Papa Hemingway and Valentine’s Day

This is a slightly modified version of an article I was asked to submit to a local magazine, Vero’s Voice. The article was not picked up because it “wasn’t American enough,” (and to be fair, that is what they had requested) so I figured I would push it off on my unsuspecting readers.

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February will see a spike is candy sales and flower deliveries as people celebrate Valentine’s Day, the American holiday devoted to love. While the holiness of such a day is certainly up for debate, the value placed on Valentine’s Day by the average American is evidenced in stores and malls everywhere. Apparently, we are a nation who loves to be in love. Ernest Hemingway, the quintessential American author, was known more for his personal exploits at times than for his literary prowess. In Hemingway’s breakout novel, The Sun Also Rises, the central character Jake Barnes discovers a profound concept for life through his new acquaintance the Count. “I am always in love,” Mippipopolous explains. It is a short scene, and if you are not paying attention you can easily miss it. Yet, these five simple words set Jake off on a pilgrimage, where he begins to grasp what it means to love truly.

The kind of love the Count is advocating is not restricted to the arena of romance, but rather reflects a holistic approach to living, which advocates for the proper flourishing of humanity. This idea, found in a “profane” piece of American literature, finds a corollary in the Christian Scriptures: “…I came to give life with joy and abundance,” (John 10:10, The Voice). Despite the surface differences between the two works, the idea is a sound one. A life lived without love can hardly be called a “life” at all. However, it must be about more than a fleeting emotion, or devotion to some particular hobby. To be fully human is to find the ultimate love, to rest fully in what our hearts long for. To put it another way, our hearts make us a restless people until they are filled as they were always intended to be. There is an aim that each of us is built to seek, and it is only there that we can fully be “in love.”

It is sometimes hard to picture such a fulfilling notion of life emerging from “Papa” Hemingway. His penchant for drinking and his reputation as a scoundrel with women certainly throw a damper on any impression that he fully grasped the very knowledge he was touting. But is that not the case with so many of us? Millions of Americans will pour into shops this Thursday to purchase candy, buy roses and pick up singing cards; but it is important to take stock. While Hemingway may not have found a way to apply this kind of love to every aspect of his life, his zeal and passion for things like fishing and bullfighting prove that he did the best he knew how. Can the same be said for you? For me?

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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.

The Truth About Forgiveness by John MacArthur

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The Truth About Forgiveness is part of a series that Pastor John MacArthur has recently unleashed upon Christendom which seeks to boil down some of the key teachings about Christianity. This little book, primarily concerned with the multi-faceted concept of forgiveness found in the Bible, is a good beginner’s tool. MacArthur weaves recent events, with good Biblical exegesis to produce a succinct work that pronounces in no uncertain terms that forgiveness is essential to the Christian life.

MacArthur has entitled the first chapter of his recent work “We Need to Be Forgiven.” Well, Dr. MacArthur, I forgive you. With his latest series, The Truth About…, MacArthur has given into the all too enticing “patchwork” book. It is a cobbling together of various portions from previous works, in an effort to demonstrates MacArthur’s main thoughts on specific titles. For some, these kind of book are fantastic. But, for people like me, this just doesn’t cut it. Aside from looking like a cheap ploy to make more money, the book lacks significant continuity of thought. Yes, all the chapters are about forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean they flow together as a coherent unit. MacArthur is capable of much better efforts, but he is not alone in such a misstep.

While I could easily recommend such a book to either a new Christian with questions about forgiveness, or even an immature Christian struggling with a relevant situation, this is not a work I would suggest to many others.

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?

When? Tonight!

I heard TobyMac’sCity On Our Knees” for the first time tonight. I’ve listened to it several times now, trying to let the words soak into my mind and my heart.

If you gotta start somewhere why not here, If you gotta start sometime why not now, If we gotta start somewhere I say here, If we gotta start sometime I say now…

It’s a pop song. It’s sugar coated, and simplistic. It’s not the kind of thing I would normally listen to. Still…something about this song calls out to me.

Through the fog there is hope in the distance, From cathedrals to third world missions, Love will fall to the earth like a crashing wave…

A pastor said recently, there is often great truth in even the simplest of songs (my paraphrase). He’s right. In fact, I’d say he’s directly on target.

Tonight’s the night, For the sinners and the saints, Two worlds collide in a beautiful display

This song is not just a call for action. It’s not only a plea to God to work in His people. It is definitely those things, but it is so much more as well. It is a standard. It is a conviction. In this song, we are reminded of the hope of Christianity.

It’s all love tonight, When we step across the line, We can sail across the sea, To a city with one king, A city on our knees

Forget for a second, if you can, all the silly rhetoric you hear in church about love. Ignore the impulse to lump this song into the category of “isn’t that ideal” like so many other Christian songs. Try, concentrate on the words, and absorb what is really behind this song.

This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14)

It’s there. Imbedded in this sugary tune, Jesus’ heart can be seen. Not only is this song calling Christians to prove the apostle right when he wrote, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” This song is a call for Christians to love God, to love the broken in this world, and to definitely love one another.

It’s probably that last one that trips us up the most. I think that’s why Jesus didn’t talk about it amongst His more casual disciples. He saved it for Gethsemane. He saved it for His friends. Jesus understood (among everything else in the universe) that it is sometimes hardest to love those who see us the clearest. I can give $20 to the homeless man downtown, and he will never know the depths of my selfishness and sin. God knows, but He forgives and sanctifies.

My brother in Christ? That’s a different story. We tell ourselves all kinds of little consolations to avoid really loving our brothers and sisters. “They should know better by now than to act like that.” Or maybe, “they’ll just judge me if they know what’s really going on.” There’s a million more excuses out there. We get frustrated with each other. We make each other crazy, but still, Jesus doesn’t leave us any outs: “This I command you, that you love one another” (John 15:17).

No matter the issue, great or small, we have been given a spirit of unity. When are we supposed to live this calling out? Well, if we gotta start sometime I say now.

Am I liberated?

Jesus liberated us from mind games. If we are into philosophy we might have a hard time with Jesus. He does not lend himself to our games. Jesus preferred solitude and silence over study. He did study the scriptures, but whenever He wanted clarification He went away, alone and apart from the crowd. – Richard Rohr, Jesus as Liberator

Brother Rohr is not my favorite author. I enjoyed Wild Man to Wise Man, but his blogs, articles, and daily meditations often leave me frustrated (the same can be said of Jim Wallis’ writings, but that’s for different reasons). My most common thought is this: “if that’s true, why don’t you back it up with Scripture?” I know that this isn’t the Spirit of Discernment at work, but rather the spirit of division. And so, I continue to read those I don’t agree with (as well as thosethat I do) believing that I don’t have everything figured out. And every now and then, this kind of thing pays off.

In Rohr’s meditation for today, he touched on a subject that I have given a lot of thought to recently. When Jesus needed clarification or rejuvenation, He went off alone (i.e. Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:47, John 6:15). I’ve been mulling this over in my head quite a bit. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it the need for “Scripture meditation, prayer, and intercession.” The idea is a simple one: we need time away from everything. Not vacation. Not time off. Rather, time to renew our mindsand strengthen our resolve.

This isn’t something I’m particularly good at accomplishing. But I’m working on it. Simple steps, like riding in the car without music (and without constant planning going on in my head), are a start. Refusing to constantly have Netflix playing in the background is another beginner’s move.

We all need solitude. Mainly because, in truth, we’re never completely alone. However, when it’s really just me and God, that’s when I can really listen.

Free me, Lord, to hear Your truth. Teach me to relinquish the day’s cares. Your grace and mercy are so magnificent, Lord. As Your truth permeates my spirit, may the rivers of life that You so graciously provide spring forth from the innermost parts of my soul. Free me, Lord, that I may in turn help free others.

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.

What is the goal?

I’m taking this discipleship class through Liberty University, and so far greatly disliking it. That comes as a surprise to me because I desire to know more about being a disciple of Jesus and how to teach others to be His disciples as well. Every time I think about Jesus’ new command, that we “love one another,” I am moved more to know this Ruler of God’s Kingdom. Surely, in Him is life.

Part of my discontent is a disagreement of purpose. It can summarized in simple terms: there are those who think disciples are a select few of Jesus’ followers, and I am not one of them. I can’t really distinguish discipleship from knowing Jesus, which in mind means all Christians are called to discipleship. Not just the ones who have time. Not just the ones who are eager. Everyone. I think the Great Commission is clear about that (and there are other places that I think support this, but for brevity sake I’ll just say I write about this more here).

This disagreement leads into the next one: the ultimate goal of life. How do we define the goal of life? I think most Christians define it in one of two ways:

Method A (Conservative Theology)

1. The goal is the final bliss of heaven, away from this life of space, time, and matter.
2. This goal is achieved for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we cling to by faith.
3. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating the disembodied, “eternal” state through the practice of a detached spirituality and the avoidance of “worldly” contamination.

If you read that and say, “that’s not how I think at all,” then you probably fall into the second one:

Method B (Liberal Theology)

1. The goal is to establish God’s kingdom on earth by our own hard work.
2. This goal is demonstrated by Jesus in his public career, starting off the process and showing us how to do it.
3. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating the final kingdom-on-earth by working and campaigning for justice, peace, and the alleviation of poverty and distress.

Whether you actively think about these kinds of things, the chances are that one of the two methods of discerning the goal of human life influences how you live day in and day out. Examine how you interact with people, how you use your money, what you think when you see corruption and brokenness in real life. Somewhere in that, what you believe is betrayed in your response.

Both of these ideas have good points, but neither of them are complete. People smarter than I have written about this in great detail (and even provided the presented format above). What I am becoming more and more convinced of is that there is another method of how to live.

What if the goal of this life was to be something greater? Not something heroic, but rather something subservient? What if we could see in the Bible a description of what our role was always supposed to be? And what if that role was made possible again through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? I think, if this other method were true, then how we live is vitally important. And our responsibility to other Christians is not to provide fire insurance or propose an easier path, but rather to teach Christ’s commands, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ, to pick our crosses daily and follow Him.

This isn’t something new. And many churches around this world would say they partake in this very thing.

To this, I have two questions:

1. If this is how churches really act in this present age, what will Jesus say about the manner in which we sow the seeds of His Gospel? Will we be the good and faithful servants? Or will our weaknesses and self-seeking purposes be exposed?

And, 2. what would the world look like if every Christian was truly a disciple of Jesus Christ? Such a world would be a wondrous place indeed.

Lord, I am not of strong character. And yet, You have promised me a hope that does not disappoint, a character that is more like Yours. Mold me into the image of God that I was always intended to be. Season my words with grace, that those words may be holy and belong to You. Teach me your ways, that I may forgive as You have forgiven me, that I may sacrifice as You sacrificed for me, and that I may love as You have loved me. Your mind is far above, and Your heart knows no limits. Bring Your justice to this world, Lord, be it through us, or be it not. And in all things, may we give You glory. 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?

Maybe tomorrow…

I’ve been thinking about Christians.

I know a guy who God used in amazing ways. But not anymore. He’s just a statistic now; one more person who amounted to nothing. Nothing sounds harsh, but I think it’s true. He told me once,

You cannot repair the irreparable mistakes of today by yielding to God tomorrow.

Profound. True. And sadly, proven by his life. This is what is most tragic though: who remembers and talks about the things God did through him before he showed that he was just like everyone else? I mean, God moved people through his words and showed people His love by this man’s actions. But now it’s all forgotten, or pushed to the back, because he did some selfish things.

It’s like Thomas, from the Gospels. Here is a guy who said he would follow Jesus to death, who told the other disciples “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” But that’s not what he is remembered for. No, he’s called doubting Thomas, because he needed to touch Jesus (his friend who he saw crucified) in order to believe he had come back from the dead. That’s something many people today, who did not see Jesus crucified still find difficult to believe. But he’s doubting Thomas.

See, eventually, we all become a statistic. Somehow, we screw up, and everything God ever did through us vanishes. Just like that. Gone.

A friend was showing me this Francis Chan video where this guy talked about how awesome it would be if a church were to just buy a field and meet there and quit wasting money on buildings (which I think is probably the best idea I’ve ever heard), yet all I could think about was, “what happens when he becomes a statistic?” Then we heard a sermon from Craig Groeschel, and the same thought emerged. And the truth is I think anything God has ever done through them would be relegated to pointless blogs and sparse memories from people who used to have hope in the Church.

What’s funny is I used to want to be these guys. I used to want to teach God’s word and show people how awesome I think God is. But the truth is I wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d become a statistic. And I’d hate that more than anything.

Of course, I might be wrong. Maybe I just have a headache. Maybe I’m just grumpy as a result. Maybe tomorrow will look different.