Tag Archives: Spiritual

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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“What Hinduism Is and What It Is Not”, A Christian Response

Last week our monthly Faiths in Conversation took an interesting turn.  Instead of the usual format with Jews, Christians and Muslims talking with each other about matters of common interest or controversy, this session consisted of a Hindu talking to Jews, Christians and Muslims about what Hinduism is and is not.  What follows was my prepared response to the presentation and my rationale for being invested in the exercise.  DBS+

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“What Hinduism Is and What It Is Not”
Pravrajika Brahmaprana – Resident Minister
Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Texas

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A Christian Response – Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
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CUThe Christian College in Oregon that I attended played intercollegiate sports.  Our men’s basketball and baseball teams competed against teams from other small Christian Colleges in our Conference in the Pacific Northwest.  But I didn’t play intercollegiate sports in college.  I played intramural sports instead.  The football, basketball and softball teams from my hall in the dormitory played teams from the other halls and houses on campus.  Intercollegiate sports involved playing teams from other schools.  Intramural sports involved playing teams from the same school.  And here tonight our Faiths in Conversation shifted from being an intramural exercise to becoming an intercollegiate experience.

Up to this point virtually all of our Faiths in Conversation – I can think of one exception – have taken place between communities of faith from the branches of the same Abrahamic family tree.  Whenever Rabbi Hanan, Imam Zia or Imam Khalil and I have made a presentation in the past, we have more or less spoken the same language.  And that’s because we have a shared history, some common theological assumptions, many of the same spiritual disciplines and a similar moral compass.  But not here tonight. Tonight we have been introduced to an entirely different kind of tree, and in many ways our Abrahamic tree and the Hindu tree could not be more different.

KreeftPeter Kreeft, the Christian philosopher from Boston College, after inviting his readers to compare the image of Christ on the cross with his eyes open wide, his arms outstretched and his body torn, with the image of a meditating guru with his eyes closed tight, turned inward, and his arms and body self-contained, like a sphere, concluded, “in one sense Hinduism and Christianity are as far apart as two religions can be.”  And I’m pretty sure that the Christians in the room would agree.  As the befuddled Dorothy noted after her first glimpse of Oz: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

But then, Professor Kreeft quickly added, “in another sense, Hinduism and Christianity may be less far apart than Judaism and Christianity.”   It’s the Christmas truth of Christianity – the Incarnation, God becoming flesh and dwelling among us – and its logical theological corollary – the doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three persons – that Professor Kreeft sees as bringing Hinduism and Christianity within hearing distance of each other and holding some real promise for Hindu/Christian conversation and understanding.  This could be a bridge that we might be able to cross over into each other’s spiritual worlds.  Another possible bridge might be found in the realm of spiritual practice.

abc2 There are lots of churches these days where Christians practice Yoga while contemporary Christian music plays softly in the background. And I wonder, how does the fact that there are lots of Christians unreflectively practicing yoga without its spiritual assumptions sit with Hindus?  I have some clergy colleagues who adamantly oppose this practice as blatant syncretism; the introduction of a Hindu spiritual discipline with Hindu spiritual assumptions into a Christian context, and I wonder if there are Hindu voices on the other side of the equation who are equally concerned by the Christian reduction of a valued spiritual practice to an exercise regimen and a relaxation technique?   And more to the point, can the current cultural popularity of yoga in the west be a starting place for some kind of a meaningful Hindu/Christian conversation?

Different as they are, I believe that this Christian/Hindu conversation is as spiritually relevant and urgent to me as a Christian as has been our ongoing Jewish/Christian/Muslim conversations in recent years.  While the “ethical monotheistic” religions – Judaism/Christianity/Islam – are branches of the same “Abrahamic” tree, that “Abrahamic” tree exists in a larger forest of trees, the forest of human religions.  And so, while the “intramural” conversation between Jews, Christians and Muslims has seemed quite “natural” to us in so many ways and this initial foray into the Christian/Hindu “intercollegiate” conversation feels more “remote” by comparison, it still demands our attention and deserves our effort.

There are two genealogies of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.  The genealogy of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Matthew is designed to establish the claim that He is “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). It is this Christ that stakes me as a Christian into the “intramural” conversation of faiths with Jews and Muslims.  In contrast, the genealogy of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Luke (the only New Testament document traditionally ascribed to a Gentile author) does all the way back to “Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38).  And it this Christ who belongs to the whole human family, and who came for the whole human family, that stakes me into the “intercollegiate” conversation of faith with Hindus.  In both cases, it is my commitment to Jesus Christ that brings me to the table of conversation in the interest of mutual understanding and in the service of the God who made and loves the world and “all who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

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 This coming Tuesday night (4/28) at 7 pm a special Faith in Conversations program will be held at Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson (720 W. Lookout Drive) on “Betrayal.” Pravrajika Brahmaprana, the Resident Minister of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Texas, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and I will each be sharing the spiritual wisdom that each of our faith traditions (Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity) offers to people who have been betrayed by another.

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“…so that they may be seen by others…”

ash

A Post Ash Wednesday Reflection

The priest who preached the Ash Wednesday service that I attended had us all underline the phrase – “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” – each time it appears in the standard Gospel lesson for the day – Matthew 6:1-18.  And so Matthew 6:4, 6:6 and 6:18 are now all underlined in my Bible, and more importantly, they are underscored in my heart.

In light of what Jesus said about being careful about doing religious things that can “be seen by others’ – also repeated 3 times in Matthew 6:2, 6:5 and 6:16 – I found myself struggling, as I often do on Ash Wednesday, with whether or not I should receive the imposition of ashes.  It’s hard to reconcile the public display of piety that ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross signals with Jesus’ instructions about not doing religious things to be seen by others.  On Ash Wednesday I always feel like I’m doing the very thing that Jesus just told us not to do!  And so I’ve come to the place where I will receive the imposition of ashes in worship on Ash Wednesday, and then I will wipe them off before leaving the sanctuary and heading back into the world.  In my mind, at least, this is my faithful compromise.  It signals my full identification with the Lenten intention of the community of faith without making a show of it in public where it is neither understood nor appreciated, and it winds up being a way for me to show them just how “spiritual” I am.

Years ago I heard stories about big city politicians up north and back east who would mark themselves with an ash cross using the stubs of their own cigars before convening press conferences designed to identify with and get the approval of their Catholic voters.  I’m pretty sure that this is what Jesus was criticizing.  But in this age of social media, don’t ash smudged forehead “selfies” do the same thing?  I’ve seen dozens and dozens of them on Facebook since Wednesday, and with every one of them I have found myself asking, “What motivates this?” “Why would anyone take a picture of themselves with ashes of their foreheads and then publically post it for all to see?”

Memorably, Calvin Miller in one of his books remembered how they sang “Into my Heart” the day he became a Christian.

Into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus;
Come in today, come in to stay; Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

And after years of being a Christian, Calvin observed that his life in Christ was still just so inward that it “defied easy externalization.”  More than that, “easy externalization” can actually impede a genuine and vital inward spirituality.  In the spiritual teachings of the church of my childhood and youth, I was warned about the sin of “sentimentality,” defined as “being satisfied with pious feelings and beautiful ceremonies without striving to know or obey God’s will.”  This is what the Psalm we used on Ash Wednesday was getting at when it said (Psalm 51:16-17) –

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Inwardness…

ash wThis is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8).  It’s just so easy to do the external thing, and then to celebrate it as if the spiritual assignment has thereby been successfully accomplished. But ash smudged foreheads are easy to achieve.  It’s ash smudged hearts that prove to be trickier.  And that’s what this season of Lent is really all about. DBS+

 

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Not Perfect, Just Forgiven…

peace “You have not been helpful”: Monk loses temper
dealing with United Airlines customer service
Michael Walsh ~ http://news.yahoo.com

Another airline passenger lost his cool while talking to customer service — only this time it was a monk. Brother Noah of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico says he failed to stay peaceful while dealing with United Airlines on the phone, the New York Times reported. “I said to her something like: ‘Thank you for speaking. God bless you. I will pray for you. But you have not been helpful,’” he told the broadsheet. When David Segal, author of “The Haggler” column, suggested this did not sound like much of an outburst, Brother Noah said he knows the tone of his voice “manifested anger.” So what riled up the monk?  In late November, Brother Noah’s friend at the monastery, Brother John Baptist, flew to Malawi in southeastern Africa to see his sick mother on a $2500 round-trip ticket, paid for by the monastery.  After arriving, Brother John Baptist realized he needed to extend his trip several weeks, so Brother Noah called on December 10 to reschedule the return flight. But United said the original purchase was fraudulent even though his friend already used half of the ticket.  A United representative reportedly suggested that the monastery’s leader could drive three hours away to a United desk in Albuquerque to work everything out. Then he spoke to a supervisor, identified as Mark, but the issue was not sorted out.  “Everything became our fault. There was no evidence that Brother John Baptist had been placed on a new return flight,” Brother Noah told the Times. “No record of the conversation with Mark. I really struggled to remain calm and charitable. My monastic life is about staying peaceful in all circumstances. I failed during this call.”  To set everything straight, the monastery posted an open letter on its website outlining the experience and asking for help. “Blessings to you! Christ in the Desert is having some difficulties with United Airlines. Perhaps someone reading this will know a way to help,” the letter begins.  This eventually led to a return flight, apology, and $350 credit toward future travels.

This is not the monastery in New Mexico that I go to, but it is its sister house on the other side of Santa Fe.  Benedictines, Thecirque Monastery of Christ in the Desert is a community that organizes its life around the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict.  As an Oblate of the Pecos Benedictine Monastery and Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, I have made a commitment to this Rule myself.  I try to organize my active life in the world around the spiritual principles that St. Benedict discovered in his life of following hard after Jesus Christ and then made available to others.  Ordinarily, monks and monasteries connote Christians on spiritual steroids, spiritual athletes climbing the ladder of perfection.  But in my experience, monks are just ordinary believers like ourselves who have gotten serious about their discipleship, and monasteries are places of grace, refuges where weary souls can find refreshment, reorientation and renewal.

I’ve read that there is a command on British warships known as “Still.”  When it is issued, everyone is supposed to stop where they are and what they are doing, and think about where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing!  My trips to the monastery have always been a “Still” experience for me.  They have not been victory laps with me pumping my fist in celebration of some kind of imagined spiritual maturity, but rather they have been more like time in the repair shop for my soul to find out why it’s running so rough.  And in my experience, the monastery is the perfect place to do this because they are not inhabited by angels, but by ordinary men and women who struggle with all of the same sorts of things that I do.

The Rule of St. Benedict is not a spiritual resource for the elite.  It is a spiritual resource for the ordinary containing “nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.”  In fact, St. Benedict described it as “a little rule for beginners.”  In the Preface to the copy of the Rule that I keep close at hand, Fr. Timothy Fry, O.S.B. explained – “Benedict was a keen observer of human nature and realized that people often fail (the abbot himself must ‘distrust his own ability”). He was concerned to help the weak, and consequently he enjoined the abbot to “so regulate and arrange all matters that souls may be saved….”  And so in the Rule you are repeatedly coming across little snippets of patience and grace like –

idol“…never lose hope in God’s mercy…”

“The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for wayward brothers, because it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Matthew 9:12)… support the wavering brother… ‘lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow’ (2 Corinthians 2:7).”

“Imitate the loving example of the Good Shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the mountains and went in search of the one sheep that had strayed.  So great was his compassion for its weakness that he mercifully placed it on his shoulders and so carried it back to the flock (Luke 15:5).”

“…consideration should be given for weakness…”

The Rule of St. Benedict breathes the kind of spiritual realism that is borne of the Gospel, the kind of realism that you find in Philippians 3.  This is one of those chapters where my faith lives, especially the part that says–

I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him… Not that I have already attained this, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.  …Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 3:8; 12-14)

Years ago the young couple who lived across the street from the church that I was serving in the Texas Panhandle put thejust familiar bumper sticker that reads “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re just forgiven” on their car, only they deliberately put it on upside down!   I laughed out loud every time I saw it, and I appreciated the important spiritual truth to which it bore witness. Our standard is not perfection, but growth – growth in grace.  Weakness and failure are expected, but they’re not to be excused.  With the acknowledgment that we are not perfect, there must come the resolve to press on, and it’s in the tension of these two poles that the spiritual life gets lived out, inside and outside the monastery.  It’s good for all of us to know that monks get angry and can lose their cool too.  It means that we’re all in the same boat — the boat of grace. DBS+

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The “Social Gospel” versus the “Personal Gospel”

The False Choice I’m Being Asked to Make, Again…
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Over the last 24 hours I have received several e-mails and/or read some internet postings calling for pastoral action and/or a homiletical statement this Sunday in support of the growing anti-racist, pro-reconciliation social movement that current events have painfully and urgently brought into our national consciousness.   Here are some samples –

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If racism isn’t the topic of conversation in every church this morning, what the hell kind of church do we have? Dr. Serene Jones – President, Union Theological Seminary                                     

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As I’ve followed these stories via various news outlets and in the world of social media, I’ve experienced a deep sensitivity to the phenomena of absence and silence. I’ve paid special attention to the ways in which influential faith leaders are (or are not) using their platforms to call out the injustices which have diminished and even extinguished Black lives in America. Almost predictably, there are certain white pastors whose presences are conspicuously absent– but their silence is not my concern. Of greater concern to me is the silence of Black ministers, many of whom pastor megachurches consisting of thousands of African American Christians. …They have a certain something that pastors all over the country have been trying to cultivate and duplicate: Credibility. Broad Appeal. Undeterred Followers. Staying Power. They are the empowered few—wielding television and media reach, but yielding little in terms of advocacy at a time when compelling mobilizers are needed more than ever. I think it’s more than fair to ask why the people who are arguably the Black community’s most influential religious leaders have had little if anything to say about issues that impact our lives so profoundly. Crystal St. Marie Lewis – http://rhetoricraceandreligion.blogspot.com

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To my fellow clergy: I had lunch today at a meeting of bishops and judicatory leaders, and met the new Senior Bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Lawrence Reddick. He told us that this Sunday is ‘Black On Sunday’, when several African- American denominations are asking their members to dress in black this Sunday to show solidarity in the midst of the crisis and the pain of these days. He invited us to wear black as well, and I intend to do so. The pain and the outrage is palpable, and regardless of how any of us feel about the particulars of specific incidents, it is time for us to listen, really listen, show we care, and seek ways to be part of the answer. Dr. Larry Ross – North Texas Area Minister, CCSW

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I don’t disagree.

Christian Faith has a public edge, and as I have expressed here before, Biblically, I believe that racism is a sin that needs to be exposed, confessed and eradicated from the lives of both individual Christians and congregations.  My only question is how best to go about this.

A little bit further in her article, Crystal St. Marie Lewis wrote something that makes my head explode.

I’ve thought about the state of Christianity in America, and the ever-growing need for the justice-centered message of Jesus to overtake and supplant the self-centered message of salvation that has come to dominate Protestant theology.

The suggestion here that the “self-centered” message of personal salvation must be “overtaken and supplanted” by “the justice-centered message of Jesus” as if these were competing brands in the marketplace of spiritual ideas is misleading.  This is the old tired “Social Gospel” versus the “Personal Gospel” argument that I rejected as a false choice 40 years ago when I was a student in Christian College.

Are there advocates of the Social Gospel of peace, freedom and justice for all who want nothing to do with the Personal Gospel of forgiveness, inward assurance and the promise of eternal life? Yes, there are.  I know some of them personally. And are there advocates of the Personal Gospel of forgiveness, inward assurance and the promise of eternal life who want nothing to do with the Social Gospel of peace, freedom and justice for all?  Yes, there are.  I know some of them too.  But are these the only two choices that we have?  Do I have to choose between them?

I don’t think so.

There is a middle position historically embraced by Evangelical Christianity that sequences the Social Gospel of peace, freedom and justice for all as the necessary and inevitable consequence of the Personal Gospel of forgiveness, inward assurance and the promise of eternal life.  John Piper wrote about William Wilberforce as the poster child of this approach to transformation, both personal and social.

One of the most important and least known facts about the battle to abolish the slave trade in Britain two hundred years ago is that it was sustained by a passion for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. William Wilberforce was a spiritually exuberant and doctrinally rigorous evangelical. He battled tirelessly in Parliament for the outlawing of the British slave trade. It was doctrine that nourished the joy that sustained the battle that ended the vicious trade.

Beet

The key to understanding Wilberforce is to read his own book, A Practical View of Christianity. There he argued that the fatal habit of his day was to separate Christian morals from Christian doctrines. His conviction was that there is “perfect harmony between the leading doctrines and the practical precepts of Christianity.” He had seen the devastating effects of denying this: “The peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and…the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.” But Wilberforce knew that “the whole superstructure of Christian morals is grounded on their deep and ample basis.”

This “ample basis” and these “peculiar doctrines” that sustained Wilberforce in the battle against the slave trade were the doctrines of human depravity, divine judgment, the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds. Wilberforce was not a political pragmatist. He was a radically God-centered, Christian politician. And his zeal for Christ, rooted in these “peculiar doctrines,” was the strength that sustained him in the battle.  http://www.desiringgod.org

And what this means is that for many of us the way that we believe that the sin of racism will most effectively be exposed and then eradicated is through the preaching of the Gospel that explicitly calls people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ as their Savior (giving Him their sins) and as their Lord (giving Him full reign in their lives).

As I have been preparing to preach this Sunday morning on the inexpressible gift that Jesus Christ is to us as the display of God’s Wonderful Compassion according to the portrait that is painted of Him for us by the Gospel of Luke, I have been made aware of just how directly and powerfully the Gospel speaks to the issues of the day.  For Luke, nothing was a better expression of God’s grace that had gathered him up and gathered him in than were the meals that Jesus ate in the days of His public ministry with all sorts of people.  And there is an important lesson in this for all of us as Christ’s disciples, especially after the weeks of social unrest and public outrage that we’ve come through following the perceived failure of justice in the recent Grand Jury decisions in Missouri and New York.

How do things change?
How do things get better?
How do people reconcile and the world heals?

Carl F.H. Henry, a distant relative of Northway’s own Patrick Henry I’m told, in his book on Christian Social Ethics (Aspects of Christian Social Ethics – Eerdmans – 1964) asked about what was the best method for improving social conditions.

The problem may be stated this way: In seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to extent on grace?  How much shall we trust legislation and how much should we trust regeneration to change the social setting? (15)

And his point was that while we can change laws – and laws must be changed in the face of injustice – that legislation alone is never enough.

The very first building block in the formation of my own social conscience as a Christian was a book that Sherwood Wirt, the editor for many years of Billy Graham’s magazine Decision, wrote and that I read in 1968 when I was just 15 years old.  These were the days of the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam.  Big questions about peace and justice were churning in society at large then, and I was trying to figure out how someone like myself who had consciously named Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior and who was actively looking to the Bible for moral and spiritual guidance was supposed to respond.   Sherwood Wirt’s book helped me to make sense of things.  This, in part, is what he wrote about racism – and remember that these words were written 46 years ago!

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

And so, if the answer to society’s problems is not just agitation, education or legislation, then what is?  Well, Carl Henry said that it was Regeneration – the embrace of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

The strategy of regeneration… relies primarily on a spiritual dynamic for social change.  It aims not merely to re-educate man (although it knows that the Holy Spirit uses truth – especially the truth of the Gospel – as a means of conviction), but to renew the whole man morally and spiritually through a saving experience of Jesus Christ.  The power on which it relies for social change is not totalitarian compulsion, nor is it the power, per se, of legislated morality, education and unregenerate conscience… The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” for facing the entire world.  Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is an optional consideration.  Personal regeneration and redemption are interest in its hope for the social order. (24-25)

This was in fact how the Apostle Paul spiritually undermined the institution of slavery in his day.  He organized no protest marches.  He lobbied for the passage of no new laws in the Roman Senate.  He didn’t appear on any talk shows or post on a social media sites to publically debate the issue.  What Paul did do was to treat a runaway slave named Onesimus with personal dignity and respect when he showed up unexpectedly one day on Paul’s front doorstep, and then Paul insisted that his owner, a man named Philemon, welcome Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a beloved brother in Jesus Christ (16), and this quiet revolution fomented in the hearts of three individual believers – Paul’s, Onesimus’ and Philemon’s – is what set in motion the forces that eventually changed the whole world.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a time and a place for agitation, and I’m not suggesting, even for a moment, that education and legislation are either irrelevant or unnecessary.   What I am saying is that none of this is enough for the kind of change that we are looking for.  The kind of change that we really need begins in the heart of a person who has been invited in and given a place at the welcome table.  Think of how the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame in the story that Jesus told in Luke 14:15-24 would have felt when the servants of the King sought them out on the streets and in the lanes of the city and compelled them to come into the feast.

antwoneThe 2003 movie “Antwone Fisher” begins with the dream of a little boy who has been abandoned by his mother standing in an open field staring at a great big white barn.   Slowly the barn doors open and a man looks down at him, extends his hand and leads him inside.  In the center of the barn there is a banquet table laden down with food, and surrounding it are lots and lots of people with smiles on their faces and the look of love in their eyes.  The little boy is ushered through the room to the head of the table where he is given the seat of honor, and then with everyone drawing in just a little bit closer, the little boy is served a big plate of pancakes, and he smiles.

The way Luke tells the Gospel story, you are that little boy, and I am that little boy.  Mike Brown was that little boy, and Officer Darren Wilson is that little boy.  Eric Garner was that little boy, and Officer Daniel Pantaleo is that little boy.  And Jesus Christ is the One who opens wide the door, extends his hand, and ushers us all into the feast.  The kind of world we want is a world where everyone has a place at the table of God’s abundance, and according to the Gospel of Luke, that’s exactly what Jesus Christ came into the world to provide.  He is the gift of God’s wonderful compassion, and it’s our assignment to offer it to all.  DBS+

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How Can You Think That?

cancer

In my last post late last week – “Death with Dignity; Life with Faith” – I wrote about the recent death of Brittany Maynard by assisted suicide and the response that Kara Tippett, another young woman with the very same terminal illness, made to it.  I wrote to urge a little bit more “humility” and “modesty” in the way that we think and talk about public policy issues like euthanasia.  I was reacting to the way that I perceived some of my ministerial peers – both progressives and traditionalists – in their blogs and Facebook postings were using the story of this intensely personal tragedy to score ideological points in support of their predetermined political and social positions.  You don’t have to read very many of my blogs before you discover that this is one of my pet peeves.

I get terribly uneasy when one of my ministerial colleagues will fire off his or her “hot sports opinion” on a pressing social and/or political issue.  When my theologically and socially conservative friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a caucus of the Republican Party. And when my theologically and socially progressive friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a wing of the Democrat Party.  And I worry about how this creates premature barriers, keeping people from hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, unless, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is identical to the platform of the Democrats or the Republicans, in which case, please say so — add it to the Good Confession: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my Lord and Savior, and that to be a Christian is to be a Republican, or a Democrat, as the case may be.

If am a politically conservative and my minister and church preaches the “Democrat Gospel,” then I am marginalized and I am left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are incompatible.  There’s no room for me at their Table.  And if I am politically progressive and my minister and church preaches the “Republican Gospel,” then I am equally marginalized and left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are just as incompatible. I am excluded from that Table as well.  We are fracturing the Body of Christ over “inferences” and the conscientious application of Biblical principles and not the gospel itself, which I thought was what the Stone/Campbell Movement came into existence to reject and avoid.   Unless voting for Greg Abbott, or Wendy Davis in the last gubernatorial election here in Texas, as your conscience and conclusion dictated, was one of the so-called “essentials” of Christianity about which we must be unified as Christians, then let it be a “non-essential” about which we are accorded freedom.

Because in our communities of faith we are going to have people of varied convictions and conclusions about the non-essentials, and I am called to be the pastor/teacher of them all, I have consciously and conscientiously taken the position of political neutrality as a pastor.  Oh, I vote, and I will encourage you to do the same.  But I will not tell you how I voted, or how to vote.  This is a matter to be decided in the sacred arena of “private interpretation” for us as Protestant Christians.  This is a Holy of Holies that we dare not barge into uninvited.  You have got to do your own believing, and your own deciding.  And I have to do mine.  My job as a pastor is not to “pass judgment on your opinions” (Romans 14:1), but rather to provide you with the tools to help you “think Christianly” on the great spiritual, moral and social issues of the day.

I get spiritually uneasy when my ministerial friends get political.  But if you insist on doing this, if you are going to tell us what to think about this candidate and that proposition on the ballot, then at least do us the courtesy of explaining why you think as you do.  Don’t just give us the “right” algebraic answer to the problem “de jour,” lay out the geometric theorems and proofs that got you to that answer!  Frankly, “how” you think about an issue is so much more useful than just a concise statement of “what” you think.  Nevertheless,  most of the socio-political conclusions I hear from my ministerial friends get stated with a “twitter-like” brevity devoid of any explanation.  They read like the “therefore let it be resolved” statement in the final paragraph of a General Assembly Resolution without the benefit of any “whereas” clauses that make the case for the recommended action

ctm

Harry Blamires, a student of C.S. Lewis, in his book The Christian Mind (Seabury 1963) proposed this experiment –

Take some topic of current political importance.  Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it; and do so in detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form your conclusions by “thinking Christianly.” Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation. The full loneliness of the “thinking Christian” will descend upon you.  It is not that people disagree with you. Some do and some don’t.  In a sense that doesn’t matter.  [What does matter is that] they will not “think Christianly.”   They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are almost wholly determined by political allegiance.  Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average churchman to the Conservative Party or to the Labour Party is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the church [and her teachings]. (13)

Of course, all of this presumes that “thinking Christianly” is a category that we actually understand and accept.  The heart of Blamires’ book was an exploration of the “marks” of a mind that in fact “thinks Christianly,” and the presupposition of the whole argument was that God is there and is not silent.  In other words, we have access to what it is that God wants for us, for both our lives and our world.  “Thinking Christianly” means thinking God’s own thoughts after Him; having what the Apostle Paul called “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16).

The foundation to any theology – a faithful word (“logos”) about God (“Theos”) – is the source of our “knowing.”  Whenever anybody says anything about who God is, or about what it is that God is doing, or about what it is that God wants from us, or of us, the right thing for us to ask is, “So, how do you know that about God?”  The “Quadrilateral,” a model for thinking usually associated with the name of John Wesley, the Founder of the Methodists, is a really helpful way to get at your answer to the question – “How do you know what you say you know about God?”

cube
According to the “Quadrilateral,” the four sources of our knowledge of God are: Scripture – the record of God’s own self-disclosure in history;   Experience – the stirrings of God in us and around us; Tradition – the stirrings of God in and around other people before us; and Reason – a critical reflection on the claims of both revelation and experience.  Most Christians have very little difficulty in acknowledging how Scripture, experience, tradition and reason have each made a very real contribution to their knowledge of God. The fuss comes when these four souces compete.  When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out, and they do all the time, which one functions as the referee? When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four is supposed to step up and settle the dispute?

BS

In this second diagram of the “Quadrilateral,”  Scripture is the bigger foundation on which the other three rest, and this has been the traditional perspective of Protestant Christianity.  Sometimes it’s referred to as “Sola Scriptura” – “Scripture Alone” – although more accurately it is more a matter of  “Prima Scriptura” – “Scripture First” or “Scripture Primary.”  In matters of faith and practice, we start with Scripture.  “What does the Bible say?”  is our first concern.  Clearly reason, tradition and experience all have their part to play in the process of understanding what the Bible says and means, but it all starts with Scripture.

guli

Francis Schaeffer called this the “watershed” – the “great divide” – in the church today.  Belief in an inspired and authoritative Bible sends theological and moral reflection in one direction just as the rejection of an inspired and authortative Bible sends theological and moral reflection off in another direction altogether.  So, coming back around to the tragic life and death of Brittany Maynard and the question of euthanasia (“the act or practice of killing someone who is very sick or injured in order to prevent any more suffering”), how does one “think Christianly” about it?

