Tag Archives: Grace

God’s “No” & God’s “Yes”

I started Christian College with a guy who was there studying to become a minister just like I was. But after a couple of years he dropped out and disappeared. Years later I found out from a mutual friend that he had become a police officer, and when my friend asked him why, that guy told my friend that he discovered that he didn’t have enough mercy in him to be a minister, but that he did have enough justice in him to go into law enforcement. I’ve thought a lot about these words in my 40 years as a minister, and about the interplay between justice and mercy.

hatMartin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, believed that God only speaks two words to us – the Law and the Gospel. The Law came to Moses by way of Mt. Sinai and it tells us what God wants us to do. The Gospel came through Jesus by way of Mt. Calvary and it tells us what God has done for us. In Christian College I was told that the most important page in my Bible was the one that separates the book of Malachi from the book of Matthew, the Old Testament from the New Testament.  Drawing the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is more complicated than this, but generally speaking, this is where it starts. “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came though Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

noThe Law usually gets heard by us as a “no.” Growing up I prayed a prayer of confession when I was in church that said – “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” The Law is God’s moral instructions to us, and so it was the Law that made clear to us what we had done and left done for which we needed to be sorry.  As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, the Law takes our moral measure and shows us just exactly where and how we come up short (Romans 3:19-23).

I hear this “no” most clearly in the Bible’s “woes.” A “woe” is the exact opposite of a blessing.  In fact, in Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (6:20-26), after four Beatitudes, after four “blessed are you if…,” we are given four corresponding “woes,” four “woe to you if….”   A “woe” is a prophetic word of judgment.  It’s not a word that gets spoken lightly.  It’s a word that only gets spoken with great seriousness and sadness. A “woe” is a very clear, and a very emphatic – “don’t do this!”  And it begs a question, at least in my mind – “When do we say this about anything?”

Racism certainly demands a clear and emphatic woe. So does the random slaughter of our children in school, as does sexual abuse in the workplace, or anyplace for that matter.  The book The Death of Outrage was published some 20 years ago. In it the author wondered about why more people weren’t more alarmed by the moral decline of our society.  And at least part of the answer he offered was “relativism,” the idea that nobody is really evil, and that nothing is finally wrong, because we don’t really have a sure way of knowing what’s good and bad.

The Bible disagrees, in fact, this viewpoint even gets a “woe.” Isaiah 5:20 says – “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” The whole point of the Law is moral clarity, knowing what’s right and wrong. “You have no right to say that Hitler was wrong,” a teacher reports hearing from a student in her class during a discussion, “because he thought he was right.” That’s relativism, and it’s outrageous because Hitler was wrong, and so is racism, and gun violence, and sexual predation. How do I know? Well, the Law tells me so.

The Law is God’s “no” to anything and everything that’s contrary to God’s good intentions for creation, to anything and everything that diminishes our dignity as bearers of God’s image, to anything and everything that threatens our well-being or that interferes with our flourishing as human beings. God says “no,” and we should not be reluctant to repeat it. But we shouldn’t just stop with the “no” either.

yesGod says “no.” But “no” is not the only word that God says, nor is it that last word that God says. God also says “yes.” In fact, the “no” of God’s Law is a preparation for the “yes” of God’s second word to us – the Gospel. Rather than being opposed to each other, the “no” of God’s Law and the “yes” of God’s Gospel actually “require” each other. It’s the “no” of the Law that actually opens our hearts to receive the “yes” of the Gospel.

cookJerry Cook, the pastor of a church in Portland, Oregon, for many years, was soundly criticized by a number of his ministerial colleagues in that city for welcoming into worship one Sunday morning a high profile minister he knew from the community who had left his wife for another woman, and who had lost his ministry and reputation as the result. That man called Jerry to ask if he could come to church. It seems that he had gone to other churches and had been asked from the pulpit to leave. Some pastors had actually called him and told him that he would not be welcome at their churches. And so this man called Jerry to ask if he, his new wife, and their little baby could slip into church after the service started, sit quietly on the back row, and then leave during the closing hymn without drawing any attention to themselves? Jerry told him to come and that he would be at the front door to greet them. And when he came, and Jerry was there to welcome him, this man grabbed Jerry, and buried his head into Jerry’s shoulder. Weeping like a baby, he held onto Jerry like a drowning man. “Jerry,” he asked, “can you love us? I’ve spent my whole life loving broken sinful people, and right now I really need someone to love us.”

