Fill ‘er Up…

I hope I’m not being presumptuous in writing about the beliefs of a denomination I’ve only been a part of for two months. Who am I to presume I know what the Evangelical Methodist Church believes? I can only know what I read, and I read that “We believe in the Holy Spirit who illuminates the Word of God, reveals Christ to the world and empowers believers to serve God.” While illumination and revelation are integral parts of the work of the Holy Spirit, I want to focus on the task of empowering believers to serve God.

As believers in the Wesleyan lineage, we believe that God empowers us for living a holy life, and the Holy Spirit is the agent in our lives that leads us into holiness. The Holy Spirit is almost the forgotten person of the Trinity (Father, Son & Spirit). We don’t often hear much about the Holy Spirit because we (if we’re honest) just don’t know what to do with the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church when the promised Spirit descended on a small group of believers gathered in a upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 2). There was an explosion of power that day which propelled that small group of believers in Jesus Christ to go out into the streets and preach the good news that Jesus was alive. It was the fulfillment of the promise Jesus made to the same disciples when he gathered them together in the days preceding his crucifixion. He said, “It’s good that I go away, so I can send the Holy Spirit. And, the Spirit will guide you into all truth.” That’s the Lynn translation. Find his entire discourse here.

The church has been guided by the Holy Spirit ever since. The Spirit was promised, not only to those early disciples, but to us, too. All who believe in Jesus Christ are called to live the Spirit-filled life. Don’t let the phrase “Spirit-filled” scare you. We’re not talking about dancing around in a frenzy and speaking in unknown tongues…although that’s exactly what happened on the day the Holy Spirit fell upon the believers in Jerusalem. They went out into the streets and testified of the things of God so that everyone who heard, heard in their own languages. That’s one of the things we need to understand about the gift of tongues, and I believe it’s a true gift of the Spirit. Speaking in tongues is like every other gift of the Spirit…it is given to one for the benefit of others. But, I digress. I don’t mean to talk about the gifts of the Spirit, but rather the gift that is the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a gift—to the church and to individual believers. Jesus said the Spirit will serve several purposes in our lives. The Spirit will convict the world of sin, and of God’s righteousness and of judgment (John 16: 13), and in Romans 8, Paul says the Spirit will help us in our weakness and pray for us when we don’t know what to pray. There we see the work of illumination and revelation, but there is more work to be done.

Ephesians–Be Filled

The Apostle Paul encourages the believers in Ephesus to “be filled with the Holy Spirit,” yet he does it in an interesting context. In Ephesians 5, Paul cautions believers regarding their behavior, reminding them that a relationship with Christ changed them. So, he says in verse 15: “Be careful how you live.” He says, “Don’t be foolish, but rather be wise. Take advantage of every opportunity.” Then, in verse 18 he cautions them to not “be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.

We read verse 18 and our first reaction is that Paul is making a case against believers drinking. Is Paul telling Christians not to drink? Not really. Paul wasn’t a tea-totaler, and he would instruct his protégé, Timothy, to take a little wine for his stomach. Wine was a common beverage in the first century, and Jesus himself drank wine. Don’t forget that Jesus even turned water into wine at a wedding (the best wine). This passage is not a case against drinking wine (nor is this blog an endorsement). It is a case against getting drunk. More particularly, it’s a case against getting drunk as a religious activity.

There was in Ephesus a great following of the god Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The worship of Dionysus included drinking, drinking and more drinking with lots of frenetic dancing thrown in. Think “frat party” here and you’ll have a good idea of their religious service. Followers would drink and dance until they were drunk. The belief was that if they could get totally wasted they could then open themselves to the fullness of the god, Dionysus. That’s the culture these new followers of Christ were coming out of, and Paul says, “You don’t have to do that!”

Paul knew (and we know) that life is challenging. Here’s the reality: between the time we come to trust Christ and the time we enter heaven, life happens. Life doesn’t go swimmingly just because we come to Christ. The problems we had before are likely the same problems we have after. The same temptations we had before are probably the same temptations we have after. The temptation is that when we face the challenges that life presents us, we’re want to reach back into the old life and deal with those challenges in the old way. Paul is saying, “Don’t do that!” He’s telling the Ephesians they don’t have to reach back into their old life because in this new life there is a new way to be filled with the power of God. This new way is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Paul says that rather than be filled with wine, be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are some who believe this filling by the Holy Spirit is one in which we get carried away in a frenzy. Paul isn’t talking about running up and down aisles, jumping pews or speaking in tongues. The verb he uses helps us understand what he means. He uses a word that means to be “under the influence.” To be filled with the Spirit is to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we’re prompted to ask “How do we come under the influence of the Holy Spirit?” Paul’s use of the verb helps us understand that, too.

First, the verb is an imperative. That means it’s a command. It’s not an option. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not something reserved for pastors and worship leaders. It’s something that’s intended for every believer. Every believer is given the Holy Spirit as a seal when we come to faith in Christ, and so it is God’s desire that each believer live under the Spirit’s influence. Rather than being under the influence of some alcoholic beverage, or the influence of some other outside source, live under the Spirit’s influence.

Secondly, though, the verb is in the present tense, which speaks of a continuous action. It’s not a one and done thing. Filling is meant to be an on-going process—an on-going experience. A lot of people have had mountain-top moments on their journey of faith. A mountaintop moment is like Peter, James and John had when they went with Jesus up Mount Tabor and saw him transfigured. They wanted to stay there. In that moment, they were just so close to God. But, mountaintop moments fade because life is lived in the valley. This filling Paul talks about is meant to be an everyday kind of filling that sustains us through life in the valley. It’s meant to influence us every day. We can’t fill our cars up with gas once. We have to fill them up continually.

Thirdly, the verb is in the passive voice. It means this filling is something that is done to us. We can’t fill ourselves. We can only put ourselves in a place where God can fill us. How do we do that?

The Filling Stations

First, we ask. Have we ever asked God to fill us with His Spirit? Every day we can ask God to fill us.

“Fill me as I go to work today, Lord.”

“Fill me with your Spirit, Lord, as my spouse and I deal with this issue.”

“Fill me as I face my boss today.”

“Fill me as I deal with this health issue.”

If we’re not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to want to revert to old, and even self-destructive ways, to face the challenges of life. Simply ask. Jesus said in Luke 11:13: 13 “So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Second, we worship. Worship puts us in the place where we can experience the Holy Spirit. Paul says “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts.” Regular worship is part and parcel to being continuously filled with the Spirit. We experience God and are drawn closer to Him.

Third is fellowship—connecting with other believers. Paul stresses that fact throughout his letter to the Ephesians. He says, “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). The Christian life is not a “one-person show.” We need each other. We cannot, and we will not, be filled with the Spirit unless we connect with the body of Christ and other believers.

Finally, we connect with God’s word—the Bible (for illumination and revelation). When we open the pages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls. Simply reading the words opens us to experience God in new and life-changing ways.

I hear some of you saying, “Well, I just don’t get much out of it when I read the Bible. I can’t feel anything we I read it.” Trust me. Just the act of reading the Word opens us—even if we don’t feel it. Look, we’re not always going to “feel” God doing His work. Just because we don’t feel it, doesn’t mean He’s not doing it. God is faithful and He will fill us. We just have to put ourselves in the place where we can be filled.

To be filled is to be empowered by the Holy Spirit–empowered to live the holy life.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Figuring God…

Let’s continue to reflect on the core doctrine of the Evangelical Methodist Church. The EMC says, “We believe in the Godhead, the Holy Trinity, in which there are three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

A PUZZLE

That’s the Reader’s Digest version of Article 1 of the Articles of Religion going all the way back to Wesley’s Sunday Services. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most complex, difficult-to-grasp doctrines of our faith, yet it is the most central to all of orthodox Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity causes us problems because we like to figure things out. Especially us guys. Our wives present us with a problem, and our first inclination is to figure out a solution. Problem, solution. That is way life is supposed to work. Right?

Our natural proclivity is to do the same with God. We think we have to figure God out before we can trust him. This doctrine of the Holy Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—is a mystery that theologians have pondered for centuries. We can’t quite figure out how there can be one God eternally existent in three persons. It just doesn’t quite make sense, but we think about it, we look at it from different angles, we try different illustrations to explain it, but we just can’t quite understand it.

Nowhere in the Bible is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity explicit. We will not find a chapter and verse that references the doctrine, but when we hear the words of Jesus, we know that the idea of God in Three Persons is implicit in his life and teaching. We know that God relates to His creation in the manner of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet He is not three gods but one God.

