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.

rooting out bitterness

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Hebrews 12

We have all been hurt, sometimes in life-altering ways. And too often in ways we learn to live with in not such a good way. I think of those molested in childhood, others who have suffered physical or emotional abuse. Words inflict injury as well. James tells us that the tongue is a world of evil. Like a serpent, full of deadly poison (James 3). We carry around with us wounds, which hopefully are largely healed, or in the process of healing. But if not, can perpetuate a cycle of harm. “Hurt people hurt people.”

Oftentimes it seems that this root called bitterness plays out in people finding something wrong, something amiss and off, quick to judge others. And even when such judgments might be either largely or partially true, there is a poison in the air, which inflicts those around them. I think of what should be called gossip, or perhaps better, not putting the best construction on what’s being said or done. And unless we refuse to participate in such, we are taken in, and the problem can grow. It is sad when we can see that is where some people live. And yet we can have more of that in ourselves than we might imagine.

The text above tells us not just to look after ourselves, although that is surely where it must start. But we in Jesus, in the church need to look out for each other, as well. That means we have to guard our tongues to be sure, and work at guarding our hearts. We have to love others, including those who seem on a one track existence due to their bitterness. We all need help along the way, sometimes special help. The goal would be to root out the bitterness, get rid of that poisonous root. Otherwise it is sure to defile others, perhaps many.

Basics like prayer and loving counsel and repentance, and continuing to work against this, seem to be essential. And what is needed in all of this is an emphasis on grace (again, note the text above), no less than an air of grace in which we are careful to consider our actions, words, and what underlies that, our thoughts and attitudes. There is no other way of together following the way of Jesus.

 

is God all we need? yes and no

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”

Genesis 2

It is a common thought in Christian circles that God is all we need. That contains truth, but doesn’t play out well in real life. If one is referring to God as the Source of all things, and the actual Life in whom everything else is somehow meant to live, then yes, God is all we need, and all anything else in creation needs. And add to that God’s provision for all. As we read somewhere in the psalms, the eyes of all look to God, and he provides for their needs (a paraphrase).

But God has made it so that within this God-life so to speak, the ideal life of which humans fall short of, there are needs met by something other than God. Life in the old creation is not the life to come of the new creation in Christ ultimately enveloped by the Triune God. But it is nevertheless dependent on the God who made it. God is still present everywhere and upholds all things in every way. Yet within this sphere humans need food and water, shelter, and as the text above makes clear, other humans. At least they’re better off in relationship to each other. If God was all they need the way it is told here and there, this would not be the case.

In the new creation beginning now in Christ, we still need each other. The body of Christ is a good picture of that. We are incomplete without each other.

And even in the fullness of the new creation to come when heaven and earth are made one at Christ’s return there will still be life grounded in a certain reality in which humanity is fulfilled in a certain setting. What is true now will most likely reach its perfect fulfillment later, except those aspects of creation which are only part of the old creation, whatever they may be. That would include the necessity of food and drink to remain alive. In that immortal state in and through Christ, though it’s apparent we’ll be partaking of food and drink, such will not be needed to survive. We are beginning to touch on areas not covered in scripture, and which are certainly beyond us, so it’s best to stop at that, at least for me here, anyhow.

Everything good comes from God. Part of the true way in which God is all we need. In and through Jesus.

avoiding gossip

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
    they go down to the inmost parts.

Proverbs 26

Gossiping is one of the themes covered in the book of Proverbs. It carries the idea of talking about others behind their back in disparaging ways, usually in a way that highlights their supposed character defects, or whatever perceived weaknesses they have. It often refers to something that has happened, or is going on. It ends up being a moral sickness for those who practice it, and for others who participate in that practice by merely listening. Listening and taking it in, as the passage quoted above indicates, is just as much to participate in it, as the actual gossiper, at least in how it affects the one who listens. By listening, one is affirming what the gossiper is doing.

It becomes more tricky when one just throws in some kind of slant about someone in the midst of what otherwise is normal talk. That is when one should be on guard in their heart not to be taken in, maybe ask a question, or say something which puts into question what is said, and perhaps exonerates the one who has been belittled.

To be a gossip means to have a moral sickness of heart. It is rampant in our society, it seems. Instead of talking about issues, we impugn the character of those we disagree with. And everyone more or less ends up doing that, so that it becomes a vicious cycle. And this affects those who don’t, so that they have to work at not doing the same, even while under their breath perhaps doing so.

We have to learn to hate this kind of practice, and a large part of that is to love the truth, and honesty. And graciousness of thought and speech is essential for this, as well. We should think the best of others, and when we see them fail, hope for better. We need the same grace ourselves from others.

Honesty and truth telling, and above all, being gracious in both thinking and seeking the best for others is essential. If we have a problem with someone, we should go to that person and talk to them, oftentimes clearing up a misunderstanding in the process. And when an offensive behavior persists, we should be slow to go to anyone else, of course depending on what the issue is, and what kind of help that person might need.

And we need to watch ourselves. Especially our hearts to avoid the damage which can be inflicted on others through our tongues. Instead we need to speak the truth in love and as it is in Jesus, and keep looking to Jesus and God’s good news in him, as we look at everything else. Seeing all through that, with the hope that brings for us all.

the image of Jesus rubbing off on each other

I am kind of a monastic maybe by nature and by an idealization of what I would like to do and be a part of, if I could choose anything. Of course it would be in a married order. But even in the monastaries, the common as well as liturgical life is shared by all.

