I’m glad someone is counting!
I tend to harp on hermeneutics. Sometimes that’s precisely what people want me to do. Groups that have me back to speak twice, at least, are generally happy with that topic. But others find it annoying, pedantic, and perhaps intellectually snobbish! “Why can’t we just read our Bibles and get on with it?” they ask. Or “Quit making it so complicated!”
I understand their frustration, but without a great deal of sympathy. Christians have been “just getting on with it” for centuries, and the result is that we’re scattered all over the map in terms of how we understand scripture. I don’t consider having a variety of interpretations to be a problem in itself. To those who yearn for the magisterium, I would say that this simply means choosing one probably wrong option and then sticking with it.
To a certain extent, just getting on and reading the Bible is a workable devotional approach. But even so, such a devotional approach requires a filter. Just try reading Numbers 31 devotionally and you may see the problem. Now there are many approaches to handling Numbers 31, though the most common one seems to be to pretend it’s not there as long as possible. Pretending that less enlightening (or apparently so) passages aren’t there is an approach to interpretation and application.
This approach can even be made explicit. I’m embedding a clip from The West Wing, in which Toby Ziegler discusses the death penalty with his Rabbi. In this discussion the fictional rabbi expresses explicitly an approach many take implicitly. (To those annoying people who like to point out that various quotes/clips/etc come from fiction, I’m aware of it. I find fiction an excellent source for launching thinking.)
Relatively few people (though there are some) would state this quite as explicitly as the rabbi does at the end, “wrong by any modern standard.” But it’s a common hermeneutic in practice.
And as long as you’re prepared to argue modern standards or what seems, to you, to be spiritually enlightening, and to do so with other people who share your view of “enlightening,” that approach will work. It works quite well on the more conservative side as well, just with different definitions applied to what to keep and what not to.
The Bible is susceptible to this sort of thing because it does reflect a long time period and lets us see a variety of experiences in different times and places. It doesn’t codify that much, and where it does, it is often under circumstances that don’t apply. In a post yesterday I used Leviticus 18:22 and 19:34. Those each evoke extremely controversial topics. Here’s another text I used in the same Sunday School class:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbor, 3 or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby— 4 when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found, 5 or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt. 6 And you shall bring to the priest, as your guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without blemish from the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering. 7 The priest shall make atonement on your behalf before the Lord, and you shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and incur guilt thereby. (Leviticus 6:1-7, NRSV, from Biblegateway.com.)
In this passage the class largely came to the same conclusion about what applied and what didn’t with some variation. Feeling guilt, accepting responsibility, making restitution—these all seemed very applicable. Not so much bringing a ram without blemish.
That doesn’t reflect a bad hermeneutic. In this case, most people were distinguishing lasting principles from temporary requirements. Both Judaism and Christianity have theology that removes the need for animal sacrifices in the present.
The problem comes in when we try to discuss, and more particularly when we try to enforce our view of scripture on someone else. I’m fond of a quote from one of the books I publish, Philosophy for Believers. On page 119 of that book he says:
Philosophers sometimes appear to talk in obscure ways. They do so because they take into consideration what people often overlook.
In this case, I’m not simply looking for considerations that are overlooked, though they are, but for the underlying approach that results in a particular view. Quite frequently the way someone understands a scripture is simply locked into the tradition so thoroughly that an individual doesn’t even think about why. A single tradition might function well that way, but when you then discuss the text with someone else, the argument gets immediately heated.
The reason these arguments get heated quickly is both that we often have a great deal of emotion (way too much, I believe) invested in our religious views and spiritual practices, and also that the other person seems obtuse and perhaps bullheaded not to see the obviously correct and plainly clear meaning of the passage presented. But you may have grown up and studied in a tradition that sees that passage completely differently. The difference may be in what applies and doesn’t, but it can also be in just what it means and how it applies. (I discuss this more in my essay Facing the Proof-Text Method.)
Let me give an example. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says a number of things, but I had a debate that dealt with two of them. It started with this one:
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37, NRSV, from Biblegateway.com.)
Now it happens that I believe that this is an intensified command that we should conduct all of our dealings with others truthfully and with integrity, and thus it would negate the need for an oath. I would go so far as to consider “I swear to you” in conversations or business dealings to be at least unnecessary, and probably more so, it reflects the idea that some of my conversation can be a lie. I don’t think it forbids me from taking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in court, though I consider “so help me God” to be questionable for the same reason as “I swear to you.” I speak always with God’s help, not being able to take my next breath without it. The words I would utter in court should be no more and can be no less with the help of God than any others.
Now you can disagree with me on my interpretation. That’s part of my point. I’m not even fully explaining my approach, though many will see how I’m reading the passage. I’m certainly, in this case, allowing Jesus some hyperbole. For example, I would identify “anything more than this comes from the evil one” as hyperbole. Am I right? That would be an excellent point for discussion.
Which, in this exchange, my correspondent and I did. I asked him how he interpreted it. He told me that it should be taken in the plain sense. I asked him to define that further. He said it should be taken as it would be understood by any high school student in the U. S. Having dealt with not a few high school students, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but I then brought my counter-example.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30, NRSV, from Biblegateway.com.)
My question here was (and is) just how an American high school student would undersand “tear it out and throw it away” or “cut it off and throw it away.” I see these as hyperbole, emphasizing the need to avoid lust, to get in ahead of the cause of adultery and not just stop before one crosses the threshold.
My correspondent said that this passage should be understood as one’s willingness to stand up for one’s principles even to physical assault or martyrdom. I have great doubts that this is the way the average high school student would read the passage.
Now for me, further discussion of the applicability of the passages would require that we first address our points of interpretation. Is it possible that Jesus used hyperbole? If not, just what does the second passage mean? If he does use it, is the first passage actually using hyperbole or is that just my literary excuse to get out of obeying the command of Jesus?
All of those are great questions to discuss, but to discuss them profitably, we need to ask the questions under the question. In this case my correspondent was willing to do that. Some think I tell this story to denigrate my correspondent. In fact, the discussion was quite profitable and enjoyable. Yes, we disagreed profoundly in the end, but I certainly learned.
There is one further layer worth mentioning and that’s to ask why a particular hermeneutic is chosen. We’re not actually stuck with our hermeneutic. We had to delay my discussion with Dr. Alden Thompson (Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? and Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers), but it will be rescheduled. That’s where we discuss the inspiration of the Bible, and how one understands that will impact what hermeneutic one will use. Back when I was an extremely arrogant undergraduate, Alden is the one who set me to thinking about this more seriously.
Pure exegesis is a great guide but an unreachable goal.
Shortly after I separated from the Air Force I was chatting with a gentleman while waiting in line for something or other. On realizing that I was a veteran, and in fact had been somewhere that would qualify me as a veteran of a foreign war, he started a pitch to get me to join that fine organization (VFW).
His initial pitch was simply that I could. I asked him why I should. At this point he was somewhat at a loss and simply told me that they had a wonderful local VFW post where I could drink and swap war stories with other veterans. On short acquaintance he couldn’t possibly have know what a poor pitch that was for me.
Now please don’t imagine that I’m writing against the VFW, and more than I will be writing against Jesus when I talk about marketing approaches. The VFW does some fine work, which is my point. You can give a poor sales pitch for a good cause and drive people away.
Fast forward about 12 years to a time when I was looking at church congregations. I had not been a member of any church for those years and more, but as regular readers may know, I did have my MA in Religion (with that wonderful concentration in Biblical and Cognate Languages). This made life a bit difficult for pastors who discussed their churches with me.
In the end, I was considering two United Methodist congregations. I had attended church and some excellent studies at both, and I liked both organizations in many ways. At one of the churches I talked to the pastors at each church. At one of them the pastor said: “We don’t care what you believe. If you want to enjoy our fellowship, you’re welcome.” The other discussed my beliefs.
Now I’m very interested in openness and acceptance, and I advocate the maximum freedom of belief, but I do think an organization requires some sort of center to make it functional and useful. And a mission. That too.
Thus I joined the other congregation.
Over the course of my life I have experienced a variety of sales pitches to get me to accept Jesus Christ as my savior, most of them after I already had. Many of these came from people who felt I hadn’t quite gotten it right. Others came from people who presented their pitch so quickly they hadn’t had time to realize I was already a Christian. One came from someone who saw me reading my Greek New Testament while waiting for tires to be installed on my car, and was convinced that my Christianity must just be a thing of the intellect. He was truly concerned that I might mistakenly think that reading Greek was a means of salvation.
I’ll call it a means of grace. I didn’t think of saying that to him. It would doubtlessly have sent him ballistic. (Then I would have needed to repent, so perhaps it’s best I didn’t think of it.)
I would categorize approaches to selling Christianity in a few broad camps:
- The desperate. These are the people who are afraid that if you don’t accept Christ while in conversation with them, you will doubtless go to hell. One short prayer, and you’ll at least avoid that. Flames are usually involved in the conversation (pun absolutely intended). Conservative and charismatic Christians are susceptible to the use of this approach. Liberals and other mainliners might be susceptible, but they don’t believe in hell.
- The cultural. Christianity is a good society, sort of like Kiwanis or the Lions Clubs. Good people are Christians and attend church every so often. Come join our church and be socially acceptable to the good people. Mainline congregations are most susceptible to this, but conservatives may fall for it in the right cultural context.
- The upwardly mobile. This is the home of the prosperity gospel. The pitch goes that you’re in a lower economic and social class than you’d like to be, and Jesus wants you to have abundant life, so just follow Jesus to health, wealth, and satisfaction. (No, not the satisfaction theory of the atonement. Self satisfaction.)
- The apologetic approach. By this I don’t mean a person who defends elements of the Christian faith, but rather the person who desires to batter down your defenses with his or her command of data.
In fact, in all of these approaches there’s some truth. Being a part of a caring community can, in fact, improve your standard of living, your sense of joy, your peace, and many other things. Not quite in the way the prosperity preachers tell it, but it can help. Being part of the church can be a good cultural and social move. Considering your eternal state is likely worthwhile, and studying the data behind your religious faith is constructive.
There’s an effective temptation to attack every good intention or work. The desperate evangelist is driven by a desire to help. Believing that eternal hell fire is in your future if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior, he feels compelled to make you. This sense led to some theological support for the burning of heretics. What was a few moments of torment in this life compared to what God would do to them in the next? If the torturer could bring this eternal punishment to their minds forcefully enough, perhaps they’d repent and be saved. The temptation here is to take away from God the power of salvation and judgment. Most humans are susceptible to it in some way.
Then there is the Jesus way. I was hit by it this morning as I was reading texts for next Sunday’s lesson.
Jesus was saying to everyone: “If anyone wants to come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Now there’s an “ouch”! No promise of prosperity. No threat of hell. No social acceptability. In fact, if you read on through the end of the chapter, it gets even worse. The facts of the situation were present in the Person.
I wonder how a church growth program would work that called for people to lose their respectability, give up their comfort, become socially unacceptable, experience pain, and ignore ridicule would work. I’ve never seen one of those.
Other than in the gospels.
Let me look at some other texts from this week’s reading list.
9He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because strength is made complete in weakness.” I now gladly boast in my weaknesses because Christ’s strength is all over me. 10So I am pleased in weaknesses, when insulted, when in need, when persecuted, when in hardship, for Christ. For when I am weak, he is strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
I guess Paul wasn’t up on the latest pitches and methods of evangelism either. And just to add to our feeling of injury and annoyance:
If we suffer together with him, we will be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17b)
I was somewhat surprised after reading the scriptures to find that the lesson author managed to write the whole lesson without mentioning suffering. He had some good thoughts, but somehow avoided that one.
So just what is it we’re proclaiming (or selling)? Are we doing it right?
(Note: All translations are my own, and are sometimes intentionally loose. Featured image downloade from Pixabay.com, which doesn’t require attribution, but I’ll give it anyhow.)
Franklin Graham is quoted by the Huffington Post as saying that the President Trump’s refugee ban is not a Bible topic. He actually said a bit more, but “not a Bible topic” is going to be the quote that follows him all the (remaining) days of his life. And well it should, though I think most are missing what’s being said.
