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“Get Woke!”

“Sleeper, awake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
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Ephesians 5:14

 asleep

While some people are too grown-up to take themselves too seriously to engage with slang terms, the Oxford English Dictionary has officially added the word “woke” to its pages. It’s defined as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”, or (more broadly) politically and culturally aware. …The roots of the word date back.  Fiona McPherson of the Oxford English Dictionary told Dazed Digital that ‘woke’, with its current meaning, has a history in Black American slang that dates back to the 60s. …Wokeness is an ongoing process, I think, even for the very woke. …Discussions about the porous boundaries between becoming woke, being woke, staying woke, being selectively woke, not being woke enough – need to happen. …There’s substance enough here (in the word and concept of woke) to unpack the complexities of what it means to live deliberately as a culturally/politically aware person. New, evolving language is what makes this possible.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________ http://www.marieclaire.co.za/latest-news/woke-added-to-the-oxford-english-dictionary

You, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;  for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

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I Thessalonians 5:4-10

 cross
Surprising seasons of special spiritual sensitivity and heightened spiritual receptivity in the life and ministry of a church are sometimes called “revivals.” Our church – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – was actually born during just such a time (see: “Revival at Cane Ridge” – Mark Galli – http://www.christianitytoday.com). Another word that has been used to describe these times when God’s presence, power and provision are especially “thick” is “awakenings.”

The slang phrase “stay woke” that has just been added to the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary is used to describe someone who has become socially and politically aware. “Awakenings” is a word that describes a time in the life of the church when this same thing has happened to people spiritually.  They have become aware, and this is an idea that goes all the way back to the pages of the New Testament.

sleepI have an icon of the sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane hanging on a wall in my office that I look at every Sunday morning as I head down the hall to preach, teach and minister to my people. I deliberately put it there to tell me that I must be spiritually “woke” myself, and to remind me of the challenge that I face every single day as a local church pastor – spiritual sleepiness. “Could you not stay awake with me for even just one hour?” Jesus asked his disciples, and this torpor is the steady state of most of the churches and Christians that I know, and based on what Paul told the Thessalonian Christians in the first century, it seems that it always has been.

Richard Lovelace, an American church historian who has written extensively about spiritual awakenings, observes that “only a small fraction” of the Christians he knows, or for that matter, “only a small faction” of all the all Christians who have ever lived have “solidly appropriated the justifying work of Christ in their lives.” At best, he said that most of us have only what might be called “a theoretical commitment” to Christ, and it is from this lethargy that we must stirred.  We need to “get woke.

kellerA sleepy Christian may believe that they’re a Christian, but they don’t have a real sense of God’s holiness, their own sin, or the depth of his grace. They may be a moralist or a relativist, or living inconsistent lives. Nominal Christians may be going to church, but have never really been convicted of sin or received salvation personally. (Tim Keller @ https://www.redeemercitytocity.com) –

The question is how?
How are sleepy Christians awakened?

William Perkins (1558-1602) was a Puritan theologian and pastor who believed that the two primary instruments that God uses to stir us from our spiritual slumber are a sustained exposure to “the ministry of the Word” and the “Providences” – “some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God.” To “get woke” spiritually we first of all need to know what it is that God promises and provides for us by His grace, and second, we need to know our own desperate need for what it is that God promises and provides by His grace.

This spiritual dynamic was captured nicely by the title of Reuel Howe’s 1949 book Man’s Need and God’s Action.  Awakenings, personal and corporate, occur at this intersection. Where our deepest felt needs and God’s saving actions touch, people get stirred from their spiritual slumber and it will begin to show in their interests and concerns. Again, Tim Keller writes helpfully –

Let me give you what I would call my modernized American versions of the kinds of questions I would ask people if I was trying to get them to really think about whether or not they know Christ. These questions are adapted from The Experience Meeting by William Williams, based on the Welsh revivals during the Great Awakening. He would ask people to share about these types of questions in small group settings each week:

  • How real has God been to your heart this week?
  • How clear and vivid is your assurance and certainty of God’s forgiveness and fatherly love?
  • To what degree is that real to you right now?
  • Are you having any particular seasons of delight in God?
  • Do you really sense his presence in your life, sense him giving you his love?
  • Have you been finding Scripture to be alive and active?
  • Instead of just being a book, do you feel like Scripture is coming after you?
  • Are you finding certain biblical promises extremely precious and encouraging?
  • Which ones?
  • Are you finding God’s challenging you or calling you to something through the Word?
  • In what ways?
  • Are you finding God’s grace more glorious and moving now than you have in the past?
  • Are you conscious of a growing sense of the evil of your heart, and in response, a growing dependence on and grasp of the preciousness of the mercy of God?

I like these questions. As a “Justification Gospeler,” to use Scott McKinght’s language (https://bensonian.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/three-ways-of-framing-the-gospel-justice-justification-or-jesus/), they push and poke in all the right areas when you are concerned about being, or becoming, or staying spiritually awakened. But despite my decidedly “Justification Gospeler” commitments and inclinations, my desire for the “whole Gospel” and not just a “Soul Gospel” (again, thank-you Scott McKnight for the categories of my thinking) pushes me to frame some additional questions from the “Justice Gospeler” perspective that I believe would also challenge people “to really think about whether or not they know Christ.”

  • Are you washing anybody’s feet?
  • Are you as concerned about the interests of others as you are concerned about your own interests?
  • Do you prefer others in love?
  • Do you show mercy and prove neighborly to those who have fallen among the thieves?
  • Do you visit orphans and widows in their affliction?
  • Do you feed the hungry?
  • Do you give drink to the thirsty?
  • Do you welcome the stranger?
  • Do you clothe the naked?
  • Do you visit the sick?
  • Do you bring good news to the poor?
  • Do you proclaim release to the captives?
  • Do you recover the sight of the blind?
  • Do you set at liberty those who are oppressed?

Awakened people belong to the day. Awakened people walk in the light. And just one awakened person in a congregation can be the instrument of renewal that God uses to awaken the whole church. They shine and bring light to the whole house. Will that be you?  DBS +

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“We tell people about Jesus, that’s what we do…”

campI was at youth camp all last week. When I got home on Saturday afternoon, I sat down and went through a week’s worth of morning papers and evening news broadcasts. I am something of a news junkie, and so my beloved bride saved and recorded all of the requisite materials that she knew I would want and need to get caught up with current events. I sat down with a sandwich and an iced tea at about 12:30 pm on Saturday to watch and read the news, and by 3 pm I was in something of a funk.

It was not a “good news” week.

There was the observance of the first year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando. There was the targeted political shootings of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise, one of his Congressional Aides, and two Capitol Police Officers. There was the horrific mass casualty fire at London’s Grenfell Tower. There was the truly mystifying and deeply disturbing “not guilty” verdict of the police officer involved in the shooting of Philando Castile, another young African American man. There was the inexplicable collision of the USS Fitzgerald and a cargo ship off the coast of Japan that left seven American sailors dead in their sleeping quarters. And there were the unprecedented climate change wildfires in Portugal that killed at least 61 people as they tried to flee the flames fast advance.

On Saturday afternoon I read more than one of my ministerial colleagues post something on Facebook to the effect that if you didn’t hear about any of this in your church on Sunday morning, then it might be time to start looking for a new church! And I couldn’t agree more, but I had to wonder, what did they think that we should be saying about these things in church in the morning? How do we reflect as people of Christian faith on the painful and pressing issues of the day?

