Sunday, August 17, 2014

Next Job

Well-Used Tools
Photo by Biser Todorov
Today in church we sang a song called Be Still, My Soul, and this line really impressed me -- or more to the point, God really impressed me with this line:

Be still, my soul,
your God will undertake to guide the future,
as in ages past...

To me "your God will undertake" makes the lyrics much more solid and real. Katharine von Schlegel, who wrote them back in 1752, doesn't say, "Don't worry because God is always guiding the future from eternity," like many hymn writers would. No, she says, "Don't worry Christian, because God is rolling up his sleeves, getting out his tools, spitting in his hands and rubbing them together, and 'undertaking' his next job -- guiding the future." He is a worker (John 5.17); God gets dirty hands and splinters while he constructs this future.

Just like he has dependably done for "ages past."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Golden Calf

The Golden Calf
Your Christian influence, your reputation as a worker for God, and your standing among your brethren, may be an idol to which you must die, before you can be free to live for Him alone.

- A.B. Simpson

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Messed Up Gospel

Our Shopping List
All throughout the history of the Christ Movement we've gotten off track in how we understand and teach the Great Announcement of the Gospel.  Part of the reason for this blog is provide a place where people interested in Christianity can get past all that and see what it was that Jesus started.

Here is a random sampling of 14 ways we mess up the Gospel and get off message. They from a blog post by Howard Snyder called 14 Favorite Ways to Twist the Gospel.  By all means  read the whole thing here. It's a good list!

#11. Substitute heaven for the kingdom of God.
In the Bible, the kingdom of God is as comprehensive as the reality, sovereignty, and love of God. No spirit/matter dualism. Most people in Jesus’ days understood this; they knew that “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew, for example, was just another way of saying “kingdom of God.”

In the Bible we see the kingdom of God as both now/future, heavenly/earthly, personal/social, sudden/gradual, inward/outward, in a mysterious dialectic with the church which itself is neither the kingdom of God nor divorceable from God’s kingdom.

#2. Focus solely on “personal salvation.”
The Bible does not teach “personal salvation” in the private, individualistic way that phrase has come to mean. Rather it teaches in multiple ways and through many metaphors the reconciliation of all things (e.g., Eph. 1, Col. 1)—though not without judgment.

#12. Faith just a part of life.
We compartmentalize. Our Christian walk gets reduced to just one part of our lives, and that one part is often reduced to simply what we believe.

But now abide faith, hope, and love—and the Bible makes clear which is the “greatest” and most comprehensive. According to the gospel, faith is not the ultimate reality; it is the means to the end of loving God and others and all God’s creation with our whole being. And that 24/7, as the saying goes.

The biblical picture is faith working by love; love enabled by faith and powered by hope—full confidence in God’s amazing full-salvation-for-all-creation promises.

#5. Thinking economics and politics are not directly gospel concerns.
Walling off economics and politics from the gospel, placing them outside our discipleship, is unbiblical dualism. The gospel is an economic and political reality, so by definition the church is both economic and political. But economics and politics are to be understood in light of the gospel, not the other way round. The kingdom of God is the comprehensive framework.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Living Words

(This is a modified version of a post I wrote a few years ago.)

A sacrament is a material object or action that God has chosen, in his complete freedom, to use as a conduit for his grace. The Christian movement has revolved around sacraments from its start. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions teach 7 sacraments -- baptism, confirmation (called "chrismation" in Orthodox churches), communion, holy orders, penance, anointing of the sick, and marriage. Meanwhile, most Protestants only observe the two specifically set up by Jesus of Nazareth, baptism and communion. Down through the ages innumerable followers of Jesus have attested to the mystical power resident in these simple things.

But you may have another sacrament sitting on your bookshelf. The Bible has always worked like a sacrament in the Community of Jesus -- a physical book that God uses to convey his free, unearned, transforming power and kindness to his wayward children.

Instruction Book?

Here in the western world there is a tendency, based on thinking that goes back to the Enlightenment, to see the universe mechanically. We assume that everything operates like an impersonal machine and if we can just understand the mechanism we can make it work. All we need is an instruction book.

It is popular, particularly in Western Protestantism, to think of the Bible as a kind of super instruction book. All we need to do is memorize the important dates and grasp the formulas, and we'll be able to make our religion "work." And of course, there definitely is quite a bit of wise advice and uplifting insight in Scripture. But the Bible does not purport to be just a wise and wonderful book; it purports to be revelation, a living entity through which the Holy Spirit of God speaks -- in the present tense. Just as Jesus of Nazareth was not just a wise and wonderful teacher but the unique revelation of the Living God.

