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An Open Letter to the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

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Dear Rev. Owens,

The news of your election as our new General Minister and President is a source of great pride and true joy for us as a church. When we voted to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church many General Assembles ago, it was with a day like this one in mind.

Of course, the election of an African American woman to this office does not signal the end of racism or diminish the hard work of reconciliation that remains for us to do as a church any more than the election of an African American man to the highest office in our land nine years ago signaled the end of racism or completed the work of reconciliation in our national life. And so, while not viewing your election as a panacea, I am nevertheless celebrating it as an important milestone in the life of our beloved community of faith where there cannot be gender, ethnic, social, economic, political, racial, generational, or sexual orientation distinctions between us because “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

I know that the challenges you will face as the leader of our denomination in the coming days will demand of you great wisdom and grace. I suspect that you are getting lots and lots of advice from every quarter right now about how best to guide us into God’s future for us as a church.  With all of these voices speaking to you at the same time, I imagine that it’s all just a little bit confusing and overwhelming.  Nevertheless, I believe that this is a good thing because it’s evidence of the great passion that so many of us feel for this church of ours.  So, allow me add my voice to that cacophony.

I believe that one of your most crucial tasks in the coming days will be to represent the whole church, to be a visible and vocal point of unity for all of us who call ourselves Disciples.   We talk about wanting to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world as a church, and I believe that what we are going to need you to be as our next General Minister and President is an embodiment of that same kind of wholeness for a fragmenting church.

Scott McKnight has written much about the struggle in the church these days over the meaning of the Gospel. There has been much said among Disciples in recent years about how the Gospel must be framed through the category of justice – the transformation of society by the values of the Kingdom.   But there are other Disciples, people like me, who believe that the Gospel is more properly framed by the category of justification – the transformation of individuals through the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which in turn makes us agents of God’s just transformation of society as a fruit of that justification.   The “justice gospelers” among Disciples know that there’s room for them in this church because they’ve heard their perspective publicly and frequently affirmed by Indianapolis.  What those of us who are “justification gospelers” among the Disciples really need to hear from you Rev. Owens, is that your vision of our church includes us too.   We need to know that you know that we’re here, and this is where Scott McKnight’s counsel might just be the most helpful thing for all of us to hear right now. He says –

“There are three’ J’s’ in the gospel debate. The right ‘J’ is Jesus. If you preach Jesus as the gospel you will get both justification and justice. If you preach justification you may get Jesus (but I see only some of Jesus and not the whole of Jesus) and you may get some justice (I’m skeptical on this one). If you preach justice you may get some justification (but I’m skeptical on enough justice ‘gospelers’ ever getting to justification) and you get Jesus, but again only some of Jesus (often only his teachings, his life, and his life as an example). If you preach the Jesus of Paul’s gospel (1 Corinthians 15) or the apostolic sermons in Acts or the gospel of the Gospels, you get all of Jesus and all of Jesus creates both justice and justification.”

So, talk about Jesus, Dr. Owens.   That’s my counsel to you in these exciting days as you begin your new ministry among us as our General Minister and President.  Talk about Jesus clearly.  Talk about Jesus often.  Talk about Jesus from Scripture and your heart.   For when you talk about Jesus I believe that both justice and justification will be served, and we will be about the work of the Great Commission that He has given us to do as a church – to preach the Gospel (justification) and to teach all that He has commanded (justice) – and thus, truly be His disciples.

Rev. Owens, I am looking to you to lead, and I am praying for you as you begin. DBS +

                                                                                                           

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“Where the Bible is Silent…”

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A Little “Believing Thinking” on the Church’s Response to Transgendered People
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The last Faiths in Conversation gathering for the spring took place on Tuesday evening, May 23rd, at the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano.  Our topic that night was the response of our respective faith traditions to transgendered people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Fr. Massingale added –

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

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

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

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

 1)  We lost the chance to be loving. 

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

 
2)  We lost the chance to be good neighbors. 

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

3)  We lost the chance to be Good Samaritans.

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

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

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

5)  We lost the chance to reflect Christ.

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

6)  And we lost people. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sources

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Churches Change the World” ~ But How?

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Churches change the world” is the theme for the Pentecost Offering of my denomination this year. This is the special offering that is directed to the support of new church development, and that’s an easy ministry for most of us to support.  Who doesn’t believe that churches are supposed to be spiritually and morally transformative. The only real question, it seems to me, is how?  How does the church actually go about changing the world?

The promotional materials for my denomination’s special offering for new church development this year names the importance of the church speaking to the world about her own faith’s values and convictions as one of the ways that the church goes about changing the world. In fact, this is how being “prophetic” is generally, if not singularly, understood by us “Disciples” these days.  We want to speak our truth to its power.  And so we have gotten pretty good at passing resolutions, and making public statements, and marching for social justice.  And while I certainly don’t discount the necessity or efficacy of the church’s public witness, it seems to me, that an equally important way for the church to go about trying to change the world is by the church speaking its truth to the church!  In fact I would argue that I would argue that this should probably come first.

Michael Horton, the Reformed theologian, has criticized the American Church’s historic failure to condemn slavery before and during the Civil War. And he is very clear that the “the racisms that still haunt our society” — “the New Jim Crow, broken window policing, and discrimination in every way imaginable” (Derrick Holmes) — are all the poisonous fruit from the tree of this historic moral and spiritual failure by the American church.  And at the heart of this failure, he argues, was not just the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the State, it was also the result of the church’s refusal to speak out clearly against slavery to the church!  The evil of slavery persisted, he argues, not because the church wouldn’t address it publicly as a political matter, but rather because the church wouldn’t address it with its own members as a faith matter.   He notes, “the church itself was segregated – often more so than society at large.” And he wonders about how this might have been different had the church preached “the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery” to its own membership?  What would have happened had the church spoken prophetically to the church?

Wouldn’t the members (of that church) been shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney (a major American theologian of that era) had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson? (https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2013/09/two-kingdoms-and-slavery/)

It’s easy to think that the prophetic work of the church is what happens in the streets on days of protest, but I find that most of the prophetic work that I do as a local church pastor happens in the pews when I preach and preside at the Lord’s Table on Sunday mornings, and in the classrooms where I teach the Faith, and at the dinner tables and in the coffee shops where I talk about our beliefs and their consequences with people who are just trying to be faithful.

In a recent contribution to the “Rhetoric, Race and Religion Blog” at the “Patheos” Website (4/30/17), Derrick Holmes said that after he had participated in a public demonstration against social injustice at a city council meeting, another participant, grateful for his presence there, wanted to know why there weren’t other ministers with him?  And the clear implication was that if a minister wasn’t in the streets with them protesting or at a rally making a public statement, then he or she wasn’t really doing anything “prophetic” for the cause (http://www.patheos.com).

“Where are the pastors?” that essay asked, and my initial response was that where they really need to be is in their churches doing the slow steady work of the moral formation and the spiritual transformation of the people who are entrusted to their care. In my experience there is nothing more “prophetic” than the church preaching the message of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ, and then inviting “whosoever” would come to the Table of Remembrance of God’s sacrificial act of redemption and reconciliation in Christ each week  A church that is being consistently and consciously shaped by the Gospel’s word of God’s welcome and the sign of His saving inclusion will be a church that unhesitatingly speaks to the world about the worth of all people and that unambiguously speaks against the sins of prejudice and discrimination.

I understand that the single most transformative thing that I can do as a pastor is to get the people who are in my spiritual care to “to see what the Scripture says” about the big social and moral questions of the day with which we are wrestling, as Scott Cormode of Fuller Theological Seminary puts it  (https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/one-basic-idea-get-people-see-scripture-says/). He says that for those of us with a high view of Scripture, the task is not to tell our people what we think, but to help them see how the Bible thinks. He explains –

I think it is easier to preach on uncomfortable topics in an evangelical congregation than it is in other kinds of churches. In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

And so the task is to get them to engage with the Scriptures. A Christian with a high view of Scripture who doesn’t know what’s in the Scriptures – like many in the American Church were before and during the Civil War on Slavery – is a menace and a contradiction. And they’re still around today.

In the June 2017 issue of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, its Editor in Chief, wrote about the criticism that white evangelicals are receiving these days for their reported widespread anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-others-in-dire-straits public attitudes. “You would think that a people steeped in the Bible,” Mark wrote, “would find closing the door to the world’s neediest people repulsive.” But he says that the research clearly shows that white evangelicals, “more than any other religious group, say that illegal immigrants should be identified and summarily deported.” “What’s wrong with these white evangelicals?” Mark Galli asks. “Who’s teaching them these unmerciful attitudes?” he wonders.  And he thinks he’s found the answer, and it’s not the church!

All those surveys that show white evangelicals to be anti-Muslim and anti-refugee also show that those who take these positions tend to be the white evangelicals who do not go to church. When asked by pollsters if they are “born again” and find the Bible to be true and authoritative in what it teaches, they say “yes.”  But when they are asked if they actually go to church, they often say “no.”  And Mark Galli wonders if there is a connection between the “mercy-shaped vacuum within them,” and the fact that they are not hearing “Scripture read and the Word preached, and sharing in the ‘breaking of bread’ and ‘prayer’ (Acts 2:42) – together in church.”   As Mark puts it –

This has been from the beginning the divinely commanded means that enables us to grow into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), so that we might become a people who act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

Churches change the world. But the kid of churches that change the world are the kind of churches that have first been changed themselves by the very truths that they want to speak to power, and this means that the first place where “prophetic” ministers need to be are in their churches with their people consistently and conscientiously preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and fueling the vision of God’s coming Kingdom where His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

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The Most Important Thing That Church Can Do Right Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the Lord’s Table we learn –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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But it really is a “Sin Problem”; “Thinking Christianly” about Race

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wareLawrence Ware describes himself as “a philosopher of race and ordained minister dedicated to social justice.” In a recent article (8/16/16) for VSB he said that “If Your Pastor Says ‘Racism Isn’t a Skin Problem, it’s a Sin Problem’  Then You Need To Find Another Church” (http://verysmartbrothas.com).

What Lawrence was addressing in this article are the simplistic slogans and surface solutions that Christians have a real propensity for offering in the face of the stubborn systemic racism that tears at the fabric of American society. The violent and painful episodes of problems in our race relations as a nation in recent days is not a new outbreak of a social ill that we had solved with the Civil Right Bill of 1964, affirmative action and the election of our first African American President. No, racism is a chronic issue that is part of the human condition. The idea that “me and mine” are intrinsically superior to “you and yours” persists precisely because racism is just so stubborn and systemic in us as human beings. And so what’s demanded, Lawrence correctly argued in his article, is a “fundamental change to the structure of this country.” What he wrestles with in this article is the question of just exactly how this kind of “fundamental change” is going to actually be effected.

Now, what prompted Lawrence to write was his attendance of a church service in which the high profile multicultural pastor invoked one of those slogans about racism being a “sin problem” rather than a “skin problem.” Lawrence regarded this statement as evidence that that church and its pastor really didn’t get it. Lawrence wrote –

…Saying racism is a sin problem that we can solve by being kinder to each other serves the purposes of White supremacy because it does not force White folks to come to terms with the way they may contribute to institutional racism in the decisions they make at work and the way they vote at the polls…

These were words that were the speed bump in this article for me. In fact I have continued to live with them in the week ever since I first read the article.  Something about them troubled me, and I finally came to the conclusion that where they rankle me so is at the point of the false dichotomy that they seem to create, the “either this or that” choice that they seem to force.  Lawrence suggests that while some would say that the “sin problem” of racism can be easily and quickly remedied by the simple decision just to start being nice to each other, that what it really requires are public acts of “social protest.

Now, beyond the fact that these two things are not mutually exclusive options in mind, or even the only options that we have available to us when it comes to confronting the sin of racism in ourselves, each other and society at large, there is the even more fundamental theological problem for me of the understanding of sin that they reflect, a view of sin that sees it as something that we can “fix” by our own efforts.

Both “being kinder to each other” and “engaging in social protests” as responses to the “sin of racism” betray a view of sin that reduces it to bad behavior that can be modified by learning how to make better choices.  If people just knew better, or if we just had more effective laws to regulate our behavior, or if we were just better motivated as human beings, then all of our social problems like racism would slowly go away and we could live happily ever after.  Utopia is within our reach if only we would all just stretch a little bit!  But, is sin really just the result of people having bad information, or laws being poorly written and selectively enforced, or people not being motivated quite enough?  I think that the evidence, both Biblical and personal, points to the fact that sin is so much more insidious and intrinsic to us as human beings than this.

Lawrence warned his readers that if your pastor has called for prayer in regard to (racial) unity but has not pushed the congregation to engage in (public acts) of social protest to address the systemic nature of racial justice,” then you might need to change churches. And I appreciate what he says. Swaying and singing “Kum Ba Yah” together, well-intentioned though it may be, is just not going to be enough to dismantle the stubborn and systemic racism that infects the human condition. My problem with what Lawrence wrote is that I don’t think that marching through the streets chanting slogans and hoisting placards is going to be enough to dismantle the sin of racism either.

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Clearly prayer for racial unity and public acts of social protest against racial injustice are expressions of a very deep and commendable desire for social change, and as such, neither is devoid of value. I remember hearing a story about a company of Union troops marching past a Plantation field filled with slaves in the Deep South during the Civil War. Seeing the troops, one of those slaves ran just as fast as he could to get into line with the soldiers with his hoe slung over his shoulder like a rifle. His fellow slaves back in the field all laughed at the sight. They made fun of him. They asked if he thought that pretending to be a soldier for a while was going to make any difference in the struggle for their freedom. And he answered them, saying, “I don’t know if it helps or not, I just don’t want there to be any question about which side I am one.” Praying for racial unity, and engaging in acts of public protest can certainly make it clear about which side we are on, but I don’t believe that prayer or protest has the power to “fix” the sin of racism. No, to “fix” the sin of racism something more fundamental must occur within us as human beings.

To use the language of Paul in Romans 6, the old self with all of its passions and prejudices must be crucified with Christ and buried, and a new self must be raised with Christ to walk in newness of life.   To use the language of Peter in his first letter, we need to be “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). To use the language of Jesus Christ Himself in His Sermon on the Mount, we need to become good trees bearing good fruit rather than being bad trees bearing bad fruit (Matthew 7:16-18). Jesus, Peter and Paul were all talking about regeneration, about being “born again — born from above” (John 3:3).   As John Piper writes –

heartForgiveness and cleansing are not enough.  I need to be new.  I need to be transformed.  I need life.  I need a new way of seeing and thinking and valuing.  That’s why Ezekiel speaks of a new heart a new spirit:  “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.   And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (36:26-27).

…I think Ezekiel means that in the new birth, God puts a living, supernatural, spiritual life in our heart, and that new life – that new spirit – is the working of the Holy Spirit himself giving shape and character to our new heart…. By being himself within us, our heart and mind take on his character – his spirit (Ephesians 4:23).

I completely agree with Lawrence when he says that what the sin of racism requires is a fundamental change in us and our world. But the only source for the kind of change that the sin of racism requires that I know anything about is the Gospel.  And so, taking Lawrence’s lead, I’d say that if your pastor has called for prayer in regard to racial unity, and has pushed for social protest to address the systemic nature of racial injustice, but has not systematically addressed the Gospel foundations of the Creator’s original vision of Shalom, the tragic abnormality of fallen people living in a fallen world that the rebellion of our sin has created, and the personally and socially transformative power of the Gospel, then you might need to think about changing churches.

It was Carl F.H. Henry who wrote –

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian Movement. Man’s spiritual renewal vitalizes his awareness of God and neighbor, vivifies his senses of morality and duty, fuses the law of love to sanctified compassion, and so registers the ethical impact of biblical religion upon society…. Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening.

I believe that “fixing” the sin of racism requires nothing less than a change of heart, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only power to change hearts that I have ever come across. And so to ignore this Gospel, to obscure this Gospel, to discount this Gospel, or even just to assume this Gospel in the urgent conversation about the kind of fundamental change that the whole wide world and every last one of us as individuals desperately needs, strikes me as the height of unfaithfulness on our part as Christians. If it’s Christ that has the power to make us new creations so that old things pass away and so that new things come, as the Gospel says He is, then to fail to mention Him “at such a time as this” can only be regarded as the worst possible kind of spiritual malpractice.  DBS +

 

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“The Presence that Pentecost Promises”

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“Some churches still prefer churchmanship without any supernatural dimensions…
they have become hollow museums whose curators grow content to speak God’s name
without the slightest danger of experiencing His presence.”

                                                                                                                     ~ Calvin Miller                      

It hit me with the force of a 2×4 up the side of the head when I was maybe 15 years old. I was in church, the church of my childhood and youth. I was serving as an acolyte, an altar boy.  I was performing the intricate liturgical choreography exactly as it had been so carefully rehearsed the day before.  I was bending and bowing, pouring and wiping, ascending and descending the altar steps.  And right there in the middle of all that pomp and circumstance, a question popped into my head as if it had been asked of me out loud – “What are you doing?” – or, more accurately – “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”

Paul critiqued those who held to the form of religion in his day while denying its real power (2 Timothy 3:5), and standing there in church that day, I had the sense that he was talking about me… to me. You see, I was terribly concerned about getting the ceremony right, but I was completely oblivious to the real presence that made all of that activity meaningful and all of that effort purposeful. To use Sam Shoemaker’s wonderful metaphor, I was tending to a rather ornate fireplace that didn’t have a fire burning in it!  I had the form of religion, in fact, a very fine version of it, but I was missing its power.

This was the realization that pushed me out of my familiar ecclesial nest when I was a teenager and into the spiritual quest that has been the direction and destination of my life ever since. Just like Jacob wrestling the mysterious presence at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), I wanted God, the living, loving God, and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less until I had tasted and seen the goodness of God for myself (Palm 34:8).

pietyA rather unsettling book that I’ve been reading lately is Ian Stackhouse’s Primitive Piety (Paternoster – 2012).  This is his invitation away from the safe and pleasant world of suburban piety with its stress on moderation and politeness, and into the extreme and paradoxical world of Biblical faith.  He begins it by quoting the Scottish Congregationalist theologian P.T, Forsyth (1848–1921) –

“We tend to a Christianity without force, passion, or effect; a suburban piety, homely and kind but unfit to cope with the actual moral case of the world, its giant souls and hearty sinners. …We have churches of the nicest, kindest people, who have nothing apostolic or missionary, who never knew the soul’s despair or its breathless gratitude.”

This was the kind of Christianity in which I was a participant and of which I was a steward when I was 15. Later I would sometimes hear it depreciatingly described as “churchianity,” and while there was certainly some truth in that, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that designation of it then, or now.

I don’t like the implication that Christ and Church are two separate things. I wholeheartedly agree with Irenaeus of Lyons (born c. 120/140 – died c. 200/203) who said that anyone who has God as his Father has the church as his mother, whether they like it or not, and even whether they know it or not. And I’m just not comfortable with the accusation that my personal spiritual emptiness was somehow the fault of some kind of failure on the part of that church of my childhood and youth.  I can now see quite clearly how Jesus Christ was named as Savior in word and sign every Sunday morning that I was there growing up. The problem wasn’t that the Gospel of God’s redeeming love for me, and for all in Jesus Christ, wasn’t being proclaimed in that place in those days, it was rather that, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t getting through to me.  But one day it did, and it happened while I was in a worship service at that church!  That’s where God found me.   And while my journey has since led me away from that place, and that way of being a Christian, I now understand that it was where my spiritual journey began, and I can appreciate the way that it set the table for my soul.

What I went looking for when I was 15 was the reality of Christianity, the God who was behind the creeds, beneath the rituals, and before all of the structures and systems. I wanted the fire and not just the fireplace, and where I found it was in the presence that Pentecost promises.

I am always a little troubled by the way that Christmas and Easter pack the church, but Pentecost passes with hardly a ripple. The Gospel event and experience that Pentecost marks is no less central to Biblical Christianity and no less critical to our salvation than are the events and experiences that Christmas and Easter annually commemorate.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching him to be baptized, John said two things about what Jesus had come to do as the Messiah. “Behold that Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) was the first thing.  This is how Jesus Christ saves us from what’s in our pasts.  And, “this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33) was the second thing that John the Baptist announced that Jesus as the Christ had come to do.  This is how Jesus Christ saves us to a different kind of future.  The forgiveness of our sins and the renewal of the Holy Spirit is what Jesus Christ came to accomplish, and they are what were in fact offered to people on Pentecost Sunday morning when Peter preached the Gospel in the power of the Spirit for the very first time (Acts 2:38).

Our failure to embrace Pentecost with the same interest and enthusiasm with which we embrace Christmas and Easter is a problem. In fact, I would argue that it is the reason why we have such a truncated Gospel in the church and a spiritual experience as Christians that is so far below what the New Testament describes and offers.  And the only remedy to this, as far as I can see, is for us to consciously and consistently embrace the presence that Pentecost promises.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit to take the objective work of Jesus Christ as Savior and to subjectively apply it to our lives and to the world. The Holy Spirit comes to kindle the fire in the fireplace of the church, and in the fireplaces of our hearts.   But this doesn’t just happen.  The Holy Spirit can be quenched, grieved, resisted and even blasphemed by us, and so we’ve got to ask.  God gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13).

If you, like me, are discontent with the “mechanical sacramentalism” and the “dead biblicism” of so much of the church, and if you, like me, ache for “the dynamic reality of God’s presence,” then “it is time that we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly receive a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

Pentecost is this coming Sunday – May 15th. Come to church as if it were Christmas or Easter, and come expectantly.

DBS +            

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“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”

10 commandments

What was God doing on the Cross? (Part 4)
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Well, the two things that I’ve come to expect every Easter made their appearance right on time again this year. The slew of articles and essays online that that leave the impression that anyone who “clings” to the church’s traditional teachings about Good Friday (that Christ dies for our sins) and Easter Sunday (that Christ was “bodily” raised from the dead on the third day) is intellectually suspect, and the Easter Eve broadcast of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic “The Ten Commandments,” a programming choice that leaves many scratching their heads and wondering if a more “Christian” choice wouldn’t be timelier?  In my mind these two things are connected.

foodOn Maundy Thursday we gathered to remember and experience the Upper Room where Jesus kept some version of the Passover Meal with His disciples. The unleavened bread that He broke and gave to His disciples while explaining that it was His body given for them, and the cup of wine that He poured and shared with them while saying that it was the “new covenant in His blood” forever lashed the Christ event to Exodus.  Jesus used the Passover story and symbols to interpret the meaning of His death, and the early church “got” it.  When Paul told the Corinthians to “clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened… For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed… let us celebrate the festival…” (I Corinthians 5:7-8), he was clearly appealing to the Passover tradition that the Corinthians certainly understood. I can only conclude that in preaching and teaching “Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2) to them, that Paul used the Exodus narrative just as Christ Himself had to be the interpretive key to the meaning of Good Friday. And it’s not just Paul.

lambThe powerful “Lamb of God” allusions in the writings of John (John 1:29; Revelation 5) are also Exodus and Passover prompted. But when this strand of meaning is jettisoned this connection quickly gets lost and we are left wondering about things like what the movie “The Ten Commandments” has to do with Easter? It’s when the idea that the cross of Christ was not an unexpected outcome to the life of Christ, but was in fact the very purpose of His life (“You shall call His name ‘Jesus’ for He will save His people from their sins” – Matthew 1:21), and when what Christ was doing on the cross is understood as God’s own saving work of atonement rather than just the tragically noble death of an exemplary martyr suffering for his spiritual and moral ideals, that “The Ten Commandments” becomes the perfect Easter movie – theologically. Of course, this all assumes the legitimacy of the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement as one of the strands of meaning that the New Testament attaches to the cross.

As I wrote about in my blog last week, my spiritual commitment to “speak where the Scriptures speak” prevents me from making the theological traditionalists’ mistake of thinking and talking as if the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is all that the New Testament has to say about the meaning of the cross, and from the theological progressives’ mistake of thinking and talking as if the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is not one of the ways that the New Testament speaks about the meaning of the cross. In fact, by excluding it from the conversation, one of the ways that the Gospel solves a human problem is removed from the church’s pastoral repertoire.

This was Richard Mouw’s point in his June 4, 2012 Christianity Today essay Getting to the Crux of Calvary.” Eavesdropping on the conversation of two young clergypersons at a Conference about how they never preached or taught the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement anymore, Dr. Mouw wondered about the pastoral and spiritual limitation that this interpretive decision imposed upon them and their ministries. Later, he said-

nose…I came upon a Christian station airing a recording of a man who was telling the story of his spiritual journey to a group of fellow business folks. The man recounted a time when he was increasingly successful in his business dealings, while increasingly dissolute in his personal lifestyle: drinking heavily, unfaithful to his wife, distant from his children, his marriage headed toward divorce. His wife and daughters were active in church life, but he never attended. One Saturday evening, after he had downed several martinis, his 10-year-old daughter pleaded with him to come to church the next morning. Her singing group was going to participate in the service, and she wanted her father there. He reluctantly agreed, something he greatly regretted the next morning when he woke up with a hangover. But he kept his promise. In that service, he said, he heard for the first time in his life that he was a guilty sinner who needed salvation, and that Jesus had taken his sin and guilt upon himself on the Cross of Calvary. The man wept as he heard the sermon, and he pleaded with God to take away his burden of shame. From that point on, his life took a new direction. I would have loved to have asked the young pastor at the conference what he thought about that testimony. Suppose, for example, the man whose story I heard had gone instead to that young pastor’s church that morning, and heard a sermon about how Christ has on Calvary encountered “the powers” of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism, and so on. I don’t think that such a message would have affected the life-transforming change that took place.

The Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement remains a club in my theological, spiritual and pastoral golf bag – to use Scot McKnight’s wonderful analogy – because it is one of the strands of meaning that I find that the Scriptures clearly attach to the cross, and those are the categories – the strands of meaning that the Scriptures attach to a revelatory or redemptive event – that I believe that I am obliged to use as a direct consequence of my commitment to “speak where the Scriptures speak.” I am consciously tethered to the text as a pastor and a teacher.  This is not just a principled stand for me.  In my 40 years of ministry in local churches I have found that it has served me often and well.  It has helped me to make sense of those realities to which the Biblical text bears witness, and in turn, to offer spiritual guidance and pastoral support to real people living real lives.

Specifically, retaining the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement as a viable theological resource for my own life and ministry has helped me by bringing some real clarity to three rather central spiritual issues –

  1. Sin – In 1988 Dr. Karl Menninger wrote his classic volume Whatever Became of Sin? Prophetically accurate and incisive, this book probed the causes and the consequences of the moral relativism that has become our cultural norm. If nothing is right or wrong then we have no need for a Savior. But if some things are right and other things are wrong, then what do we do about the wrong choices that we make and the real damage that they do? The Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is predicated on the reality and the seriousness of sin. Biblically it is a primary way of explaining what it means when we say that we believe that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3), and existentially it deals with our human problems with shame and guilt — my human problem with shame and guilt. Because I find that sin is a real problem for me individually and for human being collectively, the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement is a meaningful way to think and talk about what God in Christ did for us on the cross.
  2. God – Paul told the Corinthians that he did not want to be guilty of “misrepresenting God” (I Corinthians 15:15). Jesus Himself warned that it would be better to have a millstone lashed around our necks and for us to be dropped into the depths of the sea than to lead one of God’s “little ones” astray (Matthew 18:6). Preachers and teachers are going to have to give an account (Hebrews 13:17) and will be subject to a “stricter judgment” (James 3:1). All of which is to say, that we who preach and teach must be careful about what we say, because beliefs have consequences, and what we say about God, as A.W. Tozer observed, is the most important thing about us. “God is love” (I John 4:8) is what most of us will say when we are asked about God, and I have no quarrel with it being the first thing that we say about God. That seems to me to be entirely consonant with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is not consonant with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in my judgment, is to make “God is love” the only thing that we say when we are asked about God. Why, even the textual source for our affirmation that “God is love” doesn’t say that love is all that there is to the Biblical God. I John 1:5 tells us that “God is light,” and then immediately frames that affirmation of God’s identity in terms of His aversion to human sin (I John 1:6-2:2). No single characteristic of God exhausts God’s reality as it is revealed in the salvation history that the Scriptures narrate, and keeping the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement in the conversation about why Christ came and why Christ died keeps me honest about the complexity of who God is.
  3. Christ – Finally, the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement keeps me from prematurely releasing the tension of the paradoxical affirmation of historic Christianity that Jesus Christ is “fully God” and “fully man.”   So much of the critique that I hear about the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement stems from the barbaric idea that the cross is something that God did to someone else, namely Jesus. If this is what the Biblical Theory of the Substitutionary Atonement affirmed, then I would side with its critics. But Biblically, I would argue that this critique of the traditional theory of Substitutionary Atonement is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding that goes all the way back to Athanasius in the fourth century and his struggle with the teaching of Arius. If Jesus Christ is not God incarnate (What we sing and say at Christmas) then what happens on Good Friday cannot possibly be salvific. It can be noble. It can be heroic. It can be exemplary. But if the cross is not the work of God Himself, then it can’t be salvific. Tim Keller helpfully writes –

When I get to the cross, I’ve found there is this caricature of Jesus as the Son whom the Father crucifies – child abuse, etc.   Without the unity of God what you wind up with on the cross is a helpless son and a vindictive father.   But with the unity of God what you wind up with on the cross is God substituting Himself, and not just the Father substituting the Son.

Westminster Seminary professor Robert Strimple rocked my world with something he once said, with tears in his eyes, “Please don’t ever get out there and preach John 3:16 as if you have an angry abusive father who is taking his anger out on his son.   “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”

John Stott in The Cross of Christ forever shaped what I see when I look at a cross by what he wrote about the description of the heart of God found in Hosea 11.  What’s happening on the cross is a picture of the costliness of God’s love and the seriousness of God’s holiness struggling with each other at the center of God’s own being.  And this means that the cross is not about what God did to someone else, someone external to Himself.  No, I believe that the cross is the work of God Himself, what God Himself embraced with His decision to forgive. DBS+

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“A God on the cross! That is all my theology.” (Jean Lacordaire)

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