Friday, June 23, 2017

How Much Is Enough? (II)

Continuing our reflections on “greed” and “the greedy person” in Ephesians 5:1-6:

In not previously understanding the import of what Paul was writing, not only was I not challenged by this passage, but I did not challenge others when preaching and teaching Ephesians. In not understanding the distinction between covetousness as found in the Ten Commandments and covetousness (greed; the desire for more, and then more, and then more) as it is typically used in the New Testament, I failed to see the radical countercultural message that Paul was preaching – countercultural for his day, and radical in our day of consumerism. Yes, I knew that “covetousness” as used in the NT was broader than Exodus 20:17, but I hadn’t thought about the distinction critically and I hadn’t thought about the likelihood that many professing Christians have not been challenged by the thrust of what Paul is saying. Was it that I didn’t want to deal with it in my own life? Was it that I didn’t want to offend others?

I am deeply convicted that I missed this, avoided it, failed to study it, failed to think about it deeply, failed to present the text faithfully to others.

When Paul, in verse 6, writes, “Let no one deceive you with empty words…” I wonder if some of the empty words included, “Getting more, more, and then more doesn’t matter. It’s only stuff, only things, only recognition, only power, only position.” We would never think that today, but maybe in Paul’s day people thought that.

Paul writes that a greedy person is an idolater; that may have been true in Paul’s day but certainly it couldn’t be true today; or if so, it must only apply to those who go over the top in their pursuit of wealth, position, power and fame. Certainly as citizens of the United States we have a civic obligation to pursue (the good) life, liberty (do what we want), and happiness. Little wonder that most of the time we vote from the pocketbook. 

Many of us think that not to have other gods “before Me” means that we make God number one, but that is not what Exodus 20:3 means. It means, “You shall have no other gods in My Presence,” and that means that we shall have no other gods…period, end of story. God is to have no competition in our lives – we are to love Him with all of our heart, all of our mind, all of our soul, and all of our strength (Mark 12:30). Of course our response is typically, “Yes…but”.

Jesus says in His first recorded extended teaching, “You cannot serve God and riches,” (Matthew 6:24); we read it and then we qualify it with, “Yes…but”.

In my preparation for the small group study of Ephesians 5:1 – 6 I was struck by the fact that greed was written about and discussed by ancient Greeks and Romans, including greed’s impact on the greater community; while ancient thinkers wrestled with “how much is too much?” and the care of the community as a whole – we seldom, if ever, discuss it – whether within or without the church. How often do we make greedy people American idols and cultural superstars? Doing so gives us permission to pursue our own game of more, then more, then more.

A friend of mine, after thinking about this subject, remarked in effect, “When I want more I call it ambition, when someone else wants more I call it greed.”

Where is the Cross of Christ in our desire for “more”? This thought has challenged me for years, both personally and in ministry to others. In my involvement in marketplace ministry, both in Virginia and Massachusetts, I have long thought that when we do not challenge marketplace leaders with how the Cross informs wealth and the acquisition of more and more that we do them a disservice. I have seen theologians and others quick to justify the American Dream and yet never raise the issue of the Cross of Christ and how the Cross should determine our economic and vocational thinking.

Whether the disciple is a laborer or the owner of a billion dollar business – a Christian’s vocation is to be a vocation centered on the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ. A dollar earned that is not laid at the Cross is a dollar ill-used.

“Make sure that your character is free form the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you, so that we may confidently say, The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” Hebrews 13:5 – 6.

This passage in Hebrews has been a reminder to me over the years that learning contentment is a form of trust in God and a witness to the world and the unseen realm.

Our economic culture is built on creating discontent, if we are not discontented we will not purchase more, and more, and then more. We are so imbued with this ethos that we see no danger in it. We are ironic slaves; slaves to pleasure, slaves to acquisition, slaves to silence on these subjects – both in the world and in the church – whoever saw a society of slaves that had so much?

Thinking about writing about this is akin to a criminal writing his own indictment…not pleasant.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

How Much Is Enough?

Over the past few weeks I’ve experienced deep conviction when preparing to share God’s Word with others; so much so that I felt a physical burden and inner distress. While I often bear inner distress when meditating on the Word, in prayer, and in intercession; and while this distress can manifest itself as a physical burden – the two instances over the past few weeks were pronounced. As I write this I am also aware of pain in other areas of life that Vickie and I have experienced in June. While I don’t often write of my own experience from this point-of-view, I am doing so now because I want to provide a framework for the deep conviction and challenge I am experiencing as a result of engaging Ephesians 5:1-6 and Paul’s (God’s) words concerning greed and the greedy person.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (NIV).

You may note that I’m using the NIV on this one; this is one of the few times that I think the NIV does a better job than either the NASB or ESV for the English reader. The other two versions use “covetousness” or a combination of “covetousness” and “greed”, but I think that neither quite hits the mark for the contemporary English reader, as I will explain below – and there may even be better words for “greed” and “greedy” for our generation to better understand what Paul is saying. From a technical viewpoint, covetousness is a fair rendering of the Greek word Paul uses – so I want to be clear that I don’t think the NASB or ESV is mistranslating the word(s) used in this passage – I just think we can miss the impact of what Paul is saying by using that English word.