People who have heard the “no” of the Law need to hear the “yes” of the Gospel. Their hearts are ready for it. In fact, they’re desperate for it. Its love, acceptance, and forgiveness, not hatred, rejection, and condemnation that change people. This is why Jerry made a “minimal guarantee” to anyone who showed up at his church –

First, we are going to love you – always, under every circumstance, without exception.   Second, we are going to accept you, totally, without reservation. And third, no matter how miserably you fail, or how blatantly you sin, unreserved forgiveness is yours for the asking with no bitter taste left in anyone’s mouth. (11)

God speaks two words to us. It’s not just one or the other – a “no” or a “yes” – the Law or the Gospel.  It’s both – it’s both “no” and “yes” – it’s both Law and Gospel.  And as hard as it is for us to do, we’ve got to hang onto both of these words. The “no” of the Law is not harsh and unyielding, God’s only and final word. Without becoming sentimental, or being indifferent to the wrong done by us, or to us, God’s “compassion grows warm and tender.” In the “yes” of the Gospel God’s mercy prevails. As the old Gospel hymn put it so well –

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

Understand this, and you will know what it means to be forgiven. Understand this and you will find in your own heart, and discover in your own experience the tools that are necessary for you to be forgiving.  DBS+



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Building Bridges in Days of Hatred

Last night at the Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano we had our October Faiths in Conversation program on prayer in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish spiritual traditions. There was something powerful about coming together as Christians, Jews, and Muslims to seek mutual understanding and to find common ground on a day when an act of terrorism in New York City that was rooted in misguided religious extremism and that was met, from some quarters, by an equally misguided extremism, was the story of the day.  As I asked in my presentation –

Does the Lord’s Prayer tap the subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? Is the spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive, something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews?  More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family (Muslim and Jewish), and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?

“Relating to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level” — could anything be more important for us as Christians to learn to do, especially with our Muslim cousins, in a day when misunderstanding is the rule and violence is increasingly becoming the way. What follows is my presentation from the program last night. May it serve the cause of understanding and respect. DBS +


Prayer – Faiths in Conversation
A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas Skinner
Custer Road UMC – Plano – Tuesday, October 31, 2017 – 7:00 pm


In wide swaths of the church, baptism is viewed as a covenantal sign much like circumcision is in Judaism. Infants are baptized into the community of faith on the promise of family and church to raise them in “the fear and admonition of the Lord.” Later on, at an “age of accountability,” they are then expected to make their own decision about the faith in which they have been raised.  This act of faith’s personal acceptance is called “Confirmation.” It’s when and how the faith of the family and church that was the basis for their baptism as infants gets personally “confirmed” by them when they can think and decide for themselves.

I was confirmed by the Right Rev. Francis Bloy, the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles back in 1966 when I was 12 years old. I had been baptized as an infant, and on that occasion my parents and their church promised to raise me in such a way that I would grow into a faith of my own.   Specifically, what they promised to do was to teach me three things – the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

In the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church there is a Catechism which is the official curriculum that is to be taught to every person before they can be confirmed, and the backbone of this standard teaching tool, not surprisingly, are these same three things. The Apostles’ Creed spells out the core convictions of the Christian faith.  The Ten Commandments establish the basic code of conduct for the Christian life.  And the Lord’s Prayer serves as the basic guide to a Christian’s communion with God.

Now, I tell you all of this in order to say that whenever the Christian Church has talked about prayer, it has always talked first and foremost about the Lord’s Prayer, and that’s because for Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is the Model Prayer. It’s the prayer that Jesus gave His disciples when they asked Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), and it has been a prayer that has been prayed by His disciples ever since.  In fact, no prayer has been prayed by more Christians over a longer period of time than has the Lord’s Prayer.

In many of the denominational families of Christianity the Lord’s Prayer is prayed publicly every week in worship. For instance, at the church I serve we pray the Lord’s Prayer together out loud every Sunday morning.  I think it’s safe to say that the Lord’s Prayer is the most widely shared liturgical text in all of Christianity.  But it’s not just limited to our public acts of shared worship.  Many Christians also pray the Lord’s Prayer individually when we are all by ourselves.  For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a primary text for our life of public worship as well as for our life of private devotion.

The “Didache” is a second century document that describes the some of the practices of the early church right after the close of the New Testament era, and it instructed Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times each day.  This was the first Christian Rule of Prayer:  pray the Lord’s Prayer first thing in the morning, then pray it again at midday, and then finally, pray it one more time at night right before going to bed.  Now, understand, there was more to this practice than just mechanically rattling-off the 70-or-so words of the Lord’s Prayer.

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition they say that we learn how to pray first with our lips – by saying the words; and then we learn how to pray with our heads – by understanding the meaning of the words that we are saying; and then finally we learn how to pray with our hearts – by experiencing the reality of the God who is behind the concepts and beneath the words. And it is this movement from mouth to head, and then from head to heart, that informs the use of the Lord’s Prayer by Christians.

There is more to the Lord’s Prayer than its words, beautiful and meaningful as they are. In this prayer that takes less than a minute for us to recite what we who are Christians are given is a summary of the spiritual life from the perspective of Christianity. In the affirmations and petitions of this prayer taught to us by Jesus Christ Himself, the building blocks of our relationship with God as Christians get spelled out for us simply and specifically.  This is why the church has, right from the beginning of her life, insisted that knowing and praying the Lord’s Prayer is an indispensable part of what it means to be a Christian.

On the handout that I prepared for you this evening you will find the text of the Lord’s Prayer as we pray it each week at my church.


Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.


