Tag Archives: Jesus

Christ, Charlottesville, and Change

charlottesvilleI spent most of Saturday at church. We had an elders’ meeting in the morning, and then later I had a premarital counseling appointment. When I was finished with all of that, I just puttered around the office for a couple of hours attending to lots of open-ended projects from the week just past.  I didn’t get home until nearly 3 pm, and when I walked into the house from the garage, Mary Lynn was watching TV in the den, and I could tell from the tone of the CNN reporter’s voice and the look on Mary Lynn’s face that something awful had happened. It was Charlottesville.

As the afternoon wore on, and the story grew, the more persistent and insistent were the stirrings inside me to change what I was going to preach in church the next morning. This has happened before. I keep a pretty tight sermon schedule. My sermon is almost always written by the Thursday of the week that it’s going to be preached.   That leaves some time for it to marinate.  I need to live with the sermons that I am going to preach before I actually preach them, and so I get pretty anxious if I don’t have that manuscript in my hands by Thursday.  But sometimes something happens in my personal life, or in our congregational, national or global life after my sermon is written on Thursday, and I know that I need to set aside that week’s prepared message in order to speak more directly to the immediate circumstance.  I believe that it’s the Holy Spirit who is behind these stirrings when they come, and so when I sense them, I have come to trust them.  I felt them Saturday as the afternoon unfolded.  And so after dinner, I sat down at the computer at home and I went to work on another sermon for Sunday morning. I know lots of preachers who were doing the same thing.

My prepared sermon for last Sunday was the sixth message on the Lord’s Prayer in our summer series – “Teach Us to Pray.” The scheduled petition for Sunday was “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And that remained my focus.  I still wanted to think and talk with my congregation about forgiveness because the way I see it, our only way forward as a people right now is going to be by grace.  We know what outrage in the streets looks like, we saw it on full display on Saturday in Charlottesville.  And we know how elected officials talk, or fail to talk about it; we heard them, or not, on Saturday evening.   But to change the hate and the hurt, the fear and the aggression, the frustration and the indignation that clashed so violently in the streets of Charlottesville on Saturday I believe that we are going to need more than just outrage and talk.  We are going to need something else, something more.

As I understand it, the trigger for the violence on Saturday was the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the campus of the University of Virginia. This is something that is happening all over the South these days, including right here in Dallas.  There is a debate brewing about the future of the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park where Arlington Hall, a reproduction of Robert E. Lee’s ancestral home in Virginia, sits and hosts some of this city’s most fashionable weddings. The original Arlington Hall was confiscated by Abraham Lincoln to become the grounds for our National Cemetery when Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army to become the Commanding General of the Army of Virginia in the Confederacy.  Trust me, there are going to be some tense debates at City Hall and some very vocal public protests along Turtle Creek about this before too long, and I get it.

horseI appreciate the wound that these monuments inflame. I see the offense that these memorials perpetuate. And personally I think that they more properly belong in a museum where they can be viewed and be interpreted as part of our history and not prominently displayed in a public space where their presence can be construed as some kind of lingering approval of slavery, or as some kind of latent longing for secession.  But here’s what I also think, even if all the monuments go, even if all the buildings, parks, streets, and schools get renamed, we are still going to have a problem.  Removing a statue and changing a name are ways of addressing the symptoms of a much deeper problem, the problem of racism.  And the crucial question as I see it, is, how do we address this deeper problem?  How do we put an end to racism?

The very first building block in the formation of my social conscience as a Christian was a book that Sherwood Wirt, the editor for many years of Billy Graham’s magazine Decision, wrote and that I read in 1968 when I was just 15 years old (The Social Conscience of the Evangelical – Harper & Row).  These were the days of the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam.  Big questions about peace and justice were churning in society at large then, and I was trying to figure out how someone like myself who had consciously named Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior and who was actively looking to the Bible for moral and spiritual guidance was supposed to respond.   Sherwood Wirt’s book helped me to make sense of things.  And this, in part, is what he wrote about racism – and remember that these words were written 49 years ago!

whiteyLove cannot be created by the enactment of statutes requiring people to display comradeship toward each other.   No such statute has been promulgated in the history of humanity…. The law can set bounds, but it cannot set an example… The passage of civil rights laws in America has given African American citizens greatly needed help… by clarifying their legal status and giving them a fuller possession of their national birthright.  Yet the civil rights laws have not increased in the slightest the respect and affection between people of different races in our society; and respect and affection are the very qualities that are supremely needed to ease the existing tensions.  Experts in race relations are surprised to find tensions in parts of America worsening rather than lessening.  The Christian is not surprised for the Christian knows what legislation can and cannot do.  A sociologist was astonished to find that after teaching a course on racial prejudice, some of his students were more prejudiced at the end than at the beginning.  The Christian is not astonished, for the Christian understands that the answer is not education alone. (82-83)

