29 November 2016

Athletae Dei

What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? What is sanctification? What does growth in Christlikeness involve? What is the link between salvation and works? These questions occupy a great deal of my day-to-day thought life. Let me offer a few rambling thoughts and conclude with a parable/metaphor that came to me on my morning commute. 

First, I am utterly convinced that salvation is a free gift of God. There is nothing that anyone can do to earn salvation nor even to improve their standing with God. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us: "for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." Christ's favor is unmerited. Whoever places their faith in Christ will be saved. Period. 

But, unlike the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), most of us are not immediately headed for glory upon our good confession. God leaves most of us here for some time. In light of that, we are wise to ask, what shall we do with time we are given? How shall we live? These questions place us squarely in the domain of discipleship. 

To be a disciple means that we seek to learn from a teacher, in the case of Christianity, Jesus.  Disciples try to shape their lives to be more like Christ wants them to be, which he demonstrated by his life and teachings. In other words, they seek to grow in Christlikeness. Although stated above, this point is important enough to be restated: these attempts to grow in Christlikeness do not merit favor with God. Those who have placed their faith in Christ are as approved as they will ever be, which is to say fully approved. 

However, even though salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, it does not mean that works are inherently bad or evil. Dallas Willard has famously said, "grace is opposed to earning, not to effort." Indeed, the words of the apostle Paul routinely commend us to to strive for growth in holiness. Why should we do this? Not to earn God's favor, but because it is the best way to live. 

Let's see if this story clarifies this thought. 

A Parable 
Following up on their New Year's resolutions to get healthier, two men joined a gym. Taking advantage of New Year's offering, the first man signed up for the whole year, intent on becoming healthy and strong. The first few weeks, he showed up faithfully. Though he didn't really know what he was doing, he would run on the treadmill and do a few reps on the weight machines. After those first few weeks, life got in the way. His work was busy and after work, he just wanted to come home and crash in front of the TV for a few hours before going to bed. 

Also wanting to be healthier, the second man signed up for the whole year. He had chosen his gym after doing quite a bit of research and weighing out the pros and cons. He knew that the gym he joined not only had a variety of exercise options, there were also staff and more experienced athletes who were able to help him to reach his goals. He knew that in order to be successful, he would need to prioritize his time at the gym. In the upcoming year, he developed strong habits. He consistently came to the gym several times a week. If he missed for any reason, he would get back at it, not shaming himself for missing, but keeping his goals in mind. He sought advice from a personal trainer who also helped him to stay motivated and reach his goals. 

At the end of the year, the first man gained 15 pounds. He regularly complained of new aches and pains. He felt tired all the time. The second man lost 15 pounds. He felt healthier and better able to handle the daily stresses of life. In the Fall, he reached a long time goal of completing a 5K race. Others took notice of his improved health and he found himself instructing and encouraging others. 

Both of these men remained gym members. They both had access to all of the rights and privileges of being a member of the gym. They could take advantage of any of the resources at any time. 

But only one became a disciple. 

Like most parables, the parallels to real life are imperfect and clumsy at times. Yet, they often make a larger point, in this case, the importance of being a disciple. Jesus was the only one to ever live his life perfectly. Dallas Willard argued that Jesus is the smartest, wisest man who ever lived. If we believe that, we believe that Jesus knows what constitutes the best life because he lived it. If then that is true, it would be unwise for us to merely give assent to his claims without also seeking to live a certain way, Jesus' way. 

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul encourages his readers to become Athletae Dei--athletes for God. Athletes, at least those who want to be successful, go into training. They begin to shape their lives to succeed at their sport. They know that progressive training will be essential to continued success. No one wakes up one Saturday morning and plans to win a marathon that day without training for it. No matter how hard they try, they won't succeed. Training is more essential than trying. 

The same holds true for those of us who desire to grow in Christlikeness. We begin to train ourselves to be more and more like Jesus in our thought, word, and deed. We become his students. No one expects an overweight middle age guy to run a marathon, but knows that with training, he probably can. As our teacher, Jesus also knows that we are far from living perfectly, but he is eager to teach us his ways. 

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive an imperishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.-1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV)

15 November 2016

Luke eighteen: Remixed for a unsettled generation

English Standard Version: He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”-Luke 18:9-14

Remix for an unsettled generation
Jesus told this story to some people who were assured of their own righteousness and believed that their viewpoints were superior and spoke poorly of others. "Three people went onto Twitter to pray. The first, drawing attention to himself said, 'I thank you that I am not like other people, bigoted, racist, sexist uneducated hicks, or even these two over here. I am tolerant, supportive, and safe.'

"The second, also calling attention to herself said, 'I thank you that I am not like other people, lazy, self-centered whiners who have nothing better to do than protest. I work hard, pay my taxes, and love my country.'

"The third, standing far off, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the others. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Lord, have mercy.

12 November 2016

Five-fifths human: My reflections on cruelty and a call for confession

Prior to the 2016 election, emotions ran high. People across the nation expressed strong feelings about their preferred candidate and why the other candidates were unacceptable, unelectable, or deplorable. People seemed at least as committed to the defeat of the opposition as to the election of their own person. We now stand five days post-election and tempers run hotter than they did in the weeks leading up to the election.

Since Tuesday, we have been the unfortunate witnesses of so much hatred and violence. Crimes against people of color, gays and lesbians, and different religious backgrounds seem much more abundant than normal, and they already occur entirely too frequently. These incidents are not only happening among adults, but are infecting our children and schools too. The KKK has been circulating and recruiting with increased fervor.

Yet, that's not all. Multiple videos have surfaced of those who have been assaulted for their stance on Trump. One heart-wrenching video of a mother emerged. She packed her elementary-aged son's suitcase and kicked him out of the house amidst his flood of tears for voting for Trump in a school election.  Flags burn. Cities burn. None other than Garrison Keillor, author of the Prairie Home Companion, wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune entitled, Donald Trump won. Let the uneducated have their day. "Don't be cruel" he urged readers--his fellow "liberal elitists"--after he had devoted several paragraphs to maligning the intelligence of who he perceives to be the uneducated Trump voters, or as he suggests, "those without books on their shelves."

My fellow Americans, this isn't okay.

In 1787, a compromise was reached between the Southern and Northern states called the "three-fifths compromise." For purposes of taxation and representation, free citizens were counted as a whole person whereas "all other persons" (in other words, slaves) were counted only 3/5. They were considered less than fully human.

Are we coming again to a place where we have lost sight that human dignity is endowed by the Creator? Are we living in a time when we deem others to be "less than human?" Thankfully, on a federal level, each person (at least each person born alive and at least on paper) is recognized as fully human. One's citizenship is not reduced due to color, creed, or character.

Sadly, as individual Americans, I am not sure that we believe in equality anymore. Recent words and actions betray our beliefs that others are less than human, that there are people less deserving of dignity, respect, and kindness than others.

Again, fellow Americans: This. Isn't. Okay.

I am calling upon all who read this to take an honest inventory of your heart. Ask yourself, which people do I think are inferior to me? Who is less deserving of my respect? Who, in my thoughts and feelings, is less than fully human? Ask yourself, does my disapproval of another's behavior end up infecting my view of them as a person deserving of dignity?

Be honest. Pretending you are sinless in this not only harms others, but it harms your own soul. Healing can only begin with honest confession.  King David reminded us that God doesn't despise brokenness and contrition (Psalm 51).

From there, please stop acting as if you are better than others. In your disagreement, seek to listen and understand. Seek to comfort and restore. And, as Tim McGraw has so recently reminded us, "always be humble and kind."

09 November 2016

Reflections on the Dawn of a New Presidency

The people have elected Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America. For over 200 years, our constitutional republic has persisted and we have made it through yet another election.

I want to offer a few reflections on the dawn of the 2016 election to my Christian brothers and sisters. Perhaps your candidate won. Perhaps your candidate lost. Perhaps you didn't even cast a vote. Regardless, how now shall we live?

First, 1 Peter 2:16-17 reminds us, "Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." Friends, our freedom lies not in our worldly citizenship, but flows from Christ's finished work. Live as people who are free. Yet in that, serve others and, as Peter reminds us, 'honor the emperor." Treat elected officials with honor, even if you did not vote for them.

Second, our sovereign is already on the throne. God was, is, and always will be head over all. God is not surprised by these election results. Nothing falls outside of His plan. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Besides Jesus, nothing has any significance. He alone matters."

Third, pray for the government. Not just today, but as often as you think about it. "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way." -1 Timothy 2:1-2

Fourth, you will meet people who are scared about the election results. There are those who believe that this election signals doomsday, the apocalypse, or the coming of anti-Christ. In light of that, they are frightened. Love them well. As the verse from 1 Peter says above, "live as servants of God." One of the best ways to do that is to love the people around you--friends, neighbors, coworkers.

Fifth, Christians, we remain salt and light. Matthew 5:13-14 reads, "You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You're the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." We need to continue to boldly proclaim the truth of the Kingdom of God. When those truths are hard, we cannot be unafraid to say them. We need to be those who live with joy and beauty as citizens of God's kingdom. We are ambassadors for Christ. When people look upon us they see what Jesus is supposed to be.

Sixth, be more concerned about God's reputation than your own. Too often, as Christians, we conform ourselves to the surrounding culture or are afraid to speak truth when truth is necessary. In 1 Corinthians 4 Paul basically said, "I don't give a whit what other people think of me. I don't even care what I think of me. What matters is what God says." Don't worry so much about how the world views you; give more attention to how God views you.

Seventh, Micah 6:8 tells us to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God." There is still work to be done. Become advocates for the unborn, the downtrodden, and the marginalized in society. Love your neighbor.

Finally, "whether you eat, or whether you drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."-1 Corinthians 10:31

07 November 2016

fortissimo on tympanum

A never ending drum roll
fortissimo on tympanum
media induced hyperacusis
cacophony demanding.

The Times, the Blaze, and Fox
who can shout the loudest
our world is never soundless.

Each clamors for attention
lone arbiters of truth
"The others are deceptive
about the voting booth."

"We alone are honest
you we'll never fail,
We tell you what you want to hear
the 'objective' holy grail."

But train yourself to listen
not to him who talks the most
but to the One who made the world
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

His voice is always present
a legato melody
"Turn down the volume on the world
and you will hear from Me."

04 November 2016

As for me, I shall walk in my integrity

Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in your faithfulness. I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites. I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O LORD, proclaiming thanksgiving aloud, and telling all your wondrous deeds. O LORD, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells. Do not sweep my soul away with sinners, nor my life with bloodthirsty men, in whose hands are evil devices, and whose right hands are full of bribes. But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. My foot stands on level ground; in the great assembly I will bless the LORD. -Psalm twenty-six

02 November 2016

Ten questions for my "pro-life" friends

(Before I ask these questions, please know that I am ardently pro-life. There has never been a time when I haven't been, so please keep that in mind when responding).

1. When you think of being pro-life, does that only, or even primarily, mean that you are against abortion?

2. What is your position on issues of life after a child is born? Are you as strongly committed to meeting his or her needs during childhood, adolescence, young adulthood? Not abstractly, but practically, what are you doing?

3. At what point does termination of life become a reasonable option (e.g., death penalty, targeting civilians during war) and, being pro-life, what is your justification for that position?

4. If you are a Christian, you believe that there is also life after death and most of you believe in a literal heaven and hell. Are you dedicating as much time and effort and prayer to a person's eternal life as you are to their physical, earthly life? Are you as committed to sharing the gospel with people as you are to talking about the horrors of abortion?

5. What does a truly pro-life position have to say about issues like caring for the poor, orphan care, pornography/human trafficking, substance abuse, bullying?

6. When you hear of someone who has committed a heinous crime, or when you think about those who are in prison, what thoughts pop into your head? Do your thoughts degrade them, or do you view them as a someone who bears the image of God and as someone who needs Jesus as much as you do?

7. God also speaks an awful lot about widows and the aged? What are you doing to love well those who are older than you or whose minds and bodies are failing them?

8. Do you find yourself judging people of other races or religions, assuming you are better than they are or that you would never do the things that they do or have done? When you see news stories about violence in the streets, is your gut reaction to think, "well, of course, they're black thugs" or "must be a Muslim terrorist"? or is your first response to think, "I should withhold judgment because I don't know the circumstances. What I can do is pray for how to best love right now."

9. Are you cautious with your tongue? Do you use words to build up or tear down? I understand this is not the same thing as the destruction of a physical child in the womb, but an evil tongue damages a soul. Many times, a person who is made to feel worthless or ashamed wishes they had never been born and may even seek to end their own lives. We need to communicate to people, even when we disagree with them: "YOU MATTER."

10. In general, at a deep level, do you view others as less worthy of life and love? Do you think that are other people are less in need of the Christ's saving grace? Blacks, Mexicans, White supremacists, women, drug dealers, pornographers, liberals, Muslims, gays, abortionists? If you were to dig beneath all of your self-protective armor, are there ever flashes of viewing some people as less inherently valuable.

Friends, to be pro-life MUST mean to be pro-human in all of its forms. The Bible speaks about the sanctity of the preborn, but there is a whole lot more evidence for how we care for those who are already here. God's love for the downtrodden is everywhere in the Bible. That doesn't mean that we call good the things that God says are evil, but it does mean we seek to love well even when we disagree. That doesn't mean we shift our responsibility to the government or a relief agency, but it does mean we must ask ourselves, how can I be "pro-life" right now?