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


Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Gun Violence & “Painless Piety”

gunOn Facebook, since the shooting on Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs just outside of San Antonio, I have read appeals for prayer posted by some of my friends, and appeals for action posted by other friends. I know and care for many of these people who are posting – both the pray-ers and the doers, and I know, because I know them, that these are predictable and authentic responses from them. There is nothing new in this.

What is new this time – and isn’t it a deeply troublesome thing to even have to say “this time”? – is that some of those who are calling for action are actually shaming the moral seriousness of those who are calling for prayer, and some of those who are calling for prayer are questioning the spiritual sincerity of those who are calling for action. This is such an unseemly and unnecessary fight.

The New Testament book of James that puts such a high spiritual premium on prayer and its efficacy (1:5-8; 4:3; 5:13-18) is the same New Testament book that explicitly rejects “painless piety.” In his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens introduced a memorable character named Mr. Pecksniff.  He is the epitome of what’s been called “painless piety,” the kind of prayer that asks God to do something that will cost the one who is doing the  praying nothing at all (Carroll Simcox – Prayer: The Divine Dialogue – IVP – 1985 – p. Prayer : The Divine Dialog 35).  For example, Mr. Pecksniff was real good about offering a prayer before he sat down to eat that remembered the needs of all the hungry people in the world, but it was very clear from his actions that Mr. Pecksniff believed that it was God’s responsibility and not his to do something about actually feeding them (Carroll Simcox 36). This is what the book of James rejects –

14 My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? 15 Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. 16 What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? 17 So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead. (James 2)

Two years ago, after the shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded, I wrote a blog I called “Why I Pray.”  It was an attempt to speak to the moment then, and I believe that it still speaks to the moment now, in fact, with the public carping between pray-ers and doers that has erupted online, it may speak an even more direct word to the moment that we presently find ourselves in.  Prayer is neither an evasion of responsibility, nor an excuse for inaction. And our actions are neither a denial of God’s concern or involvement, nor an adequate response all by themselves. DBS +


“Why I Pray”

By the time that Jesus was born, some Jews had already left Jerusalem, moved to the very edge of the desert to pray and wait for God’s Kingdom to break in on them from the outside.  Other Jews had taken up arms.  “Terrorists” is how we would describe them today, or “freedom fighters,” depending on your perspective I suppose.  Anyway, other Jews carried small curved knives and used them to assassinate their oppressors, Romans and Roman sympathizers like tax collectors, every chance they got.  They were going to usher in God’s Kingdom by their own efforts and in their own strength.  And somewhere on the line between these two poles on the continuum of response everyone else fell.  Religious folk still do today.

In 1968 Robert Raines’ Voight Lectures were published under the title The Secular Congregation (Harper & Row).  What he said has become an important part of the architecture of my heart and mind.  Reflecting on social events of his day like the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Johnson/Goldwater Presidential race, Dr. Raines noted the two Christian responses that he observed, what he called the “Pietist” response and the “Secularist” response.

By “Pietist” he meant “church-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the church, its Word and sacraments and communal life,” and who see the priority as being a matter of “loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength.”   It was Jewish “Pietists” who went to the desert to wait and pray for the Kingdom to come in Jesus’ day.

By “secularist” he meant “world-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the world, its words, events and communal life of the Nation, and nations,” and who regard the priority to be a matter of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  It was Jewish “Secularists” who armed themselves with knives and went hunting for Romans to bring the Kingdom in Jesus’ day.

A Pietist’s first instinct is to pray.  A Secularist’s first instinct is to sign a petition, to organize a protest rally and/or to write a congressperson.   And Dr. Raines’ contention was not that one of these “types” was “good” and that the other one was “bad,” but rather that they really need each other in order for us to be fully Christian.  He believed that the critical challenge of the church in that day – in the 1960’s – was “to keep the Pietist and the Secularist within hearing distance of each other and to reconcile them.”  Our challenge is no different today.

Since the atrocity that unfolded in San Bernardino on Wednesday, I have read the responses of friends, associates and strangers in their blogs and on their Facebook postings, and what’s being said galvanizes around these same two poles.  There are Pietists, and there are Secularists.  Some want to pray and others want to legislate.  Some turn to God for answers, and others to Washington D.C.  Some believe that God alone is going to have to fix this, and others – as the Daily News’ provocative headline on Thursday put it – believe that this is all on us.

Leon Uris wrote about this same divide in his novel Mila 18 (1961), a story about the Jewish resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto during WW 2.   Some of the people there believed that they should pray and wait for God to deliver them while others argued that it was time to do something to resist the evil that was threatening them.  And I remember, when I read this book as a teenager, wondering about which argument I would have made, which side I would have taken?  Even then I sensed the nobility and courage of each position.

I believe in God. I really think that God breaks into human history to reveal and redeem.  And I don’t take lightly God’s promises that the Kingdom will finally and fully come in His time and by His singular action.  When I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my first “take” on this petition is always eschatological, that is, I pray it as an acknowledgement of our own limitations as human beings to either completely or permanently “fix” anything, and as a desperate appeal for God’s climactic saving action to occur – for God’s Kingdom to break in upon us in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  In days like these I pray for God’s help and deliverance because I am a Pietist.

But I also believe that we as human beings who bear the image of God are charged with the responsibility of working and keeping creation (Genesis 2:15).  With Paul I readily affirm that we are God’s “fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:9).  I don’t take lightly what the Bible says about justice, righteousness, peace or compassion, and the part that we have to play in their establishment and preservation as human beings.  And so when I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my second take on this petition in thoroughly ethical, that is, I pray it as a recognition of my responsibility as someone who has access to the mind of God through Jesus Christ preserved for us in the Biblical record to do what I can to try to refashion the world in such a way that it better reflects the coming Kingdom of God’s eternal will here and now.  And so, in days like these I pray for God’s wisdom and resolve to do something because I am a Secularist.

Robert Raines in his Voight Lectures in 1968 argued that the only fully Christian position was the one that was simultaneously “Pietist” and “Secularist,” one that was equally adept on its knees in prayer as it was with its sleeves rolled on the frontlines of action and service.  And this is the ground that I have conscientiously tried to occupy in my life and ministry.  Just like the opposites on the continuum of personality traits on the Myers-Briggs test, I will admit to being more comfortable on one end of this spectrum than I am on the other.  I am a hardwired Pietist.  My first instinct is always to pray and engage Scripture.  But when I do, I find that my “shadow” Secularist is always activated.  When I close my Bible and get up off of my knees, it is always to step into the world where I know that I am called to cooperate with what it is that God is doing in anticipation of where it is that God is ultimately moving all of creation.

With the Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly (1893 -1941) I consistently experience the Christian life as a double movement: first, as God pulling me out of the world and into His heart where He names me as His own and lavishes on me His love (the way of the “Pietist”), and second, as God hurling me out of His heart and back into the world where He is asking me to help Him carry its hurts and hopes with Him in infinitely tender love (the way of the “Secularist”). And maybe it’s because I am more naturally a Pietist than I am a Secularist, someone who has to be more intentional and deliberate about the second movement of the Christian life as Thomas Kelly described it than I have to be about the first, that I find myself so impatient with my fellow Christians who try to reduce Christianity to just one of these two movements, either the Pietist or the Secularist.  If I have to work on it – and I do – then I think that they should have to work on it too.

