Category Archives: Christianity

Letter 50: With a Shine on Your Shoes

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Last week, I decided to polish my shoes.  It has been a long time since I last did so, and it’s important to keep them polished.  They last longer that way.  It was one of the odd rituals of manhood instilled in me by my father.  I can remember helping him polish his shoes as a child.  He had a wooden shoe-shine box where he kept the supplies.  The handle doubled as a stand for the shoe.  Eventually as I kept my shoes longer, he showed me how to polish my own.

First, remove all visible dirt and debris with a soft brush, then apply the polish.  Wait a few minutes and then buff.  Repeat for additional shine.  For added protection and moisturizing, I learned to apply mink oil, which gave my shoes a glossy shine.  Once complete, take satisfaction in a job well done.

The message was clear, as a man, you take care of your possessions and your appearance.  Learn to sew buttons, darn socks, even hem trousers.  I have now owned the same pair of penny loafers for thirty years.  If you look closely, you’ll know that they’ve been re-soled and re-heeled, but that’s the only real sign of their age.

But it’s getting to be more of a challenge.  The last time I had my shoes worked on, I had to use a local dry-cleaner, as there are no cobblers in my area.  The same seems to apply to tailors.  Perhaps this is why people dress up so infrequently these days.  There is something about wearing a suit tailored to your frame.  Clothes off the rack have an element of shapelessness to them.  But then, we live in a shapeless age.

It may seem strange to you to find a reflection on something as prosaic as shoe polishing with all of the screaming headlines demanding our action and attention.  Perhaps, but I would submit that the discipline of keeping your shoes polished builds a frame of mind and character, badly needed.  We would all do well to take care of those things entrusted tour custody, to minimize waste, and to present ourselves at our best, not merely for our own sake, but as a measure of respect due to others.

He that is faithful in the least, he is also faithful in much: and he that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much. If then ye have not been faithful in the wicked riches, who will trust you in the true treasure? And if ye have not been faithful in another man’s goods, who shall give you that which is yours?”  Luke 16: 10-12 (Geneva)

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Letter 49: “Do This In Memory of Bruce Barton”

 

The message this Sunday, as it often is, was about identity.  We ended by reciting a lengthy list of attributes that should describe us, each starting with the proclamation, “I am….”  Each “I am” had a Bible verse attached, and it was somehow linked, in some way, to something God had done, but it was all about me.

 

After the first few “I am’s” I fell silent.  I couldn’t join in.  God does not always want our ease, or our power.  Actually, much of the Christian tradition is about learning to suborn our will to His, to accept what He wants, and not infrequently, that involves suffering.  Milton went blind, William Cowper went mad, and the martyrs went home.  Being uniquely loved by God doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of this.

 

We seem much too obsessed with our identity, and too little with God’s.  It’s a fine distinction I know, but much of our preaching and teaching sounds like sanctified self-help, with a concordance attached.  We miss the point of Ephesians 2:5-11.  Christ was so sure of His identity that He didn’t think about it at all.  He was about His Father’s business, and so should we.

 

Such messages look Christian, feel Christian, but somehow fall short.  There is quite a history to such messages in this country.

 

In 1925, Bruce Barton, a son of the manse, wrote The Man Nobody Knows, the best-selling non-fiction book in America of that decade.  Barton was very clear about why he wrote the book.  He took issue with the image of Jesus presented to him in Sunday School and from the pulpit.  As Barton told it, Jesus was a man’s man.  He was a winner, and by following Him, we could become winners too.

 

This marked a subtle shift.  Yes, the Gospel was about serving God and helping others, but as a component of self-fulfillment.  The Gospel becomes just another miracle cure.  One that just happens to be 50% more effective, and without a nasty aftertaste.  Who wouldn’t want that?

 

All of this begs a question, what is the purpose of our lives?  The Bible is rich in words of comfort and assurance, because we need them.  It is also filled with admonitions to self-denial and sacrifice.  We are told to take up our Cross and follow Him who did see equality with God as something to be clutched like a miser, but was willing to die.

 

A gnawing disconnect gripped me, especially after we received Communion.  It didn’t feel quite right.  When confronted with the reality of Jesus, John the Baptist told his followers, “He must become greater; I must become less.”  John 3:30.

 

May it be so, O Lord, may it be so.

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Letter 46: Sourdough Jesus

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Last Spring, I decided to learn how to bake bread.  When I was a kid, I baked a couple of loaves from a recipe my aunt gave me, but I had done nothing since.  I thought it would be fairly easy, mix up the four, water and yeast, let it rise for a bit, and then bake.  This proved grossly optimistic.  I tossed several loaves before I finally baked one fit for use.

Along the way, I did learn many things about bread and bread baking that expanded my understanding of Scripture.  In the Old Testament, of course, bread is an important part of worship, as special loaves were baked for the priests to present to God and then consume as their daily bread.  Bread stands as a symbol of sustenance, and a key element of fellowship.

Most significantly of course is Passover, the Feast of Un-Leavened Bread.  For years, I thought I understood Passover.  Jews were required to eat bread without yeast.  That seemed easy enough.  The yeast causes the dough to rise, so matzos are flat.  Except there was no such thing as yeast back then.

Our word “yeast” comes from the middle ages.  People believed it was the bubbles that appeared in fermenting grain or liquids.  Scientists first observed yeast through a microscope in the 1680s.  It was not until 1850, however, that Louis Pasteur successfully isolated yeast and identified it as a living organism responsible for fermentation.  Within ten years, scientists developed a process for the manufacture of yeast for commercial and domestic purposes.  Fleischmann demonstrated this yeast to the American public during the Centennial celebrations in 1876.  The rest, as they say, is history.

So how did they make bread without yeast?  They didn’t.  We now know that yeast is naturally occurring in the air, on the ground, and even on the very grains ground to make bread.  Almost five thousand years ago, our ancestors discovered that if you ground grain, mixed it with water, and left it out for a couple of days, it would start to ferment, creating hundreds of tiny bubbles, that could yield a substance that we much more pleasant to eat.  With time, they took things a step further, reserving some of the fermenting dough to use in the next loaf.  That reserved portion was called the “leaven,” or if you want to be fancy, “levain.”

A good leaven was valuable, an absolutely essential requirement for any household.  Travelers would carry their leaven with them, usually in a pouch, close to their person.  It might be passed down through the generations.  Even after commercial yeast took over retail baking, the use of leaven remained.  It is the foundation of San Francisco sourdough.

This is what the Israelites were forbidden from using to make their bread during Passover.  More importantly, they were ordered to remove the leaven from their homes (Ex. 12:15b).  They would need the leaven to make their bread after Passover, but it takes time for the leaven to develop.  In the interim, they were literally trusting God for their daily bread.

In the hands of Jesus, the Passover un-leavened bread becomes something more.  In Christ’s hands, it becomes his very Body, the Living Bread.  Just as the yeast in bread dough, unbaked, is alive, so Christ is alive in us, suffusing us and enlarging us.  He has become the “Mother Dough,” replicating Himself in the lives of every one of His saints.

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Letter 44: The Christmas Earthquake

While stuck in traffic due to highway constructions, I was reflecting on some of the Advent readings my wife and I have done for our morning devotions.

Isaiah 40 is one of the classic texts announcing the coming of Christ, and it is full of terrifying imagery.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:3-5 KJV)

The thought occurred to me that Isaiah is describing an earthquake.  How else might the mountains and hills be made low, and the valleys exalted?  We use bulldozers and steamrollers to make the rough places a plain, forcibly moving earth, conforming it to our will.  This is what God is accomplishing in Christ.

Mary’s song echoes this sense of upheaval:

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. (Book of Common Prayer, after Luke 1:46-55)

 

Old Simeon, too,  senses the turmoil God is unleashing on the world.  ‘And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”’ (Luke 2:34-35 ESV)

In still another Advent reading, John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17 ESV, see also Matt. 3:11-13)

It seems strange that we can read these passages year after year, and completely miss the unsettling message.  God is about to upset everything.  We shall be forcibly reordered to comply with His will.  Christ comes to save, to comfort, to heal, and to winnow.  That we should be brought low for the glory of God never seems to make it to our Christmas messages.   No wonder God intersperses these states with words of comfort, and the exhortation to be not afraid.

In olden times, Christmas celebrations captured something of this tumult.  It was the time of year to remind the world of Christ’s second coming.  The Twelve Days of Christmas were often marked by the rule of the Boy Bishop or the Lord of Misrule, as the last were made first, and the first last.  After Epiphany, the old order reasserted itself, and life went on as it always has, but we were given this glimpse that something could be different, indeed, we were told that one day it would be different.

This sense of disruption carries into the very person of Christ.  He is born King of the Jews, yet there all the power of the universe lay in that manger, helpless and small, soiled in His own excrement, unable to hold up even His own head.  He existed as both God and Man in one indivisible person, an offense to the minds of Greek and Jew alike.  He would, in the end, most greatly demonstrate his power by submitting to the power of others.

This is what He offers us.  Are we willing to be upended?  When Christ came, though much and long expected, most people missed Him entirely.  Would I do likewise?  We pride ourselves on our ability to know all about God, and how to recognize Him.  But are we any different?  He comes to upset the status quo, to shake the earth, and we do not wish ourselves to be shaken.

Christmas is perhaps the most realistic religious holiday of them all.  If the story is told straight, Christmas posits that we inhabit a world filled with profound darkness and death.  For all our yearning for hope and change, they elude us.  But, there is grounds for and unlikely hope.  God Himself has intervened to set the whole of Creation to rights.  Christmas commingles joy and sorrow and invites nothing but trouble because it ends in a world without tears or night or temple, for the dwelling of God shall be with Man.

J.S. Bach concludes his Christmas Oratorio with a stirring chorale, “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen.”  The music is triumphant with trumpets sounding and tympani’s thundering, echoing the words of victory and vengeance.  As you listen closely, the tune is familiar, and entirely out of place.  It’s the “Passion Chorale.”  This is the point of Christmas.  This is the foundation of our Hope.  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  Amen.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Finale

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Letter 41: Can I Get a Witness?

For the past several years, I have attempted to grow herbs for my wife to use in her cooking.  I have had mixed results.  We had some early success with basil, but then it abruptly died, and last year’s crop was wiped out, twice.  The parsley grew, but never became bountiful.  Our chives took over a year to amount to anything, and my wife often forgot that they were available for use.  I killed our first attempt at rosemary.  Our thyme flourished late last year, but has either died or gone dormant.  I am not sure which.  Only the oregano has flourished.  I am hoping for better results this year.

It has been a humbling lesson.  I have some control over the process.  I can water the plants and do my best to see that they get sufficient sun, but that’s about it.  Pests, drought, torrential rains, and cloudy days are outside my power.  Then too, the seeds might be bad.

Our pastor has been urging us to be seeking souls to win to Christ.  Echoing the prayers of one “Praying Hyde,” he has exhorted us to implore God for “Just one soul, Lord, just one soul.”  He points us to Jesus’ command to go and make disciples.  Preferably we would then prevail upon them to worship with our congregation.

But how do we do that?  I am aware that we are supposed to attest to the truth of the Gospel in our lives, and share this good news with others.  The hidden implication is that without the Gospel, those around us are condemned to an eternity in Hell.  Thus, by not winning their souls, we are damning others.  But I can’t bring myself to go out and start telling people about Jesus.  Whenever I’ve come across people with such a focus, I am generally repelled.  I try to avoid them when I can.  If I can’t stand such people, why should I wish to become one?

I wonder if I am a bad Christian for failing in this missionary mandate.  I mean I certainly don’t wish to condemn anyone to Hell.  I do believe in the life-changing power of the Gospel, but I want people to be interested in it of their own accord.  What if they’re not interested?  I will not force it down their throats.

In I Corinthians 3:5-9, Paul draws on an agricultural image to describe the process of evangelism and discipleship.  One plants, another waters, and God gives the harvest.  We are each responsible for our part in the process, but only our part.  God is ultimately responsible for the harvest.

I take great encouragement from this.  It is not incumbent upon me to bring in souls.  I am responsible for keeping my eyes and ears open for the opportunity to bear witness to God’s work in Christ.

This requires, I think, some sensitivity to the people we encounter.  The path to faith is not the same for everyone, nor do we experience God in the same way.  For example, God drew me gradually, over the course of a year.  There was no point at which I “made the decision and came on down.”   If you hit me with the Four Spiritual Laws, I think I might have fled.

All of this is a long way of saying that your witness depends much on your relationships.  It is the people you see every day to whom you will most often witness, if only unconsciously.  The better you know them, the more you can share, and the more they will invite you to share.

sheep-in-snow2

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Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

The tyranny of hyper-spirituality our church culture had foisted on us set us up for disappointment because it held up religious experiences as the means of God’s grace, rather than the finished work of the cross.

Source: Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

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Letter 37: What Does Scripture Say?

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“Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, ‘Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?’” Acts 8:30-31a NASB

  1. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
  2. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.

  1. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
  2. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

– Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 (emphasis added)

We have been engaged in a heated discussion at church that I won’t bore you with.  However the argument behind the arguments has been fascinating.  A few have even brought it to the forefront:  What do the Scriptures say?  This question lies at the heart of Protestantism.  We all say that we are guided by Scripture and Scripture only, if we are true to the tradition of sola scriptura.  But that seems to only beg questions that we do not wish to address, hiding, as it were, behind the big book.

To help illustrate this, I want to step outside of a strictly religious context and venture into another world I am familiar with, the world of Law.  Reading judicial opinions it is always fascinating.  You are presented with a particular factual situation, and the judges choose what laws apply to that situation.  Where this gets truly fascinating is when the judges agree on what laws apply, but disagree on how.  This is exactly what we do when it comes to Scripture.  We have a text that we agree is authoritative, but we can read the same text and come to opposite conclusions.  “A government of laws, not of men,” we proudly proclaim, but of course, it is judges who decide what law governs and how.  We keep trying to remove human input to establish absolute authority, but we never can.

When Luther laid out the standard of sola scriptura, he did so with the expectation that he going to an authority that was authentic, unencumbered with decades of human detritus, utterly unassailable, and one that would be clearly understood by all.  While he never explicitly stated it, he also believed that anyone reading Scripture would come to the same conclusions as to its meaning and application, namely his.  He was surprised, hurt, and angry when things didn’t turn out that way, with the Anabaptists getting the worst of it.

Because we are dealing with what we deem Holy Writ, it is simultaneously important that we get it right and that its application and understanding be universal.  It makes disagreements tricky.  Presumably, someone must be wrong, and the consequences can be eternal.  But who?

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture…”

We certainly hope that this is true.  Some go so far as to formally ask for the Spirit’s guidance as they read or listen to Scripture.  I’m not sure if God is so interested in the formalities, but certainly we should enter into the Bible with the expectation that God will be there with us, impressing upon us what He wishes us to understand.

But…..

How are we to make sense of this process, and how do we know we’ve got it right?  More importantly, if we wish to engage our neighbor, how do they know we’ve got it right?

Entire books are written on this subject, and I hardly think I can add anything to them.  But even these texts falter on the question of handling differing understandings.

My first fight with my wife faced this problem squarely.  It was out first Christmas together.  I was driving down to her parents, and tuned in the most wonderful live performance of Handel’s Messiah by an early music ensemble from Montreal.  It was spellbinding, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my then girlfriend.  Meanwhile, she was preparing for my arrival by playing Christmas carols on her piano to greet me when I arrived.  I came in, greeted her, and started telling her about the Messiah performance, that she just had to hear.  She got upset, repaired to her room and slammed the door.  I was left staring at the dog, both of us wondering what had just happened.

Slowly, all too slowly, the idea dawned on me.  Maybe she was upset because she wanted me to listen to her playing, and took my enthusiasm for Handel as a criticism of her playing.  At almost the same time, I think the thought struck her that maybe I wasn’t thinking of her piano playing at all.  We talked.  I explained that I didn’t realize that she had planned a special “concert” for me, and that I was just looking to share an experience with her.  Two totally different understandings of the same experience, and each one valid, but so far apart in reaching mutual understanding….

So I conclude with some observations.

First, we are all selective in our use and understanding of Scripture.  Traditional Protestant teaching separates the Old Testament into the moral and the ceremonial Law.  We are to uphold the Ten Commandments, but pass lightly over the directive about preparing sacrifices.  Some wish to restrict themselves to only those things Jesus taught in the Gospels.  Traditional Christian readings of the Song of Songs treat the book as an allegory of God’s love of the Church, yet at the time it was written, there was no church.

Second, we must confess to our own limited understanding.  We “see through a glass but darkly,” and bear the stain of sin everywhere.  We can see this in the obtuseness of the Disciples, in Peter’s comment about the difficulty in understanding Paul’s letter, and indeed, in our own struggles.  If it were easy, we would have no need of the Spirit’s help.

Third, it can be very difficult to fully grasp what God may be saying to other people.   We can, and should go back to Scripture, but we must bear in mind that everything filters through our own understanding.  In practical experience, only rarely do we hear the same thing at the same time.  I am still called upon to evaluate what you report as coming from God, but I must admit that I cannot live inside your head or your heart.

No matter what we do, everything must pass through our minds.  There is no getting around this.  We can claim that Scripture is self-explanatory, but even then, it must pass through our understanding to become self-explanatory.  God promises to one day write the law in our hearts, and certainly we aspire to so unite our wills with God’s that we will will what He wills, without having to think about it.  But for now, I, at least am not there, and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have achieved that union.

So, approach Scripture with expectation, and humility.  Trust that God will guide you, but keep in mind that we may not understand Him aright.  Until we know as we are known, our understanding is provisional and imperfect.  Be respectful of others, and realize that they labor under the same limitations as you.  Pray, pray, pray, for understanding, wisdom and peace.  The good news is that God is more than able to look out for Himself.  Be patient, and let Him do His work.  “‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead  me home.”

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