Category Archives: Christianity

Spiritual Rhythms: The Word, part I

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Before my wife and I were married, I spent a summer in Europe while she remained in California. In those long-past days before email and cell phones, at a time when international calling was expensive and minimum wage was a fraction of what it is now, the primary way we communicated was through letters; our words would be read days, if not weeks, after they’d been written.

Growing in relationship with God demands that we read his words—his Word. 

If you want to know God, you need to read his word to his people—that is, the Bible. Seems easy enough, but considering that the Bible contains sixty-six individual books written by dozens of human authors over a period of some 1,500 years—the most recent being roughly 2,000 years old—the natural question is, where to begin?

Many people say you should start with the book of John, or perhaps one of the other four narratives of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But if you’re new to the Bible, then I suggest following Fräulein Maria’s advice from The Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning”—Genesis and Exodus. You see, Jesus was a Jew, and Genesis tells the story of the beginning of the Jewish people. And since Jesus came as a sacrifice to save people from sin, Exodus—the story of God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt—lays the foundation for Jesus’ sacrificial life and death. Then read John. Or Matthew, which was written to a primarily Jewish audience.

But another question to ask is, how do I read the Bible? The Bible is unlike any other book you have ever read. It is an anthology of sorts, with each individual book telling a complete story; yet the collection as a whole also tells a complete story, and each book contains a part of that broader story. Perhaps the best way to answer the question, how do I read the Bible?, is this: Read it the same way you would see the country. The whole country. What country? Yours or mine, whether the United States or Nigeria or India.

If you want to see the whole country, you will need to do it in different ways at different times. At times you will fly over from one corner to another; you’ll only get 35,000-foot glimpses of most of the land, but you’ll see it from a unique perspective. Other times you’ll take a car; you’ll see more than flying—mountains and rivers, deserts and oceans, cities and vast spaces of empty land—but most will still be zooming past at sixty miles per hour.

Then there are times you will just walk. You’ll never get out of the city or the forest or the desert, or wherever you started walking, but you’ll see the details; you can sit for hours on a beach and watch the tide slowly roll in, covering the rocks and tide pools you explored earlier in the day; you’ll gaze in awestruck wonder at the intricacies of a rose just before it bursts into bloom.

Reading the Bible is like that. You’ll be reading of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, then fly back to the first Passover meal in Exodus. Or you’ll read the entire book of Romans in one sitting and you’ll see the changing topography of Paul’s treatise. And sometimes you’ll sit and soak in the creative beauty of a single verse or a paragraph, turning each word over in your mind like a rosebud between your fingers.

We’ll explore this more in future posts. For now, though, decide where and how you want to begin, then begin. If you’re just getting started, set yourself a reachable goal: read 5-10 minutes a day, three days a week.

Believe – Obey

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I grew up in a church world that stressed, with the Reformers, “solo gratia” – grace alone. That is, salvation is possible only through God’s grace, which we receive through our faith. That’s pretty much what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8. Also stressed was the corollary from two verses later: salvation is not attained through “works;” that is, by what we do (going to church or helping old ladies across the street) or by what we don’t do (swearing, smoking, drinking). I never heard that what we do doesn’t matter or isn’t important, only that it doesn’t impact salvation one way or the other.

While in the Air Force I studied, with help, the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s views and James’, who said “You see that a person is justified [read, saved] by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). It was fairly easy for me to reconcile the two: Paul never argued that works are unimportant and James never said that faith is unimportant; James simply emphasized that faith—real, living, saving faith—would be marked by what we do.

What does it mean to obey?

A few years ago I was asked that question. It has stuck with me; not exactly like a popcorn kernel stuck between my teeth, which is simply annoying; it’s more like my wedding band: a quiet but ever-present reminder of something profoundly important and significant.

The question stems from Jesus’ “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:20, “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Some translations read obey in place of observe; in context, I think it’s a fair translation.) In the ensuing discussion and over the years since, I have noticed how much obedience is commanded in the Bible. And it’s not just in the “Old” Testament:

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;
whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life….”
(John 3:36, ESV; emphasis mine)

These two complementary statements are both critical; they cannot be separated. Just as we cannot live without both food and water; just as we require both blood and oxygen; so eternal life is dependent on both belief and obedience—both of which, let us not forget, are possible only by God’s grace (cf. Philippians 2:13).

The persistent battle between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day was against their legalism—they overemphasized obeying the rules. The evangelical church in America sounded like those religious leaders for much of the 20th century (and, in some cases, still today). But there has been an equally misguided—and misguiding—trend over the last three or four decades. Born, I think, out of the phenomena of mass evangelism and mega-churches, this is the trend toward calling for a “decision” or “profession of faith” separate from obedience. We say, in effect, “pray this prayer of faith, but don’t worry about how you live; that will come later.” The problem is that most of us, having purchased the insurance policy, have precious little motivation to change our behavior.

