Tag Archives: Christians

Let’s Talk about Sex

Something momentous is happening in the larger culture right now to which the church of Jesus Christ really needs to be paying attention. I have long been haunted by something that Stanley Mooneyham of World Vision wrote in his 1975 book What do You Say to a Hungry World? (Word).

It is reported that on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution two conferences were held in hotels on the same Moscow street. One was sponsored by the Orthodox Church: the principal item on the agenda was vestments for the clergy. In the other meeting, Lenin and his friends drew up the final plans to overthrow the czarist regime. (31)

“Let the church take care!” Stanley Mooneyham warned. “A church preoccupied with trivialities (or its own institutional well-being) soon becomes blind to the basic needs of the age.”

scumIt seems to me that one of the basic issues of this age is just now coming into view in the avalanche of troubling accounts of the sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse, and crimes that have been perpetrated by highly public people – celebrities like Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, and Louis C.K.; entertainment industry executives like Harvey Weinstein, James Taback, and Ray Price; media leaders like Mark Halpern and Michael Oreskes of NPR; and politicians like Roy Moore, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. These stories are just beginning to surface. There will be more.

Just like the sex abuse scandal in Roman Catholicism a decade ago that snowballed from what were originally said to be a handful of “isolated” incidents into a full-blown and widespread scandal that shook the Church right down to her very foundations and that has had consequences with which she is dealing still, so the curtain is just now rising on the patterns of sexual abuse that permeate our society in all of its different sectors. The surface of this story has just been scratched.

metooThe scope of this scandal will only grow in the coming days. The sheer number of “Me too” notices that have been posted by victims of sexual abuse across the various platforms of social media is stunning anecdotal evidence of the staggering scale of this moral crisis in our society, a crisis to which the church must neither be silent nor stupid in response.

It was the theologian Paul Tillich (1886 –1965) who said that culture poses the questions that the church then needs to be able to answer cogently and compellingly, and I’m quite sure that this was the case in his day, in the twilight of Christendom when culture was the dissenting voice that challenged the church’s spiritual and intellectual hegemony in Western Civilization. Those days are gone.

Culture doesn’t care what the church thinks anymore. These days the roles have been reversed. Today the church is the dissenting voice to an increasingly secular cultural hegemony that has largely removed God from the equation, except maybe as a mascot.  Culture may no longer care what the church thinks, but I believe that when the world that it has constructed without reference to God begins to teeter on its shaky foundations, as it appears to be doing at this very moment, then a church that can speak clearly to that culture about the difference that God makes to personal and social well-being will get a hearing from people who are frightened and frustrated.  And so the church needs to start thinking and talking about sex.

This is going to require more from us than just a recitation of our rules in a scolding manner. If we are to engage the larger culture in an intelligent conversation about the meaning of human sexual identity and behavior from our distinctive perspective as Christians, then we are first going to have to become reacquainted with that distinctive Christian perspective ourselves.  When we aren’t conversant with the church’s historic perspective on human sexuality, then we default into posturing as Christians instead, and there’s a fair amount of this going on right now.

Since the dam on sexual abuse in our society broke flooding the nightly news with one outrageous story of sexual misconduct after another, some Christians I know have begun to exude a certain air of moral and spiritual superiority with a smug “I told you so” look on their faces. They know the rules and so they have concluded that this breaking sex abuse scandal is a pretty simple matter of culture just reaping what it has sown.

Sexual abuse is part of the toxic harvest from the destructive seed that was sown during the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Elevating the pursuit of physical pleasure and the right of personal self-expression to the highest good while at the same time eradicating the traditional moral and spiritual boundaries that helped to channel human behavior and control powerful human urges has created a climate of sexual permissiveness in which all of our fallen instincts have been allowed to thrive. And so some Christians see the solution to this current crisis in our society in a pretty straightforward sort of way – just restore those boundaries, just rebuild those barriers, and everything will be fine.   But it’s too late for that, besides, it never really worked anyway.

Simply knowing the rules has never been enough, not even for those of us who are Christians. The fact is that there is little appreciable difference between the sexual attitudes and behaviors of Christians and the sexual attitudes and behaviors of their counterparts in the larger secular culture. We have premarital sex in virtually identical numbers. We have children out of wedlock in virtually identical numbers. We have extramarital affairs in virtually identical numbers.  We use pornography in virtually identical numbers.  We get divorced in virtually identical numbers. The only real difference between us seems to be guilt.

We who are Christians are familiar with, at least in principle, the traditional rules about sexual expression, and so we tend to feel some real remorse when our sexual behaviors deviate from the standards that come with the territory of faith. This is actually how it’s supposed to work.  As Paul explained in Romans (3:21-31), the Law prepares our hearts for the Gospel.  God’s word of grace is a word best received by people who know and who are troubled by the moral and spiritual poverty that they find in the depths of their spirits.

The Gospel is a word of healing spoken to our injuries. The Gospel is a word of hope spoken to our despair. The Gospel is a word of forgiveness spoken to our sinfulness. The Gospel is a word of transformation spoken to our shattered lives and worlds. When God’s grace in Christ finally breaks through to us, in that moment we discover who we were always meant to be, we see just how far short we have actually fallen from that identity, and we are set on the path of a gradual restoration of that true image in us. And it’s this pattern that creates the basic frame for the distinctive Christian perspective on sex.

sexThe late Dr. Lewis Smedes, professor of ethics at the Seminary where I began my graduate theological education in Southern California, in his book – Sex for Christians (Eerdmans 1976) – addressed the distinctive Christian vision for human sexuality under three broad headings – “its created goodness, its sinful distortions, and its redeemed potential.” Every question of sexual identity and behavior must be pushed through this grid. What was originally intended for us and our sexuality by the God who made us? How has that intention become distorted by the rebellion of our sin and the ensuing brokenness of our world?  And how does the healing work of God in Christ take hold of us and change us sexually?

Dr. Smedes noted the very real complexity that’s involved in this for us –

Christians must forever pick their way between delight in creation’s gifts and sorrow for sin’s distortions. We want to rejoice in everything God has given; we want to change all that has gone wrong. Our problem is that we are often hard put to tell the difference between what God has made and what we or nature has bungled. 

What God wants, how we’ve made an absolute mess of it, and what God is doing now in Christ to fix it is the theological frame through which I believe that we as Christians need to view what’s happening in us, to us and all around us sexually, and out of which we need to speak to culture with clarity and grace. DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Building Bridges in Days of Hatred

Last night at the Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano we had our October Faiths in Conversation program on prayer in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish spiritual traditions. There was something powerful about coming together as Christians, Jews, and Muslims to seek mutual understanding and to find common ground on a day when an act of terrorism in New York City that was rooted in misguided religious extremism and that was met, from some quarters, by an equally misguided extremism, was the story of the day.  As I asked in my presentation –

Does the Lord’s Prayer tap the subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? Is the spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive, something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews?  More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family (Muslim and Jewish), and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?

