Tag Archives: God

“Do Something Beautiful for God… Become Someone Beautiful for God”

Tradition says that after considering other religious options, that the Russians consciously chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be their state religion because when they experienced its worship for the very first time, they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth… for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty… and they could not forget that beauty.”

eastercross

I thought this about our worship at Northway on Easter Sunday morning. I cannot forget that beauty — the Choral Scholars’ Quartet singing Mendelssohn’s “O Come, Every One that Thirsteth,” the flowering of the cross, the y’all come and sing version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Margaret and Justin’s astonishing piano and organ duet during the Offertory, the spectacular spread of blooming Easter lilies, the choir’s lush anthem and stirring preface to our processional hymn, and the worship team singing “Beautiful Things” after my morning meditation on “Beauty from Ashes” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

I didn’t know if I was on earth or in heaven!

goodWe have tended to underestimate the power of beauty as one of the God-triggers in our souls. One of the three “transcendentals,” we’ve tended to rely on the other two so much more in practice. Our activist impulse, that God-implanted desire to do something, anything, to make the world a better place orients us towards the way of the good.  And our drive to understand things both great and small routinely puts us on the path of the true. But classically understood, beauty is just as sure a way into an awareness of God as is our drive to do what’s good and to know what’s true.

I based my Easter message this year on the line from Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” song about how the mission of God’s Messiah when He came would be to exchange “ashes for beauty” (61:3), and how this has become a familiar way for Christians to think and talk about the promise of Easter. After the brutality of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday, when Jesus was raised on the third day, this exchange occurred — the ashes of death, despair, and apparent defeat became the beauty of the resurrection to newness of life. At the lowest moment in the story of Jesus, “all of the shattered fragments of spiritual power were suddenly quickened, strengthened, and clothed with loveliness.” On Easter Sunday morning I said that this is what Christ came to do – “to bring a new life out of the old ashes” (James D. Wilson). And this is not some abstract theological concept.  No, this is immediate and personal.

It’s about the difference that Jesus Christ makes in your life as your Lord and Savior. It’s what we mean when we sing – “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” It’s about the ashes of death giving way to the beauty of life, both eternal and abundant. It’s about the ashes of despair giving way to the beauty of hope.   It’s about the ashes of shame and guilt giving way to the beauty of forgiveness.  It’s about the ashes of division giving way to the beauty of inclusion.   It’s about the ashes of defeat and discouragement giving way to the beauty of transformation and renewal.  It’s about the ashes of regret giving way to the beauty of regeneration.  The power of Easter is in how it takes our ashes and makes them into something beautiful.

Years ago Joseph Aldrich wrote about how it is the beauty of the Gospel and not just the Gospel’s words that has the real power to transform people. He wrote –

…The “music” of the gospel is the beauty of the indwelling Christ as lived out in the everyday relationships of our lives. We must become recipients of God’s blessing, begin to incarnate His beauty in our relationships, and open these relationships to the non-Christian… Once this “music” has been heard, then expect to be asked for the “reasons for the hope (beauty) that you have.”  Play the beautiful music, and they’ll listen to the words of the song. (Life-Style Evangelism 21)

motherMother Teresa was famous for telling her little brothers and sisters of charity all around the world to try to “do something beautiful for God” each and every day. This prompted Philip Kosloski to write an essay for the “National Catholic Register” on the beauty of Mother Teresa’s life and work for the weekend last September when she was canonized a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He asked —

…Will beauty save the world? Yes it will, but it must be a Beauty united to Truth and Goodness, and a beauty that encompasses all aspects of life. The Gospel we preach to the Modern World will not be found effective if it does not recognize the importance of beauty, especially the beauty of Christian witness.

…By drawing closer to God, our lives reflect a particular beauty, which has the capacity to attract others to the beauty of God. In seeing the beauty of God in our lives, others see that being a Christian is not something oppressive or burdensome, but is actually liberating and beautiful.

“… the Christian life is called to become, in the force of Grace given by Christ resurrected, an event of susceptible beauty to arouse admiration and reflection and incite conversion. The meeting with Christ and His disciples… must always and everywhere have the potential to become an event of beauty, a moment of joy in the discovery of a new dimension of existence, an invitation to put oneself on the road to the Father of Heaven to enjoy the vision of the Complete Truth, the beauty of the Love of God: Beauty is the splendour of the truth and the flowering of Love.” (The Via Pulchritudinis, §III.3 – Pope Benedict XVI)

You see, we don’t just believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christians, we live it. The Gospel’s exchange of ashes for beauty that Christ’s resurrection 2,000 years ago embodied now plays out in our lives as the ashes of the rebellion of our sin and the brokenness of our lives getting exchanged for the beauty of our transformation and personal renewal.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. And all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Because Christ is Risen and we are walking in newness of life through our share in it by faith (Romans 6:1-1-11), this Eastertide let’s go do something beautiful for God, or better yet, let’s become someone beautiful for God. Because of Easter, our ashes have a beauty appointment.  DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

What Was God Doing on the Cross?

