Tag Archives: Disciples

“Around the Table of the Lord’s Supper”

 breadcup

Can Traditionalist and Progressive Disciples Still Sit Down Together? ______________________________________________________________________

I had lunch last week with two really good friends, one a Disciples minister who was a seminary classmate of mine, and the other one the Disciples church historian who had been our professor back in the day.  My minister friend has just announced his retirement, and so our table talk last week was twinged with a certain amount of nostalgia.  We talked about our life journeys and about how things were different back when we were all just starting out some 40 years ago, and one of the things that we each noted in our own way was just how much more polarized and polarizing the church has become of late.  Maybe this is just an example of the “good old days” syndrome, but things really do feel different today than ever before.  People were certainly no less opinionated in the church 40 years ago than they are today, and they were certainly no less passionate about those opinions, but it feels like something significant has changed.

The United Church of Christ theologian Gabriel Fackre wrote about the twin theological virtues of “mystery” and “modesty,” and that’s what’s been lost in the last 40 years, if you ask me.  Because we don’t know everything that there is to know, even about the things that we think we know, we all must leave some room for “mystery” in our convictions.  And because we don’t know everything that there is to know, then we need to hold what we think we know with some “modesty.”  There are always other ways of looking at things, and the people who look at things differently from the way that we do are not evil or stupid just because they do.

To honor “modesty” and “mystery,” I have always tried to accord to Christians whose convictions and conclusions differ from my own what’s been called the “Good Faith Assumption.” When I disagree with what another Christian is saying or doing, I consciously try to keep in mind that they are just as serious about their faith as I am about mine, that they are just as intent on knowing and doing the truth as I am, and that they are just as committed to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, as their Lord and Savior, as I am committed to Him as my Lord and Savior.  I became a Disciple based on the promise that this was going to be the characteristic way that we would think, talk, reflect, and relate as a church.

Last October I wrote about the impact that the collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s had on me.  I described how I, as a very young Christian, had eagerly read through all of these essays, one right after the other like a shopper earnestly searching for the perfect product to meet his needs, and how it was James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that was the one that made me sit down and pay attention.  It was this one line from that essay that thoroughly captured my heart’s imagination –

chaliceThere is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience.

That’s the kind of church that I went looking for 50 years ago, and it’s the church that I actually found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This was the church that I gladly joined then, and that I have wholeheartedly served ever since.  Not a perfect church; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was the perfect church for me because it was a church that honored careful thinking and respectful talking.  It was a church where people were not expected to agree on everything, but where they were expected to maintain unity in that diversity.   But this is a church that, sadly, I am seeing less and less evidence of these days. Increasingly, what I am seeing are traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples pulling away from each other, and what I am hearing both traditionalist Disciples and progressive Disciples say is that the terrain that they now separately occupy is the only one that is authentically and thoroughly faithful to what it means to be a Disciple.

Granville Walker exploded the hubris and ignorance of this kind of thinking for me in his 1954 book Preaching in the Thought of Alexander Campbell (Bethany Press).  After showing how Alexander Campbell believed in the full authority and inspiration of the Bible for the faith and practice of the church, and that the Bible had to be carefully interpreted using every critical grammatical and historical tool at his disposal, Granville Walker then argued that the conservative Disciple who puts the emphasis on “the absolutely binding character of the apostolic sanction,” and the liberal Disciple who champions “the thoroughly scientific approach to the Bible,” are both the spiritual heirs of Alexander Campbell, and are both members in good standing of his spiritual tradition. As Granville Walker put it, “It is no insignificant fact that both claim to be heirs of the genuine tradition” (138).

There was a time when both conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples truly believed this, and behaved accordingly.  There was a time when conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples could sit down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, and each one would let the other one be responsible for his or her own belief, and each one would allow the other one to serve God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.   We could, and we often did, disagree with each other.  We could, and we often did, talk with each other about those disagreements without ridicule, disdain, anger, or division.  And then we would all get up and go to the Lord’s Table together to find our unity in the shared love of God made visible in the person and work of Jesus Christ our Savior for all of us.  But today, it seems to me, our tendency is to disagree with each other, to talk at (i.e. “issuing” statements) each other, to dismissively talk about each other, and then to go our separate ways fully convinced in our own minds of the rightness of our answer and fully convinced in our own hearts of the righteousness of our stance. We are quick to organize protests, and slow to build bridges.

HolyBibleThe widely heralded release last week of a statement on human sexuality (“The Nashville Statement”) by a group of prominent traditionalist Christian leaders (none of them Disciples, but some of them teachers and theologians with whom conservative Disciples have a certain affinity), and the response of progressive Christian leaders with counter-statements of their own (“The Denver Statement” by Nadia Bolz Weber and “The Nashville Statement [A Plain Language Translation]” by John Pavlovitz), has had the predictable effect of both traditionalist and progressive Disciples taking public sides and then, looking out across the widening fissure in the church, thinking, and sometimes even saying out loud, that those on the other side could not possibly be their Christian brothers and sisters.

This bears little resemblance to the church that James Craig promised me 50 years ago, and it painfully tears at my heart as a traditionalist Disciple whose Gospel experience of the open Table of the Lord’s Supper to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcomed has moved me to become increasingly “progressive” on matters related to God’s grace and human sexuality.  Because I have a foot firmly planted in both of these worlds now, I think that I understand what those traditionalist Christians who issued the Nashville Statement were trying to say, and why they thought it so important to say it.  But I think that I also understand why what they have said caused such pain in the LGBTQ community, and has generated such outrage from the progressive Christian community.  And as a Disciple, I can’t help but think that if, as James Craig put it, we could just sit down together “around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience,” that with time and the forbearance of God’s love, the transformative power of Christ’s grace, and the convicting work of God’s Spirit, that we could find a way forward that excluded no one from the beloved community and that actually created space where all of us might grow.

bridgeTo see someone who is actually doing this in his own community of faith, we need look no further than Fr. James Martin, S.J.  An advocate of dialogue and encounter, Fr. Martin has been criticized by some in his church for being too progressive, outspoken, and inclusive, and by some in the LBGTQ community for not being progressive, outspoken, and inclusive enough.  Fr. Martin responds to every critic respectfully as part of his own spiritual discipline, and as a way of modeling how to advance the conversation and be truly respectful of people who disagree with one another.

After the issuing of “The Nashville Statement” last week, in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Fr. Martin didn’t rage or ridicule, but gently and thoughtfully offered  what he called “Seven Simple Ways to Respond to the Nashville Statement” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/30/seven-simple-ways-to-respond-to-the-nashville-statement-on-sexuality/?utm_term=.7fb1a51e809c).

Re #Nashville Statement –

  • I affirm: That God loves all LGBT people.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to insult, judge or further marginalize them.
  • I affirm: That all of us are in need of conversion. 
  • I deny: That LGBT people should be in any way singled out as the chief or only sinners.
  • I affirm: That when Jesus encountered people on the margins he led with welcome not condemnation. 
  • I deny: That Jesus wants any more judging.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are, by virtue of baptism, full members of the church.
  • I deny: That God wants them to feel that they don’t belong
  • I affirm: That LGBT people have been made to feel like dirt by many churches.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to add to their immense suffering.
  • I affirm: That LGBT people are some of the holiest people I know.
  • I deny: That Jesus wants us to judge others, when he clearly forbade it.
  • I affirm that the Father loves LGBT people, that the Son calls them and that the Holy Spirit guides them. I deny nothing about God’s love for them.

