belief in God

When one considers the world, both a skepticism from a cynicism can set in. Yes, there is much good we can find everywhere in the form of beauty and what seems noble and right. But no matter where we turn we also find trouble, and brokenness, oftentimes right in the midst of the great good we find, so that the good can seem spoiled, or at least in danger of being undermined or lost.

Many do come to faith in God usually connected to personal matters I would guess, but also in response to something of the beauty found in creation and in the message of the gospel. But some have abandoned faith in God. The randomness of evil or misfortune in the world, the great suffering often accompanying that, along with what is not good oftentimes threatening what otherwise is, all of this can make people doubt the existence of a good God who is like a Father and love. So that a person can become either an agnostic, or even an atheist, the latter usually to some degree agnostic, but with the belief that it’s impossible to really know, and maybe beside the point.

There are some reasons which might move me toward faith in God. The wonder of creation, or one could say, nature, is one of them. What we do find good in societies, in spite of all the evil might be another. Art in the form of music and other work helps us appreciate beauty and might suggest to us a Creator behind the creativity we find within humankind and ourselves.

But the only thing that really keeps me from descending into something like the writer of Ecclesiastes had (one of my favorite books of the Bible, by the way, which shows where I might naturally go apart from the gospel) is the gospel: the good news in Jesus. This good news addresses both the brokenness we see all around us, including when we look in the mirror. And helps us see that both for the present, as well as for the future, there is redemption and salvation in terms of reconciliation, justification, and regeneration. The old creation, good, but broken down in so many ways to be made new, the new creation in Christ to ultimately take over everything and make it turn out more than okay, for the life of the world, and in our lives as well.

This is what we celebrate at Christmas in God becoming flesh, completely human in the Person of the Son, Jesus. God not only with us, but becoming one of us. And fulfilling all God set in motion for humankind in God’s call to Abraham and what followed, in spite of all the brokenness we find in that story. Addressing that by becoming broken himself on the cross, experiencing death in order that we might have the life which followed, swallowing up that death, and ultimately all death.

The good news in Jesus. Our one hope, and what keeps my faith in God intact from my own perspective, the Spirit from God at work in all of this now, in and through Jesus.

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accepting one’s lot

This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

It probably has taken me quite a while, but I think I’ve finally come around to begin to completely accept my lot in life with all the challenges and disappointments that come along my way. Life is like that; it is not some kind of dream vacation. Rather it is the hum-drum of challenge, effort, setback, failure at times, more effort, repentance all along the way, and remaining at it day after day.

And then there’s all the good that comes, if we could just see it. Wrapped up in the gifts God gives us, like the good wife I have, the grandchildren, the good I see in our daughter, the provisions God gives us to live and enjoy life.

Yes, in my case I would have liked to have been a pastor or teacher, but it didn’t pan out for this reason or that. I still maybe have some faint glimmers of dreaming about what I would like to see in whatever more days God allots to me. But above all, I want to more and more not only accept, but embrace whatever God gives me, and whatever place I find myself in. Knowing that God is good and that he will provide and help us as we seek to help others and be a blessing. In and through Jesus.

breaking through from unbelief to faith in the trials of life

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

There are certain go-to texts we would rather not go to. But we live in the real world, with all of its issues, and we’re smack dab in the middle of it with issues of our own. I can’t think of a better example of that than this passage in James, though there are probably better examples I’ve essentially screened out.

Part of maturity, and specifically Christian maturity is to learn to accept each new situation or trying circumstance as an opportunity for growth in the Lord. That can get old and humdrum to us, but maybe that’s because we’ve not learned our lesson well, yet.

In this James passage, we find that difficulties, even trials or temptations can either end up working for our good or ill, depending on our own response. Maybe there’s some muddled up middle gray area since even with faith, we can still struggle in not really entering it as completely as we should. Scripture seems to make the case and it seems clear in this passage (click link above for the context) that we either enter into this blessing, or we don’t, one or the other. Ordinarily I think we might kind of live in the in-between realm, which means we don’t really enter into the “promised land” God has for us.

A side note, yet interesting, and surely pertinent in creation: neuroscience today is helping us understand the plasticity of the brain, and how it can be reshaped even in older age. And how it essentially is always being impacted by life.

This word of God from James puts forward to me a new challenge, maybe renewed, but coming across to me as new. I am personally weary of the same responses I have over and over again to trouble, especially in the form of threatening circumstances. My gut reaction is ordinarily always negative and I end up steeped in fear and anxiety. I am used to it. And I usually get over it more or less fairly soon, probably an improvement over the past. But that seems to indicate that I haven’t learned at least well enough to step past the line from unbelief to faith when it comes to such circumstances.

That is what by God’s grace I would like to change. Yes, according to this passage it’s up to me, not God, who has already done and is doing his part. God’s word of grace is present for me, God’s reality and truth. It’s up to me to learn to grasp and hold on to that. And thus be a doer of the word, and not just a hearer (James 1:19-27). In and through Jesus.

the free fall in our society– the church and the state

I really struggle over the relation of the church and the state. I respect scholars and Christian traditions in their various takes on the matter. I think there’s often good we can take out of varying viewpoints.

That said, I also think the so-called “Constantinian turn” of the church when the Roman Empire became formally Christian, was in some sense the death knell of what the church is called to be in the world: a witness to another lord, the one true Lord, and to the one good news in him. One can plausibly argue otherwise, and surely some of what they say will have plenty of truth in it. But a major problem I see today in the United States is the emphasis on the importance of the morality of the state, as if it somehow ought to be Christian in some way or another. This is the case from both the religious left and the religious right, the former emphasizing world peace and the right to do whatever, and the latter emphasizing a certain morality as in “family values.” Both have a code of ethics, but the attention is turned almost completely to the state, it seems.

Regardless, this is my take on the current sea change in the United States, of course same sex marriage, etc., all in the equation. The church needs to hold the line both on the teaching of the gospel: the good news concerning Jesus, and righteousness: God’s will in Jesus. And of course, that is to be a witness for the world, hopefully impacting the state for good. But the church must neither be influenced by the world, nor expect the world to be influenced by it. If I read the Bible right, that is. But to hear people both from liberal, progressive and conservative perspectives, you would have to think that much depends on what the state is doing, that is all that essentially seems to matter, and the church is present to applaud and support that.

It doesn’t matter one whit what the world does, what the state does, the church must kindly tow the line, holding to the teaching of our Lord, of righteousness. The church always must pray for the state, and be a witness to it of the power of Christ and the gospel. And it does need to be present for the good of all, including the state, praying for its blessing, as well as for the good of all people.

But the church must be careful not to compromise its calling to be a witness to the one good news in the one Lord and Savior, Jesus.

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.