JESUS SAID…

One passage of Scripture demonstrates somewhat of the mystery that exists, but also relates Jesus’ understanding of the inter-relatedness of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John 16: 12 – 15 says:

[12]”Oh, there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. [13] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not be presenting his own ideas; he will be telling you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. [14] He will bring me glory by revealing to you whatever he receives from me. [15] All that the Father has is mine; this is what I mean when I say that the Spirit will reveal to you whatever he receives from me.

So where did this doctrine of the Holy Trinity come from? The doctrine developed as a means to describe how the One God in whom we believe relates to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it was formed (wouldn’t you know it?) out of argument.

THE EARLY CHURCH

A fellow named Marcion in the second century taught that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were two different gods. God, in the Old Testament, was harsh, cruel, and full of wrath and judgment. Jesus, on the other hand, was kind, gentle and loving. Therefore, we should reject the God of the Old Testament and believe in Jesus Christ.

Another guy named Arius taught that Jesus was not really god, but rather a demigod created by God the Father to be a mediator between heaven and earth. Then there was a group called Enthusiasts who believed the coming of the Holy Spirit replaced God the Father and God the Son. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was formulated by the early church to describe the basic belief in God in three persons, each co-equal, co-eternal, one in essence and substance.

The debate rages still in the church among Christians and among denominations even. There are some denominations who baptize in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Isn’t that what Jesus commanded? Look at Matthew 28:19:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Another denomination baptize in the name of Jesus only. There are still other denominations who have started baptizing in the name of “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” That is the politically correct way of saying Father, Son and Holy Spirit, lest we offend anyone anyone by the male gender usage of the original formulation. These are all contemporary debates, and they grow out of our incessant desire to figure God out.

The first temptation the serpent offered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was the temptation to “be like God, knowing everything.” Guess what? That temptation is still with us today. We like to nail everything down, put everything into neat little boxes. That way we can control every situation.

The quest for knowledge is a good thing. In Genesis, it was God who gave humanity the directive to till the soil, and to name the animals. God was laying the foundation for the scientific enterprise, and the exploration of God’s creation helps us to fulfill the task appointed to us by God Himself.

The great mistake we make is to make God a part of His creation. God is not a part of the creation. God is wholly other, and therefore, God can never be the subject of scientific investigation. God is not some riddle or mind puzzle that can be solved with enough thought and reflection. God is a mystery, and mystery that is solved ceases to be a mystery. God is a mystery to be adored rather than a riddle to be explained. All we can ever know about God is what God chooses to reveal to us. Beyond that, God will always remain a mystery.

The mysteriousness of God is the whole point behind the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine does not define God, but it does describe what God has allowed us to know of Himself. It will always remain a mystery because God will always be a mystery—at least in this life anyway. I am reminded of the words of Paul writing to the Christians at Corinth:

Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now. ( Corinthians 13:12)

There is coming a day when we will understand all things completely, but until that time we live in the mystery of this life. Jesus told his disciples “there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now.” I think what Jesus means is pretty clear. If we knew all things and had full knowledge, it would be completely unbearable for us. We think it would give us freedom, but it would really serve to enslave us. The spontaneity of life would be eliminated, and grace would be a formula of cause and effect. Life would be reduced to a mathematical equation.

We simply cannot bear all truth just yet, but Jesus promised his disciples, and he promises us, that the Spirit of truth will guide us into all truth. Not suddenly and instantaneously, but slowly and gradually, in a measure appropriate to our ability to receive it.

I am reminded of the story Corrie Ten Boom told of her father’s illustration of faith. Corrie was lamenting the persecution endured by the Jews at the hands of the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. Fearing the time might come for her to endure such persecution, she was adamant to her father that she could never endure such suffering, that her faith would surely falter. Her father sought to reassure her that trusting God was the key. Still she persisted in her concern. Finally, her father said, “Corrie, do you remember when we used to take the train?”

“Yes,” Corrie replied.

“Do you remember when I would give you the ticket to board the train?” Dad asked.

“Yes,” Corrie responded.

“Yes, I gave it to you when you were ready to board the train,” Dad said. “So it is with faith, Corrie. God gives it to us when we need it. Not before, not after, but as we need it. To give it early may cause us to lose it. To give it too late does us no good.”

So what are we to do with this doctrine of the Holy Trinity? Perhaps we do well to remember the Good News is not that we have God all figured out, but that God has us figured out, and He loves us anyway, and he forgives our sins in spite of everything he knows about us.

We might also need to be reminded that our journey of life is not one in which all the mysteries will be solved, but one in which we know that God is behind us, ahead of us, and beside us leading us to that day in heaven when all the mysteries will be revealed, and all the doctrines of the church will be meaningless in the presence of God Himself. But, that’s another doctrine for another day.

Let’s suffice it to say that as an Evangelical Methodist I “believe in the Godhead, the Holy Trinity, in which there are three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Until next time, keep looking up…

Always Start with the Word…

As many of you know, I was recently ordained an elder in the Evangelical Methodist Church. Many of you have also asked about the beliefs of the EMC, so I thought this might be a good way to share the basic tenets of belief of the EMC. Though a blog is not the best place to do a deep dive into theological issues, I will take several weeks to offer my reflections on the core beliefs of my new faith family. I pray you stick around for the journey.

I’ll begin with the Word of God–the Bible. The EMC says, “We accept and believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We receive it as the revealed will and way of God for our daily life.”

Article V of the Articles of Religion of the EMC also states, in part: “The Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

Article V is the same Article V embraced (ostensibly) by the United Methodist Church originating from John Wesley’s The Sunday Service of the Methodists (1784). We Methodists have a long history of trust in the Bible as God’s Holy Word. Sadly, we live in an age when the validity and truth of the Bible is consistently called into question. I, for one, will continue to trust God’s Word over the changing tide of culture.

STARTING IN THE WRONG PLACE

A poll by George Barna found that 52% (yes, over half) of Christians believe the Bible teaches the self-reliant notion that “God helps those who help themselves.” Self-reliance is a false theological cornerstone that finds its roots in thinking we (humanity) and subsequently I (individually) am at the center of the universe.

We are not the center of the universe. The world does not revolve around our lives, our problems, our desires, or our needs. This inherent selfishness (caused by sin) drives our need to look at the Bible and see the things that are wrong with it. One traditional saying puts it this way; “Men don’t reject the Bible because it contradicts itself, but because it contradicts them.”

Trusting the Bible lies first in understanding what the Bible is. The Bible tells God’s story–the story of God’s creating and redeeming acts, and where we (humanity) and I (individually) fit into God’s story. It is the story of Paradise lost in Genesis, and of Paradise restored in Revelation. In between, we find the character of God as God moves in steadfast love to reconcile humanity and the creation to Himself.

The steadfast love of God is revealed through His Son, Jesus Christ, and made real to us through the Holy Spirit. The truth of the Bible is communicated through the story, and to leave out part of the story is to omit part of the truth, and the search for truth and understanding is garbled and confusing. Our trust in the Bible is confused if we fail to see that the Bible is God’s story, not our story.

INTERNAL EVIDENCE

Not only do we trust the Bible because it is God’s story, but the words of the Bible itself give us confidence in its contents. I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul wrote to a young Timothy in 2 Timothy 3: 16–All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.

We can find the Bible trustworthy because it comes from God to give us direction for our lives as God reveals where we fit into His story. Jesus himself quoted the Old Testament when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Jesus used the Scriptures to refute the Pharisees and other opponents of his ministry. The Scriptures strengthened Jesus when he was on the cross as he cried out to God the Father, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” And Jesus referred his disciples to the Scriptures that must be fulfilled concerning his death and resurrection.

You may be thinking, “We can’t trust the Bible because the Bible says we can. That is circular reasoning, and logical arguments cannot be sustained by circular reasoning.” Okay. I’ll just point out some external evidence that points to the trustworthiness of the Bible.

EXTERNAL VALIDATION

Bible means book. But, it is not just a book, but a book of books; sixty-six books altogether. The Bible is a book compiled over a period of approximately 1,500 years, over 40 different generations. Over 40 authors wrote it from all walks of life on three different continents, in different moods, and in three different languages. Think of a servant, a king, a military general, a doctor, a fisherman, a tent maker, a poet, a farmer, and a tax collector all writing from places such as a prison, a dungeon, a pastoral hillside, a palace, and a ship during times of war and of peace. Yet they all tell the same story–the story of God’s activity in redeeming humanity.

Factor in the evidence that there are over 5,300 pieces of preserved text from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and over 10,000 from the Latin Vulgate, and at least 9,300 other early versions of the Bible, and we have more external evidence for the trustworthiness of the Bible than any ancient writings. More than Homer, more than Aristotle or Plato, more than William Shakespeare himself. Yet we do not question the validity of their writings.

A MATTER OF FAITH

Honestly, though, we will not trust in the Bible through documentary evidence preserved through history, and debated by historians, theologians, and philosophers. We will not even trust the Bible because we see it as God’s story. We will trust the Bible because we accept it as God’s story, and how do we accept it? By faith.

Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of faith, and God gives us the faith to trust His word for the salvation of our souls, and the redemption of creation. Our faith is confirmed by the experiences of our lives, and the experiences of our lives confirm the truthfulness and validity of the Scriptures. The impact the Word has had on countless saints through the ages stands as a testimony to its truthfulness and dependability in leading and directing each person on our journey of faith.

Phillips Brooks said it this way, “The Bible is like a telescope. If a man looks through his telescope he sees worlds beyond; but if he looks at his telescope, he does not see anything but that. The Bible is a thing to be looked through to see that which is beyond; but most people only look at it and so they see only the dead letter.”

The Bible is something to see life through. If we focus on the book itself, rather than what it reveals about the nature of God and the nature of humanity, we will only see its faults and foibles. We will miss the joy of finding God’s will for the redemption of humanity, and we will miss the blessing of knowing God’s will for our lives.

Then again, it’s not about us. It is about God, but we find meaning, purpose and joy for the journey that is life when we understand where our story fits with His story. Our story fits with His story through Jesus Christ. In the power of the Holy Spirit, “we accept and believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We receive it as the revealed will and way of God for our daily life.”

I count it all blessing to be an Evangelical Methodist.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Trying to Make Sense…

I’ve been reading the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church devotionally that past week or so, and honestly, I’m just trying to make sense of it all, just like I’m trying to make some sense out of everything that has been happening in our nation since March 16, 2020.

Between reading 1 Corinthians, watching the evening news and reading Facebook and Twitter, there are some days (warning: confession ahead) I just don’t feel very much like a Christian. I really want to try and make sense of that, too.

Staying off social media might help, but for better or worse, more and more people are getting their news from social media than traditional means, so I suppose that just makes me normal. If I’m normal, then I suspect there may be a few of you trying to make sense of everything that is happening in our world, too.

CULTURAL DEBATES

I remember when the cultural debates among Christians centered around what movies it was appropriate to attend, or whether Christians should drink alcohol. Debates used to be about whether Christians should acknowledge Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, or whether it is appropriate to observe Halloween.

The morals and mores of our nation are in a tectonic shift. I almost hesitate to address the issues being debated today because it’s impossible to do the subjects justice in a single blog post, and besides the fact I’m likely to say something to offend someone and that will get me banned from WordPress. Then, others have said, “Silence is violence,” so what’s a person supposed to do?

Less than twenty years ago, same-sex marriage was only a blip on the cultural radar. Now, it’s the law of the land, and it’s front and center in the church, as well-meaning and socially concerned Christians attempt to formulate a response to that cultural shift. The issue has already split several denominations, and is on the verge of splitting the United Methodist Church. I’ve been trying to figure that one out for 20 years.

Likewise, the debate over the legalization of illicit drugs, namely marijuana, was relegated to the fringe of culture. There were a few proponents, but they were greatly in the minority, and no one, a mere 10 years ago could foresee the dramatic shift in that debate. Oh, that we should long for debates about the Easter Bunny!

SHADES OF GRAY

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world that was black and white? I’m not speaking racially, of course (I almost can’t even use the analogy today–someone will call me out for it), but I’m talking about a world where all the questions have yes or no answers—a world where something is either right or wrong. Sure would make life simpler.

We tend to think the Bible is really good at black and white answers, but that all depends on how one reads the Bible. We see God’s Ten Commandments, and they’re reasonably black and white: murder, covetousness, stealing, adultery, etc. All wrong.

The Bible is pretty clear on things that are right, too–like honoring God, honoring our parents, honoring the Sabbath. The shift in the cultural landscape has left us with situations and circumstances that are not quite so black and white. We’re left to try and make sense out of them, and live faithfully to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s no easy task.

Most of the debates for Christians rise or fall on how one reads the Bible. Some will argue that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, or same-sex relationships. I would argue that he said a lot about it, all the way back in Genesis 2 (remember Jesus was present at creation), and in Matthew 5 and 19. And, it’s impossible to separate Jesus from his apostles, and what was Paul?

Others will argue differently. Whose Ph.D trumps (<– no political reference) whose? The point is there are a lot of issues not specifically addressed in Scripture for various reasons, yet we still have a responsibility to love God and love our neighbor, and we are often left with our own conscience to guide us. That’s another reason it’s so important to know what I (and by I, I mean you) believe.

THE CORINTHIAN EXPERIENCE

In reading 1 Corinthians, I learn the Apostle Paul dealt with similar problems in the first century. In a church in the city of Corinth, new believers were learning to live faithfully in a culture as diverse as our own. Paul was confronted with several questions which grew out of the pagan influence upon these early Christians. One such question focused on the question of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Chapter 8). We’re not too worried in the 21st century about eating meat sacrificed to idols, but seeing how Paul addresses the issue helps me as I’m trying to make sense of living the disciple’s life today.

Here’s the issue: Most of the meat that was sold in the town market in Corinth came from sacrificial animals which were slaughtered at ceremonies in the local temples of pagan deities. Part of the meat of each animal was burned on the temple altar, part was eaten in temple ceremonies, and part was sold in the Corinthian marketplace for consumption at home. The question at hand was this: “Did these rituals somehow automatically taint the food with some weird spiritual voodoo? Could Christians eat meat that had been offered to idols?”

Some Corinthian Christians embraced the idea of liberty they obtained through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul founded this church, and he undoubtedly shared with them the same philosophy he taught the church he established at Galatia: “For freedom Christ has set us free;” (Galatians 5:1).

What wonderful knowledge to possess! But that was just the problem. Certain Corinthian Christians possessed this knowledge and they flaunted it, and they appealed to Paul to prove that it really didn’t matter if they ate meat offered to idols. They had a point to prove to those who said they shouldn’t eat the meat, and they felt they were superior because they had this special knowledge.

Paul said to the Corinthians who embraced their liberty, “You’re right! It doesn’t matter if you eat the meat because you and I know that there is really only one God, and those other gods are no gods at all, so in reality, the meat has not been offered to anyone or anything” (the Lynn Translation). Then, he said, “Before you get all puffed up, not everyone understands this reality. Some people still believe those idols are real, and to them, to eat that meat is the same as worshiping idols, and they are convicted in their own hearts because they are weak, and by your liberty, you could cause one of them to stumble.”

Paul would clarify. He said, “Look, here’s what happens. You get an invitation to a wedding down at the temple of Aphrodite. You know Aphrodite is not real so you see no problem with going to the ceremony and sharing in the reception. But someone who is weak in their faith sees you at the temple doing what they think is wrong, and they say, ‘Oh, well, he is doing it so it must be okay,’ and they eat, but later they are convicted in their own hearts because they ate. They get confused, and their confusion can destroy their faith. And, don’t forget Christ died for them just like he died for you. So don’t use your knowledge concerning your freedom to allow anything like that to happen. Instead, give up ever eating meat if eating meat might cause one for whom Christ died to be destroyed.”

LEGAL VS. ETHICAL

So, Paul really says this is not a legal question, but it’s an ethical one. That’s where it comes down for each of us concerning all the questions in the swelling cultural shift. They’re not so much legal issues as they are ethical issues.

Therein lies the problem. If it’s a legal issue, there’s got to be a law, and the law can settle the issue. Simple enough. But, ethics goes beyond the law. The Jim Crow laws reflect this reality. It’s the ethics that trip me up and keep me from making sense of all of it. It’s the ethics that make me think on some days, I’m just not very Christian.

The Ethic of Love

I note two principles Paul uses in counseling the Corinthians concerning this gray area. They are instructive to me as I seek to live faithfully to the Gospel. First, Paul says let love be your guide. In verse 8:1, Paul offers, “while knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church.” Pride gets in the way of our love. We think we have all the answers, that we know all there is to know. I like to call it “holier than thou.” Paul said it was that type of attitude that would destroy the church. Love is what really builds up the church.

