1407) I’m Not Perfect, You Know

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     In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  How are you doing with that?  In the piece that follows, Philip Yancey describes the efforts toward perfection made by some religious groups in American history.  Believing they could do away with sin and create Utopian communities of perfect peace and harmony, the leaders of these groups made a noble attempt to get everyone to keep all the rules, all the time.  It did not work.  Every one of them failed.  Are you surprised?  While Yancey sees no hope for such projects, he does admire the effort. 

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By Philip Yancey in, A Guided Tour of the Bible, 1989, pages 657-658.

     A few years ago I attended a conference at a place called New Harmony, the restored site of a century old Utopian community.  As I ran my fingers over the fine workmanship of the buildings and read the plaques describing the daily lives of these ‘true believers,’ I marveled at the energy that drove this movement, one of the dozens spawned by American idealism and religious fervor.

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Rockers in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

     Many varieties of perfectionism have grown on American soil: the offshoots of the Second Great Awakening, the Victorious Life movement, the Shakers, and the communes of the Jesus movement.  It struck me, though, that in recent times the urge to achieve perfection has nearly disappeared.  Nowadays we tilt in the opposite direction, toward a kind of anti-Utopianism. The recovery movement, for example, hinges on a person’s self-confessed inability to be perfect.

     I prefer this modern trend.  I find it much easier to believe in human fallibility than perfectibility, and I have cast my lot with a gospel based on grace.  Yet in New Harmony, Indiana, I felt an unaccountable nostalgia for the Utopians:  all those solemn figures in black clothes breaking rocks in the fields, devising ever-stricter rules in an attempt to rein in lust and greed, striving to fulfill the lofty commands of the New Testament.  The names they left behind tug at the heart: New Harmony, Peace Dale, New Hope, New Haven.

     Yet most Utopian communities— like the one I was standing in— survive only as museums.  Perfectionism keeps running aground on the barrier reef of original sin.  High ideals paradoxically lead to despair and defeatism.  Despite all good efforts, human beings don’t achieve a state of sinlessness, and in the end they often blame themselves, a blame often encouraged by their leaders (“If it’s not working there must be something wrong with you”).

      Still, I admit that I sometimes feel a nostalgia, even longing, for the quest itself.  How can we uphold the ideal of holiness, the proper striving for life on the highest plane, while avoiding the consequences of disillusionment, pettiness, abuse of authority, spiritual pride, and exclusivism?

     Or, to ask the opposite question, how can we moderns who emphasize community support (never judgment), honesty, and introspection keep from aiming too low?   An individualistic society, America stands in constant danger of freedom abuse, and its churches are in danger of grace abuse.

     It was with these questions in mind that I read through the Epistles, charting the motives they appealed to.  I read them in a different order than usual.  First I read Galatians, with its magnificent charter of Christian liberty and its fiery pronouncements against petty legalism.  Next I turned to James, that “right strawy epistle” that stuck in Martin Luther’s throat (too much law and not enough grace for Luther).  I read Ephesians and then I Corinthians, Romans and then I Timothy, Colossians and then I Peter.  In every epistle, without exception, I found both messages:  the high ideals of holiness, and also the safety net of grace reminding us that salvation does not depend on our meeting those ideals.  I will not attempt to resolve the tension between grace and works because the New Testament does not.   We must not try to solve the contradiction by reducing the force of either grace or morality.

     Ephesians pulls the two strands neatly together: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:8-10).  Philippians expresses the same dialectic: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:12-13).  First Peter adds, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (2:16).

     I take some comfort in the fact that the church in the first century was already on a seesaw, sometimes tilting toward perfectionist legalism, and at other times toward raucous freedom.  James wrote to one extreme; Paul often addressed the other.  Each letter has a strong correcting emphasis; but all stress the dual message of the gospel.  The church should be both:  a people who strive toward holiness and yet relax in grace, a people who condemn themselves but not others, a people who depend on God and not themselves.

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Grant me, O Lord, to fervently desire, wisely search out, and perfectly to fulfill all that is pleasing unto Thee.  Order my worldly condition to the glory of your name; and grant me the knowledge, desire, and ability to do what is required of me.  I pray that my path to Thee be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.

Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downward; give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; and give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness to the end that may finally embrace Thee.  Amen.

–Thomas Aquinas  (1225-1274)

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1285) Not Fair?

From The Clergy of America: Anecdotes, 1869, pages 169-170

     A sermon illustration from a New England minister in the 1700’s.

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     A clergyman sitting in his study, saw some boys in his garden stealing melons.  He quietly arose, and walking into his garden, called out to them, “Boys, boys.”  They immediately fled with the utmost speed, tearing through the shrubbery, and tumbling over the fences.  “Boys,” cried out the gentleman, “stop, do not be afraid.  You may have as many melons as you want.  I have more than I know what to do with.”

     The boys, urged by the consciousness of their guilt, fled with increasing speed.  They did not like to trust themselves in the gentlemen’s hands; neither did they exactly relish the idea of receiving favors from one whose garden they were robbing.

