Sometimes life is just stranger than fiction. Sometimes you want to make something up and even what your imagination can create does not equal what occurs in 3-d real life.
As I was contemplating the next step in my series of personal reflections on the Churches of Christ I happened to come across this blog post: The post is a scathing indictment of the Churches of Christ and an attempt to explain why “so many” young ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. Note that I am not recommending the post, but I am providing a link so that I am not accused of sensationalizing or misquoting a source.
I was going to deal with another subject, but I simply cannot let this blog post go unanswered. Because it touches on the subject I was about to address, I will respond to this post here first, and then return to the series as I had originally intended it.
First of all I am simply staggered by the attitude revealed in the title of the post. “My problem is not me, my problem is you. You are the source of my angst, my anger, my feelings of insecurity and sickness.” Now, I am well aware of the technique of creating a title that is hyperbolic – extreme – in order to gain attention. However, I do not think that is what the author of this particular piece is doing. I think he is being honest and up front: the problem with many ministers who are leaving the Churches of Christ is the Churches of Christ. The ministers themselves do not have any hang-ups, psychoses or spiritual issues. They are perfect – God’s own gift to the religious world. The problem is the sick, broken, misogynistic and moribund Church of Christ.
What are the main grievances that this author identifies as being the reasons these ministers are leaving the Church of Christ? He lists three: the refusal to allow women to take a leadership role in worship and in church governance; issues with leadership; and the refusal to allow instrumental music in worship which he sees as the main symptom of an unyielding adherence to tradition. That is it. Churches of Christ can be completely defined (and dismissed) in these three categories – misogynistic patriarchalism, an unthinking allegiance to acapella music, and stodgy leaders.
I really do not know where to begin in critiquing this attitude. Words simply do not suffice. “Narcissistic” comes close, but I think this even exceeds narcissism. I believe this type of “blame the Church for my issues” reveals a pathological hatred of the Church and that is something that will not be healed by simply pulling up stakes and leaving the Church of Christ for some other “greener pasture.”
To begin with, those who share these feelings (and judging by the comment section, quite a few ministers do feel this way) believe that they are so smart, so spiritual, so welcoming, so egalitarian and so important that the Church of Christ simply will not survive if they leave the fellowship of the Churches of Christ (at least, they hope it won’t so that they can be proven correct). The young ministers of whom this author and others who share his opinion speak are always described in the most glowing terms: they are well educated, they are erudite, they are deeply spiritual, yet they are conflicted by powers that are beyond their control, they are victims of a brutal and uncaring system that does not recognize their brilliance. Notice how those descriptions frame the antagonists of these poor, misunderstood spiritual giants. Their opponents are ignorant – even if an opponent has the same or greater degree of education it is defective. The opponents do not care about the Spirit; they are slaves of the carnal and only care about power and patriarchy. Their opponents are mired in the muck and mud of a tradition that stifles any kind of creative thought or ministry. This is not a battle between two different approaches to biblical interpretation, this is a battle between the Archangel Michael and the beast from the depths of the abyss.
The main problem I have with this scenario is that it is so abjectly wrong on so many levels.
First, I do not dispute the degree of education that these ministers have obtained. They are very gifted scholars. I will grant that. I will also grant that these ministers are deeply spiritual. I will not deny that that they have come to their conclusions honestly (but I will challenge the correctness of those conclusions). But why does that mean that their opponents are ignorant hayseeds? Why must someone who believes in male spiritual leadership always be portrayed as some kind of knuckle dragging Neanderthal who just came crawling out of his cave? There are many brilliant theologians, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ, who hold to the pattern of male spiritual leadership and their degree of scholarship simply cannot be dismissed with a contemptuous sniff and wave of the hand.
And, just for the record, a great many of the staunchest defenders of the concept of male spiritual leadership are females, both within the Churches of Christ and outside of the Churches of Christ. These women are virtually always ignored in the rants and screeds produced by these super-spiritual apostles of egalitarianism. The claim in this post is that women are made to feel like “second class citizens” in a church where men are expected to lead. I have lived my entire life in the Churches of Christ and I have never served or worshipped in a congregation that suggested that women were second class citizens. Were there women in those congregations who felt that way? Maybe – there were undoubtedly men who felt like second class citizens as well. The point is that is not the official, nor unofficial, position of the Churches of Christ and those who make this accusation need to apologize to the men and women who directly and emphatically teach otherwise.
In one of the truly stunning ironies of this whole discussion, it is the egalitarian males who are turning the female defenders of male spiritual leadership into second class citizens. These egalitarian males reject the arguments and silence the voices of those females with whom they disagree. If you are not a liberal female androphobe you simply do not matter to these men.
In regard to non-instrumental music, or a preference for acapella music, this subject has been beaten to death over the past 100 years or so within the Churches of Christ/Christian Church split. What the proponents of instrumental music refuse to acknowledge is that there are a number of other Christian faiths who do not use instruments, and they use the same arguments a put forward by leading scholars within the conservative Churches of Christ – i.e., the New Testament does not authorize the use of instrumental music, and the history of the Christian church clearly demonstrates that the use of instrumental music in worship is a descent from, not an ascent to, a more pure form of praise to God. But this gets back to the intelligence and education issue once again. Those who defend the use of acapella music in worship are just a bunch of ignorant, misguided fools, and if they could ever just sit down and get some real education they would find out that these young ministerial mavericks are absolutely correct and almost 2,000 years of church history can be re-written.
Yeah, that Harvard degree that Dr. Everett Ferguson earned was just a worthless piece of paper.
In regard to tradition and traditionalism, I will agree that the second is bad, but the first is absolutely necessary for the healthy functioning of any community, secular or religious. Those who leave the Churches of Christ because of the traditions within the Churches of Christ will do one of two things. They will either join another group that has just as formal and rigid a set of traditions as the Churches of Christ (albeit different ones), or they will go off and begin a new community of worshippers who will, within the first generation create an entirely new set of traditions that will become just as rigid and inflexible as the ones that now considered so repulsive. The only difference is that in the first scenario the ministers will choose a new set of traditions to form their worship, and in the second scenario they will create the new traditions. But they will not be able to eliminate any sense of tradition. If they were able to do so they would become the most psychologically damaged people on earth. We cannot live without our traditions.
I realize this post has been uncharacteristically harsh. Believe me, I have edited down what I had originally intended to say. But I am sick of this condescending, narcissistic, pre-adolescent criticism of the Church of Christ by a bunch of self-identified spiritual heroes. When I hear someone unreservedly and unapologetically blame others for their problems I immediately think of a spoiled rotten two year old child. When I hear these ministers say, “I have a problem and it is all your fault” all I can think about is a generation was raised in which every team got a first place trophy and every player received a most valuable player medal. This staggering sense of entitlement is almost beyond comprehension when I see it in the secular world, but to hear it from those who have proclaimed an allegiance to the crucified Son of God?
To quote a phrase from a popular movie a few years back: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
Do you have issues with the Church of Christ? Fine – so do I. I’ve had issues with the Church of Christ beginning with the day that I wanted some crackers and grape juice and my parents told me “no.” But if you have issues with the Church of Christ and you cannot see where you can conscientiously stay as a part of the fellowship then at least have the courage of your convictions and leave. Just get out. Say goodbye, and don’t expect us to turn out the lights when you leave.
If you have issues with the Church of Christ and you feel like you can be a constructive voice within the fellowship to lead the fellowship to greener and more healthy pastures, then by all means share your voice. But, in doing so make sure that you do not insinuate that because someone disagrees with your conclusions that they are ignorant, or a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, or a moribund traditionalist.
In other words, you might want to use some of your brilliant intellect, effusive education and profound spirituality to consider Matthew 7:1-5.
(Note: I have corrected one section of this entry. I had misquoted the three points the author made regarding the reason why ministers are leaving the Churches of Christ. His three points are women’s role, leadership, and traditionalism. Earlier I had listed women’s roles, acapella music, and traditionalism.)
When you read broadly in the religious world today you begin to identify certain trends. Some of these trends are ostensibly about the direction the church is moving. Some of these trends are about what the trendy authors think the church is moving. I think it could be argued that the church is not moving at all, that its own lethargy and inertia is what is killing it. But that is a point for people far more schooled in trends within the church to figure out. I just read what they write.
However, I have identified one facet, or quirk, or “trend” if that is what you want to call it, that I find both significant and troubling at the same time. That trend has two opposite, and actually totally conflicting components.
The first is this: one group of analysts points out that the church has, over the past 50 years or so (if not much longer) become entirely consumeristic. We have identified a “target” audience, tailored a message to reach that audience, created an atmosphere that would attract that audience and put everything into motion in order to please that audience. So, we have whiz-bang youth ministries, tremendous toddler teachers, mothers day outs, senior Tuesdays – a ministry for every “niche” group there is from the bassinet all the way to the retirement home. The problem with this compartmentalization is that it cheapens the gospel. The church was never intended to be a shopping mall or a cafeteria, where you could walk down an aisle and say, “Well, I’ll take a helping of Tuesday morning moms day out, a side of young married’s class, two or three helpings of Super Teen night, and, while we’re at it, how about a helping of mind-bending worship service for dessert!” When a church fails to meet each and every demand from each and every socio-economic group in their “church,” the offended party simply goes shopping for a “church” that offers something to meet their perceived “needs.”
The second, and diametrically opposed component is this: another group of analysts have noticed that an increasing number of people, mostly young, are leaving the church and have proposed any number of “fixes” to get them to either stay, or to come back. Those fixes include making the worship experience more “experiential” – meaning more theatrics, more video, more “sensory” type experiences, as well as adding more “experiential” type activities so that a generation that has been raised with high definition TVs and complicated computer games will not be “bored” with an “old-timey” worship service.
Did you see the contradiction here? On the one hand we have become too consumeristic, we have bowed the knee to King Choice, we have completely given up on making the demands of discipleship plain, and on the other hand we need to create an entirely new set of consumeristic options in order to repair the leaky back doors on our church buildings.
Sometimes I wonder if these analysts even read what each other are writing. But it is enough to give the rest of us whiplash.
Personally, I am “all in” with the first group. As I look back on my teenage years I realize how the church bent over backwards to make sure I was a happy, contented, and active teen in the youth group. We had retreats and lock-ins and pizza parties and ski trips and I don’t know what else – and we even had a fairly large dose of teaching and service opportunities. But I really do not remember ever having a serious discussion of what discipleship was all about, and what it might ultimately cost me. Everything that was done was done with me and my age group as the main concern. In my most humble and beyond question correct opinion, that approach has failed miserably and we are reaping the fruit of the failure of that experiment.
And so, when I read or hear some 20 or early 30 something speak or write that the way to reverse the current exodus in the teen to young married age group is to bend even further toward the consumeristic side of the aisle I get pretty churlish. We have done everything under the sun to make people happy, to “meet their needs” to make the worship service “meaningful” (whatever that could possibly mean) and what has happened? More and more young people are leaving because every time we work to reach the bar, they just raise the bar a little higher. Instead of one screen with a simple PowerPoint presentation, we need three screens with multiple images and “surround sound” audio. We need incense so that we can have an olfactory experience. We need bells – literally, we need bells – to help our ears tingle. We need a blue-light special on aisle six. One song leader is just so twentieth century. Now we need a Praise Team to lead us so that our worship will be exciting and vibrant and, well, so today.
I say hogwash and balderdash. What we need to do is to return to a sane, healthy and challenging theology that exalts God as the creator and returns us to the position of created being. We need to return to the image of the book of Revelation where Christ is an awe-inspiring manifestation of strength and power instead of our best buddy. The church grew when it realized that God was God and not the local super-mall manager.
I look at the young people who are chasing their tails and I wonder what will happen when they turn 40 or 45 and observe that their children and grandchildren examine all their “perfect solutions” to the church and simply sniff and walk away. At some point (hopefully) these twenty-somethings will come to realize that the mere externals of what they are attempting to change means not one little bit if the internal commitment to Jesus and His church is not there. The fact is we have been trying to find the “perfect solution” for over a generation now and the answer is pretty clear – if you try to market the church, someone is always going to have a flashier preacher, a better sound system, a louder praise band, a flashier video projector. Trying to “out consumer” the king of this world is simply not going to work.
I have an idea – let’s try teaching discipleship: self-sacrifice, dying to self so that others might see Christ, giving instead of getting, blessing instead of searching for endless ways to be blessed, worshipping the King of kings instead of the tyrant inside our selfish hearts.
Let’s work on being the church of Christ for a change. We have a far better story to proclaim than the garbage that Hollywood and Wall Street are producing. Why can’t we see that?
“Postmodern” philosophy stands or falls on one basic premise: there is no ultimate truth. Postmodernists may not say this, because that statement basically admits to foundationalism (the foundation here is that there is no foundation). But from the French philosophers who birthed the idea to Brian McLaren and further on down there is a non-ceasing repetition of the concept that in “modernism” there was an assurance of truth, but now that humans have moved past that infantile concept, we can do away with any suggestion of an “absolute, bomb-proof truth.”
And, folks, that idea is gaining an incredibly strong foothold in the church. Just look at how major Christian fellowships have changed, and in some cases, even reversed, their public proclamations regarding same sex relationships.
So, today I was doing my daily Bible reading, and the New Testament passage was in Ephesians 4. I am reading in God’s Word Translation, as I am trying to vary my Bible reading so I can stay abreast of translation changes and also to get a fresh reading of the text. Because God’s Word Translation is written in an easy-to-read format the sentences are shorter, and so I will quote the text from v. 20, although the phrase I want to emphasize is found in v. 21:
But that is not what you learned from Christ’s teachings. You have certainly heard his message and have been taught his ways. The truth is in Jesus.
Wow. I have read Ephesians, like, probably a gazillion times, and yet because that last phrase is typically presented as a clause and not a complete sentence, its power never really hit me. Until today, that is. By putting the phrase in its own separate sentence the translators did us a huge favor. They brought out the power and the force of those five little English words.
(As an aside, this is why we are to read multiple translations. Sometimes even the best of translations get things wrong, and sometimes even the worst of translations get things right. I am learning to truly appreciate the God’s Word Translation, although I will admit that it too has its flaws. Every work of a human being will have weaknesses, but this is a solid translation, and worthy of a print purchase or download if such a option is available.)
Notice three things about this verse: (I apologize, I’m a preacher so I tend to think in triads)
1. There is a truth. Paul does not mince his words. I have been amazed at the myriad efforts that are made to deconstruct John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” I would give you some of those deconstructions, but they are so confusing that I don’t understand them. How can you say that Jesus does not say something that he not only says, but emphasizes? And yet I had an instructor attempt to do that very thing. Jesus may have said it, but he did not mean what he said – and the reason he did not mean what he said was that we have to make room for all the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and other fringe religions to be able to make it to heaven. So, for the postmodern preacher, no effort should be spared to make Jesus say something he clearly did not say.
Obviously, Paul missed out on the postmodern interpretation. BOOM! In one incredibly powerful little sentence (or phrase, if you use an older translation), Paul says there is a truth.
2. That truth is identifiable. Paul did not speak about some nebulous, impossible to define concept that floats somewhere in the netherworld and is impossible for humans to obtain (as exists in a Platonic worldview). Nope, for Paul the truth was pretty easy to find, and in fact it is pretty easy to teach. Paul reminded the Ephesian Christians that they had, indeed, been taught this truth. They did not need to go to some postmodern seminar to be told that such a thing did not exist. They knew it existed, because they had experienced it.
3. That truth was located in a flesh and blood person, Jesus of Nazareth. The truth is in Jesus. “In Christ” or “in Jesus” or “in the Lord” are some of Paul’s favorite expressions. It is one of the most theologically pregnant expressions in the New Testament. You could study that phrase for months and not exhaust the depth of its meaning. But, suffice it to say here that this rock-solid, bomb-proof truth is found in the person of Jesus, and it is into this Jesus that we are baptized, and it is into his life that we are resurrected to walk as new creatures.
Many years ago a little girl wrote a letter asking if there was a real Santa Claus. A newspaper editor penned what has become a classic in 20th century journalism, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Today millions of people all across the globe, but especially here in the United States and in North America are asking a fundamental question: “Is there a truth, and if there is, where can I find it?”
Yes, world, there is a truth. It is rock solid, it is bomb-proof, in fact it is Roman crucifixion proof. That truth is in Jesus of Nazareth. That truth is Jesus the Christ, resurrected and coming back.
That truth, my friends, will get you through a lot of foggy days!
Then a blind and dumb demoniac was brought to him, and he healed him, so t hat the dumb man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:22-26, RSV)
I’m feeling rather rantish this morning, so if this post seems a bit prickly I apologize. Or, maybe I don’t. Maybe I intend to be prickly.
A person cannot follow any kind of Christian literature today, either print or online, without being assaulted by two deafening drum beats: one, that the church is declining, and two, that the solution to the decline of the church is to become more like the world so that the world will quit hating us so much and then they will come and be a part of us because we are so much like a part of them. I’ve heard of circular reasoning before, but that has to take the cake.
The manner in which this doctrine is presented is actually quite multifaceted. On one extreme you have the “we have to start all over from scratch” crowd that looks upon the current church situation with disgust and unfeigned superiority. All mostly under 30 years of age, these folks have all the answers to all the questions (even as they suggest there are no definitive answers to the questions), and they view anyone over the age of 40, especially those of us who still love and cherish the church, with utter disdain. If anyone even tries to identify the group they meet with as a “church” they are dismissed. Heaven forbid the group try to own the facility in which they meet, or have any type of creedal or doctrinal statement. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed – no difference. All roads lead to heaven, God is love, anyone who thinks different needs to get over it.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who say they want to maintain a doctrinal or creedal form of the church, but they just want to do so in culturally relevant ways. Now, these folks are up against it, because it is pretty much impossible to be doctrinal in a doctrinally adverse culture. So, the church assembly is still important, but the preacher, or preacherette, needs to “preach” in ripped blue jeans and a ratty “Grateful Dead” t-shirt. While this “preacher” is “preaching,” there needs to be a YouTube video or a carefully selected clip of an “R” rated movie shown on three (count ‘em, three) larger than life video screens. If someone gets too bored with the “sermon” (and we all know that boredom is the chief killer of the post-modern Christian faith) the “congregant” (by the way, you don’t have to profess any kind of allegiance to be a member of this church) can go down the hall to a “prayer labyrinth” where they can indulge in any one of a number of Eastern religious practices, all under the guise of deepening their “Christian” faith. Buddha and Mohammed still will get you to heaven, but these folks will argue that their pagan roads will eventually at some point intersect with the Jesus highway. There are quite a number of goatee-growing (except for the “preacherettes”) ripped-jean wearing advocates, although I’m not sure they would feel comfortable being in the same room with each other. Sometimes even the brand of ripped jeans does matter.
What does all this have to do with Matthew 12:22-26? Just this: I’m not sure that Satan has to fight very much anymore. I truly believe he has already captured a large section of the “church” and he is perfectly content to let his minions do their thing. Satan is certainly not going to fight against Satan, so if the disciples of Christ are not going to fight him, why does he need to be militant at all? All Satan needs to do to maintain his kingdom today is lay back in a hammock and sip lemonade.
During this summer break I have been trying to zero in on the culture that I am attempting to address. So I chose two books to help me, Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0, and Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s Soul Searching. Talk about your depressing summer reading. It’s not that the books are poorly written. They are both excellent books – I highly recommend both of them. But the results of both books are terrifying. The generation of young Christians now in high school and college are profoundly ignorant of the basic Christian truths. Many young people do not think that Christianity does have exclusive claims, and even if they are vaguely aware of those exclusive Christian claims, they are totally incapable of verbalizing or embodying those claims. I grew up hearing the phrase, “It only takes one generation for the church to go into apostasy.” Folks, it is here.
I write as a member of and minister to the Churches of Christ. In less than a generation (slightly more than half of my life) the changes that I have seen in congregations of the Church of Christ are staggering. I realize we are not alone – in the late 1950′s C.S. Lewis was writing that the Anglican Church (American Episcopal Church) would never even allow female priests. They now have openly practicing homosexual bishops! So much for Anglican doctrine. The practices that I hear preachers openly advocate today would not even be whispered 30-40 years ago. Progress you say? Maybe for the kingdom of darkness. We have effectively let Satan go on vacation. Why does he need to work if the disciples of Christ are so effectively accomplishing his goals?
I know I am a dinosaur. One day those who agree with me may become extinct. If it is the will of God, so be it. But for the time being I long for the day in which a preacher will actually stand for Christ and against pagan culture. I want to hear preachers preach for holiness and against making peace with the world. I want to hear the distinctive nature of the church praised instead of condemned. I want to hear Christ lifted up and exalted instead of lowered to the ranks of Buddha and Mohammed. In other words, I want to be encouraged to “march into hell for a heavenly cause” and take the fight to Satan on his turf, instead of having to defend myself from my fellow disciples simply because I believe the Bible teaches inviable, Incarnate Truth with a capital “T.”
Really, people. If the human race is so depraved that we cannot listen to a 30 minute sermon and grasp the truth of the gospel without being assaulted by an “R” rated movie clip, then let’s turn out the lights and all go home.
I’m tired of hearing the church fight Satan’s battles for him. Can we please stand up and fight for Jesus?
I write this on Saturday night, while thinking of the day ahead tomorrow.
Preachers – when you preach there may be someone in the auditorium for whom this is the first time they have heard of Christ. Will they hear the gospel? There may be someone in the auditorium for whom this will be the last sermon they hear. Will they hear the gospel? Preach as if this will be the first and last sermon someone ever hears.
Congregation – if the minister is speaking from the Bible, he is speaking the Words of God. Are you listening? What is God saying to you, to your congregation, to your city, state and to the world. Don’t treat the next few moments frivolously. You are in the presence of God. Be careful how you respond.
I will be doing a lot of studying on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in the next few days/weeks, and so it only made sense to me to work through some of my thoughts through the avenue of this blog. If you are going to fly in the fog, you had better use the best instruments and have your plane in the best working condition that you possibly can. If you are going to be a disciple of Christ, you had better understand what is the basic meaning of that commitment. Doing theology in this bent and broken world is tough enough, but it becomes virtually impossible if we refuse to consider the very foundation of that theological process. I believe very deeply that Matthew used the “Sermon on the Mount” as a thematic statement for what he wanted his church(s) to know or to remember about Jesus. (Note: Luke uses another of Jesus’ “sermons” in the same way – but the two writers chose different sermons!)
So, if we are to examine the Sermon on the Mount we must begin with a key term for Jesus (and therefore Matthew) in this passage, and that is the word “blessed” (Matt. 5:3-12). I have previously dealt with my understanding of the word here and here so there is really no need for me to re-invent my own wheel. Suffice it for me to say here that we as Americans need to get over the idea that “blessed” means “happy” here (or just about any other place in the Bible!) if we are going to ever understand what Jesus, and therefore Matthew, is trying to tell us.
Notice for the moment how Jesus describes the end result, or the fruit, of this blessing. We will look at each of these in greater detail, but let us simply summarize here:
- The reality of the Kingdom of Heaven
- Inheritance of the earth
- Fullness of righteousness
- Reception of Mercy
- Seeing God
- Reception of the name “Sons of God”
- The reality of the Kingdom of Heaven
Now, note in the above list from verses 3-10 that Jesus begins and ends with the Kingdom of Heaven. But there is an additional point that is often overlooked. In v. 3 and in v. 10 the verb is in the present tense – the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs, it presently belongs to those who are poor in spirit and to those who are persecuted for righteousness. All of the other verbs in this opening section are future tenses – things that will happen. I believe this is significant in ways that I do not even yet understand.
There is a thematic structure to this passage as well as a grammatical one. Jesus wants his disciples to know that the Kingdom is near – in fact it is already present for those who will accept it. It is not “pie in the sky by and by when we die.” The Kingdom, the rule, the realm, of God is present for those who will submit to him. Yes, there are other blessings that will follow. But we do not have to wait for the Kingdom of God.
But there is a price to pay. This kingdom is not for everyone. I know this plain and simple truth is anathema to hard-core Calvinists, those who believe that we as humans are incapable of responding to God of our own initiative. However, as brilliant a theologian as Calvin was (and he was that!) he totally misunderstood Jesus. And so I am going to follow Jesus here, and not Calvin.
Our human response here is bracketed with the concepts of being “poor in spirit” and being “persecuted for righteousness.” I will deal with these terms in greater detail in the coming days and weeks, but because of the grammatical and thematic structure of this passage I believe they are very closely related. I would like to suggest here that being “poor in spirit” is both cause and effect of this list of characteristics of discipleship. Being poor in spirit leads to the mourning, the hunger, the gentleness etc, ultimately leading to our persecution for the cause of righteousness. But, each of these characteristics then deepens the poverty of our human spirit – we are shown by exercising these traits just how much we depend upon our God. But, I do not want to get too far ahead of myself.
I hope that through this study I will be able to incorporate more of these “pinnacle” traits of discipleship in my own life. Perhaps I can help you or someone you know as well.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isa. 40:1-2)
This verse has become one of the most treasured verses in the English world, mostly due to Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. That is why I quoted it from the KJV, as it tends to be the most lyrical and measured.
I think of this passage today for a number of reasons. One, Handel’s music is flowing through my mind. And two, after a week of the kind of hell that I have lived through in dealing with the massacre in Newtown CT, I simply wanted to hear a word of comfort.
Isaiah 40:1 marks a significant change in the tone in the prophecy. So significant that a number of scholars think that an entirely different author is at work here. I reject that proposal. I think those who argue for a second (and sometimes third) prophet in the book of Isaiah simply fail to understand the nature of prophecy and the overall picture of what is going on. Just because an author changes tone and outlook does not mean that he has surrendered his pen to another writer, especially one several hundred years after he first wrote.
So, Isaiah changes tone. Why? Because he can see God’s judgment, God’s punishment. Jerusalem will receive “double” what her sins call for. She will be broken, and broken to the extent that only the LORD can call her back to health. So God also allows Isaiah to see his comfort. God has punished, but God will restore. Comfort.
I do not want to suggest that America has received “double” for her sins. Hardly. I don’t even think that God has yet fully begun to punish America for her pride, obstinacy and violence. But I do want to pray that within his punishment he reserves a measure of comfort. It is true that America stands guilty of a great many sins, but America has, primarily due to her Christian citizens, been a beacon of hope and life to countless millions of people.
I used to equate being an American as something to be proud of. I don’t think that way any more. Being an American is an accident of my birth. I did not choose America, America did not choose me. I am an American just like I am a male – it just happened that way. I am proud of America’s great accomplishments, and I am sickened by her arrogance, her overweening will to power, and her increasing rejection of all things spiritual.
However, I did choose to be a Christian, a disciple of Christ. That is my commitment. It is my belief and my faith in Jesus that will identify me as one of God’s people, not the nation on my birth certificate.
And as one of those people, I pray for God’s comfort during this time that we focus on the birth of the Prince of Peace.
This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me through heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Dum de dum dee dumm…..we finally arrive at # 15 in my trek through ruminations and explanations of the 15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection. This has been an entertaining little jaunt down memory lane for me (some of these truths date back many years) and I hope these posts have at the least stimulated some thoughts for you.
Here is #15 and its corollary:
15. The practice of doing theology requires the honest appropriation of lessons learned from history. We cannot handle the text of Scripture honestly today if we ignore, or even worse, disparage the work of theologians in our near or ancient past. This is true both of those theologians with whom we agree, and with whom we disagree. To borrow a phrase, “Those who do not learn from history (or past theology) are doomed to repeat it.” History is a beautiful thing.
15a. However, the above truth does not mean that we slavishly follow every conclusion reached by earlier theologians. We must read theology with a discerning eye, knowing that all humans are capable of great spiritual insight, and all humans are capable of great sin. We are to respect our forefathers and foremothers, not worship them.
Those who read this blog regularly know that I am a member of, and minister to, congregations of individuals associated with the churches of Christ. At our best moments we live out the ideal of non-denominational Christianity, simply taking the Bible as the Word of God and, without adding to it or taking from it, we seek to follow all that God has revealed in the Bible. However, when we fail to live up to that ideal our failure is, well, spectacular. In many respects we have turned a movement of non-denominationalism into one of the most hardened denominations you can possibly imagine. Some of our more vociferous leaders have mouthed the words, “we speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent” only to speak volumes where the Bible is silent and to remain utterly silent where the Bible shouts. But, I dare you to find ANY religious body ANYWHERE that lives up to its stated goals and aspirations. I would far rather associate with a group that fails to meet heavenly goals than one that meets every earthly goal with absolute perfection. It does not take any courage to curse the darkness. It takes some real vision to light a lamp. I want to be one that lights a lamp.
Oops, kind of got off on a tangent there…
What I wanted to point out was that like many different groups, the Churches of Christ in America have all too often been guilty of a sense of “historylessness” that has crippled it as a movement. If you have a bent sense of humor such as mine this can and does make itself manifest in the strangest of ways. For example, a generation or two ago one of the most prickly invectives you could use against a member of the Church of Christ was to call him or her a “Campbellite.” This is because of the powerful influence Alexander Campbell had in the creation of what has been labeled the “American Restoration Movement.” This movement spawned three related religious groups – the Disciples of Christ, the Conservative Christian Church and the Church of Christ. So, to label a member of the Church of Christ as a “Campbellite” was a real slur, seeing as how Campbell never wanted his name to be associated with his efforts to restore New Testament Christianity, and indeed his goal was to go back to the New Testament and simply live those teachings. Now, what is funny today is that if you called a member of the Church of Christ (especially someone under the age of 40 or so) a “Campbellite” they would stare at you like you had a third eyeball right in the middle of your forehead. The irony is palpable. Older members do not want to be called “Campbellites” because they do not want to be tied to an early 18th century historical figure, younger members are absolutely clueless as to the existence of this early 18th century figure. And so many members of a group with one of the most richest, interesting, and provocative stories in the history of religion in the United States simply do not know of or they refuse to acknowledge their diverse and compelling history.
Hence my 15th Undeniable Truth For Theological Reflection. This one is for me – a reminder of who I am and what my brightest stars call me to be. I need to acknowledge the fact that I could not see as far as I can see if I were not standing on the shoulders of giants. I cannot read my Bible today without hearing the voice of my mentors – some of whom have joined that “cloud of witnesses” that awaits their final reward. But those men (and women!) all heard the voice of their mentors when they read Scripture, and on and on it goes back throughout all of history. You can only read the Bible once as if you had never read it before. Every other time your reading is influenced by your first reading, other teachers, other books, other influences. If we attempt to excise those influences we rip the fabric of our story – our history - and we lose far more than we gain in the process.
The more that I read of Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone and Moses Lard and “Racoon” John Smith and David Lipscomb and many others the more I am enthralled by their courage and their spiritual insights. These men were truly prophets crying in the wilderness. They saw something that was truly unique, and they attempted to get others to see, to understand, and to accept their vision. Their goal was a united church, one that could stand only on the pages of the New Testament, without all of the competing creeds and confessions of faith and human structures. They differed on a great many issues, some of which were substantial. For example, Barton W. Stone never felt comfortable with the concept of the Trinity, because he felt like that was a human word and not a divine word. They differed on the exact meaning of baptism (Campbell was more precise than Stone) and on the invitation to the Lord’s supper (Stone was a little more generous) but they all agreed that if we could return to the New Testament teachings then we could return to a pure church.
In addition to my closest spiritual relatives, however, I am also captivated by the insights of some more distant cousins. I love reading the Roman Catholic Henry Nouwen, and the Anglican C.S. Lewis wrote the second largest section of books in my library. The largest section in my library was written by the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I also have selections from Ignatius of Loyola, St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, and Richard Peace. In other words, I try to read as broadly and as deeply as I can, realizing that no one single group has a corner on truth, and that for all of their mistakes and misunderstandings, these men and women all communicated some profound spiritual truths. If the teaching initially comes from Scripture, I am not particularly concerned about who God uses to put it in words I can understand.
But now for the corollary - I must and do recognize that all of these men and women, Campbell and Stone included, are all merely mortal human beings. Yes, they all communicated some great spiritual truths. But they all had failings as well. Campbell and Stone were both blind to the fact that they were creatures of history, and that it was impossible to erase 17 hundred years of history to “restore” a culture that was long dead and buried. As much as I am transfixed by the spiritual insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I recognize that he had his blind spots as well. The moment we place anyone, in any time period, as THE model for our teachings or behavior we have created an idol, and God will have nothing of our idolatrous worship.
AND THAT INCLUDES MY INTERPRETATIONS AS WELL!
When everything is said and done I have one redeemer, one savior, one messiah – Jesus. I have one God, the Father and creator of all. The Bible is not to be an idol I worship, but a sign and a pointer to Jesus and His Father. It is they whom I am to worship, not my leather-bound Bible, nor my immediate mentors, nor my long distant and dead mentors. I can learn from all men – some more than others but none exclusively. I can give thanks to God for their insights, but I can never put any of them on a pedestal.
I have a rich history, and you can take it from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I will not surrender an inch, nor a decade, of what has been given to me. My parents gave me something that cannot be bought, measured or sold. They gave me a faith that is over 20 centuries old and is as new as the dew on the grass this morning. It is as real as my daughter’s gentle kiss and as profound as the love of my wife. I will never understand it, but I will always live in its shadow. And that might be my greatest undeniable truth of all.
As I write this the political rhetoric is heating up on both sides of a bitterly contested election. The words I offer here are appropriate for this time, but I also believe they are appropriate for every time – I hope they transcend the limits of a particular time and circumstance. So, I offer a few meditations that I hope you will find are worthy for us as disciples to consider, now and at many times in the future.
1. America, the United States, is a wonderful country, but it is not the “promised land” of the Old Testament nor is it the “new Jerusalem” of the New Testament. We are a creation of time and circumstance, both blessed and cursed by our constitutional republic, and susceptible to every vice and sin known to other countries.
2. Disciples of Christ in America have taken advantage of our great freedoms and opportunities and have done great things both in America and throughout the world. We need to be thankful for our forefathers and foremothers.
3. Disciples of Christ in America have done untold damage both in America and throughout the world. We are not perfect, and to say that we have not been guilty of racism, militarism, greed, and covetousness would be to utter a profound lie.
4. While it would not be wrong to pray for God to “Bless America,” neither would it be wrong to pray for God to “Bless Canada, Mexico, England, France, Germany, – in fact, the whole world!” We are not God’s chosen country. We are not God’s chosen people. We certainly have enjoyed many blessings – but God makes the sun rise on all this place we call earth, not just the United States.
5. While it would not be wrong to ask for God to “Bless America,” it would be far more appropriate to pray that America would once again honor God. Let’s face it – why should God want to bless us when we so utterly disrespect him? We have removed God from the city square, from our schools, from the center of public discourse and increasingly we have removed him from the pulpit of our churches. And we want him to bless us? Um, I ask again, why should he?
And so, as recipients of some of the greatest gifts and freedoms that have ever been enjoyed by human beings, we as Christians in the United States need to pray a prayer of thanks to God – thanks for things that we receive that we have not earned and that we have no right to expect. We need to pray for forgiveness – for the sins of our fathers and our own failings. And we need to ask God for strength to do better – to right the wrongs that we see and we need to pray for vision to see the wrongs to which we are currently blind.
As disciples of Christ, we should be far less concerned about the political situation in our country and we should be far more concerned about the spiritual condition of our own places of worship and our own hearts. It is always easier to stick our noses in someone else’s business than it is to take care of our own. The world has a right to reject our call to follow Jesus if we who claim the name refuse to play the game. While we do not need, and it would actually be wrong, to forget the world and only focus on ourselves, let us be careful to “remove the plank from our own eye” before we attempt to “remove the speck from the world’s eye.”
Our Heavenly Father, so many times we get things all wrong. We ask you to bless us when we are cursing you. We place ourselves in a position of expecting blessings for which we have no right to ask. We congratulate ourselves for victories we did not win and we blame others for our own miserable defeats. In other words, we are following in the footsteps of so many of our spiritual fathers and mothers.
We pray for forgiveness of these and our other many sins. We are proud, stiff-necked and rebellious. We glory in our military and our self-sufficiency. We claim to be gloriously attired, not realizing how poor and naked we really are. Forgive us, Father, not because we deserve it, but because it is in your nature to do so.
We ask for strength to do better. We need to clean up our own nest. We need to tear down our idol poles and our high places and we need to burn them in Gehenna. We need to purify our places of worship, and then we need to purify our public square. But first, Heavenly Father, we pray with David that you will purify our hearts. Make us new people, and then possibly we can make our world a new world.
Teach us to be more grateful, dear God. We are such a blessed people, even when we are blind to those blessings. We are free. We are prosperous. We have more natural resources than we can possibly use. We have more beauty than we can see in a lifetime. We are well fed. We have more leisure time than any society before us. And yet we complain and whine and bicker. Before we lose what we have, teach us to see it, and to be thankful for it.
Bless our neighbors with your love as you have blessed us. Show others the depth of your grace as you have shown it to us. Let others see the love of your Son as you have shown him to us. May we be instruments of your mercy as others have demonstrated your mercy to us. Let us shine your light in every dark corner of our country, and then in the world.
We are sorry for our arrogance, but we are thankful for your love. Like disobedient children who see the pain we cause our parents, we do see the pain we cause you, and we are sorry. As a loving parent who must discipline, yet who forgives a wayward child, we ask you to discipline us in your love, but to forgive and to hold us close to your loving breast.
We ask, for we cannot do any other, in Jesus name,