But something I’ve come to realize by experience within the last year or more: the likeness of Jesus rubs off on us through each other. Through just being present in our work and play, or whatever it is. And sometimes even through our disagreements and hard places we have to work through, part of that amounting to iron sharpening iron (Proverbs).

Somehow God shapes us and remakes us into the image of Jesus more through others and our relationship with them, than by just being alone, even alone with God. God made us as humans to be in relationship.

Jesus came as the Word made flesh to make his dwelling among us, to actually live with us. Yes, he tabernacled in our midst, but he also rubbed shoulders with humans, living right where we live. So somehow even in the incarnation we see that it’s a human to human dynamic, certainly including time alone with God, just as Jesus would escape to pray to his Father. But he would live most of his life with others, with his disciples in all the challenge that brought.

Jesus’s image is uniquely expressed in each person in him. One can seem rough around the edges in some ways (aren’t we all?), but somehow God will communicate something of Jesus’s likeness through them in a way that he won’t through anyone else. We are all in that mix. Don’t count anyone out just because of a character deficiency, or special struggle they have. A big part of all of us growing up into full maturity in Christ is living together in love as one body, with everything that brings, even the monotony, or things that might grate on us from each other.

Our true humanity through Jesus only comes out and grows through our life with each other in Jesus. We are taken up as full humans into the very life of God, the Triune God through this common life together in and through Jesus. A life too for others, for the world in and through him.

being with people

One of the best decisions I think I’ve ever made would seem to be on the surface, trivial, and probably counterintuitive to people like me. In the past during lunch at work I would sit with my Bible open, reading my daily portion from the psalms. That was good, and I probably did it for years. But I more or less am in scripture all day, insofar as that’s possible. And while I can well converse with others, the nature of my job, not to mention my own naure, is given to being more than less on the job, not having time to talk much, or listen to others.

I decided to change my routine, one of my realizations being that at least one friend I work with on the team was nearing retirement. This was a fun table, active in conversation, but I suppose not necessarily along the lines I would talk about, if there were a bunch of me-s, or people just like me there, which thankfully there are not. I tend to be rather quiet a lot of the time, anyhow. I won’t forget this table, two guys now recently retired, who I grew to love.

For me the take home lesson, even life changing, has been that we need to simply spend time with others. “Spend time,” a way we put it which makes you think. But God speaks to us through scripture, nature, experience, the gospel, the church, and through people. Scripture itself tells us that, and life will verify it.

And so I developed a bond in a way that I don’t think would have been possible, otherwise. The people came to realize that for me, being with them during lunch was a priority, a new habit, simply what I do. I didn’t just do it now and then, although my memory could possibly be a bit faulty here. But I think I plunged into the change completely.

Being with others is underrated. Good leaders will spend time with the people. The best pastors will pray, read, study, and prepare well for their next message. But they will also spend time with the people of the church. They will regularly hang out with them, and learn to simply be with them over time, not necessarily in any “ministry” context. To simply be with each other can amount to something of the ministry we are called to as Christ’s body, the church, in scripture.

I think too of leaders in other places, like at work. Some are not given to being with their team members. But a little bit of that regularly can go a long way. And with those one might not share much affinity with, and may even want to avoid. A good leader ought to touch base with such regularly, preferably daily, to see how they’re doing, just to make human contact. And simply be with them insofar as that’s possible given time constraints and other responsibilities.

For myself this thought has changed me forever. Both in terms of its impact on me during the last maybe couple years since I made the change and how I want to practice life from now on. Instead of reading with classical music on, which I still love, I would just as soon be with a friend over coffee, or better yet with the grandchildren anywhere, like on a nice warm day out on the playground. I have my little Psalms/Proverbs/New Testament in hand to glance at the next verse with metal clip as a marker. But I want to be fully attentive to them, to be there to watch over them, and help them have fun. Particularly a daring little toddler who makes her way up challenging steps or bars, and needs her grandpa’s help.

To be with others, to simply be there to listen. To not think one has to speak at all for that to be valuable. In fact as a rule it might be better to remain silent, especially on controversial issues like politics. Simply being present. That is underrated, but much needed both for others, and for ourselves. In and through Jesus.

toward greater things

I sometimes wonder, and this is true even when I read the psalms, but all the more true when I look at my own life, just what value there is in being taken up with troubles so close to home, when the world at large is suffering so horribly. The problems I’m absorbed in can be just as threatening at times, but by and large they pale in comparison with the trauma the world is suffering in so many places.

And yet I believe that God wants us to do well with the problems at hand right in front of us, in faith and reliance on him. With a special emphasis on loving God and loving others, especially those God has entrusted to our care.

Although we should bear the weight of our own responsibility, we can’t carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. And we’re not even required to carry any burden at all which weighs heavily on us. We’re told to cast our burdens on the Lord, and to cast all of our cares on him as well. To come to him when we are burdened and weighed down, with the promise that he will give us rest. That is hard for some of us, because we can be prone to take more responsibility than is reasonable. It is not always easy to figure out just what responsibility we have, and where it ends. And we are told to help each other at times, to carry one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ which is love.

Nothing is foolproof in this life, except seeking to live in God through Jesus. Although that in itself seems deceptive to us, since we’re at least prone to be bent in the wrong direction. And we never arrive in this life, as if its struggles and dangers are over. We await our Lord’s return with God’s promise of a different world in which all troubles will be gone.

What is certain is God’s promise of help for us now in and through Jesus. We keep pressing on, even in the midst of trouble, believing that God is good and is at work, and that we can be recipients of that work. And as we receive God’s help, our heart can be set free to yearn in prayer for the help of others in the world. And especially for the salvation of all, beginning in this present life in and through Jesus.