Tag Archives: Love

“Wanted, Not Worthless”

foundWhen I was just starting seminary back in 1976, there was a national evangelistic campaign that featured yellow bumper stickers that boldly announced “I found it!” “It” was salvation – redemption, the forgiveness of sins, life eternal and abundant. On the bulletin board outside the dining hall where students posted announcements and advertisements, someone plastered one of these yellow “I found it!” bumper stickers, and others in the community took this as an invitation to comment, a chance to come up with some facetious slogans of their own.  It started innocently enough with a simple question– “What is it?” That got the ball rolling. “If you find it, please turn it into the office immediately,” one said, and that was followed with a – “No, I found it — it’s mine now.” “Well, if you found it, then you can have it because I don’t want it!” was answered with – “Well, you may have found it, but I never lost it.” And so it went day after day until finally one day someone posted – “He found me.”

sheepDr. George Eldon Ladd, the world class New Testament scholar who taught at that school was famous for saying that the only truly “new element” in Jesus Christ’s teachings about God was that He was a “seeking God” — a God who “takes the initiative to seek out the sinner, to bring the lost into the blessing of His reign” (80).  The Pharisees of Jesus’ day taught that while God “was always [at least theoretically] willing to take the first step towards us, that in actual practice the initiative was almost always left up to the sinner to return to God.” The people in Jesus’ day thought that it was up to them to find God, but Jesus Christ said that it’s God who actually comes to find us, so that whoever posted – “He found me!” –clearly understood Dr. Ladd’s point.  In fact, I sometimes wondered if it wasn’t Dr. Ladd himself who posted it!  And where Dr. Ladd said that he found this great truth of God seeking the sinner most clearly was in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke.  There are three parables about God seeking and saving the lost in Luke chapter 15.  The first one is the Parable of the Lost Lamb.  And the truth that this parable firmly establishes is the idea that what gets lost gets sought!  The shepherd doesn’t scold, or shame, or spank his little lamb for getting lost; no, he just went after it and brought it back home again joyfully.

Jonathan Dahl’s father died 30 years ago. On his death bed, Jonathan’s father made a final request of him. “Find Jeff” he said.  Jeff was the oldest boy in the Dahl family, and he had vanished one hot August afternoon six years before his father died.  Strung out on drugs after years of failed rehabs, Jeff exploded when his parents refused to give him $35.  He smashed some furniture, kicked in a car door, and threatened to burn down the house.  His father told him to leave, to just go and not come back.  And Jeff did.  He left and had not been seen or heard from by anybody in his family after that day.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

jeffJeff was the oldest and brightest son of an IBM executive who lived in Darien, Connecticut. Jeff was absolutely adored by his kid brother Jonathan.  Jeff was the kind of big brother who would stop to tie his little brother’s shoes at the bus stop, sit with him during lunch in the school cafeteria, and play with him after school.  Jeff was a good athlete and a great student.  Some of his poems were published when he was still in Middle School.  He won trophies for swimming and tennis. He had a steady girlfriend and a full tuition scholarship to college.   Jeff Dahl was every parent’s dream, the picture of success.  He was bright, popular, and gifted — a kid full of promise.

It was when he was a freshman at college that Jeff began experimenting with drugs. It changed him.  He became moody and withdrawn, disinterested and unmotivated. To buy drugs he started stealing things.  He got into trouble with the law, and that’s when he began an endless cycle of drug treatment programs.  During one of these hospitalizations he was diagnosed with a mental illness that’s characterized by uncontrollable urges and sudden emotional outbursts. But the doctors weren’t really sure if Jeff’s behavioral problems were caused by his drug problem or by his mental illness.  They said they needed Jeff to be drug free for six months to know for sure.  Jeff never was drug free for six months.

Jeff was 27 years old when he got kicked out of the family. Later, when things calmed down a bit, Jeff’s father regretted what he’d said to him. He knew that if Jeff had cancer, or had become a paraplegic, that he would never have thrown him out. But Jeff was gone. He’d vanished without a trace.  And then Jeff’s dad got sick himself, and as he lay dying, he made his final request – “Find Jeff.”

The burden of this request fell squarely on Jonathan’s shoulders, Jeff’s little brother.   A writer for the Wall Street Journal who travelled the country chasing stories, Jonathan was in the best position to conduct the search.  And so Jonathan would add an extra day or two onto every trip he took for business so that he could poke around the kind of places where homeless people were likely to be known – shelters, police stations, public libraries, churches with ministries to street people.  Flashing Jeff’s picture to the people in those places, Jonathan would ask, “Do you know him?” “Have you seen him?” In every city he visited, Jonathan would call every Jeff Dahl he found listed in the phone book, hoping against hope that he might just accidently stumble upon his brother. At one homeless shelter he visited somebody finally recognized Jeff’s picture and told him that he thought that he’d gone to Colorado with some friends. Jonathan booked the first flight to Denver he could find.  When he got there, Jonathan tracked down the mother of one of Jeff’s friends, and he got the name of a clerk at an X rated bookstore who know Jeff really well.  After a long conversation with that guy late into the night, Jonathan finally got a phone number, and he sensed that his long search was nearly over.

Jonathan drove around Denver the rest of that night in his rented car waiting for the sun to come up. At dawn he found a pay phone at a convenience store and punched in the number that he had been given.  The phone rang once, twice, three times.  Finally a groggy voice answered – “Yeah,” it said, “What do you want?” Jonathan panicked and hung up without saying a word.  It was Jeff’s voice.  He’d done it.  He’d found his brother.  But after all the years, through all the pain, what was he going to say?  He dialed the number again, and when it got picked up at the other end, Jonathan quickly said, “Jeff, this is your brother Jonathan. I love you.  We miss you. Please come home.”  There was a long pause, and the sound of sobbing.

Luke 19:10 is one of the Gospel’s purpose statements, Jesus telling His disciples why He’d come and what He was there to do – “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” This verse is the punch line to the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho who climbed up in a Sycamore tree to try to see Jesus who was passing by that day.  Zacchaeus was “lost.” He’d betrayed his people, denied his identity, and sold his soul.  It had made him rich, and it had left him isolated, inhabiting the margins of society, estranged from his people and their God.

parnellJonathan Parnell takes Zacchaeus climbing up the tree to get to Jesus as a symbol of all the ways that we as human beings try to get right with God in our own strength and by our own effort. It’s popular to talk about the spiritual life as a ladder that we have got to climb in order to get into God’s presence and to win God’s favor. “Religion tells us to seek. We are advised to climb trees like Zacchaeus, to depend upon our own exertion for any hope of ascending to the divine.  We are told to bridge the gap by our effort.  If you want salvation, they say, seek it.”  And then one day Jesus comes to town and says, “Hurry up and come down” (19:5).  He’s the seeker.  He’s the Savior.  Zacchaeus didn’t find Jesus by climbing up the tree. Jesus found Zacchaeus by telling him to come down out of the tree and going home with him. “Our seeking – our trying to reach the divine on our own – is silenced when we learn that the divine has reached down to us… by becoming one of us. Here we are, spinning our wheels in hopes of getting to God, and then God… comes to get us. 

“Lost” doesn’t mean “worthless” but “wanted.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “passed over” but “pursued.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “inferior” but “valuable.”
“Lost” doesn’t mean “loathed” but “loved.”
“The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve gotten yourself off to, whatever you’ve gotten yourself into, He’ll come. He’s already looking for you.  And when He finds you, what He’s going to say is – “I love you. We miss you. Please come home.” DBS+

 

 

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“If you love Me…”

The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Discipleship

sermon

Discipleship — actually following Jesus — is not optional in Christianity, or for Christians. It’s not an extra add-on like satellite radio in your car, or the premium channels in your cable package.  We can’t break the “Good Confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior in half.  We can’t give Jesus our sins to be forgiven as Savior without Him, at the very same time, demanding to become the Lord of our lives.  Consider the Great Commission — Christ’s final marching orders to the church. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” Jesus told His first followers (Luke 14:47; Mark 16:15), “make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, he Son, and the Holy Spirit, teach them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

mennoMenno Simons, one of the Protestant Reformers who gets lost in all of the attention that Luther and Calvin get, understood better than they did what the connection is between believing the Gospel and becoming Christ’s disciples, between getting baptized and obeying all that Christ taught. Menno Simons taught that baptism is probably the least important thing that God commands us to do. Jesus Christ taught so many more important things – loving our neighbors, dying to self, serving the least of these.  But Menno Simons nevertheless insisted that people get baptized at the very beginning of their Christian lives because he viewed baptism as the first act of their obedience of faith.  Menno Simons understood that if a person agreed to be baptized because Jesus told them to do it, that he or she was someone who was already disposed to do whatever else could be shown to be something that Jesus Christ wanted them to do.

drownIt should come as no great surprise to learn that Menno Simons’ spiritual descendants – the Mennonites – more so than any other part of the Christian family today, have taken the actual living of the Sermon on the Mount most seriously. They get baptized to show their intention to be Christ’s disciples, to do whatever He commands, and they understand that the most comprehensive account of what Christ has commanded is the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not just meant to be admired by us as an inspiring ideal.  The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be adopted as our working philosophy of life as Christians.

Now, if we are to do this – and our baptisms say that we should – then there are three things that we’ve got to keep in mind –

The first thing is understanding that living the Sermon on the Mount is not something that we do in order to become Christians, but rather it’s something that we do because we are Christians.  I like the way that Frank Thielman, a Professor of New Testament at Beeson Theological Seminary over in Birmingham, Alabama, puts it – “The Sermon on the Mount shows us what life should look like for a heart that has been melted and transformed by the Gospel of Grace.”

cupWe don’t gather at the Lord’s Table to hear the Sermon on the Mount read to us. No, we gather at the Lord’s Table to break bread in remembrance of Christ’s body broken for us, and to pour a cup in remembrance of Christ’s blood poured out for us.  This is what makes us Christians.  We are loved, forgiven, and accepted by Christ’s saving work when He died an atoning death on the cross and when He rose transformed and transforming from the Garden Tomb.  But a copy of the Sermon on the Mount should probably be put in our hands at the door of the church every Sunday morning when worship is over and we’re on our way back into the world as people who have been loved, forgiven, and accepted by the Savior.  The Sermon on the Mount is what a life of grateful obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord looks like.

applesThe second thing we need to keep in mind if we are going to live the Sermon on the Mount is understanding that it is not a set of rules that gets imposed on us from the outside, but is rather the shape of the desire that arises from the heart of someone who has been indwelt by Christ.  Living like this is not something that we have to do.  It’s something that we want to do. In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about fruit and roots.  “Grapes are not gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles,” Jesus explained. “Sound trees bear good fruit; bad trees bear bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-17).  Reflecting on this, John Piper writes –

Christians have to be loving. Christians have to be just. Christians have to be caring. The fruit of the Spirit really matter. We’re not Christians if we aren’t living differently than we would if we weren’t Christians.

The real question is how does this fruit get produced in us? Jesus said that the kind of fruit we produce depends entirely on the kind of tree we are. And this means that the behaviors of discipleship that the Sermon on the Mount describe – the fruit – can’t be forced on us by some kind of external authority, but rather have to be formed in us by an inward transformation. The key to living the Sermon on the Mount is being a Christian -having a heart indwelt by Christ.

yogaBut even then, it’s not going to be easy, or automatic. That’s the third thing that we need to understand if we’re going to start living the Sermon on the Mount. E. Stanley Jones said that living the life of the Sermon on the Mount is sort of like trying to walk after you’ve sat for a long time with your legs folded up underneath you. At first it feels painful and completely unnatural, something impossible to do. But after a while, with a little effort and movement, nothing else feels right. And then it dawns on us that this is the right way to live, the truest and most satisfying way of being a human being. This is the kind of life that we were built for, and when we finally realize this then no other way of living will ever be possible for us again.