“Relating to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level” — could anything be more important for us as Christians to learn to do, especially with our Muslim cousins, in a day when misunderstanding is the rule and violence is increasingly becoming the way. What follows is my presentation from the program last night. May it serve the cause of understanding and respect. DBS +

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Prayer – Faiths in Conversation
A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas Skinner
Custer Road UMC – Plano – Tuesday, October 31, 2017 – 7:00 pm

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In wide swaths of the church, baptism is viewed as a covenantal sign much like circumcision is in Judaism. Infants are baptized into the community of faith on the promise of family and church to raise them in “the fear and admonition of the Lord.” Later on, at an “age of accountability,” they are then expected to make their own decision about the faith in which they have been raised.  This act of faith’s personal acceptance is called “Confirmation.” It’s when and how the faith of the family and church that was the basis for their baptism as infants gets personally “confirmed” by them when they can think and decide for themselves.

I was confirmed by the Right Rev. Francis Bloy, the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles back in 1966 when I was 12 years old. I had been baptized as an infant, and on that occasion my parents and their church promised to raise me in such a way that I would grow into a faith of my own.   Specifically, what they promised to do was to teach me three things – the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

In the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church there is a Catechism which is the official curriculum that is to be taught to every person before they can be confirmed, and the backbone of this standard teaching tool, not surprisingly, are these same three things. The Apostles’ Creed spells out the core convictions of the Christian faith.  The Ten Commandments establish the basic code of conduct for the Christian life.  And the Lord’s Prayer serves as the basic guide to a Christian’s communion with God.

Now, I tell you all of this in order to say that whenever the Christian Church has talked about prayer, it has always talked first and foremost about the Lord’s Prayer, and that’s because for Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is the Model Prayer. It’s the prayer that Jesus gave His disciples when they asked Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), and it has been a prayer that has been prayed by His disciples ever since.  In fact, no prayer has been prayed by more Christians over a longer period of time than has the Lord’s Prayer.

In many of the denominational families of Christianity the Lord’s Prayer is prayed publicly every week in worship. For instance, at the church I serve we pray the Lord’s Prayer together out loud every Sunday morning.  I think it’s safe to say that the Lord’s Prayer is the most widely shared liturgical text in all of Christianity.  But it’s not just limited to our public acts of shared worship.  Many Christians also pray the Lord’s Prayer individually when we are all by ourselves.  For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a primary text for our life of public worship as well as for our life of private devotion.

The “Didache” is a second century document that describes the some of the practices of the early church right after the close of the New Testament era, and it instructed Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times each day.  This was the first Christian Rule of Prayer:  pray the Lord’s Prayer first thing in the morning, then pray it again at midday, and then finally, pray it one more time at night right before going to bed.  Now, understand, there was more to this practice than just mechanically rattling-off the 70-or-so words of the Lord’s Prayer.

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition they say that we learn how to pray first with our lips – by saying the words; and then we learn how to pray with our heads – by understanding the meaning of the words that we are saying; and then finally we learn how to pray with our hearts – by experiencing the reality of the God who is behind the concepts and beneath the words. And it is this movement from mouth to head, and then from head to heart, that informs the use of the Lord’s Prayer by Christians.

There is more to the Lord’s Prayer than its words, beautiful and meaningful as they are. In this prayer that takes less than a minute for us to recite what we who are Christians are given is a summary of the spiritual life from the perspective of Christianity. In the affirmations and petitions of this prayer taught to us by Jesus Christ Himself, the building blocks of our relationship with God as Christians get spelled out for us simply and specifically.  This is why the church has, right from the beginning of her life, insisted that knowing and praying the Lord’s Prayer is an indispensable part of what it means to be a Christian.

On the handout that I prepared for you this evening you will find the text of the Lord’s Prayer as we pray it each week at my church.

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Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

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The Lord’s Prayer consists of a combination of affirmations about the God to whom we pray as Christians, and petitions addressed to this God that inform our expectations of what it is that He wants for us as human beings. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us absolute confidence” in God, and “total dependence” on God as human beings.

I find that who you think God is will largely determine how you pray. If you think that God is distant and disinterested, then you pray to get that God’s attention. And if you think that God is fastidious and stern, then you pray to try to win that God’s favor. But if you think that God is personal and affectionate, then you pray as a conversation with a friend, and this is exactly the kind of God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer.  Christians pray to God as “Father.” Now, the picture that immediately comes to my mind and heart when I think about what this looks like is the one that Genesis chapter 3 paints for us of God coming to the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening to go for a walk with Adam and Eve (3:8). This is a picture of intimacy and affection, and this is a picture of the kind of relationship that I as a Christian believe God wants to have with all of us.

When Genesis chapter 1 tells us that we are created in the image of God as human beings (1:27), I think that part of what we’re being told is that we are made with a capacity and a need for a relationship with God. We are intrinsically and incurably religious as human beings. I just love the way that St. Augustine put it, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” he prayed, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Just like a reflection in a mirror, we are created to correspond to God, we are built to respond to Him.  We are created to talk with God face to face and as friend with friend (Exodus 33:11).  And the God who is addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is just this kind of God, a God of intimate and affection relationship, a parental God.  This is a God in whom I can have “absolute confidence.”  And because I do, this is a God on whom I can “totally depend.”

When I was a kid growing up, once everyone was seated at the family dinner table every evening, my father would fold his hands, bow his head and say – “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,” and then my mother, my sisters and I would immediately answer saying – “and you give them their food in due season.” “You open wide your hand,” my father would continue, and again we would all respond, “and you satisfy the needs of every living creature.”  These words come from Psalm 145, and they were an important part of the nightly dinner table ritual for my family when I was growing up, and I’m glad they were because they taught me something important about God that I have never forgotten – He is the source of every good and perfect gift that I have in my life and that I see in the world.  And the Lord’s Prayer is built on this same conviction.

When I pray the Lord’s Prayer asking for God’s provision, pardon, and protection, the confidence I have that I am actually being heard, and that my requests are going to be taken seriously, rests singularly on what it is that I know to be true of the God to whom I am praying. The God to whom Jesus Christ taught His disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer is a God who knows us by name and need.  The “Heavenly Father” God addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is a God that we as Christians believe has both the intention and the ability to do good for us and for all of creation.  And it’s on the basis of these affirmations that we then make our needs known to Him.