Love is the principle that sets boundaries around my liberty. The moral decay we see in our culture hasn’t happened because we allowed gambling, or because we went to the movies, or because we played cards, or smoked cigarettes, or because some Christian somewhere made a questionable value judgment in a gray area of life. Moral decay has come because we embraced the right to liberty without simultaneously embracing the responsibility to love. Rights without responsibility quickly devolve into selfishness.

Paul reminds us in chapter 13 of this same letter that “love is patient and kind,” that love is not “boastful or proud, or rude.” Paul says, “Love does not demand its own way.” That means I don’t use my freedom quite as freely because I have a responsibility to someone else to help care for his or her soul. Love takes the mind that was in Jesus Christ, who chose to humble himself through the obedience that carried him all the way to the cross.

We build up the body of Christ, and those who are weaker in their faith when we show the love of Christ to them, and put their interests ahead of our own. I am reminded that sometimes love asks more than I’m prepared to give, and love often requires more than I’m willing to do. Those are the times I don’t feel very Christian.

But, the love Paul speaks of is sacrificial love. We want to say love is unconditional, but it is not. The condition is sacrifice, and it is the second principle that should guide me in living in these confusing times.

The Ethic of Sacrifice

Paul said, “If what I eat is going to make another Christian sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live…” (v. 13). Paul was willing to give up his freedom if it meant building up someone who was weaker. He did not demand or cling to his right, but embraced his responsibility to his brother/sister.

We ask ourselves a simple question when confronted with those sticky issues that hang out in the gray areas of life: “Am I willing to stop what I’m doing if I find out it is causing another person to question it?” If I can answer that question in the affirmative, then I am observing the principle of sacrifice, which, by the way, is what Christ did for you and me. Remember, he did not cling to his own rights as God. He made himself nothing for humanity. It is Christ’s example. May it be ours, too? Why? Because what we do matters.

Our lives are contagious. Leslie Flynn points out in her book, Your Influence is Showing, that the Italian word for influence is influenza. The word influenza was introduced into English in the mid-1700’s, apparently coming from the Italian phrase that attributed the origin of this malady to an influenza de fredo (influence of the cold). Our example spreads to others as easily as the flu. Does our influence destroy or does it build up?

I’ve come to discover in my own life that while God does care about how good I am, He cares as much about how good I am to others. And, while God cares about my liberty, he cares more about my life. With love and sacrifice as my guiding principles, maybe I can begin to make a little sense out of this confusing culture.

Here’s the truth behind the truth: Love and sacrifice are nothing without the power of the Holy Spirit, for I cannot love fully as Christ loved in my own strength, and I cannot offer myself as a sacrifice for the sake of others by the force of my own will. Only when I surrender to the Spirit’s power does my love become sacrificial. Only when I give myself to the Holy Spirit does He take this confusion and transform it into something rational, wise and, dare I say, holy.

That’s the truth our culture needs as much as I need it.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Hurry Up and Wait…

Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. So says the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5: 22. That being the case, I must confess that I’m not nearly as spiritual as I give myself credit for because I don’t wait well. Of course, living through this COVID-19 pandemic has revealed there are a whole lot of us followers of Jesus who are a little less holy these days.

My heart and my prayers go out to all my clergy colleague friends who are waiting to re-open the congregations they serve. They are hearing a thousand voices, each giving advice (both solicited and unsolicited) about when is the right time to re-open, or even if they should re-open. Every voice is an opinion with most differing in the advice given. For most pastors, it is a no-win situation, and yet all they can do is wait.

Though I am not waiting to know when to re-open a congregation, I am waiting to discern God’s direction for my life. After 28 years in vocational ministry, it was clear to us (my wife and me) that a season away was needed. The waiting is no fun. It is anxious. It is confusing. It is challenging. Yet, waiting is all we can do.

Waiting: A Four-letter Word

The word “wait” has become a four letter word, and I mean that in the worst sense. I’d rather do anything than wait? In fact, sometimes I would rather do the wrong thing than wait. That old prayer, “Lord, give me patience—and I want it right now!” has never been more true. In this digital age, with information at our fingertips, I don’t like to wait on anything.

The famous New England preacher of a previous century, Phillips Brooks, was known for not handling waiting too well. One day a friend saw him pacing the floor like a caged lion and asked him, “Dr. Brooks, what is the trouble?” Brooks responded, “The trouble is that I am in a hurry, but God is not!”

“I am in a hurry, but God is not” characterizes my lives, even my prayer life. I pray and I expect the answer today, this moment, the way I desire. God doesn’t work that way! And, what I seem to forget is that waiting is no passive endeavor. I need to re-learn a couple of lessons from Jesus as I’m waiting for an answer to prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer?

Jesus was a praying man. The four Gospels record seventeen specific times Jesus prayed. He prayed in different places at different times and for different reasons, but there is no prayer more meaningful than the words John records for us in chapter 17. This is the “real” Lord’s prayer.

You may recall when teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus told them, “Pray like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” We call that section of scripture in Matthew 6 “The Lord’s Prayer.” In a sense, it is Jesus’ prayer – the model he gave his followers. A more accurate title, however, might be: “The Prayer of Jesus’ Disciples,” since he said to them, “You pray in this manner.”

John 17 is “The Lord’s Prayer,” par excellence. We do not rank Bible passages, because all Scripture is breathed by God as the Holy Spirit spoke through his apostles, and yet, many believers throughout the history of the church have sensed they were entering a holy place and time as they listen to Jesus pray what has been called “The High Priestly Prayer.”

This is the longest of Jesus’ recorded prayers, and in it Jesus prayed for the Father’s glory, and he prayed for his disciples…not only those first disciples, but also “all” who would come after them…that means you and me. That’s right, Jesus prayed for you and me.

The Father’s Glory

Jesus prayed for the Father to be glorified in him and through him, and in praying for the Father’s glory, Jesus teaches us how to pray in our waiting on God. Jesus said, “The hour has come…” What hour? The hour of his crucifixion! The glory of God in the cross. Glory in the suffering. Think about that a moment. We remember the mount of transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah appeared and Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light and God spoke from heaven with a voice all could hear. I understand that glory.

And, the glory of the adoring crowd, throwing their cloaks and palm branches before him and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” I get that glory. But Jesus’ first words are “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” This can mean only one thing: the death for which God was born is now at hand.

How does the cross glorify God the Father and his Messiah? It glorifies God because it shows the cosmic significance of God’s holiness. Jesus is crucified, dead and buried to preach the surpassing beauty of holiness. This is not a peripheral thing – take it or leave it. God’s holiness holds the universe together – if it is undone, all is lost.

The cross also glorifies the misery of sin. If sin were one grain less awful than the Bible says, then Christ need not die to bring it to an end. But at the cross sin is painted in all its wretched colors, so that the hearts of God’s people will forever rejoice at their freedom from this enemy.

The cross glorifies God’s love: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….” Someone said: “I asked Jesus how much He loved me. He answered “this much” – then he stretched out his arms and died.”

It was in his suffering that God would be glorified. What suffering are you going through? Our (my)  prayers, too often, are for deliverance. Jesus’s prayer teaches us that our prayer ought always to be, no matter what the circumstance, “Father, be glorified.” We may not like the circumstances, we may not desire the circumstances, we may not understand the circumstances, but our prayer is still, “Father, I’m in this place and my prayer is for you to take this life, take these circumstances and use them for your glory.” It’s a hard prayer to pray, but when we’re waiting for God to answer, we keep praying.

Jesus’ prayer was answered (in one sense), but it was answered only after he went through hell—literally.

Prayers Unanswered

In another sense, though, the prayer of Jesus remains to be answered. As I reflect on that fact, I confess and repent of my own impatience in prayer and in life. Jesus prayed for you and me. Notice that Jesus did not pray for health or wealth or care-free living for his disciples. He prayed for unity. That’s such a nice sounding word, and as we look around the Christian landscape, we know this prayer is yet to be answered.

So, how can we be unified with so much division? We need to realize that unity is received, not achieved. The gift of unity can never be fabricated by humans, it must be made real by the Spirit of God. It’s not a unity of organization or administration for which Jesus prayed, but a unity in personal relationships, and the unifer is Jesus Christ.

Union does not equal unity. In marriage, there can be a union of two people, but they can lack unity. Each person operates with different goals and dreams. Self-interest drives their union and therefore prevents unity in their purpose.

The pattern for unity of believers is unlike anything else on earth. It is nothing less than the unity of the Father and Son. It is not merely a unity of organization, feeling or affection, but rather a unity of purpose, and Christians are drawn to one another because we are drawn to a common center, Jesus Christ. He is the source of our unity.

Within the Church, there have been and will continue to be wide divergences of opinion and ritual. Unity prevails whenever there is a deep and genuine experience of Jesus Christ. Unity in the body of Christ prevails when Jesus is the focus, and if Jesus Christ is ever made to be less than the fullness of God born in human flesh, unity begins to fade…and the prayer of Jesus goes unanswered.

Waiting and Working

Jesus’ prayer is being answered…if not fully yet. That’s because there is still work to be done. We might say, “Jesus, too, is waiting for an answer.” He’s waiting for us to take up the work…the work of redemption and reconciliation. A truly unified community of people is a supernatural fact that has a supernatural cause. A unified Church compels the world to confess that God is at work among us. The world will never know the power of God’s salvation until the world can see a Church that is united by its confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. That’s the work Jesus left to us.

It’s also the prayer he continues to pray. Yes, Jesus is still praying for us. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 8:34—“Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

So, while I’m waiting for God…waiting for an answer…I pray and I work. I do it because I have faith. I believe the Father. I believe the Father’s love. Jesus prayed and prays because he believes the Father is faithful.

Sweeping across Germany at the end of World War II, Allied Forces searched farms and houses looking for snipers. At one abandoned house, among a heap of rubble, searchers with flashlights, found their way to the basement. There, on the crumbling wall, a victim of the holocaust had scratched a Star of David. And beneath it, in rough lettering, they found the following message:

I believe in the sun—even when it does not shine;

I believe in love—even when it is not shown;

I believe in God—even when he does not speak.

Well, God does speak, and God hears and God moves. But, I’m learning again that He does not always speak, or hear, or move immediately. Sometimes He waits to answer. God wants us to wait on Him for His answers.  Will you, with me, learn to wait, and in the waiting continue to pray, and continue to work?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Gotta’ Start Building Bridges…

I find myself praying more lately. I can’t think of a reason that’s not a good thing. The problem I’m having, though, is that my prayers usually lead me to questions, and I don’t like questions that don’t have answers. One of the questions my prayers have caused me to wrestle with is this: “Is the Lord calling me to plant a church?” As I’ve prayed about the answer to that question, it gives rise to another question: “Why do we need ANOTHER church?” I mean, really!

Religion

Search Google for “world religion” and you get 935 million hits. There are 21 major world religions, and countless more minor ones (though I suspect their adherents would argue their “minor” status). Gone are the days when everyone in our neighborhood and in our town are Christians. In my former neighborhood, I had a Hindu two doors down and Buddhists across the street. Such is our world today.

Then, I consider the confusion that exists in our own Christian world. Some estimates have the number of Christian denominations at 43,000. Actually, there are really only about 40 distinct “denominations” within the Christian family. The vast majority of the rest of them are offshoots of one of the 40 or so, but still, that’s a lot of divisions, right?

The digital age has provided easy access to the philosophies of the world’s religions. The proliferation of publishing houses and bookstores has made it easy to feast off the “faith buffet.” Search Books-a-Million’s website and you’ll discover 6,407 titles in the spirituality section. Inside the church, we’re no different. We feast off the same “faith buffet,” choosing books and authors that have little to do with doctrine consistent with our tradition, and more with the popularity of the subject matter. As a culture, we make our way down the buffet line, picking up a little Wesleyan doctrine, some Baptist theology to go with it, a little Pentecostal understanding for flavor, a smidgen of Lutheran understanding, and then put a little New Age mysticism on the side to sort of balance things out.

It gets really confusing for me, and I’ve been to school for all this stuff. I can only imagine how confusing it gets in the real world. Who’s right? What’s right? What’s a person to do with all this confusing information? How do we make sense out of a diverse religious landscape, and remain faithful to our own understanding of God as revealed in Jesus Christ? And, why do we need one more church in the middle of it? I think I can learn a lesson from the Apostle Paul.

Building Bridges

In Acts 17: 22 – 31, Paul is in the city of Athens, Greece. When Paul arrived in Athens he found himself in one of the most famous centers of philosophy, religion, art and architecture the ancient world had ever known. It was an incredibly diverse place. Certainly, it was as religiously diverse as our own day and time. The Greek historian Pausanias says that there were more idols in Athens than in all the rest of Greece combined. Paul could see them wherever he looked, and Paul was called to share the Gospel in that religiously diverse culture.

Athens was famous for its philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Zeno and Epicures. People sat around and discussed the greater philosophies of life. Paul was presenting the good news of the Gospel to the literary capital of the ancient world, the most cultured city on earth. This was the city where even Romans came to finish their education. Athens was the home of philosophers, orators, sculptors, painters and poets, and a great university where thousands gathered for study.

This was the environment into which Paul preached about Jesus and  the resurrection. It was unique. It was novel. It was challenging. Understand, for Paul to teach about Jesus and the resurrection was to put him in danger of being arrested like he had been in Philippi. Paul was taken to the Areopagus so he could present his views to the Council.

Areopagus is the Greek term for Mars’ Hill (verse 22). It was a place of assembly. There the supreme court of Athens met. The court was made up of 30 city officials. There the courts that sat concerning religious matters convened. The associations had something to do (probably) with Paul being taken here to speak, though the meeting was informal and not official. The hill is about fifty feet high, and was then surrounded by the most glorious works of art in Athens with the historic Parthenon in the background. It was in harmony with the spirit of the city that he should be called on to speak to gratify the curiosity of people seeking new thoughts.In this city, on this occasion, Paul sought to build a bridge so that he might share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Building a bridge–that’s the lesson for I feel called to navigate through my prayers right now. How did Paul build a bridge in Athens?

Spiritual but Not Religious

First, Paul affirmed their spiritual nature. Paul noted their idolatry, but he didn’t attack them for it. As we read Paul’s writings, we find that he reserved his harshest words for believers in Jesus Christ, not for pre-Christian people. That’s instructive for me. I discover that affirmation builds up while attack tears down. Paul could affirm their religious nature, and in so doing, could find common ground upon which to have a conversation. Beginning a conversation with a non-Christian by telling them they are wrong only raises their defenses and closes their ears.  Acknowledging our common search for knowledge of the Divine is a great starting point if we hope to build bridges with those with whom we hope to share the Gospel.

The popular catch-phrase these days is “spiritual but not religious.” It is used increasingly to describe the “nones.” “Nones” are persons who do not identify with any specific faith tradition. They will often self-identify as people who are spiritual, but not religious. Spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand. That we have a spirituality at all makes us religious people, and it reveals the nature of our creation. I love how the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it in 3:11: Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. We are spiritual beings. Paul sought to build a bridge to share the Gospel by affirming his listener’s spiritual nature.

Capturing Culture

Another way Paul sought to build a bridge was by using the culture to communicate Christ. Paul said, “You’ve got a lot of altars, but there’s one to the ‘unknown God’ I want to talk to you about.” Paul took the familiar and connected it to Christ. The culture (no matter how “un-Christian we believe it to be) is not the enemy. The culture is the culture. It can become a tool we use in sharing Christ with the world. THIS is the culture we’re called to live faithful lives in. God isn’t calling us to be faithful in 1968. He’s calling us to be faithful in 2020 and beyond.

So, we today, with the embrace of digital technology, must speak the language of culture if we are to be faithful in sharing the Gospel. One of the most encouraging developments coming from the COVID pandemic is the church’s transition to the digital age. We are in a digital culture, so the church must use digital language to communicate the Gospel. To be contemporary, to be relevant means to understand the culture. Understanding the culture affords us the opportunity to communicate effectively.

Affirming humanity’s common spiritual nature and understanding culture does not mean we can’t maintain integrity to the Gospel. Paul did so effectively. Paul preached Christ and him resurrected. That was a unique message, and it piqued the interest of those in the culture. But, Paul also preached God’s judgment, but in a not-so-judgmental way. Let me try to explain.

We are living between two ages. That’s perhaps why life seems so confusing. We are living in the shift between the “modern” and “post-modern” age. For the modern mind, there are many more absolutes. For the post-modern mind, things are much more relative. Take sin, for instance. For the modern mind, sin is a violation of God’s moral law, thus Jesus can easily be accepted as the atonement for that violation. Repent and trust Jesus, and all is forgiven. We can accept that and live faithful lives until we die and go to heaven.

