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Beloved

beloved
The great temptation of the church in an era of challenge and decline like the one that we currently find ourselves in is to want to pull back and take care of ourselves rather than to turn outward in Christ’s mission of extending God’s compassion to anyone and everyone who has been kicked to the curb and told that they don’t matter. And because this is just such an era of challenge and decline for churches like ours, the Jesus I believe we really need right now is the Jesus who meets us in the Gospel of Luke.

jesusesThe Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is the Messiah of God’s complete faithfulness. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the Son of God’s mighty purpose and power. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is the Son of Man whose compassion draws the least, the last, and the lost into the embrace of God’s inclusive love.  And the Jesus of John’s Gospel is the Word of God made flesh who comes to offer us the gift of eternal life.

I know all of these Jesuses.
I believe in all of these Jesuses.
I need all of these Jesuses.

When I struggle with knowing what’s true and who it is that I can finally trust, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew I really need. When the days grow dark and it feels like chaos is winning the fight, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark I really need.  When loved ones die and I am confronted with the fact of my own mortality, I find that what I really need is the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  And when I am tempted to pull back into the cocoon of myself to pursue my own private interests and to seek my own selfish well-being, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke I really need.  The most important thing for a church like ours to rediscover and then proclaim in a mean era when people are increasingly picking sides, drawing lines, and building barriers to keep others out is that we are God’s “beloved” — we are — all of us — God’s “beloved.” And this is precisely what the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke makes clear to me.

Near the end of his life, Henri Nouwen said that the central moment in the public ministry of Jesus as the Christ as far as he as concerned was His baptism in the Jordan by John when He heard the voice of God say – “You are my beloved.”  The last great theme of Henri Nouwen’s long and distinguished vocation as a spiritual teacher was the development of this idea that at the very center of the spiritual life for us as Christians is hearing the words – “You are my Beloved” – in “a deep way,” and then living out this truth as a contradiction to everything that the world believes.

belovedThe world says that our worth is determined by how we look, by what we weigh, by who we vote for, by where we live, by the level of our education and income, by who we love, by where we were born, by the color of our skin, or by any one of a hundred other things. But in the world our worth is always conditional.  It always depends on something else.  It’s something we have to deserve.  It’s something we have to be worthy of.  It’s something we have to earn.  But the Biblical word for “beloved” cuts through all of this and says that our worth is something that is established by God’s own determination and declaration instead.  The Biblical word for “beloved” is variant of the Biblical word “agape,” a word that refers to God’s love – a “deep, active, self-sacrificing, and absolutely unconditional” kind of love. To be “beloved” is literally to be “agape-ed.”

Jesus heard that He was “agape-ed” ~ “beloved” when He got baptized.  Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John to fully identify Himself with the people He came to seek and save, and so when God declared Him “Beloved” I believe that it wasn’t just a statement about Him alone, but rather it was a statement for, and about us all.  As one of the greatest theologians that the church has ever produced, a man named Athanasius (296 – 373), put it – “He [Jesus Christ] became what we are so that he might makes us what He is.” Getting into line with all those people who were being baptized was part of Jesus “becoming what we are,” and God’s declaration of Jesus as His “Beloved” child is part of Jesus “making us what He is.”

In a sermon that he preached at the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis at the beginning of January in 2011 [http://yourcathedral.blogspot.com/2011/01/you-are-my-beloved-sermon-for-feast-of.html] the Rev. Mike Kinman explained that the truth of “Beloved-ness” is a truth that moves in three directions at once.  First it moves inward. It’s first a word that gets spoken to each one of us individually. Once we’ve internalized this truth and feel it in our bones, then it starts to move outward.  You see, not only am I God’s beloved, but so are you, as is everyone in this beloved community we call the church.  So, in your imagination tattoo the word “Beloved” onto the forehead of every other Christian you meet – the Conservative ones and the Liberal ones, the Progressive ones and the Fundamentalist ones, the ones who are most like you and the ones who couldn’t be more different from you – and then frame every thought you have of them and every word you speak to them, or about them, by the fact that they are numbered among God’s “agape-ed.”  And once we’ve started treating each other around here, inside the four walls of the church, as “beloved,” then it’s time to open up the doors and take this show on the road.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God so loved the church that He sent his only begotten Son, but that God so loved the world. It’s the whole world and everyone in it that’s “Beloved” by God.  There are no exceptions.  And so Rev. Kinman told his congregation that Christians are people who –

…through prayer and [Bible] study listen to God’s voice saying: “You are my beloved,” and who every day grow a little less fearful and a little more trusting that it is true. It’s being people who look at each other and see before anything else someone whom God adores. [And] Who every day try just a little bit harder to be a part of God adoring everyone else…

cupJesus heard God say that He was “Beloved” while standing in the waters of His baptism.  I think that where we are most likely to hear God say that we are His “Beloved” is at the Lord’s Table where bread is broken and a cup is poured in remembrance of Christ’s saving acts and in celebration of His continuing presence.  We come to the Lord’s Table to hear God say – “You are my Beloved.” And then we go from the Lord’s Table knowing that every person we meet is God’s “Beloved” too, and understanding that we may very well be the only people in the world with the power at that moment to tell them, and to show them, who they truly are – God’s “Beloved.”  DBS +

 

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The Week of the Two Babies

Babies

We’ve just come through the week of the two babies.  Two Sundays ago it was all about the baby Jesus.   Last Sunday it was another baby who demanded our attention — “Baby New Year.” A baby in a top hat, sash, and a diaper has been the symbol of New Year’s Day since the dawn of the 20th century when the Saturday Evening Post began putting a picture of a little baby on the cover of their year-end issues. The symbolism is clear.  The New Year arrives like a little baby who will age through the days of the coming year and after 12 months be old and withered in the end, like Father Time.

Carl Dennis, one of my favorite poets, saw these two babies – Jesus and the Baby New Year – with their respective celebrations just one week apart on the calendar as competitors of sorts.

More jubilant by far than many Christians
On the birthday of Jesus, [he wrote] the many pagans
Crowding into the square this New Year’s Eve,
Though by now they must realize that the baby
Whose birth they’re about to witness
Is doomed to grow old and die in a year,
Just as the last one did, and the one before,
Without a crumb of hope in a second coming.

I take a different view. Rather than competition for Christ, I find that Baby New Year with his message of growth and change is actually the perfect counterpoint to our tendency as Christians to linger too long at the manger.

We love Christmas. It pulls at our hearts. Christ the baby can be cuddled and cooed. We want to hold Him in our arms as he sleeps, and this is precisely the reason why we need Baby New Year to come along just a week after our visit to the Christmas crib with his urgent cry of “tempus fugit” – “time flies.” Halford Luccock, a Methodist minister who taught preaching at Yale Divinity School for a quarter of a century, warned about how our Christmas celebrations can actually become something of a liability to our Christianity. He said –

“[We can] become so entranced with the beautiful story of a baby in a manger that [we] miss the chief point of the story, and hence do not feel the compulsion which it lays on life. We can become so charmed with the story of a baby that we grow sentimental about it; it does not ask that we do anything about it; it does not demand any vital change in our way of thinking and living.”

And so Professor Luccock preached a famous Christmas sermon about how the baby Jesus did not remain a baby for very long. As significant as Christmas is, he insisted, it is far from the end of the story, and it is certainly not the bulk of the story. Christmas is just the story’s beginning. The baby Jesus grew up, and in his maturity we see a way of living that calls for a change in our own.  He asked –

“Is our Christmas only a story about a baby, or is it more, a deathless story about a person into whom the baby grew, who can redeem the world from its sins, and who calls us into partnership with his great and mighty purposes?”

You see, the baby grew up, and so must we. When Luke tells us that – “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (2:52)he was telling us that Jesus was a human being just like us who grew up just as we do.  And spiritually, because Jesus is the “new Adam,” the one who shows us the right way to live, the way God always intended us to live, I think that we can take the four categories of Jesus’ maturation as a human being that this verse describes – the intellectual, the physical, the spiritual, and the social – and use them as a way to plot and then keep track of our own maturation as human beings.

growthMy grandmother kept a record of my growth as a kid from year to year by making marks on a wall in her pantry right next to the marks of her other four grandchildren. And spiritually this is what Luke 2:52 does for us.  It tell us how Jesus grew up as a human being, and in doing this, it tells us about the different ways that we are to grow up as human beings as well.  We are in the season of New Year’s resolutions right now.  Many of us are considering the ways that we want to do better and to be better next year than we were last year.  I believe that this instinct is hardwired into us as human beings. We are built to grow, and according to Luke 2:52 the channels of our growth are going to be –

  • Intellectual because “Jesus steadily increased in wisdom.” The New Testament says that being a Christian is a matter of the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “What difference is Jesus Christ making in my thinking?”
  • Physical because “Jesus steadily increased in stature.” The New Testament calls our bodies “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:19), and then it commands us to “glorify God in our bodies” (I Corinthians 6:20), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How does my physical life reflect my spiritual commitments and values?”
  • Spiritual because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with God.”  Every image that the New Testament uses to describe the spiritual life is an image of growth – a seed planted, sprouting and growing to the harvest, a building going up from a foundation, brick by brick to the roof, a footrace from the starting blocks, through the course to the finish line, a person growing from birth through childhood to adulthood, so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “Where am I growing right now in my relationship with God?
  • Social because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with people.” The New Testament is very clear that we can’t love a God we don’t see if we aren’t loving the people around us that we do see (I John 4:20). So, the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How am I getting along with others these days?”

clock

For most of my life I have prayed the same Order for Morning Prayer. In part, it says –

 O merciful God, confirm and strengthen us; that, as we grow in age, we may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I prayed these words when I was 12 years old. I prayed these words when I was 32 years old. I prayed these words when I was 52 years old. And I expect to still be praying these words when I am 72 years old. To live is to grow.  To live is to change.  This is not just a Christian truth, this is a human truth.  What makes it “Christian” is the direction that our growth as human beings takes.  As a Christian, I want to grow in grace as I grow in age, and what this aspiration means is that I know that I’m not finished yet.  I’m still very much a work in progress.  I’m still figuring out how Jesus Christ affects the way that I think, and how He determines what I do with my body, and how He makes it possible for me to relate to God, and how He informs the way that I treat you.  I was working on this when I was 12.  I was working on this when I was 32. I was working on this when I was 52.  And I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.  I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.

I find that this week of the two babies is my annual invitation to grow up in every way into Christ – intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially – and my timely reminder that I’m not finished yet. We’ve all still got some growing to do.  DBS +

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Gun Violence & “Painless Piety”

gunOn Facebook, since the shooting on Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs just outside of San Antonio, I have read appeals for prayer posted by some of my friends, and appeals for action posted by other friends. I know and care for many of these people who are posting – both the pray-ers and the doers, and I know, because I know them, that these are predictable and authentic responses from them. There is nothing new in this.

What is new this time – and isn’t it a deeply troublesome thing to even have to say “this time”? – is that some of those who are calling for action are actually shaming the moral seriousness of those who are calling for prayer, and some of those who are calling for prayer are questioning the spiritual sincerity of those who are calling for action. This is such an unseemly and unnecessary fight.

The New Testament book of James that puts such a high spiritual premium on prayer and its efficacy (1:5-8; 4:3; 5:13-18) is the same New Testament book that explicitly rejects “painless piety.” In his novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens introduced a memorable character named Mr. Pecksniff.  He is the epitome of what’s been called “painless piety,” the kind of prayer that asks God to do something that will cost the one who is doing the  praying nothing at all (Carroll Simcox – Prayer: The Divine Dialogue – IVP – 1985 – p. Prayer : The Divine Dialog 35).  For example, Mr. Pecksniff was real good about offering a prayer before he sat down to eat that remembered the needs of all the hungry people in the world, but it was very clear from his actions that Mr. Pecksniff believed that it was God’s responsibility and not his to do something about actually feeding them (Carroll Simcox 36). This is what the book of James rejects –

14 My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? 15 Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. 16 What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!”—if you don’t give them the necessities of life? 17 So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead. (James 2)

Two years ago, after the shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead and 22 wounded, I wrote a blog I called “Why I Pray.”  It was an attempt to speak to the moment then, and I believe that it still speaks to the moment now, in fact, with the public carping between pray-ers and doers that has erupted online, it may speak an even more direct word to the moment that we presently find ourselves in.  Prayer is neither an evasion of responsibility, nor an excuse for inaction. And our actions are neither a denial of God’s concern or involvement, nor an adequate response all by themselves. DBS +

cross

“Why I Pray”

By the time that Jesus was born, some Jews had already left Jerusalem, moved to the very edge of the desert to pray and wait for God’s Kingdom to break in on them from the outside.  Other Jews had taken up arms.  “Terrorists” is how we would describe them today, or “freedom fighters,” depending on your perspective I suppose.  Anyway, other Jews carried small curved knives and used them to assassinate their oppressors, Romans and Roman sympathizers like tax collectors, every chance they got.  They were going to usher in God’s Kingdom by their own efforts and in their own strength.  And somewhere on the line between these two poles on the continuum of response everyone else fell.  Religious folk still do today.

In 1968 Robert Raines’ Voight Lectures were published under the title The Secular Congregation (Harper & Row).  What he said has become an important part of the architecture of my heart and mind.  Reflecting on social events of his day like the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Johnson/Goldwater Presidential race, Dr. Raines noted the two Christian responses that he observed, what he called the “Pietist” response and the “Secularist” response.

By “Pietist” he meant “church-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the church, its Word and sacraments and communal life,” and who see the priority as being a matter of “loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength.”   It was Jewish “Pietists” who went to the desert to wait and pray for the Kingdom to come in Jesus’ day.

By “secularist” he meant “world-centered” Christians who “look for God primarily in the world, its words, events and communal life of the Nation, and nations,” and who regard the priority to be a matter of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”  It was Jewish “Secularists” who armed themselves with knives and went hunting for Romans to bring the Kingdom in Jesus’ day.

A Pietist’s first instinct is to pray.  A Secularist’s first instinct is to sign a petition, to organize a protest rally and/or to write a congressperson.   And Dr. Raines’ contention was not that one of these “types” was “good” and that the other one was “bad,” but rather that they really need each other in order for us to be fully Christian.  He believed that the critical challenge of the church in that day – in the 1960’s – was “to keep the Pietist and the Secularist within hearing distance of each other and to reconcile them.”  Our challenge is no different today.

Since the atrocity that unfolded in San Bernardino on Wednesday, I have read the responses of friends, associates and strangers in their blogs and on their Facebook postings, and what’s being said galvanizes around these same two poles.  There are Pietists, and there are Secularists.  Some want to pray and others want to legislate.  Some turn to God for answers, and others to Washington D.C.  Some believe that God alone is going to have to fix this, and others – as the Daily News’ provocative headline on Thursday put it – believe that this is all on us.

Leon Uris wrote about this same divide in his novel Mila 18 (1961), a story about the Jewish resistance to the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto during WW 2.   Some of the people there believed that they should pray and wait for God to deliver them while others argued that it was time to do something to resist the evil that was threatening them.  And I remember, when I read this book as a teenager, wondering about which argument I would have made, which side I would have taken?  Even then I sensed the nobility and courage of each position.

I believe in God. I really think that God breaks into human history to reveal and redeem.  And I don’t take lightly God’s promises that the Kingdom will finally and fully come in His time and by His singular action.  When I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my first “take” on this petition is always eschatological, that is, I pray it as an acknowledgement of our own limitations as human beings to either completely or permanently “fix” anything, and as a desperate appeal for God’s climactic saving action to occur – for God’s Kingdom to break in upon us in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  In days like these I pray for God’s help and deliverance because I am a Pietist.

But I also believe that we as human beings who bear the image of God are charged with the responsibility of working and keeping creation (Genesis 2:15).  With Paul I readily affirm that we are God’s “fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:9).  I don’t take lightly what the Bible says about justice, righteousness, peace or compassion, and the part that we have to play in their establishment and preservation as human beings.  And so when I pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” my second take on this petition in thoroughly ethical, that is, I pray it as a recognition of my responsibility as someone who has access to the mind of God through Jesus Christ preserved for us in the Biblical record to do what I can to try to refashion the world in such a way that it better reflects the coming Kingdom of God’s eternal will here and now.  And so, in days like these I pray for God’s wisdom and resolve to do something because I am a Secularist.

Robert Raines in his Voight Lectures in 1968 argued that the only fully Christian position was the one that was simultaneously “Pietist” and “Secularist,” one that was equally adept on its knees in prayer as it was with its sleeves rolled on the frontlines of action and service.  And this is the ground that I have conscientiously tried to occupy in my life and ministry.  Just like the opposites on the continuum of personality traits on the Myers-Briggs test, I will admit to being more comfortable on one end of this spectrum than I am on the other.  I am a hardwired Pietist.  My first instinct is always to pray and engage Scripture.  But when I do, I find that my “shadow” Secularist is always activated.  When I close my Bible and get up off of my knees, it is always to step into the world where I know that I am called to cooperate with what it is that God is doing in anticipation of where it is that God is ultimately moving all of creation.

With the Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly (1893 -1941) I consistently experience the Christian life as a double movement: first, as God pulling me out of the world and into His heart where He names me as His own and lavishes on me His love (the way of the “Pietist”), and second, as God hurling me out of His heart and back into the world where He is asking me to help Him carry its hurts and hopes with Him in infinitely tender love (the way of the “Secularist”). And maybe it’s because I am more naturally a Pietist than I am a Secularist, someone who has to be more intentional and deliberate about the second movement of the Christian life as Thomas Kelly described it than I have to be about the first, that I find myself so impatient with my fellow Christians who try to reduce Christianity to just one of these two movements, either the Pietist or the Secularist.  If I have to work on it – and I do – then I think that they should have to work on it too.

When Francis Schaeffer, one of my theological muses, wrestled with all of this – with what is God’s part in bringing about the healing of the world that talk of the Kingdom of God signifies, and what is our part as human beings – he coined the memorable phrase “substantial healing” in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale – 1970) to describe his expectations. After exploring the full extent of the Fall in the brokenness of creation theologically (God and humanity separated from one another), psychologically (human beings separated from their own true selves), sociologically (human beings separated from one another) and ecologically (human beings separated from nature), and naming the coming of the Kingdom as the final healing of all of these breaches, Francis Schaeffer probed the question, that in a week like this one that we’ve just come through with all of its terror, violence and loss, gets posed so urgently, namely: What am I supposed to do?  How am I supposed to respond?  Should I be praying for God to sovereignly act, or should I be getting busy doing something, anything to get things moving in a Kingdom direction right now?  Am I supposed to be fixing this on my own, or am I supposed to be waiting and watching for God to fix this for us?  Here’s how Francis Schaeffer answered –

