Category Archives: Spiritual life

It Is Time for a New Creation

The Bible claims that there is a fundamental reality to people that is not immediately apparent. The truest thing about any person is not something that can be seen. There is a self behind the public self. Of course no one would deny this, but there is also a self behind the private self.

We only catch glimpses of our true self but God sees it plainly. It emerges, inevitably and unavoidably from the heart, the core of the human being. On the Day of Judgment what a person really is – the self behind the self – will finally and undeniably be revealed.

Until then, we judge people by their education, wardrobe, and even their “cool quotient.” Or we judge them by their theology, church attendance, or other criteria. We assume we know them; sometimes that we know them well. But we are unable to see what the Bible calls the “inner person” (literally, “the inside man”). Only God sees that.

St. Paul had to learn that lesson. As a Pharisee, he had judged Jesus by standards like education, accent, and “cool quotient.” He later admitted that his judgment of people, even Christ, was based on “a worldly point of view”; that is, on appearances. But Paul learned how unreliable such a gauge is.

He stopped judging people by appearances. He had made that mistake with Jesus, but he would make it no more. Something had forever changed the way he looked at people.
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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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The Workout

I know that some reader will get jittery, seeing the words “salvation” and “work” in the same sentence, worried that I’m espousing some kind of works salvation. But don’t forget that long before I used those two words in the same sentence, the Apostle Paul did. It was he who wrote, “Work out your salvation.” Salvation is a workout, not a sit-in. If your salvation rouses you to no effort, something is wrong.

We even had a sit-in at my high school, though I can’t remember why exactly. I think we might have been protesting cafeteria food. (Our ideals were, I’m afraid, less altruistic than those of others.)

Salvation is not a sit-in. It’s a workout. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you…” Continue reading

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Prejudice: Going After the Root

When enough people care enough about prejudice, when concern reaches critical mass, action is taken. This usually means that legislation is passed or new policies enacted. The display of hatred associated with a particular prejudice – for example, race discrimination … Continue reading

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How to Handle Pressure (Part 2)

St. Paul knew all about stress and he knew how to handle it.

In Corinthians 4:8, Paul describes what his stressful life could be like. He says he was “Pressed” – squeezed like grapes – on every side but not crushed.” The word crushed is interesting. It means caved in, restricted. We get our word stenosis – the narrowing, closing of an artery – from this word. Paul is the only biblical author who uses it, and the only other time he uses it is to picture one’s affection being so restricted that it no longer flows. That is the danger. When we are under pressure, the flow of affection can be shut off – to our spouses and children and friends. Paul knew that it need not be that way. “Pressed . . . but not crushed.”

Then Paul says he is perplexed. A number of other biblical writer use this word. Several times it is translated as “at a loss.” Etymologically it carries the idea of not knowing which way to go. At a loss, Paul says, but not in despair. He had been perplexed enough times to know that, though he was at a loss, he would not lose out. God would make a way; he is the way-making God. He “makes a way in the wilderness,” the prophet says, and the apostle adds that he makes a way out of every temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). We sometimes find ourselves at a loss, at a seeming dead-in, like the fleeing Israelites when they came to the Red Sea. There is no way to go forward, and no way to go back. Paul had known that experience, and yet God always made a way. Perplexed, but not in despair.

Things got even worse. Continue reading

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While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Such things need to be considered, of course, but Covid-19 cannot be all that we think about. There are other things going on. Tomorrow, I will officiate a service for a family who lost their loved one. It will be the fourth such service in two weeks, including one for a good friend and co-worker. None of them had the coronavirus. Life (and death) goes on, even in a pandemic.

If the pandemic (and the politics that circle around it like turbulence around a hurricane’s eye) is all we can think about, we will miss out on life. We will miss out on the good God is always doing, even in the storm. We may also fail to avoid the bad things that happen independent of the virus.