     The clergyman continued to entreat them to stop, assuring them that they should not be hurt, and that they might have as many melons as they wished for.  But the very sound of his voice added wings to their speed.  They scampered on in every direction, with as determined an avoidance as though the gentleman were pursuing them with a horsewhip.  He determined, however, that they should be convinced that he was sincere in his offers, and therefore pursued them.  Two little fellows who could not climb over the fence were caught by the minister.  He led them back, telling them they were welcome to melons whenever they wanted any, and gave to each of them a couple, and then allowed them to go home.  He sent by them a message to the other boys, that whenever they wanted any melons, they were welcome to them, if they would but come to him.

     The other boys, when they heard of the favors with which the two had been laden, were loud in the expression of their indignation.  They accused the clergyman of impartiality, in giving to some without giving to all; and when reminded that would not accept his offers, but ran away from him as fast as they could, they replied, “What of that?  He caught these two boys, and why should he have selected them instead of the rest of us?  If he had only run a little faster, he might have caught us, too.  It was mean of him to show such partiality.”

     Again they were reminded that the clergyman was ready to serve them as he did the other two he caught, and give them as many melons as they wanted, if they would only go and ask him for them.

     Still, the boys would not go near him, but accused the generous man of injustice and partiality in doing for two, that which he did not do for all.

     So it is with the sinner.  God finds all guilty, and invites them to come to him and be forgiven, and receive the richest blessings heaven can afford.  They all run from him, and the louder he calls, the more furious do they rush in their endeavors to escape.  By his grace he pursues, and some he overtakes.  He loads them with favors, and sends them back to invite their fellow-sinners to return and receive the same.  They refuse to come, and yet never cease to abuse his mercy and insult his goodness.  They say, “Why does God select some and not others?  Why does he overtake others who are just as bad as we are, and allow us to escape?  This election of some and not others, is unjust and partial.”

     And when the minister of God replies, “The invitation is extended to you:  Whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17), the sinner heeds it not, but goes on in his sins, still complaining of the injustice and partiality of God, in saving some and not saving all.

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Psalm 103:8-10 — The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.  He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.

Isaiah 55:7 — Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.  Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

Matthew 18:14 — (Jesus said), “It is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that any one of these little ones should perish.”

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A Morning Prayer by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894):

 The day returns and brings us the petty round of irritating concerns and duties.  Help us, O Lord, to perform them with laughter and kind faces, and let cheerfulness abound with industry.  Give to us to go blithely on our business all this day, bring us to our resting beds weary and contented and undishonored, and grant us in the end the gift of sleep.  Amen.

1010) Instant Gratification (2/2)

“What do you mean it is going to take forty-five seconds to cook in the micro-wave?  I want it now!”

–Homer Simpson

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    (…continued)  ‘Instant gratification’ is what we might want, but seldom does it do us any good.  Oftentimes, as it says in Romans five, it is suffering that produces strength and character and perseverance and hope.  The desire for instant gratification is understandable, but when answers to prayers or the fulfillment of our desires is delayed, we would do better to trust God’s delay than to insist on what we want right now.  This is easy to see in the story of the prodigal son or in the letter from Pamela.  It is not as easy to see if you are waiting for answers to prayers on healing, relief from pain, or worries about a loved one.  Very often it seems that what we want right away should also be what God wants; and if what we want does not happen, we might wonder if God really cares about us.

     The book of Joshua tells a story very different from the parable of the prodigal son.  The prodigal son demands and receives instant gratification, but the book of Joshua tells of gratification delayed; of a promise of God, a firm and solid hope, that was a long time in coming.

     The book of Joshua begins with the Israelites finally, again, ready to enter the promised land.  God had miraculously freed them from slavery in Egypt, but that was forty long years ago.  The journey from Egypt to the promised land should have lasted only a few months.  Four decades earlier, after that few month journey, they were about to enter the new land.  But their lack of constant lack of faith and ongoing disobedience, even while God was working for them great miracles of deliverance, finally resulted in God’s punishment.  God said their entrance to the promised land would be delayed until that entire disobedient generation was dead.  There would be no ‘instant gratification’ for them.

     So for forty years they had to wait, living not in the lush promised land of abundant crops and fruits and blessings galore, but in the harsh, hot wilderness, eating the same bland food, manna, every day.  Finally now, says Joshua 5:11-12, they are about to have their hopes fulfilled and eat from the rich produce of the new land.

     Forty years was a long delay, but it was not wasted time.  During those years in the wilderness, a nation of people of faith and character were being built, and they entered the new land a far stronger people than they were before.  The instant gratification ruined the character and life of the prodigal son and of Pamela, and made them unable to endure the troubles that inevitably come into everyone’s life.  But the disappointing delays for the people of Israel gave them something far better than instant gratification.  It built into them a faith in God that gave them the strength to withstand anything.  And they remained faithful and strong– until their faith and character were again weakened by the good life in the new land, and they fell away from God.  Such is our sin.  It so often happens that the more we are blessed, the worse we get.

     The main theme in both stories is the enveloping grace of God.  In Joshua, God had delayed his promise, but he did not go back on it.  The Israelites, as a stronger and better people, did enter the promised land with all of its many blessings.  And the father of the prodigal son is like the Heavenly Father, granting every blessing, though undeserved; and then even when those blessings are not appreciated and wasted, welcoming back with forgiveness his repentant son.

    These two stories, like so many in the Bible, are lessons in trusting God, even when it looks like his promises are delayed; and, of returning to God in faith, even when we have not made the best use of the blessings that we have received.

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Instant gratification has long term consequences.

