hold that thought

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
    and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6; NRSVue

In pop western culture we want answers, and we want them now. No ambiguity, no having to sort through things; we want the quick fix or the right answer right away. There’s a place for that in some things for temporary or relatively trivial matters. But for the big questions and trying to figure out what to do in the rough and tumble, the tussles, in real life, that’s completely something else.

So much is involved in this. We’re processing through our own thoughts as we seek God’s help. And much of what we’re thinking through has truth in it. But we can’t stop. We have to keep going, to keep asking questions, to look into good Bible commentaries and good study Bibles.

We always need to error on the side of mercy, grace and kindness, trying to cut others slack, remembering our own faults in the past and present, with the willingness, indeed set disposition to forgive. We keep asking questions, we keep praying for ourselves, for others, for the situation at hand.

And we have the promise stated above that God will see us through as we seek to get God’s help, no less. In and through Jesus.

yes, be strong, but always in love

Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

1 Corinthians 16:13-14; NRSVue

If we could just get the Sermon on the Mount into our bones from our heart by the Spirit, I’m especially thinking of the Beatitudes along with the teaching about loving our enemies, working through differences with friends, etc., etc., etc., (Matthew 5-7), our Lord’s teaching along with example, we would be better off and those around us. Yes, we’re to be strong, but always in love.

Love is to mark everything about us, all we do. Sometimes that’s not so hard. But other times it is, because we are hurt or are struggling for one reason or another. But in answer to our prayer, God can and will help us. We need to see past the weaknesses, even sins of others, to see someone God loves and to see that they too like us are vulnerable and need God’s help.

The whole package here, as Paul put it in the quote above is so important for us. Love must mark all we do. We will slip from that at times, but then we have to get up, confess our sin, and get back in, doing all in humble love. Out of all the love God continues to pour out on us by the Spirit. In and through Jesus.

pray and love, love and pray (the theme I keep returning to)

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.

1 Peter 4:7-8; NRSVue

I keep coming back to the same theme again and again: Love and pray; pray and love. I have often thought I would enjoy or at least appreciate being a part of a monastic (married) order. The idea is not just here and there, now and then practice of this and that, but a regular communal practice of scripture readings, prayers, and partaking of Communion together. That is not likely, so I try to practice it faithfully when it’s offered with others, as well as in my own practice. I am thankful for the newish Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together, which has a helpful morning and evening office in the back which keeps me in scripture, and in regular prayer.

I see the world at a dangerous place, maybe a precarious tipping point. Climate change with catastrophic consequences ahead if it’s not addressed forthrightly, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, racial injustice in the United States and in many other places in the world, an attack on democracy by an authoritarian rule which is even cloaked with the name “Christian” and is often ardently supported by Christians in a deadly and idolatrous union of church and state, and I’m sure there are numerous other concerns that deserve attention. You may not agree with all I list here, or you might see things somewhat differently. What we will agree on is that these are difficult times.

First of all we have to make sure that we’re aspiring to be followers of Christ. Christian is not enough, and especially with ties to a Christendom which fails to see the radical nature and difference of Christ and Christ’s kingdom in this world. While we hope and pray for the best of each nation in which we live, our citizenship and allegiance is elsewhere. We are citizens of anything in this world in a loose, secondary sense. We pay taxes and give due honor and respect and want to contribute to what is good, but as aliens.

I think of those younger: children and grandchildren. What they will be left with. Yes, people like to remind us all the time that “God is in control,” but remember that God lets people have the consequences of their ways. What is important for us who name the name of Christ is to really be led by the Spirit as Christ followers. The fruit of the Spirit evident in our lives.

And what more can we do than love and pray? Good works must follow, or our prayer and love will be empty, hollow, or at least not as full as it needs to be.

As is pointed out in the passage above, this requires self-discipline on our part along with a maintaining of constant love in the community, an attitude with corresponding actions supporting both. What I want to be about, growing in that, whatever else I think. Not letting up and seeking to live that out with others. In and through Jesus.

the needed love described

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7; NRSVue

The life of Christ in us who are his followers certainly exudes love. We humans know by instinct and much more so by the Spirit that love is to characterize us, who we are and all we do and say. And yet in this life it’s a challenge to always live it out.

