more, not less, but also less, not more

Oh, how I love your law!
    I meditate on it all day long.

Psalm 119

Psalm 119 is the great psalm and scripture that one might call, in fact I am nearly sure I read this in connection with the psalm: in praise of God’s word. Of course we refer now to the written word, scripture, the Bible. I find that I need to be in the word more, not less, especially when there is so much on my plate in life, and pressures from various places seem overwhelming. It is often best to focus on one matter at a time, get that done, and then go to the next. In this life it’s never done; there’s always something more pressing us. And the world wants to crash in as well. There’s the tidal wave of US politics and all the controversy and divisiveness surrounding that. And all kinds of other things which can occupy so much of our attention.

I like liturgical churches, myself, where Holy Communion is celebrated every week, and it’s considered more than a symbol. And I read somewhere that instead of thinking one has to be in the word more, that kind of service helps us to be centered in the Lord apart from that, since most people just can’t sustain such a practice. I do think such a service helps keep the gospel front and center, and certainly the public reading of scripture is a big part of those times. And there’s always the danger of hearing, hearing, and hearing more of God’s word, while not sufficiently putting it into practice, as James warns us.

But I need to be lifted beyond my own thoughts, and perspective. And I need to get into the flow of God’s word, so that I can begin to see God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will, even God himself, of course in and through Jesus, and by the Holy Spirit. Reading scripture, and hearing it read (click the icon on the upper right to listen to Psalm 119, which is available in that translation from any scripture).

At the same time though, I also find that I need less, not more. Maybe in a sense that’s true of the word, though I think we both need to read, or hear read large portions of it at a time, and also slowly meditate on it. What I’m referring to now though is simply refusing to be taken into the more that needs to be done, and simply setting aside time to rest. Yes, unplugged. Even to do nothing, nothing at all, except maybe to simply be somewhere. With shoes kicked off, relaxing. Maybe in just hours of silence. Rest, and along with that something other than work, which we enjoy doing.

We need both more and less. A kind of rhythm in life in which actual physical rest is taken seriously so that we practice it. While we seek to remain in God’s word, in scripture. And along with that, in silence before him. Lifted beyond our own thoughts and troubles, and the chaos of this world, into God’s presence and counsel. Hopefully that practice along with the rest going together, in and through Jesus.

especially blessed can be the irregulars, those who don’t fit in

Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.

“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

Luke 6

When reading the gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) one gets the impression that Jesus is especially at home with the misfits, those who are either uncomfortably normal, or normally uncomfortable. I can’t help but think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The characters in that story (I confess to having not read the book, but only seeing the film) can be off the wall, out of place, not obvious candidates for what they end up doing, but they band together into a group with a common purpose thrust on them, along with a seemingly mystical touch.

I for one have felt much out of place most all of my life. I have a hard time accepting myself, much less expecting others to accept me, warts and all. So I am amazed if anyone does put up with what is off in me, and still accepts me as a friend. It doesn’t seem to happen often. I am among those who have a cynical bent, and ask the hard questions. Yet I’m also more than happy to simply use that to more and more gently fit into a greater purpose than myself, or anyone else. Together with others.

In this world, if everyone was cool all the time with what is going on, it would be sad indeed. I wonder about a Christianity where everything is great all the time, in which one is always full of joy, and lets nothing bother them. It seems to me that real Christians ought to take seriously the sufferings of this world, and in and through Jesus and his suffering be able to navigate those hard places with the weeping followed by joy (in the morning, as the psalm says).

We need to make room and have a place for those who don’t fit, but may seem to be looking for a home. Can they find it with us in Jesus? Are we helping them to find their place in Jesus? God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them, and therefore calls each one to be reconciled to him. And many who are reconciled may not be at home with us, because we fail to see God’s love on them, even Jesus in them. They are often the irregulars, the misfits, those who don’t have, or find much of what this world holds dear. But who are really at home in and through Jesus.

trying to juggle the church and the state

Yesterday here in the United States we celebrated (and from the weekend prior) its 241st birthday. I was raised Mennonite, and we more or less practiced a respectful distancing from city, county, state and federal government. When I converted to Christ, I remember at a certain point hanging a flag on our house, of course with Dad and Mom’s permission. Dad actually served in the Army in WWII and was in a tank in harm’s way in Germany. He had a truce with Mom over the issue, indeed not everyone who attends Mennonite churches, or even are members are committed pacifists. I had converted to Christ in my late teens, and had eventually left the Mennonite church under the influence of someone who had discipled me. Since then in many ways my life has returned full circle, so that even though we are not part of a Mennonite church here (there is none nearby, anyhow), I am back to believing in that interpretation, at least emphasis, which places the Sermon on the Mount in a prominent place in its teaching.

The book which turned me back toward my Anabaptist roots was ironically not written by an Anabaptist, but by the great Bible scholar, historian, and theologian, N. T. Wright, entitled, The Challenge of Jesus. While some of what he says is quite compatible and close to a Mennonite view, N. T. Wright would still hold to more of a typically Anglican, Great Tradition perspective when it comes to the church and state. Since I have tracked closely with his friend, and colleague in both scholarship and writing, Scot McKnight, and am privileged to be acquainted with another scholar and friend of Scot’s, also a professor and not least of all, pastor, Allan R. Bevere, from the latter two especially, I’ve been kept on the straight and narrow when it comes to more of a historically Anabaptist take on the church and the state.

But the problem of juggling the church and the state remains, since most Christians and churches are in some way either marked or influenced by what is called the Constantinian turn when the church and the state essentially became united. See Allan R. Bevere’s excellent and helpful book on this, The Politics of Witness. That book helps us see how the United States, in spite of the new turn of the separation of church and state, is still largely marked by a kind of symbiotic relationship of church and state, that is to say a relationship of dependence on each other to some extent, although, as Bevere shows in his book, the state ordinarily always ends up with the upper hand.

Like any good Evangelical and Protestant, although I would much prefer to say, like any good Christian, I would return again and again to the pages of scripture, and with the help of others through the Spirit, just try to see if what is taken for granted is really the case. And like any good Anabaptist would (although I’m not sure in what way I’m an Anabaptist, since for one thing, I’m not really opposed to infant baptism), I find the position of the church at large, wanting.

Instead of going further, let me give an applicational thought as to how I see the church and the state. I begin with the important, but lesser function, indeed ordained by God, the state. The state is comprised of everyone, whether they are in the faith, have any faith, or whatever faith they might have, no one is excluded. It is not in itself Christian. The church, on the other hand, is the body of Christ through the gospel, which it proclaims in word and deed: the good news that Jesus is the saving Lord and King. Who by his cross has reconciled all things in heaven and earth, the cross shorthand here for his death and resurrection.

I take it then that the state, in whatever form of government it consists of, will promote the good of all, and will force no one to comply to anything beyond what is essential to the state’s function ultimately under God. The state when it’s doing well will certainly help the church have the freedom needed to proclaim, and be a witness to the gospel. But the state will also maintain order between different peoples where conflict might naturally arise. To try to say all that the state should do here is largely an exercise in futility, given the complexity of the makeup of nations. Democracy is only one form of government in the world, and Christians and churches often live in uneasy relationships with the governments under which they live, sometimes more or less underground, since their activities are forbidden. But a certain ideal surely remains, and all nations and governments are ultimately under God’s judgment.

This is just enough to hopefully help us begin to see the difficulty for Christians in juggling the church and the state. I believe everyone in the mix of the state is necessary in a good deliberation for a good outcome for all, a tall order, indeed. The church through the gospel is also for everyone, but Jesus is the heart and soul of that body, which brings people into communion with the Triune God, and into an eternal life in the new creation in him which will never end, even past this present existence. There’s a marked difference, so that the church and the state can never be essentially one without not only diluting, but actually changing the church, so that it indeed might no longer be the church, but an empty institution which Christ has left behind.

In the end, we Christians are indeed thankful for the freedom we have in the United States. But we also do well to be wary of any arrangement with the state which might not only cause us to water down our witness, but might in some way even move us to bow the knee to another lord other than the one Lord, King Jesus.

Titus: the “do good” book

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

Titus 3

If there’s one thing Christians ought to be known for, it should be for the good they do. Not for their political positions, be they left, right, moderate or something else, as far as US politics are concerned. Not over who they either voted, or didn’t vote for, either.

Don’t get me wrong. Doctrine is important, and indeed underrated in some quarters, probably in more and more places nowadays. Read the short book of Titus (link above is the entire book), and you’ll see that giving short shrift on doctrine does not pass muster as far as this little book is concerned. It is true that people, even so-called churches which don’t hold to the necessity of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead might indeed be engaged in good works. But they are no more gospel, or kingdom of God oriented than any atheist, or non-Christian religion which does the same. Doing good is good regardless. But it’s not necessarily Christian.

Notice the NIV outline of the book from the link above. Here they are in turn: “Appointing Elders Who Love What Is Good,” “Rebuking Those Who Fail to Do Good,” “Doing Good for the Sake of the Gospel,” “Saved in Order to Do Good” and “Final Remarks.” Notice how the book ends just before the final greetings and salutation:

Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives.

There are no two ways about it. We either do good, or we don’t reflect the faith we profess. The early Christians were known for that. We need to be known for that as well, both in helping each other, and in serving every one. In our following of Jesus, in and through him.

what is the fruit?

One of the teachers of our church, Shalini, one time was talking about evaluating anything by asking what fruit it brings in our lives. Does it make us want to pursue God’s will in Jesus, or does it sidetrack us, indeed undermining that. Does it bring good fruit, or bad, rotten fruit?

In Galatians we read of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Prior to that is listed the works of the flesh: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” Quite a contrast.

Followers of Jesus are in a battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. It is amazing how being undermined in one area which by itself seems innocent*, can eventually open the gates to caving in in areas that clearly do matter, even if doing so only in the heart. Of course Jesus says that when we do something in our hearts, we’ve done it in God’s eyes. And we’re in a dangerous area, because we inevitably will act out of our hearts.

It is amazing too, how the Spirit can help us see during those times when the flesh seems to hold sway. We see not only the fruit of our lives, but we get insight into how this works in relationship to ourselves and our lives, and in relationship to others. That can help us learn wisdom. But only by the Spirit’s help, because left to ourselves, we’re bent on folly.

I find that entryway into what is not of the Spirit, subtle, and can even come with an apparently good, godly premise. But it is not led of God. In fact it can be contrary to previous leading. But when that leading flies in the face of my own predisposition as to what’s right or wrong in a given situation, then I can end up hard pressed to resist caving in with the same concern later.

Proverbs 3:5-6 tell us:

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.

God honors our exercise to do this, even if it seems like we’re not succeeding. We need to press on in the right way, which is God’s prescribed way in Jesus. Ever seeking to be led by the Spirit who gave that word. And always examining the fruit. With reference to loving God, and loving our neighbor, as we seek together to follow Jesus in and for the world.

*Not about what we might call legalistic issues, or matters in which Christians differ. But referring instead to matters which may or may not really need attention, except in prayers. How we can cave in to anxiety, fear, obsession over something.