When most Biblically literate, or semi-Biblically literate people, think of the word “covet” they think of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” [Exodus 20:17]. We think of coveting in terms of wanting what belongs to someone else, for this is the thrust of Exodus 20:17. Therefore we think that as long as we don’t desire to obtain that which belongs to others, as long as we don’t desire to take what belongs to others, that we are not coveting – and herein lies the problem with using the words “covet” and “covetousness” in translating the group of Greek words in the New Testament that we find in Ephesians 5:1 – 6 – the Greek words have a much broader thrust than found in Exodus 20:17 – they mean wanting more, then more, and then more. They are not confined to wanting what belongs to someone else – while wanting what belongs to others is included in their meaning, they really mean wanting more, then more, and then more. In other words, they mean wanting more whether or not the “more” belongs to others in the sense of Exodus 20:17 or not. More is more whether obtained lawfully or not.

Furthermore, while material things are included in wanting more, so are position, reputation, recognition, and power – more means more whatever the “more” might be.

This way of life, Paul writes, is idolatry (see also Colossians 3:5). Also note that in Romans 1:29, Ephesians 5:3, and Colossians 3:5 that greed is classed in proximity to sexual immorality. Christians who highlight sexual sins in others would do well to look at their accumulation of “things” lest they think they are free from the toxicity of lawlessness; they would also do well to consider that an insatiable lust for power, position, recognition, money, and material things can morph into a lust for bodies. This is no game (Ephesians 5:5-6), people who give themselves over to these things will not inherit the kingdom of Christ and God; and lest we say, “Oh, it can’t be all that bad,” Paul uses the word “any” – “…has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

We can’t serve two masters, we can’t worship the True and Living God and worship ourselves and more and more and more – it just can’t be done.

Yet, Americans have been programmed to be consumers, we have been raised and brainwashed to want more and more and then more. When we do happen to ask, “How much is enough?” At the least we say, “Just a little bit more.” Our identity is that we are consumers. We are communicated to by business, government, and sadly by most churches as consumers. We live in the opium den of consumerism and narcissism – whether in or out of religious gatherings. Our economy is built on getting us to purchase and accumulate more and more and more. We live in a land of unbridled desire, lust, and greed – we are idolaters, sacrificing ourselves and our children and grandchildren on altars of more, more, and then more.

After 9/11 we were told by our leaders to respond to the attacks by shopping. What will historians say to that?

I was convicted when preparing a Bible study on this passage because when preaching through Ephesians in prior years I missed the impact of the word group translated “covetousness”.  I wrongly thought I knew what the word meant and I didn’t and I therefore did not serve my congregation well. I was also convicted about others things which I will share in future posts.

Are you after something “more” today? How much is enough for you?

To be continued…

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hebrews Chapter Eleven: 12

“All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” [Hebrews 11:13].

Where is the “quick fix” in Hebrews Chapter Eleven? It doesn’t exist. Not only does the quick fix not exist in this passage, but the intermediate fix doesn’t exist either – nor even the long-term, if by long-term we mean fulfillment in this lifetime. And yet, there is fulfillment, there is satisfaction – but it is not what the world or the church expects; it is not fulfillment found in the City of Man, but rather in the City of God.

Too often when we think of “faith” we think of the quick fix; faith to overcome an immediate problem, faith to have a “breakthrough with God”, faith to get what we want, faith to “receive something from God”, faith for an experience. While we do see examples of faith for the “immediate” in the Bible, faith for the immediate is not the context of Scriptural faith – it is a component of Scriptural faith, but not the context.

Biblical faith is faith for the long haul; it is not drag-racing faith, or oval-racing faith, or road-racing faith – it is over-the-road faith, it is faith moving us, calling us, to a destination and informing our way of life on our pilgrimage to that destination. It is cathedral-building faith, it is not “let me build a house for myself faith”. I can build many houses for myself in a lifetime; I cannot build a cathedral in my lifetime. A house for myself, or a cathedral for others, which is it to be? A house for myself will showcase “my” workmanship; a cathedral will showcase “our” and “His” workmanship. Which is it to be?

The faith of Hebrews Eleven is faith for endurance, faith that gives us eyes to see beyond the natural and immediate (2 Corinthians 4:16 – 18), faith that strengthens us to say “no” to the City of Man and “yes” to the City of God – it is faith for the journey, not faith for the quick fix and let me get what I want when I want it and how I want it.

Quick-fix faith with its incantations and formulas robs the people of God of their citizenship in heaven, for it teaches them to think and live short-term. Quick-fix faith does not mold our souls, it fattens our selfishness and promises to fulfill our temporal desires. The soul formed by the Word of God and the Spirit of God is a soul being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, it is a soul wedded to the Cross of Christ and the Christ of the Cross, it is a soul in which the Seed of Resurrection has been planted.

Hebrews 11:13 tells us that the fathers and mothers of faith did not receive the promises; yet in not receiving them they did receive them; in not receiving them they were assured of receiving them…for they refused to trade their birthright for a mess of short-term and quick-fix potage.