The Lord’s Prayer consists of a combination of affirmations about the God to whom we pray as Christians, and petitions addressed to this God that inform our expectations of what it is that He wants for us as human beings. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us absolute confidence” in God, and “total dependence” on God as human beings.

I find that who you think God is will largely determine how you pray. If you think that God is distant and disinterested, then you pray to get that God’s attention. And if you think that God is fastidious and stern, then you pray to try to win that God’s favor. But if you think that God is personal and affectionate, then you pray as a conversation with a friend, and this is exactly the kind of God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer.  Christians pray to God as “Father.” Now, the picture that immediately comes to my mind and heart when I think about what this looks like is the one that Genesis chapter 3 paints for us of God coming to the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening to go for a walk with Adam and Eve (3:8). This is a picture of intimacy and affection, and this is a picture of the kind of relationship that I as a Christian believe God wants to have with all of us.

When Genesis chapter 1 tells us that we are created in the image of God as human beings (1:27), I think that part of what we’re being told is that we are made with a capacity and a need for a relationship with God. We are intrinsically and incurably religious as human beings. I just love the way that St. Augustine put it, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” he prayed, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Just like a reflection in a mirror, we are created to correspond to God, we are built to respond to Him.  We are created to talk with God face to face and as friend with friend (Exodus 33:11).  And the God who is addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is just this kind of God, a God of intimate and affection relationship, a parental God.  This is a God in whom I can have “absolute confidence.”  And because I do, this is a God on whom I can “totally depend.”

When I was a kid growing up, once everyone was seated at the family dinner table every evening, my father would fold his hands, bow his head and say – “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,” and then my mother, my sisters and I would immediately answer saying – “and you give them their food in due season.” “You open wide your hand,” my father would continue, and again we would all respond, “and you satisfy the needs of every living creature.”  These words come from Psalm 145, and they were an important part of the nightly dinner table ritual for my family when I was growing up, and I’m glad they were because they taught me something important about God that I have never forgotten – He is the source of every good and perfect gift that I have in my life and that I see in the world.  And the Lord’s Prayer is built on this same conviction.

When I pray the Lord’s Prayer asking for God’s provision, pardon, and protection, the confidence I have that I am actually being heard, and that my requests are going to be taken seriously, rests singularly on what it is that I know to be true of the God to whom I am praying. The God to whom Jesus Christ taught His disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer is a God who knows us by name and need.  The “Heavenly Father” God addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is a God that we as Christians believe has both the intention and the ability to do good for us and for all of creation.  And it’s on the basis of these affirmations that we then make our needs known to Him.

In the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer there is a mix of human needs mentioned, some of them are material, some of them are spiritual, but all of them of real concern to the God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer. I had a professor in seminary who liked to say that if we can’t trust God with the temporal needs of our bodies then why should we bother trusting Him with the eternal needs of our souls? And that question nicely reflects the scope of God’s concern for us as human beings in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

Our spiritual needs get gathered up and voiced in the petition for God’s kingdom to come, for things to be on earth as God has always intended them to be from eternity. This is a prayer for shalom, for human beings and all of creation to thrive in a harmonious web of mutual interdependence. And the petitions for forgiveness, guidance, and deliverance from evil are all cries to God to help us move in this direction. And our material needs all fall under the umbrella of the petition for daily bread.  Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is about everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body – food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money… good weather… health… a loving family… good friends… [and] faithful neighbors.

“Total dependence” on a God in whom we have “absolute confidence” is what the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian. And in teaching me this, I believe that it is teaching me the essence of how Christianity understands the spiritual life.  The intriguing question for me as a Christian is how expressive of the essence of the Abrahamic spiritual tradition is this “total dependence” and “absolute confidence” that the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian?

When you look around and listen, the two biggest conversations that are being had on prayer when Christians, Muslims, and Jews talk are: (1) Are we praying to the same God? and (2) Can and should Jews and Muslims pray the Lord’s Prayer when it is being offered as the “universal” prayer in public non-sectarian settings like Alcoholics Anonymous?  My question is different.  It’s not about the God we are praying to, a God I believe we in fact share as Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  And it’s not about whether or not you as Jews and Muslims can or should pray the actual words of the Lord’s Prayer.  No, my question is different.  It has to do with the spiritual dynamics that are at work in the Lord’s Prayer. You see, from my years of being involved in interfaith conversations like this one here this evening, I have learned that when we talk about doctrine, what we believe, that’s when our greatest differences become evident, but when we talk about spirituality, how we believe, that’s when our greatest similarities show.

For example, when we talk about Jesus Christ and who we think He is, that’s when I find that we’re furthest apart as Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and I don’t see any way of closing that gap without one of us changing what we believe.   But when my Jewish friends talk about their long experience of “chesed” – God’s steadfast covenantal love for them, and when my Muslim friends open up their Korans and read – “I begin with the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. All praise is to God, Lord of all the worlds, Most Gracious, Most Merciful…” – my heart can easily say, “that’s the God I know too in Jesus Christ.”