And that’s true even in the church, Christ’s body in whom (not just among whom) Christ is present. Such was markedly the case with the church in Corinth to whom Paul wrote in the two letters we have, with the quote above. They and with them, we ourselves as well, not only need reminded, but it helps to have this love described, just what it is to be like in our relationships.

I tend to want to get it down to things I should and shouldn’t do, and while that might be helpful in some rudimentary way, especially toward the beginning of one’s life in Christ, it has to basically fall by the wayside as we go on. What is much more helpful are the above descriptors.

I think from this description of love, we can safely say that we need to err on the side of mercy, overlooking faults, even if at specific times it may not hurt to try to correct people. But never remaining there long, not letting it hang over their head. Realizing that we need the same deference paid to us as well, even if we’re blind to that need, which surely often is indeed the case.

Something to think on and pray about, as we end the year and enter a new one. In and through Jesus.

the gospel and salvation is personal in more ways than one

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

Most often in the Christian tradition I’ve been a part of for decades, the gospel and salvation is personal with reference to our individual relationship to God, and to each other. And that’s good insofar as it goes. But we need to take personally the entire vision God casts. Yes, we have only our small part in that, but it’s our God-given part, and therefore a gift fitting into the whole.

We have to take this personally where we live: among our loved ones, in our neighborhood, in the church, at work, and in the world beyond where we live. In the words of Micah: we’re to do justice, to love kindness and mercy, as we walk humbly with our God. Simple, yet profound.

This means we really do want to understand what is going on around us. If we’re part of a church and denomination involved in such with good works, we can be thankful, and we can learn a lot from them.

This is to become a part of who we are, as well as what we’re about. What we’re aspiring and learning to do day after day, week after week, and year after year. In and through Jesus.

opening up a new world: the place for “sanctified imagination”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Mark 11:22-25

It is easy to live in ruts, to think it has always been this way and will be forevermore. To put limits on God. Jesus’s words are in the context of his entry into Jerusalem lauded as Messiah-King by those who did not understand that less than a week later this one they lauded would be nailed on a cross and would die. Along with that Jesus’s disciples’ worlds would be turned upside down, not to say that they weren’t already. Jesus’s time with them for some three years prior was meant to give them a completely new bearing and grounding beyond where they had lived for so long.

In this new world of sanctified imagination in the present in which I think the Lord would have us live in, there’s no escape from the way of the cross. That is the way we’re to take in love for all, in love of all enemies. But on the way and in the midst of that, we need to look to God for good things to come to pass in which we’ll usually play an important, even though ordinarily a humble and often misunderstood role.

Jesus seems to open the door for his disciples, for us here. Whatever we pray, of course in the Father’s will. Just as Jesus prayed for the Father’s will to be done, not his own will in the darkness hanging over him. We should look to God for new possibilities. And to answer in regard to the old problems which hamper us and others. God can and will answer as we persist in prayer. Faith that God is and will indeed open up a new world. To be completed when Jesus returns. But beginning even now. In and through Jesus.

secondary matters

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

Matthew 23:23-24

Jesus’s words here remind me of my own life and even the life of the church if I were to cite concerns. We easily get caught up in secondary matters, things necessary in their place which need to be attended to. And we often are focused on issues which distract us from what’s most important.

Our theological concerns can be far too narrow, and that becomes evident in what we are thinking about and what we do as a result. Is our view becoming more and more expansive like God’s? Or are we concerned about only the things which most directly affect ourselves both for this life and the next?

Jesus makes it clear that justice, mercy and faithfulness are to take priority over other matters. A key tactic of the devil, or so it seems to me is to get us sidetracked into obsessions which seem so important, but cause us to lose out over what is of first importance.

We need to take care of what we might call nuisance questions and problems. And in this life we’re beset by them, no doubt. But we must not let what is of primary importance be crowded out. Loving others, loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving even our enemies, certainly not neglecting those near and dear to us, all of this in our love for God must take priority. As we seek to follow Jesus in everything. In and through Jesus.