In the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer there is a mix of human needs mentioned, some of them are material, some of them are spiritual, but all of them of real concern to the God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer. I had a professor in seminary who liked to say that if we can’t trust God with the temporal needs of our bodies then why should we bother trusting Him with the eternal needs of our souls? And that question nicely reflects the scope of God’s concern for us as human beings in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

Our spiritual needs get gathered up and voiced in the petition for God’s kingdom to come, for things to be on earth as God has always intended them to be from eternity. This is a prayer for shalom, for human beings and all of creation to thrive in a harmonious web of mutual interdependence. And the petitions for forgiveness, guidance, and deliverance from evil are all cries to God to help us move in this direction. And our material needs all fall under the umbrella of the petition for daily bread.  Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is about everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body – food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money… good weather… health… a loving family… good friends… [and] faithful neighbors.

“Total dependence” on a God in whom we have “absolute confidence” is what the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian. And in teaching me this, I believe that it is teaching me the essence of how Christianity understands the spiritual life.  The intriguing question for me as a Christian is how expressive of the essence of the Abrahamic spiritual tradition is this “total dependence” and “absolute confidence” that the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian?

When you look around and listen, the two biggest conversations that are being had on prayer when Christians, Muslims, and Jews talk are: (1) Are we praying to the same God? and (2) Can and should Jews and Muslims pray the Lord’s Prayer when it is being offered as the “universal” prayer in public non-sectarian settings like Alcoholics Anonymous?  My question is different.  It’s not about the God we are praying to, a God I believe we in fact share as Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  And it’s not about whether or not you as Jews and Muslims can or should pray the actual words of the Lord’s Prayer.  No, my question is different.  It has to do with the spiritual dynamics that are at work in the Lord’s Prayer. You see, from my years of being involved in interfaith conversations like this one here this evening, I have learned that when we talk about doctrine, what we believe, that’s when our greatest differences become evident, but when we talk about spirituality, how we believe, that’s when our greatest similarities show.

For example, when we talk about Jesus Christ and who we think He is, that’s when I find that we’re furthest apart as Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and I don’t see any way of closing that gap without one of us changing what we believe.   But when my Jewish friends talk about their long experience of “chesed” – God’s steadfast covenantal love for them, and when my Muslim friends open up their Korans and read – “I begin with the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. All praise is to God, Lord of all the worlds, Most Gracious, Most Merciful…” – my heart can easily say, “that’s the God I know too in Jesus Christ.”

We have a hymn we like to sing at my church about how in shared devotion “true hearts everywhere their high communion find.” This hymn is about how Christians of different races and backgrounds find our unity in the relationship that we all share with Christ. And my question is, does the Lord’s Prayer with its spirituality of “absolute confidence” in and “total dependence” upon God create a similar kind of “shared devotion” in which we as the three branches of the Abrahamic family tree of faiths can find “a high communion” from “true hearts”?

Does the Lord’s Prayer tap a subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? You see, whether or not you can pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer with me, what I’m really interested in knowing is if this spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive is something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews?  More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family, and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?

 

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“Any man’s death diminishes me…”

BOMB

The violence in Manchester on Monday evening fills us with anguish, anger and sympathy. Interviews with grieving parents and surviving friends on the evening news are just too painful to watch.  And once again we are left to struggle with big questions about the presence – or absence – of God, His purposes and actions in history, the abnormality of the world, and something, anything that might help us understand how this keeps happening, something, anything that could help explain the inhumanity of human beings to other human beings.

To be able to perpetrate an act of violence like this one that exploded in an arena concourse in Northern England, and in our hearts, on Monday evening, the targeted people have to get reduced to objects – they have to become depersonalized, dehumanized, and debased. How else could anyone do such a thing to another human being?  They have to be stripped of their humanity becoming people without faces, or names, or families, or dreams, or stories.  How could “they” do this to “us”?

And then it dawned on me – painfully – that “we” do this to “them” too.

I’ve read innumerable statements of solidarity with and sorrow for the Manchester victims and their families online this week, and rightly so.   But I have not read similar statements of solidarity with and sorrow for the Wadi al Shatii District attack victms and their families (141 people killed, 100 people wonded), the Baghdad suicide bombing victims and their families (39 people killed, 45 wounded), or the Zabul, Afghanistan, assault victims and their families (20 people killed, 15 people wounded) that all happened in the 48 hours right before Manchester.

Go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_May_2017.   This is a day-by-day, month-after-month accounting of the victims of global terrorism.  It is a disturbing and sobering read.  Just looking at the numbers of people who have been wounded and killed by terrorists this month – May 2017 – was eye-opening and heart-wrenching for me.  Stories of the Manchester victims fill the front-page of the paper and open the evening news broadcasts.  We easily identify with them and openly weep for them.  But who weeps for the May 2nd  Hasakah, Syria, victims (37 Killed, 100 wounded), or the May 12th Mastung, Pakistan,victims (29 killed, 37 wounded), or the May 18th Hama Governorate, Syria, victims (67 killed, 100 wounded)? Who even knows about them? John Donne (1573 – 1631), the English poet/priest, wrote –

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

This was an affirmation that came from deep within his faith as Christian. David Langness, a Baha’i believer, wrote a commentary on this text that I found to be richly insightful and deeply moving (http://bahaiteachings.org/the-spiritual-quote-that-started-it-all-no-man-is-an-islan)

“Because I am involved in mankind…” the poet says, telling us that he has discovered his relationship with all people. In the 17th century, this was a radical and even revolutionary belief. Donne said it during a time of rampant slavery, enormous class distinctions and the complete subjugation of certain kinds of people based on gender, race and circumstances of birth. In the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” the poet’s collective “thee” refers to the entire unified race of humanity…

…Many of the people who hear Donne’s most famous line at a wedding or a funeral may think it just means that we need each other as human beings. This simplistic interpretation – that human beings do not thrive when isolated from others – takes the most literal path, which probably would have insulted the poet. Donne meant more than that – he meant, in the broadest sense, that the personal and the political are one; that the boundary between you and I does not ultimately exist.”

Now, if a Baha’i believer (some of the loveliest people of faith that I know) reading a “Christian” text can see this so clearly and say this so powerfully, what could possibly explain our confusion and hesitation as Christians?

20 years ago Peter Kuzmic, the Distinguished Professor of Missions and European Studies at Gordon Conwell Seminary in his inaugural lecture said something that I have never forgotten. He said that when we are asked as Christians to say why we should care about a famine in Africa, or a violent coup by an oppressive dictator in Latin America, or the outbreak of a deadly virus in Asia, or the continuing violence of racial hatred in the United States, our answer should be clear and conscientious – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son!”