When Francis Schaeffer, one of my theological muses, wrestled with all of this – with what is God’s part in bringing about the healing of the world that talk of the Kingdom of God signifies, and what is our part as human beings – he coined the memorable phrase “substantial healing” in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale – 1970) to describe his expectations. After exploring the full extent of the Fall in the brokenness of creation theologically (God and humanity separated from one another), psychologically (human beings separated from their own true selves), sociologically (human beings separated from one another) and ecologically (human beings separated from nature), and naming the coming of the Kingdom as the final healing of all of these breaches, Francis Schaeffer probed the question, that in a week like this one that we’ve just come through with all of its terror, violence and loss, gets posed so urgently, namely: What am I supposed to do?  How am I supposed to respond?  Should I be praying for God to sovereignly act, or should I be getting busy doing something, anything to get things moving in a Kingdom direction right now?  Am I supposed to be fixing this on my own, or am I supposed to be waiting and watching for God to fix this for us?  Here’s how Francis Schaeffer answered –

So there are these multiple divisions (theological, psychological, social and ecological), and one day, when Christ comes back (eschatologically), there is going to be a complete healing of all of them…  But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace… substantial healing can be a reality here and now… I took a long time to settle on that word “substantially,” but it is, I think, the right word.  It conveys the idea of a healing that is not yet perfect, but that is real, evident and substantial.   Because of past history and future history, we are called to live this way now by faith. (67-68)

In the face of history, in the light of faith, should we be taking the Pietist’s option, or the Secularist’s?  Yes!  The faithful answer is yes.  DBS+


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The Good Confession and the Las Vegas Concert Shooting

The Good Confession and the Las Vegas Concert Shooting
“I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God…”


 If Christian faith doesn’t have something more than confusion, anguish, or anger to say on a day like this one when more than 50 people are dead, and more than 400 people are being treated for their injuries from the biggest mass casualty shooting in modern American history, then maybe it’s time for a different kind of faith.

William James (1842 – 1910), the American philosopher and psychologist, in The Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902) observed that there are two broad categories of religion that are available to us as human beings, what he called “the religion of the healthy-minded” and that he described as the religion of people with “sky-blue souls whose affinities are with flowers, and birds, and enchanting innocencies,” and “a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering,” and what he called “the religion of the sick soul” and that he described as having a deep awareness of “the darker aspects of the universe,” a real “consciousness” of one’s own sin, and a recognition that there is a profound “sadness” at the heart of the human condition. Professor James left no doubt as to which of these two religions he’d personally embraced himself –

…Systematic healthy-mindedness, failing as it does to accord to sorrow, pain, and death any positive and active attention whatever, is formally less complete than systems that try at least to include these elements in their scope. The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed.  Buddhism, of course, and Christianity are the best known to us of these.  They are essentially religions of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life.

Our “Good Confession” as Disciples that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God” is an affirmation of the way that we believe that God in Jesus Christ is providing our “deliverance.”  When bad things happen, be they mass shootings in Las Vegas or devastating storms in the Caribbean and along the Gulf Coast, it’s what the “living” God – that is, a God who is present and active – is doing in Jesus as the Christ that is God’s personal and powerful response to human suffering.  When we say that Jesus is the Christ what we are saying that He is God’s answer to life’s most urgent questions, and the solution to the most painful situations that we will face.

Alexander Campbell, following his, and our, Reformed theological heritage, employed something known as the “munus triplex” – Christ’s threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King – when thinking and talking about the things that God has done for us in Jesus.

It was for us he became a Prophet, for us he became a Priest, for us he has been made Lord of hosts, King of the universe, Judge, and avenger of all. [Alexander Campbell – The Christian System – “The Lordship of the Messiah”].

This model is based on the Old Testament descriptions of who it was that got anointed to function as God’s special representatives for God’s first covenant people – prophets, priests, and kings. “Christ” is the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Messiah” which means the “anointed one.” Because prophets, priests, and kings all got anointed in the Old Testament, the Old Testament’s promise of the coming “Messiah,” or “Anointed One,” was understood to mean that He was coming to do the work of a prophet, and a priest, and a king.

The “munus triplex” says that God’s work of deliverance in Jesus the Christ moves through these three channels – He does the work of a priest for us, He does the work of a prophet for us, and He does the work of a king for us.  And today, in the aftermath of what happened on the Las Vegas strip last night, as people who say that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, our response needs to correspond to what it is that we say that we believe God in Christ is actually doing to deliver us.

Because Jesus as the Christ does the work of a Priest to deliver us – our response to the suffering of this day must be pastoral.  The comfort that the Gospel offers people today is that God “gets” the pain of this moment because in Jesus Christ He has been here and gone through it Himself. “Jesus wept” is what John 11:35 tells us.  And more than just the answer to a familiar Bible riddle, these two words assure us today that we don’t have a God who is absent from our tragedies, or who is unaware of or unconcerned about the anguish that they cause in us.  Hebrews 4:15-16 is where my faith instinctively turns on morning’s after evenings like the one we’ve just had –

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

And don’t fail to constantly keep in mind and heart where God’s identification with us in Jesus Christ wound up — on the cross –

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.  For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.  Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  For because he himself has suffered when tested, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

Being able to comfort ourselves and others with the Priestly presence work of Jesus as the Christ is part of what the Gospel enables us to do. The Gospel’s answer to human loss and suffering is Emmanuel – that “God is with us.” The Gospel’s assurance in the face of the evil of this day is that it can’t separate us from the love of God. The Gospel’s provision for us in the face of the world’s and our own brokenness is reconciliation and peace with God.  And the Gospel’s final solution to problem of death is the gift of eternal life.

Because Jesus as the Christ does the work of a Prophet to deliver us – our response to the suffering of this day must be prophetic.  We have the mind of Christ. Because of Jesus Christ we already know what it is that God wants for us and for all of creation, and we know that history is moving inexorably in that direction, the direction of shalom – harmony and perfect peace – everything and everyone fit together like the pieces of an intricate puzzle of a picture of personal well-being and cosmic thriving.  When the Kingdom finally comes in Revelation 21 and we are told that in that day tears will be wiped away from our eyes and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be any mourning, nor weeping, nor suffering, we are not being given permission to just sit around waiting for it to arrive like a bus at a stop or a train at a station, but rather, we are being commissioned to be harbingers of that future.  This morning this means doing more as a people to figure out what it means when God tells us that “Thou shalt not commit murder.” Lewis Smedes, one of the people who taught me ethics, said that this Divine command creates a clear predisposition for life within God’s covenant people.  Every conversation and consideration for us as Christians begins with us already knowing that life is God’s preferred option in each and every situation, and that this preference must inform all of our subsequent choices.  God didn’t want Stephen Paddock pulling that trigger.  God didn’t want all those people to die, or to suffer injury.  And God doesn’t want this world of terror and violence.  Being “prophetic” means saying these things loudly and clearly to ourselves, and to the world around us.  And then it means fostering the crucial conversations that lead to decisions about the public policies that best embody what it is that we already know as Christians that God wants.  I don’t know what the political solution to this current epidemic of violence in American society is, but I do know as a Christian that God is for life, and that God expects us to advocate for ways that promote and preserve life in a society that is becoming increasingly violent. The Prophetic work of Jesus as the Christ calls us to be prophetic as His disciples about the things He has shown us and told us are God’s will for us and for all of creation.

And because Jesus as the Christ does the work of a King to deliver us – our response to the suffering of this day must be to point to that Kingdom that is coming. Biblically, I see no solution to the world’s troubles apart from the promised return of Jesus Christ to finish the work of redemption and reconciliation that He began in the manger, on the cross, and out of the garden tomb.   To live in hope as a Christian is to live with the assurance of Philippians 1:6 that the good work that God has begun in us and in the world will be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  In the Didache, an important second century manual of church practice, the exclamation of the Aramaic word “Maranatha” – loosely translated: “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” – appears to have been the final prayer of the church in the communion service.  Vernard Eller, the late Church of the Brethren scholar, suggested that “Maranatha” provides us with our most comprehensive understanding of what’s actually happening at the Lord’s Table.  He said that it means “Our Lord has come — He has already been here and shared our life,” and that it means “Lord, come right now — come to this place, in this moment, to be with us in the present journey of our lives,” and that it means “O Lord come again — return to us in the near future in final victory to establish your kingdom where there will be no more suffering or sadness, no more sickness or death.”  And that makes “Maranatha” as comprehensive a prayer as we can possibly pray as Christians.  When we pray “Maranatha” we are consciously remembering what Christ has already done.  And when we pray “Maranatha” we are consciously reminding ourselves of what it is that Christ is still doing right now. And when pray “Maranatha” we are consciously rooting ourselves in the Gospel’s promises of what Christ is going to do when His Kingdom finally and fully comes.  “Maranatha” is a comprehensive affirmation of, and petition for the deliverance of God in the kingly work of Jesus Christ.   When the world breaks our hearts as it does today, it is a “Maranatha” moment.  It is time for us to remember that Christ has come, that Christ is here, and that Christ will come again.  The death and violence of this day will not have the final word. “Maranatha” — “Come quickly Lord Jesus.” DBS +


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“Sticks and Stones… and the Words that Hurt…”

We are studying Ephesians on Sunday evenings at church. This time through Ephesians I have been waylaid by what Paul said about the things that “grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30).

