D-Day, June 6, 1944

Thinking about, and writing about, past wars is difficult for me. I am, by all accounts, a pacifist. Now, I am not the 1960’s hippie version, sitting around a campfire smoking weed and singing “Kumbaya,” but never-the-less, I just do not see any sense defending war. I believe that I stand in the best tradition of my forefathers in making that stand. I believe with all my heart that Jesus taught peace making and self-less surrender over taking up arms. Maybe I just missed the verse that says that we should love our enemy, but yet spend billions of dollars inventing ways to blow him and his children to oblivion.

On the other hand, the Bible speaks just as clearly regarding defending the weak, and standing up for those who have no voice. So, while I struggle mightily with the concept of an offensive fighting force, I honestly have no problem with maintaining a defensive force, so long as there is a bright line dividing what is an offensive and a defensive military confrontation. So, in my mind, the last truly defensible war the United States has fought was World War II. (Word of explanation here: you cannot defend a war using the “just war” defense, if there was no war declared. No military action  whether it be Korea, Viet Nam, Desert Storm, or any other “operation” since WW II, was officially declared by the President or Congress as a “War,” and therefore, cannot be defended using the “just war” precepts.)

World War II was, in my opinion, the last time our nation has correctly applied the concepts of a “just war.” The definition of a just war varies depending on who is making the distinction, but most definitions include having a definable goal, avoiding civilian casualties to the best of an army’s ability, the clear declaration of a war on a legal basis, and the humane treatment of captured enemy soldiers. Even in WWII the lines were blurred, as the fire-bombing of Dresden was unconscionable.

All of that was a long pre-amble to this: today, June 6, is the anniversary of perhaps the greatest single effort to liberate a conquered continent in the history of mankind. Thousands of allied soldiers died in just a few hours that morning, as well as even more thousands of German soldiers. What I have learned over the past few days is that even more French civilians died during the invasion and weeks following!! June 6, 1944 was literally the turning point in the war in Europe, and without the sacrifices paid that day, Europe would have never been freed from Nazi control. The hundreds of graves in the cemeteries of the Allied soldiers, and even those graves in which the soldiers of Germany lie, are a testament to the brutality and inhumanity of man.

World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Then there was World War II. Then there was the Korean “conflict” and the Viet Nam “police action.” And then there was “operation” Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom – the names are a mockery of the English language.

I believe that the United States was right to come to the defense of England, Europe, and China in the 1940’s. I also believe (and believe it has been well proven) that with the proper intervention, World War II should never have happened. Political and diplomatic opportunities abounded, but isolationist policies and a resolute refusal for the Christian Church to oppose both Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito spelled disaster for the European continent, and most of the Pacific rim nations. Even after the hostilities began, had the Church been more aggressive in pressing for diplomatic overtures, the resistance in Germany would have eliminated Hitler, and thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives would have been saved.

So, I honor those men and women who sacrificed their lives this day 75 years ago. They must never be forgotten. I doubt this world will ever see such courage again – at least not on the scale exhibited that day.

And I fervently pray that no generation will ever again be asked to liberate another continent from a depraved, maniacal, despot. May we learn, somehow and for all time, the skills necessary to solve our disagreements around a conversation table, and not over a battlefield.

The Commencement Speech No One Will Ever Hear

Ah, the end of May and the beginning of June. Time for graduations far and near. And so, completely unrequested and with the full knowledge that it will never be given verbatim, here is the commencement speech I believe is truly the only one that is worth hearing. The intended audience is, obviously, a group of men just commencing their journey as ministers of the gospel.

Friends, graduates, fellow academicians, lend me your ears. I come not to praise you, but to bury you. For only if you have been buried can you send forth new life – and it is to a new life that we send you today. Prepare, then, to have a little dirt thrown your way.

First, I congratulate you. This is indeed a momentous occasion for you. You have, to use Paul’s epic words, “fought with the beasts” and you have emerged victorious. Not everyone can do what you have just done. Not many would want to, mind you, but whether they did or not, they could not finish what you have finished. By your presence here you have demonstrated that you have mastered the art of translating Greek and Hebrew sentences, that you can differentiate between exegesis and hermeneutics, and that you can hold your own in written debate with the likes of N.T. Wright. Your guides, your shepherds, your academic guardians have all attested to your intellectual fitness to hold the degrees which will be conferred to you. Your parents, your siblings, and perhaps your spouses all hold you in the highest esteem. Today is truly a great day.

Get over it.

I’m serious. Enjoy the day to its fullest. Bask in the limelight while it is still shining brightly. Dine sumptuously. Drink deeply of all the huzzahs and congratulations. But, this is just the beginning. If you stopped growing following the great celebration of the day of your birth, you would not be here today. Today is the beginning, not the end. That’s why we call it a “commencement.” But there is another, darker reason why I counsel you to “get over it.” You will learn of this reality all too soon.

I know each of you is committed to a life of ministry – whether in a congregational ministry or perhaps in an academic post or a missionary field. You have no thoughts of failure, or of abandoning your quest. Sadly, the statistics of life-long ministry do not support your optimism. Amid the unbridled euphoria and the sweet fragrance of success that floods the room today, let me caution you about what your future holds. It will not be pretty.

Let me use, as a parable, my life first as a flight student and then as a flight instructor to illustrate my words of warning. As a flight student the second greatest day that you experience is the day you solo – the day that you control the airplane as sole occupant. The feeling is simply beyond description. You know you are up to the task, and your flight instructor has endorsed you to do just that – fly the plane by yourself. But you know, in the back of your mind, that you are still flying on the legal basis of your flight instructor. You can take off and land by yourself, but you are not a pilot. You still have much to learn, much to observe. The talent is there, but it is raw, unrefined. For better or worse, and mostly for the better, your instructor is there to teach, to discipline, to correct, and to protect you throughout the various phases of instruction you have yet to complete.

Chances are you all have experienced something similar to “going solo” while in school. Perhaps you have worked as an intern with a congregation. Perhaps you have even initiated a new ministry, or have taken an existing ministry to a higher level of effectiveness. The euphoria of such endeavors is intoxicating, indeed. But you know, just as the fledgling flight student, that you are still operating on the license of an instructor. You still have the grace, and the forgiveness, of being “just a student.” Those words can be grating, but they are also powerful deterrents against unfair and undeserved attacks. So you serve, as we have all served, under the protecting label of “capable, but not yet quite mature.” The label is at the same time irritating and assuring. You’re getting there, but if the air gets a little turbulent, there is always a more seasoned hand to take the controls.

Some time later comes the one single greatest day in the process of your flight instruction – the day you take your final flight examination. After you land and shut the airplane down, the FAA flight examiner leans over, shakes your hand, and says, “Congratulations, you are a private pilot.” Now you no longer have to ask permission to fly. Now you are truly the master of your own ship. Now you can utter those immortal words, “the sky is the limit.” Oh, the joy!

Except, now the responsibility is ALL YOURS. Now you no longer have the comfort of blaming your instructor. Now when the FAA comes calling, you can not look over your shoulder for your big brother. The world gets a lot smaller, even when it just seemed to open up beyond every horizon. When you fly on your own certificate, you suddenly seem to take all the little decisions a whole lot more seriously. What about the weather? How much weight do I have on the plane? How much fuel do I really need? Have I really gone over my flight plan as seriously as I need to? One bad decision and the FAA can take that little piece of paper away and you have to start all over. Or, worse, lives and property can be at stake.

Today, you have earned your wings. Today we shake your hand and say, “Congratulations, you are now a fully capable, qualified, and endorsed proclaimer of theology and comforter of souls.” Today is what you have been looking forward to for years. It’s done. You’ve finished the race that you started some time ago – and all the plaudits are deeply deserved.

But, little birdie, today we also kick you out of the nest. You’ve got your feathers and your certificates, now get out and fly. And, just to be sure, the air is not going to always be smooth, nor the landings soft. It’s called life. Get over it.

The reality is that many of you – perhaps as many as half or more of you – will not complete a career in ministry, either congregational or academic. You will venture out into congregations comprised of members who think it great sport to destroy the lives of ministers. They have no self-respect of their own, and they gladly share that lack of respect with anyone who dares to claim any authority. Because we send you out to speak with the authority of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, that means they will have no respect for you. Because you will be called upon to challenge their mistaken beliefs and discipline them for their ungodly behavior, they will despise and abhor your work. All the while they will play the martyr and manipulate the situations to make it appear that you are the bully, you are the heavy. They will spare no effort to gather followers to their cause, and your job and your ministry mean nothing to them so long as they win the day and the argument.

You think I am kidding – but this is no laughing matter. Many churches (and university administrations) exist for no other purpose than to destroy the lives and futures of those who dare to challenge their power structures. For some of you the destruction will be complete. I say it now without any hesitation, there are some of you here listening to my words today that will not only leave the ministry, but you will leave the faith. Paul essentially said the same thing to the Ephesian elders, so I am sharing this will pretty good company. Ministry is not for everyone, and for some the pain of rejection is so intense, and so debilitating, that there simply is no rehabilitation. My heart breaks for you.

There are a number of you, who, after being so treated, will decide to leave the ministry for a season – but time and circumstances will so converge as to provide you with a second chance at ministry. So, you will discover that after a decade or so, that the fire is still burning, the hope has not been extinguished. You will return, your feathers clipped, your wings a little ruffled, but never-the-less, alive and kicking. Jeremiah preached for years with no tangible results. We can expect no better – unless you believe you can preach more faithfully and more effectively than Jeremiah. But, Jeremiah kept preaching. I pray for those of you who fit this pattern. Life will not be easy, but I pray that at the end it will be fruitful.

And, to be honest, some of you will skip through life unmolested by the demons your classmates will face. You will be given cars and golf club memberships and have your vacations to the Caribbean fully funded by a rich member of the congregation. Just when that happens, please do not come back to the next reunion and brag about it to the other poor schmucks who go from month to month, and sometimes from Sunday to Sunday, wondering if they will have a job on Monday.

Congratulations, graduates. Today is your day. Enjoy it, because tomorrow belongs to the evil one, and he will not rest until he has tested all of you, and has devoured as many as he can. You wanted this, you’ve worked tirelessly for it – now the challenge is yours. You didn’t study all those hours and spend all that money to earn a certificate so you could sit on a bench and look to the clouds.

It’s time to fly.

Preaching An Offensive Gospel, Without Being Offensive

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that I sometimes get much healthier instruction and encouragement from authors outside of my faith community than I do from authors who share my specific theological convictions. I do not rejoice in that particular experience. I find it distressing, to say the very least. But, it leads to a question: What is it about their writings that I find so encouraging, that I find lacking in authors/preachers from within the Churches of Christ? It is a fair question.

The issue I mentioned yesterday was that they make an unflinching defense of the gospel of Christ to confront not only their culture – but primarily of their own church community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not begin his journey by attacking Adolf Hitler – he was initially only interested in purging National Socialism from the German church (although, confronting Hitler directly was close behind). Lesslie Newbigin did not set out to attack the political system of England – he wanted to wake his church up to the idolatry that it had absorbed (although, you cannot attack idolatry without attacking the idol that inspires it). Os Guinness does not want to re-write the Constitution, he writes primarily to Christians in order to get them to follow the gospel of Christ (although, in so doing, we do have to take a serious look at the humanistic nature of the Constitution).

All three of these authors touch on and hover around a central theme – the gospel of Christ is at its core an offensive gospel. Not hateful, mind you, but offensive, yes.

The gospel is offensive to the modern, western, and in particular, American, culture. In our world the center is the self, the individual. Everything we do magnifies the individual. Life is all about ME! If I want it, I get it, no matter what it costs or how it deprives others of what they want. My personal happiness and my personal welfare eclipses every other concern. I can destroy the earth, I can ruin reputations, I can use derogatory and repugnant language, I can kill the unborn child in my womb, I can even change my biological birth gender – all because I am the king of my life and I can do whatever I want to do that makes me happy and self-fulfilled. To deny me that freedom is the worst crime that a person or a society can commit – it is a denial of my personal, individual, reign over my life.

Contrast that with the gospel. In the kingdom of God the community – the church – is the most important organism, and the individual only gains importance through that community. In the kingdom of God the other comes first, not the self. In the kingdom of God we die to ourselves and live for the other, and in particular, we live for Christ. In the kingdom of God the most important right we own is the right to relinquish all of our rights for the benefit and the promotion of the community. In the kingdom of God responsibility is as critical, if not more critical, than any supposed rights. In the kingdom of God no truths are considered “self-evident” – that is a fiction of the enlightenment. The only way we know truth is through the revelation of God himself. In the kingdom of God the most important symbol is not a flag or a gun or a piece of paper – it is a cross, the symbol of hatred on one side and divine love on the other. In the kingdom of God the only way to win is to lose, and the only way to live is to die. We ascend by climbing lower.

Bonhoeffer, Newbigin and Guinness all preach this gospel. They all make the same point, albeit in different ways and even though their message has been intended for vastly different audiences. It is only through this offensive gospel that a human can know his or her value, and it is only through this gospel that a bent and broken world can be healed. It is tough medicine – in a sense it is a medicine that actually kills the patient before it can restore the patient to a new life.

Exactly what the gospel proclaims in the pages of the New Testament.

So how is what I hear from authors/preachers within the Churches of Christ any different? What do I hear from our spiritual leaders?

  • We cannot tell the millennial generation to grow up and value the body of Christ as the preeminent reality because it might hurt their sense of individuality, and they might leave and go elsewhere.
  • We cannot tell the sexually degenerate or confused that there is one, single immutable truth about sexuality because it might scare them away from the church.
  • We cannot confront a hyper left-leaning or right-leaning political constituency with the reality that they have replaced their faith in God with an idolatrous belief in human reason for fear that they consider us crazed lunatics – or even worse, rabid fundamentalists.
  • We cannot confront an aging group of baby-boomers (and I am one) with the thought that the way in which they have used and abused the earth’s resources is in direct contradiction to the mandate in Genesis to husband the earth for fear that they might withdraw their necessary contributions to the church.
  • We cannot confront either Democrat or Republican with the gospel call to forsake all idolatrous nationalism for fear that we might be viewed as being unpatriotic.
  • We cannot preach the exclusive message of the gospel for fear that we will be considered hateful and prejudiced.
  • We cannot preach that there is one way, and one way only, to God and that is through the death of Christ. We cannot preach believer’s baptism because that is simply a dogma and is narrow minded. We cannot preach that there is only one church because that is sectarian.
  • On the other hand, we must preach inclusiveness, praise individuality, and above all, maintain the liturgy of the Church of the American Myth.

In short, what we need to preach is the insipid, watered down, meaningless pablum that we hear from every other religious organization that has swallowed Satan’s bait – hook, line and sinker. Oh, we will be popular, and I can list a number of congregations that are just busting out of their buildings to the point they have to have “multiple campuses” to demonstrate their popularity.

But, if I read the book of Revelation correctly, these are not of the church of Christ, even if they wear the name Church of Christ.

In preaching this gospel we cannot afford to be hateful, mean-spirited, ungracious. It is a command, not a mere suggestion, that we “speak the truth in love.” But is is simply un-loving to change the gospel into something that it is not. The apostle Paul had no hesitancy to know and to teach that the gospel is repugnant to a wide range of audiences – it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. The early martyrs, from Stephen on down, were not killed because they told everyone that they were quite all right. To Americans the gospel is “hate speech.” Because it challenges each and every one of us to die to ourselves and our selfishness, the gospel is deeply offensive.

To be sure, I have only painted one side of the picture. The other side is that the gospel is profoundly beautiful and loving. It is the picture of a God who so loved his (rebellious and fallen) creation that he became a part of that creation in order to redeem it. It is a picture of a God who so wants to totally redeem all of that creation that he has entrusted those who believe in him with the blessed task of sharing in that redemptive story. I do not want to ever lose sight of this side of the story. But just as the gospel story recounts, you cannot get to the resurrection without first going through the cross. No one objects to Easter. Gethsemane and Calvary are preposterously offensive, however, and it is exactly Gethsemane and Calvary that we are called to bear.

As our culture falls ever more deeply into a moral abyss, it is absolutely critical that someone, or a bunch of someones, preaches this offensive gospel, so that the cross of Christ will be effective and powerful to draw men and women to God.

The question is, who is going to preach it?

A Call to Confession

I recently read a book review that piqued my interest (in the positive sense). I am always on the lookout for new books, especially those that challenge me and/or provide me with a different perspective than what I currently have. I should say that the book provided me everything I was looking for, and perhaps more.

I am not going to provide my typical “book review” (although, in a purist sense, I never provide an honest-to-goodness review). What I would like to do is to share some reflections after reading the book, which, hopefully, is what any good book is designed to foster.

The book is titled, A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, and published by Grand Central Publishing (2001). I have only had a passing acquaintance with the speeches of Dr. King, and have never really spent much time learning about the Civil Rights Movement or of Dr. King’s life. So, reading these speeches was truly an eye opener for me. So, on to my observations:

  • I was struck how, in virtually every speech, Dr. King urged (even begged?) his audience to maintain the purest form of non-violence. Compared to the vitriolic speech of so many today (both white and black), the tone of Dr. King’s speeches is profound. He knew that acts of violence would not achieve his goals, and indeed would turn many people against his movement who might have otherwise been willing to follow him. These speeches are a case study in the process of working against unbelievable hatred using non-violent processes.
  • Reading these speeches clarified for me, perhaps as no other format could, how we as a culture misunderstand the concept of sin. When we (and perhaps I am speaking primarily of the dominant white culture) think of “sin” what we typically visualize are individual “sins” – lying, stealing, cheating, murder, rape, adultery, etc. What we fail to see is that “sin” is systemic, it is a part of the culture in which we exist. I do not want to minimize the reality of individual sins – the Bible is full of lists of individual sins. But what we fail to see is how sin becomes ingrained into the very process of how we live our lives. When we try to eliminate the little “sins” in our lives we are going to be utter failures unless we confront the larger issue of sin. Jesus did not come and die to make us more moral people – philosophers stretching back at least to Socrates (if not further) had been doing that for centuries. Jesus came and died to make us new people. If we lose that reality we have no prospect of addressing the individual “sins” in our lives.
  • Reading these speeches I felt, probably for the first time, what it must have been like to have been denied the right to drink from the same water fountain as a white person, or to use the same restroom as a white person. The “Jim Crow” laws were brutally dehumanizing – and there simply is no other way to state it. Those laws declared black Americans to be sub-human, in the exact fashion that the laws enacted by Adolf Hitler declared Jews to be sub-human in the 1930’s. Christians who rightly shudder in horror over the Nazi pogroms shrug our shoulders when confronted with our own racial atrocities.
  • As I have stated elsewhere, I shudder to think what I would have done if I had been an adult in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I know how hot-headed I was (and still sometimes resort to being!), and I just cannot bring myself to think about what I would have said and done had I been a part of the white mobs that confronted those who were marching for the right to be considered equal, and not separate. It is easy for me to sit where I am today and to say that I would have marched with Dr. King. I hope I would have.
  • I was completely unaware of the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the protest over the Vietnam “war” (we never declared a war, so calling it the “Vietnam War” is a misnomer.) Dr. King expressed some things that I have never heard before, and his words have got me to thinking. I need to study a little deeper – but if what Dr. King said was true, if the Vietnamese were fighting for their independence from France, if they were looking to our Declaration of Independence for inspiration, if they looked to the United States for solidarity in the hopes of becoming a free people, if France did pull out and recommend strongly that we withdraw our military as well – then what I have been told for decades is at the best a white-wash, and outright lies at worst.
  • The lives of Dr. Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer share a profound number of similarities. Speaking truth to power demands a special kind of courage, and frequently ends in martyrdom.
  • I could not help but notice, however, how utterly and completely Dr. King’s vision and mission has been hijacked by his latter-day followers. Dr. King excoriated the southern “Dixiecrats” who worked to keep the black people from gaining any kind of power in the south. Today I see the white power structures in the south as just as racist, yet with a peculiar difference – many black leaders have made their peace with these modern “Dixiecrats” and work just as hard to keep the underclass blacks right where they are. After all, if everyone is healthy, where would the need for a physician be? If blacks are truly given all the freedom and equality that they deserve, where will the need for these modern white slave owners and their black minions be? Somehow, I just do not think Dr. King would be happy with the way modern Democrats push policies that are deeply wounding to the overwhelming majority of blacks (welfare, for example, weakens the family structure by providing help only to those who are unmarried; abortion is disproportionately used by black women). To be honest – I do not see much help from the Republican side either. Both political parties are grossly negligent in promoting the vision of true equality that Dr. King sought.

The title of the book is A Call to Conscience. For me it was a call to confession. I see the world a little differently now, and it is not at all comfortable. The last few days I have been challenged, and I hope (and do pray) that moving forward I will look at my world a little more clearly.

Thanks for “hearing” my confession.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leadership From Below

Yesterday’s post generated a thoughtful comment, and that comment spurred another thought in my mind. “Iron sharpens iron . . . ” so the wise preacher said. So, indeed, it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into what could arguably be called one of the most aristocratic families in Germany. His father was a leading psychiatrist,  both of his parents came from aristocratic, if not regal, blood lines. Growing up Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the primacy of position this placed him, and there are clear statements where he admits this was troublesome to him.

In the church struggle that Bonhoeffer was so deeply involved, he quickly realized that it was not the ecclesiastical aristocracy that was going to stand up against Hitler and defend Christ and the church. It was going to be the masses, the people in the pews, the “commoners.” Time and again he begged the leaders of the German churches to take a stand against the Nazis, but they were concerned about their position, they were concerned about the legal structures that existed in Germany,  they were concerned about finances, they were concerned about everything but what they should have been concerned about – the purity of the church. The support Bonhoeffer (and his compatriots) received came from below – the members of the church that, according to church laws then current, really had no official voice. When the pastors lost their income (the pastors of the Lutheran and United churches were supported by the government, who paid their salaries out of taxes levied against all citizens), the church members stepped up. When the Gestapo closed seminaries and threatened churches, the members opened other doors of education and worship. Bonhoeffer learned what it was to lead “from below.” It confirmed for him what he had  always been uneasy about – aristocracy comes from blood lines, but genuine Christian obedience comes from the heart.

In congregations all across the religious spectrum today, and certainly within the Churches of Christ, there is the “aristocracy” that is concerned about everything except what they should be concerned about. Politics, money, power, even social issues such as abortion and gun rights can co-opt a congregation and leave its members floundering. I do not want to be some “Pollyanna” or “Dorothy” and think that we can click our heels together three time and return back to Kansas. But, hopeless romantic that I am, I do believe that there are Bonhoeffers and Bethges and Niemoellers* out there who are willing to risk their reputations and even lives for the sake of the church (Martin Niemoeller was a U-Boat captain in WWI, he received an Iron Cross for his service. He spent WWII in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.)

Let us learn how to lead from below.

*I apologize to the historians and Niemoeller legacy, I know that his name is spelled with an unlaut over the “o,” but I cannot figure out how to put one there. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s family name was originally spelled with an umlaut over the second “o,” but the spelling had changed by the time he was born. Seeing as how my family name was in all probability spelled “Smyth” or even “Smythe” at one time, I can relate to the vagaries of generational name shifts.

When Your Sacred Cow is Gored

I believe that one of the real “acid” tests for our profession of faith in Christ comes when one of our “Sacred Cows” is gored. By that I mean a cherished belief is questioned, a matter of absolute life and death is declared to be nothing more than mere opinion. Let me illustrate with three examples, one from Scripture, and two from Christian history.

The first is the well-known conversion of the Pharisee Saul to the disciple Paul. Saul was convinced with every fiber of his body that the sect of the Nazarenes had to be extinguished. So convinced, in fact, that he devoted his life (or at least a major part of it) to the persecution of that sect. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul learned that this mission was, in fact, directly opposite of what he thought it was. In fact, he learned that his prior life as a Pharisee was the false religion that he believed the Christian Way to be. His “sacred cow” was gored to death. He spent the remainder of his life proclaiming this Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, and called all men to accept that Jesus as both their savior from sin and Lord of their life.

The first example from history would be the combined efforts of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and their many co-workers. Both of the Campbells and Stone were raised in and promoted the Presbyterian (Calvinist) interpretation of Scripture. At varying points in their lives, the Campbells, Stone, and others had this “sacred cow” gored. To their everlasting credit they made the decision to follow Scripture where Scripture led them, and they allowed that “cow” of denominational creedalism to pass away.

The second of my historical examples is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian educated in the most liberal of theological universities, and the heir of the other major church reformer, Martin Luther. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had his theological “sacred cow” gored, and he would eventually suffer death as a result of his passionate efforts to reform and renew the German church.

What did Saul turned Paul, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all share in common? Not a theological background – Saul was a Jew, the Campbells and Stone were Calvinist Presbyterians, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Not a historical epoch – Saul died in the mid first century AD, the Campbells and Stone in the mid 19th century, and Bonhoeffer in the mid 20th century. Not geography – Saul in Palestine, the Campbells and Stone in America and Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. What united these pioneers of faith?

Perhaps many things could be listed, but the one thing that stands out to me is their willingness to be open to the Word of God as it was revealed to them. Saul (Paul) had a miraculous revelation of Christ, the Campbells and Stone were caught up in the fires of the Second Great Awakening, Bonhoeffer was caught up in an entirely different kind of fire. The biblical Saul, the ante-bellum Restorers and the Nazi resister Bonhoeffer were faced with unique and world-changing situations, and each responded to the call of Scripture in almost the exact same manner: they listened to the Word of God and rejected their former beliefs, even up to and (in the case of Saul and Bonhoeffer) including the sacrifice of their own lives.

These all ascended by climbing lower.

I don’t think our Christian mettle is proved when we sit in an auditorium and hear a sermon, the content of which we have heard hundreds of times before, and with with we agree completely. We are not proven to be disciples of Christ when we demand that every word that we hear, or read, comes from a “sound” gospel preacher (whatever in the world that means). We do not “study to show ourselves approved” when we never allow ourselves to be challenged or have any of our “sacred cows” gored.

I am thankful for all the faithful preachers and teachers who have been influential in my life. I am especially thankful for those who have demonstrated to me the ability, and in fact the necessity, of the strength of character to have my own “sacred cows” gored, so that I can decide if the voice I am following is that of the Good Shepherd, or that of the accuser of mankind.

May we all be blessed with that strength of character!

 

June 6, 1944

There is a beautiful phrase in the book of Hebrews, tucked neatly in the author’s paean to those heroes of faith so vast that he could not name them. He wrote, as the section drew to its close, “. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

On this, the anniversary of the great allied invasion of Normandy, I cannot help but meditate on that phrase.

I think of the thousands of young lives lost that day – American, British, Canadian (and others) – on the sea and in the air. I think of their resolute composure. They were not fearless – but they overcame their fear with the realization that their mission, what they were tasked to do, was so much more honorable than the goal of their enemy that they set aside their fear in order to meet the challenge.

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of the commanders, those in the field and those well behind the lines. They knew the losses would be catastrophic. Maybe they were not fully aware of the carnage that would meet the Americans on Utah beach, but they knew General Rommel was in charge of the defenses. I cannot imagine the weight that rests upon the shoulders of a man who must send other men into the face of withering gun fire or anti-aircraft shells. I wonder about their conscience. They were tasked with a mission, and the mission would cost lives. Many lives. What goes through the mind of a man who looks into the eyes of young men who, within a few short hours, will offer the greatest sacrifice?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of the medics and the chaplains who tried to save the wounded and who gave comfort to the dying. What do you say to a young boy from Kansas who, up until a few days ago, had never seen an ocean and now, thousands of miles away from home, will never see another wheat field? How do you give spiritual comfort in a battlefield that resembles the mouth of hell?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of those who piloted the transport craft ferrying the soldiers to the beaches, and the airplane pilots who carried the paratroopers over the drop zones. Many of them would not survive either. The C-47 drop planes were supposed to bring their planes over the drop zones at 1,000 feet. For those who do not understand, in terms of firing anti-aircraft guns 1,000 feet is the equivalent of a knife fight. Yet, many would make the same trip, over water and through the air, ferrying soldiers, retrieving wounded, and dropping supplies.

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I question whether the United States could win another such war. I do not doubt our soldiers and sailors one little bit. I stand in awe of their willingness to serve, even if I deeply question the civilian commanders who blindly and stupidly send them into battle. But I simply do not believe in the moral fabric of our American culture anymore. We are a nation of narcissists and cowards. We hide behind our “rights” and our “freedoms” and we no longer have the strength as a people to shoulder our responsibilities. A pathetic little coward who cannot even stand on two feet during the playing of the national anthem is regarded as being “brave” and a “hero” by many. His disrespect for those who have served this country and have given him the freedom to spout his hatred is beyond repugnant – but such is the time in which we live.

Cowardice is called bravery, hatred is called love; respect is called bigotry.

When the United States collapses (when, not if), will we look back on those young men who gave their lives on June 6, 1944 as the high point of our civilization?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I try to honor the sacrifice of those young men every day, by living according to the highest standards given to us in Scripture. I know I fail all too often – but their memory still haunts me.

May we all aspire to live lives worthy of their sacrifice. May their deaths not be in vain.