one thing needed: simplify, personal, but not private

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.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

I’m not sure which one I identify with the most: Martha, or Mary. I aspire to being a one thing kind of person like Mary was. Yet I find life is filled with so many responsibilities, and I can’t let up on any of them. Maybe this variant reading which was originally in the TNIV, but is in few other translations has merit, not only from a consideration of the manuscripts (see the NET note on Luke 10:42), but from other considerations.

Regardless, I think it’s imperative to try to simplify life as much as possible. With one goal in mind: learning to sit at Jesus’s feet and take in his words, and let them soak in. The equivalent to that today might be one’s quiet time. “Personal devotions” has taken a beating, but maybe we miss a lot by not trying to have a “quiet time” that is personal between us and the Lord. Individualism is one thing, something we should avoid, but personal another, which God wants for us all.

What has to be guarded against is the notion that it’s all about us and the Lord. It’s actually all about God’s good will in Jesus, yes for us, and for everyone else. While it should be deeply personal, it is never to be private, either, or else it’s not following the Jesus of scripture, so that it’s not actually following our Lord.

But I want to simplify all the more in the way Jesus commends here. Sitting at the Lord’s feet, so to speak, and letting his words soak into my heart and mind so as to impact my life. Something I believe I need.

 

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the danger of the tongue

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

James 3:1-12

Proverbs makes it clear that words can both heal and harm. James counsels restraint in what we say, the need to metaphorically bridle, or keep a tight rein on the tongue (James 1:26). We little understand the damage our words can do. The devil is not only in the details, but the results which can be devastating. And it seems that the human tongue is much more prone to bad, even evil than it is to good. And like James and the rest of scripture points out, this is indeed deceptive. After all we’re speaking our hearts, and that’s the problem, just as Jesus pointed out:

…the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.

Matthew 15:18-19

On a more hopeful note, Jesus also said:

 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

Luke 6:45

And James does get to that (3:13-18). But first we must settle in well on the fact and reality that our heart, and the thoughts which come from it are often helpful to no one. Heart in the New Testament, by the way, and in scripture includes thoughts and disposition. We certainly need to fill our hearts with good things. And God is at work to change our hearts to become more and more Christian, like Christ, and to be increasingly attuned to what’s good, and sensitive to what’s not. But again, we have to hone in on the truth that there’s a certain proneness in ourselves toward what ends up being destructive, along with a certain deception inherent in that, and with awful, hellish consequences. James minces no words on this, and considering the rest of the letter, does lend more words to the subject than what one might expect, with supporting words dotted here and there elsewhere.

When we have even a yellow flag up in our minds about a certain subject, we should at least stop, and consider. Red lights, no, even if someone ought to say something. Maybe it’s not we ourselves. Perhaps someone will be gifted by God to help as needed in a situation, but we may not have the call and gift that goes with that to do so. It is best on those occasions to simply pray, not only for what troubles us, but for ourselves, and our response to that. James would say that we should at least be slow to speak, quick to listen, slow to anger (James 1). That we should speak words that are helpful to the hearer. And if there’s a needed word on a hard subject, we must look for wisdom from God and God’s word for ourselves first. Maybe after we’ve taken it in well for ourselves, God might be able to use us to help others. But it will mainly be through our lives. The point James gets to next.

a godly processing, instead of an ungodly reaction

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

James 1:19-21

How often in our lives have we blurted out something in reaction to some difficulty? Our first “natural” yet sinful response is often to fly off the handle and utter a few choice words under our breath. Or maybe to speak our mind when something is being said, particularly when it seems to be somehow threatening to us.

The point here, and what James is getting at is that we need to train ourselves to be different. One can say James makes that point when he tells us in addressing the problem of anger and quick speech (along with slow listening) to rid ourselves of all moral filth and the evil so prevalent, instead humbly accepting the word planted in us, which can save us.