To the post-modern mind, though, sin is not so easily seen as a violation of God’s law because morality, like everything else, is relative. The Apostle Paul does a masterful job of addressing the root issue of sin from this perspective—even way back in the first century. Paul addressed the issue of idolatry, calling attention to the idols everywhere in Athens. For Paul, the biblical definition of sin was idolatry. For instance, if we make a moral statement about adultery, which to the modern mind is classified as a violation of the moral law, then a post-modern would simply say, “You’ve got your morality and I’ve got mine.” That ends the discussion. If I were to tell them they were going to hell if they didn’t change, all I’ve done is make them turn a deaf ear to the Gospel. If, however, I tell them they are sinning because they are looking to the romances or relationships to give their lives meaning, or to give them what they are looking for, or should be looking for from God, then I have cast the conversation in a different light and hopefully can engage them in a deeper conversation concerning the power of the Gospel. After all, idolatry is putting anything in God’s place, and that causes anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, resentment, jealousy, etc. Then, Christ and his salvation can be presented as the hope for freedom.

Stated a much simpler way, the modern mind embraces the Gospel as the way to forgiveness. The post-modern mind embraces the Gospel as the way to freedom. Both are correct. Both open the door for the transforming work of God in Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel. Paul sought to build a bridge by affirming the common spiritual nature, and by connecting with them culturally while maintaining integrity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s our task in this religiously diverse age.

Perhaps a parable can communicate it better than I:

A Parable

Once upon a time two brothers lived on adjoining farms. For forty years, they farmed side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed. Then, their long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding that grew into a major difference before finally exploding into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on the elder brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days’ work”, he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there I could help with?”

“Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. He did that to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence – – an 8-foot fence –so I won’t need to see his place or his face anymore.”

The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”

The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing.

About sunset the farmer returned to find the carpenter just finishing his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. He didn’t find a fence. He found a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other. It was a fine piece of work, and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.”

The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother.

“I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but, I have many more bridges to build.”

I really don’t know that I’ve answered the question of why another church, but I know that there are more bridges to build. Maybe another church would help to build some of those bridges? Maybe not. Guess I’ll keep praying.

Will you pray with me?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Too Stressed from Rest…

Confession time once again…I’m ready for this “Stay-at-Home” order to be lifted. I think I’m suffering from what “experts” (ugh! THAT word!) are calling “quarantine fatigue.” Basically, that just means one is tired of staying home. I’m tired of staying home and I work in an “essential” business and go to the office almost every day. But, I just want to go to the Mexican restaurant and have chips and salsa. I want to go to the movie. I want to go see my grandchildren play spring sports. I want to go to Dillard’s and buy my wife a Mother’s Day gift.

That’s a lot of “I” statements, and I’m sure there are some of you teeing up to pounce on me for my selfishness, but according to research done using cell phone data, I’m not the only one who has quarantine fatigue. More and more people are venturing out to beaches, parks and other places to break the monotony of quarantine. It’s interesting that the pandemic created one crisis. Now the quarantine is creating another. Apparently, people who are quarantined get bored, lonely and restless. Makes me wonder: Are we stressed from all this rest?

I’m not a simpleton. I know there are countless reasons we are stressed during this time. Many elderly are stressed because of the overwhelming impact the Coronavirus has on their demographic. Many small business owners are stressed by the potential loss of their livelihood. Many others are stressed from their lay-off from work, and many others are stressed by the financial impact the pandemic is having on their lives. But, stressed from rest, now that’s interesting.

Psalm 23

Quarantine fatigue puts me to pondering the 23rd Psalm. Psalm 23 must be the most-loved, most read and most quoted of all the Psalms. This psalm is called the Shepherd”s Psalm because it portrays God as a good Shepherd, who cares for and looks after his flock. The Psalm is attributed to King David. If anyone was qualified to describe God in this manner, it was David who had been a shepherd before he became a king. How often David must have gazed up at the heavens on a star-filled night whilst watching over his father’s sheep and pondered the very nature of God! Surely he must have pondered how much God was just like a shepherd. His years of shepherding had taught him a few things, and as he contemplated the shepherd’s work, he found a fitting description of what God does for his people.

There are a number of things David notes in this Psalm. The opening sentence really says all that needs to be said: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The NIV says, “I shall not be in want,” and the NLT says, “I have everything I need.” Everything that comes after the first sentence is unpacking what the Psalmist means by having everything he needs. Because we’re in the midst of a quarantine, and folks are even stressing from resting, my mind is captured by one idea David centers on—rest.

Man in a Hurry

We don’t often rest well in the 24/7/365 culture we were living in pre-pandemic. Rest is almost a forgotten art, but rest is integral to our human existence. We can’t wind the rubber band tighter and tighter. The tension has to be released, or sooner or later the rubber band will snap. When it snaps it will lead us to a mental failure, a moral failure or severe chronic health conditions. We’re seeing the same thing happen with quarantine fatigue.

I used to use a lot of Andy Griffith illustrations in my sermons. There’s one episode of the Andy Griffith Show that illustrates how we live most of our lives. The episode is entitled “Man in a Hurry,” and it’s about a business man from Raleigh (Mr. Tucker, I think is his name) whose car breaks down on Sunday. Of course, Wally, the owner of the filling station, isn’t available on Sunday, so Mr. Tucker convinces Gomer to try to fix the car. The man finds it imperative to get to Charlotte. No amount of coaxing will encourage the man to rest, relax, take it easy until Monday morning when Wally will be back and willing to fix his car.

He’s a man in a hurry. At one point, Mr. Tucker says, “You people are living in another world. This is the 20th century. Don’t you realize that? The whole world is living in a desperate space age. Men are orbiting the earth. International television has been developed, and here, a whole town is standing still because two old women’s feet fall asleep!” Barney just looks at Andy and asks, “I wonder what causes that?” That desperate need to be on the run was broadcast in 1963—that’s the year I was born, folks. Things have only gotten worse since.

Rest

We need rest, and the Psalmist says that’s exactly what the shepherd offers his sheep. “He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.” You know how it is, right? Living life with all these balls juggling in the air—you’ve got the work ball, the family ball, the church ball, the society ball. We run frantically around trying to keep all the balls juggling at the same time.

Take a look at one of those balls—the work ball. The average American works 47 hours per week. We can’t wait to get to the weekend, right? But then, we don’t rest because we have to keep the family ball in the air. There’s laundry to be done. The yard needs mowing. The hedges need trimming. The roof needs fixing. The kids have ball games. Juggle, juggle, juggle. Then, on March 17th, all that stopped. We were  forced to stop juggling the balls–to put them down, as it were. And now, we’re stressed about that, too. Ain’t life funny?

If we’re not resting, it might be a good indication we’re not following the Shepherd.  Even when we’ve been given the gift of time to rest, and the rest is stressing us, it’s a good indication we’re not following because the Shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. HE does it. He does it because rest is part of God’s nature. God worked for six days and He rested. God looked on the seventh day and saw that it was “very good.” The work was complete. And God built that rhythm into life. God didn’t need to rest because He was weary from the work. God rested because the creation was complete. It was whole.

Yeah, we had to go and mess it up. But, we can rest because we are complete in the Shepherd. We find wholeness in our relationship with the shepherd, and I remind us that wholeness is really the definition behind this little thing we call salvation.

Rest comes as a result of contentment. Sheep rest when they are content. Phillip Keller in his great book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, says there are four things that create discontent in sheep: 1) fear, 2) friction, 3) parasites, and 4) hunger. The sheep are able to rest when the shepherd addresses each one of those circumstances.

So, what are we afraid of? We can acknowledge there is much that promotes fear in the pandemic. Let’s name those fears. Where are the places of friction in our lives? All the memes on social media about home-schooling and drunk teachers are funny for a reason. Is it in a relationship? No doubt, the quarantine has caused a number of couples to deal with issues that have long been buried. What are the parasites that are drawing the life out of us? What are we hungry for (besides Mexican food)?  We find meaning, purpose and value in life when we depend on the Shepherd, not when we depend upon ourselves–even in a quarantine.

Finding Stillness

Rest doesn’t come easily or automatically for us. We must cultivate the art. May I offer some suggestions to aid cultivation?

