Monday, September 8, 2014

Impressing Others?

Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew writes:

"In the context of Matt 6, where the Lord's Prayer lies embedded, one is strongly inclined to translate the word "kingdom" with "all-importance" - "Your all-importance come." For each of the three surrounding Devotions (charity, prayer, and fasting) teaches that Christians need a sense of God's importance that exceeds their natural sense of other people's  importance. (Only when God is more important than people will the Christian be able to overcome the almost irresistible temptation to impress others). [Matthew A Commentary, Frederick Dale Bruner, Revised and Expanded, 2007, Eerdmans].

It does seem like an almost irresistible temptation when it comes to impressing others, making oneself look good in the eyes of others, playing to the crowd, wanting to please. I have known a few blessed souls who seemed unaffected by the opinions of others, who were what they were because they were focused on Jesus Christ and that was pretty much it - it freed them to be unpretentious with others and to love and give to others - such souls humble me and sometimes, sad to say, exasperate doubt because my own selfishness is in stark contrast to their self-forgetfulness. 

If I am to pray, "Thy kingdom come," I would do well to keep that prayer and desire on my lips and in my heart and mind throughout the day, to meditate on the all-importance of God; is He more important than my circumstances? Is He more important than the people around me? Who am I serving? To whom am I offering my words and deeds? Do I really want God to make Himself all important in my life?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Screwtape – II

Wormwood’s “patient” has become a Christian, but all is not lost. Uncle Wormwood begins sharing advice on recapturing the patient. In Wormwood’s second letter to Screwtape he focuses on steering the patient into disappointment with Christians.

“When he [the patient] goes inside [the church building], he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours…At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial,” page 6, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, 1942, Harper Collins.

What is Lewis saying about forms of worship which are indecipherable to the average person? A “liturgy which neither of them understands” challenges us to think about what we do and why we do it when we gather as Christians. If what we do isn’t readily understandable to the visitor we should ask ourselves whether it can quickly be made understandable, we should ask ourselves if we understand it – understand where it came from, what it means, what place it plays in the life of the church, and whether it need always be the same expression and same form week after week. We ought to be at least asking the questions.

All churches have liturgies, all churches have certain ways of doing things; just because a church does not have a Book of Common Prayer doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a liturgy – if you know what to expect in terms of sequence of events in worship then you have a liturgy. I’ve been in “home groups” that have liturgies. Liturgies can be helpful, they can encourage worship and hearing God, and they can become barriers to communion with God. What we do and how we do it should always be submitted to our Lord Jesus along with mutual submission to one another.

Wormwood writes concerning people in the church, “Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous,” page 6. If Lewis knows what he is talking about then Lewis knows what it is to work through the problem of the superficial – and I think he does. Most of us are cursed with a preoccupation with outward appearance, ever since the “Fall” when our “eyes were opened” we have been oriented to the visible world – a world of shadows, a world of deception, a world where what you see is not always what you get…and yet a world driven by the deception of thinking that what you see is what is real.

 As Yahweh said to the prophet Samuel, “Man looks on the outward, but God looks on the heart.” In much of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus turns our attention from the outward life to the inward life, from the external to the internal; yet the outward pull of life is so strong that it takes a deliberate focus for most of us to flee outward superficial judgments of others and to focus on others as men and women made in the image of God. Perhaps the fact that most of our churches contain people from the same background and social strata should challenge us to seek a more realized expression of the Kingdom of God in which peoples from all ethnic and social groups are found in unity and communion.

As Lewis points out via Wormwood, it is the mundane and trivial which can play havoc with our minds and attitudes; dress, singing off key, double chins, the list goes on and on. But why should we expect anything else than “people” when we gather with the saints? Why do we expect that we should be the only imperfect people in the church? I can excuse my difficulties but I cannot excuse the difficulties of others. I judge others by their actions and myself by my intentions. I look at the outward behavior and appearance of others and make my evaluations, I look at my inner self and make allowances and expect people to make allowances toward me that I will not make toward them.

Why should we expect to find anything other than normal people when we gather with the church? We are all imperfect people in relationship with a perfect God who desires to draw us all closer to Himself and to each other in the perfect love of His Son Jesus Christ.

P.S. It is only once we get over the externalities of relationships that we can get down to the nitty-gritty of koinonia, when we can really know and be known – that’s when the serious struggles we all have arise so that we can bear one another’s burdens – but this can only occur in the safety of committed love and grace in Jesus Christ; it can only occur when it no longer matters to me whether you prefer white sauce or red sauce, or part your hair on the right or left or middle or don’t part it at all. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Screwtape – I

“Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.” C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, page 1; 1942, HarperCollins, San Francisco.

Later in life Lewis will use narrative to communicate Mere Christianity; in this letter from Screwtape to Wormwood, Lewis thinks that engaging others in rational discussion is still possible, though difficult. What would he think today if in 1942, 72 years ago, the people around him were comfortable living with a mere dozen incompatible philosophies? Can we count the number of incompatible philosophies that surround us in 2014?

Today’s thinking often focuses on pleasure, money, and immediate gratification. There is little concern about philosophical or theological consistency; consistency and coherence are quaint ideas of the past – today we are free from the constraint of having to make integrated sense out of our thoughts and actions.  

And yet we can still ask questions. We can ask whether it makes sense for loving parents to save for their children’s future and yet not consider eternal questions. We can ask whether or not, in light of the accepted fact that we are the products of time plus matter plus chance, how anything can be morally wrong. We can ask what the logical outcome of nihilism is. We can ask what a person thinks about life and death and about whether or not there is life beyond this life…and if so…then ask why the person thinks that way. We can probe and ask what the foundation of a person’s life rests upon. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Secular Work?

A couple of weeks ago a pastor friend said to me, “I’m going to be preaching about prayer as it relates to work and I know you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about work, what would you say to people in secular work regarding prayer?”

I responded, “I’d gently encourage them to talk to their pastor about all work being sacred, that no work is secular, unless of course the work is sinful.” While I went on to share what prayer and work can look like, I wanted to graciously challenge my friend to think about his own approach to the work of his parishioners.

In God’s eyes is a pastor’s work first class and a teacher’s or plumber’s work second class? We are called to be worshippers, wherever we are, whatever we do, we are called to worship – whether we are fixing a pluming leak or teaching third grade, whether we are in Congress or framing a house, whether we are writing computer code or stocking shelves in a grocery store – whatever we do and wherever we are we are to worship God, serve God, and do what we do as unto God in the name of Jesus (see Colossians 3:12 – 4:1).

Alas, the sacred – secular dichotomy is alive and well; most pastors continue to view their work as superior to their parishioners and consequently their sermons have little to no relevancy to Monday – Friday. We wonder why people don’t share the Gospel as a natural fabric of life; little wonder when we’ve disenfranchised them and made them second-class Christians. We talk to them and act toward them as if what they do is less valuable than the work vocational pastors do, and then we expect them to share their faith and invite others to “come to church” – we expect them to turn their Christianity on and off like a light switch. For solutions to a lack of witnessing we turn to programs and seminars instead of looking at the sacred – secular and clergy – laity dichotomies as barriers to the witness of the church and the transformation of Christians into the image of Jesus.

How we think of people influences how we relate to people. As long as pastors think of their people as engaged in second-class work it is difficult to see how they can minister to them as first-class Christians.