This week that world that God loves in Jesus Christ encompasses Manchester, England, the Minya Province of Egypt, the Wadi al Shatii District of Libya, Baghdad, Iraq, and Zabul, Afghanistan.

“…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…”

                                                                                                              DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Be Born in Us Today”

                                                                                bird

A Christmas Pentecost
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Christmas, by itself as the birthday of Jesus, could lend itself to a great deal of sentimentality, which is most welcome in winter time…  In the light of Pentecost, however, we are not left to ourselves in our effort to cheer up a cold world torn apart by human strife and suspicion.  The child Jesus, born in Bethlehem, grew up to be a man.  He died and rose again.  He has come back in the Spirit who was given on Pentecost… [and this] Christ must be born in us.  This is the decision before which Christmas places us… we are asked to make up our minds whether we will continue in our own spirit or in the Spirit of the Christ child.

Evangelism and Contemporary Theology (98)

                                                                                      Pieter De Jong – Tidings – 1962

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Back in 2009 I read a fascinating blog written by a United Methodist minister (“Christmas Christians, Easter Christians, and Pentecost Christians” – Rev. Dan Dick – “United Methodeviations” @ http://doroteos2.com/about/).  He identified “Christmas Christians, Easter Christians, and Pentecost Christians” not by when they show up in church for worship, but by the distinctive emphases of their particular version of Christianity. He summarized them this way –

cradleChristmas Christians form a deep relationship with Jesus, wanting to know Jesus personally, follow Jesus’ teachings exactly, and live life in a way they believe is pleasing to God.  Right belief is a driving force for Christmas Christians.

grassEaster Christians seek to understand the risen Christ, to live lives that reflect the power and presence of Jesus the Christ in the world today.  Behavior pleasing to God in the form of mercy, grace, justice, and love shape this worldview.

                                                                                                                                                                     

orangePentecost Christians seek to be the incarnate body of Christ in the world, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Shunning legalism and exclusion, this worldview embraces a future grounded in the vision of the realm of God, and refuses to be bound by the past.

David Bosch in his book Transforming Mission (Eerdmans/Orbis 1991) expanded the categories by naming the six “salvific events” of Christ’s life and the corresponding kinds of Christians that each one of these saving acts produces – (1) Christmas Christians who emphasize the Incarnation of Christ; (2) Good Friday Christians who emphasize the Atonement of Christ; (3) Easter Christians who emphasize the Resurrection of Christ; (4) Ascension Christians who emphasize the Lordship of Christ; (5) Pentecost Christians who emphasize the continuing indwelling and empowering Presence of Christ; and (6) “Parousia,” or Second “Coming” Christians who emphasize Christ’s return in Glory and the establishment of His Kingdom that will have no end.  With Rev. Dick, Dr. Bosch agreed that the saving work of God in Jesus Christ is more than just one thing that solves more than just one problem, and that different Christians, by emphasizing one or another of these saving aspects of the work of Christ, have different “flavors.”  But none of this should be taken as the endorsement of one dimension of Christ’s saving work over some other aspect of His saving work.

Just because we tend to pick and choose doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to.  In fact, by approaching Christianity like the cakeserving line at Luby’s Cafeteria, it’s real easy to wind up with an unbalanced meal of nothing but desserts. Some of my Pentecostal friends used to call themselves “full Gospel” Christians, and I really liked that language, only I’d take it even further than they did.  To them being “full Gospel” meant that Pentecost needed to be added to their Christmas/Good Friday/Easter Christianity. I’d use “full Gospel” to refer to a Christianity that embraced all six salvific Christ events.  It seems to me that to be a Biblically balanced Christian you need to have a Biblically comprehensive faith, and so to the question, “Are you a Christmas Christian, an Easter Christian or a Pentecost Christian?” I’d answer “Yes, I am,” and then I would quickly add, “And I am a Good Friday Christian, an Ascension Christian and a Parousia Christian too.”  It is only by embracing the fullness of Christ’s saving work that I receive the fullness of its benefit.  Only when taken altogether, the “full Gospel” touches my head and my heart.  In the objective events of salvation history that are true resides the potential for subjective experiences of faith made real.  In his 1907 book – The Heart of the Gospel – James M. Campbell explained –

The ground of salvation is in the historical Christ. His death for human sin is an accomplished fact, an objective reality, standing out on the canvas of history. In gospel preaching the objective side of things must be explained, for it is from the objective truth that the subjective experience comes. If the outward revelation is discarded, inward experience withers and dies… Those who… have tried to rise to a position in which they would become independent of the outward revelation, have in kicking away the ladder by which they have risen cut themselves off from connection with the solid facts upon which all experience must ultimately rest. The Christian grows in grace by growing in the knowledge of His Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He gathers strength by transmuting objective knowledge into subjective power.  Before the saving work of Christ can attain its end, the objective gospel must produce certain subjective effects, and its historical facts become spiritual forces. The work which Christ has done for us must have as its counterpart a work that He does in us.

We need this power of a subjective experience of the objective Gospel.  The truth of who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ has done for us needs to become real in our lives and in our world, and for this to happen we need the “full Gospel,” especially what Pentecost brings to the party.  This has been driven home to me with particular force this Christmas season.  Reading through the Gospels again as part of the Advent spiritual discipline to which we were called as a church, I began to become aware of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in a new way.  And then an article by the folks at the Calvin Institute for Worship at Calvin College up in Michigan brought things into forceful focus for me –

Our Christmas cards, crèches, and storybooks are filled with the characters of the Christmas drama: Elizabeth, fire.jpgZechariah, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, angels, shepherds, magi, even Simeon and Anna. But the biblical account of Jesus’ birth in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke refers repeatedly to another participant in the Christmas drama, the Holy Spirit. Though often unnoticed and uncelebrated, it is the Holy Spirit who comes upon Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Simeon. Similarly, the Old Testament prophecies that foretell the in-breaking of God’s kingdom frequently speak of the coming of the Spirit of the Lord, though these texts are strikingly underrepresented in most Advent worship services. The Holy Spirit is the forgotten participant in the Christmas drama.  This omission is seen not only in the Christmas card selection at Hallmark, but also in music for the season. There are dozens of shepherd carols, magi carols, angel carols, and Mary and Joseph carols, but precious few that acknowledge the work of the Spirit. http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/a-pentecostal-christmas-lessons-and-carols-2002

