennan Jones said at the news conference on Thursday, and it sounded like the Gospel to me. And I heard it in a Fred Craddock story that has been making the rounds this week.-

fredYears ago I received a letter from Washington asking if I would join hundreds of other ministers in holding prayer breakfasts around the world. Wherever there were American citizens or soldiers, there were going to be President’s Prayer Breakfasts. I wrote back and said I would be honored to do it. I waited a while, and then I got a letter saying that my station for the prayer breakfast would be in Seoul, Korea. I said, “Wonderful, I’ll just stop by there on the way to the office and have a prayer breakfast!” I went to Seoul, where I was the guest of General Richard Stilwell, who commanded 40,000-to-50,000 American soldiers in South Korea. The officers and troops had gathered in great numbers. Before I spoke, a private who’d been brought over from Formosa played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. It was moving and beautiful. General Stilwell said, “I love that song.”

When the breakfast was over and everybody was leaving, General Stilwell turned to me and said, “I want you to pray for us.” I said, “I will.” He said, “I don’t mean for power. We have the power. In one afternoon we could wipe out North Korea. We have the power. What we need you to pray for is that we have the restraint.” “That we have the restraint?” I asked. “Yes,” the general said, “the restraint. The mark of a civilized society is not power. It is restraint.”

In these frightening and confusing days, as Americans we cannot afford to lose our heads, and as Christians we dare not lose our souls. 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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