We need to process things in light of God’s truth in Jesus. There may be times when we need to speak right away, not later. But if we are developing along these lines, such times can be more marked with humility, and a heart ready to listen. And always imbued with grace, but a grace that does not leave truth behind. James is strong in pointing to truth and not mincing words, but he’s also strong on a wisdom which helps us receive as well as share that truth with others (see 3:13-18). In and through Jesus.

mature thought

Enthusiasm without knowledge is no good;
    haste makes mistakes.

Proverbs 19:2 (NLT)

One of the mistakes I’ve made along the way over the years is to at times jump to conclusions, or adopt a new way of thinking, or talk about something before I’ve thought it through efficiently enough, which includes carefully weighing the source, along with the thoughts of others. Something may seem either promising or good, but upon further examination and deliberation, it might well fall by the wayside.

We don’t like problems unresolved. We at least want to have a patchwork solution in place. All of this instead of being committed to the hard work of trying to come to a better understanding of the issue. And as another proverb says:

The first to speak in court sounds right—
    until the cross-examination begins.

Proverbs 18:17 (NLT)

We have to learn to wait and weigh things, and in that process, listen to others. Some things won’t matter as much as others, and may require a decision on our part before we really feel well enough prepared. But those are the kind of things where some trial and error are part of the equation. There are other matters that in their nature are too sensitive and consequential for us to experiment with. We will make some mistakes along the way, even in such matters, but we do well to take our time, and then own the degree to which we hold to any proposition. Pointing out what needs to be qualified as for example having an opinion based on the expertise of others.

At any rate, this is one area that I would have done better to follow more closely over the course of my life. Something I’m working on, so that I’ll reflect a more mature thought in days to come with the wisdom God gives us in and through Jesus.

the tongue and the word

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

James 1

James is a book that’s down to earth, and pulls little or no punches. It gets to the point. Like all the other biblical books, it is best read in context, both immediate as well as in its entirety. And then of course we consider that in light of similar biblical passages which in the case of James would be gospel accounts with related teaching from our Lord, as well as the wisdom book, Proverbs. And then in the context of all the rest of scripture.

In the passage above, we’re told to be good listeners, and slow both to speak and to become angry, as if somehow those two might be tied together. What James might have been getting at in part is how we react when someone is saying something. We may be tempted to push back even hard with what we see as a corrective statement. Instead the biblical text commends listening, and being quiet. And offering a word only after deliberation, and never in the heat of the moment, if we offer anything at all.

But we shouldn’t stop there, but read the rest of the passage. Which tells us for that reason we’re to clean house and humbly accept God’s word into our lives.

I find for myself that being in the word does help me avoid some of the pitfalls of life. But we are still weak and often prone to wander off into our own spaces. When we ought to remain in God’s space through his word in scripture and in Christ.

And so we need to keep at it, over and over again, day after day. Not letting up, but continuing in God’s word, which can save us from the sin we can so easily slip into. And into a life which is much better. Something we don’t just step into overnight, but more like gradually grow into. In and through Jesus.

 

 

the love that overcomes (in anticipation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day)

13 If I speak in the tongues“[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,b]”>[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in partand we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes,what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is just around the corner (Monday), so I’ve been been listening to his speeches, and remarks from witnesses of his time from Martin Luther King: The Essential Box Set: The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.. This morning I listened to his message, Paul’s Letter to American Christians.  And from that comes this.

We look back on him and what he did, and we see him as a kind of prophet from God for his time. Although true prophets are for every time, which is no less the case with him. But what marked him above all, and gave power to his prophetic words was the love which marked all of those words and actions which followed.

People nowadays say (and it’s on car bumper stickers), “Love Wins,” but it’s the love of Jesus Christ found in the gospel that wins, period. Other love might win in some ways, but only the love of God in Jesus is victorious against all the hate and wrong in the world.

We get on our bandwagons, and we might give lip service to certain causes, one quite noble cause being the integration of all peoples, so that no one ethnic group or category is marginalized. But is there heart and hand service to go along with that? It is noteworthy how some of us can be so zealous for political positions, but our personal lives calling into question our professed allegiance to such causes.