Cross.nail

It’s said that good theology properly issues in doxology. I know that a carefully reasoned theological argument always makes me want to sing!  And the day that I first read this statement by Barton W. Stone (1772 – 1844) – one of the founders of my own spiritual tradition – on the Atonement (the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross) when I was in Seminary, I was literally moved to thankful praise –

wigA father provides plentifully for a large family of children. Some of them may know the means by which the father got the provisions – others may not so well know, and the youngest may scarcely know anything more than that the father’s love provided these things. Yet they all eat and thrive, without quarreling about the means by which the provisions were obtained.  O that Christians would do likewise.

The generosity of this perspective seemed to me then to best fit the actual diversity of what the Bible says about what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross, the church’s “official” teaching (or, more technically, the church’s lack of an “official” teaching) on the atonement, and my own peculiar spiritual temperament.  What I really liked about Stone’s analogy of the father’s provision is that, if fully embraced, it can put a stop to the kind of theological imperialism that insists that you see things my way, and my way alone if you are going to sit with me at the church’s dinner table.

Back in the day this analogy liberated me from some spiritual bullying that I was experiencing from my fellow conservative colleagues and peers who insisted that the only way to be truly faithful to the Bible’s message of the cross was to think and talk about it exclusively through the grid of the substitutionary atonement interpretation of its meaning. This is the way that I was first taught to think about the cross, and it is still deeply ingrained in me spiritually.  It continues to inform the way that I think about the meaning of the cross on Sunday mornings when I go to the Lord’s Table.  It’s not the only way I think about the meaning of the cross, but it is invariably the first way that I do so. I have a deep appreciation for the truth of the substitutionary atonement theory of Christ’s saving work on the cross in my faith, and a genuine respect for its very real power in my life.  But, I know enough about the Bible and the history of Christian thought to know that this is not the only way to think and talk about the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, and that it never has been.

Today I find that Stone’s analogy has had to take up position on my left flank. Many of my progressive colleagues and peers don’t find the substitutionary atonement theory of Christ’s saving work on the cross to be either compelling or particularly helpful to them.  And that’s fine — Barton W. Stone didn’t either.  But what Stone’s analogy doesn’t allow for is for the kind of theological incredulity that its critics display at the very suggestion that any thinking Christian anywhere might still find the substitutionary atonement interpretation of the cross to be meaningful. It’s one thing to talk about how and why you don’t find this theory particularly useful for yourself, and another thing altogether to insist that nobody else dare find it useful for them.  Stone’s analogy of the family dinner table where different understandings of how the father provides for his children would seem to argue for greater freedom of thought and a better generosity of spirit.

I didn’t like it one little bit back in the day when my conservative brothers and sisters called into question the theological intelligence and spiritual integrity of those who needed a different way, or additional ways of thinking and talking about the meaning of the cross than the substitutionary atonement theory. And I don’t like it one little bit now when my more progressive brothers and sisters call into question the theological intelligence and spiritual integrity of those of us who still find the substitutionary atonement theory to be meaningful.

A much better approach, it seems to me, and one so much more consonant with Stone’s dinner table analogy, is Scot McKnight’s Golf bag analogy of atonement theories –

golfEach “theory” of the Atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like playing a round of golf. Just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter, the way we proclaim, teach, or share the Good News should be adapted to the situation. You can hit the ball out of a sand trap with your driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available? The strength of the golf-bag metaphor is that it asks us to stop being partisan toward one particular theory of the Atonement and to minister with the best tools at hand. [“Your Atonement Is Too Small” – David Neff – May 20, 2008 – www.christianitytoday.com]

Because I know myself to be a sinner of herculean potential and endless possibility, last Wednesday in the noon Bible Study that I teach I was moved in my spirit to doxology with Paul after some of his characteristic theological ponderings –

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

The “sure and worthy of full acceptance” phrase in these verses – “That Christ came into the world to save sinners” tees up the substitutionary atonement theory as a primary way for me to work with and make sense of what the Bible teaches about what God was doing in Christ on the cross.  But it’s not just that.  It’s also personal, deeply personal for me.  With Richard Mouw I conclude –

Our burdens of shame and guilt have been nailed to the cross. Evangelicals have always insisted on that message as central to proclaiming the gospel. Again, a variety of images capture this emphasis—debt-repaying, ransom, sacrifice, enduring divine wrath against sin. But all these images have this in common: They point us to the fact that on the cross of Calvary, Jesus did something for us that we could never do for ourselves as sinners. He engaged in a transaction that has eternal consequences for our standing before a righteous God.

