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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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Another Day After…

Umpqua Community College – October 1, 2015

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The fact that there are prayer and worship resources for moments like these in our hymnal says something sad and alarming about our world.  As you process the aftermath of another mass casualty shooting and think about how you as a Christian need to respond, I invite you to spend some quiet time today with the text  of this hymn from the Chalice Hymnal –

When Aimless Violence Takes Those We Love [Chalice Hymnal #512]
Words: Joy F. Patterson, 1992 – Hope Publishing Company, 1994

When aimless violence takes those we love,
when random death strikes childhood’s promise down,
when wrenching loss becomes our daily bread,
we know, O God, you leave us not alone.

When passing years rob sight and strength and mind
yet fail to still a strongly beating heart,
and grief becomes the fabric of our days,
dear Lord, you do not stand from us apart.

Our faith may flicker low, and hope grow dim,
yet you, O God, are with us in our pain;
you grieve with us and for us day by day,
and with us, sharing sorrow, will remain.

Because your Son knew agony and loss,
felt desolation, grief and scorn and shame,
we know you will be with us, come what may,
your loving presence near, always the same.

Through long, grief-darkened days help us, O Lord,
to trust your grace for courage to endure,
to rest our souls in your supporting love,
and find our hope within your mercy sure.

As far as prayer goes on a day like today, my “go to” text for reflection is the prayer that was written by Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the Anglican Bishop of Iran, after his son, Bahram, was killed during the Iranian Revolution in 1980.   When he received the news of the death of his son, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti wrote his wife from his exile on Cyprus –

I feel bewildered but very calm. May God forgive those who have murdered our son.  For, plainly, ‘they knew not what they did’.  What had Bahram ever done to them? May God use the death of our dear son to free people from hatred and enmity in our country, in whatever way He knows. What an educated and cultured man our country has lost. The seed of this sacrifice somehow, sometime, somewhere in the whole plan of God for his world, will blossom and bear fruit. How and when and where we cannot know but we believe that the sacrifice will not be wasted. We must not have hatred in our hearts –only sorrow, pity, mercy and compassion, for those callous murderers. May God awaken their souls so that they realize the depth of their prejudice and hatred and so be saved from their sin.

And on the day of the funeral, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti broadcast this prayer into the service which he could not personally attend –

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

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

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“When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad…”

commonMy default prayer discipline is the Book of Common Prayer (1945).  You can take the boy out of the Episcopalians it seems, but you can’t take the Episcopalian out of the boy.

I was profoundly shaped by the rhythm and cadence of the prayers that I prayed at the very beginning of my spiritual life, and so just like the swallows returning to Capistrano, or is it more a case of the buzzards returning to Hinckley, I find myself going back to them when I am spiritually sick, or stuck, or stalled, or stifled. I especially love the “Forms of Prayers to be used in Families with Additional Prayers” (587-600).  I have prayed these prayers with some regularity now for more than half of a century, and they have left their mark.

“Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.”  I pray this petition, and my heart roams to south Fort Worth and to New York City, to Los Angeles and to Modesto in the central valley of California, to Garland next door and to Oklahoma City up the road, to North Carolina and to wherever the Special Forces have put a nephew in harm’s way this week.  I pray these words and I think of my family – my wife, my son and my daughter, my grandsons and my son-in-law, my sisters and their families, my brothers-in-law and their families, my mother-in-law and her husband.  I so want God to “take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection,” but there are weeks when, to be perfectly honest, it feels like anything but this, and this has certainly been one of those weeks.

Without bogging down in all of the messy details, suffice it to say that over and over again these past few weeks my heart has been wrenched by the painful and difficult circumstances that some of the people I love the most in this world have been forced to face.  I have been afraid and anxious for them.  I have worried, and I have wept, and I have prayed – “Graciously be pleased to take us, and all who are dear to us, under thy fatherly care and protection.”

The very first Bible verse that I ever consciously memorized (thank-you Billy Graham) was I Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares about you.” And so I am in the long habit of translating my fears into prayers (Philippians 4:6).  But in a season of upset like this one that I and my loved ones currently find ourselves in, even as I pray I ponder. “Just exactly what are you expecting will happen because you are doing this?” I ask myself. “What do you think that God is going to do about it?” I am leery of what Vernon Grounds of blessed memory used to call “the heavenly helicopter” notion of Christianity.  Neither my experience nor my theology convinces me that Jesus Christ is going to automatically and invariably swoop into the rising flood waters of my discouraging circumstances and magically whisk me and mine away unscathed.  Of course, God could do this.  But God doesn’t always, and from my own personal point of view, God doesn’t often do this.  So, just exactly what then am I expecting of God?  What is that does God does?

kingdomActs 14:22 is another one of those Bible verses that I have deliberately committed to memory because I am a pastor, and a human being – “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” This is the realism of the Bible that only serves to reinforce my confidence in its inspiration and authority.  I don’t expect things to be easy for me, but I do expect that God in Christ through the Spirit will accompany and empower me in all of the twists and turns of my life, and finally bend it in the direction of  wholeness, peace, and joy.

So, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad,” as the song from “The Sound of Music” puts it, what sustains me spiritually?  As this week has unfolded, I’ve been trying to consciously keep track of how my being a Christian has supplied me with resources that have strengthened my faith and fueled my hope.  And so, in no particular order, here are some of the things that my Christian faith has provided me with, and that have proven sustaining to me as the rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew.  This is how my Christianity has “worked” for me in the midst of my recent storms –

  • doveThe indwelling Holy Spirit is called the Comforter, at least that’s one of the ways that the word that Jesus used in the Upper Room in the Gospel of John to talk about the Holy Spirit’s coming sometimes gets translated (John 14:16; 26; 15:26; 16:7).  And I have felt this Spirit’s comforting presence.  It’s not continuous, but it is real.  Paul described it as the assurance we have that we are children of God when God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirits (Romans 8:16).  And that’s it.  That’s what sweeps over me from time to time quite unexpectedly and inexplicably. It’s like a hug out of nowhere.  A reminder that I’m not alone; the reassurance that I have not been abandoned or forsaken.
  • The keys that the Holy Spirit plays on the instrument of my heart are the promises of God’s Word.  Bible verses will just pop into my consciousness like song melodies that get stuck in your ear, and I savor them.  My long love for Scripture has stocked my head and heart with lots of raw material for the Spirit to use.  I’ve sometimes heard this described as the experience of receiving a “living” Word, and that certainly “feels” right.  It feels like God speaking directly to me from the pages of the Bible.  Is this what Jesus meant when He told us that “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63)?
  • Finally, in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 Paul described an important dynamic that’s at work in the experience of comfort that we receive from God in Christ –

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.  If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. (1:3-6)

When we receive God’s comfort in our own times of personal struggle we are being equipped to share God’s comfort with people we will meet later who are struggling with the same sorts of things we have already been through.  Our comfort comes with a ministry assignment.  At the end of his life, when debilitated by a series of strokes, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was asked to reflect on what he had learned in his years of decline.  And this man of massive intellect and tremendous influence talked about what he called “the charismatic gift of love.”  After years of writing, teaching, traveling and leading, when health “dismissed him from the battle” and “relegated him to the sidelines,” Reinhold Niebuhr said that in the end it was the simple kindness and support of ordinary people who went out of their way to help him that was the most effective expression of the Gospel that he knew anything about it.   And it has in fact been the kind words, the offers of support and the expressions of care from Christian brothers and sisters who have travelled these same roads of sadness and carried these same burdens of fear and pain that have made God’s love so tangible and visible to me over and over again.

Paul in a season of struggle was able to say (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) –

lightWe have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed

And in the end, was bold to say (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)–

The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

And in this season of struggle, it is because of the comforting Spirit, the comforting Word, and the comforting community that I have experienced the sufficiency of grace.  DBS+

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“And forgive…”

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

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A Father’s Prayer Upon the Murder of his Son

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

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

And Forgive…

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

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

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

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