But this is where the church through the gospel of Christ is to make the needed difference, or more precisely, to show the difference that the power of God for salvation is to make in the world. 1 Corinthians 13 quoted above is in the context of church relations, so that it is not really about this love in the world, but in the church. Only in and through Jesus can God’s love be manifested in the way described by Paul. Paul is pointing out that all of the spiritual gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are empty and mean nothing apart from this all pervasive love. And he even suggests when you consider the end of 1 Corinthians 12, that love is a way that is superior to the gifts. I don’t think in the end he’s making the case for either or, but again that love is to pervade all that is done in the church. How we love each other demonstrates to us and to the world the power of the gospel.

Racism is a grave and serious sin. It is to have no part in our hearts, and particularly in our churches. But we need to begin with the truth that we are all prejudice in that we all hold to certain myths which affect our view of others (listen to the January Series talk by David R. Williams, “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?”). Myth used here in the sense of ideas which may or may not hold some water generally speaking, but fail at a most basic, needed level. Racism is especially bad because it flies in the face of love; it denies love, and in fact stands in opposition against it. And most often it is not blatant, but subtle. And it’s evident in our neighborhoods, and even in our churches– sad to say.

The love of Jesus Christ through the good news, the gospel in him is the only hope to heal all of the wounds, and help us begin to live well together. All barriers are broken down by that gospel, so that we can learn to love and listen, listen and love. And that should begin in our neighborhoods, and at our workplaces, so that the power of that gospel can have its full effect and be seen in our churches. Different cultures brought together in ways which impact us all for good. In this way we are more human, since inherent to our humanity are relationships marked by love which sees us through the thick and thin; the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. So that we’re committed to each other, and to the gospel for all peoples in a humility marked by this love.

We are all surely on a learning curve, some of us on a steeper one than others. So we have to pray and think, and work at this. We don’t bale out when we fail or see just how far we miss the mark. Instead we use that as a means of seeing God’s salvation through our commitment to ongoing confession of our own sin and change through repentance into a new way of thinking and living. No less than in the way of love in and through Jesus.

radical reliance on God

Trust in the LORD with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

I like the NRSV rendering, “and do not rely on your own insight.” We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, or at least I’ll speak for myself. I read scripture daily, but I also go over it slowly. I find especially at certain parts, that I do well to slow down, sometimes back up then slow down, and ponder all of it in its parts, which hopefully will help me understand it better as a whole.

For me the first thought here, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart,” is particularly striking, and actually challenging, unfortunately, given my own propensity to depend on information gathering and reason. Not that those shouldn’t be in the mix, but in the end we’re to either trust in God, or rely on our own insight. One or the other.

I like The Message‘s rendering of this passage:

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.

It’s important to consider each part, but it’s a mistake to isolate it from the whole. We’re to consider each part carefully with reference to the whole. And what I find is nothing short of a radical dependence on God, which does not imagine that anything short of that is satisfactory in and of itself. So that when we’re confronted with something in which we know we’re in need of special wisdom, wisdom from God, we can proceed on this track, that of radically relying on him.

Of course this doesn’t at all mean that we ditch science, or human knowledge, along with rationality. Those in their place can be part of the equation, in their proper place, indeed gifts from God. But we don’t do well to put our confidence in the gifts, but rather, in the Giver. Our confidence in the end has to be in the God who gave us those things, or the ability to come up with the working knowledge we humans come up with. But we know that we’re limited even in that God-given sphere, and in the end that we not only do well to, but actually need to put our trust completely in God, and quit trying to figure everything out and arrive to a satisfactory place ourselves.

This will require prayer, being in the word, more prayer, certainly regular participation in church, prayer, being in the word, more prayer, and more participation in church. And time, with the waiting on God that goes with that.

God is at work in ways we probably are not capable of fully understanding and appreciating. We need to work at trusting in him. God will give us the insight and help we need if we commit ourselves to radical dependence on him. Which means we are willing to wait and take our hands off the process. Waiting for his peace to keep us on his path for us in and through Jesus.