Sunday, May 29, 2016

Warn a Divisive Person

There are few things that bring more discredit on the name of Christ than the divisions and quarrels among us. If we proclaim God's goodness and faithfulness, there are people who will not believe us even on that, because of how badly we disagree among ourselves. How do we reunite? Outside of Christ himself, there is no one person that all of us trust together to reach the right decision and settle the disputes and quarrels. Likewise there is no one group, and no one process of reasoning, that all of us together would trust.

On some level, the problem is a lack of leadership -- or, I should say, a lack of godly leadership. Over the years I have noticed something about the leaders compared to the people: in general the people in different groups of churches get along with each other fairly well, compared to the leaders. While there are some notable and noisy exceptions to that, it is more common for the members to get along than the leaders. Is it because the general people do not understand the differences, or because the leaders place less value on the common ground? I think there is some truth in each of those.

There are things that make different Christian groups incompatible; I wonder how many of those divisive things would remain, if there were no leaders advocating for them -- and no systems established to perpetuate those differences.

Paul's letter to Titus instructs him, as a church leader, to warn a divisive person once or twice -- and after that, if he persists in being divisive, to have nothing more to do with him. But if the leaders have become the divisive ones, who warns them?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

What do we really want to see?

Which vacation places are most-visited? A friend of mine has gone to Paris to see the Eiffel tower. Another recently returned from Hawaii. I'd love to see the Grand Canyon. The ultimate vacation often includes some place that we really want to see. Generally our destination is a place of beauty, or something otherwise amazing.

If someone is going to an unremarkable place, it's fairly sure that place is home to someone they love.

Which youtube videos are most-watched? Again, the click-bait for the videos often promise something amazing. And the site designers keep track of what each of us likes to watch, so they can match our interests. There are videos where we say: I want to see that. We are looking for something worthy of praise, or something that inspires awe and wonder. And we're glad when we find it.

We look for -- we search for -- things that amaze us. If finances permit, many of us would travel across the world to see something truly beautiful or remarkable. For those of us on a quest for the ultimate and best in any category, we'll go to great lengths. I know a man so devoted to astronomy that he is saving money to go to other continents to visit the best observatories -- where the air is thin, and the telescopes are powerful and precise. The best telescope mirrors and glass are made with extraordinary attention to the precise measurements of the parts -- and the purity of the materials.

In the religious category, for many the ultimate quest is to know God, to see God, to understand the mind of God. To what lengths will we go? The natural world is full of awe and beauty -- and danger -- and incredible variety. The religions of the world have collected as much wisdom and beauty and holiness as they know how, each after their own fashion. And in life, it is easy to worry about its briefness. Are we willing to brave death in order to see the face of God, and have all our questions answered? That may be one of the few consolations of the end of our days: "now we know in part ... then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known." The religions of the world are window-shopping for heaven -- some with clearer vision than others, I think. "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God."

It's like my old friend the astronomer: he can tell me all about the lengths to which people will go for rare and pure materials for their own telescopes, and it's all so that they can see things of beauty that they would not otherwise be able to see, and understand things they could not otherwise understand. If we purify our hearts, it's not so that we can admire our own purity. It's so we can see God and see the people around us, and understand in ways that we could not understand before.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pentecost: praising God in their language

Today, listening to the Pentecost readings, I noticed a couple of basic things:
  • People listen when we speak their language
  • Seekers listen when we praise God and tell the wonders he has done
At the first Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection, the apostles' words were understood in the languages of the people around them. As Christians, part of our faith is to speak and to be understood. The Spirit equips us by guiding our words, even in our own language. Time and again, we hear of the Spirit guiding words in particular:
  • What the apostles were to say when brought into court -- and no worrying in advance because the Spirit would help.
    Jesus mentioned this to the apostles in advance. After the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we see the apostles actually on trial at times, and trusting that the words would come to proclaim what Jesus did.
  • What the apostles said the first Pentecost
  • What the apostles and other writers of Scripture would say, such as in their letters and in the gospels
    All Scripture is God-breathed ...
  • What the Christians would say to help and encourage each other
    Some have the gift of encouragement or of teaching; some have words of wisdom or words of knowledge; the Spirit gives gifts including prophecy, tongues, or the interpretation of tongues. Jesus' people "are a letter from Christ, written with the Spirit of the Living God on tablets of the human heart" (2 Cor 3:3 selected/ellipses removed for easier reading)
  • How the Christians would pray
    The boldness to call God "Father" -- and the trust to see him as Father -- come from the Spirit. And when we lack words, we pray trusting that the Spirit communicates for us. 
People look for the gifts of Pentecost today. If we encourage someone, teach someone, if we speak the truth with love, then the Spirit is among us.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

God's Love in Action: The Joyful Painter

A mainstay of public television for decades now, Bob Ross' kindness and good humor still attract a following. His show, The Joy of Painting, does teach a certain method of painting and some basic skills in that method. But the attraction of the show is not all about his rare ability to turn painting into a performing art. Much of the attraction was his kindhearted and peaceful nature. When watching his thirty-minute transformation of a blank canvas into a beautiful landscape painting, he would often paint a "happy little tree" and then "another one, because everyone needs a friend." His clouds would "just float around and have fun all day". And often a tree or bush was added to the painting "to give the squirrels someplace to live." His painting lessons also taught how to see and appreciate what is around us, how to imagine and shape the world around us, how to accept and work with unplanned events. Watching Bob Ross gives me the assurance that each of us can bring beauty into the world, so long as that's what we are trying to do in the first place.

Was Bob Ross more interested in painting, or was painting something of a bridge that he used to teach the art of being joyful? And if painting was his way of spreading kindness, what will be mine?

As Bob usually said at the end of his painting lessons: "God bless, my friend."

Sunday, May 01, 2016

What does Evil desire?

The devil wants admirers. If we think of evil as a force, a power, a personality -- some would say the devil -- what evil wants is to be admired. It wants praise for being freeing and liberating. (Never mind that it 'frees' people from health and sanity, from a joyful life.) When evil attacks good, it thinks of itself as powerful and brave -- and demands to be called such. Evil is looking for followers. It wants respectability. It wants recognition for being right -- even if it denies that the idea of "right" has any legitimacy. (The anti-religious movements tend to sound just like a bad religion, sooner or later.)

Evil is content to begin with us: To make it so that people become greedy for admirers, and praise, and respect. In our personal lives, whenever we face a temptation to set our sights on these things, it's a temptation to become less godly.

Evil will teach us to look at self-control as a bad thing. It teaches us to mislabel decency as "inhibition". It uses "irreverent" and "wicked" as praise words, and excuses rudeness -- or outright spiteful verbal attacks -- as humor. In the field of sexuality, anyone who holds the ideal of monogamy is insulted as "prude" or mocked as "Puritanical". Those who promote lifestyles that require artificial hormones or medically unnecessary surgery are applauded as "groundbreaking". The tools used are honor and shame. And once people have done things that are inconsistent with decency, it's awfully easy to join in the attacks on decency, to become followers of whoever will boldly claim that there is nothing wrong.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

God's Love in Action: Seeking the Lost

Some time ago I ran a series on people who excel in putting God's love into action. This post is a continuation of that series.

Tim Miller's life changed unexpectedly on the day that his teenage daughter went missing. It took the police many months to find her -- or rather, find her remains. His story is full of pain and anguish -- and to some extent it still is. But out of his anguish, he resolved to dedicate his life to seeking the lost. Now he is a veteran and expert at finding missing persons, and his organization Texas Equusearch has more than 300 safe recoveries to their credit. Whenever there is a report of a missing person, police and families often turn to Tim Miller for his expertise. He has a reputation for persistence and dedication, and for the emotional comfort that he brings to the families of the missing. He is now leader of a large volunteer group whose emblem reads, "Lost is not Alone." They are the ones who make that emblem true.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

'God As I Understand Him'?

(Continuing my thoughts on a 12-step group for people raised by addicts.) 

If anyone is familiar with 12-step groups, you may be familiar with a move that I think of as "the Twelve Step Two-Step", dancing around the introduction of God, usually by introducing him as "God as I understand him" or "a Higher Power whom some of us choose to call God." Once the two-step is over, the understanding of God is recognizably Christian, with the emphasis on a loving father. The "Our Father" is the closing prayer at many meetings. (The meetings themselves are recognizably liturgical in format, with opening and closing prayers, and a set format in between. Often studies of a group's distinctive 'Big Book' or daily reader replaces Bible study, and readings from the group's literature takes the place of Bible readings.)

"God as I Understand Him" is an awkward phrase. It takes awhile to say, and is complicated compared to simply saying "God". The long form of the phrase is meant to stop arguments about different understandings of God. As I mentioned before, the group does in fact have dogmas: there are some views of God that they would try to change, such as seeing God as indifferent or unloving. Those who are from a dogma-oriented background, who enjoy certainty and precision, may see some risks or hazards in that approach. I'd like to balance that by mentioning some benefits of this approach.

"God as I understand him" focuses our thoughts briefly on a few genuine facts of life, based on the fact that humans are finite, that the sum of human knowledge is still short of divine knowledge:

  • My understanding is incomplete
  • I have hope to grow and understand more
  • I have cause for humility
  • I have reason to be open to what others say
  • Your understanding is incomplete
  • You have hope to grow and understand more
  • You have cause for humility
  • You have reason to be open to what others say
  • People with different understandings can still say things that add to each others' growth

For the purpose of a support group, it seems to be worthwhile to put some limits on dogma (particularly with the current divided state of religion) so that the support group can provide that needed support.

There are those who will see a risk -- or an insult -- in taking ideas derived through the systematic study of theology and presenting them on the same level as any private unstudied opinion. And yet those additional dogmas may offer no gain to the group, for the group's specific purpose.

And again, for me, the passion is for unity on a solid foundation. For the church as a whole, there are churches that are very fond of dogma in general, and of their own dogmas in particular (which they are very sure are correct). There are a few churches that seem to distrust the idea of dogma, on general principle.

What is dogma for, and how far can it go legitimately?