This is the thought that will quite literally drive me to my knees and move me to tears, probably more than once, before this week, Holy Week, is through. If it doesn’t you, that’s okay. It confuses me, to be sure.  I don’t “get” how the power and beauty of this scheme of redemption can leave you untouched.  But I’m really not interested in arguing with you about it.  Instead I’m perfectly content to sit at the family dinner table with you and your alternate understandings of how our Father has provided us this rich banquet of grace, and for us just to enjoy it together as brothers and sisters.

What God did for us on the cross is big enough for us to be able to think different thoughts about its meaning and to experience it in different ways. But just as you don’t want me as a theological traditionalist to call into question your place at the family dinner table as a theological progressive, or to disrespect your perspective or disregard your interpretation, so don’t try to relegate me to the theological kid’s table, or worse, sent to my room just because you don’t find my perspectives convincing or my interpretations compelling. That’s not what families do at a dinner table that’s as big as ours is. DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“I got an ‘A’ in God!”

god.png

The Importance of Humility in Knowing God

I recently took a theology test online. It consisted of 33 questions on the Trinity.  I got them all right, at least from the perspective of the test giver, and he gave me an electronic “attaboy” for doing so.  I was made to feel like I was in a select group of people who had accomplished this feat, numbered among those who really know God.  It reminded me of a conversation I’d had in seminary long ago.

It was the end of a semester. A fellow student stopped me in the hall one day to ask me about my grade.  “How did you do in theology?” he wanted to know. I told him, and then he said proudly, “I got an ‘A’ in God!”

An “A” in God?

Well, I’d gotten an “A” in that class too, but that’s not the same thing as getting an “A” in God, and that’s an important distinction if you ask me.

God is not an object that we examine.   God is not a subject we master.  God is a personal being whom we encounter, and with whom we can develop a relationship.  This is why Eastern Orthodox Christians don’t think of people who have read the books, gone to school, and passed the classes to be the real theologians, but rather those who know how to pray, those who are in a sustained relationship with the living God, and this is not an idea that is alien to our own spiritual tradition.

Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866) one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), frequently championed in his writings some basic rules for the proper interpretation of Scripture using the very best tools of scholarship at our disposal (http://www.thebiblewayonline.com/Studies/A-%20Bible%20Rules%20for%20bible.htm). And after naming six rules that require us to fully engage our minds when opening our Bibles to read, Alexander Campbell concluded with his all-important seventh rule –

RULE 7 – For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the Oracles of God [his way of talking about the Bible], the following rule is indispensable: We must come within the understanding distance. There is a distance which is properly called the speaking distance, or the hearing distance; beyond which the voice reaches not, and the ears hear not. To hear another, we must come within that circle which the voice audibly fills. Now we may with propriety say, that as it respects God, there is an understanding distance. All beyond that distance cannot understand God; all within it can easily understand him in all matters of piety and morality. God himself is the center of that circle, and humility is its circumference… He… that would interpret the Oracles of God to the salvation of his soul, must approach this volume with the humility and docility of a child, and meditate upon it day and night. Like Mary, he must sit at the Master’s feet, and listen to the words which fall from his lips. To such a one there is an assurance of understanding, a certainty of knowledge, to which the man of letters alone never attained, and which the mere critic never felt.

Now, I hear in this an echo of something that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) had written long before –

I want you to know how to study theology in the right way… You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal… Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through his dear Son, graciously to grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding… Although he knew the text of Moses well and that of other books besides and heard and read them daily, yet David desired to have the real Master of Scripture in order by all means to make sure that he did not plunge into them with his reason and become his own master.

Gabriel Fackre says that “mystery” and “modesty” are the two most undervalued theological virtues of all, and so I have tried to consciously cultivate them in my own life of faith.  Valuing “mystery” means that I try to constantly keep in mind the fact that there is always so much more to God and His ways than I could ever possibly comprehend.  As someone has put it, “If I had God completely figured out, then He wouldn’t be much of a God would He?” Valuing “modesty” means that I try to hold onto my own settled convictions just as generously and gently as I possibly can, appreciating the way that others have their settled convictions too, borne of their own struggles and experiences just as mine are borne of my own deep struggles and meaningful experiences.  And so, rather than using mine to clobber them with “the truth” that I “know,” I want to humbly put it into conversation with “the truth” that they “know,” in order that together we might be mutually engaged and enlarged.  And when this actually happens, inevitably I find that we wind up on our knees.

