Self-Control, Worship, and Life

Those of us who are Christians rightly appreciate the characteristics that Paul described to the Galatians as “the fruit of the Spirit.” A few years ago, a friend of mine pointed out that they form something of a hierarchy with “self-control” as the base. I don’t know where he learned or came up with that idea, but I like it.

I also like what Douglas Wilson has to say on the subject in the latest installment of his “State of the Church” series, Church and Kingdom, Cathedral and Town:

… the Spirit moves throughout the earth, converting and restoring individuals, fashioning them into saints, into believers. As His fruit is manifested in them, one of those fruits is self-control, self-government, or self-mastery. This self-government is the basic building block for establishing non-tyrannical governments in the other spheres that God has established among men. Without self-government, families can become autocratic tribes…. Without self-government, the church can become a grasping and despotic monster…. Without self-government, the civil magistrate can become an overweening and covetous thug….

I love that he starts with the point that the Spirit is what “moves throughout the earth” to convert people. I cannot convert anyone; I cannot restore anyone; I cannot compel or convince anyone on my own. I don’t “preach” to my non-Christian friends for precisely that reason. What I try to do — and here I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t recall the quote or the original source — is to live a life that, if I succeed, may invite someone prompted by the Spirit to ask me about whom I follow, whom I serve, whom I worship.

And, speaking of worship, I love the metaphors in this excerpt:

The worship of God is central to all of life, but it does not devour all of life. The sun does not burn everything up, but it does give light to everything. The water does not flood the world, but it does irrigate the entire world. The anchor fastens the ship, the ship does not turn into a gigantic anchor. The cathedral is at the center of the town, but does not “take over” all the activities of the townspeople — their printing, their auto mechanics, their software designing, their lawn mowing. In one sense all of that is none of their business. But at the same time the church instructs the townspeople in the adverbs — how these things are to be done, meaning, honestly, before the Lord, with one eye always on the text, and with a hard work ethic.

Lord, help me govern myself well; help me worship You in all I do, whatever I do; and help me be about the business of my life in a way that pleases You, and points others to You.

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If Buttercups Can Do It, It Isn’t Ministry

Among the 21 Maxims for Discouraged Pastors — in fact, as part of the very first one — we find this gem:

In 2 Tim. 2:3-6, the apostle Paul compares the work of ministry to three vocations, and all of them involve a goodly amount of sweat — soldiers, athletes, and farmers. The calling of the ministry is not for buttercups, and if buttercups can do it, it isn’t ministry.

The entire post seems as if it would be valuable for every pastor, whether discouraged or not, to review periodically — and for every one of us who has ever thought of going into the ministry to bear in mind when listening for that call.

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Panic in the Face of Change

It seems as if all of us resist change to some degree, for at least some kinds of change. Like so many things, we vary in how comfortable we are with change, even when we have some assurance the change will be beneficial. Sometimes, however, we are so caught up on what the change is doing or is likely to do to us — per Reaiah’s Maxim, “There is no change without tension”* — that we cannot envision a way for it to turn out well. Yet,

One of God’s great patterns is that of taking apart, and then restoring fully. The restoration, the resurrection, is fuller, deeper, and richer than the original unity ever was. But before God tears, we consistently tend to panic, afraid that this time He will not be able to put anything back together. But He always does.

“We consistently tend to panic” — no matter how often we study the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.** Momentary panic may not be all bad, though, if we eventually return to obedience and trust.

And what do we trust, if we claim to be Christian? That

The death of Jesus was not done in our place so that we might not experience it. Jesus did not die so that we might live. He died so that we might die; He lives so that we might live.

Lord, help us — help me — not to panic, but to trust.

___
*Bonus points for anyone who recognizes where this comes from.
**Upon which is printed, “Don’t Panic!”

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The Case Against Christian Activism …

I used to feel bad, as a Christian, that I never put a lot of emphasis on the whole “WWJD” question. I don’t think I ever had one of the bracelets. The whole thing seemed like a fad, and I wasn’t interested.

Until now, I never thought about it in the negative: “WWJND” — “what would Jesus not do?” What things do we do that go so far beyond what Jesus said and did as to be at best tangential to the Gospel? In some respects, that question seems just as important.

Consider this tidbit from Empires of Dirt — a book I’m interested in reading:*

The textbook case against Christian activism can be made in one word—Prohibition—the word that would have made the Lord Jesus at Cana into a moonshiner felon.

We err both when we fail to do the things Jesus urged us to do — and still urges us to do — and when we do things he clearly would not. That seems true on the individual level, and just as much on the level of collective action in the church writ large.

Lord, help us. Or, more to the point: Lord, help me.

___
*Along with a few dozen other books, of course.

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Peace on Earth Starts with Good Will Toward Men

On this Christmas Eve, some thoughts leading up to Christmas — for whatever they might be worth.

According to Saint Luke’s research, presented in the Gospel that bears his name, angels announced Jesus’s birth to shepherds as they stood night watch over their flocks. We don’t know whether Luke was able to question one of the shepherds who was there that night or (more likely) the story came to him through untold number of tellings and retellings. What did those angels really say? And what did they mean?

The translation I grew up with, the King James Version, closes that episode with the angelic proclamation, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” I particularly like the poetic nature of that version.

Another translation I generally like, the New American Standard Bible, renders Luke 2:14 as, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” “Peace among men” gives a different feel than “good will toward men,” though, and leaves me a little cold. Other translations, notably the New International Version and the Berean Study Bible, give the last phrase as “peace to men on whom His favor rests,” which I do not like at all.

I am not a Bible scholar; I know no ancient Greek; so I will not presume to debate the merits of any translation. It intrigues me that in the Greek the difference comes down to a single letter: specifically, the last letter of the verse in the Codex Sinaiticus was erased (apparently the erasure is visible), and that single change made “on earth peace to men of good will” into “on earth peace, to men good will.” How much does that change the sentiment?

I’ve heard it taught that the proclamation is a promise of God’s peace and good will coming to earth in the person of Christ. I’ve also heard that it is more a prayer — it is, after all, a multitude of angels praising God, since the specific message about Jesus has already been related. That idea is particularly worthy: the angels first give reverence and worship to God, and then ask that peace be manifest on the earth.

But of late I’ve come to think of it in a different way. I doubt that mine is an original thought, but I’m not prepared to conduct an exhaustive search to see who else has presented it. To my way of thinking, “Glory to God in the highest” is clear enough. The creator of everything is worthy of praise. After that, I find that I prefer “on Earth, peace; to men, good will” — giving a definite separation between peace and good will — because it turns the entire verse into a triad that moves from the heavenly to the earthly to the individual.

To God, glory: not peace, because the creature is not in a position to offer peace to the creator; and not good will, because the creature’s good will cannot match the creator’s. On earth, peace: not glory, because earthly glory is more a product of victory in conflict than of peace; and not good will, because good will is something best expressed person to person. To men, good will: not glory, because compared to God men deserve no glory; and not peace, because to achieve peace — especially any secure, lasting peace — requires first good will among and between people.


(Image: “Peace on Earth,” by Sam Howzit, on Wikimedia Commons.)

“There is no peace on earth, I said,” according to the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” — but it seems to me that, if there is no peace, it’s because there is precious little good will.

And so, I will try with the time remaining to me to be a man of good will. No doubt I will fail, and have to try again. I trust that God will forgive me those failures, and I hope my fellows will forgive me as well.

Part of the reason I will fail goes back to the translation that is probably more accurate: “peace to men of good will.” First, that sounds more like a promise of God’s peace than a prescription for achieving peace. Even if it is a promise, it doesn’t absolve us of all responsibility in the matter. After all, Saint Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” — which remains a good principle for all of us to follow.

The second reason I’m uncomfortable with “peace to men of good will” is that it seems no great challenge to wish peace to people of good will or to act peacefully only toward people of good will. It is far more difficult to live peaceably when we are confronted by people of ill will. That’s why “turn the other cheek” is so revolutionary — and so difficult. And, as noted above, I explicitly reject the idea that God’s peace is offered only to those “on whom His favor rests”: I believe God’s peace is offered to all, though unfortunately many reject Him, and it.

All of that being said, tomorrow is Christmas, and tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Jesus’s birth. But even though we are fairly certain he was born in an entirely different time of the year, whenever it happened originally the annunciation still rings out, and the annunciation is fulfilled: Jesus glorified God; Jesus’s teaching, death and resurrection offer a “peace that passes understanding” to any on earth who would accept it; and Jesus empowers us to act as men of good will, i.e., gives us wisdom and strength and discernment to show good will toward others — if we choose to do so.

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”

Merry Christmas, one and all.

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Christian Carelessness

That phrase in the title connotes a lot, doesn’t it? “Christian carelessness” — we experience it every day … and some of us, despite our best intentions, practice it every day.

I ran across the phrase in E. Stephen Burnett’s post, “Christians, Please Stop Warning Against Human Popular Culture Until You Know What It’s For”, in which he addresses “the most well-intended Christian carelessness about” popular culture in whatever form it takes. He writes, for instance,

Why not discuss popular culture—human stories and songs—in terms of human creativity being a gift from God? The way some pastors talk, popular culture is some alien (even if “harmless”) thing unrelated to God. But if God gives this gift (of popular culture-creation), then He, not us [sic], defines the terms of how the gift is best used—to glorify Him, to guard against idolatry, and to make sure we get the most joy out of using the gift in the ways He has prescribed.

Why not explore how Jesus has built the work-rest rhythm into the universe, starting right in Genesis 1? Why not consider how stories and songs are part of being human, whether they’re shared around a campfire or enacted on your tablet screen? Why not allow the possibility that Scripture seems to allow—that we will create cultural works in eternity?