Someone has written that we live in a liquid society, that our “culture” changes constantly and there are no longer any fixed points by which to navigate. The man who built his house on the rock (Matthew 7:24 – 27) need not worry when the storms came, but the house built on sand, “great was its fall.” The words of Jesus in the NASB concerning the house on the rock are “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock.”

How does one build a house on the rock? “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.” We build as we obey Jesus, and as we obey we are formed into His image, not the image of our liquid culture. Grace through faith and faith through grace animates our lives and teaches us to obey; our obedience nurtures our faith and teaches us to receive His grace.

Short-term quick-fix faith in popular Christianity is not the faith that trains our souls, our hearts, our minds, our bodies; it is not the faith that teaches us to love God with all that we are and to lay down our lives for others. Living in a liquid culture, in the City of Man, means that we are ever awash in the flotsam and jetsam of the storms of this age, an age which is passing away – all we can hope for are short-term solutions. Living in the permanent culture of the City of God means that we are “in the world but not of the world” and that we are receiving that which we will receive; we are knowing that which we will know fully (1 Corinthians 13:12).

The faith of Hebrews Chapter Eleven is the faith of pilgrimage and destination. Are we on pilgrimage or have we pulled off the road to eat fast food?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 92

“Then, along with the other’s freedom comes the abuse of that freedom in sin, which becomes a burden for Christians in their relationship to one another.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 79.

During our exploration of Life Together I have remarked, from time to time, that it would be nice to be able to talk to Bonhoeffer about what he meant when he wrote this thing or that thing, about what he envisioned for the Body of Christ when he described facets of life together, about how his own experience informed his thinking and writing. I find the next three paragraphs of Life Together to be especially the case. I’ve been pondering these paragraphs for a while before writing about them and even now am reluctant to do so because: I have questions for Bonhoeffer about his meaning and how he saw sin and forgiveness in the church in practical daily life; and I cannot possibly share my own thoughts about the matter comprehensively through the medium of a blog – to do so would change the character of this series on Life Together. As it stands, these paragraphs leave many unanswered questions in terms of what Bonhoeffer thought sin and forgiveness should look like in the life of the church – someone who knows Bonhoeffer’s writings better than I do (his sermons and letters and lectures) will likely have a better understanding.

I think that life together needs to be worked out in life together, and as I interact with these three paragraphs I am deeply mindful of this. What I mean is that the relationships of the Body of Christ are dynamic and organic, they are full of life and are animated by the Holy Spirit. I am not aware of any static Biblical language regarding the Church of Jesus Christ. Consider that we are “growing into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21); that we are “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:19).

The Body of Christ is incarnational, it is human and Divine, frail and mighty, sometimes it sees clearly, sometimes dimly – at all times the members of the Body desperately need the grace, and mercy, and life of the Head of the Body, our Lord Jesus. We are different than the first Adam, who became a living soul; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit and it is He who lives within us; the first Man was made of dust, the second Man is the Lord from heaven – our identity is not in the first Man but in the second Man (see 1 Corinthians 15:45 – 49). We are learning to bear the image of the heavenly Man (2 Corinthians 3:17 – 18).

This is important for a Biblical understanding of sin and forgiveness within the Body of Christ, and it is important in terms of what our expectations should be. If our core identity as Christians remains that of sinners – then we ought to expect sin and sin and more sin, for sinners sin as a way of life. On the other hand, if our core identity in Jesus Christ is saints, which is the term the New Testament uses for Christians more than any other term, then we ought to anticipate obedience to Christ as we love Him and others, and as we affirm one another in Jesus Christ. This is not an exercise in positive thinking, it is an exercise of belief in the Word of God, about what God says about the work of Jesus Christ and the reality of that work in us, about His empowering presence within us – as individuals but also, I think, more importantly as His People.

Bonhoeffer writes (page 79), “The sins of the other are even harder to bear than is their freedom…”

The first hurdle we have with the first paragraph are the words “sin” and “sins”. Much of the professing church lives as if it does not think there is such a thing as sin, or it uses the term in the sense of “imperfection” or “mistake”. Sin has been reduced to psychology and therapy, it doesn’t require obedient repentance (the only Biblical repentance). Then there are other Christians who trivialize sin by focusing on cultural norms within their church traditions and elevating those norms to Biblical commandments.

Jesus Christ died on the Cross and experienced the wrath and judgment of God bearing our sins and our sin nature to bring us back to God so that we might live in intimacy with Him and with one another. Sin in all of its forms is hideous, dark, and deadly. When we make sin a matter of psychology or a matter of cultural norm we lessen our perception of its hideousness and we justify ourselves and our truly sinful actions and thinking. When we repent of deviating from religious cultural norms we need not repent of Biblical sins – which are indeed true sin – death-dealing sin.

We are at the place, in much of the professing church, where it is deemed culturally sinful to speak of Biblical sin. When we do this we preclude the follower of Christ from seeking true forgiveness for true sin lest someone be offended. It is as if a person with cancer is prohibited from calling the disease cancer and seeking cancer treatment because the “C” word is unpleasant – he or she may have a allergy pill but not surgery, chemo, or radiation because those treatments are unpleasant and painful. Therefore we have people desperately seeking the closure and redemption and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ in Biblical obedient repentance, but who are precluded from doing so because we will not acknowledge the reality sin. We have hospitals that no longer have treatment rooms or surgeries – we only dispense medications to relieve pain and perform palliative care. Our pastors and teachers are often more like hospice workers than Biblical servants – the difference being that congregations and their leaders deny Biblical sin while hospice workers and their patients know that death is approaching.

