not crossing certain lines

…train yourself to be godly.

1 Timothy 4:7

I think one of the most important things even we older Christians can do today is to train ourselves to be godly. What godliness means might to some extent be up for grabs, since different theological schools will emphasize different things. Really godliness is beyond us, both in really understanding it, and certainly in applying it. We have the Spirit along with scripture, the word, and the church, particularly those who are examples to us in this. Only God can give us light in both helping us see, and be changed, as we are enabled to walk, or live in the light in Jesus as found in scripture.

Here in the United States, we live in a precarious time. Much division and even some hate seems to more and more embed itself and even mark our culture. And we Christians are not above being taken into it and yes, becoming a part of it. It is hard, because there are certain issues that we feel strongly about. Abortion, and then depending on our views, other matters as well. We need to apply scripture and the gospel to critique our views. There are some matters that people will end up disagreeing on, including Christians with each other.

What we need today is the discipline to stay on track, and not get off onto rabbit trails which end up not helping anyone at all. Addressing certain matters such as injustice, and being “pro-life,” along with other contentious issues like environmental stewardship, even government, the church and state, etc. We also need to determine that there are certain lines we simply won’t cross, along with the discernment to know what those lines are.

More often than not the best wisdom is simply to remain silent (Proverbs 17:28). To listen, to gather our own thoughts, and above all, to seek God’s wisdom with others. And to keep doing that. To learn to be reticent to speak. Then God can help us to know better just when we should and must speak out. But our emphasis must always be on Christ and the gospel and never on anything less.


the dignity and destiny of all peoples

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

Revelation 5

As we draw near to the day on which we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in light of the present time, we do well again and again to reflect on the dignity and destiny of all of God’s created children.

That means we need to accept and learn to appreciate every culture. We might not celebrate or live out life like others do, but we need to see their strengths and our weaknesses. We need to look for and find the good in their way of life, and the not so good in our way. And we need to learn from them, and be open to appreciate ways in which God’s image is uniquely reflected in them.

We enslaved peoples from the African nations, on what pretext, I don’t know. Just because we could. And supposedly good people stood by, and ended up even participating, maybe trying to put a human face on this inhumane evil. And even the church stood by, either saying nothing, or at times, even justifying it.

And to this day there are people who see dark skinned people as somehow inferior. Today we have the scourge and lie of white nationalism. As if somehow we who are white are better, as if God created us a notch above the others. And in fact some have even argued that certain “races” (there is actually only one: the human race) are subhuman.

God’s word gives the lie to all of that in the truth that all whom God has created, God intends to redeem into the new creation. That all humans are made in God’s image. And that such are going to reign on earth.

What does all of this mean for us now? And especially where I live in the United States of America? I’m sure it means quite a lot, but from my perspective, I’ll name two. It means we need to live differently right where the rubber meets the road, in our relationships with others. That we need to go out of our way not to judge what ought not to be judged. One example from my own life: I am a worker, and while I can relate to people, I am a down to business person, who doesn’t like to “waste time.” But I notice that people from other ethnicities like to spend more time and visit, which for me cuts into the time during which I should be working. I leave room, and actually want to make room for such times when I can, but work itself is the priority.

I can learn from others to stop here and there, and appreciate the other. While also noting that these people work just as hard, and do just as well on that end, in fact they might make some contributions to the work itself which helps us do better. In other words, I need to see everything in its entirety and put the best case on everything, even if I may not be able to see it at the time.

For us, this means we have a learning, and more precisely a growing curve. The point I’m making here is that we need to stop putting others down, just because we don’t live the way they do. We need to ask what God’s values are. They have to put up with us, with our blind spots, and how often we put work over people and relationships. I’m sure work was important to Jesus. But never at the expense of relationships for sure.

My other point would be the church itself. How are we doing in showing the world the dignity and destiny, indeed, the beauty of all humanity? I wonder. Overall, with some exceptions I don’t think we’re doing all that well. There are white churches, black churches, and then other churches of other ethnicities right in the same city. And to some extent that’s understandable, and we’re not to force the issue, but be in prayer over it. But especially us white folks need to take it on ourselves, considering history, to purposefully open the door for a multiracial witness. That would mean taking people of other ethnicities onto the pastoral staff, and into the leadership of the church.