At a recent seminar I attended the speaker talked about the “4-D’s” of good theology – Drama, Doctrine, Doxology and Discipleship.

Doctrine grows out of the Biblical drama… then those doctrines rooted in the drama fill us with thankful hearts – doxology… and finally doxology yields the fruit of love and good works – discipleship. (Michael Horton)

That speaker argued that unity comes from getting the doctrine that is rooted in the drama right. But it seems to me that this is the approach that has gotten us to the hundreds and hundreds of denominations that currently litter the religious landscape of Christianity.  If I insist on a faith that says A-B-C-D, the minute you conclude that the way faith really goes is A-C-D-B, then we’ve got to part ways.  The more exact our doctrine becomes the more fragmented the church must be.

But what happens when we start from the other end? What happens when we start with doxology and discipleship?  By joining our hearts together in prayer and worship, and then by living out our faith together by joining our hands together in acts of concrete and specific service to one another and the world, I believe that we have a basis for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace that we are told as Christians that we need to maintain (Ephesians 4:3). But it’s going to take an appreciation for mystery and a commitment to modesty if this is to happen — a willingness to acknowledge the limits of our own knowledge while at the same time creating space for what others have come to know.

Os Guinness in his terrific 2014 book Renaissance (IVP) startled me when he wrote –

Few controversies among Christians are so fruitless as the perennial debate over God’s sovereignty and human significance… Overall, it is quite clear that the general discussion of the issue has commonly been unproductive. Far too many hours have been wasted, far too much ink has been split, and because of the disagreements far too many have dismissed others as not being true Christians and have been dismissed by other Christians in their turn.

Some simple truths are worth recalling…

First, the Scriptures show plainly that reality contains both truths, and not just one or the other. God is sovereign, humans are significant, and it is God who made us so. 

Second, history shows equally plainly that human reason cannot explain both truths.   Those who try to do so almost always end up emphasizing one truth to the exclusion of the other, one side majoring on divine sovereignty and the other on human significance. 

Third, the lesson of the Scriptures and Christian history is that we should rely firmly on both truths, and apply the one we most need when we most need it. (90-91)

And then Os said it –

There is a mystery as to how God’s sovereignty and our human significance work together, and there always will be.

A recognition of “mystery” that fosters in us an attitude of “modesty” is what brings us within the hearing distance of the divine, and that’s the goal. DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

“Incompetence is what we’re good at…”

crossAs part of my Lenten discipline this year I have been reading Christopher J.H. Wright’s new book To the Cross (IVP -2017).  This book is based on Holy Week sermons that he has preached through the years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London.  Dr. Wright is a Cambridge University trained Old Testament scholar who is now the international director of the Langham Partnership, the successor to the late John R.W. Stott.  After reading his prophetic keynote address at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010, Dr. Wright has become one of my “go to” sources on all matters Biblical, missional and theological.

The chapter in To the Cross that has most stirred my head and heart so far is the one on “Peter’s Denial” based on Matthew 26:69-75.  This text is the familiar Gospel story of Peter’s threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest after Jesus’ arrest in the garden.  Dr. Wright’s sermonic reflections on this text get organized under the big idea that “failure is a fact in the Bible” (37).  Quoting from his favorite book (The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile), Dr. Wright observes that “incompetence is what we’re good at.”

Bible2

He asks his readers to “think about it,” to “do a mental scan of the Bible.”  When he did this himself, Dr. Wright concluded that “the whole Bible, from beginning to end, is a story of human failure (with the single exception of then Lord Jesus Christ himself)” (38).  And the evidence that he amassed in support of this conclusion included these Biblical citations –

Adam and Eve failed, even though they were in a perfect environment. Abraham failed; he told lies about his wife and he abused Hagar. Samuel failed to get his own sons to behave properly, even though he started out his own career condemning Eli for the same thing.  Gideon failed, even after his great victory over the Midianites, when he said he wouldn’t become a king and then behaved as if he was one and made an idolatrous object.  Moses failed in the wilderness, to his own great regret.  David failed appallingly, not only in his acts of adultery and planned murder, but in failing to control his own family during the rest of his life.  Every king of Israel failed in one way or another.  The people of Israel as a whole – God’s covenant people, God’s redeemed people – failed for generation after generation through the Old Testament.  Failure runs through the Old Testament like a ragged thread.  [And] the New Testament shows us people failing all over the place as well. (37)

Failure is a fact in the Bible, and in each of our lives. Consciously following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior now for more than 50 years now, I can tell you that much of my journey has been a matter of travelling the same ground over and over again.  The terrain of my failure is familiar.  I know the line from the poet/priest George Herbert’s poem “Discipline” by heart – “Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace.” In fact, I live these words.

