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Love Is All You Need

Love Is All You Need

Starting on Martin Luther King’s birthday, we have seen a number of quotes advocating love. I intended to post something that day, but as I frequently do I got diverted.

I wrote something about this long ago. It’s unfortunate that love has become a sort of cliche for a benevolent feeling combined with inaction. We can post comments about love and unity, and then go on doing what we were going to do anyhow.

I wrote about this back in 2006 in a post titled On Being a Love Preacher. I still am.

But love isn’t easy. I fail at it on a daily basis. That’s why I’m also a grace preacher. Grace deals with our failure to love.

The next error follows quickly after. Grace is not an alternative to sanctification. It isn’t a way to get out of being transformed. It’s not grace vs holiness. Rather, grace is the one means by which sanctification can happen. Wesleyans call it “sanctifying grace.” But all too often we pretend that sanctifying grace is something other than grace. It’s nice to have all those labels for grace applied in different ways at different times. But we can also forget that some of them are grace.

Sanctification is God working in you. It begins with God’s love and spreads through you. It is very active. It is not easy, any more than love is.

I hope that we don’t just comfort ourselves with quotes about love in action, but rather begin to see others through God’s work in us. Recognizing our limitations and failures and the way God has worked with us, we let grace sanctify the way we see our neighbors.

In the incarnation, God crossed the greatest gap possible, from the infinite to the finite, indeed miniscule on the scale of the finite. Your differences with your neighbor cover much less ground than God already covered.

The same gap crossing God can work in me, and in you.

Featured Image by Pexels from Pixabay.

Let Us Worship Other Gods

Let Us Worship Other Gods

In my book When People Speak for God, I discuss testing messages that people claim are from God. There is a passage in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 that is commonly used in connection with this. In that passage the message is tested by whether the word from God comes to pass. There are some interesting questions this leaves, such as the fact that you don’t know the validity of the word before the predicted event.

But there’s another passage, often ignored, that I think is more critical. It comes from Deuteronomy 13.

Should a prophet or a pedlar of dreams appear among you and offer you a sign or a portent, 2 and call on you to go after other gods whom you have not known and to worship them, even if the sign or portent should come true 3 do not heed the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to discover whether you love him with all your heart and soul. 4 It is the Lord your God you must follow and him you must fear; you must keep his commandments and obey him, serve him and hold fast to him.

Deuteronomy 13:1-4 (Revised English Bible)

Now there are those who may think this is about the election. It’s not. Depending on one’s attitude, it might apply, but I’m interested in those everyday questions that we have about whether something that is proclaimed as God’s will is actually from God

My less charismatic friends sometimes think they can avoid this question because they don’t believe in modern prophecy. I disagree. Whether one claims to hear directly from the Holy Spirit or one applies scripture to a particular situation, one is proclaiming something as God’s Word and the message should be tested.

In fact, we are much more likely, I believe, to be led astray by proclamation of scripture than by a claim of a direct word from God. The claim that something is “just what the Bible says” is both intimdating and properly open to question. More people are likely to believe “just what the Bible says” than are likely to accept the word of someone who claims to speak directly for God. But the interpretation of scripture can fall as far from God’s will as something pulled from thin air.

I suggest very strongly that those of us who teach from scripture, and make claims about the meaning of passages, should take responsibility for our interpretations and invite study and testing.

For me, Deuteronomy 13 is the most critical passage. What does it mean to call for someone to worship other gods? I like to use language that I have derived from Paul Tillich. (Note that I may be using some of his language in a slightly different way than he does.) He describes idolatry as making our ultimate concern something that is not ultimate. I think this goes along well with the message of the Torah on worship of God.

Worship is a process of placing our trust in and our dependence on the one worshiped. In the ancient near east, one might worship multiple gods, offering sacrifices to different ones at different times for different reasons. Israel was called to place all of their trust in all circumstances on God. Jesus proclaims something very similar in the Sermon on the Mount when he calls on us to not even take thought for tomorrow.

It’s easy to proclaim this for broad movements, such as we should not put our ultimate trust or ultimate concern in a political figure. Most of us don’t think we do. At least we don’t realize it, so we can point to people on the other side, whichever that is, and suggest they are the ones who are putting their ultimate trust in something other than God.

This isn’t necessarily about a particular candidate. We can easily make the political system itself our ultimate concern, and be limited to the things that the political system can accomplish.

Do you see the detour in the last two paragraphs? I’m talking about big, generic movments. I don’t think I said anything wrong. But I will not personally be primarily tempted by political activities in my life.

Let’s get personal.

Tomorrow I will go to my office and work. I believe I’m doing what God wants me to do. If I do, indeed believe that I am doing what God wants me to do, what is my proclamation going about my ultimate concern?

If I head forth under my own limited strength, placing my trust in myself to accomplish all of my goals, I am guilty of the wrong ultimate concern. My proclamation of God’s will in this instance fails the Deuteronomy 13 test. This doesn’t mean I don’t do my work. This is not about activity, but about trust. It’s about what is most important.

Whether I make plans for myself, for my family, for my business, or for my church, in all cases if I claim to follow God’s will, but call for trust in something else, I am guilty of this idolatry. This applies whether my trust is in a person, an organization (such as my conference or denomination), or a well-planned program.

I don’t know about you, but I often get this in reverse. When something is done and I receive congratulations on it, I say it’s all about God. But when tension is building as I do the task, I constantly forget that. I forget that whatever happens, I am in God’s hands. By my actions I can ask people to worship other gods, gods of arrogance and self-sufficiency.

Remember this: When we place our ultimate concern in something that is not ultimate, our potential is limited by the size and scope of the not-ultimate thing that we have made ultimate.

Fear and …

Fear and …

Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear [1 John 4:18]. But so do several other things — ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity.

C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night”

Lewis took this in another direction, but I like the words to point out that, in certain circumstances fear can be a very good thing, and it’s absence dangerous.

Featured image credit: Pixabay.com

Keep Good Friday and Easter Together

Keep Good Friday and Easter Together

Easter services are much better attended than Good Friday services. I suspect this is inherent in human nature. We prefer the solution to the hardship getting there. We prefer the happy ending to the suffering that led up to it.

It’s not surprising that we do. Who doesn’t prefer those good times? Who doesn’t want to have as an affirmation of faith the proclamation: He Is Risen!

But our reality is much different. We live through hard times. We have those moments when it seems all is lost. We suffer through times of waiting, wondering whether things can get better or not. Moments of great victory come at a cost.

Holy week illustrates this so effectively. Jesus has toiled through the hardship of His ministry, facing rejection and opposition. Then all comes to a climax, not in victory, but in arrest, trial and death. Almost everyone concludes that things are all over. He’s dead. What are we going to do.

Then there is the silence and waiting of the Saturday between. What will happen as the new week begins? Will they be coming after us? What do we have to do.

And then there is Easter Sunday morning.

We say “He is risen!” with enthusiasm and joy, but many of those who first heard it said it with doubt, fear, and concern. What were they to believe now?

But it becomes more and more certain. They know He has risen from the dead. Triumph!

But what happens now? Is it all an easy run to the end?

No! It is time to be witnesses, to face the trials that come after.

Whenever we pretend that the Christian life is going to be easy and without difficulty, we set someone up for a failure of faith.

So what good did it all do?

There is something more important that Good Friday has to say to us. Yes, it tells us that God knows our suffering. Jesus has been through what we go through. I like to emphasize that when we explain why Jesus had to die the death that He did, we include the simple fact that it was the kind of death that human power provided for someone like Him at the time He appeared. Something different would not be experiencing what we experience.

It also tells us that Jesus is the Lord of Life, who has conquered death. He is not only sympathetic, but He has the power to do something about it.

But it also tells us that Jesus suffered with us for a purpose, and He takes us with us. I was strongly impressed with this as I read Ephesians 2 recently.

Here are some points:

  1. Jesus came to us when we weren’t ready for Him (2:1-3). We can know He means it, because it wasn’t our good looks or attractive personalities that brought Him here.
  2. It was because of love and mercy (2:4-5; see point #1).
  3. He makes us alive with Him (2:5). We have an eternal destiny.
  4. In Christ, we have a glorious purpose (2:6).
  5. It’s a gift. This is important because what we can earn, we can fall short of (2:8-9).
  6. We are his creation, so forget all the ancestry sites (2:9).
  7. We have work to do, but it is work that He planned, that He empowers, and that He carries out.

Ultimately, this lets us know that whatever we are, we are in the One who created us. We live for a purpose, a purpose that is created, assigned, and carried out through that one power. We do not live for futility, even in the greatest of darkness.

