hidden Christianity

I remember an interview Johnny Cash had on Fresh Air, as well as another interview about him on that program. There was one thing for sure about Johnny, along with his musical gift. His faith was just a natural part of who he was, so that if you wanted to get to know Johnny or interview him, you would know that his faith in God, and the grace of God in Jesus would be at the forefront, and would be a big part of what you heard. I hear that Hollywood or media outlets want to screen that out. But in order to understand us at all, who name the name of Christ, and seek to follow him, they’ll have to include that.

In some places people either keep their faith to themselves, or suffer the consequences. Martin Scorsese’s film Silence is a powerful reminder of that, but the same problem exists in not a few places today where it is actually against the law to be a Christian.

There are so many things that Christians and nonChristians have in common. It’s not like we can’t enjoy each other’s company and learn from each other, and be friends for life. It’s only that the most important thing about us as followers of Christ will not be so with them. But we can share in each other’s humanity, which in itself is quite good enough. Of course we want to share much more, being of the belief that humanity is being fully restored in and through Jesus in the one people of God.

We don’t do well to live in fear, nor do we proceed without much thought and prayer. But for us who name the name of Christ, it needs to be clear to all that it is Christ who is our life, what life is all about to us (Philippians). Of course we don’t share our faith in a way that will only ailienate others. But our faith is something to be lived, defining us, who we are, through and through. God’s grace in Jesus being the difference for the faith, hope and love we have. Something we want to share with others, as we hope that they see Jesus in us.

Presidents, politics, even nations (empires) come and go. Jesus is Lord.

Scot McKnight has an interesting piece on what the world needs most, precisely, What America’s Culture Wars Need Most, and I agree. Looking at what’s best for the United States, it would surely be a people whose expectations for the United States, or for any government or political entity or leader are tempered by their belief in one transcendent that deserves full allegiance and trust: King Jesus, and God’s grace and kingdom come in him.

This thought may not be easy for anyone, so great is the divide in the United States today. And it’s not like the politics of the nation state doesn’t matter, nor carry with it serious consequences. But it is a question of just where our ultimate confidence lies, and if we even unwittingly place that kind of trust in a political party or ideology of this earth, rather than in God. It is one thing to think this way or that about whatever issue we’re considering. It’s quite another to assume that the answer for the world lies in lining up one certain way or another. How such matters turn out may indeed make a world of difference, but what difference, or we might say kind of difference are we as followers of Jesus, as the church to make through the gospel?

The gospel, the good news in Jesus, is in some ways oblivious to the world and its ways. It matters not who’s in charge in Washington or elsewhere, the church through the gospel continues on with the same humanity coming out of the same life regardless. The church stands as the witness to the one good news which remains constant, and ought to be a light which often brings a rebuke to the nation state.

We must beware of putting our confidence not only in elected officials, but in ourselves as well, thinking that through grass roots effort, we can effect the change needed for the world. Again, it’s not like such things never matter. It’s just that there’s one thing which will stick and effect a change which will go beyond whatever changes occur within the world system. The good news of God’s grace and kingdom come in King Jesus by the Spirit experienced and lived out within the church, and to which the church is a witness is the one reality that will last.

We hope and pray for the good of the United States, and for the good of all nations. But our full confidence is in God’s promise in Jesus, no less. And never in any nation state.

the need for strict, ongoing self-discipline

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9

They say we often eat to feed not really our bodies, but our minds or hearts. That we do so from being troubled. The Christian life contra some of the early church fathers is not meant to be one of harshly treating the body. Not at all! Read Paul’s words in Colossians:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Of course the Christian ascetics did not have such a worldly system in mind in their fasting for the sake of Christ, and for their own spiritual good, so it is different. Yet the sameness might exist in thinking that harsh treatment of the body in itself can do good, as if the body is the enemy of the soul, a neo-Platonic way of thinking which surely infiltrated the church, even probably noticeable in perhaps the greatest of the church fathers, Augustine.

And yet Paul minced no words in the Corinthians passage quoted above. We by grace either discipline ourselves, and specifically our body, or we place ourselves in danger of losing out with reference to all that is ours in Christ. How God rewards in the end, I don’t think we can be sure, though we may have some inklings. But there are certainly some lines we’re not to cross in this life. We must pull out all stops to stop dead in our tracks, and not go past certain lines we might even be rushing headlong to. And we need to work on an agenda in which we are following a different path altogether.