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Joshua 5:6  —  The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord.  For the Lord had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Romans 5:3b-4  —  Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Psalm 119:71  —  It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

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Lord, here I am, do with me as seems best in Thine own eyes; only give me, I beseech Thee, a penitent and patient spirit to wait for Thee.  Make my service acceptable to Thee while I live, and my soul ready for Thee when I die.  Amen.

–William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury  (1573-1645)

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Lord, teach me the art of patience while I am well, and enable me the use of it when I am sick.  In that day either lighten my burden or strengthen my back.  Make me, who so often in my health have discovered my weakness in presuming on my own strength, to be strong in my sickness when I rely solely on your assistance.  Amen.

–Thomas Fuller, English clergyman and historian  (1608-1661)

1009) Instant Gratification (1/2)

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     A young woman in Los Angeles wrote her mother in North Dakota the following letter:

Dear Mom,

     I know you haven’t heard from me for a while, and I have not been very good about returning your calls.  I am sorry about that.  I just got sick of you and dad always lecturing me about money and saving for the future and not going so far into debt and all that.  Even when I came back to visit dad on his deathbed, he had to bring it up and I didn’t want to hear it.

      But you both were right.  Mark lost his job six months ago and has not been able to find work and now we are losing our house.  Not only that, but we are getting a divorce.  All we do is fight about money and blame each other for the mess we are in.  We both made plenty of mistakes, but we won’t admit that to each other.  We disagree on everything, especially on what to do about our debt.  But we do agree on going our separate ways and starting over alone.

     We should have listened to Dad all those times he told us to be more careful about our money.  But we both had such good jobs, the credit was easy, and we had no trouble paying all the monthly bills for school loans, house and car payments, credit card payments, and payments on the loans we took out to do all the traveling we did.  I did not want to have to be like you, waiting so many years to enjoy life and then having only a short time with Dad to enjoy what you worked so hard to save.  We wanted to have it all right now.  I was sure we were better off in these times than in the old days.  I thought we were more secure and we did not have to go by the same old rules you did.  Besides, we didn’t have four kids to worry about like you did, so we thought that the money would never run out.

     I am sorry about the big fight we had after Dad’s funeral.  I hope you can forgive me for all the mean things I said.  How thoughtless of me to add to your grief at the worst time of your entire life.

     If you can forgive me, I have to ask you for a big favor.  I need a place to live for a while.  Not only are we getting a divorce, but we have to file bankruptcy.  And not only that, but my company is making cutbacks, and I am also losing my job. There is no work out here, and there is no way I can afford to live in this city.  I just need to have a place to stay for a while until I get things figured out.  Can I have my old room back for a few months?  I am so sorry.

Your foolish daughter, Pamela

     What got Mark and Pamela into trouble was the desire for instant gratification.  They knew what they wanted and they wanted it now.  The key to such instant gratification is the credit card; something my grandparents never had, what I did not get until I was well into my 30’s, and is now aggressively marketed to 18 year-olds.  For some young people who have never had to wait for anything, the instant gratification available with a credit card is considered a basic necessity of life, no less necessary for survival than food and water.  But life is not designed to guarantee instant gratification, and for someone used to such a luxury, even a small bump on the road can cause the bottom to fall out.

      There were no credit cards at the time of Jesus, but human nature was the same. People then, as now, had huge desires that craved fulfillment, but often needed to be resisted.  Jesus once told a parable about this very thing.  It was the parable of the Prodigal Son, his desire for instant gratification, and what happened when he did receive everything he ever wanted.  ( Luke 15:1-2…11-32)

     Usually, if a son wants to take over the family farm, he first of all stays home and helps his father on what is still the father’s farm.  As time goes on, he can begin to buy into that farm, or perhaps, buy it outright, and then make payments to his parents as long as they live.  A farm is a lifetime investment now, and it was no different in Bible times.

     What you don’t ever see happening is what happened in this parable of Jesus.  In his parables, Jesus would often set up an outrageous situation in order to make a powerful point about the outrageous, amazing grace of God.  “There was a man who had two sons,” Jesus begins, and we find out later the man is a farmer.  Then, says Jesus, the younger of these two sons said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.”  “Excuse me,” the father could have said, “an estate is settled after a person is dead.  As you can see, I am not dead, so if you ever want any part of this estate when the time comes, get back out to the barn and help your brother finish the chores.”  That is what any normal father would say to such a rude request.  But this father says, “Okay.”  

     Now, a farmer’s assets are not primarily in cash, but in the land.  Therefore, to give his son half of the estate would have meant selling off a fair amount of land.  But this father does just that, or as the text says, “He divided his property between them.”  So either the father or the son sold the property, because by the next verse the son gathered up his wealth and took it to a distant country.  That is what you call instant gratification.  One half of this father’s entire lifetime investment is cashed in and given to this rude son, all at once, to do with as he pleased.

     A mature and wise son could have seen this as an opportunity.  Perhaps he did not want to be a farmer, but he could have used this wealth to buy a business that did suit him and at which he could work at to support him and his future family.  But this was not a wise son.  Rather, he was very foolish and so, says verse 13, “He squandered his wealth in wild living.”  What was built up over a lifetime, was lost very quickly.  Then, as for Pamela and her husband, the economy changed.  Verse 14: “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.”  

     Then he, like Pamela, “came to his senses.”  He decided to repent of his wrongdoing and return home.  There, his father welcomed him with open arms.  (continued…)

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Matthew 5:45b  —  …(Jesus said), “Your Father in heaven causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Luke 15:11-12  —   Jesus continued:  “There was a man who had two sons.  The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’  So he divided his property between them.”

Luke 15:21  —  (Jesus said), “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”

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Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your child.  Forgive me, for I want to come home.

–Based on Luke 15:21

949) Lost

By Lutheran pastor David G. Johnson in The Road Once Traveled, 1991, pages 67-71

     The three of us, Bob, John, and I, were so intent on following a turkey that we neglected to pay much attention to where we were going.  The car was not far away and we thought we knew the area in the Black Hills where we were hunting.  We followed the resonant gobbles of a turkey, eager to get close enough so we could ‘work’ him with our calls.  We pursued him, up one hill and down another.  When it became clear to us we had lost the turkey, we turned and headed back to the car.

     It is always exciting when you go back to the car and there is no car.  After each of us had taken a turn in saying, “But I’m sure it was right here,” we began to make circles, each one, we thought, wider than before.  No car.  “I think we’re lost,” one of us finally had nerve to say.

     The extent to which we were lost was not totally clear until we began a debate on which direction to go.  Three opinions on where north was surfaced.  Nor could we agree on whether to plunge ourselves into a deeper state of lostness by continuing to look for the car, or to strike out in one direction and hold the course until we came to a road.  We heard the sound of what seemed like a stationary motor a very long ways away.  At the moment that distant sound was the only sure thing we had.  Our wits, our sense of direction and our memory had all failed.

     We struck out for the motor, which could have been miles away for all we knew.  Much later we came upon a trail, which we decided to follow.  Then a better trail.  Then a road.  Then a discovery.  “I remember this road,” said John.  By now we were a little on the other side of nervous and a little on this side of panic.  Our walking pace had quickened and hinted of deep concern.  It didn’t help, either, that the weather forecast called for a snow storm that night.  We were vulnerable.  The slightest suggestion that someone actually knew where he was caused us to fall in line.  Fortunately, John was right.  This was the road we had taken in, at the end of which was our car.

     Lost is a terrible word.  When one is lost, his whole world is dominated by that lostness.  It controls his life.  He has no other goal, no other purpose, no other need than to escape his lostness.  Had a turkey wandered into our path we might have ignored it.  Once we were lost, we weren’t hunting turkeys anymore.  We were surviving.

     To be lost assumes we have a place where we belong, which for us was back at our car.  Dr. Arndt Halverson, professor at Luther Seminary, once told of how he had picked up a hitchhiker.  He asked his passenger where he was from.  “Baltimore,” he replied.  “Well, you’re a long ways from home,” said “are you lost?”  “No, sir,” said the young fellow, “I’m not lost, because I don’t belong anywhere.”  Chances are, there was no one looking for him either.

     To speak as Jesus did of persons being lost, is to regard them with pity and concern.  One doesn’t scold those who are lost; one helps them find their way.  While some, in Jesus’ day, chose the pejorative word “sinner,” Jesus chose the compassionate word “lost” to describe those who lived apart from God.  God wants everyone to find a home in Him, but some have dashed off on their own, in another direction.  Luke 15 contains three of the most wonderful stories Jesus ever told:  the parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Son.  Jesus conveys, in these stories, how intensely the owner of the coin, the shepherd of the sheep, and the father of the son wish to have the lost ones back.

     It is easy to lose one’s way in life.  We may, like sheep, nonchalantly put our heads down, moving from one tuft of grass to another, and in the process, eat our way away from the shepherd.  That was not our intent; we were simply preoccupied with day to day interests.  It was not meant to be a revolt.  On the other hand, our journey away from God may also be an act of overt rebellion, like the lost son who decided to head for the “far country” where he could be on his own.

     In either case, we are lost.  At first it may be interesting, even exhilarating.  But the time will come when it will catch up to us.  The darkness will set in, our own resources will grow thin and we will be alone.

     Years ago the poet W.H. Auden was in a 52nd St. nightclub in New York City.  He sat and watched the people around him, and then turned over a napkin and recorded his impressions.  The result was his poem September 1, 1939, from which these lines were taken:

Faces along the bar,
Cling to their average day.
The lights must never go out,
And the music must always play…
Lest we see who we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night,
Who have never been happy or good.

     When the lights go out and the music stops, being lost is not so pleasant.

     But there is more.  God has already begun the search.  Even before we size up our situation, even before we admit we are lost, God is on the prowl, pursuing us.  With a flash of light, emanating from the One who is called the Light of the World, he shows us the way home.  That is why John Newton, former slave ship captain, could write in his thankful hymn, Amazing Grace, “I once was lost, but now am found.”

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Isaiah 53:6  —  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Luke 15:31a…32  —  “‘My son,” the father said,  “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Luke 19:10  —  (Jesus said), “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Psalm 119:176  —  I have strayed like a lost sheep.  Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands.

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Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

–John Newton  (1725-1807)

865) The Problem of James (a)

     The New Testament book of James has been a source of controversy ever since it was written almost 20 centuries ago.  Martin Luther, for example, did not like it at all.  When he published his first German translation of the Bible, James was not in its usual place right after the book of Hebrews.  Rather, Luther put it at the end, along with a couple other books he wasn’t too wild about.  In later editions he changed his mind and included all the books in their usual order, but Luther never grew very fond of James.  He called it a ‘straw Gospel,’ criticizing it for hardly ever mentioning Jesus.  The name of Jesus appears only twice in five chapters.

