Tag Archives: Election

Now What?

flagToday at noon we get a new President. This makes some of us very sad, and this makes some of us very happy.  I “get” that.  What I don’t “get” is the “Not my President” response that seems to be so popular as this less than popular President takes office.  Deeper than the angry rhetoric and political posturing that this slogan expresses, I detect in it an alarming crack in our national life that weakens the very foundation of our Constitutional Republic.

I certainly get the disappointment of an election that doesn’t turn out the way that you had hoped. I get the very real concern about the changes that a new administration promises to make.  And I even get the rejection of the values and the criticism of the character of the people who have been elected to high public office.  All of these things have been part of my own personal political experience at one time or another as well.  In fact, if the truth be told, I’m rarely happy with Washington D.C., and I am almost always troubled politically.  Yes, I “get” it.  But what I don’t get is the absence of “Political Grace” that the “Not my President” slogan betrays.  It just seems to run so contrary to our best impulses and highest instincts as participants in the American experiment.

bookIt lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that Jimmy Carter displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Ronald Reagan, the candidate who had just defeated him in a bitter election. It lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that George H.W. Bush displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Bill Clinton, the candidate who had just defeated him in a bitter election. It lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that Bill Clinton then displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of George W. Bush who finally won the closest of elections on the basis of a controversial Supreme Court ruling.  It lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that George W. Bush displayed when he facilitated the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Barack Obama who won the election campaigning on a repudiation of the Bush policies.  And it lacks the kind of Patriotic Grace that Barack Obama has been putting on display as he has been facilitating the transition of Presidential power to the administration of Donald Trump who won the office without winning the popular vote and that is clouded with evidence of attempted foreign influence on our democratic process.   Donald Trump may or may not have been your candidate, but today at noon, he is going to be our President.

So, the question for all of us today, both the glad and the sad is – now what?

On Monday this week I posted a “Soundings” on “Partisan Praying.” If you haven’t read that blog yet, then I would certainly encourage you to do so now.  As a Christian speaking to other Christians, this is the most important thing that I would say we need to be doing today.  And then, only after saying that, as a citizen speaking to other citizens, I would then urge a quick civics lesson.

abeAfter hearing all about it on the news, I took a look last week at “Indivisible,” the political action manual that was recently put together by a group of progressive Congressional staffers on how to get and wield political power when the administration that is in in office doesn’t reflect your values and convictions. They based “Indivisible” on their observations of the emergence of, and their experience with the political effectiveness of the Tea Party in the early years of the Obama Administration.   At its core, “Indivisible” is just a basic guide to political organization and influence.  It pulls back the curtain of Washington D.C. and shows us how things actually get done there.  Its authors clearly have a political agenda, but the process that they describe does not.  It’s just as good for the gander, and it was for the goose.  In fact, these Progressives say that they learned it from watching the Tea Party!  I learned it in my high school civics class, and from my volunteer work at the headquarters of a major political party in my suburb of LA during a Presidential and Gubernatorial election in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when I was growing up.  There is nothing dangerous, subversive or particularly innovative here.  This is all just stuff that we should already know and be regularly doing as citizens.

A pretty good list of what involved and concerned citizens should be doing these days was recently put together and posted online by Evan McMullin, an Independent candidate for President in the last election.

  1. Read and learn the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Know that our basic rights are inalienable.
  2. Identify and follow many credible sources of news. Be very well informed and learn to discern truth from untruth.
  3. Pay attention to what the Administration says, decides and does.
  4. Be very vocal in every forum available to you if you think that rights are being violated and democracy is being threatened. Write, speak, and act.
  5. Support journalists, artists, academics, clergy and others who speak truth and who inform, inspire and unite us.
  6. Build bridges with Americans from the other side of the traditional political spectrum and with members of diverse American communities.
  7. Defend the rights of people who don’t look, think or believe like us. An attack on one is an attack on all.
  8. Organize online and in person with other Americans about the things that concern you.
  9. Hold members of Congress accountable for protecting our rights and democracy through elections and by making public demands of them now.
  10. And finally, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, have “malice toward none, with charity for all” and never ever lose hope!

And while he has been a political rival and remains a public critic of our new President, there is nothing on this list that I find to be particularly partisan or pointed. In fact, it seems to me that these are ten really good things for all of us to be doing as citizens no matter who is in office, and even if Evan McMullen himself had been elected to office!

And that’s the whole point.

Whether this is a day of rejoicing for you, or a day of despair, tomorrow’s another day. The election is over, the transition of administrations is complete, and now the hard work of governing begins with a new group of leaders at the helm.  You may have voted for them.  You may have voted against them.  They may fill you with hope.  They may fill you with dread. But either way, they are the ones who are now in office.  But they aren’t there as tyrants to unilaterally impose their will on us any more than the last administration was, or the next administration after this one will be.  They are there to cast a vision and then to try to implement it through a constitutionally established political process.

Choose to be part of that process!

A government of the people, by the people, and for the people, requires the people. In our system of government, being governed requires the consent of the governed, and that means people, all of the people, stepping up and conducting ourselves as responsible citizens in a participatory democracy.  So, whether you are glad or sad today, let the full exercise of your citizenship begin, and be grateful that we have the privilege.  DBS +

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Half-Full or Half-Empty?

A Meditation on Thanksgiving in
a Time of National Conflict
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glassThey say that there are two kinds of people in this world – those who see glasses half-full, and those who see glasses half-empty. My sense is that it would be more accurate to say that sometimes all of us see the glass half-full, while at other times we see it half-empty.  I don’t think of half-full/half-empty glasses as rigid, permanent, impermeable “either/or” categories.  No, whether I see a glass as being half-full or half-empty depends on lots of things, things that can change.  And so I’m reluctant to see either half-full glasses or half-empty glasses as “steady states.” And just as this is true of us as individuals, so it seems to me that it is equally true of us as societies at large and in seasons of life.  There are times when things generally feel half-full for us as a people or a nation, and there are other times when things feel half-empty for us as a people or a nation.

Right now things feel half-empty to me. It has been a long and jarring election season, and a conflicted and volatile couple of weeks since the votes were counted and a winner declared.   Regardless of how you voted, whether your candidate won or lost, the fact is that we are a painfully divided nation right now with very little confidence in the wisdom or goodness of those with whom we disagree.  We suspect the worse about each other, we resist listening to each other, and without some “patriotic grace” the task of governing is going to prove to be nearly impossible for the foreseeable future.

Patriotic Grace” is a phrase that political speechwriter and columnist Peggy Noonan coined.  This is how she explained its meaning in her 2008 book by the same name –

What we need most right now, at this particular moment in our history, is a kind of patriotic grace – a grace that takes the long view – a grace that eschews the politically cheap and manipulative – a grace that takes the deep view – a grace that admits affection and respect for others – that in fact encourages affection and respect for others – that agrees that the things that divide us are not worthy of this moment – while the things that encourage our cohesion as a nation must be encouraged.

As a step in this direction, I am consciously and conscientiously approaching Thanksgiving Day this year as a glass “half-full” oasis in an otherwise glass “half-empty” season in our national life.  I am building a list of things for which I am grateful right now at this particular moment in our history, and I am claiming them as the basis for my very real hope that no matter how half-empty the glass might appear to be right now, that it won’t be very long before its “half-fullness” becomes apparent to us all again as a people.

So, here’s my list so far –

I am grateful for the Promise of America, a promise most concisely stated for me in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance when it says that “liberty and justice” are for all.  Now I know that for some Americans – people of color, immigrants, Native Americans, the LBGTQ community to name just a few – this promise rings pretty hollow.  But I’ve always thought that aspirational values, those things that we say we want to be and do as a people, have a real power for concentrating our attention and directing our efforts.  Promises become projects.  And so, even as I affirm the aspiration that we be one nation under God with liberty and justice for all, I find that I must recommit myself in the present historical circumstance to doing the hard work of making the promise a fact for every single American.  I believe that it is incumbent upon all of us who pledge allegiance not to rest until every American has been extended the freedom and personally experiences the justice that it extols.

I am grateful that three days after the election this year we observed Veterans’ Day and had the opportunity to think about the men and women in our history, and who right now, are serving so selflessly and sacrificially to help keep us safe and secure as a nation. I recently saw the movie “Hacksaw Ridge” and I was viscerally reminded once again of what conscience and courage in uniform looks like, and I was grateful.  I am grateful for my father of blessed memory who served in the South Pacific during World War 2, for my Brother-in-Law who served in both Korea and Vietnam, and for my nephew who right now serves in the Global War on Terror.  I do not take the dangers and risks they faced, and are facing for us for granted.  I honor their service.

I am grateful for the Rule of Law and not the Rule of Men. A few years ago I devoured a series of books about the Founders – David McCullough’s John Adams, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life and Alexander Hamilton, and Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.  These books sent me back to the original sources of our Constitutional Republic in The Federalist Papers.  And the more I read them the deeper my appreciation became for the peculiar genius and sober wisdom of the generation of Founders who had a vision for this Constitutional Republic of ours, and who then had the astonishing ability to actually draft the enabling documents that moved it from the realm of a noble ideal to a functioning governing structure and system.  It’s certainly not perfect.  It must not be viewed an object of worship.  But it’s far better than any of the alternatives that are out there.  As Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” And the greatest feature of our particular version of it, if you ask me, are its deliberate separation of powers and its careful system of checks and balances that prevent unilateral action by a tyrant be s/he in the Executive, Legislative or Judicial branch of government.  Our Constitution compels consultation, cooperation and compromise to get anything substantive done.  To be sure, this frustrates the winners of elections, even as it reassures the losers, and it’s something for which I am truly grateful today.  Although I am impatient with the deadlock that has afflicted Washington D.C. for the past decade, I am a nevertheless a real fan of divided government, in fact, I vote for it all the time.  I want the exchange of different ideas and the clash of passions.  I frankly think it makes us better as a nation.

