enduring trials

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12

For a relatively short read, and meditation over a few days, James is a great go to book. But it’s not easy sledding. James doesn’t mince words, speaking truth to us right where we live, uncomfortable truth. He was half brother of the Lord, the main pastor in Jerusalem, so he not only comes across more like the wisdom literature with the prophets added, but echoes the Lord’s call to following in the Lord’s way.

James calls blessed whoever perseveres or endures under trial. The context are those who are struggling in this life, most of them relatively poor, and as we see from the book, at the expense of the rich. Regardless of where we’re at in life, these words apply to us. Whatever trial we’re facing, we should persevere in faith, enduring it, knowing that in the midst of it God is at work for good, and ultimately will make everything right in the end. In the meantime we must persevere, endure, remain faithful in whatever trial or trials we’re experiencing.

To do that, we’re going have to pay close attention to all James says in this letter, and put it into practice. Only then will we be able to stand up and remain faithful in the midst of trial. A trial is a trial. If we want everything to be easy, then we’re looking in the wrong place. Life has its difficulties anyhow, but following Christ adds more. We might as well face that. But also with our face turned to Christ, to God’s word to us through Christ. Persevere and follow. In and through Jesus.

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:17-20

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20

the poor in spirit/ the thorn in the flesh

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

Once again I visit Paul’s thorn in the flesh and couple that with what’s become one of my other favorites, the start of what’s called the Beatitudes in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

The poor in spirit I think by scholars has been equated with simply the poor. But I think “in spirit” adds something more. What it precisely means might be hard to pinpoint. It likely includes a number of things. Like the wealthy not living high on the hog, and being generous to the poor. For me in general it’s meant something like the sense of a deep, gnawing inward need, a dearth of spirit.

I couple that with the thorn in the flesh passage, something which tormented Paul either outwardly, or I think inwardly. But Paul took that experience and applied it to all that troubled him, and whatever weaknesses he experienced as he followed the way of Christ.

It’s so important to remember all of this, because otherwise we can really be discouraged and give in to despair. And act in ways which are not helpful. We appreciate the times when this seems lifted, and we can simply enjoy. But by and large I find that I mostly live under this cloud. But in that I find God’s help in receiving strength and consolation. And that struggle helps me focus in ways that sadly otherwise I would be slack in. And it certainly helps keep one more humble.

So we need to embrace this, even when it’s hard. Learn to do so just as Paul did. In and through Jesus.

waiting on God

A song of ascents.

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.

Psalm 130

This psalm is rich, with so much of importance to say to us.

I would like to focus a little on one part. Waiting on God, waiting on the Lord. We can be overwhelmed, weighed down by our sin and shortcomings. Thankfully as we see in this psalm, we have all we need to carry on, even well.

But a key point for us is to learn to wait. Wait on God, wait on the Lord fully. Relying on his promises. No matter what, we need to stop ourselves and just wait. Too often we immediately react, or I speak for myself, anyhow.

We need to learn something different, far better. To stop ourselves dead in our tracks, and simply wait, wait, and keep waiting.

God’s answer might come sooner than later, or at least we can be changed in the process. But that requires time. We refuse to take matters in our own hands, trying to figure it out ourselves, or imagining that we have the answer. We can do what we would do. Not good enough, or maybe not good at all. Or we can wait on God, on the Lord.

Something I’m preaching at myself right now. In and through Jesus.

nationalism as a part of our faith is idolatry

They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods…

2 Kings 17:33a

For some, probably too many here in the United States, if you don’t vote a certain way you’re not godly, or maybe they’ll say, even a Christian. And Christian metaphors, even Christ himself are routinely replaced by American images. What often happens on a subtle level which may raise some eyebrows then be forgotten, can become blatant, indeed a part of our religion. Anytime you mix anything with Christ and God’s work and kingdom in him, you have syncretism, and that is exactly what we see here. We never place anything on a par with Christ and the reality present in him. To do so amounts to plain old fashioned idolatry.

United States nationalism I believe is part of the religion of many white evangelical Christians, their version of the United States. You start wondering when you see a flag in a church “sanctuary.” That is a part of tradition, and doesn’t at all necessarily mean the pastor or church is caught up in this idolatry. But it’s far better to remove any such symbol to help prevent any of that from creeping in.

Idols don’t come down easily. Just so much as tread on this territory, and you’ll get vehement, long protests, defenses and even attacks. That maybe you are not really grounded in the faith like you ought to be. Well for sure, one is not grounded in their faith, which sadly includes nationalism, yes even patriotism.

We can and I think even should love our country, but never with the attitude of total allegiance. Our one allegiance belongs to our one Lord, Jesus, and to no other. And we should love all other nations, too. We should see our nation as just hopefully a humble contributor to the whole, and at least trying to do good, and avoid what is evil. Unfortunately good and evil will be in the fabric of every nation state. We are mistaken to act as if that’s not the case.

God in Christ with the Holy Spirit is our one God. No other gods beside him. None. Something we’ll have to keep our eyes open for, because nothing can be alongside much less replace God. Only God is God. Everything else is phony in comparison, good in its place, but nothing more, and easily out of place.

May God help us, have mercy on us, that he may purge us, and that we might purge ourselves of all idolatry, and continue to do that. In and through Jesus.

a benign indifference to the politics of this world

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1:14-15

Stephen Backhouse wrote a most helpful book on Kierkegaard, and has a helpful podcast as well, entitled Tent Theology. The phrase “a benign indifference” meaning to the politics of this world comes from him.

Jesus was announcing a new political entity entirely. Most in Israel wanted the Roman government overthrown. But this kingdom would be entirely different. God’s kingdom come to earth in Jesus would never participate in wars. It would never directly be involved in the politics of this world. This government under King Jesus should be evident in the church. It is one of love for our neighbor, for each other, for our enemies. Love expressed in good works. And willingness to suffer in following Jesus.

The politics of this world are important up to a point. Much good can happen, as well as evil. And for those where I live, local government is especially important, underrated, but the state and federal government have their important place as well.

But for the follower of Jesus, there’s only one allegiance and one Lord. So regardless of what happens with the nation-state, our kingdom and King remain the same. We live in God’s kingdom come in Jesus. All we do depends on that, is rooted in that. Not in any party or politician of this world. So that indeed, we can and even should have a benign indifference to the politics of this world.

That doesn’t mean we don’t take a stand where needed. And many times we’ll not be in lock step here with each other. Jesus followers do think differently about the politics of this world. We must all try to see everything in the light of Jesus, God’s kingdom present in him, what he taught, how he lived. And look at what followed in Acts and in the rest of the New Testament. We must keep working on that.

A holy, loving benign indifference to the politics of this world. In and through Jesus.

we are mortal

One of my favorite songs from a classical rock band is Kansas’s Dust in the Wind. We are more than dust in the wind, but the song still makes a salient point. We are mortal; we will die unless the Lord returns before that. The writer of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, “the Teacher” puts it this way:

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,     and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,     and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from,     and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.     “Everything is meaningless!”

Ecclesiastes 12:6-8

He is referring to “your Creator,” God. We are mortal, dust. Our time here in this life is brief, even if we live toward a normal lifespan, the decades go fast, time flies and all the more it seems as we get older. God. God. God. That’s who we need to be centered on, above anything else. The God made known to us in Jesus. 

what does Jesus say? (not, what does the Bible say?)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42

Ever since I prayed to know the Lord better, to know him at all it seemed to me, shortly thereafter I’ve been undergoing a slow revolution. It’s liberating, but difficult on a number of levels. One of them is to reject all the more what’s called a flat Bible. 

By a flat Bible, I mean the tendency to want to see a straight correlation between any passage and us today. At the same time there is some application we can receive from any given passage, even if it’s remote and indirect. But to get there, we Christians have to see everything in the context of what Jesus taught, and the revelation that Jesus brings in his fulfillment of all things. The difference that makes, and it does make a marked and even contrasting difference at certain points.

For example consider the woman caught in the act of adultery. Wasn’t the man there, too? But that’s another issue, yet relevant when you consider Jesus’s life and teaching. But to the point: Jesus rejected the Law’s prescription: stoning. Instead he tells the men present that whoever has no sin should cast the first stone. And we know what happened. Beginning with the oldest, they all departed. Then Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more (John 8:1-11). We know that Jesus ends up taking on himself all condemnation, guilt and sin heaped on him at the cross. And because of who he is through that takes on himself what we deserve, so that we’ll never have to receive that ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, it is important what the Bible says. But as Christians we read every bit of Scripture in light of the revelation of Christ, God’s final word. We have to see everything in light of Christ’s teachings, and his life. It’s the way of the cross for us always, the way of love and forgiveness, the way of mercy and grace in the reality that justice is no longer something Christ followers have to satisfy. That is taken care of in Christ himself. 

All of that to say, this certainly doesn’t make it easy. Easier in a way in that we’re now hopefully walking more squarely in the way of Christ. But harder- given the world, the flesh and the devil. Even for Jesus that way was heaped with ridicule, scorn and eventually the abuse and thorns before the cross. That is the way for us as well.

Difficult to understand. Yes. We need the Spirit’s help. Even more difficult to live, though again through the Spirit we can begin to walk in these steps. As we seek to read and understand all of Scripture in the light of Jesus. In and through him.

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:13-16

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:13-16

strength from God against opposition

It’s interesting how again and again in Psalm 119, the psalmist appeals to God for strength to stand in the face of opposition. You find it sprinkled throughout that long chapter. And it’s not enough just to note that. One really needs to go through the entire chapter to get the feel of it. It’s real life with all its struggles and our responses to them. It is quite experientially oriented, as well as the emphasis on God’s word and law.

We expect to see that in many of the psalms, but may not expect it in this psalm. But it’s there, meant to help and strengthen us in the midst of opposition. Spiritual opposition of course, but also when others oppose us. We hopefully learn where we might be off. The psalmist was certainly not infallible themselves. We can see attitudes in the psalms, and in this psalm which are likely wrong even in that day, and definitely off track for us today as Jesus followers. So we need to be open to needed correction that may come from those who oppose us.

But we also can expect God to strengthen and help us as we seek to humbly take a stand for Christ, for the gospel, for mercy, justice, righteousness and truth. In and through Jesus.