Something for Every Occasion

CC BY-NC, Kevin Jaako, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Kevin Jaako, Flickr

Fragrance is contextual. Every perfume is not right for every season or occasion. So the conscientious wearer will build a fragrance wardrobe that might include essentials for casual and work times, formal events, sporting, festive occasions like holidays, and warm and cool seasons. The assortment helps one fit the mood or event.

CC BY-NC, CityRover Media, Flickr

CC BY-NC, CityRover Media, Flickr

Now that’s the more common method of fragrance wardrobing. Another technique is to layer the body with the same scent. Thus, a person will use a body scrub and a body lotion in the same fragrance; then finish with a light spray of the perfume or cologne. This ensures that the fragrance lasts the entire day.

A third and less common way is to use different scents at the same time to create a customized fragrance. But since this is an easy way to unintentionally make yourself stinky and talked about, I’ll stick to one scent and leave the mixing to the perfumers!

Something Old, Something New

Wardrobing is a rich illustration of the way God has stocked our lives with talents, experiences, ingenuity, wisdom, and an array of elements, including the power of the Spirit, to match any occasion in which we find ourselves.

Two scripture passages convey the wardrobing concept to me. First, Peter marvelously explains, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life” (2 Pet. 1:3); then, he encourages his readers to continually add godly virtues to their faith. “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 8).

CC BY-ND, WCSU Peggy Steward, Flickr

CC BY-ND, WCSU Peggy Steward, Flickr

This verse is so versatile with the concept. In the sense of variety, we can view adding goodness, love, and more as maintaining our witness of Christ despite the circumstance. Tempted? Christ smells of self-control. Persecuted? He’s a strong whiff of perseverance. Or, in the sense of layering, we can perceive those virtues, one upon the other, as keeping the scent of Christ strong on us, the scent Paul calls “the pleasing aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15).

Lastly, I cannot forget Matthew 13:52: “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

This verse describes the connoisseur and discriminating one who understands propriety and possesses the depth, creativity, and facility to handle any occasion, masterfully so.

This is also Christ in us keen—“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16); “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9); “When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place’” (Luke 14:10).

I encourage you to do as Peter advises and wisely make your spiritual fragrance wardrobe as varietal as Christ has made it possible for you. He in his many ways is the scent you spread.

More on this topic: The Perceptive Householder

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This Faith is Not for Wimps

CC BY, Stephen A. Wolfe, Flickr

CC BY, Stephen A. Wolfe, Flickr

I consider myself a city boy provided that you understand “city” in my history is originally Nowhereville, USA. So it’s a choice kinda thing. I enjoy studying cities and I like city life and have been privileged to visit some pretty big ones—the biggest, in fact, which is a true marvel.

Yet I feel more at home in the outdoors. I love nature. Words like rustic, sylvan, and bucolic stir me in ways the words modern, skyscraper, and metro never do.

Being sent outdoors as a kid was not a punishment. Later I would work and participate at several camps and a few jobs that were pretty hands-on. I’ve always admired the manual life, although I am regrettably not the son bitten by that bug. (My mom is a seamstress, so I could’ve been a tailor by now.) I’ve said 101 times that the person who can work with his or her hands will survive much easier should the world go belly-up tomorrow.

Compete to Win

As I’ve grown older, I’ve increasingly desired the physical, outdoorsy life. I envy those who grew up on farms, ranchers, and just the skilled laborer. I’m sure they have much to share to slap me back into my reality, still…

The physical, labor-intensive life is to me a fitting metaphor for the character of the spiritual life. Our faith certainly creates a refined product, but the nature of the tool is duly rugged.

I discover this truth all through Scripture: in the agonized prayer of Hannah crying out to God for a son; in the Psalms’ tightly framed shots of human emotional investment made in worship; in the implications of scripture, like grief as a spiritual act of sowing.

I notice it in Jesus’s bold yet nimble teachings to go the extra mile and love the vilest; to “have faith” in an ardent way; to know that if the kingdom will be had, it will be found; to remember that the way up is down; and to make sure we count the high cost of serving him.

Do you see it? Do you notice how tough and gritty, coarse and earthy this life of faith is? Every Christian will surely taste his own sweat and feel the grain in his mouth.

Works in Progress

Tools for cutting and refinement are necessarily sturdy. Wood isn’t going to carve wood, is it? Clay won’t shape clay. They need a sharper and more durable tool to give them form.

The faith God has given us is definitely durable and sharp enough—in his hands and in our spiritual practice—to whittle away at our knarls, imperfections, and stony hearts until we become works of beauty, transformed by his grace. It turns Jacobs into Israels and makes Peters out of Simons.

BUT… “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). This isn’t for cowards. It takes dexterity and resolve to apprentice this carpenter.

Brethren, We are Not Superheroes

CC BY-NC-SA, Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL)

CC BY-NC-SA, Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL)

Picture this: a well-written movie with a strong plot, a hearty dose of conflict, a beloved protagonist, and a cruel villain; at the end of this movie and climax of all suspense, the good guy dies horribly and the villain escapes.

No, you said? The bad guy isn’t supposed to win, right? Instead, he’s supposed to get what’s coming to him. Unexpected endings often make or break a movie in our minds because although evil might reinvent and resurrect itself, good should always win the day. The bad guy must be whacked.

“I Am Not Like You”

We possess a moral urgency to see truth prevail and justice done to all wrongdoing, and it comes alive in us most days just from watching the evening news. That inner urge derives from the image of God in us. It is our inbred ethic and the assumption of God’s moral law alluded to in Romans 1.

God has granted authority to government to prosecute wrongdoing, and Paul refers to government and its officials as the servants of God for good (Rom. 13:1-8). To individuals, however, and believers specifically, Jesus and the New Testament draw clear lines between owning an urgency for truth and justice and personal retribution on others—evildoers, sinners, and neighbors alike. Focus closely on this insightful intro to Luke 13:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (vs. 1-5).

Jesus Makes His Case

Jesus raises four points. First, bad things that happen to people don’t imply their sinfulness or wrongdoing in any way. We have to be careful of this karmic notion and that we are not wishing evil upon others or rejoicing because “they got what was coming to them.”

Jesus lets us see that God is not hell-bent on retribution, like us. In fact, Psalm 103:10 explains, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve.” But humans are indeed vengeful; we are morally fallen and ethically confused.

Second, we should guard ourselves from the sin we assume in others and remain humble before God. Whether we are sinners or believers, sin’s effects are equally devastating. This was Jesus once again turning the tables to deliver an irrefutable point.

The third and fourth points come by implication. So, third, God is good to all, yet bad things happen to good people. A noted preacher spoke in one of my college chapel services not long after 9/11 and said, “The people who went to work that day didn’t hear God.” I sat there stunned by what I was hearing; my mind seized for the many points to be rebutted. In his mind people, especially Christians, could escape trouble if they were properly “tuned in” to God.

Instead, Jesus speaks of the Father and says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). We’re better off realizing that we are all held in the grace of God rather than to keep passing the buck of sin. Misfortune, however, isn’t reserved for the evil; it strikes the godly, too.

Finally, vengeance belongs to God (Rom. 12:19). There is a Day approaching when God’s full anger and justice on evil will be realized. I’m always gripped by how God pleads throughout scripture to those in danger of his judgment (Israel, Judah, sinners). He is not unlike David Banner warning, “You won’t like me when I’m angry.” And like the beast into which Banner’s anger metastasizes, God’s wrath is also an intolerable force, yet Hell must be endured eternally.

Stay in Love

Jesus’s point to us is the message of Jude 21—“Keep yourselves in the love of God.” This is God’s ultimate moral requirement for his people. We are not to be superheroes; Christianity is no Justice League. We bear no authority to mete out God’s judgments, nor should we be caught up in getting back at others or secretly wishing for their demise. The parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13) testifies to the recklessness that can only result from overstepping our authority.

Do not take this out of context. It doesn’t mean that self-defense and defending our families and property is wrong. It doesn’t imply that all war or capital punishment is wrong, or any other valid ethical argument we could insert here. It just means do not take liberty with justice or go overboard about your rights. Paul’s teaching about taking fellow believers to court, in 1 Cor. 6, is insightful and very relevant to this discussion.

Also, drawing from the subject of Jesus’s conversation, we must let go of useless queries about why 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the great tsunamis, and other disasters occurred. We do not live in a theocratic society like Israel was where the prophets spoke and predicted the counsel of God with singularity. We are too fractured a society and Church to accept this, even debating whether prophecy of that nature still exists.

What matters more is understanding that there is a real difference between desiring truth and justice, instituting and enforcing it, and vindicating ourselves, retaliatory behavior, and even defending God. Haven’t we learned as much from the Spanish Inquisition and Crusades? Retribution will always lure evil motives out of human hearts.

My Two Cents on Generosity

CC BY, emilianohorcada, Flickr

CC BY, emilianohorcada, Flickr

Thought: If I had millions of dollars, I’d be an incredibly generous person.

I’m sure you’ve heard this kind of talk, especially when the jackpot swells. Wealth does indeed allow people to be generous and helpful. My problem with this rationale, however, is that we should think more money makes us more generous persons.

Now I don’t doubt that there are many who have respected their fortune by carefully weighing the responsibility of managing it—and have become more generous due to a new appreciation for wealth’s power. And there are those who have purposefully and creatively used earlier hardship as the impetus to empower others less fortunate.

These kinds of people underscore a process of building virtue and have understood that to be reckless with wealth is to disregard the noble prospects it is capable of producing.

But to assume that abundance directly translates into abundant virtue…well Jesus would quickly disagree with us.

Asian Hospitality

Let me tell you about a wonderful encounter of hospitality I had.

I was a teacher in Japan and decided to spend my first vacation in Tokyo. My American co-worker (and college mate) grew up there and was going to visit family; he asked me to come along. Lodging for me was arranged with a Christian family who gladly agreed to house me.

I was shown incredible hospitality. The entire upstairs loft belonged to me, and my host pre-stocked the refrigerator there with every imaginable treat. My clothes were washed, ironed, folded, and delivered daily. Meals were prompt and the matron’s sister baked and sent over exquisite breads for us. I was insisted upon to use the home phone to call and chat with my family back in the U.S. And despite the language barrier, we enjoyed the presence of Christ together in devotions after meals.

My friend had decided to join me the second day. Those he visited were elderly, so he opted to lodge with us and use his fluency to help us all communicate. When it came time for our departure, the patriarch handed each of us an envelope that, to our astonishment, contained almost $200 to pay for our train home—and a trip to visit them again.

Cultivated Hearts

This kind of hospitality, which I bumped into regularly as a gaijin (foreigner), is extreme by American standards. Obviously, it’s largely rooted in Japanese and Southeast Asian culture, but that lends to what I attempt to convey here. (And I should again emphasize and beg you to consider, to my point, the authentic faith I witnessed in this home.)

To think that wealth, newfound or otherwise, makes us more generous individuals really is to deceive ourselves. If you missed the point the first time: the heart must be cultivated this way.

I hope you go out of your way to accommodate others, really. But the level of generosity I described—let’s face it—isn’t quite American, culturally, for reasons I cannot explain now. When you go on vacation, is it imperative that you return bearing gifts for co-workers to show you were thinking about them? No, you hightail it outta the office just to get away from them jokers!

Gifts of the Heart

Let me be concise. I’m not convinced by wealth-induced “sudden generosity” because abundance has very little to do with virtue. Folk who have nothing but are truly generous people will share the little they have with others in need without a second thought. Did we clearly hear Jesus’s proposition—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Real generosity doesn’t need wealth.

After observing the rich give their offerings and a widow place two copper coins in the temple treasury, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “They all (the rich) gave out of their wealth,” meaning their gifts were inconsequential to what they possessed and were easy to offer. For all their abundance and the pride they derived from it, they possessed little spiritual wealth that begged of sacrifice and unadulterated devotion.

But this widow “out of her poverty, put in everything she had”—two paltry coins—and so confirms my point here.

More posts on this topic: The Perils of Covetousness, Living with Simplicity, and Why Do the Wicked Prosper? 

The Parable of the Laborers

CC BY-NC, kewing, Flickr

CC BY-NC, kewing, Flickr

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

*Portion of an exegetical paper I wrote on the topic.*

The parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1-16 is part of Matthew’s gospel of the kingdom. Matthew is the only writer who tells the story, which places its composition around A.D. 63 and for the benefit of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The details of the parable would have been very familiar to Jesus’s audience. Brad Young offers a sitz im leben perspective (on-scene contextualization):

The setting assumes the difficult economic conditions of first-century Israel. Many day laborers are standing in the market hoping to be hired for a day job. The original audience could readily identify with these workers and their real-life situation…Day laborers were on the bottom end of the economic structure. They received minimal wages for sporadic work. As the primary wage earners, they had to support their families by the odd jobs they could acquire for day service. During the time of harvest, the situation improved as landowners needed additional day laborers to harvest the crops on time.

One noticeable aspect of this parable is that at its outset the householder, not his steward, works from early morning to late evening to acquire laborers. This would have been an immediate signal to the listening crowd that their normal worldview was about to be challenged.

The parable can be divided into three acts: Act One, the hirelings (vs. 1-7); Act Two, the payments (vs. 8-11); and Act Three, the dialogue between the owner and the grumbling workers (vs. 11-15).

It is obvious that the parable involves economic details. The only condition imposed on the workers is proper work for a day’s wage. This was the denarius, a silver coin that meant a usual day’s pay. The parable, however, should not be used to imply any message about economic arrangements in society, a proposition not obvious in the illustration.

Moreover, the owner’s pay arrangement is simply impossible in the developed world and modern economy. Business leaders and workers would spurn the idea.

A Hard Pill to Swallow

The workers are recruited throughout the day and are finally called in to be paid. This is where the parable does what it is characteristically known for, which is setting up listeners for a surprise. The owner starts by paying the laborers who have worked the least amount of time first—and they receive just as much as those who have toiled all day in the heat.

The first-comers are begrudged. When confronted the owner explains that he had kept his word and had also decided to be gracious to those who had come later. Donahue says:

“If the reader too quickly identifies the owner as God and is unwilling to experience the same feelings as those who worked all day, the challenge of the parable loses its force. Hardly any parable in the Gospels seems to upset the basic structure of an orderly society as does this one…The constant complaint in our society about welfare is proof that popular morality operates according to the principle of ‘equal work for equal pay.'”

The laborers who had been fortunate enough to receive work in the morning should have rejoiced at the generosity of the owner.

Still, one significant limitation of the parable needs to be pointed out. Those who labored all day earn their day’s wage by their work; but Jesus did not believe that anyone earns a place in the kingdom by his or her work. It should be understood that parabolic language should not be pressed too far.

God’s Undeserved Favor

What is the message of the parable? It is first a parable of the kingdom by which Jesus illustrates the incredible grace of God. It drives a wedge between two ways of thinking about Christian life and one’s relationship with God.

The first mindset centers on human goodness and the ability to earn one’s way into the kingdom. But a problem arises here because distinctions are easily and often made between those whose length of service and fervor for the kingdom are exemplary and those who have less to show. The simple standards of justice and the ranking of time and effort determine degrees of worth.

The second way of thinking ventures much deeper into the gospel to show us that God’s way with us makes no distinctions between us. Each of us are accepted and loved by him, and we are saved not due to any efforts we make but purely as a result of his grace. It is that “God loves us not because we are lovable, but because God is loving in a radical way.”

This is the gospel. Borsch says, “We either ‘take what belongs to us and go’—a way of living that cuts us off from true fellowship with God and others—or we receive from God what he has graciously chosen to give.”

Credits: Borsch, Frederick Houk. Many Things In Parables: Extravagant Story of New Community. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988./Donahue, John R. The Gospel in Parable. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988/Young, Brad H. Jesus The Jewish Theologian. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995

The Grandest Miracle of Them All

CC BY-NC, trinko, Flickr

CC BY-NC, trinko, Flickr

“‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’… Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.'” (John 2:18-19)

Jesus must have appeared to be a mad man when in the Temple he and his whip turn the place upside down. Tables and money lie all over the ground; doves flit here and there; sheep and oxen meander and start. The disciples, embarrassed and gawking, stand aside, and Peter beckons to his rabbi to calm down. “Do not make my Father’s house a house of merchandise!” Jesus rages. The Temple authorities rush near to investigate the commotion.

They put it to him—“By what authority do you bring reform to this Temple and its practice? Show us a sign.” It’s a dare they are certain this flake cannot produce. Miracles proved the presence and affirmation of the Almighty to the Jews and would characterize a true messiah. It is ironic that they demand a miracle from Jesus. This is the dawn of his public ministry, and these leaders will go on to despise him for the very thing they now request of him, along with his treacherous doctrine.

With razor-sharp insight, Jesus replies: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He speaks of his body—the word ‘temple’ was used interchangeably for the body—and even the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about (v. 22). The officials are dumbfounded, for it had taken 46 years to erect the edifice around them. The preacher is an utter fool. Yet Jesus’s challenge is a house-size boulder fallen right into their peaceful pond.

The Temple and Jesus

Jesus equated his own body and purpose with the Temple cultic practice, which necessarily requires us to understand the purpose of the Temple. There were three primary utilizations of the Temple: It was a…

  • House for God’s presence. God designated a place to meet with his people. Even before the Temple, the Shekinah dwelt with the Hebrew people in the Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting. The Temple was a permanent location, and God promised Solomon that he would affix his sacred name there.
  • Sanctuary for worship and prayers. God’s name and presence were at the Temple, so the Jews made their most earnest prayers there or toward it. Further, they offered their devotional sacrifices there.
  • Place to atone for sin. Certain sacrifices were required for redressing sin, reconciliation to God, and the removal of guilt.

“Fine!” Jesus says. “You want a miracle? Here’s one: destroy this temple of mine, and I will raise it up in three days!” The dare was returned. Although no one understood it, they were already part of the grandest miracle Jesus was staging.

The Significance of Jesus’s Death

We who read these accounts itch for Jesus to razzle-dazzle them and leave no doubt about his identity…you know, pull back his cloak so all could see the big “G” on his tunic. That’s the part we love in superhero cartoons and movies. But Jesus knew these leaders couldn’t handle a miracle if he offered one on a platter. They certainly didn’t believe in his preaching and were on another wavelength altogether. Jesus sought their spiritual trust; they needed a political savior with divine authority.

His overture to the leaders is stunning. It also proves something to me: that he completely understood his mission to redeem sinful humans. I had a longstanding qualm that our “sinner’s prayers” and preachments might be nothing close to Jesus’s intent. But is the gospel we pitch and the one he proclaimed similar or the same thing? I am convinced they are.

I set these words—“Destroy this temple”—beside others—“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”—and I am convinced even more, because they have a reciprocal effect on each other. If as a perfect human Jesus represents our sinfulness to God, being put to death, the Law of God is ultimately fulfilled; and to fulfill the Law of God, in God’s way, ultimately renders the Temple system obsolete, because:

  • The presence of God would now dwell on and within his people, as God promised through the Prophets, not in a structure.
  • Prayers and worship would now be made from the altar of the heart and not require sacrifices, except those of the heart leading to personal holiness.
  • The stumbling block of sin would be forever removed and humans would no longer be dominated by their moral guilt. Atoning sacrifices would not be necessary. People could approach God freely and for his aid.

Thus, Jesus’s words underscore the centrality of his death and resurrection in Christianity. It is the cornerstone event—the seminal miracle—on which Christian faith rests. Paul does the most to explain this: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:16-17).

The laws of God and ritual practice have become our altar of worship, upheld by the perfect work of Christ. Now we serve God not out of obligation but volition.

One final thing: something that strikes me and is important to note is that although Jesus came to reform, he did not spurn the cultic practice of the Jews; he respected it, for God had instituted it. Reading these incidents or Paul’s explanation that the law of God was indeed good helps us appreciate the value of the Law of Moses, the Temple practices, etc., in inculcating personal holiness in the minds and lives of the people. They are our heritage, too.

The Perceptive Householder

CC BY-NC, bittermelon, Flickr

CC BY-NC, bittermelon, Flickr

Something I do customarily is reread my essays and think through the lessons in them. That might seem strange to you, but it is incredibly consoling and affirming to my faith. In fact, I think it makes good sense.

If my writing reflects what I’m discovering in my walk with Christ, those chronicles exist to encourage me because they tell the story of Christ’s and my friendship. Moreover, they are tools with which I can appraise my growth, and they will forever testify of God’s faithfulness to me, helping me to trust him in the future.

Until recently all of these writings were simply buried in my computer. Then it occurred to me, What good is that? Could they not edify someone else?

What’s in Your Pantry?

Matthew 13:52 says, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” I love this verse…so eloquent and probing. It is also descriptive of the task of any minister or Christian worker—and us faith bloggers, too.

There are layers of insight in this verse. Jesus focuses us on the householder and his contribution, which is his wisdom about the kingdom. What we have to offer others (our treasure or deposit) is all we have learned and ascertained about God through his word and our experiences with him, insight about his past involvement in our lives—even while we were in sin—and things he currently teaches us. It is an exquisite concept.

How encouraging it is to know that every experience we have is capable of serving a need in someone else’s life. Today with one person we may need to share how we met the Lord years ago; tomorrow with another we may need to relay how God’s grace is helping us right now overcome a personal struggle.

“Things new and old” (NKJV), a revealing expression, indicates a bounty of wisdom that should characterize believers and their capacity to serve other’s needs.

Tongue of the Learned

Those “instructed concerning the kingdom” (NKJV) are disciples and if disciples, then stewards. We not only possess a trove of goods to offer others, we also have the facility, by virtue of our training (and ongoing discipleship), as well as the authority to perform as stewards, such as to provide, govern, protect, and defend.

Don’t let that be strange to you. Your knowledge of Christ right now can nourish and sustain, bring accountability, and protect and defend through prayer and guidance—those who are our Christian brothers and sisters and equally those currently in the clutches of sin and evil.

As stewards we work on the behalf of Christ. We labor for the Lord; the souls to whom we minister belong to him. We endeavor to claim all for the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, presents to us a clear example of how our full ministry serves God’s purpose.

So if you haven’t gotten the message yet, Jesus is speaking directly to each of us saying, “You are without excuse: you have something to contribute.” It’s easy to feel like we’re novices and don’t know enough Bible or don’t compare to other strong Christians. But none of us get passes here.

Of the kingdom we’ve been instructed and for the kingdom we must share. What God teaches us must flow through us. Although there is much similarity in our experience with Christ, none of our experiences are alike. Because of that we have an obligation to one another as brothers and sisters to share what we uniquely possess of Christ to build each other’s faith. We don’t withhold helpful knowledge from our natural siblings; we shouldn’t do it with our spiritual ones.

Fit Christians

None of it will do any good, however, if we don’t bring these lessons, experiences, reflections, and illuminations out of the storerooms and share them. “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up…” (1 Thess. 5:11).

An African preacher spoke in my college chapel service exhorting us all to be “fit” Christians, not “fat” ones. The point was not to constantly ingest the word but never exercise it.

How you feel called to exercise the word is not the important thing. What is important is that you be active with what you possess. The lessons in your life, rich as they are, belong to others besides you.

Glorious Grace (and the Mad Defender)

CC BY-NC, DJOXFUTURA, Flickr

CC BY-NC, DJOXFUTURA, Flickr

I often browse the comments to online stories I’ve read. Others’ perspectives offer me a fuller picture of the topic and help me solidify what I feel about it. But I must confess that reading Comments sections is now against my better judgment.

People are mean and crude and vile. I mean, Whoa! I find myself reeling at folk who allow their deepest and worst reservations to boil out when it is entirely unnecessary (is it ever necessary?) and uncalled for.

But sadder is when I read Christian material, including on Facebook, and find comments of the same tone. No, they’re not lewd or evil, but biting and unloving.

What I discover about Christian people in these comment sections is the almost irresistible need to call people out—for a different thought or belief pattern; for doctrinal stance; for needed correction on a matter. And the arrogance! I’m convinced that Pharisees yet live.

I’m not sitting here donned in the cape and spandex shorts that I wear (ahem) when I’m online crusading against ungraciousness. But sometimes I really do feel like a caped crusader when I use my night vision goggles to pierce the darkness of smug remarks or my brass knuckles to beat the sense into—gosh, I apologize! I get a little carried away.

Jesus, Full of Grace and Truth

John describes Jesus this way: “and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14, NASB). The splendor and renown of Jesus lay in his plenitude of grace and truth.

The people I encounter online always seem a little one-sided. They get the truth part; they know the Bible, its doctrines, the ins and outs of church, all necessary parts of the whole. But the missing element always seems to be graciousness—the kindness. It’s the problem of graceless Christians that Phil Yancey so lucidly describes in his What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Why is this so hard for some of us?

When I daydream about life on the scene with Jesus, I sometimes envy the disciples who got to watch Jesus model how human life should be lived. I’m sure the time wasn’t as meaningful to them in the moment as when they had the chance to look back on the three years spent with him. Still, they experienced a pinnacle moment in human history that I wish I could have now with Jesus, knowing what I do about his requirements for me.

I say that because I truly strive to live for God. I am blessed to have a stronger knowledge of theology and spirituality than many people around me. That’s no banner I wave but, in my opinion, just part of my devotion. And that is my point; I hope you don’t miss it. If I should say that I have truth, by which I live and that serves the kingdom, its ultimate purpose is fulfilled only when it humbly seats me before the God I love so that he can transform me, fellowship with me, and be glorified in me.

We forget that we still have to love people, and it is part of our worship to God.

So many people act like God’s bodyguards…um, that ain’t necessary. I think he gets along fine. Oh, let me fend off some of you: I understand the need for apologetics; I don’t forget that our God of love is a God who loves justice; so forth and so on. I GET IT. (Putting my boomerang down.)

But what would help our credibility as Christians in today’s society is getting Jesus’s words out of our heads and into our hearts: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Christ-followers devouring one another is not an advertisement for Christianity; instead, it’s a warning to stay away.

Grace-Filled Religion

I’ll wrap this up by painting a picture of what graciousness looks like. You add your own illustration. Let’s begin this way: Being graceful is…

  • Living honestly toward God, oneself, and others.
  • Acting on the behalf of others without expecting anything in return.
  • Sincerely praying for people.
  • Guarding your tongue regarding others and matters.
  • Living toward people with service to God in mind.
  • Thinking well of others and offering them the benefit of doubt.
  • Truly loving people regardless of who or what they are.
  • Allowing the Word of God to alter our behavior.
  • Bearing the courage to tackle our prejudices and reservations head-on.
  • Knowledge of how to live decently toward others.
  • Refusing to be jaded and negative.
  • The choice to be good to people when they don’t deserve it.
  • Preferring others and genuinely caring for their wellbeing.
  • Doing to others as you would have them do to you.
  • Cultivating the fruit of the Spirit.

How well do you show grace to others?

Getting Faith Right

CC BY-NC, Samuraijohnny, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Samuraijohnny, Flickr

Inspiration is oftentimes gradual, but it is a gratifying moment to fully see it. Moreover, it is sometimes the negation of a subject that best instructs—“A is not ___; A is ___.” The path of discovery, in some cases, is just as great as the discovery.

I have partly learned what faith is by understanding what it is not. I know what Hebrews 11 tells about faith, but reading about faith and living it are two drastically different sides of the same coin. One is theory, the other is praxis. Our reading stands to gain immeasurable depth when we’ve had to live out principles we’ve only read about.

Hebrews 11:6 always baffled me: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” I could never unconvince myself that God exists, but was this all faith required? I sensed that I was merely scratching the surface.

Thank You, Josh Groban

Josh Groban was on my radio one day crooning his very moving song Believe: “You’ll have everything you need if you just believe.” No, I retorted, first mentally then aloud. It couldn’t be true: believe what? The reaction wouldn’t subside, and a lesson on real Christian spirituality came into sharper focus.

The song verse chalked up so much that I have witnessed with some Christians that makes me shudder. Permit me to explain it in the negative. It pains me in my heart to watch Christians who see faith only as a cure to life’s ills or as a last resort in circumstance. Faith is cliché for them. All we can hope to do is pray. God is merely our way out when there is no way. Faith is a name-it-and-claim-it gimmick. Romans 8:28 is a helpful analgesic.

Please hear me: Christ spread a message that centered profoundly on his Father and a kingdom proclamation of privileged righteousness. To see him, by his own admission, was to be introduced to his Father and to understand life—God-enriched life—fully offered, the same life enjoyed eternally in the Godhead. Christian faith and holiness that embodies this message is surely not an opiate or a trite superstition that passes for spiritual gravitas.

The Groban song was but a proxy for all those I had occasioned over the years whose roots hadn’t gone this deep to know any better.

I and Thou, O Lord

The unveiling was gloriously simple: there is no magical formula, no incantation. Though faith is the “assurance of things hoped for…the conviction of things not seen,” it is never an easy-button. And before faith is any of the scriptural and theological definitions we know it by, it is FIRST relational and personal. This is what I was not seeing in Hebrews 11:6.

“Anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists.” I knew God was there, but I didn’t understand that before all the great possibilities of his power and my obedience was our relationship and that it is the touchstone to everything. He wants me more than anything he desires for me or that I desire from him, and by transformation I should more and more want him above all things. It is a living relationship that marks the division between real faith and mere magic.

“And that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” We don’t “just believe,” apart from spiritual orientation or purpose…believing for belief’s sake. Christian faith is exclusive and incompatible with other ideological patterns of conviction. In our faith endeavors, whether the resolution we seek comes or not, God is who we desire, the very end of all our longing. He is the reward.