My purpose is not to defend Franklin Graham on this; in fact, I am diametrically opposed to his position on these refugees. I believe that we should welcome Muslims in the same way as we would welcome anyone else in need. It’s relevant, in one way, to point out that many refugees from Syria and Iraq are Christians. But for a Christian that shouldn’t be the issue. If all were Muslims we should remain equally concerned for their welfare, and equally willing to put our own welfare at risk on their behalf.
But I think the issue here is a bit different. Let me quote just a bit more from the article. (If you’re diligent, you’ll go and read my source, and perhaps some of its sources in turn.)
“It’s not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that’s not a Bible issue,” Graham told HuffPost. “We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws. Because of the dangers we see today in this world, we need to be very careful.”
The issue here is not directly that refugees are not a topic in the Bible. The specific question is whether the Bible provides a command that can be directed at the United States, that directs us to admit all refugees. This question is one of hermeneutics. How do you make such a determination?
One passage that might be cited is this:
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
That line “love the alien as yourself” might come up in a discussion of how a Christian should look at this. I would not want to be left in a refugee camp for years, and if I had gone through a series of checks in that camp, I would not be delighted to suddenly learn that I would be left there for another six mother (or perhaps more). A person who loves an alien as himself probably wouldn’t do that.
But does this law apply to us right now? I personally believe it applies to me (for reasons I won’t detail here), but does it apply to my country?
At this point we might consider another passage from Leviticus:
22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (18:22)
Now if Leviticus 19:34 is a command, is not this also a command? If the first applies to America does the second not apply also, and vice versa?
But what we find is that those people who want Leviticus 18:22 to apply find a way to make it apply. I’m not discussing here whether they’re way works or not, but merely consistency. A certain number of those don’t want 19:34 to apply and they find a way to explain that it doesn’t. Again, the reverse is also true. No, not everyone is thus inconsistent. Some will apply both and other will not apply both, but there is a considerable amount of inconsistency.
Is there a valid, consistent hermeneutic that can make one apply and not the other? Possibly. But we rarely hear about that.
I was teaching the New Life Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church of Pensacola as a guest this Sunday and we discussed this topic a bit. One of the members quickly brought the conclusion: Most of us have our viewpoint first and then find scripture to support it. I pointed out that this was also the case when we reject or accept someone else’s viewpoint and biblical claim.
From one point of view I can’t help but agree with Franklin Graham. No, not about refugees. I agree with him that in the sense he describes (using the full quote) that there is no scriptural command that could be said to apply to the United States and that would require that we accept anyone who wants to come here.
I also disagree, with some vigor. That is not the way to determine what is a biblical issue. I’ll be interviewing one of my undergraduate professors tomorrow evening for our Energion Tuesday Night Hangout. I’ll embed the YouTube viewer at the end of this post. He used to tell us to narrow the letter and broaden the spirit. That is, you find out who it applies to originally in the narrowest way possible, but then you find the principle or spirit that inspires that command, and you apply that much more broadly.
One might say that this approach offers a great deal of leeway. Indeed it does. And so does every approach to interpreting the Bible. That’s because the Bible wasn’t created by a committee of lawyers and mathematicians. Rather, it is the result of the experience of (some of) God’s people with their God.
As such, the Bible can enlighten, guide, inform, and help, but does remarkably little (if any) direction in the sense that Franklin Graham was apparently applying. If that approach is applied consistently, the Bible fades into insignificance.
Except as a fig-leaf used to cover our pre-existing passions.
This is one reason I advocate the process of letting the Bible change you and then that you, through your actions, influence others. Even better, let God use the pages and text of scripture as God wills to change your own life.
In my case, this would mean adjusting my way of thinking about other people. It would mean making me feel empathy for those who suffer. As such, I would want to live in a nation with policies that reflect such a view. I don’t have to ask anyone to live according to one divine decree or another, always in dispute. Rather, I simply use what influence I have in favor of that position.
If the Bible is used in the sense of the quote from Franklin Graham, then very little is a Bible issue, at least in terms of politics or society. But if we look at the Bible as one of the ways in which God changes our character, then everything is a Bible issue, because through it I let God change me and then I go forth to influence the world.
I believe that Jesus would want me to welcome Muslims into my country, my neighborhood, and even my home. But I know people from many faiths, and indeed some atheists who would agree with my goal. So I can advocate this as a good policy from a secular or a religious viewpoint.
We like to hate lawyers, but the real problem with our laws is that they are written by politicians.
According to an NPR story, the clearance rate for murder, meaning the percentage of cases in which someone is arrested (or identified), is 64.1% nationally. This will vary by community. That means that a lot of murderers have not been identified and have been running around the country while being murderers.
If that shocks you, color yourself naive. Yes, the clearance rate has dropped badly, while at the same time the rate of violent crime has dropped, yet even at 90% clearance, a significant number of murderers got away with it. Certainly, enough got away with it to convince arrogant potential murderers to think they might be the one that gets away. A key factor in preventing any activity that’s criminal or disapproved is the extent to which the criminal expects to get caught. For a summary, see Deterrence in Criminal Justice. (I’d prefer to cite other sources, but they are behind a pay wall, and this article cites those sources.)
My point here is not criminal deterrence, but rather the fact that the things we do to achieve a result are not necessarily going to achieve the result we expect. For many people the way to eliminate an undesirable activity is to make it illegal. If you make a law, you’ll fix the problem. But we live regularly with problems that have not been fixed by the laws created for that purpose. Politicians know how to play on expectations when they name laws. The Affordable Care Act does not necessarily provide affordable care and the Violent Crime Control Act may not actually control violent crime. Even when things go well the cause may not be the one seen as obvious.
There is a common saying that you can’t legislate morality. In one sense that’s nonsense, in that you can write any law you want. You can even declare the Bible to be your basic law. I’d love to see the hermeneutic used. Personally, I would want Matthew 7:1 to be absolutely and universally applicable, but then I have a bit of the anarchist in me. You can write a law telling people not to be selfish, but enforcement might be a problem. So yes, you can write a law saying anything, but that law might not be effective. So in another sense, it’s good sense, in that you have to legislate behavior, not morality, and laws vary in how well they can control behavior. In yet another sense, even a law that successfully alters behavior will not necessarily make those who follow it more moral, and in that sense you really can’t legislate morality.
Most of us want to do so, however. We want to make laws that really fix problems, and we expect that, having made the law, the problem will be fixed. This leads to a great deal of very bad law. I use a rule of thumb. If you hear words like “epidemic,” “national tragedy,” or other similar words, assume that the resulting legislation will be a mess, often causing more problems than it solves and ruining many people’s lives in the interest of solving perceived problems. As in the case of immigration and refugees, often these laws are written to solve problems that don’t really exist.
Watch out as well for “even one ____ is intolerable.” You’re not going to eliminate all instances of a behavior that anyone perceives as desirable. Someone is going to do it. We hear this with topics such as child abuse, murder, terrorism, or sexual crimes. “Not one case!” yells the politician, sounding so virtuous and determined. But at a minimum, there’s one lie there. Nothing that politician does will eliminate all cases. The law cannot make you perfectly safe. As you hear about solving the “opioid epidemic,” be aware that government agents will be ruining the lives of people who are genuinely trying to live with pain, all in the name of preventing addictions by someone else somewhere else.
I find it totally amazing that people who advocate limited government in some ways are quite determined to get the government more involved elsewhere and somehow assume that the government’s actions will be effective. The same issues that make regulatory agencies subject to stupidity and chicanery apply to every other aspect of government as well. Your local police or the FBI can be a bureaucracy as much as the EPA.
That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a law. It just means that we need to shed our naivete about how making laws will fix things. Here are some key points:
- Correctly identify the problem. I have no idea how many people want to solve an epidemic of violent crime while violent crime is actually in decline. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to do some work. I believe we do. But we need to look at what the actual cause is.
- Look at solutions that will actually improve the situation. If the likelihood of getting caught is, indeed, more critical than the severity of sentence (see citation above), then what we need is better enforcement, not longer sentences (or some combination). You might need to increase the size and training budget of your police force rather than changing the criminal laws themselves, for example.
- Do not expect any solution to make you perfectly safe. The world will still have murderers, rapists, terrorists, and other evildoers in it. Trying to make the law accomplish more than it can is wasteful and increases the negative effects.
- Once legislation is in place, test it. Find out what has happened and do your best to determine what the cause was. Review the law and its results.
- Be ready to hear about revision. Fear of what may happen if we change often prevents reform efforts. For example, for those who believe that there should be a welfare safety net, the idea of welfare reform is frightening. Fear prevents progress. It can also prevent deterioration, but that’s not at all guaranteed!
- Don’t believe the labels. The name of a law doesn’t mean the law does what it says. Politicians are veteran label manipulators.
In this information age, there is a great deal of data available to you. Read it instead of the anecdotes (many of them false), shared on your Facebook feed.
I will resume the studies next Thursday night. Some unforeseen scheduling problems intervened.
On New Year’s Day this year I was struck by two texts and decided to make them a kind of theme texts for living during the year. I didn’t really make a plan or a resolution. I was just impressed to keep these two texts available and look at them. I’ve found that I actually end up looking at them at random times. They are Philippians 1:27-30 and Ephesians 5:1-2. At some point I’ll talk about the phrase “be imitators of God” in Ephesians 5:1, which I find challenging, or perhaps intimidating would be more the word.
Today, however, I read on after the end of chapter one into the first four verses of chapter 2. Here Paul challenges the Philippians to do nothing from selfish ambition or contentiousness (two closely related ideas!) or from vanity (we could spend a day meditating on that word), but to count others as greater than oneself with humility. Again, we could talk about the latter. Have you ever experienced someone counting something else greater than himself with no humility at all? “Look how great I am! I count even this lowlife failure as more important than I am!”
But then there’s verse 4: “Don’t look out for your own interests, but for the interests of others.”
Now there’s the one. If the church should have a key verse, this would be it, I think. It contrasts to the world’s value, expressed to me once by someone advising me on my business: Ain’t nobody cares about your business like you do!
Now you see how my thinking turns toward business and the making of money. I have nothing against those things, but it’s actually quite easy to be generous with your money and to be contentious and vain with everything else. Thousands of brass plates on church pews, stained-glass windows, and other objects designated for “spiritual” use testify to the fact that there are people quite generous with their money while satisfying their vanity. If you don’t believe me, try removing one of those labeled pews or swap out the stained glass window. Even worse, leave the pew or the window there but remove the name plate. Vanity will jump up and slap you in the face!
Looking after our own interests crops up everywhere. Why is the color of the church carpet a very contentious thing? We all have colors that we’d like to look at, and colors that we don’t find pleasing. How many times have you heard people argue carpet color on the basis that it would serve someone else better?
What about a misspelled name in the bulletin when someone serves on Sunday morning? Have you ever heard the complaints about that? The church secretary ought to be fired!
I don’t mean to list all the ways we can be contentious, as they are so numerous, and so many of them do not have to do with money.
“Look out for the interests of others,” says Paul.
One of the great problems with our witness in the American church is that we are so much like all the people we’d like to witness to. We want to explain all the theology to them and get them all straightened out. But what we really need to do is look out for the interests of others.
And to be a good witness, we need to extend that action outside the church community as well.
On page 25 of his little book Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World (Topical Line Drives), Steve Kindle quotes 2 Corinthians 8:3-5. I’m just going to highlight one clause: “they gave themselves first to the Lord.” That’s the foundation of stewardship. It’s also the foundation of living in Christian community, and it’s the foundation of being an actual witness (not just a nuisance) to those outside the community. Looking out for God’s interests, perhaps. God is very interested in God’s children, in God’s creation.
Who is welcome in your church? How will they live with you? How will you live with them? Do you give yourself to God first and then look out for the interests of others instead of your own?
If you’ve followed me this far, let me suggest a question to think about. If a man and a woman entered your church this Sunday and the woman was wearing a hijab, while both clearly looked middle eastern, what would your reaction be?
(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)
I work on a heavy schedule, and as someone who is self-employed, with two distinct lines of business, I very rarely see a blank to-do list. In fact, now that I think about it, it has been several years since I finished a day and could say I was done.