 Oh, I know… I know… there is a substantial argument between scholarship and tradition about this claim of Paul’s authorship of Ephesians. I am more than familiar with its sound and fury. What I’ve personally concluded is that regardless of where you happen to come down on the actual question, Ephesians still internally claims to have been written by Paul (1:1), and Ephesians is still in the canon of the New Testament, meaning that it is still part of the critical grist for the mill of our faith and faithfulness.  So, I’m perfectly willing to give Paul credit for it, if for no other reason than to establish its apostolic credibility, thereby reaffirming the necessity of our having to deal with it as part of “the deposit of faith” (2 Timothy 1:14).

So, doing that, taking Ephesians seriously, let’s take just a moment and ponder the rather startling fact that we can actually “grieve” the Holy Spirit!  Do you mean that we can make God sad?  Do you mean that we can hurt God’s feelings? Do you mean that by our choices we can cause God to weep (Luke 19:41-44)?  What extraordinary vulnerability on God’s part, and what an astonishing power for us to possess as human beings!  God cares so much about the choices we make that when we disregard God’s standards for what’s right, and good, and holy, and just, God actually gets offended — or is it “wounded.” Whenever I read about the “wrath” of God in Scripture – and it’s in the Bible a whole lot more than most of us are prepared to admit – it’s this deep sense of divine disappointment in the choices that we are making that informs my understanding of the concept.  The way I see it, the wrath of God is as much about the ways that we make God sad as it is about the ways that we make God mad.  We can grieve the Holy Spirit.

Just a little bit later in Ephesians, Paul told his readers to keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit (5:18), and when you put these two Holy Spirit mandates from Ephesians together – the negative “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30) with the positive “Keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit” (5:18) – the instrumentality of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in believers for the living of the Christian life begins to loom rather large in the critical conversation about what it means for us to be faithful Christians. In seminary one of my teachers talked often about the centrality of the Holy Spirit in New Testament ethics. “The Holy Spirit inwardly guides the behavior of believers,” he explained. “Christians should expect the Holy Spirit to show them what the right thing to do is in each circumstance and situation.” I understand this not in the sense that the Holy Spirit comes up with what is the good and right thing to do in each moment right there on the spot – a kind of ever-shifting situational ethic.  No, I believe that God has already shown us in the Law and the Prophets what is holy, just, right, and good (Romans 7:12; Matthew 22:34-40; Micah 6:8).  And so I find that how the Holy Spirit helps me in the moment is in the application of the letter of the content of the Law and the Prophets to the immediate context of the particular circumstances and situations of my life.  And in this internal Holy Spirit process that’s constantly going on inside me, I think that it’s my capacity to “yield” (Romans 6:12-19) that determines whether I wind up grieving the Holy Spirit, or being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Life is filled with very real choices. Christians who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ have made a commitment to process these choices with conscious and continuous reference to who it is that we know Him to be, and to what it is that we know Him to want of us, and from us.  This “knowing” of Christ and His purposes depends almost entirely on the Word and the Spirit.  The Word of Scripture is the trustworthy record of God’s self-disclosure in history – the how, and the when, and the where, and the what of God’s speaking and showing of Himself, first to Israel, and then in and through the life of the Apostolic church.  And the Spirit of God at work in the human heart is how these ancient stories and distant teachings get applied to our lives and circumstances today.

I experience God’s moral and spiritual demands as conscious choices, informed by Word and Spirit, to be made in each moment of my life. I can “yield” to what it is that I understand to be the “mind of Christ” in the choice that is to be made, or I can “yield” to the other pressures and influences in my life.  This is the whole frame of New Testament ethics.  It’s Adam or Christ, the old humanity or the new creation, the flesh or the Spirit in every single moral and spiritual choice that we must make as Christians, and the Spirit is the resource that we have been given to assist us in knowing and then doing the right, the just, the good, the “holy” thing in each and every situation.

Now, back to Ephesians and grieving the Holy Spirit…

When we “resist the Spirit” (Genesis 6:3; Acts 7:51) by refusing to yield to God’s wisdom in the moment of a decision (Acts 6:9-10), one of the results of that rebellion is that we wind up grieving the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 63:10).  And in Ephesians, in a place where Paul unpacked this idea with some specificity (4:17-5:20), it is simply startling to see how it is our speech – the things that we say – that so frequently grieves the Holy Spirit.

“…putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors…” (4:25)

 “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,
as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (4:29)

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling
and slander
, together with all malice…” (4:31)

“Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk;
but instead, let there be thanksgiving.” (5:4)

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things
the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” (5:6)

Empty words… coarse talk… evil speech… angry outbursts… wrangling… slandering… false witness… In the moral instruction of Ephesians (4:17-5:20) Paul brought into particular focus how the things that we say are some of the more specific and most consistent ways that we cause the Holy Spirit grief, and this hit me with particular force while teaching Ephesians this time round. Because we always read the Bible in one hand while holding the newspaper in the other, I’m not really surprised that our sins of speech as a primary source of the Holy Spirit’s grief is something to which I would be particularly sensitive.

Just like you, I am terribly bothered by the tone of public discourse in our culture these days. And while it would be very easy for us to point an accusing finger exclusively in one direction or another as the singular source of the precipitous decline of civility in our culture, the fact of the matter is that a lack of respect seems to pervade our social discourse at every level and across all platforms. It’s not just that we disagree, it’s that we feel like we have to demean. It’s not that we feel the need to publicly take principled stands, it’s that we think that we have to mock those who have taken the opposite principled public stand. It’s not that we have our own settled convictions, it’s that we’ve become smug. We don’t want the open exchange of ideas, we want to shut the other side up. We’re outraged when somebody says something cruel about us or crass about what we think, but that certainly doesn’t stop us from hitting back just as hard with crass comments of our own about what they think and cruel words about who they are. It’s not that we’re passionate, it’s that we’re mean. I rarely come away from the point/counter-point postings of Facebook, or from watching the partisan propaganda of the cable news networks without feeling a deep sense of sorrow about the tone and content of how we are choosing to address one another across the cultural, racial, theological, political, social, and sexual divides that are ever widening at our feet. And if this grieves me, then what do you suppose it is doing to the Spirit of the living God?

It was the late George Mallone who said that while becoming a Christian is something that happens in an instant, with the initial decision of faith, that being a Christian is a long and hard process that unfolds only slowly over a long period of time. He quoted Chuck Swindoll’s observation that the renewal of a life is much like the remodeling of a home. It’s a project that always going to “take longer than you planned, cost more than you figured, that’s going to be messier than you anticipated, and that will require even greater determination than you ever expected.” The general contractor for this transforming work that’s going on inside of us as Christians is the Holy Spirit, and this is why the things that we say have such an effect on the Spirit. Jesus said –

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)

When our speech does not reflect the values of the Gospel or the vision of the kind of people that we are becoming in Christ, then the quality and extent of the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts immediately becomes suspect. Our words grieve the Holy Spirit when they reveal hearts that are resistant to the change that the Holy Spirit is trying to engineer in them. So, listen carefully to what you are saying this week. If you hear Christ in your words, then that’s pretty good evidence of the work of God’s Spirit in you. But if what you hear when you speak is the sigh or sob of the Spirit instead, then that’s pretty good evidence that you are resisting the work of the Spirit in your heart, and that it’s breaking His. DBS +

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“The Whole Counsel of God”

Cultivating and Celebrating a Faith
that is as Big as the Bible


 “Why would you want a smaller Bible?”

“In the Old Testament Jesus is predicted,
in the Gospels Jesus is revealed,
in the book of Acts Jesus is proclaimed,
in the Epistles Jesus is explained
and in the book of Revelation Jesus is anticipated.”   

