Category Archives: Christianity

Letter 56: An Oration for the Fourth

Put not your trust in Princes, nor in the son of man, for there is no help in him.
His breath departeth, and he returneth to his earth; then his thoughts perish.” Psalm 146:3-4 (Geneva)

In Jeremiah 29, God speaks to the exiles from Judah through the prophet.  He has a hard message for them.  Their identity had been bound up in their land.  It had been their inheritance, given them by God, and the Temple was where God Himself dwelt in their midst.  Now the Temple was destroyed, it’s surviving treasures carted off by the King of Babylon to fill his treasury, and the people themselves forcibly remove and scattered over the breadth of the Babylonian Empire.

What were they to do?  Hitherto, the message was clear, faithfulness to God was readily translated into political success and power.  The message ran from the sad story of Judges through the ebb and flow of Kings and Chronicles.  Indeed, the message of Jeremiah himself to the people until now had been that God was rewarding the faithlessness of His people by driving them from their land and removing all traces of their political independence.  Little wonder, then, that God’s people veritably drip with bitterness in Psalm 137 as the reflect upon their new life in a strange land.

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So consider well, then, what God is asking His people to do in Jeremiah 29.  Seek the welfare of the city to which you have been exiled.  Pray for it.  Pray for its leaders.  Build your lives where you are now.  Plant gardens.  Put down roots.  Sing the songs of Zion.  For the Lord God shall be with you, and not with those who remain in the land of your ancestors and in the holy city itself.

This upended the entire thrust of the story as they knew and understood it.  Their identity as God’s people was not tied to geography, nor was God Himself.  Faithfulness was not linked with political power and independence.  His message was clear, if they had the whit to read it: Church and State are not one and the same.

But we long for power.  The Jews of Jesus’ day  yearned for a political as well as a religious Messiah.  This was Pilate’s understanding, too, and he pressed Jesus on this, and he walked away confused.  Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:28-40)  But this world is all we understand, and want.

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On this Independence Day, we would do well to remember those exiles by the waters of Babylon.  Perhaps our hearts are filled with bitterness and rage.  How can we celebrate a country that perpetrates injustice?  Perhaps we long for the day when power shall be ours again, when the Kingdom of God and America are one and same, and celebrate this day as the promise of triumph.

God has given us the state to order our public lives, to enact justice between peoples, that we might live our lives in peace and tranquility.  And well we need it.  But in government rests not our ultimate hope.  There are limits to what it can and cannot do.  For we are exiles in this world, and we yearn to yet arrive at that City whose light is the Lamb and whose streams give water to the tree of life.

Let us then seek the welfare of this, the city of our exile.  Let us hold our rulers to account, that they would govern more diligently, more wisely, and more justly.  But let us not become enamored with the power that rests in government.  Let us give thanks for the freedoms that we do enjoy, for the abundance in our midst.  And let us work such that all men may yet experience these.

Praise thou the Lord, O my soul.
I will praise the Lord during my life; as long as I have any being, I will sing unto my God.
Put not your trust in Princes, nor in the son of man, for there is no help in him.
His breath departeth, and he returneth to his earth; then his thoughts perish.
Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God,
Which made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is; which keepeth his fidelity forever,
Which executeth justice for the oppressed, which giveth bread to the hungry; the Lord looseth the prisoners.
The Lord giveth sight to the blind: the Lord raiseth up the crooked: the Lord loveth the righteous.
The Lord keepeth the strangers: he relieveth the fatherless and widow: but he overthroweth the way of the wicked.
The Lord shall reign forever: O Zion, thy God endureth from generation to generation. Praise ye the Lord.  Psalm 146

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Letter 54: Enthusiasm and Gnosticism

Back in the 1980’s, my parents were supporters of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL ministries.  As a matter of fact we stayed at the Bakker’s Heritage USA site twice, enjoying the waterpark and attending tapings of the PTL Club.  I even appeared in one of the camera pans across the audience.  It seemed wonderful, magical, and just a little false.

It as built out in the middle of nowhere, and while there was a drought on, the managed to keep the waterpark going and water all of the plants at the facility.  It was a place humming with excitement, as there always was another project to build for, and of course to raise money for.  It struck my teenaged brain as odd that they never seemed to finish a project before launching into the next one.

It became easy to lampoon the Bakkers, especially once their ministry collapsed amid according irregularities and sordid tales of sex.  This is why I found the below article so fascinating, by placing them within the arc of the American religious experience, and our strong temptation to Gnosticism.

Most of this follows from the uniquely American solution the problem of competing religious faiths: privatization. By making religious truth a matter for individual conscience, we cut out a cause for civic strife, but we also placed the center of all knowledge within ourselves. We chose what was right and wrong. And this narrative structure has come to dominate American thinking about religion and ideas in general. We seek conversion, rejecting whatever surrounded us before, and making a definite commitment, preferably throwing off the “shackles” of the past.

The strong emphasis on a personal encounter with God, a core element of both Puritanism and Evangelicalism, grounded in a well of experience, is a powerful story.  But these all revolve around the self. Without a sense of sin and it’s effects, it is all too easy to name ourselves as the arbiter of God.  Spiritual growth becomes self improvement.  Unleash the power within.  Master the secrets and become like God.  The sin of Adam and Even becomes the fulfillment of the truth within.

“The heart is deceitful more than anything else, and it is disastrous. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 (LEB)

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker: A Scandal of the Self

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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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