I identify a couple of goals here. First, I’d like to be done at some point. “Now I can go on vacation,” I would say, “because everything is done.” Second, I want to get as much done as possible, not to mention a few impossible things. In reality, I’m not going to be satisfied on either of those points.
Quoth Paul, “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?”
You may think I’m being irreverent to use that quote, in which Paul is referring to his own inability to do what he knows is right and wants to do, but I think it’s closer to the mark than most suspect. So let me first illustrate what I’m talking about with my work, and then get back to the spiritual lesson.
No, that’s not quite right. Getting done with my work is physical, mental, and spiritual process. One of our problems is that we spiritualize spirituality until it has nothing to do with daily life. Ideally (another interesting word), we’ll see the physical and the spiritual working together. Everything from doing the dishes to writing a book to running a marathon (as my friend Dave Black is about to do) is both physical and spiritual; above all, real.
Thus I start with the illustration of how I can attack my day. There are two extremes I can take. The first is my natural inclination. That is, I get up in the morning, come to this computer (most of my work resides in its chips), and start attacking my list. I’m not really a list person, but reality has forced lists on me. If I find myself failing to accomplish the list, I add hours at the end of the work day, all the while wishing I could add hours to the physical day. This process is direct, measurable in effort and results, and easy to understand. More work = more accomplishment.
Before I go to the next option, let me tell you about the problem I have with leaving the first. Mary Heaton Vorse (I believe she originated the saying) said that writing was the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. She was absolutely right. The arts of editing, designing, and marketing are much the same. So if chair meets backside for more hours, more will get written. Authors (and editors, designers, marketers, and perhaps all humans) have many excuses for not having seat meet seat, one of the most common being that you can’t force creativity. Editors, who like to disembowel the excuses of authors, like to point out that you’re not being all that creative outside of the chair either. Writing great novels in your imagination is perhaps not all that likely to bring either fame or fortune!
So having written one or two books myself, and having published around 170 by other authors, I have a strong tendency to stick with Mary Heaton Vorse.
Not so fast!
I also know that creativity will demand its pound of my flesh. One of my techniques for planning out a cover or the chapter headers for the interior of a book is to put them on a computer screen I’m not using and walk by them every so often. This is a way of forcing me to become so disillusioned with the current state of the object that I will come up with a new look just to preserve my sanity. Put less bluntly, I look at it, think about it, and suddenly come up with an idea. Then I apply back side to chair and implement, generally followed by more looking.
Now we turn to the second approach to my day. In this approach I ask what makes me productive. I could list a number of things, such as getting enough sleep. Staying up late to finish a project can get it out the door on schedule, while actually making me further behind overall. I am less efficient on insufficient sleep. Failing to spend time in daily devotions makes me less efficient. It’s easy—almost irresistibly easy—to decide that I’m too busy for that devotional time and simply jump into work. In fact, as I write, I must confess that this morning other than prayer time before I got out of bed, I am writing without devotional time. But this blog post struck me as I prayed (no, I’m not telling you this is God’s word; it’s just my musings), and here I am, drawn to the keyboard and the chair.
Walking is also important for my efficiency. If I don’t get active, I’ll find myself accomplishing little. Walking can be done at any time of the day, and therein lies another problem. Can I stop working and take a walk? Can I stop working inside and go out and clean up branches in the yard? The second is easier than the first. Why? Because it feels like I’m working toward a goal. What is walking but time when the seat of my pants does not connect with the seat of my chair and thus is wasted? At least cleaning the yard produces stacks of broken branches and piles of leaves!
But, and this is a serious “but,” thus gaining the initial point in this paragraph. But, I say, this impression is an illusion. Yes, I need to work. I need to accomplish things, but I also need to do things that keep me functional. There is a balance here that is not helped by my tendency to think in extremes. If I could just work 16 hours straight, the book would be done, I think. But that doesn’t work. There is a balance, a place where things work best.
But, another serious “but,” I want to be able to say how hard I work. If I rest, in order to be more efficient, I can’t say I worked 16 hours, thus impressing other people with my diligence and dedication. Saying that I ordered my day to preserve mental, physical, and spiritual health, and thus actually accomplished more work than I would have if I had gone with Plan A just doesn’t have the same ring. Deep inside me is this little voice telling me that approach sounds lazy. Somewhere in there is another voice that tells me it is lazy. The voice that tells me it’s lazy lies like a rug. The one that tells me others will think it’s lazy is just irrelevant.
