paying attention to God’s commands

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Psalm 119:1-8

It seems hard and almost old fashioned, at least open to question nowadays, the necessity or even importance of keeping God’s commands. For one thing we live in a relatively Bible illiterate day, when it seems like year after year, people who attend Bible teaching churches know the Bible’s content less and less. At least that has been the case. And we live during a day when there’s a major cultural shift arguably accompanied with a hermeneutical shift, how Christians interpret the Bible. With the obvious changes from the Old (or First) Testament to the New (or Second, we could say Final) Testament such as found in Leviticus, for example the prohibition of sowing two different fabrics together to make clothes no longer being in effect comes the protests that sexual mores have now been changed as well. The idea that sexual relations are confined to a woman and man who are married is considered odd and a thing of the past, almost taboo at least among many in their practice.

Among Christians who fall prey to none of that, there can be such an emphasis on grace, that keeping God’s commands is nearly beside the point. Impossible since that is considered falling under the law, which is only meant to indicate that we’re sinners, incapable of keeping the law. With others it might be a decided shift in emphasis due to priorities which determine more what we’re to do and not do than Scripture itself. It’s almost like Scripture is present to help achieve what is considered most important, often referring to priorities in one’s personal life, or from the political sphere.

May I just suggest that I think all of us Christians and churches ought to stop, back up, and go to square one. We need to return to the plain words of Scripture, of course read faithfully and in light of God’s revelation given to us in Scripture of Christ. We might be surprised at just how traditional it might come across. Not the air of today’s “brave new world” but the fulfillment of the old creation in the new creation in Jesus as spelled out in the Final “New” Testament itself. Something to which we should aspire, even as with the psalmist we lament in not arriving to perfection in this life. In and through Jesus.

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while the world is falling apart…

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46

We live in a time of cultural seismic change. In society, including the church, certainly in politics. And if you’re not on board, then you’re not welcome.

Christians need to hold steady, just as the psalm tells us. Not be taking sides in the culture war, or whatever war is going on out there. But standing steady in the faith, come what may. On the truth of the gospel, and as found in Scripture.

We need to appeal to reason, but no matter what we say, we will face opposition. Of course we need to listen well, too. We can learn from those who oppose us, since they might have some truth in what they’re saying. After all, we have our blind spots too.

When it’s all said and done, we still hold steady to the truth as it is in Jesus and in Scripture. And we stake our lives on that, and nothing else. Confident in the God who has made himself known in and through Jesus.

the flourishing to come

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Isaiah 35:1-10

I am much interested in Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun’s book, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference (Theology for the Life of the World). It seems that they advocate for policies for human flourishing within the pluralistic world in which we live. I personally am all for that. I don’t know what else they say, but I’m sure they agree that full flourishing will come only at Jesus’s return when God’s promise of salvation and new creation will be fully realized.

Human flourishing is at the heart of God’s will for the world, for humankind. It’s when all is well, humans are individually well themselves, and living in the relations in which they’re meant to live with each other. Each realizing their full potential, and enjoying the outcome of that together.

Unfortunately in this present existence, simply put, there’s too much resistance against God’s will. There’s both lack of faith, and actual desire to live in God’s will. Although in common grace there’s much in common (not to repeat the same word so closely) with God’s will. There is goodness and righteousness along with evil, whether or not the educational elite can or are willing to recognize that.

We long for the breakthrough to come when the world will at long last be what God intended it to be. Paradise restored and human culture meeting its full potential in the life and love of God. In and through Jesus.

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.