Tag Archives: Christian

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

__________________________________________________________________

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 +

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Soundings

“Around the Table of the Lord’s Supper”

 breadcup

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 +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

When “The Waters Roar and Foam”

Trying to Make Sense of Natural Disasters as a Christian
_______________________________________________________________________

“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 +

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“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 +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

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

Blog__June_26_growth_image
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 +

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“Where the Bible is Silent…”

biblio

A Little “Believing Thinking” on the Church’s Response to Transgendered People
_____________________________________________________________________

The last Faiths in Conversation gathering for the spring took place on Tuesday evening, May 23rd, at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano.  Our topic that night was the response of our respective faith traditions to transgendered people.

What follows here are my prepared remarks for that evening. As in most things that come from the heart and mind of this Christian Moderate, there are things that I say here that those to my spiritual left will dislike, and there are things that I say here that those to my spiritual right will equally dislike. Some will object that I’ve gone too far, while others will object that I’ve not gone nearly far enough.  We who are “dead skunks in the middle of the road stinking to the high heavens” are familiar with this criticism.

My strongest conclusion from the evening is a renewed appreciation for the spiritual wisdom of my own Stone/Campbell tradition. I think it serves us well.  DBS +

 cross

Christianity’s Response to Transgendered People
Faiths in Conversation – May 23, 2017 – 7 pm

The Islamic Association of Collin County, Plano, Texas
Dr. Douglas B. Skinner, Northway Christian Church

________________________________________________________

My denominational tradition has a saying – “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; and where the Bible is silent, we’re silent.”   For people who want a Biblically informed faith, it’s not bad advice.  And it speaks directly to our topic tonight.  You see, I can find nothing in the New Testament about transgendered people.  “There is no verse in my Bible that says, ‘Thou shalt not transition from a man to a woman, or from a woman to a man” (Kevin de Young). Look up the word “transgender” in a concordance of the New Testament and you will find nothing.

Jesus did talk once about Eunuchs (Matthew 19:12), and the book of Acts tells a crucially important story about an Ethiopian Eunuch who came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ and who was baptized into the life of the church (8:26-40), and lots of interpreters I know and deeply respect have used these two Biblical texts as ways to talk about the inclusion of sexual minorities within the scope of God’s saving purposes and the embrace of the church’s life and love.

But that’s the application of a principle derived from these texts and not a reference to anything that the New Testament directly says about the church’s response to transgendered people. And while such applications are a necessary and quite legitimate use of Scripture, again my denominational tradition urges some real caution in the way that we handle such inferences. The founders of my denominational tradition said that without an explicit command or an approved example from the Bible that directly addresses a particular circumstance or concern, our applications of a Biblical principle to those circumstances and concerns must be tentative, modest, and generous and never dogmatic, arrogant or authoritarian.  The best wisdom of my spiritual tradition for me this evening would probably be to just sit down and shut up.  And there’s something to be said for this approach.

We all have a real propensity to say too much too fast. Qoheleth” – the name of the Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible said that there’s a time “to keep silence,” and that there is “a time to speak” (3:7).   In the Christian Scriptures this became the counsel of the book of James to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (1:19).  Just about a year ago Father Bryan Massingale, a Roman Catholic priest, was a part of a conversation like this we are having here this evening about the place of transgendered people in the life of his church, and he said –

There is much that we do not understand about what is technically called ‘gender dysphoria,’ or the lack of congruence between one’s physical body and one’s gender identity. This ignorance leads to fear, and fear is at the root of the controversies in today’s so-called ‘bathroom wars.’ And there lies a major challenge that transgender people endure and that the faith community has to own: the human tendency to be uncomfortable and fearful in the face of what we don’t understand. It’s easier to ridicule and attack individuals we don’t understand than to summon the patience and humility to listen and to learn.

And then Fr. Massingale added –

But despite all that we do not know, this much I do believe: Jesus would be present to, among, and with transgender persons.

You see, while the authoritative texts of my spiritual tradition say nothing specifically about transgendered men and women, my authoritative texts do say things like “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), and “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7), and “judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and “by this people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And so, while I cannot give you a chapter and verse this evening on what the New Testament says to and about transgendered people, I can tell you about what the New Testament says to me as a Christian about how I am supposed to treat people, all people… transgendered people.

Back in July of 2015 when the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the legality of same sex marriages in the United States, John Pavlovitz, a well-known Christian pastor, wrote a blog he called “6 Ways Christians Lost This Week.” Of all the things that I heard Christians say that week, and of all the things I read that week that Christians had written, this was the one that got closest to the Spirit of the Christ I know –

______________________________________________________________________________

We who call ourselves Christians lost a great deal over the past few days, though it’s probably not in the way you might think.

 1)  We lost the chance to be loving. 

So many professed followers of Jesus spent the last week on the attack, desperately fighting a battle long after it had already been decided. Instead of simply looking for ways to personally affirm our faith in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, too many of us frankly just lost it. We spit out vitriol and we cursed strangers and we lamented America’s demise and we threatened with Bible verses and we treated others with contempt. Our response to the LGBT community and those who support them wasn’t compassion and decency and peacemaking, it was sour grapes, damnation, and middle fingers.

 
2)  We lost the chance to be good neighbors. 

Rather than using the events of this past week as the springboard for conversation with people around us; as a way to build relationship with those who may not share our beliefs or our worldview, we pushed them further away. We used our social media profiles and our workplaces and our cul-de-sac chats to create distance between us and those who disagree with us. We stood on principles and we walked all over people. We became really difficult to live with and be around.

3)  We lost the chance to be Good Samaritans.

We could have looked around at the hurt generated this past week; at the deep sadness so many LGBT people and their loved ones felt at being the center of such violent arguments and the horrible aftermath of them, and responded in love. We could have moved toward them with the mercy and gentleness of Christ, seeking to be the binders of the wounds. Instead, far too many of us felt compelled to rub salt deeply into them. We basically walked past those who were down—and we kicked them hard on the way.

4)  We lost the opportunity to show how big God is. 

With all the fatalistic sky is falling rhetoric and raw-throated “The End is Near” prognostications, what so many Christians did for the watching world was inadvertently paint the image of a God who is hopelessly on the ropes; not all-powerful, not all-knowing, not at all able to withstand the slightest changes in our world. We completely neutered God by horribly overstating the circumstances and crying wolf yet again.

5)  We lost the chance to reflect Christ.

Let’s be honest: some of us really dropped the ball this week on both sides of the discussions. Many of us crusaded on social media or staged tirades from the pulpit or spewed hatred across dinner tables. We argued and complained and petitioned and boycotted and protested, and we did just about everything but leave people with the sweet, restful essence of Jesus. We instead left them a Christ devoid of compassion or kindness or love, and we ensured that many who previously saw all Christians as judgmental, hypocritical jerks—felt completely correct in those assumptions. Faced with people who disagreed with us, we talked about them, shouted at them, yet failed to listen to them.

6)  And we lost people. 

We gave those who live outside of our faith tradition, very little reason to move any closer. By choosing to be rude and argumentative and hateful, we made Jesus fairly irrelevant; an option not really worth considering. Make no mistake, the eyes of the world were fully on the American Church this week, and too much of what they saw was a pretty lousy testimony to a God of love. Many people looked at the rotten fruit of our faith and simply turned away for good.

This stuff should simply break our collective hearts. All of us who claim Christ need to do some honest, invasive personal reflection. Regardless of our feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s clear that Christians lost far more valuable things than we realize this week; things we better fight to get back.

(http://johnpavlovitz.com/2015/07/01/6-ways-christians-lost-this-week/)______________________________________________________________________________

And it seems to me that we are right back here again with the controversy in our culture these days about transgendered people. There is so much to lose.

Early in his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis was asked “What kind of church do you dream of?”  And he answered –

I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.  It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds.  Then we can talk about everything else.  Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. And to do this you have to start from the ground up. (Cavanaugh)

 

And this means being fully present to the confusion and pain of others, to be quick to hear and slow to speak.   The church is not real good at this.  As David Janvier, a Christian Therapist points out, “When people are different, [Christians] tend to want to make room for people who are alike. [But] we need to make room for people who do not fit into our categories… [and transgendered people] live their whole lives feeling like they don’t fit in” (Fowler).  As a Christian who knows what’s in the Bible, my assignment is “the hard work of listening to and loving those who struggle.” And so, as an act of faith I am now going to sit down now, shut up, and listen.

Sources

Cavanaugh, William T. Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World. Eerdmans. 2016.

De Young, Kevin. “What Does the Bible Say about Transgenderism?” https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org

Fowler, Megan. “Making Sense of Transgenderism.” May 14, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

Faiths in Conversation

faith

Last night our Faiths in Conversation event at the Turquoise Center in Richardson focused on the subject of “The Rich and the Poor.” Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Shaykh Khalil Abdur-Rashid presented the perspectives of Judaism and Islam on the questions of poverty and possessions from their Scriptures and traditions, and I presented from my Christian perspective. It was an insightful and lively evening.  They always are.

Next Tuesday evening, May 23, at the Islamic Association of Collin County (6401 Independence Pkwy, Plano) at 7 pm, we will have our last Faith in Conversation event until the fall.  Our topic will be “Transgender Identity.”  These are powerful evenings of interfaith conversation and relationship, and I hope that you will join us. DBS +

________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Rich and the Poor: A Christian Perspective
Faiths in Conversation – May 16, 2017 – 7 pm
The Turquoise Center, Richardson, Texas
Dr. Douglas B. Skinner, Northway Christian Church ________________________________________________________________________________________________

The public face of Christianity in my lifetime has been Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta.   As you know, the Roman Catholic Church fast-tracked her path to canonization, officially recognizing her as a saint in September of 2016, a mere 19 years after her death. By way of contrast, it took the great St. Bede, the Father of English History and a Doctor of the Church, 1,164 years to accomplish this same feat.  But it happened in just 19 years for Mother Teresa because of the widespread popular impression that there was something undeniably “Christian” about her.

“At the end of life,” St. Teresa of Calcutta once famously said, “we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, by how much money we have made, by how many great things we have done. We will be judged by – ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”  And there it is.  There is something intrinsic to Christianity about serving the poor.

When the late 19th/early 20th century German Lutheran Theologian and prominent church historian Adolf von Harnack (1851 – 1930) explained why he thought that Christianity had won the day in the marketplace of ideas that was the Roman Empire in the first three centuries of the Common Era, he quoted Matthew 25, the very same verse that Mother Teresa did – “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.”  And then he explained –

These words of Jesus have shone so brilliantly for many generations… and exerted so powerful an influence, that one may… describe… Christian preaching as the preaching of love and charity…  Among the extant words… of Jesus, those which inculcate love and charity are especially numerous…. it is plain that… the gist of his preaching was to enforce brotherliness and ministering love, and the surest part of the impression he left behind him was that in his own life and labors he displayed both of these very qualities.

In April of 2015, John Barclay, the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in England opened the Houston Baptist University Theology Conference with a lecture he entitled – The Poor You Will Always Have with You: Why It Mattered to the Church to Give to the Poor.”   He began that lecture by directing his audience to Paul’s account of the Jerusalem Conference in his letter to the Galatians.

The Jerusalem Conference was the first gathering of the whole church to sort out an urgent question of Christian faith and practice, and what triggered it was the Gentile Mission.  Paul and Barnabas had just returned from their first missionary journey to the island of Cyprus and Southern Asia Minor during which they had received Gentiles into the church on the basis of their faithful response to the preaching of the Gospel.  This prompted the Jerusalem Church to ask about the scope of God’s saving intent.  Did it really include Gentiles, or was it just limited to Jews?  This was a huge question for the early church, and so about the year 48, all of the key leaders of the church gathered in Jerusalem to sort it out.

They concluded that God’s saving love in Jesus Christ did in fact include everybody everywhere, and in the second chapter of his letter to the Galatians, one of the churches that he had planted on that first missionary journey and a church whose very existence triggered the need for the conversation in Jerusalem in the first place, Paul gave this account of what had happened and what had been decided there –

…when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised…  and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

Dr. Barclay’s lecture at Houston Baptist University in 2015 was an exploration of the premise that this phrase – “remember the poor” – was the expression of a commitment that was essential to the identity and activity of the first Christians, and that has remained an integral part of Christianity ever since. After reviewing the documentary evidence of the church’s response to the poor in the first few centuries of her life, Dr. Barclay concluded his lecture by saying that the first Christians took the reality of the poor into the very heart of their churches and made the alleviation of poverty one of their core spiritual practices. “To remember the poor was not just some early passing phase of Christianity,” Dr. Barclay concluded, it was one of the ways that they became “most fully Christian.” And I would argue that this remains true for Christians today.

My faith in Jesus Christ connects me deeply with an act of God’s generosity. The Christian Gospel is the message of how, in Jesus Christ, God gave Himself to us in our spiritual need as our Savior, and when this message gets believed, when this gift gets received, then it just naturally begins to cascade into a response of generous acts by which we who believe in Him start giving to others in their need.  We give as God has given to us in Christ. This makes our giving a sign of Christian faithfulness.

Reviewing the breadth of what the New Testament says about giving, about wealth and possessions, about being rich and being poor, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church says that the poor are a special focus of God’s loving concern.   They say that thus is an idea that’s “inspired by the Beatitudes, by the (actual) poverty of Jesus Christ’s (own life), and by His (focused) attention to the poor (during the days of His public ministry).” And they say that this is something to which the whole tradition of the church bears witness.

Now, for a Protestant Christian like myself who grew up singing – “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world” – I have to admit to feeling a certain resistance to this idea that God has favorites, that God has a special concern for one group of people over another, the first time I heard it.  But as someone who has been a serious student of the Christian Scriptures now for nearly 40 years, I have now also come to the place where I have to admit that it’s an idea that’s clearly present in our Scriptures as Christians.

In the daily prayers historically prescribed by the church, every evening the “Magnificat” – the song that Mary sang in response to the angel’s news that she was going to be the mother of the Christ – gets prayed.  This is as eloquent a statement of God’s preferential concern for the poor as you will find anywhere in the New Testament.  Mary, a poor Jewish girl prayed –

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and He has sent the rich away empty…

When you pray these words every single day, month after month, you find your concerns starting to be shaped by the things that concern God. And this brings God’s special concern for the poor, the weak, the hungry and the lowly into clear focus for you, and it helps to explain the remarkable actions of the early church.

When John the Baptist preached his message of repentance at the beginning of the Gospel story of Jesus, he told those who were responding favorably to his preaching that they needed to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).  And one of the fruit in keeping with the repentance that the Christian faith produced in the early church according to the book of Acts was an extraordinary pattern of economic sharing. Luke reported in Acts 2:44-45. And then he followed that up with an even more astonishing report in Acts chapter 4 –

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (4:32-35)

 That’s the momentum of grace that the Gospel launches, and it’s what makes “remembering the poor” such a core practice of Christianity.

Now, if Christianity is a message of welcome and compassion for the poor, then it is a message of warning and concern to the wealthy. Every Wednesday at noon I teach a Bible Study at the church I serve, and right now we are working our way verse-by-verse through the first letter of the Apostle Paul to his young ministerial associate named Timothy. Some of the New Testament’s sternest warnings to the rich come from this letter.

After criticizing false teachers who were working their way into the church as a way of advancing themselves financially, Paul warned Timothy that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (6:9-10). This is as familiar as anything that the New Testament says about wealth, although it regularly gets misquoted.  It is “the love of money,” and not money itself that is “the root of all evil.”

After warning those who wanted to get rich about greed, Paul then wrote a word to Timothy about how those who were already rich could be faithful with their great wealth.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (6:17-19)

 This is a direct echo of the teachings of Jesus in these words. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus named money as being a rival god to which people were tempted to give their trust and devotion (Matthew 6:24).  To break its hold on us, Jesus told His disciples to seek first God’s Kingdom (Matthew 6:33), and to stop worrying about their material possessions (Matthew 6:25).  And as a strategy for actually doing this, Jesus instructed His disciples to be recklessly generous in the giving of alms (Matthew 6:2-4) as the way of laying up for themselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21).  All of which is to say that Jesus Christ expected His followers to generously share their material resources as an expression of their devotion to Him, and of their confidence in the certainty of His promises to provide for them in this life and the next. And this is how the use of our wealth as Christians becomes one of the surest signs of just how profoundly we have been grasped by the power of the Gospel.

There is no question that there are serious and urgent conversations to be had in our society about the best ways to address the problem of poverty and the needs of the poor. The current healthcare debate in Congress is fueled by competing ideas about the best way to actually provide for people’s needs – federal or state programs, private or public funding, government or free market control – and I’m not sure that Christianity’s source documents are particularly helpful in settling this debate.  The New Testament is addressed to Christians and churches and not to Caesar and the State.   But what the New Testament tells Christians and churches is that God has a very special concern for the poor, and that the way we love and serve God as Christians is by loving and serving the poor, and this has clear political consequence.

As a Christian who is a citizen of this country, my votes will always be shaped my values, and one of my values because I am a Christian is the welfare of the poor. In his very last speech, Hubert H. Humphrey said – “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” As a Christian whose faith and values are being shaped by the Biblical witness, this is part of the criteria that I will use to determine which public policies and elected leaders I can conscientiously support.

Christians can and do argue about which policies best serve their values. Hubert Humphrey said that he and Everett Dirksen, his conservative Republican colleague in the Senate, hardly ever agreed on how to actually solve a problem like poverty, but that neither of them ever questioned that the other one was just as concerned about the problem as he was, or just as committed to finding a solution.  Biblical principles do not automatically or obviously translate into planks in a political platform, but they must inform Christian conscience and conviction, and because they do, Jesus’ observation that “the poor you will always have with you” is not an excuse for us to do nothing, but is rather a challenge for us to do absolutely everything we possibly can do as Christians, churches and a society at large to make sure that the needs of the poor are being equitably and constructively addressed.  To borrow the language of the Apostle Paul, the love of God as I know it in Christ “constrains” me to do so (2 Corinthians 5 14). “Remembering the poor” is part of what it means for me to be “most fully Christian.”

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings