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I’d Like to Seen an End to Christian Politics

I’d Like to Seen an End to Christian Politics

christian-flag-over-usWhen I first set out to join a United Methodist congregation, I asked the pastor for definitive information on United Methodist beliefs. With much trepidation, he provided me with a United Methodist Discipline. I read the first hundred or so pages, not being too interested in the details of the church’s committee structures, including the statements of belief and the social principles. On returning the book I asked him whether I was expected to affirm the social principles. He said, “No.” Good answer!

I don’t mean that Christians should have no political involvement. I both comment on issues and vote. I vote in every election for which I’m eligible, even if there’s only one or two items on the ballot. What I mean is I’d like to see an end to a specific set of political principles that someone, anyone, claims form “Christian politics.” Sorry, UMC, I have never warmed to the social principles, even the ones I agree with. I would only truly like social principles that said how I should behave toward my neighbor, not ones that say how I should carry that behavior into the political sphere.

I’d like to suggest that Christians argue for political positions they believe to be right, moral, appropriate, effective, or whatever other good adjective you find, because the policies are all those good things, not because they are the right thing for Christians to propose.

Here are some of my reasons:

  1. In the United States we live in a secular society. I think it’s appropriate to make political arguments that can be understood by my neighbors of any faith, and those who profess no faith at all.
  2. Politics leads us to careless and even intentional falsehoods (for the greater good, of course). When we attach the word “Christian” to that behavior, we blaspheme Christ.
  3. Politics leads us to violate the golden rule, treating others as traitors, scum, demonic, evil, or otherwise corrupt, simply on the basis of their affiliation. That’s sinful.
  4. Politics leads us to take God’s name in vain and engage in false prophecy, as when we preface our own opinions with a “thus saith the Lord.” Ezekiel 22:28 applies.
  5. Politics, especially partisan politics, leads us to carelessness.
  6. Politics leads us to fear, panic, and unwise actions.
  7. When we try to express modern political positions as somehow scriptural, we tend to look amateur in our exegesis, in our theology, and in our political theory.
  8. Politics leads us to depend on human authority and power rather than on God’s power and the Gospel.

The last one is one I regard as a great danger, one into which I believe most of the American church has already fallen.

Sunday School: Thinking about Sacrifices

Sunday School: Thinking about Sacrifices

Credit: Adobe Stock 46272514

I’m preparing to teach tomorrow, and the main text is Hebrews 4:14-5:10. The quarterly is kind enough to stop just before the author tells his readers/hearers that the topic is difficult and they’re not very bright!

Nonetheless, the idea of priesthood brings up the idea of “sacrifice” and “sacrifices,” and these are two concepts that I don’t believe modern audiences are prepared for. We tend to get locked into one of two unhelpful modes.

On the one hand, we may believe sacrifice is critical, and its primary, or even only purpose is to atone for sin. This feeds into the penal substitutionary atonement theory (or I prefer metaphor), in which the sacrifice of Jesus is specifically as a substitutionary death taking the punishment for our sins. The reason I prefer metaphor to theory here is that a theory should be an explanation that deals with the relationship between various facts. A good theory is a singular thing because it is the best explanation of the data. A metaphor, on the other hand, is one of many ways of looking at a set of events. In this sense I reject a substitutionary atonement as a theory, but accept it as a valid metaphor.

On the other hand, because the whole idea of substitutionary atonement, sometimes even referred to as “cosmic child abuse,” is so foreign to our way of thinking about things, that we reject everything that relates to it. But there is a least one really good thing about substitutionary atonement (and I believe there are others): A person convinced that Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifices for his or her sins will be convinced that wrath and punishment have been averted.

This is not the place to cover this in detail, but I am doing so in my video series on perspectives on Paul. I started in Paul’s Gospel vs. Another Gospel, then went on to part 2, and this coming Thursday night I will be doing part 3. I’m thinking there may be yet more parts, because I’m looking verse by verse at some defining statements about the gospel in various Pauline and disputed epistles.

I think there’s a better background against which to think about sacrifice, and that is communication within a relationship. The priesthood and sacrifices were part of the way in which ancient people carried on communion within an ongoing relationship with their god(s). The Israelites had specific ways of offering various sacrifices, ways of representing their God, and expectations.

I like to think of gifts that I give my wife. One of the traditional gifts for someone with whom we are romantically involved is roses, often a dozen, maybe two dozen. I have only done that once in our relationship. I mean the dozen. There have been a scattered number of times on which a gift has included roses, but that is much less frequent than in other relationships.

So am I neglecting my wife and being unromantic by not giving her the traditional gift? I don’t think so, and she’ll surely read this post and let you know if I’m wrong. We’ve established a different tradition that fits her personality and mine. That tradition has to do with surprise and variety. I look at various places where I can buy flowers. The grocery store even works out frequently. I look for flowers of a different color or a different type than she has had recently. I often buy enough for a couple of arrangements in vases. More importantly, I try to bring the flowers into the house when she is not expecting them.

It is true that flowers are frequently a way of expressing regret for a wrong action, but that wouldn’t work all that well in our relationship. In fact, the only thing that does work is sincere regret, directly expressed (no weasely political apologies), and a discussion of how we can improve as we move forward. Flowers as a sacrifice for sin are not functional in our relationship, yet they are given.

I’d like to suggest thinking of the reason why you might do something for another person, or have something done for you and the various reasons you might give or receive a gift. Then start looking at the sacrificial system again. There are still many things that will not connect. For example, in those cultures that practiced human sacrifice, the killing of the human victim—the ideal one being a firstborn son—was seen as giving that child to God. So also with the animal sacrifices.

If you think of the sacrifices in this way I think it will be easier to follow how sacrifice was replaced by the “mitzvah” (good deed) in Judaism, and by a combination of giving and symbolic acts in Christianity. You might even start to think about the Sunday liturgy at your church and what it says about what God would like to see happening in your relationship to him. Is it possible God might prefer a “mitzvah” of some sort?

I’m going to build on this, but I think this is a good foundational metaphor to use in looking at sacrifice. Then we can adjust for the people involved and how they viewed what was good and bad in a relationship.

Faith Made Active through Love

Faith Made Active through Love

despicableWhat groups of people do you think it’s alright to look down on?

Because in Christ neither circumcision or uncircumcision matters any more, but instead faith made active through love. – Galatians 5:6

Which, in turn, reminds me of:

Thus faith, if it has no works, is dead by itself. – James 2:17

It is possible that the conflict between James and Paul has been overstated.

But my key reason for pulling this text out of my morning reading, as I prepare for my online study tonight which I’ll post about later, is that it represents a broader principle. Sometimes we’re afraid to read between the lines, or better, to discover principles which apply in other circumstances.

These days, circumcision or not is a medical discussion for most people. Yes, it is still a mark of Judaism, but many are circumcised who are not Jews. So what is Paul talking about here? I believe he’s referring to the distinction in God’s favor between Jews and Gentiles. That was the church conflict of his time. Did one have to become a Jew first in order to be a follower of Jesus? Was entry to the family through circumcision?

In the prior four chapters of Galatians Paul has argued that this is not the case. Grace is open to all and is the way one becomes part of the family. Christians have read these four chapters and then either failed to continue reading, or treated chapter five as though it was some sort of advice tacked on to an otherwise theological letter.

That is not the case. The final chapters are a clear continuation of the intent of the earlier ones. My seminary class in Galatians only made it to chapter 4. We were supposed to read the rest, but we never discussed the latter part of the book in class. I don’t know if it was just time or if the professor intended it that way. But Paul wrote it as one document. For him, there was more than becoming part of the family, though that was important, demonstrated by four very heated chapters dedicated to talking about it.

Paul’s concern continued with living as part of God’s family. How do we live now that we’re “in”? That’s where we get to this verse.

Historical understanding is important. Historically this verse was about the distinction between Gentiles and Jews before God, i.e., as part of the family. (Don’t come to conclusions about other aspects of the relationship without reading Romans 1-3 & 9-11.) But it also expresses a principle.

We humans are good at creating distinctions and barriers. In fact, such distinctions are necessary to life. I hate “labeling” yet I must do it in order to talk. This post is filled with labels. If I label someone as “poor” so that I can despise that person and distinguish him from his betters, I’m creating a barrier. I might use the same label, however, to set that person aside as the one who should receive my help. The distinction between Jew and Gentile does still exist, as Paul would acknowledge. It just doesn’t mean that God loves Jews (circumcised) and hates or ignores Gentiles (uncircumcised). The distinction was necessary (and is necessary) for certain purposes (“God’s messages were entrusted to them” [Romans 3:2]), but is not to be used to distinguish those God loves and those God does not love.

Now what distinctions might you and I be using to divide people into acceptable and unacceptable groups? People loved by God and those who can be despised?