I’ve read lots of blogs affirming “The Nashville Statement” from my traditionalist Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. And I have read lots of blogs condemning “The Nashville Statement” from my progressive Christian friends and peers, both inside and outside “Discipledom,” since it was issued last week. But it seems to me that none of the blogs on “The Nashville Statement” that I read last week better reflect James Craig’s classic vision of what it means to be a “Disciple” than did these “seven simple ways to respond to the Nashville Statement” offered by a Jesuit priest. Because what he wrote is so informed by the Gospel, and is so reflective of the Gospel, I can’t help but hope that we Disciples, both traditionalist and progressive, as Gospel people, might stop lobbing broadsides, climb down off our barricades, and commit ourselves to sitting again with one another at the Gospel’s Table where God’s grace has the power to transform us all.  DBS +

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“Compel Them to Come In” (part 3)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church

bee

Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)____________________________________________________________________________________________________

This is the third and final part of a consideration of the arguments that I find “compelling” when making the case for why I think that someone should give the Disciples of Christ in general, and Northway Christian Church in particular, a good look when thinking about finding a church.  These are my reasons.  You can agree with them, or you can disagree with them, that’s fine.  What we can’t afford to do is not to carefully think through our reasons for being a part of this church.  We are at a critical moment in our ecclesiastical life when it is urgent that we each have some good and compelling reasons for being here, and that form the basis of inviting others, even urging others, to join us. DBS +

6.  We are honor the richness of our varied community of interpretation. Of course, for this “good faith assumption” (see #5 from yesterday’s posting) to actually work, we’ve got to be open and honest with one another about not just what it is that we believe, but also about how we have arrived at those conclusions that we cherish. This means creating and then defending a community of interpretation where every perspective in the family has a seat, is given a voice, and gets an honest hearing. The way we show our seriousness about Christ, and the way that we demonstrate our commitment to doing what He commands is by putting our own settled convictions into serious and sustained conversation with the settled convictions of others in the community with whom we do not agree. Mocking the convictions of others, disrespecting the conclusions of others, ridiculing the intelligence of others, standing in an imagined spiritual, intellectual and theological superiority over others stiff-arms the very people with whom we most need to be in conversation as well as short-circuiting the very process by which we can experience and express our core unity. I may disagree with you, but I don’t have to denigrate you. I may cherish a very different set of conclusions than you cherish, but this doesn’t require me to be mean-spirited and dismissive of you and your concerns and perspectives. Disciples at our best have been able to value charity in all things, but there are always strong forces at work to subvert this way of being church, and that seems especially so in these days of hyper-partisanship and painful cultural divide.

7.  We love God with our minds. Reasonable trust” – that’s what the author of a book whose seminar I recently attended argues is our high calling as Christians. “The firewall between faith and reason has to come down,” he says, so that “our hearts can embrace someone you actually know something about.” Before I became a Disciple, I was made to feel that my questions were akin to unfaithfulness.   I was being formed by an approach to faith that viewed it as a fragile thing that could not possibly bear up under hard examination. In that other community of faith that was vying to become my permanent spiritual home back in the day, I detected a certain fearfulness of ideas. Then I providentially attended a Christian College where I got to see “Disciples” teachers take on every challenge and welcome every question with intellectual rigor and respectful courtesy. Dr. William Richardson, Dr. Dennis Helsabeck, Dr. Ward Rice, Dr. Herb Miller, Dr. Song Nai Rhee, Dr. Lawrence Bixler – these cherished teachers of mine set a standard for Christian scholarship right from the beginning that I have tried to imitate in my life and ministry ever since. To be a “Disciple” is to do this — it is to love God with all our mind..

8.  We strive to be “doers and not just hearers of the Word.Each Sunday morning at Northway we finish the morning Scripture lesson with the reader saying – “May God bless us with understanding so that we might be doers of this Word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). More than just words, this aspiration speaks of a practical approach to the teachings of the Scriptures that expects them not just to fill our heads with interesting thoughts, but to fill our lives with values and truths that are meant to be lived. Jesus’ parable at the end of His Sermon on the Mount connects deeply with the “Disciple” approach to what’s in the Bible –

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

9.  We know that we are “not the only Christians.” This is part of one of the traditional slogans of the Disciples. It is the “good faith assumption” (#5 from yesterday) applied not just to all other “Disciples,” but to all other Christians as well. One of the real gems in our history is a letter that Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, wrote in 1837 that’s known as the “Lunenburg Letter” –

But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. … It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.

There was a time when this quote from our spiritual heritage was framed and prominently hung in all of our churches. It was a declaration of our intention to be generous and gracious with everyone who names Christ as Lord and Savior.  In this day when we are being torn apart into factions, it may be time to put it back up on the walls of our churches and get it back into the hearts of our people.  Anyone who regards Jesus Christ to be their Lord and Savior is a brother or sister to me – Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, 5 Point Calvinist Presbyterians, Arminian Wesleyans, Holiness Nazarenes, United Methodists, High Church Episcopalians, Inclusive Metropolitan Community Churches, non-dogmatic Quakers, Evangelical megachurches, Progressive United Churches of Christ – anyone, anywhere who names Christ. Treating them respectfully, listening to them eagerly in order to discover their unique perspectives, expectant of receiving a gift or grace from them that will expand my own Christian understanding and experience — I don’t have to agree with everything they say in order to treat them as my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Being a “Disciple” encourages this kind of generous engagement with other Christians. And not just with other Christians, but with all other human beings of genuine faith as well.

10.  We know that we are not the only people God in Jesus Christ loves, or who love God. The generosity of God in Jesus Christ that we affirm as Disciples fosters in us an optimism about how God is at work in the religious impulses of people everywhere and always. I don’t have to jettison my belief about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ when I engage in conversation and cultivate relationships with people of other faith traditions. I believe that the scope of God’s love in Jesus Christ includes them. I believe that the efficacy of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is sufficient for them. And I believe that the searching and convicting work of the Holy Spirit is operative in their hearts too. And so, in exactly the same way that I would never denigrate or dismiss the genuine faith of another Christian no matter how different their convictions are from my own, so I would never denigrate or dismiss the genuine faith of another human being from another faith tradition no matter how different their convictions are from my own either. Knowing that God loves them, and taking Acts 14:17 and 17:22-28 seriously, I look for bridges between people of different faith traditions that can bring us together rather than the buttressing the walls that keep us apart from each other and spiritually suspicious of each other. Our characteristic ecumenism as Disciples provides us with a way of managing our beliefs in a world where not everyone believes as we do.  

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“Compel Them to Come In” (part 2)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church

bee

Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

In Luke 14:23 the master of the house who was putting on the party sent his servants out to “compel” people to come in.   The word “compel” here refers to the act of making a convincing argument that will move another person to make an appropriate response, in the case of this story, to persuade them to come into the house.  So, what are the convincing arguments that we can make to persuade people to come to Northway?  Today I will provide you with my first five reasons, and tomorrow I will conclude with my last five.

  1. Because we believe in a generous God. Richard Mouw says that this is the first and most important theological decision that any one of us has to make – Do we believe that God is stingy or generous? Is God reluctant to love us and has to be convinced to save us, or is God so in love with us that it takes extraordinary effort on our part to keep Him out of our lives?   The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the church of a generous God because it is a church based on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  2. Because we are a church that has no creed but Christ and no book but the Bible. I found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at a moment in my young Christian life when I was being pulled in different directions by well-meaning brothers and sisters who were all insisting that “real” Christians believe this or that. No sooner would one of them tell me that one thing was true, than another one come along and tell me the exact opposite thing was true. It was all very confusing to me. And then a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor sat down and talked with me about how the “what” of doctrine always divides while the “who” of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, our Lord and Savior, always unites. He advised me to be certain of Christ and then to stay just as open as I possibly could about everything else, testing every faith claim and assertion by the teaching of Scripture. This approach – so characteristic of Disciples – has served me well.
  3. Because we observe open Communion each and every week. Going to the Lord’s Table each Sunday morning keeps me focused on the redemptive purposes of God in Jesus Christ, keeps me anchored to the Gospel experience of grace in Christ, and keeps me oriented to the mission of reconciliation through Christ with which the church has been entrusted and for which the church has been empowered by His indwelling Spirit. Weekly Lord’s Supper keeps the Gospel of Jesus Christ front and center in my own life, and in the life and mission of the whole church. The Disciples are a movement for wholeness in fragmented world. We welcome others to the Lord’s Table just as God in Jesus Christ has welcomed us.
  4. Because we respect the competency of each soul to do its own believing. Romans 14:4-5 looms rather large in our life of mutual encouragement and accountability as Disciples –

    Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.  One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind.

    In other words, we’ve all got to decide things for ourselves, and we will all have to answer for how we’ve decided them. This is the right of private interpretation and the freedom of conscience distilled into the concrete practice of mutual respect for which we as Disciples have been justly recognized.  As Disciples we honor the freedom and responsibility of each believer to “work out their salvation with awe and reverence” (Philippians 2:12).  We are not the kind of church that’s going to tell you what to think, but rather we are going to be the kind of church that’s shows you how to “think believingly,” and that then challenges you to get on with it.

  5. Because we make a “good faith assumption” about one another.  Because we are forever deciding things differently as Christians, there is a very real temptation to conclude that those whose conclusions are at variance with our own conclusions on any number of vital matters of faith and practice must be either stupid or wicked. The “good faith assumption” is the glue that holds us together in spite of those differences.  When we disagree about something, the “good faith assumption” says that I am going to believe and behave in such a way that shows that I think that you are just as serious about Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as committed to knowing and doing what Christ commands as I am.  And as Disciples, it is going to the Lord’s Table together each week with people who don’t necessarily think as I think, or believe as I believe, that seals the bond of this resolve for unity in love

 ________________________________________________________________________________________________

 Tomorrow I will post the last five reasons I use to make a compelling case for Northway Christian Church in particular, and the Disciples of Christ in general. 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.

lincoln

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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“For Such a Time as This”

Thinking Christianly” about Race, Money and Politics


 

dudeFrancis Schaeffer (1912 – 1984) wrote 23 books. He viewed the last book he wrote – The Great Evangelical Disaster (Crossway 1984) – published just months before his death, as a kind of theological last will and testament to those of us who had come under the sway of his teaching.  This book has the feel of the last chapters of Deuteronomy (31-34) in the Old Testament to it, Moses’s farewell speech to the people of Israel, or the Farewell Discourse of Jesus in the Upper Room with His Disciples in the Gospel of John (13-17), or 2 Timothy, the New Testament letter that presents itself to us as Paul’s swan song.  The totality of a teacher’s teachings gathered up and reduced down to their essence, a reminder of why the things that have been said mattered, and an argument for why they will continue to matter after the teacher is long gone.  That’s what The Great Evangelical Disaster was to Francis Schaeffer, and it explains why he called it the most important thing that he wrote, and I don’t disagree.  Speaking as someone who has been reading Francis Schaeffer with both real benefit and genuine appreciation since 1970 (that’s 46 years!) I think The Great Evangelical Disaster is the best “front door” into his body of work.

I mention all of this because it was in The Great Evangelical Disaster that Francis Schaeffer prophetically named the “three great weaknesses” that he observed have chronically plagued North American Christians and North American Christianity for generations – the matter of race, the use of wealth and the confusion of God with country.

First there is the matter of race, where there were two kinds of abuse. There was slavery based on race, and also racial prejudice as such.   Both practices are wrong, and often were present when Christians had a stronger influence on the consensus than they have now.  And yet the church, as the church, did not speak out sufficiently against them. (382)

Second, there is the question of the compassionate use of wealth… this means two things: first, making it with justice; and then using it with real compassion. (383)

Third, there is the danger of confusing Christianity with the country… we must not wrap Christianity in our country’s flag, and second we must protest the notion of “manifest destiny” that would permit our nation to do anything it chooses. (383)

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Race is in the news these days because of the recent shootings of Black men by police officers in Tulsa and Charlotte, just the latest in a long string of troubling stories about race, power and violence. Money is on my mind because we’ve just entered the stewardship season in the life of the church I serve. This is the time each year when the dots between what we say we believe and value and how we spend our money get consciously connected.  Politics dominates our national consciousness right now because in less than six weeks we will be voting for a new President.  And Francis Schaeffer, right before he died, warned us that these are three things that we who are Americans and Christians have never done very faithfully.  So, in my blog over the next few weeks I intend to do what Francis Schaeffer said we who are American Christians don’t do particularly well, and that’s to do some “believing thinking” on race, money and politics.

Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, in his September 2016 editorial calls it “a God moment.” He explains that many Christians are spiritually “sensitive” to the way that “circumstances fall together in a way that suggests that God is at work in our lives in fresh way,” and he says that he believes that that “we are currently experiencing a new ‘God moment’” on race.

God is shining his burning light on how our nation and our churches are fractured by racial division and injustice. In the past two years, we’ve seen image after image of injustice perpetrated against black Americans.  We’ve studied this ate statistics.  And more important, we’ve heard the anguished cry of a suffering community that is understandably hurting, angry, and demanding progress.  We see more clearly than ever how racism is embedded in many aspects of our society…  (And we have to admit that) we have been slow to hear what the black church has been telling us for a while. And in all of this, we hear God calling his church to seek justice and reconciliation in concrete ways.

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What he’s talking about here are what I was taught were “Kairos” moments.

“Kairos” is an ancient Greek word meaning the “right or opportune moment.” It refers to a special period of time that opens up within the regular routine of one’s life, during what’s known as “Chronos” time. A “Kairos” moment is when something divinely crucial is happening in one’s life, or in the life of the whole world.

The core conviction at work in the notion of “Kairos” is that God actively and persistently builds special moments into our lives when we are brought to the brink of faith decisions through experiences of special insight and invitation.  In the Evangelical tradition this is what is meant when somebody says that they have been brought “under the conviction of the Holy Spirit” about something.  In the Quaker tradition there is a strong teaching about “days of visitation” when they say that God shows up in people’s lives with an unmistakable intensity, making available to the visitant an opportunity to take the next decisive step in their journey of faith, taking them deeper in and further along in their experience of life with God.  Kennon Callahan said that it’s God who is at work in what we are thinking about when we’re stuck in traffic, or stopped at a red light, or when we’re up in the middle of a sleepless night.  God uses these interruptions and inconveniences to clear the space in our heads and hearts where He can then pose His invitations and challenge our presuppositions.  Personally, I experience my own strongest sense of “Kairos” when something I am reading and pondering scores a direct hit on something that’s actually happening in my life and/or world.  I sit up and pay closer attention when the questions that my experiences and observations of life are posing get answered immediately with the things that are being formed in me spiritually through what I am currently reading and considering.