Much of the professing church does not know what repentance is, it thinks it is confessing sin but it is much more than that – it means turning around and following Jesus Christ in obedience, this is why I’m styling this as obedient repentance, it is more than confession of sin, more than “I’m sorry” – it is following Jesus.

Perhaps every church ought to ask itself, “Do we believe in Biblical sin? Do we understand the Biblical view of sin? Are we living with an awareness of what true Biblical sin is?” 

If I think pancreatic cancer is simple indigestion I will regret it.

Friday, June 9, 2017

How Do We Vote?

This is an excerpt of Paul’s testimony before King Agrippa (Acts 26):

“So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities.”

Earlier in Acts (8:1-3) we are told by Luke that during the murder of Stephen that “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death…Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.”

The picture that Paul paints of himself before Agrippa shows us that he did not only cast his vote against Stephen, but that there were others who Paul voted for death. How many? We don’t know. Did Paul know? Did he keep count? Could he see their faces? Could he hear their cries decades later?

Paul uses the word “enraged” twice in Acts 26 to describe himself – what did it look like when he “tried to force them to blaspheme”? Threats? Torture?

Saul the pursuer would become Paul the pursued. The Saul who put others to death would become the Paul who gave himself so that others might have life. The Saul who tried to force others to blaspheme the name of Jesus would be the Paul who gave his life for Jesus. The Saul who sentenced others to death would become the Paul who would suffer for Jesus Christ to the point where he felt as if he were living under a sentence of death (2 Corinthians 1:9).

But what about me? But what about you? But what about us? How do we vote? Do we vote for or against others? Christ died for all – do we live for all? Do we desire life for all, or only for those who are like us, who agree with us, who are beneficial to us?

Jesus says, “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Therefore, you are to be perfect (mature), as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:43ff].

If Christians are to be polarized, let us be polarized away from evil and vitriol, away from the ways of this age, away from hatred and animosity; and cling to the love and grace and truth of Jesus Christ. Let us not be enraged with the spirit of this hateful age, but engaged in the grace and love of Jesus Christ toward others, both within and without the Kingdom of God.

Paul knew what he had once been. What about us? Are we what Saul was, or are we what Paul was? Do we vote for death in the lives of others; or do our lives, the way we live, the way we speak, the way we pray – vote for life for others? Are we living for Jesus Christ and others, or are we living for ourselves?

Are we religious types who will justify ourselves at the expense of others? Or do we know what Paul knew, that outside of Jesus Christ we are toxic and capable of anything and everything that is wicked and foul? Where is the rage in much of the professing church in America coming from? It is not from God.

Are we casting our votes for others or against others?

Our voting record is recorded day after day; word after word; action after action. On that Great Day when we stand before our Lord to give an account of our lives the words “conservative, liberal, left, right, progressive” will mean nothing – our votes along those party lines will mean nothing. But our votes for life, for others, for Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) – those votes will mean everything (1 Corinthians 3:1 – 23).

How will I vote with my life today? What about you?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

He Restores My Soul

We don’t hear much about the soul these days. Why is that? As a boy I learned the bedtime prayer that asked God to keep my soul during the night and that, “…should I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Whatever happened to the soul?

We read in Genesis 2:7 that Yahweh God formed man from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and that “man became a living soul.” Before we read of the heart or the mind we read of the soul. I have known folks who get wrapped up in distinctions between the heart and mind and soul and insist on lines of demarcation – I think this often leads to unhealthy introspection and even Gnosticism – the Biblical approach to who we are is holistic – after all, we were made in the image of God. Within a holistic context we can allow the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts and minds…and souls.

This pilgrimage of life is a pilgrimage, in Christ, of restoration – our Good Shepherd is restoring our souls. Our souls have been soiled, corrupted, sickened, and darkened. Jesus comes as our Good Shepherd to make us lie down in green pastures, to lead us beside still waters, to restore our soul (Psalm 23). His Law, His Word, restores our soul (Psalm 19) as we walk in His paths of righteousness.

Only Jesus Christ can perform this restoration, we can’t do it – we can cooperate in the process as we behold Him, but even our cooperation is enabled and animated by His grace and the Holy Spirit.

I am told that the old Methodists used to ask one another, “Brother (or sister), how is your soul?” Not a bad question to ask. It’s a better question than, “How is your day going?” I may have good days and bad days, but let’s hope that whether my days are good or bad that my soul is experiencing the restoration of Jesus Christ.

While Psalm 23 has movement in it, it begins with rest; rest in green pastures and rest beside still waters. Jesus tells those who are weary and bearing burdens to come to Him for rest (Matthew 11:28-30) and that “you will find rest for your souls”. The soul at rest in Jesus Christ is the soul experiencing restoration, and the soul experiencing restoration is the soul on pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that can declare, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of Yahweh forever.”

How is your soul today?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 91

“First of all, it is the freedom of the other, mentioned earlier, that is a burden to Christians.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 78.