Our tendency is to think that the person and work of Jesus Christ is confined to just the 33 years of His life on earth to which the New Testament’s four Gospels bear witness.  The way we think and act, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the Bible’s “Jesusy” books.  We think that they alone are where we are going to find Him in the Bible.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are where we go to hear Jesus speaking and to see Jesus acting.  But because the Gospels are about who Jesus was and what Jesus did in the past, the way we tend to approach them is as past history.

We think of Jesus in the same way that we think of Abraham Lincoln.  He lived. He mattered. But now he’s gone.  Oh, we still feel his influence.  We continue to be inspired by his example and we’re certainly grateful for his contributions, but now he’s just a dead, distant memory.  Our only access to Abraham Lincoln is through the historical records that we have that tell us something about what he said and did when he was here.  Knowing Lincoln is a matter of historical research.  But knowing Jesus it’s different.

“Dead as dead can be” on Good Friday afternoon, Jesus was “alive again and alive forever” come Easter Sunday morning.  That’s what the Gospel story tells us, and even this is not where the Gospel story about Jesus ends.  The way that many of us approach the Gospel story, Jesus gets up on Easter Sunday morning, but He’s got nowhere to go and nothing to do.   But the way the New Testament tells the Gospel story, the resurrection of Christ is just the prelude to His Ascension which in turn is the trigger for Pentecost and the outpouring of the empowering presence of God through the Holy Spirit who has been given to the church for mission and assurance. The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost are the three foundations to the church’s experience of the continuing presence and activity of Jesus Christ.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us about the 33 years of Jesus Christ’s ministry on earth.  But the book of Acts and the New Testament’s Epistles are the opening chapters on the Risen Christ’s continuing ministry in heaven that has now been underway for 2000 years.  And what this means is that the book of Acts and the Epistles are just as “Jesusy” as are the Gospels.  He was just as present and He was just as involved with the things that we find in the book of Acts and the Epistles as the Risen Glorious Lord in heaven as He was during the days of His earthly life as the historical Jesus.   We see Jesus and we hear Jesus everywhere in the Bible, and not just in the Gospels.  This is where I think “Red Letter” Christians get it wrong.

 “Red Letter” Christians are those Christians in the church today who, understandably weary of the disproportionate attention that has been paid to the book of Acts and to the Epistles of the New Testament by much of the church for so long, have consciously turned their attention back to the neglected Gospels, back to the “Red Letters” of Jesus’ teachings.  But rather than restoring a lost Biblical balance, the unintended consequence of this “Red Letter” initiative for many has been to now do to the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament what had previously been done to the Gospels. “Red Letter” Christians objected to the way that the Gospels had been marginalized in the preaching, teaching, and believing of some Christians and some segments of the church, and rightly so. But in their attempt to address this problem, many “Red Letter” Christians have now, in turn, marginalized the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament.

Whenever and however a pecking order for the authority of the books of the Bible gets created that excuses us from having to pay attention to their witness to the speaking and acting of God reduces the Bible by labeling some books as being “secondary” and “unnecessary.”  But we don’t need a smaller Bible, we need a fuller Bible.  We don’t want fewer colors in our crayon box to work with, we need more!  Any approach to the Bible that tries to convince us that there are parts of it that we don’t really have to deal with is going to finally restrict our knowledge of God and leave gaps in our spiritual experience because too much of the Bible has been pushed to the margins and left out of the conversation of faith.

What we need is a Bible that’s just as big as the canon of Scripture that has been placed in our hands.  What we need is a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t leave certain parts of it out, that doesn’t declare certain books in it to be irrelevant and unnecessary, that doesn’t diminish our expectation of being able to hear God speaking and to see God acting when we take up our Bibles, open them to any page, and read. The Bible’s library of the collected testimonies of witnesses to the presence and action of God in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ set the boundaries for the field on which the game of our faith gets played.  It’s big and expansive and rich and diverse, and deliberately so.  So, why would we want to settle for less?  Instead, let’s cultivate and celebrate a faith that’s just as big as the Bible.  DBS +

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O Morning Star…

O Morning Star, you are the splendor of eternal life;
you are the dawning sun, the sun of justice:


Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death!

lightA year ago last November Mary Lynn and I went to Hawaii to celebrate our Fortieth Wedding Anniversary. Because of the time change and the jet lag, I was up well before dawn on our first morning there.   And so I went out on the balcony of our hotel room with a cup of coffee just to sit and watch the sun come up.  It was truly spectacular.   It didn’t happen all at once, mind you.  It wasn’t dark, and then all of a suddenly light as if somebody had thrown a switch.  No, it was a slow and gradual change.

First there was just a warm glow on the far horizon, and then this tiny little sliver of light that slowly erupted into bloom that, in turn, became this great big ball of light that seemingly rose up right out of the ocean.   It was the most impressive sunrise I have ever seen.  And what’s stayed with me from the experience was the gradual process of the darkness turning to light that that morning entailed.

In his chapter on “Defining Conversion” in his book on Humble Apologetics (Oxford University Press – 2002), John Stackhouse described our usual way of thinking as Christians as being “binary.”   Spiritually we’re accustomed to thinking that we’re either in or out, saved or lost, spiritually dead or spiritually alive.  I once heard an evangelist say that just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, so you can’t be a little bit Christian!  Either you are, or you aren’t, and that’s binary thinking, and it’s Biblical, to be sure.

“You must be born again,’” Jesus proclaimed (John 3:7). “God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13).  Only “those whose names were not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” would go to heaven and the rest to hell, prophesied John (Revelation 19:15) [Stackhouse 73]. It’s black or white, yes or no, in or out.  The Christian life begins with “a single, obvious, transformative experience of conversion” that fundamentally and irrevocably reorients the direction of one’s whole existence.  “When were you saved?” is the question that this perspective just loves to ask, and what it expects by way of an answer is a day, and an hour, and sometimes even a minute.  That’s binary thinking.

But the Bible also speaks of conversion more organically than this abrupt binary way of thinking might suggest. Just like that sunrise in Hawaii last year, there’s this beautiful process that gradually unfolds as the darkness turns to light.

growthThe Spiritual Life continuum from Willow Creek’s “Reveal” study describes the process as the movement from “Exploring Christ” to “Growing in Christ,” and then from “Growing in Christ” to being “Close to Christ,” and finally from being “Close to Christ” to becoming “Christ-Centered.” It doesn’t happen instantly or invariably.  We can get stuck, and we can regress.  But the ordinary course of the spiritual life is one of gradual growth into greater intimacy with and obedience to Christ as our Lord and Savior.

This is why every significant metaphor of the Christian Life that I can find in the Bible emphasizes this process of gradual transformation. Being a Christian is like a plant growing from a seed to a sprout to a harvest. Being a Christian is like a building going up from a foundation to a superstructure to the roof. Being a Christian is like running a race from the starting blocks to the course to finish line. Being a Christian is like the growth of a human being from birth through childhood to maturity.  And what this means is that rather than thinking about the spiritual life in strict binary ways, there is some real value in thinking about it instead in a more organic process that is slowly unfolding sort of way.   Rather than thinking in yes or no, black or white, in or out, “I’m saved” or “I’m not saved” sorts of ways, thinking in an “I’m in the process of being saved” sort of way opens us up to the more nuanced way that the experience of spiritual awakening occurs in most of us.

The Engle Scale was a tool that I learned about at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary when I was a student there in the mid-1970’s.


What this tool helped me to see is that a “decision of faith” (#’s 7-8-9-10 on the Engle Scale) are just steps along the way rather than the sum total of what it means to become and then be a Christian.  Just as that Hawaiian sunrise was not a sudden throw the switch from the darkness of night to the brightness of morning experience, but rather a gradual dawning of the light dispelling the darkness kind of experience, so I believe spiritually that people, all people, are somewhere in the process, on their journey to Christ.  And I think about this at Christmastime each year when I pray the fifth “O” Antiphon –

O Morning Star, you are the splendor of eternal life;
you are the dawning sun, the Sun of justice:
Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death!

