Archive for the ‘contrasts’ category

This list is incomplete!

January 23, 2010

Along with the fantasy/reality issue, Mike Erre’s book raised the question of what it means to be a Christian man. Specifically as we think about what we see in the Scriptures, things like this come out:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

This is a great list, but the list applies as well to Mr. Rogers as it does to Jesus Christ.

So what gives? Did Paul err in giving us an incomplete list?

I don’t think so. You may have noticed that verse 22 begins with “But” — But what? Like the rest of the Bible, verse 22 isn’t a systematic theology; rather, its function is to show the contrast vs the “works of the flesh” (verse 19). Additional insights come if we look around that passage a little more. Verses 13-15 warn against selfishness and malice; verses 16-17 urge us to live by the Spirit, as opposed to the flesh (which the NIV renders “sinful nature”). Again, verses 25-26 urge us to walk with the Spirit and avoid selfishness and malice. So verses 22-23 are part of the overall argument: rather than idolatry, hatred, fits of rage, etc., better to have joy, patience, self-control and the like.

So if that’s not the complete list, what are some other things we would expect to see in someone following the Lord Jesus? I remembered another list:

Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.

Like the list in Galatians, this isn’t just a list; it’s a list against something — in this case greed, as the Galatians list was against selfishness, hatred, greed, etc. And immediately after the list is an exhortation to fight–which, come to think of it, is something Fred Rogers actually did, though it wasn’t always visible on his show.

What’s my point? Just this: though I’m a fan of Scripture memory, we need to take the entire Bible in, not just favorite verses. This is as much of a problem if we only memorize Galatians 5:22-23 as if we only memorize Psalm 139:22.

And also that I want to read more of Mike Erre’s book.


How much is enough?

October 25, 2009

Talking with a friend about the greatest commandments from Mark 12:28-31 and what it means to follow them, the question arose: how much is enough? How much volunteering, giving, serving, prayer, fellowship, solitude is enough?

Let’s think about that for a minute. “Enough” for what? Enough to get into heaven? No! We really don’t believe in the “minimum requirements” model (see “What is the Gospel?“, or “True (and False) Transformation” or this sermon [transcript here; see p.5]).

But simply by using the word “enough,” we’re showing that we still have a little of this “minimum requirement” mentality. We’ve really got to get rid of it somehow, because it’s poison for any relationship. I mean, imagine it:

He: Dearest?
She: (turning toward him) Yes?
He: I have a question, but I’m not sure how to ask it.
She: (looking into his eyes) Yes?
He: How much do I have to kiss you? I mean, how much is enough?
She: (turning away) (to herself: What kind of idiot am I involved with, and why?)

She is right, isn’t she, to think she’s involved with some kind of whack job? Here’s the thing: really the gospel is about a treasure — something so great that anyone would sell everything in order to get that treasure. Josh Hunt gives a great summary in the aforementioned article.

What we need here is real transformation. We need something inside us to change. Think about what the psalmist says in Psalm 40:8 (or see the King James), or look at Psalm 119 and see how many times the words “rejoice” and “delight” come up. He delights to do God’s will; he rejoices (Psalm 119:14, NIV) in following his law. That’s not just Old Testament times, either; think of Anna from Luke 1, who was worshiping at the temple all the time. I don’t think this was a poetic exaggeration. And it’s not just Biblical times either; Luther prayed two or three hours a day. Mother Theresa said, “The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it.”

How did these people get to be that way? You know they had to be transformed; they started out just like the rest of us — self-centered and full of all kinds of other folly. Well, I have a few ideas on how that transformation happened, and how it can happen for us:

  • over a long period of time (as with overcoming anger or anxiety)
  • totally under God’s power; we can’t do it ourselves. I read (or maybe wrote) somewhere that the command in Romans 12:2 is to “be transformed”; it’s passive–that is, it’s something that happens to us–and yet it’s a command.
  • generally, the means of grace have something to do with it. The sun’s rays have a beneficial effect, but if we want to get that effect we’ve got to get out of the cave. So: solitude, Scripture, prayer, celebration, fellowship, service — this sort of thing.

When it works, then like Eric Liddell, we feel His pleasure in doing what he made us to do. Liddell was talking about running in particular as an act of worship, but I think it applies to everything we do that’s in our Father’s will.

Occasionally I get glimpses of this, when I find joy in serving or in giving. And I’ll tell you, when I think of “Good News for 12th Century [BC] Man” — i.e., Genesis 1 — of how much God loves us, to tell us this incredibly great news. I mean, have you ever heard that the Bible is “God’s love letter to us”? I used to think, “yeah, whatever” but what Genesis 1 meant to its hearers — it was revolutionary! It was paradigm-shattering! And even today I get a little choked up whenever I think about it.

Does this mean I have it all figured out? Nope! All I’ve got are occasional glimpses. Hopefully I’ll get a few more in the next 20-30 years. And maybe after another 20-30 years I’ll have a little less of the “minimum requirements” mentality.

What’s my real mission statement?

October 18, 2009

The past few sermons have knocked me rather off-balance. I think this is a good thing, if not entirely a comfortable one. Let me tell you about them.

On October 4, we looked at Mark 12:28-31, where the legal professional asks Jesus which command is the most important. Jesus answers with two of them: Love God; love your neighbor. Matthew 22:38-39 has: “This (i.e., love the Lord your God) is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (parenthesis added) Our preacher pointed out that before Jesus, no one juxtaposed those two commandments like that.

But more importantly, he challenged us to consider what it means to love your neighbor. What should someone do, how much should they be involved if their teenaged nephew, say, has been making some really bad decisions? He’s not their kid, after all. The challenge is this: “If I were this boy’s mother or father, how would I want my relative to be involved with us?”

This is a challenge! If I had lost my home due to flooding or earthquake or landslide, how would I want someone to come alongside me?

Closer to home, here’s a challenge to me: odd fellow on the train. Rather than being annoyed with him, the easy thing for me to do is just walk on by and sit in another car. Why would it be so hard to just sit nearby and be friendly toward him? He gets off at the 3rd stop, so it’s not like my train ride would be taken over or anything.

I don’t always get to the station the same time he does, but when I do, I could be kinder to him; I could treat him more like the neighbor that he actually is.

Then on October 11, the question arose: what’s my real mission statement? Is it “Love God, love people, serve the world”? Or is it something more like “Take care of your kids, get ahead, build your 401(k)”?

Note that the challenge isn’t necessarily an exhortation to neglect your kids or career, but rather a question about the primary factors, the driving force. What do my checkbook and my calendar say? What would my wife, my colleagues, my boss, my children, my neighbors say?

I think their answers would be mixed. What should you or I do? I don’t think that the answer is “well, quit your job and divest your 401(k)” — at least, not for most of us. But speaking for myself (i.e., not for you) I need to make a conscious effort and take concrete steps to serve others. Some comments about this are in the October 4 study guide, on page 2. I hope you’ll have a look at it.

Meanwhile, several of us had a good time serving at CityTeam last night. Not that I have this wired, or that we’re done with regard to balancing our lives, but I need to figure out my next steps around this. Should I make this a more regular part of my life? Or something else?

May the Lord guide us as we consider our next steps.


September 16, 2009

A “professional Christian” in youth ministry confessed in a recent seminar that

I can go a “long time” without thinking about God.

(K. Powell, May 2009)

She meant as much as several minutes, but in my case it could even be hours.

Have you ever had that experience? Sitting there, with your Bible open, it hits you: “I haven’t thought about God for some minutes now.” You’ve been thinking about a problem, maybe, or a regret. Or something you’re longing for — or dreading.

What comes next? A rush of guilt, or discouragement about being a “bad Christian” maybe? Now instead of thinking about what a bad Christian you are, here’s another idea: “Thank you Lord for reminding me that I belong to you. I’m glad you’re here and always want to listen to me.” Does that seem like a good idea? (No, I didn’t think of it; I probably read it in John White’s The Fight or some book like that a long time ago.)

A young friend pointed out a benefit of this approach: that whereas guilt is focused on myself (“Why am I such a bad Christian? Why can’t I keep the Lord in my mind for more than a few minutes at a time?” etc.) thanking God puts the emphasis on him (“Thank you, Lord for reminding me… you’re here and always want to listen”).

Who does this well? Dogs are pretty good at it! My old dog, Duke, would sometimes get sidetracked (literally) and forget what he was supposed to be doing. But when we called, he’d respond with enthusiasm and joy. No guilt, no angst — not even when it was warranted!

Where am I going with this? “Everything I needed to know I learned from my dog”? Not quite. But Duke’s joy and enthusiasm, his un-self-conscious attitude of worship, his focus on the present — he was a pretty good model of those. He was supremely confident in our affection for him, and in our ability to provide for his needs.

So if you’ve been woolgathering — and even if you haven’t — let us keep the Lord in view; Let us fix our eyes on Jesus. In the words of the song,

Let’s forget about ourselves
    and magnify the Lord
    and worship his holy name
O worship him
    Jesus Christ our Lord.

Bruce Ballinger

Easier said than done, but he will be our help.

Why “the passing things of earth” doesn’t (just) mean jewelry or luxury automobiles

September 12, 2009

Paul tells the Colossians, “Give your heart to the heavenly things, not to the passing things of earth” (Colossians 3:2, Phillips; NIV) and for a long time I thought he meant not to focus on the latest gadget, clothes, cars, jewelry and the like.

But recently I happened to read it in context; the flow of Paul’s argument makes me think it’s much bigger than that.

  • He reminds us in 2:8-12 about Christ’s identity and our connection to him; he urges us to not to be distracted from Christ by fine-sounding arguments;
  • He follows that up by reminding us in 2:13-15 that we’re forgiven and made alive with Christ.
  • As a consequence, we need not bother with a lot of religious regulations (2:16-23)
  • It’s at this point that he tells us to set our hearts on things above in 3:1-4.
  • Therefore, Paul says, put aside “whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (3:5-11) and he lists some of them out: sexual immorality, lust, greed, anger, gossip, abusive speech, racism/elitism.
  • Instead, he urges us to compassion, kindness and the like (3:12-14)

Yes, greed is mentioned in 3:5, but it’s just one item in Paul’s list of silly things we do. It’s also interesting to me that Paul sets Christ (who is our life, 3:4) in contrast to all these other things:

  • deceptive philosophy, human tradition and the basic principles of this world (2:8)
  • physical circumcision (2:11)
  • death through sin (2:13)
  • the written legal code (2:14) and regulations about food and drink (2:21)
  • powers and authorities (2:15)
  • religious festivals, including the religious calendar: sabbath and holy days (2:16)
  • false humility and the worship of angels (2:18)
  • sensual indulgence (2:23)
  • sexual immorality, impurity, lust, greed (3:5)
  • anger, cursing, grudges and gossip (3:8)
  • lying (3:9)
  • distinctions based on ethnicity or politico-economic situations (3:11)

Whereas I tend to think of these things separately — anger-related issues, sex-related stuff, obsession with rituals, etc. — Paul puts them all into the same bucket, and calls them “the passing things of earth.” Which they are — they’re all dumb, and they’ll all pass. So if I say, “I won’t do this but I’ll wink at that” — well, that’s folly.

May the Lord help us set our hearts more on Christ. May he strengthen us to do the right thing:

[A]s God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

from Colossians 3:12-14


Compare and contrast… or not

September 6, 2009

Donald Miller says that we humans have a condition: we need someone else to tell us who we are. This needn’t be a problem if we would listen to what God says about us. The trouble is that we don’t; instead we look at each other to find ourselves; that’s where problems arise.

One big problem is that when I look at you in order to find (or define) myself, I don’t have much of a chance of actually seeing you! This is really ugly, because it means I’m using you for my own purposes — I’m not loving you as Jesus commanded.

Another problem, or maybe it’s just a corollary of the other, is that we compare ourselves with each other. You do it, I do it. We all do it sometimes. Do you do it as often as I do? Let’s not go there.

If you compare yourself to me, you might feel superior if you compare IQ or fashion sense, but what does that get you? Does feeling superior make you kinder, more patient, more loving or joyful? Smugness doesn’t do anything good for you! And if you find yourself lacking in comparison with someone else — you’re not as smart or good-looking or whatever — what benefit do you get by thinking about that? Does it help you to be more gentle or sober-minded or peaceful or generous?

Me neither. So why do we do it? Because we’re silly. Jeremiah talked about it like this:

Do not run until your feet are bare
    and your throat is dry.
But you said, “It’s no use!
    I love foreign gods,
    and I must go after them.”

Foreign gods? Well foreign or not, if I build my identity on the basis of some comparison with you, then I’m treating you as a kind of god. The Apostle Paul talks about the folly of comparisons: When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise (2 Corinthians 10:12).

OK, that was rather a church-y explanation. What’s really behind our comparison syndrome? Here’s my take on it: If I really appreciate how much God loves me, then others’ opinions of me (or where I stand relative to others’ financial or intellectual or social assets) become matters of profound indifference–at least as far as my identity or self-worth are concerned.

What’s lacking in our appreciation of God’s great and awesome love for us? In the 1980 film Ordinary People,  teenager Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) has this conversation with therapist Berger (Judd Hirsch):

Dr. Berger: Well, your dad likes you.
Conrad Jarrett: Yeah, but he likes everybody.
Dr. Berger: Oh, so that’s it, is it? He likes you but he’s got no taste!

(from memory)

Some of us think of God that way: he loves me, but he’s got no taste. I mean, he loves everybody! Doesn’t the Bible say God loves the whole world?

Here’s a point we sometimes miss: we think that “God loves you!” means he loves us even though we are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked–or whatever. I mean, he does love us in spite of our wretchedness, but his love isn’t just a passive thing; it transforms us into something worthy of his love.

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. […] And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

[T]he Lord Jesus Christ… will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

As we turn to the Lord, as we offer ourselves to him, as we put our hope in him, he changes us — transforms us into his likeness, renews our minds, etc. He wants to make us worthy of his love; even better, The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

And if that’s in our future, why do we compare cars or clothes? It’s like we’re caterpillars, comparing our crawling skills or counting each other’s segments, oblivious that we’ll soon be butterflies. Soon we won’t be inching; soon we won’t have segments. So let’s give our hearts to the heavenly things, not to the passing things of earth (Colossians 3:2, Phillips); let’s look at the unseen things that are eternal rather than the passing things that are visible (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Why does this make me cry?

May 6, 2009

It’s a song by Sara Groves, titled “What do I Know?” It’s this part here that makes my face wet:

She lost her husband after sixty years
and as he slipped away she still had things to say

Those lines make me feel sad because of the losses, and the narrator’s inability to fix anything. I suppose there’s an aspect of wishful thinking that I indulge in myself — that there’s always tomorrow.

But of course one day will be your last; one day will be my last. So if there’s some help I want to either give or get from you, then tomorrow might be too late. Probably not, but it might be.

Anyway, here’s how the song starts.

I have a friend who just turned eighty-eight
and she just shared with me that she’s afraid of dying.
I sit here years from her experience
and try to bring her comfort.
I try to bring her comfort
But what do I know? What do I know?
She grew up singing about the glory land,
and she would testify how Jesus changed her life.
It was easy to have faith when she was thirty-four,
but now her friends are dying, and death is at her door.
Oh, and what do I know? Really, what do I know?

I don’t know that there are harps in heaven,
Or the process for earning your wings.
I don’t know of bright lights at the ends of tunnels,
Or any of those things.

As I think about this, I see that much of what I do is aimed at avoiding things. I put on my seat belt to avoid grievous injury — to avoid getting a ticket, too. I sock money away to avoid starving when I’m no longer fit for gainful employment. I lock the door because I don’t want to come home to an empty house. Is that the wrong way to look at life?

So why does this song make me cry? Is it because the song shows the ultimate futility of all the octogenerian’s planning (as if she lived her life trying to avoid the things that now confront her)? Is it because I know there are things coming my way that I can’t avoid — children leave home for months at a time — as the elder then-teen did in 2007 and the younger remaining teen did last year — and will do again this fall. The whole aging thing — when “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark,…when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim;” etc. (Eccl. 12:1-8) — that’s unavoidable, unless I die young. I’ll lose my parents one day, if they get their wish and I outlive them.

But our life is not only the life we have in this world, as Jesus promised (John 3:16, John 5:24-26) and Paul affirms (1 Corinthians 15:12-19, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). So although we live prudently (trust God and fasten your seat belt), we have to live — I have to remind myself to live — in the knowledge that what we see isn’t everything. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:13-18)

Another version of this post appeared
on my personal blog.