Saturday, February 28, 2015

Francis A. Schaeffer – True Spirituality: I

My friend Michael Daily is reading Schaeffer’s True Spirituality. As I thought about Schaeffer and the book I decided to reread it again and began this afternoon. When Michael and I were talking about Schaeffer recently I said, “He helped teach me how to think.” Schaeffer, Lewis, Pascal; they taught me how to think and they continue to teach me how to think. Lewis, MacDonald, Tolkien; they continue to teach me how to use my imagination. Note that Lewis is in both groups.

I read Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri around 1971, I still have the book; Second American Edition, February 1970, a pastor friend of mine shared it with me. Shortly after reading Edith’s book I began reading her husband’s works; True Spirituality was among the first I read. As I think about True Spirituality I wonder if it isn’t in the same category as Andrew Murray once placed the Biblical book of Hebrews, saying (and I paraphrase from memory), “This is a wonderful book with marvelous truth but nobody believes it.”

The thing that first struck me so many years ago, and the thing that still strikes me today as I reread Schaeffer, is found in his preface, “We were living in Champery at that time, and I told Edith that for the sake of honesty I had to go all the way back to my agnosticism and think through the whole matter [of what he believed]. I’m sure that this was a difficult time for her, and I’m sure that she prayed much for me in those days. I walked the mountains when it was clear, and when it was rainy I walked backward and forward in the hayloft of the old chalet in which we lived. I walked, prayed, and thought through what the Scriptures taught, as well as reviewing my own reasons for being a Christian.”

As a young Christian, Schaeffer taught me to think foundationally, that is, he taught me to seek the foundation, the basis, for a given belief or practice. He taught me to ask myself, “Why do I believe this?” He taught me to ask others, “Can you explain to me why you believe what you’ve just said?” He also taught me to work out the logical trajectories and conclusions to beliefs and practices. Sad to say I have not always heeded Schaeffer’s advice and example, and when I haven’t it has always been the result of not loving God or my neighbor – something that he addresses in the early pages of True Spirituality.

I have read and reread Schaeffer over the years, and I have referred to him in countless conversations and sermons. He has been one of the great mentors in my life. In terms of his published body of integrated work, of his rigorous Biblical thinking, and of his prophetic insight into the future of the Western Church – he has few twentieth-century equals (if any). Interacting with Francis Schaeffer is a contact sport, you’ve got to put on the “pads” as they say in American football, and when you’ve worked through Schaeffer’s writing you know you’ve been in a hard game – but you also know that you’ve been in a game worth playing. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

President Obama's Prayer Breakfast Address

The Challenge of President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast Comments
By: Robert L. Withers
February 8, 2015

I did not hear or see the President’s address to the prayer breakfast last week. However, after a dear friend asked me to watch the address, I printed it out and read it. Since then I’ve read it again, pondered it, and have given it much thought.

I imagine that I am obliged to say at the outset that I do not agree with everything Mr. Obama believes nor with everything on his administration’s agenda; in fact, some things are sad beyond words, sad to the point of being worthy of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. On the other hand, I can probably write that about most every administration. There is also the realization that, by and large, whatever Jeremiah might lament about in the current administration are things that he would also lament about on both side of the aisle on Capitol Hill, in the Supreme Court, in our state capitals, and within both the general culture and within the professing church. Peter reminds us that “judgment begins at the house of God”; it does not appear from the Scriptures that judgment begins at the White House.

Mr. Obama has the unenviable task of leading a postmodern pluralistic society; the fact that it is postmodern means that it lacks the unifying cohesion of a shared worldview, the fact that it is pluralistic in myriad facets mitigates against any attempt to develop a unifying center of gravity. Mr. Obama, as with his immediate predecessors, is the product of our culture and is, in many ways, the product of the professing church. To those who take issue with my “professing church” observation I will simply say that had the church been the church in the twentieth century, a distinctive and recognizable counter-cultural entity within our society, that perhaps Mr. Obama’s perspective on the exclusiveness of the claims of Christ might be different. I write this as one who was expelled from a seminary in 1967 that took umbrage at a chapel message of mine that suggested that we love blacks in the same degree that we love whites. I write this as one who, as a lad, saw “Whites only” signs within miles of our Federal capital, and within minutes of churches where professing Christians gathered.

Mr. Obama stressed humility in his message; this is assuredly a Biblical value. Whether we agree with some of Mr. Obama’s remarks or not, I find it difficult to understand why professing Christians cannot agree that a humble response to Mr. Obama is an obedient response to Jesus Christ – the King of kings and Lord of lords who as a lamb taught us humility – James and John had to learn that calling fire down on those who did not agree with them was not the way of the Lamb.  I applaud Mr. Obama’s emphasis on humility – I need more of it.

When I read Mr. Obama’s remarks I am reminded of Peter’s admonition to, “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king,” 1 Peter 2:17. Note the proximity of fearing God and honoring the king; he that fears God will honor the king. Paul writes to Titus, “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men,” Titus 3:1-2. The person who desires to obey Scripture will be the man or woman who will not speak evil of others and who will show humility to all men – note the context of these words with “rulers and authorities”.

Jesus teaches us that, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” Matthew 5:9; and James writes (James 3:17 – 18), “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

Mr. Obama is the president of my country, and as such I owe him respect and honor, and should I disagree with him, as I often do, I must remind myself that to speak evil of others, and particularly to speak evil and to disrespect God-ordained authority, is to disobey the Word of God, it is to sin.

Now I think it is unfortunate that our president did not give some historical context when he mentioned the Crusades; but he only had a few minutes and perhaps he trusted that his listeners and readers would educate themselves on the context – I don’t know. As a rule my only problem with those who continually bring up the Crusades as a slam on Christianity is that they seldom give equal attention to militaristic Islam; in other words, they don’t tell the whole story. I read one Catholic response to the President’s message that insisted that the Crusades were political and not religious. Surely the person jests, for not only did the Catholic Church “preach” crusades, it encouraged recruitment by promising dispensations. It was a “Go to war and get your sins forgiven” campaign.

Mr. Obama also referred to the Inquisition, this was not an isolated stain on the history of the church, it was a reign of terror; but lest Protestants become smug we can find examples of Protestant terror on Catholics as well as of Protestant and Catholic terror on indigenous peoples. This is not revisionist history – this is simply history. I am not responsible for the history of Islam, nor of any other religion, but I am responsible for the history of Christianity. I am not responsible for the behavior of adherents to other religions or philosophies, but I am responsible for the behavior of adherents to Christianity. I need not repent for the behavior of anyone else, than of those who say they are Christians; I need not be ashamed of what the followers of Islam do; but I must be ashamed of followers of Christ who do not obey Him.

Mr. Obama’s point was that we all need to be conscious of “a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.” How can a Christian disagree with this most Biblical of observations? Much of the Bible was written because nations and peoples and churches perverted and distorted their faith.

I have read criticism that Mr. Obama reached back hundreds of years ago to the Crusades to illustrate a sad period in the church’s history. What about his reference to Jim Crow?

Oh yes, I’ve read another criticism that Mr. Obama did not point out that Christians were in the forefront of opposing slavery – as if that is supposed to dismiss the Jim Crow observation. But let me first address the argument that Christians were in the forefront of opposing slavery by saying that many more Christians either endorsed slavery or at best ignored it – ignored it in their very own country. I will also observe that Christians participated in the genocide of American Indians and the illegal taking of their land – I particularly have the Cherokee nation in mind during the presidency of Andrew Jackson; President Jackson ignored the Supreme Court and removed the Cherokee people, sending them on the Trail of Tears. Where were Christians?

As for Jim Crow, black Americans have been lynched in my lifetime. A bus filled with Freedom Riders, peaceable non-violent men and women, was fire-bombed – where was the church? This is not revisionist history, these are simply the facts. And when (white) Christians are confronted with the terrible stain of acquiescing in and promoting first slavery and then Jim Crow we ought to stop worrying about the sins of Islam and worry about our own sins. And I think that is what bothers me the most about some of the responses to Mr. Obama’s remarks, the inability of professing Christians to look themselves in the mirror and say, “We have sinned and we’d better watch out or we’ll do it again.”

I do not agree with all of what Mr. Obama said, but he is the President of my country and I owe him respect – that is a nonnegotiable teaching of the Bible. Mr. Obama used the word “humility” throughout his message – he must have sensed that we needed it. Based on many of the responses to his remarks by professing Christians that I’ve read…Mr. Obama was right. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama has probably learned by now what preachers have known for centuries, the people in the pew tend to think that the message was for someone else.

Mr. Obama did what I expect a good leader to do, he did what I would expect a good preacher to do, he challenged me to examine myself. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Better Long-term Tension than Artificial Resolution

One of the great enemies of Bible study is the desire to achieve immediate resolution when questions arise. “Why does Jesus tell people not to broadcast what He has done in the early chapters of Mark?” “What does Jesus mean in John Chapter Two when He says, ‘My hour has not yet come’?” “Why did Jesus pray, ‘If it is possible let this cup pass from me…’?”

We want to Google the answer and move on with the study; we want to hear what the small group has to say and make a decision on the meaning and continue with the study. We want an answer concise enough to be on a quiz show; we want three options that we can choose from. This is not Biblical engagement, this is akin to doing a crossword puzzle.

God does not seem to be as interested in providing us answers as He is in revealing Himself to us and drawing us into an intimate relationship. Conversation tends to lead to relationship, giving answers to questions usually requires little engagement. God wants us to know His character, to know who He is; if we know His character we can trust Him to the point that we don’t need to have all of our questions answered. The two great questions are, “Who is God?” “Who am I?”

When God walked in the earth He raised more questions than He answered; the religious leaders had questions, the general public had questions, His disciples had questions. Jesus did not answer many of their little questions, but He did answer the one big question that they all should have been asking, “Who is this man Jesus?” The answer Jesus gave in His perfectly consistent life in both word and deed was, “I am God.”

The apostle Paul, knowing all he knew, and seeing all he had seen, still wrote, “Now we see through a glass darkly…” Paul also wrote that his great desire was, “That I may know Him…”

God invites our questions, He invites conversation surrounding our questions; God does not discourage questions, but nor does He seem to always answer them. Some questions have been with us since the Fall, “Why evil? Why suffering? Why injustice?” (I wonder if our first parents asked those questions. Perhaps they knew the answers all too well?) There are some Psalms that could easily be titled, “Why?” The Book of Job could be titled, “Why?” Not all “Whys?” are answered. And yet they are answered – they are answered in the sense that if we know God’s character that we then know that we can trust Him to hold the answers.

Artificial resolutions to questions, canned answers that are constructed to allow us to move on with our Bible reading, closure that does not require engagement – this is food without nutrients – it may fill us temporarily but it will not nourish us. Food for the mind, heart, soul, and spirit is food that reproduces itself in conversation with God, with His Word, and with His people – it is food born of relationship. As the Scriptures teach us, we are to “gird up the loins of our minds.” If our minds are not reproducing then they are atrophying.

Better long-term tension in pondering questions that short-term artificial resolution.