This is a part of our witness to the truth and reality and power of the good news in Jesus. In which we’re to live, and be committed to. Accepting others fully, just as God in and through Christ fully accepted us.

the word and the world

John R. W. Stott, was one of the greatest writers of my lifetime, himself a pastor and theologian, and astute Bible teacher wrote a number of books, all of them helpful. One of them which stands out to me is Between Two Worlds. In it he presents a compelling case for in that time having the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. Of course today one has to be wary of much of what passes for news, particularly on the internet. You’ll find plenty of bogus, or misleading stories, either the headline not supported by what follows, or the article misleading at best. So one has to dig, and try to find news sources which will present actual facts in a balanced way so as to give the true picture. While letting people from all sides have their say. A challenge, and some outlets are better at that than others.

Although the book is geared to preaching, we can take plenty away from it for our witness. Even the idea itself is stimulating in helping us think through just how we’re to reach our world. A simple witness of what the Lord has done in our lives is helpful, and all the more good if it can speak to where others live, not an easy task, since there are different challenges people face. And different perspectives, along with views on life, which we do well to become aware of.

I’m a strong believer in being in scripture day and night (Psalm 1). But I’m also a believer in trying to keep tabs on what’s up in the world near and far; locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. To especially try to see everything in terms of the gospel making inroads especially into places it hasn’t before. We care about the world, because God cares about it, and it’s only human to do so. We want the best for our loved ones and for others.

A central part of the case Stott adeptly laid out was the need to study and seek to understand culture. He speaks in the book of he and some clergy friends going to a films, and then afterwards discussing their meaning and the ramification of that for understanding culture, the world in which they lived. One of the terms I find unhelpful is timeless, saying God’s word is timeless for example. There is truth in it if we mean the word is in a sense above and beyond time, but it always speaks into time. No, it is better to use a word like timely, since even though scripture was written within a certain cultural context and time, we are to prayerfully study and reflect on how it speaks and impacts our own day. In missional language which used to be commonplace, it is called contextualization. In the words of scripture, we seek to understand the times and what we as God’s people should do. Especially together as the church, each of us individually having our part. And we do better to grapple with these things together.

And so I feel most at home with a Bible in hand, and a cup of coffee in the other. And NPR* along with the internet not far away. I need both, as long as I don’t get caught up and taken away into something going on in the world.  Instead we seek to be those who are present in Jesus, the one who is Emmanuel, God-with-us to God’s people, and for the world.

*And other news outlets. Good to listen to perspectives one does not share, and some of that is achieved on NPR, but good to go to other places as well, to listen and weigh what is said.

marriage today in the church and society

“Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19

Eugene Peterson, one of the very best Christian writers in my lifetime, himself a pastor had an interesting exchange in the past few days in which he seemed to affirm same sex marriage, and then immediately retracted that, and clarified his position. See this interesting post from Christianity Today.

My own position is to side with what scripture up front seems to make clear both in regard to marriage, and same sex relationships, or homosexuality. Of course scripture itself is nuanced, and challenging on some levels, and always must be read in light of its fulfillment in Christ. That said, it seems pretty clear why the traditional view not only holds strong with most Christian denominations and traditions, but surely will remain so in generations to come. Perhaps what might change is how people who have same sex attraction are received into the church, although that probably varies from church to church now.

Denominations and churches which accept and practice same sex weddings, and ordain those who are thus “married” I have seen, either argue that scripture itself leaves room for “covenant” gay sexual relationship, that when scripture does address this subject the few times it does, it is referring to something else altogether. I have read the arguments myself, and find them less than convincing in comparison to traditional teaching and interpretation of scripture. Or there are those “Christian” leaders who simply question Biblical teaching, even at times suggesting that the resurrection of Christ can be taken either literally or metaphorically, in others words that one can be a Christian without believing Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection. While I disagree, I can respect the former, but not the latter.

I think it’s a tragedy when whole groups are ostracized by the church, and now I’m thinking of the LGBT group. But any church, or Christian who doesn’t hold an affirming view of such relationships, will be seen as attacking the person. I doubt that enough work is being done to reach out to these people. At the very least they should know that they’re loved, and welcomed. I’m not sure myself just how to address this, though I think I know what my tentative suggestion might be. But I would want to be part of a group of men and women prayerfully deliberating on that.

As to my own view for society, I say that the church should not try to dictate what the state wants to do. The state, or government is not the church, and can’t be held to the church’s standards. Nor should the church be forced by the state to adopt the state’s standards. So I would hold to a separation of church and state, at the same time hoping that the church’s influence through the gospel might rub off on the state. But never at the expense of compromising the church’s own complete allegiance to Christ and the gospel.

It is quite a challenging and hot topic today, a sea change having taken place in society, with some impact on some churches. It’s simply a new time for the church to learn to live in a culture which doesn’t define marriage in strictly a traditional way. The church will continue on, but hopefully with new insight in helping those who feel rejected by the only one who can change any of us, and receives us all.

King Jesus: “the truth” which divides

Love and truth go together in scripture. One is not legitimate without the other. But the fact is that in our society and culture what that means differs from scripture. Their truth is told from their narrative which draws the line on moral judgments only in terms which most any society would agree is right and good. Largely speaking our modernist, postmodernist culture is becoming more and more relativist meaning there are theoretically no absolutes. What might be true for you (as in working for you) may not be true for me. Truth at large depends on what society thinks. And indeed there is a legal precedent for that. One of the United States Supreme Court Justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. believed that laws are strictly speaking determined by society, even (from what I remember reading elsewhere) from what a majority thinks. And that judges make decisions on law from the directive of the United States Constitution in terms of what that constitution was based on as well, “common law.” And that there is no law from any deity that must be upheld. Most of the judges of his day generally followed that principle whether or not they agreed in all the details, and that directive up to the present time generally seems to remain in play.

Our response as those who are of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus is necessarily in terms of God’s will in Jesus. But it is also in terms of the people we want to reach in love with the gospel. Paul became all things to all people that by all possible means he might save some (the wording of scripture). And he did that for the sake of the gospel and the blessing that comes from it.

The harsh reality is that no matter what we in Jesus say it will be judged as hard, insensitive, unaccepting, intolerance — unloving. Instead of dropping the truth on people before they’re ready, we may need to prayerfully do other things so that by God’s grace and Spirit in and through Jesus, their hearts might be prepared to receive and accept it. The basic truth which will not sit well in our society is that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. That no one can come to the Father, to God apart from him.

We want to win others to the faith. What can attract them? Simply seeing Jesus. Jesus for who he is, God’s revelation in him. That is what we all need, what our neighbors need. But Jesus himself will be the dividing line until kingdom come, when the kingdom of God will become the rule of life on earth when King Jesus returns. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep and searches for the lost sheep. He is the gate through which the sheep enter into abundant, eternal life. Some will receive that, sadly others not.

And so love and truth are found in Jesus. Jesus, by his life and teachings, death and resurrection, ascension and pouring out of the Spirit with the promise of his return, brings us back to God’s will in which we reign under God’s rule. A rule by which we in King Jesus live in the life of the Spirit. As we seek to live in and live out the gospel as a witness, as it is proclaimed to the world.

we need all of scripture

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

In this day and age not only is the knowledge of scripture waning among the faithful it seems, but the Book is not being appreciated for what it really is: the written word of God. Certain parts are out of style, or maybe we should say parts everywhere, or why not just say the entire Book? It doesn’t fit our fancy, just isn’t in with the spirit of the times.

This thought came home anew and afresh to me in listening to what I think is a powerful testimony of a lesbian coming to faith, well worth the listen. She wrestled through all of scripture. And over time. And the Lord met her there.

Of course I don’t believe we’re to live in the past. We in Jesus live in God’s kingdom and in that new reality here and now and for this day as God’s resurrection people in and through Jesus and his cross. We don’t go back to the old covenant. Nor do we live in the culture in and to which the new covenant was written. This book is the best I’ve read in helping us begin to think through that. Nevertheless we need every line, every thought that comes out of every part of scripture, everything given, all of it. Picking and choosing will not do.

All of it is in there for a reason. Parts of it I dislike. But those parts often either mirror the sin that can take hold and destroy, or my own sin in some way affecting my reading of it in ways I can’t or maybe never will fully comprehend this side of glory, though it’s probably good to work on that.

I like the idea of reading scripture, especially out loud which scripture itself advocates. I’ve done that a number of times (though not out loud, except perhaps in my mind), but mostly I’ve listened and continue to listen to it being read- in recent years from The Bible Experience. I have to keep listening, try to listen well, and grow in that, but in this way I’m pushed through the entire Book over and over again. Along with that we need serious Bible study and prayerful Bible reading (Lectio Divina). The only thing I’ve done relatively well is to listen to it being read, although I think it is too often in spite of myself, wandering thoughts and not paying close enough attention (becoming aware of this, I’m trying to do better), and yet enough of it getting through to me to make some difference.

We in Jesus have been aptly called “people of the Book.” As long as it is not a book we worship, but the God revealed in Christ we read of in the pages of that Book, we remain among the faithful. We look to the Spirit to help us as continue in God’s word together in and through Jesus for the world.

Lois Tverberg on the restoration of “the picture of Jesus that the gospel writers first gave us”

In 1977, Pinn Barcilon won the assignment of a lifetime when she was asked to lead the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, one of the most well-known images of all time. But the renowned Italian art conservator could hardly imagine how nerve-wracking the next twenty-three years would be.

The centuries hadn’t been kind to the mural that da Vinci completed on a monastery wall in Milan, Italy, in 1498. Always the experimenter, Leonardo had reformulated his paints in a way that proved to be unstable, so that the paint began flaking off even before his death. And even though his mural was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, it was left unprotected from pollution and humidity. When Barcilon began her restoration, five hundred years of dust, mold, and candle soot had darkened the iconic work almost to the point of invisibility.

The real challenge for her team, however, was to undo the disastrous attempts at restoration that had begun back in the 1700s. Heavy coats of varnish, glue, and wax had been brushed on, each of them hastening the darkening process.  Worst of all, hack amateurs had painted over da Vinci’s work time and again, rendering its images distorted, brushing out details they didn’t understand, and filling in gaps with their own interpretations.

After months of photographing every square centimeter of the painting’s surface and analyzing it using state-of-the-art technology, Barcilon’s team members finally began their work. Then, for over twenty years they hunched over microscopes, painstakingly scraping away five hundred years of grime and overpainting. On a good day, one postage stamp’s  worth of the image would emerge. In 1999, when da Vinci’s brushstrokes were finally revealed, her team’s meticulous, mind-numbing labor found its reward. Barcilon called it a “slow, severe conquest, which, flake after flake, day after day, millimeter after millimeter, fragment after fragment, gave back a reading of the dimensions, of the expressive and chromatic intensity that we thought was lost forever.”

Gloomy shadows banished; a well-lit banquet hall emerged. Peter’s beard and nose were free of the clumsy weight that later retouchings had given them. Matthew sported blond hair, not black. Thomas gained a left hand. Andrew’s expression was transformed—he was no longer sullen, but astonished. And Jesus’ face glowed with new light after the dingy repaintings had been removed.

The essence of the scene remained unchanged. Da Vinci had depicted the fateful scene at the moment Jesus revealed one of his disciples would soon betray him. But after centuries of murky obscurity, restoration had brought to light the original beauty of the artist’s masterful portrayal  of the facial expression and body language of Christ and his disciples.

Just as modern technology enabled Barcilon to reveal da Vinci’s original strokes, in recent decades scholars have gained new tools to restore the picture of Jesus that the gospel writers first gave us. In just the past fifty years, we have seen more advances in biblical archaeology and in the discovery of ancient texts than in all the centuries since the time of Jesus. As dingy accretions of history are cleared away,  vivid details of Jesus’ life and culture are emerging….

….Leonardo da Vinci’s….masterpiece has influenced the Christian imagination of Jesus’ fateful last evening more than any other, yet it is culturally wrong in every detail. In the background are windows looking out on a sunny mid-afternoon scene, whereas the Passover meal always took place at night. And of course the faces of Jesus and the disciples are pale-faced Europeans, not Semitic. Most telling is what is on the table. Lacking are the essential elements of the Passover celebration, including the lamb and unleavened bread. In their place is a puffy loaf of bread, when leavening is strictly forbidden during the week of Passover, and a shockingly unkosher plate of grilled eels garnished with orange slices!

Of course da Vinci’s goal was to portray the disciples’ reactions at that critical moment, and he does so with brilliant technique and emotive depth. But by not including the elements of Passover, a feast that celebrated God’s redemption and brimmed over with messianic expectations, we miss the fact that Jesus was powerfully proclaiming himself as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises. Jesus uses the symbols of Passover to point toward his coming atonement to redeem those who believed in him and to inaugurate a “new covenant” for the forgiveness of sin.

Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life, 15,16,22.