And so, with the questions of race, money and politics being asked with such intensity and urgency these days, and with the earnest warning of the Evangelical “St. Francis” (Schaeffer) that these are each areas on the journey of faith where Christians like us have previously tripped and consistently fallen, I am sensing that these are topics demanding some of our very best “believing thinking.” So, in my next posting, we’ll start with race.

                                                                                                                                 DBS +

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Next “Soundings” ~ “Race, Christ and the Christian”

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“Can you hear me now?”

The Enemies, and Friends, of the Humanities
Why Deconstructionists Defended the Canon
Mark Bauerlein – 8/21/14 – http://www.firstthings.com

canonA funny thing happened when Michael Novak brought Herbert Marcuse to lecture to his students. It was the early-1970s when campus rebellion had entered its darker phase, and Marcuse was an idol of the Movement. His theory of “repressive tolerance” served as an essential touchstone for protest, and his volatile mix of Marx and Freud seemed an edgy, relevant style of intellectualized activism.

Novak was a provost at SUNY-Old Westbury, a new experimental college in the state system caught up in all the higher-ed fads of the day. Students lounged barefoot in class and showed contempt for all authority, including that of the faculty and administrators. Younger professors indulged them, refusing to impose a set curriculum and questioning the appropriateness of grades. Sentimentality for the Vietcong was widespread.

Hearing students cite Marcuse while decrying bourgeois society, Novak thought it a good idea to bring Marcuse to campus for a day of discussion and lecturing. But the admiring conversation he expected to witness didn’t occur. Instead, Novak recounts in his 2013 memoir Writing from Left to Right,

After mingling with the students, he was affronted and disgusted.  At his lecture he set aside his prepared notes and instead described the severe Prussian discipline of his own education: the classics he had to master; the languages he had to learn by exercises and constant tests. His theme was that no one had any standing on which to rebel against the past—or dare to call himself a revolutionary—who had not registered the tradition of the West. (p. 107)

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“Can you hear me now?”

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I was recently having a conversation with a seminarian.  He was writing a paper on the “New Interpretation” of Paul, and so I asked him about the “old interpretation” of Paul, you know, the one that fueled the Protestant Reformation and that has served the proclamation of the church and the faith of many Protestant Christians for more than 500 years now.  And he just stared at me as if I had grown a second head, or was speaking in tongues without an interpreter.  Apparently it had never occurred to him that a “new” interpretation implies the existence of an “old” interpretation.  He apparently missed class the day that it was explained that a “new” interpretation is by definition a reaction to and a corrective of an “old” interpretation that has been determined by its critics to be defective in some or several ways.  And as we parted I thought about the Herbert Marcuse story that I excerpted for you above from the journal First Things.  A notable critic of the conventional wisdom himself, Marcuse was nevertheless impatient with people who imagined themselves to be critics like him but without having first done the hard work of understanding the delivered canon, the “registered tradition.” Before you can criticize something, you’ve got to take the time and make the effort to understand it on its own terms.

headIt is unarguably irresponsible, both spiritually and intellectually, for us “old” interpreters not to know that the “new” interpreters are there or what it is that they are saying. The image of an ostrich with its head in the ground comes to mind.  I have a number of colleagues, people whom I consider to be my spiritual allies and friends in the traditional interpretation camp, for whom this is the perfect description.  They sit comfortably behind the lines engaging in what E. Stanley Jones once called “long-distance dueling.”

We have shelled each other’s positions, or what we thought were the positions, but there has been much smoke and confusion and not a little un-Christian feeling. (Christ at the Round Table – 15)

But it is equally irresponsible to promote the conclusions of a “new” interpretation without taking into account the existence of the “old” interpretation, or acknowledging that there is an “old” interpretation that many thoughtful believers continue to regard as being valuable and valid. The failure of both camps to treat the interpretation of their counterparts with respect reduces the theological enterprise to empty “straw man” exercises.

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The first “rule” in interfaith conversation is to let your conversation partner tell you what it is that he or she actually believes rather than you presuming to tell them what it is that they are supposed to believe based on what you have read about their religion in a book. Only when people of faith have been accorded the right of speaking for themselves and had their interpretations granted a “good faith” assumption – the acknowledgement that they are just as serious as you yourself are about wanting to know who God is, and what it is that God does and wants – can a real dialogue begin.  As it is, many of the theological conversations that I observe and overhear have participants who are perfectly content with that “long range dueling,” firing salvoes and launching broadsides against the imagined positions of those who hold the opposite interpretation, or worse, acting as if the field has already been cleared and that there is nobody “over there” to talk to, or, worse, that is worth talking to.  A grievous example of this was in play during Holy Week in what I saw people do with the postings at the Patheos “Head to Head” site as part of their “Engaging Easter” coverage (http://www.patheos.com/Topics/Patheos-Head-to-Head.html).  They explained their purpose –

bridgeAt Patheos “Head to Head,” our writers enter into timely debate, expressing opposing viewpoints about current controversial issues. Our main discussion section creates an elevated environment where writers engage in civil discourse – seeking to better understand the issues and each other.

What a good and responsible approach to theological conversation!  And it worked brilliantly!  The “Head to Head” began with Michael Bird, an Evangelical theologian from Australia, staking out the ground that most of us “old” interpreters occupy quite comfortably and conscientiously (“Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?” – March 30, 2015 –http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2015/03/why-did-jesus-die-on-the-cross/). This was followed the next day with Mark Sandlin, a Progressive Christian thinker and writer, laying out the argument that most “new” interpreters would find meaningful (“God Did Not Kill Jesus on the Cross for Our Sins” – March 31, 2015 – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thegodarticle/2015/03/god-did-not-kill-jesus-on-the-cross-for-our-sins/). And then, what followed over the next few days were a series of rejoinders and follow-ups in which these two articulate and intelligent interpreters advanced the conversation, each one challenging the other’s interpretation while clarifying their own.  It was a model of how respectful theological conversation can take place.

But on many of the web pages and in the blogs of so many of my friends, this “Head to Head” became something else altogether.  My progressive “new” interpretation friends and colleagues linked to Sandlin’s article exclusively with no reference to Bird’s article, or to the conversation in which they were engaged.  They placed their “imprimatur” on the essay that reflected their already settled viewpoint without alerting their followers to the fact that there was an intelligent counterpoint essay that should be read as part of the responsible theological conversation that was underway and of which the essay was a part.  My traditional “old” interpretation friends and colleagues were no different.  They linked to Bird’s article exclusively with no reference to Sandlin’s essay and with no respect for the conversation.

Come on. We’re better than this… especially as Disciples.

At the ordination of a friend some 40 years ago Dr. Jim Duke, the church historian at Brite, said that if a Disciple entered a room with two doors, one labelled “the truth,” and the other one labelled “the search for the truth,” that the Disciple would always pick “the search for the truth” door.  I really liked this image when I heard it.  Sadly, I’m not sure that it still “fits.”  DBS+

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Prayer as Supplication ~ Prayer as Contemplation

A Continuum…

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Or a Cycle?

