Tag Archives: Jesus

“Crystal Ball Polishers” and the Blessed Hope

“Crystal Ball Polishers” and the Blessed Hope

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
_________________
Titus 2:11-13

meadeDavid Meade, a “Christian Numerologist,” recently predicted that the “Rapture” was scheduled for Saturday, September 23.  Now, the “Rapture” is the belief of some Christians – many of them right here in Texas – that Jesus Christ will secretly remove the church from the world before the Tribulation, the final period of human testing before the Second Coming and Final Judgment, begins.  The “Rapture” is not the Second Coming itself, but is rather just a prelude to it. This is a fine point of distinction in the minds of many.  Most hear “Rapture,” and think – the Second Coming and the end of the world. Eschatological (the study of last things) details and distinctions blend and blur in the popular imagination. And so, when David Meade said that the “Rapture” was Biblically scheduled for September 23rd, most people heard it as that’s when he thought that the world was going to end. When I heard him talk like this, it felt like déjà vu all over again for me.  And then, when it didn’t happen as he said that it would, and Mr. Meade began to make some quick recalculations to account for the delay, I felt like I had seen this movie before.

You see, a number of early Christian teachers believed that Jesus Christ would return in the year 500. Later, the year 1000 captured the end-times imagination of lots and lots of churchmen, just as the year 2000 did in our more recent past.  Joachim of Fiore, an Italian Catholic mystic, said that he believed that the world was going to end in 1260. Thomas Müntzer, an Anabaptist Reformation radical, said that he thought that the end-time events were all scheduled to begin in 1525. William Miller, an early Adventist, taught that Christ was coming back in October 1844, and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that he believed that it would happen in 1874. The late Harold Camping, a well-known fundamentalist radio Bible teacher, said that he believed that Jesus was coming back in September of 1994.  And then, when it didn’t happen, he quickly recalculated and rescheduled the Second Coming for 2011.  Meanwhile, Edgar Whisenant, a rival radio Bible teacher, was just as sure that it was all going to happen in 1988.

There has been no shortage of predictions like these in the long history of the church.

earthWhen I was in high school, Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth was all the rage.  If you read the “Left Behind” series then you got in narrative form what Hal Lindsey taught in The Late Great Planet Earth. We carefully went through this book page by page, detail by detail at more than one of the Bible Studies that I attended back in the early 1970’s.  I know firsthand the sense of power — and relief — that comes from thinking that you’ve got some inside information about the impending end of the world.  But I also discovered pretty quickly in those days just how speculative these timetables of the last day can be, and just how ridiculous the arguments can become between those who hold rival theories about the proper sequence of the events at the end of time, and just how obnoxious some Christians can be about what they think is going to happen next.

The day I get left on a highway shoulder while my friend got a ride from a van full of Jesus People who sorted out the acceptable hitchhikers from the unacceptable ones by conducting a kind of roadside inquisition of the eschatological convictions and conclusions of those requesting a ride from them, was the day that I decided to consciously come at the Bible’s teachings about God’s future promises for the church and the world in a way that was different from all of the calculations, and speculations, and arguments that engaged so many of the Christians that I knew back then.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to jettison my belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ itself because of all the petty and pushy ways that I saw other Christians holding this doctrine. The New Testament was just too clear, and too insistent, about Christ coming again for me to be able to dismiss this whole idea as just being crazy, or merely symbolic, or of secondary importance.  George Eldon Ladd’s observation that Christ’s saving work will be forever incomplete apart from Christ’s personal, glorious, triumphal return was, and still is, pretty persuasive to me. “At the center of redemption past is Christ on the cross,” he used to say, “and at the center of redemption future is Christ returning in glory.” And so, without letting go of the content of Christianity’s cosmic hope as it finds its standard expression in the church’s historic Creeds – “I believe that He shall come again… with glory… to judge the quick and the dead… Whose kingdom shall have no end” – I did want to get beyond the timetables, charts, and arguments.  And it was the great St. Augustine who showed me how to do this.

saint“He who loves the coming of the Lord is not he who affirms it far off, nor is it he who says that it is near,” St. Augustine carefully explained, “It is he who, whether it be far or near, awaits it with sincere faith, steadfast hope, and fervent love.” This idea was further advanced in me by Dr. William Richardson’s insistence when I was one of his students in Christian College that whenever the New Testament talks about the end times and Christ’s Second Coming, that it’s not to fuel speculation but rather to ground our hope and to promote our Christian living. “New Testament eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) is ethical” I often heard him say, and I think that’s right.  This is why every time the New Testament talks about the future tense of our salvation, it is immediately followed by an exhortation to faithfulness.

  • Jesus’ Olivet Discourse on last things in Matthew chapter 24 gets followed by the three parables of Matthew chapter 25: The parable of the ten wise virgins whose oil lamps were trimmed and ready for the bridegroom’s sudden arrival, and the ten whose lamps were not; the parable of the talents; and the parable of the sheep and the goats where we who are Christians are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, shelter the homeless, and visit the imprisoned. These are all “call to action” parables.
  • After his detailed discussion in I Thessalonians chapter 4 about what will happen when Christ comes back, in I Thessalonians chapter 5 Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to therefore keep awake and to be sober (v. 6), to consistently live and love as children of the light and not of the darkness.
  • And writing about the most end-times oriented book of them all in the New Testament, and perhaps in the entire Bible, Darrell Johnson explains – “No other book, in all of human literature, crystallizes what it means to belong to and follow Jesus in this world… Revelation is not a crystal ball revealing esoteric secrets that enable us to escape the harsh realities of life on earth, but a down-to-earth manual on how to be a disciple of Christ facing the harsh realities of life on earth; in particular, how to do this the way Jesus did and does.”

For this reason, in the past 40 years, whenever somebody like a David Meade has come along overconfidently announcing some newfangled speculative theory about how and when the end times are going to unfold, as if it were a self-evident truth and a well-established fact, my mind instantly goes back to the wisdom that Stephen Travis shared in his very fine little book – The Jesus Hope (IVP – 1974) –

Whenever the Bible speaks about the Second Coming its purpose is to challenge us to action. When the Biblical writers refer to it, their purpose is not to give us a detailed explanation of the doctrine, but rather to relate it to some practical needs… (92)

Respect for the natural world, love, community, justice – these are some of the values which the Christian vision of the future puts before us to aim at in human society…. The church is to be a sign of God’s kingdom, pioneering things which are God’s future intention for all people. This is what the church at its best has always been.  Who pioneered mass education?  Who pioneered hospitals?  Who pioneered the abolition of slavery?  In each case Christians played a leading role in causing progressive change… As a pioneer of progress towards the will of God, the church is a sign of the coming reality of God’s kingdom. (125)

The saddest feature of so many books about Christian hope is their failure to show how the hope of Christ’s return is supposed to affect lives right now.   Books that were written to comfort God’s people (Daniel and Revelation) in the face of vicious persecution, have become a happy hunting ground for religious extremists.  Instead of being sources of hope and encouragement, they have become objects of idle speculation… (80)

We want to know the date of Christ’s return. We want God to give us some infallible sign that his coming is just around the corner.  We want God to deal with our unanswered questions about the future. (106)

But Christian hope is not this kind of escapism. On the contrary, hope is a powerful motive for positive Christian living and for social change.  Christian hope is not for tickling our minds but for changing our lives and for influencing society. (7)

It is hope that drives Christians into situations of conflict and squalor, of injustice and inhumanity… It is hope that drives Christians to mission, to service and sacrificial love. (126)

JesusI’m not particularly interested in anybody’s pet theory about how and when Christ will return. In a startling confession of his own ignorance, Jesus told His disciples – “…of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36). It’s my hunch that if by accident some wild-eyed enthusiast just happened to get the date of the Second Coming right and then started widely publicizing it, that God would immediately change the date just to show us who’s really in charge and calling the shots!  No, what the New Testament tells us about God’s future for us, and for all of creation, is not so that we can form discussion groups where we can sit around all day arguing over our favorite speculative theories about the times and seasons that are fixed by God’s authority alone.  I think that the New Testament has a very different purpose in telling us about God’s future salvation.

It is reported that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that if he knew that the world was going to end tomorrow, that his duty today would still be to plant his garden and to collect the rent! The way we show our confidence in the promises that God makes in His Word about what’s coming for us and for all of creation tomorrow, is to start leaning by faith in the direction of the vision of that future with which we have been provided, and to start embodying its values right here and right now in this world where we live today.  We don’t need sensational announcements of impending doom.  What we need are hope-filled Christians making hope-shaped differences in the world informed by their hope-informed values and their hope-full vision of the future. DBS +

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Soundings

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 +

hands

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“The Whole Counsel of God”

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

candlebible

 “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 +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

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

circlechalice

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 +

                                                                                                           

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“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 +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

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 +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

“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.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings