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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Standing on the Precipice

     Standing on the precipice of the New Year is a good place to ask what we should expect from a working religion. One may answer that such a religion provides labels – markers of things that are “good” and things that are “bad”. Life is always a journey and a working religion provides clear guidance for that journey. Some choices will benefit and others will cause harm. A working religion not only labels the difference but nudges us – or nags us – into making the right choice. Such a simple view is by no means all wrong: and in these days of moral confusion it is refreshing sometimes to hear plainly that there are “good” choices and “bad” choices.

     Yet, reducing the grand purpose of religion to making choices seems to place our faith on the “self-help” shelf of the bookstore. That shelf is already crowded. And placed alongside other intriguing titles may suggest that one is as good as the other. Is there anything about a solid working religion that separates it from pop psychology? A working religion that holds promise for the New Year must offer more substance than a guide to the simple choices we will face.

     I propose that the Christian faith does offer more. First, the Christian faith provides a system of priorities and equips the follower with the capacity to make wise choices within particular circumstances and contexts. This is of particular value when presented with a number of otherwise “good” choices. An example might be where you will spend more time in the New Year: home and family; career development and advancement; social obligations and commitments; church and any number of other worthy activities. Once identified, it becomes difficult to number them one, two, three. They are all good, and time, energy and thought must be divided among them. What is one to do? For the Christian struggling with this difficulty Jesus speaks, “Desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33 Common English Bible) Here is our priority. God’s kingdom is wider and deeper than any list we may construct. If our deepest desire in the New Year is to pursue God’s kingdom there is the promise that God will order all our other decisions.

     The second gift of a working religion is a relationship – a relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. In the life and ministry of Jesus Christ the church is promised the capacity to make wise and useful decisions in the complexity of life. But more is needed. Life is hard. Life is exhausting. Life will leave each one of us feeling defeated at times. Wisdom gleaned from ordered priorities has limited capacity to move forward the one who is beaten down by difficulty. Fortunately Jesus promises more; Jesus promises Himself: “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20 Common English Bible) That is what we can expect from a working religion. It is what we receive.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

People of Faith

     People of faith often turn to the scriptures for comfort and encouragement. Occasionally, however, the same people stub their toe on a difficult passage such as one from the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Here we have a teaching that speaks of those who have - they will receive more. And those who have nothing – what they do have will be taken away. On the surface it appears that a thief of the night broke into our Bibles and placed there some teaching from the world. Not only is the teaching difficult. It is a potential embarrassment to Jesus.

     Recently I have been given a set of fresh lenses in which to view this disturbing teaching. My wife, Grace is an instructor with Weight Watchers International. She is passionate about coming alongside people and helping them make healthy lifestyle choices, particularly in the area of diet and exercise. What I have learned from her is that people who have health generally grow healthier through healthy choices in what they eat and regular, vigorous exercise. Proper diet and exercise invigorates them. The result? Those who have health receive more health.

     On the other hand, those who are unhealthy generally continue to make poor choices in diet and engage in little exercise. Consequently, what little health they do have diminishes. Simply, what they have is taken from them.

     In the fourth chapter of Mark Jesus teaches us that the same principal holds true for our spiritual health. To the one who has faith more faith is given. That is because times of doubt opens windows to larger understandings of God, dark nights of the soul sharpen the eyes of the heart to see God where God is most invisible. People of faith increase in faith in times of struggle and ordeals simply because they are familiar with the traditional resources of the faith such as scripture and prayer and know how to use them.

     To those who have little faith, doubts tend to destroy what small faith they may have had. Difficulties that follow only harden the unbelief. Jesus is right; those who have nothing will soon find that what little they may have had is soon taken from them. If later they experience success and prosperity they credit their own self-sufficiency.

     Sometime ago I learned of a professor who arrived on the faculty of Yale University. He was a man of faith but, caught up in a demanding schedule of teaching and faculty meetings neglected the nourishment of his faith. As the years passed he seemed to lose all religious interest and was soon rated by the students as uncaring. Near the end of his teaching career he made this self-observation: “I never consciously gave up a religious belief. It was as if I had put my beliefs into a drawer, and when I opened it, there was nothing there at all.”


Friday, December 13, 2013

Trust in Jesus Christ

     Henry Sloane Coffin, formerly pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, once shared the true story of an elderly couple who had moved from North Carolina to Oklahoma. Purchasing a small farm they eked out a modest living year after year working the land. All their effort did provide for their basic needs but little else. One day some men arrived on their property and asked the woman for a drink from a well that she and her husband had dug. She was surprised to see them take some of the water away in a bottle. Later the same men return and offered the couple a sum that seemed generous and it was accepted. A pipe was driven down between the house and the barn, and the quantity of the flow of oil was the talk of the town. The woman was overheard saying to her husband: “To think that we slaved here for years, and all this was at our doorstep, and we never knew it.”

     Coffin asks that we discover in this story a glimpse of what it is for Christians to say with their lips that they trust in Jesus Christ but continue to live as if there is no God. There isn’t any concerted effort to know God, no intentional strategy to become more like Christ. The result is that we plod through life by our own strength expecting nothing more than what our efforts can produce. So preoccupied with managing our daily affairs we never dig deep into the resources of our faith to discover that very present with us is the uncommon power of Jesus waiting to be released in our lives.

     It is tragically possible to be a member of the church all of one’s life and never discover the riches of the faith. Yet, God’s power for conquering all the struggles and difficulties that life seem to lavish upon each of us remains at our doorstep. And every day we make an excuse for not engaging in a process for growing in Jesus we struggle in poverty-stricken godlessness.


Friday, December 6, 2013

What the Cross of Christ Demands of Us

            The Apostle Paul spoke of the cross of Christ as the wisdom and power of God. In that cross Paul found steady guidance and a compulsion to a new life. Perhaps with Paul as our witness and example followers of Jesus today can find a similar directive and compulsion for living with greater depth and significance. What did Paul see in the cross that can help us today?

      Foremost, for Paul, is the absence of an external law that governed the journey to the cross. Certainly the religious establishment of Jesus’ day had rules of right and wrong. But a careful observer of Jesus will notice just how often He seemed to delight in breaking the rules. Rules of right and wrong did not direct Jesus. The self-offering of Jesus upon the cross was one that was pressed forward by an inward Spirit – God’s Spirit as Jesus listened closely to His Father’s will. Remember that in the garden, before Jesus was arrested, Jesus asked in prayer for the cross to be taken away from Him. Yet, in the same prayer Jesus sought and submitted to God’s will. Paul’s discovery in this, and our discovery to be made, is that life for Jesus was a series of adventures, prompted by love and obedience, to know God’s will.

     Second, Jesus lived loyally and daringly.  Jesus’ life was not without perplexities and mental struggles and neither will ours be. Yet, led by the Spirit responsibilities and problems were thought through and addressed. Anything at variance with what Jesus perceived to be the will of God was dismissed and this often came with the knowledge that life would be lived dangerously. If we seek to follow Jesus our lives will not be any less dangerous – not if our quest to follow is an authentic one.  

     Finally, Paul listened carefully to Jesus recasting the commandments of the Old Testament in a manner that penetrated the heart of women and men. Application of the commandments meant more than outward behavior and actions; Jesus’ concern was with matters of the heart. A most marvelous example is the commandment against adultery. Jesus creates fresh understanding of the commandment by saying that even a lustful glance in the wrong direction convicts us. Such disruptions of the religious order of the day hasten the cross. Similarly Jesus has not given us ready-made solutions of our personal or social problems but calls us to seek God’s unfolding guidance in this great adventure of faith. It is an adventure where we soon discover that God is creating a new earth through our obedience.