Monday, December 12, 2011

The Obligation of Freedom

Romans 15:1-13

Typically a strong person is thought to be one who is independent and self-sufficient, but Paul describes the strong Christian as one who subordinates his own preferences to the needs of those who are weaker in faith. The privilege of freedom comes with obligations. The key word here is "edify." The strong are to make concessions, but not simply for the convenience of the weak or even for peace in the fellowship. The strong are to bear the burdens of others so that eventually the others can leave the burdens behind. If strong Christians act so that others grow in spiritual understanding, then soon the concessions become unnecessary.

As our example, Christ showed patient sympathy for the limitations of others. But beyond a pattern of obedience, Christ also provides the power to conform to righteousness. In support of this dramatic conclusion, Paul quotes Old Testament psalms and prophets who were writing about the nature of God in anticipation of the fulfillment of the law through the Christ.

In the book of Romans, Paul describes the vast difference that the gospel makes in our outlook on life. We are not bound by what is humanly possible. We have more than our present experience. God works creatively through us, and the gifts from God are things that we are not likely to get any other way. 

Verse 13 concludes this section with a benediction blessing that sums up the new life in Christ.  "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."   

Acting From Faith

Romans 14

If this chapter had to be reduced to a soundbite, it would be "Do not judge another." From that perspective, this lesson could not be more relevant in modern times. The context, however, of food and which church days are special, are not the primary issues generating judgement in present circles. Let's start with Paul's solution and then look at applications beyond the ones the early church was facing.

Paul's Solution
1.      Believers are to act based on our reason and conscience. We are to use the measure of spiritual insight that we possess.
2.      Believers are not to be quick to judge those who do not answer to us. God will give Insight concerning the edifying response if we ask.
3.      The strong are not to place temptation in the way of the weak. Religious freedom maintains a link between insight and actions.

The book of Leviticus has an excellent framework for living. It points out that in life things can be classified as clean, unclean, or holy. Romans 14:23 echoes this sentiment by explaining that if we "act from faith"  then matters of daily living will take care of themselves. This is a good overarching principal, but it can be tricky at times to apply to specifics. For proof, just read the rest of Leviticus where the attempt is made to assign every waking moment to the correct category.

In comparing the weak and strong Christians, Paul clearly puts the burden on the strong to nurture the weak. Just as in parenting, a balance must be struck between being too strict and allowing too much freedom. Discipline must be administered in love, not doled out in punishment. Paul Bunyon wrote that the tendency to dispute over opinions is the mark of a frivolous mind. It's easier to argue over details than to take on the real responsibility of discipleship.

In Paul's dealings with issues of food and worship, he encouraged mutual tolerance and respect, but tolerance here means more than non-judgmental inaction. It means offering loving instruction and being quick to deny ourselves the freedoms that we have through Christ. Insisting on our rights at the expense of another's conscience is the mark of a "stumbling block." For those who haven't fully understood the liberty that Christ offers, laws and traditions will still feel necessary. Paul's idea of tolerance for the strong is an acceptance of  unnecessary limitations on themselves rather than an acceptance of destructive behaviors of the weak.

The Kingdom of God (14:17) is beyond trivial things like eating and drinking what we want and singing the songs we like in church. If we follow our convictions with integrity, and humble ourselves, then our hearts are more receptive to being led into the truth. We can serve God by observing rituals or ignoring them, but we do not have the option of denying the righteousness, peace and joy of the Spirit of God. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Church and State

Romans 13:1-10

I generally don’t talk much about politics, and as a rule I keep my ideas about government out of my Bible study, but Paul brings up the role of Christians in civil government in Romans 13, so here goes.

I learned in high school that government has two primary roles: promoting the welfare of its people and protecting property. It sounds simple enough, but based on the party warfare going on at the present you’d think those are evil intentions. “Welfare state” has come to mean a waste of tax money supporting lazy no-good poor Americans who won’t work, and the Occupy Wall Street movement bemoans a government that protects the personal property of a bunch of greedy no-good rich Americans. To some extent disagreement along party lines of this balance is not new, but it seems a bit less cordial now than in the past (to put it mildly).  I was once told that any young person who is not a Democrat has no heart, and any old person who is not a Republican has no brain.

So far, it’s just an argument, but then religion gets dragged into it. When President Thomas Jefferson was prompted by some Connecticut Baptists to keep the government out of their church he clarified the First Amendment in a famous letter that introduced the phrase "separation of church and state." The establishment clause of the Bill of Rights gives us both freedom “of” and freedom “from” religion and it’s a brilliant idea.  A good article by Brent Walker explaining the benefits and misconceptions of religions liberty as defined by the constitution was published in the June 30, 2011 edition of the Alabama Baptist newspaper. Here’s a link if you’re interested.

Paul tells us in Romans 13 to be subject to the government. Jesus is recorded in Matthew 22 as saying “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  Christians have had a lot of trouble figuring out how to do this, and as a general rule it has never worked well when the church was not separated from the government. From the Inquisition starting in the 12th Century and continuing in some form through the 19th, torturing heretics to death and burning witches was seen as a way of giving God his things. Sensing that honoring God by dismembering his children might’ve missed the point, we’ve moved toward more symbolic gestures. In the 1950s, as a response to the atheistic Communists, we added “under God” to our pledge and instituted “In God We Trust” as a national motto. We don’t fear the Communists now that the Cold War is over, but nevertheless, the US House of Representatives reaffirmed our motto earlier this month by a vote of 396-9. This is a shameless political ploy with no practical significance whatsoever, so I wondered who on earth those 9 dissenters were.  One of them was Justin Amash (R-Michigan) who opposed it as a slap at genuine religions conviction.  In this opinion he joins Teddy Roosevelt who felt that putting In God We Trust on our money was an “irreverence that is dangerously close to sacrilege.”  It appears that to some putting faith on equal status with politics is not exactly a step up for faith.

Here’s an editorial that I read recently. The parenthetical clarifications are mine:

Here’s my last word to the arrogant rich. It’s time to take some lessons in weeping. You’ll need buckets for the tears when the (stock market) crash comes down on you. Your money is corrupt and your fine clothes stink. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in your gut, destroying your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth. What you’ve piled up is judgment. All those (illegal immigrant) workers you’ve exploited and cheated cry out for judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are a roar in the ears of God. You’ve looted the earth and lived it up. But all you’ll have to show for it is a fatter than usual corpse.

Can you guess the author? A crazed protester? Some grunge hippie tree hugger? Actually, that’s the Message translation for the first verses of the 5th chapter of the book of James.

So, the Bible doesn’t make it easy for us. We’re to be submissive to the government and pay our taxes and respect elected officials as ministers of God. But sitting around in blissful contentment while ignoring injustice and oppression is not an option for Christians. Law and government are useful and play a valuable role in daily living, but Christians are to go beyond obeying the law into fulfilling the law. Sometimes this requires civil obedience, and sometimes civil disobedience. Here’s how Paul sums it up:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Renewed Mind

Romans 12

Finally we leave behind Paul's purely theological arguments and get to how it all plays out in the daily things we do. The 12th chapter of Romans describes how a life incorporated into Christ expresses itself. It is simply a delight to read about how worship can make up the whole of our life. The basic principle is an adoring response to God; a total response to the grace of God. Paul explains it by making reference to something both the Jews and pagans already knew -- ritual sacrifice. His appeal, however, goes much further. He's talking about living persons, not dead animals. We are to present everything about our lives --- the special and the ordinary --- before God as an offering. This is worship --- being transformed by the renewing of our mind.

Next Paul moves to the Christian community. We all have to work with "the measure of faith" that God has given us. We all have faith, but we don't all have the same amount. Some of us are "weak in faith" (14:1-3), and the weak are to be welcomed in because God has welcomed them. But lest we get all proud of ourselves for being so accommodating, Paul reminds us that the church is the body of Christ, a living organism  with many different functioning parts all working together for the health and growth of the whole. Each part has its own value and role. My elbow is pretty valuable to me even though it's not essential. I'll never be a famous theologian, but maybe being an elbow for God is not so bad.