Here’s how Eugene Petersen renders Galatians 5:6 in The Message:

For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.*

Can I hear “ouch” instead of “amen”?

*Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ga 5:6). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Elements of the illustration I used were taken from

Underlying Principles for Christian Education and Discipleship

Underlying Principles for Christian Education and Discipleship

Chalk rubbed out on blackboard

… and with that pretentious title.

Actually, last night I talked on the Energion Tuesday Night Hangout (I’ll embed the video at the end as well) about Christian education and how one might go about choosing curriculum.

My sister, Betty Rae, asked me a question via e-mail this morning, and I thought it was so on point that I would post her comments and my response here. What am I actually up to at Energion Publications? For those who wonder, yes, my sister and I communicate like this quite a bit.

From her comments:

I have been trying to understand what is the purpose or goal you have in what you are doing.  I think I may have glimpsed something tonight.  Please tell me if I am right.

The early NT church consisted of home gatherings.  They had no center of worship, like the Jerusalem Temple.  So All that was Christian centered in these small groups.  Luther calls them “small companies;”  Ellen White, “little companies.”  So if there is a difficulty with the church at large, the church may be preserved in the “small study groups,” as you are calling them.  I saw in your presentation that you are encouraging the preservation of the individuality of individuals and groups.  Your presentation tonight holds great significance as I see it.  By leaving the groups free, even to making them free not to use your materials, room is left for the working of the Holy Spirit.  Hopefully, the small groups will follow that example, and also leave the individuals in their groups free.

The time will come, however, if there is religious oppression, that small groups will be suppressed; as an example, “The Conventicle Act” in England, for disobeying of which John Bunyan spent 12 years in prison.  During times of religious revival and opposition, believers were forced to meet in small groups, even outdoors in forests and mountains, for which they were severely punished if they were caught. John Wesley was forced, even to preach out of doors, when denied access to the churches.  The Advent Movement believers met in small groups after they were thrown out of the churches, coming together in camp meetings.

On an individual basis, churches in this country have already persecuted and tried to suppress small groups, calling them “cults.” (The devil will always mix his counterfeit in with the true.  Fear of being called a “cult” has discouraged the “small group.”)  One thing that drew disapproval was the groups’ using of materials “unauthorized” by the denomination, which you addressed tonight in your presentation.  Your work may be small, but who hath despised the day of small things!

Here’s my response:

One of my fundamental beliefs is that spiritual choices made through duress, emotional manipulation, or spinning data are of no positive benefit and are indeed destructive. Thomas Aquinas and I are not even playing on the same ball field on this one!

I carry this so far as to say that if I were helping to bring a Jew into Christian fellowship (no human “converts” anyone), I would want to make sure that person understood Judaism as well as Christianity to be sure he or she is making a choice that is as informed and as free as possible. Similarly, if a person is kept in the church because he or she was prevented from getting outside information, that brings no glory to God. While it may build up the church organization, the Kingdom of God is not built.

I could summarize this by saying that God’s kingdom cannot be built by deception, and trying to deny people information from another perspective is deception. That’s the reason leaders do it. The leadership is afraid that if we, the followers, have information other than what they approve, we might decide differently than we have.

This is often done for the best of motives. In the church, the idea is to prevent people who are less informed from being led astray. So information is restricted in pursuit of truth. But just because an approach is intended to accomplish something does not mean it will accomplish that. We often give credit to people for being well-intentioned, but the universe does not. The laws of physics don’t care about your intention. You may intend to fly when you jump off the cliff, but gravity (and the rocks below) does not say, “I’ll give him/her credit for having good intentions.” It’s just plain splat!

Similarly in politics we have a desire to limit information to what is accurate and unbiased. I agree that the internet provides a huge reservoir of material that ranges from misleading in presentation to flat out wrong. But those who would like to clean that up somehow, other than by countering false with true, are playing with fire. Whether it’s by controlling political spending or trying to narrowly define a “real” journalist, it’s going to head toward control, and control will lead to mass falsehood and delusion. The universe will not regard the supposedly truth-loving intentions of the censors.

So I do advocate freedom in ideas, and I follow that belief in the small (very small) world of my publishing business. I restrict what I publish not because I think the other stuff is bad, but simply to define a reasonable audience for me to try to address.