  1. Block out time–even with an abundance on the calendar–to rest. Hopefully, you’ve established a routine even for the quarantine. Include intentional times of disconnect from the routine to stop and connect with the Shepherd.
  2. Don’t take yourself (or others) too seriously. There are things that are serious, but they are far fewer in number than we imagine.
  3. Laugh out loud every day at something. I didn’t say laugh at someone. That can be destructive. But, the wisdom writer of Proverbs says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).
  4. Embrace the gift God is giving us to change the things in our lives that need changing. God is giving us the opportunity to reassess our priorities by learning what we can live without.

Rest is part of God’s provision for our lives. In the midst of quarantine fatigue, it seems a good time to be reminded that rest is part of the “all I need” the Good Shepherd provides. Perhaps that’s our greatest need. Maybe it’s why that’s where David started his greatest song.

Until next time, keep looking up…

I Have My Doubts…

I think we’re in a bit of a double bind. You know what a double bind is, right? A double bind is a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action. Our double bind comes because we’re being told we must “listen to the experts.” Well, which experts would that be? The ones who tell us we must remain in lock down due to the Coronavirus, or those who tell us we have to open the economy to prevent the collapse of our economy? I suspect which expert we chose to listen to has much to do with which side of the political aisle we occupy. I’ll confess that I have my doubts about the experts on either side, but that’s probably just a result of my natural cynicism.

Doubting Thomas

Of course, I’m not the first person to play the cynic and express my doubts. I’m remembering the Apostle Thomas this week after Easter. John relates the story in his gospel (John 20: 24 – 29) that Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, but Thomas wasn’t present. The disciples told Thomas about the encounter, but Thomas said, “I’ll believe it when I see it” (the Lynn paraphrase). Thomas had his doubts, too. I’m feeling like I’m in pretty good company.

We just don’t expect dead people to live again. Why do we suspect it was any different in the 1st century? Doubting Thomas? Surely it would be doubting Lynn, too, if I were in Thomas’s shoes. I think Thomas has been the scapegoat for the church and everyone else who ever said doubt was wrong, or that it is somehow unfaithful to need a sign, or a vision, or a personal encounter.

Why can’t we ask the hard questions without being labeled a cynic, a skeptic, or worse, a hater? Are questions bad? Is there something wrong with admitting we don’t understand everything? Is it wrong to ask God to clarify a few things? I hope not! Think about Job. Job had questions. And the Psalms are full of questions, uncertainties, and not a few complaints. Even Jesus, hanging on the cross, asked the question of the ages, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Thomas is just the next in a long line of faithful folks who raised their voices to ask God hard questions.

Faith is Hard

Thomas’ undeserved reputation notwithstanding, I learn two important lessons from his encounter. Lesson one: Doubt is a testimony to the difficulty of faith. It’s just hard to believe. Faith takes work, and honestly, sometimes I’m just too lazy to believe. Faith takes work because it puts us in uncomfortable places and begs us to ask tough questions. Genuine faith says it is okay for us to ask questions of God.

Faith is when we are willing to embrace the doubts, ask the questions, and face the answers. Jesus knew faith in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there he was willing to say, “If…” And, on the cross, too. The Apostle Paul knew faith on the Damascus Road and in a Roman prison. They knew, and I learn, that faith is believing something that is totally beyond my comprehension, but being unafraid to try to believe it anyway. Jesus could say from the cross, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Paul could say, “Your grace is sufficient for me.”

The Christian faith is not some cut-and-dried faith. Faith in Jesus Christ cannot be reduced to a set of rules, where everything fits, where everything makes sense, where all we have to do is connect the dots. That’s what the Pharisees tried to do. They had to explain everything in a formula; to make all life so that it could be answered by a set of rules, and if it didn’t fit within that hard and fast set of rules, it was rejected as heresy or blasphemy. Well, Jesus didn’t fit within their set of rules, and look what happened to him. Consequently, their eyes and their hearts were closed to the very thing God was doing in their midst. They were blind to the miracle standing right in front of them.

Sometimes, our faith will ask us to look outside the box; to color outside the lines, and believe some things that the rest of the world says are ridiculous. Some things like believing a virgin could have a baby (I believe that!), or that God and man could live in one person (I believe that, too!), or that Jesus would die for the sins of the world (and I believe that one, too!), or that Jesus could actually rise from the dead (we all better believe that one). Our faith may ask us to do things that the world says are pointless, and that will be hard work, indeed. That work will raise a few doubts, but the doubts will testify that faith is no easy thing.

Faith is an Encounter

Lesson two: Faith begins with an encounter. Like Thomas, until we see the risen Lord ourselves we can’t believe. Until we see Christ, the resurrection is about as silly as seeing Elvis at the convenience store, but a personal encounter with Jesus changes all that. When we encounter Jesus personally, the lines of our lives get blurry. The line between believing and not believing, and the line between life and death are suddenly crossed. Those lines once seemed so absolute. When I meet Jesus…not so much, anymore.

Thomas’ story is ultimately a miracle of faith. His mind was opened and his heart swelled with the words, “My Lord and my God!” All because he had a personal encounter with Jesus. Without the personal encounter with the risen Lord, Thomas would have continued to wallow around in his own doubt. At best, he would have been stuck in a world where the rules cling only to those things which are possible.

Do you know the difference in Thomas and the other disciples? Thomas was a week late, that’s all. The other disciples needed a personal encounter with Jesus as much as Thomas did. Remember, they were hiding in a locked room, cowering in fear of the Jewish leaders when Jesus first appeared to them. They were just as afraid and doubtful as Thomas ever was. Faith and understanding began only after Jesus made himself personally known to them.

That’s true for us, too. We remain in our own cynical, skeptical little world until Jesus breaks through the door of our locked hearts. There’s the miracle in all this: Jesus searches us out and finds us, even when we don’t want to be found. We can lock ourselves away from the world, we can lock out the Good News, but Jesus, if he wants us, breaks through that door. We Wesleyans like to call that prevenient grace.

No Second-hand Jesus

If a stone couldn’t keep Jesus in a tomb, I don’t think a wooden door was going to keep him from getting to the disciples with the Good News of his resurrection. We all need a personal encounter with Jesus Christ before we can declare, “My Lord and my God!” A second-hand Jesus just won’t do.

Encountering Christ was simple enough for Thomas. Jesus was right there. He’s right here, too. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon those first disciples. He breathes the Holy Spirit on us, too. The Holy Spirit makes Jesus present with us today. The Holy Spirit is present in our worship. The Bible says God inhabits the praise of His people. When we praise God, He is present and we encounter Him. Through music, through the Bible, through study and prayer, we encounter the One who was raised from the dead because he has given us His Spirit to know He is here. And, we encounter Him every time we receive the Lord’s Supper or participate in the sacrament of baptism.

If others are to encounter Jesus they will encounter him through us. That’s why evangelism is so important. We have to leave our locked little worlds and share the story of the resurrected Christ with others. The world will have their doubts, but others will not know Jesus apart from us. They will encounter Jesus when they  see him alive in us, when they see the way he loves them through us, when they see the way we respond to those in need, when they see the way we care for all that God has entrusted to the church. We give others a first-hand encounter of the risen Lord, and that is where faith begins.

I will probably continue to have my doubts about all these experts and the Coronavirus, and I’ll just be skeptical and continue to ask questions, but one thing I’ll never doubt is Jesus, and His love for me. That’s one doubt we all need to reconcile.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Cost of Crisis…

Working from home (mostly) has given me much too much time to think, and I’ve been thinking about the depth of what’s been called the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a public health crisis, yes, but it has the potential of becoming so much more. Here are just a few of my thoughts:

Financial

It has the potential of becoming a financial crisis. We’re obviously in a financial slowdown as a result of COVID-19, but should the “stay-at-home” orders last much longer, we run the risk of creating a full-blown financial meltdown of the US and subsequently the world economy. Entire industries will be gone, and the recovery may last as long (if not longer) as the Great Depression. What’s more, the financial crisis will lead to more health issues, thus exacerbating the public health crisis. This is preventable!

Mental Health

It has the potential of becoming a mental health crisis. Fear has driven much of the panic surrounding COVID-19. Fear of death, first of all. We Christians, of all people, should have a better theology of death because many Christians have led the fear parade. Way back on March 23rd, R. R. Reno of First Things wrote a piece reminding us that we are not to fear death (we don’t desire to hasten it, but neither should we fear it). Never in my life have I seen so many followers of Christ shouting down other followers of Christ in such a public way–rooted (I believe) in two things–fear and self-righteousness. We are not being very good examples of Christ to a world that is hurting and searching for answers to tough questions. This, too is preventable!

