The Surprising Satisfaction Of The Sacraments

I served as a minister in the Free Church tradition for more than thirty-five years, first as a Baptist then as a non-denominational evangelical then as a Mennonite. For all of those years, I believed and taught that the benefit to be derived from baptism and communion (also called “the Lord’s supper,” but never “the Eucharist”) was in their value as powerful symbols of “spiritual” truths.

Baptism (1)Baptism symbolized a believer’s faith in Christ as Savior and Lord and the personal commitment to follow Him as a faithful and obedient disciple. Communion symbolized the sacrifice of Christ in His crucifixion—His broken body (the bread) and His shed blood (the wine, or more likely grape juice). Both these practices represented something else. They were beneficial to the degree that a Christian knew what they stood for. They mainly functioned as “object lessons,” pointing to a spiritual reality but without value in and of themselves.

Continue reading

The Wrong Way Around

DC MallLast fall, I attended a conference in Washington, DC. I traveled between my (less expensive) hotel and the conference venue on the Metro, Washington’s subway system. I love riding the Metro, even though this once-state-of-the-art means of mass transit needs some upgrading and refurbishing. I get to the DC area so infrequently, however, that I need to re-learn the procedures for buying tickets, boarding the trains, reading the system map, etc., each time I visit.

On my last trip, I was returning to my hotel at the end of a long, tiring day. As I attempted to move through the Metro turnstile at Dupont Circle, the machine refused to accept my ticket. I reinserted it several times. The turnstile would not budge, and a line was forming behind me. I was flummoxed.

Continue reading

A Vision In 800 Words

Before I die, I hope to be part of a church which identifies itself, deliberately and forthrightly, as an agent of the Kingdom of God. More particularly, I hope that church will embrace the three-fold relationship of the church to the Kingdom which Lesslie Newbigin described when he wrote,

“The church is only true to its calling when it is a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.”

Continue reading

The Arthur Chronicles—No. 7

Arthur Lough’s office is located in a nondescript yellow-brick building next door to an elementary school and across the street from the public library. The neighborhood is a Grandview Officemixture of small businesses and private homes, most of which appear to have been built at least fifty years ago.

The building, of a similar age, comprises two floors. The first floor, except for the space Arthur leases, accommodates the law office of the attorney who owns the building. Four small residential apartments occupy the second floor.

I arrived a few minutes before the appointed hour and parked along the street in front of the building. Arthur opened his office door to welcome me just as I stepped into the small foyer.

Arthur’s office is a single room, roughly twelve feet wide and twenty feet long. The walls are stucco, off-white and in need of painting. A dark green carpet covers the floor.

Continue reading

Right Thing, Wrong Way (Part Two)

Instead of being a counter-cultural community, the evangelical Christian community, of which I am a part, is taking its cues from the prevailing culture.  As we do, we are always a step behind the culture so we look like we are hurrying to catch up.

For example, much of the culture has recognized the inadequacy of the modernism which arose from the Enlightenment and has moved beyond its sterile secularism to the nebulous and narcissistic “spirituality” of post-modernism.  The church, however, is showing signs that it has fallen under the influence of the very secularism which the prevailing culture has rejected.

Sixteen years ago, a group calling itself the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals published something called “The Cambridge Declaration,” in which they fairly and accurately assessed the state of contemporary evangelical Christianity.  In it they wrote:

As evangelical faith becomes secularized, its interests have been blurred with those of the culture.  The result is a loss of absolute values, permissive individualism, and a substitution of wholeness for holiness, recovery for repentance, intuition for truth, feeling for belief, chance for providence, and immediate gratification for enduring hope.  Christ and His cross have moved from the center of our vision.

And again, Lesslie Newbigin:

What is required of us is faithfulness in word and deed, at whatever the cost; faithfulness in action for truth, for justice, for mercy, for compassion; faithfulness in speaking the name of Jesus when the time is right, bearing witness, by explicit word as occasion rises, to God Whose we are and Whom we serve.  There are situations where the word is easy and the deed is costly; there are situations where the deed is easy and the word is costly.  Whether in word or in deed, what is required in every situation is that we be faithful to Him who said to His disciples: “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” and showed them His hands and His side.

The contemporary evangelical church in America has sold out to the prevailing “spirit of the age”—consumerism.  Doesn’t anyone see the irony in multi-million dollar church campuses—complete with health clubs, coffee shops, and state-of-the-art media technology—led by highly paid staffs of specialists whose training and experience is more likely to be from the world of business than from a theological seminary—all supposedly involved in service to the One Who said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Brothers and sisters, we are doing the right thing but in a decidedly wrong way.

Henri Nouwen, in a book titled In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, reminds us:

Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of ministry.  Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers.  They will think of themselves as enablers, facilitators, role models, father or mother figures, big brothers or big sisters, and so on, and thus join the countless men and women who make a living by trying to help their fellow human beings to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday living.

But that has little to do with Christian leadership because the Christian leader thinks, speaks, and acts in the name of Jesus who came to free humanity from the power of death and open the way to eternal life.  To be such a leader it is essential to be able to discern from moment to moment how God acts in human history and how personal, communal, national, and international events that occur during our lives can make us more and more sensitive to the ways in which we are led to the cross and through the cross to the resurrection.

It used to be that pastors were called to service on the basis of their knowledge of scripture, their spiritual insight, and their personal holiness of character.  Today a pastor needs to be a motivator more than a mentor, a psychologist more than a prophet, more familiar with technology than with theology.

In his book, The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul has written…

In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity. … The machine has made itself master of the heart and brain both of the average man and of the mob.  What excites the crowd?  Performance—whether performance in sports or economic performance, in reality these are the same thing.  Technique is the instrument of performance.  What is important is to go higher and faster; the object of the performance means little.  The act is sufficient unto itself.  Modern man can think only in figures, and the higher the figures, the greater the satisfaction.

This is not authentic Christianity, but it does help to explain the line in Os Guinness’s book, Dining With the Devil, where he quotes a Japanese businessman who asks a visiting Australian Christian, “Why is it that, whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man, but whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager?”

More anon.