Chapter 4: Signposts for the Journey. 5, Texts That Challenge

The Bible challenges us and teaches us.  But balancing the Good News with admonitions to serve is tricky: a pastor can so easily cross a line into works-righteousness and preach sermons that present the Gospel as do’s and don’ts. After all, a pastor is the leader of an organization that requires ongoing contributions, volunteer labor, a sound financial base, and other things that call for motivation and commitment on people’s part. A pastor also has to walk a risky balance between staying positive and caring while also leading people out of their comfort zones toward a deeper walk with God. Yet … what sad timing when a person comes to Sunday service desperately needing a word of Gospel help but, instead, feels admonished to volunteer and contribute. He or she will think the Gospel means “living a good life.”

Of course, we all need to live our Christian lives better. But if we focus on the things we need to do, we miss the essential Gospel, which is not our actions and attitudes, but the free, saving grace of God available through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The things we do as Christians are, ideally, happy and loving responses to God’s grace where we enact the wonderful truths that God has brought forth. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” says Paul (Rom. 6:11), which means, “You are dead to sin’s power because Christ has broken sin’s power, saved you from sin, and has achieved the forgiveness of all your sins. Now … live your life based on that freedom.” That “now” is a lifelong journey.

Plenty of Bible passages remind us of different struggles we may have. Read again the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor (Mark 12:28-34, quoting Deut. 6:4 and Lev. 19:18). Psalm 24, Job 29 and 31, Isa. 33:15-16 and other, similar scriptures list qualities of a godly life, as does Psalm 15.

Living righteously involves a kind of wholeness: you’re seeking the fruit of the Spirit; you strive for consistency in your words and actions; your actions emerge from right inner attitudes; you avoid people who “press your buttons,” including people who are a drain on you or influence you negatively;[1] you know what circumstances are bad for you, and you avoid them. These are all important because you must be prepared to resist temptation before you encounter a risky situation. Have you ever felt attracted to someone in an inappropriate way? Have you ever felt tempted by the promise of easy money? Have you ever found yourself justifying to yourself, over and over, a possible course of action, in order to convince yourself it’s the right thing to do?

We do fall into sin in spite of our best intentions. We try to hide our imperfections and sins from others, a particular temptation within neatly tended suburban lives, but we’re thereby building illusionary versions of our true selves. God’s people aren’t perfect—they’re painfully human—-but they’ve learned through experience how easy it is to fool ourselves, to make serious mistakes, and to commit serious sins. But thanks to God’s wonderful mercy he helps us stand up and move forward again. Other people may remember our sin, but God does not; instead, God gives us a fresh start and helps us avoid the traps of sin and unhealed remorse.

The Bible challenges us on many topics.  For instance, the care of the earth is a significant aspect of the biblical witness, although if our faith is so focused upon spiritual comfort and reward then we might neglect the fact that the earth is the Lord’s, and that ecology is by no means incommensurate with evangelical faith. In addition to the lovely Psalms 19 and 104, the beauty of Genesis 1, and the Torah’s concern for animals, land and Sabbath rest, I’m inspired to be ecologically minded by Genesis 9:11-13, where God establishes a covenant with the earth. Weaving faithfulness to that covenant while addressing contemporary needs for energy, etc., is challenging.

Money and possessions are often challenging aspects of life. James 4:13-16, for instance, teaches us to acknowledge God and our imperfect, transitory lives before we become caught up in busyness and monetary gain.  As Robert Corin Morris points out, abundance isn’t bad per se; the world itself is abundant and varied as God created it.  But he points out that other biblical passages address unjust gain (Ez. 22:13), craving possessions (Matt. 6:24), and hoarding (Luke 12:15-21) while the scriptures offer praise to God as the ultimate source of positive gain (Deut. 8:18). Morris notes that we’re tempted to esteem our abundance and want more and more, so we become taken over by craving and base our identities on desire and acquisition.[2]  This is a yet another Bible teaching that I personally find apropos.

Love is certainly a biblical challenge. For me, I have to turn to the Bible frequently in order to grow in love. Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (Rom. 15:7) is a wonderful verse; another translation renders that as “accept one another, as Christ accepts you,” which dovetails well with 1 John 4:20b, for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Here is another wonderful verse: Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near (Phil. 4:5).  How many times have you, as a Christian, felt very “un-gentle”? How many folks are your church are gentle and kind?  In my more downcast moments, I wonder if Christians value kindness and gentleness at all, valuing instead things like bluntness, telling people off, and demanding our own way.  But gentleness is a trait to which we are all called (Matt. 5:5, Eph. 4:15, 2 Tim. 2:24, James 3:17), as is kindness (Prov. 21:21, Hos. 4:1, Mic. 6:8, Zech. 7:9, Gal. 5:22, 6:1, Col. 3:12, 1 Tim. 6:11, 1 Peter 3:15). Unfortunately, we don’t always know how to integrate our more difficult feelings into our religious lives so that we radiate a peaceful, loving spirit.

Ideally, churches are places where we find help and friendship, which, in turn, facilitate our Christian growth in fruit of the Spirit like kindness. The whole purpose of Christian worship is

to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:12-13).

One of my personal motives in my religious writing is to help inspire people to create congregations where God’s loving kindness is, indeed, noticeable among people. If you’re not sure how to love your enemies, to deal with painful circumstances faithful to the Two Great Commandments, then … you can turn to your church fellowship for guidance, advice, and examples of love.

Here’s a very sobering passage: John 13:1-20, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. A host would show hospitality by providing guests water and a towel so they could wash their feet (or a servant did the washing). Jesus “lowered” himself in order to show love to his disciples, who arguably didn’t deserve his love and certainly didn’t understand at that time the depth of his love. Jesus, in turn, calls us to love him in such a way that we place ourselves in his care, and also to love one another so deeply that we, too, are willing to “lower” ourselves to serve each other.  If we can’t love him and one another like that, we can’t claim as our Lord!

I’ve never attended a foot washing. In fact, I walked out on a college vespers service that, I hadn’t realized, was going to feature the rite. I didn’t want to do or receive the washing; I felt lonely and wasn’t close enough to the people to overcome my discomfort; and I didn’t want to “play act” being loving when that wasn’t “there yet.”

But what all of us tried to live by these words (with the help of the Spirit)? Say you have a congregation in the midst of conflict; people are critical, gossiping, and unsupportive of one another. Tell the folk that all further decisions about finances, building programs, and program development will stop immediately and won’t be resumed until we’re able (at least hypothetically) to wash each others’ feet.  Joe, you want John fired from the staff: wash either others’ feet.  Fred, you’re talking about Sally behind her back … There is a bowl of water ….

I would never use a scripture to trick people, but I wonder what would happen if we offered people a chance to be reconciled to each other through mutual, though very humbling service.  People might not get together all… or, the Spirit might work wonderful transformation…and some folks will walk out (although the Spirit’s grace will continue to work in their lives).

If you’ve worshiped at different congregations, you know that sometimes things “click” well at a church, while other times, many setbacks and problems emerge. On a strictly practical level, churches are like any other organization; you find good and kind people, angry and selfish people, backstabbers and dear hearts. If you step on the wrong toes, Christian values like reconciliation and forgiveness may mean very little; an innocent mistake on your part will never be forgotten … and yet you might “blow it” with someone else, and a spirit of patience, good will, and forgiveness redeems the situation, and you feel relieved at the power of love. Because of our exasperating humanness, churches are actually wonderful places to practice Christian love, the way you might learn patience while driving in traffic.[3]

It’s easy to get one’s feelings hurt at church: there is an emotional vulnerability in our worship and our search for friendship and areas of service. If we’re disappointed and even betrayed by church people, we feel understandably upset.  When my own feelings are hurt by something at church, I try to remember (and it’s a growth process) why I’m at church in the first place, which is to direct my worship toward God, to be strengthened by the preaching and the Eucharist, to learn about God and God’s will, to receive friendship and encouragement from others, to serve the Lord through works of kindness, and related reasons

One website has a set of Bible passages that can help, and I’ve turned to these in times of hurt: we can guard our hearts and attitudes (Prov. 4:23), focus upon being humble and never vengeful (Prov. 3:34, James 4:6), and also focus upon being forgiving (Matt. 18:22, Mark 11:27, Rom. 12:19, Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:10, and to trust God’s love and power (Matt. 28:20, Eph. 3:16).[4]  Jesus’ words to the paralyzed man (John 5:6, “Do you want to be made well?”) alerts us to the fact that we can become accustomed to feeling badly about something, and we might not really want to be healed!  This is certainly a temptation when it comes to hurts gained from church; we can nurse those kinds of grudges for years and years.[5] And whole congregations can nurture a grudge, too.  I recall a congregation where a judicatory decision made 25 years earlier still chagrined the worshipers.

You hear people say, “Hate the sin but love the sinner,” and perhaps I’m being judgmental, but depending on the person, I don’t believe he or she loves the sinner at all. “Love” is easy to say and to declare, and is potentially a very shallow word. But loving kindness (hesed) implies something active—in fact, in ancient Jewish teaching, it helps the world itself endure.[6]  The passage Romans 12:9-21 describes so well aspects of an active, self-giving love.  These are hard things: treating your persecutors with kindness and benevolence, putting away your prideful feelings and your grudges, refraining from revenge, working together with people without competing for praise and credit.  It’s hard to love, demanding nothing in return; to love instead of retaliating; to pray for blessings for people who are jerks and worse. Love requires much prayer as well as strength, advice from mature friends, and common sense. Love always entails doing good for others, as God does good for us (1 John 3:17-18, 4:7-8).  Love always depends upon God’s Holy Spirit. Among my “collection” of Bible passages about churches and the power of loving kindness, I appreciate not only Romans 12:9-21 but also Romans 14:1-9, Galatians 5:13-24, Ephesians 4:11-16 and Ephesians 4:25-34, among others.

I was watching the movie The Seventh Seal the other day. The weary knight, Antonius, feels lost in his faith; he cannot find a divine sign that God cares. His squire Jons, on the other hand, has relinquished any notions of faith and meaning, other than the “triumph of being alive.” But Jons is the most compassionate person in the movie; the religious people are superstitious and cruel.  But perhaps Antonius finds a sign after all; toward the end, he distracts chess-playing Death long enough so that the simple family, Jof, Mia and their baby, can escape.  The movie reminded me of a favorite novel (and movie), The Grapes of Wrath, which also locates the greater compassion in “fallen” people. Jim Casy, the preacher who sinned and lost his faith, is nevertheless the one who stands in to help others, gives his life for others. He in turn leads the hardened Tom Joad to take up the cause of the world’s helpless. The novel contrasts Casy with the caustic grandmother Joad who, in demanding that Casy say a prayer, takes God’s name in vain.

Instead of feeling offended, we Christians should take seriously such depictions and ask why people perceive “organized religion” in such a way and why religious people, so often in history, have failed in their most fundamental teachings about love and empathetic care.  Perhaps, in our own small areas of personal influence, we can improve contemporary criticisms of “organized religion” by the way we build up and give grace through Bible-inspired loving kindness, which in turn proves the reality of God’s Spirit.[7]

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[1]  In several Epistle passages, as well as Proverbs, we’re advised to avoid people who could influence one’s faith and life negatively. Along with kindness, generosity, sincerity, concern for the poor, and other qualities, this is a teaching of many world religions. For instance, during one of my religion courses, I noticed this quote from a Buddhist scripture, Dhammapada 6:78: “One should not associate with bad friends, nor with the vile. One should associate with good friends, and with those who are noble.”

[2] Robert Colin Morris, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2003), 140-149.

[3]  Graeme Goldsworthy notes that so many people lean the Bible in a moralizing, legalistic kind of way, so that when they become adults, they “live reasonably decent but gospelless lives.” His suggestion, among others, is “to institute a training program for all church members engaged in any kind of teaching or pastoral ministry. At the heat of such a program must be a basic course on the unity of the Bible as shown in biblical theology.”  Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 151.

[5] Feeling spiritually “dry,” I read through another favorite book, Robert J. Wicks’, Touching the Holy: Ordinariness, Self-Esteem, and Friendship (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1992, 2007). I found a page that I’d already dog-eared. Wicks talks about the fact that many of us have somewhat fragile egos, even though we seek to grow in God’s love all the while. He tells a story on himself that he was deeply offended by a rude person on the phone who had said, self-importantly, “This is the Reverend…” But a friend asked why he was so upset by the call. Wicks realized that his own big ego had caused him to be offended at the person’s pompous and curt tone. His own self-image had caused him to let the person have power over his mood  (21). Wicks goes on with a quote from Henri Nouwen, who had been deeply hurt over some rejection and was ruminating the experience. A friend helped him see that, although he might have had reason to feel hurt, he (Nouwen) was hurt out of proportion to the event–and, in fact, the people whom had made him feel that way were not really important to him. Nouwen reflected that he did have a hidden need for “total affection” and “full acceptance” which he brought into even small experiences–but unfortunately, a “small rejection” might thereby lead to “a devastating despair and a feeling of total failure” (22, quoting Genesee Diary, New York, Doubleday, 1976, 51-52).

[6] The Mishnah contains this teaching: “The world endures because of three activities, study of Torah, divine worship, and deeds of loving-kindness.” Tractate Avot 1:2, quoted in Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, eds., The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Legends from the Talmud and Midrash (New York: Schocken Books, 1992), 403.

[7]  As a contrast to my thoughts here, I turned to Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).  Harris argues that religions are fundamentally flawed when they allow or commit atrocities, and he upholds the Golden Rule as an ethical and rational basis for right action: “How can we learn to be mere human beings shorn of any more compelling national, ethnic, or religious identity? We can be reasonable… Reason is nothing less than the guardian of love” (190).

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