So there are these multiple divisions (theological, psychological, social and ecological), and one day, when Christ comes back (eschatologically), there is going to be a complete healing of all of them…  But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace… substantial healing can be a reality here and now… I took a long time to settle on that word “substantially,” but it is, I think, the right word.  It conveys the idea of a healing that is not yet perfect, but that is real, evident and substantial.   Because of past history and future history, we are called to live this way now by faith. (67-68)

In the face of history, in the light of faith, should we be taking the Pietist’s option, or the Secularist’s?  Yes!  The faithful answer is yes.  DBS+

 

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“Building the Kingdom?”

spidey

If you are true to Scripture, following the contours of its teachings past the neat and tidy doctrinal and moral packages that have become convenient substitutes for actually having to look at the Bible for ourselves, then you will eventually bump into what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther called the Bible’s “furious opposites.” The Bible teaches all of its most important truths by way of paradox: God is one and three; Christ is fully God and fully Human; we are saved by faith without works, but saving faith always includes works; the Bible is the Word of God and the words of human beings.  A paradox is a statement that consists of ideas which on the surface appear to be logical contradictions but which are nevertheless mutually true, and the Bible is chock full of them, which is why no single Biblical verse is ever sufficient to establish a moral or theological position.  The word “canon” refers to standard measurement or collection.  The “canon” of Scripture says that the value of any Biblical book, Biblical text, or Biblical idea is not in what it says all by itself alone, but by what it contributes to the larger conversation of faith.

baseballI once heard the “canon” of Scripture compared to the lines on a baseball field. Balls that fall within those lines are “fair” and in play, while balls that fall outside those lines are “foul” and out of play, and it is only by knowing everything that’s in the Bible on any given topic that we will know where those lines are. And the fact is that the Bible’s “furious opposites” creates an enormous playing field.  There’s lots of room to roam between its lines.

I was reminded of this last week as I was preparing to preach on “Thy Kingdom Come” as part of a summer sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer.  The paradoxical ways of the Bible hit me full force once again as I thought about all of the “furious opposites” that are at work in what the Bible has to say about the Kingdom of God.

It’s “already” and “not yet.”
It’s spiritual and social.
It’s got something to do with the church,
and something to do with the world.
It’s personal and political.
It’s God’s doing and our responsibility.

As I was chasing after the complexity of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom of God this week for my sermon, I came across a letter that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote to one of his students –

karlDear N.N., Many thanks for your kind letter. But what an obstinate fellow you are! You write that you were very impressed with what I told you last week in the Theological School. And now you manage to put down on paper all that nonsense about the kingdom of God that we must build. Dear N.N., in so doing you do not contradict merely one ‘insight’ but the whole message of the Bible. If you persist in this idea I can only advise you to take up any other career than that of a pastor.

Karl Barth, from a letter to a theological student in Basel
Karl Barth: Letters: 1961-1968 (1981), p. 283.
http://theconnexion.net/wp/?p=8096#axzz4oJdsPptR

Ouch!

That would certainly have left a mark, but in all fairness, this was an idea that cut pretty close to Dr. Barth’s theological quick. He was a well-known critic of the overly optimistic view of human nature and potential that was so characteristic of the church in his day, and that made him, in turn, thoroughly skeptical of the widespread belief about the inevitable progress of human society. The World Wars in Europe had disabused Karl Barth of any lingering illusions that he might have been harboring from his classically liberal theological training about the perfectibility of this world by human strength and ingenuity alone. He saw precious little evidence of things getting better and better every day and in every way. His reading of the Scriptures – and especially Paul’s Epistle to the Romans – convinced him that humanity was completely incapable of saving itself. He understood that it was going to take nothing less than God Himself breaking in from the outside to rescue us. And so we do not “build the Kingdom” Karl Barth insisted, the Kingdom can only come to us, and clearly this is part of the Biblical witness about the Kingdom. In fact, I would argue that it is the part of the Biblical witness that is most noticeably absent from most of the conversations that I hearing in my part of the church these days. Karl Barth’s perspective is certainly not all that there is to the Biblical witness about the Kingdom, but it is nevertheless an important part of it. And as such, we should expect it to have its own “furious opposite,” and it was John Killinger who gave the most eloquent voice to its paradoxical Biblical counter-point in my experience –

breadThere is something about prayer, about letting the mind be still and waiting upon God, that sensitizes us to the world around us – to the glory of sunsets and the beauty of tears. …As Isaiah in the Temple (6:1-7) became aware of the need for a spokesperson for God, and said, “Here I am, send me,” [when you pray] you find yourself ready to help with the kingdom. …You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.   You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. You yourself become committed to the kingdom that human beings have always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness 115)

In my own life of faith, it was Karl Barth who drew the line on one side of the field where the meaning of the Kingdom of God was in play, while it was John Killinger who drew the line on its other side. To be sure, I’m more comfortable on Karl Barth’s side of the field, this is my more natural position spiritually. And so, just like Barth in that rather mean letter that he wrote to a student of his, my initial reflex is to kick, and to kick hard, when I hear somebody glibly talking about what it is that we must do as Christians to bring about or to build the Kingdom of God as if this was something that we are capable of doing as human beings! And then John Killinger yells a sharp “head up” at me from the other side of the field as he fires a fast ball straight at my head… and heart.

Even if building the Kingdom of God is well above my pay grade, John Killinger reminds me, in no uncertain terms, this doesn’t excuse me from doing whatever it is that I can do to personally and socially inhabit the coming Kingdom’s values that have been previewed for us so clearly in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

  • When Christ fed the hungry it was to foreshadow that coming day when there will be no more hunger, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to feed hungry people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ healed the sick it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more sickness, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to heal sick people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.
  • When Christ set the captives free it was to foreshadow the coming day when there will be no more bondage, and to call us as His disciples to do whatever it is that we can do right now to liberate people no matter how incomplete and insufficient that work will be until the Kingdom finally and fully comes.

francisIt was something that Francis Schaeffer wrote about in his book Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale House – 1970) that put in place for me the category that I have operated with ever since about what it is that Christians can reasonably be expected to do about the world’s wounds even though they know that they will not be finally and fully healed short of the in-breaking of the Kingdom at the close of the age when Christ returns.

pollSo there are these multiple divisions (Theological – our division from God; Psychological – our division from ourselves; Sociological – our division from others; Ecological – our division from nature), and one day, when Christ comes back, there is going to be a complete healing of all of them, on the basis of the “blood of the lamb.” But Christians who believe the Bible are not simply called to say that “one day” there will be healing, but that by God’s grace substantially, upon the basis of the work of Christ, substantial healing can be a reality here and now… In all of the areas of our division (Theological, Psychological, Sociological, Ecological) we should expect to see substantial healing. I took a long time to settle on that word “substantial,” but it is, I think, the right word. It conveys the idea of a healing that is not perfect, but that is real, evident, and substantial. (67-68)

Karl Barth said that God is not just humanity speaking “with a loud voice.” What he meant by this was that it’s going to take more than just smart people, and more than just strong people, and more than just sincere people, and more than just busy people to save the world. It’s going to take God. But God goes missing pretty quickly in many of the most urgent appeals to build the Kingdom that I hear sounded. It all gets put on us – on our efforts, on our ingenuity, and on our abilities alone as human beings to fix things.

Karl Barth’s critique of the theology of his day was that it left God out of the equation as the active agent of the world’s salvation. In an essay for First Things on Karl Barth (Confusion of Humanity, Reign of God” https://www.firstthings.com – 9/22/16) Peter Leithart said that when the world spins out of control our first instincts are to rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” forgetting that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we know that “confusion is not the final word… confusion will itself be confused and dispelled.” God’s got this.  This is what Karl Barth wants us to know.

But this doesn’t mean that we are just to sit on our hands as God moves history towards His own final redemptive purposes. And this is what John Killinger wants us to know. We are not reduced to just being passive spectators because the Kingdom that’s coming is God’s doing.  No, the way that we show our confidence in what it is that we believe that God is doing is by working for what Francis Schaeffer called those “substantial healings” in every area of human brokenness and division that we face in our lives and in the world today.

We don’t bring the Kingdom by doing these things, but we do bear witness to its reality, and to our certainty that it is coming, and the “furious opposites” combine.   DBS +

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Partisan Praying

obama

Eight years ago I started seeing this bumper sticker around town, and my first response was one of complete agreement. I mean, I know what the Bible says about praying for those who are in authority over us, and I try to practice it.

“Praying the news” is a spiritual discipline that I appreciate. Whenever an elected leader is on television as a talking head, or there’s a report about some congressional hearing, legislative initiative, judicial ruling or political squabble in Congress or at the White House, as I’m listening, rather than just getting agitated  I try to pray that our elected leaders will be given hearts of wisdom as they seek to form a more perfect Union, 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.”

Praying for President Obama eight years ago as the first line of that bumper sticker enjoined is just part of our Biblical obligation as Christians if you ask me, just as praying for President Bush before him was part of my spiritual obligation as well. It was only later, when I looked up what Psalm 109:8 actually says, that I was given pause.

May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership.

Shocked? I certainly was. And frankly, I wondered, if you’re going to honestly pray that verse from Psalm 109, with stop there?  Psalm 109 continues (verses 9 -12) –

May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow. May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit. May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil. May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.

Beyond the problem of wrenching verses from their historical and literary context to make a contemporary political application that is questionable at best, there is the larger problem of using a random verse from the Bible to twist the meaning of a Biblical teaching into something that is no longer spiritually recognizable.

When it finally dawned on me what this bumper sticker was saying, and the ugly spirit with which it was saying it, I was deeply offended as a Christian. And as offended as I was with the way that eight years ago some Christians were using the Bible and their beliefs as a club to clobber newly elected President Obama, so now I find myself equally bothered by the way that some other Christians are using the Bible and their beliefs as a club to clobber newly elected President Trump. I know that those who were so agitated by the new Obama Administration eight years ago had some deep moral and spiritual convictions as the basis for their fierce opposition just as those who oppose the new Trump Administration today have some deep moral and spiritual convictions as the basis for their fierce opposition as well.  I respect, even encourage that.  Politics is a contest of ideas and values, so have at it.  Tell me what you think, and why just as clearly and passionately as you possibly can.  Convince me.  Just don’t dehumanize and demonize those with opposing points of view in the process.

In an essay he wrote for the Christian Century (“Why Social Justice is Not Christian” – April 10, 2016), David Williams warned about the danger of our souls “calcifying” in the long struggle for truth, liberty and justice when our political opponents become the “other.

The anxiety that arises from the immensity of human brokenness creates within those who resist it a shadow of that brokenness. The perpetrators of injustice become the Other. We cease to see the soul blight that curses them as fully as it curses those who suffer. They are commies and fascists, racists and mooching parasites. It hardens us to them, and to the possibility of their being called and convicted to be part of the change. We would rather fight and mock and attack. Without a vision of grace to guide us, we would take up the sword. We would wear that ring of power. And when we do, we might imagine we are fighting the good fight. But it is a fantasy. Because without grace as both our intent and our method, all we’re doing is fighting.

What guards against this for me as a Christian is the Biblical mandate to pray for those who are in authority over us. I have prayed for President Obama.  I will pray for President Trump.  Praying is not partisan.

joe

I don’t know Pastor Joe McKeever personally, but I feel like I do because of his blog (http://joemckeever.com). I really like this guy and the way he thinks.  Right after the election last November, he posted a provocative blog that he called “10 Reasons not to pray for Donald Trump – and one “huge” one for.” He began by saying said that there are lots of reasons why you may not feel like praying for our new President.

  1. You don’t like Mr. Trump.
  2. You didn’t vote for him.
  3. You dislike some of his staunchest supporters.
  4. To you, he represents the worst in human nature and will lead this country poorly.
  5. You feel he doesn’t have the wisdom, maturity, self-control, and judgment to lead the free world. 
  6. As for praying, you don’t feel your prayers would make a difference. The man is who he is.
  7. You often feel your prayers are weak. What good would they do?
  8. Somehow, you feel that group prayer would be more effective than soloing.  Something about praying with others makes our prayers seem bigger, greater.
  9. You’ve prayed for leaders in the past and can’t see what that accomplished.
  10. To pray for Trump now would feel like admitting you were wrong in your judgment about the man, like you are throwing in the towel.

“Any of that hit home?” Pastor McKeever asked.
And then he asked, “Can I admit something here?”

 

“I did not vote for Barack Obama either time.  And yet, he was my President, all eight years.  I honored him constantly (I Peter 1:17 instructs us to honor the king) and I prayed for him often (I Timothy 2:1-2 instructs us to pray for the king and others in authority over us). Christ-followers have our orders.  Scripture is clear on this.  Remember that when the Apostle Peter said to “honor the king,” Nero sat on the throne. Donald Trump ain’t no Nero, thank the Lord. So, you can do this.  You will honor the President, and you will pray for him. I believe in you.”

And if I had been writing that blog, that’s where I would have ended it. God commands us to pray for those in authority over us.  You know, as another bumper sticker puts it –

god

But not Pastor Joe McKeever. No, he had more to say, and what he had to say gets to the very heart of why our praying for those in authority over us cannot be, must not be partisan.

There is one massive, over-riding reason for praying for Mr. Trump, and it is not just that we are commanded to do so, although that should be enough.

So much is riding on him getting this right.  The stakes are so high.  Not just this land, but millions throughout the world look to America’s leaders to do the right thing, to hold their rogue nation accountable, to stand up to the oppressors, to help the helpless.  The opportunity is limitless, the responsibility enormous.

And Donald Trump is weak. He does not have what it takes to do this right.  No one does. Please don’t miss that.  No. One. Does. The job is too big, the pressures too great, the needs too overwhelming. That’s why you and I are going to pray for him. Whether he asks for it or not, we will lift him in prayer.  Whether he feels he needs it or not.  Whether he ever knows it or appreciates it. We will pray for him.

square

Tim Savaloia, a church worker, stood on the bank of a river in Asia “watching the bustling activity on the other side,” and he says that what he felt was a heaviness in his spirit.

The percentage of people in this region who know about Jesus is frighteningly low. How can that be? Jesus’ words came to my mind:’” … I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’” (Matt. 16: 18). I believe that with all my heart, and yet, as I gazed across the river, it seemed that hell was indeed prevailing, at least for a time. While we talk about pushing back the darkness, it seemed to me that the darkness was doing some pushing back. (http://www.cmalliance.org)

And then, remembering both Biblical teaching and his own personal spiritual experience, Tim says that he began to imagine what “the crushing weight of a praying church” pushing back against that darkness would look like.  And he wrote –

Without trying to be too simplistic, it seems to me that the core problem relates to our understanding of prayer. If we truly understood our divine call to pray, we would pray much differently. If we truly believed prayer can unleash the power of God, we would pray with greater passion.   And if we truly believed prayer can alter the course of history, we would pray with greater fervency.

This is the week that we get a new President. This makes some of us very sad, and this makes some of us very happy.  But whether you are sad or glad, as Christians, our first spiritual obligation is to pray for him — no ifs, ands, or buts. As Pastor Joe says, “Come on, I know you can do this!”   DBS +

 

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O Wisdom

O Wisdom, you came forth from the lips of God Most High
and you reach from one end of the universe to the other,
powerfully and gently ordering all things…

ancient

Come and teach us the way of Prudence!
______________________________________________________________________________

A few years back a member of the church I serve asked each of its ministers about their favorite Bible verse. We were in a “Year of the Bible” at that church, at that time.  We were thinking and talking together most Sunday mornings about what it means to be Bible-Centered people.  We were using Bobby Clinton’s materials (http://bobbyclinton.com) and his categories of having a personal “core” of Biblical books and passages as an important part of our own unique spiritual foundation.  We were all consciously thinking about which Psalms, Parables, Proverbs, Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles were our favorites, and which verses were our standards.  And so it was not unusual to have a church member inquire about which Biblical texts were foundational to our own sense of identity and mission as a pastoral team.  What was unexpected were the beautifully printed and framed Bible verses that each one of us soon had hanging outside our office doors.  Mine was Romans 8:28 –

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him,
who are called according to his purpose.

Like so many Christians I know, this verse has been a source of great comfort and real confidence for me from the earliest days of my Christian life. John Stott said that Romans 8:28 is the pillow upon which the head of faith sleeps, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones taught that Romans chapter 8 was the Bible’s greatest chapter on the assurance of a believer, and that verse 28 is the very pinnacle of its affirmations. I know that this is how the teachings of Romans 8 in general, and the promise of verse 28 in particular have functioned for me. They have been the source of my peace and consolation on my most difficult days.

godIn the tangle of the circumstances of our lives, in the confusing swirl of current events, and in the daily challenges to our own sense of personal balance and well-being, it is reassuring to know that a God who loves us is really there, and that He has a purpose for us, and for all of creation, that will not ultimately be thwarted. For some background on how any thinking person could actually hold this conviction in light of the mess that the world is in, I would strongly recommend that you go back to my November 7, 2016, “Soundings”God Reigns, and the Government at Washington Still Lives! – where I discussed Leslie Weatherhead’s three perspectives on the Will of God.

The first “O” Antiphon on our journey to Christmas is a petition for God’s Wisdom that reaches “from one end of the universe to the other,” and that “powerfully and gently orders all things,” to come and teach us “the way of prudence.”

eyeThe spiritual practice of praying these seven antiphons during Advent in the days leading up to Christmas is a way for us to better understand the significance of the Christ who comes to us as Bethlehem’s little baby, and as a way of more directly connecting God’s saving act in Christ with the deepest fears and highest hopes of our human hearts. What this first Antiphon tells us is that Jesus Christ is God’s Wisdom, and that our acceptance of Him will be experienced by us as prudence.

That Christ is the Wisdom of God is something that the New Testament explicitly affirms. In I Corinthians chapter 1, the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians that Christ was the “Power and the Wisdom of God” (1:24).  A mixed Greek/Gentile and Jewish congregation, Paul knew that some of the Corinthians, those with the Greek backgrounds, would look on Christ’s cross as utter “foolishness,” while the other Corinthians, those with the Jewish backgrounds, would look on Christ’s cross as sheer “weakness.” And so Paul opened his first letter to them by making it very clear that it’s what Christ did on that seemingly weak and foolish cross that is the wise and powerful act that saves us.

…When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.  For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (2:1-5)

…We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are being saved, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.   (1:22-24).

The cross of Christ is the proof that God can squeeze meaning out of the most twisted of experiences, and purpose out of the most mangled of circumstances.   To be sure, God’s wisdom doesn’t mean that everything’s just fine right now, perfectly reflective of what God has always wanted for us and the world.  If this were so, why would Christ have taught us to pray: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? No, what God’s wisdom assures us of is that God is redemptively at work in Christ right now making sure that when everything is said and done that – “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” – as Julian of Norwich saw it. This is the sure perspective of God’s Wisdom.

John Piper says that “wisdom” in the Bible “is knowing the greatest goal in any situation, and the best way to achieve that goal,” or as Charles Ryrie put it, “the wisdom of God tells us that God will bring about the best possible results, by the best possible means, for the most possible people, for the longest possible time.” This is the theology behind the affirmation of Romans 8:28.   It is the belief that the Wisdom of God is present and active in our lives and in our world in very real but often hidden ways, just as the Wisdom of God was present and active in the world at the birth of that helpless little baby in Bethlehem’s manger, but missed by so many.

handsIn chapel each week with the kids in the day school we sing “He’s got the Whole World in His Hands,” and this is one of my core assurances as a believer.  I believe that God is at work in every moment, and that God is present in every circumstance of my life and in the life of the world, “powerfully and gently ordering all things” by His wisdom. As A.W. Tozer observed, “to actively believe that our Heavenly Father constantly spreads around us providential circumstances that work for our present good and our everlasting well-being brings to the soul a veritable benediction.” (Thanks to Lloyd Stilley @ http://www.lifeway.com/Article/sermon-wisdom-god-romans-16-1-corinthians-1 for the Piper, Ryrie and Tozer quotes).

This “veritable benediction” is the “peace that passes understanding” of Philippians 4:7.  It is not the denial of reality, but rather it is the conviction that God is at work in that reality, gradually bringing about His good and loving purposes.  It’s a matter of trusting that God in Christ has already been wherever we are, and that God in Christ has already faced whatever it is that we are facing, and that He has come through the crucifixion of it all to the resurrection on the other side.  This is the Wisdom that Christ supplies.  It is knowing that it ends well, and it is believing in this Wisdom of God, according to the first “O” Antiphon, that issues in the virtue of prudence.

Someone has said that prudence is a simple matter of taking an umbrella with you when it looks like it’s going to rain. A more formal definition of prudence says that it is “the intellectual virtue which rightly directs particular human acts, through rectitude of the appetite, toward a good end.” Allow me to translate – prudence is our capacity as human beings to order our lives and to direct our actions in the interest of the larger goals that we have determined to be good and meaningful for us

Prudence is what makes diets work. When we decide that being healthy is of primary importance to us, then we cut out sweets, cut back on carbs, and start to exercise better control on our portion sizes.  Prudence is what gets people out of debt.  When we decide that too many of our resources are tied up in interest payments, then we begin to restrain our expenditures so that we can direct more of what we have to the reduction of the principal. Prudence is what gets people through school.  When we understand that getting that degree is the key that unlocks the doors to our futures, then we throw ourselves into the process of getting the education that winds up with a diploma being put into our hands.

Prudence means acting on what we know to be good, and right, and true. And in the first “O” Antiphon, it’s when we know that God’s Wisdom is “reaching from one end of the universe to the other, powerfully and gently ordering all things,” that we have the opportunity of faith to begin to practice the kind of prudence that encourages us to act like God is really there and that He is fully at work in our lives, and in the life of the world, bending it in the direction of His final purpose of good for all. Fr. Louis Evely in his book Our Prayer (Herder & Herder 1970) perfectly expressed the prudence of God’s Wisdom in our lives with his observation that “whatever we do… is an occasion for a grace, a proposal, a call from God, a call to believe, and love, whatever happens” (65).

This is what I want for Christmas, and so now I am praying –

cubO Wisdom, you came forth from the lips of God Most High
and you reach from one end of the universe to the other,
powerfully and gently ordering all things…
Come and teach us the way of Prudence! 

DBS +

          

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On the Mountaintops and in the Valleys

walkI will be the Spiritual Director this week for the Dallas Emmaus community’s Men’s Walk #262. I couldn’t be more excited!  This will be 12th or 13th time that I have been a Spiritual Director for a Walk to Emmaus in the Houston, Amarillo or Dallas Communities over the past 26 years.  This is something that I just love to do because what happens on a Walk to Emmaus puts me in touch with what Paul described as “the power of Gospel for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).   Through the years, it has been on Walks to Emmaus, more than almost anywhere else, that I have seen the difference that Jesus Christ makes in a person’s life.

I took my own Walk to Emmaus in February of 1990. It was Men’s Walk #47 in the Houston Community, and it came at exactly the right time in my life and ministry.  I had tried to get myself invited to a Cursillo weekend with the Episcopalians shortly after I was ordained in the early 1980’s.  But nothing I did could garner me an invitation.  It wasn’t time yet, and so I carried on.  And then, seemingly out of nowhere, ten years later, a friend of mine from my Hospice work in Houston arranged for me to go on my Walk.

Walks to Emmaus do different things for different people.   For me it helped to integrate my head with my heart.  I love God with my mind.  My spiritual temperament puts the premium on believing thinking.  At my first seminary in California, during a spiritual life emphasis week on campus, one of my professors told us about his favorite spiritual discipline.   He said that late at night after his family had all gone to bed, that he would slip into his study, put some classical music on the stereo and settle into a big overstuffed chair with a big volume of theology – maybe some Barth, or some Brunner, or some Hodge – to read. “Theology – thinking God’s thoughts after Him – moves me to prayer,” he told us with real emotion in his voice, “and it makes me want to sing the praises of our God.” Most of the class groaned, thinking that this was just a ploy to get us to read that week’s assignments.  But I nodded my head in agreement.   I “got” him and what He was saying.

What my Walk to Emmaus did for me was to take the Christianity that I believed was true with my head and made it very real to my heart. Those 12 inches between our heads and our hearts can be the longest journey that some of us will ever undertake, and it was on my Walk to Emmaus in 1990 that I found a way to faithfully navigate it for myself. A story that Martyn Lloyd Jones of the Westminster Chapel in London in the middle of the 20th century told describes what happened to me on my Walk to Emmaus perfectly–

 boyA little boy was walking down the road beside his father. He knew that his father loved him.  He knew that this was true and just knowing it was enough for him.  But then his father suddenly reached down and swept his little boy up into his arms.  He hugged him tightly, kissed him on the cheeks and whispered in to his ear, “I love you so much!” And then looking his little boy straight in the eye, that father said to his son with all his heart, “I am so glad that you are mine.” And then the father put his boy down and they continued walking down the road.

 That’s the difference between knowing that something’s true and knowing that it’s real, and this is exactly what happened on my walk to Emmaus 26 years ago. The Christianity that had long been true for me suddenly became very real to me as well.

And so I am very excited about this weekend, but, if the truth be told, I am also a little apprehensive because for all of its spiritual promise and potential, an experience like that which a Walk to Emmaus facilitates in people is not without some spiritual dangers. It’s just so easy to get spiritually manipulated, to get caught up in something before you know it.

paperI remember being in the Hollywood Bowl at a Jesus People Rally back in the early 1970’s, getting real amped-up spiritually by the music and the crowd, when a chant suddenly broke out, a kind of spontaneous call to worship. “Get high on Jesus!” one group yelled, while another group answered back, “Jesus is better than hash!”  And I can distinctly remember thinking to myself that I’d never heard this in church growing up.  It wasn’t in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer – 1945. And I recall wondering, or was it worrying, about whether or not this was really something that we should be saying about Jesus and what He does for us as Christians?  But all of that quickly passed.  I mean, here was this group of really enthusiastic fellow Christians who seemed to be saying that this elevated state of emotional euphoria that we were experiencing was what Christianity was all about, or at least one of its better benefits for us as believers.  And, to be sure, I was feeling it – the rush of that place and that moment, and it felt good.  So much so that it eventually swept me up in the commotion, and it carried me along so that soon I found myself chanting right along with the rest of the crowd –“Get high on Jesus!” and “Jesus is better than hash!” even though I had never been high and I wouldn’t have known what hash was if it had come up and shook my hand!  Looking back on it all now, it all seems so silly.  But it was sure powerful in the moment, and that’s what I worry about on spiritually intense weekend retreats like Emmaus, and in spiritually intense setting like summer camps and conferences, and at spiritually intense events like revivals and evangelistic “crusades.”  We can get caught up in these moments and wind up in places we never intended to go.  That, and we can get addicted to the feelings of spiritual elation that they generate in us. We can become dependent on them.  It’s real easy to become a spiritual experience junkie, having a “moment” once, and then spending the rest of your spiritual life trying to replicate it, thinking that these emotions are the surest sign of the Spirit’s presence and work in your life, rather than the fruit of the Spirit that the Scripture explicitly names (Galatians 5:22-23).

frannyIn J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey, one of the main characters takes up a spiritual practice detached from any kind of real faith commitment, constantly saying the “Jesus Prayer” because of the affect that its repetition produced in her.  Eventually the other character in the story names and condemns this practice as a blatant example of “spiritual greed.” He says –

As a matter of simple logic, there’s no difference at all, that I can see, between the man who’s greedy for material treasure—or even intellectual treasure—and the man who’s greedy for spiritual treasure. …(But) treasure’s treasure, …and it seems to me that ninety per cent of all the world-hating saints in history were just as acquisitive and unattractive, basically, as the rest of us are.

This is what I worry about when it comes to intensive spiritual programs like Emmaus that provide their participants with powerful spiritual experiences. As important as my Walk was to me, and as glad as I am to be able to periodically facilitate it now for others as part of a prayerfully formed team, I do so with my eyes open wide. I affirm the spiritual benefit that special spiritual experiences and events can produce in a person’s life, while at the very same time being fully aware of the way that they can actually get in the way of real spiritual growth if they’re allowed to become ends in themselves. The most balanced perspective on these exceptional spiritual “moments” that we are given that I have ever come across is something St. Augustine said – “I do not seek them, and when they are present, I do not reject them, but I am entirely prepared to do entirely without them.”

Now, that sounds to me very much like the same kind of spiritual advice that is given in the last Emmaus talk of the weekend. That’s when the Lay Director gets up and tells the pilgrims not to make Emmaus the object of their devotion or the content of their witness when the weekend is over, but rather to focus on the Christ whom they have come to know better because of the weekend.   The question that needs to be asked as the Fourth Day begins, the Lay Director says, is not how can I get more involved in Emmaus, but rather, how can I get more meaningfully involved in my local church? The best fruit of a Walk to Emmaus that I have ever seen as a local church pastor was the pilgrim who came into my office the week after his Walk with a letter in his hand that was the spiritual equivalent of a blank check. He told me that that letter was his prior acceptance of any task that I might need him to undertake for Christ and His church, right then and there, or at any time in the future. It was a remarkable gesture, the perfect “fruit” of a Walk to Emmaus. And he kept that commitment.   Later when I asked him to chair a task force that was going to require both time and effort to do its work, he accepted the assignment with enthusiasm and guided its work to completion with great wisdom and real grace.

It’s not on the mountaintops of exalted emotion and spiritual euphoria that the measure of what’s going on in our hearts will be taken, but rather in the valleys below where life is “daily” and the demands are unrelenting. The language of “mountaintop” experiences to describe the experiences of spiritual intensity and insight that we are given from time to time as Christians comes from the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration.

Jesus“Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain” (Mark 9:2) is how the story begins. On that mountaintop those three disciples saw and heard things that are astonishing for us even now to consider. Who could blame Peter for wanting to stay right there on that holy ground? He wanted to build three tents to keep the experience going. But just as quickly and unexpectedly as the whole experience began, it was over. And “as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus charged them to tell no one what they had seen” (Mark 9:9) is how the story ends. They couldn’t stay on the mountaintop. What happened on the mountaintop was to inspire them. What happened on the mountaintop was to inform them. What happened on the mountaintop was to sustain them. But their lives and their work were in the valley below.

I expect that the Walk this week will be a mountaintop experience for me, for my partners on the team, and for the pilgrims who will be participating. I expect that it will remind me of my first love (Revelation 2:4), and that it will restore to me the joy of God’s salvation (Psalm 51:12). But the measure of this weekend will not be what happens this weekend — it will be what happens next Monday, and what happens on the Monday after that, and then what happens on the Monday after that. The spiritual life is not about a burst of enthusiasm and intensity on a mountaintop, as welcome and valuable such an experience may be. No, the spiritual life is about “a long obedience in the same direction” through a valley that can be dark and winding at times, but that finally leads us home. DBS+

 

When I think of retirement, I don’t think about playing golf, or taking up a hobby, or taking lots of trips. No, I think of my study at home and the time that I’ll finally have to read and ponder Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, Karl Barth’s Dogmatics and Carl F.H. Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority word by word and cover to cover. This is just how I am wired, and because I am, I also know its dark side.  I know that it’s easier for me to read a book of dense theology than to feel an hour of God’s presence.

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