Tag Archives: Jesus

“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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“Compel Them to Come In” (part 3)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church

bee

Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)____________________________________________________________________________________________________

This is the third and final part of a consideration of the arguments that I find “compelling” when making the case for why I think that someone should give the Disciples of Christ in general, and Northway Christian Church in particular, a good look when thinking about finding a church.  These are my reasons.  You can agree with them, or you can disagree with them, that’s fine.  What we can’t afford to do is not to carefully think through our reasons for being a part of this church.  We are at a critical moment in our ecclesiastical life when it is urgent that we each have some good and compelling reasons for being here, and that form the basis of inviting others, even urging others, to join us. DBS +

6.  We are honor the richness of our varied community of interpretation. Of course, for this “good faith assumption” (see #5 from yesterday’s posting) to actually work, we’ve got to be open and honest with one another about not just what it is that we believe, but also about how we have arrived at those conclusions that we cherish. This means creating and then defending a community of interpretation where every perspective in the family has a seat, is given a voice, and gets an honest hearing. The way we show our seriousness about Christ, and the way that we demonstrate our commitment to doing what He commands is by putting our own settled convictions into serious and sustained conversation with the settled convictions of others in the community with whom we do not agree. Mocking the convictions of others, disrespecting the conclusions of others, ridiculing the intelligence of others, standing in an imagined spiritual, intellectual and theological superiority over others stiff-arms the very people with whom we most need to be in conversation as well as short-circuiting the very process by which we can experience and express our core unity. I may disagree with you, but I don’t have to denigrate you. I may cherish a very different set of conclusions than you cherish, but this doesn’t require me to be mean-spirited and dismissive of you and your concerns and perspectives. Disciples at our best have been able to value charity in all things, but there are always strong forces at work to subvert this way of being church, and that seems especially so in these days of hyper-partisanship and painful cultural divide.

7.  We love God with our minds. Reasonable trust” – that’s what the author of a book whose seminar I recently attended argues is our high calling as Christians. “The firewall between faith and reason has to come down,” he says, so that “our hearts can embrace someone you actually know something about.” Before I became a Disciple, I was made to feel that my questions were akin to unfaithfulness.   I was being formed by an approach to faith that viewed it as a fragile thing that could not possibly bear up under hard examination. In that other community of faith that was vying to become my permanent spiritual home back in the day, I detected a certain fearfulness of ideas. Then I providentially attended a Christian College where I got to see “Disciples” teachers take on every challenge and welcome every question with intellectual rigor and respectful courtesy. Dr. William Richardson, Dr. Dennis Helsabeck, Dr. Ward Rice, Dr. Herb Miller, Dr. Song Nai Rhee, Dr. Lawrence Bixler – these cherished teachers of mine set a standard for Christian scholarship right from the beginning that I have tried to imitate in my life and ministry ever since. To be a “Disciple” is to do this — it is to love God with all our mind..

8.  We strive to be “doers and not just hearers of the Word.Each Sunday morning at Northway we finish the morning Scripture lesson with the reader saying – “May God bless us with understanding so that we might be doers of this Word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). More than just words, this aspiration speaks of a practical approach to the teachings of the Scriptures that expects them not just to fill our heads with interesting thoughts, but to fill our lives with values and truths that are meant to be lived. Jesus’ parable at the end of His Sermon on the Mount connects deeply with the “Disciple” approach to what’s in the Bible –

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

9.  We know that we are “not the only Christians.” This is part of one of the traditional slogans of the Disciples. It is the “good faith assumption” (#5 from yesterday) applied not just to all other “Disciples,” but to all other Christians as well. One of the real gems in our history is a letter that Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, wrote in 1837 that’s known as the “Lunenburg Letter” –

But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. … It is the image of Christ the Christian looks for and loves; and this does not consist in being exact in a few items, but in general devotion to the whole truth as far as known.

There was a time when this quote from our spiritual heritage was framed and prominently hung in all of our churches. It was a declaration of our intention to be generous and gracious with everyone who names Christ as Lord and Savior.  In this day when we are being torn apart into factions, it may be time to put it back up on the walls of our churches and get it back into the hearts of our people.  Anyone who regards Jesus Christ to be their Lord and Savior is a brother or sister to me – Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, 5 Point Calvinist Presbyterians, Arminian Wesleyans, Holiness Nazarenes, United Methodists, High Church Episcopalians, Inclusive Metropolitan Community Churches, non-dogmatic Quakers, Evangelical megachurches, Progressive United Churches of Christ – anyone, anywhere who names Christ. Treating them respectfully, listening to them eagerly in order to discover their unique perspectives, expectant of receiving a gift or grace from them that will expand my own Christian understanding and experience — I don’t have to agree with everything they say in order to treat them as my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Being a “Disciple” encourages this kind of generous engagement with other Christians. And not just with other Christians, but with all other human beings of genuine faith as well.

10.  We know that we are not the only people God in Jesus Christ loves, or who love God. The generosity of God in Jesus Christ that we affirm as Disciples fosters in us an optimism about how God is at work in the religious impulses of people everywhere and always. I don’t have to jettison my belief about God’s saving work in Jesus Christ when I engage in conversation and cultivate relationships with people of other faith traditions. I believe that the scope of God’s love in Jesus Christ includes them. I believe that the efficacy of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is sufficient for them. And I believe that the searching and convicting work of the Holy Spirit is operative in their hearts too. And so, in exactly the same way that I would never denigrate or dismiss the genuine faith of another Christian no matter how different their convictions are from my own, so I would never denigrate or dismiss the genuine faith of another human being from another faith tradition no matter how different their convictions are from my own either. Knowing that God loves them, and taking Acts 14:17 and 17:22-28 seriously, I look for bridges between people of different faith traditions that can bring us together rather than the buttressing the walls that keep us apart from each other and spiritually suspicious of each other. Our characteristic ecumenism as Disciples provides us with a way of managing our beliefs in a world where not everyone believes as we do.  

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“Compel Them to Come In” (part 1)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church

bee

Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

 The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire site, recently posted a facetious article on the “Eight Steps to Finding the Right Church” (http://babylonbee.com/news/8-steps-finding-right-church/). It began by noting that “statistics indicate that if you live near a major metropolitan area, there are literally three million churches in your neighborhood alone.” With that many options available to you, they concluded that “there’s probably a church designed to your exact specifications and built from the ground up to cater specifically to you,” and so they came up with a “checklist of essentials to look for in a potential church match,” things like – “Make sure the worship band only plays the genre you like,” “Pick a church where everyone pretends to be happy,” and “if the preacher starts calling you to self-examination and repentance, run.”

I thought about this clever piece of writing as I began working with the Scripture for the next message in the Lenten Series that I’m preaching at church on “Table Manners: Learning the Meal Habits of Jesus.” Each week we’re looking at a different story from the Gospel of Luke about Jesus eating with someone to learn from Him a little bit more about the shape of His coming Kingdom of grace. This Sunday, in the last sermon in this series, we’ll be looking at Luke 14:15-24, the Parable of the Wedding Feast that Jesus told after the Sabbath dinner party with the Pharisees where He healed the man with dropsy (14:1-14).

The phrase from this parable that Jesus told that attached itself firmly to my head and heart as I began pouring it “into” and “over” me this past weekend as part of my preparation for preaching it next Sunday was the last instruction of the host to his servants to ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:23).

The Greek word translated “compel” here in this text is very strong. It is the imperative of “anankazo,” a word meaning “force,” “compel,” or even “drive.” John Wesley gave this comment on “compel them to come in” – “with all the violence of love, and the force of God’s Word. Such compulsion, and such only… was used by Christ and the Apostles.” And Alfred Plummer pointed out that “the compelling was by persuasion.” We are to use the force and persuasion of argument to compel people to come into the church. (http://www.rlhymersjr.com)

Adam Hamilton, a well-known and highly-respected United Methodist pastor, says that one of the critical questions that we need to answer before giving ourselves and our resources to a church is – “Why do the people in this community need this church?” With the “three million churches in our neighborhood alone,” there have got to be some rather compelling reasons why we would choose to involve ourselves with one church rather than another.  So what are they?  In the words of the parable, when the host of the Banquet sends us out to compel people to come in so that his house might be full, what are the very best arguments that you could marshal to get them to come into this house?

I’m going to start this examination by taking off the table right from the get-go the first two answers that we all instinctively offer up when the question gets asked – “Why should I come to your church?”  The answer –“Because the people around here are just so nice” – only works until they’re not, and that day always comes. Because the church is composed of frail fallen people and exists in a frail fallen world, it is always going to fall short of the standard that God sets for its life, and this means that at some point church people are going to fail you.  They are going to be mean, insensitive, inconsistent, self-serving, narrow-minded, cliquish, intransient, and if the reason you joined a church was because of the people, then when they let you down it will be time to move on. A demonstrable commitment to mutual forgiveness is a much more realistic relational quality for a church to embrace and promote than some imagined embodiment of a mythic relational ideal like being “the friendliest church in town.” The church exists as a place of grace and not as bastion of virtue.  The church teaches virtue to be sure, but the church always comes up short in virtue’s implementation, and so mercy must be the church’s strong suit.

The second standard answer that usually gets offered up when the question gets asked – “Why should I come to your church?” – is “because it’s exciting.” Boring church” is the accusation that routinely gets leveled at “ordinary means of grace” churches that just steadily go about the business of preaching and teaching the Word, observing the Gospel ordinances, bearing one another’s burdens, and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing and serving from their front doorsteps to the ends of the earth.  But today this is not enough.  Today church has also got to be fun. A generation ago A.W. Tozer warned about the dangerous allure of “the great god entertainment.”

For centuries the Church stood solidly against every form of worldly entertainment, recognizing it for what it was — a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from accountability to God. For this, she got herself roundly abused by the sons of this world. But of late she has become tired of the abuse, and has given up the struggle. She appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment — she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers.  So today we have the astonishing spectacle of millions of dollars being poured into the unholy job of providing earthly entertainment for the so-called Christians. Religious entertainment is in many places rapidly crowding out the serious things of God. Many churches these days have become little more than poor theaters where fifth-rate “producers” peddle their shoddy wares with the full approval of evangelical leaders, who can even quote a holy text in defense of their delinquency. And hardly a man dares raise his voice against it!

 If putting on a better show than the church down the street is putting on is the reason why people are coming to your church, then just as soon as that other church down the street starts putting on a better show than you are, then that’s where the people will go.   It’s an endless chase.

So, if neither “fun” nor “nice” are compelling and enduring enough reasons to get people in, then what are?  Well, in light of this week’s Scripture, I’ve been thinking a lot about this with reference to Northway as a congregation in particular, and to the Disciples of Christ as a denomination in general.   Remember I am not a “birth-right” Disciple.   I was not born into this spiritual family.  I chose it freely from among alternatives, and I have served it now for 38 years as an ordained minister, for 42 years if you count my four years as a licensed Disciples minister, first in the South Idaho/Utah Region (1975-76), and then in the Southwest Region (1977-1979) before my ordination, and I can assure you that there were some good and sufficient reasons for this commitment of my life.  And so beginning tomorrow and concluding on Wednesday, I will give you the ten primary arguments that I would use to try to make a “compelling” case for Northway Christian Church, a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). DBS +

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“Incompetence is what we’re good at…”

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

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

Bible2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Kichijiro I caught the reflection of myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“What Matters Most”

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It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

                                                                                                                                 Viktor E. Frankl

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fileI clip articles that grab my attention that I come across in my reading, and I throw them into a file that I keep on my desk. Then I go through that file later to pick topics the topics on which I intend to write in my weekly blog.  For months now there has been an article in that file about a high profile celebrity who got romantically involved with another high profile celebrity who had just gotten married.  Their affair resulted in the breakup of that marriage just a year after the wedding, and now those two celebrities are together.

It was the last line in that article that reached out and grabbed me. “They seem to be happy now,” it concluded, “and that’s really what matters the most.”

Now, I know that’s how we think, that being happy is “what matters most.”  But is it true?  Is the great goal of the universe my personal happiness?  Did God create the grand cosmos and put me in it just so that I could be happy? Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been happy, I’ve been unhappy, and I’d rather be happy.  Happy has always been a better experience for me, every single time.  But should being happy be my life’s focus?  Is it really “what matters most”?

happyWhen my journey through this world is over, and I stand before God, is God’s ultimate concern in that moment going to be my happiness? Is God going to want to know – “Doug, did you have a good time?” Is God going to ask – “Doug, did you have fun?” Again, hear me, I’m not anti-fun, nor am I happiness-adverse.  I’d rather be happy than not.  My concern is the pursuit of happiness at any cost as “what matters most” as that article I clipped suggested that it is.  Is it really “what matters most”? Is my happiness at your expense a good thing?  Is my happiness in contradiction to my faith’s convictions and values a worthy goal?  Is happiness our “summum bonum” – our “highest good” – as human beings?

Frankly, I think we get pulled off-sides in this conversation by a familiar cultural phrase.

Last week in my “Soundings” post I referenced the belief in the existence of truths that are self-evident and rights that are unalienable. This idea is rooted and grounded in the belief that the universe has a God-given moral structure and that human beings have a God-given moral constitution. Of course, the devil is in the details of this affirmation.  To say that a sense of “ought” has been hardwired into us and all of creation by God is one thing, but to start detailing the specific content of that universal sense of “ought” starts to muddle as you cross cultures and go back through time.  What has always and everywhere been right for everyone?  What has always and everywhere been wrong for everyone?

founderOur national Founders named three things that they believed were “self-evident” and “unalienable” –

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

And there it is – that hard count that pulls us off-sides – “the pursuit of happiness.”

Understanding “happiness” to be “a state of transitory physical or emotional pleasure,” many people believe that they are free “to pursue whatever provides them with pleasure, however misguided or immoral that pleasure might be” (Bradley Abramson). I have a God-given right to do or to have whatever it takes to make me happy. What I find in the Bible is an entirely different standard. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).  This verse would seem to suggest that there is something even more fundamental to life than my personal happiness.  So does Matthew 6:33 – “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” There’s something here that’s more important than me getting my way, and having my share.

franklI had a high school teacher who assigned Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning as a required text for a class that I was taking.  Reading this book when I was 16 years old was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning.  I’ve read thousands of books since reading this one in 1969, but only rarely have I had an experience comparable to the experience I had when I read this book.  I felt a gravitational pull as I turned its pages.  A path began to open up before with its words.  Suddenly there was something more important than making the team, having a car, getting a date, or going to the right college.  Life had a purpose, a meaning, and I knew that I was here for only a short time to find it.  Later I would read Paul Tillich call this our human concern for “ultimacy,” and appreciate his insight that it is “the state of being ultimately concerned” that is the essence of the spiritual life.  But at 16 all I knew was that something in the universe mattered more than my feelings, and that I had been put here to try to figure out what it was.

In January 2013 issue of The Atlantic published an article about Victor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning (https://www.theatlantic.com). In “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” Emily Esfahan Smith wrote –

In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”

From his experiences in the Concentration Camps of Nazi Germany during WW II, Victor Frankl said that he learned that –

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is…. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than just “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

The search for meaning that Victor Frankl alerted me to when I read Man’s Search for Meaning when I was 16 brought me more fully to Jesus.  When the church I serve now says that our mission is to share Jesus Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose, I know what it is offering because I have found it in my own experience.  In my first year of Christian College when Dr. Ward Rice of blessed memory told us that the most frequently repeated phrase from the lips of Jesus in the Gospels was –

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  (Matthew 16:24)

It was an offer of meaning that was being made.

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:25-26)

And here, almost 50 years later, I know the power of the truth that the article in The Atlantic proclaimed – “People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves.”  Being happy is not what matters most.  Finding meaning is, and for me, my meaning is Jesus.  DBS +

 

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Loving Our Muslim Neighbors

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

 Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DBS +

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Christians and Muhammad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not all Christians think this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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