With this petition I want Christ who is the light who enlightens every person in the world (John 1:9) to rise and shine in each and every person’s life, dispelling their darkness like a sunrise and ushering them into the light of His glory forever (John 1:14). DBS +

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O Wisdom

O Wisdom, you came forth from the lips of God Most High
and you reach from one end of the universe to the other,
powerfully and gently ordering all things…


Come and teach us the way of Prudence!

A few years back a member of the church I serve asked each of its ministers about their favorite Bible verse. We were in a “Year of the Bible” at that church, at that time.  We were thinking and talking together most Sunday mornings about what it means to be Bible-Centered people.  We were using Bobby Clinton’s materials (http://bobbyclinton.com) and his categories of having a personal “core” of Biblical books and passages as an important part of our own unique spiritual foundation.  We were all consciously thinking about which Psalms, Parables, Proverbs, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles were our favorites, and which verses were our standards.  And so it was not unusual to have a church member inquire about which Biblical texts were foundational to our own sense of identity and mission as a pastoral team.  What was unexpected were the beautifully printed and framed Bible verses that each one of us soon had hanging outside our office doors.  Mine was Romans 8:28 –

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him,
who are called according to his purpose.

Like so many Christians I know, this verse has been a source of great comfort and real confidence for me from the earliest days of my Christian life. John Stott said that Romans 8:28 is the pillow upon which the head of faith sleeps, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones taught that Romans chapter 8 was the Bible’s greatest chapter on the assurance of a believer, and that verse 28 is the very pinnacle of its affirmations. I know that this is how the teachings of Romans 8 in general, and the promise of verse 28 in particular have functioned for me. They have been the source of my peace and consolation on my most difficult days.

godIn the tangle of the circumstances of our lives, in the confusing swirl of current events, and in the daily challenges to our own sense of personal balance and well-being, it is reassuring to know that a God who loves us is really there, and that He has a purpose for us, and for all of creation, that will not ultimately be thwarted. For some background on how any thinking person could actually hold this conviction in light of the mess that the world is in, I would strongly recommend that you go back to my November 7, 2016, “Soundings”God Reigns, and the Government at Washington Still Lives! – where I discussed Leslie Weatherhead’s three perspectives on the Will of God.

The first “O” Antiphon on our journey to Christmas is a petition for God’s Wisdom that reaches “from one end of the universe to the other,” and that “powerfully and gently orders all things,” to come and teach us “the way of prudence.”

eyeThe spiritual practice of praying these seven antiphons during Advent in the days leading up to Christmas is a way for us to better understand the significance of the Christ who comes to us as Bethlehem’s little baby, and as a way of more directly connecting God’s saving act in Christ with the deepest fears and highest hopes of our human hearts. What this first Antiphon tells us is that Jesus Christ is God’s Wisdom, and that our acceptance of Him will be experienced by us as prudence.

That Christ is the Wisdom of God is something that the New Testament explicitly affirms. In I Corinthians chapter 1, the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians that Christ was the “Power and the Wisdom of God” (1:24).  A mixed Greek/Gentile and Jewish congregation, Paul knew that some of the Corinthians, those with the Greek backgrounds, would look on Christ’s cross as utter “foolishness,” while the other Corinthians, those with the Jewish backgrounds, would look on Christ’s cross as sheer “weakness.” And so Paul opened his first letter to them by making it very clear that it’s what Christ did on that seemingly weak and foolish cross that is the wise and powerful act that saves us.

…When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.  For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (2:1-5)

…We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are being saved, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.   (1:22-24).

The cross of Christ is the proof that God can squeeze meaning out of the most twisted of experiences, and purpose out of the most mangled of circumstances.   To be sure, God’s wisdom doesn’t mean that everything’s just fine right now, perfectly reflective of what God has always wanted for us and the world.  If this were so, why would Christ have taught us to pray: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? No, what God’s wisdom assures us of is that God is redemptively at work in Christ right now making sure that when everything is said and done that – “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” – as Julian of Norwich saw it. This is the sure perspective of God’s Wisdom.

John Piper says that “wisdom” in the Bible “is knowing the greatest goal in any situation, and the best way to achieve that goal,” or as Charles Ryrie put it, “the wisdom of God tells us that God will bring about the best possible results, by the best possible means, for the most possible people, for the longest possible time.” This is the theology behind the affirmation of Romans 8:28.   It is the belief that the Wisdom of God is present and active in our lives and in our world in very real but often hidden ways, just as the Wisdom of God was present and active in the world at the birth of that helpless little baby in Bethlehem’s manger, but missed by so many.

handsIn chapel each week with the kids in the day school we sing “He’s got the Whole World in His Hands,” and this is one of my core assurances as a believer.  I believe that God is at work in every moment, and that God is present in every circumstance of my life and in the life of the world, “powerfully and gently ordering all things” by His wisdom. As A.W. Tozer observed, “to actively believe that our Heavenly Father constantly spreads around us providential circumstances that work for our present good and our everlasting well-being brings to the soul a veritable benediction.” (Thanks to Lloyd Stilley @ http://www.lifeway.com/Article/sermon-wisdom-god-romans-16-1-corinthians-1 for the Piper, Ryrie and Tozer quotes).

This “veritable benediction” is the “peace that passes understanding” of Philippians 4:7.  It is not the denial of reality, but rather it is the conviction that God is at work in that reality, gradually bringing about His good and loving purposes.  It’s a matter of trusting that God in Christ has already been wherever we are, and that God in Christ has already faced whatever it is that we are facing, and that He has come through the crucifixion of it all to the resurrection on the other side.  This is the Wisdom that Christ supplies.  It is knowing that it ends well, and it is believing in this Wisdom of God, according to the first “O” Antiphon, that issues in the virtue of prudence.

Someone has said that prudence is a simple matter of taking an umbrella with you when it looks like it’s going to rain. A more formal definition of prudence says that it is “the intellectual virtue which rightly directs particular human acts, through rectitude of the appetite, toward a good end.” Allow me to translate – prudence is our capacity as human beings to order our lives and to direct our actions in the interest of the larger goals that we have determined to be good and meaningful for us

Prudence is what makes diets work. When we decide that being healthy is of primary importance to us, then we cut out sweets, cut back on carbs, and start to exercise better control on our portion sizes.  Prudence is what gets people out of debt.  When we decide that too many of our resources are tied up in interest payments, then we begin to restrain our expenditures so that we can direct more of what we have to the reduction of the principal. Prudence is what gets people through school.  When we understand that getting that degree is the key that unlocks the doors to our futures, then we throw ourselves into the process of getting the education that winds up with a diploma being put into our hands.

Prudence means acting on what we know to be good, and right, and true. And in the first “O” Antiphon, it’s when we know that God’s Wisdom is “reaching from one end of the universe to the other, powerfully and gently ordering all things,” that we have the opportunity of faith to begin to practice the kind of prudence that encourages us to act like God is really there and that He is fully at work in our lives, and in the life of the world, bending it in the direction of His final purpose of good for all. Fr. Louis Evely in his book Our Prayer (Herder & Herder 1970) perfectly expressed the prudence of God’s Wisdom in our lives with his observation that “whatever we do… is an occasion for a grace, a proposal, a call from God, a call to believe, and love, whatever happens” (65).

This is what I want for Christmas, and so now I am praying –

cubO Wisdom, you came forth from the lips of God Most High
and you reach from one end of the universe to the other,
powerfully and gently ordering all things…
Come and teach us the way of Prudence! 



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Ora Et Labora (Pray and Work)


Pray as though everything depended on God.
Work as though everything depended on you.