The longer people are quarantined the more susceptible we become to loneliness and depression. As Genesis teaches, it is not good for people to be alone. We are created for community. For a society that was already struggling with depression, we don’t need any help to make it worse. Not to mention, and this is only somewhat related to mental health issues, but there is the increase in substance abuse and domestic violence.

I have a deep concern (and I pray daily) for those who struggle with substance abuse. The necessity of working a 12-Step program, of attending meetings and staying connected to accountability measures, is taken away in this time. Virtual meetings are no substitute to physically going to a meeting and encountering others on the journey face-to-face. I wonder if anyone has “modeled” the financial cost to our health care system (not to mention families) when many addicts relapse because they were forced into isolation? 

Culture

This shut-down has the potential to become a cultural crisis. This may, in fact, be the final nail in the Judeo-Christian western cultural coffin. There will be many who will not be bothered by that, but I am not one of them. The very foundation of the American experiment lies in the Judeo-Christian worldview. This pandemic forces us to the precipice of rejecting the very values that underlie our nation. We are, in the name of sacrifice, rejecting the true nature of sacrifice. Don’t tell the countless millions who have sacrificed their very lives that self-preservation is the essence of our existence.

Part of the cultural crisis is that faced by churches and houses of worship during this pandemic. They will never be the same, and the influence they once enjoyed in the culture will continue to diminish. There is some good that can come out of that. First, the church has been forced to re-tool. Second, the church has been forced to reassess its understanding of discipleship and evangelism. Third, the church has been forced to reflect upon its history and ask itself the question: “Is what we are what we were meant to be?” Already, some positive signs are emerging (which is hopeful), but I suspect that the landscape, both urban, suburban and rural will be dotted with empty, deteriorating buildings left by congregations unable to survive the financial impact of COVID-19. It doesn’t have to be so.

Constitutional

There is the potential that this becomes a constitutional crisis. This potential goes hand-in-hand with the cultural crisis mentioned above. I am still amazed by how quickly we, the people, surrendered our freedom to an over-reaching government.

The very fabric of our nation changed in the blink of an eye. The constitutional protections we have long enjoyed, which have been eroding for several generations, were, in one fell swoop, washed away, and I fear (there’s that word) we will never be able to reclaim them. Our freedom of assembly? Gone. The government said we shouldn’t gather in groups of 100 or more, then it was 50 or more, then it was 10 or more…then, it was stay at home. Yes, it was for a very noble cause–the health of “others.” Don’t do it for yourself. Do it for others. Noble, indeed.

There’s a fork in the road ahead when we will have to ask what’s more important, the survival of the other, or the survival of the whole? Stanford University School of Medicine professor John Ioannidis offers an interesting perspective on the subject that bears hearing. Which will we choose? Fear should not compel us to choose wrongly, but we’ll be aided by those who deeply desire to change the heart of who we are as Americans.

Political

All these measures were done without the U. S. Congress’ approval. Entire states and local communities were shuttered without a single legislative vote of any legislature or city council. Not one duly elected representative body gave assent to these measures. Actually, the legislators all went home, thus abandoning their responsibility to represent “We the people.” We, the people, are left to be led by executive mandate, whether federal, state or local. I’m sorry, but that sounds a lot like dictatorship or monarchy. If we’re not careful, and if those legislators who are the elected representatives of the people do not step up and begin to question what is happening, then this public health crisis will become a political crisis. No, what it may become is a revolutionary moment. 

Some may call me an alarmist (and I may be), but when I sit around too much, these are the things I think about. I suppose I should quit sitting around so much! I think I’ll go check my tomatoes in the garden (it’s a good thing I don’t live in Michigan!). That should take my mind off of the cost this crisis will ultimately have on all of us.

Even so,

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Controllables…

nintendo controlLooks like we’re in this thing for the long haul (or at least until April 30th) so I suppose we just have to settle in and adjust to the “new normal.” I’ve heard and read that phrase many times since March 13th when President Trump issued the national emergency in light of the Coronavirus. I must say that I don’t like that phrase because there is nothing normal about the situation in our nation and in the world. I think it is an acquiescence to the fear that is in us to accept this “new” normal. What we are living in is abnormal, and I, for one, will be fighting with all that is in me to get things back to normal when we finally “flatten the curve” on this virus.

But, what do we do in the meantime? For as many times as I’ve heard or read “new normal,” I’ve also heard or read some pundit or article giving advice about living in the meantime. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered during this pandemic, it’s that everyone fancies him/herself an expert. I’ve seen or read a lot of non-medical personnel offering “expert” advice on medical issues. I’ve seen or heard a lot of non-financial folks giving financial advice. I’ve gotten a ton of emails and seen a boatload of promoted posts on social media from “life coaches” trolling for new clients offering their services in the face of the pandemic–they’re all experts, too!

Well, I figured that I’m an expert in my opinion, so that should qualify me as an expert. With that in mind, let me offer my expert opinion on how we live in the meantime. It’s really simple advice, but I’ve found it incredibly helpful to me personally. The advice is simply this–focus on the things you can control.

There are so many things that are out of our control during this time. Rather than spend time focusing on those things, why not focus on that which we can control? Just makes sense to me. It was best expressed in a meme I saw on Facebook:Important Control

I’ve decided that I’m focusing my time and effort on the important things that I can control, and as the meme points out, that’s a rather small area. So, what are those important things that I can control?

Control My Inputs

First, I can control my inputs. One thing we can’t control is the amount of time we have to spend at home. What I can control is how much time I spend in front of the television streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime. Certainly, streaming services have changed the way we watch television, but there’s no mandate that we have to sit and binge watch the entire series of Tiger King, Ozark or Narcos Mexico. After watching the entire season 2 of Narcos Mexico in the first week of the “stay-at-home” order, I discovered my mind becoming mush.

I can also control how much news I watch. Let’s not forget, folks, that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are more opinion than news these days, and each has its own pundits who are driven more by agendas than basic facts. They’re also driven by advertising dollars, and they’ll do whatever they can to gain viewers. Fear sells, friends, and I can’t help but wonder if we’re buying too much of what they are selling, and it’s destroying us from the inside out. Rather than spending six hours watching news channels, why not watch President Trump’s press conference, your governor’s press conference and your local news, then make up your own mind about the facts?

Control My Attitude

Second, I can control my attitude. I can’t control the fact that “experts” base their models on “worst case” scenarios, and those scenarios are what get reported (see fear selling above) in the media, but I don’t have to succumb to the fear those reports often generate. I can choose to be fearful, or I can choose to be hopeful. After all, aren’t we who follow Jesus Christ, supposed to be the most hopeful of people? What does it say to a fearful world when the world see us reflecting the same fear?

I can choose anxiety, or I can choose peace. Part of my family was gathered last Sunday (we had already been around each other, so don’t judge!), and in our time together I shared a passage from John’s Gospel:

32 “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16: 32- 33 (NIV)

I wanted my family to know that though we may be separated for a time that we are never alone, and that should bring us peace. So, I’ll choose peace because I can control that choice.

Control My Actions

Finally, I can control my actions. I can’t control when someone treats me rudely in the grocery store for getting too close to them, but I can control how I respond when they do act rudely. Of course, it helps to remind myself that when someone lashes out because I violated the six foot rule or didn’t wear a mask, that they are reacting in fear, and that their actions are a reflection of their character, not mine. What I can control is whether I respond rudely or with an apology. I pray my character would lead me to respond with an apology, and to be more aware of others around me.

I also can’t control what someone posts on social media, but I’ve come to learn that I don’t have to respond to every idiot on social media. It breaks my heart that followers of Jesus are often so blatant in calling one another out on social media. Have a different opinion than another sister or brother in Christ? Fine. Rather than offer your alternative opinion in an often condescending way, why not simply post your own thoughts in a separate post without mentioning names? And, if the disagreement is sufficiently pronounced, why not message the person directly, or better yet, pick up the phone and call them. It is not a helpful witness to the world for them to see us fighting among ourselves.

So, I’m just going to focus on the controllables in my life. I don’t think “controllables” is a word, but it sounds good to me. I can control my inputs, my attitude and my actions. They’re all incredibly important, and can make the difference in how I endure the uncontrollable nature of the coronavirus.

Until next time, keep looking up…