The unknown author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote about “the sin that so easily entangles us” (12:1).  In the parlance of Christianity spirituality this is what’s meant by a “besetting sin.” This is the sin that just seems to have our number, it’s the sin that is our Achilles’ heel, our particular weakness.  It’s “the sin that so easily entangles us.”

Christian wisdom often pairs this notion of our “besetting sin” with that of the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. These seven “deadly sins” are the headings of seven broad categories under which all of the different ways that we offend against God’s holy laws, leaving undone those things which we ought to have done and having done those things which we ought not to have done” can be organized. The guide for Self-Examination in Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book: A Book of Devotion for Members of the Episcopal Church (Holy Cross Publications -1967) is a good example of how this works (pp. 112-121).  And when you undertake this spiritual discipline, a frequent discovery that people make is that while we all certainly have a capacity for the sins in all seven of these categories that nevertheless we each seem to be particularly adept at the sins in one of them – and that’s our “besetting sin” – “the sin that so easily entangles us.”   This is the sin will become our familiar foe, our lifelong struggle.

A story is told of a holy man who was dying. Satan appeared before him and, looking abject, said “At last, you have beaten me.”  And the old man, near death but still alert, replied, “Not yet!” (Alan Jones in Soul Making – Harper San Francisco – 1989 – p.98)

silence-movie-poster.pngI thought about this one evening last December when I sat in a theater all by myself watching Martin Scorsese’s lifetime project, the movie “Silence.”  Hardly anybody saw this film, and there were good reasons why.  It was too long.  It was too slow.  It was too demanding of the viewer.  And I loved it.  In fact, it wasn’t just the best movie that I saw last year, it was the best movie that I’ve seen in the last decade.

The story of Jesuit missionary priests in Japan in an era of the violent suppression of the church and the martyrdom of Christians, Silence is a sustained meditation on the mystery and the meaning of what it means to be faithful before the silence of God.  One of the characters in the story is a Japanese Christian named Kichijiro.  He is a confusing character in the story, a jumble of contradictions – at once faithful and unfaithful, brave and cowardly, advocate and adversary.  Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest himself, has written about him in the magazine of which he is the editor-at-large, America: The Jesuit Review

I’ve heard that the figure of Kichijiro, initially Rodrigues’s and Garupe’s (the Jesuit missionary priests) Japanese guide, and later Rodrigues’s friend, elicited some chuckles in movie theaters. Kichijiro is, by his own admission, a sinful man. He repeatedly apostatizes and cravenly turns Rodrigues in to the Japanese authorities. Time and again, Kichijiro returns to Rodrigues for confession, and towards the end of the film, after Rodrigues’s apostasy, he seeks out the former priest to hear his confession. Some viewers have found Kichijiro’s manifold weaknesses and his repeated desire for confession amusing. I found it human. Who hasn’t struggled with a sin that comes back to haunt us? Who hasn’t felt embarrassed about repeatedly confessing the same sins? Who hasn’t longed for God’s forgiveness? Towards the end of the film, this seemingly weak man also helps to bring Father Rodrigues back to his priesthood by seeking confession. In a moving scene, Father Rodrigues places his head on Kichijiro’s head, as if in prayer. Or absolution. Kichijiro’s final scene may be the most mysterious. A Japanese authority notices a necklace around Kichijiro’s neck and rips it off. He opens the leather pouch and discovers a Christian image. Kichijiro is revealed as a Christian and is swiftly led away, presumably to die. It took me three viewings to realize something: Kichijiro would become a traditional Christian martyr. Kichijiro would become the kind of person that Catholics would later venerate. How ironic that this “weak” man becomes the inadvertent hero, while the “stronger” man, Rodrigues, whose “martyrdom” is of a different type, will not be venerated. It is a mysterious meditation on sacrifice and martyrdom. (http://www.americamagazine.org)

In Kichijiro I caught the reflection of myself.

On a webpage where Disciple ministers talk, a young colleague recently asked if any of us thought that ministers should be held to a higher standard of morality than the members of our churches. It’s the wrong question.  There’s no two-tiered morality in the Bible, one for serious Christians like ministers, and another one for everyone else.  As Gene Getz pointed out, all of the moral and spiritual prerequisites for elders found in I Timothy 3 appear elsewhere in the New Testament as moral and spiritual expectations of every believer.  No, there’s not a higher standard, and that standard doesn’t function differently for a minister than it does for a church member.

Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.  But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… (Romans 3:19-24)

After watching a seagull circle round and round a crust of bread floating on the water, Helen Mallon said wrote – “repentance is the stillness around which I turn; this arc is my true shape.” She said, “I will move forward, my need for grace orienting me toward the true Center.” And finally she asks, “Can I find a better name than this: to be called One Who Returns?” (http://www.marshillreview.com/menus/extracts.shtm)

And this is where Dr. Wright ended his sermon on Peter’s failure in his book To the Cross.

Have you failed Jesus? Of course you have. The more appropriate question to ask would be: When did you most recently fail Jesus?  Then the key question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you let Jesus down again? Of course you have.  Of course I have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you felt the shame of that failure? And the embarrassment of it?  Have you found yourself almost unable to face Jesus in prayer again because of it? Of course you have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

And this is the question that Lent comes round each year posing with a certain intentionality and urgency – Do you still trust Jesus? The answer that Easter is requires us to wrestle with this question right now. DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

Two Different Religions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DBS +

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

Loving Our Muslim Neighbors

islam

I am convinced that one of the greatest issues of this day that we are living in is the relationship between Christians and Muslims, made even more difficult by global tensions and the current political climate. As the “Common Word” (www.acommonword.com) that was addressed to the Christian Community by 138 of the world’s most important Islamic leaders and scholars back in 2007 put it –

 Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. 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.

 What makes this such a complicated thing for us to do are our family ties and our strained history as Christians and Muslims. Christianity and Islam belong to the same Abrahamic family religions. We share some spiritual characteristics and have some common theological and moral perspectives. But we also have a long history with each other, and not much of it is good.  As the two great missionary religions of the world who equally believe that it is part of their God-given mandate to convince other to believe as they do, Christians and Muslims have been in nearly constant contact and direct competition with each other for centuries, and that’s crated some wounds and left some scars.

The late Vernon Grounds, one of the giant American Evangelical theologians of the last generation, liked to compare Christians to a pair of porcupines on a freezing winter’s night.

porcupines.png

He said that they pull in close to each other for warmth, but just as soon as they get close, they start to poke each other and that forces them apart.   Well, I think that this same dance characterizes Christian/Muslim relationships.  We are drawn in close to each other because we recognize a family resemblance in one another, but just as soon as we start to move in each other’s direction, we begin to poke and jab each other because of our differences and disagreements. We need to choreograph a different dance.  But to do so, I believe that two attitudes prevalent among Christians will need to be adjusted.

Some Christians, mostly from the progressive wing of the church, approach the Christian/Muslim relationship with the idea that our differences of belief are insignificant and unimportant. Peter Kreeft often points out that the only beliefs that separate Muslims and Christians are the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection.  But doctrinally, that’s pretty much the core of Biblical Christianity!  And just as convinced as I am about their truth, and just as passionate as I am about their proclamation as a Christian, in my five years of monthly public dialogue with Muslim Imams here in Dallas, I have yet to meet one who is not just as convinced that I am wrong about these things, and who is not just as passionate about telling me so. The approach to Christian/Muslim relations that begins with the idea that there’s really not anything important that separates us is a dead-end.

But so is the approach of other Christians, mostly from the conservative wing of the church, who argue that there is nothing that Muslims and Christians have in common spiritually, and that to even talk with them about the things of God is a dangerous compromise. More than once I have been accused of betraying Christ and denying the Gospel because I have entered into serious conversation with them about matters of faith and practice, and because I have chosen to related to my Muslim colleagues with respect and affection.  There’s got to be another step to this dance.

Back in 2012 our “Faiths in Conversation” series consisted of a cycle of fascinating presentations on what we as a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Minister and a Muslim Imam believe about Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.  What follows are my remarks from that conversation the night we talked about Muhammad.  In my presentation I tried to navigate a narrow path between wanting to honor the convictions of my Muslim friends about the status of Muhammad as a Prophet, and remaining true to my own commitment to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior.

In this historical moment when Islamophobia seems to be running rampant in the West, I offer here a different way of thinking and talking about Muhammad as a Christian that attempts to build a bridge rather than erect a wall, that wants to find a space where we can come together rather than closing a door that drives us even further apart. I’m not saying that I succeeded in this in what I said that night — but  I am saying that we’ve all got to try.  The whole world is watching.