I’m so programmed for work that I tend to listen to those voices anyhow. “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?”
Can you perhaps see some of our problems with spiritual things? In our minds there is a God out there demanding this ultimate perfection, incredibly wonderful holiness, and the attainment of unreasonable standards. We’ve even made a theology of it. We’re so desperately wicked and God is so holy that we are without hope. Jesus comes in and makes up the difference. That’s fine, except that we don’t really buy it. So we come up with new ways to try to attain “rightness” with God.
Way, way back in the ancient days, it was by offering enough of the right sacrifices. Then we weren’t sure, so we offered more, all the while letting actual righteousness get lost in the scramble to offer the right sacrifices. Then we got hold of Jesus, so to speak, but since we couldn’t really believe that things were taken care of, we had lists of works. We’d try to make sure we got the lists done, and we were afraid that if we didn’t quite manage that, we’d be lost. (This isn’t a critique of Catholic theology, but of human existence. I don’t think the change of theology does nearly as much as people hope.)
Come the reformation, we renewed the idea that God had taken care of it. We ended all the sacrifices with Jesus and now the reformation wanted to end all that checklist work being righteous enough to get to heaven. But we really didn’t want to believe that either, so we came up with righteousness by correct theology.
I personally think the demands of theological correctness are much greater and much more sinister than the demands of correct living. The farmer in the field or the construction worker laying bricks could hope to live with integrity and carry out acts of charity. But now we have details of theology that must be learned but that many people don’t really get. There are those who demand, however, that they be understood. I was told once that if I didn’t realize that Christ had died for my sins and that I was thus “once saved, always saved” irrespective of any future event, I was not in fact saved at all. In this man’s view, my understanding of the theology was critical to my salvation. I might be incapable of doing one righteous thing (he made sure to quote scripture on that), but I must be capable of righteously (and rightly) understanding his view of the atonement, else Christ died in vain.
We replaced the vanity of gaining righteousness by performing the right ritual with the vanity of performing the right set of deeds. Then we replaced the vanity of the deeds with the vanity of our understanding. All the while our lives continued to do very little to reflect righteousness by any standard.
“Oh wretched people that we are! Who will deliver us?”
Jesus, I think, if we’ll listen. Matthew 5:48 says to be perfect, but Matthew 7:1 says not to judge. Interesting that we try to apply that to others (while missing “by their fruit” a few verses forward), but not necessarily to ourselves. Earning the favor of God by doing things that are, really, the best things for ourselves and doing them perfectly is, of course, impossible. We can’t attain this. We might as well hope to reach the pole star by walking north!
But here comes grace, ready to take that burden from you. To quote Paul again, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” It’s the realization that you don’t have to reach the pole star, but you can walk north. You can go ahead and have times of rest in your spiritual life. Why? Because you live in grace. You can work on your own sanctification. Why? Because God has given you the space.
If you spent your time trying to attain the pole star, you would have serious problems getting over the next hill. In an article titled North Star Closer to Earth than Thought, I found the estimate that it’s only 323 light years to Polaris, the current pole star. I also found an estimate that it would take 225 million years to walk one light year at 20 miles per hour. (I think the writer has a problem with the concept “walk.”) But even at that clip, Google tells me that 225 million times 323 light years is seventy-two billion six hundred seventy-five million. Of course that is shortened from ninety-seven billion six hundred fifty million by the new measurements (323 light years to Polaris rather than 434)!
That shortening is sort of like saying, “No, you don’t have to accomplish all these deeds, just make sure you get the right set of beliefs. Then it will take only a bit under 73 billion years longer than you’ll live instead of 97 billion. Rejoice! Sing Hallelujah!”
We need to let grace free us from the need for judgment, and then we can seek God without the constant worry that our experience and understanding are inadequate. Of course they’re inadequate! But God …
You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:1-10, emphasis mine)
Perhaps we should give up the works and the judgment, especially self-judgment, and live.