We want to make others into our own image, if we can do that then we need not bear with them for they will be like us – no doubt perfect…but perhaps never perfect enough, others will always need us to make them more perfectly perfect. If only others appreciated our efforts!

“But when Christians allow God to create God’s own image in others, they allow others their own freedom (page 78).” This “freedom” is a burden; the nearer the other person’s likes and dislikes to our own, the nearer the other person’s opinions and passions – the less of a burden; but as distance grows then burden grows. As Bonhoeffer notes, we have individuality, talent, weaknesses, peculiarities – these all can try our patience and lead to conflict. Jesus Christ must transcend these differences and preferences, the reality of who Christ is in us and who we are in Christ must be affirmed as we guard the unity of the Body and Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). It is no great thing to experience and affirm unity when we are similar in appearance, custom, speech, and action; we don’t need the grace of God to get along with those with whom we have natural affinity and comfort. There is no “higher good” or transcendent vision when such people gather together, they need not sublimate their own agendas and preferences – there is no need to for they all are in basic agreement in speech and practice – they have all decided to part their hair to the right or left or down the middle, they all agree to stand up and sit down seven times in each worship gathering.

Are we willing to not only tolerate “the reality of the other’s creation by God,” but are we willing and committed to “affirming it, and in bearing with it, [and] breaking through to delight in it” (page 79)? This requires, I think, not only a Biblical understanding of the image of God, but a commitment to time together, to listening, to praying, and to confessing. To know one another we must serve one another; we must wash one another’s feet.

We may talk about the church being a body with many members, but we live as if all the members must be the same; all hands, all feet, all brains, all hearts. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians Chapters 12 – 14, common sense tells us that a body isn’t like this, common sense also tells us that we need all the parts of the body; and yet we seldom live like this. More often than not we live as if we were the head of the body, individually and collectively; we live as if we were the heart of the body; we live as if the body is to serve us. In other words, we live as if we were the sun of the solar system and that all the planets should be viewed in relation to ourselves. Individuals can be like this in local congregations; local congregations can be like this in their denominations and traditions; and denominations usually are like this in relation to the universal Church of Jesus Christ. We measure others by ourselves and we give others freedom when they live and speak within our image, and we deny them freedom when they do not conform to our image.

Relationship is work, bearing with one another is work. We want the easy way. We want God to sprinkle holy fairy dust on other disciples and make them like us. We want Him to speed up the process of time so that we need not invest time in others. We want others to be given spiritual insight so that when they see us (individually or our traditions and denominations) that they will recognize that they see the embodiment of Divine truth and practice.

It is a grand and wonderful thing to be called out of death as Lazarus was, but unless the grave clothes are removed our lives are bound.

When we break through barriers to others, we break out of ourselves. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Lifetime of Books – Musings (6)

My earliest books were Little Golden Books. I don’t know if parents give these books to their children anymore, or grandparents to their grandchildren, but I am thankful to have not only read them but also to have seen them. If you read them as a child, can you still see them?

I couldn’t find any recent statistics on the bestselling children’s books of all time, but as of 2001 it was not a Dr. Seuss book; it was a book written by Janette Sebring Lowery and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. The cover of that book is still in my mind, I can see it after all these years. I also recall the covers of The Tawney Scrawny Lion, and Tootle. A quick search on the internet brought up other book covers that I immediately recognized and which evoked memories. I am glad to see these books still in print, I hope they are still being purchased and shared with children.

But it is images that I have been thinking about, for in a world of visual filth and pollution, in which children are daily exposed to visual toxins, it is good to have pure and innocent images in one’s internal art gallery. A little adult reflection on the cover of Tootle or The Tawney Scrawny Lion can be a fine respite for the adult living in a world of filth and who is willing to say, “There must be something more than the acquisition of things, of power, of position, of money.”

Chesterton said that all he really needed to know he learned in the nursery of his childhood. Images of innocent beauty, ideals of courage and honor and virtue, visions of hope and destiny and calling – these are (or were) the elements of childhood. But of course, as Chesterton continues, adults soon tell the adolescent and young adult that they must forget all that nonsense and get on with life, get on with getting the most toys, the most accolades, the highest position – forget childhood – be a man…be a woman!

Today we rob children of childhood in myriad ways. We give them a compass that points not to the north of virtue and character and calling, but one that points to money and things and success – not success as a person of integrity and selflessness, but success in a promiscuous materialistic world. We give them electronics instead thoughtful art and books and the exploration of nature; we give them activities instead of relationships. Children may know how to play organized and competitive soccer with one another, but they do not know how to build friendships with one another, how to go on an adventure in the backyard with one another. Children may play on a baseball travel team and win trophies, but they do not know how to play a pickup game in a neighbor’s yard with Bryce Harper or Derek Jeter – their imaginations lie dormant.

The image of The Poky Little Puppy is an image worth pondering, a drink of pure water in the cesspool of society.

Image result for the poky little puppy

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 90

Third, we speak of the service involved in supporting one another. ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2). Thus the law of Christ is a law of forbearance. Forbearance means enduring and suffering.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 77.

Bonhoeffer points out that other people are not burdens for pagans, for pagans don’t have relationships with people who are burdens. While this is obviously a generalization, it is worth pondering. More to Bonhoeffer’s point in this section is his statement, “The other person is a burden to the Christian, in fact for the Christian most of all” (page 77).

Is this true? It is not something that blends with our cotton-candy Christianity where everything is geared to us having better and better lives. It is not something that meshes with our society which insists that we come first and that we deserve all that we can get and that in getting all that we can get that we avoid pain – including the pain of bearing with others.

“Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled” (page 77 – italics mine). To know someone is to know, in some measure, the imperfections of the other person. It is even to know, in some measure, the other person’s sin. This is a difficult proposition for those of us living in a cubicle culture, in a society in which we not only have technological firewalls, but in which we have relational firewalls. The roteness of religion and the isolation it fosters protects us from bearing with one another and from others bearing with us. We “don’t want to be burdens” and we don’t really want to bear burdens – we want to control others, control relationships, install firewalls, and to protect against intruders…and sadly in living thusly we protect against the Prime Intruder – the Living God in Christ Jesus.

We can have religion without bearing with one another in love, but we cannot have koinonia, we cannot have communion, we cannot have what the Bible calls “church”.

Bonhoeffer writes that, “The burden of human beings was even for God so heavy that God had to go to the cross suffering under it. God truly suffered and endured human beings in the body of Jesus Christ” (page 78). This bearing, Bonhoeffer reminds us, was akin to the way a mother carries a child, the way a shepherd carries a lost sheep…God took on human nature. Bonhoeffer pens these words, “Then, human beings crushed God to the ground. But God stayed with them and they with God. In suffering and enduring human beings, God maintained community with them. It is the law of Christ that was fulfilled on the cross. Christians share in this law” (page 78).  

Our calling in Christ is to bear one another’s burdens; we can do this because Christ has borne our burdens. Christ says to us, “Even as I have done this for you, even so you are to do this for your brother.” (Consider John 13:34-35; 15:12 – 13). Bonhoeffer quotes Isaiah 53 in picturing Jesus Christ bearing our burdens as he writes that, “…the community of the cross” is that in which we “must experience the burden of the other” (page 78).

Our time and our agenda and our self-righteousness are all enemies to bearing with one another in love. We must surrender our time to know others and to be known. We must surrender our agenda to surrender our time and to realign our priorities…are we really seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33)? We must surrender our self-righteousness to bear with one another, for to bear with one another means that I must allow others to bear with me – but how can another person bear with me if I insist on a self-righteous protective fa├žade? We hide behind our firewalls; we install security systems in our hearts and minds, and as soon as we sense an intruder we shut down into a state of nondisclosure. We have learned to be clever, learned to play games.

Of course we have all been hurt, and we will be hurt if we bear with one another. God was hurt on the Cross. He was wounded on the Cross. He was put to death on the Cross. Shall I consider myself above the suffering of God in Christ? No doubt some of us have been mocked. Was not Jesus Christ mocked on the Cross? No doubt we have known abandonment. Well, what of the Great Abandonment that Jesus Christ experienced that resulted in the cry that pieced the cosmos, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We have never known, and those who know Him will never know, the depth and darkness of that abandonment.

Bearing with one another means that we will be hurt; in our calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus Christ there is the explicit image of death, dying, pain, loss, and self-denial (Mark 8:34 – 38). There is also the explicit image of koinonia and glory (Romans 8:12ff).

Bonhoeffer writes that if we are not bearing with one another that we are not living in Christian community. He writes that if we refuse to bear with one another in love that we are denying the law of Christ (page 78).

On our best days we are frail and not up to the calling of bearing with one another in love; but Christ in us and through us is well able to teach us to live in the depths of His love. As we trust Him we can learn to trust one another. Nothing will happen to us that has not already happened to Him, our merciful and faithful High Priest (Hebrews 2:14 – 18). As we are drawn into the fellowship of the Trinity we can see the glory of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and in taking away the sin of the world we not only rejoice that He has taken away our own sin, but the sin of our brother and sister.

Let me see my brother not only as he appears to be, but as who he is in Christ. As I see my brother in Christ I can bear with him as he works out his salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in him (Philippians 2:12-13). I am not called to control my brother, but to bear his burden. Let us not deny our present difficulties, but let us work through our difficulties in the light of the perfect salvation we have in Jesus Christ – let us learn to see the end from the beginning.

Shall I look for someone to bear with today? Will I recognize the opportunity when it comes?

Am I living in long-term relationships in which bearing one another’s burdens is the fabric of life?

I hope there is someone who will bear with me today…I need it. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 89

“The other service one should perform for another person in a Christian community is active helpfulness…Nobody is too good for the lowest service” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 76.

This reminds us of the words of James, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15 – 16). Also John (1 John 3:17), “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

While these passages from James and John speak of giving material assistance, the giving of material assistance is an act of service and acts of service take many forms. On the other hand, simply giving material assistance can be an excuse for not serving with our time and presence. For some, giving material assistance means that they need not use their time for others nor engage directly with others; for others, using their time ostensibly for others means that they need not contribute financial resources.

Living in koinonia entails helping others who need help. It also means serving others whether they need help or not. Acts of service become a way of life in Christ just as listening with the “ears of God” becomes a way of life in Christ. The rhythm of life incorporates listening and serving and (as we will see in future posts) supporting and forgiving one another.