God meets us where we’re at

Passing along, Jesus saw a man at his work collecting taxes. His name was Matthew. Jesus said, “Come along with me.” Matthew stood up and followed him.

Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and misfits?”

Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”

Matthew 9:9-13; MSG

God wants to meet us all where we’re at. We have to come to God just as we are to be accepted. I think of the great hymn, Just As I Am. We come to him with all of our sin, all of our troubles. We don’t pretend to be something we’re not, as if that will make us acceptable to God. Nor do we try to overcome our troubles by ourselves. Coming to God involves trusting God to answer our prayers, to actually meet us where we are, and to do God’s needed work in us.

Matthew was as low can be in Jewish eyes of his day. Here was one of their own, doing work of the hated Romans, and siphoning extra for himself at their expense, making himself rich in the process. Jesus calls him right at his tax collector’s booth, and then eats with him and others like him. And of course gets called on the carpet for that by the religious leaders. What was missing for these leaders was the point of their religion: God’s mercy. For them, for all. 

I’m thankful I can keep returning to God again and again, not for who I wish I would be, or only when I feel good about life. But when I’m struggling, which honestly is at least a lot of the time, and when troubles are just a fact of life. God meets me there. Meets us all there, if we just come to God as we are. Even calls us, like Jesus did Matthew. In and through Jesus.

the way of peace found in Jesus

The way of peace they do not know;
there is no justice in their paths.

Isaiah 59:8a

And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else?

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him.

Romans 3:19b,21-22a; MSG

Justice and the peace that comes from that is often the emphasis we hear from younger Christians nowadays. And for many good reasons. For one thing, the gospel often proclaimed and taught in evangelical circles is mostly about our own relationship with God and with others. That is truth, and very needed, and certainly does not exclude teaching about what is just and right, true and good, merciful and bringing peace. But it’s not the entire truth or application of the gospel.

There does need to be an emphasis on justice in society, not just personal righteousness which supposedly brings the needed justice. There is a needed reckoning within the world system to judge and root out, yes, systemic evil. With reference to racial injustice, and many other evils in the world. So this instinct and passion within and active in the younger generations should be welcomed and appreciated.

What we have to be careful of is getting the cart before the horse. Justice in itself is not the point nor the goal, not for the Christian. Jesus and God’s good news of grace and the kingdom come in him is the proper focus. That brings the necessary judgment on evil to be replaced by what is truly the good, flourishing life for humans, for all humanity. 

The emphasis therefore needs to be on Jesus, on God in the human Jesus, the Spirit’s amen and work from that, and the difference that can make, yes, even in this world. In challenging all the injustice, and beginning to see the new world emerge among us. And we shouldn’t fail to mention that it is through nothing short of the blood of Jesus, his death, so that all evil was absorbed into that day on Jesus. So that evil is now dealt with in the truly Christian way through Jesus’s death on the cross. The new life through his resurrection, following.

Not to say that God isn’t at work through some ways in the world which though we would say ultimately is through Jesus and God’s work in him, is not actually linked to that. Indeed that may well be. But the unique way in Jesus in the love for one’s enemies and the way of the cross is at the forefront of what God’s justice looks like. It is tempered with mercy, and brings in the needed full salvation beginning even now. In our lives, but breaking into earthly principalities and powers, high places where this is not only known, but opposed. Even though that’s ongoing on this side of time. Not for the faint of heart, but part of our calling. In and through Jesus.

a justified life

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[b] and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

James 2:14-26

The evidence that we’re in Christ and his followers will be a changed life of love for God and for our neighbor by good works, the things we do. A justified life is living out God’s mercy in the world. We hope for justice as well, that is addressing wrongs and making things right even in this life. Christ took on himself all the injustice humans could possibly give him through the cross. Ironically in that way God’s justice could break through beginning in the lives of his followers, and out from them into the world. But always in the same way of Jesus, the way of love in the cross.

A justified life certainly involves both faith and works. Only God can set us on this path as we respond in faith and baptism to his calling. Like Abraham and Rahab, and all the faithful, we need to respond in faith. That will certainly involve a change of life, and along with that, the new course God gives us. In and through Jesus.