I am grateful for the peaceful transfer of power that we are witnessing once again, and for the very real grace with which it is happening right now when the forces to hinder it are running so hot. I have long ached for the emergence of a new class of national Statesmen in our Republic “who more than self their country loved,” and I think that I have actually caught a glimpse of some from both sides of the aisle in these last few weeks, and that gives me some real hope for the days ahead.

I am grateful for the Bill of Rights, and especially for the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of religion/conscience and freedom of speech, and that provides for a free press, the right of free assembly, and the freedom to redress our grievances. The Amendments to our Constitution are how we “mend thine every flaw,” and the fact that we even have such a mechanism in our governing documents tells me everything I need to know about our capacity to change and grow as a society, to expand liberty and establish justice for all. Our Founders knew that we would need to be able to do this.  We still do.

I am also grateful for the individual human capacity to grow and change, and for the gracious chances that we give to one another to do so. I am certainly not naïve about human nature.  My working doctrine of Original Sin and Total Depravity tempers the optimism in the ability of human beings that I detect in so many of my colleagues and peers.  I am a strict Calvinist in these matters.  We cannot lower our guard with each other, or ourselves.  But, and this is not a contradiction of what I just said, I am also a firm believer in the Imago Dei, not just as the transcendent fact that establishes the worth of every single human being, but also as an affirmation of our innate capacity as human beings to make selfless choices and to reach for transcendent goals.  We stand in the mud, but we see the stars, and so long as we do, there’s always hope for nobility from the most improbable of sources.

Finally, I am grateful for the sovereignty of God that assures me that God’s will is going to finally be done on earth as it is in heaven, and for the providence of God that assures me that God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse – which is to say that God always finds a way to take our confused choices and jumbled circumstances and turns them into His good.  The famous moral to the Joseph and his Brothers story in Genesis – “You intended this for evil, but God turned it to good” (50:20) – is a safeguard against despair for people of Biblical faith.  The story is not over until it’s over.  It’s way too early to give up, or to give over to the inertia of discouragement when things happen that we didn’t expect, and that don’t make any sense to us from our own particular point of view.  Kennon Callahan, the Church Consultant, said that the most important question a church must answer is: “Do you believe that your best years are before you, or behind you?” And I believe that the same question must be asked of Republics.  I personally believe that the best years for this Republic of ours are still before us, not because of who’s President, or not, but because of the God under whom I believe this nation, and all nations exist.  My confidence is in Him, and in His way of conforming, first His people, and then His world, to His purposes.  And so while I am certainly concerned these days, and cautious about what will happen next, I am not announcing the end of the world or making Hitler comparisons. No, despite all of the legitimately anxious and angry voices declaring the glass to be not just half-empty, but bone dry, I have cause to see it half-full.  And this Thanksgiving, I invite you, no, I urge you, to undertake the same spiritual exercise for your own sake, and for the sake of our national future together.  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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“My Candidate is More Christian than Your Candidate”

What Does being a “Christian” Really Mean?
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Jesus

At the Lord’s Table last Sunday morning I was powerfully struck by the fact that the Sermon on the Mount was not read out loud to us before the emblems of Christ’s body broken for us and His blood shed for us were shared. In fact, in my experience it never has been, and I’ve been going to the Lord’s Table every Sunday morning for at least the past 50 years. No, the Scripture that was referenced at the Lord’s Table yesterday morning, just as it has been every Sunday morning for as long as I can remember was I Corinthians 11:23-26-

23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

crossAs I came to the Lord’s Table last Sunday morning this text directed my attention to what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem one Friday afternoon rather than on what Jesus Christ taught on top of a hill above the Sea of Galilee. We didn’t come to the Lord’s Table last Sunday morning on the basis of our imagined obedience to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount in the past week, or because of our good intentions to become more obedient to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount in the coming week. No, we came to the Lord’s Table on Sunday morning solely on the basis of our need for grace. We came to “celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.” As an old Gospel hymn puts it –

Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night, Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into Thy freedom, gladness, and light, Jesus, I come to Thee;
…Out of myself to dwell in Thy love, Out of despair into raptures above…
Out of my sin and into Thyself, Jesus, I come to Thee.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount isn’t an important part of New Testament Christianity. One of the truly defining books for me and my faith throughout these past 45 years has been E. Stanley Jones’ The Christ of the Mount (1931).  It was an assigned text for the Life of Christ course that I took in my first year of Christian College back in 1971, and it has been on my bookshelf and in my head and heart ever since.