Bonhoeffer writes that, “Those who worry about the loss of time…are usually taking their own work too seriously. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God…” (Page 76). We tend to be selfish with our time for we see it as our time and not God’s time. We have our agendas, our “to do” lists, and they tend to take precedence over everything else. Bonhoeffer cautions against thinking and acting as if theology, reading the Bible, and other religious work and activity is “so important and urgent” that we refuse to be interrupted and refuse to serve others. Bonhoeffer wonders if, perhaps, the priest who passed by the man fallen among thieves might not have been reading the Bible.

“…we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service. We do not manage our time ourselves but allow it to be occupied by God.”

When we serve others it often requires that we connect with others. It requires that we place ourselves at their disposal. It may require that we perform menial tasks. It often requires that we perform tasks beneath our abilities. It may mean that we perform tasks that we are uncomfortable doing or with which we are unfamiliar. It may mean that we leave our comfort zones. It may mean not only the surrender of our time, but also of our egos, our agendas, our aggressive attitudes toward accomplishing our own goals.

When we consider those around us are we asking not only, “How can I listen?” but also, “How can I serve?”

To be sure, some of us are better with our hands than others; but I think there is always something we can do. More than once I have been thankful for a broom and a dustpan, they have given me something to do while others who are more talented use their talents at a higher level. My two hands my not be trained to make a precision cut in lumber, but they can hold the wood for the carpenter making the cut. I can bring a friend a cup of coffee. I can pick up trash. I can plant a tree. Washing dishes has been a refuge for me when others cook and prepare meals. Surely I can serve – not only when there is a critical need; I can serve simply to serve and to encourage my brother and sister.

I think it would be fruitful if seminaries and Bible schools required acts of service – it would be a good reality check for many students; getting dirt under one’s finger nails is important for the transformation of the heart. Sadly many in vocational ministry, (certainly not all), think working with one’s hands beneath them. Perhaps every seminary professor should sweep the halls occasionally? Perhaps every pastor and teacher should scrub a toilet? Just as importantly, perhaps we all ought to be challenged to go on a quest to perform acts of service in daily life – to by love serve one another (Galatians 5:13).

“One can joyfully and authentically proclaim the Word of God’s love and mercy with one’s mouth only where one’s hands are not considered too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness.” (Page 77).

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Knowing As We Are Known

“I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” John 10:14 – 15a, ESV.

I was reading this a few mornings ago when I stopped, looked at it, reread it, reread it again, and then reread it again. The words “just as” flooded my soul. To think that Jesus knows us as He knows the Father; to think that we know Jesus just as the Father and Son know one another. Of course we may not know that we know, and our knowing is an “already not yet” proposition; the reason that we can know is that by the grace of God we do know.

This idea of “even as” is pronounced in the Upper Room (John Chapters 13 – 17). We are to love one another even as Jesus loves us (13:34; 15:12). Just as the Father loves Jesus, Jesus loves us (15:9). When we keep the Father’s commandments just as Jesus has kept them we abide in the Father’s love just as Jesus does (15:10). As the Father sent Jesus into the world Jesus sends us into the world (17:18; 20:21). We are called to be one just as the Father and Son are one (17:21, 22). The Father loves us even as He loves Jesus (17:23).

We don’t “see” all of these things as clearly as we will, they seem impossible to believe, impossible to experience – and yet they are there, statements of truth by Jesus Christ. Shall we allow our experience to determine our belief? Shall our experience mold and define our belief? If so, our actions will follow our belief.

Or shall we accept the words of Jesus as truth and therefore believe them and trust in them and order our thinking and lives accordingly? Shall we stop looking at what we are not and start looking at who we are in Christ? Shall we look at the things that are seen, which are temporal; or shall we look at the things that are not seen, which are eternal (2 Corinthians 4).

Later today I have a meeting at a construction site. Some of the people on the site can read blueprints quite well, some can read them moderately well, some cannot read them at all. This means that some only do what they are told to do and cannot see beyond the immediate task at hand. Others can read enough to have a fairly good idea of what is to come. Yet others can see the end from the beginning.

Life is about “knowing” – knowing Jesus, knowing our Good Shepherd. We are called by the Good Shepherd to know Him and to be known by Him just as the Father and Son know one another. This is far beyond me, but it is true.

So we find ourselves with Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12), “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”

God wants to be known, He wants you to know Him, He wants me to know Him, He wants us to know Him. Jesus was born so that God would be known; known to the point of being heard, and seen, and touched; known to the point of coming to live within us, in Jesus Christ, in intimate relationship.

We, who are so leery of having others truly know us, we who hardly know ourselves, have a Father who says, “Come and know Me just as I know My Son and My Son knows Me; come and know us…and in knowing us you can learn to know one another.”

What will we do with this invitation today?

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Lifetime of Books – Musings (5)

One of the earliest books I remember was an illustrated book on the Civil War. The illustrations were not childish, they didn’t look inviting or warm and cuddly, but neither did they portray war – a subject I’ll get to below. I just took a quick look on Amazon for children’s books on the Civil War and found that many of them had cutesy illustrations, childish – why? Peter Rabbit ought to look cutesy, not a soldier and certainly not a slave.