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The February/March 2015 issue of AARP – The Magazine arrived in the mail this past week.  I always wonder – “How did this happen?” – when it shows up.  But there’s my name and address on the mailing label, and so I know it’s mine!

At first, when I was 50, I refused to read it.  It was a principle thing.  I’d tell myself, “This magazine isn’t for you.”  “It’s not your demographic.” “This is something your ‘older’ sister might be interested in” (after all, she’s a full 16 months older than I am!).  But now, in my early 60’s, it’s gotten so that I actually look forward to getting the AARP magazine in the mail every month or two.  It turns out that it’s a pretty good magazine.  There’s always an article or two in it that I find to be pretty interesting.  This was especially the case with this particular issue.

“The Paradox of Prayer” (pp. 44-47, 78, 82) was written by Bill Newcott.  Leading the essay were 12 photographs of real people at prayer – a Muslim woman, an African American Bishop, a Roman Catholic nun in full habit, a Buddhist monk, a native American shaman, a local Baptist preacher we all know, and a Jewish rabbi to name just seven of them.  They are all quite striking images, good reminders that prayer is not the “property” of Christians alone.  Prayer is an instinct of the human heart.  As Newcott puts it in the article, “As long as humans have endured the cares of the world, they have been praying.”

The heart of this essay is on the “paradox” of praying – how we instinctively turn to God in prayer for help with our lives, and how, “sooner or later,” we are all disappointed by God when He doesn’t do what we’ve asked Him to do for us in our prayers.  The “paradox,” according to Newcott, consists of the fact that such “disappointments” don’t dissuade most of us from continuing to pray.  In fact, Newcott quotes a Stanford University Anthropology professor who researches prayer.  Dr. Tanya Luhrmann explains: “Not getting what you need materially can lead you to understand that God wants you to depend on Him more deeply.”  And I don’t disagree.  I believe that prayer is an expression of our relationship of “absolute dependence” on God as our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, and that not getting what we ask for in prayer is an important reminder that there is only one God, and that we aren’t Him.  But what I find is that with this hard realization, out of this often painful experience, a shift in one’s praying often occurs.

Paul Tillich, one of the 20th century’s most important philosophical theologians, was once asked, “Do you pray?”  And it is reported that he answered, “No… I meditate.”  And that’s the shift that occurs.  We stop talking to God and start thinking about God instead, and we call it prayer.  As George Buttrick pointed out in his book Prayer (Abingdon – 1942) [65-66] – “We can hold no comradeship with an abstract noun.  We cannot talk to “The Life Essence” or “The Power Not Ourselves That Makes for Righteousness,” or even to “The Good, the Beautiful, and the True.”  …It is not in human nature to discuss life with a wall, or to plead earnestly with a fog…” 

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Urban Holmes in his book Spirituality for Ministry (Harper & Row – 1982) described this shift in praying as a necessary and beneficial consequence of spiritual maturation (21).  As we “grow up” spiritually, he argued, our prayers “move from a more to a less focused intentionality.”  In other words, we will stop asking God for things and we will start thinking about God more deeply, seeking to enter the silence of His presence more deliberately (Psalm 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God”).   Urban Holmes called this the “movement toward contemplation and union with God,” and I am an eager pilgrim on this journey.  I practice several forms of contemplative prayer and have taught sessions on the theology behind it on a number of occasions and in a variety of settings.  I am an advocate and not a critic of this spiritual discipline.  In fact, with Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., I would go so far as to name the contemplative practices as one of the “Pillars of the Spiritual Life” (See: Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life – Ignatius Press – 2008).  But I strongly disagree with the idea that prayer as supplication – praying with a more “focused intentionality,” talking things over with God and asking things from God – is an expression of a less mature spirituality that we will gradually outgrow as we advance to prayer as contemplation – praying with a less “focused intentionality,” learning to rest in God’s presence.  I don’t see these two ways of praying as the opposite poles of some kind of continuum of spiritual maturity.

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I am much more inclined to see them as parts of a cycle of praying to which we must return over and over again.  One of my favorite authors is Walter Wangerin, Jr., and one of my favorite Walter Wangerin, Jr., books is Whole Prayer (Zondervan – 1988).  “Whole Prayer,” he argued, “is made up of four acts, four discrete parts, two of which are ours, two of which are God’s.”

The parts may seem separated one from another by time or by the different nature of the acts; yet often all four acts occur in such swift succession that the complete prayer is revealed as a single, unbroken event…

– First, we speak,
– while second, God listens.
– Third, God speaks,
– while, fourth, we listen. 

If we initiate the first act, God will respond with the second.  That is sure and certain.  So, is the third act absolutely certain to follow the first two, because God’s love promises to speak to us by a Word.  But if we have never learned the fourth (and this is where contemplative practice enters the picture), if we are too impatient to perform the fourth act, too demanding and unsubmissive to watch and wait upon the Lord, then we will never even know that the second and third acts have been accomplished.  Without our truly listening, prayer will seem to have failed because communication, remaining incomplete, did in fact fail.  The circle stayed broken, and love was left unknown (29).

Walter Wangerin wrote as he did because what he saw was the neglect of the fourth act in this cycle of praying – “we listen.”  He was making the case for prayer as contemplation. But I see a different neglect, the neglect of the first act in this cycle of praying – “we speak.”  When prayer as supplication is downplayed, or even denigrated as a lesser or lower expression of Christian spirituality, then the circle of “whole prayer” is no less broken, and the communication between humanity and God is no less incomplete.

When Jesus was asked by His disciples to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), He didn’t teach them a technique of sitting meditation, He instead gave them a set of supplications that were appropriate to and expressive of the kind of relationship between God and human beings that He came to restore.  He urged His disciples to “ask” because God gives in response.    He urged us to “seek” because God allows Himself to be found as a result.  And He urged us to “knock” because God opens the door into His presence to those who do (Luke 11:9-10).  And that sounds to me more like a cycle that repeats every time I pray than a continuum that I advance along as I spiritually mature.  DBS+

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Do You Need God to do Church? (2)

 

The “Thesis” of the Primacy of the Divine Presence,
Power & Provision in Making the Church Effective

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From last week’s Blog –

Over the next few weeks I am going to be thinking out loud here about the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective, and the part that the Divine presence, power and provision plays. Using Hegel’s dialectic, I am going to move from an examination of the thesis of Divine action, to an exploration of the antithesis of human action, to a consideration of the shape that some kind of synthesis of the two might take? And along the way I hope to bump into some truths that might actually serve the church and its ministry today. DBS+

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It is one of those defining metaphors for me. It was Sam Shoemaker, the Episcopal Priest and Spiritual Renewal Leader, who first used it.

In 1952 Shoemaker was the main speaker for Religion-in-Life Week at the University of Pittsburgh. Representatives from a wide variety of denominations – Baptist and Presbyterian, Episcopal and Roman Catholic – were invited to share their faith.  …During his address at a closing dinner for speakers and student leaders, Shoemaker surprised us by remarking, “Some have likened the Episcopal Church to the fireplace and the Methodist Church to the fire.”  After pausing for laughter at his own expense, he continued, “You’ll have to admit, however, that the best place for a fire is in the fireplace, and not out in the middle of the floor!”

