not fiction, but reality

Recently I noticed the thought that some people, even leaders have left the faith because they were supposedly too Bible-centered, and not sufficiently centered and grounded in God and the gospel within the tradition God has given the church. While I think there may be some truth in that, I would like to push back a bit. (See this helpful post.)

Yes, there’s no doubt that the gospel and the church and the tradition in and from that is far more central to our faith than many realize, or at least they’re supposed to be. We can find that to be the case from the Bible itself.

Comparing real life with the Bible can be instructive. Yes, over and over again in the Bible, which calls itself Scripture and God’s word we find cases in point which either don’t make sense to us, or necessarily ring true at the time. But don’t we find that to be the case over and over again in life? Life just doesn’t make sense for so many reasons. The autistic child, a relatively young person just ready to enter their calling who dies, militias terrorizing common people with brutal killings, a loved spouse saying they love no more, a child who rejects the faith, the never ending problems of everyday life, etc., etc., etc.

It seems to me that the Bible doesn’t paint the picture any rosier than life actually is. There was once a well known painter who painted landscapes with human culture as if it all existed in Eden prior to the Fall. Something akin to that lies ahead. But such is not the real world now. Kudos to the Bible. It is rooted in a world that though culturally is often different from ours, in essence is the same, just as messed up as our own. Yes, with the promise of something wonderful to come. And it points us to where we can find the help we need to navigate through the storms, and even do well, come what may. But just like it presents life in its reality, not on our terms, so the blessedness that can be ours is not on our terms. It’s not the way we might write it. But in the end, it somehow will be better than all of that. At least that’s the case according to the Bible.

Life is hard, no doubt. It can seem that all of life is caving in. But we can find our way through the instruction, warnings, and encouragement the Bible gives. God’s very word to us and to the world. In and through Jesus.

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true faith is ongoing

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:60-69

A basic teaching of Scripture is the truth that it’s not enough to start. We must continue on and finish. You see this over and over again in story and specific directive teaching.

The life of faith is not just a beginning, but a process with an ending. It involves ongoing change. And difficulty in understanding it all or at all at times is part and parcel of it all.

Note the passage above (click link for context). Many disciples, yes disciples left Jesus at a certain point. They wouldn’t follow any longer; his words were just too much for them.

Are there times when we simply don’t know, but by faith continue on? Yes, yes, and yes some more. Peter’s words are instructive for us here. They center not on specific teaching per se, but rather on Christ himself. For me, it’s continual, to some extent, constant interaction with God’s inscripturated word, which itself points to and is fulfilled in the Word himself, Jesus. But in ways not always readily received or appreciated.

The point is that we need to continue on following Jesus. In and through him.

 

 

does the Bible really say that?

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation[c] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted[d] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,[e] he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:11-13

This is a good passage out of which this part is shared here (click link) to critique popular theology. Paul’s voice seems so foreign, yet it actually resonates with Jesus’s voice, and that of the rest of the Bible on matters like sexual immorality, idolatry, and simply putting God to the test instead of in faith, trusting and obeying him.

One popular take out of pastoral concern (as a friend pointed out to me) is the point that indeed God doesn’t give us more than we can bear; he actually does, so that we won’t depend on ourselves, but on God to see us through. There’s truth in that when you consider it with the rest of God’s word. But I want to take seriously just what is actually said in these scriptural passages.

We’re told that God won’t let us be tempted or tested more than we can stand. But with that temptation will provide the way out, so that we can endure it. Plain and simple. Maybe not the way we want to hear it. We want somehow a miraculous breakthrough which requires no effort on our part. But as Dallas Willard pointed out, grace is not opposed to human effort. While God’s grace given to us in Jesus is nothing we can merit, earn, or deserve, that does not mean it is received passively by us. That happens, but it seems more often than not, we are active, at least in being attentive if nothing else.

If we think the Christian life isn’t without a struggle, or often against the grain of culture, then we have another thing coming. Or we may end up going, as a few leaders have in recent days, leaving the faith behind. There’s more to it than just this, much more. That is why we need to turn the pages of all of Scripture from beginning to end, and keep doing so. In prayer and with the commitment to a faith which receives and responds. Accepting the warnings of God’s word, even when they may seem to make little sense to us. So that God might do his work of grace in us, a process no less. In and through Jesus.

 

a different direction

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus’s words, near the end of the Sermon on the Mount will probably be met with a sigh and a dismissive shrug if even that, nowadays. The small gate and narrow road seems so confining. People often either want to keep their options open, or just go with the flow.

Instead, Jesus calls us to be counter-cultural in following him. It’s to be small in that Jesus and his words, the good news in him is how we enter and remain. And it’s narrow in that we follow him by paying attention to his words, and to God’s word in him given to us in the gospel and in Scripture.

I think Jesus’s words have a lot to do with focus and intent along with follow through. The title of one of Eugene Peterson’s books comes to mind: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. No matter what, we continue on. With ongoing confession of sins, and change along the way, to be sure. But we continue on. In and through Jesus.

my go to passage nowadays

A psalm of David.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,[a]
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Psalm 23

Life is utterly crazy in a good number of ways. I wish it was more laid back and less eventful, really. That’s true at home, as well as in the news we’re inundated with. Life comes crashing in. And for some of us, the life inside has not been any kind of paradise. Really, just the opposite. We press on, but in spite of raging voices or feelings inside of us.

I’m finding for myself that Psalm 23 is becoming my go to passage from the Bible nowadays. Something I keep repeating it over and over again, praying about it, until finally it seems to take hold and become part of my own experience. Or even if it doesn’t.

I’m just a sheep in need of the good Shepherd. That doesn’t excuse me, or any wrongdoing. In fact, that gives me hope that no matter how I might get off track for a moment, or even more, the Lord is present to help me, to be my help. That he loves me no matter what. I’m one of his sheep.

That gives me all the hope I need in the faith and love that is in Jesus.

it take a church

Nowadays there seems to have been a backlash against what was used by a political candidate here in the US some years back: “It takes a village.” Actually that has plenty of truth in it, just as does the idea that we can’t depend on others to do for us what only we can do. They can’t live our lives for us. Nor should we expect others to do for us what we can do ourselves. True. But the prevailing emphasis on individual rights and freedom nowadays perhaps is the idea that we can get along just fine on our own, that we need no one else.

God’s word and its fulfillment in Jesus tells us something entirely different. Humans are made for community. Yes, some of us like our space, and need more separation than others. But none of us were made for isolation, for solitary confinement. As God says in Genesis: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make one corresponding him,  as complements to each other” (Genesis 2; my paraphrase).

Sin divides us from God and each other. At its core sin is a violation of love for God, and for neighbor, which really ends up being all humanity, especially in the world in which we live today, a shrinking globe due to our ability to traverse so well. God’s saving work in Christ is at heart a reconciliation to God and to each other. That reconciliation is front and center in the church. Through the gospel: baptism and the Lord’s table being central in enacting and displaying it.

“It takes a church” we might say. Yes, made up of imperfect, broken, yet being put together people like you and I. Just ordinary people, and often struggling to one degree or another. But our lives are meant to be lived not in isolation, but with others. If we’re “in Christ” by faith, then we’re in Christ’s body, the church. Our identity then, is not only in Christ, but in his body, the church.

That seems often minimized in evangelical Christian circles, with an emphasis on people’s individual response to the gospel and God’s word. But it is not minimized in the very Scripture we evangelicals hold as central to our faith. We need to acclimate ourselves to something different. The life of God we find in Jesus is especially made known in the church. And imbibed and then lived out yes even in the church through what we might call the sacraments, and our lives lived together in communion with each other. And from that sent out on mission. In and through Jesus.

the gap between hearing and doing

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

We believe and value the words of Scripture and we want to grow. But we little consider the gap between our hearing and reading of God’s word, and our actual doing of it. That can be a world apart, and while we know better, we also often take it for granted as being just the way things are. That there’s a gap in this life seems inevitable. After all we will never arrive to completion and perfection in this life. So on those grounds we pay lip service to what James says here, but in our hearts and lives, we sadly know we’ll fall short.

James would seem to accept none of that. His blunt words don’t allow for any such gap. You either hear the word and do it, or you hear it and don’t. The former are blessed; the latter are not. And the entire book carries this tone. Given our theology in which we see grace as covering our inevitable shortcomings, what are we to make of this?

Once again we have to go back to the plain words of Scripture. We let it speak for itself and critique not only us, but our theology. Reading all of James along with the rest of Scripture will help. James talks about confessing our sins to each other, and praying for each other. So he certainly does not deny God’s grace available for ongoing forgiveness. We endeavor to do what God’s word tells us. We do so perhaps in a clumsy way. Not feeling like we’ve arrived. It’s a work in progress, even as we are. And yet that is our goal. To become aware more and more what God’s will is for us in Jesus. And do it.