Sunday, February 28, 2010

Live-Blogging Ephesians? Paul's point

Thank you all for your patience while I went through Ephesians. I think the only way to get a fair summary is first to take a close look at what's being summarized. Also, if we look back to a word cloud of Ephesians, it reminds us of a few key points: of all the substantive words in the book, the single most common is "Christ". After the God words (Christ, God, Lord, Jesus), the next most common word in Ephesians is "love". We can use that kind of information to double-check whether we took our focus from Paul or whether we imported it from somewhere else.

I started by considering two very short summaries of Ephesians that had been linked by Dr. Pursiful. I don't intend to fault those for being summaries. It's the nature of a summary to make short work out of a long thing. Still, I think it is possible for a summary to stick closer to Paul's point and keep more of Paul's emphasis. As we have seen above, Paul's focus is largely on Christ and on God's love, and it is the goal of the summary to match that focus.

The linked summaries both start by answering the question, What is salvation? That is a fair place to start because Paul starts in roughly the same place. I'll take a shot at it, imperfect as my summary may be:
  • Salvation is the blessing of God through Christ Jesus because of his love for us, that we may be heirs of his promise of hope in Christ, knowing God through Christ, becoming a temple in which God himself lives through his Spirit.
  • We are called, then, to know God, to grasp the vast extent of his love, that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
  • We are called to imitate God by living a life of love just as Christ did. We are called to put off our corrupt, divisive, impure, greedy, angry, bitter selves, the selves which did not know Christ. We are called to put ourselves into all things with love, especially so for those relationships which form our daily lives: as husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, always bearing in mind Christ's love for us.
Paul's argument is reasonably straightforward: God's love reaches out through Christ to us, transforming us; it then continues to reach out through us to the world. Paul has more layers to where it's more of a ripple-in-a-pond effect, but the basic movement is the same. Each person that we reach in love again reflects what Paul said about God's purpose: to bring together all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Live-Blogging Ephesians? Part 4

(Eph 4:17 - 6:9) Looking at Paul's argument, he now sticks to the same topic and develops it for nearly the whole rest of the letter: putting off our old lives and living new lives. He has laid his groundwork on the goodness of God which he showed us in Jesus Christ, the power of God made known to us through Christ, and the change God would work in us to unite us fully to Christ -- us, along with all things. Now, he insists that our new selves are created to be like God. We are to be righteous as he is righteous, holy as he is holy.

He gives example after example, instance after instance where their lives and ours need to be lived in light of God, rather than as if we were still hard-hearted and clueless about the good news. The one that caught me most was how he has two sections about improper speech. The second one, at 5:4, covers what we usually think of about watching our mouths: obscenity and crudeness and that kind of R-rated thing that we have, most of us, grasped is wrong. But first he tackles one that is probably a daily sin in our culture, widely accepted and seen almost without intermission: unwholesome talk that tears down rather than builds up. He points out kinds of things that come out of our mouths and hearts that are just as obscene as dropping an F-bomb: "bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, and every form of malice." The whole section deserves a daily read until I've mastered it, or at least get out of kindergarten on it.

He emphasizes the point of being like God again (5:1-2), and one more time ties it back to the point of God's love. Because God loves, we should love. He has already staked his position firmly on God's love as the thing they most need to understand. From here, one section of the letter after another consists of case studies in how to love and show love in various relationships. It is not mere advice on Christian living, and it is not only our marching orders (though it is that, too); it is our call for how to redeem the world where we are right now, how God's kingdom begins to come for anyone who has any relationship with any follower of Christ, because Christ in us does not leave any relationship unchanged. There is no dividing line of hostility between us and anyone else, no bitterness or rage, no harsh or untrue word, no taking advantage of each other. There is, instead, a guarantee of diligence and truthfulness, of kindness and justice -- and more than that, a guarantee of mercy and compassion when dealing with followers of Christ in any capacity, because we follow the one who has loved us and called us to love each other.

While one section after another of his letter explains how love acts in each type of relationship and in each role, some of the details deserve special mention. Just as there is an implication that bitterness, malice, and hostility grieve the Holy Spirit within us (4:29-31), but there is also an implication that saturating our hearts and minds with hymns, music, and thankfulness are helpful in opening our hearts to God's spirit (5:18-20).

In certain types of relationships, Paul calls special attention to the parallels between that relationship and the relationship we have with God. He goes one step further with his long-running theme of how Christ is united with us: he compares it to the union of husband and wife. The Old Testament refers to God as husband and bridegroom; Christ referred to himself as the bridegroom and the kingdom of heaven as a wedding feast. This is the future to which we are called, and in this life the foreshadowing love is that of husband and wife.

(6:10-18) The battle we fight is a battle to live lives of integrity, holiness, and love. We are called to gear up: to take the battle seriously, to recognize that it is a fight rather than a given. In the Old Testament farming imagery was common, and the image of getting ready was for people to take up a yoke like an ox starting to plow. Living their lives according to the Torah -- with decency and integrity -- was considered how to plow the field of the world and make it a good and productive land. Here again with Paul, there is a call to take the word of God seriously and harness up, to live our own lives by it. We are in the habit of lamenting the sorry state of our land -- but is there any part of our common complaints that would not be put to right if we harnessed up and each lived our own lives in this way? If the millions upon millions of Christians all lived the lives which we are called to live, this would be a more peaceful and more prosperous land. (If you think I go too far when I say "more prosperous", I ask you to consider this: what percentage of poverty in this country can be directly traced to the unnecessary prevalence of single parenthood with either failures of self-control or failures of marriage? And consider what portions of the current economic crisis could have been avoided if more budgets involved self-control, if more accountants exercised honesty, if in the days of prosperity more people had been determined to "work, doing something useful with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with those in need." So, then, any country at all is more prosperous when people live this kind of life of decency and self-control.)

I should say, even now, even for the unemployed there may be a challenge there that, even if no one will give jobs, there may still be ways for us to do useful things with our own hands to share with those who are needy. And if those who are idle are called to find a way to share, plainly, too, those of us who work are called to share.

After we have geared up, note the action to which we are called: pray.

(6:19-24) Paul again puts himself in perspective. He speaks as if fear of his life and safety was a temptation to be less bold than he should be. I'm not quite sure, at this stage of his career, how often his life had been in danger, how many beatings he had endured, how many other hardships from the catalog that he gives elsewhere, but that had to be a temptation to timidity. He calls for prayer for himself too.

He closes with thoughts of the love he bears for them, and putting their minds at ease, and finally the love of God and the love of the followers of Christ.


When next I get back to Ephesians, I'll connect the dots and sum up.
Thank you all for your patience with this.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Live-Blogging Ephesians? Part 3

We're used to doing Bible studies verse by verse. We even do word studies at some points and go word by word. While the detail work has its uses, we have to remember the price tag: it's really easy to lose the thrust of someone's argument when we slow down to that level. And I'll gladly point out a little of the detail along the way also; not only do Paul's details follow his main points well, but he's also fond of tangents himself so I'm not sure we can do Paul complete justice without going off on a tangent now and then. However, to avoid losing the big picture of his point, I'll use parentheses to mark off the detail-level comments as asides.

To recap the previous: (1:1-14) Paul first lays his foundation as the love of God shown us in Christ, the blessing of God poured out through Christ, and the Holy Spirit as our down-payment on our inheritance, sealing us as God's through our belief in Christ. (And looking ahead) Paul also makes a theme of what kind of down payment the Spirit of the Living God might be, as far as our ultimate inheritance as God's children; he consistently ties the riches of God to his kindness, his patience, his love.

(1:15-2:10) Paul traces a quick trajectory that he will follow all the way to end of this letter. He praises God that they know Him, and desires that they may know Him better, basing their hope on the Lord's power. The power at work in Christ's death and resurrection is the same power at work in us to transform us into children of God. Paul definitely draws parallels on the one hand between Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension, and on the other hand our own leaving behind sin and death, being raised to new life, and being joined to the hope of heaven. But he does more than just draw parallels: he makes the case that we are so bound to Christ that our future is not complete until we are fully and finally reunited with him, who is our life.

(2:11-22) Here is Paul's first major point under the power of God working out in this world: in Christ, there is peace between Jews and Gentiles. (There is no hint of peace between Jews and Gentiles on any other terms; Paul proclaims that this spiritual blessing, too, comes through Christ. Neither can Jews or the Gentile Christians conceive of any peace which treats God as irrelevant, or the Messiah as irrelevant, or the hope of the world to come as irrelevant. Our hope for peace, then, is not secularism which offers unity on the basis of everyone setting aside their past, their identity, and their hope; but on Christ who creates unity through his death and his life, putting to death the hostility, preaching peace to both Jews and Gentiles. Those of us called by Christ and joined to his death have no more place in our hearts for hostility towards anyone, as hostility has been put to death. To bring it back is to do the work of the enemies of God and to work against God.) Again Paul brings home that we are all gathered into Christ's body, filled with God's Spirit -- and that our holiness comes from becoming a place where God dwells, where God's presence is found on earth.

(3:1-13) Paul puts his own life's work into perspective against this picture. (I very much like the casual way he refers to himself as the prisoner of Christ rather than the prisoner of his Roman jailers. He sees God's purpose behind his hardship. He holds no grudge against the jailers.) He sees his letter as a continuing act of proclaiming the good news to them: that in Christ they Gentiles are God's people too -- members of God's chosen people along with him, Jewish though he is. All those who are called by this good news should in turn proclaim God's wisdom and goodness as known in Christ. (And Paul again is gracious about his imprisonment, wanting to spare the consciences of those who fear that not only is he suffering, but that it may be at least in part because of them.)

(3:14-19) Now there is a powerful and beautiful prayer where Paul again says what he has been saying all along: that the power of God (sounds familiar) may strengthen them through his Spirit (not the first time he hit that point either) so that Christ himself dwells in their hearts. Paul seems to mean that Christ dwells in our hearts more than just figuratively, given the image of us being God's temple and Christ's body. I think when people in our culture hear that "Christ dwells in our hearts by faith" we translate "We think about Christ in our hearts"; I think Paul meant something more like "By the power of God, the same Christ that was raised from the dead is with us." After Paul has pleaded time and again for them to grow in understanding, he says exactly what he wishes they could grasp: how long and wide and high and deep is Christ's love. He wants them to know "this love that surpasses knowledge" so that they may be filled to the measure of all the goodness of God.

Here, again, about being filled with God; here again, about his becoming embodied in this world through us. But Paul has now made the connection for us: we are filled to the measure of all the goodness of God when we grasp his love. We start out by love, "rooted and established in love," and it continues until we grasp "this love that surpasses knowledge."

(4:1-16) How, then, can we grasp the love of Christ -- the same Christ who brought together the Jews and Gentiles, who put hostility itself to death, who abolished the dividing wall -- how can we grasp the power of God and the depth of Christ's love and still not have unity amongst ourselves? It's because we're infants in the faith, still weighed down by pride and harshness and a lack of love. The whole foundation of our faith calls out to us that we should be one. All of our individual gifts, used rightly, build us up in unity towards that goal, that as we mature we are filled to the measure of all the goodness of God. Paul makes the connection again: being filled to the measure of all the goodness of God is being built up in love.

(... I'd hoped to finish tonight, but it's late; to be continued again ... By the time we get to the end, we'll see how plainly Paul made his point from beginning to end.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tip of the Day

Tip of the Day: If you ever give up sarcasm for Lent, do NOT let your teenage children discover this. It can have unintended consequences.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Liturgy: Ash Wednesday

For the imposition of ashes. The penitent kneels. The leader makes the sign of the cross on the penitent's forehead with ashes, saying:

Leader: Remember, (name), that you are dust. Dust you are, and to dust you shall return. (Ps 103:14, Gen 3:19).

Penitent: But from everlasting to everlasting, the Lord's love is with us. (Ps 103:17)

It's a small variation from the usual order for imposition of ashes. The slightly lengthened "Remember" recalls a verse from Ps 103 where God remembers that we are dust in compassion for our weakness, and the penitent praises God's faithfulness with words soon following from the same Psalm.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Live-Blogging Ephesians? Part 2

Paul knows how to pack his words full, that's for sure. Rather than get all line-by-line like a commentary might do, I want to focus on the things that risk being missed.

See how, at the end of the list of blessings (1:13-14), Paul broadens the conversation? He has been talking in "we" language for awhile; he switches to "you also" to include his readers now. How did "you also" get involved? By hearing "the good news of your salvation." There's a phrase that needs to sink in. They did not hear "a conviction of their sin, followed by an explanation of Christ's sacrifice, which, if we make sure they believe certain things about it, would then cause Christ to be accounted on their account, after which they would then be ok with God (as far as we know)." No, not at all; instead, the message they heard was "the good news of their salvation."

How many layers we usually put between Christ and salvation, how much we try to involve ourselves, how much we tone down the power of God and the immediacy of God's power and presence in the message of Christ. They did not hear the gospel as a proposition about how to get saved which was then set up as a stop-point, an obstacle that they had to "accept" (surmount). Instead, they heard that God's eternal purpose is for our good, that for Christ's sake God forgives them and adopts them as his own children and holds a blessed future for them. They were not told a theory about how it worked and asked to decide if they believed it; they were told what God has done for the world in Christ Jesus and what he still intends to do, and they believed it. That is how it goes with the heart that is ready to hear, when we proclaim the good news of their salvation. It is typical for us to hold back and proclaim the theory and wait at the checkpoint to see who passes by assenting to the proposition. By making it a stopping point ("Do you believe this? Are you sure?") we weaken the proclamation to a proposition. We behave as if the blessing depended on our understanding, and the power of God waited on mortal minds to catch up. More often we should proclaim God's goodness straight and undiluted, and throw open the door. They heard "the good news of their salvation" and believed it.

Paul also renews the theme of holiness here, which he comes back to throughout the whole of the letter. By the time we get to v. 13, Paul has already brought up the holiness of the believers a couple of times. He called them holy ("saints") in his greeting; he tells them that one of the blessings we have in Christ is to be holy and blameless before God. Now Paul introduces the presence of God not only in the heavenly realms or in Jesus, but also within themselves, as the Holy Spirit within them is called the deposit (or earnest money) guaranteeing their redemption. (I wonder if "down payment" would suit, as a translation?) And here -- bless the Pentecostals, as with any group their public figures could use a better image -- but the people who talk most loudly and most publicly about the Holy Spirit don't seem to grasp the idea of holiness, or that the Holy Spirit is part of the picture of our becoming holy. We'll see in the rest of the letter what Paul means by us becoming holy; it's not exactly what we'd expect.

Paul also renews the theme of riches and inheritance. He uses that language often in this letter, but it's not about money. We hear of the riches of God's grace (1:7); if the Holy Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance, that suggests that the majority of the riches of God's grace are still unknown and unseen. A few glimpses forward in the letter may be in order, since I don't know if I'll really bring up the "riches" theme every single time Paul does. The riches are "the glorious inheritance in the saints (the holy ones)". The riches of God are "his great love for us" -- he is "rich in mercy" (2:4). Our inheritance is "the incomparable riches of his grace" and particularly "the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (2:7). The "richness" of God is expressed in his wealth of kindness. And our holiness -- the Holy Spirit -- is given us because of God's mercy to us in Christ; that is part of our inheritance. (All of which puts an interesting light on the parable of the talents, in which the wealthy master gave some of his riches to his servants, to see what they would do with them.)

Paul keeps this theme going strong until he reaches his ultimate point with it. "His glorious riches" are again tied to the Holy Spirit and Christ dwelling in our hearts (3:16-17). We are called to grasp one particular point of God's vastness: the vastness of his love for us (3:18-19). Once we have grasped the graciousness, kindness, and overflowing generosity of God -- his eagerness in blessing, his plan and purpose for our good, the incomprehensible scope of his love -- then Paul moves forward with the implications that this very same God is the one dwelling in our hearts.

Live-blogging Ephesians? Part 1

Reading Dr. Pursiful, I found out about a conversation taking place about the "Romans Road" and the "Ephesians Road" (whether we view the gospel mainly through our understanding of the epistle to the Romans or that to the Ephesians). I started to type up a nice point-by-point response covering exactly why I thought Ephesians said something a little bigger, more vivid, more far-reaching than what was being discussed. I still have it in my drafts box; maybe I'll post it when I'm done here. But what I really would hope is that people would share Paul's enthusiasm and vision which he poured out in Ephesians. So I'd like to start with just a read-through.

Don't worry, I'm not going to quote the whole thing, I'm more going to cover Ephesians "live-blogging" style on a read-through. I'll cover that absolutely bedrock foundation -- the opening section -- here in this post, & keep going I hope through this week with other installments. I hope to be able to blog more frequently than my usual this week, since the live-blogging approach isn't as research-intensive as some of the things I post here.)

Some quick points on the words before we start: I think Paul's message gets distorted because of the translation. Some words have shifted meaning between what he said and what we understand, & I think we'll catch his point better if I say up front: let's drop the "Churchese" which hardly existed in his day. Churchese is a real obstacle to understanding Ephesians, even more so with this writing than with others because several of the things we obscure are actually Paul's key points in the letter. So to clear the ground first:

  1. Gospel does not mean a set of propositions or a doctrine which requires our assent. The gospel means good news, particularly the good news of what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. When the early church wanted to explain the good news to someone, they talked about Jesus and how God has blessed the world through him. That's how Paul spends his opening section of Ephesians; we'll get to that in a moment. When the new Christians asked the early church to explain the gospel more fully, they came up with four biographies of Jesus and called those "gospels". What Jesus said and did, who he is and why he came, that is the gospel. It is our tendency to focus on the trivial that makes us try to turn those back into theological treatises and call those the gospel, rather than seeing the risk that the treatises and propositions may obscure the gospel.
  2. Church does not mean a building to which you may or may not go, or an institution to which you may or may not belong. It means first and foremost the people who have been drawn by Christ's call, by the message of the goodness of God seen in Christ, and the hope for the future. Paul actually goes into this, again, in some depth.
  3. Saints does not mean merely people who lead exemplary lives (though they do that) or those who believe in Christ by assenting to certain doctrines about him (though they probably do that too). Saints are those who are holy because Christ's life continues in this world in them, God's presence is manifested to those around through them. The shape that even "holiness" takes is far different than we have become accustomed to thinking, and again Paul spends a large portion of his letter on that.

So enough preliminaries, and on to Paul.

A quick note on the greetings. Paul frequently makes use of the greetings -- how he describes himself and how he describes his addressees -- to frame the actual point of his letters. He makes his point here that it all starts with God in Christ. He only takes 3 words to get to "Christ" (5 in translation). I wish more sermons were like that. The letter is addressed to the "saints" -- translate "holy ones" -- and faithful in Christ Jesus. How exactly are they holy and faithful? Nearly the whole letter answers that question.

Again with the meat of his letter, like with his greeting, he starts with Christ. Paul's opening statement is laid out so logically that you can literally outline it by simply moving the clauses into that structure without doing any violence to the text. It has a topic sentence and supporting points, each and every one of which clearly supports the original topic sentence. You could use vv. 3-14 in a writing class as an example of how to stick to a topic and support it with details. The topic is this: "Praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." Each of the supporting points under it shows 1) That God is blessing us, 2) that we have a lot of spiritual blessings, and 3) they all come through Christ. Most people notice the first two; some miss the third point. But Paul makes a point and hammers home the point: after saying in his topic that all the spiritual blessings come to us in Christ, he follows through not only with a list of God's spiritual blessings, but also with a note on each and every one how Christ is the key to the blessing. "In him ... through Jesus Christ ... in the One he loves. In him ... through his blood ... he purposed in Christ ... one head, even Christ. In him ... in Christ ... in him ...". Paul also keeps up the theme of praise and glory to God nearly as consistently as he makes his point that there is no spiritual blessing from God that comes to us apart from Christ.

So Paul's opening salvo is this: that salvation starts with God, and God blesses us through Christ, and of all the multitude of spiritual blessings we have -- cause for praising God -- all of them without fail come to us only through Christ.

To be continued ...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Jesus' departure and mission: a second look at the end of Luke

To understand the mind of God, we have to understand the idea of blessing. The creation account portrays blessing as a basic concept in God's purposes: the first thing God does after creating man is to bless him (Gen. 1:28). The call of Abraham is portrayed as an avenue for blessing the whole world (Gen. 12:1-3). One of the fixed purposes of the Jewish priesthood is to proclaim God's blessing to the people and to be a means of blessing (Num. 6:22-27).

In the Beatitudes, the Gospel of Matthew shows Jesus proclaiming, first and foremost, the God who blesses (Matt. 5:2-12). Paul understands the mission of Jesus Christ in terms of God blessing the world through him (Eph. 1:3-14). From the first chapter of the first book of the Bible to the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, blessing is a recurring theme. We do not understand God unless we understand his purpose to bless the world, and with the world, us.

So then I am not surprised at how Luke portrays Jesus at the end of his gospel, when Jesus leaves the disciples:
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. And while he was blessing them, he left them ..." (Luke 28:50-51)
If he left while blessing them, it leaves room to wonder whether he ever stopped.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Love and Forgiveness

Every time I think I have passed a milestone in forgiveness, I find myself later second-guessing whether I have really made any progress at all. I wonder if it may be like the place in the kitchen I just cleaned: it makes everything else look dingier by comparison. And so everything I do just shows up how much more still needs to be done, and what a long way I have to go.

I know that Christ calls me to be an advocate for those who have wronged me. Christ prayed for those who were killing him, "Father, forgive them" -- advocating for us even while suffering at our hands. And if he teaches us to ask, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us," then I know how much I need to be forgiven. It shows me that it is time for me to be a prayer warrior for those who have wronged me, to plead their case with God. But sometimes it is so hard to do, and some people are easier to advocate for than others. Last night I found myself squirming at that section of my prayers, since I had moved on to someone else I need to forgive. I was probably the least convincing advocate you've ever heard. Am I really still that hard-hearted?

I wish God would unlock my heart. I'm having trouble with it, myself.

I've been pondering why I have an easier time forgiving some people than others, and it seems to be this: the ones I can forgive are the ones who are already human to me again. I cannot forgive "the one who wronged me so many times in so many ways"; I can only forgive the one I love, or want to love. It may be the same person in my thoughts both times, but so long as they are only "the one who wronged me," I cannot forgive them. So long as the only identity I give them, the only face I recognize in them, is the face of the one sneering at me, I will not be able to forgive them. If I forgive them when thinking of them in that way, it is either an exercise in futility or a perverse justification of evil that is sometimes mistaken for forgiveness. It is not the real thing. The nature of forgiveness is separating them from that identity as "the one who hurts people", or recognizing that there can be more to them than that. Forgiveness means freeing them from that evil, not binding them to it and excusing it. The people I have learned to forgive, I have first learned to see them apart from their worst traits, have learned to recognize that there is more to them than that.

I've mentioned before that there is no way we can dehumanize others without at the same time dehumanizing ourselves. At the time I was thinking of partisanship and propaganda, not old wounds. But it does look like I was burying my head in the sand: it applies far more broadly than that. Whenever I cannot forgive someone, it is because they are somehow less than human in my mind. It is because I cannot see them apart from whatever bad they have done. And I think it does still follow: if I dehumanize someone else, I also dehumanize myself; I've mirrored the evil, reflecting the image of wrong instead of the image of God. There's a lot at stake when we're wronged. There's so much temptation there. Lord, have mercy.

Monday, February 08, 2010

On earth as in heaven: Fear not

I had meant for this post to continue studying and pondering love -- deepening love and living it more -- and that I hope is still coming. But I'm catching in the air a certain sense of fear from the people I talk to and/or read. There is fear for our country's future, fear of a hostile nation's latest threats, fear of deficits, fear of unemployment, fear of debt, fear of global warming or fear of rampant dishonesty depending on the point of view, fear of losing control, fear that nobody we trust is in control, fear that nobody at all is in control. I am not here to tell anyone that bad is good. I am not going to say "don't be concerned." In fact, I think the time for concern and action is well past, and we should be doing more, not less, especially on the issue of reducing debt. But in the face of a climate of fear, I wanted to take this one post to focus on the stability -- the steadfastness -- of God's purpose and God's message.

God will not be moved. His plans will not be shaken. I make no comment on my own plans, or your plans, or anyone else's plans. Every day you and I pray, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Focus on one particular part of that for just a moment: earth and heaven interact at times. And on some few occasions in human history, a messenger has come to earth, so that we can have a message on earth from heaven. And that message often begins like this: Fear not. Whenever an angel appears in the Bible, most often his first words are "Fear not." Over and over, "Fear not." Whatever they say next, they typically begin there, "Fear not." Is it because seeing a supernatural being is so frightening that they begin by saying "Fear not"? Maybe. But maybe it's because we are so often afraid. Maybe it's because that's the main message God wants to send us in this world: Fear not. Trust him.

Maybe when we pray, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," maybe we are joining ourselves with them to be God's messengers on earth. And maybe our first message to others is, "Fear not." The next crisis that crashes down -- and don't they always? every age has its crisis -- let's be the ones standing there with peace on our hearts proclaiming God's peace. And whatever we say next, we start there: "Don't be afraid." When times are darkest and we can take someone by the hand and say, "Don't be scared" -- that is when someone may actually ask us the reason for the hope we have within us. And isn't that what we pray for a chance to proclaim?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Increase our love: "think on these things" and other help from Paul

In the search for ways to increase in love, I think Paul's advice to the Philippians can be pressed into service.
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or worthy of praise -- think about such things. (Phil 4:8)
I think the things we looked at before -- whether photography or a treasury of anecdotes -- is a way of "thinking about such things." It focuses us on the other person, and particularly on the good in them, and so helps strengthen our love and particularly the sense of delight in what is good.

Paul was also very helpful when he assured us of God's love, saying, "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus." First and foremost that whole passage assures me of the sheer, raw determination behind God's love for us: it is not a flighty thing, easily disrupted. But when I turn to put God's love in action, I need help, and have such a long way to go to reach that level of iron determination to love -- no matter what the circumstances or obstacles. On many days, being determined to love works out to being determined to forgive; that is part of the persistence, as the other person's sin and brokenness will eventually become an obstacle, just like mine will. It also works out to a determination to be there, to be present. God did that for us. And I can see in my own home that the amount of time I spend with my children -- and the level of determination I have to listen to them -- makes a difference. Sometimes, I can't see how to help the shortage of time, like in my heavy overtime season at work this last summer. But sometimes I just find myself doing things that really don't matter so much, and even being annoyed at interruptions. It's a sign of my backwards priorities.

The more I look at the letters in the New Testament through this lens, the more they looks like field guides to how to love each other. (To be continued, most likely.)