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.

answer the questions we know, not the many things we don’t know

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1:22-25

Over the course of one’s life, much seems to be shrouded in mystery. And I’m thinking not so much in looking back, though that’s true, but in living through it. And then there’s the nebulous in between stuff, which we had enough understanding to work through, and either did well, or well enough, or not.

It is critical in one’s life to take a radical stance in acting on what we do know, which includes a whole host of things. I can’t emphasize this enough to help others avoid my errors, but also for me in the present. The only way I can avoid self-deception along with satanic deception is to stay on the straight and narrow course of obedience to God’s word. And what that involves is both very gospel and church oriented. And again, it’s rooted in the word, but the goal of that being an interactive relationship with God in communion with the church. And of course our lives in all of this are to be a witness to the world.

In answering the questions we know, I am getting at plain old fashioned obedience to scripture, nonetheless. To take a lot more of it literally, than not. And that involves good reading, meditation, and study. Of course we read scripture as both a human and divine book. So that we don’t do fanciful things with it in working at getting at the plain sense of its meaning. And we consider it in its entirety, and learn from biblical scholars who do the same. We stay the course not only of scripture, but within the latitude and accepted parameters of the church’s interpretation and understanding.

Let me say again that this is crucial. Life is going to throw us some serious issues along the way, at least in our minds, but also in reality. Some of it in my own life has definitely been a matter of the mind. But others definitely real, as well as difficult. We need scripture and the church, and to be honest to God, and honest to others, particularly those in leadership, as well as a trusted, wise friend.

So let’s concentrate on doing well in what we know, and trust God to help us be faithful in that, as well as through the more difficult matters, along with what we don’t understand at all. And to learn to keep doing this, and growing in it, in and through Jesus.

the wheels turning slow, more often than not, a good thing, but must be turning

The Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 is a momentous occasion in the history of the faith, when what is required of God’s people with reference to the coming of Christ and what we now call the old covenant, was nailed down. But it wasn’t something that was just slapped together in a trial and error kind of way in reaction to a problem. And when you think about it, it required some significant time to have the substantial basis for the answer the apostles and elders agreed to.

It was at least eight years after Peter had first proclaimed the message of the gospel to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the believing Gentiles through hearing the message. During that time Paul’s testimony of how many Gentiles came to faith during his missionary journeys agreed with that. Surely I would think that it didn’t take long for a group of believers, or some leader to insist that circumcision and old covenant requirements remained intact. As a matter of fact, I’m thinking that such was probably taken for granted by much of the early church, comprised entirely of Jewish believers, along with those Gentiles who had converted to Judaism as God-fearers.

On the other hand, as one can see from the text, it was in response to a problem which had arisen, that the council was called in the first place. So that we can surmise that it’s not good to put every problem on the back burner. Or maybe better put, we keep the wheels of deliberation turning, without some hasty reaction, which might have to be taken back, even repented of, later.

The council was called in response to a problem, like councils in the early church that followed and hammered out the teaching of scripture for the church such as Christ’s two natures: fully God, and fully human, along with the Trinity. All in response to teachings in their day which were off the mark.

I think it’s wise to move slow, and with consensus, especially among those who are leaders in the church, in harmony with the Spirit and the entire church. And yet there’s a time to make the critical move and perhaps the pronouncement which comes with it.

This doesn’t mean we should be afraid to act, or speak something into a situation. Maybe God is leading us to, maybe not, but when we have an inkling of that, we would do well to gently, but firmly do so. Yet at the same time, we live with the realization that change takes time, and actually that we’re a part of that. We need the time ourselves, to reflect on our own journey. In the case in Acts, it took Peter some time to come around and then be fully convinced and confirmed in the change. And not without a struggle, even backsliding (see Galatians 2).

God will keep us faithful to the gospel, even when we inevitably misstep along the way in details of how we’re to live it out, and be a witness to it. And it’s a process of growth into that, not something which happens overnight. With the new life in place, we might think we have all we need to do everything. But it’s much wiser to stay the course over time, looking to others, and to the church at large, as we continue in scripture ourselves.

May God give the church wisdom in all of this in whatever days and years remain before Christ’s return.

hard topics (and the tongue)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4

Politics and religion can be quite dicey topics fraught with potential fallout for relationships. The heat can be turned up pretty high when topics surrounding either are being discussed. Discussion and conversation is soon lost into heated argument, if we’re not careful. Perhaps it’s better to avoid such altogether. Probably one of the most helpful attitudes is to acknowledge how much we don’t know, rather than what we think we know.

In Paul’s small but great letter to the Philippians, we find an apt exhortation near its end which can help us in this. First of all, referring to values that were esteemed in the culture of that day, Paul directs the church and by extension us, to ponder what is true, good, beautiful, and praiseworthy. And then he reminds them to live as he did in following Christ. When you consider the letter of Philippians alone, that is indeed a tall order. But one within our grasp to grow into in Christ.

Back to difficult, controversial issues. It might be best to avoid them altogether when we know we might differ with a fellow believer on this or that. It can be good to discuss differences, provided there is a listening ear and openness to learn on both sides. And to those who are not believers, we should major on simply loving, and sharing the good news in Jesus.

Above all, we need to inculcate love between us, especially when what could divide us is simply a few words away. And we can’t take that for granted with anyone. If we do touch on the difficult issues, we need to be quick to draw back and make room for the other person, and their viewpoint. Out of love for them, and for the Lord. All of this in and through Jesus.

black and white, and gray all over

Yesterday I was in an exchange in which I was told by a good man that the Bible is black and white, and therefore we should know, in this case, how we should have voted in the presidential election (I would add to that, if we voted at all). I stated, that yes, things in the Bible are black and white. Of course that’s true, with some qualifications. In the first place, the Bible doesn’t address everything, and in some ways it gives us just enough to be dependent on God and interdependent on each other, to keep us moving along the pathway of faith. Also one has to read the Bible in context and consider what part of the story is being told. Nevertheless, by and large, many big issues are clear enough.

We need the Holy Spirit to help us see aright even the most simple truths of God, which even in that case, we can never know as fully as God does, although God gives and helps us to know what we need to know. At least one of the biggest problems we have is the struggle in how to apply the truths in real life. That we can’t make room for Christians who while holding to a traditional view of marriage, believe society should make room for those who hold to other views, or in thinking that overturning Roe v Wade does not make anyone necessarily pro-life on the abortion issue, means that we are not grappling with the very real issues that are pastoral, and make up the complexity of the human experience. And we likely are not reading our Bibles correctly either, in the first place. One of my problems is how Christians left and right apply scripture meant only for God’s people, to the United States of America. The biggest need in all of this is to stay humble, express our opinions, but never think one has the final answer on many things, and don’t wave off people who see things differently.

Yes, everything that is black and white in scripture, ends up being gray in this life, only because we need God’s light in Jesus by the Spirit to see the light of day on what might need to be done in any given situation. And we need to pray, and ask questions, and look to God both in scripture and through the church for the wisdom we need both in individual cases, and in issues at large. A tall order indeed, not easy. So that there’s room for us all to enter into the conversation and see how God might be helping us together to come to a more Christian, Jesus-like, God honoring answer.

answers (and our true need)

Oftentimes in my life I’ve wanted to find answers to problems, to troubles which plagued me. In our day we can google and learn so much, and oftentimes quell/still our fears, though that can be a two-edged sword as well, as we learn things we just as soon would like not to know. On balance though, I think such quick access to oftentimes good information is good.

I think though in my life I have oftentimes failed to be looking for the kind of answer I really needed. Not that the down to earth, nuts and bolts answer is bad. That has its place, though I’m also convinced that the emphasis put on it, as well as the confidence invested in it is easily out of place. What I failed to do at least pretty much across the board during such times, was endeavor to find what we might call a spiritual formation kind of answer to the problem or issue.

I think this must come from the propensity to want to solve problems myself, yes even with the Lord’s help. What I needed first and foremost was not some resolution of the kind I was seeking, which is always subject to being challenged and overturned. No, I needed to find what the Lord might say, how he might direct me through the problem or issue.

Maybe I’m like Martha and not like Mary:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

I have been and still too often am distracted by this and that instead of attending to what really matters. Not that we can’t get other answers to problems and issues as well. We can work on that. But that will leave us high and dry if we don’t turn to the Lord to get his word to us in the midst of it all, to find out our true need. A word for us and through us in Jesus for the world.

keeping the peace

There is much controversy today within Christian circles, I’m thinking of evangelical Christian circles. I’m sure the same is true in other Christian places, but it seems more apparent and pronounced in evangelical places, maybe so for me, since that is where I live.

In the midst of all of this, how do we keep the peace? And what kind of peace is it that we’re trying to keep? Do we let everyone go their separate ways due to irreconcilable differences which seem to strike at the heart of our unity in Christ? Or do we try to mediate, and find common ground? Is there a time to simply agree to disagree and go on?

There are first principles (one might say) in the story* which are essential to the faith. That Jesus is the God-Human who in becoming flesh/human fulfilled God’s calling to Israel for the world in his life, mission, death and resurrection; that this fulfillment in its result continues through his ascension, and the pouring out of the Spirit on the church in mission to the world, all of this is at the heart of the gospel, the good news of King Jesus, which is the heart of Christianity. Of course we need to mention the first and greatest commandment, along with the second like it: to love God with all our being and doing, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is the peace in which we must live.

Naturally there will be concerns that that peace is being undermined, if not immediately lost in Christians taking different views, for example in regard to origins with reference to the Genesis account in scripture. Or with regard to same sex relations. These are two issues especially hot right now, but when they cool down, there will be others to take their place.

It is my contention that Christians need to have the freedom in love to debate these issues among themselves, even vigorously, but when all is said and done, to continue to love one another. Hopefully there is an openness on all sides to learn from each other, without compromising what is essential to the faith. Not easy, and not something we will be able to do on our own. We need God’s help to do this. As we search the scriptures and pray. All of us in Jesus together in this for the world.

*Story meaning the telling or account of something that is true.

parsing truth

I think I’ve heard this more than once through the past couple decades, that Christian theology is in a flux, with the idea that much will have to be worked through. I think this is a major reason some evangelicals have become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, and also is a factor in the rise of the neo-Calvinists, or as Scot McKnight has called them, neo-Puritans, gaining a significant following among those who are younger. People are attracted to clear answers from some authority, in the case of the Roman Catholics, the Magisterium giving the final answer on biblical interpretation, and in the case of the new Calvinists, their understanding of a system of theology from John Calvin and from his followers, having the final say.

I am by nature open minded, maybe to a fault, but as a Christian within my basic commitment to follow Jesus and adherence to scripture as the written word of God. For the most part the differences between Christians are really not a big deal, at least in my book, nor in the minds of many. What unites us is so much more important than the matters which divide us.

But there are issues which are quite contentious, where true Christians have parted in recent years. And which can cost Christians who work in Christian institutions their jobs. That alone makes these issues momentous in scale, but even more important is the impact these matters have on people. How this is handled is practically more important than which side one comes down on. Not to minimize the differences in such matters.

I think of what has been called theistic evolution, recently coined evolutionary creation versus creationism as in scientific creationism, or some other variety of that. I also think of the issue over homosexuality and gay covenant unions or even marriage and ordination into Christian ministry versus the traditional view which sees all homosexual activity as sin. Anyone alive today and aware of the evangelical landscape will know that these are ground shifting issues, in which much is at stake. For me much more is at stake in the latter issue, than the former, but for many it is more an opposite problem.

How do we parse truth? This is a question which is important for all Christians, but seems especially an open matter to Protestants, and especially those Protestants who are open to a certain kind of biblical criticism. This “criticism” is not about criticizing or critiquing the Bible and what it says. But it is really in terms of parsing it according to its original context within the scope of the whole brought forward to the present in application. Two good examples of that are slavery and women’s roles. Both are judged to be different than what one might make out in certain biblical passages. Scripture itself seems to indicate the truth with the light that comes at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, when all is said and done.

I think the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral can help us through difficult issues. First is scripture followed by tradition, then reason followed by experience.  I might like to make an emphasis like that, putting scripture over tradition and reason over experience, and yet holding all four as important.

Scripture is first, we must work on exegeting passages faithfully, letting each passage speak for itself into the whole of the biblical narrative. The Protestant stand of solo-scriptura (along with the other solos) is important here, though I would prefer to accept the suggestion that we understand it as primera-scriptura, or scripture first.

Next is tradition. Scripture in God’s work came from the church and yet scripture informs and we could say in a sense forms the church. The church is the pillar and foundation of the truth as scripture says, and I understand that to mean in its totality. God leads the church so that in spite of all its divisions, it gets the essence of the faith right. The church is certainly not infallible in all its interpretations, but many would disagree,  taking comfort in the Roman Catholic tradition of the Magisterium, or in the Eastern Orthodox position which itself has remained constant through the centuries.  Protestant liberalism is the exact opposite in which tradition is thrown to the wind, and all is up for grabs according to what seems right in the spirit of the age, how I take it, which they might say is according to one’s reason and experience, or experience and reason, all of that being God’s revelation along with the good Book.

Reason is necessary, because God’s word is an appeal to our reason, written, spoken and heard in rationalistic terms. And experience is important, because God’s word and revelation is in terms of real life, where we live, what we experience. Scripture certainly covers the gamut of that.

I don’t like the tension of working through difficult issues, but when we’re forced to do that for one reason or another, it can end up being a strengthening exercise. It is akin to younger people perhaps questioning what had been certain to them for many years, so that the faith might become their own, not in their own terms, but worked through so they can accept it on God’s terms for themselves.

What have you found to be the case in your own practice and experience of this?