Tag Archives: Christians

“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 1)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)

Graham

“Simul Justus et Peaccador”
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Billy Graham died last week at the age of 99. I’ve heard it said that one of the most reliable ways to tell the difference between a Fundamentalist Christian and an Evangelical Christian (and there really is a difference) is to ask them what they think of Billy Graham.  Fundamentalist Christians hated him.  Evangelical Christians loved him.  I loved him.

Many of the postings that I’ve read online from my colleagues and peers about Billy Graham in the days since his passing have qualified anything positive that they might have had to say about him with the proviso that he also said and did some less than exemplary things. Well, so have I… so have they.  In fact, when we die the same thing will have to be said about all of us too. This is, frankly, one of the things that Evangelicals get right in their theology. Christians are “simul justus et peaccador” that is, we are – “simultaneously justified and sinful.” Or as a friend of mine likes to say – “There are no sinners emeritus.”

Christians are two things at the same time, both enduringly sinful and completely forgiven and justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ. Their identity is dual. This is not a half-and-half relationship; it is 100% and 100%. Paradoxically, we are fully saved and made righteous in Christ, and at the same time we are still the same old sinner we used to be… Any good that we might do as Christians cannot cause us to forget the fundamental neediness of the person doing it. (http://www.mbird.com)

And this includes Billy Graham. Andrew Badsen, an English lay theologian, made my head explode – in a good way – with his provocative essay online “The Beauty of Original Sin” (http://www.basden.demon.co.uk/xn/orig.sin.html). Andrew argues that a healthy doctrine of sin saves us from making some seriously silly spiritual blunders.

  • No more Goodies versus Baddies. We tend to divide humanity into two camps: Goodies and Baddies. Goodies are those who are ‘OK’ in our eyes; Baddies are those who are not. But, under the doctrine of original sin, all of us are infected, all still bear some of God’s image. So all humanity is my fellow, my clan, my brother.
  • It can make me tolerant of others. If everyone is infected by original sin, then when someone does something wrong I’m not greatly fazed. But if I reject the idea of original sin, then I come to expect them – especially the Goodies – to be perfect, and get annoyed when I find they’re not.
  • It helps me with fellow Christians. We tend to impose too high and unrealistic standards on fellow Christians, leading to all sorts of disunity. But if we remember that everyone is infected, even after salvation has hit a person, then I can lower my expectations, and love them more.

Was Billy perfect? Of course not, but that’s not really the standard is it? Did Billy have “a heart after God’s own heart”? By any standard the answer is yes, and that’s something that I in my own halting and faltering journey can celebrate and emulate, and for the next couple of days that’s what my postings here will do — they will celebrate Billy Graham’s life and ministry, and they will offer ways that we can take up his standard and carry it on now that he is in God’s nearer presence and has entered the realm of blessed memory.

DBS+

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“Thoughts & Prayers” and “Pastoral Malpratice”, Part 3

thoughts

Part 3

The second crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves us in as Christians is the one that we have with God about the things that can be shown to be what the Bible teaches. This is the third step in the process that Richard Hayes identifies as being what it means to take the Bible seriously. We’ve got to relate the truth of what the ancient texts say to the reality and demands of our contemporary circumstances and situations. As Dr. Hayes explains –

Even if we should succeed in giving some satisfactory synthetic account of the New Testament’s ethical content, we will still find ourselves perched on the edge of a daunting abyss: the temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text.

There’s a familiar distinction that often gets drawn between the “letter” of a Biblical text and its “spirit” based largely on John 6:63 where Jesus says – The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life,” and on 2 Corinthians 3:4 where Paul describes the new covenant that comes to us not as a written code that kills but “in the Spirit who gives life.” And while I would not want to drive too deep a wedge between the “letter” and the “spirit” of a Biblical text, I fully appreciate the difference between wanting to know the “letter” of a Biblical text so that I can be intellectually informed, and wanting to experience the “spirit” of a Biblical text so that I might be spiritually transformed.

George Whitefield (1714 – 1770), the Anglican cleric who’s powerful preaching ministry did so much to stir the fires of the 18th century Evangelical Revival in both Great Britain and the American Colonies, explained –

I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light and power from above.

In my mind this is the perfect description of the second crucial conversation that a serious commitment to “thoughts & prayers” will generate in us as Christians. Once we know what’s in the Bible, then we’ve got to come to terms with how it actually applies to us and our lives, and that involves a prayerful conversation with God about what it is that we find in the Bible.

I remember singing the James Russel Lowell lyric in the classic hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” from the 1953 Disciple hymnal (the best one we ever produced) when I was in Christian College and serving my first few churches in the Pacific Northwest –

“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

It’s not that God’s truth changes, but the contexts, both personal and social, to which those ancient truths must speak certainly do. We ask questions today that the Bible never anticipated. We face situations now that the Bible did not foresee. Go to the concordance in the back of your Bible right now and look up every reference to assault rifles, school shootings, and the Second Amendment, and you will find none. But this doesn’t mean that the Bible is devoid of wisdom to guide us, or that it is without good counsel to instruct us as we seek solutions to contemporary problems.

We may not have chapters and verses to which we can turn to settle a question, but we do have principles that are deeply informed by the weight of the Biblical witness, and that can be prayerfully discerned by paying attention to the Spirit’s promptings in our minds, and by listening to the Spirit’s small still voice whispering in our hearts. As John Robinson (1576 – 1625), the Pastor to the Pilgrims in Holland told them in his farewell address as they left for the New World – the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.” And it’s the second crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” generates – the one that takes place between a Christian and God about what’s in the Bible – that’s when, and where, and how we find that truth and see that light.

The idea that we can do away with serious “thoughts & prayers” in the urgency of the demand for meaningful “policy & change” is an ignorant argument at best, and a dangerous argument at worst. And for those of us who are in the “thoughts & prayers” business to give the impression that “thoughts & prayers” are unnecessary and irrelevant is foolishness at best, and unfaithfulness at worst. It’s only as we do our “thoughts & prayers” work with integrity and intentionality as people of faith that we will have anything helpful to say in the public conversation about “policy & change.” DBS +

 

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“If you love Me…”

The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Discipleship

sermon

Discipleship — actually following Jesus — is not optional in Christianity, or for Christians. It’s not an extra add-on like satellite radio in your car, or the premium channels in your cable package.  We can’t break the “Good Confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior in half.  We can’t give Jesus our sins to be forgiven as Savior without Him, at the very same time, demanding to become the Lord of our lives.  Consider the Great Commission — Christ’s final marching orders to the church. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” Jesus told His first followers (Luke 14:47; Mark 16:15), “make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, he Son, and the Holy Spirit, teach them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

mennoMenno Simons, one of the Protestant Reformers who gets lost in all of the attention that Luther and Calvin get, understood better than they did what the connection is between believing the Gospel and becoming Christ’s disciples, between getting baptized and obeying all that Christ taught. Menno Simons taught that baptism is probably the least important thing that God commands us to do. Jesus Christ taught so many more important things – loving our neighbors, dying to self, serving the least of these.  But Menno Simons nevertheless insisted that people get baptized at the very beginning of their Christian lives because he viewed baptism as the first act of their obedience of faith.  Menno Simons understood that if a person agreed to be baptized because Jesus told them to do it, that he or she was someone who was already disposed to do whatever else could be shown to be something that Jesus Christ wanted them to do.

drownIt should come as no great surprise to learn that Menno Simons’ spiritual descendants – the Mennonites – more so than any other part of the Christian family today, have taken the actual living of the Sermon on the Mount most seriously. They get baptized to show their intention to be Christ’s disciples, to do whatever He commands, and they understand that the most comprehensive account of what Christ has commanded is the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not just meant to be admired by us as an inspiring ideal.  The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be adopted as our working philosophy of life as Christians.

Now, if we are to do this – and our baptisms say that we should – then there are three things that we’ve got to keep in mind –

The first thing is understanding that living the Sermon on the Mount is not something that we do in order to become Christians, but rather it’s something that we do because we are Christians.  I like the way that Frank Thielman, a Professor of New Testament at Beeson Theological Seminary over in Birmingham, Alabama, puts it – “The Sermon on the Mount shows us what life should look like for a heart that has been melted and transformed by the Gospel of Grace.”

cupWe don’t gather at the Lord’s Table to hear the Sermon on the Mount read to us. No, we gather at the Lord’s Table to break bread in remembrance of Christ’s body broken for us, and to pour a cup in remembrance of Christ’s blood poured out for us.  This is what makes us Christians.  We are loved, forgiven, and accepted by Christ’s saving work when He died an atoning death on the cross and when He rose transformed and transforming from the Garden Tomb.  But a copy of the Sermon on the Mount should probably be put in our hands at the door of the church every Sunday morning when worship is over and we’re on our way back into the world as people who have been loved, forgiven, and accepted by the Savior.  The Sermon on the Mount is what a life of grateful obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord looks like.

applesThe second thing we need to keep in mind if we are going to live the Sermon on the Mount is understanding that it is not a set of rules that gets imposed on us from the outside, but is rather the shape of the desire that arises from the heart of someone who has been indwelt by Christ.  Living like this is not something that we have to do.  It’s something that we want to do. In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about fruit and roots.  “Grapes are not gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles,” Jesus explained. “Sound trees bear good fruit; bad trees bear bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-17).  Reflecting on this, John Piper writes –

Christians have to be loving. Christians have to be just. Christians have to be caring. The fruit of the Spirit really matter. We’re not Christians if we aren’t living differently than we would if we weren’t Christians.

The real question is how does this fruit get produced in us? Jesus said that the kind of fruit we produce depends entirely on the kind of tree we are. And this means that the behaviors of discipleship that the Sermon on the Mount describe – the fruit – can’t be forced on us by some kind of external authority, but rather have to be formed in us by an inward transformation. The key to living the Sermon on the Mount is being a Christian -having a heart indwelt by Christ.

yogaBut even then, it’s not going to be easy, or automatic. That’s the third thing that we need to understand if we’re going to start living the Sermon on the Mount. E. Stanley Jones said that living the life of the Sermon on the Mount is sort of like trying to walk after you’ve sat for a long time with your legs folded up underneath you. At first it feels painful and completely unnatural, something impossible to do. But after a while, with a little effort and movement, nothing else feels right. And then it dawns on us that this is the right way to live, the truest and most satisfying way of being a human being. This is the kind of life that we were built for, and when we finally realize this then no other way of living will ever be possible for us again.

kempisIn his 15th century spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’ Kempis explained that one of the real keys to making progress in the Christian life was to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord each day as if it were the very first day of our Christian lives. Don’t start the day by congratulating yourself on any sort of imagined spiritual progress that you think you might have made, but instead consciously seek the help of Jesus who is your Savior as you continue to grow in your experience of Jesus who intends to be your Lord. It’s only by “doing what He told us to do, loving what He loves, and living by His word” (J. Ligon Duncan) that we show ourselves to be His disciples, and Biblically there’s no other way for us to be in a right relationship with Him. As A.W. Tozer put it – “It is altogether doubtful whether a person can be saved who comes to Christ for His help but who has no intention of obeying Him.” “If you love Me,” Jesus said, “then you will do what I tell you.” DBS +

 

 

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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

wrinkle

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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