I truly value education. I strongly advocate for legislation that is just.  And I can even admit to the fact that agitation has its place.   And while I believe that they all have their roles to play, I don’t believe that agitation, education, or legislation are finally going to be the way that racism will be brought to an end. Carl F.H. Henry in his 1964 book on Christian Social Ethics said that it was regeneration – the embrace of God’s grace in Jesus Christ – that alone has the power to change hearts, and thereby to change society. He explained –

The strategy of regeneration… relies primarily on a spiritual dynamic for social change.  It aims not merely to re-educate man… but to renew the whole man morally and spiritually through a saving experience of Jesus Christ.  The power on which it relies for social change is not the power, of legislated morality… The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “power” for changing the world.  Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is an optional consideration.  Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order. (24-25)

 And this is the spiritual principle that I see so clearly at work in the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It was Father Louis Evely who explained –

“As we forgive our debtors” is not a bargain that we are striking with God. It doesn’t mean, “Lord, see how well I haven forgiven, now forgive me!”  No, what it means is: “Lord, forgive me, and then I will know how to forgive like that.”

We learn how to forgive by going through the process of being forgiven by God in Jesus Christ ourselves. Think about that parable of the King and His Debtor that Jesus told in Matthew 18:21-35. Once the king had forgiven his debtor, the king then expected his debtor to turn around and forgive his debtors.  The king didn’t wait for his debtor to forgive his debtors before forgiving his debt.  But once the king had forgiven his debtor’s debt, he fully expected him to live out of that same grace that he himself had already received.  And that’s precisely what I think Jesus was talking about when He taught us to pray saying, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is the spiritual revolution of grace experienced by us as forgiveness that has the power to change our attitudes and actions.

The events of last Saturday in Charlottesville are just the latest installment in the long history of racism that tears at our unity and dignity as members of the same human family who all share the image of God. To get justice I believe that we need good legislation and even better enforcement of that legislation.  And as a citizen I will support candidates regardless of their party affiliation who believe this and who promise to work for it, and I will oppose candidates who equivocate on this. But I am more than just a citizen.  I am a Christian, and it is as a Christian that I believe that if there is to be healing and reconciliation, then we’re going to need the grace of forgiveness.  We’re going to have to be forgiven ourselves, and then we are going to have become consciously and relentlessly forgiving of others, and I can already hear the objections.

Doug, you’re just spiritualizing a social problem.”

 “Doug, you’re just shifting the focus away from the human dimensions
of this problem, and away from what it is that we can and must do,
to some harebrained notion of a Divine solution that you
expect God to bring about.”

“Doug, to talk of grace and forgiveness right now
is to weaken the cry for justice and soften the call to action.”

 “Doug, you’re being so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.”

Oswald Chambers directly challenged this notion that talk of grace in the face of social injustice was soft, and that talk of forgiveness in the face of real human suffering is cheap by reminding his readers of the costliness of grace to God –

Beware of the pleasant view of God that says that God is so kind and loving that of course He will forgive us. That thought, based solely on emotion, cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament. The only ground for forgiveness and reconciliation is the Cross of Christ. There is no other way! Forgiveness, which is so easy for us to accept, meant the agony of Calvary for God. We should never take the forgiveness of sin, and then forget the enormous cost to God that made it possible.

 On the cross we see the costly display of God’s love. On the cross we witness God’s struggle with the evil that inhabits us and surrounds us.  On the cross we see what God was prepared to do to break down the walls that separate us from Himself, and from one another.  So, don’t tell me that grace is soft or that forgiveness is cheap.  God’s self-sacrifice on Calvary’s cross was God’s way of stepping into the brokenness of this world and into the anguish of human suffering to do something about it.  And it’s this grace that changes hearts.  It’s this grace that heals wounds.  It’s this grace that restores lives.  It’s this grace that beachheads shalom.  And once we’ve experienced this grace ourselves, then we become its agents.   Once we have been forgiven, then we know how forgiveness works, what forgiveness costs, and why forgiveness matters.  It’s forgiveness that turns hearts around.  It’s forgiveness that turns hate to hope.  It’s forgiveness that turns hurt to healing.  It’s forgiveness that turns alienation to reconciliation.  It’s forgiveness that turns fear to moral courage. It’s forgiveness that restores relationships, rebuilds trust, and refashions the future.

So, I’m glad that I was in church last Sunday. I was glad to be able to go to the Lord’s Table on that painful, troubling, confusing weekend to get my bearings.  I needed to share in the breaking of the break in remembrance of what God’s grace did for us in Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross.  And I needed to share in the pouring out of the cup in remembrance of what God did in Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross to accomplish forgiveness. And then from that experience of forgiveness at the Lord’s Table, I needed to be sent from that place of grace into the Charlottesville right outside the front doors of my church.  Christians need to be sent from the Table of love into the world of hate where we can show angry, violent, frightened, disentranced people that there is another way to be, the way that Jesus Christ as Lord showed us, and then died and was raised as Savior to make possible for us.  DBS +

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“The Whole Counsel of God”

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

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 “Why would you want a smaller Bible?”
___________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Open Letter to the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

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Dear Rev. Owens,

The news of your election as our new General Minister and President is a source of great pride and true joy for us as a church. When we voted to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church many General Assembles ago, it was with a day like this one in mind.

Of course, the election of an African American woman to this office does not signal the end of racism or diminish the hard work of reconciliation that remains for us to do as a church any more than the election of an African American man to the highest office in our land nine years ago signaled the end of racism or completed the work of reconciliation in our national life. And so, while not viewing your election as a panacea, I am nevertheless celebrating it as an important milestone in the life of our beloved community of faith where there cannot be gender, ethnic, social, economic, political, racial, generational, or sexual orientation distinctions between us because “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

I know that the challenges you will face as the leader of our denomination in the coming days will demand of you great wisdom and grace. I suspect that you are getting lots and lots of advice from every quarter right now about how best to guide us into God’s future for us as a church.  With all of these voices speaking to you at the same time, I imagine that it’s all just a little bit confusing and overwhelming.  Nevertheless, I believe that this is a good thing because it’s evidence of the great passion that so many of us feel for this church of ours.  So, allow me add my voice to that cacophony.

I believe that one of your most crucial tasks in the coming days will be to represent the whole church, to be a visible and vocal point of unity for all of us who call ourselves Disciples.   We talk about wanting to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world as a church, and I believe that what we are going to need you to be as our next General Minister and President is an embodiment of that same kind of wholeness for a fragmenting church.

Scott McKnight has written much about the struggle in the church these days over the meaning of the Gospel. There has been much said among Disciples in recent years about how the Gospel must be framed through the category of justice – the transformation of society by the values of the Kingdom.   But there are other Disciples, people like me, who believe that the Gospel is more properly framed by the category of justification – the transformation of individuals through the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which in turn makes us agents of God’s just transformation of society as a fruit of that justification.   The “justice gospelers” among Disciples know that there’s room for them in this church because they’ve heard their perspective publicly and frequently affirmed by Indianapolis.  What those of us who are “justification gospelers” among the Disciples really need to hear from you Rev. Owens, is that your vision of our church includes us too.   We need to know that you know that we’re here, and this is where Scott McKnight’s counsel might just be the most helpful thing for all of us to hear right now. He says –

“There are three’ J’s’ in the gospel debate. The right ‘J’ is Jesus. If you preach Jesus as the gospel you will get both justification and justice. If you preach justification you may get Jesus (but I see only some of Jesus and not the whole of Jesus) and you may get some justice (I’m skeptical on this one). If you preach justice you may get some justification (but I’m skeptical on enough justice ‘gospelers’ ever getting to justification) and you get Jesus, but again only some of Jesus (often only his teachings, his life, and his life as an example). If you preach the Jesus of Paul’s gospel (1 Corinthians 15) or the apostolic sermons in Acts or the gospel of the Gospels, you get all of Jesus and all of Jesus creates both justice and justification.”

So, talk about Jesus, Dr. Owens.   That’s my counsel to you in these exciting days as you begin your new ministry among us as our General Minister and President.  Talk about Jesus clearly.  Talk about Jesus often.  Talk about Jesus from Scripture and your heart.   For when you talk about Jesus I believe that both justice and justification will be served, and we will be about the work of the Great Commission that He has given us to do as a church – to preach the Gospel (justification) and to teach all that He has commanded (justice) – and thus, truly be His disciples.

Rev. Owens, I am looking to you to lead, and I am praying for you as you begin. DBS +

                                                                                                           

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

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

It was not a “good news” week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he asked –

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

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

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

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

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The Pushy Holy Spirit

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 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.

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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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