…This is a problem that has plagued all churches: the relationship between the organization and the life it is supposed to encourage. Every organism requires some degree of organization to channel its energy and fulfill its mission.  So it is natural for the church to develop confessions of faith, services of worship and programs of activity.  Imperceptibly, however, the inner life tends to wane even though the outward form persists.  Throughout church history the flame in many organizational fireplaces has flickered and died.  Though the fireplace was designed initially to foster a blaze, accumulations of soot eventually clogged the flue and smothered the fire.

…Eventually another generation, feeling the cold, tries to rekindle the fire. Unfortunately, it does not burn well, the flue is clogged and the hearth no longer fosters a blaze.  Yet the custodians of the fireplace often resist the cleaning or painful remodeling which is now necessary.  …So the kindlers of the flame are tempted – or even forced – to move their fire out into the middle of the floor.  There, one of two things is likely to happen.  Either the fire rages out of control, or its isolated coals die down for lack of a proper hearth.  Samuel Shoemaker was right: the best place for a fire is in the fireplace. (Charles Hummel – Fire in the Fireplace – IVP – p.p. 14-16).

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One of the reasons that this metaphor has such power for me is that I have lived it.

I was raised in the “fireplace.” Mom and Dad took my two sisters and me to church every Sunday morning when I was growing up, and the church they took us to was the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California, a “high” Episcopal church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition – “smells and bells.” And then, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when I was in High School, I caught on “fire.” These were the heady days of the Jesus People Movement in Southern California, and its heat and light touched my heart.  I was not the Prodigal who had wandered off into the far country, the typical “Jesus Freak.”  I was more of an “older brother” who had stayed home and gotten just as lost.  And in the same way that God’s love in Jesus Christ found the prodigal, so it found me.  And from that moment until now, I have struggled constantly with the “fire” and the “fireplace.” This is part of the reason why I think I would up as a member and minister in the Disciples of Christ.

The Disciples are part of what’s known as the Stone/Campbell Movement.  The “Stone” comes from Barton W. Stone (1772 – 1844), founder of the “Christian” Church in Kentucky – a product of the “fire” of the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting during the Second Great Awakening.  The “Campbell” refers to Thomas Campbell (1763 – 1854) and his son Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866), the founders of the “Disciples of Christ” Church in what is today West Virginia – the strudiest of the “fireplaces” built in early America.  When these two movements shook hands and became one church in 1832 in Louisville, Kentucky, the “fire” and the “fireplace” were joined, and the struggle between structure and passion, Spirit and form, organization and organism in the heart of our Movement was set in motion.  Our heritage hardwired the “fire” and the “fireplace” into our very denominational DNA, and I’m glad for it.

This spiritual struggle constantly serves as a reminder of the “both/and” rather than the “either/or” nature of reality. I have found that my life and faith are so much better served by hanging onto “furious opposites” rather than by championing one-sided half-truths, and this has proven particularly true for me with the “fire” and the “fireplace.” As Sam Shoemaker pointed out, “the best place for a fire is in the fireplace, and not out in the middle of the floor!”

 

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But, to my way of thinking, the “fire” has a certain primacy.  It comes first.  It’s the reason why the “fireplace” gets built.  This is the “thesis” in my dialectic.  It’s where I start.

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The late Calvin Miller in one of his books lamented the way that so many churches he knew had become “hollow museums” where the curator invoked the name of God with no expectation of God ever actually making an appearance.  In contrast, writer Annie Dillard in one of her essays observed that based on her reading of the Bible, ushers in church really ought to be issuing crash helmets at the door before lashing congregants into their pews. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), for proof, just stroll with Moses up the side of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-25) or spend the morning with Isaiah in the Temple (Isaiah 6:1-7).  There is “fire,” and we don’t kindle it.  At best, we can provide the “fireplace” to contain the “fire” when and where it falls.  This is not nothing, as I will explore next week in my “antithesis” blog on the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective.  But the fanciest “fireplace” there is just gathers dust unless and until there is a “fire” in it, and that “fire” is not something we engineer, it’s something we receive.

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Samuel D. Rima (Rethinking the Successful Church – Baker Books – 2002) says that he had to “rethink the successful church” when, after leading one congregation in a season of significant numerical growth, he got called to another church where they wanted him to do the same thing all over again with them.  And Sam said that as he began that he really did believe that “if only he did the right things, applied the proper techniques, and raised enough money,” that he could “manufacture church growth just like a mortgage banker increases his or her market share.” He saw it as a favorite “recipe” that if followed precisely would get the same results every time (25).  But what Sam discovered in his new church was that although he was the same minister as he had been before with exactly the same skill sets and the same vision and commitments, that he didn’t get the same results.  He eventually left that church “feeling like an unmitigated failure,” “wounded and shaken to his very soul” (47).  And in his recovery Sam says that he began to come to terms with the great Biblical truth that he had failed to take into account in his previous “success” and “failure” in ministry, what he calls “the Sovereignty of God.”

We must realize that there are much greater forces at work in our ministry than simply our own will power, enthusiasm, determination, giftedness, vision and passion.   The reality is that the church in which we serve is God’s church.  And God has some very definite ideas of what success looks like in his church.  …It is not up to us to determine what will ultimately take place in the church we serve – that’s God’s job – and we forget or neglect that reality at our own emotional and spiritual peril. (52)

In one of only three places where the word “church” actually appears on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels, after telling Peter that his confession of Him as being the Christ, the Son of the Living God, was correct, Jesus told His disciples that it would be “upon this rock that I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).  And I hear an echo of this promise in I Corinthians 3:6, where Paul, discussing the different functions that different ministers had performed in the life of that church, observed: “I (Paul) planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” It’s a different metaphor, but I think that it’s the same truth as the “fire” and the “fireplace” comparison makes.  To get a crop a farmer has to plow, and plant, and water.  But nothing the farmer does causes the seed to grow.  In the same way, I believe that we can help to create the conditions that are conducive to conflagrations, but the “fire” still has to “fall.” It is something that God is going to have to do when, and where, and how God so chooses, and that’s what Divine sovereignty means.  It means that God is in charge and that we have to be patient, expectant and responsive.  This is why everyone who has studied the great moves of God in church history, looking for the causes and conditions that preceded their arrival, always come back to prayer.

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Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 – 1892), a British Baptist preacher was one of the true giants of the church. His church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle of London, was a congregation of over 6,000 and added well over 14,000 members during his thirty-eight-year London ministry. During his lifetime, Spurgeon is estimated to have preached to 10,000,000 people, and he remains history’s most widely read preacher. There is more available material written by Spurgeon than by any other Christian author, living or dead. His sixty-three volumes of sermons stand as the largest set of books by a single author in the history of Christianity, comprising the equivalent to the twenty-seven volumes of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica” (http://areuserious.org).

When people would walk through the Metropolitan Tabernacle (as New Park Street Church became known), Spurgeon would take them to a basement prayer room where people were always on their knees interceding for the church. Then the pastor would declare, “Here is the powerhouse of this church.” (www.christianhistoryinstitute.org)

The church as a “fireplace” doesn’t make much sense and isn’t of much use apart from the “fire.” Just like the wind of the Spirit that Jesus said “blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going” (John 3:8), the “fire” is not something that we can create or control, but it is something that we can desire and seek, and that will necessitate prayer.  We can’t force the hand of God, but we can open ours to receive what God wants to give us on His terms and in His time.  DBS+

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A PRAYER FOR REVIVAL
C. H. Spurgeon

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O God, send us the Holy Ghost! Give us both the breath of spiritual life and the fire of unconquerable zeal! O Thou art our God, answer by fire we pray Thee! Answer us both by wind and fire, and then we shall see Thee to be God indeed. The kingdom comes not, and the work is flagging. Oh, that Thou woudst send the wind and the fire! Thou wilt do this when we are all of one accord, all believing, all expecting, all prepared by prayer.

Lord, bring us to this waiting state! God, send us a season of glorious disorder. Oh, for a sweep of the wind that will set the seas in motion, and make our ironclad brethren, now lying so quietly at anchor, to roll from stem to stern!

Oh, for the fire to fall again— fire which shall affect the most stolid! Oh, that such a fire might first sit upon the disciples, and then fall on all around! O God, Thou art ready to work with us today even as Thou didst then. Stay not, we beseech Thee, but work at once.

Break down every barrier that hinders the incoming of Thy might! Give us now both hearts of flame and tongues of fire to preach Thy reconciling word, for Jesus’ sake! Amen!  

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“Wars and Rumors of Wars”

A Little “Believing Thinking”

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When Jesus Christ was born the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is well pleased” (Luke 2:14).  But it wasn’t long after His birth, and it was directly because of His birth, that King Herod in his raging had all the baby boys of Bethlehem executed by his soldiers (Matthew 2:13-18).  This captures in a nutshell the dilemma that we who are Christians face when the drumbeats of war sound anywhere in the world.  It’s complicated.

We hail Christ as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), and we hear His call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).  But we also know that in the week when He was crucified that Jesus Christ pulled His disciples in close and told them that “wars and rumors of war” (Matthew 24:6) would characterize life in this world until He came again in glory to establish His kingdom that has no end.  It’s complicated.

Jesus told us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44) seemingly making pacifism the preferential moral option for His disciples in times of war, but He also told us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) making obedience to the governing authorities within the dictates of conscience (Acts 4:19-20) a matter of discipleship, and the State “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4).  It is the divine mandate of the state to establish justice through the execution of wrath on those who practice evil.  In fact, the church is commanded to pray “for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (I Timothy 2:2).  The community of faith benefits directly from the stability that the State secures through its strength.

It’s complicated, and what makes it so is the commitment that many of us who are Christians have to what’s known as the principle of the “whole counsel of God’s Word” (Acts 20:27).  What this means is that everything that the Bible says on any particular question of faith and practice must be taken seriously by us.  Before settling our position on any issue, a Christian has to take the whole witness of Scripture on that issue into careful consideration.  The Christian conscience cannot be settled by an appeal to a single isolated verse, no matter how compelling that single verse may be.  Richard Hayes, the New Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School calls this the “synthetic task” in Biblical interpretation – “finding coherence” in the “chorus of diverse voices” with which the Scriptures speak.

For example, in addition to loving our enemies, Jesus Christ told His followers to love our neighbors.  This was the whole point of Jesus’ famous Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  But what if the Good Samaritan had arrived while the man on the side of the road was still being beaten and robbed instead of right after it had happened?   Would the command to love his enemy have required him to stand idly by until the brigands were done with their violence before stepping forward to love his neighbor by binding up his wounds and attending to his needs?

Steve Brown, a pastor from Wisconsin observes: “If the command to love your neighbor collides with the command to love your enemy, when an enemy would kill your neighbor, then you must love your neighbor by protecting him against his enemy.”  And that’s just one of the many collisions of commands that a Christian who is conscientiously attending to the whole counsel of God’s Word is going to have to learn how to navigate.

It is the complexity of all this that has led most Christians through the centuries – Catholic and Protestant alike – to adopt some version of the Just War theory as their stance on the question of war.  It poses each military action of the country in which a Christian lives as a moral and spiritual dilemma that must be conscientiously sorted out before one’s support of or participation in it can be offered. When Caesar goes to war, each Christian is left to struggle with how best to keep faith with Christ’s multiple commands: with the social obligation of citizenship that Christ enjoined in His command to His disciples to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, with the love of neighbor that can be the legitimate motivation of a nation’s military action, and with the love of the enemy against whom that military action is taken.

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Francis Schaeffer, the Christian thinker on whom I cut my theological teeth, coined the phrase “fighting grievingly” to describe what he believed was the only proper attitude of a Christian in times of armed conflict.  He wrote –

I am not a pacifist, because pacifism in this abnormal world, this world that is not the way that God meant it to be because of the fall, means that we desert the very people who need our help the most. Let me illustrate what I mean: l am walking down the street one day when I see a great big burly man who is beating a little girl, and so I approach him and plead with him to stop. But what if he won’t stop, what does love then requite of me?  I believe that Christian love means that I stop him in any way that I can including, quite frankly, hitting him; to me this is what Christian love demands of me in a fallen world. If I desert the little girl to the bully, I have deserted the true meaning of Christian love, and my responsibility to my neighbor. … There are lots of things in this world which grieve us, and yet we must face them…

If a war is “just” then the participation of a Christian is deemed – by the majority opinion of the church through the centuries, at least – to be morally warranted.  But the way that a Christian then participates in that conflict, no matter how just, must still be governed by the love of God in Jesus Christ as it is known in his or her heart, and this means that he or she can only “fight grievingly,” with real regret and anguish, and with a very clear moral and spiritual obligation to the one who has been determined to be the enemy.

Echoing the command of Christ for His disciples to love their enemies, the Apostle Paul told the Christians in Rome –

18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This teaching has profound implications for individual Christians in times of war, whether it be a war of the nation that is their own earthly home, or a war between nations who are their neighbors. These obligations can be summarized nicely by some of the core principles of the Just War theory itself – (1) A predisposition to peace experienced as a real reluctance to fight, seeing it always as the very last and the very worst resort; (2) The absolute refusal to dehumanize the enemy and an insistence that enemy combatants be accorded the dignity that their humanity requires; (3) An overarching concern for the safety and welfare of noncombatants; and (4) A commitment to the genuine reconciliation of the antagonists after the cessation of the conflict and the restoration of order.

A Christian’s support of war is not supposed to be easy, and it’s certainly not supposed to be automatic.  Minimally, taking Jesus Christ and His teachings seriously must erect some speed bumps for Christians when the drumbeats of war are rushing their nation’s decision-making process and the rhetoric is heating up, and then when a war is actually being prosecuted, the teachings of Jesus Christ have to set some boundaries for Christians in its conduct.  Even when it is deemed “just,” war is still tragic, and a Christian’s support of it and participation in it must be reluctant at best.  “Wars and the rumors of war” are symptoms of the sinfulness of this world and its people, and every bullet that flies, every bomb that is dropped, every soldier who dies, and every family that mourns their losses is evidence of humanity’s desperate need for a Savior.

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Somewhere I’ve read that when the author Robert Louis Stevenson, a Christian himself, received word of a war among the people of his adopted country of Samoa, that he fell to the floor writhing in pain and weeping uncontrollably.   And while this is not all that there is to a Christian’s response to war, in closing I want to suggest that this is at least where it must begin.  Sadness and not anger is what must lie beneath the surface of a Christian’s response to war.  When in the course of human events a war becomes necessary, Christians can only support it with tears in our eyes and anguish in our hearts.   This is what people need to see first and most from us who are Christians in times of war.  DBS+

 

 

 

 

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“Bring Back a Report” (2)

Sabbatical 2014 – Week 2

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A Sabbatical allows me to do something that I have not done in 39 years, and that is getting to worship with a different church every week.   I have ministered in a local church since 1975 without interruption – Central Christian Church, Pocatello, Idaho (Christian College), Rosemead Church of Christ, Rosemead, California (Seminary), First United Methodist Church, Hurst, Texas (Seminary), First Christian Church, Melissa, Texas (Seminary), Lubbockview Christian Church, Lubbock, Texas, First Christian Church, Plainview, Texas, Memorial Drive Christian Church, Houston, Texas, First Christian Church, Amarillo, Texas and Northway Christian Church, Dallas, Texas.

Because one of my big learning goals for this Sabbatical is to come to terms with the ministry of evangelism, not just as another program of the church, but as a part of the spiritual DNA of a church member, I am choosing to worship with churches that have a reputation for having some part of this puzzle figured out.  That’s what sent me to Holy Comforter ~ Saint Cyprian Roman Catholic Church in Washington DC a week ago, and this is what found me in the pews of Christ Church in Plano last Sunday morning.  I am writing reports of my visits each week, describing what I saw and experienced, and distilling out the lessons that I am learning for any applications that we might make here at Northway.  As I’ve repeatedly said, our institutional vitality and our spiritual well-being depends on us figuring this out as a church.  What I am seeing, experiencing and thinking will all become part of my report back to the church at the end of June when my Sabbatical is over.  But each week as I make this journey I am using my blog to bring you along with me, and so this week I want to introduce you to something that I suspect is at the heart of our reluctance to be evangelistic.  This insight dawned on me this past Sunday morning as I sat in a church as a visitor.

I’ve read about a man who got up and walked out of a church one Sunday morning before the first hymn had been sung.  When an usher finally chased him down in the parking lot to ask what was wrong, that man reported that ten different people had come up to him before the service began wanting to know who he was and how they could make him feel welcome in their church, and he said, “All I want is to worship God without any fuss and  a little bit of peace and quiet, but all these people keep bothering me!.”   The pastor of that church had been urging its members to be more welcoming and friendly to guests, but here was a visitor for whom the welcome had become too intrusive.  I understand.

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I am an introvert.  Because of what I do and how I do it, this may not be apparent to you.  I am usually on stage, in the limelight of the pulpit, speaking publically and engaging with others outwardly all the time as a minister.  That’s what you see.  What you don’t see is how I have to work consciously and continuously at all of this.  My natural inclinations are to have a stealth presence wherever I am and whatever I’m doing.  I neither need nor want attention to be drawn to me.  I am perfectly content to slip in somewhere unnoticed, to sit quietly, observing and listening to what’s going on around me, and then to go home where I can process what’s happened with a cat in my lap and Classical 101.1 FM on the radio.  I have the temperament of a writer, I work well alone, I am an introvert.

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I’m a pastor and an introvert.
I get energy from being alone.
Being with people for long periods of time drains me,
although I have strong people skills.
I love to read.
I go on silent retreats.
After church Sunday I want to go home.
Did I say that I am an introvert?

http://www.ministryadvantage.org

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Now, if you think it odd that I as an introvert should be a minister, let me quickly say two things: first of all, it wasn’t my idea.  This is what I have been called by God to do.  Remember, originally I thought that I was going to be a monk when I grew up.  I dare say that this wasn’t the dream of every kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Just like Moses (Exodus 4:10-17), I initially objected to the call to ministry that I was sensing on my life, and I finally told the Lord that the only way this was going to work was if He made it happen.  That’s the first thing you need to know about why I am a minister, it was all God’s idea.  The second is that the statistics show that there are more of us introverts in ministry than you probably realize.  Think about it, many of the things that you want in a pastor are characteristics of introverts.  Because crowds make introverts nervous, they can focus well on the person who is right in front of them.  Because introverts need to process information and experiences inwardly, they tend to be thoughtful. Because introverts don’t require a lot of external motivation and stimulation, they can persevere, they have the resources that are necessary for the long haul.  And because introverts need plenty of peace and quiet, they bring a contemplative dimension of depth to lives rooted and grounded in the experience of God.  Introversion has its merits.

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And here’s my insight, just as people can be introverts, so can organizations and institutions.  So, I wonder, could our general hesitance to be evangelistic as a church be rooted in a corporate temperament of introversion?

Ask yourself: “What do I like most about being a Disciple?”

Your first answer is probably weekly communion.  And the way you like to take communion is without a lot of commotion and distractions.  You’ve made it abundantly clear to us that as a church you don’t want a lot of noise, singing or movement during the Lord’s Supper.  You want to be able to sit quietly with Jesus Christ during communion.  That’s communion for introverts.

The second thing you probably like most about being a Disciple is that nobody is going to tell you what to think or how to behave.  It’s not that either belief or behavior is unimportant to you that makes you not want to have anybody interfering with it, but rather because it does matter to you so much!   A traditional Baptist notion that resonates well with most Disciples is something called “soul competency.”  “Soul Competency” says that we all have to do our own believing.  Nobody else can do our believing for us, we will all have to answer for ourselves (Romans 14:4; I Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10) and therefore, we exercise extreme caution in telling others about what they must think, or how they must feel, or what they must do.  This is a conscious and conscientious approach that we take as Disciples, but we’d best admit it, it is a heartfelt conviction that encourages a kind of spiritual introversion.

Finally, I suspect that you like being a Disciple because our focus is not on a church but on the Christ.  There was a recent advertisement campaign for a church here in Dallas that promoted itself as “a church you can believe in.”  I had a visceral negative reaction to it.  You see, I don’t believe in a church, I believe in Christ.  Believing in a church is idolatrous, and a lousy substitute for God at that.  Every church I know needs a Savior, and our traditional Disciple perspective that nothing should get in the way of knowing Jesus Christ who is the Savior, and making Him known, has resulted in our spiritual reluctant to make “our” church the content of our own proclamation, the focus of our message.   But I wonder, has our hesitation to talk too much about the church lest it get confused with the Christ had the unintended consequence of us not talking about anything at all, not even Christ?  There is a principled introversion that is born of the fear of sending mixed messages, of giving people the impression that we, a church, is what they need when it is really the Christ that they need.  And while we as Disciples have generally avoided making this mistake, I have to wonder if we haven’t driven the car into the ditch on the other side of the road, using this principled introversion about the promotion of the church as our excuse for not talking about the Christ either.

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As an introvert myself, I certainly appreciate the virtues that this temperament can instill and nurture in a person, and I have an instinctive aversion to the excesses of extroversion that I see so easily and often degenerating into manipulation and narcissism. And I can appreciate the qualities of an introverted church as well.  But just as I as an introvert have had to consciously, conscientiously and consistently work to balance my introversion with the virtues that extroversion cultivates in me and makes my public life possible, so an introverted church like I suspect that Northway is, has to learn how to balance the spiritual introversion that we value and prefer with those qualities of extroversion that keep us vitally engaged with the world around us, and faithful to the mission of witness and service to which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ calls us.  DBS+

For further reading and reflection on introversion and the church –

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Crown, 2012.

Adam McHugh, Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture, IVP, 2009.

 

 

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