And even if we have failed, that gives us no excuse to excuse ourselves from Paul’s example here. We need to do so all the more. We are weak in ourselves for sure. We need God’s grace to help us through. And we need sheer determination to persevere in that grace and not let up.

They say our brains are one of our most important physical organs. The brain does better with the extra flow of oxygen which comes from good physical exercise. And the mind certainly can affect the body. We surely need to have our hearts and minds set on Christ, and on the things of heaven where Christ is, someday destined to come to earth, and already present now by the Spirit. But we need to take heed of our focus, in order to have the kind of discipline Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians. Paul’s words there should be considered in their context. And interestingly enough, Paul’s warning in Colossians is followed up with the counsel to focus on Christ and might even seem austere by today’s standards. It is referring to a spiritual discipline, but there is no such discipline in which our bodies are not involved. Our bodies are part of our real selves.

And so what we do and don’t do does matter. God has indeed richly given us all things for our enjoyment, so that we’re not to deny ourselves of the good of creation (1 Timothy). But we must avoid counterfeit gods, which can include even our own stomachs (Philippians 3), and sometimes might involve making some major changes. Our goal is to pursue Christ and likeness to him until the very end. May God grant us the grace to do so together in and through him.

 

in what are our thoughts steeped, and what follows?

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

We steep teabags in water (I, strangely enough, in coffee water) to let the leaves soak in the heat for the brew. Day in and day out, what do we soak our thoughts in?

This passage written by the Apostle Paul tells us to be occupied with that which is good and helpful. It clearly seems to include good from any source, though one has to be discerning, and separate the good from the bad. Of course the emphasis would be on God’s special revelation in scripture, while certainly including God’s general revelation which might well include a Greek philosopher like Plato, and any number of writers or people, not Christians themselves. Again, we need discernment. There is actually much good to gather in from sources which are not explicitly Christian.

I think we know the difference from what is good and what is not. Though sometimes we might become somewhat numb to that distinction. There is much that passes for entertainment and information which at best is questionable and at worst is unhelpful and downright demoralizing. What is especially challenging, though, is that which is couched as good, yet would not fit into any of the categories in Paul’s list above. It is one thing to expose the fruitless deeds of darkness (Ephesians 5). But it is quite another thing to fight fire with fire, to essentially enter into that darkness, ourselves. We can become immune to that which is objectionable, and even begin to participate in it ourselves.

Interestingly, Paul follows up the list of what we are to reflect on with the instruction to do not only as he said, but as he did. His example in his life day in and day out was seen by some who were recipients of this letter which we entitle Philippians. Maybe he was seen by all the believers there, and surely especially so by the leaders of the church. That example is passed down from generation to generation, hopefully, and at any rate, the same Spirit who helped Paul and others to live in the Jesus way, is present to help us in becoming followers of our Lord.

So our thoughts, what we dwell on impacts how we live. Not that this passage is actually saying that, though we know from other passages and in life that this is true. What is fundamental for us includes both what we occupy ourselves with, and what examples we follow. Something we need to concern ourselves with as we seek to live with others and in the world in the full will of God.

the missing sermon from the Bible

I am increasingly convinced that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; see his corresponding Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6) is essentially off the radar for many Christians, not a real consideration at all. And the ironic thing is that Jesus ends that sermon (both sermons) with the analogy of the man who built his house either on the rock, or on sand. That this teaching from our Lord is actually foundational.

I believe our heart by the Holy Spirit is often better than our heads. Christians often have a kind of sixth sense, so to speak, by the Spirit, so that they do much better in life, akin for example to what our Lord says about loving our enemies, etc., in the sermon. And those whose theology actually takes it out of consideration can be grace-filled, loving believers. But good theology, Biblical interpretation, and God’s written word matters. We need to be in all of it from Genesis through Revelation. And certain passages need to be underlined and probably emphasized depending on the culture in which one lives. Surely the Sermon on the Mount fills a needed dearth among many Christians in the United States.

We must beware of seeking to apply these words of our Lord to nations and unbelievers. Rather, they are for believers and followers of Jesus. But we must apply them, indeed. We can respect and want the US Constitution and foundation for this nation to be adhered to for the continuation of this liberal democratic state, liberal not in the way spoken of today, but according to what was meant at the nation’s inception, though much of what carries over from that might logically follow. But for us in Jesus, we need to be in all of the word, and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount should certainly be a staple of our thinking and living. Along with my psalm, Old/First Testament, and New/Final Testament reading, I read from either the Sermon on the Mount, or the Sermon on the Plain, daily. Hopefully more and more of that will soak in and make a difference. Something for the entire church to help make the difference that’s needed in our lives and witness in and through Jesus.

 

gently leading others

He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40 is truly one of the great passages of scripture, like Romans 8. I hesitate to say that, because I believe we should consider every part important, even the most obscure passages that we might not understand well, if at all. But this passage comforts God’s people both with God’s immense greatness and immeasurable goodness and in terms of God’s great salvation.

What seems especially helpful is the idea of God’s gentle leading. Oftentimes when people, when any of us think of God, we think of an extension of our experience with authority figures, which too often has not been encouraging, but quite the opposite. Or perhaps for some of us, those people were largely absent from our lives. The picture of God given to us in scripture is that God is beyond everything and yet nearer than the breath we breathe. That God is just as much intimate as God is transcendent. That means that the God who is not overwhelmed in the least enters into the picture for humankind, for the world, yes, for us. And God cares for us.

I love the imagery quoted above (see NRSV in link, “[God] will gently lead the mother sheep.”) That God leads the sheep, us, gently. We need that. And in turn, that is how we’re to help the young among us. Not pushing them, or being gruff with them. But gently leading. In fact, we can take that as the cue on how we’re to influence each other. Not that we’re in life to manipulate, but instead we want to learn to follow God’s leading, and hopefully help others to do the same, since we know that is best, and in fact is wonderful.

When one looks at the entire Story in scripture, one also sees that God leads out of weakness, that actually God’s weakness is strength. It is the way of the cross, the way of suffering love for us and for the world. And a part of our salvation for us now in this world, is to learn in and through Jesus to take that same road for others in our commitment to Christ and the gospel.

Let’s pay attention to those who gently lead, and especially to our Lord God, and then learn to follow in those steps. In and through Jesus.

what it means to follow King Jesus in a political world

Unlike those in Bible times, we live in a democratic society, which complicates our reading and application of scripture. If you read nothing more, read this, which is an excellent application of scripture in light of that.

When it comes to the politics of this world, I think we in Jesus need to apply the politics of Jesus, and the politics of the kingdom, and while that will surely impact our position on any issue, for example the refugee issue, it’s not as simple as either lining up with one party or candidate, or opposing another party or candidate. And in the end, though it may well affect the way we vote (or not vote, and if we vote at all), it ends up being solely about one thing for us: living for Jesus and for the gospel.

I do pay some attention to the politics of this world, and especially so, since I live in a democracy in which I can participate directly and indirectly in the process. While I think Christians can become unduly entangled in a mess when it comes to politics, I also think there might be some good we can do, especially as advocates for the poor, oppressed, and helpless. And we may want policies which help our families, all well and good, but we need to beware of making it all about us, what we want, what is best for us.

To understand what it means to follow King Jesus, we surely need to practice what John R. W. Stott advocated in his book, Between Two Worlds. He lived before the digital revolution, so he wrote of having the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in another. The problem in any age, but it seems particularly acute today, is the reality that the digital and news of the day can easily swallow up most all of our time, so that we end up being very little in the Bible at all. And after all, haven’t many of us read it through (or heard it read) at least a number of times?

But to follow King Jesus here and now, we need an interactive relationship both with scripture and with the world in which we live. But we must think of it, if we’re to follow King Jesus, not in terms of what the world wants, but what Jesus wants. And the root of that must be in the revelation we find in scripture of Jesus, and the good news in him. And we live that out from and within our communion as the church.

We must beware of getting caught up and entangled in either the Christian right or left, or the political right or left. Instead, we’re to follow Jesus. And in that communion, that fellowship, we are united to those who may see differently when it comes to the politics of this world, but with whom we’re united in the common goal of following Jesus, and obeying him, as well as living from and witnessing to the gospel, the good news in him.

That must be our goal, even our heart, and nothing less.