I love that, but I keep coming back in my mind to the idea — and the challenge — of “Christian carelessness” in general.

For people who claim to be Christ’s representatives on Earth (“Christian” means “little Christ,” does it not?), we are often quite careless in how we represent our Lord and Savior, in how we interact with each other and the world around us, in how we think and speak and act. And by “we” I primarily mean “I” am often quite careless.


(Image: “A Careless Word, A Needless Loss.” US World War II propaganda poster, on Wikimedia Commons.)

And beyond that, I come back to another way to think of carelessness: specifically, that of caring less than I should. I am guilty, and I daresay most of us are guilty, of caring less when Christ would have us care more. That’s not to say that we have it in ourselves to solve all the problems we face or to correct all the evils we see in the world, but when we turn away from them or pretend that they don’t exist our “Christian carelessness” condemns us.

Lord, help me — help us — to care more, and to be more careful.

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Admitting My Doubts

I feel a great kinship with two Bible characters in particular: Thomas, who asked for tangible proof of Jesus’s resurrection, and the man who wanted Jesus to heal his child but who confessed his doubts with the poignant, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

So I wrote a song called “Help My Unbelief,” and put it on my Truths and Lies and Make-Believe album. Now, here’s a music video for it:

Hope you like it.

___

And, because I neglected to mention it on the blog before now, a couple of weeks ago I put together a music video for one of the science-fiction-inspired songs from that album:

Hope you like it, too!

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A Daily Baptism?

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

On this Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to recall one of the seminal events in the development of Protestant Christianity: on this date in 1521 Martin Luther appeared at the Diet of Worms — an assembly (“diet”) convened in Worms, Germany, from 28 January to 26 May 1521 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — to answer the charge of heresy.

On the 17th, Luther was presented with a list of his own writings and asked if he would recant of the heresies they contained. He asked for time to consider how to respond to the charges, and was granted a day to think it over. On the 18th, he spoke. He differentiated between the various works, left open the question of recanting if he could be shown his error, and apologized for the harsh tone of some of the works, but in the end Luther said,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

What does that have to do with baptism? Nothing in itself, but it does illustrate the confidence Luther had in his Scriptural interpretations. And that leads us to something he wrote about baptism ….

St Patrick’s Cathedral
Interesting fish-eye view of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, founded near a well where Saint Patrick is supposed to have baptized converts. (Image: “St Patrick’s Cathedral,” by Jennifer Boyer, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

In a treatise on infant baptism, Luther presented an idea I find very interesting. He wrote that baptism

… is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued.

I don’t think Luther’s point is that we need to be baptized anew every day (though most of us benefit from bathing regularly). Baptism is a living metaphor, and not one we actually need to go through again and again. It seems to me that what Luther calls a “daily baptism” is the daily personal exercise in living out the faith. In other words, following Christ involves living every day in light of the two central facets of our faith: that Christ died, and that our “old man” died with him; and that he rose again, and thereby we also have new life. Baptism is the experience that represents those facets of the faith.

It is a remarkable thing to consider. But it’s not as easy to do as it is to consider, or even to write about.

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Holding On

If I Had Been an Apostle on that terrible Holy Saturday,

… would I have gone into hiding? Yes, I would.
… would I have sunk into despair? Yes, I would.
… would I have wondered if it all had been for naught? Yes, I would.

Because I am fickle and uninspired and weak. Because all I had dreamed of and hoped for had been crushed. Because I would have known, with the surety that I knew the sun would rise, that I was bound for the same fate.

Despair
Sometimes all we can do is hold on. (Image: “Despair,” by Lloyd Morgan, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

And yet, when the next day dawned for the Apostles, all was not as they feared it would be. The world was the same, but their lives were radically changed. They held on long enough to see the new dawn, and sometimes — when we are hiding, in despair, and wondering if what we’ve done is for naught — all we can do is hold on, as well.

Wherever you are, whatever you may be going through … hold on.

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Monday Morning Insight: New Year, New Things

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

 

It’s the first Monday of 2017 — and for many folks it’s still a holiday, so that’s not a bad way to start the year!

The first quote I’ll present in this series this year is a promise from the 21st chapter of the Revelation of Saint John:

He that sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Sunrise!

(“Sunrise!” by Larry, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

 

Other translations render the verb tense a bit differently, but I like this one because it’s a statement of intention and purpose: not “I would like to” or “I am in the process of” but “this is what I do,” specifically, “I make all things new.” And not some things, not most things, but all things.

If we believe the one saying that is the one through whom all things were made in the first place — as the Gospel of John presents in its first chapter — then it is no great stretch to believe that he can remake the old into the new and even that he intends to do so. We might even go so far as to think that he delights in doing so.

And that’s a nice thought with which to start this New Year.

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