We have a hymn we like to sing at my church about how in shared devotion “true hearts everywhere their high communion find.” This hymn is about how Christians of different races and backgrounds find our unity in the relationship that we all share with Christ. And my question is, does the Lord’s Prayer with its spirituality of “absolute confidence” in and “total dependence” upon God create a similar kind of “shared devotion” in which we as the three branches of the Abrahamic family tree of faiths can find “a high communion” from “true hearts”?

Does the Lord’s Prayer tap a subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? You see, whether or not you can pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer with me, what I’m really interested in knowing is if this spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive is something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews?  More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family, and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?


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“Get Woke!”

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


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.

I Thessalonians 5:4-10

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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The Hard Work of Hope Begins…


A colleague and friend responded to my blog last week about “Patriotic Grace” by asking, Should we just sit back and accept things, as is, to continue on the road our world is traveling on or should we speak up for our Lord and Savior and His teachings? Political Grace, how do they intermingle?” These are the right questions, Debbie.

What I wrote in “We’re All in This Thing Together” was a thought piece, the elucidation of what I believe is a Biblical principle.  I’m a pastor/preacher, a practical theologian, this is what I do. I live in a world of big thoughts that I find in Scripture about God, and humanity, and how it is that we connect with and relate to each other. What you want is for me to put some wheels on the concept so that it can get some traction on the road of real life.  What you’ve asked reminds me of something I heard my friend Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger say earlier this year at one of our Faiths in Conversation programs.

coffinHe told a story about William Sloane Coffin, one of the previous ministers of New York City’s historic Riverside Church. After another one of his many appearances before a congressional panel in Washington D.C. on some pressing social issue where he had prophetically tried to speak truth to power, he was chided by one of the congressmen for always speaking in abstractions at the level of what someone has called “big hairy truths.”  “Talking about peace, and justice, and equality, and compassion is fine,” that congressman said, “but specifically… practically… concretely… at the point of policy and law, just exactly what was it that you want us to do?”  And Dr. Coffin reportedly said that figuring that out wasn’t his job.  That was their job. “Amos thundered ‘let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream’ (5:24),” he said, “but Amos didn’t draw up any plans for the construction of reservoirs and irrigation systems.”

mineIn my July 1 blog – “Is the Fourth of July a Religious Holiday?” – I referenced the thinking of the Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper who said that “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” but who also believed that God does different things in and through the church than God does in and through culture. I explained, “Just as you wouldn’t go to a bank to get a loaf of bread, or take your dog to an auto mechanic to treat him for fleas, so while God is at work in and through both church and culture, God is not doing the same thing in both places.

This is a gross oversimplification of what Kuyper taught, but we could say that the assignment that God has given to the church concerns the eternal needs of our souls as human beings, while the assignment that God has given to the culture concerns the temporal needs of our bodies. The Great Commission sets the agenda for the life and work of the church. To teach what Christ commanded and to make disciples is the church’s job.  And it’s something called the “Cultural Mandate” that sets the agenda for the work that God expects culture to do. The “Cultural Mandate” is what the Creation stories of Genesis are talking about when they call all human beings everywhere and always to the tasks of “filling and subduing” (Genesis 1:28) and “tilling and keeping” (Genesis 2:15). These are God’s assignment for culture. Creating and then maintaining the conditions that are most conducive to human thriving in this world, that’s the assignment that God has given to culture.

So, within this framework, back to your good questions Debbie.

What is it that we as Christians are supposed to do? Within the “sphere” of the church’s assignment, what should we be doing, especially right now and right here in this moment of violence, anger and fear?  Well, last Sunday morning I preached on the Sixth Commandment – “No Killing” (Exodus 20:13). This sermon series on the Ten Commandments was planned three months ago.  The intersection of this specific text with the events that played out in downtown Dallas, and in Minneapolis, and in Baton Rouge last week, are what I can only describe as a “Godcidence” (as opposed to a coincidence).

The decision that I preached for last Sunday morning was this –

Jesus said that while the prohibition of the Sixth Commandment still stands, that we must understand that killing is never just an outward act. “Murder comes from the heart” Jesus said (Matthew 15:19).  Long before it’s an external act, murder is an inward attitude rooted in envy, anger and hatred.  When another person has been judged to be worthless by us, then their life is of no longer of any concern to us.  And when this happens, then we’ve already committed the hidden murder of the heart.  And so, this is where Jesus Christ dug in His holy heels and intervened with His “transforming initiative of grace.”  Long before another person has been denigrated and dismissed, Jesus told us to interrupt this slide of them becoming dead to us by choosing to deliberately relate to them as a human being instead.

 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

 It’s not unimportant that people of Biblical faith take principled moral stands against killing in any of its familiar forms in our current culture of death. The Sixth Commandment is supposed to be one of the points on our moral compasses as Christians, and in our American context, I believe this means that it needs to be taken into serious consideration as we make our choices about who it is that we want making the life and death policy decisions of our nation.  But if that’s where you stop, then it seems to me that what you’ve got is an Exodus chapter 20 kind of faith, but not a Matthew chapter 5 kind of faith.  What you’ve got is the law, but not the Gospel.

 So, what does the Gospel look like in this specific situation? Well, I think that it looks an awful lot like that picture from Tuesday’s memorial service at the Meyerson.  Blacks and whites, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, police officers and Black activists, Jews and Muslims, Christians and secularists, all standing side by side and hand in hand.  This is a powerful picture of the kind of “Patriotic Grace” of which I wrote last week, and I believe that it’s a picture of the kind of work that the church is called to do, and about which I preached last Sunday morning.

My “Disciple” conscience and conviction, shaped as it is by the open Lord’s Table with the emblems of God’s saving grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ to which everyone is invited by faith on it, creates a passion in me to work to want to help people who are pulling apart to find the common ground where they can come within “hearing distance” of Christ and one another, and find their peace.

And so, while I believe that it’s important to oppose killing in our society as a person of Biblical faith, I believe that it is just as important as people of Biblical faith that we consciously and consistently choose to concretely love those people who, for whatever reason, we are most tempted to treat with contempt and disdain.  It’s because anger and hate are the roots of the kind of killing that the Sixth Commandment prohibits that Jesus told us as His disciples that it’s right there in those difficult relationships that the Gospel’s transforming work of grace must begin.

 Debbie, this is what we do. This is how we live “Patriotic Grace.” This is the work that I believe we are called to be doing right now as Christians.  This is how, and this is where the hard work of hope begins.  DBS +


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Jesus Wept…Yes, But then He raised Lazarus from the grave…


…Yes, but then He raised
Lazarus from the grave…

I am noticing something of a trend.

Whenever there is a tragic circumstance, Christians are increasingly posting on Facebook the two word response, “Jesus wept.”  And I completely believe that He does.  In fact, personally, my “Emmanuel” Christology (“God with us”) revolves around the absolute truth of this Gospel fact.  God’s full identification with us in the human condition through the incarnation is the biggest single reason why I am a Christian by conviction and not just by acculturation.

I deeply and desperately believe that God became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ (John 1:14), sharing our flesh and blood, facing all of the same threats and fears that we must face in this life (Hebrews 2:14-18), so that He can fully sympathize with us in our struggles, and give us the confidence we need to be able to draw near to God’s throne of grace to receive mercy and find help in our times of need (Hebrews 4:14-16). And so, while I believe that “Jesus weeps” when we, or the world suffers, I nevertheless don’t believe that it is, all by itself, enough.  It’s only a partial Biblical truth.  It’s an insufficiently Christian response.

yiedPeter Kreeft, the very fine Roman Catholic Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, discussed this as the question of what it is that we really need when our car careens in a snowbank. He argued that while it’s wonderful to have a good friend come and sit beside us in our cold car, sharing our discomfort while we wait, that what we really need in that moment is for someone in a tow truck to come along and pull us out of the mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into!  Now, if that tow truck driver is courteous and compassionate, then all the better!  But what we really need in that moment is not somebody’s sympathy, but their specific and concrete help at the point of our very real need.  And that’s why I find that the “Jesus wept” response, as valuable and as true as I honestly believe it is, is just not enough.  It’s less than the Gospel.

cryIn context, right after we’re told in John 11:35 that “Jesus wept,” we’re told that Jesus ordered the stone to be moved (11:39) so that Lazarus could get up and get out (11:43).  The whole setting of this story about Christ’s tears were His prior claim to be the resurrection and the life (11:25).  It was through His tears that Jesus Christ promised that those of us who would believe in Him, though we die yet shall we live, and that whoever lives and believes in Him shall never die (11:25-26).  This is what I think Paul had in mind when he told the Thessalonian Christians that because of their faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they could “grieve hopefully” (I Thessalonians 5:13).

To say that “Jesus wept” is to grieve, and that’s a wonderful heartfelt response to human suffering.  It’s humanizing and compassionate; a completely commendable reaction.  But to always be clear that it was through those tears that Jesus Christ confronted and then defeated death by raising Lazarus from the dead is to “up the spiritual ante” of Christianity significantly.  It is to consciously step out onto the Gospel terrain of “grieving hopefully,” and I wonder… even worry… about why it is that so many of my Christian brothers and sisters fail to go here these days in the things that they post online in response to the suffering and sadness of the world.

Paul told the Romans that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because he knew personally that it was the power of God to “save,” that is, Paul believed that the Gospel is how God in Jesus Christ heals what is broken, fixes what’s gone wrong, and answers the painful questions that confuse and crush us as human beings.  To forget to mention this as Christians in our response to the human suffering that we see and experience, it seems to me, is to flinch at the very moment when the Gospel needs to be heard most loudly and clearly.   It is to fumble the ball on the goal line.

Harvey Cox wrote about how, for the longest time, he had a bad case of “Christological heart-failure.” What he meant by this provocative term was his general reluctance to talk about Jesus Christ in settings where Jesus Christ was not well known, or among people who had not already embraced Him by faith.  But it was “those people” who finally called him out on this.  If he was really a Christian, they told him, someone who was truly trusting God in Christ with his own deep hurts and highest hopes, then why didn’t he have the courage of his convictions and tell them about it?  People who need hope, people who are looking for hope, want to know where you found your hope if you’ve got some.  By failing to talk about Jesus Christ, Harvey Cox was told by his non-Christians friends and acquaintances that he was failing to tell them the very thing that made him who he was, and that they found most interesting about him.

redSo, go ahead and let people know that Jesus Christ Himself wept when His heart was personally and powerfully touched by the anguish of the world. That’s good to know.  Just don’t stop there as if sympathy is all that there is to Christianity –  as if all we have to offer a hurting world is a God who sits beside us in the waiting rooms and at the gravesides of life, patting our hand and saying over and over, “Ain’t it awful… Ain’t it just awful.” Yes, Jesus wept, but then Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, and that’s what Lazarus really needed.  DBS +


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Christmas in a Time of Violence


Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship (1937). He defined “cheap grace” as –

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Most of us heartily concur, but there is a “cheap peace” as well that is no less insidious, and it gets widely promoted this a time of year in both culture and church.

The connection of peace with Christmas is one that the Scriptures clearly make.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”

– Luke 2:14


 For to us a child is born,  to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder,  and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

– Isaiah 9:6

To create peace – peace with God (Romans  5:1), peace within ourselves (John 14:25-27), peace with one another (Ephesians 2:13-18), peace between the nations (Revelation 22:1-5) and peace in all of creation (Revelation 21:1-5) – is one powerful Biblical way of explaining the meaning of the Christ event, and this is a truth that we celebrate in the carols that we sing in worship.


Hark! The herald angels sing,“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing,“Glory to the newborn King!”

Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

Ricky Balthrop posted a provocative blog [https://rickysplace.wordpress.com] on “Peace and Christmas Songs” back in December of 2012 in which he contrasted the theologically thick lyrics of the church’s traditional Christmas carols with the sentimentally thin lyrics of the Christmas songs that are so popular in our culture.

I adore traditional Christmas music, whether it’s the Old English Christmas Carols or the non-denominational Christmas songs that began to the music market with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”  I’m as happy singing “O Holy Night” as I am singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Christmas songs give me a huge endorphin rush.

There’s one class of Christmas song, though, that just revolts me, and that’s the modern “Peace” genre. Those vapid paeans to navel-gazing peace leave me cold. It is true that the old Christmas carols also shared a vision of peace… but that peace is tied to a formalized religious doctrine that envisions both spiritual and behavioral commitments. In other words, this peace isn’t cheap. Jesus Christ made a terribly painful sacrifice to further this peace, and it is each Christian’s obligation to make that sacrifice a meaningful and essential part of his (or her) spiritual life and daily practices… There’s no guidance there and no belief system. The whole song is just a muddled assurance that peace will magically happen if we say that it’s a good thing…  Peace is brought about by vaguely proclaiming that you approve of peace.

The violence of recent weeks from Paris to San Bernardino shatters the illusion of “cheap peace.”  Peace will not be brought about by “vaguely proclaiming that you approve of peace.”  Something more sturdy is required, which is why I find myself turning to the steely-eyed realism of Henry Wadswoth Longfellow’s Civil War lament “I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day” this Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas day their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.’

Till ringing, singing on its way the world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good will to men.

This lyrical journey moves us from the familiar “thin” seasonal invocation of peace in the first two stanzas to the realistic acknowledgement in the third stanza of the violence that still plagues creation despite the coming of Christ to the renewal of a “thick” faith in the last two stanzas.  It seems to me that this is the perfect carol for Christmas for a year like this one that we find ourselves observing, and it’s the fourth stanza of the poem that demands our attention.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.’

The author of the book of Hebrews provides us with our basic Biblical definition of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  This parallels Paul’s observation in 2 Corinthians that “we walk by faith and not be sight” (5:7).   Spiritually we get into trouble whenever we forget that God’s saving action in Jesus Christ is as of yet incomplete.

The South African Missiologist David Bosch noted in his magisterial work Transforming Mission (1991) that the saving work of God in Christ unfolds in a series of six acts –

1. Christmas – “The Word becomes Flesh and dwells among us” – The Incarnation
2. Good Friday – “Christ died for our sins” – The Atonement
3. Easter Sunday – “Christ was raised… newness of life” – The Resurrection
4. The Ascension – “Christ at the right hand of God the Father” – The Kingdom
5. Pentecost – His Spirit “poured-out” – The Empowering Presence
6. The Parousia – “And He shall come again in Glory” – The Second Coming

By this understanding, God has already done everything necessary “for us and our salvation” except for #6 – The Parousia – The Second Coming.  And as George Eldon Ladd put it, without this last Divine act our salvation remains “forever incomplete.”  Practically what this means is that we live in-between the “already” of Christ’s first coming and the “not yet” of Christ’s Second Coming.  The theologian Oscar Cullman, in his book Christ and Time, used the gap of time between D-Day (June 6, 1944) and VE-Day (May 8, 1945) to talk about what this means for the church and the world.

D-Day was when the Allied forces landed in Normandy and established a beachhead. The strategizing generals on both sides recognized that the outcome of the war was decided on that fateful day in June 1944. They understood that if the Nazis had driven the Allies back into the sea, they would have won the war. But because the Allied armies prevailed at Normandy, they sealed the eventual doom of the Nazi cause.

But between D-Day and V-Day—marking the surrender of the enemy and the Allies’ liberation of all of Europe—there’d be many months of suffering and struggle. There’d be horrendous battles as the Allied armies, little by little, pushed back the Nazi forces.

The Cross and the Resurrection were God’s D-Day. God in Jesus fought and won the decisive battle. [And now] Christ, through the church, is driving back the forces of darkness. God’s V-Day isn’t yet here. But because of God’s triumph on D-Day, we know how it all will end. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/moi/2007/002/april/after-d-day.html)

And this is what gives the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem both its context and its content.  Its context is eschatological – the final saving acts of God in Christ at the close of the age, and its content is ethical – how then we are supposed to live.  Because we know “how it will all end” – with the restoration of God’s “Shalom” in the new heavens and new earth through Christ the “Prince of Peace” – we start acting like it as Christians and working for it right here and now.

In his 1974 book The Jesus Hope (IVP), the British New Testament scholar Stephen Travis listed six implications for Christian living that arise out of our awareness that “the end is not yet.”  This list gives us some guidance for our “peace-making” and our “peace-keeping” mandate as Christ’s disciples (Matthew 5:9).


  1. A Life of Prayer

If God’s final kingdom is something which He Himself will bring, and not something which we will achieve on our own, then the most significant thing we can do to prepare for its coming is to pray.   As the Lord’s Prayer puts it: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be dome on earth as it is in heaven.”  When we pray like this we are saying, in effect, “…We long for the day when your kingdom of righteousness shall finally be established, and people shall love to do your will.  This is something that only you can bring to reality.  But we believe that, as we live in dependence on you, we may experience in part the blessings of your final kingdom.”  God will not receive the full honor of which He is worthy, nor will His will be perfectly done, until Jesus comes again to establish His final kingdom. And in all our prayers we will experience this tension.  When, for instance, we pray for peace between nations …while we know that our prayer will be completely answered only when Christ returns… we (nevertheless) trust God to restrain people’s hatred and national aggression (now).    (103-104)

  1. Spiritual Warfare

Secondly, to live as a Christian…in a world where there is no final victory until Christ comes again…  means that we will be involved in an unceasing struggle with the principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:10-20). …If we know that this struggle is underway, (the) we will be better able to understand some of the things we are experiencing …this tension of “living between the times.”  …It’s like the pain we feel when we come from a walk in the frosty air into a warm room.  Our ears and hands tingle as cold confront warmth.  The sensation is not pleasant, but we endure it cheerfully because we know it’s better to be warm than cold. (104-105)

  1. A Life of Faith

That brings us to a third point: the Christian life is a life of faith.  That may seem obvious, but it needs saying because we all have a natural craving to escape from the uncertainties of faith into the comfortable security of sight.  …(But) to know the future and to know the answers to all our questions is less vital for us than to be known and loved by God, who holds our future in his hands. (106)

  1. A Life of Evangelism

The gospel of hope is a message to share… A church that is dedicated to mission… is open to the powerful blessing of the Holy Spirit (and it is the Spirit who makes visible and present the future that God has promised). (107-108)

  1. A Life of Service

God’s mission doesn’t just mean inviting people into the kingdom.  It means serving and caring about people of all kinds – just because they are people whom God created and loves. (110)

  1. “The world will make you suffer”

One final thing about living in the present age: Jesus promised suffering for His church. “When Christ calls a man,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “He bids him come and die.”  Becoming a Christian doesn’t lead to a superficial happiness and an instant solution to all problems.  It leads to costly obedience and a life which involves suffering instead. …If we genuinely aim to become like Christ in this world we shall inevitably find ourselves getting into hot water as He did… we shall find it coming to us if we really seek to follow Jesus in every area of our lives… But in this we will be “in union with Christ Jesus,” and this will be our deepest consolation. (112-113)

And this is where the fifth stanza of Longfellow’s poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” gets concretely lived out.  The angel’s song of peace on the first Christmas is not just a promise the fulfillment of which we hope for at the close of the age (eschatologically), it’s a challenge for our living here and now (ethically), a reality to be taken into consideration in the choices that we make each and every day. DBS+




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“When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad…”

commonMy default prayer discipline is the Book of Common Prayer (1945).  You can take the boy out of the Episcopalians it seems, but you can’t take the Episcopalian out of the boy.

I was profoundly shaped by the rhythm and cadence of the prayers that I prayed at the very beginning of my spiritual life, and so just like the swallows returning to Capistrano, or is it more a case of the buzzards returning to Hinckley, I find myself going back to them when I am spiritually sick, or stuck, or stalled, or stifled. I especially love the “Forms of Prayers to be used in Families with Additional Prayers” (587-600).  I have prayed these prayers with some regularity now for more than half of a century, and they have left their mark.

“Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.”  I pray this petition, and my heart roams to south Fort Worth and to New York City, to Los Angeles and to Modesto in the central valley of California, to Garland next door and to Oklahoma City up the road, to North Carolina and to wherever the Special Forces have put a nephew in harm’s way this week.  I pray these words and I think of my family – my wife, my son and my daughter, my grandsons and my son-in-law, my sisters and their families, my brothers-in-law and their families, my mother-in-law and her husband.  I so want God to “take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection,” but there are weeks when, to be perfectly honest, it feels like anything but this, and this has certainly been one of those weeks.

Without bogging down in all of the messy details, suffice it to say that over and over again these past few weeks my heart has been wrenched by the painful and difficult circumstances that some of the people I love the most in this world have been forced to face.  I have been afraid and anxious for them.  I have worried, and I have wept, and I have prayed – “Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.”

The very first Bible verse that I ever consciously memorized (thank-you Billy Graham) was I Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares about you.” And so I am in the long habit of translating my fears into prayers (Philippians 4:6).  But in a season of upset like this one that I and my loved ones currently find ourselves in, even as I pray I ponder. “Just exactly what are you expecting will happen because you are doing this?” I ask myself. “What do you think that God is going to do about it?” I am leery of what Vernon Grounds of blessed memory used to call “the heavenly helicopter” notion of Christianity.  Neither my experience nor my theology convinces me that Jesus Christ is going to automatically and invariably swoop into the rising flood waters of my discouraging circumstances and magically whisk me and mine away unscathed.  Of course, God could do this.  But God doesn’t always, and from my own personal point of view, God doesn’t often do this.  So, just exactly what then am I expecting of God?  What is that does God does?

kingdomActs 14:22 is another one of those Bible verses that I have deliberately committed to memory because I am a pastor, and a human being – “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” This is the realism of the Bible that only serves to reinforce my confidence in its inspiration and authority.  I don’t expect things to be easy for me, but I do expect that God in Christ through the Spirit will accompany and empower me in all of the twists and turns of my life, and finally bend it in the direction of  wholeness, peace, and joy.

So, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad,” as the song from “The Sound of Music” puts it, what sustains me spiritually?  As this week has unfolded, I’ve been trying to consciously keep track of how my being a Christian has supplied me with resources that have strengthened my faith and fueled my hope.  And so, in no particular order, here are some of the things that my Christian faith has provided me with, and that have proven sustaining to me as the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew.  This is how my Christianity has “worked” for me in the midst of my recent storms –

  • doveThe indwelling Holy Spirit is called the Comforter, at least that’s one of the ways that the word that Jesus used in the Upper Room in the Gospel of John to talk about the Holy Spirit’s coming sometimes gets translated (John 14:16; 26; 15:26; 16:7).  And I have felt this Spirit’s comforting presence.  It’s not continuous, but it is real.  Paul described it as the assurance we have that we are children of God when God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirits (Romans 8:16).  And that’s it.  That’s what sweeps over me from time to time quite unexpectedly and inexplicably. It’s like a hug out of nowhere.  A reminder that I’m not alone; the reassurance that I have not been abandoned or forsaken.
  • The keys that the Holy Spirit plays on the instrument of my heart are the promises of God’s Word.  Bible verses will just pop into my consciousness like song melodies that get stuck in your ear, and I savor them.  My long love for Scripture has stocked my head and heart with lots of raw material for the Spirit to use.  I’ve sometimes heard this described as the experience of receiving a “living” Word, and that certainly “feels” right.  It feels like God speaking directly to me from the pages of the Bible.  Is this what Jesus meant when He told us that “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63)?
  • Finally, in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 Paul described an important dynamic that’s at work in the experience of comfort that we receive from God in Christ –

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.  If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. (1:3-6)

When we receive God’s comfort in our own times of personal struggle we are being equipped to share God’s comfort with people we will meet later who are struggling with the same sorts of things we have already been through.  Our comfort comes with a ministry assignment.  At the end of his life, when debilitated by a series of strokes, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was asked to reflect on what he had learned in his years of decline.  And this man of massive intellect and tremendous influence talked about what he called “the charismatic gift of love.”  After years of writing, teaching, traveling and leading, when health “dismissed him from the battle” and “relegated him to the sidelines,” Reinhold Niebuhr said that in the end it was the simple kindness and support of ordinary people who went out of their way to help him that was the most effective expression of the Gospel that he knew anything about it.   And it has in fact been the kind words, the offers of support and the expressions of care from Christian brothers and sisters who have travelled these same roads of sadness and carried these same burdens of fear and pain that have made God’s love so tangible and visible to me over and over again.

Paul in a season of struggle was able to say (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) –

lightWe have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed

And in the end, was bold to say (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)–

The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

And in this season of struggle, it is because of the comforting Spirit, the comforting Word, and the comforting community that I have experienced the sufficiency of grace.  DBS+


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