                                                                        ~ St. Augustine __________________________________________________________________________

I have been intrigued by the way that the results of last week’s election have exposed the roots of some of our most basic spiritual practices and convictions.  Some of my best Christian friends and most valued colleagues in ministry have been busy issuing calls for action after the election, while other good Christian friends and respected ministerial colleagues of mine have been busy issuing calls for prayer.  And I have noticed that in lots of subtle and not so subtle ways, some of my activist colleagues and friends have accused my prayerful colleagues and friends of a kind of pious irrelevance, or worse, an evasion of responsibility by calling people to pray before anything else.  Meanwhile, I have detected in some of my more prayerful colleagues and friends a suspicion that their activist colleagues and friends are guilty of confusing commotion with clarity, of doing something, doing anything, rather than doing something that is truly constructive and redemptive.  This is a familiar enough fight.  It’s been going on between Christians for millennia.  It’s that old contemplative/activist argument – the familiar pattern of the Mary/Martha divide, you know –

2The Lord and his disciples were traveling along and came to a village. When they got there, a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat down in front of the Lord and was listening to what he said. Martha was worried about all that had to be done. Finally, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!” The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

I myself posted two things on the day after the election – some of the liturgical resources that we used at our Tuesday evening Election Day Prayer & Communion Service at the church (borrowed and adapted from several sources), and a quote from John Stonestreet at the Colson Center –

Chuck Colson often shared: “Salvation doesn’t come on Air Force One.” The hope of the world is not dependent on an election outcome. Hope is secured because God is sovereign and Jesus Christ is risen.

My postings on the day after the election placed me squarely in the “call for prayer” camp, and some of my friends and colleagues in the “call to action” camp did not let this pass unnoticed or uncommented upon. The gist of their critique was that while I sat in a quiet corner somewhere thinking big thoughts about God that they would actually be out on the street trying to change things.  And my response to them is that this is a false spiritual dichotomy.

Going back to that familiar Mary/Martha story from Luke 10, here’s the detail that we routinely miss –

The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.” (10:42)

The standard sermon on this text says that some of us are busy Martha’s while others of us 3are thoughtful Mary’s, and that the church needs both.  And that’s a good message, completely true, but it’s not what this text says.  No, this text says that Mary alone, sitting attentively at Jesus’ feet, chose “the one necessary thing.”  To preach a sermon on the diversity and necessity of diverse gifts within the church go to I Corinthians 12.  The story of Mary and Martha makes a different point.

I think that it’s the same point that Jesus Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when He said –

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)

What’s being taught here is not the substitution of piety for action, but rather their proper sequence.  First it’s prayer, then it’s action.  Oh, I certainly understand the concern with this.  In the practice of the church prayer has often taken the place of action.  E. Stanley Jones observed that the “usual church climate” is – “We see a need; we pray about it; we discuss it.”  Then he offered a more Biblical alternative, the one he said that he saw operative in the YMCA Movement of his day – “We see a need; we pray about it; we go out and do something about it.”

4Carroll Simcox in his wonderful little book on prayer (Prayer: The Divine Dialogue. IVP. 1985) called this “Pecksniffian Praying” after a character in a Charles Dickens story who said “a short and pious grace, invoking a blessing on the appetites of those present, and committing all persons who had nothing to eat to the care of Providence, whose business (so said the grace, in effect) it clearly was, to look after them.”  Fr. Simcox explained, “Mr. Pecksniff’s grace is painless piety… the Pecksniffian will pray for the hungry as long as it is understood that God, not he, will do the feeding of the hungry” (36).  This is a “sanctimonious evasion of duty.”  Prayer is not our sole duty as Christians, but it is our first duty.  The relevant question is why?  Why pray first?

Well, just this week I read something that George Bullard, the church consultant, wrote about vision.  He observed that the commonly accepted position today is that it is a visionary leader who is singularly responsible for vision.  S/he sees something that others do not see, and then s/he casts that vision.  The image is that of a solitary prophet who alone sees and speaks, often at great personal cost.  But George Bullard argued that “our Triune God is the only appropriate source of vision,” and that the first responsibility of spiritual leadership is to encourage the exercise of the spiritual disciplines, not as ends in themselves (that is “Pecksniffian Praying”), but rather as the way that we get informed of, and then captured by the compelling and empowering vision of the Triune God.

A few weeks ago on Facebook I posted a quote from Scott Cormode’s essay One Basic Idea: Get People to See What the Scripture Says” in hopes of driving people to the full article at https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu

In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice 5among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.ch, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.

I am an evangelical Christian.  This is not the only way to be a Christian, and it’s not even the dominant way that most Disciples are Christian, but it is the way that I am a Christian. And, in part, it means that my confidence that people can change in real and substantial sorts of ways does not reside in the passion and persuasiveness of the person making an argument and then calling for a specific action, but rather it rests on the power of what the Scriptures can be shown to teach to change the behavior of Christians through the convicting work of the empowering and indwelling Spirit of God applying it in their hearts.  Why do I believe this?  Well, I believe it because I think that it’s what the Scriptures themselves promise (Hebrews 4:12), and I believe it because it’s been my own personal experience of being changed.  My own convictions about race, gender and sexual orientation have all been challenged and changed through years of serious engagement with the Word in a faithful community of interpretation.

The contrast between Paul’s ministry in Berea where people “welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11) and his oratory in Athens where people “sneered,” and said “we shall hear you again concerning this” (Acts 17:32) is instructive. In Berea people were actually changed through their own personal engagement with the Word.  But in Athens people were only provoked by the passionate voicing of the convictions of one solitary visionary leader.  Because I’m interested in change, I’m invested in the Berean strategy, as evidenced by my “Soundings” in recent months –

We All Want to Change the World” (August 29)
Why Teaching Bible Study is the Most Important
Thing I do each Wee
(September 6)
The Dock and the Boat; Being “Biblical” in a Changing World (September 19)
The “Strange Silence” of the Bible (October 10) A “Christian” Vote? (October 24)

I believe that people who seek the mind of Christ through a serious and sustained engagement with Scripture nurtured by a diverse community of interpretation accompanied with prayer will begin to act in ways that serve the interests of justice and righteousness, life and peace, and equality and freedom.  It’s the truths fully considered by the head that distill into the passions that are embraced by the heart that direct the hands to act and the feet to move. It’s because the need is so great right now for Christians to act out of the Gospel’s truths, that the call to prayer is so urgent.   DBS +

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Finding Common Ground


A Little “Believing Thinking” on the Fifteenth Anniversary of 9/11 ___________________________________________________________________________

The world changed 15 years ago, or was it that we just noticed 15 years ago how much the world had changed?   On that morning when airliners began flying into buildings, we couldn’t imagine what was happening.  And here, 15 years later, many of us still can’t believe what has happened.  Nearly 3,000 people died on the morning of September 11, 2001, and since 9/11 the best estimate is that 1.3 million people have died in the ensuing “War on Terror.”

Because the 19 terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attack were all Muslim extremists, and because the Muslim community in the United States has become increasingly visible, vocal and vulnerable over these past 15 years, we who are American Christians have had to think through our response to and our relationship with our Muslim neighbors. This hasn’t been easy because we’ve got history.  “Emotions burn hot, and fears run high” for both Christians and Muslims.  From the moment that Islam was born, Muslims and Christians have been in competition with each other.  Each of us convinced of our own truth, each of us committed to our own mission, we’ve spent the last 1400 years trying to convert each other, sometimes by persuasion, at other times by force, even as we have contended with each other for the hearts and minds of the rest of the worlds’ people.  For these reasons, and so many more, Christians and Muslims have not always “shaken hands in friendship.”  In fact, more often than not we have behaved as bitter rivals looking on each other with suspicion and contempt.


This makes all the more remarkable the letter that was issued in October of 2007 from 138 international Muslim scholars and religious leaders to Christians calling for honest dialogue and mutual respect. This Common Word said –

Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population… If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake… So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to one another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.

blckWho could possibly argue with this? The only real question is how?  How do we prevent our differences from becoming the cause hatred and strife between us?  I find the beginnings of an answer in Genesis chapter 25 – the story of the death and burial of Abraham.  This is a brief and direct narrative.  In verse 9 of Genesis 25 we’re told that after Abraham died, that Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him.  It’s so understated that it’s really easy to miss. Isaac and Ishmael, half-brothers, came together to bury their common father Abraham.  Now, the last time that Ishmael was mentioned in the story that the book of Genesis tells, Abraham was sending him and his mother, Hagar, away into the wilderness (Genesis 21).  It’s an ugly story, a “text of terror.”   All that the Biblical text tells us in the set-up to this story is that Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, the handmaid of Sarah his wife, was “mocking” Isaac her son.   The word translated “mocked” in this verse can also be translated as “played with,” and it’s this fuzziness of translation that led to the emergence of a Jewish tradition that says that what Ishmael did was to shoot arrows at his little half-brother Isaac!  This made Ishmael the object of Sarah’s rage, which was only layered on top of her shame for not having trusted the promise that God had made to her and Abraham that together they would have a son. The mere sight of Ishmael in their family must have been a painful reminder of their unfaithfulness, and so whatever happened in Genesis 21 between Ishmael and Isaac that day, Sarah immediately insisted that Abraham send Ishmael and his mother Hagar away. This was not a strategy designed to engender warm feelings between Abraham’s two sons, in fact, it’s customary in some circles to think and talk about the morass that is the Middle East today in terms of this ancient Isaac/Ishmael divide, the family feud between the children of Abraham.

