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Two Different Religions?

machenBack in 1921, J. Gresham Machen, then a professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, preached a sermon that later became an explosive book called “Christianity and Liberalism” (not political liberalism, mind you, but theological liberalism). Harry Emerson Fosdick responded in 1922 with his equally incendiary sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” And the fight was on for the soul of American Protestantism. The thesis of Machen’s sermon, and then book, was that the historic Christianity of Scripture and the church’s great ecumenical creeds, and modern Christianity were two entirely different religions.

The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism,’” Machen asserted. “Modern liberalism, then, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian message — the living God and the fact of sin,” he argued. “The liberal doctrine of God and the liberal doctrine of man are both diametrically opposite to the Christian view. But the divergence concerns not only the presuppositions of the message, but also the message itself.”  (http://www.albertmohler.com/2012/10/08/two-rival-religions-christianity-and-post-christianity/)

controversyBradley J. Longfield tracked the theological controversy of those days in his award winning 1991 book The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates (Oxford University Press). I personally found the experience of reading this book to be something of a theological self-sorter of my own spiritual temperament, convictions and conclusions, and I came out of the exercise– no big surprise here – as a passionate moderate. My “hero” in this story was Charles R. Eerdman, the theological conservative who tried, without success, to hold the warring factions of his beloved Presbyterian Church together.

I find much to admire about the faith and faithfulness of J. Gresham Machen. In fact, I learned my New Testament Greek from his standard textbook for “beginning students.” Still, I have long thought that his argument about the modernists and the fundamentalists of his day representing entirely different religions to be something of an exaggeration, a polemical overstatement of the facts of the situation. Clearly there were genuine Christians among the modernists, just as there were genuine Christians among the fundamentalists. I suppose that this is just my “Disciple” coming out in me.

True to my faith’s traditional conclusions and convictions, my centrist moorings and my moderate inclinations, I have tried to navigate, not just the polarized and polarizing political and cultural divide of this past election year, but my forty plus years as an Evangelically minded and hearted minister in a progressive mainline denomination, by steadfastly following the good counsel of Hebrews12:1-3 –

…Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,…
Consider Him… so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

This is what I understand it to mean to be a big “D” “Disciple.” You know – “No Creed but Christ…,” “In essentials unity…,” “Where the Bible speaks…,”Not the only Christians, but Christians only,” and all that.

I truly believe that the basis for our unity as a church is Jesus Christ, and that so long as our eyes and hearts are mutually “fixed” on Him, that we can run the race of faith before us with endurance, without growing weary or losing heart.   But when Jesus gets left out of the picture, then it seems to me that there is nothing at the center that holds us together any longer, and all we have left are our jangling opinions that we feel free to offer up as the correct definition of Christianity. When the Christ of New Testament faith has been excised from the conversation, then the versions of Christianity that start to show up bear little resemblance to what the church has historically believed and proclaimed. Without our eyes and hearts “fixed” on Christ, the theological drift is dramatic, and I fear that this is the direction that things trending these days

In this era of hyper-politicized and partisanly divided Christianity, when people’s Christianity is determined more by who they voted for in the last election than by who they have confessed to be the Son of the Living God and have taken to be their Lord and Savior, I suddenly find myself rethinking that conclusion about Machen’s two different religions argument. With every passing day, I find that I have less and less in common with both the content and the spirit of the public positions that are being taken by so many of my denominational partners and peers. The tipping point in this for me was a ministerial colleague’s recent posting on Facebook. This old friend actually suggested the adoption of Bernice King’s (Dr. Martin Luther and Coretta King’s daughter) list of responses to the Presidency of Donald Trump as a “Lenten Discipline.

1. Don’t use his name; EVER (45 will do)
2. Remember this is a regime and he’s not acting alone;
3. Do not argue with those who support him–it doesn’t work;
4. Focus on his policies, not his orange-ness and mental state;
5. Keep your message positive; they want the country to be angry and fearful because this is the soil from which their darkest policies will grow;
6. No more helpless/hopeless talk;
7. Support artists and the arts;
8. Be careful not to spread fake news. Check it;
9. Take care of yourselves; and
10. Resist!

Keep demonstrations peaceful. In the words of John Lennon, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight! Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”

When you post or talk about him, don’t assign his actions to him, assign them to “The Republican Administration,” or “The Republicans.” This will have several effects: the Republican legislators will either have to take responsibility for their association with him or stand up for what some of them don’t like; he will not get the focus of attention he craves; Republican representatives will become very concerned about their re-elections.

