Category Archives: Faith

Forego Thanksgiving, Try Again Next Year?

2020 has been called the annus horribilis (“the horrible year”) and described as hellacious, apocalyptic, awful, and exhausting. The pandemic rages on, with some areas seeing higher infection rates than ever before. Many people are out of work and out of money and, as the coronavirus spikes, some are out of time.

Those who manage to avoid the virus can’t sidestep the measures taken to prevent its spread. In my state, restaurants are closed, mask requirements are in place, high schools and colleges have moved online, and theaters are shut down. Sports stadiums are empty. Churches, like ours, are seeing half their members attending worship gatherings.

Experts warn that the pandemic is causing anxiety, stress, stigma, and xenophobia. A review published in The Lancet linked an increase in mental health problems to the boredom, loss of freedom, and uncertainty caused by quarantine. Children and teens are most at risk.

We have heard the welcome news that an effective vaccine is around the corner, but many Americans are wary of taking it. Even those who are eager for the vaccine may be looking at the summer of 2021 before they are able to get it.

As if the pandemic was not bad enough, there was also the election. Usually after a general election, the nation recovers and, to some degree, reconciles. This year’s election did little to decrease divisiveness but rather increased it. Many people have lost faith in the election process, while others have doubts about the transition process.
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Bullet Point Gospel

A few weeks ago we started on an exploration of the gospel and we are continuing our adventure today with a journey into First Corinthians. Someone might wonder why we are jumping from the Old Testament directly to the New Testament letters without stopping in the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Surely the Gospels are important. After all, they give us the word “gospel” more than twenty times, most frequently from the mouth of Jesus himself.

Nevertheless, there is good reason to go to 1 Corinthians next. The Gospels are the good news story full-blown. 1 Corinthians 15, on the other hand, is the gospel in brief, a summary that was well-known and oft recited by early Christians. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul bullet points the big story of the Gospels and gives us something we can get our arms around.

This is not the only gospel summary in the New Testament. You can find others in Romans 1 and 2 Timothy 2, but it is important to remember that these are summaries, not full accounts. They bring to mind the events recorded in the Gospels, like the Cliff Notes on Romeo and Juliet bring to mind the events in Shakespeare’s tragedy. They remind, they do not replace.

Sometimes people say that 1 Corinthians 15 is the gospel, but that is like saying the Cliff Notes are Romeo and Juliet or that the blurb in the TV Guide – American bar owner becomes embroiled in wartime intrigues in Morocco – is Casablanca.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes the big story of Jesus, bullet points it, and gives us something we can memorize and repeat. There are four points in this summary but that number could be expanded. That’s the problem with a summary: if you don’t stop somewhere, it ceases to be a summary and becomes a copy. Paul could have added, for example, the day of judgment, which he says in Romans 2:16 is part of the gospel. But he resisted the temptation to give us a longer summary and stuck to four points.
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Finally, Some Good News … God Reigns!

We are in a series on the gospel titled Finally, Some Good News. Such series frequently begin in the New Testament, as if Jesus and the Evangelists had invented the word “gospel.” They didn’t. They discovered it in the Old Testament, and what they found there shaped their proclamation.

When Jesus burst onto the scene with the good news – the gospel – that the kingdom of God was at hand, his fellow-Jews knew what he was talking about. They had learned about it in synagogue when Isaiah was read, particularly chapter 52. When they heard Jesus urging them to believe the gospel (the good news), it was Isaiah’s gospel that was in mind.

Isaiah 52 begins with God shouting, “Awake, awake!” An observant reader will know that God is echoing words addressed to him a few verses earlier, when someone told him to wake up: “Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the LORD” (Isaiah 51:9). (In the vernacular: “Wake up, God! Roll up your sleeves and get to work.”) But in chapter 52, God answers: “I’m not asleep. You’re the ones who need to wake up. I’ve got good news for you.”

That good news came at a time when a mountain of bad news had piled up around the Jewish people. They had just come through a long and ruinous war. Death was everywhere. The land had been pulverized; the capitol city devastated. Israel’s temple – the sanctuary of their God – had been razed, which indicated to ancient people that the god of that temple had been defeated. The population had been systematically and forcibly deported to a foreign country.

Now fast-forward hundreds of years to Jesus’s announcement of the arrival of Isaiah’s good news (Mark 1:14-15). The Jewish people were once again standing in the shadow of a mountain of bad news. The government had been deposed, the army disbanded, and foreign soldiers patrolled the streets. Taxes were impoverishing people. The foreigners were even meddling in their worship, appointing, and removing high priests at will, corrupting their most sacred institution.

Today, we stand in the shadow of our own mountain of bad news. A pandemic is killing us. Politics is polarizing us. Churches around the country are closed and many will never reopen. Domestic violence is surging. Opioid addiction is devastating. Unemployment is high, the stock market is volatile, and the potential for election violence is looming.
But on this mountain of bad news, a voice is announcing good news – the same news Isaiah and Jesus proclaimed. I think it’s time we had some good news.
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The Good News in Advance

We are in the second week of a series on the gospel titled, …Finally, Some Good News. This week and next, we will explore the biblical context of the gospel. We need context. Truths without context warp into half-truths and untruths. Doctrine without context becomes heresy. Content without context brings confusion.

Let me give you an example. A man was driving along a narrow country road with his German Shepherd in the back seat and his Sheltie in the front. A pickup came speeding around a curve, crossed the yellow line, and forced the man and his dogs into the ditch.

There were injuries and the car was totaled, so the man sued the driver of the pickup. While he was on the stand, the counsel for the defense said to him: “I want you to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following question: Did you or did you not say at the time of the accident that you were ‘perfectly fine’”?

The man said, “Well, I was driving with my dogs when … ” but the lawyer interrupted him. “Just answer the question ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Did you or did you not say you were ‘perfectly fine’ at the time of the accident?”

“Well, I was driving with my dogs … ” The defense attorney stopped him again. “Your honor,” he said to the judge, “this witness is evading the question. Would you please insist that he answer?” The judge said, “Well, he obviously wants to tell us something. Let him speak.”

So the man said, “Well, I was driving with my dogs when this truck came around the curve, crossed the yellow line, and forced me off the road and into the ditch and the car rolled over. The driver stopped to help and saw my German Shepherd had been thrown from the car and was badly injured. He went to his truck, got a rifle, came back, and put her out of her misery. Then he saw my Sheltie had a broken neck, so he dispatched him too. Then, still holding the gun, he asked me if I was okay. And I said… ‘I’m perfectly fine.’

Context is important. If we don’t get the biblical context for great words like “gospel,” we will invent our own, our ideas will be skewed and our actions will be disproportionate to the truth.
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Doormat Faith: There Is Something Better

By “doormat faith” I (following Dickson) do not mean faith that turns people into doormats but faith that gets people to the doormat and leaves them there. They remain outside of the kind of life that apprenticeship to Jesus makes possible.

Doormat faith is not the obedience-producing, righteousness-accompanying, love-expressing faith about which St. Paul so frequently wrote. Doormat faith brings no assurance. It falls short of being transformational.

This is not to say that doormat faith is a bad thing. It is certainly no substitute for the faith that connects a person to God, but it can be a precursor to it. Its strength is that it leads people to the doorstep of a richly satisfying life with God. Its weakness is that it cannot bring people through the door. It is good, but it is not enough.
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Reader’s Question: What About Unbelieving Friends and Family?

Helen D. asked the question in the title in response to a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago (A Biblical Look into the Future). It is a familiar question. I initially responded in the comment section but we … Continue reading

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What It Means to Be Alive

The phrase “full of life” occasionally appears in print or is spoken in conversation. This or that person or, sometimes, this or that city, is said to be “full of life.” The phrase is found in many languages. German communicates it in a single word: Lebensfülle.

What does it mean for someone to be full of life? The philosopher Dallas Willard defined life as “the power to act and respond in specific kinds of relations.” He gives the example of a cabbage, which is alive and acts and responds to soil, water, and sun. A dead cabbage, though it exists, cannot act or respond.

A cat is capable of acting and responding in a greater number of relationships than a cabbage. For example, a cabbage cannot respond to a ball of string but a cat can. Neither cat nor cabbage, in my experience, responds to a word of advice. Cat lovers may disagree.

Is it possible for something or someone to be alive to one thing but not to another? Yes. The cabbage is alive to soil, sun, and rain but quite dead to a ball of string. The cat is alive to a ball of string but quite dead to Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare, for his part, was alive to cats, though he clearly didn’t like them.

In biblical literature, only God is alive in all kinds of relationships: he is “the living God.” People are alive in some kinds of relationships but not in others.
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A Plea to Facebook Users

About once a week, I say to myself and anyone listening: “I hate Facebook!”

It’s not that I’ve got something against Mark Zuckerberg. I am not, during these weekly laments, critiquing social media generally, though I am concerned about the losses suffered by those who spend more time in virtual relationships than in face to face ones. My chief complaint is with the lack of charity displayed by professing Christians on their Facebook pages.

I confess that I haven’t seen this for myself. I am not “very online” and have never had a Facebook account. But I frequently hear about these posts and that is almost worse. It means that the unkindness of professing Christians has been common enough to become a topic of conversation.

This is a plea to Christian Facebook users to stop writing posts that go against the teachings of Christ and his apostles. They had a lot to say on the subject of verbal communication. If a Facebook user is going to flout those instructions, at least let him or her include a disclaimer to the effect that the views shared are personal and should not be taken to represent the views of Jesus Christ or his church.
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The Bedrock Upon Which Racism Is Built

The author, activist, and preacher Jim Wallis has called racism America’s original sin. Racism is, indeed, an ancient and ugly sin. It is a sin that is even more heinous when it occurs in the Church of Jesus Christ in whom there “is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

Yet I think Wallis is wrong to identify racism as America’s original sin. There is an even older one. It was here before our “more perfect” – though never perfected – union was formed. There is greed.

When I was in elementary school (and, later, junior high and high school), I liked history classes. History texts and history teachers told stories, interesting stories that affirmed my place in the world as an American. Before I left elementary school, I understood that our forefathers and foremothers heroically left their homes and journeyed here to gain their religious freedom.

While this is true it is not the entire truth. Whatever the reason our particular forefathers and foremothers came here, many of them were able to come because their presence in the new world proved economically advantageous to the Crown and to the leading business interests of England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Continue reading

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The Spiritual Workout (If it’s easy, you’re not doing it right)

St. Paul tells us to “Continue to work out your salvation…” The NIV’s translation attempts to express the ongoing nature of the present tense of the verb. This work is not something we do once and are done. The salvation inside us is so big, it will take a lifetime to work out. There is so much potential in God’s salvation that we cannot unpack it in a few years or even in a lifetime – it will take an eternity.

If we are expending no energy in our salvation workout – if we never break a sweat, never feel a doubt, never strain under temptation – we’re not doing it right. It’s like spending an hour at the gym. If we never break a sweat, never strain against the weights or get our heart rate into triple digits, we’re not doing it right. Paul did not say “Talk out your salvation.” He said, “Work out” (or it could simply be translated work) your salvation.”

The Greek root in this word is erg, which means “work.” We get words like “energy” and “ergonomics” (and even “allergy”) from this root. In the church we often hear that salvation is “by grace” and “not by works,” and that is solid biblical truth. But we need to make sure we are not drawing the wrong conclusion from that truth. We can mistakenly assume that, because salvation does not result from our work, it must not necessitate our work. That is a serious error. Salvation does not result from work but it does result in work. As Philip Melancthon put it, “We are saved by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone.” Faith always walks in company with its dear friend “work.”

The wall of separation that has been built between salvation and work is founded on a misunderstanding (or at least a too limited understanding) of what biblical salvation is. We misunderstand salvation when we think of it only in future terms – of getting into heaven when we die. If that is all there is to salvation, there is certainly no place for work, because we all know that we cannot work our way into heaven. Continue reading

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