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One of the most beloved carols that we sing each Christmas includes the petition: “Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.”  This is a reference to what the church has traditionally called the “Middle Coming” of Christ.  The season of Advent is when the church focuses on the coming of Christ.  And historically the church has talked about not just one coming of Christ, but three: the first Coming of Christ in humility at Christmastime, the Second Coming of Christ in glory at the close of the age, and the Middle Coming of Christ into the hearts of the faithful, initially at conversion (John 14:23; Acts 2:38), and then repeatedly throughout the life of discipleship, our “long obedience in the same direction” (Ephesians 5:18).   And it is the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that facilitates this “Middle Coming” of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit’s assignment in the economy of our salvation to take the objective finished work of Christ, His death, Burial and Resurrection, and to subjectively apply it to each one of our hearts individually. Or, to put it another way, Christ could be born in a thousand Bethlehem’s, but until and unless He is born in our hearts, it really doesn’t matter that much to us.  And so this Christmastide pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in your heart, our church and this world.  This is something for which Jesus Christ specifically told us to pray. God gives the fullness of the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him for it (Luke 11:13).  A good prayer to start with, to “prime the pump,” is a prayer that anyone who has ever been on a Walk to Emmaus knows by heart –

christmasCome Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

 

 

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Have Yourself a Merry “Pelagian Christmas…”

clause

Every week we read and discuss an article together in our staff meeting at the church.  This past week the article that we looked at was from Christianity Today written in December of 1993 by Rodney Clapp entitled “Let the Pagans Have the Holiday.”  In part it reads –

Sometimes outsiders glimpse our own dilemma more acutely than we can.  Last Christmas, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman wrote an article in Cross Currents entitled, “Being a Jew at Christmas Time.” In it he observed, “There is nothing wrong with sleigh bells, Bing Crosby, and Christmas pudding, but I should hope Christians would want more than just that, and as Christmas becomes more and more secularized, I am not sure they get it.”  He went on: “In the end, the problem of Christmas is not mine any more than Christmas itself is.  The real Christmas challenge belongs to Christians: how to take Christmas out of the secularized public domain and move it back into the religious sphere once again.”

Rodney Clapp’s suggestion for how best to do this, how best to “take Christmas out of the secularized public domain and move it back into the religious sphere once again,” was to recover Christmas again by first reclaiming Easter – the “paschal mystery” of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the center of the Christian faith.  He explained –

Christmas celebrated without the events of Easter overshadowing is too easily sentimentalized and secularized. A baby in a manger, angels hovering overhead, cattle lowing nearby—surely this idyllic world needs no redemption.  A de-christianized Christmas is the ultimate Pelagian holiday; for at what other time of the year can we seem so certain that, merely with good feelings and good will, humanity can save itself? Annually, in fact, newspaper editorials and television commentators say exactly that, pleading that all the world needs is to spread Christmas cheer through the year.

“A de-christianized Christmas is the ultimate Pelagian Christmas.”  That’s a wonderful turn of phrase.  It’s both accurate and arresting, but what does it mean?  Just exactly what is a “Pelagian Christmas”?

Well, Pelagius was a British Monk who came to Rome in the late fourth or early fifth century, and a Pelagian was someone who adhered to his teachings.  As best as we can reconstruct for we don’t have many of his actual writings, Pelagius a serious Christian who was deeply disturbed by the loose morals and lack of spiritual maturity that he found in Rome among the Christians when he got there, and so he immediately began a rigorous campaign of reformation, a kind of moral and spiritual boot camp to whip those flabby believers into better shape.

drillThink of a stern drill instructor getting up into your face and shouting words of instruction and motivation about how you could be doing so much more if only you were just trying harder, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Pelagius and what his campaign for improving the church and Christians was all about.  His was a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” strategy for personal and congregational growth.  He believed that moral renovation and spiritual maturity were well within our reach as a human beings if only we would just apply ourselves more seriously to the task, and to make a better effort requires better motivation.  Bishop C. Fitzsimmons-Allison, the retired Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, has written about what he called the “Roger Bannister approach to the Christian life,” and this has some real conceptual connections with Pelagianism.

Before Roger Bannister no one was able to run a mile in four minutes.  Many even declared it physiologically impossible.  In breaking the four-minute barrier however, he broke the psychological impediment in the minds of athletes the world over and scores soon followed him in that accomplishment. …Jesus broke the mental and psychological barrier in the minds of people who felt that righteousness by the law was impossible to win.  (But) Jesus had now actually done it …The meaning of his life and work was, thus, reduced to an example for us to follow. (The Cruelty of Heresy 31-32)

In the end Pelagius didn’t really need Jesus Christ to be His Savior.  Oh, it was certainly nice that He came for a visit.  His good example and His teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, have helped to clarify the expectations that God has of us and for our behavior.   And His death as a martyr for His ideals was deeply moving.  And that‘s, after all, what we really need – just more information and better motivation.   And so, Jesus Christ was the spiritual “Roger Bannister,” the One who demonstrated what we are capable of doing as human beings, and who can inspire us to do the same.  To be better people all we need to do is to start behaving better, and to behave better what we need is to know what’s expected of us (a matter of having better information) and be provided with a compelling enough reason for actually doing it (a matter of getting better motivation).  It finally comes down to our choice.  We are completely free moral and spiritual agents.  We can choose to be bad, or we can choose to be good.  All we have to do is to choose right!

Do you remember the anti-drug slogan of the 1980’s – “Just say no!”  This is Pelagianism in a nutshell.  We just have to make the right choice.  But think for a moment about how “Just say no!” sounds to someone who is in the grip of a terrible bondage to an addiction.  It rings hollow because something has hold of them that makes their freedom of choice impotent and irrelevant.  The 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth described any imagined confidence in human strength to be righteous as a “standing place in the air” – in other words, a place “where there is no human possibility of standing.” People in recovery understand this.  It is their lived experience.  The first steps to sobriety are –

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2.  We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.                                        
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God…

And the spiritual roots of this approach to recovery are the church’s historic teachings about human nature and God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, ideas antithetical to Pelagianism, which is why the teachings of Pelagius eventually earned the ire of St. Augustine in North Africa, and they wound up being officially condemned by the church more often than any other in all of church history!   Today Pelagius is still known as one of Christianity’s “arch-heretics,” as somebody whose alternative teachings are so antithetical to “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) that they are in some sense a foundational mistake that if made will irrevocably send a believer off in a wrong and spiritualty dangerous direction, and Christmas is the perfect climate for the Pelagian virus to infect our souls.

Think Santa Claus, he’s the poster child of Pelagianism.  I was recently walking through a mall with my two grandboys, one seven and the other one almost four, when we stumbled on a brass band playing Christmas songs.  Three beats into the song that the band was playing and the grandboys were both singing the words –

clYou better watch out; you better not cry.
You better not pout, I’m telling you why –
Santa Claus is coming to town…

He’s making a list, checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town…

He sees you when you’re sleeping;
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
so be good for goodness sake

It’s all about choice and motivation.  Choose to do the right thing, and there are rewards for motivation: “little tin horns and little toy drums; Rooty toot toots and rummy tum tums.”  This is the popular seasonal message, and it is thoroughly Pelagian.  Instead of the Gospel message about what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, Christmas becomes a flurry of instructions about what we are supposed to think, do and feel with the promise that if we will just get with the program then we will experience “the most wonderful time of the year… the hap-happiest season of all.” 

ba
Describing us as “inveterate Pelagians by birth,” Michael Horton, the contemporary Reformed theologian, writes –

We do our best to climb the spiritual rungs into God’s hidden presence, but he has plainly warned us against this strategy.  For he has come near to us, through the Incarnate Word…

Pelagianism says that we’ve got to climb up the ladder to where God is.  Historic Christianity says that God has climbed down the ladder to where we are.  And these two very different understandings of things present competing visions of Christmas.  In the first one, Christmas is about feelings that we manufacture, choices that we make, instructions that we follow and efforts that are exerted.  In the second one Christmas is about what God has done by becoming flesh and dwelling among us so that we might behold God’s glory (John 1:14).   And this decision of revelation and redemption on God’s part sidelines Pelagius because it does not hinge on either our “good feelings” or our “good will.”   “For by grace you have been saved… not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  The Christmas joy that culture promotes depends on what you bring to the party.  The Christmas joy that the Gospel produces is the result of the fact that God Himself showed up at the party, and only one holds the real promise for the kind of joy that this season boasts.   DBS+

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“W.W.J.D.” & Ebola

Ebola
The news this week of the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States in our very own backyard – Presbyterian is Northway’s neighborhood hospital, Vickery Meadows where the afflicted man lived is part of our congregation’s “front doorstep” Mission field through the work of Oasis de Esperanza, and Hotchkiss Elementary School where some of the children in the family of the afflicted man attend is one of our “Signature Outreach Ministries” – has given us all pause.

The traditional five stages of grief provide a helpful roadmap to understanding the range of reactions and responses that we are experiencing in ourselves and observing in others.

Denial: The initial state of disbelief that this is really happening and the refusal to accept its full reality.
Anger: The frustrated and frightened outpouring of raw emotion.
Bargaining: Looking for someone or something to blame, and the offer to change behaviors in the hope that it might change circumstances.
Depression: The dawning realization of the full reality of the situation and its dire consequences.
Acceptance: Finding a way to live in the hope, love and peace that God in Jesus Christ supplies that is bigger than the circumstances that we face.

These are the natural and normal inward responses to our outward experiences of loss and threat. They are part of the path that inner healing takes when we are wounded or worried.  Our commitment to Christ certainly doesn’t exempt us from such experiences of difficulty or emotions of distress.  Even the most cursory reading of Jesus’ response to the death of his good friend Lazarus (John 11), and the accounts of the deep personal crisis that Paul found himself facing during the Second Missionary Journey  (2 Corinthians 1:3-2:4; 4:7-18; 11:21-10) are sufficient Biblical grounds for the spiritual legitimization of grief.

Because we are human beings, when we get bad news or face difficult circumstances, we will find ourselves launched out onto the sea of grief where we are forced to weather the storm. But because we are Christians, we are called to be and do something more than just grieve, spiritually and emotionally legitimate as grief may be.  Paul described what we are capable of and called to as Christians to be a matter of “hopeful grieving” (I Thessalonians 4:13). Not ignoring our pain and fear, in faith we are exhorted to push through it into something else.

Black white

When an explosion and fire destroyed the music room of Cleveland Hill Junior High School in Buffalo in 1953, the Rev. Charles B. Smith visited the homes of the parents who lost children in the tragedy. The shock of the community, and the anguish of those who had to go find a casket for eleven and twelve year old children was almost too much to bear.  Fathers and mothers spoke of the comfort and caring and prayerful support that Rev. Smith gave as a Christian and neighbor.  He spoke to their condition out of the resources of his faith, and out of his understanding for their grief in a personal way, for one of the fourteen children lost in the school fire was his youngest daughter, Reba. [Told by David Poling in his Sermon “The Last Fraud” in The Gift of Easter, Floyd Thatcher, editor, Word Books, 1976].

Our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior pushes us into an entirely different gear as we make our way through life as Christians.   “The love of Christ constrains us” is how Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14.  That word “constrains” in Greek is a word that describes the action of “compressing forcibly all of our energies into one channel.”

fire

In your imagination see the concentration of water flowing through the nozzle of a fire hose, how it focuses and directs all of that potential and power into a particular direction. In exactly the same way, the love of Christ “compresses forcibly” all of our energy as Christians into a channel of response.  This explains the remarkable record of how Christians have reacted through the centuries to the difficult circumstances that have broken upon them as part of their life in this world.

When a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease. (http://www.earlychurch.com/unconditional-love.php)

deer

Around A.D. 260 Dionysius wrote:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”

Large numbers of pagans, including rulers, priests and physicians, having no hope or anchor for their souls, fled to get away from the plague. They left their sick behind, alone, without care or the basic necessities of life. The Christians, as a whole, tended to remain and care for their loved ones, and for each other. In many cases the love of God in them stretched far enough to also enter the deserted houses of the pagans and care for those sick as well. This individual act, resulting from asking themselves what Jesus would do in the same situation, had a profound impact. (http://www.gci.org/gospel/evang/ordinary)

And this isn’t just ancient church history. All of the medical professionals who have been in the news in recent weeks for having contracted Ebola while serving in West Africa and then being care-flighted home to receive treatment in the United States were serving through missionary agencies as part of their own commitment to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

ebola vic

In our own spiritual tradition, the Stone/Campbell Movement, we have the example of David Lipscomb (1831-1917) who served sacrificially during the Cholera Epidemic in Nashville in 1873 when 1 out of every 25 people died in that city. Because David Lipscomb was a leader in that part of our church that asked to be counted separately in the 1906 United States Census, he is better known in the Church of Christ than he is among the Disciples of Christ, but for all of our differences, we are still part of the same spiritual family of churches, and so he is “ours” too.

buggy

Even though he lived well outside the city of Nashville, safe from the devastating effects of the Cholera outbreak, David Lipscomb moved into the city during the Cholera outbreak when so many with means were fleeing it in panic. This left the poor at the greatest risk, and David Lipscomb as a Biblical Christian knew all about “God’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” how they are the special objects of God’s care and concern, and therefore of the church’s as well.

C. Leonard Allen in his book Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church (ACU 1993) described the work that David Lipscomb did in those harrowing days.

