March 3

From Culture War to . . . ?

The writings of James Davison Hunter seem even more timely now than when he first wrote more than twenty years ago. Indeed, there is almost a prophetic quality to them not only as a prescient glimpse of decades still future when he wrote – a “foretelling” of what was to come – but also as a “forthtelling” of truths we too often forget or neglect. In Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War, he writes,

We Americans would like to imagine ourselves to be somehow above and beyond the possibility of serious civil strife. The very idea of the civil unrest that has torn apart nations like Yugoslavia, Ireland, and Lebanon happening here jolts the mind. Total nonsense, we are inclined to say; we are much too civilized for that sort of thing.

Perhaps so, and perhaps we think this with good reason . . . But then the idea burrows into the mind, suggesting some uncomfortable parallels. Here, as there, nonnegotiable claims about the ordering of public life are in conflict. Here, as there, the claims made (even if thought of as secular) are religious in character, if not in substance . . . Here, as there, the conflicting claims trace quickly back to competing ideals of community and national identity. Finally, here, as there, a culture war with deep historical roots has festered just barely beneath of surface of public life . . .

He warns, as a Christian sociologist:

[S]urely we are unwise to minimize the significance of the challenges our culture war presents to American democratic life and institutions. The challenge is not just the potential volatility of particular controversies. The challenge is internal as well, in the ways the normative ideals that democracy itself depends upon have been weakened . . . The ‘center’ can no longer hold; the older faiths – Judeo-Christian and Classical – that once amidst great diversity provided a set of common, if not always coherent, assumptions for the ordering of public life (seen most visibly in Western law, literature, arts, and the like) no longer play . . .

The central premise of this essay is that in a democratic society the [core beliefs] cannot be imposed from the top down but must be generated from the bottom up, in the dialectical process of generating new working agreements out of a serious confrontation with our deepest differences.

If there is a national character, millenarianism is certainly one of its defining characteristics. Democrats, independents, and Republicans; conservatives, libertarian, and liberals; religionists and secularists – we all want America to be a ‘city upon a hill’ . . .

What is even more problematic about this underlying utopianism is that it operates upon what Max Weber called an ‘ethics of ultimate ends.’ In this ethic, the ends always justify the means. What are the means of which he speaks? Weber, dogged realist that he was, said the ‘the decisive means for politics is violence.’ The ends, in other words, always justify forms of coercion . . .

Clearly there is a need to temper the expectations built into this tenacious exceptionalism . . .

The call, then is for modesty about our political objectives. For one, this means a recognition that America will never really be a city upon a hill and, if it is, it will be by necessity a city whose walls are crumbling and always in need of repair; America will never be a beacon, except one that is not so bright and this is periodically prone to go out. Modesty, then, means a recognition that America will always be flawed. For Christians and many Jews, this is not compromise but a frank recognition that the world will always be marred by sin, and that the believer’s true citizenship is in heaven . . . Such modesty does not require the abandonment of one’s ideals, however utopian, narrowly defined and/or partisan they may be, but rather their interaction with what Weber called an ‘ethics of responsibility’ . . . Once again, without abandoning one’s ideals, the credo changes. No longer is it ‘today, we will remake the world’; rather, it is ‘today we will try to make the world just a little bit better.’

August 22

On Missing Drive-By Friendships

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot
Wouldn’t you like to get away?*

The world I grew up in was very different from the one I live alongside of today. No internet, no cell phones, no car phones, no cable television, no mp3 players. It was a quieter, slower pace. I lived for a couple of years in a cabin 20 miles outside of town, a one-room wooden structure on the edge of a deep wood. A stream ran clear and cold just a short walk down its bank and it was there that I would bathe when the weather permitted. It was an existence that allowed for reading, listening to music, and thinking.

But cabin life, as wonderful as it was most of the time, got a little too isolated after a while and so I would drive into town to visit friends. Not having a phone at the cabin meant I couldn’t call to see if anyone was home or find out what they were doing. But that didn’t matter: I just dropped in on my friends unannounced and was invited in and made to feel welcome. Friends didn’t try to entertain or feed me; we sat around and talked, laughed, and threw a frisbee now and then.  

At times a friend or two would take the risk of driving out to the cabin in hopes that I’d be there. That was cool. Sometimes I’d go to a bar in the evening where my friends gathered to shoot pool and the breeze. I’d just show up and so would my friends. And we didn’t have an agenda other than enjoying and getting to know one another.

I don’t do any of that anymore. In fact, I stopped doing it when my wife and I moved to Colorado for graduate school. It wasn’t the same as the midwest where I had grown up. When I moved to Texas, it was more of the same: no one just dropped by and I didn’t pop in on friends without warning. It had somehow become rude or impolite over the years and the miles.

I don’t know why it changed. It could have been that phases of life pulled the welcome mat from so many front doors. It also might have been the ramped-up busyness that began with 24-hour news and the explosion of electronic media. Then again, it might have been just a midwest thing: I have friends here in Texas that grew up in the midwest and on rare occasions I show up at their door and they’re glad to see me. But that doesn’t happen a lot.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came,
You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same,
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.*

Nowadays everything is planned well in advance. People have parties and gatherings but there’s usually a point to them: watch a football game, celebrate a birthday, or some other special occasion. Nobody throws a party for nothing. Nobody says, “Hey come on over and we’ll sit around and think great thoughts!” It just doesn’t happen. Maybe nobody thinks like that anymore.

I understand part of it, but only part. There have been a lot of cultural changes over the past fifty to sixty years. Homes are more self-contained and self-sustaining. Friends are online. Pretty much all needs  can be met without leaving home or having someone come to your home. Or so we think.

It wouldn’t bother me so much except that, as a Christian, I had hoped for and expected more spontaneous fellowship than what I’ve found. When Christians get together, there’s always something to talk about. And it should be something – or Someone – that doesn’t involve sports, gossip, business, material things, or money. We should talk about life and God and love and the hard things about living. We should be involved in one another’s lives more than just seeing one another at church and having lunch together once in a while. For those who go to church.

Part of it could be me, of course. Who invites in individual and marital therapist to just show up without warning? Even though I tell people that I don’t do it without an invitation, I suspect people wonder if I’m evaluating and assessing them when they’re not looking.

Or it could be that I won’t sit around and talk about meaningless bullshit. I want to talk about things that matter, things that can be troubling, things that require thought. Not all the time. But a lot of the time. That could be a turnoff for a lot of people who are pretending to live life but aren’t really experiencing it. Or maybe it’s that I use the word “bullshit” around Christians.

I don’t know what it is, just that it is. It’s sad and leaves me wishing it were the old days again. But that can’t happen and I know it.

Hopefully, in the afterlife, there will be more casual, impromptu gatherings. Kinda seems a shame to have to wait until then.

___________

* Gary Portnoy – Where Everybody Knows Your Name 

August 5

Being “Unconformed” To This World

Before I ever heard Paul tell me that I am not to be conformed to this world, I got the same message from Pink Floyd. It may well be that the Floyd got it from the Bible but I didn’t hear it from Paul first. It was in the songs of Pink Floyd. Songs like “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” and “Us and Them” and “Welcome to the Machine.” In fact, one of the major draws Pink Floyd had for me was the brilliance of the lyrics and the beauty of the music itself. What Roger Waters wrote, David Gilmour transformed into unparalleled piece of music memory.

In Rom 12.2, Paul saw ahead to what is in store for believers at the end of the present age and told us not to be conformed to the world. Waters looked at the evils of the present age and tried to warn us or awaken us, pleading with us to reject the culture and live differently. Pink Floyd identified specific pressures from culture that quietly and hideously transformed us into something or someone we were never meant to be.

To choose not to be conformed to this work involves, first and foremost, a rejection of the culture or philosophy that drives us. Aided by the distance and perspective provided by drugs – marijuana in my case – I was able in the early ’70s to first question and then reject what I had been raised and taught to believe. And to believe in.  I ate the meat and spit out the bones as best I could. Not everything was rejected or needed to be.  There were still vestiges of a Christian culture influencing the U.S. in the ’50s and 60s.

Through a haze of reflective clarity, I heard the message of Pink Floyd: the culture, the system, the spirit of the age did not work for us but actually sought to get us to work for it. You need look no further than “Welcome to the Machine” on Wish You Were Here.  

Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
Where have you been?
It’s alright we know where you’ve been.

Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
What did you dream?
It’s alright we told you what to dream

Culture, sang Floyd, prepares you to be just one more cog in a self-perpetuating machine. You’ve been in the pipeline/Filling in time/Provided with toys and scouting for boys.  The song anticipated and perhaps in part inspired the movie The Matrix in its grim, 1984 outlook. We are entertained to avoid facing the reality of life. Echoes of Pascal. 

When I discovered that rejecting the culture was commanded for all Christians – in fact, to love the world reveals that the love of God is not in us – I found it relatively easy to do, at least intellectually and philosophically.  The world should hate Christians; if the world doesn’t hate us, we might want to do some soul-searching. I know I need to.

The problem with not being conformed is being blind to all the ways we are conformed and conforming. “Does a fish see water? Does a fish know it’s wet?”  Do I realize how immersed I am in the world and how deeply the world has infected me? What motivates me? What angers me? When I get right down to it, what does my life say that I really believe in?

I’m not advocating or even suggesting some type of aesthetic, monk-like existence for those of us in the rank and file. But I am strongly encouraging each of us to examine our lives and make changes. (I’ve listened to culture’s siren songs, letting them mesmerize me and lead me deeper and deeper into the spirit of the age. I’ve written about here: Losing My Way . . . Again.)

I know what most of us believe. Or, I know what we say we believe. But sometimes it’s really hard to distinguish a Christian from a non-Christian without bumper stickers, necklaces, tattoos and other visible declarations of our Christian faith.  If the only thing to go on is behavior stripped of visible symbols, I honestly cannot think of anything in my day-to-day life that sets me apart from any other person in my culture. Or from others in my Christian subculture.

There’s something wrong here, obviously. It calls for drastic action: anything short of that will not effect the kind of change necessary to be labeled as a Christian by others. I don’t want to be known by what I’m against – although there’s no shortage of cultural outrages to oppose.  I want to be known for what I do and, especially, how I love other people.

That means sacrificial living. It means knowing when I have enough – that is, what I need – and when I can bless other people. We pray that God will give us our daily bread – and He does! But sometimes it looks like He’s unloaded the entire bakery at one house. When that’s the case, we need to understand that God has given us more than we need so that we might give to others who don’t have enough of what they need.

If Christians were to do this If I were to do this, people might notice. But that’s not the reason to do it. The reason to do it is twofold and quite simple: I should do it because I love God and because I love people. If enough of us gave like that, I think the world would notice. Frankly, I think the world be baffled if this became routine for Christians. Not just a one-time extravaganza for the world to notice but a 24/7/365 lifestyle. Sharing. From each according ability, to each according to need.

It wouldn’t be a great start, maybe, but it would be a good one. Now all I have to do is do it.

January 7

“Aren’t We Just Talking to Ourselves?”

Almost forty years ago I was fortunate enough to hear a sermon by someone whose name is now only a fuzzy memory – it was something like “Tim Timmons” or “Tom Tommons” or some variation thereof. The phrase he kept coming back to – because it was the point of the sermon – was “Aren’t we just talking to ourselves?”

The speaker was addressing an all-too common practice found in people generally and believers specifically, i.e., talking to ourselves and thinking that we are talking to others. He said things like,

“When we preach the gospel in hopes of winning the lost, but fill the message with jargon and theological terms that only believers understand, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?

“When we stand our ground on moral issues but base our arguments on realities and authorities than only Christians hold to, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?”

When I first heard the sermon I was a senior in college working on a degree in communication theory. Understandably, the message struck a responsive chord within me, setting me on a course of avoiding jargon, irrelevant arguments, or abusive words that would do more to prevent communication than facilitate it.  I’ve failed miserably at times; I’ve succeeded when I’ve taken time to evaluate my message. How successful I’ve been, though, can only be determined by others.

If, as Haddon Robinson once said, communication is “a meeting of meanings,” then no real communication will occur if a meeting of meanings does not take place. Until we present the gospel or our positions with clarity and a grace that dissolves barriers, we’re just talking to ourselves.

This matter was brought to mind recently by an open letter that came across my screen. The author, with whom I agreed on pretty much every matter, made important points and expressed a legitimate concern over practices and positions of others with whom he strongly disagreed.

But he used some words that would result in praise from those who already agreed with him but would likely cause others to dismiss his arguments before giving them a fair hearing.  Words that are inflammatory and insulting; words that would cause many to become defensive.  Those on the other side of the issue, who very much needed to hear and give heed to what the author was saying, might very quickly stop reading or begin arguing back given the smallest excuse or provocation. And he was providing them with a easy out.

When I pointed this out, I was accused of being critical. It was a fair accusation and my only response was to plead guilty as charged:I was being critical, but constructively: I criticized the tone, not the content, because the net result would be that we were once again just talking to ourselves.  Too many of us quickly seize upon an offending word or statement in order to ignore the essence of what is being said.

We all tend to read and believe those things that support our biases and to avoid threats to our positions. (Psychologists call this confirmation bias but it really means bias confirmation.) When we do that, when we only address or read those that we know will agree with us, aren’t we just talking to ourselves? If we deliver a much-needed message to others but do so in a way that all-but guarantees that it will not be heard, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?

And if I, in pointing out this very real problem, am labeled as a critic, aren’t we just saying that we prefer to talk only to ourselves and that we really don’t care if others hear us or not? If we have become so entrenched in our own “rightness” that we need to engage in ad hominem defenses (“you criticize everything!”) and shoot the messenger, have we lost our love for our enemies? And aren’t we just talking to ourselves?

If our messages are only designed to prove to ourselves how right and righteous we are, is that in keeping with what God has intended us to do as ambassadors of Christ and His Kingdom? Of course not, and I do not think for a minute that offending and alienating those we are trying to reach is the intent of those who defend divisive and unproductive letters.  But it can be and too often is an unintended effect.

Our calling is higher than this (I preach to myself as much as to others).  We are to “speak the truth in love” and to have “speech that is gracious and attractive.” It is good to take a stand on important matters. It is good to defend biblical positions and beliefs. But it must not be done in a manner that offends others and comes across as unloving or uncaring. We are called to love people – even our enemies – and not to push them away for the sake of less important matters. The gospel is an offense; we are not to be.

As my wife has told me, it is possible to be so right that we’re wrong.

And when this happens, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?

 

November 17

The Two Great Disappointments in Life

It’s been said that there are two great disappointments in life: not marrying the love of your life – and marrying the love of your life.

Thirty or forty years have passed since I first heard that truism and, perhaps because of the arrogance of youth or the ignorance of the same, I thought I knew what it meant.  Now I know I was wrong back then, or at least partially wrong.

The pain and disappointment of not marrying the love of your life is fairly obviously.  He or she is “the one that got away” or left you or was taken from you somehow.  The disappointment grows out of the rich soil of fantasies and illusions you have nurtured and still nurture over the years.  You harbor a longing love for the memory of a person frozen in time, a golden aura of beauty and bliss surrounding them and expanding with age. Powerful feelings radiate from this memory every time you reflect on him or her.  A part of your heart and a willingness to be unashamedly naked before them – emotionally far more than physically – remains locked in a precious vault of comforting dreams with the memory of moments that now exist only in the deep recesses of your being.

It is this latter development that creates such a painful disappointment.  So tied to the dream are you that you can never really be fully present with the person you do have.  It matters little to you whether or not you are the love of your partner’s life.  You are haunted by the soft memory of the love of your life that no longer is within your reach, lost to you except through a veil of reminiscence.  You may look upon your actual partner with compassion and sympathy or with disgust and scorn because they do not possesses the intoxicating power to make your head swim, to bathe you in a warm flood of endorphins, to submerge you in an ecstasy that is more remembered than real.

You are certain that your life is diminished because of the disappointment of not marrying the love of your life.

But it is the second great disappointment – that of marrying the love of your life – that I was wrong about or ignorant of.  I originally thought it was disappointing because he or she, for all the promise and presence of unending love, did not turn out to be who you imagined they would be in your happy fog of youthful romanticism.  Failures and disappointments that can only be known or revealed or developed in marriage insidiously begin to spread throughout you, eating away at the joy you were certain you’d possess without limit on the other side of the altar and beyond the excited words spoken in unfounded confidence before a witnessing crowd that included God Himself.

Finding out who that love of our life really is, however, is not the second great disappointment. This is where I was wrong.

The second great disappointment – and it is the greater of the two – is marrying the love of your life and then discovering that you are not the person you thought you were.  You fail the very person you only and always wanted to care for and make happy. This is a tragedy that they suffer and you witness.  The mirror reflects your face and it is the face of someone who has failed, who knows they have failed, and lives with regrets and sorrow.

Your love – which felt so inexhaustible and unchanging in your mind long ago – fails you at critical moments, lost like a shadow in a dark room of pain and sorrow.  You stand as a tragic perpetrator and witness to the disillusionment of your partner even as he or she watches the recurring train wreck with you from the other side of the tracks.  There is no undoing the pain suffered and inflicted, no rescuing the promise of true, enduring love.  It is death by a thousand paper cuts to the heart.  It is felt within and seen without.

This is no less true or tragic even when you did not marry the love of your life. They were the trusting lover, the innocent believer, the collateral damage of your immature and misdirected love. They did not know, at least at the outset, that they would compete for years against a memory of love lost, against a ghostly other who was perfect only in your foolish beliefs and star-struck eyes.

Even so, the disappointment is not only or primarily the pain of discovering your failure. It is the penetrating realization of the damage you’ve done to another human being who trusted you. It doesn’t matter if your partner is the love of your life or not: the damage done is at times overwhelming incredible. And while there is forgiveness and moving forward and hope and every other positive thing you can come up with, you can’t undo what you’ve done. Their pain looms in your memory as a horrific monument to your selfishness and smallness.

Perhaps, in the end, there are two great disappointments in life, but they are not what I once thought them to be. It is not disappointment in another but in yourself s that is so disturbing.  Knowing better but failing to do better. Failing, in short, to love another for who they are.

Is it really possible to love another so deeply and completely that you do not inflict your dreams and hopes upon them?  In this life?  Is it in itself sufficient for a felt joy that travels with you through life? No, no, and no.

You are made for relationship: a deep, abiding, flawless relationship with another “that answers back to us,” to use a biblical description. It stands within your grasp in your mind.

But not in this life. One day, maybe, but not today.

 

 

June 30

Missing the Point of the Faith

If I were to describe my experience in evangelicalism over the past forty years – the duration of my Christian life to this point – I could sum it up in two short statements:

  • Believe the right things.
  • Don’t sin.

I don’t think my experience is unique; in fact, I suspect it is commonplace across evangelicalism regardless of whatever denominational tribe we might find ourselves.

These two dimensions of our faith are obviously important and not to be minimized.  It is obviously important to know the essentials of the faith and to adhere to them.  These are doctrinal matters and critical for understanding God accurately – to whatever extent that is humanly possible.  Included are topics such as the triune nature of the Godhead, what God is like, what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross, the nature of spiritual life, why the church exists, and the trustworthiness of the Bible.

Just as obvious is the admonition not to sin.  It was sin/Sin that caused our separation from God in the first place, a separation that – left unchanged – would have resulted in an eternity away from God’s presence.  Even now sin can separate us from God: not for eternity but in our daily experience of and walk with Him.  Not sinning – to whatever extent we are capable – is a very good thing.

Believing the right things and not sinning are necessary dimensions of our Christian life but they are not sufficient: that is, these two things alone do not accomplish God’s will for us in our remaining time here on the planet.  They may be enough for salvation but there is yet another dimension that proves whether or not they actually are enough.

The third thing that is missing – at least for most of my life – is loving.  Loving God, loving other believers, loving all people.  Love as a verb, something we do, not something we necessarily feel.  “Walk in love,” Paul tells us (Eph 5.2); “love one another, even as I have loved you,” Jesus tells us (Jn 13.34).

To be fair (to myself), I am a loving person unless I think about it.  What I mean is that I love people when I’m not paying attention to myself but the minute I begin trying to love people I miss the mark horribly.  I get caught up in the first two directives to believe the right things and to not sin.

When my head gets involved like that is when my love is no longer from God but is, rather, a product of my self-righteous or self-confident flesh.  Probably more of the latter.  To say that I have tried too hard might be too generous but it might be true, too.

John gives us a broader understanding of love:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.     – 1 Jn 4.7-11

Here is a definition and application of love: it is sacrificial, giving even when there may not be any advantage for us in doing so.  God gave his Son; he gave him as a payment for our sins so that those who believe would not have to pay with their own lives.

Writing about the Cross, Marshall says,

God sent his one and only Son into this world in order that we might obtain life through him.  Here we see the two factors which determine the nature of love: on the one hand, self-sacrifice, and, on the other hand, action done for the benefit of others . . .

There can be no explanation or definition of true love which does not start from God’s love. We cannot begin to understand love by considering the nature of our love for God.  Rather, love is to be seen in the prior act of God who loved us and expressed his love by sending his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. In this phrase we find the deepest meaning of the term “love”: love means forgiving the sins of the beloved and remembering them no more.  This is what God has done for rebellious mankind: he pardons their sins against himself at his own cost.

That is how we are to love one another; that is how we are to love everyone.  Love is doing the right thing for others every time.  God defines what the right thing is and what love is, not us: our response is to obey and give even as he gave.

I miss this when I think about it; then again, I miss it when I don’t think about it, but at least when I’m not paying attention I’m more likely to fail in the right direction.  What I need to do – what so many of us need to do – is to be a loving person even when consciously thinking about it.

I need to understand that – as Francis Schaeffer wrote – the mark of the Christian is love.

Conscious or unconscious, deliberate or spontaneous.

Because the greatest of all is love.

 

June 29

The Lordship Debate Is Missing the Point

One of the advantages of aging is that you see cycles.  In governments, people, history, organizations, and organisms – the last being a reference to that God-ordained organism, the Church.  Cycles are evident in the Church universal – comprised of all Christian believers of all time and all places – and the local church which, in the United States, is a 501.c.3 tax-exempt entity housed in building somewhere in a neighborhood near you.

One of the recurring issues of concern for various factions within the Church is that of Lordship Salvation: the point of contention is whether or not a person must make Jesus the lord of every area of life in order to be saved or whether trusting in Jesus Christ as savior alone is sufficient.

The tide is out at this time for the lordship debate; how long it will be before the tide comes in once again and accusations are hurled and books written and re-written, no one knows. What I would propose is that when the tide does come in again, the Church take a different approach.

We can have our usual tribal skirmishes over the precise details of the gospel to determine “us” and “them,” but in so doing we are overlooking a critical aspect of lordship. Rather than focusing on lordship as a matter of salvation, we might do well to shift the focus to lordship as evidence of salvation and a necessary effect of salvation.

My position has been and remains that a surrender of every area of our lives – lordship – is not necessary for salvation to occur but it is something that must follow if salvation has taken place.  This is far more than stating that lordship is what happens subsequent to salvation; it is stating that an absence of lordship means no salvation took place to begin with.

This isn’t just my opinion.  It is arguably the opinion of John as reflected in his first epistle. He writes,

By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. – 1 Jn 2.3-6, NASB

John is direct and unequivocal in his statement: if you know God by virtue of trusting Jesus Christ as Savior, then obedience to His commands and walking as Jesus walked must follow.  Not should or might or ought, but must.  Lordship is a natural and necessary outcome of salvation, not something that some Christians submit to and others forego.

But two questions immediately present themselves: what commands are to be kept and how did Jesus walk?  Two questions but essentially one answer.

Stackhouse has summarized the commands as four: two creation or eternal commands and two redemption or temporary commands.  The creation commands are (1) to exercise stewardship for the earth and (2) to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. The redemption commands are (1) to love other believers with the same quality of love that Jesus has for us and (2) to make disciples.

In his letter, John is focusing on the commands that compel us to have love for God, one another, and others.  To keep the commands is to love and to walk in love – that is, to walk as Jesus walked.

Of course, Jesus broadened the meaning of “neighbor” in his parable of the Good Samaritan.  Our neighbor, he said, is anyone with a need that we have the ability to meet. That is love.

With his typical, blunt-force approach, John writes that “The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now.”  Marshall, in his commentary on John’s epistles, brings the point home forcefully:

We would say that there are persons whom we do not love, but this is not the same thing as hating them . . . But John will have none of this.  His concept of love is caring for the needs of others, even to the point of self-sacrifice.  If I am unwilling to do that for somebody in need, I love myself more than him; I am not being merely neutral, but am actually hating him. – p. 131

The proof of salvation, according to John, is walking in love, which is to obey God’s commands.  To walk in love is to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ; walking in love is the fountain from which all our obedience flows.  If there is no walking in love (as a continuing lifestyle), there is no lordship and there is no salvation.

My contention, to state it once again, is that the importance of lordship is not to be found primarily in whether it is necessary for salvation but instead as proof of salvation and submission to Christ as Lord.  If a person does not walk in love, then that person does not know God and cannot claim to have fellowship with him or a saving relationship with him through Jesus Christ.

There are no second-tier Christians who are content with one day sitting in the cheap seats in heaven.  There is but one type of believer: those who walk as Jesus walked, who are obeying God’s commands, who – consciously or unconsciously – have committed and submitted themselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ as a welcome result of having been redeemed.  All others are tragically and eternally mistaken.

February 13

Changing the World: “Here Come the Beatles!”

images (1)When The Beatles came to the United States on Feb 9, 1964, and performed on The Ed Sullivan show, it did not change the world. Not at all.  That came later.

To say the country or world was changed at that moment is like saying that Jesus’ birth changed the world.  Well, yes and no.  Certainly His birth was the sin qua non of His ministry but He changed the world during His later life, i.e., in His death, burial, and resurrection.

A more accurate date for The Beatles’ culture-changing impact might be August 28, 1964, when Bob Dylan truly introduced the group to marijuana.  It was their first real experience with the drug and being stoned; the effect on their music was obvious.

Consider the following lyrics from the early ’60s, before Dylan decided to “Meet The Beatles” and more:

I Want To Hold Your Hand Lyrics

Oh, yeah, I tell you something
I think you’ll understand
When I say that something’s
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

Oh, please say to me
And/You’ll let me be your man
And, please, say to me
You’ll let me hold your hand
I/You’ll let me hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

And when I touch you, I feel happy inside
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hi’e

Yeah, you got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I say that something’s
I wanna/I’m not gonna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

And when I touch you, I feel happy inside
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hi’e
I can’t hide
I can’t hi’e

Yeah, you got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I feel that something
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

She Loves You Lyrics

She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

You think you’ve lost your love
Well, I saw her yesterday
It’s you she’s thinking of
And she told me what to say

She says she loves you
And you know that can’t be bad
Yes, she loves you
And you know you should be glad

She said you hurt her so
She almost lost her mind
But now she says she knows
You’re not the hurting kind

She says she loves you
And you know that can’t be bad
Yes, she loves you
And you know you should be glad
Ooh!

She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
And with a love like that
You know you should be glad

You know it’s up to you
I think it’s only fair
Pride can hurt you too
Apologize to her

Because she loves you
And you know that can’t be bad
She loves you
And you know you should be glad
Ooh!

She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
With a love like that
You know you should be glad
With a love like that
You know you should be glad
With a love like that
You know you should be glad
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

The-Beatles-the-beatles-32839194-999-855Earth-shaking?  Paradigm-shifting?  Hardly.  I’m never even sure they were particularly clever. They were typical, run-of-the-mill lyrics of the pop/rock’n’roll culture of the day.  Certainly The Beatles, by virtue of their attractiveness and charisma, made the songs famous and memorable.

“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” were both released in 1963, meaning they were written prior to the group’s encounter with Dylan.  In contrast, look at the lyrics for two songs released just a few years later:

For No One Lyrics 

Your day breaks
Your mind aches
You find that all her words
Of kindness linger on
When she no longer needs you

She wakes up
She makes up
She takes her time
And doesn’t feel she has to hurry
She no longer needs you

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

You want her
You need her
And yet you don’t believe her
When she says her love is dead
You think she needs you

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

You stay home
She goes out
She says that long ago
She knew someone
But now he’s gone
She doesn’t need him

Your day breaks
Your mind aches
There will be times
When all the things she said
Will fill your head
You won’t forget her

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

Eleanor Rigby Lyrics

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie
Writing the words of a sermon that no-one will hear
No-one comes near
Look at him working
Darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No-one was saved

All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all belong?

the beatlesBoth of these songs were released in 1966 and, presumably, written shortly before their release.  The subject matter in “For No One” is a common one: Neil Sedaka had already sung “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” in 1962.  But notice the tone and emotional valence of The Beatles’ tribute to breaking up: it is hardly upbeat and, in a word, melancholy.  It was typical of most of The Beatles’ music once drugs became a fifth member of the group.

And then there’s “Eleanor Rigby”:  where did that come from?  It reflects the isolation and lost-ness of (at least) young people of the day.  Prior to the Beatles, I know of no singer or group that included funerals and death in their catalog of dance tunes.

Things had changed for the Beatles; things began to change for people.  Melancholy and tragedy was a frequent theme in their music and in the moods of their fans.  Not all their songs in this period were sad but almost all of them were unlike anything that had gone before.

Here are two of my personal favorites, taken from Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966):

Norwegian Wood Lyrics 

I once had a girl
Or should I say she once had me
She showed me her room
Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

She asked me to stay
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn’t a chair

I sat on the rug biding my time
Drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said
“It’s time for bed”

She told me she worked
In the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn’t
And crawled off to sleep in the bath

And when I awoke I was alone
This bird had flown
So I lit a fire
Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

She Said She Said Lyrics 

She said
“I know what it’s like to be dead
I know what it is to be sad”
And she’s making me feel like
I’ve never been born

I said
“Who put all those things in your head?
Things that make me feel that I’m mad
And you’re making me feel like
I’ve never been born”

She said, “You don’t understand what I said.”
I said, “No, no, no. You’re wrong.
When I was a boy,
Everything was right.
Everything was right.”

I said
“Even though you know what you know
I know that I’m ready to leave
‘Cos you’re making me feel like
I’ve never been born.”