On Sunday morning at the church I serve I began the early service by explaining that the theologian Karl Barth said that in order to be faithful, Christians needed to learn how to read their Bibles in one hand while holding the morning paper in their other hand. That’s certainly the standard. We aren’t just social commentators. No, our assignment is to bring the Word of God to bear on the events of the day. So, after quickly running through the list of what’s been in the morning paper over the past week, I suggested that while it would be easy to come to church as an escape from all the bad news, that the real reason why we needed to be in church on a Sunday morning after a week like the one that we’d just come through was to find a way to make sense of it all, and to begin to frame our faithful response to the world’s hurts and hopes with the Gospel’s message of “Emmanuel” – the “God who is with us” – and with the Gospel’s message of “Christus Dolor” – the Christ who Suffers with and for us – and with the Gospel’s message of “Christus Victor” – the Christ who triumphs over all of the powers that seek to work us woe – cosmically, socially and personally.

ableWill Willimon told the story in one of his books about his days as a local church pastor in South Carolina. Will said that he had planned a joint Christmas Eve service with the Episcopal priest of a nearby parish. Everything was ready to go, and then the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam began in mid-December of 1972. Will didn’t feel like they could just go ahead and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the coming of the Prince of Peace, as they had planned while this egregious escalation of the war was taking place in the day’s right before Christmas. So Will called his colleague over at the Episcopal Church and explained to him what he was thinking. Will insisted that they needed to take a stand. They needed to make a statement. They couldn’t let this moment pass without a prophetic word for peace being publicly and boldly spoken. And Will’s Episcopal colleague said that he agreed completely with everything that Will was saying. “So, what do you think that we should do?” Will asked finally asked him. And after a moment’s silence, Will’s friend said, “I’ve got it!”

“Let’s pull out all the stops and worship like we’ve never worshipped before!” he said. “Let’s sing hymns, and pray prayers, and read Biblical texts like we’ve never sung, prayed or read them before! Let’s tell our people all about the Kingdom that’s coming because of that little baby who’s slumbering in Bethlehem’s manger this night!”

Now, this was not at all what Will expected to hear. He was thinking of organizing some sort of a public protest, while his Episcopal colleague was thinking about casting a vision of God’s kingdom for the people in the church. Will was plotting a social action, while his Episcopal friend was plotting a Gospel celebration that would rearrange priorities and realign values. Will was focused on challenging and changing the attitudes and actions of the power brokers in Washington D.C., while his Episcopal ministerial peer was focused on challenging and changing the beliefs and values of the people who were sitting in the pews of their churches.

blubIn his keynote address for a National Conference on Youth Ministries for the Churches of Christ a few years ago, Scot McKnight challenged his audience by saying: “…In our church culture today, the Kingdom has come to mean good things that Christians do in the public sector …through the political process. …It has nothing to do with the church.

And then he asked –

… Is your local Bible study, when you gather together with people, Kingdom work? If you struggle with saying it is, then we need to go back to the New Testament. Is a worship service on Sunday morning, Kingdom work? …The most profound act of Kingdom work that you do in your local church is when you celebrate the Eucharist. That’s Kingdom work. And until we see that as Kingdom work, until we embrace that as Kingdom work, then we’re not really being Biblical Christians.

…Jesus came to establish a whole different social order. He called it the “Ekklesia” – the church (Matthew 16:18)… The church is the place where the Kingdom is manifested in our world today… because it’s the only place where Jesus is named as Lord. And this means that the Kingdom is more than just an ethic, because Jesus is more than just a prophet. The Kingdom is about embracing Jesus …the Messiah who saves. …And so if people come to your church and they don’t hear about Jesus, then you’ve failed them …because Jesus is all we’ve really got to offer them.

We tell people about Jesus, that’s what we do. …We tell people that… He’s the Savior. …And we summon people into the church as the place where God’s redemptive work in Christ is now alive and active… The most significant thing that we can accomplish for the Kingdom right now is to share the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper …with those people that you have to worship with…who are really difficult to love… When the Lord’s Table creates a fellowship of unlike people, that fact sends off a message of the redemption of God in this world… That’s the Kingdom that Jesus embodied in His table fellowship, and that’s what we’re called to do here and now.”  (http://www.christianchronicle.org/article/social-justice-vs-kingdom-work-full-text-of-mcknight-remarks-and-mccarty-response)

And this means that if you didn’t hear about Jesus in church last Sunday morning, then it might be time to go and find a new church.   DBS +

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The Pushy Holy Spirit

brilliant

 There’s an old saying about how God in Jesus Christ “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” and I see this clearly in the Biblical symbolism of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  Some of the images are tender and mild.  Others are “strong and pushy and relentless.”  The Holy Spirit “doesn’t just coddle and comfort” us, the Holy Spirit also confronts and challenges us.

The Bible opens with the Spirit of God moving on the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2), “bringing order and beauty out of chaos, bringing light into the darkness… That’s what the Spirit of God does. The Spirit of God moves! God’s Spirit is not inert or unmoving or static… God’s Spirit is not distant or aloof or imperceptible…  The Spirit of God moves!  The Spirit of God is living, moving, dynamic, connected, involved, even intrusive. It comes close to us, brushes up against us, blows through us, breathes into us”  (Ensworth).  And this is the Holy Spirit that we bump into in the Book of Acts on the day of Pentecost.

 The description of what happened on the first day of Pentecost is not quiet and peaceful.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (Acts 2:1-3)

It was noisy and chaotic. People were frightened and confused.  There was wind and fire.  The church was pushed out of its comfort zone and right into the mission of God.  One of the first things that Pope Francis said after his election was that when the Holy Spirit shows up the church is going to be pushed outward and onward, and chances are pretty good that the church is not going to like it one little bit.

The Holy Spirit annoys us. The Spirit moves us, makes us walk, pushes the church to move forward. [But] we want the Holy Spirit to calm down. We want to tame the Holy Spirit, and that just won’t do. The Holy Spirit gives us consolation and the strength to move forward and the moving forward part is what can be such a bother. People think it’s better to be comfortable, but that is not what the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit brings.

What the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit brings is momentum. Jesus told His disciples right before Pentecost that they would receive “power” when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and that they would then become His witnesses beginning in Jerusalem, and then expanding outwards to Judea, and then expanding outwards again to Samaria, and then finally expanding out to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  These ever widening circles of influence and impact are the work of the Holy Spirit. As John Howard Yoder pointed out, the church never sat down to strategize her mission, to work out the logic and logistics of it all.  No, Professor Yoder said, the church’s mission was subject entirely to the Holy Spirit’s initiative. In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit was always pushing the church past its present borders and across the thresholds to those who were standing just beyond its doors.

dove

The above image is, in my mind, the nearly perfect expression of what the Holy Spirit does. It’s abstract enough for different people to be able to see different things in it, but what I see is a boat on the crest of a wave with its sail set to catch the wind in a storm, and the shape of that billowing sail in the wind is the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove.  The way it looks to me, that boat has deliberately set its sail to catch the wind that is the Spirit in order to be propelled onward, and this has been, for me, one of the big defining images for my spiritual life.  In fact, it’s the basis for one of my favorite hymns, “I Feel the Winds of God Today”

I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray and torn with many a rift…
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be,
Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea…                    

The Holy Spirit does not drag us as a passive weight to go where God needs us to go to do what God needs us to do. To be sure, when the Holy Spirit “comes close to us, brushes up against us, blows through us, breathes into us,” it is as an active agent with a predetermined outcome in mind. The Holy Spirit pushes. But whether or not we let out the sail and catch the wind of the Spirit that’s blowing is a decision we’ve each got to make, and it is one of the great and painful truths of the Bible that we can “resist” the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), and we can “grieve” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and we can “quench” the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19).  I’m pretty sure that he was overstating the case for effect, but Morton Kelsey used to say that there is something that is even stronger than God in this world, and that it’s you and me, for we can shut God out should we so choose, and Pentecost is all about that choice.

Pentecost is about how the Holy Spirit blows into our lives – pushing us closer to Jesus, pushing us deeper into the Word, pushing us nearer to each other in love, and pushing us outward in God’s mission to the world. And so Pentecost leaves us each with a decision.  The next time we “feel the wind of God” blowing through our lives, pushing us in new directions, can you, will you pray – “Great Pilot of my onward way… today my sail I lift”?    Our faithfulness as individual Christians and the very future of the church depends, in no small measure, on how we respond when the Holy Spirit starts pushing. DBS +

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“Something More”

phoenix

I actually have a certificate signed by the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles that says I received the Holy Spirit together with His Sevenfold Gifts (Isaiah 11:1-2) when he laid his hands on me at my Confirmation in 1965 when I was 12 years old. But up to that point, and for a number of years afterwards, my experience of the Holy Spirit was just about as flat as that piece of paper.

In 1974 Catherine Marshall wrote her book Something More in which she explained that there is “a big difference between being indwelt by the Spirit and being ‘filled’ with His presence.” She explained that “for years (and sometimes for a lifetime) a Christian can keep the Spirit at a sub-basement level by the insistence on running one’s own life. Then through teaching or need – or both – that person recognizes his divine Guest’s presence, opens hitherto closed doors into crayon rooms in his being so that the Spirit can enter there too… It is not God’s attitude toward us that needs to be changed, but our attitude toward Him.  He will not give us anything new; rather we are to receive in a new and far fuller sense that which He has already given us at Pentecost… Sunlight can be kept out only by erecting barriers against it.  All we need do then, is take down our shutters and barriers and walk out into the sunlight already given” (276).  Until and unless this happens, she said, we will operate at a level well below what God intends for us spiritually, and we will experience this deficit as “an aching void in our hearts.”

It was a feeling of this kind of emptiness that brought J. Rodman Williams, a well-known and highly respected Presbyterian theologian, to the place of seeking “something more.”  In his 1972 book The Pentecostal Reality he wrote –

At the heart of much of our life and activity a deep spiritual crisis exists. Despite multiple attempts by the church at reassessment and relevance, there remains the haunting sense of something lacking or unfulfilled and a feeling of spiritual impotence… Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality of God’s presence? In an article appearing in “The Christian Century” (May 13, 1979) entitled “The Power of Pentecost: We Need it More Now Than Ever,” the author asks, “Why in every sector of Christianity today… [is] there so little evidence of spiritual power…?” “I am haunted,” he continues, “by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the disciples long, long ago.  Where is that power today?  Can it come among us again?”  Then, finally, he adds, “It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

I believe that it is this awareness of “something missing” that prepares us for the “something more” that the experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit brings into our spiritual lives.  It’s when we hunger and thirst for the reality of the things that we believe are true that we will start to ask, and knock, and seek, and that’s when Jesus said that the fullness of the Holy Spirit will be given to us (Luke 11:13).

My spiritual awakening happened in 1965.  That’s when I was “born again,” and I believe that it was at that time that I was forgiven and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is just “part of the package” of Christian conversion Biblically.  You can’t be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38; Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:1-5). But in my experience it wouldn’t be for another six years that I would “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit who indwelt me when I first believed.  For six long years the Holy Spirit had been living in the house of my life, but I wasn’t aware of His presence or consciously plugged into His power.  This happens because, as the Reformed Biblical Theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) explained –

In (the) great redeeming process two stages are to be distinguished. First come those acts of God which have a universal and objective significance, being aimed at the production of an organic center for the new order of things. After this had been accomplished, there follows a second stage during which this objective redemption is subjectively applied to individuals.

I’d believed the objective work of God in Christ to save me, but I’d not had a conscious experience of this saving work of God in Christ subjectively applied to me. I see this dynamic at work in the great “Apostolic Benediction” of 2 Corinthians 13:14 –

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
 

Salvation is the work of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It originates in the love of the Father.  It is accomplished by the grace of the Son in the finished work of His atoning death, burial and resurrection.   And it is applied by the communion of the Holy Spirit, by the way that the Holy Spirit communicates God’s grace in Christ to us and facilitates our sharing in it.  When we resist (Acts 7:51), quench (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), we close the door on the Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in our lives, and miss the conscious experience of the adequate spiritual dynamic for the living of the Christian life that God in Christ intends for us.

Jeffrey Simmons was an Episcopal Priest who was irritated when some members of his parish kept urging him to go to a certain conference where he could “get the Spirit.”   He finally wound up going, but resolved that he wasn’t going to let anybody pray for him while he was there.  Dodging offers to be prayed over at every turn, and becoming increasingly irritated by the whole idea, he finally retreated to a quiet garden where he could hide.

Sitting with my back against the trunk of a tree, I tried to sort out my feelings. I felt trapped (someone else had driven and I didn’t have a car.)  I felt pressured and manipulated… But as the sunlight sparkling through the cool green leaves started to calm me, I became aware that I (also) felt curious and a little ashamed of myself for not being more adventurous.  The theme of the conference, boiled down to the essentials, was nothing more than, “God wants to have a closer and more productive relationship with you, if you will just open yourself to receive it.”  I couldn’t argue with that… so I sat under that tree fir an hour and a half praying the hardest I had ever prayed in my life, “Dear God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.”

Several decades later, I still look back at that time of prayer with gratitude. I was not aware, when I emerged from under the tree, that anything had changed.  It was not an emotional experience at all.  The changes happened gradually over the next six months.  Prayer became a hunger, and the sense of God’s presence far more intense.  The amount of money I spent on Christian books increased dramatically. The biggest change, however, was what happened when I read the Bible.  Passages I had read fifty times took on a vividness and urgency that were almost disorienting.  All I had said was, “God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.” …It simply says, as I think Christians should always say, that God always has more for me, and I am standing before him with empty, receptive hands.

Biblically, I believe that the normal Christian life consists of both being “born again” (John 3:3) and of being “Spirit-filled” (Ephesians 5:18). Jesus Christ as the Savior came to do both.  He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and He is the “One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  But my spiritual life had been artificially truncated because nobody ever told me this, or showed me in Scripture how this was so.  As the disciples of John the Baptist told Paul outside of Ephesus in Acts 19:2 – I hadn’t even been told “that there was a Holy Spirit!”  And then, everything changed for me when at a prayer meeting when I was encouraged to “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit.  I did, and what I had known for a long long time was true suddenly became just as real to me, in me, and that’s the promise that Pentecost holds for each one of us.  “Come Holy Spirit, Come!DBS +

fire

 

 

 

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“All dressed up with nowhere to go, and nothing to do…”

cardinal

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, the high church variety. You know, “smells and bells.”  We took ourselves and our adherence to tradition quite seriously. In that old nature/nurture debate, I attribute my stalwart “SJ” temperament [matched by an “I” and a “T” for anyone who might be curious about my “type”] in no small measure to my being spiritually socialized in a church that actually had full rehearsals for all of its high holy day worship services so that we would “do it right” — that is, the way that it had always been done according to tradition.

Anyway, it was at the end of a long Lenten season and a marathon of intricate Holy Week worship services, that I was standing in the sacristy (the communion preparation room and worship staging area) with a couple of my fellow acolytes attending to all of the post-service details after the last Easter morning Worship, when I overheard our priest, getting out of his liturgical vestments, mutter – “Thank God that’s over.”

I’ve been through 40 Lents and Holy Weeks as a local church pastor now myself, so I know full well what he meant. He was tired.  He just wanted to go home and have a martini — what he had “given up” for Lent and go to bed.  He needed some down time.  I “get” that.  What I don’t “get” is the spiritual and Biblical myopia that his statement betrayed.

In the minds of way too many of us, Easter marks the end of the story. Get to Easter, and we’re finished until Advent and Christmas rolls around again in November and December.  This is our Christianity –

  • God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in Jesus Christ – the Christmas truth of the Incarnation – check – got it!
  • Jesus Christ going to the cross in a saving act of sacrificial love – the Good Friday truth of the Atonement – check – got it!
  • And Jesus Christ being raised from the dead on the third day triumphing over death and darkness – the Easter truth of Personal Regeneration and Cosmic Renewal – check – got it!

But if this is where we stop, then what we’ve got is Jesus back up on His feet and all dressed-up, but with nowhere to go and nothing to do! And if this is where your Christianity puts the period, then you’ve only got half of the Gospel.

bosch.pngDavid Bosch in his magisterial theology of the mission of the church Transforming Mission Orbis – 1991) identified the six Biblical moments in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ: (1) Christmas – the Incarnation – what God was doing to save us by becoming flesh in Jesus Christ; (2) Good Friday – the Atonement – what God in Christ was doing to save us by going to the cross; (3) Easter – the Resurrection – what God was doing to save us by raising Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day; (4) The Ascension –what God was doing to save us by seating Jesus Christ at His right hand as Lord; (5) Pentecost – what God was doing to save us by sending the continuing empowering presence of Christ to indwell individual Christians and the whole church; and (6) The Second Coming – what God is going to do to finish the work of salvation already begun in Jesus Christ when He comes again.

The “full” Gospel takes into account all six of these saving moments in the drama of God’s work in Jesus Christ.  And so, to pull up short and stop at Easter is to literally leave half of the Gospel on the table, and ironically, it’s the half of the Gospel that actually moves the story from history to our hearts!  As a prayer I am praying these days as part of my personal devotion puts it –

“Thou hast this day spread before us the fuller pages of revelation, and in them we see what thou wouldest have us do, what thou hast required of us, what thou hast done for us, what thou hast promised us, what thou hast given us in Jesus. [Now] we pray thee for a conscious experience of his salvation…” (The Sunday Evening Prayer from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions – Arthur Bennet, ed.  The Banner of Truth Trust. 1975. — Yes, I really am an “SJ”…)

For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the part of the Gospel that the Ascension, Pentecost and the promise of the Second Coming specifically offer us – that is, an awareness of the active Lordship of Christ over all of creation (Ascension); the experience of the indwelling and empowering presence of Christ assuring us of our identity as God’s children and driving us out to share in His mission in the world (Pentecost); and a deep aching for the final coming of the Kingdom when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (The Second Coming).  Without this awareness, this experience and this ache, our Christianity will always be more a theory than a love affair.  For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the whole Gospel. So, to my priest’s exhausted – “Thank God that’s over” – spoken in the sacristy of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California, 50 years ago, this veteran of 40 Lents and Holy Weeks now himself replies – “Not yet, Father… it’s not over yet.” Jesus Christ was raised on the third day to finish the work of salvation that His birth, life, death and resurrection began, and “finishing” it involves the Ascension, Pentecost and the Second Coming.

This all hit me with particular force a week ago at Sunday evening’s Ephesians Bible study (broadcast each week between 5:30 and 6:30 pm – Central Standard Time – on Facebook Live) as we dug into 1:17-21 –

17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Paul addressed these words to Christians, to people who already knew and fully trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In 1:15-16 Paul had affirmed and celebrated with the Ephesians what it was that he had heard about their faith and love.  They were already well-grounded believers, and what Paul wanted for them next was growth.  He didn’t want them to rest on their past laurels of faith and faithfulness, but rather Paul wanted them to keep on growing in their understanding and experience of the hope to which they had been called, of the value of the promises that God had made to them, and of the power that was available to them.  It wasn’t over yet, and Paul wanted these believers who had had such a good start not to stall out in the face of the challenges and conflicts that were yet to come their way.  And in his word of encouragement to them, Paul appealed to what God had already done for them by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, as well as anticipating what it was that God was still going to do for them because Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places.  In other words, Paul brought the “full” Gospel into play in his efforts to encourage the faith of the Ephesian Christians as they moved into the future, and it’s there for us as well.

godIn Romans 8, Paul grounded his affirmation of God’s love in Jesus Christ from which nothing can separate us in three Gospel moments: (1) In the fact that Christ died for us (8:32); (2) In the fact that Christ was raised for us (8:34b); and (3) In the fact that Christ now intercedes for us at the right hand of God (8:34c). Again, it’s the “full” Gospel – what Christ has already done for us, what Christ is presently doing for us, and what Christ has yet to do for us – and not some partial version of it that securely tethers us to the certainty of God’s love and that tightly attaches us to the promises of God’s faithful care and concern for us, and the whole world.

When Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, He had somewhere to go and something to do, and for a conscious experience of the salvation that He provides, it’s best to see this story through to its very end, and to build our faith on the complete foundation that we are being offered. DBS +

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“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.”

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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 +

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What Was God Doing on the Cross?

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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 +

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