But when Abraham died, these long separated and bitterly divided brothers came together again in their common grief for a moment of uncommon grace, and I think that therein lies the promise for us on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  You see, for all of the hostility and suspicion that surely must have existed between Isaac and Ishmael, when Abraham died, they found a way past their very real and quite substantial differences to stand together again, side by side.  And it seems to me that we who are Christians and Muslims, Abraham’s spiritual children, have got to find a way to do be able to do this same thing today.  Just like Ishmael and Isaac, there are things that bring Christians and Muslims together, and there are things that drive us apart.  When and where our beliefs and values are complimentary I believe that we need to gratefully embrace that commonality, and when and where our beliefs and values vary, we need to graciously own those important differences.

crossFor example, both Islam and Christianity agree that God is merciful. That’s a commonality that I believe we can claim and celebrate together as Muslims and Christians.  It’s the first and perhaps the most important plank in a bridge of mutual understanding.  But as a Christian I believe that I must go even further.  I must be very clear with myself and with my Muslim friends and neighbors that the way that I know that God is merciful is through the “suffering, redemptive love revealed in the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus who is the Christ” (Shenck 206).   You see, Jesus Christ is decisive for Christianity.

Now, I know that Jesus matters to Muslims too.   I know that Muslims believe that He was one of the six greatest prophets who ever lived, and that’s really saying something because Muslims believe that God has sent 124,000 prophets throughout history to speak His word to humankind (Elass).  I know that Jesus is accorded the same honor and dignity in Islam that is accorded to Mohammed.  In fact, I know that Muslims believe that Jesus was literally born of a virgin, preached the truth of God’s love, worked miracles during His lifetime and that He will come again before the end of the world.



Servant of God (Prophet `Isa/Jesus Quote Calligraphy from Quran 19:30) ______________________________________________________________________________

These are all commonalities between us that I believe we can claim and use as even more planks in that bridge of mutual understanding that we must build. But, after celebrating and exploring these convictions about Jesus that we share as Muslims and Christians, as a Christian I believe that I’ve then got to go on to name those convictions that we don’t share, those core beliefs that the church has “culled from the Scriptures and believed for the last two thousand years” (Elass 54), what Peter Kreeft calls “the three crucial Christian doctrines that Islam denies – the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection” (87). What’s missing from Islam’s affirmation of Jesus, are the very things that I find to be so essential to historic Christianity’s classic affirmation of Christ, and what this means is that while I think that I can and must walk side by side with my Muslim brothers and sisters for just as long and for just as far as I possibly can, there nevertheless comes that moment when we must part company and go our separate ways because, for all of the things that we do hold in common, there are some other things, some pretty fundamental things, about which we couldn’t be further apart, and almost all of those things have to do with Jesus.

I really do believe that what the New Testament tells us about who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for us is true and that it needs to be believed. This is what makes us Christians, and what that means is that when and where Islam deviates from what the New Testament teaches about Jesus Christ, that’s when and where I must respectfully but conscientiously part company with them. And by the way, every Muslim conversation partner that I’ve ever had has told me the same exact thing.  It’s what we believe about Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God, our Lord and Savior as Christians, that compels Muslims to part company with us as well.

So, is that it? Is this how the story ends — each of us, Christians and Muslims, with our backs turned to each other walking away from each other in opposite directions?  Is 9/11 the natural and inevitable outcome to this clash of convictions and civilizations?  I doesn’t have to be.  You see, my affirmation of what Christianity teaches doesn’t require me to hate my Muslim neighbors and friends, or to think that I must destroy them because they don’t agree with what I believe and teach about Jesus Christ.  Sure, they think I’m wrong, and I think I’m right.  This is an impasse to be sure.  But if Jesus Christ is who Christianity says that He is, and who I believe that He is, then it follows, doesn’t it, that in addition to trusting Him as my Savior, that I’ve got to pay attention to the things that He taught and to follow the example that He set as my Lord?  And right at the top of that list is loving my neighbor, and then when my neighbors becomes frighteningly un-neighborly, to love them as my enemy.  And as that Common Word that the world’s Muslim leaders addressed to the Christian community back in 2007 pointed out, the Koran teaches them to do the very same exact thing.  And so, without either of us surrendering our heartfelt and carefully thought-through convictions, just like Ishmael and Isaac in our Scripture lesson this morning, in the experience of commanded and committed love, Muslims and Christians can find a meeting place, some common ground.

church“The basis for peace and understanding (between Christians and Muslims) already exists,” the Common Word observed.  “It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths… The necessity of love for… the One God… and the necessity of love of neighbor is the common ground between Islam and Christianity.”  The only question is, will we, like Ishmael and Isaac in Genesis 25, find the courage to make the long journey of the heart to stand together there on that common ground of love, side by side as Christians and Muslims.  The 15th anniversary of 9/11 last Sunday makes this one of the most urgent questions of our time.  DBS +



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Why Teaching Bible Study is the Most Important Thing I do each Week


The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God stands forever.

                                                                                                                      ~ Isaiah 40:8

bibleheartThis coming Sunday morning I will resume teaching the Bible Survey Class that I began last Spring. This Fall we will cover the Wisdom and Poetry books of the Old Testament, to be followed by the Prophets.  This is one of three Bible Studies that I teach each week.  On Sunday evenings at 5:30 pm I teach a Topical Bible Study (This Bible Study is broadcast live on Periscope each week).  Right now we’re looking at “Politics According the Bible,” and that will be followed after the election with an Advent/Christmas Study of the Gospels’ birth narratives – “The First Days of Jesus.”  And then on Wednesdays at noon I teach an in-depth, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse, thought-by-thought Bible Study.  Right now were just about halfway through the Book of Revelation, and when we’re finished, we’ll immediately turn our attention to the Pastoral Epistles – to I Timothy, Titus and II Timothy.

To be sure, preparing and leading these Bible Studies are a big demand on my time and energy as a minister each week. You can’t just walk in unprepared to a room full of eager and thoughtful students and expect to engage them in a serious conversation about the meaning of ancient texts that are believed to be inspired and that are treated as authoritative for our Christian faith and practice.  Besides this purely human obligation to be an effective teacher, there is an enormous Divine expectation as well.  More than once the New Testament warns us about the spiritual dangers of being a teacher (James 3:1-2; Matthew 23:1-11; Matthew 18:1-7), and about how it is possible for us to “misrepresent God” (I Corinthians 15:15).  The New Testament says enough about false teachers – and none of it good – to know that I don’t want to be found in their number!

So, why do I do it? Why do I put myself out this way each week?  Why do I invest myself so heavily in the work of these three weekly Bible studies?  Why do I subject myself to the demands, both human and Divine?

Well, part of the answer has to do with spiritual gifts. You see, I know that my own particular call to ministry, and the capacities for ministry that I have, and have consciously developed, all have to do with teaching (Ephesians 4:11). Teaching is foundational to all Christian ministry (Matthew 8:20; Acts 2:42), and it is one of the spiritual gifts that God sovereignly distributes according to His purposes to build-up the church (I Corinthians 12:11).  This means that no minister is off-the-hook when it comes to teaching the faith – it’s part of how we “pay the rent” for our ministries in a church  – even as some of us “double-down” on the ministry of teaching as our own particular mission within the mission.  This is part of the reason why I do it.  This is who I am, and what I know that I am called to do, and I am truly blessed to be in a church and part of a pastoral team that allows for this kind of specialization in ministry.  But there is more to my commitment to the ministry of teaching than this.

briteIn my last semester at Brite Divinity School back in 1979 I stumbled across a little book from 1675 written by Philip Jacob Spener, one of the spiritual leaders of the Movement known as Pietism.   “Pia Desideria” (“Pious Desires”) was his pastoral assessment of the sad spiritual state of the church of his day, and his specific proposals to correct it.  And his first corrective proposal was a call for a “more extensive use of the Scriptures.” This lengthy excerpt is from pages 87-91 of my dog-eared and well worn copy of “Pia Desideria” (Fortress Press – 1964).   It is a call for Bible Study in the local church and a proposed model for actually doing it that broadly resembles the kind of Bible Studies that we have here at Northway.


Thought should be given to the more extensive use of the Word of God among us… It would perhaps not be inexpedient to reintroduce the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings. In addition our customary services with preaching, other assemblies would also be held in the manner in which Paul describes them in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. One person would not rise to preach, but others who have been blessed with gifts and knowledge would also speak and present their pious opinions on the proposed subject to the judgment of the rest, doing all this in such a way as to avoid disorder and strife. This might conveniently be done by having …several members of a congregation who have a fair knowledge of God or desire to increase their knowledge meet under the leadership of the Minister, take up the Holy Scriptures, read aloud from them, and fraternally discuss each verse in order to discover its simple meaning and whatever may be useful for the edification of all.  Anybody who is not satisfied with his understanding of a matter should be permitted to express his doubts and seek further explanation.  On the other hand, those who have made more progress should be allowed the freedom to state how they understand each passage.  Then all that has been contributed, insofar as it accords with a sense of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, should be carefully considered by the rest, …and applied to the edification of the whole meeting.  Everything should be arranged with an eye to the glory of God, to the spiritual growth of the participants, and therefore also to their limitations.  Any threat of meddlesomeness, quarrelsomeness, self-seeking, or something else of this sort should be guarded against and tactfully cut off…

Not a little benefit is to be hope for from such an arrangement.  Preachers would learn to know the members of their own congregations and their weaknesses or growth in doctrine and piety, and a bond of confidence would be established between preachers and people which would serve the best interests of both.  At the same time, the people would have a splendid opportunity to exercise your diligence with respect to the word of God and modestly to answer their questions (which they do not always have the courage to discuss with their minister in private) and get answers to them.  In a short time, they would experience personal growth and would also be capable of giving better religious instruction to their children and servants at home.  In the absence of such exercises, sermons which are delivered in continually flowing speech are not always fully and adequately comprehended because there’s no time for reflection in between or because when one does stop reflect, much of what follows is missed (which does not happen in a discussion).  On the other hand, private reading the Bible, reading in the household, where nobody is present who may from time to time help point out the meaning and purpose of each verse, cannot provide the reader with sufficient explanation of all that he would like to know.  What is lacking in both of these instances (in public preaching and private reading) would be supplied by the proposed exercises. 

…This much is certain: The diligent use of the word of God, which consists not only a listening to sermons, but also reading, meditating, and discussing (Psalm 1:2 ), must be the chief means for reforming something, whether this occurs in the proposed fashion or in some other appropriate way.  The word of God remains the seed from which all that is good in us must grow.  If we succeed in getting the people to seek eagerly and diligently in the Book of life for their joy, their spiritual life will be wonderfully strengthened and they will become altogether different people….


Believing what Spener said in that last paragraph about the word of God being the seed “from which all that is good in us must grow,” and how people are “wonderfully strengthened” and profoundly “reformed” through “reading, meditating and discussing” the Bible,  I made a conscious commitment back in 1979, during my last semester in seminary, to actually institute the kind of Bible Study that Spener proposed here in every church that I would ever serve as an ordained minister, and here, some 37 years later I can say that I have.

This commitment to congregational Bible Study was confirmed a couple of years ago when Willow Creek reported the results of their “Reveal” self-study.


Over a period of four years, Willow Creek polled more than 1,500 churches representing more than 400,000 church attendees at various stages in their spiritual journeys, and Bible reading and reflection, the REVEAL survey found, is the No. 1 way to help people grow in their love for Christ.

 “When it comes to spiritual growth, nothing beats the Bible,” wrote Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins in their book, Move. The churches involved in the study ranged in size from under 100 to more than 5,000 and represented all 50 states. They were both denominational and non-denominational and represented a wide range of styles, including contemporary, Pentecostal, Catholic, traditional and mainline. Parkinson and Hawkins explain that key findings in the REVEAL survey suggest people fall along a spiritual continuum, from exploring Christ to being Christ-centered—and many things advance our walks with God along that continuum.

 “But of all the personal spiritual practices—prayer, confession, tithing, journaling, solitude, serving or worship we find that one stands out,” Parkinson and Hawkins state. “Scripture reflection—more than any other practice—moves people forward in their love for God and love for others.” Reflection on Scripture is much more influential than any other spiritual practice by a statistically significant and wide margin, Parkinson and Hawkins state. “For those who would say they are Christ-centered or working to stay close to Christ, Scripture reflection is twice as catalytic as any other factor. This means it has twice the power of any other spiritual practice to accelerate growth in spiritually mature people.” (http://www.americanbible.org)

 Of course, the kind of transformative Bible Study that Spener first proposed 400 years ago, and that Willow Creek has more recently affirmed as being the most spiritually catalytic factor in its own life and ministry as a church, is not just about filling the head of students with information, but rather, it’s about filling the hearts of believers with the promises, provisions and presence that a serious engagement with Scripture supplies.

It was A.W. Tozer (1897 – 1963) – one of my “paper spiritual directors” (somebody who shapes my soul and guides my spiritual growth through the things that they wrote) – who warned me about the academic “information-alone” kind of Bible Studies to which we who have been to seminary, can read the Biblical languages and who have shelves and shelves of critical commentaries are prone.  Now, don’t take this as a rejection of the academic study of the Bible.  I am someone who believes that the Bible is inspired and authoritative, and that it needs to be carefully and contextually interpreted.  I am a champion of theological education, and I turn to scholarship every week to try to better understand every jot and tittle that I find in the Bible.  But that’s not enough.  I’ll let A.W. speak –


Charles G. Finney believed that Bible teaching without moral application could be worse than no teaching at all, and could result in positive injury to the hearers. I used to think that this might be an extreme position, but after years of observation I have come around to it, or to a view almost identical to it.

There is scarcely anything so dull and meaningless as Bible doctrine taught for its own sake. Truth divorced from life is not truth in its Biblical sense, but something else and something less. Theology is a set of facts concerning God, man and the world. These facts may be, and often are, set forth as values in themselves; and there lies the snare both for the teacher and for the hearer.

…The Bible … is more than a volume of hitherto unknown facts about God, man and the universe. It is a book of exhortation based upon those facts. By far the greater portion of the book is devoted to an urgent effort to persuade people to alter their ways and bring their lives into harmony with the will of God as set forth in its pages.

…What is generally overlooked is that truth as set forth in the Christian Scriptures is a moral thing; it is not addressed to the intellect only, but to the will also. It addresses itself to the total man, and its obligations cannot be discharged by grasping it mentally. Truth engages the citadel of the human heart and is not satisfied until it has conquered everything there. The will must come forth and surrender its sword. It must stand at attention to receive orders, and those orders it must joyfully obey. Short of this, any knowledge of Christian truth is inadequate and unavailing.


It was Albert Schweitzer who said that the Bible was spiritually explosive in his life. Any verse of Scripture, he said, had the potential of blowing up in our hands, in our heads and in our hearts, thereby blasting us to places we never thought of going on our own, to do things that we never thought of doing before.  It’s catalytic.

worldGod’s word is alive and working and is sharper than a double-edged sword. It cuts all the way into us, where the soul and the spirit are joined, to the center of our joints and bones. And it judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts. (Hebrews 4:19)

And this is why teaching Bible Study is the most important thing I do each week as a minister. When people open their Bibles they are positioning themselves in front of the instrument that God has ordained to effect real change in people’s lives, and the through them, in the world.  DBS +




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