Sunday Morning Again

I’ve been thinking a bit about Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” (I really dig the Shawn Mullins rendition). There is something about the song that resonates within me on one hand, reminding me that I have not always lived out the faith God called me to. However, it is very frustrating on the other hand.

How do we continue to live in sin? How do we say we love Jesus, and then divorce our wife over something petty? How can we tell people they need the Gospel, and then ignore the homeless man at the intersection? There seems to be such a disconnect sometimes. We say it, we pay it lip service, but we don’t live it out. For some of us, we want to but no matter how badly we want that life…if just never seems to work out. For others, living it out doesn’t even matter. “I’ve got my seat on the first plane to heaven, so leave me alone!” Sound silly when you read it out loud, but boy, it doesn’t seem silly to the folks who live it.

When I first drew close to God (or was drawn close for all you Calvinists out there), the Spirit constantly brought me back to the Book of James. I have read that book more than any other, without a doubt. Every time I pick up a new Bible, be it a new translation like the Voice or simply a different study version, I read James first. It’s my standby.

And there’s this one verse I always come back to: “Without actions, faith is useless. By itself, it’s as good as dead. I know what you’re thinking: ‘OK, you have faith. And I have actions. Now let’s see your faith without works, and I’ll show you a faith that works.’” For all of the beauty and mystery found in John’s Gospel, my second favorite book in the Bible, this tiny section constantly calls to me. And just in case I was inclined to treat this as some vague notion, James doesn’t leave me the option: “Real, true religion from God the Father’s perspective is about caring for the orphans and widows who suffer needlessly and resisting the evil influence of the world.” Faith should result in something practical that goes beyond our basic duties.

I don’t know how else to read this. It’s not meant to sound judgmental. Nor is it meant to beat someone down. If anything, this is an encouragement. When I don’t know where to start living my faith out, God gives us direction: start with the poor.

There are so many different aspects to our faith, and each of them helps us to be truly alive in Christ. We aren’t called to be activists. We’re called to be colonists (to borrow a phrase from N.T. Wright). We’re spreading God’s kingdom in this world. Through prayer, reading, relationships, writing, serving, singing, feeding, worshipping…these are how we let other know our King is real.

Its an awesome responsibility. Don’t waste it.

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Drawn In

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We are attracted to light.

My son (pictured above) knows this first hand. When viewing the synchronized light show at the downtown square where we live, he could not take his eyes off the nearby tree that was constantly flashing from one color to the next. He had to touch them, and even tried to blow them out at one point because he was concerned they were hot. It was a moment to cherish, no doubt.

But that is not the end of its importance.

It reminded me of the magi, and the light that drew them to Christ. And then there’s the shepherds, and the angelic light that drew them to that treasured manger. Peter was drawn to the glorified Christ, Paul was changed through a blinding light. Make no mistake, our longing for light can be clearly seen throughout Scripture.

This makes Jesus’ words about the reasons why we cling to the light, or avoid it, take on a powerful tone this season. But it also makes me wonder: does the light of Christ shine through me?

Jesus said we can’t hide the light when we’re people of God, and then reminded us that we are light so that people will see God. So, much like the stars and angels of old, we beckon to those who have not met Christ or who have maybe lost their way. We cry out on their behalf, and we know that God listens.

Are you a light this Christmas? If you are, will your light shine throughout the year?

CPR

My life group had an interesting discussion this past Sunday. We’ve been going through John, and we were looking at the Bread of Life discourse during this particular meeting. We observed how simple the message of Christ is: “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the One He has sent.” In the course of talking about the different ways we add to this Gospel, we began discussing the whole “works versus faith” issue that often arises in Christian circles. Theologians have been dealing with this for  a long time (St. James, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Francis Schaeffer, James W. Sire, N.T. Wright, to name a few) and there are still a variety of opinions.

In my life group, there seemed to be two main thoughts (well, two were voiced anyways): 1) When you’re saved, you desire to have the character of Christ, and this desire produces the works James wrote about. 2) Works that are forced are bad, because works should come naturally from our salvation.

This sums up the perspective of many Christians that I have met over the years. They often cite amazing transformations (like those of Paul, or the brother of Jesus, or even Constantine) as examples of how the power of the Holy Spirit comes down and just changes a person overnight. While there is some truth to these examples, this kind of thought offers an incomplete picture for a few reasons.

1) Powerful transformation does not happen overnight. The few (and I stress the word, few) examples of this kind of thing that we find in Scripture should serve as a stark warning. For most people in the New Testament, change is difficult and slow. The Disciples are perhaps one of the most prime examples of this, and Christians should keep in mind that while the Spirit does indeed give us a new nature, that does not mean we will be sinless from that point on.

2) The Christ-like character of people like Paul came with effort. Immediately, people will want to point out errors in this thought. So perhaps an example will help. As a Christian, it is our business to help point people to God, in effect saving their life. A person trained in CPR is very similar. Both desire the best for those in need, and have a sincere desire in their heart to help people. However, if I am choking, I would rather have the CPR-trained individual nearby than the Christian with well-meaning intentions. In order to be of any use in the business of saving lives, we must practice the habits that will be used in this process. This leads into the next point.

3) Being kind by nature is not the same as being transformed. The person who was gentle before they were saved will continue being gentle. So when this individual reads that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, they think to themselves, “look at how easy this comes!” This is a deception though. Some people will have gentle natures, while others have the nature of a thief. And yet, no one is exempt from needing God. We have to understand that in some aspect, we will fall short of God’s standards. If kindness comes natural, perhaps honesty does not. Of maybe we fail in our sexual ethics, but stand strong in our generosity. Regardless, in order to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, we will have to practice some of them.

C.S. Lewis often spoke of the importance of doing something in order to really feel a certain way (he touches on this in Mere Christianity, The Four Loves, and The Weight of Glory, which are all books I recommend). The idea is this: if we treat someone like we love them, because we desire to love them as Christ does, our hearts will be transformed. Eventually we will find ourselves loving this person without effort. It becomes natural because we made it a habit.

In the end, the Christian who does not live the Christ-like life is not fulfilling their purpose. And that, sadly, seems to be the case in much of the American Church. Perhaps, we are just out of practice.

Lord, as we seek to really be Your body here on this earth, soften our hearts to the wounds around us. Open our minds to the truth found in Your Word. And give us the hands to carry out Your will, just as You would have it done. May Grace and Peace characterize Your people. Amen.

Evolving Faith

Earlier, I was ranting about my general disagreement with the perspective held by most Christians that salvation is summed up in terms of going to heaven or hell.

“So what do you think salvation is about?”

Well, more than heaven and hell.

In truth, the position that the whole point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was about saving my eternal soul from an everlasting time experiencing pain and torment has never seemed complete to me. I’ve never understood how a person could read John’s Gospel and come away thinking that Jesus was only about heaven. Eternal life is knowing Jesus. He came to give life more abundantly. These things aren’t some future promise about eternity. They’re for the here and now. I’m learning that the rest of the New Testament speaks in the same way, but more on that later.

My problem always was that I didn’t know what it meant. What is life more abundant? What does it mean to know Jesus? How do these things effect us now?

In my frustration, I kind of abandoned the argument, and decided to let things be. If I didn’t have an alternative, I didn’t see any point in saying anything. I mean, going to heaven is important. And bringing the Gospel to people is crucial. So why object?

Object isn’t the right word anymore, though. Now, what I do is beg for completion of the message. I ask that Christians think about what the Bible teaches.

I’m glad I gave up trying to argue with evangelism. I was wrong in that idea. Since I felt the “heaven vs. hell” doctrine was incomplete, I was trying to throw out the whole thing (although I didn’t realize that until later). I’m glad that I didn’t think that Jesus’ work stopped in heaven, but instead I still seek to fully understand what it means to have life more abundantly.

Because I’m not alone in thinking there is something more to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And others have done a good job of explaining what that means (I was pointed to this work by a pastor whom I respect greatly).

The essence of salvation is this: God did not save you to take you out of this world. His purpose is redeeming His good creation (which has been corrupted by sin), and He saved you so that you can be a participant in that. Yes, you will go to heaven when you die. But Jesus is coming back. And He is going to bring you back with Him. Thus, when His reign is visibly established on this earth (His reign has already begun, but few believe that), all that Christians did to reflect God’s kingdom in this life will be a part of God’s New Heaven and Earth (which will be one place, rather than two). This is why Paul encourages the Corinthian church:

…be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

He isn’t encouraging these Christians to be good so that they will go to heaven. He is reminding them that their work here matters, because the God of heaven rescued them from sin and death, giving them new life through His Son, Jesus Christ.

We’re called to that life now.

Maybe you disagree with this. Perhaps you think I’m abandoning conservatism, supporting liberal ideas, or whatever. The truth is, I just think what we do matters. Politics. The environment. Education. Feeding the hungry. Helping the poor. We act like these things are divorced from Christian life because they’re tied to government or liberal organizations or whoever else we don’t like. And the excuse for much of that separation is because preachers tell their flock that what matters most is going to heaven. But true religion isn’t spending eternity in heaven with the angels. Its something we do here. Now. This very moment.

So I ask, what has your salvation done? Has the Grace of God in your life helped this world? Or has it simply given you a ticket to the afterlife?

Sympathy, or Compassion?

I’ve been thinking today a lot about the differences between sympathy and compassion. I’m not sure what started me on this, probably something I read in Job today, but I’ve been wrapping my brain around it for the last several hours and have come to some interesting ideas.

1) The short and simple definition of these two are as follows: sympathy is being affected by the suffering of others, while compassion is willingly partaking in the suffering of others.

2) Sympathy comes very easy. Compassion does not.

3) There are very few movies that illustrate true compassion.

The Four Feathers is one of the few examples, but it gets lost in-between the machismo of war and the reverence of romance. But the plight of Harry is a good picture of compassion: moved by the ill news he receives of his friends, he changes his entire life in order to be there to protect and help them. And in this process, he truly suffers with them in battles that are not his to fight.

The thing is, I do not have compassion. Sometimes, I can muster up enough of it to be of some use, but not very often. Its so much easier to sit back and say, “That is just such a shame. You know what? I’ll do [insert meaningful yet ultimately low key action] so that that’ll help them out. I wouldn’t want them to think no one cares.” This is what I do. All the time. Of course, what should say is this, “That’s awful. Is there anything I can do to help you bear this burden?” I should be willing to sacrifice so much more from my own life in order to help those who are without or who are in need.

This isn’t so much about being a good steward with what God has given me. Its about being an instrument of God’s blessing to everyone else. Its not about some arrogant idea of social justice. Its about genuinely feeling something for the person next door because they need someone to care. Ultimately, its about true and sincere and honest religion. The way it was always meant to be.

Do I have this? If not, am I willing to seek it?

More Than An Apple?

The LORD God commanded the man, saying, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die." (Genesis 2:16-17)

I recently had a discussion about what exactly the "fruit" in Genesis represents. Since I don’t think God puts things into the Bible idly, the discussion took some time.

I’ve heard different theories. The apple represents something sexual, or perhaps the "flesh" similar to the representation of Communion. Overall though, I’ve held that people just read too much into it. The point of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was to test Man. What good is obedience or love if it comes because there are no other options? A forced obedience is not obedience at all. But a perfect love should produce obedience. What is it to serve the God whom you love?

Then God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; (Genesis 1:29)

Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)

But as I’ve given it some thought, I do wonder if there is not more to this fruit than meets the eye. What does it mean when you read fruit in the Bible? A friend reminded me that digging deeper doesn’t always mean fishing for something that’s not there.

"So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits." (Matthew 7:17-20)

"Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither {can} you unless you abide in Me." (John 15:4)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

[For] you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth, trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8-10)

All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Hebrews 12:11)

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. (James 3:17)

And I could go on. In just these few examples, I see something that may or may not be there. The act of eating brought forth death in the Garden. The willful disobedience separated us from our Creator. But He did not abandon us to our own machinations. He provided a willing Sacrifice for us all.

But that brings me to my question: is the "fruit" of the Tree there because, despite our disobedience, we were given Hope? A Tree was part of our Fall, and a Tree was part of our redemption. Is the fruit a part of our Spirit there just as becomes a part of us once our debt had been paid? With that single act of disobedience, a Kingdom was brought about; a Kingdom superior to that of Eden. This life better than Paradise? Emphatically yes. For now we bear the fruit of our Lord! No longer should the buds blossom only to die before it brings forth life! (See 2nd Kings 2:19-22) Here, every day we have the choice to abide in Him or to be cut off.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. But perhaps, we need to reexamine the Life, the Source, we have here on this earth. And perhaps we who were made "Sufficient to have stood," will stand tall.