     But the primary problem for Luther and many others is the emphasis in James on the place of good works in the Christian life.  All would agree that God expects us to obey his Law.  Many books in the Bible contain all kinds of laws and rules and admonitions to obey.   But Martin Luther rediscovered the grace of God, and proclaimed that we are saved by faith and not works.  Yes, we are expected to obey God’s Law, just like children in the home are expected to obey their parents.  But a child’s place in the home is not dependent on the number of rules that are obeyed, and neither is our place as God’s children dependent on our goodness.  It’s all by the Grace of God, said Luther, pointing to Ephesians 2:8, where Paul wrote “For it is by grace you have been saved, THROUGH FAITH, and this is NOT from yourselves, but it is the gift of God, NOT by works so that no one can boast;” and Romans 3:23,  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we are justified FREELY by his grace;” and Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death, but the GIFT of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

     But James seemed to say something else, and thus has been a thorn in the flesh for many theologians and preachers.  Paul seems to put all the emphasis on God’s grace through faith, but James created confusion by saying “What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such a faith save him?  No, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is DEAD.”  

     But what is the alternative?  Shall we say that it doesn’t matter what we do?  Is that Christianity?  Someone once said to me after a sermon on God’s grace, “You preachers make it all sound too easy; it can’t be like that.”  James would say the same.

     There has always been this tension in Christianity between faith and works, because the tension is in the pages of the Bible itself.  In terms of strict logic, this may look a contradiction; but we are not here dealing with logic, we are dealing with a relationship.  And when one looks at this in the context of a relationship, this is no more a contradiction than it is for a mother to know in her heart that she will love her children forever no matter what, while at the same time be saying to them, “You better do what I tell you to do, or else!”  Or else what?  Well, of course there might be consequences, but total abandonment and rejection of the child forever is usually not one of them.  In the same way, in God’s infinite wisdom and providence, there may well be consequences for our disobedience, as God seeks to bring us back to faith and obedience.  But we can talk about that without saying that our salvation is dependent on our obedience; just as we do not say a child earns his or her place in the family home by their obedience, good will, or completion of daily chores.

     The Bible tells us these two different things at the very same time.  It says, “You are saved by grace– it is all God’s doing and none of your own.”  And at the same time the Bible says, “Everything you do matters.”  Martin Luther did not like how the book of James talked about faith and works.  But when Luther preached about the Christian life, he could sound very much like James, emphasizing the importance of an active and obedient faith that does indeed work.  Luther would do both, sometimes proclaiming God’s grace, and other times proclaiming what we MUST do in obedient response to that grace.  

     James and Paul did not contradict each other, but merely emphasized two different aspects of the same truth.  Paul comforts us with the unconditional love and acceptance of God’s grace, and James reminds us of how we ought to respond to that Grace with faithful and obedient lives.  (continued…)

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Ephesians 2:8-9  —  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

Romans 6:23  —   For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

James 2:14  —  What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?

James 2:17  —   Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2:26  —  For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

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Pray as though everything depended on God.  Work as though everything depended on you.

–St. Augustine

648) How About Some Good News?

As we begin another year, Philip Yancey reminds us: Grace hasn’t vanished.

Posted January 15, 2015, at:  www.christianitytoday.com 

     After listening to several dark reviews of 2014; recapped news of the beheadings in Iraq, the Ebola epidemic, racial strife, airplanes crashed or missing, ongoing violence in Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and several African countries– it’s no wonder we’re glad to put last year behind us.  Amid all the fear and anxiety, where can we find some good news?

     After a steady diet of cable news, you may be surprised to learn the following:

  • Abortions in the US are at their lowest rate since 1976.
  • Violent crime has hit a 20-year low, with overall crime falling for fifteen straight years.
  • Globally, absolute poverty (what’s necessary to afford minimal standards of food, clothing, health care and shelter) has reached the lowest level in recorded history.
  • Deaths from wars in this century are fewer than at any comparable period in the twentieth century.
  • Life expectancy continues to rise, reaching 78 in the US and 71 worldwide (up from 59 in 1970).
  • Child mortality rates have dropped dramatically in the last forty years while education and literacy rates have soared.

     Statistics don’t always dispel doubt, I realize.  Yet over the past year, I’ve also witnessed the good news firsthand, through my own travels and ministry.

     At a conference of Prison Fellowship International (PFI), which ministers to prisoners in more than 125 countries, I met African Christians who bring soup and bread to prisoners and establish schools for children incarcerated with their mothers.  In places like Brazil and Belize the government has turned over the administration of entire prisons to PFI with remarkable results.

     The most prestigious medical college in the India, Christian Medical College Vellore, honored last year the legacy of Dr. Paul Brand, who revolutionized the understanding and treatment of leprosy, and his wife Margaret, who performed thousands of cataract surgeries in mobile eye camps.  Although Christians constitute a small minority in India, they provide health care for almost 20 percent of the country.  In much of Africa, Christian clinics and hospitals provide the majority of care.

     In the US, I spoke before a thousand Hispanic pastors who run outreach programs for the growing Hispanic population.  I participated in a gathering of Biologos, an organization founded by Dr. Francis Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project and now heads the National Institutes of Health.  To help bridge the perceived gap between science and religion, BioLogos brings together pastors, scientists, theologians, and ministry leaders to shed light on the most divisive issues.

     At the end of the year, I went on a book tour to introduce Vanishing Grace:  What Ever Happened to the Good News?  Organizers arranged for a musician to round out the program:  Anthony Evans, talent scout for The Voice.  As we got acquainted, a holy irony sank in.  Fifty years ago a young student at Carver Bible College was denied membership in the church I attended as a child, solely because of his race.  That student, Tony Evans, went on to become the first African American to earn a doctorate of theology from Dallas Theological Seminary and now leads a 10,000-member church in Dallas.  The church later held a service of repentance, and Tony Evans’ son and I were appearing together on stage.  Not all grace has vanished.  “When I hear about the kinds of things my father went through, it almost seems like another world,” Anthony said.

     Each of these experiences gave a different glimpse of how God’s kingdom advances:  slowly, steadily, and mostly out of the limelight.  Perhaps the most moving moment of the year came during a visit to South Korea, when I toured the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery, built to honor 145 missionaries, mostly British and American, who died while serving God in their adopted country.

     Some of the gravestones date back more than a hundred years, and the caretakers have added stainless steel plaques to recount the stories of the missionaries buried there.  Some faced persecution for leading protests against the brutal Japanese colonial rule.  A couple with the Salvation Army began the long tradition of caring for Korean orphans.  A scholarly Presbyterian contributed greatly to the Korean translation of the Bible.  Two women pioneered education for girls by founding schools and ultimately a women’s university.  Another American woman, who came to Korea as a medical missionary, developed Braille suitable for the Korean language and established a school for the blind.

     My favorite story was of S. F. Moore, who gave medical treatment to a butcher deathly ill with typhoid fever.  The butcher survived and became a Christian, only to find that no church would admit him.  (Korea’s rigid class system scorned butchers, who dealt with “dead things” such as meat and leather, as the lowest social class.)  Moore supported a freedom movement to fight such discrimination and organized a Butchers Church for outcasts and social underdogs.  He died of typhoid fever at the age of 46.

     Typhoid, tuberculosis, dysentery, shipwreck– each plaque spelled out hardships of the men and women buried there.  Many of the missionaries also lost children, buried in small graves beside them.  Yet the fruit of their work lives on, in schools, libraries, hospitals, and church buildings dotting the landscape of modern South Korea.

     One of my uncles served in the Korean War in 1953.  He said he never saw a paved road.  Now Seoul is a metropolis of ten million, one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.  Yanghwajin Cemetery has been preserved in downtown Seoul, an oasis of green amid high-rise buildings.  The sounds of traffic drifted in as I stood at the gravestones, their Korean characters now weathered and worn, and imagined a very different culture and landscape a century ago.

     To a nation steeped in hierarchy and dominated by its powerful neighbors China and Japan, the men and women buried here brought a gospel message of justice, compassion, and transformation.  In comparison with much of Asia, South Korea has been unusually receptive to the Christian message; 30 percent of South Koreans identify as Christian.  I spoke at one impressive church with 65,000 members– yet it is less than one-tenth the size of Seoul’s largest church.

     “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?”  Jesus asked. “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.  Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade” (Mark 4:30-32).

     For this reason, I do not fear, despite all the alarming news:  a shrinking church in Europe, secularization in the U. S., persecution of Christians in the Middle East and China.  As we enter another year, I remember how Jesus chose small things as images for the kingdom of God.  It’s like a tiny seed that falls in the ground and dies, only to grow into a great bush that nourishes life all around it.

     As G. K. Chesterton said, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”  Evidence lay all around me, beyond the walls of Yanghwajin Cemetery.

Yanghwajin Cemetery, Seoul, South Korea

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P. S.  A similar story could be told about all of Africa.  In just the past century, Christianity has grown from five percent to forty-eight percent of the population of the entire continent!  One hundred years ago, only small ‘mustard seeds’ had been planted, sown by the sacrifices of many missionaries.  The growth of those small beginnings has been astounding.

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We pray to you God with the faith of a mustard seed,
that all we do,
all we say,
all we think,
and all we hope
will take root in this world;
and be the source for of new expressions
of your love,
of your justice,
of your character,
of your mission,
and of your kingdom.
May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven
through us,
alongside us,
despite us,
and for us.
For yours is the kingdom,
yours is the power,
and yours is the glory.  Amen.

521) Anybody Want a $50 Bill?

     Best selling author and pastor Rick Warren was once invited to speak an entire population of a large prison.  He had two hours to speak, but it was out in the prison yard.  There was no stage, and Warren had to just stand on the ground like everyone else.  But Warren did have a microphone, and with that mic he could be heard by everyone.  There were about 5,000 men in the prison yard, and most were paying no attention.  

     Warren pulled out a $50 bill, held it high, and to the few who were gathered around him said, “How many of you would like this $50 bill?”  Everyone heard that, and 5,000 hands went up.  Now, he had their attention.  Then he tore the bill in half, crumpled it in his hands, and held it up again, asking, “How many of you would still like this $50 bill?”  Again, 5,000 hands went up.  Next, he spat on the $50 bill, threw it on the ground, and stomped it into the dirt.  He then picked it up, held it high in the air again, and said, “How many of you would like it now?”  Once more, the hands all went up.

     Then Warren said, “Now, for many of you, this is what people have done to you.  You’ve been mistreated.  You’ve been abused.  You’ve been misused.  You were told you wouldn’t amount to anything.  And you’ve done a lot of dumb things, too.  You have sinned.  You have done crimes, and you are paying for them.  You’ve been beaten.  You’ve been torn.  You’ve been in the dirt and you are dirty.  But you have not lost one cent of your value to God, and God still wants to have you.”

     That day, 79 guys gave their lives to Christ, and they were baptized right there in the prison yard that day.  In time, the church in that prison grew to over 500 men.

     Even if you aren’t in prison, you can probably relate to Warren’s little meditation on the $50 bill.  We have all sinned and been sinned against.  And yet, God still loves us and still wants us to turn to him in faith and trust.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”

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We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.

 –Rick Warren

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Psalm 119:25  —  I am laid low in the dust; preserve my life according to your word.

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Psalm 34:18  —  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

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Psalm 51:1…10-12…17  —  Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions…

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me….  

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.

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Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.

—Psalm 130:1-5

273) Pursued by Grace (part two)

     (continued…)  “If you don’t straighten out, Jimmy, God will deal with you,” Grandma Klobuchar would always say.  Many years later, after grandma was long dead and ‘Little Jimmy’ had become ‘Famous Jim Klobuchar,’ he still had a lot of straightening out to do.  In one area of his life, he was a successful columnist and community leader, and, he was having the time of his life.  But in another area of his life, Klobuchar was an alcoholic in a dangerous downward spin.  His drinking had ruined two marriages and alienated his children, it was destroying his health, and it became for him a public embarrassment when he was arrested for driving drunk and appeared on the front page of the newspaper that employed him.

     In Pursued by Grace Klobuchar describes the morning he hit bottom.  He woke up in the chair he had passed out in and he began to remember the many things he had to be ashamed of from the night before.  Too much drinking, as always.  Then going home, for a while, with a woman he picked up.  Then to another bar for more drinking.  Then another woman.  Then driving home very drunk.  Then losing his keys somewhere between the garage and his apartment.  Then stumbling around in the hall as he tried to open his door with a credit card, and then with slurring words trying to convince a passerby that this was his own apartment and he wasn’t a thief.

     With his head pounding, Klobuchar remembered the column he wrote that would appear in the Sunday paper that morning.  It would tell about an incredible man who would not give up.  The man had many disabilities, but he wanted to be independent and pay his own way.  And, with hard work and determination, he was making it happen.  Life had dealt him a poor hand, but he was making the best of it, working hard at the only job he could get, being frugal with the little money he made, and not asking anyone for anything.  That morning his story would be an inspiration to thousands.  And there Klobuchar sat, hung over and ashamed.  He had been given every opportunity and blessing, yet he had made a mess of his life and relationships.  He began to recall the many people he had hurt and disappointed, especially the family he had so often ignored.  He then made an apology.  He didn’t even know who he was speaking to, but with tears in his eyes, he said, “I am so sorry.”  And then he said, “God, I don’t know where to go, but I need help.”  Klobuchar decided to go to church.  Still not feeling very well, he got into his car, but then realized he had no idea where he should go.  He remembered a pastor who had recently invited him to his church, Edina Lutheran, and so that is where he went.  And there he heard the rest of the Bible’s story of how God deals with us.  The sermon was on God’s forgiveness.  Of course he had heard of that before, but until now he had never really listened.  This morning he did, and it became for him the beginning of his recovery– the recovery of his sobriety, his health, his family, and his faith.

     “If you don’t straighten out, God will deal with you,” his grandma had always said, and he never wanted to hear it.  But what did that mean for him now?  Was it God that ruined his family, embarrassed him publicly, ruined his health, and made him hit rock bottom?  Was that how God was dealing with him?  No, Klobuchar realized, that was what he was doing to himself.  So what was God doing?  Klobuchar slowly began to see God was dealing with him as he had been dealing with him throughout his life– by gently and persistently pursuing him with his grace.  Pursued by Grace was what he called his book, and looking back, he saw that God had always been there, trying to get in, looking for a response that was so long in coming, always staying close, always giving gentle reminders, always being available.

     “I am so sorry,” Jim Klobuchar said on that rock bottom morning, but he did not yet know to whom he was speaking.  Later, he realized it is God to whom we must make such a confession.  Only to God can we confess all our sins, only before God can we lay down the regrets and sins of an entire lifetime all at once.  And then, unlike the one-sided image of God he had received from his grandmother, Klobuchar began to know the God who spoken through Jeremiah, saying “I will forgive your wickedness and remember your sin no more;” the God who came here in person to tell us, “This is the new covenant in my blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.”

     This God was still pursuing him, as he pursues each one of us, with his grace and his promises.
 We must not, like Little Jimmy, ignore God’s warnings about his coming judgment upon our sins, but neither should we, like grandma Klobuchar, dwell only on that.  That is only one part of the message, and the purpose of that part is to drive us on to the other part, the part about God pursuing us with his grace.  The love of God is in both parts.  By command or by promise, by threat or by grace, by judgment or by forgiveness, by whatever way God chooses to deal with us, the amazing thing is that God bothers with us at all.  The Psalmist did not take this for granted, but marveled at it, saying, “When I consider the heavens, and all the works of your hands, the sun and the moon which you have set in their place, what is man that you are mindful of him?”  Who am I, who are you, that God even gives us a thought?  We wonder why this or that bad thing might happen, but we might just as well wonder why God should even care at all.  But God does care, and by whatever means possible, he pursues us with his grace, waiting for, looking for, our response.  ‘What is little man,’ the Psalmist asks, ‘that thou art mindful of him?’  But God is mindful of us, and we must not ignore such incredible attention and such an amazing grace.

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Psalm 8:3-4  —  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

Psalm 46:10  —  Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.

Isaiah 45:22  —  Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. 

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Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to thy faithful people, pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

272) Pursued by Grace (part one)

     Jim Klobuchar was a newspaper columnist for the Minneapolis Tribune from the mid-1960’s to the late 1990’s.  He is now 85 years old, retired, and living in the Twin Cities.  His daughter Amy represents Minnesota in the United States Senate. Klobuchar has written many books describing his active life and many adventures. He is best known for his award winning human interest columns.  Each week he would write about interesting, unique, inspiring, and famous people.  He traveled widely, was a world-class mountain climber, and was active in Twin Cities community affairs and social life.  He has had a full life.

     Klobuchar’s book Pursued by Grace tells the story of his spiritual journey.  He describes growing up in the Christian faith, leaving the faith because of too many troubling unanswered questions, and then, late in life, returning to the Christian faith.  He was raised on the Minnesota Iron Range with his parents and a stern old grandmother from the old country of Slovenia.  Everyone loved grandma, but everyone also knew that she was boss, and, that she was the main religious force in the family.  It was from her that little Jimmy first learned about God, and what he learned was that God was even tougher and more stern than old Grandma.  When the skies would grow dark and it would thunder, Grandma would look at him and say with grave seriousness, “God is speaking.”  From the way she spoke those words, it always sounded like a threat and a warning for mischievous little boys.  When she would get angry with him, she would always say, “Jimmy, if you don’t straighten out, God will deal with you.”

     ‘God will deal with you,’ grandma would say, and that is certainly a Biblical concept.  The whole Bible can be read as the story of God dealing with his people in those days, and we do believe that by reading the Bible we can learn about how God deals with us.  Grandma gave little Jimmy the impression that God dealt with us primarily by angry threats, stern judgments, and harsh punishments.  But that was not very appealing to Jim Klobuchar, and after he moved away from grandma he paid little attention anymore to his this angry God.

     Grandma wasn’t all wrong.  Warnings, judgments, and punishments can all be found in the Bible.  But that is certainly not the whole story and it certainly does not give a complete picture of God.  It took Jim Klobuchar most of the rest of his life to learn the rest of the story.

     Jeremiah 31 is all about how God deals with us.  In fact, in this chapter Jeremiah describes two ways that God deals with us, the old way and the new way.  In verses 31-32 we read these words from the Lord, “The time is coming when I will make a NEW covenant with the house of Israel; and it will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers.”  600 years later, Jesus picked up on those very words when on the night of his betrayal and the day before his death, he lifted up a cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.”  God, through Jeremiah, had also talked about this forgiveness of sins, saying in verse 34, “For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.”  The Old Covenant, the old way of God dealing with us, is personified in Moses and is best represented by the 10 Commandments.  The New Covenant is personified in Jesus, and is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross and his Easter resurrection.  In the old, there is the command and the threat; in the new, there is the love and the forgiveness.  This does not mean that there is no love and forgiveness and grace before Jesus.  Those attributes of God appear throughout the Old Testament.  Nor does this mean that with the coming of Jesus there is no more command and no more threat.  Jesus himself said that he was not here to abolish even one letter of the old Law, and the words of Jesus still contain plenty of words of warning.  But the new covenant fulfills and in many ways overrules the old covenant.

     In the times before Jesus if you were to ask anyone who knew the Scriptures how it was that God dealt with his people, they would say by the Law.  They would know about God’s care.  After all, God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt.  And they knew about God’s forgiveness.  After all, God even forgave David of his sins of adultery and murder in the affair with Bathsheba.  And they knew about God’s love.  After all, they had all of the same Psalms that we have.  But if you were to ask them what was the main thing in the Scriptures, they would say the Law.  But after Jesus lived and died and rose again, if you were to then ask the early believers how it was that God dealt with his people, they would say by grace.  The books of the New Testament contain much there about how to live and what to do and what will happen if you refuse God’s offer of grace; but primarily, the New Testament wants to talk about Grace.  That is the new Covenant that Jeremiah said was coming and the new covenant that Jesus said here was here to bring about by his blood.  This was the new way that God would deal with his people.

     If old Grandma Klobuchar knew anything about the new covenant, she never communicated that to her grandson.  But she lived by and knew all about the old covenant and the law and the judgment and the punishment to come.  (continued…)

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Jeremiah 31:31-32  —  “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 

I Corinthians 11:25  —  In the same way, after supper (Jesus) took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

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I confess, O Righteous God, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed.  I have not loved Thee above all else nor my neighbor as myself.  Through my sins I am guilty of more than I understand and I contribute to the world’s negligence of Thee.  I beseech Thee, help me to cease my sins.  Forgive me, in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.  –From a Swedish Lutheran Church liturgy