In The Christ of the Mount E. Stanley Jones argued that Biblical Christianity has both a redemptive dimension – a message about who God is and what it is that God has done for us in Jesus Christ – and an ethical dimension – what it is that we are supposed to be and do in response to who God is and what God has done for us in Christ.  E. Stanley Jones was insistent that “if the ethical side of our Gospel is unworkable, then by that very fact the redemptive side is rendered worthless” (17).  And E. Stanley Jones was very clear that he believed that “the center and substance” of Christianity’s ethical dimension was the Sermon on the Mount, and he deeply lamented the fact the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t in the church’s historic creeds!

As the Apostles’ Creed now stands you can accept every word of it and leave the essential self-untouched. Suppose we had written it in our creeds and repeated each time with conviction: “I believe in the Sermon on the Mount and in its way of life, and I intend, God helping me to embody it!”  What would have happened?  I feel sure that if this had been our main emphasis, the history of Christendom would have been different. (12)

I don’t disagree. There is an ethical shape to the Christian Life, and I believe that the Sermon on the Mount is the standard New Testament summation of what that ethical life looks like.  But having said that, I don’t believe that it is the Sermon on the Mount that makes us Christians, rather I believe that the Sermon on the Mount shows just how Christian we are becoming.  This is the careful distinction that Ephesians 2:8-10 makes between being saved “by” grace “through” faith “apart” from works, and being saved “for” good works.  These are two very different things in my mind.

First there is the matter of “becoming” a Christian – that matter of being saved by grace through faith apart from works; and then there is that matter of “being” a Christian – of doing the good works that God has prepared beforehand that “we should walk in.” If you are a Christian then it’s “predestined” that it’s eventually going to show in the things that you do.  But this doesn’t happen instantly, or automatically.  We have to “grow up” as Christians in every way into Christ (Ephesians 4:15), and that suggests a gradual process to me, as does Paul’s conversation in I Corinthians 3 about the difference between Christian believers who are spiritually maturing, and those who have gotten spiritually stuck.  Paul didn’t throw the spiritually immature in Corinth – not even those who had become unnaturally stunted – out of the Christian pool.  In fact, Paul went so far as to call even them “saints” (I Corinthians 1:2)! They were still “babies” long after they should have outgrown their spiritual infancy, but they were nevertheless still “in Christ” (I Corinthians 3:1).

dudes

This is what James Dobson was talking about recently when he called Donald Trump a “baby Christian” (“A Born-Again Donald Trump? Believe It, Evangelical Leader Says” – Trip Gabriel and Michael Luo – http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/us/politics/a-born-again-donald-trump-believe-it-evangelical-leader-says.html?_r=0), and it’s the context for Max Lucado’s recent criticisms in the media of Donald Trump’s disturbing behavior as a self-professed Christian (Why Max Lucado broke his political silence for Trumphttp://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/february-web-only/why-max-lucado-broke-his-political-silence-for-trump.html?start=3). Neither one of these two guys believe that Donald Trump is an exemplary Christian, and neither do I.  In fact, I’ve written about this previously here (See: “Fruit Inspectors” – “Soundings” – March 1, 2016). But neither of them is prepared to throw Donald Trump out of the Christian pool, and neither am I.

Hold the Sermon on the Mount up to Donald Trump, or to Hillary Clinton for that matter, and I think that what it will show pretty quickly is that they, just like you and me, fall well short of how it is that God intends for any of us to behave as His people. This is, in fact, what I believe one of the real purposes of the Sermon on the Mount is as an expression of God’s “Law.”  It was Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, who said that God only speaks two words to us as human beings – either “Law” or “Gospel.” “Law” is God’s word spoken to us about what it is that He wants us to do. “Gospel” is God’s word spoken to us about what it is that He has already done for us in Jesus Christ.  And while the Sermon on the Mount is not completely devoid of “Gospel” (take another look at the Beatitudes – Matthew 5:3-12), it is nevertheless primarily “Law” in my judgment.  In my next blog I want to explore how the “Threefold Function of the Law” – another useful Reformation idea – helps us to make sense of what it is that we are actually supposed to be doing with the Sermon on the Mount as Christians.

Suffice it for now to say that if it is our personal conformity to what the Sermon on the Mount teaches that makes us Christians, then – “Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3).  By the standard of the Sermon on the Mount, who among us could claim to be a “good” Christian?  This is not just a problem for our two current major political party Presidential candidates, both of whom tell us that they are Christians.   This is a problem for every Christian I know, and for anyone who has ever been a Christian!  “But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared” (Psalm 130:4). And that’s why I Corinthians 11:23-26 and not Matthew 5-6-7 gets read each Sunday morning at the Lord’s Table.

You see, the Lord’s Supper is not a Tribute Dinner at which we are the honorees who are being recognized for our own superior righteousness. No, the Lord’s Supper is where we return each week to be told again and again that it was while we were yet sinners that God demonstrated His great love for us in the death of Christ (Romans 5:8).  So let’s stop with the “my candidate is more Christian than your candidate” rhetoric that fills Facebook and elicits our automatic “like” responses and gleeful forwards, not because of any particularly thoughtful Biblical/theological reflection about what it actually means to be a Christian on our part, but rather because it just suits our already settled partisan preferences better. Go ahead and make the argument for your candidate on the basis on those partisan conclusions if that’s what you want to do.  Just don’t try to turn it into a referendum on the genuineness of the Christianity of any candidate.  Nobody wins when that’s the game that gets played.

unparalelledJared Wilson began his book Unparalleled (Baker – 2016) with a fascinating discussion of what people in his unchurched mission field of Vermont think that the message of Christianity is.  He says that the only answer he ever gets when he asks this question is some variation of the same “be good, do good” theme that gets used online to lambast some Presidential candidates, and to lionize others.  And when he hears somebody saying this, Jared says that he always replies by saying, “What if I told you that the message of Christianity was that none of us is really good deep down, including pastors like me, and that we can never be sure that our good stuff is greater than our bad stuff, but that God loves us anyway?” And then Jared explains, “The essential message of Christianity is not that we should be religious or try to do lots of good works, but rather that God loves us so much that Christ died to forgive us” (16-17).  He says that this usually confuses his unchurched listeners.  It shouldn’t confuse us.  This is, after all, what we’re being told every Sunday morning at the Lord’s Table.  DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

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Faith and Politics, Part 3 – “Can My Vote be Christian?”

 

red

The world in which the New Testament was written was ruled by Rome, and the Roman State was not elected by popular vote every couple of years. Christians weren’t determining who was in political power and the Church wasn’t involved in making policy decisions for the Empire.  Unless a government official converted to Christ, in the days of the New Testament, Christians were largely on the outside of the government looking in.  Recognizing this fact, R. Scott Clark, the Church Historian at Westminster Seminary California, asks –

Where did the apostles commission the visible, institutional church to lobby any government for or about anything?

Where in the New Testament did any of the apostles institute a lobbying arm in Rome or in any regional governmental center (e.g., Ephesus)?

Where in the New Testament does one find a single unequivocal (or even good and necessary inference) of the visible, institutional church speaking to any one of the social ills that plagued the Greco-Roman world?

In the first century a Christian’s relationship with the State consisted of the New Testament’s three-fold instruction to “pray, pay and obey.” Recognizing that the State existed by Divine design (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26; John 18:33-38 19:8-11; Acts 25:10-11; Romans 13:1-7) the writers of the New Testament told Christians to pray for those who were in authority over them (I Timothy 2:1-4), to pay their taxes (Matthew 17:24-27), and insofar as it did not violate their obedience to Christ (Acts 4:19-20; 5:29) to submit to the government’s authority (I Peter 2:13-17).  The Book of Revelation is an important New Testament exploration of what happens when the State becomes demonic.  It has much to say about Christian resistance to the principalities and powers when they have gone astray and it holds out the foundational promise that God in Christ will finally right all wrongs and fully establish His Kingdom.  But you would be hard pressed to find anything in the New Testament about how Christians are supposed to vote because voting wasn’t even an option for Christians when the New Testament was being written. Politics as we understand the term and experience the reality today was simply not part of the frame of reference for those first Christians.  But this is not to say that early Christianity was not political at all.

The values and beliefs of the first Christians had profound social, economic and political implications. The astonishing claim of the Gospel is that God the Son reveals and redeems. Jesus Christ by His life, death, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit and coming again both reconciles us to God and makes God known.  As an expression of this truth, more than once, the New Testament announces that we have “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5; Romans 12:12; Colossians 3:1-4; John 1:18).  In other words, as Christians we actually know something about who God is and what it is that God wants for us and for the whole world.  Life, both abundant and eternal, is God’s plan for us.

In Creation, God put our well-being as human beings, in a web of interconnected relationships with everything and everyone else – “Shalom” – at the very center of His purpose.  In Redemption God did the heavy lifting in Jesus Christ to repair the damage that the rebellion of sin had done to that Divine intention.  And the promise of the Consummation says that the day is coming when God’s will is going to be done on earth as it is right now in heaven.  The Kingdom will come. God’s Shalom will be restored – God’s will done on earth as it is right now in heaven.

The critical question for us to consider in all of this is how will we operate as Christians between this redemption that was inaugurated with the Incarnation and that redemption that will finally and fully accomplished with the Consummation? Knowing, as we do, something of God’s intentions for all of creation, how then shall we live? I really like the way that John Killinger, for so many years the professor of preaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School, put it in his book Bread for the Wilderness; Wine for the Journey (Word).  He said that as a Christian –

You find yourself wanting to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want hungry people to be fed and the infirm to walk.   You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.  You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things.

Alan Kreider in his truly insightful work on “Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom” described how Cyprian the Bishop of Carthage in the middle of the third century described the church of his day as an “enclosed garden” (Solomon 4:12) in which Christian virtues and graces were being cultivated.  Thus formed by this “Jesus-shaped distinctiveness,” those Christians then functioned in the world where they lived and worked “as instruments that God was using to construct a new world.” People learned about that new world not because those Christians were angry combatants in a culture war who went about scolding and condemning those whose beliefs and behaviors ran contrary to their own, but rather because those Christians quietly embodied the Gospel values of compassion and sacrifice in their everyday lives, and the people who saw them do this wanted to know why they were like that?

Bill Baird, one of my New Testament professors in seminary, used to criticize the way that he said he often heard his students use Biblical texts as “springboards to Washington D.C.” as if they were detailed public policy prescriptions intended for immediate political implementation.   Craig Carter, a Canadian theologian, in his really insightful book on how church and culture will need to relate in this “post-Christendom” era, fleshed out what I suspect drove Dr. Baird’s complaint –

What could be more irrelevant than Christian leaders who beg the government to pass laws to … to tax the capitalists in their own flocks and redistribute the money to the poor… when those Christian leaders cannot convince their own flocks to do this things on the basis of the Bible? …No wonder politicians often have so little respect for religious lobbyists.

When the New Testament speaks – especially in the Epistles – it speaks to the believing community, to people who have already surrendered to the Lordship of Christ. The social ethics of the New Testament are the ethics of the church, the ethics of people who are personally committed to the person of Christ and who are being actively shaped by the values of Christ.  And this means that the world is not going to be changed by the church making public pronouncements and issuing resolutions. The world is going to be changed by Christians who are being transformed by the renewal of their minds so that they know the will of God (Romans 12:1) and who are then keeping faith with what they know to be good, and right, and true in their everyday lives and relationships.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called this “the principle of cellular infiltration.”

Just a little salt can affect the great mass. Because of its essential quality it permeates everything… One truly saintly person radiates influence; that person will permeate any group in which he or she happens to be… Though the church makes her great pronouncements on the great social questions of the day, the average unchurched outsider is completely unaffected.  But if the person working beside that unchurched outsider is a true Christian whose life has been saved by Christ and transformed by the Holy Spirit, then everyone around will be directly affected.

From this perspective, the critical assignment given to the church is the cultivation of the Christian conscience – teaching disciples to observe all that Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:20).  At the church I serve we talk about this as our congregational value of having an “Open Bible” – “Exploring Scripture to be formed, informed and transformed.” Just like light in the darkness, salt in the soup and leaven in the loaf, Christians who are being actively formed by the mind of Christ penetrate the social, economic and political systems in which they live so that those social, economic and political systems will begin to better reflect what they know as Christians to be God’s final intention in Christ for justice, righteousness and peace for all of creation.  And in our political system this means voting.

Recently a group of Northway members were in Honduras on a mission trip. This is the 22nd time in the last 18 years that a mission team has travelled from Northway to Central America to work side by side with the people there in a model villages program.  We do this because we have the mind of Christ, and there are few texts in the Scriptures that have had a greater impact on our consciousness and conscience as Christians than has Matthew 25 where Jesus said –

And the righteous will say, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

Reflecting on these Gospel verses led Adolf von Harnack (1851 – 1930), one of the most important German theologians and church historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to conclude that they “have shone so brilliantly for so many generations in Christ’s church and exerted so powerful an influence, that one may describe all Christian preaching as the preaching of love and charity.”  His development of this idea bears repeating –

Among the extant words and parables of Jesus, those which inculcate love and charity are especially numerous, and with them we must rank many a story of his life. Yet, apart altogether from the number of such sayings, it is plain that whenever he had in view the relations of mankind, the gist of his preaching was to enforce brotherliness and ministering love, and the surest part of the impression he left behind him was that in his own life and labors he displayed both of these very qualities. …[And] while Jesus himself was exhibiting this kind of love, and making it a life and a power, his disciples were learning the highest and holiest thing that can be learned in all religion, namely, to believe in the love of God. To them the Being who had made heaven and earth was “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.” … But this was more than just words, it was a thing of power and action. The Christians really considered themselves [to be] brothers and sisters, and their actions corresponded to this belief. … The gospel thus became a social message. The preaching which laid hold of the outer man, detaching him from the world, and uniting him to his God, was also a preaching of solidarity and brotherliness. …[And] thus had this saying became a fact: “Hereby shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

This is what compelled the Northway members to go to Honduras, and now that they are back home, this is what will inform what they do next. You see, in just a matter of weeks now there will be a Presidential primary in Texas, and all of those people from Northway who went to Honduras because of the mind of Christ will be asked to make a political choice between candidates who are talking an awful lot about refugees and immigration, and the mind of Christ will inform the choice that they will make then as well.  Those Northway members are going to connect the dots between their faith commitments and values, their relationships with the very people who so often find it necessary to flee the violence and poverty of their homeland to find safety and opportunity in another, and what the politicians are saying.

This is how Christian service that the New Testament explicitly commands of Christians and the church becomes a movement of justice in society at large. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action described this dynamic memorably in his “Parable of the Ambulance Drivers and the Tunnel Builders.”

A group of devout Christians once lived in a small village at the foot of a mountain. A winding, slippery road with hairpin curves and steep precipices without guard rails wound its way up one side of the mountain and down the other. There were frequent fatal accidents. Deeply saddened by the injured people who were pulled from the wrecked cars, the Christians in the village’s three churches decided to act. They pooled their resources and purchased an ambulance. Over the years, they saved many lives although some victims remained crippled for life. Then one day a visitor came to town, puzzled, he asked why they did not close the road over the mountain and build a tunnel instead.

Those Northway members went to Honduras to be “ambulance drivers.” They did this because they are Christians whose Lord and Savior told us that His disciples are people who welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry as an expression of their obedience and devotion to Him (Matthew 25:13-18).  And ambulance drivers who bind up the wounds of humanity from the wreckage of life look for the tunnel builders who are committed to refashioning the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. Ambulance drivers partnering with tunnel builders, that’s how a vote becomes Christian.  DBS+

 

 

 

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Faith and Politics, Part 2 – “Changed Hearts… Changed World”

congress

I actually toyed with the idea of going into politics for a while back when I was in high school. I needed something to do in the summer of 1968 and so my dad dropped me off at the precinct headquarters of the political party that he supported one day on his way to work, and then every day on his way to work thereafter for the rest of the summer. All that summer and well into the fall I stuffed envelopes, made phone calls, canvassed neighborhoods, attended precinct meetings, worked rallies, put up yard signs, met candidates, got invited to Sacramento to meet the Governor, got elected to the leadership team for the youth chapter of that political party in my region of Southern California and was eventually named the first runner-up in the contest for the junior member of that political party for all of Los Angeles County in 1970. I’ve still got the plaque. I enjoyed every minute of it, and that got me to thinking.

What if I went to the California State College in Sacramento, studied Political Science, and parlayed my political contacts there to get a job at the Capitol? What if some State representative or senator would “mentor” me? Maybe I could become somebody’s “protégé,” serve as part of his team and go where it took him. If I could just get in on the ground floor of some local politician on the rise, I calculated, it could open some important and strategic political doors for me later in life. And so I applied, got accepted at Sacramento State, and started making plans to go. I know this is what my folks, and especially my dad, expected me to do.

But in the fall of 1971 where I wound up instead was at a small Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. There I started studying the Bible for the first time in my life in a serious and sustained sort of way, and I began to prepare myself for a life of Christian ministry. And while there were lots and lots of reasons why this worked out the way that it did, right near the top of the reasons why was a book that I read that was written by Sherwood Wirt, then the editor of Billy Graham’s magazine  Decision, right at that time when I was making the crucial choices about college and vocation.

bookThat book was called The Social Conscience of the Evangelical (Harper & Row – 1968), and my tattered, coverless, dog-eared, highlighted and heavily underlined copy still sits on my shelf. Sherwood Wirt’s book was a call for Bible-believing Christians like myself to get more actively involved in answering the great social questions of those days – the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, the War in Vietnam, the Sexual Revolution, the Counter-Cultural Movement. His book was a sustained argument for faithful Christian involvement in the world and not for a retreat from the world.

Now, you might think that this argument would have been one designed to tip the balance and send me straight down the Sacramento State/Political Science trajectory that was wide open to me as a high school senior. But it didn’t, and the reason why was the last chapter in Sherwood Wirt’s book, a chapter he called “The Horse and the Cart.”

This chapter opened with a quote from Edward Beecher (1803 – 1895), the noted theologian who was a son of the preacher Lyman Beecher and a brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. “Great changes do not begin on the surface of society,” he observed, “but in prepared hearts, in people who by their communion with God …give life to the community and tone to the public mind.” With this as his springboard into the question of how real change is effected in the world, Sherwood Wirt mapped out an approach to social transformation that I found persuasive way back then in 1968, and that I still do now almost 50 years later. Sherwood Wirt wrote –

The greatest fact about man is that God loves him in Jesus Christ. When a convert has “put on the new man” in Christ he starts putting legs under the compassion that God has sensitized. All the potential given to the original Adam, and lost, is now his again, because he is living in obedience as God intended him to live – not for himself but for his fellow. He looks at his fellow man in his magnificent misery through the eyes of Christ. He seeks to apply the redeeming Spirit of Christ to the hidden springs of man’s behavior, to the seat of motivation and activation that is known in God’s Word as the “heart.” (149)

What Sherwood Wirt meant by this was that he believed that the best way to change the world was by changing the hearts of women and men with the Gospel. He argued that when people become new creations by faith in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17), that their new life would then get channeled “into avenues of service which are fruitful for Christ and beneficial for all of humanity” (151). The theologian Carl F.H. Henry in his book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans – 1964) called this “the spiritual dynamic for social change” (24), and he argued that “personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in Christianity’s hope for the renewal of the social order” (25).

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (Greek: “power”) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. (25)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and an indignation at injustice… Evangelicalism, which saw in the death of Christ the means of free salvation for fallen humanity, caused its adherents to take the front rank as champions of the weak… Prison reform, the prohibition of the slave trade, the abolition of slavery, the Factory acts, the protection of children, the crusade against cruelty to animals, are all the outcome of the great Evangelical revival of the 18th century. (29)

Christianity knows – and it dare not forget nor let the world forget – that what the social order needs most is a new race of men – men equipped not simply with new textbooks (education) and new laws (legislation), but with new hearts (regeneration). (30)

I believe this. However, I’ve also been around the world and the church long enough now to know that conversion to Christ without subsequent formation in Christ, what we used to call “discipleship” back in the day, is just as inadequate a basis for real social transformation as is any attempt to change the world without a real concern for changing hearts by the power of the Gospel. In 1966 Dr. Horace L. Fenton, Jr. speaking at Wheaton College’s “Congress on the Church’s Worldwide Mission” said –

It is all too possible for an individual believer to fail to see the connection between his love for God and his responsibility to his fellow men, unless it is pointed out to him – not just once, but many times.

This is the “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” component of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:20). Before Christians can penetrate social, economic and political systems like light in the darkness, salt in the soup, and leaven in the loaf with the Gospel’s concern for justice, righteousness, reconciliation and peace, those Christians must first have their own vision and values deeply informed, formed and transformed by the Gospel. It must penetrate them. As A.W. Tozer used to say – “Our Lord wants us to learn more of Him before we become busy for Him.” He explained –

The task of the church is twofold: to spread Christianity throughout the world and to make sure that the Christianity she spreads is the pure New Testament kind…. Christianity will always reproduce itself after its kind. A worldly-minded, unspiritual church, when she crosses the ocean to give her witness to peoples of other tongues and other cultures, is sure to bring forth on other shores a Christianity much like her own…. The popular notion that the first obligation of the church is to spread the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth is false. Her first obligation is to be spiritually worthy to spread it. Our Lord said “Go ye,” but He also said, “Tarry ye,” and the tarrying had to come before the going. Had the disciples gone forth as missionaries before the day of Pentecost it would have been an overwhelming spiritual disaster, for they could have done no more than make converts after their likeness, and this would have altered for the worse the whole history of the Western world and had consequences throughout the ages to come. (Of God and Men, 35-37).

Before Christians can have a “significant Christian influence” in the world, they must first be “significantly influenced” by Christianity themselves. Donald Whitney illustrates the principle quite memorably –

teaYour mind is like a cup of hot water. A tea bag is like Scripture. Hearing God’s Word read in church on a Sunday morning is like one dip of that tea bag into the cup. Some of the tea’s flavor is absorbed by the water, but not as much as would occur with a more thorough soaking of the bag. Reading, studying, and memorizing God’s Word are like additional plunges of the tea bag into the cup. The more frequently the tea enters the water, the more permeating its effect.

Next week in the third and final installment in my pre-Iowa Caucus series on “Faith and Politics,” I want to explore how someone who has been “significantly influenced” by Christianity might think and act politically. When tea has fully seeped in a cup of hot water, how should it taste? DBS+

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Next Week: “Faith and Politics – Part 3” – “Can my Vote be Christian?”

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I Can Only Tell You What I Believe…

I voted in my first Presidential election in 1972.  I have voted in every Presidential election since.  My first two votes could very well have cured me of the habit.  But by the time I got to the election of 1980 what I had gotten cured of was my naiveté, any lingering messianic expectations when I entered the polling booth.  The elections of 1972 and 1976, and their aftermaths, helped me to see that no matter who I voted for, who actually got elected, and what happened next, that while “Some trust in chariots, others in horses,” that I should “trust the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7).  This is not to say that we shouldn’t vote, and vote wisely, even hopefully.  But it is to say that even as we do, we should never confuse what we are doing with what God is doing, or think that when we mess things up that we’re forever doomed.  As the Reformer Martin Luther liked to say: “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”  And so, even as we vote every four years for our favorite horse and chariot, we should never lose sight of who really deserves, even demands our trust.

This is why every day-after-election now for thirty years I have dug out this old quote from the radical priest Daniel Berrigan and kept it close by for a day or two.  It has consoled me when my candidate has lost the chariot race, and even more so when my candidate has won.

I can only tell you what I believe.
I believe I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I believe I cannot be saved by sexual revolutions.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,                                                                
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
Nor by the Vatican,
Nor by the World Buddhist Association,
Nor by Hitler,
Nor by Joan of Arc,
Nor by angels and archangels,
Nor by powers and dominations.
I can only be saved by Jesus Christ.

Now that the election is over, our obligation, regardless of who you voted for, is to pray for those who are in authority over us.  Our willingness or reluctance to do this, it seems to me, is the clearest evidence there is of whether we have put our trust in horses and chariots, or in the Lord.  DBS+

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