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Category Archives: Spiritual life
Politics may be our most wide-spread addiction. With a dealer on every corner, it is always available. Media reporting and commentary provide an endless supply of partisan views.
As soon as someone starts coming down from the last high, a tempting report from CNN, or a Fox News update, or a tweet from the president can draw them right back in. During a general election year, it is possible to remain politically intoxicated for months.
Like other addictions, dosing on politics brings users pleasurable feelings which they then want to repeat. These feelings include the sense of belonging, the gratification of being right, and the heady shot of being in power.
There are deleterious side effects as well. Huffing politics can and often does lead to anger. It leaves one vulnerable to hatred of “the other”. Should one’s side win, it can result in arrogance; lose, and it can result in soul-wounding pride.
During the presidential campaign, I heard stories of how political addictions were destroying families. A pastor friend of mine related the bitter story of a married couple whose adult son warned them that he would disown them if they voted for the wrong candidate. He wasn’t joking.
It’s been a long time coming. Back around 1969 or 1970, I read in a Popular Science Magazine that everyone would own a flying car by the year 2,000. When the millennium turned and everyone was looking out for Y2K, I was still on the lookout for flying cars. Popular Science did me wrong by getting my hopes up like that.
However, I may get a flying car yet. This month, Klein Vision released footage of a test drive/flight of its version of the flying car. Other design firms are busy with their own prototypes in Europe, Japan, and the United States. All I can say is it’s about time.
Why was I so enamored with flying cars? For the same reason, I think, that I dreamed – this went on once or twice a month for years – that I could jump into the air and sail at a leisurely pace wherever I chose. Flight, whether in a futuristic car or in a dream, represented freedom, the absence of restraint, the power of unimpeded motion.
Freedom is one of humanity’s big ideas. It goes back at least to the political freedoms of ancient Athens, though Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle each criticized the forms such freedoms sometimes took. The great Athenian orator and statesman Pericles once said, “The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life … in Athens, we live exactly as we please…”
No people since the Greeks have been more committed to freedom than Americans. James Madison called the spirit of the American people “a spirit which nourishes freedom and is in return nourished by it.” Samuel Adams called the right to freedom “the gift of God Almighty.” Thomas Jefferson cautioned that freedom can only be retained at the price of “eternal vigilance.” Ben Franklin reminded Americans that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”
Abraham Lincoln referred to freedom as “the last, best hope of the earth.” Dwight Eisenhower said that “America is best described by one word: freedom.” But what is freedom? Are people “born free” or are they, as the old spiritual intoned, on their “way to the freedom land”? What is freedom?
As a political ideal, freedom is embodied in specific rights. Continue reading
In what is arguably the most oft-recited Scripture text in history, Jesus teaches his apprentices how to pray. We call this, “The Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father Prayer,” but it might be more accurate to call it, “The Disciple’s Prayer.” It was given as part of Jesus’ brilliant Sermon on the Mount and was meant to serve as a pattern for the disciple’s own prayers.
Jesus apparently felt one part of the prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” required clarification. Immediately following the prayer, he explained: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” With these shocking words Jesus puts us on notice: Our forgiveness is related to our choice to forgive.
Experience has taught me that many people struggle with this issue. They know, all too well, that they need forgiveness, and genuinely want to forgive those who have hurt them, but they don’t know how. When the pain of the past still washes over them like ocean waves, leaving a residue of bitterness and profound sorrow, what can they do?
The fact that God’s forgiveness is linked to our willingness to forgive can be unsettling, but one can learn to use that dynamic to one’s own advantage. A person who relishes God’s grace in forgiving his sins will find the grace necessary to forgive others’ sins, which is why Paul says, “Forgive, as in Christ God forgave you.” One ought to give thanks for God’s forgiveness, even bask in it. Only those who have experienced forgiveness can fully extend it.
“Forgive . . . as he forgave you.” If God’s forgiveness is the standard, then we must attempt to understand how he forgives. When God forgives us, for example, does he say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Forget it. It was nothing”? Not at all. In fact, he takes sin so seriously that he sent his Son to die for it. Offering forgiveness never minimizes the seriousness of the offense. Continue reading
A relationship with God is like a Baroque music composition: there is a point (what God must do) and a counterpoint (what we do in response). The point/counterpoint structure provides the soundtrack to a life of faith. Point: “He first loved us.” Counterpoint: “We love him.” Point: “He gave himself for us.” Counterpoint: “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” Point: “The mercies of God.” Counterpoint: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices.” Point: “He has forgiven you in Christ Jesus.” Counterpoint: “Forgive one another.”
When point is present without counterpoint, the soundtrack of our lives loses its power and our talk about God rings hollow. If that continues – God’s work without our response – our children and friends will naturally tune out anything we have to say about God.
There are plenty of examples of the point/counterpoint composition when it comes to forgiveness. Consider these from the lips of Jesus. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Listen to the same point/counterpoint structure in the words of Paul. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” We may be tempted to explain away these challenging words, but we must not do so. This is serious business.
The novelist and teacher Frederich Beuchner writes, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. Continue reading
Some of the key markers that a person is truly following Jesus are generosity, truthfulness, and faithfulness. Add to that humility, regard for enemies, and a readiness to admit wrongdoing. These are not things that immediately catch the eye, but, over time, they cannot help but become apparent.
The characteristic that stands out most strikingly against the backdrop of today’s anger culture is the Christian’s willingness to forgive. Self-righteousness is spreading more rapidly than the coronavirus and causing inestimable harm. The self-righteous can boast about many things, but the one thing they cannot do is forgive.
The telltale sign of this occurred when the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston forgave the white supremacist who killed nine of their members, including their pastor. They did so in obedience to their Lord. Yet their forgiveness sparked almost as much outrage as Dylann Roof’s mass murder.
This kind of thing is everywhere evident in our culture. Americans cannot forgive the failings (almost universal at the time) of their founding fathers nor their current leaders’ adolescent faults. Recently, the Sierra Club disowned its own founder for views he held as a young man and almost certainly came to abandon. People cannot even forgive themselves since they refuse to acknowledge their own sins.
Yet Jesus taught his followers to forgive everyone, brothers and sisters, and even enemies. Continue reading
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.
Life is full of rituals, from high church liturgies to baseball players’ on-deck circle routines. Humans are ritual-making creatures. Rituals connect us to the past and remind us of what is important in the present. How some rituals came into … Continue reading
Jeremy Taylor was one of the most influential teachers and theologians of the 17th century. His influence reaches our day through writers like Geroge Macdonald andC. S. Lewis. His two most famous works are The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. My son Kevin recently showed me some of his instructions from Holy Living on the subject of humility.
Since humility is the path along which all spiritual growth proceeds, and since “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” true humility is of greater worth than gold. Taylor makes the following suggestions for anyone who would live in the “grace of humility.”
To begin with, we need to understand that “Humility consists in a realistic opinion of yourself, namely that you are an unworthy person.” For the self-esteem generation, this assertion cannot help but seem misguided and even harmful. It is perhaps the most difficult advice Jeremy Taylor gives on the subject – and the most important.
When Taylor says we are “unworthy,” he does not mean we are worthless. Far from it: our worth is incalculable. When he says we are unworthy, he means that we have done nothing and can do nothing to merit the value God has placed on us. Until I see this is so, I will always be trying to prove myself worthy by my strength, my intelligence, my kindness or even my spirituality. I cannot “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) while at the same time trying to prove myself. It is impossible. Continue reading
Desire plays an important role in life. If it were not for desire, the human race would not propagate. God made humans in such a way that they need, and are capable of experiencing, desire.
Desire is also important in the religious life, though its role is seen in vastly different ways, depending on the religion espoused. In Buddhism, if I understand it correctly, desire (or longing) is regarded as the principal cause of suffering. Desire is the fetter that binds people and keeps them from reaching enlightenment.
The Christian view on desire is nuanced. The King James word for it is “lust,” which frequently refers to inappropriate and destructive desires (like the desire to have another person’s spouse), but occasionally refers to appropriate and healthy desires. Jesus, for example, “eagerly desired” – the word regularly translated as “lusted” – “to eat the Passover” meal with his disciples.
Buddhism approaches desire or longing as something to renounce and eventually eliminate by following the eight-fold path. There are many points of contact for Christians and Buddhists along the eight-fold path, though their underlying assumptions will be at odds and will inevitably lead them in different directions.
Christians are never asked to make a universal renunciation of desire. Such a renunciation would be counterproductive. Instead, they are told to “put to death evil desires” while cultivating healthy ones. While they know that desire can fetter a person to a life of lovelessness and suffering, they also believe that desire can be a springboard into a life full of love and contentment. They don’t want to get rid of their desires, they want to transform them. Continue reading
St. Paul told the Roman Church, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…” (Romans 12:3, NIV). The NIV supplies the words “of yourself” – they are not in the Greek text – which is something like “do not overthink.”
It does not seem to me that Paul is saying, “Don’t be conceited,” although that is what most people take him to mean. If that is what he meant to say, Greek offered him the vocabulary to say it, a vocabulary he makes frequent use of elsewhere. But here he uses a different word, one he may have coined himself, since it appears nowhere else in the Bible.
To translate the word Paul coined, I had to coin one myself. So here is the Looper translation: “For through the grace given to me I tell every one of you not to exaggerthink…”This doesn’t necessarily refer to thinking you are more important than other people. A person who exaggerthinks may be quite humble but her mind inflates what she can do, what she is called to do, and makes her responsible for how everything turns out.
People who exaggerthink often take on more than they should, robbing other people of service opportunities and wearing themselves out in the process. That is exaggerthinking. Continue reading