Though Lipscomb himself was not physically strong at the time, he worked for days among the poor and sick, placing his own life at risk. He helped distribute food and supplies.  He went into the homes of destitute black residents of Nashville and helped to clean and feed them.  And he used his buggy to carry a group of nuns – whom he deeply respected for their courage – to and from the places where they were needed. (93-94)

In his periodical, The Gospel Advocate, David Lipscomb addressed the spiritual crisis that the Nashville Cholera Epidemic posed for Christians. As trite and hackneyed as it has become in the church today as a gimmick and a merchandizing platform, David Lipscomb positioned the decision of Christians in his day as to how they would respond to the crisis they faced in terms of simple obedience to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ – “W.W.J.D.?”

To reproduce the life of Christ in our own lives is to act as Christ would act, were he in our places. We thus become Christ’s representatives to the world. The solemn pledge of our lives is to act to the best of our ability in the various relationships that we occupy in the world, and in the exigencies and circumstances in which we are placed as Christ would act, were he here situated as we are…

Recently the Cholera made a fearful visitation upon our people. It fell with especial severity upon the poor…

Now in view of these things and the wild panic that seized the population, what would Christ have done in the emergency? Had he been a resident of Nashville with ten, twenty or a hundred thousand dollars, what would he have done? What did he do in the person of his representatives here?   Would he have become panic stricken with fear—fear of death, and have used his means to get himself and family, with their fashionable and luxurious appendages out of danger, to some place of fashionable resort and pleasure, and left his poor brethren and neighbors to suffer and perish from neglect and want?

That is just what he did do in the person of many of his professed representatives. In the person of others he retired to the cool shades of his own luxurious and spacious city mansion elevated above the noxious miasms [sic] that destroyed the poor and unfortunate and left them to die, in want and neglect, without attention from him. Did you who so acted bear true testimony to the world for him for whom you profess to act? Was not your course a libel upon him and his character? How can those who so acted again profess to be his children?

The religion of our Savior was intended to make us like Christ, not only in our labor of love—of our self-sacrifice for the good of others, but also in raising us above a timid, quaking fear of death. If it does not make us willing to brave death and spend our time and money for the good of our suffering fellow-creatures, off cast and sinners though they be, it does not raise us above a mere empty profession that leaves us scarcely less than hypocrites. The religion that does not induce us to do this essential work of a true Christian cannot save us.

I don’t know what the days ahead hold for us as a community of faith in the part of this city where Ebola has made its American debut. I am inclined to believe the assurances we are being given that everything is under control and that the situation is contained and being managed.  But even if that’s true for here and now, it’s not true for “there” – West Africa – and it’s far from certain for “then” – the coming days both in Dallas, Texas, and throughout the global community.

It is only natural for us as human beings to worry about our personal safety and to think about the frightening possibilities when a threat the size of Ebola moves into the neighborhood. But as Christians, our personal safety and continuing well-being cannot be our only consideration. “The love of Christ constrains us,” and that strips “W.W.J.D.” from being a snappy slogan on a bumper sticker or a tee shirt, and positions it in our hearts as the critical and urgent question of our commitment to follow Christ. “What would Jesus do?”  DBS+

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

These fatal scourges, under God, become opportunities to show the superior excellence of the Christian religion, in giving true courage, love and self-sacrifice to its votaries. Alas what is it judged by the course of a majority of its professors? What do we better than others, in these days of sorrowful visitation?

~ David Lipscomb

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

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Making Sense of “End Time” Scenarios

A Little “Believing Thinking

end

The release of the “Left Behind” major motion picture in theaters this past weekend so closely on the heels on HBO’s popular “The Leftovers” series on cable television brings “eschatology” [from the Greek ἔσχατοςeschatos” meaning “last” and λόγος, “-logy” meaning “Word” as in “the study of“] back into the forefront of our cultural consciousness. And at the edges of this conversation there are already some completely predictable and well-defined responses.

Secularists, skeptics and cynics dismiss the very suggestion of a divine intervention in the course of human history to judge and rescue humanity in preparation for the final establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth as being a ludicrous proposition from the very start. Their worldview cannot accommodate the idea.  President John F. Kennedy once said, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” And that saying stakes out the secular response pretty concisely.

Confidence in human goodness, potential and ingenuity is the engine that drives every expression of secular hope. Education and legislation will save us. “Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better,” or at least we could and would if we just had more and better information, and the right people running things in Austin and Washington D.C.   And this isn’t just a “secular” response; it’s widespread in the church these days as well.

J.C. Wynn’s (a professor of pastoral theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School/ Bexley Hall/ Crozer Theological Seminary) 1977 book Christian Education for Liberation and Other Upsetting Ideas (Abingdon) included the essay “Why the Conspiracy of Silence about Eschatology in Church Education?” In answering this question, J.C. suggested that –

Church educators are too imbued with a secular belief in progress to find much place for a doctrine that speaks of calamity and utter finality. The marked influence of progressive education upon the Sunday church school… imported a pervading optimism about humanity and expectation of inevitable progress…. (91-92)

The “eschaton” [The “End”] is completely beyond the ability of men, even the educators, to affect or to control… Eschatology faces the reluctant church educator with a reminder that none of us moves toward God so much as God comes toward us. God does not wait for us to inch our way to Him, but invites us, leads us, falls into step with us.  This encounter is not something that clever men have thought up, but a leading of the Spirit.  His is the divine initiative. (94-95)

Church education tends to assume that its goals are so earthbound that we seem limited to teaching persons for here and now. The conviction that Christians are strangers and pilgrims on earth, en route to a city whose maker and builder is God, is too seldom emphasized… If our citizenship is elsewhere, as the New Testament holds, that hope is underplayed… Christian hope is equally for the first hour of life and for the last. …Christian education dare not avoid the nearly impossible task of teaching persons both for the next things and for the last things as well.  (96)

At a Regional men’s retreat on the topic of hope a number of years ago I was asked to lead a workshop on what the Bible had to say about it. And so I used the occasion to orient the participants to the New Testament’s vocabulary of eschatology (The “Rapture,” the “Antichrist,” the “Tribulation,”  the “Millennium,” the “Signs of the Times,” the “Second Coming,” the “Final Judgment”), to introduce some of the major schools of the interpretation of these words and concepts (Realized Eschatology, Existential Eschatology, Symbolic Eschatology, Historicist Eschatology and Futurist Eschatology), and finally, to lead them in a discussion about why it all matters, about what these “events” and theories tell us about who God is and what God is doing in our lives and in our world.