Paul's teaching in verses 9-21 is reminiscent of 1Corinthians 13, "the love chapter." Love is the comprehensive term for the Christian's obligation towards others. The Message says, "Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it."

Bumper stickers say don't get mad, get even, but "even" can be elusive. Retaliation tends to escalate. We want to dish out a little more than we got. The Old Testament rule of an eye for an eye was an improvement over making sure the other guy looks worse than you after a fight, but Jesus didn't stop there. He said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Paul echoes this sentiment by reminding us that getting even is absolutely forbidden, as we are to "overcome evil with good."  This is true, but it certainly isn't easy, and it may not always be possible. Paul says, "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Peace should not be obtained at the expense of what is good or right, but we should be ever striving for holiness. The 4th century theologian Pelagius said, "The enemy has overcome you when he makes you like himself." The essential victory over evil is the work of love.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Mind of the Lord

Romans 9 - 11

(Since I'm lazy about footnotes, let me just say that my favorite Bible commentary resource is The Interpreter's Bible, and I used it for clarification of the numerous translations of this passage that I read.)

Paul's ideas about what salvation is and who will be saved fill these three chapters. There is probably enough thought provoking material here for a year long study. So, in the interest of time, let's cut to the chase. The core of the message is the assurance of salvation found in 10:9,  "...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

Simple enough, right?

This good news is contained in an exposition on the providence of God that contains a large number of Old Testament quotations that illustrate God's divine purposes in history. The disruption among the Jews that was caused by Jesus created the opportunity for Gentiles to enter into grace along with God's chosen Israel. I seldom hear the distinction of "Jew" or "Gentile" in religious discussions, so I like the Message terms of "insider" and "outsider." A more scholarly sounding dichotomy is "ethnic Israel" (Esau) and "remnant Israel" (Jacob). Whatever the name, the insiders walked out and left the door open and the outsiders walked in, but they left the door open too, so the insiders can come back in. Paul says not to worry about the insiders, that "all Israel will be saved" (11:26) because "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (11:29).  The Message translation: "From your point of view it looks like the Jews are are God's enemies. But looked at from the long-range perspective of God's overall purpose, they remain God's oldest friends. God's gifts and God's call are under full warranty -- never canceled, never rescinded." in other words, it's a matter of temporary failure, rather than final disaster. I'd love to hear more about that, but Paul says that his calling is to the outsiders so he shifts his focus there.

According to Romans 10 in the Message, "salvation is God's business and a most flourishing business it is... Embrace God's work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead...Embrace God setting things right and then you say it, right out loud, God has set everything right between him and me! No one who trusts God like this -- heart and soul-- will ever regret it. It's exactly the same no matter what a person's religious background may be; the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. Everyone who calls, "Help, God!" gets help." That's the insiders and the outsiders. The ones who know the "right" words to say and the "right" prayer to pray and those who can only utter "sighs too deep for words" (8:26).  We sometimes think grace is limited to the right people, but the Bible doesn't seem to share this idea.

In case anyone accuse Paul of rejecting the God of his ancestors, he quotes liberally from the words of Moses, Hosea, Isaiah, and David. There are too many references to reproduce here, but Isaiah had a nice summary statement regarding the outsiders, "People found and welcomed me who never so much as looked for me. And I found and welcomed people who had never even asked about me."  In Martin Luther's preface to Romans he concurs, "the eternal predestination of God concerning whether a person is to believe or not may be taken entirely out of our own hands and placed in the hands of God. And this is of the very highest importance. For we are so feeble and full of uncertainty that, if it depended on us, not a single person would be saved." Ok, there, I've finally gotten around to the "P" word that is so troublesome to so many -- predestination. Even Luther acknowledges, "a person cannot contemplate predestination without injury to himself and without harboring a secret grudge against God." I agree. The idea that God randomly chooses some to save and some to torment is not exactly conducive to warm fuzzy feelings about God. Paul explains that the "elect" or "remnant" who are chosen without regard to their merit will be used by God to ultimately benefit those not presently belonging to the saving line (9:11-16). So election is the result of mercy and compassion rather than wrath. That's a lot easier to swallow. Paul quotes Hosea to say that it's always been this way, "Those who were not my people I will call my people, and her who was not beloved, I will call beloved."

Paul wants us to understand this "mystery" (11:25). In the New Testament, "mystery" is not a riddle, but God's saving purpose in Jesus Christ, revealed in the gospel and apprehended by faith. "God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all" (11:32). Human disobedience is overcome by God's mercy. Chapter 11 concludes with a doxology that assures us of God's love and wisdom.

"For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen"

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Can Separate Us from the Love of God?

Romans 8

v. 1-13
Paul begins this chapter with a comparison of two ways of life: physical and spiritual. Living "in the flesh" means that there's no way to go but down. All flesh decays no matter how much Botox gets injected into it. And living "in the spirit" still must take place in our physical existence, so we have to keep our personhood in such a way that it is guided from above into a life of God's freedom. Paul speaks of a "law" of the spirit that liberates from the law of sin and death. We're made free before we fully realize it (assuming that we ever do fully realize it). Actually, verses 1-4 make a pretty complete summary gospel statement all by themselves.

v. 15-27
In these verses, we read of a distinctive relationship that is possible with God. Bondage and fear are replaced by the joy of being a child of God and a joint heir with Christ in a large family. We are assured that when all we can do is express "sighs too deep for words" the Spirit will articulate our prayers for us.

There is also a very odd statement about all creation longing for and sharing in the redemption of man. Somehow animals and nature are a part of redemption? That's curious.

v. 28
This often quoted verse expresses a vague Stoic optimism. "All things work together for good" doesn't mean that everything that happens is good. It certainly doesn't mean that everything that happens is God's Will. God doesn't cause evil or sin, that is, "bad things". There is nothing in life to encourage the easy optimism that everything will work out to the satisfaction of good people. In Herschel Hobbs' commentary on the book of Romans, he says that as this verse reads in the King James Version it expresses not faith, but fatalism -- somehow, someway, things will turn out all right. Hobbs says that some translations of the original texts put "God" as the subject, that is, God works through all things with his eternal redemptive purpose.

v. 29-39
I get chills every time I read this passage regarding the invincible love of God. In a series of questions and answers Paul comes to a soaring climax of his first eight chapters in concluding that , "I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

This Life of Contradictions

Romans 7

C. S. Lewis points out that there are two things common to every human being. One, we know the right things to do. Two, we don't always do them. I know that candy corn is a waxy mess of sugar, but I eat it. I know that decorating magazines are mind candy, but I read them. I know that the spiritual disciplines will open my heart to God, but I don't take the time to practice them. Whether it's body, mind, or spirit what I want to do and what I actually do are often miles apart. In fact, sometimes the very idea of a rule tempts me to break it. I usually drive 5 mph over the speed limit regardless of what the limit is and how soon I need to get where I'm going. Ancient philosophers wrote of this struggle between conscience and deeds. The very first story in the Bible after creation concerns the allure of forbidden fruit. It's an old question, and Paul has a lot to say about it.

First Paul makes an analogy of marriage to compare our old life of bondage and our new life in Christ. A woman who dates around while her husband is living is scandalous, but if her husband is dead then no one cares who she dates. I guess it's not surprising that a bachelor like Paul would use marriage to represent the "bondage" life as opposed to the new life, but I find it highly amusing anyway. The point is that death cancels the contract. We are dead to the law and no longer bound by it. Paul notes that the law itself (whether Roman or Mosaic) represents a noble and worthy ideal of conduct, but the principal of legalism is fundamentally unsound. In verses 14-25 he discusses the imperfect control we have over our instincts and motives by pointing out that we sometimes act against our own best interests in spite of what we know and want. Moral consciousness can be an incentive for good behavior, but can just as easily produce a fascination with evil. Or as it comes out in pop music lyrics, "I'm a hazard to myself. Don't let me get me!"

What is causing this problem? Some commentaries pin it on Satan or demonic forces, but Paul makes no mention of any activity of Satan. Others use the notion of an evil impulse located within each human being. Paul's doctrine of sin is comparable to an internal civil war in which distortion of the divine gift of the law leads to moral failure and utter despair that is not abolished even by a response to the gospel. We're stuck with it.

But just as we're about to decide that the whole situation is hopeless, Paul explains that this life of contradictions is the perfect backdrop to reveal the nature of grace. The law can be twisted into a source of temptation, but grace is a perfect gift. It's a "rescue from this body of death." Jumping ahead to 11:32, "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all."  All? Does Paul believe in a final universal salvation? A doctrine of salvation by grace may lead to a doctrine of predestination; but a doctrine of predestination (given that God loves all) leads at least equally naturally to a doctrine of universal salvation. If love has complete control, it is bound eventually to save. How sin, unbelief, and judgement fit into this is not at all clear.   Paul seems to present both predestination and individual responsibility and it can cause great confusion. It's so easy to interpret individual responsibility into some kind of works.   I've heard many times that salvation is by grace through faith, but you have to believe. In Martin Luther's preface to Romans he says, "when hearing the gospel some go to work and by their own power frame up a thought in their heart which says: I believe. That they regard as genuine faith. But, inasmuch as it is a human figment and thought of which the inmost heart is not sensible, it accomplishes nothing and is not accompanied by any improvement. On the contrary, faith is a divine work in us, which transforms us, gives us a new birth out of God, slays the old Adam, makes us altogether different men in heart, affections, mind, and all powers, and brings with it the Holy Spirit."

Maybe we should open our minds to just how overwhelming grace really is.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Freedom That Never Quits

Romans 6

My favorite letter written by Paul is the one to the Galatians. Its theme is freedom, and it describes a religion that sets us free from within as opposed to one that coerces from without. Many people who leave the church do so to be free of an oppressive set of rules and regulations put in place by those who want to call the shots. Paul was furious not only with those who put limits on God's gift of freedom, but also with the Christians who caved in to the intimidation. The Message describes freedom as "a delicate and subtle gift, easily perverted and often squandered." In Romans 6, Paul warns against acting on a false sense of freedom that actually results in the destruction of freedom. Offering ourselves to sin might be our last free act, while offering ourselves to the ways of God leads to freedom that never quits. With God's freedom, our lives are healed and expanded into holiness. A life spent ignoring God offers far less than one that has discovered the delight of listening to God.

The church word illustrated by Romans 6 is sanctification. It's a transformation of ethics or behavior that results from an encounter with grace. Romans 1:17 says that those made righteous will live. It's a call out of death into life. Romans 6 mentions our death to  our previous existence 13 times. This concept is made tactile in the act of baptism. Baptists are skeptical regarding the power of metaphor so we make it very clear with a total immersion. I've seen pastors submerge people again if there was even a hair of their head that was left above the water! The point is that the transformation is total. Sanctification is an eternal process; one in which we "live to God" (6:10). Being buried with Christ can be translated "planted with," a gardening image that implies a process of growth. Death to the old is not the point-- it's simply the requirement for new life to begin. Resurrected life in Christ is the point.

So what does this mean for our ordinary daily lives?

Acknowledge only reigning powers. During Saddam Hussain's trial he continued to bark orders, but no one cared about his demands anymore. We must avoid being tricked into submitting to false authority, whether in the form of temptations from without or weaknesses of our will within. Living in the chains of the past is to deny the power of the gospel.
Yield the ordinary to God. I love the little book, "The Practice of the Presence of God." I pull it out and read it whenever I feel overwhelmed. It reminds me to do everything on my list to the glory of God and to keep the tasks in proportion to the bigger picture of true reality.
Focus on grace. The laws of the land as well as the laws of God are present and valid. Their restrictions and demands serve a useful purpose. However, grace is a container big enough to retain everything good about the law and still have room for much more. Freedom doesn't come through legalism. Our new life is more than just being better at keeping the old laws. Paul describes a paradox of finding perfect freedom only by choosing to serve God.

I'll let Reliant K sum it up with one of their lyrics.... The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Grace Wins

Romans 5

Grace wins. The Message describes grace as God's "aggressive forgiveness" that invites us into life. Paul explains God's love by contrasting it to our normal reaction to each other. We would be unlikely to die for someone who didn't deserve mercy. Anyone who required our ultimate sacrifice should at least be worthy of the effort! But divine love far exceeds the best that we are willing to do for one another.

Next Paul tackles one of the toughest questions of the ages... If this is God's world, how did sin get in and gain so much power? Paul uses the familiar story of Adam to explain that sin is universal and has disastrous results. Christ is presented as the new Adam. Both are "types" that represent qualities characteristic of a larger whole-- an old humanity vs a new humanity. They are not equal opposites, however, since Christ is more powerful to save than Adam was to condemn. Personally, I can't exactly follow this argument, but I think the idea is that by giving humanity the option of choice we are bound together for good and bad. Even sincere repentance cannot stop the consequences of evil actions. We are trapped in a cycle of sin and spiritual death that separates us from God's fellowship. God chose to fix the problem of humanity with humanity -- the incarnation  brought about "atonement" our at-one-ment with God. The whole point of our existence is union with God. Justification is not a judge's acquittal so much as a father's welcome, and reconciliation brings in the idea of reunion with the life of the family. 

How Old is Grace?

Romans 4

How does Abraham fit into the gospel? Paul appears to be in a debate of some sort in this chapter as he asks and answers a series of questions. Abraham was obedient to God's law centuries before it was given, so is his justification by works or grace? Paul argues that Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness. The Message translates it as being willing to live in the risky faith-embrace of God's action. Paul quotes a psalm of David (4:6-8) that describes righteousness as a gift of God. There is no indication that anyone deserves grace. If we could earn God's favor and deserve his reward, then we could control him and rest content in our own achievements. What is required of us is self-surrendering trust in God's mercy. Justification is and always has been by faith. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Limited Law & Unlimited Grace

Romans 2:1-24, 3:21-30

The Limitations of the Law (2:1-24)

In this passage Paul seems to be making an example of the Jews. In fact, one commentary that I use titled this passage "the failure of the Jews." Of course, Paul was a Jew himself so maybe he felt that this context was the safest one for his message. In the same way, I might criticize or make jokes about my own family, but I certainly wouldn't stand for it if someone outside the family said the exact same things. The Jews of Paul's experience were dedicated to living a life that focused on a code of righteousness that was pleasing to God. Nothing wrong with that! However, choosing to live at a higher standard can lead to self-righteousness and a judgmental attitude. No skill is more easily mastered than the ability to detect the flaws of others. Not only is this skill a delight to practice, it has the added bonus of confirming our own integrity. Paul points out that anyone who appoints himself as judge has essentially declared himself as divine, and Paul does find something wrong with that. Here lies the limitation of the law-- good people can allow their goodness to betray them into self satisfaction and
superiority. It's not like Paul was the first Jew to notice this. We find the same message repeatedly throughout the Old Testament prophets.

It's an odd point that warning people about being judgmental can come off sounding very judgmental.

God, on the contrary, who is entitled to judge, does so "according to truth." He alone knows all the facts, and He alone can set them in the light of perfect righteousness. This is good to keep in mind, because Paul seems to imply that all of us are in the path of God's wrath and fury. The Jew is not excused because he has the law, and the Gentile is not excused because he lacks it. That covers pretty much everyone. For those with greater privileges, there are heavier responsibilities, but all will be judged by the moral insight that is possessed. Paul is getting pretty liberal here --- he acknowledges righteous Gentiles outside the narrow and exclusive confines of the law. He concedes that reason and conscience are the evidence of God's presence within each person, but  the full revelation of grace is through Christ alone.

 The Saving Act of Justification (3:21-30)

In this passage Paul presents justification as something needed by everyone and available to everyone. It is an act of God, and it manifests his essential nature. It becomes effective when it meets the response of faith. Most of the common metaphors of atonement are included in this passage. Being "made righteous" is like being acquitted and freed from prison. "Redemption" refers to the slave who is freed through the payment of money. "Expiation" is a term associated with ritual sacrifice and reconciliation. All of these are analogies, though, and all are insufficient to explain God's grace. 



I've heard the phrase "spread the gospel" all my life, but there seems to be a lack of consistency in exactly what people mean when they say "gospel." We have in the book of Romans the most complete statement of the gospel found in the New Testament. Paul teaches that in spite of our misguided efforts that have defeated us we can gain entry to a life that is full and free. His writings on justification by faith describe how God brings us into a relationship with Himself in which impossible things become actual.    He presents Christ's life as authentic revelation of the divine; a replacement of the misunderstanding that God is a wrathful taskmaster who is out to get us. The distorted views of God vanish as Paul speaks of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Herschel Hobbs translates the Greek theme word of the book as The God-Kind-of-Righteousness. It is the new spiritual power that sweeps away the bondage and oppression of life without God.

Grace is a gift that brings about spiritual renewal.
Faith is a loving trust in and willing submission to God.

I pray that all of us who participate in this four month study of Romans will experience a new understanding of God's grace and power and a strengthening of our faith.

Monday, August 29, 2011


Lamentations 3

In the book of Lamentations, we get to attend five worship services with the ancient Hebrews. The poems were written by different people at different times, but they all have the common theme of learning the lessons of past experiences and keeping the faith. The tragic destruction of Jerusalem is memorialized with deep sorrow but with hope for the future. In a sense the poems "eternalize the destruction" so that the horrible events have a permanent place in memory. It's interesting that this lesson coincides with my church's preparation for a similar memorial service --- the 10th anniversary of 9-11.  We like for our catastrophes to mean something. It seems important to us that we remember.

God has created a world that includes both good and evil. Deuteronomy 30:19 says, "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life." God has given us the power to choose life, but the option to choose death. The book of Lamentations doesn't explain suffering or offer a way to eliminate it, but insists that God enters our suffering and is our companion in it. It is through  the act of remembering the experience that we have hope.

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
   the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
   and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
   and therefore I have hope:

 22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
   for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
   therefore I will wait for him.”

Every morning we experience a mini-resurrection as we awaken from our sleep to discover that God's mercies are new each day. We remember, and we are healed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Written on the Heart

Jeremiah 50-51

We're finally at the end of our study of the book of Jeremiah. And not a moment too soon. It's a sorrowful sequence of events with an honest message of the nature of God. There is no promise of a easy prosperous earthly life, not even for the righteous -- maybe especially not for the righteous. It's a hard book. Compare the triumphant Exodus story of  God's deliverance of the people from oppression and slavery with Jeremiah's account of the defeated people heading back to Egypt. Sigh.  It's not like we weren't warned, though. Back in Chapter 1 God tells Jeremiah, "See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant." That's as good a definition of life as I've ever seen -- a never ending cycle of successes and failures, joys and hardships,  love and pain. 

Throughout the study, though, I keep returning to the beautiful words of Chapter 31.

31 “The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
   “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
   and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
   I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
   to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
   though I was a husband to them,”
            declares the LORD.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
   after that time,” declares the LORD.
“I will put my law in their minds
   and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
   and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
   or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me,
   from the least of them to the greatest,”
            declares the LORD.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
   and will remember their sins no more.”

My prayer is to have God's law in my mind and written on my heart. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I will be found by you, declares the Lord

Jeremiah 29: 4-14

While traveling up the highway today with my friend Betsy after a morning gathering in the garden, the impossible happened. Not the improbable. The impossible. A vehicle ran through the flashing red light directly in front of us and in spite of Betsy's impressive channeling of Mario Andretti, an accident was unavoidable. I braced myself and focused on the point of impact to come. There were two options. If the hit was solid, we could crumble into a heap. If we clipped the rear end, we would be spinning. There was nothing I could do in either case, but for some reason I was intent to know which was coming; which is why I was staring so fixedly through the windshield; which is how I know the impossible thing that happened next. With my eyes glued to the other vehicle, it suddenly became transparent and we passed through the back bumper and part of the quarter panel with no damage to either vehicle. Impossible, right? Definitely.

When Betsy dropped me off, we tried to make some sense of whatever had just happened. Betsy kept saying, "How did we miss her?" and I kept saying, "We didn't. We passed right through." We even walked around to touch the hood of the truck in case the accident had actually happened and we somehow didn't comprehend the blow or the noise. Does that make sense? Of course not. But it's no less strange than any of it was. I had clenched my muscles so tightly that my calf muscle involuntarily cramped causing my foot to strike the console. The result was a minuscule scrape and one drop of blood. It was a relief to see authentic blood as proof that we hadn't imagined the whole thing.

Enough for one day, right? No.

I tutor young ladies at Coosa Valley Youth Services on Tuesday mornings. When I arrived this morning, still shaken, all the girls were away at a special program and a psychologist, a social worker, and a maintenance man were in the office. They apologized that no one had called me about the schedule change, then out of the blue, Nilda (the psychologist) said, "Teach me something today." There is often friendly banter among the staff and myself, so I answered, "Well, I know everything, so just ask me anything." She said, "Life. Teach me something about life." I waited for the rest of the joke, but instead all three of them were silently looking at me like they expected an actual answer. I had no intention of talking about my morning adventure, because they like me and I didn't want them to think that I was mentally unbalanced. But they just kept waiting. So I took a deep breath and told them the story. What followed was a wonderful conversation of how unbelievably easy it is to be unaware of the ever-presence and power of God. They apologized again as I left, but I think what happened went exactly as planned.

I debated whether to write about this or not as I began my post as usual by opening an online dictionary and thesaurus. I found the word and quote of the day....

Mantic - one touched by divine madness

"It is these mantic responses that alert the intelligence to the presence of something that calls for interpretation."
-- M. R. Wright, Andrew Barker, Reason and Necessity: Essays On Plato's Timaeus

How crazy is that?

In our lesson Sunday from Jeremiah 29, the defeated and exiled people of God are told to ignore the false prophets who tell them that good times are just around the corner. Instead, their children and grandchildren will all know hard times in a foreign land. But they are not to wallow in their misery. They are told to plant gardens, eat the food of Babylon, be good neighbors and pray for the welfare of  their country of residence. The hope and plans that God has for them are beyond possessions and land. It's far better than that.

"You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 
I will be found by you,” declares the LORD.

And, at least today, not just found, but found in the most unexpected places. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Called by God

Jeremiah 20: 7 - 13

This might be one of the most depressing passages in the entire Bible. Jeremiah has been flogged and put in stocks overnight in front of the temple by the orders of his own priest. His friends have nicknamed him ol' "Danger Everywhere" for his words of doom and destruction. They're reluctantly standing by, but are watching closely for the first opportunity that allows them to justify deserting him. He is overwhelmed by anguish and humiliation. He describes the feeling as being seduced and then raped by God. Jeremiah decides that he's had enough and that he'll just be silent, but his calling is like a "burning fire shut up in his bones." He can't keep going, and he can't quit. What's a prophet to do?

Being called by God is an interesting thing. Jeremiah had the lineage to be a priest, but God gave him another task, and a very unpleasant one at that. He spent 40 years telling his people of the devastation that was to come. It's not so much that they doubted the words; they just didn't want to hear it. Their eventual response was to kill the messenger.

One of my favorite heroes of the Christian faith is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When other Christian churches and leaders either ignored the Nazis or actively associated with them, Rev. Bonhoeffer had the courage to speak the truth. Like Jeremiah, he paid with his life. Looking back, his was one of the only voices of reason, yet it wasn't what the churches wanted to hear so they were able to ignore the message and consequently bear some of the responsibility for the horrors that unfolded. How tragic.