I am a bit sorry I had that Civil War book – it didn’t portray the horror of war. Better to have a book without pictures than a book with illustrations that do not show war as war. One of the results of Matthew Brady’s photographs during the Civil War was that they brought home to those civilians removed from the war the horror of war.

As a young boy I recall watching a television program about the Holocaust. I don’t know if my mother gave any thought to allowing me to watch, but in retrospect I’m glad she did because I never forgot the images of the concentration camps. Could not I have seen Matthew Brady’s photographs as a young boy? Perhaps they would have guarded against me glorifying the Civil War.

There is a popular Civil War artist in Virginia whose paintings are sought after. I noticed in my Amazon search that he has illustrated children’s books about war, including the Civil War. I have never been drawn to his work, in fact I’m repelled by it. It is too clean, too mythologically “noble”, too deceptive. I’m not suggesting he means to be deceptive, I’m not sure what he means to do, but I do know that both children and adults are living in a fantasy land if they think this artist’s portrayals are the way the Civil War was or the way any war has been.

It took me most of my life to see the Civil War for what it was, and continues to be – a tragedy, a horror, with slavery running before it, through it, and after it. If we’re going to have children’s books about war they ought to be ones that cure children of any idealistic ideas about killing people and devastating families…same for adults. I never had any idealistic ideas about the Holocaust, I wish that I had never had any idealistic images or ideas about the Civil War…or any war.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 88

“It should be no surprise that we are no longer able to perform the greatest service of listening that God has entrusted to us – hearing the confession of another Christian – if we refuse to lend our ear to another person on lesser subjects. The pagan world today knows something about persons who often can be helped only by having someone who will seriously listen to them…But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been entrusted to them by the one who is indeed the great listener and in whose work they are to participate. We should listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 76. [Italics mine].

Because in the next and final chapter, Confession and the Lord’s Supper, Bonhoeffer will explore confession in some detail, I will only briefly touch on confession in this post. Confession of sin and struggle to one another is greatly misunderstood and this misunderstanding leads to lives of isolation and mistrust. It is possible to be with one another and yet live in relative isolation. We may be in close physical proximity to one another and yet live in inner isolation. As a pastor I have seen many examples of brothers and sisters who have “gone to church” together for decades and yet do not really “know” one another. It is not unusual to counsel professing Christians who “go to church” and yet live lives of isolation – not knowing anyone and not being known. This does not mean that these people do not spend time with others, it means that spending time with one another is not the same as knowing one another. Activities together are often a smokescreen to cloak our isolation; ultimately it is only when we listen and pay attention that we know another person.

Where there is no trust there can usually be no confession, and without attentive and respectful listening there usually can be no trust. Our society trusts (to some degree) the trained and licensed psychologist or psychiatrist because not only is listening to people “their job” but because they are also bound by legal standards of nondisclosure. We do not trust one another because we worry about disclosure, we worry about condemnatory judgement, we worry that the forgiving words of Christ will not be spoken to us by our brother, we worry that our brother will think less of us and that our confessed sin or struggle will be seen as our identity, and we cling to our self-righteousness. Healthy confession can only be encouraged and nurtured in a safe place, and the Body of Christ ought to be the safest place on earth.

Bonhoeffer refers to God as “the great listener”. We might also refer to God as “the One who pays attention”. He knows about the sparrow, He knows the hairs on our head, He knows us from the inside out. Are we attentive to others? Do we give others our time, our attention, and our ears? Are we listening with “the ears of God”?

Prayerful listening is listening with the ears of God; it is paying attention to the other person and at the same time asking God to open our ears to hear what the person is saying – often this goes beyond the actual words spoken because people will not always say what they mean and clarifying questions may be required. Time is also required, for people often do not say what they really want to say until they know we are listening to them, and so they begin by talking about lesser things until they sense they can trust us in that moment – they need to know that they have our attention before they will say what they really want to say. Only after we have prayerfully listened to the other person, and listened to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, can we speak a Word of God to others.

For most of us the above requires practice and discipline. We must learn to consciously put others first, we must learn to surrender our time to God and to others. This does not mean that we are tossed to and fro throughout the day and are subservient to interruptions, nor does it mean that we cannot say, “You are important to me and I want to spend time with you and listen to you, but I have an obligation right now that I must meet, can we please schedule time together?” But again, it is only with practice and experience that we can learn how to listen to God and to others. There is a time to give place to interruptions and there is a time to acknowledge the interruption and then schedule future time with the person. At the core of this is the Lordship of Jesus Christ – does the day belong to me or to Him?

Am I listening to others with “the ears of God”? What is the other person saying? Am I filtering what I hear through the Scriptures? Am I listening to the Holy Spirit guide me in the Scriptures as I listen? Do I hear the heart of the other person? Am I wearing and using the Divine stethoscope?

With all the medical technology we have today the stethoscope is still in use; there is something about a doctor listening to my heart and lungs through a stethoscope, there is something about the physical connection – for a few brief moments the doctor is actually listening to the inner rhythms of my body. Can I not give others time to listen to their souls? Can I not listen with the ears of God?

What about you?