When I was finished I got pulled aside by an Area Minister who was really quite upset with me for having “wasted” his time and that of all the participants on such an “irrelevant workshop.” He accused me of filling their heads with nonsense and of failing to offer them anything of practical value for when their lives got hard and they needed something specific, concrete and helpful to hang onto. “You sounded like a wacko in there,” he told me, “like someone you would hear on the radio late at night!” And as he stomped away (it was the very last time that this man ever talked to me), I remembered J.C. Wynn’s observations about the “conspiracy of silence about eschatology” in the church and better understood just how pervasive and even militant it could be.

Eschatology is not even on the table for consideration in many of our churches; we don’t have the tools to think about it intelligently and we don’t take the time to talk about it helpfully.   All we do is try to distance ourselves from it, abandoning the field to the extremists; derisively dismissing them as “ignorant fundamentalists” as we smartly walk off feeling superior.  And there’s no doubt, as theologian Gabriel Fackre put it, that eschatology has become the peculiar domain of overzealous interpreters who “with their lush apocalyptic imagery and confident descriptions of the temperature of hell and the furniture of heaven sometimes claim to know more than the Son of God about the how and when of His coming” (Matthew 24:36).

This is the equal but opposite “predictable and well-defined response” to movies like “Left Behind” and TV shows like “The Leftovers.”  They stir the religious imagination of some believers, and believe me, they will throng to their screenings.  When the dust settles, “Left Behind” will make money and have fans, and that’s because there is an audience for such productions.  In a frightening world people are looking for hope, and while the theology of “Left Behind” is not mine, I think that only a fool would stand outside throwing rotten tomatoes at it, mocking the sincerity of the faith of those who made it or the depth of the hunger of those who are going to see it.

I once knew a preacher who told me that he had preached on the book of Revelation every Sunday night for the full length of his more than ten year ministry in a particular church, and that he still wasn’t done when he left. And when I asked him if his people ever got tired of his singular focus, he told me that on the contrary, that they couldn’t get enough of it! Personally I’ve attended the protracted meetings of traveling Bible teachers with their charts and time tables who style themselves as “Prophecy Experts.”  I’ve read their books and listened to their tapes.  I know the passion and precision of their arguments, and while they never personally persuaded me of their particular positions, I spent enough time with them to know that they were serious and sincere, and that they deserved my respect rather than my ridicule.  It’s not enough just to call them stupid, and I’m not prepared to concede to them the domain of Biblical eschatology.

rapture

“Left Behind” is the popularization of an indefinable interpretive tradition of eschatology. Because it generates popular novels and movies, and because we operate in the shadow of Dallas Theological Seminary and within the sphere of C.I. Scofield’s lingering influence (the Scofield Bible Church is not more than 2 miles east of Northway’s front doorsteps and many of my church members could produce a Scofield Reference Bible if asked), Dispensational Premillennialism (the name of the “identifiable interpretive tradition of eschatology”) holds a certain primacy in the public perception of what it is that Christians believe. And some Christians do believe it, fervently.  But Dispensational Premillennialism is not the only eschatological option available to a Christian who is trying to be Biblical in his or her beliefs.  Despite its popularity today, especially in the American Bible Belt, Dispensational Premillennialism has never been the majority opinion of the church on eschatological matters.  Augustine wasn’t a Dispensational Premillennialist, and neither were Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, Barton Warren Stone, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II.  Democracy – who wins the popular vote – is a lousy way of arriving at theological truth; but when most of the church’s big hitters from across the centuries of church history took a different interpretive path than that of Dispensational Premillennialism when it came to matters of eschatology, that should be duly noted in one’s own deliberation.

Because it’s never enough just to criticize what somebody else believes, when the release of a movie brings into cultural awareness a question of Biblical interpretation and theological conclusion, we should welcome the opportunity to enter into the conversation fully. But that requires us to have given the matter of faith that has made its way into our field of vision some careful thought.  I am not a Premillennial Dispensationalist in my eschatological beliefs; but I am something.  I have some settled convictions, and they are the fruit of a sustained engagement with Scripture and the Christian tradition over many years.

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Millard J. Erikson in his magisterial 1998 systematic theology Christian Theology (Second Edition) [Baker Books] helpfully laid out some of the big theological questions that one has to come to terms with on your way to your own personal eschatological conclusions and convictions (1160-1161)  –

Is eschatology (the study of last things) thought of as pertaining primarily to the future (dealing with matters still remote from us) or the present (dealing with events in the here and now)?

Is your view of the future of life here on earth primarily optimistic (an improvement in conditions) or pessimistic (a general worsening of the circumstances of human existence)?

Is divine activity (supernaturally realized) or human effort (familiar and natural processes) thought to be the agent of eschatological events?

Does your particular eschatological view speak of hope for the church alone or for the human race in general? Do the benefits anticipated accrue only to those who are believers, or are the promises to all?  If the latter, is the church the agent or vehicle of the good things coming to all?

Does your eschatology hold that we will come into the benefits of the new age individually, or that their bestowal will be cosmic in character?

Is there a special place for the Jewish people in the future occurrences? As God’s chosen and covenant people in the Old Testament, do they still have a unique status, or Are they simply like the rest of the human race?

The way that I personally answer these questions make me a Historical Premillennialist. This is the interpretive tradition of eschatology that makes the best sense of the Biblical witness to me, and that I believe roots me in the faith of the early church.  But I refuse to make my eschatological conclusions tests of Christian fellowship or fidelity.  My Historical Premillennialist conclusions belong in the arena of “inferences,” conclusions that I have drawn from Scripture, but a construction that is separate from Scripture, that goes beyond Scripture.   Other equally serious and sincere Christians can and do arrange the same biblical materials in different ways, and I welcome faithful conversations with Christians who have drawn different conclusions than I have.  I want to be thoroughly Biblical in my faith and practice as a Christian, and if somebody can help me do this by challenging the way that I think about what the Bible says, then I’m all in.  But, in this, I understand that we are just arguing the details.

I don’t think that the theological point of view that is at work in the movie “Left Behind” is the best way to make sense of what the Scriptures say or the best way to keep faith with the historic teachings of the church.  But having said that, let me quickly add that I still have so much more in common with them, mistaken as I think they are, than I do with those parts of the contemporary church who are part of the conspiracy of silence about eschatology.

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As George Eldon Ladd, the teacher from whom I got my Historical Premillennial leanings, used to say, a Christianity stripped of its eschatology is a Christianity that will be “forever incomplete.” At the center of the Gospel “past” is Christ on the cross and at the center of the Gospel “future” is Christ returning in glory; remove either of these poles from Christianity’s equation, and you wind up with something very different from what the New Testament proclaims and the church has historically embraced. DBS+

 

 

 

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