Bonhoeffer described Christianity as a call to come and die. Judging by Jeremiah's experience, it worked that way in the Old Testament too. It's not something to take lightly.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Potter and the Clay

Jeremiah 18:1-12

In today's passage, God tells Jeremiah to go and watch an artist. There are no other instructions; just the implication that if Jeremiah pays attention he'll learn something. As the potter forms and reforms the clay, Jeremiah sees an image of God shaping our lives. The potter puts a part of himself into the art just as on a grander scale our creator God breathes his life-giving spirit into us. Isaiah 29:16 also uses this picture and adds an observation that when we question God it's more or less like a pot telling the potter that he doesn't know what he's doing. Isaiah doesn't necessarily tell us not to question God (Jeremiah sure does plenty of it in his book) but we probably shouldn't hold onto any illusions that we'll tell God something that he didn't already know. Which brings us to the question of whether we are just pawns in a big clockwork life or if we have free will to set our own destiny. All the commentaries label the potter and the clay as "the classical illustration of the divine sovereignty in relation to human freedom".  Paul jumped into the fray in Romans 9 when he was asked how anyone could be responsible for his own sin if God the Potter's shaping was beyond our control. Like Jeremiah, Paul stated that God would do what he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it. He'll show mercy, provide salvation, and allow tragic consequences and destruction to whomever he wants in total disregard to how we pots feel about who deserves reward or punishment. However, both Jeremiah (Chapter 31) and Paul (all over the place) insist that the law of God is written clearly on our hearts and we ignore it at great peril. We're not responsible for anything except obedience. But life is not intended to be a chore. It's tragic if  "existence is a idle game and life a festival held for profit" (Wisdom of Solomon 15:7-17) and we're satisfied as clay shells not knowing the One who breathed a living spirit into us.

Irenaeus, a church father of the 2nd century explained it much better than I can. My paraphrase of his take on the potter and the clay:

If you are the work of God, await the hand of the Master, the Artist who fashions everything in due course. Keep your heart soft for Him, lest becoming hard, you lose the marks of His fingers. But should you be hardened and reject His artistic work, with your ingratitude you'll lose both His art and your life. For to make is the property of God, but to be made is that of man.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

When Even God Gives Up

Jeremiah 15:1-21

Jeremiah finds himself at rock bottom and levies some serious complaints. He pities his parents and curses his own birth. He accuses God of injustice in terms just short of blasphemy. Apparently the people had put so many barriers between themselves and God that it was too late to avoid the consequences. God tells Jeremiah that there's no point in even praying for the people any more (11:14) and that not even Moses or Samuel could fix this mess. Even toward the faithful Jeremiah, instead of comfort, God tells him that things are about to get worse.  He says Jeremiah has been running with men, but he's about to run with horses and that he fell down in a safe land, but just wait until he gets to the jungle (12:5). Destruction is coming in every area of life. Cheery thoughts, huh?

Jeremiah knew from the beginning that his call would involve destruction and rebuilding (1:10). It's a continuing cycle of humanity. The "prosperity gospel" is right about half of the time. There are rewards for faithful living. There are also random acts of tragedy. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and sometimes the wicked prosper. There are consequences when our choices reach the tipping point into disaster. It seems we would have learned by now that the rules of cause and effect are a little fuzzy when it comes to moral issues. So why worry about faith? Is God playing dice with the universe after all? It seems to me that God is showing us a bigger picture -- one beyond a basic eye-for-an-eye relationship. If we could determine the rules, then someone would figure them out and publish them in an academic journal for theology and we'd be done with it. But it doesn't work that way. We have to keep seeking unity with God based on the increments of spiritual knowledge that He give us. It's an eternal process of asking and receiving, seeking and finding, and knocking on closed doors. God doesn't leave Jeremiah without hope for restoration, but He also doesn't give hope that any earthly restoration will be permanent. The injustice that we see around us is not a flaw in God's plan, but a hint that we need to be looking beyond our nose for the truth.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Saying Unpopular Things at Church

Jeremiah 7: 1 - 15

I first named this post "Getting Stoned for a Sermon" because that's what happened to Jeremiah, but then I realized that anyone who wasn't reading Jeremiah would think that I was making some kind of drug reference and would then be wildly disappointed to just find a Sunday School lesson. This week Jeremiah minces no words in telling the people that their church attendance and worship is a farce. He says that their religion means nothing if it doesn't translate into taking care of widows, orphans, and foreigners in their midst.  He set himself against the religious establishment by calling the temple a "den of thieves." Jesus used the quote when he later did the same thing. The people said to Jeremiah, "You shall die!" then they said to each other, "This man deserves the sentence of death." That must've been some sermon. Cooler heads prevailed when they remembered that prophets had a habit of pronouncing doom and after all, he was called by God. They did eventually stone him, but not in Chapter 7.

That part about "foreigners in their midst" or "aliens among them" kept coming back to me because right here in the Bible belt, Alabama just passed the toughest immigration law in American history and it's been in the news almost daily. It's now against the law to give a ride to an illegal immigrant. If you see someone who is hurt and want to take her to a hospital, check her papers first. You know, like the Good Samaritan did. And our public schools which are already operating on a shoestring are now required to verify immigration status even though federal law prevents us from denying a public education to any child. Just what we need, pointless paperwork when we don't have money to teach music, art, or driver's education. So, shouldn't we bring this up at church?

I remember being resentful of international students when I was in graduate school over 20 years ago. Students who wanted to come to America would work as teaching assistants for smaller stipends and I felt like there would be more money available for American students if those dern foreigners would stay home. They were smart and willing to study long hours, too. The feeling was easy to maintain toward a group, but as soon as I met students who were willing to sacrifice everything to come to the United States and work for a better life for their children, it was hard to fault them. I would do anything to provide a way to a fulfilling life for my children. I don't deserve the blessings of my country; I just had some dumb luck in citizenship. And of course, the Native Americans have a better case against the first immigrants than we have today against Mexicans. It's all a matter of perspective. Which brings me back to Jeremiah and Jesus. We can give up our claim to be followers of God or we can adjust our behavior to conform to biblical teaching. I don't imagine Jeremiah or Jesus would be any more popular today than they were back then if they showed up this Sunday and said that if we can be happy about this anti-immigration law then we're wasting our time going to church.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Is Jeremiah in the New Testament?

Jeremiah 3:12 - 4:4

Whenever I read the Old Testament prophets, I'm always surprised at how often their words sound like they're coming straight out of Jesus' mouth. In my mind, thelawandtheprophets run together, and I see the covenant with Moses as one based on law while grace comes in to save the day in the New Testament. In fact, the prophets had a lot to say about a God of grace. In this oracle, Jeremiah tells the people that one day the Ark of the Covenant will be lost and forgotten along with the idea that God can be localized and kept in a box. He says that the circumcision of the flesh is nothing without a circumcision of the heart. He goes far beyond the historical questions of Israel's catastrophe of the moment to a bigger, more spiritual concept of who God is.  Jeremiah says that all the nations will turn from evil and be gathered to God.

The metaphor of the passage is that God has experienced failed marriages to two wives (Israel and Judah). Several verses are quoted from Hosea, another story of infidelity that is met with forgiveness and mercy. The wives are asked to return, but not compelled to do so. God will not force anyone to love.  If He did, would that even be love? The wives do not return, but their children do, so the restoration begins. The children are promised "shepherds" who will "feed" them knowledge and understanding. But what about those who don't return? Even the wicked who reject God and imprison themselves are not deprived of the love of God. There is not a divine split personality that desires rewards for the chosen and agony to the rest. God's love is unchanging. The same love of God that represents bliss to some is experienced as intolerable torment by others who have not acquired it within themselves. Jesus' parable of the prodigal son and his father are a beautiful illustration of this. The father's constant love was always there, but it was certainly experienced by the son in different ways.

The options that are presented in the book of Jeremiah are basically the same ones that confront us. We can reform to conform to who God is and receive his mercy and grace. We can cling unchanging to the idea of a limited God and refuse to let go of whatever Ark of the Covenant is holding our trust. Or we can abandon God altogether and forfeit the mercy that sees our sins and loves us anyway. Doesn't really seem like much of a choice, does it?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pulling Down and Building Up

The book of Jeremiah asks a tough question:  What happens when everything you believe in and live by is smashed to bits by circumstances? For anyone who believes in a God who is good, there is always the nagging wonder of why so many bad things happen to such good people. The book of Job, the oldest book of the Bible, presents this quandary as an odd little wager between God and the Devil.  Job can't understand what is happening, but notes that "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." God never directly answers why, nevertheless Job says that he will maintain his trust even if slain by God. It is repeatedly emphasized that Job is blameless and has brought none of his misfortune upon himself. Jeremiah, on the other hand, in his defense of God's justice, puts a large share of the blame for human suffering on human sin and disobedience. Certainly turning away from God will have consequences, but what looks like punishment is not always the result of sin as Jesus explained to his disciples when they asked about the sin of the blind man.

As Israel faced a national tragedy of defeat at the hands of their enemies, Jeremiah proceeded to pronounce unpopular truth that got him banned from the temple and eventually stoned to death by his own countrymen. He at various times questions the value of sacrifice, circumcision, written law, the temple and the leadership structure of prophets and priests. For Jeremiah, religious reality was centered in personal communion with God. He spoke not of a new law, but a new motivation and accompanying power to fulfill the law that was already known (see 31:31-34).  He emphasized a law that was written by God on the heart.

There's also an interesting parallel between Jeremiah and Moses. Both were born into a priestly lineage, but were called by God to do something else. Both tried to refuse the call. Both led their people for 40 years against stiff opposition. Moses led the people out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Jeremiah was forced from the Promised Land and wound up back in Egypt. This cycle of bad & good, losing & winning, pulling down & rebuilding, pulling up & replanting is actually included as a part of Jeremiah's divine commission (1:10).

Maybe the focus is on the wrong question. The fact that we have an innate sense that good people "deserve" rewards and bad people "deserve" to be punished might be the key. Where did we get this universal feeling that there should be justice? It's more than self-preservation, that's for sure. The words of Jeremiah implore us to pay close attention to the law that God has written on our heart.

What to do with my Lent blog.....

After Easter, I took a little time to "study on" what to do with my blog. I personally debated several ideas. This in itself is not unusual. I admit that the main reason that I have a cat is so that when I'm caught talking to myself I can pretend to be talking to the cat. Anyway, in the end I decided to link the blog to one of my favorite hours each week which is the time that I spend with my Bible study group. The term "Sunday School" has fallen out of favor, so when asked to label ourselves our group chose the name "Morning Blend." I would describe the typical member as a middle class Baptist white woman aged 30ish to 60ish with a career related in some way to education. There are many exceptions to all these categories; hence the name. There are about a dozen or so of us in the core group, and we've been meeting on Sunday mornings at 9:45 for over a decade with a number of others who have drifted in and out of our fellowship. We study the Bible one book at a time based on a set schedule that completes the entire Bible every 8 years. We alternate Old Testament and New Testament books.  We've just begun a study of the book of Jeremiah, so this seems like a good time to experiment with extending the usual discussion hour to a week. This will work best as a conversation, but I'm not sure if the blog platform will be as lively and interesting as our actual meetings are. I guess there's only one way to find out....

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Unnamed Group

I meet on Sunday evenings with a group of people at the local Presbyterian church. We started meeting over two years ago for a 21 week series called Living the Questions and then just kept on meeting. We've discussed Bonhoffer's classic The Cost of Discipleship and looked at spiritual implications in the children's classics of Dr. Seuss. The group wasn't a part of any real planned program, and so didn't start out with a name and somehow never acquired one. That's not really a problem except when someone asks me to do something on a Sunday night and my reason for not going is that I'll be with "my group that meets at the Presbyterian church." Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? So anyway, the most recent study with my group that meets at the Presbyterian church is C.S. Lewis's treatise on heaven and hell, The Great Divorce. As a twist on our usual discussion, our group facilitator suggested that we somehow present our own take on Lewis's ideas. So with apologies to Jack up front, here's my chapter to insert in his classic work....

I stood like so many times before in my life - alone in a crowd. After exiting with a throng of folks from a most unusual bus I was reminded of a dream that had regularly visited my nights over the years.  I'm late and headed for a familiar destination. I'll be on my way, turn a corner, and suddenly realize that I'm in a different city hours away. I'm in the midst of an impossible journey. But for some reason, I don't stop. I keep driving, running, biking, moving somehow towards my target. I felt the same urgency now except that I had no real sense of where I was headed -- just that I should be getting there. One advantage of being a wallflower is that it's easy to slip away unnoticed. So I did. Slowly. Immediately into my escape I realized that the landscape before me was far more imposing than the time constraints I had encountered in my dream. Here, my very bodily form was ill suited to the reality around me. I looked at my hand and saw through it to the blindingly green grass below. Each step over the shards of grass was agonizing. As I looked toward the mountain ahead, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I saw the image of a bicycle propped against a tree. I could see through the bike to the tree bark, and so I thought that maybe my pitiful ghostly form would have the strength to lift it. A solid bike would have been out of the question. I gingerly made my way over and hopped onto the bike. It was a perfect replica of one that awaited me one childhood Christmas morning with a metallic blue frame tricked out with trendy butterfly handlebars and a banana seat.  As I pedaled away, the bike hovered erratically over the ground and I was reminded of another dream -- the one where I'm flying around (without an airplane) with minimal control over my altitude and course.  It occurred to me that maybe this wasn't a dream-like state, but an actual dream. I've never had the ability to recognize a dream while I'm in it, but maybe it's a first. Or maybe those past dreams were giving me hints of a reality that I wasn't mature enough to understand.  I've always rolled my eyes at people who said things like, "Suspend your disbelief" but cliche or not, that's exactly where I found myself. So, it was with interest instead of terror that I applied the foot brakes and stopped in front of an enormous lion who cocked his head and looked at me in amusement.
     "Hey." I offered in a greeting totally lacking in intellectual substance. I half expected him to reply that hay is for horses, but he seemed a little too classy for that go-to answer of elementary school teacher through the ages.
   "How'd you like the bike?" he asked.
   "Loved it. I don't know how I would've gotten here without it. It didn't always feel safe, but it sure was good to have."
   "Good, but not safe?" If lions can smile, then this one did.
   "Oh, I get it. Aslan! Very clever."
As I watched, the tawny fur turned to brown tweed and I found myself standing before C.S. Lewis. The groupie in me kicked in, and I gushed,
   "Mr. Lewis, I've read everything of yours I could find. Mere Christianity changed my life. I read The Chronicles of Narnia to my daughters while they were still infants because I couldn't wait for them to learn English."    
    "You definitely spent a lot of time with your nose in a book."
   "Are you here to help me like George Macdonald helped you? And were you serious that Phantastes changed your life? Honestly, I was assigned that book in college and I've tried to read it several times since based strictly on your recommendation, and it just does nothing for me."
  "I think you've just explained why you found yourself on the bus instead of on the mountain."
   "Come again?"
   "Reason is a gift of God, but not to the exclusion of His other methods of revelation. Just because an idea presents itself in a way that doesn't fit your strength doesn't mean that it's not from God. The best way to understand is to listen for God's truth openly and with humility. There's only so much to be learned from books."
  "I noticed in The Great Divorce you were pretty harsh on academic types in spite of being one."
  "Not nearly as harsh as you were on Baptists in spite of being one."
I had to laugh. And agree.
  "Ok, I took some shots that weren't exactly edifying."
   "Are you ready to understand the rest? We can head toward the mountain."
   "Can I keep the bike? Just kidding. Let's go."
Immediately I noticed that my skin had morphed from transparent to translucent.
   "That's a start. Every barrier that you remove brings you closer to God's reality."
   "How many other barriers are there?"
   "You have eternity to find out."

