Tag Archives: justice

“On Not Losing our Souls”

Two Christians; Two Responses

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Kennan Jones was savagely beaten by a gang of passengers on a Dallas Area Rapid Transit light rail train a few weeks ago. When Kennan asked them to stop smoking pot on the train, they turned on him.  The beating eventually spilled out onto a train platform.  It was a brutal scene, and Kennan Jones is still recovering from his injuries.  But on Thursday afternoon, August 10th, accompanied by his lawyer, Kennan Jones held a news conference to say that he hopes that what happened to him will turn into some kind of redemption for his attackers, three of whom have now been arrested.  He says that he doesn’t want to see their lives ruined over this.  When asked what he would say to those who attacked him if they were sitting across from him, Kennan Jones said, “I would probably gather a bunch of rocks in my hand, lay them out in front of me and say, ‘Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.’”   Kennan Jones says that it’s not his job to be their judge and jury. “I’ll let the courts handle that,” he said. “What I want for them is what the Lord wants for them,” Kennan Jones explained, “whatever process they have to go through to learn right from wrong.”

What a remarkable witness! And what a striking contrast to the tone of the pronouncements of the high profile Dallas Pastor who has been in the news all week.  No sooner had the President spoken of “fire” and “fury,” and of “power unlike any that the world has ever seen before,” than the preacher down the street from me had enthusiastically sprung to his defense and said that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un” based on his reading of Romans 13:4.  Apart from the larger question of whether or not Romans 13 (or the United States Constitution for that matter) actually gives this, or any President, the singular authority to wage war (something that I will address in next week’s blog), there is the inner question of the spirit with which we as Christians are supposed to think and talk about the use of force in the establishment of justice.

It is important to note that Kennan Jones in his graceful response to his attackers doesn’t think that they should just go free. “He doesn’t want them to not be held accountable,” Kennan Jones’ lawyer explains, “but he doesn’t want them thrown into this mass-incarceration system.” And that’s the fine line that I think we dance on as Christians, the fine line that separates justice from mercy. I have long agreed with Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous assessment that “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” It is sad, and it is a duty — a moral obligation. In a sinful world justice has to be established, but I don’t think that means a rush to judgment or the enthusiastic use of force.

Somewhere I’ve read that when the author Robert Louis Stevenson, a Christian himself, received word of a war among the people of his adopted country of Samoa, that he fell to the floor writhing in pain and weeping uncontrollably.   And while this is not all that there is to a Christian’s response to war, this is at least where it must begin.  Sadness and not anger, regret and not eagerness, the stubborn hope of redemption and not the quick pronouncement of damnation is what must lie beneath the surface of a Christian’s response to war.  When in the course of human events a war in the cause of justice becomes necessary, Christians can only support it with tears in our eyes, anguish in our hearts, and with a caution that has been deeply informed by grace.

I hear it in what Kennan Jones said at the news conference on Thursday, and it sounded like the Gospel to me. And I heard it in a Fred Craddock story that has been making the rounds this week.-

fredYears ago I received a letter from Washington asking if I would join hundreds of other ministers in holding prayer breakfasts around the world. Wherever there were American citizens or soldiers, there were going to be President’s Prayer Breakfasts. I wrote back and said I would be honored to do it. I waited a while, and then I got a letter saying that my station for the prayer breakfast would be in Seoul, Korea. I said, “Wonderful, I’ll just stop by there on the way to the office and have a prayer breakfast!” I went to Seoul, where I was the guest of General Richard Stilwell, who commanded 40,000-to-50,000 American soldiers in South Korea. The officers and troops had gathered in great numbers. Before I spoke, a private who’d been brought over from Formosa played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. It was moving and beautiful. General Stilwell said, “I love that song.”

When the breakfast was over and everybody was leaving, General Stilwell turned to me and said, “I want you to pray for us.” I said, “I will.” He said, “I don’t mean for power. We have the power. In one afternoon we could wipe out North Korea. We have the power. What we need you to pray for is that we have the restraint.” “That we have the restraint?” I asked. “Yes,” the general said, “the restraint. The mark of a civilized society is not power. It is restraint.”

In these frightening and confusing days, as Americans we cannot afford to lose our heads, and as Christians we dare not lose our souls. DBS +

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“Get Woke!”

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

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

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

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I Thessalonians 5:4-10

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

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

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

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

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

The question is how?
How are sleepy Christians awakened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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’re All In This Thing Together”

Patriotic Grace in a Season of Political Posturing

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Krista Tippett began her interview with Richard Mouw, the previous President of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of America’s premier Evangelical institutions, by noting that “American public life feels as fragile and divided today as at any time in recent memory.” She noted the “political and social chasms between us that give no evidence of being resolved any time soon.” And she wondered about how we might “build a flourishing common life, even while holding deep disagreements on so many issues?”  (http://www.onbeing.org/program/restoring-political-civility-evangelical-view/163).

Dr. Mouw’s focus in the interview was on our “common life” as citizens.  He worries that serious conversation about and genuine concern for our common life have almost become “foreign in the American cultural discourse,” and to make his point, Dr. Mouw took the conversation all the way back to Aristotle (384–322 BC).

munTo be civil comes from the Latin word “civitas” a word meaning that we know how to live together in a city. It was Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, who said that as little children we have a natural sense of kinship. We have strong positive feelings toward those who are our blood relatives – “my” mother, “my” father, “my” sisters and brothers, “my” cousins and the like. And then as we grow up, some of those same positive feelings begin to develop about our friends.  So we go from kinship and we build on that to a broader sense of friendship where you have that same sense of bonding or something like it that isn’t just based on being a blood relative.  But Aristotle said that to really grow up, to become a fully mature human being, then we have to have in the public square that same sense of bonding to people from other cities, to people who are very different than yourself.  It’s not just toleration.  Rather, it is a sense that what I owe to “my” mother because she brought me into this world, what I owe to “my” friends because of our shared experiences and memories and delights, I also owe to the stranger. Why? Because they’re human beings just like I am, and therefore I’ve got to begin to think of our shared humanity as something that binds us all together.

peggyOn June the 9th, 2004, Peggy Noonan, the Political Columnist who was one of President Reagan’s speechwriters, was in Washington D.C. for his funeral.  She writes that about 100 of the people who had been instrumental in his administration – cabinet heads, party elders, political allies and operatives were altogether in a big room on the Senate side of the Capitol for a reception when armed security officers burst in and forcefully announced: “We are evacuating the Capitol right now! This is not an exercise!  We are evacuating the Capitol. Now. Everyone out.”  Startled, people looked at each other, began to gather up their stuff and started ambling toward the doors. That’s when a second security officer burst into the room and shouted at the top of his lungs: “We’ve got an unidentified incoming aircraft – sixty seconds out… move!” People began to run.

When Peggy got to the top of the Capitol steps she saw someone point and shout – “There it is… aircraft incoming!” As she hurried down the steps a Capitol guard at the bottom implored everyone to run for their lives. “Ladies, take off you high heels and run just as fast and as far as you possibly can.”  And Peggy says that as she turned to look back at the Capitol, at the top of the stairs there was an old woman in a wheelchair – stranded – unable to get down by herself – just sitting there as people rushed by her.  And then Peggy said that she saw two big burly men come alongside her wheelchair, hoist it up and carry her down the long steps and then wheel her away to safety.

And Peggy wrote –

Something happened as I watched her being carried down the Capitol steps. A thought came to my mind with the force of an intuition, and in time that thought sank in and did not leave…  It was – “Before this is over we’ll all be helping each other down the stairs… before this is over… Americans all around me, whoever they are, whatever their politics… will be helping me down the stairs, and I’ll be helping them.”

Peggy explains –

I am a political conservative, but I am in this thing we call America with political liberals. You may be a political liberal, but you’re in this thing with political conservatives.  They’ll be helping you down the stairs.  You’ll be helping them down the stairs.  We’re in this thing together… Republicans and Democrats… Conservatives and liberals… we’re all in this thing together.

And then Peggy concluded –

What we need most right now, at this particular moment in our history, is a kind of patriotic grace – a grace that takes the long view – a grace that eschews the politically cheap and manipulative – a grace that takes the deep view – a grace that admits affection and respect for others – that in fact encourages affection and respect for others – that agrees that the things that divide us are not worthy of this moment – while the things that encourage our cohesion as a nation must be encouraged.

“Patriotic Grace” does not require me to abandon my political convictions and conclusions, but it does require me not to view those who disagree with me as being either stupid or evil.  And “Patriotic Grace” demands that I put my concern that my country continues to work to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” above my concern for any transient political victory and my candidate’s turn at the exercise of elusive partisan power. There’s something so much bigger at work here. There’s something much more important at stake now. We’re all in this thing together. DBS +

 

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“Is the Fourth of July a Religious Holiday?”

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I had a friend in Christian College who loved comic books. His collection was amazing.  But he was ashamed of this passion.  He pursued it only in the shadows of his life, keeping it hidden, especially from his Christian friends.  And when I asked him why, he told me that when his grandmother – a devout Christian woman he absolutely adored – found him looking at his comic books one day when he was just a kid, she spoke words that got forever branded on his soul – “If you have time to read that kind of trash, then you’ve got time to read your Bible!” And that’s the day he said that he began to shield his passion for comic books from the eyes of others, especially his Christian family and friends.  He’d been conditioned to think that comic books and God were fundamentally incompatible.

Personally, I love major league baseball and college football, action movies, the music of Mozart, the paintings of Van Gogh, Lee Child’s novels, Carl Dennis’ poems, and here recently, I’ve been developing something of a passion for Broadway musicals, especially one about a porous yellow sponge that lives in a pineapple under the sea. None of these things are “Christian,” and sometimes, even while I am enjoying one of them, I will faintly hear the whisper of my friend’s grandmother – “If you’ve got time for this trash, then you’ve got time for Bible Study, Church, prayer or whatever other ‘Christian’ activity you might think of.” Now, there’s something really important, and very dangerous at work in this.

I don’t know why, maybe it’s that separation of church and state mentality that’s been so carefully ingrained into us, but we’ve gotten really good at compartmentalizing our lives as Christians into “sacred” and “secular” bins.  Sunday mornings are “sacred,” Monday mornings are “secular.” Hymns are “sacred,” but the music you listen to on your radio driving to work is “secular.” How we earn our money is “secular,” giving some of it to the church is “sacred.” Reading your Bible is “sacred,” reading the newspaper is “secular.” Talking to God and ministers is “sacred,” talking to the teller at the bank or the cashier at the store is “secular.” We seem to instinctively know how this works. There are parts of our lives that God gets, and there are parts of our lives that are none of His business.

Just like you, this is how I was brought up to think and act. I certainly wasn’t raised to be dismissive of God. We said grace before dinner every night and we were in church every Sunday morning when I was growing up, but we weren’t fanatics about it. There was a place for God, and we were pretty good at keeping God in His place. Then Abraham Kuyper came along and ruined this all for me. Abraham Kuyper was an early 20th century Dutch theologian who founded a new Christian denomination and was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands for a while.

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If I were 40 years younger I think that I would try to learn some Dutch and then go over to the church-related University that Abraham Kuyper founded in Amsterdam where I could study his ideas even more closely. Anyway, when I was 40 years younger I stumbled across something that Abraham Kuyper said, and it forever rocked my worldview – “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” This is what it means when we say that “Jesus is Lord,” and we say this not just when me make the Good Confession and join the church, but every Sunday morning when we break the bread and drink the cup at His Table in remembrance of and in obedience to Him. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that we believe that He’s in charge and involved in all of life, or at least, that He is actively engaged in the struggle to get back in charge and be involved in every part of our lives. And once this idea gets hold of you, then that old “sacred/secular” divide that we’ve been raised with starts to crumble.

Now, we don’t usually think of the Fourth of July as a Religious Holiday, do we? It’s not on the church calendar like Christmas and Easter are.   In fact, I have friends in ministry who will make no reference whatsoever to this being the weekend of the 240th celebration of the birth of American Independence. They argue that their affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ prohibits them from making too much of a fuss about any of the lesser loyalties in their lives, things like citizenship, especially at church, during worship, lest it become idolatrous. And so they throw the Fourth of July into the “secular” bin and quickly move on to more “spiritual” things. And while I certainly “get” what they are saying, and even share their very real concern for idolatry, ironically, I find that it is my very affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ that actually compels me to reflect on the religious implications of a national celebration like the Fourth of July.

When Abraham Kuyper observed that “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” I think that what he was saying was that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is not just relevant for what happens in church on Sunday morning, but it’s also relevant for what happens in culture every other morning of the week. There is just one God who is sovereign over both church and culture, but – and here’s the real genius of Kuyper’s teaching as far as I am concerned – God is doing different things in and through the church than God is doing in and through culture. There’s no compartmentalization here in the sense that there are parts of life that God cares about and other parts of life that God doesn’t care about. No, God cares about and has a claim on “every square inch of the whole domain of our human existence.”

Rather, it’s a matter of understanding the different things that God is doing in and through His work with the church, and in and through His work with culture. Just as you wouldn’t go to a bank to get a loaf of bread, or take your dog to an auto mechanic to treat him for fleas, so while God is at work in and through both church and culture, God is not doing the same thing in both places. This is how Abraham Kuyper himself could be a theologian and church reformer in one part of his life, and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands in another part without confusing the two roles or blurring their responsibilities.

This is a gross oversimplification of what Kuyper taught, but we could say that the assignment that God has given to the church concerns the eternal needs of our souls as human beings, while the assignment that God has given to the culture concerns the temporal needs of our bodies. The Great Commission sets the agenda for the life and work of the church –

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

And it’s something called the “Cultural Mandate” that sets the agenda for the work that God expects culture to do. The “Cultural Mandate” is what the first Creation story in Genesis chapter 1 is talking about when God told the first human couple to –

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (1:28)

And it’s what the Second Creation story in Genesis chapter 2 means when it tells us that – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (2:15).       “Filling and subduing” — “tilling and keeping” — that’s God’s assignment for culture. Creating and then maintaining the conditions that are most conducive to human thriving in this world, that’s the assignment that God has given to culture, and that’s what makes the Fourth of July “religious,” if you ask me.

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The American experiment to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” had its birth 240 years ago when 56 men gathered in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia in July and signed a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, mutually pledging to each other their Lives, their Fortunes and their sacred Honor.”  This is not about Christians doing the work of eternal salvation that God has given the church to do.  No, this was the work of some ordinary human beings doing the noble work of trying to make life better for people in this world, and that’s the assignment that God has given culture to do.  And I don’t have to confuse what happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, with what happened on a cross and in a borrowed tomb outside of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago to be able to see and appreciate how the Fourth of July is “religious.”

I’m not much of a fan of wrapping up the cross in the American flag. But I am a pretty big fan of both the cross and the American flag.  And it’s because “there’s not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ does not cry, Mine,” that I find that I can hold in my head and my heart, simultaneously, a genuine appreciation for the ways that God is at work in the church, and for the ways that God is at work in the culture, without confusing the two.

And so I will celebrate the Fourth of July as a religious holiday of God’s common grace. As a Christian I can be truly grateful for the way that God has clearly been at work in this nation that “is my home, this country where my heart is.” It’s our historic commitment to “liberty and justice for all… under God” that inspires and that frankly still challenges me, in the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg back in 1863, “to be dedicated… with increased devotion… to the unfinished work… [of securing justice and liberty for all] for which so many have given their last full measure of devotion.” But on the third of July I will be in worship at church. And even though our services that day will take note of the national holiday that this weekend has been set apart for us to celebrate, and even as we are thinking and talking about the religious ramifications of this nation’s stewardship of the “cultural mandate” that God has given to it, there will come a moment on Sunday morning when we will consciously turn from the flag to the cross; from thinking and talking about the work that God is doing in and through culture by common grace, to thinking and talking about the work that God is doing in and through the church by saving grace.