So if, on the Monday after Easter Sunday you don’t feel very much like an Easter person, remember that many who heard of the resurrection didn’t either, but God had a purpose for them.

In Him, everything (Ephesians 3:14-21).

Might I recommend slowly and meditatively reading the whole book of Ephesians, or at least chapters 2 & 3?

(The featured image is of my wedding wring, which has “Ephesians 3:14-21” inscribed inside of it. This passage was read at Jody’s and my wedding.)

Ezekiel and the Bones

Ezekiel and the Bones

The lectionary readings called my attention to Ezekiel 37:1-14. I love the story, not to mention the song.

So how about the song?

Note: Here’s a comment from T. Henderson on this video on YouTube: ” That’s my Dad the second from the left. They couldn’t express more emotion because in that day they were under strict direction on what a black group could and could not do. Love the song though!” I like to get the historical context. You can read more of the discussion on YouTube.

There’s a specific point I want to call attention to. Notice how God provides Ezekiel with very specific instructions as to what to prophecy, first in verses 4-6, and then following up specifically to the wind/breath in verse 9.

Now God certainly could have said these things directly to the bones or to the wind. Could have, but didn’t.

What God actually did is act through Ezekiel. The event takes place not when God gives the instructions, but when Ezekiel carries them out and makes a proclamation.

There are so many things one can get from this passage, but for today, let me say just this. God likes to work through people, through human and other natural agencies. (Remember Balaam? Why didn’t God just send an angel and allow Balaam to see? God used a donkey.)

We depend on everything from God, but sometimes what God is doing is providing you with the opportunity to be the agent of what you hope for.

Featured image by Wolfgang Eckert from Pixabay

On Milk and Milk

On Milk and Milk

A couple of days ago I was reading 1 Peter during my devotional time and was struck by 1 Peter 2:1-3:

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

1 Peter 2:1-3 (NRSV)

My mind jumped to Hebrews 5:

With the time that’s passed you should be teachers, but you again need someone to teach you the basics of the foundation of God’s message, and you now need milk and not solid food. Everyone who subsists on milk is still an infant, untested in the message of righteousness.

Hebrews 5:12-13 (my translation)

There are several reasons not to connect these two verses. The interpretation of “milk” and the viewpoint about it are very different. I think, nonetheless, that there is something to be learned from the connection.

I talk a great deal about context in Bible study, various types of context. But there is also the context of your hearing. Your spiritual experience and situation is important. There is a saying that you read or hear the text as you are, not as it is. I think this can be overstated, but it does provide us with an important perspective. We do contribute something to our own interpretation from our own experience.

Another sort of context is your own perception of your relationship to the text. And this is what struck me about these two passages.

I can easily see the message (that is, the message that I see!) in these two passages. One is urging believers to move forward. The other is urging the readers to focus on those basic elements of the gospel, things that are essential to growing in the future.

The question is how I, as a reader, see myself.

We tend to read the text from a superior position. The author of Hebrews is castigating the readers because they have failed to move forward. Their discernment is not developed. They can’t understand what he wants to teach them because of this failure.

We join ourselves with the author, looking down on the original readers, who are so undeveloped spiritually as to need milk. I think most of us, at least, do this unconsciously. We are the spiritually developed, discerning, intelligent folks who are ready for the solid food. Let’s move through this passage quickly to get to the real stuff.

But if we haven’t done enough milk drinking, as in 1 Peter 2:1-3, we are not going to correctly understand that more difficult material.

What I suspect is that all of us—myself most definitely—have a need of some of that pure milk, reminding us of whose we are, and who is the one who is perfect. It is only because of Jesus that we grow into anything. We want to discuss deep, serious, complex theories when we really need a reminder that we’re only here because of grace.

The solid-food-eater who comes to despise that milk is likely to fall short in understanding the harder, deeper material.

I feel the need to confess my need of milk before I try to tackle the harder stuff.

Recently, after having taught my way through Romans and Hebrews, my Wednesday night class at church asked me to tackle Leviticus. I claim that my theology is primarily founded on Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus in that order. They wanted to know why I found so much spiritual food in Leviticus.

I, on the other hand, felt that I was not up to teaching them what I had learned in Leviticus. Do you hear the arrogance coming through there? I, the experienced solid-food-eater type was unable to get across to milk-drinkers the wonderful things I had learned.

Several people in the class reminded me that if it was God’s time for me to teach that material, God would help me do it.

It was such a critical point, one that I know, but don’t know. The teaching itself is an act of God’s grace. Everything is. That’s the milk right there. The better you get at technical things, the easier it is to forget that no matter how brilliant your deductions are in your own eyes, you depend on God.

The milk-drinkers, who were and are, in fact, solid-food-eaters, were there to remind me of the simple milk of the Word. It is not about me, but about God reaching out to every person.

That was a time for repentance for me, and 1 Peter 2:1-3 reminded me that I need to regularly check in with the pure milk and remember the source of it all.

We need to say, with Paul:

By God’s grace I am what I am.

1 Corinthians 15:10 (my translation)

Featured image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Link: On Spiritual Disciplines

Link: On Spiritual Disciplines

With a hat tip to UM-Insight, I saw a great cartoon and some excellent commentary on the Wesley Brothers blog. Maybe you think you, too, need a Disciplan.

Here’s a quote:

We don’t engage in these practices to prove anything. Selfless practices do not make me more worthy of God’s love. Rather, they prepare my heart to believe that God’s love is real.  And it’s really for me.  God doesn’t love me more just because I kept all my spiritual disciplines and turned into the best version of myself.  No, God’s love for me is just as steadfast during my most selfish and greedy moments, I am just closed to accepting that truth.  I can do all these spiritual practices for selfish reasons: trying to prove my love or my worth, to prove that I’m on the “right side of history.” But if it doesn’t till the soil of my heart towards knowing the humble heart of God, what am I doing?

Go read the whole thing! God will love you more!

Well, no, not true, but go read it anyhow.

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

Why I Stopped Carrying My Greek NT to Church and then Started Again

There’s an article on For the Church, in which Dr. Andrew King tells students: “Don’t Take Your Greek or Hebrew Bible to Corporate Worship.”

There are a number of good points in the article, such as the note that if you are not comfortable with the languages, working on them during a sermon may be distracting. It is also important not to suggest to those who do not read the Bible in its original languages that they are less than you, or somehow unable to read and understand their Bibles. Be cautioned by the issues raised here. But I have a slightly different view.

When I was studying biblical languages as majors both for my undergraduate and MA degrees, I very quickly started carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church. Since I went well beyond the couple of semesters or the couple of years that many seminary students study, I became quite capable of following the scriptures in a sermon or in a Sunday School lesson with little difficulty.

During the time that I was a student this presented little difficulty. As far as I could tell, very few people ever noticed. I never became self-conscious about it. I didn’t really care to have people notice, but it was the way in which I enjoyed studying the Bible.

For me, it became a problem when I was working and teaching in churches, though I was not a pastor. I have written before about not using Greek and Hebrew as part of your sermon. I avoid using the biblical languages as an explanation for something I’m going to say in a sermon. The reason is that I don’t want to suggest that I, an individual student, have discovered something that nobody in all the many translations into the English language, have managed to convey. I have found that a good presentation of the context of the passage, linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural, can convey pretty much anything you need to convey.

So one of my reasons for no longer carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church was to avoid the suggestion that one must know the biblical languages in order to read and benefit from the Bible.

The second was that certain preachers who knew me would try to bring me into Greek or Hebrew comments by saying things like “as Henry would know.” It was annoying, drew attention away from the point the preacher was making, and highlighted me when I had no part in presenting the message.

So I stopped taking those Bibles to church. It seemed easier and less likely to cause trouble.

One experience with a very close friend and mentor who is a pastor (though now retired) set me thinking in different ways. I was sitting in a classroom in the church reading my Greek New Testament when he walked in.

He said, “I am so awed with the way you can read and understand those languages. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

I thought for a minute and said (and I think this was the Holy Spirit helping me), “I’m just so awed by the way you can sit down with a couple and help them heal their marriage. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”

Now you might think this is a good reason not to let people know I read Greek and Hebrew by carrying the Bibles with me, but I have come to see it in the opposite way.

We all have gifts. I personally believe that all gifts are spiritual when they are used as God calls us to use them. We shouldn’t privilege any gift over another. God has gifted me with the ability to read and make use of languages in my study. I’m not a specialist. I don’t work in this field, though I occasionally teach classes in church. But I’m not an academic. I stopped after my MA degree. Nonetheless, I can read substantial amounts of scripture, such as sitting down to read an entire book in a day or so.

This doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else. It doesn’t make me more spiritual. It doesn’t make me more intelligent. I have a gift that I’m called to use in service to God.

I have yet to find anyone in the church who is not gifted in some way. The pastor who was one of my mentors had quite a number of gifts that inspired a sense of awe in me. In all the years I knew him, I sometimes disagreed, but I never thought he was not using those gifts for God.

My wife has an extraordinary gift for organizing difficult tasks and getting different people to work together to accomplish them. I absolutely am unable to understand how she does it.

Reading biblical languages is not a greater gift than any other. It gives me certain options for study. It doesn’t make me better, nor does it mean I always have the right answer for a biblical question.

So what I do now is go out of my way to affirm everyone’s gifts, while going ahead and using what works best for me in study. I have had many excellent opportunities to affirm the gifts of others and how they apply to Bible study, church leadership, and ministry.

There is a danger of pride, but there is in anything we do. Our pride can come out it so many ways. There is also a danger of misleading, but you won’t have solved that by leaving your Greek or Hebrew Bible home.

But there is also a tendency of some to forget the benefits we all gain from those who engage in a scholarly study of the Bible, from those who study archaeology, to anthropology, business management, human relations, and yes, languages and linguistics.

You don’t need to hide your gift. Use it responsibly to build the body.

Oh, and yes, if it’s distracting you from the sermon leave it out. And don’t use it in preaching. Let it deepen your study and then preach in the appropriate language for your congregation.

A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

A Note on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

I had occasion to discuss this passage a couple of days ago, and it reminded me of many discussions I have had regarding this parable. (It’s Matthew 20:1-16, by the way.) This is a short note and not an extended discussion.

The most common response I hear to this is that it isn’t fair. My most common response to the response is that God isn’t fair. Then people want to discuss whether as employers we should reward people according to their accomplishments, or whether this is a call for a different type of society.

My simple note is this: While I stand by my statement that God isn’t fair, I need to go farther and faster. God is not fair in that he gives us more than we can possibly claim. We are often afraid to simply note that God doesn’t really have to do anything.

Go back to the garden. God creates human beings, male and female, and places them in the garden. God doesn’t have to do that. We can say that it wouldn’t be nice to just dump them somewhere, but we have no way of calling God to account about that. In Scripture, God can be called to account, but it is only because God has set the standard and invites us to do so. When we talk about fairness we appeal to an outside standard.

To some, that makes God seem worse than us. God is unfair, and God can be unfair because, well, God! But what we see is God being kind and gracious even without that outside appeal. Many of us only do nice things because we might be seen, or we want the reputation, or—face it—because we have to. God does more than God has to because, well, God!

When we read this parable, I suspect we are not called upon to examine the fairness of economic systems (though that is a good thing to discuss), or whether the owner of the vineyard was a nice guy, which is perhaps questionable.

Rather, I think we are invited to think about who we are. And that’s tough.

I’ve never heard someone respond immediately by commenting on how unfair it would be to them, as the 11th-hour worker, to get a full day’s pay for one hour of work.

We think of ourselves as early, all-day workers. We’re wrong!

I think the passage’s main point is to invite us to think of ourselves as 11th-hour workers, people whose wages would be inadequate to feed our families if we just got the standard wage for our hour of work. We’re the ones who get something without a claim on it.

This is the value of a story: Helping us adjust our thinking by placing ourselves in the story.

I think if you get what Jesus is saying, one impact will be to change the way you think about yourself. In doing so, you may change the way you think about, and interact with, other people, those we have often thought of as getting more than they deserve.

Which is another value of a story: It carries over into so many different aspects of our life.

Featured image credit – Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Faith on the Edge Podcast and Ditch the Building

Faith on the Edge Podcast and Ditch the Building

Steve Kindle and Bruce Epperly got together on the Faith on the Edge podcast (episode 33) to discuss Nick May’s book Ditch the Building. I’m publisher to all three authors, though as pointed out in the podcast, Bruce has books with a number of publishers. It should be noted that Bruce’s written output is too great for any small publisher!

Here’s the Facebook post and the link:

I am delighted to see this kind of discussion taking place. I would have published Nick’s book even if I disagreed, but I find myself very much in agreement with his suggestions. I have a personal connection to the traditional church, but I also think we spend most of our time trying to figure out why it isn’t working.

That is a suggestion that we need to do radical surgery. How radical? That is worth discussing. I am watching as multiple churches I know are working on their structure, attempting to bring it more into line with the gospel and with the command of Jesus not to be seeking to be greater than one another.