DBS +

__________________________________________________________________________

Christians and Muhammad

moon

  Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Chistian Church
Dallas, Texas
__________________________________________________________________________

The Koran has a high regard for Jesus, affirming His claim to be the Messiah and numbering Him among the true Prophets of God. Why, there’s even an entire chapter in the Koran devoted to Mary the mother of Jesus where the Virgin Birth gets fully affirmed!  And then there’s the famous “Charter of Privileges” that Muhammad gave to the monks at the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula that offered them, and all Christians his respect and protection.  History tells us that Muhammad was nice to Christians, so why haven’t Christians been nice to Muhammad in return?

The history of anti-Semitism in Christianity is a shameful legacy of my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree. It is a contradiction of the Gospel of love that is the very heart of our faith as Christians.   And the history of anti-Islamism by my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree is no less shameful and no less a contradiction of the Gospel of God’s love.  And while most of the Christians I know will openly acknowledge and easily voice regret for the very real damage that we’ve done to our Jewish parents, we are not nearly as quick to acknowledge or apologize for the very real damage that we’ve done, and are doing to you, our Muslim siblings.

And so, as one Christian, let me begin by saying to my Muslim relatives in the Abrahamic Family who are here tonight, that I am sorry: I am sorry for the disrespect that we have shown you; I am sorry for the distortions of your beliefs that we have perpetuated; and I am sorry for the hatred that we have sanctioned if not actually encouraged against you. Our Lord and Savior told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and I confess that we have not always loved you, our Muslim neighbors, like that.  And our Lord and Savior told us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  And I confess that not only have we failed to do this with you; when you have done this with us – as with Muhammad’s “Charter of Privileges” – we have not even had the simple human decency to reciprocate.

And so I certainly don’t want to do or say anything here this evening that could be construed as an insult to you as a people of deep and genuine faith, or taken as a lack of respect for the beliefs that you hold sacred. But I am here as a Christian, and Christians, while we share some beliefs, practices and values with you who are Muslims, we don’t share all of the same beliefs, practices and values, otherwise we would be Muslims. My specific assignment here this evening is to talk for a few minutes about how Christians think of Muhammad; what Christians do with Muhammad.  And I suppose that I could just say that in the history of the world that Muhammad ranks as one of the great men, a fact that Christians can clearly see and easily acknowledge.  Politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally – Muhammad was one of greatest men who has ever lived.  His genius is obvious to anyone who takes the time to read his story and look at the facts.  And I suppose that I could say this, as a Christian, and then just sit down.  It would be accurate, I would be honest, and it would be a dodge.

You see, as great a man as Muhammad was politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally, these are the wrong criteria to be used by me in his assessment here tonight. I am here as a Christian believer, and it is as a Christian believer that you have asked me to tell you what I think of Muhammad, and what I do with Muhammad.  This is a religious question, and it deserves a religious answer.  And so, specifically, the question that I am going to try to respond to this evening is the one that Mahmut Aydin framed in his essays “Muhammad in the Eyes of Christian Scholars” published online at http://www.onislam.net-

Since we Muslims accept Jesus as a genuine prophet and messenger of God, can you Christians not reciprocate by accepting the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood?

Now, to answer this question as a Christian, I must first tell you briefly about an internal conversation that we Christians have among ourselves. It’s a debate over the question: “Does the gift of prophecy still operate in the church today, or has it ceased?”  In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he affirmed both the fact that there was a gift of prophecy operative in Christianity by which people spoke for God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (11:4; 12:10; 12:28-29; 14), and that this gift of prophecy would eventually “cease,” specifically when the “teleion” – the  Greek word for “the perfect” or “the complete” – “comes” (13:10).

Now, some Christians have interpreted the meaning of the “teleion” in this verse to be a reference to the Apostolic writings themselves, the books of the New Testament.  When it was finished, traditionally argued to have happened in the middle of the last decade of the first century, 95ish when the Apostle John finished his Gospel and letters – “the perfect” had come and so the gift of prophecy was said to have ceased.  It was no longer operative.

Known as the “cessationist” position, these Christians have a simple answer to the question about Muhammad’s status as a prophet of God, and it’s – “No, he’s not a prophet.”  But don’t take it personally – cessationists say this about anybody and to everybody who claims to have had a prophetic gift after the close of the first century, the Apostolic age – Montanus, Bahaullah, Joseph Smith, Mother Ann Lee, Mary Baker Eddy, Syung Yung Moon – any of them, all of them.  They can’t be prophets because there are no prophets anymore.  The gift of prophecy has ceased.  Case closed.

But not all Christians think this way.

With the rebirth of Pentecostalism at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the largest and fastest growing subsets of global Christianity, the belief in prophecy as one of the continuing gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes sovereignly according to the Divine purpose among believers for the building up of the church and the fulfillment of its mission in the world has been widely embraced. “Continuists” interpret the “teleion” – “the perfect” – of I Corinthians 13:10 as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and since that hasn’t happened yet, the gift of prophecy is still operational and that means that prophets still exist.

In another one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writing to the church at Thessalonica specifically told them not to “quench the Spirit” by “despising the words of prophets.” But neither did Paul want them to just blindly believe every prophetic claim.  And so, “test everything,” Paul told them, “holding fast to what is good” and rejecting what is not (I Thessalonians 5:19-21).  Christians who hold to this position – and I am one of them – would not reject the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood automatically out of hand as being impossible like “cessationist” Christians do, but would want to test the claim instead.  And the way that such a claim gets tested is by comparing the content of what has been “prophesied” to what has been previously accepted as a genuine revelation of God.

Just like you, Christians believe that God is really there and that the God who is there is not silent. God has spoken and acted in human history to make Himself known to us.   This is what we Christians mean by revelation, and when Christians think and talk about God’s revelation, we typically think and talk about it in two ways, in what’s called “General” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting generally in nature and conscience; and in what’s called “Special” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting specifically in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ, all of which has been preserved for us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.

It is against these two grids of revelation – “General” and “Special” – that the prophethood of Muhammad must be evaluated by me as a “continuist” Christian, and when I do, what I wind up with is a hung jury, a split decision.  You see, by the standards of the Special Revelation that I have as a Christian, I have some fundamental difficulties with Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet.

The New Testament tells me that Jesus is “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” the “Word made Flesh,” and that He went to the cross to die an atoning death for my sins and for the sins of the whole world, and that He was raised from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father from where He will come again at the close of the age.

Now I understand and can appreciate the fact that these are not things that you believe as Muslims. And I also know that you argue that your “Special” Revelation, the Koran, “corrects” what it believes are the distortions that we Christians have introduced into the record of the New Testament about Jesus.  You use your “Special” revelation as Muslims to correct what it is that I believe about Jesus Christ as a Christian.  But the very things that you would “correct” by your “Special” Revelation are the very things that I believe because of the “Special” revelation that I believe I have as a Christian.  And so beyond arguing the credibility of our respective sources of Special Revelation – which we have been known to do – I just don’t see much room for budge here.

There are fundamental differences, monumental differences, between the New Testament’s teachings about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does, and what the Koran teaches about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is. But as far apart as we are as Muslims and Christians with respect to the content of our respective “Special” Revelations, with respect to what we affirm about God from the source of “General” Revelation, we actually share a remarkable unanimity. And that’s not “nothing.”

David Bentley, a Christian scholar, has written an important book for Christians to see. It’s called The 99 Beautiful Names of God (William Carey Library – 2012). These are the 99 names of God that I see so beautifully calligraphied on the walls of the Mosques I visit, and that I am told you recite with your prayer beads.  Dr. Bentley wrote this book to show Christians that the God whom Muslims obey and adore is the same God whom we as Christians obey and adore.  Using the Bible as his source, Dr. Bentley showed that the 99 names you who are Muslims use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God are 99 names that we who are Christians use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God as well!

And the only way that I can explain this is to say that for all of the problems that I face as a Christian in accepting Muhammad as a genuine prophet of God because of the very real differences that exist between what our respective “Special” Revelations teach, at the point of “General” revelation there is no conflict and no question at all.

The Apostle Paul, preaching in the New Testament book of Acts, made it clear that there is a genuine knowledge of God available to us as human beings through “general” revelation.

“In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:16-17)

From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:26-28)

And at the beginning of his magnum opus – his letter to the Romans – Paul made the case for “special” revelation –

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:19-20)

And so, with these texts in support, without hesitation whatsoever I can affirm the conclusion that Muhammad was a prophet of God’s General Revelation.  He personally knew and publically proclaimed some important truths about the God who is there.  And while that’s not everything that you as Muslims believe about him, I would propose that it is way more than what many Christians have been willing to say in the past, and that it provides us with a real basis for our relationship with each other as we move ahead, together.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

The Most Important Thing That Church Can Do Right Now

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

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

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

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

chalice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the Lord’s Table we learn –

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

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

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

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

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

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

DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings