Sunday, April 13, 2014

Is disliking someone a judgmental act?

I've been wrestling with whether it is inherently wrong to dislike someone. If we are meant to love each other -- if love is the essence of God's law, so that love is the fulfillment -- then a lack of love has some connection to the root of sin. I am not concerned with the question of "lack of love" where it concerns people that we haven't met; it's not as though we dislike them. But to dislike someone that we know, I'm asking myself: is that sinful?

It's a tough topic. First, there is the possibility that someone might take that question as a cause for guilt, and be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task considering the real-life sinners that we know. If someone is one of Jesus' people, then Jesus sets us free from guilt and judgment. But the question poses itself all the more clearly against the background of Jesus' love: Do we have any right to dislike another person? Beyond that, isn't it arrogant to dislike someone? So the question is meant not for guilt but for challenge, as a tool we can use to check ourselves if we find ourselves dwelling on how we don't like another person and why.

Another complication is about people who are doing wrong things; we don't want some misunderstanding about whether we support those things. The wrong doesn't have to be wrong on a grand scale; the everyday scale will do. For example, this morning I found myself struggling with unpleasant feelings for a family that has a history of unkindness to other people, and this morning took the "reserved" row where a handicapped child and his family normally sit. (The row is a little bit wider to make room for his walker. The row was marked off, as always, with a cord.) The handicapped child's family had some trouble to find another place besides their usual reserved place. And if the ushers didn't catch the situation in time, it really wasn't my place to say anything. But if it wasn't my place to say anything, was it my place to harbor an annoyance? (Along with noticing small wrongs, there is a temptation to be petty.) Then again, not all wrongs are small.

I won't pretend the topic is simple, easy, and clear to me. But I suspect that, in most cases, disliking someone is wrong.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

"What if I loved him?"

In my mind, this is on the subject of "how to get along with difficult people." And this is a post where there is much that you can see is wrong with my thoughts: some of those thoughts are less than Christian. (After all, no doubt I'm on somebody's list of "difficult people" myself. I could easily see "getting along with difficult people" as a matter of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you.") So you can see that I'm not writing about where I should be in the struggle but about where I am. I offer up these thoughts of a small step in the right direction, in the hopes that it benefits someone else too.

I've found an approach that's been helpful to me, in treating people better, especially people that I really, truly don't enjoy being around. It came up when I was (once again) dreading having to to deal with a certain person that I find difficult to respect. My frustration with this person has been climbing for some time.

And this last week, on a night when I was going to be in a group that invariably includes him, I finally wondered, "What if I loved him?" Like an uncle or a father or a cousin or whatever the case may be, what if I loved him? And it was noticeably easier that night to be not merely civil but even kind, when I kept that thought in my mind. Since then I've had the occasion to try it on other people who sometimes test my patience: before opening my mouth, or interacting in any way, I simply think, "What if I loved him (her)?"

And it's no help towards loving them, if instead I feel guilty that I don't love them the way I should. But it has helped to ask myself "What if I did?" It has quickly become something of a background thought that keeps running in a corner of my mind. The way some people ask, "What would Jesus do?" before their actions, I find myself using that line to prepare my heart and mind -- clean it, maybe? -- before I speak to someone. "What if I loved them?"

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Satanists demand, "Put the Hxll back in Hallowe'en!"

The growing secularization of our culture has led to many traditional groups having their special and particular celebrations renamed in order to be less offensive to those who weren't planning on celebrating anyway. This trend has long been approaching on that most distinctive of holidays, a favorite of Satanists worldwide: Hallowe'en. Do you call it "Fall Festival"? "Harvest Celebration"? Fairy Tale Day?

In this short interview, we have a question and answer session with the spokesman of a newly-formed Satanist group:

Q: Your group believes that you follow the most powerful spiritual being in existence. A certain percentage of people are afraid of your group, and you've got some public visibility, especially around such a holiday. How do these factor into your plans for reclaiming your heritage?
A: Not at all. Our official policy is to complain to our friends, neighbors, and co-workers in the hopes that will raise consciousness of the problem. Yet still, year after year, we see offensively-titled celebrations like "Autumn Fair" or "Fall Fandango". It's quite insensitive.

Q: Why do you think you have not had greater success in raising consciousness of these issues?
A: We believe the market is over-saturated with groups that exist to promote themselves. That and our studies indicate there may be some obstacles to perceiving Satanists as victims.

Q. As you mentioned, you all have some significant problems with your public image. What is your reaction when your opponents try to demonize you?
A. (Pause) We don't mind that so much. But we find that other groups have a rather naive idea of what's involved in demonizing their opponents.

Yes, well perhaps our friends can explain how that's really done, some other time. And that concludes the first press conference with Advocates of Pagan Religions (APR-1).

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Saved" from what (or from whom)?

Recently I was surprised to hear someone say that he thought we were saved from God. I think that portraying God as the problem undermines the good news at its very foundations. If God is the problem, then should he get any credit for the solution? And if God is the problem, why would he need to provide a solution? Wouldn't it be simpler to just stop being the problem? Or does he have a contradiction within himself, so that he is both for us and against us?

If someone believes that God is basically the problem, we might look at what John the Baptist said, "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (Luke 3:7) There's no doubt that John the Baptist means God's wrath. And yet the idea of salvation is only possible because God's wrath is the smaller part of the story, and God's love is the larger part -- and because the destruction is only for what is evil. We'll come back to that after looking at a more complete picture.

So from what does Jesus save people? This is a brief review of the passages where the four Biblical gospels comment not just on salvation in general, but specifically discuss from what Jesus saves us.
We are saved from our sins
"You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21)
"Your sins are forgiven. ... Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luke 7:48,50)

We are saved from death
"Lord, save us! We'll die!" (Matthew 8:25)
"Lord, save me!" (Matthew 14:30)

We are saved from the evil one
 "Deliver us from the evil one" (Matthew 6:13)


We are saved from illness, disease, and disability
"Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil? To save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9)
"Receive your sight. Your faith has saved you." (Luke 18:42)

We are saved from being lost"For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost." (Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10)

We are saved from our enemies
"That we should be saved from our enemies, and the hand of all who hate us." (Luke 1:71)

We are saved from God's wrath
"Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (Luke 3:7)


When John the Baptist asked who warned them to flee from the coming wrath ... actually, John the Baptist did when he called the people to repent and be baptized. Not only did John warn them, but so did Moses and all the prophets. And all that John the Baptist said was "repent" (it might be more understandable to translate that as "reform" or "renew a right spirit") -- and be cleansed / baptized. Because "the coming wrath" is only for what is evil, and people can flee from it just by abandoning the evil. When Jesus saves us from doing evil, he saves us from wrath by that same act. But in this picture, God is not the problem. He is truly the solution.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What is the purpose of the New Testament writings -- and how do we know it?

When people write a book or a long work, the last thing that the author says is often the conclusion, or the main point. While an author may have a number of points, there is a single basic motive, the purpose for writing, which helps us make sense of all the other points along the way. Even in a letter, the last thing said may tell us the reason for writing: it is often "Love" or "Best wishes". Generally, everything in a personal letter stems from that love or those good wishes, and they are the true reason for writing anything at all. I'd like to apply that thought to the writings of the New Testament.

The letters and the book of Revelation

Consider the closing words of the epistles in the New Testament, and the book of Revelation:
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. Now to him that is of power to establish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made known, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:  To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen. - Romans 16:24-27
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen. - 1 Corinthians 16:23-24
  • The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen. - 2 Corinthians 13:14
  • Brothers, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen - Galatians 6:18
  • Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen. - Ephesians 6:23-24
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. - Philippians 4:23
  • Grace be with you. Amen - Colossians 4:18
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen  - 1 Thessalonians 5:28
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. - 2 Thessalonians 3:18
  • Grace be with you. Amen. - 1 Timothy 6:21
  • The Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit. Grace be with you. Amen. - 2 Timothy 4:22
  • Grace be with you all. Amen. - Titus 3:15
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.  - Philemon 1:25
  • Grace be with you all. Amen.  - Hebrews 13:25
  • Let him know, that he who converts the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.  - James 5:20
  • Peace be with you all that are in Christ Jesus. Amen.  - 1 Peter 5:14
  • But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.  - 2 Peter 3:18
  • Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.  - 1 John 5:21
  • The children of your chosen sister greet you. Amen. - 2 John 1:13
  • Peace be to you. Our friends salute you. Greet the friends by name. - 3 John 1:14
  • Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,  to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. Jude 1:24-25
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.  - Revelation 22:21
We see a few writings that have a different pattern than the common pattern: some close with a caution, an encouragement, a greeting, or the praise of God. But the general pattern remains: the typical conclusion is a blessing. Specifically, it is the blessing of God's grace or favor through Jesus.

The Biblical Gospels

How do the gospels end? Let's look at each of the four Biblical gospels in turn.

Matthew ends with these words:
  • Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things I have commanded you. And I am with you always, even unto the end of the age. Amen. - Matthew 28:19-20
The book does not end with the writer's personal thoughts, but what the writer says are Jesus' own final words to his disciples. Those words include instructions, but finish with a promise that he is with them. We have seen the same parting thought at the end of most of the epistles, with different forms of the blessing "The Lord be with you" or "The grace of the Lord be with you". Here we see what may be the original behind them: "I am with you." It is a blessing. It may be the blessing on which all the other blessings are based.

We will not be able to form conclusions about Mark for this purpose, since the ending text of Mark is too uncertain for us to draw conclusions based on exactly how it ended.

In Luke, the writer separates the last time Jesus spoke from the end of his own narrative. The last time Jesus spoke to them is summarized rather than quoted:
  • And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he was parted from them. - Luke 24:50-51
As I've mentioned before, Luke says Jesus left while blessing them, and it leaves room to wonder whether he stopped. 

The end of Luke shows the disciples waiting as Jesus had previous instructed them. Their wait was not an empty wait. (We may even take it as an example for ourselves, during our long wait.) 
  • And [the disciples] were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen. - Luke 24:53.

If we take the last words of the Gospel of John, we have this conclusion:
  • And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen. - John 21:25

Is that meant as an explanation that a writer has to stop somewhere? If we take the end of the previous chapter, which many scholars take for the ending of the original work (or the ending of the first draft before it was circulated, depending on your school of thought):
  • These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life through his name. - John 20:31

From that, we see that knowing Christ is meant to be a blessing to the reader, and so reading about his life is meant to be a blessing to the reader. It is something all of us would do well to remember when we think of telling other the good news: knowing Christ is a blessing, and showing Christ to another person should be a blessing to them.

Conclusion

If a writer's last words show the purpose for writing, what does it mean that most of the writings in the New Testament end with a blessing? If we are to believe the New Testament, then the purpose of the New Testament, and the purpose of Jesus, and the purpose of God is to bless us. If we take the New Testament as our starting point, then the purpose of religion is to bless us with the presence of God, as a foretaste now, and as completely fulfilled in the world to come.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book review: "Blessed Assurance" by Eric Douglas

I'd like to thank Eric Douglas for sending me a review copy of Blessed Assurance. He may not have known it when he sent me the copy, but I'm probably fairly far from his intended audience, which makes it a good test for whether his writings have appeal outside of his denominational circle. Douglas is a pastor with an education that is thoroughly Baptist, and he writes from a recognizably Calvinist perspective. His background is in the revivalist tradition, where people often speak of a particular conversion experience and spend much time agonizing over whether they are saved. So what does his book say for a Christian from a different tradition, a Lutheran like me?

He writes for those asking the question, "How can I know that I am saved?" What follows is a readable booklet that can be comfortably finished in one sitting. Using the framework of John's first letter, he structures his writing around three tests (no spoilers here but I'll say he stays Biblical in choosing his tests). He does a good job of walking the reader through the reasons to trust in God and to hope in Christ. While he addresses the people who have false security, I thoroughly welcomed the much-needed words for people who have false doubts. There are many people who should truly have more confidence in Christ's promises than they do. His may be the clearest words of comfort and assurance they have heard. He does a capable job of directing people to Christ for their hope. He also does a solid job of tackling the confusion that causes some people to avoid their own questions. He lays to rest their fears that acknowledging their questions or seeking the answers will undermine their faith. Those who have never given themselves permission to address their doubts may find boldness here, and may find their faith grow deeper and surer as they pursue understanding. He strikes a good balance when talking about the tension between faith and doubts. He addresses how we can make sense of a changed life and and still struggle with the remnants of sin. He makes a calm case for the work of the Spirit in spite of the roller-coaster of human emotions. In one of his strongest contributions, he strikes a balance on all of these without going wishy-washy, as is far too common among authors dealing with those topics. Instead, he retains the sense of having a clear direction forward, along with grace for our weaknesses.

The book's best pull-quote, in my opinion, is Douglas' comment on faith and works. He sums up many Bible passages memorably and vividly when he says:
A change in your life is never the cause of your salvation. But it is a reliable reflection of your salvation. (p.27)

As with any human work, this book is not perfect. I found the occasional grammatical problems to be easy enough to overlook, and did not materially interfere with the author's point. My larger areas of discomfort come from my different Christian background: Lutheran rather than Calvinist or Arminian. I could not help but shake my head in sadness at the tale of the seven-year-old child having sleepless nights in fear of what eternity would bring him. What unhealthy or unwise things would lead up to a tragic situation like that? And I could not help but be angry when God was portrayed as the problem: "Unless we are saved from Him, we will perish" (p.2, emphasis added). I wrote the author and asked if he'd really meant it; he doubled down on how he believes that God is in fact the problem ... and the solution. (Too often I have heard that exact viewpoint from ex-Christians who have lost their faith, who have stopped believing that He is good and trustworthy if He is the problem in the first place.) And I should caution the reader that the author sows seeds of doubt rather than faith again when he repeats the Calvinist preaching that God's promise is not really for all. That teaching is an underlying cause of why certain groups tend to doubt their own salvation so often, and why they need so much reassurance. If they do not believe God's promise is for all the world, how can they believe it is for them?

Still, Douglas spends more time focusing on Christ and building faith, rather than tearing it down. "How can I know that I am saved?" Lutherans like me are not, in general, angsty hand-wringers over this question, on the view that enough Christ-centered preaching will put our minds at rest. Those who are prone to doubt may find hope here as we are directed to Christ. Those who are not prone to doubt may still find cause for gladness. As the author reminds us, the disciple John wrote his letter so that our joy may be complete. Douglas' book should be a solid help and true comfort to those who are in fear for their salvation (or over-confident of it) for all the wrong reasons. And it can be a cause for renewed thankfulness to God, even for those who are at peace.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lent Anti-Virus Report 2014

In a recent year, I ran something of an "anti-virus" scan on my thoughts during Lent. This year, some similar things have come to light. I mention them in case it is helpful to someone else:
  • One of my tasks is to cultivate love for the people I know and meet. To borrow the Bible's imagery of thinking of our spiritual lives like seeds that grow into plants and then produce -- then Paul's instructions to get rid of all bitterness, malice, rage, envy, jealousy, factions, discord, strife, etc - is like getting rid of the pests, weeds, and even poisons that sap the strength from our growing love, or kill it outright so that it has to be planted all over again.
  • Sometimes people say nasty things to me, and it sometimes happens that I don't think of the best thing to say until later, after the moment has passed. It's a common enough human experience. But if I find myself rehearsing a nasty speech in retaliation -- even if I may never say it -- then that probably falls under the warnings about not lying on our beds plotting evil at night. That kind of thing needs to be added to my mental 'anti-virus' watch. 
  • An even better comeback might actually help the other person. To say, "That's mean" can easily make things worse. To say, "I'm surprised that a kind-hearted person like you would say a thing like that" is worth a try, in some of the cases that come to mind right now.
  • Planting a seed of love can be as simple as noticing any honest effort the other person makes. It's particularly important when that honest effort is rare or feeble -- something about not breaking a bruised reed, or not snuffing out a smoldering wick.