Blog 9.8.19. Maybe we need to unlearn the church.

[A word of explanation o my readers: I have been silent for these past several weeks due to some complications with my blogging platform being out-of-date. That problem is now resolved due to  the efforts of my skillful friend. So, we’re back on schedule.]

A major voice in the field of education says that educators need to get education out of the production-line mentality, … and into the digital age in which our children are growing up, in which they are engaged from an early age in computer games which make their minds agile, inquisitive and innovative. She uses the idea of unlearning the whole process of educating the current generation. This is not a new thought, but a tough one to realize. The Christendom era solidly established the church as an institution with clergy, it produced denominational hierarchies, and supportive agencies, … and hardly seemed to notice moved into a post-Christian era in which the Christian faith was a diminishing factor, … never seemed able to ‘un-think’ its assumptions, and so cruised along in a systemic ecclesiastical darkness.

The prophetic force that blew the whistle on this was the influence of Lesslie Newbigin, who wanted to redefine the church as a missional community of God’s new creation people. But even those who were captivated by Newbigin’s thesis, and who gathered together in ‘think-tanks’ to process this and its implications, were not able to un-think their captivity to Christendom forms. I know. I was part of those think-tanks. I used to remind them that when denominations and congregations were formed as custodial, and clergy dependent, …to suddenly foist upon them the notion that every baptized person was responsible for the church’s mission, and to be engaged in its confrontation as the children of the Light with the cultural darkness, and ‘all hell would break loose.’

The norm for membership in Christendom-custodial communities was to be arm-chair participants in congenial church institutions. The very suggestion that we need to unlearn the church as a place where one satisfied one’s need for religious input and companionship, …and to consciously see it as a dynamic community of God’s new humanity in Christ, and in which I/we are all involved in being equipped for just such  radical new Kingdom of God living, … in which we are interacting/group-sourcing and engaging with each other and with the Spirit of God in a whole array of different forms and places, … doesn’t come easily, alas!

A wonderfully provocative voice on this is Howard Snyder, who a generation ago, wrote the book The Problem of Wineskins, in which he mischievously proposed that if you want to know how healthy your church is, then sell your church building! (I reminded him, in a conversation, that you could get killed for suggesting that to a congregation, who tend to be idolatrous about church buildings.)

Of course, such new humanity communities need to have form and mutual agreement as to mission, but only as there is a common determination to incarnate our New Creation lives in fulfilling Christ’s mission in the realities of this present post-Christian culture as Christ’s Spirit-inhabited people collaborating to obey in the mission he has given—no arm too weak, or life too insignificant to be equipped and engaged in this missional community.

“As the Father has sent me, even so do I send you.”


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There’s a frightening dimension to the social-political scene we’re going to be watching in the forthcoming months before the presidential election in 2020. You’ll find it in Matthew 25:31ff. It is the acid-test of who will be embraced in love by the Son of Man (Jesus), and who will be rejected and consigned to destruction at his coming again. It’s not the kind of Bible passage that you walk through lightly. But given what the political debates are going to be dealing with in the coming days, it’s hard to escape that the cosmic battle (which includes political values) includes the just and compassionate care of the helpless persons on our doorsteps. Note:

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (now note the criteria) “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison (detention camps?) and you came to me. … As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

Now, back up and lay that list alongside what you are reading about the controversial issues that are being debated in the corridors of power and in the presidential and congressional debates that have to do with human need: health care for all, raised minimum wage, compassionate response to immigrants and refugees, care of God’s creation, environment, global warming, the huge number of those in prison for minor crimes, racism, gun control and violence, issues of justice, humanitarian response to the helpless poor on our doorstep, etc. Such difficult and costly solutions should absolutely be discussed in our Christian communities, as well as in political debates. (Pandering to the wealthy at such national is part of this complex issue).

Face it: from this Biblical text the cost of ignoring these issues, and these helpless people, is hazardous, i.e., you did it unto the least of these, … or you did it not unto the lease of these. These are personal, communal, as well as political issues. To whom our votes go, and what the platforms and policies of our government implements are for us a matter of either “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, …” or: “and these will go away into eternal punishment”

Those of you who read these blogs are among the wealthiest people on earth comparatively. Our personal and communal support for the politicians, and church communities, and humanitarian organizations who are seeking to bring justice, provision, and practical love to this huge number of people at least gives us some means to provide for “the least of these.” The sobering reality is that we cannot be neutral or detached from “the least of these.”

[I always appreciate your responses. Let me hear from you.]

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If I seem to my readers a bit ‘hung up’ on my obsession with the integrity of the church, …it is because over my long career as a pastor I have had to confront the fuzziness of the understanding of church participantS as to how they defined the church, and what it had to do with the message and mission of Jesus Christ. This question grew on me as I would be interviewed on numerous occasionsby pulpit nominating committees from significant congregations. I had, early on, been fruitfully engaged in putting together, what had formerly been a rather moribund church scene, into a very vibrant congregation, and that word had gotten out so that congregations looking for a pastor frequently had my name on their list.

Congregations, also, usually select some of their more gifted members to serve on their pastoral search (I’m a Presbyterian, and this is part of our church order, which is different than other traditions). That being so, the committee members who met with me were usually pretty keen intellectually. Here’s my point: I would initially ask them what the purpose of their church was? Seems like a logical starting point. I particularly remember one such meeting was a commithee from a church was in a small town which was the  home of a well-known liberal arts college. The person with whom I initially engaged was a physician in that small town. “What is the purpose of your church?” was my question of him.  He chuckled, and asked why I had asked. I could only respond with the obvious answer that I had some pretty strong convictions about what the purpose of Christ’s church was to be, and that it was critical that I and a church be on the same wave length.

It was like a whole new thought to him, and he responded that their committee had never even discussed that. It was a pleasant conversation, but he returned to his small town and I never heard from them again.

Another occasion, some years later was a conversation with several members of a venerable old church institution in a northern city, which had in its membership many of the most influential citizens of that city. They had always had eloquent preachers, who also entertained them at a mid-week business men’s luncheon. Some of their respected previous pastors had directed them to me. They came, unannounced, to meet with me while I was on vacation. They were young professional men and good natured.

Again, I asked them what the purpose of that vast church institution was in the mission of God. Again, they seemed nonplussed at the question. It was obvious that they primarily wanted to secure a pastor who could continue what previous pastors had done and ensure a viable church institution in the midst of that city in which they could all receive the custodial pastoral services without themselves being transformed into the salt and light people of God’s new humanity in Christ. I let them know that I wasn’t what they were looking for.

That was one more episode that scored in my mind that every church community, and every one of its members have a clear sense of how that community is dynamically equipping its members to be the incarnation of God’s new creation 24/7. That pulpit search committee went home and I never heard from them again. They ultimately called a pastor who was quite eloquent in the pulpit, but not as one who equipped all its members for fruitful discipleship in their daily engagement as leaders in that city.

I want to pursue this in the weeks ahead. Jesus calls his people into communities in which all are ministering agents in his mission of making all things new. Stay tuned …




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I was having a conversation with a good friend a few days ago about the integrity and viability of a venerable old church institution, which conversation raised the question: How do you know if a church is a true church, or not? This is a question that has perplexed thoughtful followers of Christ since the beginning, and with many proposed solutions and manifestations. My sense is that you really can’t look at particular local church expressions and try to give them some kind of exam, but that you need to go all the way back and look at the design of God for his new creation, and then begin to search for his design and purpose for the community that incarnates that new creation—to look at his ultimate plan for particular communities of is new humanity in Christ is and how that unfolds.

On one hand, it is a temptation to look for perfection, or to be unduly critical. On the other hand, it is easy to overlook the fact that the church is a human community, and to remember that a significant part of the New Testament is written to confront the particular shortcomings, or human realities of those first century churches. And, yes, there is evidence there that a church can cease to be a church if you look at those letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor reported in chapters 2 and 3 of last book of the Bible in which a church’s lamp can be removed from the lampstand of God’s purpose for his church in the world.

From the fracturing of the original community/family in Genesis 3, you pick up that God has a vision of that day when “the seed of a woman will bruise the serpent’s head,” i.e., that God has an eschatological design to reconcile the world to himself, and to create a human community of reconciliation that would relate to himself and to each other in love, as well as to be that community that incarnated his new creation/kingdom and his will in the midst of the brokenness of this earthly scene. He would do this by calling men and women to himself through his son, and recreating them in knowledge, in new creation behavior, and in intimacy with himself in a community of disciples.

Skip down the centuries and you observe a shift of focus from a community of disciples ministering to one another in love, … to focus on a sacred place, and to a class of sacred persons (clergy) both of which subverted the church from its integrity as “the dwelling-place of God by the Holy Spirit” in a community of God’s new humanity in Christ, in which every follower is equipped to minister, and in which ever place they met was where Christ was present by his Spirit.

Such an understanding of the raison d’etre of the church is how one discerns that integrity and viability of the church. And whenever a particular church community dilutes this raison d’etre, or displaces it, or forgets it, to that degree the church reverts to a merely human community in which it becomes simply a religious expression of the chaos of this broken world. It may have a lovely social life, and inspiring meetings, … but if every participant is not passionate about the mission and message of Jesus Christ to make all things new, … to that degree it fails in its reason for being. … (to be continued).

[I would cherish getting your feedback from your own engagement with the church, and your recommendation of these blogs to friends who might benefit from them. Thanks!]

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I watched a demonstration of this proverb with fascination on Tuesday at the congressional hearing with special counsel Robert Mueller. The congressional panel tried desperately to get Mueller to “give full-vent to his spirit” … but he did not succumb. Mueller is a man of high principle, who is obviously offended by the president’s actions, lack of ethics, and general demeanor, but he would not take their bate. He, and his colleagues had fulfilled their purpose in doing a significant investigation, … and now the ball was in congress’s court.

In this highly contentious political atmosphere where it is almost routine for the president and for political opponents to “lash out” at those who oppose them, … here sat a wise and gifted figure who could have provided some very self-serving examples of the failures of this presidency, i.e., he could have given “full vent to his spirit”, gotten it off of his chest, and gone off to a quiet retirement. Ah! but Mr. Mueller is no fool. He and his colleagues had fulfilled their appointed purpose, and so all that the congressional inquisitors could get out of him was a yes/no answer as to his opinion of the president’s culpability in the overall investigation.

The congressional panel had before them the massive report that the special investigator’s team had prepared, and they now had sitting before them a wise gentleman, with no intention of “giving full vent to his spirit.” One does wonder what Robert Mueller’s inner thoughts are after sorting through all the evidence. Still, he had given the congress a responsibility that they could not avoid by getting him to give vent to his spirit.

These next months in this country are going to create a political atmosphere in which it is going to be a constant temptation to give full vent to our spirits, and so with the candidates for office. It will be a good discipline to remember the wholesome example we watched on Tuesday. Are there political and ethical misdemeanors committed by politicians? Of course—by the best of them.

I, for one, am grateful for the model of a wise public figure, who knows how to hold back what is not essential to the discussion. And, … I’m thankful afresh for the wisdom of the Proverbs.

[If these Blogs are provocative to you, let me hear from you, … and pass the word along to your friends. Thanks.]

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Just maybe too many of us identify ourselves as followers of Christ a bit mindlessly? Maybe we join Christian communities and make Christian profession without realizing that it might just cost us our reputations, or lives. Jesus was quite candid when he told his audience that unless a person forsook all that he had, he could not be his disciple. Jesus never sugar-coated the cost of being his disciple. The apostle put discipleship and baptism in terms of dying to a former way of life and rising to a radical way of new life in which our whole lives were given to him as instruments of righteousness.

Ah! But it gets more interesting. The apostle Peter explained to his listeners that they would always be outsiders, i.e., “aliens and exiles”, those who march to a different drummer, … they were a “holy nation” which doesn’t ever, really fit in, or conform to the power structures of this age. But keep going: our roots in the calling of Israel all those centuries ago make it plain that God’s people (our Old testament ancestors) are called to incarnate his own character: “What does the Lord require of thee, O man, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Or, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness (what is right) like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

Even when the Israelites were captives in a pagan empire, God told them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord in its behalf …” (Jeremiah 29:7). Those of us who identify ourselves as followers of Christ, do in fact have a nationality in one of the numerous nations of the world, and a responsibility to be God’s agents of light in what is often a context of darkness and inhumane power structures. But, primarily, we are part of God’s holy nation which is composed of those out of “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

The world in which we live, and the nation in which we are currently citizens, is one blighted and torn by all kinds of distressing expressions of violence, prejudice, inhumanity, hate-mongering, and expressions of destructive talk and behavior. Yet, in the midst of all of these nations, in the vast number of refugees who have no national home any longer, in nations that are under oppressive regimes, … God has his holy nation (often tiny, and persecuted) which is bound together with those of us in other nations as children of the light. But, … it can be costly. Discipleship is not cheap, but it has consequences of blessing wherever it is faithfully lived out.

These are troublesome days for us nationally and internationally. Yet it is in this context of darkness, what with so much deception, corruption, and unrighteousness, that we are called to b salt and light. It has always been such for God’s new creation people. We simply need to remember, and embrace more deeply, what being Christ’s disciples requires of us, and how we are to express the Light, today, and where we are It requires a death to all that is of the dominion of darkness, and a daily embracing our role as instruments of righteousness, i.e., the incarnation of God’s new humanity, his international community of disciples.

May grace and peace abound to you in this calling.


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The current political scene becomes the more perplexing as a sizeable segment of the voting population are identifying themselves as: ‘conservative evangelicals’. We need to unpack that to see how demeaning it is (perhaps bastardizing?) of the significant roots of that term evangelical. It comes from a Greek word (sounds like euangellion) which means: ‘thrilling news’. The Christian church adopted it to describe the whole life, message, and mission of Jesus of Nazareth. It is referred to as “the gospel of the kingdom of God” and, hence, of the thrilling news that God had come into this world to inaugurate his new creation through the person and work of Jesus.

It is in this understanding that we have four eyewitnesses to Jesus life and ministry, known to us as the four New Testament gospels/evangels. This heralds the dawn of a whole new age. Jesus life and teachings, the record of his earthly career, teachings, the death and resurrection. The founding of his church—the community of his new humanity—is built upon these teachings. Jesus was unequivocal in his insistence that only those who kept his teachings could be considered his disciples. This is the heart of the evangel, and the legitimate basis of the designation of evangelical.

The current mystery is as to how a considerable segment of the electorate of this nation embraces a political platform, and candidates (including the president), whose policies stand in stark contrast to the primary command to love others as he loves us, to engage in humanitarian ministries to the oppressed, to the poor, to strangers, … to yield our bodies as instruments of justice, to be instruments of his peace, to love our enemies, to minister to the poor and homeless, … how can that segment even remotely embrace that evangel in a movement that stands in naked opposition to everything Jesus taught … and, hence, as a conservative evangelical to be even more insistent upon those teachings.

For-instance, how can a university that presents itself as an evangelical school, invite as a guest of honor, even the president of this country, who is totally immoral and without any seeming familiarity with the scriptures that define the teachings of Jesus, i.e., who stands in naked denial of those teachings, and represents a lifestyle that is condemned throughout scripture? Or how can the son of a significant Christian voice from a former generation, and yet who is the anti-thesis of his father’s teachings and example, set himself forward as a spokesperson for this conservative evangelical segment of our political scene?

Here was Jesus who embraced the example of the good Samaritan (Samaritans were hated by Jews), of the Roman centurion (an officer in an occupying army), of a Syro-Phoenician woman, … as examples of true faith. All of them were objects of prejudice by Jews. Even Jesus’ cross was picked up by a North African when Jesus stumbled on his was to Calvary. The life and teachings of Jesus are built upon the teachings of the Old Testament prophets with their insistence that the Lord requires of us lives of justice and humility. All of this Biblical ethic is totally at odds with the racism, the prejudice, the void of humanitarian compassion exhibited by most of the advocates of the conservative evangelicals.

No! true evangelicals have a radical social ethic, if you read the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps it is time for those embracing this ideology to go back and read The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived in another time when the Christian church all too much sold its soul to an unrighteous national leader, … and paid a horrible price for doing so. To be a true evangelical is to be an incorrigible follower of the life and teachings of Jesus, … and that’s a long way from where our current conservative evangelical movement in this country seem to be.


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I don’t mind having to pay taxes, actually. Out of my modest retirement income I have to come up with a couple thousand dollars a year. But then I do have a problem with those who make millions, even billions, who don’t pay their equivalent amount (or almost none at all). I don’t resend that some have extravagant tastes, with summer homes on Nantucket, and winter homes in Palm Beach. But, again, they, of all, should be carrying their load of the expenses of operating a government that seeks the welfare of all of its citizens.

Then, too, I have a problem of how that tax money is spent, and who / what are the recipients of our government spending. I am, after all, I am a citizen of two nations: one a kingdom/government of this world, and the other, the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. That kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of the age to come, was inaugurated with its design by the Father-God who sent and anointed him, “ … to proclaim good news to the poor … liberty to the captives… recovering sight to the blind … to set at liberty those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18). The humanitarian focus, and the priority of justice and righteousness is unmistakable there. So, as a citizen of two kingdoms I am zealous that those responsible for the stewardship of this earthly kingdom have the social and humanitarian passion, the concern for economic, environmental, political, and social righteousness that is the priority of my kingdom citizenship, that demonstrates God’s new humanity in Christ.

I will give my support to those governmental figures who most approximate that self-giving love as inaugurated in Jesus Christ. In our better moments, we have been exemplary in that. Consider the inscription on the base of our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That sounds totally contradictory to current immigration policy. If taxes were imposed on all equally we would have sufficient to, not only to welcome, but to provide, to house, to train for citizenship and working skills. I can see whole villages of modest Habitat for Humanity houses whose immigrant earn them with what Habitat calls “sweat equity”. We are, after all, primarily, a nation of immigrants (except for the Native Americans).

My primary citizenship is from Jesus, who said: “I was a stranger, and you took me in.” I want my secondary citizenship, also, to demonstrate that. I want those for whom I give political support to most reflect the ethics and principles of God’s new creation (whether they are professing Christian persons or not). And I will be a co-belligerent those government figures who have a humanitarian and righteousness-focused in the way they spend my taxes. And I will oppose those who use their vast wealth to provide the “perks” for agencies of economic and social greed.

Jesus said that it is by our works that others will know we are his disciples, and those works are nearly always costly, but they are demonstrations of love and justice of God, and of God’s new creation (new humanity) people. Yes, I am citizen of two kingdoms, but God’s kingdom has the priority.

“Make me an instrument of thy peace.”


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It won’t hurt us as Christians to surface the danger of wealth, and take a sober look at its dominance as a major force/influence is our current political landscape.  For One major billionaire, who ran for president has just died, another has just been indicted for sex crimes against minors, one has just announced that he is entering the presidential race, … and on and on. The teachings of Jesus include major warnings about wealth. As a matter of fact, it names affinity for wealth and possessions as the major competitor with God: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

When a wealthy young man approached Jesus with the desire to be one of his followers, Jesus told him to go and sell al that he had, then come and follow him. He underscored that you could not serve both God and mammon. Wealth easily becomes an idol, not to mention that it often makes us indifferent to the desperate poverty and helplessness of most the world’s population.

It is easily to become callous to this need of basic human needs when we read daily of the massive amounts of money necessary to become a political candidate, or the huge sums invested by Political Action Committees in order to influence votes … while remaining indifferent to a minimum wage that is insufficient for meeting basic needs. We spend unbelievable amounts of money on military armaments in countries that have desperate humanitarian needs. And it seems so normal.

And, from the mouths of so many who profess to be followers, one seldom hears his word: “Woe to you rich!” So, allow me to alert my readers to the reality that the gift of the daily necessities—our daily bread—is one for which we may pray and for which we can give thanks, the obsession with wealth in our culture (even in too many churches) should turn on our yellow lights. The lifestyle of God’s new creation people is a calling to simplicity of living, and of generosity to those in need.

On the political scene, it should focus our attention on a politician’s values and on the desperate, daily struggle for survival of the majority who are not rich. It should focus on being content with basics, since this is the focus of Jesus and the apostles. It should focus on a quest for justice for the helpless, the stranger, the refugee, … and not on tax-breaks for the wealthy. If you think I am being just a bleeding-heart, go back and read your New Testament and see where the values of the kingdom of God are focused.

“By this shall men (and women) know that you are my disciples,” in that you have an affinity for the poor and oppressed (Matthew 5).

Blessings on those who share the heart of Christ in tangible ways in this earthly sojourn.



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What happens when the church doesn’t have clergy to lean on? What happens when the church has no ‘clergy filter’ between its participants and the teachings of scriptures? Well, up front, let’s be honest: all kinds of things, good and bad, can happen. But in Latin America during the last half-century, or so, there is a fascinating demonstration of the church reverting to the form we first see in post-Pentecost Jerusalem, when believers met together “house to house” around the apostles’ teachings in a unique, mutually accountable and responsible intimacy (fellowship).

Latin America was inhabited by a dominant Roman Catholic population, where the church was something of a political force and thus somewhat beholden to the governments in power. But there came a time when there were not enough clergy to provide priestly services to many of the smaller communities, so those churches took on a smaller communal form, meeting in homes to read and discuss scriptures (without clergy filters), and to hold one another accountable for living out those teachings. These became known as base churches, or base ecclesial communities. (The church in many places over history has done exactly the same thing.)

This was disturbing to the Latin American Fraternity of Bishops, since they had always presumed that it was necessary for an ordained priest to perform the rites of the church and interpret scriptures, and this was no longer possible. Could these multiplying Base churches be true churches? But another effect of this exposure of the (mostly) peasant folk to the radical social and ethical implications of the gospel of the kingdom. Whereas the priestly dominated church had sought the blessing of the (often corrupt) governments, these lay folk (campesinos) were under no such constraints. The omnipresent Biblical requirements of righteousness and justice, and the ethical requirements of Jesus’ teachings, … put them in inescapable missionary confrontation with governments, ruthless and powerful drug cartels, and made them the instruments of humanitarian aid, and social justice—salt and light in the context so alien to such.

The emerging result was that these Base churches became forces for righteousness, whereas when they were the passive participants in a clergy-dominated and clergy-interpreted church and gospel, this role was not part of the church’s calling. (I’m generalizing and overly-simplifying, I confess). There began to be developed an interpretation of the gospel which was given the label of: Liberation Theology, which was anathema to the conservative and traditional Catholics (and Protestant) establishment. It began to put this popular grass-roots Base Church movement in diametric opposition to political and economic forces. When an archbishop (Oscar Romero) became an advocate of this understanding of church and gospel, he was assassinated by the government.

My purpose in bringing this up is two-fold: 1) small, base-church gatherings of God’s people around scripture is a growing phenomenon, even in our traditional churches. But 2), such unfiltered exposure to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles is not “safe”. The gospel of the kingdom is radically transformational and has implications in personal ethics, politically, economically, and culturally, … and will cause waves. Moreover, we are accountable to one another for the living-out of this gospel. We become the incarnation of God’s mission in Christ to put the world to rights, to incarnate God’s new humanity.

And, finally, those clergy who see it as their calling to make such an understanding of scripture clear and inescapable are a blessing. Those who just want to be popular clergy delivering comforting homilies are part of the filtering that impedes God’s mission.

Run with that! And the Lord be with you.


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