Jesus taught that King David wrote his Psalms "by the Holy Spirit" (Gospel of Mark chapter 12, verses 35 - 37), and that Israel's holy books were filled with, "things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets," (Gospel of Luke chapter 24, verses 27 and 44 - 47 ERV).

The early Christian movement believed "[Moses] received life-giving words (literally, "living words") from God to give to us", (Acts of the Apostles chapter 7, verse 38 ERV). For them -- and for us -- "God’s word is alive and working. It is sharper than the sharpest sword and cuts all the way into us. It cuts deep to the place where the soul and the spirit are joined. God’s word cuts to the center of our joints and our bones. It judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts." (Letter to the Hebrews chapter 4, verse 12 ERV).

As the scholar J. N. D. Kelly wrote, "Whenever our Lord and His apostles quoted the Old Testament, it is plain that they regarded it as the word of God," (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 60). It was the same with the Apostle's writings by the time the last one died, because the Jesus followers recognized that they carried the revelation that the Messiah had entrusted them with (p. 56).

Not a Normal Book

What I'm suggesting is that nice leather-bound book you have on your desk or in your car is not just a book: It is something that intelligent 21st century people get vaguely uncomfortable with, something that some scholars devote their lives to showing it is not.

It's supernatural.

When we crack our Bible's open we are exposing ourselves to the creative power of God's own being, as God wants us to experience it. Reading the Scriptures, as John Wesley used to say, is a "means of grace," a sacrament that connects us with God. And then anything can happen.

Modern people aren't supposed to think that way. We can explain all that miraculous stuff away with our current understandings, can't we? There's no need to go there, surely.

But as C. S. Lewis wrote, "Like it or not, you belong to a supernatural religion."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Law of Liberty

This is my Synchroblog for July. Synchroblog is a little community of Christian blogs that post on a particular subject each month. Unfortunately I've been bad and not done one of these since January! This month our topic is "Liberty." The bloggers who posted this time are listed at the bottom of this page. Please visit us all! We're an interesting and eclectic group!

Maybe you've heard of the book The Year of Living Biblically, in which an agnostic New York reporter tries to, "follow every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible." He did it mainly for laughs at the expense of fundamentalists, but there are Christians in the world who do their best to live according to the Law of the Old Testament. And once upon a time I was one of them.

Just a brief bit of background: As I've mentioned in past posts, my family was Catholic. Regrettably though, I didn't pick up much about Christianity there. Then my mother who had always been a seeker, deeply interested in God, left the Catholic Church to join a small, quasi-fundamentalist group called the Worldwide Church of God (or WCG for short), and a few years later I followed her.

When I was 16 I'd had a very intense spiritual experience and I came away from it "on fire for God." I yearned to find a group that was passionately serious about following and obeying whatever he wanted humans to do, and if there is one thing that this church was, it was passionately serious, particularly about the Bible.


There is a lot I could say, good and bad, about my experience with the WCG but what I want to focus on here is their teaching that Jesus' true followers would be observing the Old Testament Law of Moses (or as we called it without fail, "God's Law.")

We understood that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross had fulfilled the bloody sacrifices of bulls and goats the ancient Israelites observed.  But that still left not only the 10 Commandments, which most Christians like, but hundreds of other statutes, ordinances, and laws about such things as fasting, what to eat, what to do about certain diseases, fabrics you can't wear, the problem of mildew, and how long a woman has to wait after having a baby before she can go back to the temple (or in our case, back to church).

And what was in some ways most important of all, rules on keeping the 7th day Sabbath and religious festivals. The Sabbath especially was seen as a special sign from God that identified who his true people were:
The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘Surely you must keep my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.

Book of Exodus 31.12-17, NET

Many fundamentalist Churches think (or if you go back far enough, all protestant Churches thought) the Roman Catholic Church is a false, corrupted, pagan organization and the real followers of Jesus were little groups hiding in "the wilderness" through the years. My church believed that too but our contribution was the idea that you could tell the true Christians in history from not-so-true Christians by which ones had the sign of the 7th day Sabbath. If they also kept "God's Holy Days" (nicely summed up in the 23rd chapter of the Book of Leviticus), so much the better.


During my time in the WCG I learned one of the same lessons that the author of Year of Living Biblically learned: everybody interprets. Even though our ministers constantly preached against interpreting the Bible ("The Bible interprets itself!"), you really can't apply the Law to your life without interpreting it. A random example: part of the instructions for the holy day called the Feast of Tabernacles (or 'booths' or 'shelters') is to,
Go out into the hill country and get branches from different kinds of olive trees. Get branches from myrtle trees, palm trees, and shade trees. Use the branches to make temporary shelters. Do what the law says!
Book of Nehemiah 8.15 & Leviticus 23.39 - 43, ERV

I understand that Orthodox Jews in New York still faithfully build these shelters on fire escapes and places like that every Fall. But for us? Nah! The leafy shelters were interpreted into nice hotel rooms (without ever using the pagan I-word, of course).

We diligently ate kosher, although it was our own version: the story was that supposedly a rabbi could "bless" almost anything and declare it kosher, so you couldn't trust their kosher. We applied Leviticus 11 (where the kosher laws are) our way. On another subject, no intimate relations during your wife's period (Leviticus 20.18). And if she ever gave birth to a boy she couldn't go back to church for 40 days -- twice that for a baby girl (Leviticus 12).

We observed a particularly strict interpretation of the tithing (old English for "tenth") laws, largely based on some things the Jewish historian Josephus said (Antiquities 4.205 and 4.240 - 243) and so gave 30% of our income: 10% for the church, 10% so we could attend the Feast of Tabernacles (having 10% of your income to blow in 7 days at some vacation spot was pretty cool, I must admit), and 10% for the poor, widows and orphans.

All these laws were originally written for shepherds and farmers so we found ourselves (or more likely the minister) trying to apply the deep inner principles of laws like,
A man might take a cover off a well or dig a hole and not cover it. If another man’s animal comes and falls into that hole, the man who owns the hole is guilty.
Book of Exodus 21.33, ERV

And so on.

Experience Good and Bad

Now you might think that living with all these strictures would be unbearable, especially for a 20th century (then) american with our individualism deeply ground into us, and it could rankle at times. But really, in a way, it was rather comforting, because you always knew what you were expected to do. I can see the attraction of living by an expanded Talmud, as the Jewish tradition is. Besides, these were Bible rules we were keeping! You weren't supposed to smoke but we had nothing against "drinkin', dancin', and goin' to the movie show" that old-time puritans used to inveigh against.

Plus I was among people who, for the most part, were zealously doing their best to obey and serve God to the best of their understanding. Since we were a small and non-mainstream group we depended on each other, which gave it a warm family atmosphere.

For the most part my experience living this way was pretty benign, but I can't and won't pretend that that was true for everybody. The full-throated legalism we espoused hurt a lot of good people. Although the WCG loosened up later on, for many years we broke up second marriages and told the wives to go back to their first husbands. People went bankrupt or just barely scraped by under the weight of those 3 tithes. Specious interpretations of the Book of Genesis bred a strain of racism in the church,  and while we did have non-white ministers and administrators interracial marriage was forbidden.

Worse in a way were the intense feelings of guilt so many had. Because, after all, "The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?" (Prophecy of Jeremiah 17.9, KJV). Although we taught that God would forgive sins we also insisted that you had to obey Old Testament Law to please God. A christian that didn't was a false christian. How could you know, with your evil, desperately wicked heart, that you had done enough? If you hadn't, no matter how sincere you may have been, your only destination was The Lake of Fire (Book of Revelation 20.15).

Somehow, this horrific fear never bothered me much (which, I suppose, meant I was a shoe in for that Lake). I just never thought a God who said,
There is no condemnation now for those who live in union with Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit, which brings us life in union with Christ Jesus, has set me free from the law of sin and death (the first scripture I ever read and understood, when I was a very young Christian)
Letter to the Romans 8.1 - 2, GNT 

would toss me into a Lake of Fire if he could possibly avoid it. God has a bias, I believe. But I know that there are thousands, some very close to me, who were scared deeply by this church and cannot get free from their chains of guilt.


Eventually, I realized that I had let other people do my thinking for me. I started over from the beginning, trying to read the scriptures with no preconceived notions. What were the Gospels and the Apostles really trying to say? There were too many things in the theology is learned that didn't make sense to me anymore, among them being how the Law, given by God, relates to the Messiah (who is God as it turns out) and has the perfect right to revamp it as he pleases. Even abolishing it entirely, as a law, and replacing it with a law 'placed in our minds and written on our hearts,' (Hebrews 8).

What I found turned out to be ordinary, everyday, garden-variety Christianity -- which was also some of the most explosive, counter-cultural dynamite the world has ever seen.

"Love, then do what you will," said St. Augustine. I don't live by the Law of Moses anymore. I am free of it. Now I, "peer into the perfect law of liberty and fix my attention there," (James 1.25) the Law of love.


Here is the list of contributors this month. Go read them all and leave a comment!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"...A place in Your Paradise..."

Meditation for a Sunday Morning

(Here are two more of the early (AD 100 - 150) Christian hymns known as the Odes of Solomon that I posted for you last Sunday. Incidentally, they probably weren't credited to Solomon when they were written. Instead, they were usually bound together with a Jewish book called Psalms of Solomon and picked up the name by association.

In the first hymn the singer spreads their arms in worship to honor Christ's cross. In the catacombs Christians are frequently shown doing precisely this. The second ode celebrates a member of the Christian Movement entering Paradise after living a holy life. I like this one especially because it gives a window into how Jesus' early followers pictured the Paradise he had promised, [Gospel of Luke 23.43 & Book of Revelation 2.7])

Ode 27 

I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord, 
For the expansion of my hands is His sign. 
And my extension is the upright cross. 

Ode 11 

My heart was pruned and its flower appeared, then grace sprang up in it, 
And my heart produced fruits for the Lord. 
For the Most High circumcised me by His Holy Spirit, then He uncovered my inward being towards Him, And filled me with His love. 
And His circumcising became my salvation, and I ran in the Way, in His peace, in the way of truth. 
From the beginning until the end I received His knowledge. 
And I was established upon the rock of truth, where He had set me. 
And speaking waters touched my lips from the fountain of the Lord generously. 
And so I drank and became intoxicated, from the living water that does not die. 
And my intoxication did not cause ignorance, but I abandoned vanity, 
And turned toward the Most High, my God, and was enriched by His favors. 
And I rejected the folly cast upon the earth, and stripped it off and cast it from me. 
And the Lord renewed me with His garment, and possessed me by His light. 

And from above He gave me immortal rest, and I became like the land that blossoms,
And rejoices in its fruits. 
And the Lord is like the sun upon the face of the land. 
My eyes were enlightened, and my face received the dew, 
And my breath was refreshed by the pleasant fragrance of the Lord. 
And He took me to His Paradise, wherein is the wealth of the Lord's pleasure. 
I beheld blooming and fruit-bearing trees, 
And self-grown was their crown. 
Their branches were sprouting and their fruits were shining. 
 From an immortal land were their roots. 
And a river of gladness was irrigating them, 
And round about them in the land of eternal life. 
Then I worshiped the Lord because of His magnificence. 
And I said, Blessed, O Lord, are they who are planted in Your land, 
And who have a place in Your Paradise, 
And who grow in the growth of Your trees, and have passed from darkness into light. 

Behold, all Your laborers are fair, they who work good works, 
And turn from wickedness to your pleasantness. 
For the pungent odor of the trees is changed in Your land, 
And everything becomes a remnant of Yourself. 
Blessed are the workers of Your waters, 
And eternal memorials of Your faithful servants. 
Indeed, there is much room in Your Paradise! 
And there is nothing in it which is barren, but everything is filled with fruit. 
Glory be to You, O God, the delight of Paradise for ever. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Theologian Thursday: Vincent on Finding the Real Thing

The straight stuff
Many, many people claim to follow Jesus or be part of the Christian Movement, even while disagreeing widely with each other. How do you know you're getting the real deal? Today's theological visitor, Vincent of Lérins, tells us that if you want to find the straight stuff you need to go old school.

In the universal or catholic Church itself, we must make sure that we hold the faith that has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For what is actually and strictly "catholic," or "universal," as the name itself and it's nature imply, is spread out universally.  And we will be following this rule if we follow these three things: universality, antiquity, consent. We follow antiquity if we do not depart in any way from the teachings and understandings that were obviously held widely by our holy ancestors and fathers. And we follow consent when we stick to the consensual definitions and determinations of all -- or almost all -- the priests and great teachers in antiquity 
...But someone might say, "Then, won't there be any progress in Christ's Church?" On the contrary, there will be as much progress as possible. Only someone who envies humans and hates God would try to stop it. But it must be real progress, not alteration, of the faith. In progress something grows within itself, but in alteration it is transformed into something else. So the intelligence, knowledge, wisdom of individuals and of everyone, of a single person just as much as the whole Church, should grow and make vast and vigorous progress over the ages and centuries. But this will happen within each type of thing, that is in the same teaching and in the same meaning.  

Vincent of Lérins (died AD 445)
Commonitory, chapters 2 & 23