A few years ago, some Hollywood director must have realized the impact a collision scene – particularly one viewers did not see coming – would have on an audience. Since then, one director after another has used the unforeseen T-Bone collision for its shock value. I wonder, as we stare down the road the pandemic is taking, if we are on such a collision course with the unseen. Continue reading

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How to Handle Pressure (part 1)

Has the pressure has been getting to you lately? Career, financial decisions, leadership responsibilities, a spiritual life to nurture – how are you supposed to stay on top of all that? You feel like the proverbial camel with the badly strained back: one more straw and you know what is going to happen. You are in over your head, and you cannot even tread water because you are holding onto too many important things. So what can you do?

I think we can learn from Saint Paul, who should be the patron saint of the distraught, the overworked and the undervalued. The man faced more pressure per square inch than any of us are likely to, and he survived – well actually he didn’t, but that is another story, and it wasn’t the pressure that killed him. We can learn a few things about handling pressure from Paul. Continue reading

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A Life That Means Something (MS.)

I just want my life to mean something. Ever feel like that? People usually young adults who are just setting out but sometimes middle-aged adults who feel like they have been missing out – have said that kind of thing to me.

I’ve watched as they try to give their life meaning through their experiences, as if having a meaningful experience would make them meaningful. They volunteer at a food pantry, or go on a mission trip, or enroll in Teach for America. Other people try to add something exciting to life, like jumping out of an airplane (for example). And some take on strenuous, test-your-limits pursuits – they join the Marine Corps or go in for an extreme fitness regimen.

Then they wait for meaning to come pouring into their lives. It’s as if they think of their life as an empty vessel which, when they tap into the right thing, will be filled with meaning.

From my observations, the person who says, “I want my life to mean something” is proceeding from a false position; a wrong assumption. His or her life already means something. Everyone’s life means something because God meant them – he made them for a purpose. But that meaning is, at least in part, a significant– sign-ificant – meaning; the kind of meaning a sign possesses. Continue reading

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A Mind for What Matters: Philippians 4:1-9

The first instruction, given previously and now repeated, is to rejoice always.

Really, Paul? Rejoice always? You have no idea what you’re asking. Working from home amidst a thousand interruptions. The kids are out of control. Can’t find toilet paper. Didn’t get my economic impact payment from the IRS, which I need to pay the mortgage. Will probably lose my job, which means no insurance. And you want me to rejoice?

To which Paul (from a dank, dark prison cell, where he has been quarantined for a long time, separated from friends and family, and waiting to hear the outcome of his trial, which might be death by beheading) answers, Of course! “Rejoice in the Lord always.” And in case you missed it the first two times I said it, “I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).

Many people, hearing this, simply brush it aside as unrealistic and unfeasible. When you’re having marriage problems, when you can’t stomach your boss, when your hopes have been dashed yet again, when you’re sick, and tired, and in debt, how can Paul – how can God – expect you to rejoice? It’s impossible!

Yes, absolutely. It is impossible … for some people, but not for us – if our minds are undergoing a process of renewal. Continue reading

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Everyone Is a Storyteller: What’s Your Story?

Every grasping, hoarding, angry person is telling themselves a story. So is every generous, sacrificial, compassionate person – but they are different stories.

The middle school Spanish teacher is a storyteller. So is the foundry worker and the clerk at the gas station. The theologian is a storyteller, as is the banker, the automaker, and the spy. Even the middle school Spanish student is a storyteller.

The stories we tell frame our understanding of the world and explain our experiences. Much of our thinking is done in stories. History is an exercise in storytelling. So is philosophy. So is science.

This is not some abstract truth. It is a daily experience. If you find a ten-dollar bill lying in the driveway, your brain automatically generates a story, or more than one. The bill slipped out of your pocket when you got out of the car to get the mail. Alternately, it fell out of the mailman’s pocket when he got out of his jeep to bring a package to the door. The story you tell yourself helps you know what to do with the ten dollars.

This is not some abstract truth. It is a daily experience. Continue reading

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