As a proponent of “Prima Scriptura,” “thinking Christianly” sends me to “Scripture First.”  “What does the Bible say?” is where I begin, and this is where it gets complicated.  When you turn to the Bible among the things that you discover pretty quickly is that there are any number of things in it that were at the center of the author’s concerns in the days when it was written that are no longer of much concern to us today, eating meat sacrificed to idols for instance.  Furthermore, there are things that are of great concern to us today that for whatever reason never get mentioned by the Biblical authors, euthanasia for example. The early church after the New Testament was written took a pretty public, consistent and aggressive stance on infanticide, and they were at the forefront of taking care of people who had been abandoned to death by their families in times of plague.  They did these things not because the Bible specifically told them to, but rather because doing such things were consistent with what the Bible did tell them about the sanctity of life.

The sanctity of life was well-established in their minds by what the Bible told them about all people being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), about guarding the image of God in human beings (Genesis 9:1-7), about not committing murder (Exodus 20:13) and about our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16).  If ever there was a case to be made for euthanasia in the Bible, a “mercy killing,” Job in his anguish and distress would seem to be it.  But when it was just hinted at by Job’s wife, it was immediately rejected out of hand as being an act entirely inconsistent with faithfulness to God’s dealings with us (Job 2:9-10).  This same perspective weaves in and out of the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-2; 7:17; 8:8).

But by far, the most compelling reflection about euthanasia from the Biblical perspective that I’ve ever come across was Oscar Cullmann’s Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: the Witness of the New Testament (Epworth Press – 1958).

Cato

Socrates (470/469 BC – 399 BC); Jesus of Nazareth (7–2 BC to 30–33 AD)

A contrast between the death of Socrates as reported by Plato in “Phaedo,” and the death of Jesus, especially His travail in the Garden of Gethsemane as reported by the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, becomes the frame in which Cullmann brought into focus the Biblical face of death as “the final enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26; Hebrews 2:14-15), and the culturally popular face of death as the liberator from the weakness and limitations of the body.  Euthanasia is a logical choice from the experience and perspective of Socrates, but not so much from the experience and perspective of Jesus Christ. The way Jesus went to the cross kicking and screaming is a powerful witness to the abnormality of death (Genesis 2:15-17) and a foundational argument in the church’s historic resistance to the culture of death in which she lives, and moves and has her being. The Bible may not ever actually use the word “euthanasia,” but the church’s message of life, eternal and abundant, has some important implications for the conversation about euthanasia, especially for people of faith who have named Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  It is neither incidental nor inconsequential that those Christian leaders who have a high sense of the speaking of God in Scripture and Tradition agree in their opposition to euthanasia. But as persuasive as the weight and logic of their arguments born of their reading of Scripture are to me, even more persuasive is the witness of a simple Christian like Kara Tippett, a woman who is dying and who chooses to embrace each moment she has left with spiritual courage and what she calls “mundane faithfulness.”  More compelling to me than an encyclical from the Pope or a position paper written by a first-rate Evangelical Scholar well-grounded in Scripture against euthanasia, is the letter that Kara wrote to Brittany before she took her life. You can find it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/.

This is a wonderful example of what “thinking Christianly” sounds like, and a clear picture of what “acting Christianly” looks like. There is much that I could learn from Kara.   DBS+

 

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My “Defining” Books; The Serious Titles

books

A few weeks ago I listed the ten “popular” spiritual books that have had a strong hand in shaping my soul.  These were some of the books that I read before I was 20 years old, and that have remained on the bookshelf of my heart ever since because of the ways that they set the table for the rest of my spiritual life.  None of these books were “scholarly.”  None of them were written in the academy or for the academy.  They were written for ordinary Christians living ordinary lives as members of ordinary churches.

This week I turn to another category of “defining” books for me, what I am calling my “serious” collection.  These are ten of the books that have had the greatest influence on my theological formation.  How I think about who God is and what I understand God to be about have the tendrils of my soul all over these books.  They are the veritable lattice work that has held me up and given me direction as I have grown.  In fact, on my own personal spiritual Mount Rushmore, it would be four of these theologians who faces would appear – Augustine, Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Brunner.  These ten books demand more of the reader than the ten books that appeared on my “popular” list a few weeks ago, but none of them are beyond the capacity of a serious reader who is prepared to go slowly and thoughtfully.

bald
Before giving you my list, let me first honor the man whose personal and professional example provided me with the example of how genuine believing and critical thinking can combine in a life of great faithfulness.  Dr. William Richardson was one of my professors of New Testament and Church History at Northwest Christian College in the early 1970’s.  He “had me” the day he began a lecture by opening his Greek New Testament and translating the text that we were going to be discussing that day right there on the spot.  I knew then that when I “grew up” I wanted to be just like him.  Dr. Richardson was brilliant, insightful, whimsical, engaging and fully invested in the learning process.  He was instrumental in showing me what Jesus meant when He told us to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37).  Paul talked about the foundation he laid that others would later build upon (I Corinthians 3:11).  Well, Dr. Richardson laid my theological foundation that these ten thinkers with their defining books later built upon.  Even now, with every book I read, every sermon I preach, every article I write, and every thought I have, I do so knowing that I stand on the foundation that my “wise master builder,” Dr. William Richardson laid so skillfully in my head and heart some 40 years ago, and my life and ministry of “thinking believing” has just been “a poor attempt to imitate the man.”  My desire and capacity to read books like the ones that appear on this list were instilled in me by the way that I watched Dr. Richardson’s faith seek understanding.  He inspired and empowered the same pursuit in me.

green book

As I studied theology I often found myself captivated by what a certain theologian had to say, and that would send me off to the library to read a biography of them.   More often than not, the gap between the kind of people they turned out to be, the bad moral and spiritual choices they made on a personal level, and the profundity of their insight into the truth of Christianity staggered me.  It was and remains a mystery to me how somebody can grasp the meaning of Christianity with the brilliance of a great theologian, and not be seized by its truth in a way that produces a Christ-like character in that theologian who is thinking those thoughts and giving them such powerful expression.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the great exception.  His life was the laboratory in which he worked out the truths that he explored in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship.  Ostensibly a commentary on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, this book challenges “easy-believism” and “cheap grace” as terrible substitutes for the obedience of faith  (Romans 1:5) to which we are called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If you were to read just one book from the list of 10, make it this one!  It has the power to change your life.

quest book

My sister gave me a copy of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus for my 12th birthday.  It was not because she perceived me to be a theological prodigy that she bought it for me.  No, it was because the book cost $2.95 new in 1965, which met her budget requirements, and it had “Jesus” in the tile, and she knew that since I was “religious” that I would probably like it!  It wouldn’t be until my first year in seminary, more than 10 years later that I would actually read this book with any degree of understanding. But once I had, I knew that the questions it asked were among the most crucial for the Christian Faith.  Like Bonhoeffer, the example of Schweitzer’s life is a stirring endorsement of the things that he concluded about who Jesus Christ is and why He matters. And while I don’t wind up in exactly the same place as Schweitzer did, I nevertheless believe that he got many things right, and it’s those things that have become and remained some of the most basic presuppositions in my own thinking and talking about Jesus Christ to this day.  This is a great book of stunning theological importance, one of the most crucial of the 20th century.

faith book

I was sitting in the second floor student lounge at Brite Divinity School in the spring of 1976 when the door opened and a box of books were flung in.  A wild-eyed student stood there in the doorway for just a moment after throwing in the box of books before announcing, “I quit!”  And then as he turned to walk away he muttered that the books were ours for the taking, if we wanted them.  The dozen student sitting there fell instantly on that box of books like a pack of hyenas tearing at a fresh carcass.  Every so often from the middle of the scrum a book, a “discard” would get tossed out, apparently holding no interest for the alpha dogs, and that’s how I came into possession of my copy of Gustaf Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Faith.  Peter said of Jesus Christ, “the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (I:2:7), and that’s kind of how I feel about this book.  I got it because nobody else wanted it, and through the years it has become one of my “go to” systematic theologies.  Aulen had a perspective on the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross that recovered the ancient church’s understanding of the atonement as God’s confrontation with the powers of darkness and His triumph over them in the Resurrection, Ascension and Second Coming of Jesus Christ that has real power in our world today.  It’s this strand of interpretation together with his keen awareness of the reality of evil in the world that makes Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Church one of those books that I’ve read multiple times throughout my ministry, and to which I turn frequently for understanding and strength.  If I was told that I could just have one systematic theology from my library of dozens for the rest of my life, this is the one that I would gratefully take with me and continue to use until that day when my faith finally becomes sight.

Romans book

Seminary, at least in the Mainline Protestant tradition, breeds a kind of skepticism about what is perceived to be the naiveté of the affirmations that the church makes in her historic creeds.   You are taught to be suspicious of every faith claim and critical of every belief no matter how central or precious it has been to your spiritual development and vitality.  It was Karl Barth who helped me find my footing in this intellectual storm, and it was his book The Epistle to the Romans that sounded the clarion bell of God’s revelation of Himself and His purpose in Jesus Christ that provided me with my sense of spiritual direction in those days when everything was up for review.  Barth is not an easy read; there is still so much in what he wrote that I struggle to understand; but with that said, the broad sweep of Barth’s argument is clear enough for any of us to grasp, and for me, it has proven foundational.  Someday I intend to take a year or two to read Barth’s magisterial Church Dogmatics in its entirety (14 volumes… thousands of pages… very small print…) but until then, his Epistle to the Romans keeps me spiritually grounded and properly oriented.  Barth staked out the theological middle ground between the uncritical theological conservatism of my Christian College days and the hypercritical theological liberalism of my seminary days.  I owe him my soul.

Christ book

I love this book, and have for years.  I read it for the first time in Christian College in a class on culture as part of the missions’ curriculum.  And I knew, even as I was reading it for the very first time then, that its importance and insights transcended the narrow application that we were making in that class.  In many respects, H. Richard Niebuhr lived in the shadow of his brother, the theological giant Reinhold Niebuhr.  I mean no disrespect to the other brother’s genius.  Reinhold Niebuhr may very well be the most important theologian that America has ever produced; although Jonathan Edwards might have something to say about that.  But the Niebuhr I love most is H. Richard, and the book that I cherish the most is his Christ and Culture.  Since the moment that Jesus Christ first sent His disciples into the world with the warning that they were not to be “of the world” (John 17:16), the church has struggled with how to remain faithful to Christ while actively penetrating that world.  The categories that this book establishes as the way the church has gone about this throughout history are the continuum of alternatives out of which the church still operates today.  Robert Webber wrote a kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this book called The Secular Saint, and it is a good place to begin the exploration of this question.  But don’t settle for Webber’s introduction alone.  Read Webber as a way of dipping your big toe into the water, and then jump into the deep end to Christ and Culture, I think you’ll find the plunge to be invigorating!

essential book

The late Donald Bloesch showed me how to be a serious theologian with Evangelical convictions serving in a Mainline Protestant denomination (The United Church of Christ).  I chose his 2 volume work Essentials of Evangelical Theology for my list because it is easily his most accessible work, and because it is his comprehensive exploration of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian, but I could have easily chosen his 7 volume Christian Foundations series, or his absolutely magnificent book on the theology of prayer (The Struggle of Prayer), or any of his incisive books on the state of the church’s life and faith at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century (Crumbling Foundations: Death and Rebirth In An Age of Upheaval, The Future of Evangelical Christianity, or The Evangelical Renaissance).  Bloesh was not fancy.  He rarely dazzles.  He was no flash in the theological pan, an intellectual acrobat turning spectacular somersaults in a phosphatized suit high on the flying trapeze to the amazement of the crowds below.  Instead, Donald Bloesch undertook the proverbial “long obedience in the same direction,” and for that I am forever grateful.  His theological breadth, depth and maturity was always a powerful encouragement to someone like me who has spent his life and ministry trying to walk the same path that he travelled.

doctrine

Back in the days when I was reading Karl Barth for the very first time, and really struggling with the complexity of his thought and expression – again, he is not an easy read – somebody told me that for English speaking readers, the writings of Barth’s contemporary and sometimes rival, theologian Emil Brunner are so much more accessible.  And so on my next trip to the theological bookstore, I picked up a copy of the first volume of Emil Brunner’s Systematic Theology – The Christian Doctrine of God – and dug in.  Before I had gotten through the first 10 pages I was hooked.  I now have dozens of books that Brunner wrote, all dog-eared and thoroughly highlighted.   If I cut my theological teeth on Francis Schaeffer, it was Emil Brunner who then seasoned and deepened my theological appetites.   Whoever it was who pointed me in Brunner’s direction did me a great favor.  I understand Brunner, and I deeply appreciate his perspective, the same perspective that Barth had, only in a much more approachable way.  His little book Our Faith is the perfect introduction to both his particular theological perspective and to the scope of systematic theology as a whole in my opinion, and it’s online @ http://www.religion-online.org/showbook.asp?title=2075.  This easy and even entertaining little book will give you a good feel for his style and his perspective, and if it whets your appetite to go deeper, then I think that the three volumes of Brunner’s Systematic Theology are as good a set from the school of Neo-Orthodoxy as you will find.

black book

I came out of Christian College thinking that everything that was wrong with Christianity could be laid at the feet of just 2 men – the Emperor Constantine and the Protestant Reformer John Calvin.  Needless to say, when I went to the bookstore to get my textbooks for the first theology class that I took in seminary, I was more than just a little bit alarmed to discover that John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was going to be our primary text.  I swallowed hard and bought the set.  And then the next few months were spent reading and discussing what Calvin had to say, and slowly I came around.  Today I am a Calvinist in the same way that Jacobus Arminius was a Calvinist, which is to say that I regard John Calvin to be the formidable theological force from the Reformation era that can’t be ignored or avoided.  You can’t go around him; you’ve got to go through him, and when you do, Calvin changes you.  You may disagree with him and his conclusions, but you can’t dismiss him, especially if you purport to be working from Scripture on matters of faith and practice.  In many respects John Calvin has become my theological baseline, the theologian I use to check the things that I am going to say about God as a preacher and a teacher.  I don’t want to be found “misrepresenting” God (I Corinthians 15:15); the stakes are just too high (Matthew 18:1-9; James 3:1).  And so I let John Calvin function as my theological speed bump.   He forces me to slow down and to think carefully, reasoning all of my positions, theological and moral, from Scripture.

confesstions

If Calvin is the theological giant you can’t avoid from the Reformation era of Christianity, then Augustine is the theological giant you can’t avoid in the era between the Apostolic age and the Reformation.  He is the station through which every train of thought must pass, and the turnstile into this station is Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, Confessions.  This book is part of the canon of Western Civilization.  It would be hard to think of yourself as educated and not to have spent some quality time with this book.  Written in the form of a prayer, Augustine reviewed the journey of his soul with God, reflecting on the experiences, encounters and ideas that brought him into a meaningful relationship with God in Christ.  It is timeless, however, everything depends on the translation.  People who complain that they just don’t “get” Augustine, are usually the victims of a lousy translation.  The two best that are out there are Frank Sheed’s and Maria Boulding’s.  I also highly recommend that you companion read Augustine’s Confessions with Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.  Brown’s work puts Augustine in context and that’s a key to understanding, and understanding Augustine is crucial for an informed faith.  After the New Testament, Augustine is the next great voice that echoes down the corridors of time.  You need to hear what he was saying.

Theo

I went to Fuller Theological Seminary in 1976 to study with George Eldon Ladd.  I had been introduced to his work in Christian College, and I found him to be both challenging and clarifying for my faith at the same time.  Another Evangelical in a Mainline Protestant church (American Baptist), I viewed him as another role model for serious scholarship.  The New Testament Theology class that I took at Fuller was supposed to be taught by him, but health concerns precluded him from being able to do so.  And so I studied his book with his hand-picked substitute.  I felt like Dr. Ladd was being “channeled” by this teacher, and it was probably the next best thing to actually having Dr. Ladd there himself.  And the end result was positive, spending an intensive semester working through Dr. Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament.  This experience, in my first semester of seminary, was the theological bridge between my spiritually nurturing undergraduate experience at Christian College, and my spiritually challenging graduate experience at seminary.  And I have always been grateful that it began with three months of drilling down hard into Dr. Ladd’s text.  It set out the markers for the field on which my consciously Biblical faith has played ever since.  The way I think about what the New Testament is and what the New Testament teaches were both decisively shaped by this book.  In fact, next to the New Testament itself, this just might be the most important book that I have ever read; it certainly has had the most enduring consequences for my believing and my behaving.

So, there it is, my list of the ten “defining” serious books in my life.  Just like the last list, there are so many others that deserve to be here – books by Carl F.H. Henry, Alister McGrath, Thomas Oden, David Bosch, Bruce Metzger, T.F. Torrance, P.T. Forsyth, Anthony Hoekema, Roland Allen, Hermann Bavinck, Gordon Fee, Harvey Cox; books and authors who have challenged my thinking and impacted my believing.  But these ten are somehow the most “foundational.”  Together they form the slab on which my life and ministry have been built.  DBS+

 

 

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