Now, this is very different from the invitation to the Lenten disciplines that I heard each year from the Book of Common Prayer when I was a kid growing up in church, and still use each Ash Wednesday at the church I serve  –

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

In my mind and heart, I can’t avoid the conclusion that these two Lenten Invitations represent two very different religions. The first invitation makes no mention of God or Christ, has as its whole purpose partisan resistance, and reduces Christianity to a matter of opposing a certain President and supporting a progressive political agenda.   This is very different from the second invitation to the church’s traditional Lenten disciplines of penance, prayer, fasting, and a serious engagement with Scripture all in the interest of a renewal of the Gospel of our Savior in both our lives as individual Christians, and collectively in the whole life of the church.

William Ralph Inge famously observed – “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” My variation on this theme would be – “Whoever marries Christianity to a political party or candidate will find himself a widower by the next election cycle.” Scot McKnight, after the Presidential candidate debates but before the general election last fall, wrote (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/10/10/political-christianity-american-style/) –

Progressives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church and especially the “red letters” of Jesus with the Democrat or Social Democratic party. For them, Jesus’ being for the poor ineluctably means Jesus is for centralized government and federal relief, aid and support for the poor and that, for them, means Vote Left.

 Conservatives, in sometimes insufferable prose, align themselves and the church with the Republican party (or its Tea Party variation). For them, to be Christian means to be anti-Left and pro-Right. Jesus and the whole Bible, they seem to claim in one variation after another, are for decentralization, free markets, and the platform list goes on.

…the closer progressives or conservatives get to seeing the way to change the world is through the Powers in Washington DC the closer they become to being Constantinian — a conservative Constantine or a progressive Constantine is still a Constantine.

 American Christianity, during election season especially (and since it lasts so long and occurs so often that means always), spends its energies on who will be the Next Apocalyptically-crucial Power in DC and in so doing is failing to use its energies — a zero sum game seemingly — for the mission of God in this world and to this world.

Back in the 1980’s the Religious Right tried to marry historic Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, and as a person of historic Christian faith I found myself publicly and adamantly rejecting their attempt co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission. You can certainly be a Christian and a Republican, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Republican.  And today as the Religious Left tries to marry Christianity to the spirit of their agenda, as a person of Christian faith I find that I must just as publicly and adamantly reject their attempt to co-opt the church’s Gospel voice and mission.  You can certainly be a Christian and a Democrat, but being a Christian is not the same thing as being a Democrat.

Of course, this rejection of the machinations of both the Religious Right and the Religious Left to turn the church into a constituency group of their political ambitions and to reduce the mission of the church to acquisition of political power hinges on just exactly what is meant by those words – “historic Christianity.”  I will write more about this struggle for the definition of Christianity in the coming weeks, but for now, I will conclude by simply inviting you to give some thought to some questions –

What is the question that the Gospel answers?
What is the problem that the Gospel solves?
What is the saving work of Jesus Christ?
What are we saved from?  What are we saved to?
And how do we know any of these things?
How can we say anything certain about God or
about God’s purposes for us and the world?

It seems to me that how you answer these questions will say a whole lot about your own particular understanding of Christianity, and I’m pretty sure that the way the answers will generally sort out, that there will be two basic versions of Christianity that are at work, that maybe even compete in life and thought of the church and in the world today. Are they two entirely different religions, as Machen suggested back in his day?  Well, the striking contrast between the two Lenten disciplines recommended for adoption that I cited earlier would seem to suggest that the answer is “yes,” but let’s take a closer look, shall we?

DBS +

 

 

 

 

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“God Reigns, and the Government at Washington Still Lives!”

garfieldJames A. Garfield was a 33-year old freshman congressman when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  …Over the years, a story emerged about Garfield’s actions in New York after learning of Lincoln’s death.  Like so many other places across the North, New York City was in chaos after the news of the President’s murder began to spread.  Anger, sadness, and fear gripped many of the city’s residents as suspicions of a conspiracy and the expectation of more killings ran rampant.  Supposedly, a mob of some 50,000 people filled Wall Street and screamed for the heads of southern sympathizers.  As the story goes, the crowd had just resolved to destroy the offices of The World, a Democratic newspaper, when a single figure appeared above them on a balcony and began to speak – “Fellow citizens!  Clouds and darkness are round about Him!  His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies!  Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne!  Mercy and truth shall go before His face!  Fellow citizens!  God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives!” These are the words supposedly spoken that day by Congressman James A. Garfield.  A supposed eyewitness to this event reported “The effect was tremendous,” and that Garfield’s words brought calm to the crowd (and saved The World’s office from destruction, one assumes).  This witness then turned to someone close to ask who the speaker was, and was told, “It is General Garfield of Ohio!” …This story became famous and, as historian Allan Peskin relates, “an enduring aspect of the Garfield mythology.”  Regularly re-told by newspapers under the heading “Garfield Stills the Mob,” it was widely circulated in Garfield’s later political campaigns, including his 1880 run for the presidency.  Sadly and ironically, it was also regularly mentioned in memorial pieces after Garfield was, like Lincoln, murdered by an assassin.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________     https://garfieldnps.wordpress.com/2015/04/14/james-a-garfield-and-the-lincoln-assassination/

I just love this story about James A. Garfield, apocryphal or not. Remember, he is a “Brother” President, one of the three Presidents of the United States with a direct “Disciples” connection.  Garfield was actually a preacher in our churches as well as the President of one of our church-related colleges in Ohio before his election to political office.  Lyndon Baines Johnson was a lifelong member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and his Washington D.C. funeral was actually conducted at the National City Christian Church, a church that was begun in James Garfield’s home when he was a Congressman.  And Ronald Reagan was raised a Disciple, went to one of our church-related colleges in Illinois, and held membership in a Southern California Disciples congregation for many years.

This week the United States will elect our next President. Depending on your politics, this will either be a week of great rejoicing for you, or a week of deep distress.  You are either going to feel like the Kingdom of God has come, or else that the world is about to end.  Either way, I’d advise you to tap the brakes.

The next four years are neither going to be as good as you imagine, nor as bad as you fear.

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Remember, the United States survived both the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s best Presidents, and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s immediate successor, and one of America’s worst Presidents. I certainly hope our next President is more a Lincoln than a Johnson, but either way, I have every confidence that the Government in Washington will live because God reigns.

This was Max Lucado’s point in a recent post. He wrote –

I have a prediction. I know exactly what November 9 will bring. Another day of God’s perfect sovereignty. He will still be in charge. His throne will still be occupied. He will still manage the affairs of the world. Never before has His providence depended on a king, president, or ruler. And it won’t on November 9, 2016. (https://maxlucado.com/prediction-november-9/)

God’s sovereignty refers to God’s will and how it actually gets done in the vagaries of human history. Leslie Weatherhead’s three categories in his classic 1944 book The Will of God have long proven to be useful in my thinking on this matter –

godGod’s Intentional Will – This is God’s ideal purpose, what God intends for us and our temporal well-being in any given moment.

God’s Circumstantial Will – This is what God actually does when our free choices set up circumstances that are contrary to God’s ideal purpose for us. Rather than giving up on us, God finds the best way to cooperate with us in those circumstances to continue to advance His good purposes.

God’s Ultimate Will – This is God’s final goal. It is the same goal as would have been reached if God’s intentional will would have not been frustrated by our free choices, and it is the goal that will finally be achieved because God and His purposes cannot be finally defeated.

What these careful distinctions in the will of God try to hold in balance is the mystery of how God can ultimately be in charge of the universe while human beings still remain truly free. Someone has said that Weatherhead’s answer turns God into a kind of master chess player who is in a game with a rank amateur.  The amateur freely moves his pieces on the board just as he chooses, but the master knows what the amateur is doing, and he is always thinking seven and eight moves ahead of him.  The master sees the whole board all the time, and he knows how he will be able to turn every move that the amateur makes to his own advantage.  And so, while I don’t believe that God has a candidate in this or any election — that’s our “move” — I do believe that God has a purpose for the whole world that He will finally bring about regardless of who wins the election.

It was the Protestant Reformer who observed that “God can ride the lame horse and carve the rotten wood.” And in his reflection on what will happen on November 9th, Max Lucado cited Proverbs 21:1 – “The LORD can control a king’s mind as he controls a river; he can direct it as he pleases.” All of which is to say that no matter who gets elected President this week, God is still going to be God, and His will — His Ultimate Will — is going to get done no matter how poorly or wisely we vote, and no matter how nobly or ignobly the one who gets elected governs.  Oh, we can certainly make things harder than they need to be.  History is proof of that.  God’s Intentional Will can be, and often is, frustrated by the poor choices we make.  But in those less-than-ideal-circumstances that our free choices create, I believe that God still finds a way, just like a master chess player, to cooperate with us where we are, and to advance the accomplishment of His will on earth as it is in heaven.

There have been 11 men elected President of the United States in my 63 years of life – 6 Republicans and 5 Democrats. Counting this one, I have now voted in 12 Presidential elections.  The candidates I have voted for have won 6 times, lost 5 times, and we’ll see what happens this year.   Without exception, the Presidents I have voted for have pleased me, and they have disappointed me, just as the Presidents I haven’t vote for have pleased me, and they have disappointed me as well.

King David’s last words were a reflection on Rulers –

“When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth” (2 Samuel 23:3-4).

This is what I want for every President of the United States, the ones I vote for and the ones I don’t. I want them all to be “like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.” And the fact is that sometimes they have been, and sometimes they haven’t — all of them, the Republicans and the Democrats, the ones I voted for and the ones I didn’t.  And my hope for #12 is that s/he will be, even though I already know that sometimes s/he will be, and sometimes s/he won’t.

And so, while I expect to be pleased sometimes, and disappointed at other times during the next four years by whoever gets elected President next this week, my faith is not in him or her, but in the God who never disappoints (James 1:17), which is why, with my “Brother” President, #20, James A. Garfield, I will wake up on the morning of November the 9th, and know that whoever has been elected President #45, that –

“Clouds and darkness are round about Him!  His pavilion is dark waters and thick clouds of the skies!  Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne!  Mercy and truth shall go before His face!  Fellow citizens!  God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives!” 

DBS +

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A “Christian” Vote?

vote

What’s been particularly dispiriting this year was how many people decided what they thought of an accusation of sexual misconduct based upon the partisan affiliation of the accused. When it’s a member of the other party, the message to the accuser is, “You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed. We’re with you.” When it’s a member of our own party, the talking heads confidently declare they’re just hunting their “fifteen minutes of fame.” Who could have guessed that guilt in sexual misconduct cases aligned so perfectly with party membership?

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Jim Geraghty – http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/441324/character-candidates-and-wrong-lesson-2012

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Now that we are beginning our final approach to the 2016 election, more earnest are the appeals and more urgent are the arguments from colleagues and acquaintances alike about which candidate and which party is more “Christian,” and therefore my only option as a voting “Christian” when I step into my polling booth on the morning of November the 8th.  My Republican friends insist that voting Republican is the only “Christian” option based largely on a law and order reading of Romans 13 and an emphasis on the personal morality strands of New Testament teaching.  Meanwhile, my Democrat friends insist that voting Democrat is the only “Christian” option based largely on a social activist interpretation of the ministry of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels, especially Luke’s, and an emphasis on the social justice strands of New Testament teaching.

My problem is that when I read my New Testament, I find both the strands of teaching that my Republican friends emphasize, and the strands of teaching that my Democrat friends emphasize. The way I read the New Testament, it’s not “either/or,” it’s “both/and.” And what troubles me so deeply about this is the way that partisan blinders seem to screen us from seeing and partisan rhetoric seems to deafen us from hearing the way that our Christian brothers and sisters on the other side of the partisan divide are reasoning from Scripture, making inferences and drawing conclusions just as we are. That quote from Jim Geraghty’s National Review article “Character, Candidates and the Wrong Lessons from 2012,” at the lead of my blog this week powerfully expresses the way that partisan affiliation hypocritically skews the way that we “hear” things, and then “use” what we’ve heard to dismiss and denigrate the other side.  This is bad enough when we do it with what we hear on the evening news and with what we read about in the morning paper, but when we do it with Scripture, well, that’s just spiritual malpractice if you ask me.

In seminary I was told that the very first task of being a truly “Biblical” Christian was to be able to identify your own deeply imbedded presuppositions, to recognize the way that those prejudices were slanting the way that you read the Biblical texts, and then to try to neutralize them as much as possible by the use of the critical tools of interpretation and by consciously choosing to be part of a community of interpretation where people from different backgrounds, with different life experiences, and with different presuppositions could respectfully and honestly talk with each other about what they found in the Biblical text, what it means for the way that they understood God, themselves and the world, and how it shapes the way that they were then making their way through life in light of what they understood the Bible to say and mean.  This is why I am a Disciple, when theologically I am probably better suited to be a Baptist of some variety (Remember, we Campbellites were Baptists once… “Christian Baptists” to be precise).  In fact, this was the exact struggle that I actually had when it was time to choose both the college that I would attend, and later on, the seminary.  I’d had Baptist experiences of faith and church, and Disciple experiences of faith and church.  And I had Baptist options open to me, and I had Disciple options, and I understood that whichever option I took would forever set the denominational dye of the color of my soul.

At both junctures, college and seminary, I consciously and conscientiously chose the Disciples, and I have truly loved being part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a classically Orthodox Christian (Chalcedonian and Nicaean) because I knew that as a Disciple, at the Sunday school table each week there would be rigorous conversations about what I believed, and why, while at the Lord’s Table, as a Disciple, I knew that there would be the embrace of a community that was deeply rooted and grounded in God’s work of saving love in Jesus Christ.  Billy Graham used to say that “the ground at the foot of the cross is level,” and that’s what I found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 45 years ago. It’s why I became an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 35 years ago.  And it’s how I have always tried to operate as a minister in the five Texas congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that I have had the honor of serving, including Northway for these past 20 years.

Our founders refused to “fence the Table” over doctrinal and polity disagreements, and today, I believe that our stewardship of that practice of settled conviction requires us to refuse to “fence the Table” over political and social disputes, formally by statement or informally by attitude.  The spiritual “Magna Carta” of the church was Paul’s passionate exclamation in Galatians 3:28 –

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

 And today, I think that sounds like –

There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer conservative or
progressive, there is no longer red or blue; for all of you are one in Christ.

And because I believe that this is true of the church in general, and of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in particular, especially right now on the eve of a deeply polarizing Presidential election, I think that it’s time for us to start acting like the Christians that our spiritual tradition says we are, and minimally, I believe that this demands some modesty of us.

And so instead of declaring our partisan conclusions as the obvious and only “Christian” choice announced with vitriol and absolutism, how about opting instead for the more difficult pathway of a faithful conversation that opens with all of us saying to each other, “This is the choice that I am making in this election as a Christian, and these are my reasons why. So, tell me about the choice that you are making in this election as a Christian, and what are your reasons why?”  Faithful, respectful conversation rather than conflict and political conceit seems to me to be so much more reflective who we are as sisters and brothers in Christ.

On November the 13th, the Sunday right after the election, we will gather at the Lord’s Table here at Northway just as we do every Sunday.  We will have a President-elect, and if the national statistics are correct, then just about half of us will have voted for that candidate and just about half of us will have not.  Some of us will have “won” politically, and the rest of us will have lost.  But as Americans, we will have our President for the next four years – the leader we are commanded to “honor” (Romans 13:7; I Peter 2:17), and for whom we commanded to pray regardless of how we voted (I Timothy 2:1-2).  And as Christians, our faith and trust will still be in Christ alone as our Lord and Savior, and everyone who has made this same commitment to Him will still be our sisters or brothers in Him, regardless of how they voted.  And because that will be true of us then and there, how about thinking, talking and acting like it’s true of us here and now in these two weeks before the election.  DBS +

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Election Day Communion Service
Northway Christian Church – F-101 – Fellowship Hall
Tuesday, November 8, 2016 – 6 pm

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Election Day Communion Services began with the concern that Christians in the United States were being shaped more by the tactics and ideologies of political parties than by their identity in and allegiance to Jesus. Northway is a diverse congregation in terms of political views, but spiritually we are still one in Jesus Christ, and so we participate in this Election Day Communion tradition gladly. By deliberately coming together at the Lord’s Table on the evening of the election before the results are announced, we are showing ourselves to be one people in Christ, and we are affirming that what unites us is far more powerful than anything that divides us. So, vote on Election Day morning and then on Election Day Evening come to church to affirm what matters most to us as Christians – the unity of the body of Christ. The most visceral way to express this unity is to share the cup and break bread with other Christian brothers and sisters.

We will be sharing communion together on November 8th in the Fellowship Hall at 6 pm.

 

 

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“Halftime”: Some Thoughts between the Conventions

Republicans down.

TP

Democrats to go.

clinton

As I write we are in-between the National Political Conventions. Last week the Republicans met in Cleveland to nominate their ticket of Trump/ Pence.  This week the Democrats will meet in Philadelphia to nominate their ticket of Clinton/Kaine.  And I hope that you’re watching.  For all of the hype and hoopla that these gatherings generate every four years, I still think that what happens at them matters for our country and the world.  So, I hope that you’re watching.

But it’s how you are watching the conventions that I am particularly thinking about here at halftime.

Partisans watch the doings partisanly. We just can’t help ourselves.  We’re tuned to Fox or MSNBC, depending on our proclivities, to mock or cheer, to revile or rejoice.  And we find ourselves predictably stirred or repulsed.  I know I am.  That, and some of us blog.  That’s what this thing is that you’re reading right now.  Blogs are where some of us publicly comment on public things regularly.  I do.  Descartes said that he knew that he was because he thought.   Well, bloggers know they are because we post.  But if you’ve read my comments here previously, especially on the topic of Faith and Politics, then you know that as a local church pastor I have some very real concerns about the partisanship of Christians, and especially ministers, both those to my right and those to my left.

A pastoral colleague and I were talking about this very thing the other day over coffee, and he told me that in his prior life, when he was a high school teacher, that he always knew that he had kept faith with his vocation as a shaper of young minds when his Republicanly-inclined students were absolutely convinced that he was one of them, while his Democratically-inclined students believed the exact opposite, just sure that he was one of them.

principleThis principled political neutrality stands in stark contrast to the string of preachers, pastors and religious leaders who stood on the stage in Cleveland last week confusing the Republican candidates, party and platform with the Kingdom of God, and to the string of preachers, pastors and religious leaders who will stand on the stage this week in Philadephia confusing the Democrat candidates, party and platform with the Kingdom of God.

A ministerial predecessor of mine in a previous congregation sold health supplements, synthetic oil and life insurance on the side. And congregants there often told me that when he walked up to their front door that they never knew what he was there to do.  Was he there to inquire after their souls, or to try to sell them something?  And I worry that a minister’s political passions and partisan postings have the potential to create this same sort of confusion.  I don’t want my vote for this or that candidate in the latest election (and I will vote) to obscure my life’s passion for Jesus Christ, and I don’t want there to be any confusion of my political leanings (and I ceratinly have some) with my higher commitment to the Kingdom.  And so in the interest of the Gospel I conscientiously choose to be circumpect about my political conclusions.  Of course, this raises the question of just exactly what is the Gospel doesn’t it?

Well, I believe that the Gospel is the message of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.  It’s about forgiveness, transformation and eternal life through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The concerns of humanitarinism and social justice are certainly not incidental to this Gospel, but I understand them to be the “fruit” and not the “root” of the Gospel, part of the good works that cannot save us, but that we are saved to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).  John Piper writes –

 William Wilberforce, who derived decades of persevering political labors of love from his joyful justified standing with God, argued in his book A Practical View of Christianity that all the immoral behavior of the nominal Christians of his age resulted from their mistaken conception of the fundamental principles of Christianity.

They consider not that Christianity is scheme “for justifying the ungodly” [Romans 4:5], by Christ’s dying for them “when yet sinners” [Romans 5:6-8], a scheme “for reconciling us to God—when enemies” [Romans 5:10]; and for making the fruits of holiness the effects, not the cause, of our being justified and reconciled.  

This error is especially common right now in our day. People, in order to create greater moral seriousness (especially with the radical commands of Jesus) are making morality part of the ground of justification.  But this backfires, because it destroys the joyful confidence which alone can bear the fruit of Christ-exalting love. It takes away the one and only ground and source of the very transformation they long for.

Get this wrong, oscure it or reverse it, and then I believe that the Gospel is put at risk. And I fear that  this is what happens when preachers talk more, or as much, or as enthusiastically about Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein, as they do about Jesus Christ.

hoodA while back the Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood posted a blog entry at his web page (http://revjeffhood.com) that I found absolutely compelling. I’ve referenced this posting before. As I wrote the first time – I suspect that Jeff and I would find much to disagree about if we ever sat down together over a cup of coffee as brothers in Christ, but on this I couldn’t be more in agreement with him –

In 2008, I got excited about Barack Obama. I bought the shirt, hat and bumper sticker. I was two years past my ordination as pastor. Early one Saturday morning, I’ll never forget sitting down with a cherished mentor. As I proudly wore my Obama shirt, my mentor leaned in and said, “How are you going to demand that Obama not bomb some poor nation after you have run around with his shirt on? How are you going to minister to those who hate Obama after they see you with that shirt on? True pastors don’t endorse candidates!” I believed her then. After seeing President Obama violate my Christian conscience by bombing countless nations and watching our nation become as polarized as I’ve ever seen it, I believe her more now. … I don’t remember Jesus ever endorsing any candidates. I think he was smart enough to know that an endorsement limits your ability to speak prophetically to whoever is elected and limits your ability to minister to the whole populace after the election.

Theologically, this is exactly the position that the German Lutheran Preacher/Teacher Helmut Thielicke (1908 –1986) argued in his book on “Politics” in his Theological Ethics series.

headWhile the preaching of the church may speak to general situations [political, social and economic], it can only sketch the themes of the special situtations and of the decisions which they demand. The preaching of the church cannot be specific in the sense of making decisions for the individual and in his stead… The church can speak speak about an election as such. It can show how the duty of voting derives from the character of the state as a theological fact.  It can even discuss particular Christian concerns (social, educational and others).  But normally the church cannot tell the individual how to vote… The church stands above the political parties, providing pastoral care to all members irrespective of their various party affiliations… (620)

Early in my ministry a trusted mentor told me that it wasn’t my job to tell people what to think, but rather to help them to be able to think. And for him this meant helping to resource people’s conversations, considerations and consciences with the best possible information available.  When it came to Politics, my friend told me that he saw himself as the spiritual equivalent to the League of Women’s Voters.  Just like them, my friend told me that it was none of his buisness how his people actually voted, but it was his business to make sure that they did vote, and that their votes were well-informed.  Of course, it’s so much easier just to tell people what you think.  It’s easier to just amass talking points and to adopt debate tactics.  It’s easier to launch rhetorical broadsides and to try to win the argument.  But there’s so much more to all of this than just that.

“Spirtual Formation” is the new term that people are using for Christian education, and I really like this way of thinking and talking about matters of faith and values, and how they’re nurtured in us. There is no shortcut to spiritual formation.  Formation speaks of a process that matters at least as much as the outcome.  And so, for all of the spin and soundbites, for all of the marketing and mudslinging, for all of the the punditry and posturing at the Conventions, it’s still part of the only process we have for  getting at the truth of things, and getting at that truth is our assignment if being informed is our goal.  So, we’ve got to put in the work, and that means watching closely, listening carefully, thinking critically and deciding conscientiously.

godI read Mark Devers book God and Politics last week.  In it he quoted King David’s last prayer in 2 Samuel 23:1-4 as a statement of what it is that we are all hoping for when the next President of the United States gets inaugurated on January 20, 2017.

The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me – “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.”

When I cast my vote for President on November 8, 2016, it will be for the person I have decided from among the alternatives is the one who is most likely to be like the morning breaking, the sun shining and the life-giving rain falling for our nation at this moment in time. To that end, I plan on paying attention now, and I urge you to, too.  DBS +

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“It’s More Complicated than You Think”

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George Will began his 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft by telling his friends and critics to his political right and political left that “it’s more complicated than you think.” And this has become something of my mantra as I listen to politicians and people talking politics these days.

The bitter partisan divide of our country, its fragmentation into Red and Blue camps with membership assured only by a slash and burn mentality that can acknowledge no integrity and concede no intelligence to those who have lined up on the opposite side of a social, moral, economic and/or political issue from your own is not serving us well. The death of Howard Baker last week, and the affectionate eulogies of him as a strong partisan political leader who nevertheless understood the fine art of negotiation and the real value compromise in our governance process has left me longing for “the good old days.” As I said at the end of my sermon yesterday in our “Freedom and Democracy” Service at 8:30 am (see “When Christians Disagree” in the “Sermons” file under “Worship” @ northwaychristian.org)

Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen were lions of the Senate in their day. Politically, at the point of party, policy and legislation, they were almost always at odds. But when he was Vice President, Hubert Humphrey said of Everett Dirksen, his longtime political rival, that while he rarely agreed with him, that he never doubted the sincerity of his heart nor questioned the validity of his Christianity.