That was not how Jesus approached would-be followers. He did not shy away from the hard call to make a change first. Think of when he called the first disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). It sounds simple, but it wasn’t; following meant drastic change: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (verse 20). The simplicity of that sentence masks the true impact; these were fishermen by trade who dropped their tools, walked out of the business, and gave up everything.

Or when the rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life; first, Jesus said to obey the rules, which the man said he already did. So Jesus upped the ante: “sell everything, give it to the poor, then follow me.” Unlike the fishermen, this man couldn’t do it; Luke 18 says he was “extremely rich” and a “ruler,” and although it made him said, he nonetheless found it easier to walk away from Jesus than to walk away from his lifestyle.

One of our troubles in the western church is that we do not want people to walk away sad. To avoid that, we lower the bar. We praise God’s grace, we call for faith…but we do not call for life change. The result is churches filled with people “who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (see Matthew 7:21). And those of us who are pastors will be held to account for our messages that call for decisions and professions, but not for obedience.

Solo gratia? Yes, by grace alone are we saved, But it is a grace that brings both faith and obedience, and we need to call for and live out both.

Teaching Children to Lie

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Have you ever stopped to consider how often and in what ways we may be teaching children to lie? I’m not talking about birthday surprises; you’ll have to work out the ethics of that on your own. I’m also not talking about corporate espionage or political campaigning; those, too, you’ll need to figure out on your own. The lies I’m talking about fall somewhere between those two points of the spectrum; between, “don’t tell your sister what we got her” and “if I’m elected I will….” The lies I’m talking about are subtler, and they actually sound good—morally good, that is. We want them to be true, and they could be true, and maybe they even should be true. But….

Let me start with what I think will be the easier one, both to admit and to do something about: “Say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Go ahead; tell your brother you’re sorry.” You’ve heard that, haven’t you? Chances are you heard it from your parents and maybe you’ve even heard it from your own lips. It sounds so good; we desperately want it to be true, to be a genuine admission of sorrow. And it seems that it should be so easy to say, especially when the offending child hurt her sister entirely on accident! But kids don’t do sorrow and regret well—it is, for some reason, too closely linked to shame and guilt—and so to say “I’m sorry” means to admit guilt, and kids don’t want to do that. All we want as parents is to train our children to feel sorrow at someone else’s pain, and so we ask them to say, “I’m sorry.” And sometimes we compel them to say it…even when it really is a lie. After all, if I don’t feel sorrow, isn’t it a lie to say that I do?

Now, I understand that sometimes words must be said before the truth of them can be known and felt by the speaker. That is, sometimes saying “I’m sorry” will lead to, rather than spring from, genuine sorrow. In my own marriage I have often needed to express forgiveness before I felt forgiving; and in that statement of faith and obedience I begin to experience the freeing power of real forgiveness. But ritual for ritual’s sake seldom accomplishes that. Teaching our children to feel and express genuine sorrow when they have wronged another is far more important than teaching them to utter a lie. It’s also much harder.

The other lie we teach our children came to my mind today and I expect I’m going to get into trouble with some people for saying this, because it’s not in the realm of parenting but politics…and faith. And the intersection of those two is a hazardous one, wherein lies the wreckage of many an ideal of one or the other, each claiming right of way where neither is granted such right. But first, some background:

I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one Nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? At least not for those of us born after World War II. But those twenty-three words comprise the pledge originally penned by Francis Bellamy in August 1892 as part of an effort to stir up patriotism among schoolchildren in a nation whose patriotic fervor had waned since the end of the Civil War. It is a compelling story, which deserves to be read in the words of the Pledge’s own author. [1]

The pledge has been changed three times since its original writing; the first change, two months after writing, belonged to author and was the addition of the word “to” before “the republic.” Thirty years later, over Bellamy’s objections, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution led a campaign to change the Pledge’s words from, “my Flag,” to “the Flag of the United States of America.” Another thirty years later, in 1954, the Knights of Columbus led the charge to add the words, “under God.” [2]

It sounds good, doesn’t it? At least for a Christian, and perhaps for some of other religions who appreciate the reminder that we live under the sovereignty of a divine being. Yet the Pledge of Allegiance to our nation’s flag contains, for many, a lie; and in seeking to compel the ritual recitation of the Pledge, we are teaching those children to lie in the same way as when we compel them to say, “I’m sorry.” Many children—especially immigrants (legal or otherwise)—have not shifted allegiance from their homeland to these United States. Perhaps they have escaped with their parents from a tyranny they do not even understand; all they know is they left in the middle of the night and can no longer see their friends or their relatives, and they are alone and strangers in a land where they do not even speak the language.