She said, “You don’t understand what I said.”
I said, “No, no, no. You’re wrong.
When I was a boy,
Everything was right.
Everything was right.”

I said
“Even though you know what you know
I know that I’m ready to leave
‘Cos you’re making me feel like
I’ve never been born.”

She said, she said
“I know what it’s like to be dead.
I know what it is to be sad.
I know what it’s like to be dead . . .”

 images
Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t recall Pat Boone or Elvis Presley singing lyrics like these in the ’50s and early ’60s.  And, for that matter, neither did Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, or Little Richard.  These are drug songs, not necessarily about drugs (although some of their post-Dylan lyrics were) but certainly reflecting the effects of drugs on their minds.

And this doesn’t even get us to 1967 and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which profoundly changed rock music from something to dance along with to something to sit and listen to, reflect upon, and embrace.

And it also doesn’t cover The Beatles’ use of LSD, which began somewhere between March and July of 1965.  A fascinating account of their initials trips and comments from John Lennon and George Harrison can be found here.

In light of this, I find it surprising that so many Christian writers have seemed to embrace The Beatles and their music in recent weeks.  It is as though Lennon’s statement that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus – which might have been true with young people in Britain in those days – or the album pyre that took place in various places in a ridiculous reaction to his words never happened.  And what of John and Oko’s famous “sleep-in”?  Or, more importantly, The Beatles’ tremendous influence on their fans that resulted in marijuana and other drugs suddenly being in vogue among middle-class, white teenagers in the ’60s?

I will close by saying that, as an outlier and atypical Evangelical Christ-follower, I have no problem with The Beatles.  I own vinyl albums, tapes, CDs, and digital copies of almost all their music and continue to listen to it 50 years later.  And it is especially the post-Dylan songs and albums that I enjoy most and most frequently.

And I’ll stop just short of endorsing or approving of marijuana use for other than medical purposes.   But as a past pot head, I will say that I understand the nature and direction of The Beatles music subsequent to their introduction to drugs.  I find the songs neither pro- nor anti-Christian, although the messages certainly do not align with the Bible’s view of life, meaning, and purpose.  But as far as originality, creativity and excellence go, there aren’t many other groups that come close to The Beatles.

January 18

Reflections: On Being a Misfitting Christian

This could quite possibly be the most misunderstood thing I’ve ever written and then posted online.  It’s not meant to be derogatory but sometimes it will take some effort not to take it that way.  It’s also not intend to sound like I consider myself as being better than others – far from it – but what I write certainly can be construed to say as much.  In essence, I’m trying to explain how I can make sense of the differences I see between myself and others.  As you will read,  I don’t take any responsibility one way or another for that difference.  It just is what it is.  Like one man being short while most others or tall.  I don’t know why God chooses some to be shepherds – I know I didn’t volunteer – but it’s probably because we’re like sheep.  And there are differences between the shepherd and the sheep.

_______________

At some point in my past — I can’t actually remember a time but there probably was at least one — I thought I would have my life all figured out by the time I was 30.  When that mile marker came and went, I figured maybe 40 was the magic age.  Then it was 50.  And 60.

Now I’m 64 and I’m still figuring things and myself out.  I have a feeling this is not unusual — why else would Socrates’ quote1 be so popular? — but, since few people admit to as much, who knows?

Yesterday, as I was bemoaning my misfortune of being a Bible-study misfit, the swirl of words in my head seemed to revolve around one or two facts that provided clarification for me.  The first was that I’m a shepherd/pastor and am always looking for sheep to tend and feed.  I do curative or reparative work with people all week long but after-hours groups give me a chance to do some preventative work.  It’s a nice balance to the weekday work.

If the people in the Bible study don’t seem to be hungry or don’t want to be shepherded, however, I’m at a loss (at best) or angry (at worst). That people wouldn’t want to feed on the life of Christ or discover how to live more in keeping with God’s intent for us is baffling to me.

That was one thing that came to light.  Another — bigger and more awkward to explain — has to do with levels of commitment.  Before going further, it must be said that I don’t take any credit or look down on others: I didn’t orchestrate all the details and events of my life.  There are many things that happen to all of us of which we are largely unaware that become determinative and adjust the course we’re on.  I believe it is God’s superintendence of our lives and so no credit can be assigned.

I’ve long known that, having been to seminary, I was a bit different from most of the other men with whom I fellowship and associate.  These men are Christians, to be sure, but there’s something different about them.  Or about me.  Which it is doesn’t matter.

The only way I can describe it is as a difference of levels of commitment.  By way of analogy, it’s as though I’ve pushed all my chips into the pot and held nothing back: my pockets, bank accounts, assets, and everything else are on the line.  The men in the game with me have pushed their chips to the middle, too, but they’re not actually all in. They have considerable reserves awaiting them when the game is over.  They risk a considerable amount — maybe quantitatively more than I — but they’re not “all in.”  They might feel the loss but it won’t devastate them. They can feel the pain, absorb it, and get on with life.

As I thought about this, a question came to mind: if it were to somehow to be determined that Jesus Christ never did resurrect from the grave — if His bones were uncovered or a book He wrote at the age of 64 surfaced, or somebody traveled back in time and saw Him sneak out of a backdoor to the tomb — if it were proved beyond doubt, would your choices in life make sense?  Would your life make sense?  Would you not only look like a fool but in truth be a world-class idiot?

Personally, my life would be absurd.2  I made choices — and my wife has always supported me — that were based on my belief that this life was not all there was, that what we do here is important only because there is a judgment and a heaven that awaits.  If that is not the case, if there is no resurrection that awaits all of us, then I have wasted whatever years I’ve had and have yet to come.  As Paul says, I should have been eating, drinking, and being merry.  I should have continued on the two-lane highway of hedonism and nihilism.3

When I consider the lives and careers of other men, I don’t see the same level of risk or commitment.4  Again, that doesn’t make me holier than them because I didn’t actually choose this path: it was made for me and I for it by God.  But the difference is huge and explains a lot to me regarding why I so often feel like a misfit when I’m around Christians. Not all Christians, of course: others that are even more committed than I are out there and, from time to time, we stumble across one another.

I’ve often wondered why other men get so caught up in football, hunting, politics and a thousand other things that Paul says — based on his own belief in the resurrection — are destined to perish.5  Their choices have confused me.

I don’t know why there are the differences there are between believers (I’m not talking about doctrinal or any other kind of difference other than that of commitment).  I pretty sure that we don’t have a lot to do with it, though.  Or, at least for me, I don’t feel like I did: I simply couldn’t do anything else.6  If there is no resurrection, life is a short joke.  But because there is resurrection — and I’m sure there is — then life makes sense.  It has a purpose and meaning. Knowing that, how could I make any other decisions than those which I have?

All the chips are in the pot; investing in other things makes no sense.  I’m just playing the hand dealt to me until the Great Croupier tells me there are no more hands left for me to play.

_______________

1 “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
2 This does not rule out the possibility that, the resurrection being true, I’m still an idiot.
3 I was in the passing lane with the hammer down.
4 I am aware that this is simply my perspective and not absolute truth. But I am looking only at behaviors or actions or lifestyles and basing my assessment on them. If I’m wrong – and certainly history has shown that to be possible – then I’d really like someone to explain to me where and how I’m off.
5 Col 2.22: “. . . things destined to perish”
6 It was a logical compulsion: the resurrection being true, to live otherwise simply made no sense to me.

January 15

Reflections: Freedom vs Security

In the end more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security.  When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.” — Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

It is tempting, is it not, to hear the words of Gibbon more than 200 years after his death and quickly apply them to our own country.  And by “our own country” I mean the United States since it is here that I have lived, live, and will likely die.

Certainly there is ample rationale for thinking so.  It was in my lifetime (Jan 20, 1961) that John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”  Certainly we have drifted far from the ideals of JFK, a drift at times propelled by the idealism, irresponsibility and recklessness of my own generation in the ’60s and ’70s.

But for those of us who call ourselves Christians and indeed live and look like Christ followers, who seek the kingdom even now, there is a parallel application of Gibbon’s observation, one which we ignore to our own harm.  Within the Christian subculture in general and too many local churches specifically, we have opted for security at the expense of our freedom and, inexorably, our responsibility.  The security of which I speak is a psychological one, a balm that soothes and pacifies an otherwise troubled conscience that prefers not to bear the weight of personal responsibility for Christians in this life.

This manifestation of our sin nature is such that theological arguments are constructed to allow us to evade our responsibility.  The theological arguments, at the real risk of being simplistic – not to mention unfair to those that espouse them — maintain that God’s sovereignty is such that no act is outside His control or will.  Certainly He is not the author of sin but neither is He surprised by it, the reasoning goes: even the most evil events are in keeping with His will for mankind.  So even our shortcomings and sins of omission are not and cannot be contrary to what He has determined.

Such a notion or belief effectively absolves us from moral responsibility, we hope, so that our relationship with Him remains secure; even more, our fellowship with God is not disturbed because of our inability to be all that He calls us to be: Christlike.  What we do and say, what we don’t do or say, is merely the outworking of a sovereign God who has not given freedom to us as individuals.

But while such an idea can be argued theologically, it is not biblical.

“Free will” is a term often used by believers in a manner which is contrary to what the Bible tells us.  If we are going to keep the term, we need to define it carefully.  Free will, as I understand it, is the ability to choose according to our nature: if not a Christian, then we choose according to our sinful nature; we can do no other.  But if we are Christians, then we have a true, morally culpable choice: will we follow the desires of our sin nature – the flesh – or will we yield to the desires of our new nature, one which is continually being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ?

Scripture reveals that God regards us as morally responsible people; to be responsible necessitates the freedom to choose.  That ability to choose is true freedom; that ability to choose makes us responsible before God for our choices.  Otherwise the bema seat — where we will be judged not for our eternal destiny but for our “deeds in the body” — is meaningless and a mockery.  If we are not responsible then being rewarded or suffering loss becomes a capricious act of God.

Christians are morally responsible people who also possess the ability to choose — and choose freely — what or whom we will serve and obey.  Like it or not, we are fully responsible for the choices we make because we are free moral agents, not mindless individuals merely carrying out His predetermined will.