It’s that kind of honesty and modesty that I find to be so absent from the present political climate and in most of the current political debates. Today, the motives of those with whom you politically disagree are more likely to be impugned, their concerns dismissed, their sincerity questioned and their beliefs mocked. This is bad enough when it happens in society at large, but it is even more troubling to me when I see it happening between brothers and sisters inside the Christian community of faith.

As I have said before, I have a real problem with Christians, and especially ministers, becoming so partisan politically that it interferes with their ability to share Christ with and to offer God’s grace to those who have a different perspective. My August 28, 2012 blog “Frankly, I Don’t Care Who You Are Going to Vote For” still stands. I think that it is spiritual malpractice of the highest order when a minister holds and states his or her political opinions in such a way that those whose political conclusions differ feel like they cannot relate to them spiritually or trust them with their souls. But beyond this, it seems to me that if anybody should be able to appreciate the kind of complexity that George Will identified at the beginning of his book, it should be Christians who acknowledge the inspiration and authority of Scripture.

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One of the things that the evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer taught me was about how that the Bible teaches its truths. He included in the Appendix of his book The Church Before the Watching World an essay he called “Some Absolute Limits.” This is where he introduced me to the notion of “circles and cliffs.” He said that the Bible does not teach us its truths by providing us with “precisely worded” dogmatic statements which allow for no variation at all. “The Christian doctrinal and intellectual position” Francis Schaeffer explained, “lays down a circle rather than a point, or, to say it another way, doctrines are not merely lines to be repeated.” A circle has a line past which we “fall off the edge of the cliff,” but within which we have real freedom of exploration and expression. R. Paul Stevens, another evangelical theologian, takes this idea a step even further and suggests that within that circle of God’s truth found in Scripture there is a kind of “inspired ambiguity” that requires of us a “contemplative approach.”

Pick a topic of current political and social interest, and try to “think Christianly” about it (Harry Blarmires – The Christian Mind – 13), which is to say, go to Scripture and try to identify all of the relevant principles that have a bearing on the topic. Let these principles draw the circumference of the circle, and then when you’re finished, take a step back and see just how big the circle is. If you are true to Scripture, following the contours of its teachings past the neat and tidy doctrinal, moral and ethical packages that have become substitutes for actually having to look at the Bible for yourself, you will bump into what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called the Bible’s “furious opposites.” The Bible teaches all of its important truths by way of paradox: God is one and three; Christ is God and Man; we are saved by faith without works, but saving faith always includes works; The Kingdom of God has already come but is not yet here; the Bible is the Word of God and the words of men. Need I go on?

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The Jewish rabbis called this “halakic reasoning,” and they said that God’s truth is always found when both strands of a paradox are held in tension and balance (James R. Lucas – Knowing the Unknowable God – xiv). “It’s the process of firmly grabbing both ideas in a paradox and them merging the two into a greater understanding.” Our assignment as people of Biblical faith is to navigate these narrow passages between the Bible’s great opposite truths. R. Paul Stevens calls it “the contemplative approach” to Scripture.

This approach views the ambiguity of Scripture as a pointer to God, an indicator of truths so great that they can only be seen in full from God-height. A contemplative view takes seriously the fact that the Bible is more often historical than abstract, more often narrative and metaphorical than systematic. A contemplative approach welcomes the mystery…

When we fire off our political conclusions with black and white clarity and open and closed certainty, we are short-circuiting this process by letting go of the paradox, shutting down the conversation with those who have decided the question differently from us and confusing those for whom the answer to the question is just not so obvious. And, for a minister to occupy a political position, firing off his or her opinion like an MSNBC hostess or a FOX News host without any reference to the Biblical principles that are at work in their reasoning process of “thinking Christianly” is to abdicate the unique role that he or she has to play in this whole exercise.

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People learn how to make chicken cacciatorie not by seeing the final product beautifully plattered on a cooking show on the Food Network, but by seeing the step by step process of the prepping, chopping, sautéing and baking. And it’s not what a minister thinks about a topic of political and social interest that matters, but rather how a minister as a Christian trained in theology, ethics, church history and Biblical interpretation thinks that is massively important. Unfortunately, it’s easier to be a pundit than a pastor, and so the political broadsides fly, hitting their targets but failing to advance the cause of “thinking Christianly” that is the greatest need of the hour. DBS+

 

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