Those two simple words, “under God,” were added more than sixty years after the original writing of the Pledge of Allegiance? The Pledge’s author (according to his granddaughter) would have shuddered at the addition, having left the church the year before writing the Pledge. [2] As a Christian I’m fine with the words, in part because I grew up with them and in part because I willingly and knowingly submit to my God and pray that my nation does, as well. Yet the phrase does nothing to unite us as Americans, which was a primary intent of the Pledge when written. Rather, the phrase serves more to divide. After all, though more than three-fourths of Americans identify as Christian, there are also millions of Jews and Muslims, not to mention adherents of other faiths—many of which are polytheistic—as well as an increasing number of people claiming no religious identity.

I felt some of this discrepancy myself in elementary school, when my family moved to Canada. For five years, my school days started not with the pledge, but with the singing of “O Canada.” It always felt a little odd to sing, “O Canada! Our home and native land!” Home was true, but native was certainly not. Nor was I ever sure that I would “stand on guard for thee.”

The last line of the Pledge of Allegiance is perhaps most important of all, for it claims that in this great Republic we hold fast to the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” If we truly believe that, then why do we insist on the divisive words, “under God”? Let us instead live humbly—as did the Lord we proclaim—and in that humility attract others to what it really means to live under God.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Bellamy, Francis, “The Story of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag”, University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Vol. VIII, Winter 1953. 13 July 2014. <http://www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=3418>.

[2] Baer, Dr. John W., “The Pledge of Allegiance A Short History”. 13 July 2014.<http://www.oldtimeislands.org/pledge/pledge.htm>.

 

Isolationism Revisited

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I had a very interesting experience a couple weeks ago. In desperate need of a haircut, I decided to try out a new barber in town. I’d seen his business card and website and his tagline had intrigued me: “Changing the world one haircut at a time.” I was curious what that meant, and how haircuts might be able to change the world. I got my answer!

During the course of my hour in the barber’s chair, I got an earful as “Bowtie” passionately talked about all that was wrong with our nation, its politics, its direction, its finances. Three other customers came in and sat down during that hour, readily engaging in a loud and sometimes contentious discussion. It was humorous, intriguing, and at times even educational – and not at all for the faint of heart or delicate of disposition! I left with conflicting feelings: that I needed to wash out my ears, and that Jesus – or at least Paul – would probably get their haircuts there just for the conversation!

What I learned was that Bowtie had two underlying philosophies that would “change the world”: first, get money out of politics; the president, congresspersons, and even local politicians ought to serve out of the goodness of their hearts, not for pay. Second, the US should get out of every other country and focus instead on our own interests.

I’ve heard the arguments before. The first fails to recognize that all humans are “desperately sick” (according to Jeremiah 17:9). The second is, frankly, naïve. From the very beginning, humankind was made for community, and I believe Scripture shows that that extends to the community of nations. Isolationism has never been good politics.

Calls for an American isolationism may have had their impact in the past, but they have been effectively silenced by the unavoidable fact of a world community that is linked by intricate economic ties, instant communication, complex and speedy transportation systems and the fear of nuclear destruction. (Reid, Daniel G. et al. Dictionary of Christianity in America 1990)

Isolationism has never been good discipleship, either. Yet I often hear calls for what amounts to a Christian isolationism. I hear questions like, “why are we going to Ethiopia or Mexico or India when there are so many needs here at home?” They’re not bad questions; they deserve thoughtful consideration. The simplest answer is this: “We go because we are called – to make disciples of all peoples, to be witnesses of Jesus Christ here, near, and far.

So now I have a question for you: As you are going – to work, to school, to the gym, on vacation – how are you “making disciples” of the people you come into contact with?

The Continuing Adventure

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You sit down and turn on the TV, ready to watch your show. Amidst the plethora of true junk that’s out there, this is one of the good ones, with believable characters, compelling plots, life-like stories. As you watch, you’re pulled into the action and the drama; you feel the hurt and the joy, cringe when the music suddenly changes to a foreboding theme. The story unfolds and you’re no longer aware that you’re not part of it yourself. The suspense grips you and then…

To Be Continued….

Don’t you hate that? Right at the best part, the screen goes black and those three dreaded words appear, begging you to wait another week before finding resolution.

That’s how the gospels end, too. The first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell the story of Jesus’ life on earth. They build to a climax with his arrest and crucifixion, reach a dramatic resolution in his resurrection, and end with, “Now, go…” (Matthew 28:16-20). And we’re left wondering, “what happens next?” To Be Continued….

The book of Acts continues the story but that, too, ends with To Be Continued…. And that’s where we come in, where you come in. We are the continuation of the story. We are the next episode.

In The Hobbit, the introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings trilogy, the great grey wizard Gandalf invites the very comfortable and predictable hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to join an adventure:

“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”

“I should think so—in these parts!” said our Mr. Baggins. “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”

But the whole book “is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.”

Jesus invites us to join him on an adventure; indeed, to write—and participate in—the next episode. What will your adventure look like?