At the same time I personally advocate a program of education in churches, however carried out, that makes sure people are aware of the full range of ideas that are out there. Carrying this out will involve reading books that are written by people who disagree with and disapprove the church’s views as well as hopefully hearing directly from them. There’s nothing like hearing an idea from an advocate. I may be ever so careful to present my adversaries position, but hearing me is not as good as hearing them.

Those are the beliefs that underlie what I said about curriculum last night.

And for those who might need context, the actual presentation:

We Need to Quit Blaming the Media, Politicians, or the Infernal Them

We Need to Quit Blaming the Media, Politicians, or the Infernal Them

I call this group of (people | entities | circumstances) the infernal “they” or “them.” They are the people who cause all the problems. They have no moral compass. They are disruptive. They lie. They are apostates, perverts, stupid, deplorable, weak, losers, socialists, libertines (sometimes intended to include libertarians!). Disgusting, all of them. They are doing it to us.

This is one of the unfortunate results of individualism. There are many fortunate results as well. I am not one who wishes we’d get back to some sort of day when the individual didn’t really matter, and everything was about the collective. Like most “old days,” the reality of the old days is somewhat less [whatever we wanted it to be] than our imagination makes it. There has always been a balance between a view that values the society above all and one that values the individual. The emphasis varies; the elements are still there.

One problem with western individualism, however, is that we can so easily use it to find ways to blame someone else while separating ourselves. I am not responsible for anything but the things that I, personally, have done. I take no responsibility for what my ancestors did (though I’ll cheerfully benefit from their actions). I take no responsibility for the wrong actions of my church, my party, my social club, or my industry. I, personally, am blameless. In this, I am wrong.

In politics right now it’s popular to blame the media. Despite the fact that media outlets come from many perspectives, and you can find one as liberal or conservative, libertarian or authoritarian as you might desire (ain’t the internet wonderful), somehow, the collective media is responsible for whatever it is that I think is bad. They have lied and propped up one candidate, they have lied and trashed another. Within the same day I can read about how they have both completely destroyed and totally built up the same candidate.

This they, a “they” of which the speaker is not a part and does not carefully define, is the infernal they. It is the “they” that commits all evil acts. Besides being infernal it is also highly mobile. It is very hard to find this “they” and cause them to change or take responsibility for “their” actions.

I’m aware that neither you nor I are responsible for everything. But here’s a suggestion: Drop out of the game of assigning blame for the stuff you didn’t do and take responsibility for what you have done and can do something about. In addition, if you are—and remain—a member of a group, take responsibility for that group. Yes, you can distinguish what you support and don’t, but you are a part of what the group does. This means Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, United Methodists, Baptists (of whatever variety), and so forth.

I would like to demote the word “they” in my vocabulary and promote the word “we.” The media is producing material that people watch and that produces sales for their sponsors. Yes, there are some things that the people in media want themselves. But there is little that motivates so effectively in our culture as money. For the media, readers, viewers, and listeners mean money. That’s the “we” I’m talking about.

We need to be more discerning in our viewing and listening. We need to be active in letting the media know what we do and do not want to see and hear.  But, you say, you can’t really change that whole mass of “them” out there. Don’t worry about it. Change you. Turn your TV off. Visit a different site. Read a good book instead (says the publisher!)

Try to find the “we” before you utter that critical word. What I can say for myself is that I am often much too fascinated by the seamier side of the world. It is too easy to persuade me to give views to a web site that is saying things that I really shouldn’t support. I can make the excuse that I am “checking out the other side” or “keeping informed,” but it really is just the receiving side of gossip, and the one who listens to gossip is just as responsible, I believe, as the one who speaks it. After all, if every time the gossiper said, “Do you know what widow Jones did?” the response was “No, and I don’t want to know,” gossip would die.

Wrong needs to be challenged, but let’s start with the wrongs we can challenge using the word “we.” Let’s take our example from the biblical Daniel. I’m reminded of his prayer in chapter 9. By all biblical accounts Daniel was a righteous man. No act worthy of blame is recorded of him. Yet as he begins praying (Daniel 9:5-6a), there is a powerful litany:

We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly, and we have rebelled, turning aside from your commands and your judgments. We have not obeyed your servants the prophets …

Yet Daniel had done none of those things. It was not a matter of feeling or being guilty; you can drown in the guilt of others. What he did was he spoke for his people as one of them.

I think our prayers would be more powerful and our actions more effective if we learned his approach.

Remembering Dad – 10 Years Later

Remembering Dad – 10 Years Later

Dad on graduation from medical school
Dad on graduation from medical school

Ten years ago my father passed away. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was asked to provide the eulogy. I rarely use a prepared text when preaching but in this case I thought that my emotions might interfere so I did.

I wanted to post it today in honor of dad 10 years after his homegoing, but I couldn’t find the file. I’m a pack rat about files, so that surprised me. Thanks to the help of my sister Betty, my mother, my sister-in-law Aydah, and my brother Robert (especially!), the file was found.

I thought of posting it at the time, but there was too much emotion involved. Now I think it’s right.

I am a privileged man, privileged to have parents who loved me, provided for me, encouraged me, and provided a good example for me. The word “privilege” is used a lot now, but privilege shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. Nor should it be denied. My privilege gives me a duty to share, to help make the lives of others more privileged. Often we take the things that we have received through no action of our own and we take them as a way to feel better than others, more special. Instead, I believe our privileges give us greater responsibilities.

Dad was a person who shared and helped make the lives of others better. It is that example that I remember daily. There are many people whose lives are better because they encountered my father. That’s what we should each hope.

Here are my words at his memorial. Note that I use the KJV which dad read all his life. He didn’t object to modern versions, but the KJV was an old friend.

Memorial Talk for Dr. Ray Neufeld, 10/10/06, by Henry Neufeld

We’re here to celebrate the life of Dr. Ray Neufeld, doctor, father, brother, grand and great-grandfather, uncle, missionary, and humble disciple of Jesus. Most of you have your own stories and your own memories. Much of the time I spent with dad was related to electronics and particularly to amateur radio. He had an ease with understanding electricity and radio that led him to eventually test for and receive an Amateur Extra class license.

He was involved in this hobby most of his life and used it in the mission field. Robert recalls receiving a call from an amateur operator in Tennessee when he and our sister Betty were attending Highland Academy, and the rest of the family was in Mexico. A number of people on our mission station had been poisoned, and he was seeking help from a poison center at Vanderbilt University. Somehow the message didn’t tell just who was poisoned, so Robert and Betty had to wait days for the mail to bring more detailed news.

Our cousin Lolita remembers waking up to the static as her father, Don Neufeld, tried to contact dad in Guyana.  With the price of long distance phone calls, it was one of the key ways we kept in touch with family at home.

Patty’s memories of the mission field include following the map and directing dad through villages in Mexico as he drove our station wagon and trailer over roads they were never intended to survive. All of us had times of getting as close to medical procedures as we could wish—for some of us much closer than we wanted. I recall standing on a chair and holding a flashlight on a surgical site after the power generator had failed in the midst of surgery.

Grandson Bob Neufeld (Robert’s son) tells of dad teaching him carpentry using the coping saw, and Robert remembers Dad making a model boat for him, though he wasn’t taught to use the tools.

But the key fact of dad’s life is one of faith. I searched for balance in this presentation between the stories of his life and his faith, but faith was central for him, and so I feel that it should be central here. I recall asking him when I was a teenager what would happen if he found out that there was no God, no heaven, and no hell. He told me that he hoped he would have lived his life in the same way he did.

And so I turn to the scriptures from which dad received strength, encouragement, and challenge daily as he went through life.  I’m going to read from Hebrews 11:32 through 12:3.

And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: (33) Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, (34) Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. (35) Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: (36) And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:  (37)  They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (38) (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

(39) And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: (40) God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (12:1) Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, (2) Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (3)  For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.  — Heb 11:32-12:3

There are many scripture passages that we tend to read half-way, and this is one of them. I don’t mean that we stop our reading in the middle of a verse or of the chapter. Rather, I mean that the verse stays locked in the past, a time when wonderful men and women of faith did wonderful things for God, a time in which we believe, but do not participate. The Bible becomes a book filled with stories about people not very much like we are, doing things we can’t or won’t do.  It’s edifying reading, but when all is said and done, as the saying goes, a good deal more is said than is ever done!

But Hebrews 11 is intended as a continued story. How many of you remember the old Junior Guide stories that were continued from week to week? There was that annoying phrase at the end, “continued next week” that told you the current conflict would not be resolved today. You’d have to wait. It was supposed to make me anxious to come to Sabbath School again in order to get the next episode, but it really just annoyed me.

But Hebrews 11 has an even more annoying “continued next week” in it. Did you miss it?  Let’s listen to the beginning of chapter 12 again:

(12:1) Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. . . .

This is not a finished story, it continues. This is not a “them” story; it’s an “us” story. It is a story that each of us is to continue each and every hour of every day until that blessed moment when “this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

So today, as I talk about dad, I’m reporting to you a new passage in the ever growing story of faith. Time would truly fail me to tell of Dr. Ray Neufeld, who through faith:

  • Went to medical school, even though he did not know how he would pay for it
  • Faced death in Mexico in order to help the helpless and witness to his faith in his Lord
  • Answered God’s call in four countries on two continents
  • Brought four children into the world and provided for their education
  • Rejected the security of an assured pension and trusted in God for his retirement
  • Survived medical problems when he arrived in Guyana that would have sent others home in defeat, then spent seven years in service there
  • Saw the building of a new hospital and health conditioning center from the ground up, with some of the bricks and mortar placed there with his own hands
  • Saw the world change dramatically over his lifetime, but never lost his faith in the creator

Indeed, time truly would fail me, and you, should I tell you all of these stories. I just want to relate two in particular that tell me who my parents are—and this includes my mother, Myrtle Blabey Neufeld as one part of the “two-become- one.”

When my father had emergency surgery just after our arrival in Guyana, one of the church leaders, I forget who, came to them and began to discuss arrangements for a return to the United States.  He felt that surely with emergency surgery and some question at that time of dad’s very survival, they would be preparing to go home if nothing else for better medical care. Their response? “God sent us here to Guyana to do a mission, and we haven’t done it yet.” The subtitle could be from our scripture–”we’re going to run with patience the race that is set before us.”

Shortly after this my uncle Don Neufeld received a letter from my mother outlining the situation.  The letter was written at a time when dad’s condition had not yet been resolved. It was possible that he would not make it. Uncle Don spread that letter before the Lord and prayed over it, and while he was praying, the phone rang, and the surgeon who had operated on my father, who had just arrived back in the United States, was calling to tell him that my father had turned the corner, that he was not only getting better but was planning to stay and work.

And indeed our family did stay, for seven years. I was there with them as they called for the elders of the church, anointed my father with oil. I was a witness as he returned to work, and became the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital.

One doctor had said he would never work again, and would not live more than 10 more years. Now you can be witnesses that God doesn’t look at things the way people do—this funeral is happening 25 years late, by human reckoning.

Aren’t you thankful for God’s way of looking at things?

But there’s another part to all this. We don’t get to sit here in this beautiful chapel and think about the wonderful things that Dr. Ray Neufeld did, and look at them as things that are far away, impossible, unattainable. We might like to do that, but that’s not how it should work. We are also called to add to the story of faith.

I had to think about whether to call this a eulogy. I have a little habit of putting a Greek word into my sermons, not because it’s useful (it usually isn’t) but because people expect it of someone whose degrees are in Biblical languages.

Once I’ve done it, I can get on with the real stuff. So here’s your Greek word— eulogy comes from the Greek “eu” for good and “logos” for word or message. It’s a good message or a good report. But I don’t think that Dad would really be happy with a eulogy, a good report about him. He would not want to receive the glory.  He would lay it all at the feet of the “author and finisher” of his faith.

I picture dad on that day when he meets Jesus and receives a crown—and it will be a serious, heavy, beautiful crown—and he’ll lay it back at the feet of Jesus, not just because he knows he owes it all to his Savior, but because he won’t believe it’s his crown. He’ll figure it belongs to someone else, and heaven made its first mistake!

The comfortable thing for us would be to think of dad as simply an extraordinary person. In that case, we, as ordinary people, could get on with ordinary lives and be satisfied with ordinary results.

But dad will be in that “great cloud of witnesses” and he will know how he got there.  It was not by being an extraordinary person but by putting himself into the hands of an extraordinary God and going along for the ride. I don’t mean the ride was easy.  It was a race, and it required patience and endurance.  But Jesus is the author of the faith that was required, and Jesus is the finisher.

There’s nothing that God gave dad that he hasn’t given to the rest of us. He’s authored faith for us, and he’s ready to bring it to completion. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).  Often the challenge we feel we can live up to is that provided by another disciple. And so we come to this point in our lives not just to remember and celebrate dad’s life, disciple of Jesus Christ, but to be challenged by it.

We cannot, we must not respond to that challenge with ordinary lives, lives that are less than the high calling that we have in Christ Jesus. It’s a demanding calling and a tough race.

As we remember Dr. Ray Neufeld, there is grief, but not hopelessness, sorrow but not despair, wonder but not fear. Dad has fought a good fight, finished his course, and kept the faith. Now he has the “crown of righteousness” prepared for him in the kingdom. Because his was not a faith without an object, a race without a finish line, or a fight without victory.

I was discussing this with mother Sunday evening, and I told her that from the time that my son James passed away to the present I have had moments when I feel heaven so near and so real that it almost overwhelms the experience of the real world as I know it. She said that with daddy’s passing, she also felt that new homesickness. “Why is it,” she asked me, “that we didn’t feel that same homesickness when it was for Jesus himself? Why does it take the passing of a loved one?”

God knows how he made us. Mother, he has given us the love that you have felt for your husband and companion in ministry, as just a tiny window on the passionate love that he has for each one of us. Through separation, he allows us to get another tiny glimpse of how he feels, separated from an unreconciled world.  “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19) and “I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jeremiah 31:3).

Our feeling of loss and separation is just a shadow of the separation God feels from a rebellious world, just as our love and passion for a spouse is just a shadow of God’s love and passion for each of us, the love and passion that led to the cross.

Through this separation each one of us now has a new understanding of God’s love to which we can give witness. We know the separation, and we know the victory.  We can overcome with that testimony!

In that conversation with mother, I recalled a vision Ellen White had of heaven. “Early Writings” was a special book in my mother’s spiritual life, and I’m glad to find there these key passages:

She says:

While I was praying at the family altar, the Holy Ghost fell upon me, and I seemed to be rising higher and higher, far above the dark world.

She goes on to describe a number of scenes, but in sum, all she can say is, “The wonderful things I saw I cannot describe. Oh, that I could talk in the language of Canaan, then could I tell a little of the glory of the better world.”

She continues:

[Jesus] said, “You must go back to earth again and relate to others what I have revealed to you.” Then an angel bore me gently down to this dark world. Sometimes I think I can stay here no longer; all things of earth look so dreary. I feel very lonely here, for I have seen a better land. Oh, that I had wings like a dove, then would I fly away and be at rest!

After I came out of vision, everything looked changed; a gloom was spread over all that I beheld. Oh, how dark this world looked to me.  I wept when I found myself here, and felt homesick. I had seen a better world, and it had spoiled this for me.

I have come to realize that before the experience of the death of a son and now of my father, I only thought I was homesick for heaven. Homesickness was a doctrine, the “Sabbath School” answer.  You know how Sabbath School works.

There are certain questions you raise your hand for. “Do you love Jesus?” “Do you believe the Bible?” “Do you want Jesus to come?” We all know it’s right to raise our hands for those questions. I once stirred up a class by asking “Do you trust God?” Now what Christian can possibly keep their hand down for that one? And dutifully every hand went up. Then I asked, “What is it that you trust God to do?”  There was an uncomfortable and long silence.

I had broken the rules.  They had given the right answer, but I wanted more. Unfair!

Well, I’m being unfair again. Experiencing a loss made me suddenly truly homesick for heaven. The song goes, “I’m homesick for heaven, seems I cannot wait! Longing to enter, Zion’s pearly gate.” Before it was just a song. Before I didn’t understand Ellen White’s sorrow after her vision of heaven. Now it’s real. I get tears in my eyes when I sing songs of the kingdom. The “Sabbath School answer” when you’re asked whether you want Jesus to come soon is, “Yes!”

But the next questions are these: How badly do you want it?  What are you going to do about it? When God called, dad answered. Whether there was money or not, comforts or not, even what many would regard as needs, mom and dad were ready to answer the call. There’s a fun song called “Please don’t send me to Africa.” It’s the plea of a Christian for God to use him, but just don’t make it Africa.

We all have our “Africas.” Your “Africa” may be a calling for which you feel unworthy. But Jesus has made you worthy. Where you are weak, he is strong. Your “Africa” may be your next door neighbor’s driveway, someone you’re supposed to befriend, but you just can’t make it over the kerb and up the sidewalk to the door. It might be the children’s class at church. God can’t possibly call you to work with annoying children!

But that’s not the way dad lived. We now have the example of his discipleship. He would never think to say, “Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ,” but he could! The challenge of his life is the challenge of the people of Hebrews 11, the great cloud of witnesses, the folks who didn’t receive the promises, but nonetheless were faithful.

Dad, you did fight the good fight, you did finish the race, you did keep the faith. That golden, jeweled crown really is yours, even if you can’t believe it. I thank you for your love, your faithfulness, and your example. I miss you. We all miss you. But we’re going to meet before the throne of God and lay our crowns at Jesus’ feet, together, by God’s grace.

Resources for Progressive Preaching: Pastor2Pew

Resources for Progressive Preaching: Pastor2Pew

One of the least accurate characterizations I hear about progressive Christians is that they don’t care about the Bible. Now it’s hard to get a single image of the average or perfect progressive Christian, so generalizations are hard to make, but let me note that the generalization that progressive Christians in general disrespect the Bible, is not accurate.

One conservative response to this is a list of biblical positions on doctrine, as held by the same conservatives, which progressives do not espouse. If progressives fail to see these very clear teachings of Scripture, how can they possibly be regarded as anything but disrespectful? On the other hand, progressives sometimes point out conservative doctrines on things like money and the treatment of others that they feel—equally strongly—are violations of scriptural teaching. Rev. Steve Kindle even wrote a book about all this, titled I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why we disagree about the Bible and what to do about it. Clearly it’s a book containing the answers to all of life’s questions, including the meaning of life. (No, not really, but it will help you understand why you don’t have those answers.)

Now Steve has set out on another project, designed to help progressive pastors find commentary on the Lectionary passages. He acknowledges the difficulty that not all pastors, progressive or otherwise, follow the Lectionary, but you have to start somewhere. In searching for resources Steve found that the material one could use in speaking to one’s congregation in a relevant way was embedded in a mass of material that used approaches that were not nearly so helpful. So he started On Tuesday night, I interviewed him for our Energion Tuesday Night Hangout. Here’s the video:

My title, “A Progressive Christian Preaching Scripture” may sound snarky. In fact, it may be snarky. But ask yourself this: Who am I being snarky about? What I’m really trying to do is emphasize my own point here: There are many progressive Christians who study Scripture, write about it, preach from it, and believing, as strongly as any fundamentalist, that they are living it. They are just finding different things there.

I don’t know precisely what to say about the people Steve is interviewing, except that I didn’t find anyone there so far that I don’t want to hear. I mention Walter Brueggemann above. Steve also interviews Energion author Bruce Epperly. Bruce spends a great deal of time studying Scripture and doing the homework that means he deserves to be heard, not only by other progressives, but those in other streams.

I strongly recommend Pastor2Pew as a resource both for progressives, and for others who would like to get some challenging and different approaches to the text. Even if, in the end, you reject them, I think you’ll find that your understanding deepened as you did so.

PS: Check out our Energion “Church Health” category, including Steve’s book Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World.

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Paul, an Apostle

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Paul, an Apostle

Apocalyptic background - flash and lightning in dramatic dark sky

I’ve been having an interesting time preparing for my study tonight, and I’m feeling the boundaries of a 1/2 hour study. Most people will probably be glad. In order to make this work, however, you’ll need to read the material suggested. In this case, the “Introduction” from Meditations on the Letters of Paul by Herold Weiss and “Becoming Galatian: Spiritual Practices for Reading Galatians,” and Lesson 1: Introduction and Background,” from Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly. The scripture passage will be Galatians 1:1-5, but it would be a good idea to read the entire book—it’s only 6 chapters—and also read and compare the introductions to other letters of Paul, whether disputed or not. Just start at Romans and read the first verse or two of each book until you get to Hebrews.

I’m finding the idea of posting two or three times on this topic during the week difficult, but that’s not a reason to abandon it. It’s important to allow topics to percolate, and one of my bad habits is to study the material on Thursday morning. In this case, I have looked at it some before today, but not enough, and I intend to change that.

But for tonight we’re going to look broadly at what is contained in the reading material and then focus on what made Paul an apostle, what made his letters authoritative for the church, and the nature of these letters as evidence. I’ll also touch on why I’m using Galatians, besides the fact that I think Epperly’s study guide is the right sort of challenging material to get us out of a rut on how we read the book. I think Herold Weiss similarly challenges our standard approaches (read his article Paul Did not Teach Righteousness by Faith), but he does son on a broader basis. We’re going to use Epperly’s more focused book to get to Weiss’s broader understanding.

Note here that I don’t mean that we will necessarily agree with either one. Rather, I’m looking at the focus and at ways of getting us each to let Paul’s writings speak to us. We will never completely discard our background. Yet we can try to give the scriptures the greatest possible chance to change us. That is the goal of this study.

Here’s the video embed: