Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Gospel According To Matthew

Because of some unexpected health issues, this post has been pre scheduled and I may not be able to respond to comments.  Posting may be sporadic during this time of troubled health.  It has also been 'written' with speech recognition software. Please pardon any sound-alike words that escape me as I proofread.

How are we saved?  There is a lot of debate over that in Christian circles.  There is tension (at least) between Paul and James.  But what about the actual apostles who knew Jesus in person and were among his followers?

If you read the Gospel of Matthew and trace the message there, the theme that stands out is mercy. When people come to Jesus for healing, what they ask for is mercy.  When people come to him for forgiveness, what they ask for is mercy. When people challenged him whether it was right to heal on the Sabbath, he told them to go and learn what it means that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

In his preaching, he begins his preaching career with the beatitudes, including this: Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Towards the end of the Sermon On The Mount, he makes sure we have not missed his point: With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. In his famous teaching of the Last Judgment, people are received by God (or not) only based on whether they have shown mercy to other people.

There is a new covenant described in Matthew, one for all the world rather than just one nation: a covenant of forgiveness. At times I wonder if we aren't supposed to understand that every one, everywhere is forgiven for every sin.  And all that remains is that we show each other mercy.

It is natural to wonder (based on our current debates), doesn't that mean we are earning our salvation? I think it means that the whole world finds itself in the middle of Jesus's parable of the unmerciful servant: the forgiveness was already given to us, but our actions can cause us to lose it.

Does a covenant really work that way?  If you consider the old covenant at Sinai under Moses, there was in fact provision for the forgiveness of sins.  The most serious offense was considered to be idolatry, because it puts you outside the covenant under which sins are forgiven.  In the new covenant, the equivalent would be refusing mercy to someone who asked for it.  It's not merely a sin, it's a rejection of the covenant where sins are forgiven.

How are we saved?  God has shown us all mercy.  That is how we are saved.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris calls for compassion and honesty

In light of current events, my planned post for today would be inappropriate.  I join with people of France and with decent people the world over in condemning the acts of mass murder that they have suffered.  Let no one blame the victims. Terrorists always blame their victims; that does not mean we should accept that excuse.

Let our compassion go, first and foremost, to the victims and their families, and then also extend generously to the nation and the society that is the intended victim of the attack. Any compassion for the murderers should not come at the expense of their victims. And our sense that this kind of thing is truly wrong should not become another casualty. There is no legitimate excuse, and our compassion is turned to lip service when we legitimize the attacks.

It is important for people of compassion to be honest as well.  Otherwise, when people want honest answers, where will they go?

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Ministry of reconciliation

Quarrels.  Divisions.  Discord and strife.

These are common to human experience.  Yet the New Testament tells Christians to avoid these, to get rid of them.  Easier said than done.

There are so many factions in the church, in the nation, even sometimes in our own families that we grow used to the idea.  We come to accept divisions.  We keep mental lists of who isn't speaking to whom, or who is on which side in various disagreements.  We try to pick our way through the rubble of so many broken relationships and broken trusts.

As Christians, we're called to be peacemakers and to take up the task of working towards reconciliation. It can be so difficult to know where to begin.  I can see two openings for first steps:

First, that we do not contribute to the divisions and make them worse.  Harsh words in public and harsh words in private both make the division harder to heal.  We make things worse when we rehearse and recite grievances. We make things worse when we accuse others of dishonesty, when we assume the worst motives, when we take it for granted that the other side is moved by hatred or dishonesty or bad character or lack of understanding. In my experience, most people have no idea why their opponents think what they do.  In most cases, they have no interest in why their opponents think what they do, which is a real obstacle to understanding.  And when someone makes the first steps towards trying to understand, they are almost always blinded still by what they have been told that the other side must think, which can be vastly different from what they do in fact think. This leads to the next opening:

Second, if we have no earthly idea what would motivate someone to take an action or hold a view, we could ask them.  We could try to understand.  It may be true enough that the other side does not understand us, but do we understand them?  Do we fault them for not understanding us, while we are open to the same charge ourselves of not understanding them?  Do we hold a double standard on that?  Are we waiting for them to make the first move, since after all we are sure we're right? Somehow each side is sure that that the other side is the side that lacks understanding - even though we do not understand their point of view.

There are situations in my own life that could benefit if we tried a little patience and understanding. I write this as someone who has much to learn, struggling to organize my thoughts and turn them into something more productive.  May God help.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Reformation and The Schism

I expect that anyone who looked back at the Western church in the early 1500s would have seen the problems.  There were some newer and questionable doctrines; there was the question of what an ancient church was doing with new doctrines in the first place; there was the question of some fundraising practices involving the doctrine of purgatory and the sale of indulgences.  And there was a theology professor who had completely lost his patience with the abuses.

Lost his patience.  Patience is a Christian virtue.  It's not something we can afford to lose, necessarily.

Somewhere there is a time and a place for righteous anger.  Sometimes the best intentions go wrong. And so the desire to reform the church ended up splintering it.  When Martin Luther posted those 95 debating points, he did not imagine the church was so fragile that it would break.

"Speak the truth with love."  Could things have been different today if Luther had been as gifted at diplomacy as he was preaching?

Not all the schisms traced to Luther, of course. Before Luther, the church was broken into the "Catholic" and "Orthodox", along with Copts and Nestorians who were far more of a presence in the East than is typically known in the West. A general lack of focus on the Holy Spirit made it nearly inevitable that a Pentecostal movement would separate from the church rather than light the whole from within.  The excessive formality of some groups caused their mirror image to form in reaction. The over-reliance on scholastic-style argument may have played a role in the groups that are wary of scholastic argument and systematic theology.

And yet Luther's lack of diplomacy may be one of the most lasting pieces of his legacy, and Rome's insistence on its own infallibility has been inherited by many Reformation churches.

In order to reunite, each group needs not to splinter into ever-smaller factions with ever-narrower interests, which is the current direction and has been for so long. Instead, we would each of us need to broaden our own bases until each group is more catholic in the original sense of the word: a big enough tent, a welcome for all of Christ's brothers and sisters, a place for all true and useful teachings, a welcome for all healthy approaches.

May we see it in our day.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

For The Forgiveness Of Sins

"For The Forgiveness Of Sins" - Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed

How much comfort we take in those beautiful words.  We hold tight to the forgiveness of sins.  We breathe a sigh of relief at the thought of forgiveness. It is even a new covenant: the forgiveness of sins.

But it is not the forgiveness of our sins that is promised by itself.  It is the forgiveness of sins -not just ours but sins in general.  We take it personally and so we should; yet we take it  as if it were ours exclusively.  The picture is bigger than that.  What Jesus is accomplishing is bigger than that.

How often does he tell us, in one way or another, that forgiveness is for everybody?  Forgive as you are forgiven; the merciful will be shown mercy; we love because God first loved us. He is reconciling the whole world to himself.  Are we with him on that?

It is almost guaranteed that someone will claim that this amounts to earning our salvation.  It is nothing of the sort.  God forgives us when we have done nothing to earn it.  If that means anything to us, we will do the same for others.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The greatest commandment: why forgiveness follows from it

Have you ever thought about what it means that the greatest commandment is love? Think about the disputes that Jesus got into with the Pharisees. In particular, think about all the disputes over the Sabbath. Jesus used the example of how priests sacrifice on the Sabbath. The law of sacrifice and the Sabbath are in conflict every seventh day. If the priests keep the Sabbath exactly as written then they would have to skip the sacrifices; if they perform the temple service then they break the Sabbath. But the temple service is greater than the Sabbath, so the priests perform the temple service and are blameless with regards to the Sabbath.

Or consider the example of circumcision. Under the Old Covenant, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day. If the eighth day falls on the Sabbath then those two laws are again in conflict. If the child is circumcised on the eighth day the Sabbath is broken; if the Sabbath is kept then the law of circumcision is broken.  The covenant is greater than the Sabbath, so again circumcision is performed even on the Sabbath, and those who perform this service are innocent of breaking the Sabbath. When two laws conflict, the greater commandment is kept.

Now consider that the greatest commitment is to love God, and the second is like it, to love our neighbors.  It follows then that we forgive each other. What is forgiveness except for love being taken into account as greater than our sins?

More could be said about the place of repentance in the heart of the one who acted without love and sinned against his neighbor and so broke God's greatest law in the first place. There is no need for forgiveness unless the law of love was already broken by the one who needs forgiveness. More could be said about the value of the law in teaching us how to love and how to reconcile justice and mercy. (After all, the greater part of mercy is love and respect for the wrongdoer, and the greater part of justice is love and respect for the wronged.) And how can we show the wrongdoer respect without endorsing the evil itself, unless the wrongdoer repents? If the wrongdoer repents in truth, he will lead the way in seeking to make things right for the anyone who was harmed by his actions.

All that said: the commands to love are greater than the other commandments.  So it follows that the true penitent is always met with love. That is why we approach God with confidence. That is why the people that we know should be able to approach us with the same confidence. Once they have abandoned whatever harm they are causing, their welcome will be sure. Because love is greater than their sins.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Is "selflessness" a good thing?

I've often heard people discuss being "selfless" as if it were a virtue. And yet it is not the same thing as love. Hermits may be selfless (or not), they may deny themselves, but that is not love. No one is blessed by it. No one is helped by it. No one else's life is made warmer or brighter or deeper by it. No one has their distress or loneliness relieved, or adds to their bonds of fellowship. Is there any gain in self-sacrifice for its own sake? The difference between selflessness and love is the difference between Eleanor Rigby and Mother Theresa.

The God-honoring alternative to selfishness is that we should love each other.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Meditation: God as light

Let there be light.
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 1 John 1:5
Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105
God is light. The beginning of creation, the most beautiful, the most needful. It allows us to see, to recognize. On a path, light does more than show the way. More than that, it shows safety, shows danger. Still more: light causes some of the dangerous things to flee.

Light shows us other things in their beauty. And more: It increases their beauty. Consider the drop of water caught in the light, or the cloud caught in the light. The light makes other things more beautiful. Consider the endless cycle of beauty by which God has marked each day: there was evening, and there was morning, each new day. The days are set apart not just by the changing of the light or the clocks, but by fresh displays of beauty. Consider an ocean or lake with the light shimmering on it. For things considered valuable: one of gold's beauties is how it reflects the light. Gems are valued for how they catch the light, and the craftsmen develop their skill in how to catch the light. Some things are made beautiful simply by catching the light.


In appreciation of the value of things left unsaid, I'll stop there.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Essential Bible Verses on Stress or Anxiety

  1. Cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you. - 1 Peter 5:7
  2. Aren't two sparrows sold a penny? Yet not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father. Even the hairs of your head are numbered. So don't be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows. - Matthew 10:29-31
  3. Who of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to his life? - Matthew 6:27
  4. Look at the birds of the air. They do not plant or harvest or store away in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you much more valuable than they? Matthew 6:26
  5. Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin, yet not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed as these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, you of little faith? Matthew 6:28-30
  6. If God is for us, who can be against us? - Romans 8:31
  7. Who will bring an accusation against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is it that condemns? - Romans 8:33-34
  8. I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8:38-39
  9. When you pray ... your Father knows what you need before you ask him. - Matthew 6:7-8
  10. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

Sunday, September 27, 2015

We Are God's Temple: The mortar is fellowship

It is written that we are living stones in God's Temple -- that God lives within us. Christ is the foundation, and Christ is the cornerstone. We are joined together by fellowship, as the mortar which holds us together. It is an expression of love, the work of the Spirit who lives with in us and the outpouring of our own faith.

The leaders of the church were originally chosen from those who were gifted in hospitality (1 Timothy 3:2): they understood the role of fellowship, and how to cultivate it. The more leaders who are gifted in hospitality, the more closely the church holds together in the bond of love. Such church builders are architects who have understood God's love for people and God's vision of us united, understanding each living stone and finding the right place for each. Each stone builds up the whole, and is more secure itself for being joined together. Compare a finished Temple to a pile of rubble, and know: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The "lone ranger" Christians -- the vast numbers of Christians and Christian sympathizers who are unchurched -- are a sign of the problems with love and fellowship in the church. So many people remain apart from the Temple as a solitary stone that has been knocked out of place, and is content to stay there since at least it won't be knocked down again.

As a wise man once said: There is a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. There is a time for every purpose under heaven. Let our days be days of rebuilding. Let us pray for the architects who would build us together on the foundation of Christ as a Temple of the Spirit.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Organized religion: the DNA of civilization

Think back over the thousands of years of human history, over the continents that circle the globe. Think of all the hunter-gatherer tribes, all the early human settlements. Think of the rise of actual cohesive cultures and civilizations. Egypt, India, China ... each had its own beginnings of formal, organized religion. Babylon ... with the Code of Hammurabi. Ancient Israel, ancient Persia. The various "golden ages" of civilizations in the thousands of years since then have generally been united by an organized religion. Organized religion is the DNA that forms a civilization and keeps it coherent from one generation to the next.

For a people to be united enough to create something that endures, it is necessary to go beyond the everyday concerns, the divisive quarreling, and the self-destructive foolishness that so often describe human life, and to instead reach for something unifying and something enduring. Organized religion plays a civilizing role for the individual people; it also forms the people into united cultures. Religion shapes them by its sense of wisdom or purity or holiness or brotherly love, and encourages them to higher goals than they might think of by themselves. The general common experience of those who participate in organized religion is that it expands our horizons and enriches our lives. And when a religion becomes prevalent enough in a certain time and place, when it has the peoples' devotion and imagination, a united culture arises. When peoples' commitment to its vision of justice or beauty or wisdom or brotherhood are worked out in that many lives, these cultures make enduring achievements, and are remembered with respect.

For a thriving culture to form, it is not only necessary to have laws -- a code of right and wrong and social rules -- but it is also necessary that people generally agree on them. It is not enough to have laws when the people in power merely impose those laws on the rest; that's simply oppression. It is not enough that the ruling class has certain values and goals which are mandated to the peasants or workers; it is necessary for those workers to share those values, to take up the mantle willingly. The religion shapes the culture, what it can attain, what it can achieve, what it values. The culture in turn may give a certain shape to the religion: the Christianity of Russia and Italy show how beauty and art and scholarship can take different directions. The Catholicism of Mexico has a flavor of its own. The history of the world has shown that organized religion has enough breathing room for each culture to make it their own. And so while a culture or a golden age may be proud of its religion, a religion may in turn be proud of its cultures and golden ages.

For a culture to hold together across the generations, it is necessary that something should continue to unite it, and inspire it, and shape its identity. In the modern U.S.A., we are taught to despise organized religion -- usually by people who show no understanding of its benefits, and who make arguments that could as easily be applied to (say) organized government or (in some cases) organized education. While I hope our culture can be renewed or rekindled, there is a consolation for whenever the time comes for it to fall: the mechanism for teaching such hatred of religion will, given time, likewise fall. And after that hatred has gone, it is the achievements of the golden ages that will stand the test of time.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Tree that Fell in the Forest: Why God Created?

There's an old brain-teaser of sorts: "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it still make a sound?" People can have a few moments' mind-sport debating over whether the "sound" is the air-carried disturbance or the perception of it, debating whether we can prove a thing with no witnesses, debating whether it matters if nobody is aware of it.

In relation to God: if there were no creatures capable of perceiving awesomeness, would God be an awesome God? If God had not created, he would not be Creator (or Redeemer, or Sustainer). If there were no Time, he would not be Ancient of Days. If there were no creatures with families, he would not be Our Father. If there were no earth, he would not be Our Rock. If no one could see, he would not be our Light; if no one had ever walked, he would not be our Way. If there were no minds to perceive reality, would not be our Truth. If he were all that existed, he would not be the Lord of Hosts. Without a flock, he would not be the Good Shepherd. If there were no places, would he be Omnipresent? If nobody else existed and nothing ever happened, would it mean anything to be Omniscient? If he never did anything, would it matter whether he were Omnipotent? Without creation, God could be compared to the tree in the forest -- the one that nobody heard.

When God said, "It is not good for man to be alone," I wonder whether he spoke from experience there. Without Eve, then Adam was the tree that fell in the forest. And as God sends us to love our neighbors, I think that's part of what we do for our neighbors. We see them, we know they're there, we take notice of them, and when they fall we remember them. The more we do that for our neighbors, the more they matter. So they are not the tree that falls in the forest, and neither are we.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

"Three things are above me, four I cannot fathom ..." - the counting proverbs

Proverbs chapter 30 is full of "counting" proverbs. The verse is introduced with one number, and then continues with a higher number. Consider:

  • The leech has two daughters ... three things are insatiable ... four never say "Enough!" (Proverbs 30:15)
  • Three things are beyond me ... four I cannot fathom. (30:18)
  • The earth shudders at three things, at four which it cannot bear (30:21)
  • Three that are stately of stride, four that carry themselves well (30:29)

I think their author made a point, not just with his words but with his format as well:

If we ponder a matter, we add to our wisdom. If we ponder how many things we do not understand, we add to our humility. And while we cannot add to the word of God, we can always add to our understanding.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

What brings joy to our days, and makes them good?

Pondering the texts in the style of the ancient Biblical scholars; I'm fairly fond of some of their approaches.

What brings joy to our days, and makes them good?
It is to see the wonders of creation, as it is written that the Holy One said, "He saw that it was good." 
It is to do something of value and worth, as it is written that he made it, and saw that it was good.  
It is to be a companion to another so that they are not alone, as it is written, "It is not good for man to be alone." 
In all these things, we walk after the ways of God.

  • The artist walks after the way of God, to bring forth a thing of beauty. 
  • The craftsman walks after the way of God, to bring forth a thing of worth. 
  • The gardener walks after the way of God, as it is written, "He planted a garden in the East."
  • The companion walks after the way of God, as it is written that he walked in the cool of the evening. 
  • The husband and wife walk in the way of God, as it is written that they brought forth a new life. 

There are other acts in which we walk after the ways of God:

  • An act of justice, as it makes people bless God.
  • An act of mercy, as it makes people bless God. 

Is there a contradiction? On the one hand it is written, to do your alms in private, and in another it is written, "that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven"?
There is no contradiction, for "Do your alms in private" refers to works that bring praise to yourself, as it is written, "they have already received their reward", while the other refers to works that bring praise to the Holy One, as it is written, "that they may glorify your Father in heaven."

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Why not wear linsey-woolsey clothes?

There are some rules of the Old Testament that are generally acknowledged as healthy, upright, and reasonable. The commands against murder, stealing, false witness, and adultery are prime examples of laws that are well-regarded. And then there are the other laws whose inclusion is puzzling to say the least, since we cannot determine any possible purpose of that law. One such puzzling law is the restriction against wearing clothes made of both wool and linen:
You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen. (Deuteronomy 22:11, JPS)
Maimonides, one of the renowned Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, claimed to have determined the reason. On the view that some of the obscure rules were intended to teach monotheism and to distance the Jews from surrounding nations' idol-worship, Maimonides had reviewed some of the books available to him that gave details of pagan rituals. He writes:
For the same reason [that it was the custom of idolatrous priests], the wearing of garments made of linen and wool is prohibited; the heathen priests adorned themselves with garments containing vegetable and animal material, whilst they held in their hand a seal made of a mineral. This you find written in their books. (Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 37)
Apparently, back in the day, wearing animal/vegetable mixed clothes was to dress like a pagan priest who was prepared 2 parts out of 3 for an idol-worship ritual. At that point he did not mention exactly which books he was citing, though based on books he mentions elsewhere, the first place I might check is the ancient work Nabatean Agriculture, should an English translation ever become available, or an on-line copy available via web translation software.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Evangelism, done right, is grace for the hearer

In the Lutheran church, we try to keep our eyes focused on God's grace. We often talk about the "means of grace" -- the ways in which God makes it clear to us that he loves us and forgives us and establishes a bond with us through Christ. A "means of grace" contains within itself an act of love, the message of God's forgiveness, and builds that bond (which is grace) that God establishes with us through Christ. When we look at baptism, we see the washing and cleansing, and hear the promise that we repent and are baptized for the forgiveness of our sins, that we become children of God. We consider that baptism is a "means of grace" because in baptism we see God acting in love to forgive us and make us his own. In communion (the Lord's Supper), we see the food and drink given to nourish us, we hear the promise of the covenant of our forgiveness through Christ, we are accepted at the Lord's own table. So we consider that to be another act of God which both announces and establishes God's grace towards us through Christ.

We consider our ministers to be "ministers of word and sacrament" -- that, besides these great acts of God in the sacraments, God's love is also known to us in words. Evangelism, done right, is about God's love. Through it, the listeners hear of God's love, God's mercy, about how God receives them through cleansing in baptism and makes them his own children. The listeners hear that repentance is met with forgiveness, that the Supper we have now -- a covenant for our forgiveness -- is a foretaste of the feast to come. It is the king's son's wedding, and we have been sent to invite people.

Should street evangelists, instead of handing out tracts, hand out wedding invitations?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Origins: The "shoulder angel" and the "shoulder devil"?

Have you ever seen the cartoons where someone has an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other? Apparently it's not a Hollywood invention. The idea can be traced back at least as far as the Talmud, an ancient Jewish writing.
It was taught, R. Jose son of R. Judah said: Two ministering angels accompany man on the eve of the Sabbath from the synagogue to his home, one good and one an evil. And when he arrives home and finds the lamp burning, the table laid and the couch covered with a spread*, the good angel exclaims, ‘May it be even thus on another Sabbath,’ and the evil angel unwillingly responds ‘amen’. But if not, the evil angel exclaims, ‘May it be even thus on another Sabbath’ and the good angel unwillingly responds, ‘amen’. (Sabbath 119b)
* These are comforts that involve work. If not done before the Sabbath, it's forbidden to attend to them on the Sabbath.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Worship: Saturday or Sunday? (Gnats and Camels)

I still have plans to continue my series on divisions and controversies in the church. Today during worship services, the old controversy about the Seventh Day was mentioned. I found myself picturing a debate about it. Here is what I would have wanted a chance to say.

We are here to debate what day to praise God. Are we really here to argue about what day to praise God? I will keep my point very simple: There is no such thing as a wrong day to praise God. We all remember what the Bible says about the Sabbath: it’s a day of rest. There is no command in the Bible that the day of worship is the Sabbath; it’s the day of rest. Search the Bible, you will not find a command saying that the day to worship is the Sabbath. And yet, there is no such thing as a wrong day to praise God.

There is also no command in the Bible that the day of worship is Sunday. Now most of us, we praise God on Sunday because it’s the day of Jesus’ resurrection. When we worship on Sunday, it’s about the resurrection of Jesus, and for that we praise God. And still, there is no such thing as a wrong day to praise God.

Jesus taught us a lot of things. One thing that he taught us was about how we get focused on the wrong things. He says we strain at gnats and swallow camels. Most debates, my friends, are about gnats. The day of worship is a gnat. Whether we love each other, whether we are brothers and sisters and the end of that day, that is the camel. Whether we are Jesus’ people, known for our love, is the camel. Whether we speak the truth with love is the camel. Whether we permit ourselves to stoop to judgment and discord over what should glorify God, that is the camel. If we turn worship into an argument, and if even our worship itself no longer glorifies God, then our zeal over that gnat has done great harm. Let our worship – and our words here – glorify God.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Define "wisdom"

I've been trying to figure out a few things, what they are in their essence. Here's a try at wisdom, and what it really means.

Wisdom: Knowledge directed by love
While knowledge can be directed by any motive towards any end, wisdom is directed by love. Knowledge can be idle; wisdom is active. If it chooses stillness, it is because that stillness is constructive. 

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Why wisdom is so different from knowedge

If knowledge is an understanding of the facts, wisdom is an understanding of how to turn those to a good end. Knowledge is not particular about what happens with facts, with how information is used; wisdom interests itself about the benefits and good that can follow.

In theory, knowledge pursues facts per se, for their own sake. Though knowledge is not quite that simple in the real world. When we gain new knowledge, it is because we are looking, and there is always a reason why we are looking. It may be that we truly wish to understand something for its own sake, or for the sake of understanding. But it's more likely that the knowledge is a means to another end. Someone may study baseball for the love of baseball -- or to become a better pitcher, or to coach a more winning team, or to place better bets. Usually learning comes with an agenda: what we hope to gain, and a reason why we are studying (or being directed to study) one thing rather another. At the university level, a syllabus has an agenda, a curriculum has an agenda, at times the university itself exists to promote certain goals. Leaving aside the questions that can raise, the good and the bad, it's enough to say: knowledge is rarely gained for its own sake. It is often a tool. So: Whose tool, and for what use?

Wisdom has a view to what is good. It is not necessarily grand or self important. Wisdom can be as simple as making friends. Or it can be as far-reaching as building a beautiful culture, in which each person feels their lives enriched by participating and belonging, and in turn enriches the culture by their lives. (The best cultures are naturally formed from peoples' shared lives and self-expressions, where the peoples' lives have meaning and purpose, beauty and dignity, that intrinsically belong to a healthy and thriving culture.) Because wisdom looks for what is possible, wisdom cultivates the imagination, which is sometimes dismissed with impatience when we focus on facts alone. And wisdom has an aspect of morality or virtue.  When we seek the good, we need an idea what is good. In order to turn knowledge into good, we have to know what it is.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

A little friendly competition - and 5 ideas for sister congregations

In 2 Corinthians, Paul started something of a friendly competition between two congregations, one in Corinth and one in Macedonia. He tells the church in Corinth,
I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians ... your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action. (2 Corinthians 9:2)
So he used the enthusiasm he had seen previously in Corinth to spur the Macedonians. Once the Macedonians' enthusiasm was stirred, he used that in turn to encourage Corinth further:
If any of the Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we -- not to say anything about you -- would be embarrassed to find you unprepared. (2 Corinthians 9:4)
And this is not the only place where we see the New Testament considering not just acts of kindness and generosity, but how to encourage each other towards more of them:
Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good actions. (Hebrews 10:24)
Paul set up something of a "sister congregation" situation between Macedonia and Corinth when he compared them to each other, and set up a friendly rivalry between them. To keep Paul's idea alive, what kinds of competitions could a congregation have with a sister congregation? Here are a few ideas for competitions we could have amongst ourselves here and now:

  1. Who can collect the most jackets and coats for the winter coat drive for the poor? 
  2. Which youth group can put in the most volunteer hours at Habitat for Humanity over Spring Break? 
  3. Which congregation can collect the most toys for poor children for the Christmas toy drive? 
  4. Who can put the most -- or most appetizing -- food into their food bank? 
  5. Who can raise the most for the poor with a garage sale (Luke 12:33)?

It says "let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good actions" ... It does take some considering. I'd be glad to hear other peoples' suggestions for how we can spur each other on. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The "ambassador" model of evangelism

We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:20)
We usually think about evangelism in terms of "witnessing", and with good reason: Christ appointed his apostles as his witnesses, and we carry on their work. Witnesses are people who can personally guarantee the truth of what they report: they discuss what they see or hear, what they know. When we hear of witnessing, we often think in terms of testimony and court arguments. This has often been the case for Christians, as our beliefs are at times persecuted by law.

Paul gives us a second way to look at the same job of being Christ's messengers: we are ambassadors. An ambassador is a foreigner. We are called to picture ourselves as foreigners even in our own culture. That's true enough, as we have different views on everything from sexual integrity to self-control to how to treat our enemies. Ambassadors -- and foreigners in general -- stand out for their differences. They don't fit in. They eat differently, speak differently, dress differently, have different custom and different habits. And yet they are not embarrassed by any of that: they are true to the country in which they are citizens.

The ambassador's job is to represent the ruler who sent them. They speak on his behalf, representing his interests and not their own. Usually ambassadors are sent to make peace or keep peace. It can lead to different conversations than the "witnessing" model of evangelism. Both are the good news of Christ.

Paul focuses us on the message with which we have been sent:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Why Holiness is an important idea

If we discard the idea of the holy, there is nothing left but the secular. Without a sense of the holy, a church has nothing left but the worldly. It may be earnest, or academic, or bureaucratic, or intense, or moralistic -- but it has lost touch with God. (Even theology can lose touch with God. If you don't believe me, read some theology books.) A consumer-model church, a coffeeshop church, a browbeater church, an academic church -- all are missing holiness. They may also be missing leadership with authority, or discipleship, or fellowship, or the kind of belonging that builds an attachment. 

Holiness is a spark of glory, where we recognize divine life: that it is beautiful and pure, powerful and good. Holiness is what makes us understand that God is worthy to receive honor. Without holiness, the idea of God has no attraction -- what does God have that the world does not, if God is not holy? It is holiness, after all, which is is the the soul's desire: the genuine article of holiness, where our souls are like the still water, or a kindled flame, or a field containing a hidden treasure.  

Some things are related to holiness: reverence, and respect, and honor. These are produced by recognizing the holy or the worthy; without that, there can only be counterfeits of reverence and honor and respect. Holiness inspires reverence; when the real thing is found then its counterfeits evaporate like a child's footprints on a sidewalk in August. 

And holiness goes beyond duty: it shows that an act of kindness is a window of divine grace. Holiness is needed for morality to transcend mere obligation. "Holiness" is, after all, the part that transcends. Worldly goodness never really soars, as it denies there is anything beyond, to which we might reach. So often the idea of "holy", in art, is shown with wings. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Footsteps of God

It was an ancient teaching in Israel, that we are to walk after God -- that is, follow him; the law and the covenants were portrayed as walking after God. Jesus used the same image when he invited his disciples to follow him. Acts of compassion and kindness were seen as walking after God because of the Torah's record of God doing many such acts. Following in God's footsteps is the natural outcome of believing that he is good, and that his way is good.

"Walking with God" had references earlier in the Bible than the law and the covenants. If we look earlier still, we go back to hearing God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening -- and this time we are following instead of running the other way. Fellowship with God is restored. In walking with God, and following his footsteps, we go back to what we were meant to be doing.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

On earth as in heaven

We Christians pray it daily, for God's will to be done on earth as in heaven. The connection between earth and heaven is seen many times in the Scriptures, in different images. In the letter to the Hebrews, we read about priests at the earthly tabernacle:
They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and a shadow of what is in heaven. That is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.' (Hebrews 8:5, which in turn cites Exodus 25:40)
There are a number of places in Exodus where it is written that the earthly sanctuary and contents were on a pattern laid out by God, to be like heaven (Exodus 25:9, 25:40, 26:30, 27:8).

That section of Exodus is best known for God's meeting with Moses on Sinai. And God's meeting with Moses on Sinai is best remembered for the Ten Commandments. The pattern shown on the mountain also seems to be part of the meeting on Sinai. If the Tabernacle is the embodiment of the beauty and glory of God, the place of the Divine Presence on earth, then the Ten Commandments are the parallel to that in creating a people who embody the beauty and glory of God, and God's will on earth: a people that does not lie, or steal, or murder, or break marriage vows, or scheme after their neighbor's things, a people that crowns their work with a day of blessing and rest that recaptures paradise on earth. The beauty and holiness of the tabernacle is meant to be woven also into our lives. The Commandments were not presented as dry duties; they were presented alongside news of expert workmen building items of stunning beauty. "On earth as in heaven" is a challenge to each generation. May we gain an understanding of the beauty of what we are called to build.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Resisting Hate-bait: Guarding against the tendency to dehumanize "the enemy"

I've seen it -- and have been appalled by it -- in political rhetoric, where opponents are said to "slither" (snakes aren't human, and are venomous into the bargain), or speakers to opponents' groups are portrayed as "throwing red meat" (as if to dangerous animals, again: not human, and dangerous). I've seen it in certain groups' rhetoric against Jews, teaching their children to regard them as "pigs" (again not human, and filthy). It's interesting that the animals to which "the enemy" is compared tend to be cold-blooded, or dangerous, or filthy. Not every animal comparison is meant as an insult; someone might be compared to an animal that is majestic or loyal or cute with no insult intended. But if the comparison is to an animal perceived as ugly, stupid, dangerous, or dirty, it is likely that the comparison is intended to dehumanize.

Why dehumanize the enemy? In the political realm it's not just cruelty, it's strategy for marginalizing individuals or groups. Animals aren't smart or rational enough to have considered opinions; they don't deserve the dignity of conversation. You don't have to justify why you won't listen to an animal. It's a waste of time, and dangerous, too. You don't have to justify the fact that animals don't have rights. And, more darkly, you don't have to justify killing animals; they aren't human. That has happened now and then in human history. And it begins with treating people like dangerous, stupid, or dirty animals.

Here I want to talk about how our culture starts very young, in teaching children to dehumanize others. It flies under the radar too often, and here I want to start simply by making people aware of the problem. Notice how a famous children's author cues her readers which characters they are supposed to hate by referring to the characters in sub-human terms -- that, is, by dehumanizing them. The animal comments are often even less subtle than having them perform animal actions like slither or snarl or waddle.

Some early introductions from book 2 of a series:

  • Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony.
  • Dudley was blond, pink, and porky. 
  • Uncle Vernon sat back down, breathing like a winded rhinoceros ...

From book 3:

  • Aunt Petunia, who was bony and horse-faced
  • Uncle Vernon snarled
  • Dudley came waddling down the hall

From book 4:

  • her lips pursed over her horse-like teeth 
  • ."You," he barked at Harry. [Vernon again]
  • Dudley was crammed into an armchair, his porky hands beneath him

In book 5, I expect we could look up the introductions of Harry's relatives again, though the new villain of the book might add some insight as to how an author dehumanizes a character, and does it in a way calculated to cause revulsion:
He thought she looked just like a large, pale toad. She was rather squat, with a broad, flabby face, as little neck as Uncle Vernon, and a very wide, slack mouth. Her eyes were large, round, and slightly bulging. Even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue. 
The character of Dolores Umbridge is almost entirely hate-bait, one of the characters introduced in order for the audience to despise them, and to be glad when something bad happens to them. Even Voldemort is given a more sympathetic backstory than Vernon Dursley or Dolores Umbridge.

An author can tempt -- or manipulate -- hatred from her audience. One of the standard tools for doing that is to dehumanize a character. And of course it's just fiction. That doesn't make it one bit smarter to accept hatred as part of how we react to people.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Parallel parables: wheat/weeds, and unmerciful servant

The kingdom of heaven is like ...

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed, but found something else growing. He planted wheat, so he had good reason look for wheat and expect to find wheat. He found weeds among the wheat. Somebody else had planted that.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like someone who forgave another man a large debt. He showed mercy, so he had good reason to look for mercy and expect to find mercy in the other person. Instead he found pettiness and a hard-hearted, self-righteous self-interest. Somebody else had planted that. The other person hadn't recognized the mercy as redemption or as peace or as reconciliation. He hadn't recognized it as an act of compassion or love. Had he imagined that mercy was rightly due to him? To himself, and nobody else? Ingratitude is a close neighbor to arrogance.

So those two parables of the kingdom of heaven are parallel to each other in some basic ways.

Is every act of God a seed that he plants? It would explain why, if God is holy, his people are called to be holy, if he is merciful then his people are called to be merciful. It would explain how righteousness is rooted in the character of God. And how, because of God's love, the world can know Christ's disciples by their love.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How marriage became a piece of paper, and what Christians could do to strengthen it

As my children get closer to the age where they might, some day, marry, I think about some of the objections I hear to marriage from their generation.

One of the objections against marriage these days is that it is "just a piece of paper". A genuinely Christian marriage is more than that. But legally, is there some truth to that charge? Under current law, it seems as though an apartment lease or home mortgage has more legal consequence and binding force than a marriage. Under the marriage laws where I live, if two people are married, one can leave the other for any reason at all -- even if the person being left has done nothing wrong, even if the reason for leaving is to run off with a new romantic interest -- and not only do they face no legal consequences for leaving, but can lay legal claim to half the other person's financial assets. With no-fault divorce, someone can leave a marriage without consequence, possibly even with financial gain, even if the other person has worked to hold up their end of the marriage. When marriage is no longer a vow, and not even legally binding to a large extent, that accusation "just a piece of paper" has some truth to it.

The marriage laws were, in earlier generations, a protection against that kind of injustice rather than an empowerment of it. There was a culture-wide agreement about what a marriage was, how it was built and strengthened, and that there were very few legitimate reasons to leave it. Those agreement were part of the law. In some times and places, the legitimate reasons to leave a marriage were limited to the insanity of the other person, or their unfaithfulness. Some consideration might be given for abandonment (where the other person has moved out). One of the additional reasons considered at various times was physical abuse. There is a lot of difference between that and a no-fault divorce. In a Christian marriage it might be permitted for the innocent party to divorce an adulterer, but it would not be permitted for the adulterer to divorce the innocent party and claim half their financial asset into the bargain. It is understandable that there are people who are skeptical of marriage. And those with financial assets to protect, these days, often have prenuptial agreements in recognition that current marriage laws provide little or no legal protection.

What if there was an agreed prenuptial agreement to strengthen the current marriage agreement into what previous generations would have recognized as a marriage? Would Christians consider signing prenuptial agreements that the marriage was not revocable by divorce except if there had been a violation of the marriage by the other party, with the specific circumstances described such as a diagnosed serious mental illness, adultery, abuse or abandonment? What if there was a provision that, if a court should overthrow the binding nature of the prenuptial agreement or that a divorce should somehow be attained outside of its provisions, that the party in violation of the agreement was, in that act, giving up all claim to the financial assets of the other? What kind of prenuptial agreement would it take for the next generation to be able to have the legal protections on their families that previous generations took for granted?

Monday, June 08, 2015

Celebrating my daughter's graduation

I took this weekend off from posting because of my daughter's graduation. I'm intending to go back to regular posting next weekend.

Take care & God bless

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Testing if a theology is from God: Reasoning from the fruit of the Holy Spriit

As a corollary to the previous study of the Holy Spirit, it also seems to follow:

a) the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our life is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,

b) the fruit of a certain theological system in our life is something besides love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,

then it follows that 
c) that theological system is not formed by the Spirit of God. 

Now, some people don't try to have their theology informed by the Spirit of God, which is its own problem. But for those who do, here the Bible has given us another way to test the spirits. Or as The Man once said, by their fruit we know them. 

We probably all have some work to do. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

What God is like: Reasoning from the nature of the Holy Spirit

Who among men knows the thoughts of a man except his spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. (I Corinthians 2:11)

If we receive the Spirit of God and Paul says this is God's Spirit in the same way that our own spirits know our own thoughts ... then it follows that we can understand the things of God and the nature of God by this Spirit.

What happens if you take that idea and connect it with the fruit of the Spirit?

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

If that is the fruit of the Spirit, and if the Spirit is the mind of God, then the mind of God naturally produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control. The reason that God's Spirit produces them in us is that these things belong to God's nature. It is what God is truly like.

All things that fulfill the law are things that restore in us the image of God. Love does no harm to its neighbor and love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is the nature of God. We have seen before how God is holy and so his people are called to be holy, how God's people are called to follow his paths, how salvation is being restored in the image of God. From the nature of the Holy Spirit, it should follow that the nature of God includes everything that is named as fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

God is good.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit: understanding

The Spirit of the LORD shall rest on him: The Spirit of wisdom and understanding ... (Isaiah 11:2)
This may seem obvious -- and sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we overlook. (Really, being proficient -- more than a beginner -- in any skill, means having become so accustomed to certain basic things that we no longer have to think about them any more. And so we don't. Every level of expertise carries its own blind spot, in that way.) If I look back on every conversation I've ever had, and look forward to every conversation I expect to have, all those conversations share one thing: a common language. The other person and I could understand each other, if we tried. Every long-term friendship I've ever had was with someone that I could talk to, or write with, in a language that we both understood. I've had some casual interactions with people who don't speak the same language; you can get a certain distance with signs and body language and facial expressions. But there is only so far we will get without a common language.

At Pentecost, the gift of languages was a gift of communication, a gift of understanding, a gift of including all people. It is a gift of fellowship ("the fellowship of the Holy Spirit") which begins at the basic level of understanding each other.

Like all the great gifts, even understanding must take its direction from love or it becomes unwelcome. Consider how much Amazon and google "understand" us from keeping close track of our actions, and how much Big Brother "understands" us from our communications, for examples of how someone can "understand" without any real understanding of us as people, or any wish to understand us as people. I do not mean to start anyone worrying about Amazon, google or Big Brother; I mean to mention that in our own small way, we're hardly any better if all our understanding is without love. As a follower of Christ, I want to understand my neighbor in a way that helps me see them through the eyes of love, so that my understanding is a gift. We all desire that kind of understanding. May God grant that the Spirit of wisdom and understanding help us.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Spirit and the fire

The Bible has a collection of images that it uses for the Holy Spirit -- and fire is one of the main ones. This fire is not a destructive fire, but a purifying fire, a holy fire. It is light in the darkness. It is the light that shines before men, the lamp on the lamp stand. It is the smolder that clings to the wick that is not snuffed out yet. It is the burning in the bosom as we hear the words of Christ. It is the flame that we fan. It is one way that faith passes from us to the next person -- that they feel the warmth, see the light, and are drawn. It is part of how we encourage each other, and part of why there is so much power in fellowship. In isolation, we are candles in the dark. Together, we are a bonfire.

In one of the Greek myths, man is denied fire -- it is reserved for the gods -- and the man who steals the power of fire is dealt a stern punishment. On Pentecost, God takes the fire of His own Spirit, and sends it down to man: The tongues of fire light on all the believers so that the young men will see visions, the old men will dream dreams, and on all -- both sons and daughters -- the spirit is poured out. God does not try to deny man the power of God: He pours it out on us, to lift us up, and restore us, and kindle the divine Spirit in us. God is a gracious God.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The spirit and the water

So many things in the Bible are used as either symbols or sacraments -- we can save the "sacrament" discussion for another day. There are so many things in God's word that have layers of meaning added to them, beyond what is there on the surface. And one often-used is that the Holy Spirit is associated with water. To be sure, the Holy Spirit is also associated with other things, but water deserves its own look.

Water is pure: it is what we use to clean things. Water carries away dirt -- and then itself becomes pure again in the course of nature. Much like my footprints might spread dirt, water instead spreads cleanness and purity. Water is how things are renewed. Each Christian is called to baptism, and the water carries much of the meaning: we are washed and cleaned.

Water is one of the absolute necessities of life. The Bible speaks of a deer panting for the water, and of a tree planted by the waters that has no fear of drought. It talks about still waters and restoring the soul. It talks about rain that comes down from heaven and does not return without giving life and renewal to the earth. It talks about a river whose waters make glad the city of God. Time and again, the Word of God uses water to describe God's life-giving role.

The Book of Revelation is a vision, and a book of symbols. But that does not make it meaningless: it makes us need to reach out to see what those symbols mean. We have seen that when the Bible speaks of water, it speaks of cleansing, and renewal, and the source of life -- all worked in us through the Holy Spirit. It reminds us where we are to look for the source of that fountain:
And he showed me a pure river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. (Revelation 22:1)
The life of the world, and the cleansing of the world, flow like a river from the throne of God. That is the river in which we are baptized. That is the still water that restores the soul.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Good in human nature, continued

Are we good for a purpose in relation to others?

We don't necessarily like the idea of being good for something outside ourselves, good for a purpose. There is a risk of being viewed as tools. It is such a common human experience for one person to use another person; it dehumanizes both when this happens. There is bitterness in the accusation "they were just using us." Being useful carries the risk of exploitation.

Yet if we are not good for a purpose, the alternative is to be purposeless, or to have a purpose and be no good for it. We don't like the idea of being useful because we don't like the idea of being used; still, we don't like the idea of being useless any better. One of the best-loved Christian prayers is a prayer to be useful in a holy way, and begins: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." How can we be useful without being used? Is there way to serve without being demeaned by it, without becoming subservient?

As we start looking at usefulness, we should take a quick look back at our last conversation about how we are worthwhile in ourselves. Whenever we focus on our own goodness, we run the risk of self-adoration. We easily become greedy for recognition and praise. And if we allow ourselves to be corrupted even in a small way by self-worship, it creates a problem for how we see others. We can crave exaltation. It is a short step -- how often have we seen it taken? -- that people who self-worship begin to look down on others. (Most people are particularly good at one thing. And whatever that one thing may be, we generally come to see it as important.) The very thing that we see so clearly as wrong -- being seen only for how we serve someone else's ego or agenda -- is the very situation in which we put others, if we let our pride run its course. It is not good to be so impressed with ourselves. If we are not likewise impressed with other people, it is nothing but self-centeredness. We can think of infamous people who used others, but we often do the same thing on a smaller scale. In our daily lives, are we pursuing goodness, or pursuing recognition? A thirst for recognition can make every conversation turn back towards ourselves, every hobby somehow self-exalting. Even an act of service could be a chance to show off. And whenever that happens, the people we talk to are an audience, and we are using them for our own purposes. It's not a good purpose.

Let your light so shine

There is a purpose that does not exploit us or use us: there is a purpose that fulfills us. And fulfilling that purpose will serve and bless others without demeaning ourselves. We looked at the problem that we might be used for some agenda that is not our own, used in a way that robs us of who we really are, We looked at the opposite problem that we might use other people for our own agenda, and trample on who they really are. There is another option: we might work for a goal that is part of our own purpose -- so that we are not used. We might work for a goal that comes from our own desires and is part of our own nature: that is what I mean when I say there is a purpose that fulfills us. We might see others in a way that lifts up the other person, and recognizes them, or restores them.

"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.". Our purpose shows us as a source of light but not as attention-seeking. We are called to give out our best for the benefit of others rather than to call attention to ourselves. The details vary by person: one will teach, another will encourage, another will garden or cook or paint or build homes. Any of those things could be done in a way that is a light for others (or in a way that seeks a spotlight for ourselves).

What does it take to see other people as they are, and not turn them into supporting characters in our own dreams? It takes humility. What does it take to be a light for them instead of for ourselves? It takes a generous and giving spirit: it comes from love.

Everyone has good things in them -- in general for simply being human, and each person individually in particular has their own distinct blend of abilities. The problem is that our best parts can easily become our worst parts depending on what we do with them. Whatever specific good is in us in particular, the more we use it to glorify ourselves, the less of a light it us for other people. The more we use it to lift up others, the more we sow light in the darkness.

If we see it as our purpose, and begin to do it on purpose, it is a powerful thing.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Good in human nature: Intro, and Part I

Over at Undivided Looking, Aron has been pondering original sin, and the question of good and evil in human nature. I've been considering that question -- both the thoughts over at his post, and an older one here in which many of you had chimed in on the comment thread, and had made some interesting observations.

It looks like, to get the whole picture, we'll have to consider

a) Are we intrinsically good in our nature (and what does that mean anyway?),
b) Are we good for a purpose in relation to others?
c) How do those pieces fit together?

Seriously, books have been written on those subjects ... and rather than try to cram a book into a blog post, I'll hit the highlights.

First, why break it down like that? If we ask, "Is something good?", we can either mean "Is it good for a purpose?" or "Is it good in itself?"* We don't always like the idea of being "good for a purpose" - it makes us sound like tools, and we've all met people whose only interest is in using us for some purpose of their own. Isn't there a possibility that we're simply good in our own right, without "purpose" coming into it with the need to be used or useful for some other agenda? So this post starts with the question whether we're good in our own right, "intrinsically good". (The next post on the topic is drafted; it was split out from this because it was becoming too long for a single reading. So next time picks up with the question of whether we're good for a purpose in relation to others, and looks at some connections that I find interesting in that light.)

Is human nature intrinsically good?

If we accept that creation is "very good in every way", at least in its unspoiled state, then there has to be a sense in which human nature, in that state, is intrinsically good. Thinking through examples of things that I consider good in themselves, apart from any use or purpose, I find myself considering things like the stars, the ocean, the forests, or (I live in a salt-marsh on a coast) the beauty of the bayou. I find myself thinking -- especially this time of year -- of wild flowers that brighten the fields and pathways, thicker and more numerous than stars, and displays of morning glories climbing every available post and tree so that I suspect the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon might have looked like that. Some things -- sunshine on the water, sunrise on the clouds -- are beautiful enough that human language has trouble describing them. We find ourselves reaching for a more profound, divine language: "There is no language where their voice is not heard."

Is human nature capable of drawing out reactions like that? It should be ... if we fit in with nature, it should be.

Why do those other things draw out that kind of reactions in us? I suspect it's because they remind us of God. To the extent that another thing reminds us of God, and is filled with the glory of God, it draws out that reaction. I think that's one reason why David's Psalm 19 has been such an enduring, often-quoted work for not just hundreds of years but for thousands of years at this point: he captured that wisp of thought and put it down, that thing that we sense when we view nature, and that a poet senses so acutely in watching human words fail at the same job: "The heavens declare the glory of God ... there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard."

I mentioned the hanging gardens of Babylon earlier. It was reckoned as one of the wonders of the ancient world. But here's the thing: it wasn't a wonder merely because it was ancient. It was a wonder because, with the help of man, nature surpassed even the normal wonder of nature. All of the ancient wonders of the world were instances where we could rightly look at man -- at human nature -- and experience wonder, where we could see that there is a sense in which we also reflect the glory of God.

But we're so fond of the thought of being good in ourselves -- of being intrinsically good, worthy of admiration -- that thought can corrupt us. The rest of nature is not so self-conscious. That self-reflection draws us into narcissism and idolatry, and threatens to undermine its own goodness.

* This conversation ties closely to the different basic ideas of ethics and what makes an action good.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

More Reasons Why Average Christians Take Theologians with a Grain of Salt

(This is on the same general topic as a previous post about why average Christians take theologians with a grain of salt.)  

Let me begin with a true story, though it is a couple of years old at this point: I had been reading the blog of a scholar in a Biblical studies program for roughly two years before I saw a comment that tipped me off that the man was, in fact, a Christian. Until then, despite reading each post on his blog, I couldn't tell whether he believed in God, or had any identification with Christ, by anything he had written on the topic of God or the Bible. I'd actually had the general impression that he was a non-Christian (after all, there are non-Christians who do Biblical studies) because of the way he talked about Christians. Apparently I was wrong ... 

What happens when an average Christian reads modern theologians? Whether reading their blogs or their books, it is easy to pick up a sense that they are puzzled why average people do not follow their scholarship more closely. They seem disappointed in the lack of interest. They often assume that people are uninterested in the things of God, or in the things of the mind. 

But consider the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is reckoned among the great theologians of the last century. In his most enduring work, he took the Bible seriously and based his agenda for study directly on Jesus' words. His scholarship was an act of study and wisdom; it was also an act of discipleship. For that reason it has been meaningful to generations of disciples. 

I suspect that, for every Christian who is actually disinterested in academic theology, there are probably two or three who are interested (or would be), but are themselves disappointed in the academics. Here are some of the reasons why: 

  • For not standing their ground, and for leaving the sheep defenseless - for fiddling around, if they'll pardon the pun, while Rome burns, and Constantinople, Wittenberg, Vienna, Canterbury, and the rest. Christianity is openly under attack in several quarters and notably within the academy. The person in the neighborhood church can observe that the academic theologians rarely take sides and, when they do, they frequently take the wrong one. 
  • For writing more about what Barth meant than what Jesus meant;
  • For following the times instead of following Jesus; 
  • For supposedly devoting their lives to teaching one Lord and one book, and making no visible effort to follow the one or approach the other as a student with something yet to learn -- for focusing on side points about their own agendas rather than the authors' points about faith, hope, and love, or trying to understand what Jesus was trying to tell us about the kingdom of heaven, or how best to proclaim it or engage the world with its blessing. 
  • For pursuing their job as if detached from the great commission, as if detached from discipleship. 
If the theologian is disappointed that the average Christian doesn't take theologians seriously, then the average Christian in turn is disappointed that the theologian shows no signs of taking Christ seriously.  By detaching themselves from discipleship and from the great commission, they detach themselves from Christian fellowship and from relevance to the communion of saints.

I once mentioned that it was a little disingenuous for the atheists in the Biblical studies departments to devote their lives to writing about a book that they have no intention of ever taking seriously. Yet it is a rare theologian whose earnestness about pursuing God's love and wisdom is visibly better than the atheists. The Bible is not a palette from which to dabble in colors to paint a picture of academic cleverness; it is not a means to impress people with scholarly acumen. There is not a scholar alive who can seriously expect to improve on the original material. The best of the Bible scholars realize that the Bible will far outlast them, and their most enduring works will be humble and devoted to the same goal of spreading hope, blessing, and good news, unashamed of the name of Jesus. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lent 2015 - Anti-Malware Report

For a few years now, each Lent I have tried to scan my heart, mind, and soul for "viruses" as it were, like a computer's anti-virus software, to find spiritual issues and try to rid myself of them. As usual, my "Lent Anti-Virus" report is not a post in which I come off looking good; but the dose of humility doesn't do me any harm.

This year, I took a slightly different approach than the previous years. It seems to me that, when I react badly to something, there's usually a cause or a trigger. So one of my goals this Lent was, every time I found myself reacting badly to a situation in a way that I could recognize as unkind or unloving, I would make a point not to justify my reaction by blaming the person who wronged me -- and, yes, they may have genuinely wronged me -- but still my goal would be to track down why that particular situation made me struggle or fail at kindness. I wanted to determine what about that situation made it difficult for me, so I could look for a way to handle the situation better the next time it came up.

Here are some samples of things that triggered unkind/unloving reactions:

  • Someone suggested that I didn't know what I was talking about. My pride was so offended that I was tempted to go on a know-it-all binge in order to make it very clear that I was deserving of respect on that topic. I'm sure I've failed that temptation before. I expect that, if I ever go on a know-it-all binge, it was probably a trigger-reaction of that type. Sad to say, my pride came up more than once this Lent in relation to areas where I have professional or personal expertise. In addition to the temptation to go "know-it-all" in reaction to a perceived slight, there is also a more general temptation to one-upmanship that I'm trying to resist.
  • Someone had requested information about a topic which I then researched and prepared for her; she didn't come to receive it at the scheduled time, or contact me to let me know she couldn't make it. So my efforts were not only unrecognized but (it seemed at the time) wasted. In general, I probably resent when my efforts go unrecognized, unnoticed, or unvalued. Writing this, I wonder how often I fail to recognize the efforts of others. So noticing my own resentment here may help me "do unto others as I would have them do unto me". It could help spur me to pay more attention to other peoples' helpfulness. On a related note, it would be good for me to become skilled at the art of praise and encouragement, in order to be able to recognize other people properly. 
  • I found myself hesitating to recognize or acknowledge the good in someone who I believe, in general, does more harm than good. I know this hesitation is a fault that I have; I also know I'm not alone in it. But if we're preventing ourselves from noticing the good that other people are doing, then we may well wonder whether they're really doing more harm than good, or whether we just don't notice the good that they do. 
  • I struggle with even wanting to love a specific person who has done a great deal of harm to various people on a personal level, and is an active member of several groups that I have seen promote hatred and misinformation about their opponents. Here I tried to stop and recognize -- even if just within my own mind for now -- anything that person (as an individual) has achieved, endured, or overcome in her private life. If we're to love our neighbors, our enemies, everyone -- then that's a step. 
  • I rediscovered that I could work on my skills for confrontations and how to keep them civil. It's not really an optional skill set, for those of us who want to be able to remain gracious in all situations. At a crowded store, I did everybody's usual routine of carefully choosing a line where, yes, the "line open" light was on and the line was the most reasonable length I could find even though that was still long enough. I waited patiently til I got to the front of the line, only to have the checker flip off her light as I got to the front and say that this line is closed now, effectively sending me to the back of the line again in some other lane, after I had already spent considerable time waiting my turn. I'll give myself a mixed review on this one as I managed not to shout at the checker but shot her a disgusted look as I left, definitely angry. If I had managed to leave graciously that would be one thing. And I think that, even from the checker's point-of-view, it might have been kinder if I had stood my ground and said that the light was on when I got into the line, that I had waited my turn, that I had a small number of items and that I expected to be checked out. (It turned out to be a good thing that I thought through that situation and some ways to react better. It was scarcely a week later when roughly the same thing happened again at another store, and this time I was far better equipped to handle it calmly and graciously.) 

My basic premise is this: that when I have a noticeably bad reaction to something, that there is some kind of malware of the mind -- some character flaw -- behind my bad reaction. And that if I set a watch on my own reactions to catch the bad ones, then those bad spots will make themselves known. At that point, instead of justifying them, I can go after them with prayer, humility, or whatever else may be required. If it's a serious quest to love my neighbor in all circumstances, then I want to level out those rough places.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lent 2015 - By Our Love

For this year's Lent observance, I tried to increase my love by doing one of the following each day:

  • Getting to know one person better that day
  • Really listening to someone who wanted to talk
  • Starting a conversation with someone who seemed isolated
  • Considering things I admire in another person that day
  • Reading a Bible passage focused on praising God for being worthy of love
  • Reading a book that helps teach love and relationship skills (e.g. The Five Love Languages)

I found that, when it was my goal and observance and spiritual discipline to find a way to be loving, kind, encouraging, and supportive, that I found myself more alert for opportunities. I also became thoroughly embarrassed that it wasn't already my automatic way of interacting with people. How in the world, I wondered, could I have sought to be Jesus' disciple for so long, without having made a more serious effort to "Love each other" as he commanded? How many things have I sought to learn or master or accomplish in these years, without love being among them? I am hoping that all my life and relationships can be filled with love. I think, as Jesus' disciples, that is our spiritual discipline, and that is our call. "They will know we are Christians by our love."

As I've come to expect from my yearly Lenten observances, over the course of Lent there was some immediate good from having the practice at all. There was some growth for having kept at it for those weeks. And I hope there were also the beginnings of changed habits. Without doubt, there was also much cause for humility about where I am and whether I am really as devoted to that goal as is right.

I'm intending to schedule a post for mid-week this week about what I found on my "Lent Anti-Virus" watch this year, as I used a different tactic and it did pay off.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

He is risen indeed

Today's post is simple celebration.

I'd like to nominate the best Resurrection-celebration songs:

Hymn: Jesus Christ Is Risen Today
Contemporary: He's Alive!

Other commemorations spotted:
The Resurrection of Our Lord
Faith becomes sight
Illuminated Easter
Only the Beginning
Easter 2015

While not on topic of the Resurrection directly, still in honor of the occasion:

Called to Die with the Firstborn (Easter 2015)

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Because it is Holy Week ...

Since April 1 falls during Holy Week this year, I will not be doing my usual "post of the day" this year. Take care & God bless.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The theme of the Gospel of John: Who is Jesus?

The Gospel of John is the last-written of the gospels in the New Testament collection. But John has the same main idea as the gospel that was probably written first, the Gospel of Mark: Who is Jesus? As we saw last time, Mark carries the question on quotes from the Old Testament, on the testimony of John the Baptist, and largely on Jesus' miracles. It is only after a long build-up in Mark that we see Jesus address the question himself.

In John, we see a very different approach to the same main idea. In John, we have a whole collection of times when Jesus comments on the question of who he is. There are known as the "I am" sayings, and they are a common enough topic for study among Christians. Rather than study them individually here, I want to mention them as backdrop to another, closely-related point. Here are some of the key statements of Jesus from the Gospel of John:
  • I am the good shepherd
  • I am the bread of life
  • I am the vine, you are the branches
  • I am the light of the world
  • I am the way and the truth and the life
  • I am the resurrection and the life
At times we see things that sound like divine traits; after all, this culture took for granted that "The LORD is my shepherd". Throughout, we see claims of Jesus' unique place in our relation to God. But to get some perspective for what he is saying, take a look at some "I am" sayings that are not said:
  • I am your boss
  • I am the great and powerful
And when he comments on receiving the title "Master" from them, he makes those comments while he is washing their feet.

All of the "I am" sayings are about how he provides for us, guides us, leads us, helps us, pours out his life in love, and restores us to life. All of the "I am" statements show him as a blessing to us.

If our idea of "divinity" is master / boss / great and powerful, then it is not a claim to that kind of divinity at all. He rejects the self-serving approach to power -- not just for himself but implicitly on the Father's behalf as well. Jesus' sayings are a challenge to see God in a different way: that is who Jesus is.

And as he says, "He who has seen me has seen the Father."

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The theme of the Gospel of Mark: Who is Jesus?

"Who is Jesus?" may be the most debated question in the history of the world. The Gospel of Mark, probably the earliest written biography of Jesus, has the question of Jesus' identity -- and authority -- as one of its major themes. That question is the central point of many individual episodes, and a strong contender for the theme of the writing as a whole.

The action along that theme builds as we read:

  • Jesus' introduction makes you wonder who he is: his introduction by the biographer, by John the Baptist, by the voice from heaven
  • Jesus' actions make you wonder who he is
  • Jesus' actions make both his disciples and his opponents wonder aloud who he is (or who he thinks he is); the disciples do not yet openly discuss their questions with Jesus. 
  • Jesus privately raises the question with his disciples: "Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?" We get Peter's answer of "Christ" or "Messiah" on the table. 
  • After Jesus clears the Temple, at his next visit he is met by people wanting to know, "Who put you in charge?" In his reply he reminds them of John the Baptist -- basically where Mark had started his narrative, with John's testimony -- and the voice from heaven. 
  • Jesus publicly challenges the idea whether "Messiah" is really merely David's descendant. 
  • The question, "Who are you?" is a key part of the confrontation at Jesus' trial, where Jesus' answer has the high priest rending his robes at the blasphemy and saying they don't really need witnesses anymore. 

Mark records more events that address the same theme than I have mentioned in the sketch above.

I have read claims by scholars of some reputation, claims to the effect that the earliest Jesus remembered by the earliest followers was one who simply traveled and taught, and that his having some sort of special identity was a late addition tacked onto Christianity as time went on -- a late corruption by people who didn't really know Jesus. And yet Jesus' identity is a major theme of the Gospel of Mark, which is (to the best of current knowledge) the earliest biography that we have. A significant number of scholars are willing to admit a date for Mark that is before or near the date when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year AD 70, and well within the lifetimes of people who personally knew Jesus. So the question of Jesus' identity is there from the earliest stages.

What later gospels add -- the Gospel of John in particular -- is whether Jesus himself ever gave his own answer to the question. That will be the topic for an upcoming continuation of this post: in reviewing the "I AM" passages of the Gospel of John, there are some things that I have noticed now that had escaped by notice before.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Love and the problem of commanding it

It's such a human reaction: we're ordered to do something, and our first reaction is to say "No." We say it with all the thoughtfulness of a two-year-old who has just learned to use the word. We say it for the same reason: We don't see how else we can assert ourselves, other than being contrary. So if you tell a two-year-old, "Enjoy yourself!" you might well hear "No!"

What God requires of us -- that is met in loving each other. Think about what God is telling us to do, the lives he is telling us to build. Do we want reconciliation with our families, a large circle of friends, a rich network of fulfilling personal relationships? Do we want to be a positive force in the world and in each others' lives? Do we want to become skilled and accomplished at lifting up other people? Do we want to learn to speak words that people will hold onto like a life-raft when life swamps them? Do we want the pure joy of having a hundred people that are the "friend that is closer than a brother"?

In some ways, God's command is that we live out our deepest desire.

Why exactly do we have such a problem with it?

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Love with mind: The value of remembering

In my quest to explore the mind's role in love, I'm considering the value of remembering.

Here are things we might remember:

* The name of someone we just met
* Someone's birthday or anniversary
* Someone's favorite food
* Someone's usual order at a restaurant
* Someone's pet peeve
* A time that the other person helped us
* A time that the other person accomplished or achieved something
* The kind words that they spoke
* The favor that they did
* Someone's favorite musician or song
* Someone's favorite book, author, or movie
* Someone's favorite outfit, if they're into that kind of thing
* Someone's favorite hobby
* Someone's favorite game
* Someone's favorite topic of conversation
* Someone's area of expertise

Our minds can help us focus on noticing the other person. If we value them, if we consider it worthwhile to get to know them, then we will become familiar with them. We will notice and remember their likes and dislikes.

This is the internet, so it bears mentioning: this is not to be done in an intrusive, stalker-ish way. It is not love to pry or dig for information that the other person has not given us. Instead, whenever someone reveals or shares information, we can consider that as worthwhile, and keep the knowledge and understanding of the other person as a treasure.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

God's love in action - and the tie between understanding and forgiveness

I had the privilege this weekend to meet Bob Miller, founder of Texas Equusearch. In itself, the organization is extraordinary, having earned a place along others in the "God's love in action" series where I have highlighted some of my personal heroes. His organization searches for missing persons and is financed completely by donations. They have recovered many people alive. In other cases, they have recovered bodies, bringing the families the only things they can offer at that stage: support and closure. To hear him speak, Miller is deeply moved by his Christian faith. He is also moved by his own tragedy: some thirty years ago, his teenage daughter Laura went missing. It was over a year before her body was discovered. He knew not only the nightmare of having a missing child, but also how much room there was for somebody to be doing something more. He vowed to be that something more, that no other family should go through it alone, as his family had. So from his own tragedy, that organization was born. The organization did not come right away: first, there was the heartbreak and the devastation. Miller spoke movingly of how close he came to suicide. It's from that depth of anguish that he has come back.

So for all the hundreds of families he has helped over the years, he has never forgotten his daughter, Laura. Her photo is part of all the publicity work for the organization. His daughter's body was one of several found in a serial killer's dumping ground. They have yet to positively identify Laura's killer, but Miller believes he knows the identity based on the evidence and the police work to this point, regardless of whether there is enough evidence for a court case. What is his reaction to the thought of his daughter's killer? He feels sorry for him. He has read the man's childhood history, and feels compassion for him. He says he forgives him. (A photographer at the event where I met him was openly disdainful when Miller said that -- or was the disdain at the the part where Miller said he believes good is stronger than evil? Anyway.)

Knowledge -- loving with the mind -- led Miller to compassion. The mind has a reputation for being cold and detached. And here, that may have been the only thing that opened the door to understanding: the mind's ability to put enough room to breathe between itself and the visceral pain of having lost his daughter. He still feels that visceral pain, let there be no doubt. But with his mind at work, he was able to gain understanding, gain perspective, react with wisdom and grace rather than raw pain alone.

Real forgiveness comes from love. And compassion is built on understanding. So it seems that, if we want to forgive someone, we need to understand them: not excuse them, but understand.