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The bread that we break and the cup that we share in church will be a reminder on this red, white and blue weekend that our final citizenship as Christians is in heaven from which we eagerly await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:20). And so, while I’m truly glad to be an American in this life, I will be eternally grateful to be a Christian in the life to come. It’s the work that God is doing through culture that makes life so good and fulfilling for us here and now, and for that we should be truly grateful as Americans on this national holiday weekend.  We are truly blessed.  But it’s the work of the Gospel that God in Christ does in and through the church that makes life possible forever, and for that, as Christians, we will sing God’s praise throughout eternity. DBS +

 

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“And forgive…”

dead

In 1979, Bahram Dehqani-Tafti, the son of the Anglican Bishop of Iran, the Rt. Rev. H.B. Dehqani-Tafti, was murdered during the revolution that brought the Ayatollah to power. Exiled from the country and unable to attend his son’s funeral, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti composed this prayer and had it broadcast live into the service.

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A Father’s Prayer Upon the Murder of his Son

O God, we remember not only Bahram but also his murderers;
not because they killed him in the prime of his youth
and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow.
Not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace
on the name of our country among the civilized world;
But because through their crime we now follow thy foot- steps
more closely in the way of sacrifice.
The terrible fire of the calamity burns up
all selfishness and possessiveness in us;
Its flame reveals the depth of depravity and meanness and suspicion,
the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature;
It makes obvious as never before our need to trust in God’s love
as shown in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection;
Love which makes us free from hate towards our persecutors;
Love which brings patience, forbearance, courage,
loyalty, humility, generosity of heart;
Love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory
and his eternal designs for the Church and for the world;
Love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death.

O God, Bahram’s blood has multiplied the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls;
so when his murderers stand before thee on the Day of Judgment,
remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives.

And Forgive…

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In the avalanche of emotions that we feel and responses that are being made to the horror of what happened in a Bible Study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night, the shape of this prayer frames my thinking as a Christian more powerfully than anything else I have ever come across.  It’s challenge has the weight of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the push of the Holy Spirit in it.

Anger today is certainly legitimate, but it’s not enough.
Anguish today is clearly appropriate, but it’s not enough.
Guilt today is entirely proper, but it’s not enough.
Shame today is completely fitting, but it’s not enough.
A cry for social justice today sounds totally right, but it’s not enough.
Calls for new legislation are undoubtedly timely, but they are not enough.

Nothing short of a change of heart is what is needed, and that’s what this prayer seeks. And so I invite you to join me as a Christian in praying it for Charleston, McKinney, Baltimore, Staten Island, Norman, Ferguson… me and you.  DBS+

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Changing Laws ~ Changing Hearts

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Dr. Bill Baird, my professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, and the reason why I wanted to go to seminary in Ft. Worth in the first place, used to say that our natural reflex is to use Biblical texts as “springboards” to Washington D.C.

What he meant by this was our tendency to move immediately, unhesitatingly and uncritically from Biblical teachings to some specific public policy proposal. We get political in the blink of an eye and become partisan in a heartbeat. Both the Christian right and the Christian left pronounce their particular take on a pressing social issue of the day and leave the distinct impression that it is the only conscientious position that a serious Christian can take.  We call it being “prophetic,” and we think that it’s how we speak truth to power.

As Christians, we use the Bible politically to speak to the world. But when I read my Bible, in context, more often than not, what I encounter is not a word that’s being spoken to the world at large, but a word that’s being spoken instead to the community of faith, both to whole congregations and to individual Christians.  When He was in front of Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ explicitly disavowed the suspected grab for worldly power through a political strategy that made Him a cause for concern to Rome.   “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said (John 18:36).  And when addressing a problem about sexual expression in the Corinthian Church, Paul explained –

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. [1 Corinthians 5:9-13]

I know, I know, these verses beg many important questions, but for right now try to focus just on the inside/outside distinction that Paul was making here; the difference between what the church is supposed to say to “anyone who claims to be a brother or sister,” and what the church is supposed to say to “the people of this world.”

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Paul asked, assuming that his readers knew that the answer was “none” — that it’s not our “business” to hold people in the world accountable to the moral and spiritual standards that we who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ hold sacred.  “Are you not to judge those inside?” And again, Paul assumed that his readers knew the answer to this rhetorical question as well. “Yes,” we are supposed to hold ourselves accountable to each other within the community of faith for the things that we say we believe are true, and right, and good.

Don’t try to play the trump card of Matthew 7:1-6 here. Even in context, Jesus’ “judge not lest ye be judged” assumes a capacity on our part to be able to identify “specks,” “logs,” “dogs” and “swine.” And within a mere 8 verses of this teaching, Jesus was warning His disciples about “false prophets” and the necessity for His disciples to be able to know who they were by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).  The appeal to Matthew 7:1 as a universal prohibition to judging that we like to use to avoid the hard work of getting clarity for ourselves or being challenged by others about what it is that we believe and value ignores what the verse actually says in context and attempts to have it bear more freight than it was designed to hold, which brings us back around to the inside/outside distinction and to the question of who the Bible is talking to?

The reason why we use Biblical texts as springboards to Washington DC is because we think that the primary way that the world will be changed, made more just and compassionate, will be through legislation. And while I’m not unaware of the necessity of political action or unappreciative of the way that good legislation and responsible government can serve the establishment of justice and liberty for all, neither am I naïve.  I’m truly glad that racial segregation and discrimination was officially outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, 50 years later have painfully shown us, it’s one thing to change the law and another thing to change hearts.

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The “takeaway” from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book Aspects of Christian Social Ethics for me was his strong emphasis on Christianity’s “supernatural resources” for social change. This was his restatement of Pietist Christianity’s traditional approach to addressing social problems and fueling social improvement.

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-politico-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to being about rapid social fulfillment. (9)

But the Christian Church ought to rely on the spiritual regeneration of individuals to transform society. (72)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and indignation at injustice. (29)

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement… Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening. To ignore or lay aside this chief armor of apostolic Christianity for reliance on other social dynamics means retreat from the peculiar glory of the New Testament to the world-wisdom and world-power of the Greeks and the Romans.  Those who in social agitation sponsor a morality of compulsion, or simply trust the word and will of unregenerate men, thereby betray their skepticism of the adequacy of spiritual reserves latent in the Christian religion. This gnawing doubt is manifest in the notion that social problems are not wholly responsive to spiritual solutions. Consequently, the Church has often turned aside from its evangelistic and missionary priorities, attempting to chart a socio-political thrust alongside rather than in and through the evangelistic thrust. (26-27)

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (power) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order.  (25)

The Gospel is the Church’s distinctive message and its distinctive dynamism for social transformation. (79)

When the New Testament addresses a social issue like slavery in Paul’s letter to Philemon, what it says was not being offered as a plank in the platform of a political party, or as some specific political policy proposal. Rome wasn’t listening.  The Emperor didn’t care.  What the New Testament had to say about social justice was a word that was addressed to the hearts of believers who then as salt and light and leaven would penetrate the world around them.  And my hope as a Christian today for the emergence of a more just and compassionate social order still depends less on the persuasiveness of a political argument and the results of the next election than on the spiritual transformation of people by the power of the living, loving God in their lives through the Word and the Spirit.  As Edward Beecher, Lyman’s son, put it –

Great changes do not begin on the surface of society, but in prepared hearts; in men (and women) who by communion with God, rise above the apathy of the age, and speak with living vital energy, and give life to the community, and tone to the public mind. (Wirt 147)

In closing, I put into evidence in support of this argument a story that J. Mack Stiles told in his book Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP 2010).

When our missionary friend, Mike McComb, tried to introduce protein into the diets of the largely illiterate Guatemalan farmers, it was a masterful combination of expertise, training, and strategy. He started his work towards the end of the murderous civil war. During that time Mike also faithfully shared the gospel. And Mike noticed it was the gospel that allowed protein to get to the people.

protein

When the gospel was understood and accepted in villages, Mike reported, men stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. As they attended church, they started to attend to their crops and their children’s education. Tomas, the mayor of Nebaj, told me that it was only when the gospel came to the Ixil lands that real change happened. Mike says that the preaching of the gospel did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the Gospel brings more long-term social good than any governmental aid program ever developed.

Changed hearts change the world.  DBS+

 

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