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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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“Where the Bible is Silent…”

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

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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

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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 –

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Faiths in Conversation

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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 +

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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.”

 

 

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Getting the Gospel Straight ~ Keeping the Gospel First

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It’s a familiar warning in certain parts of the church these days. They say that there are four steps in the process of a church “losing” the gospel.  First, the gospel is accepted and affirmed. Second, the gospel gets assumed and goes unreferenced. Third, the gospel gets confused with other things, many of them good and noble. And then finally, the gospel gets lost. People no longer remember why the church exists and does what it does. The example of the Mennonite Brethren Church is frequently cited as a classic picture of how this happens –

…the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments. (David Gibson – “Assumed Evangelicalism”Modern Reformation)

I thought about this observation again this past week with the controversy that was generated by something that Andrew Forrest, the minister who is leading the revitalization of Munger Place United Methodist Church over in East Dallas, said about community gardens and co-working spaces (http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8114/andrew-forrest-every-dying-church-in-america-has-a-community-garden) –

Every dying church in America has a community garden. Every dying church in America has a co-working space. What do I mean by that? I have no problem with community gardens; a garden is a beautiful thing. And I don’t have any problem with co-working spaces. But Jesus didn’t tell us to start a community garden, and he didn’t tell us to start co-working spaces; he told us to make disciples. That’s literally the mission of the church.

The problem is not the gardens… The problem is that we often want to substitute secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship.

What Andrew is doing here is a reversal of the field that David Gibson mapped out in his assessment of how the Mennonite Brethren Movement lost the Gospel.   Andrew is pushing back through that third generation mainline version of the church that has lost the Gospel and only has the social implications of the Gospel, and back through the second generation mainline version of the church that assumes the gospel and advocates the Gospel’s social implications, to a renewed mainline version of the church that believes and proclaims the Gospel and understands that it has some important social implications.

Of course, to do this one must have some real clarity about what the Gospel is. Andrew Forrest certainly does.  In that same article in which he names community gardens and co-working spaces as secondary concerns, he explains –

…Neither by background nor by training nor by inclination am I a fire-and-brimstone preacher. And yet the gospel itself makes no sense if it’s just vague feel-goodery. The gospel, as I understand it, is the good news regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that this “vague feel-goodery” substitution for the Gospel takes two forms in the church today.  In the traditional/conservative/Evangelical church it takes the form of the subjective experience of the individual Christian – the offer of forgiveness and personal peace of mind right now, and the promise of an eternity in heaven with God when we die.  And in the progressive/liberal/mainline church it takes the form of a focus on social action and a passion for social justice – changing the systems and structures of society so that people can thrive physically, relationally, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually in this world.  Personal spiritual experience and a conscientious engagement with social issues are neither unrelated nor unimportant to the Gospel, but, in the words of Andrew Forrest, they are “secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship” which is what Jesus told us to do.

Graeme Goldsworthy, an Australian Evangelical Anglican and Old Testament scholar, wrote these words to his own traditional/conservative/evangelical wing of the church that he sees as being at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of the subjective experience of the individual Christian –

The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Jesus Christ, is often downgraded today in favor of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual. Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of and commitment to the declaration that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now… But when we allow the whole Bible – Old and New Testaments – to speak to us, we find that those subjective aspects of the Christian life, which are undoubtedly important – the new birth, faith, and sanctification – are the fruits of the gospel. The gospel, while still relating to individual people at their point of need, is rooted and grounded in the history of redemption. It is the good news about Jesus, before it can become good news for sinful men and women. Indeed, it is only as the objective (redemptive-historical) facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood.

And I read Andrew Forrest’s article as a version of this same warning to his own progressive/liberal/mainline that is at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of social action and a passion for social justice.

The fruit of the Gospel is transformation. Traditional/conservative/Evangelical Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of personal transformation. Progressive/liberal/mainline Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of social transformation. We all want transformation.  The real question is, what effects this kind of transformation, personally and socially?

With Andrew Forrest and Graeme Goldsworthy I would argue that it’s the Gospel, the transformative message of new hearts, new values, new lives and a new world through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His indwelling and empowering presence in us, both individually and collectively as the church, through the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit. For the kind of transformation that we’re looking for, the Gospel is the power that we need. DBS +

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Mea Culpa

A Religious Right “Mea Culpa(“I’m sorry”)
With Serious Ramifications for the Religious Left

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blindedI read Blinded by Might (Zondervan 1999) in the run-up to last November’s Presidential election as part of a Sunday evening topical Bible Study on “God and Politics” at the church I serve.  Written by Cal Thomas (raised a “Disciple”) and the late Ed Dobson, two of the strategic leaders in the early days of the Religious Right movement with Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority” at its forefront, this book was their “mea cupula” (a Latin phrase that means “through my fault” and is an acknowledgement of having done wrong).

Now, some of you hear that and probably think, “Well, what took you so long?” You learn that two of the highest profile early leaders of the Religious Right have publically recanted their commitments to that Movement, and have openly voiced regret over their part in helping to bring it about, and you feel a certain political vindication.  And odds are that if you feel like this, it’s because your own political proclivities are with the Religious Left, and you wrongly assume that in their abandonment of the Religious Right, that Cal and Ed switched teams and joined your side.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Ed and Cal didn’t abandon the Religious Right for the Religions Left, no, what the abandoned was the illusion of might that had blinded them into thinking that the Kingdom could come through the acquisition and application of political power.  They said that they abandoned the Religious Right so that the Church could be the Church. As the Dutch theologian H.M. Kuitert put it – “the dead are not raised by politics… our personal salvation and the forgiveness of sins do not and did not come by political decree… our very best political efforts will not reconcile us to the Father.

After hitching their faith and values wagon to the Reagan Revolution and the platform of the Republican Party, thinking that its victory in the political arena would serve their own particular understanding of righteousness, both Cal and Ed eventually had to reassess the confidence that they had placed in what they believed partisan political power could actually achieve.   While they both remained cultural, social and even political conservatives, neither of them continued to believe that “our individual or collective cultural problems could be altered exclusively, or even mainly, through the political process” (15), because, “politics and government cannot reach the soul” (9).

Cal and Ed both continued to believe that politics and government have a role to play in the creation of a just social order and in the promotion of the conditions that make for human thriving. Neither of them argued for a complete withdrawal from politics after they left the Religious Right.   They both continued to exercise their rights as citizens and to give voice to their moral vision as Christians.  But they no longer confused the aims and goals of their own political and social conservativism with the aims and goals of the Gospel.

On the eve of last November’s Presidential election, Theologian Scot McKnight wrote a blog about “Our Hope and Our Politics” (http://www.patheos.com) that echoed the reasons why Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas would up abandoning the Religious Right.

baldSomewhere overnight or this morning the eschatology [The Doctrine of “Last Things” – God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven] of American Christians may become clear. If a Republican wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian has an eschatology of politics. Or, alternatively, if a Democrat wins and the Christian becomes delirious or confident that the Golden Days are about to arrive, that Christian too has an eschatology of politics… Where does my hope turn when I think of war or poverty or education or racism? Does it focus on my political party? Does it gain its energy from thinking that if we get the right candidate elected our problems will be dissolved? If so, I submit that our eschatology has become empire-shaped, Constantinian, and political. And it doesn’t matter to me if it is a right-wing evangelical wringing her fingers in hope that a Republican wins, or a left-wing progressive wringing her fingers in hope that a Democrat wins. Each has a misguided eschatology… Participation in our election dare not be seen as the lever that turns the eschatological designs God has for this world.

In Blinded by Might Ed Dobson told about a meeting that Jerry Falwell convened in 1979 comprised of the ministerial staff of his church and the faculty of his Bible Institute to tell them of his decision to get involved in politics “in order to reverse the moral decline in American culture.”

haroldHarold Wilmington, the Dean of the Bible Institute established by the Thomas Road Baptist Church, begged Jerry not to get involved. Wilmington argued with passion that this new endeavor was a significant step away from preaching the Gospel and might in the process contaminate the Gospel.  Harold was the only contrary voice that day.  Jerry listened to him politely… thanked Harold for his concerns and added that he was going forward. (16)