Holy Week and Pascha

The collision of holy week and exam week left little time to write, but after another week to reflect, I'm still not sure how to compile everything. During the Lent season, we saw friends lose their 28 year old son and another family lose a beloved 44 year old wife and mother. Shortly after Easter, we saw friends lose everything they owned in the wake of a swath of tornadoes. It seems a little tacky to write about my experience of temporarily giving up most meat and some desserts. From my dinky loss, there's no comparison to substantial material loss and the incomparable grief that matches the capacity of love that was shared with one who is now gone.  

My Lent meditations on the hymn of St. Andrew focused on the humility that is the natural consequence of even a partial understanding of the power and glory of God.  Maybe an appropriate completion to these Pascha writings is to end with the first words of the canon:

He is for me unto salvation Helper and Protector.
He is my God and I glorify Him, God of my fathers is He and I exalt Him, for He is greatly glorified.
Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Give up the Comprehensible God

I've been attending services this week at St. Luke's Orthodox Church, and to be honest, it's a bit overwhelming at times. Everything means something. From the architecture and furnishings of the sanctuary, to the order of the readings, to the colors, and the smells, and the songs, everything is a picture of God's grace. Very rarely, there is a small blip in the flow of the service, and this always provides great comfort to me. Just when I'm feeling that I could never understand or even remember everything that's a part of the worship, there's an unplanned silence or someone starts over with a reading and I relax and am reminded that I don't have to learn everything at once. I'm also most grateful for the kind instructions and information that the other worshippers offer without any pressure or expectations. Exploring Orthodoxy has broadened my faith experience, and led me to a greater awe of God. Frederica Mathewes-Green points out that every statement we make about God is an analogy to something fleeting and earthly, and thus a mere shadow of the truth. She says, "We must give up the comprehensible God, the one lit by matchsticks of feeble human understanding." The services of Holy Week have served to remind me of the vast mystery of the love of God.

If I may jump from the sublime to the ridiculous, my daughter made a mix tape for me that contains a Regina Spektor song with lyrics that describe the bizarre ideas that humans have stuck on God. It points out the oddity of when the crazies say He hates us and they get so red in the head you think they're 'bout to choke and that while no one laughs at God when in they're in trouble:

God can be funny,
When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious.

We've certainly tagged God with some ludicrous characteristics, but even our best and loftiest ideas are grossly inadequate for the God who knows and loves us.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Searching for Salvation

A wealthy young man is recorded in Mark 10 as asking "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" and Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The young man senses that there's more, and when he presses for further details, Jesus tells him to give away all his possessions and come follow.  At this, the young man turns sadly away.  In Acts 16, St. Paul's prison guard asks, "What must I do to be saved?" and Paul tells him to believe in the Lord Jesus.  So is it the law? Selfless acts? Believing the right things?

What salvation is and how it works is not exactly a tidy bit of information. I once bought a book about salvation based solely on the fact that people were mad about it. John Killinger's book, The Changing Shape of Our Salvation, was the topic of some heated comments printed in The Alabama Baptist newspaper and it was denounced from the pulpit of my own church. Add the fact that Dr. Killinger and I were on the faculty of Samford University at the same time, and it was just too much for me. Thank goodness for rush shipping on Amazon!  To my surprise and mild disappointment, it was a very low-key, common sense account of the views of salvation from the earliest scriptures to today. Killinger points out that in the Old Testament salvation had nothing to do with life after death, and was understood to mean survival and success in the world. An example is Job, whose story of trials and salvation ended when he died "old and full of days." Between the Old and New Testaments, the concept of eternal life arose, and from here the history proceeds to the New Testament writings of Paul and the "Roman Road" which many of us memorized in youth groups as a way to present the "plan of salvation." But as pointed out in the book, "The more detailed the instructions get, the more restrictive they are, and the more humanly created they are rather than God-given." This realization along with the problem of what to do with righteous people of other faiths has resulted in some modern definitions of salvation that sound like watered-down Psychology 101 -- "self-actualization," "harmonious relationship," "mindfulness." But of course, being too general is just the flip side mistake of being too specific.

Killinger ends the book with three conclusions. First, that God is the arbiter of salvation, not we. It is God who initiates human salvation and it is God who finally consummates it. Second, because it is God who effects our salvation and not we ourselves, our methods of seeking salvation don't really matter all that much. From the sacrificial system of the Hebrews to the sacramental system of the medieval churches to whatever modern twist we follow on the methodology of redemption today, we must guard against establishing a series of obstacles for believers to negotiate before they earn God's rewards for their trouble.  The point is not to huddle up and proclaim that we are the best and ours is the only way to God. Killinger quotes Billy Graham in reference to the fate of non-Christians as saying, "Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have." And third, if salvation is in God's hands and if the methodology is of little consequence, then God will save us whether we accept it or not, but acceptance is important to us in our understanding of grace. I can't quite get my head around that last one, because it's a little hard to square with free will, but I'm leaving that option open for now.

In the conclusion to The Canon of St. Andrew, Frederica Mathewes-Green says, "If we have been praying through this great hymn attentively, we arrive at the end less sure of ourselves, less confident, and more sensitive to our weakness in resisting the things that drag us away from God. And yet we can be more confident in God's mercy; we have less to worry about and more tranquility in the assurance of God's complete knowledge of us, inside and out, and His unceasing will to rescue and save us."

Holy Week

Lent is winding down, and this final week is filled with observances of the events leading up to Easter/Pascha.  This will be my second year to celebrate Orthodox Pascha which has coincidentally fallen on the same date as Western Easter both times. There are Orthodox services every day this week, with two services on some days, concluding with an 11:30 pm service on Saturday followed by a great feast. The thought and effort put into the celebration is still so new to me. It makes the evangelical approach looks downright skimpy. We were informed at church last Sunday that Bible Study time on Easter would be cut short and told in writing not to linger; that everyone should be gone within 10 minutes of the completion of the abbreviated study of the resurrection to make room for the next service. Yes, it was bold and underlined. It's assumed that Baptists are more interested in a good parking place than in worship or fellowship. I hope that's not true.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Other People's Sins

"O my soul, thou hast followed Ham, who mocked his father. Thou hast not covered thy neighbor's shame, walking backwards with averted face." Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

St. Andrew compares his attitude towards others to that of Noah's son Ham who saw his father's drunkenness and ridiculed him. Noah's other two sons, however, walked into their father's tent backwards to avoid seeing him in an embarrassing condition. They covered their father's nakedness and departed. Which is worse? To sin or to expose the sin of others? Well, later in the story Noah's sin is not mentioned again, the ones who concealed his sin were blessed, and the one who exposed it was cursed.

Our lesson in Sunday School this week is from Philippians 4. Paul speaks to two women leaders in the local church who are in disagreement about some unnamed religious issue and a "yokefellow" who is a part of the same church. Paul refuses to choose sides, and asks them to find a way to work together to resolve the conflict. I wonder if Paul was remembering his own past acts of determining God's truth and then judging others by his conclusions even to the point of justifying the murder of those in disagreement.  According to The Interpreter's Bible commentary on the book of Philippians, "All the divisions of Christendom have originated in the claim that some human interpretation of the Bible was the actual, dictated word of God."

The lessons in these stories revolve around humility. Ham's "righteous anger" towards his father serves to remind us that we're not actually righteous enough to merit righteous anger. And Paul's words were intended to appeal to the best and highest instincts of his fellow believers, not to scold them. We've all chafed under the comments of the "improvers" -- those who do good to others as a means of revealing their pride in their own goodness. Maybe a guide for our reaction to other people's sins is to ask the question, "Does it bring out the best or the worst side of the nature of others?"

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

And Justice for All

I've noticed that I'm ambiguous in my use of the word "justice." Sometimes I use it in a harsh, wrath-of-God, opposite-of-mercy kind of way, and sometimes I use it as a utopian, world-peacey idea. St. Andrew prays to be "justified" in the canon. Frederica Mathewes-Green points out that Biblical references to justice refer to a condition of harmony between God and all Creation while the Roman Empire developed justice into a legal system that was quite effective at whipping the ancient world into shape. Whether justice reminds us of a relationship or a courtroom is an important distinction. The relationship lens is more demanding, thorough, and enduring, but the courtroom rules are easier to write down in a tract. My friend Ed Smith explains that thinking of salvation as a legal contract in the heart transforms a God bound by law to torment us forever into a God who is afterward bound by law to provide us with perpetual bliss. How convenient that we control the choice of which way to handcuff God.

While on a tour of Alcatraz prison I saw a display on the history of imprisonment.  I had never before noticed that the word "penitentiary" has the root of "penance" or "repentance" and in fact, the 15th century definition of penitentiary is "place of punishment for offenses against the church." The modern legal definition is "a state or federal prison for the punishment and reformation of convicted felons." In a legal view of salvation, repentance is almost irrelevant as long as we tremble in fear before the threat of punishment in hell. Somewhere along the way the incentives of humility and repentance were replaced by a fear of punishment. Maybe this tragic misrepresentation is why St. Paul kept harping on and on about the dangers of legalism. It is a drastically inferior model when compared to being in Christ and receiving the grace that leads to complete freedom. Experiencing salvation means that our healed heart will bear good fruit and strive for unity with God. We can pray with St. Andrew, "Thou art my beloved Jesus, Thou art my Creator; in Thee shall I be justified, O Savior."

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Cardinal Rule is Humility

The prophet Isaiah saw a glimpse of God's holiness and cried, "Woe is me!...for I am a man of unclean lips." King David prayed, "I alone have sinned against Thee." Paul often described himself as the "least of the saints" and the "foremost of sinners." Simon Peter said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."

How easily we move from the habitual humility modeled by the Biblical writers to setting up a spiritual pecking order on which we'll generously admit that we're not at the top, but which obviously includes a number of folks below us.  Seriously, isn't Charles Manson worse than I am? Osama bin Laden? Lindsey Lohan? All those pitiful losers scolded by Dr. Phil and Judge Judy? Mormons? Those prideful non-Christian "unreached people groups" who will perish if we don't save them? But, judging others is a slippery business. It's amazing the similarity between some public prayers for a "lost and dying world" and the public prayer of the pharisee, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people." On of the scariest verses in the Bible to me is in Matthew 7 where Jesus is observing how clearly we can see a splinter in another's eye in spite of the log sticking out of our own. He says, "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." Yikes. We have the choice of humbling ourselves and receiving God's mercy or setting up a legal system by which we ourselves will be judged. I may want justice for you, but I definitely want mercy for me! Jesus says it doesn't work that way. We are never asked to evaluate anyone else's holiness or spiritual condition. Frederica Mathewes-Green suggests that as a mental act of discipline we stick by the assumption that we are the "foremost of sinners." If nothing else, we'll be in good company.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is the Body a Temple or an Amusement Park?

The Canon speaks of the impulses or the "passions" of our souls and bodies that were created to serve us but at times get distorted and rule over us.  Examples are anger and hunger. As in practically every area of life, there is a delicate balance of priorities. The same is true of material possessions. It feels like we own things, but we can suddenly realize that it's the other way around. St. Andrew says, "I have fallen beneath the painful burden of the passions and the corruption of material things; and I am hard pressed by the enemy. Instead of freedom from possessions, O Savior, I have pursued a life in love with material things; and now I wear a heavy yoke. Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me."

So how should we treat ourselves and our stuff?  The Bible explains that we're created in the image of God which would seem to imply that we should honor our bodies as worthy temples and "containers" of the Holy Spirit. But we're also warned not to confuse outward adornment with a pure heart and to be careful not to make an idol of our flesh. We're hardwired with a self-preservation instinct and a desire for comfort and entertainment. It's amazing how quickly conveniences (such as cell phones) become necessities in our lives.  This past week I heard St. Andrew's message from two men in quite different situations. One is a baseball coach who works for the New York Yankees and the other is a civil engineer who specializes in building bridges. The coach spends much of his time in the Dominican Republic, and the engineer works primarily in China. The coach sees young boys with athletic talent taken out of school so that they can practice long hours and hopefully pursue a career in sports. He sees them cry and beg when they're cut from the team because it was their only chance to escape poverty and help their families. The engineer sees families living in primitive housing where running water is an unimaginable luxury. Both men say their outlook has been forever changed by what they've seen.

Our possessions and pleasures are not evil in themselves, and frankly, I have no idea how to solve the problem of the widening gap in the haves and the have-nots of the world, but the words of St. Andrew ring true today. It's easy to assume that we deserve our blessings based simply on the evidence that we have them. From there it's a short step to finding ourselves with a "painful burden" and a "heavy yoke" that completely blind us to the truth. Again, the call to humility and repentance will lead us to salvation.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Forgetting to Put on Clothes

In the lyrics of today's reading there is a recurring phrase from St. Andrew, "I lie naked and alone." He uses it to describe feelings of shame for allowing sin to take away the beauty and glory for which God created him. In her commentary, Frederica Mathewes-Green is reminded of the common dream of being naked in a public place. I hate that dream. Sometimes I'm partially dressed, sometimes I'm wearing pajamas, and sometimes I forget to put on anything at all. I've always heard that it reveals feelings of being inadequate or of being an imposter, but there is definitely an element of shame involved when everyone sees the undisputed truth. Georgia humorist Lewis Grizzard explained that if you're "naked" you aren't wearing any clothes and if you're "nekkid" you aren't wearing any clothes and you're up to something. We can kid ourselves and others for a while, but the sooner we admit that God sees the truth about what we're up to, the better.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Scandal of Saints

I'll just say up front that the information in this post concerning the ancient view of saints is from Frederica Mathewes-Green and I won't clutter up the reading with a million quotation marks.

Growing up Baptist I was taught that praying to the saints was scandalous because it was equivalent to worship of the saints.  This was one of several justifications that we used to pray for the Catholics so that they might become Christians. Throughout the Canon of St. Andrew, there are many statements praising the saints and asking them to pray for us. The early church found great assurance in the fact that through the Incarnation and Resurrection Jesus had overcome death, and thus had abolished the need to fear death. I think many modern activities are indirectly motivated by the fear of death  - using miracle wrinkle smoothing creams,  having elective cosmetic surgeries, taking vitamins and supplements, using drastic measures to prolong the life of the terminally ill. The fear of death motivator has been well marketed. We've separated ourselves from death as if distance will keep death away. We display death in funeral homes, not our own homes. The meat that we eat is processed in a slaughter house, not our house. I'm not sure I could eat a chicken if I had to kill it myself, and I'm sure I couldn't kill a cow. Of course, this doesn't stop me from eating meat. I just subconsciously pretend that it miraculously shows up boneless and skinless in Winn Dixie. But back to the saints.... 

By becoming a human being, Jesus showed that our human bodies and awareness could be bearers of the presence of God. We are likewise eternally freed from death. This means that those who have departed are still alive. The heavenly realm, which permeates the earthly at all times, is populated by saints and angels who are praying alongside us. We can ask for their prayers just like we ask for the prayers of any other friend or relative.

I admit this is a new concept for me, but I had an experience many years ago that helps me internalize the idea. As a child I had an extreme fear of death. I would lie awake at night worrying about it. I knew about heaven and had other reassurances, but it didn't help me assimilate the unknown aspects of death. My grandmother was the first person who was very close to me who died, and several months after her death I had a dream in which I felt that she communicated with me. I was sitting in the small living room of my grandparents' house. It was often bulging with company, and chairs from the kitchen were brought in so that everyone could sit together and visit. In the dream it was like many times before, a crowd of family members with my grandmother in her usual spot. She always took one of the kitchen chairs and left the more comfortable ones for her guests. It was all very familiar and comfortable and suddenly I alone remembered that my grandmother couldn't be there; that she was dead. I panicked and looked to her for help and she smiled at me and told me not to be afraid.   I'm sure there are plenty of psychological reasons for having such a dream, but the details are still as vivid to me today as they were when I awoke, and my fear of death was forever altered by her comforting presence. I love the thought that when I pray I am joined not just by all the towering figures of faith in the Bible, but by someone who still loves me very much and doesn't want me to be afraid.