kempisIn his 15th century spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’ Kempis explained that one of the real keys to making progress in the Christian life was to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord each day as if it were the very first day of our Christian lives. Don’t start the day by congratulating yourself on any sort of imagined spiritual progress that you think you might have made, but instead consciously seek the help of Jesus who is your Savior as you continue to grow in your experience of Jesus who intends to be your Lord. It’s only by “doing what He told us to do, loving what He loves, and living by His word” (J. Ligon Duncan) that we show ourselves to be His disciples, and Biblically there’s no other way for us to be in a right relationship with Him. As A.W. Tozer put it – “It is altogether doubtful whether a person can be saved who comes to Christ for His help but who has no intention of obeying Him.” “If you love Me,” Jesus said, “then you will do what I tell you.” DBS +

 

 

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Christ, Charlottesville, and Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Eager for Unity”

unity“I beg you,” Paul told the Ephesians “…to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1; 3).  I know, I know, there is a scholarly consensus out there that says that Paul is not the author of Ephesians, but that’s not really my concern here today.  I’m not blogging this week about the authorship of Ephesians.  I doubt that I will ever blog about that.  What I am blogging about is something that is in the canonical text of Ephesians. And so, if it will keep you reading, then whenever I write “Paul” interpret that reference to mean whatever satisfies your intellect and imagination, and let’s get on with the more substantial task of trying to make sense of the moral and spiritual instruction that this “received” text authoritatively speaks into our lives and situations.

Paul didn’t beg the Ephesian Christians to create unity – that’s well beyond our capabilities as human beings, in fact, that’s Christ’s work, done on the cross Paul said, where He broke down the dividing wall that separated us from each other (Ephesians 2:14). This is how Christ has become our peace, Paul told the Ephesians (2:14). He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were nearby” (Ephesians 2:17), reconciling us to each other by His saving work on the cross. In fact, according to Paul in the first chapter of Ephesians, this was the whole point of Christ’s coming – He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10). This is what God is doing in Jesus Christ — He is working to heal the divisions of the world through His reconciling work of love on the cross, and when someone belongs to Him by faith, then our own inner and outer divisions get healed, and the work of healing becomes our primary assignment as Christians. As Paul put in in 2 Corinthians — “God reconciled us to Himself through Christ [our own experience of getting healed], and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” [our assignment to then be about the ministry of healing in the church and the world] (5:18).

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Harold Heie was for many years a Christian College Professor and Administrator. Seeing the way that both society at large and the church in particular were becoming increasingly and vociferously fragmented, he began a movement for what he calls “respectful conversations” among Christians (http://www.respectfulconversation.net/). Believing that Jesus Christ – the One in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17)intends for His church to be a place where people who have different convictions about the hot-button issues of the moment can still sit down together and talk to each other honestly and civilly and still relate to each other lovingly, Harold Heie has been brokering respectful conversations between Christians on all of the difficult topics that are currently tearing churches, families, friends and the electorate apart.  And out of this experience, he has identified what he calls the three “preconditions” to which we must all be committed as Christians if we are to maintain and extend “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”- humility, patience and love.  Interestingly, these three Christian virtues correspond exactly to what Paul told the Ephesians must be cultivated in them if they were to have any chance at maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace – “…humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (4:2).

mountThe first precondition is humility.  Paul Tournier, the Swiss Psychiatrist, told a wonderful story on himself. He had taken the train to Italy and there in the station he saw a travel poster on the wall with a picture of the majestic Matterhorn on it.   Being Swiss, Dr. Tournier said that he knew very well what the Matterhorn looked like – it was, after all, something of national symbol. And so he said that he instinctively knew that there was something wrong with this picture on the poster. As he studied it closely, he said that it finally dawned on him that that the distinctive peak of the Matterhorn was pointing the wrong way in the picture. “These stupid Italians,” Dr. Tournier thought to himself, “have reversed the image; they got it backwards.” Feeling all superior and smug, Dr. Tournier said that it only gradually dawned on him later that from the south, from the Italian side of the mountain where he was standing at that moment, the picture in the poster was what the Matterhorn would in fact look like!  He had failed to take the Italian perspective into consideration, and Harold Heie says that “respectful conversations” are only possible when we humbly admit that other people are going to have different points of view that we really need to hear and to try to understand. As a “finite, fallible human being, I do not fully understand the truth as God knows it, and so I can always learn from conversation with others,” and they can learn from me.  There can be no respectful conversation and no maintenance of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace if I begin by thinking or saying, “I have the truth, you don’t,” so agree with me or go away, or else I will.

 

The second precondition is patience. Writing about grief, the Christian poet Cecilia Venable observed –

In due season, your heart will be healed…
I know, for God has led me down this long, often confusing path…
[on this] weary but immeasurably worthwhile journey…
And I know that it is well to trust in His seasons,
until they become our seasons…

Trusting that “His seasons” are becoming “our seasons” is not just crucial for the healing process of grief, but also for the stretching process of spiritual maturation.  The bottom line is that we are all works in progress, all the time.  We are men and women who are only gradually being transformed by Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).  And this means that all of our actions and attitudes, all of our beliefs and behaviors as Christians are at this moment, and at every moment, still very much in the process of being formed. We’re not finished yet, and so we have to learn the delicate art of being able to balance ideas that we are willing to fight for and maybe even die over, with a stance of openness that says I am always willing to learn more and to be taught better.  In my senior yearbook from Glendale High School one of my teachers left me with this parting counsel: “Stand firm in your faith and keep searching for truth; you will one day discover that these two things are in conflict.”

 crossesRecognizing this himself, Harold Heie likes to say that he is “on pilgrimage.”  He says that as he walks through his life, “faithful to his present understanding of how he should think and act as a Christian,” that he also understands and fully appreciates the fact that “the very process of walking is going to lead him to further insights about how it is that he should be walking.” And if this is true, if we are all still being formed spiritually, then we’ve got to be patient with ourselves and with each other as together we continue to grow in conscience and conviction.  And we have got to resist the constant impulse to walk away from each other when we disagree because to do so is to cut short the very process by which we all will continue to grow and change.

The third precondition is love.  Jesus said that people outside the community of faith have every right to look at the way that we are loving each other inside the community of faith to determine both the depth of our commitment to Christ (John 13:34-35), and the validity of the Gospel itself (John 17:20-21) on the basis of what they see.  It’s easy for me to love you and for you to love me when we see eye to eye on things.  It’s much trickier for us to love each other when we disagree on a matter of conscience and conviction, but this fightis exactly the kind of love that the world will sit up and take notice of because it’s just so rare these days.  We’re so much more accustomed to people lining up on opposite sides of the street to hurl insults and throw elbows at each other when we disagree.  When people come down on opposite sides of a question about which they have carefully and prayerfully settled conclusions that involve passionate feelings, and they nevertheless choose to stay in relationship with people who have arrived at the opposite conclusion prayerfully and carefully and with the same deep feelings, even though it’s hard to do so, I believe that they are doing the very thing that Paul told Christians to do in Ephesians 4.  They are maintaining the “unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” They are giving concrete and costly expression to their belief in Jesus Christ, the One who “holds all things together,” and who will one day “gather up all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth.” The church and the world are desperate for the emergence of people like this. And so I beg you, on the basis of your calling in Christ, the One who holds all things together, to become one of them. DBS+

 

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Our Pentecost Novena, Day 5

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Northway Christian Church – Dallas, Texas
Day 5 – Tuesday, May 19, 2015
The Proof of the Holy Spirit’s Presence is Kindness
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Scripture – I Corinthians 13:4

Love is kind…

Thought

Andrew Blackwood, Jr. wrote, “Usually when God speaks He speaks through the human voice that is kind.  Nothing stops the sound of His voice so quickly as criticism, carping, unkindness.” “The greatest thing a man can do for a heavenly Father,” said Henry Drummond, “is to be kind to some of His other children.”  And Frederick William Faber said, “Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence or learning.”

Gordon M. Forgersen tells of meeting a Filipino Methodist Bishop on a Europe-bound ship.   The Bishop told of his experience when he came to North America as a student years before. The first Sunday his roommate appeared in the doorway, an umbrella under each arm.  He offered to show him the way to his own place of worship and then he planned to go on to his own church.   As they stated down the street he thought, “If this man has this kind of faith and interest in my spiritual life, surely I should find out what his faith is like.”  He asked his friend to take him to his church and he attended it for the next four years.  As a result he went on to Drew Theological Seminary and years later became a Bishop in this church.   Forgersen concluded his story be saying: “There is such a thing as a direct call rom God without intermediaries, but rarely.  Usually there’s just a man with two umbrellas.”

Prayer

Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
revive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Our Pentecost Novena; Day 1

dallas

Northway Christian Church – Dallas, Texas
Day 1 – Friday, May 15, 2015
The Proof of the Holy Spirit’s Presence is Love
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Scripture – I John 4:7-13

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.  By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

Thought

In the 17th century when Presbyterians and Episcopalians were feuding in Scotland, the Episcopal Archbishop James Usher was traveling incognito through southern Scotland and arrived one Saturday night at the home of the Presbyterian minister Samuel Rutherford.  He was received with characteristic hospitality.   It was the custom of the Rutherford home on Saturday evening for all the family members and guests to gather for catechetical instruction under the direction of Rev. Rutherford. The question that was addressed to them that evening was, “How many commandments are there?” To which Archbishop Usher answered “eleven!”  Everyone present thought that he was truly ignorant.

The next morning Rutherford rose early to pray in a nearby grove of trees before Sunday morning worship, and he was surprised to find his house guest from the previous night – the “ignorant” one – already there kneeling in fervent prayer.  The Archbishop upon disclosing his true identity, was asked by Rev. Rutherford to preach the morning service in his stead. And standing in the pulpit later that morning, Archbishop Usher read John 13:34 – “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another.”  Rutherford, sitting beside his wife in a pew, leaned over and whispered in her era, “There you have the eleventh commandment!”

Prayer

Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
revive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Prayer as Supplication ~ Prayer as Contemplation

A Continuum…

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Or a Cycle?

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The February/March 2015 issue of AARP – The Magazine arrived in the mail this past week.  I always wonder – “How did this happen?” – when it shows up.  But there’s my name and address on the mailing label, and so I know it’s mine!

At first, when I was 50, I refused to read it.  It was a principle thing.  I’d tell myself, “This magazine isn’t for you.”  “It’s not your demographic.” “This is something your ‘older’ sister might be interested in” (after all, she’s a full 16 months older than I am!).  But now, in my early 60’s, it’s gotten so that I actually look forward to getting the AARP magazine in the mail every month or two.  It turns out that it’s a pretty good magazine.  There’s always an article or two in it that I find to be pretty interesting.  This was especially the case with this particular issue.

“The Paradox of Prayer” (pp. 44-47, 78, 82) was written by Bill Newcott.  Leading the essay were 12 photographs of real people at prayer – a Muslim woman, an African American Bishop, a Roman Catholic nun in full habit, a Buddhist monk, a native American shaman, a local Baptist preacher we all know, and a Jewish rabbi to name just seven of them.  They are all quite striking images, good reminders that prayer is not the “property” of Christians alone.  Prayer is an instinct of the human heart.  As Newcott puts it in the article, “As long as humans have endured the cares of the world, they have been praying.”

The heart of this essay is on the “paradox” of praying – how we instinctively turn to God in prayer for help with our lives, and how, “sooner or later,” we are all disappointed by God when He doesn’t do what we’ve asked Him to do for us in our prayers.  The “paradox,” according to Newcott, consists of the fact that such “disappointments” don’t dissuade most of us from continuing to pray.  In fact, Newcott quotes a Stanford University Anthropology professor who researches prayer.  Dr. Tanya Luhrmann explains: “Not getting what you need materially can lead you to understand that God wants you to depend on Him more deeply.”  And I don’t disagree.  I believe that prayer is an expression of our relationship of “absolute dependence” on God as our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, and that not getting what we ask for in prayer is an important reminder that there is only one God, and that we aren’t Him.  But what I find is that with this hard realization, out of this often painful experience, a shift in one’s praying often occurs.

Paul Tillich, one of the 20th century’s most important philosophical theologians, was once asked, “Do you pray?”  And it is reported that he answered, “No… I meditate.”  And that’s the shift that occurs.  We stop talking to God and start thinking about God instead, and we call it prayer.  As George Buttrick pointed out in his book Prayer (Abingdon – 1942) [65-66] – “We can hold no comradeship with an abstract noun.  We cannot talk to “The Life Essence” or “The Power Not Ourselves That Makes for Righteousness,” or even to “The Good, the Beautiful, and the True.”  …It is not in human nature to discuss life with a wall, or to plead earnestly with a fog…” 

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Urban Holmes in his book Spirituality for Ministry (Harper & Row – 1982) described this shift in praying as a necessary and beneficial consequence of spiritual maturation (21).  As we “grow up” spiritually, he argued, our prayers “move from a more to a less focused intentionality.”  In other words, we will stop asking God for things and we will start thinking about God more deeply, seeking to enter the silence of His presence more deliberately (Psalm 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God”).   Urban Holmes called this the “movement toward contemplation and union with God,” and I am an eager pilgrim on this journey.  I practice several forms of contemplative prayer and have taught sessions on the theology behind it on a number of occasions and in a variety of settings.  I am an advocate and not a critic of this spiritual discipline.  In fact, with Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., I would go so far as to name the contemplative practices as one of the “Pillars of the Spiritual Life” (See: Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life – Ignatius Press – 2008).  But I strongly disagree with the idea that prayer as supplication – praying with a more “focused intentionality,” talking things over with God and asking things from God – is an expression of a less mature spirituality that we will gradually outgrow as we advance to prayer as contemplation – praying with a less “focused intentionality,” learning to rest in God’s presence.  I don’t see these two ways of praying as the opposite poles of some kind of continuum of spiritual maturity.

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I am much more inclined to see them as parts of a cycle of praying to which we must return over and over again.  One of my favorite authors is Walter Wangerin, Jr., and one of my favorite Walter Wangerin, Jr., books is Whole Prayer (Zondervan – 1988).  “Whole Prayer,” he argued, “is made up of four acts, four discrete parts, two of which are ours, two of which are God’s.”

The parts may seem separated one from another by time or by the different nature of the acts; yet often all four acts occur in such swift succession that the complete prayer is revealed as a single, unbroken event…

– First, we speak,
– while second, God listens.
– Third, God speaks,
– while, fourth, we listen. 

If we initiate the first act, God will respond with the second.  That is sure and certain.  So, is the third act absolutely certain to follow the first two, because God’s love promises to speak to us by a Word.  But if we have never learned the fourth (and this is where contemplative practice enters the picture), if we are too impatient to perform the fourth act, too demanding and unsubmissive to watch and wait upon the Lord, then we will never even know that the second and third acts have been accomplished.  Without our truly listening, prayer will seem to have failed because communication, remaining incomplete, did in fact fail.  The circle stayed broken, and love was left unknown (29).

Walter Wangerin wrote as he did because what he saw was the neglect of the fourth act in this cycle of praying – “we listen.”  He was making the case for prayer as contemplation. But I see a different neglect, the neglect of the first act in this cycle of praying – “we speak.”  When prayer as supplication is downplayed, or even denigrated as a lesser or lower expression of Christian spirituality, then the circle of “whole prayer” is no less broken, and the communication between humanity and God is no less incomplete.

When Jesus was asked by His disciples to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), He didn’t teach them a technique of sitting meditation, He instead gave them a set of supplications that were appropriate to and expressive of the kind of relationship between God and human beings that He came to restore.  He urged His disciples to “ask” because God gives in response.    He urged us to “seek” because God allows Himself to be found as a result.  And He urged us to “knock” because God opens the door into His presence to those who do (Luke 11:9-10).  And that sounds to me more like a cycle that repeats every time I pray than a continuum that I advance along as I spiritually mature.  DBS+

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