 Several years later it was a chance encounter with Harold Wilmington at an airport where they were both changing planes that pulled Ed Dobson up short and forced him to start rethinking the investment of his life in politics. Harold asked Ed where he’d been, and Ed told Harold about all of the important meetings he’d attended and about all of the influential people that he’d been with on that trip, including an appearance on the Phil edDonahue show!  Harold listened to Ed quietly, and then when Ed was finished talking, Harold looked Ed in the eye and reminded him that God had originally called him to be a preacher, and that it is the Gospel and not politics that had the power to change people’s lives Romans 1:16-17).  It was that conversation that triggered something of a crisis in Ed’s soul.  He began to feel a growing tension between his original call to preach the Gospel and the all-consuming task of political involvement that had come to occupy his every waking hour. “I knew that God had called me to preach,” Ed wrote. “I had been ordained to the Christian ministry.” It was after a year of daily prayer in a chapel near his office during his lunch hour that Ed finally recommitted himself to a life of preaching the Gospel and teaching the Scriptures.  He resigned his position with the Moral Majority, accepted a call to pastor a local church in Michigan, and made four commitments that he kept until his dying day in 2015 from ALS –

  1. He said that he would avoid the public spotlight in order to go about the work of being a pastor quietly.
  2. He said that he would avoid all political entanglements. He explained –

I would not attend either Republican or Democrat events. I would not march for or against anything.   I was convinced that as a pastor I was called to reach Republicans and Democrats and Independents with the Gospel. I was called to reach pro-life people and pro-choice people.  I was called to reach pro-gay and anti-gay people.  (And) if I engaged in public political activities, I ran the risk of alienating the very people I was called to reach (before even getting to the Gospel).

3.  He said that he had decided to focus on teaching the Bible. He explained that he would not get off on tangents but would consistently teach the Bible verse-by-verse.
4. And he said that he had decided that he was going to love people unconditionally just as God has loved us in Christ. He said that he longed to be known again as one who preaches a message of love and forgiveness, and not a message of hate, division and condemnation. (152)

blogR. Scott Clark, the Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (California), wrote his blog “Let the Church be the Church” (https://heidelblog.net/2016/11/let-the-church-be-the-church/) after seeing Secretary Clinton in the pulpit of a church on a Sunday morning “preaching’ during last fall’s campaign. It disturbed him, and he guessed that it disturbed many of his readers as well. But Professor Clark asked them –

 Would you have been offended to see Marco Rubio, Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump behind a pulpit? If you answer no, then I think that we do not agree on principle. If your objection to seeing Secretary Clinton in a pulpit was based on your objection to her political philosophy and policy aims, then I suspect that we do not agree about the nature and mission of the visible, institutional church.

And then, after exploring the way that the church has consistently confused what Caesar’s legitimate God-given assignment is, and what it is that Jesus Christ specifically came to do (Matthew 22:15-22), Professor Clark concluded his blog by writing –

 Let Christians resist the impulse to draft the visible, institutional church for a social agenda, however laudatory and beneficial it may be. Let Christians energetically engage God’s world as citizens of a twofold kingdom. We do not have to choose between social engagement and a spiritual institutional church. We can and should have both, for the benefit of the earthly city and for the purity and peace of the embassy of the kingdom of heaven.

It was the loss of this understanding of the two kingdoms that led Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas into the Religious Right, and it’s rediscovery that eventually led them out of the Religious Right. And their book Blinded by Might is a cautionary tale for any Christian, leader on the right or on the left, who feels the very real temptation to bow down to any political candidate, party or platform thinking that by doing so you will gain all the kingdoms of the world and their glory (Matthew 4:8-10).  That’s not how the Kingdom comes.  DBS +

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Loving Our Muslim Neighbors

islam

I am convinced that one of the greatest issues of this day that we are living in is the relationship between Christians and Muslims, made even more difficult by global tensions and the current political climate. As the “Common Word” (www.acommonword.com) that was addressed to the Christian Community by 138 of the world’s most important Islamic leaders and scholars back in 2007 put it –

 Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.

 What makes this such a complicated thing for us to do are our family ties and our strained history as Christians and Muslims. Christianity and Islam belong to the same Abrahamic family religions. We share some spiritual characteristics and have some common theological and moral perspectives. But we also have a long history with each other, and not much of it is good.  As the two great missionary religions of the world who equally believe that it is part of their God-given mandate to convince other to believe as they do, Christians and Muslims have been in nearly constant contact and direct competition with each other for centuries, and that’s crated some wounds and left some scars.

The late Vernon Grounds, one of the giant American Evangelical theologians of the last generation, liked to compare Christians to a pair of porcupines on a freezing winter’s night.

porcupines.png

He said that they pull in close to each other for warmth, but just as soon as they get close, they start to poke each other and that forces them apart.   Well, I think that this same dance characterizes Christian/Muslim relationships.  We are drawn in close to each other because we recognize a family resemblance in one another, but just as soon as we start to move in each other’s direction, we begin to poke and jab each other because of our differences and disagreements. We need to choreograph a different dance.  But to do so, I believe that two attitudes prevalent among Christians will need to be adjusted.

Some Christians, mostly from the progressive wing of the church, approach the Christian/Muslim relationship with the idea that our differences of belief are insignificant and unimportant. Peter Kreeft often points out that the only beliefs that separate Muslims and Christians are the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection.  But doctrinally, that’s pretty much the core of Biblical Christianity!  And just as convinced as I am about their truth, and just as passionate as I am about their proclamation as a Christian, in my five years of monthly public dialogue with Muslim Imams here in Dallas, I have yet to meet one who is not just as convinced that I am wrong about these things, and who is not just as passionate about telling me so. The approach to Christian/Muslim relations that begins with the idea that there’s really not anything important that separates us is a dead-end.

But so is the approach of other Christians, mostly from the conservative wing of the church, who argue that there is nothing that Muslims and Christians have in common spiritually, and that to even talk with them about the things of God is a dangerous compromise. More than once I have been accused of betraying Christ and denying the Gospel because I have entered into serious conversation with them about matters of faith and practice, and because I have chosen to related to my Muslim colleagues with respect and affection.  There’s got to be another step to this dance.

Back in 2012 our “Faiths in Conversation” series consisted of a cycle of fascinating presentations on what we as a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Minister and a Muslim Imam believe about Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.  What follows are my remarks from that conversation the night we talked about Muhammad.  In my presentation I tried to navigate a narrow path between wanting to honor the convictions of my Muslim friends about the status of Muhammad as a Prophet, and remaining true to my own commitment to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior.

In this historical moment when Islamophobia seems to be running rampant in the West, I offer here a different way of thinking and talking about Muhammad as a Christian that attempts to build a bridge rather than erect a wall, that wants to find a space where we can come together rather than closing a door that drives us even further apart. I’m not saying that I succeeded in this in what I said that night — but  I am saying that we’ve all got to try.  The whole world is watching.

DBS +

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Christians and Muhammad

moon

  Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Chistian Church
Dallas, Texas
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The Koran has a high regard for Jesus, affirming His claim to be the Messiah and numbering Him among the true Prophets of God. Why, there’s even an entire chapter in the Koran devoted to Mary the mother of Jesus where the Virgin Birth gets fully affirmed!  And then there’s the famous “Charter of Privileges” that Muhammad gave to the monks at the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula that offered them, and all Christians his respect and protection.  History tells us that Muhammad was nice to Christians, so why haven’t Christians been nice to Muhammad in return?

The history of anti-Semitism in Christianity is a shameful legacy of my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree. It is a contradiction of the Gospel of love that is the very heart of our faith as Christians.   And the history of anti-Islamism by my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree is no less shameful and no less a contradiction of the Gospel of God’s love.  And while most of the Christians I know will openly acknowledge and easily voice regret for the very real damage that we’ve done to our Jewish parents, we are not nearly as quick to acknowledge or apologize for the very real damage that we’ve done, and are doing to you, our Muslim siblings.

And so, as one Christian, let me begin by saying to my Muslim relatives in the Abrahamic Family who are here tonight, that I am sorry: I am sorry for the disrespect that we have shown you; I am sorry for the distortions of your beliefs that we have perpetuated; and I am sorry for the hatred that we have sanctioned if not actually encouraged against you. Our Lord and Savior told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and I confess that we have not always loved you, our Muslim neighbors, like that.  And our Lord and Savior told us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  And I confess that not only have we failed to do this with you; when you have done this with us – as with Muhammad’s “Charter of Privileges” – we have not even had the simple human decency to reciprocate.

And so I certainly don’t want to do or say anything here this evening that could be construed as an insult to you as a people of deep and genuine faith, or taken as a lack of respect for the beliefs that you hold sacred. But I am here as a Christian, and Christians, while we share some beliefs, practices and values with you who are Muslims, we don’t share all of the same beliefs, practices and values, otherwise we would be Muslims. My specific assignment here this evening is to talk for a few minutes about how Christians think of Muhammad; what Christians do with Muhammad.  And I suppose that I could just say that in the history of the world that Muhammad ranks as one of the great men, a fact that Christians can clearly see and easily acknowledge.  Politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally – Muhammad was one of greatest men who has ever lived.  His genius is obvious to anyone who takes the time to read his story and look at the facts.  And I suppose that I could say this, as a Christian, and then just sit down.  It would be accurate, I would be honest, and it would be a dodge.

You see, as great a man as Muhammad was politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally, these are the wrong criteria to be used by me in his assessment here tonight. I am here as a Christian believer, and it is as a Christian believer that you have asked me to tell you what I think of Muhammad, and what I do with Muhammad.  This is a religious question, and it deserves a religious answer.  And so, specifically, the question that I am going to try to respond to this evening is the one that Mahmut Aydin framed in his essays “Muhammad in the Eyes of Christian Scholars” published online at http://www.onislam.net-

Since we Muslims accept Jesus as a genuine prophet and messenger of God, can you Christians not reciprocate by accepting the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood?

Now, to answer this question as a Christian, I must first tell you briefly about an internal conversation that we Christians have among ourselves. It’s a debate over the question: “Does the gift of prophecy still operate in the church today, or has it ceased?”  In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he affirmed both the fact that there was a gift of prophecy operative in Christianity by which people spoke for God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (11:4; 12:10; 12:28-29; 14), and that this gift of prophecy would eventually “cease,” specifically when the “teleion” – the  Greek word for “the perfect” or “the complete” – “comes” (13:10).

Now, some Christians have interpreted the meaning of the “teleion” in this verse to be a reference to the Apostolic writings themselves, the books of the New Testament.  When it was finished, traditionally argued to have happened in the middle of the last decade of the first century, 95ish when the Apostle John finished his Gospel and letters – “the perfect” had come and so the gift of prophecy was said to have ceased.  It was no longer operative.

Known as the “cessationist” position, these Christians have a simple answer to the question about Muhammad’s status as a prophet of God, and it’s – “No, he’s not a prophet.”  But don’t take it personally – cessationists say this about anybody and to everybody who claims to have had a prophetic gift after the close of the first century, the Apostolic age – Montanus, Bahaullah, Joseph Smith, Mother Ann Lee, Mary Baker Eddy, Syung Yung Moon – any of them, all of them.  They can’t be prophets because there are no prophets anymore.  The gift of prophecy has ceased.  Case closed.

But not all Christians think this way.

With the rebirth of Pentecostalism at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the largest and fastest growing subsets of global Christianity, the belief in prophecy as one of the continuing gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes sovereignly according to the Divine purpose among believers for the building up of the church and the fulfillment of its mission in the world has been widely embraced. “Continuists” interpret the “teleion” – “the perfect” – of I Corinthians 13:10 as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and since that hasn’t happened yet, the gift of prophecy is still operational and that means that prophets still exist.

In another one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writing to the church at Thessalonica specifically told them not to “quench the Spirit” by “despising the words of prophets.” But neither did Paul want them to just blindly believe every prophetic claim.  And so, “test everything,” Paul told them, “holding fast to what is good” and rejecting what is not (I Thessalonians 5:19-21).  Christians who hold to this position – and I am one of them – would not reject the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood automatically out of hand as being impossible like “cessationist” Christians do, but would want to test the claim instead.  And the way that such a claim gets tested is by comparing the content of what has been “prophesied” to what has been previously accepted as a genuine revelation of God.

Just like you, Christians believe that God is really there and that the God who is there is not silent. God has spoken and acted in human history to make Himself known to us.   This is what we Christians mean by revelation, and when Christians think and talk about God’s revelation, we typically think and talk about it in two ways, in what’s called “General” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting generally in nature and conscience; and in what’s called “Special” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting specifically in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ, all of which has been preserved for us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.

It is against these two grids of revelation – “General” and “Special” – that the prophethood of Muhammad must be evaluated by me as a “continuist” Christian, and when I do, what I wind up with is a hung jury, a split decision.  You see, by the standards of the Special Revelation that I have as a Christian, I have some fundamental difficulties with Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet.

The New Testament tells me that Jesus is “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” the “Word made Flesh,” and that He went to the cross to die an atoning death for my sins and for the sins of the whole world, and that He was raised from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father from where He will come again at the close of the age.

Now I understand and can appreciate the fact that these are not things that you believe as Muslims. And I also know that you argue that your “Special” Revelation, the Koran, “corrects” what it believes are the distortions that we Christians have introduced into the record of the New Testament about Jesus.  You use your “Special” revelation as Muslims to correct what it is that I believe about Jesus Christ as a Christian.  But the very things that you would “correct” by your “Special” Revelation are the very things that I believe because of the “Special” revelation that I believe I have as a Christian.  And so beyond arguing the credibility of our respective sources of Special Revelation – which we have been known to do – I just don’t see much room for budge here.

There are fundamental differences, monumental differences, between the New Testament’s teachings about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does, and what the Koran teaches about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is. But as far apart as we are as Muslims and Christians with respect to the content of our respective “Special” Revelations, with respect to what we affirm about God from the source of “General” Revelation, we actually share a remarkable unanimity. And that’s not “nothing.”

David Bentley, a Christian scholar, has written an important book for Christians to see. It’s called The 99 Beautiful Names of God (William Carey Library – 2012). These are the 99 names of God that I see so beautifully calligraphied on the walls of the Mosques I visit, and that I am told you recite with your prayer beads.  Dr. Bentley wrote this book to show Christians that the God whom Muslims obey and adore is the same God whom we as Christians obey and adore.  Using the Bible as his source, Dr. Bentley showed that the 99 names you who are Muslims use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God are 99 names that we who are Christians use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God as well!

And the only way that I can explain this is to say that for all of the problems that I face as a Christian in accepting Muhammad as a genuine prophet of God because of the very real differences that exist between what our respective “Special” Revelations teach, at the point of “General” revelation there is no conflict and no question at all.

The Apostle Paul, preaching in the New Testament book of Acts, made it clear that there is a genuine knowledge of God available to us as human beings through “general” revelation.

“In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:16-17)

From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:26-28)

And at the beginning of his magnum opus – his letter to the Romans – Paul made the case for “special” revelation –

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:19-20)

And so, with these texts in support, without hesitation whatsoever I can affirm the conclusion that Muhammad was a prophet of God’s General Revelation.  He personally knew and publically proclaimed some important truths about the God who is there.  And while that’s not everything that you as Muslims believe about him, I would propose that it is way more than what many Christians have been willing to say in the past, and that it provides us with a real basis for our relationship with each other as we move ahead, together.

 

 

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The Most Important Thing That Church Can Do Right Now

On a Disciples’ Ministers’ Facebook Group Page to which I belong, a young minister recently posted a question about what we thought the church needed to be giving her attention to most in the coming days. As you might expect from a Disciples’ clergy group, the answers he got were a recital of all of the worthy justice causes that demand our attention and deserve our action.

What I read there reminded me of David Williams’ observation that without a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will shatter a soul.”

screamIt will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue. It’s an endless series of fractally complex cries, each one calling for the fullness of your attention, a chaotic din, an ocean’s roar of human suffering. No normal human can take that in. It creates popcorn soul, attention deficit justice disorder, as the well-meaning warrior frets and chases after whatever buzzes loudest and most impatiently on their #twitterfeed that day.

David Williams’ whole argument is that justice is “the fruit of grace, not the other way around” (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2016-04/why-social-justice-not-christian). David believes that “justice matters, deeply and significantly, for anyone who cares about what Jesus taught… It’s just that … well … social justice does not provide the teleological framework that integrates me existentially. Or to put that a less willfully obfuscatory way, it is not my purpose. It is not my goal. It just isn’t.”

chalice

And so when an earnest young Disciple minister asks a Facebook Group of Disciple Ministers what we think the church should be attending to most these days, I want at least one of us to say “the Lord’s Supper”! I want one of us to say that the most urgent task of the hour is to get more of our people to the Lord’s Table more regularly so that the Christ who meets us there can get the chance to form us spiritually and morally by His indwelling presence and through the empowering work of His self-giving love.

Carl Trueman, the Reformed Church Historian who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, casts a powerful vision of the formative potential of the “ordinary means of grace” when he writes –

I believe that as Christians hear the word each week and receive it by faith, as they grasp the significance of their baptism, as they take the Lord’s Supper, as they worship and fellowship with other believers, their characters are impacted and shaped; and that this will affect how they behave as members of civic society.   In short, they will be those whose faith informs how they think and behave as they go about their daily business in this world.   Christianity makes a difference.

Professor Trueman calls this the “Calvary Option.” Looking around at all the crises and changes in the world today, and after considering all of the cries for justice that make their insistent demands on our attention and action, he argued that the most important thing that a church can do right now is to just be the church!

As long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants.  The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are.  In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth. … The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides.  The tomb is still empty.   And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer. (https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/07/the-calvary-option)

This is not a pious escape from dealing with the world’s hopes and fears that he is calling for here, nor is it an argument for the evasion of our responsibility for serious moral witness and sustained moral action as Christians. Instead, it is a recognition, as Henri Nouwen put it, that “underneath all of the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world” that “there is a still point where my life in anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence” (The Genesee Diary [14] Image Books.1981).

In the “shattering” presence of all of the injustices that seem to dog our every step right now, what is the center out of which we are to operate as Christians in “hope and courage and confidence”? And I answer that I believe that it’s the Gospel of God’s saving presence and work in Jesus Christ that gets memorialized for us every time we come to the Lord ’s Table in remembrance and thanksgiving.

faithfulThis is why this year the Elders at the church I serve will be reading together and discussing together each month David Fitch’s new book Faithful Presence (IVP – 2016). David, the R.B. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary, is one of the most provocative and helpful thinkers about the life and ministry of the church here in the first few decades of the 21st century that I’ve come across. His blog @ www.missioalliance.org has been required and sustaining reading for me since first stumbling across it on my Sabbatical in the summer of 2014 when I was working on how established, aging and declining churches like ours can cultivate a “culture of evangelism” that leads to sustainable renewal. And it was one of his blogs at this site (www.missioalliance.org) that convinced me that our elders’ time and effort would be well spent this year carefully considering what David has to say about the “seven disciplines that shape the church for mission.” And the first discipline that David believes does this, that shapes Christians “to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world” is the Lord’s Supper.

Writing about this at “Missio Alliance” (“Discerning Christ’s Presence in the World: How We Learn This around the Table” – December 4, 2014) David says –

We need postures to discern Christ’s presence, and to then be able to participate in His work. I am convinced that this kind of training happens as we practice the Lord’s Table together. Around the Lord’s Table we learn to tend to the real presence of Christ …which in turn makes us fully present with each other at the Lord’s Table… It’s at the Lord Table that we learn the right postures which enable us to get out of our own way, to tend to what Christ is doing, and to cooperate.

In this article David describes five of these “postures” that he says open us to the experience Christ’s faithful presence at the Lord’s Table, and that then enable us to be Christ’s faithful presence in the world when we leave the Lord’s Table in mission.

Around the Lord’s Table we learn –

cupThe Posture of Surrendering…
The Posture of Receiving…
The Posture of Ceasing to Strive…
The Posture of Socialness among us
that enables us to be for each other…
And t
he Posture of Forgiveness…

And these are exactly the same “postures” that we need to learn to be a faithful part of God’s mission in the world. This isn’t magic. We aren’t mystically imbued with these qualities simply by ingesting the communion elements week in and week out. A careless and thoughtless participation in the Lord’s Supper holds more spiritual peril than spiritual benefit for us as Paul warned in in I Corinthians 11:17-34. This, David freely admits.

I admit most of us do not learn these postures through the rote ways we take Eucharist. But I contend, when done well, these are the postures we learn there and these are the same postures we take into the world.

But “when done well,” there are very few things that we do as a church each week that are more instrumental in spiritually and morally forming us at the Lord’s Table to be the kind of people that God can then use in the world to “sow love where there is hate; to sow pardon where there is injury; to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair; to sow light where there is darkness; to sow joy where there is sadness.”

And so when the question is What does the church need to be giving her attention to in the coming days? My answer will be – The Lord’s Supper… for when people come to the Lord’s Table

to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, they will then be sent from the Lord’s Table as God’s agents of the grace that they have received in Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs the fruit of that grace right now — Justice.

DBS +

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