People of the Book: Culture Shock

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Years ago, I fell in love with the words of Scripture before becoming acquainted with their author. I was raised to value education, literature, and learning.

So as soon as someone pointed me to the Bible, I found it incredibly deep, rich, exciting and compelling, and studying it thoroughly became my passionate pursuit.

Before long, I was convinced that the book contained much more than literature. It was a source of life-giving, sanity-restoring truth, leading me to the ultimate source of grace and truth, Jesus Christ. My devotion to the Word of God continues to this day, and will endure, I’m sure, until I cross over the great divide.

It is easy to overlook or take for granted the many ways that engagement with the Bible transforms the mind, the worldview, and even the way the brain works over years under its influence. I’m sure many of you reading this can relate. The stories, characters, and teachings of the Bible become such a part of the psyche that they influence every part of life. The protagonists feel like intimate friends, as we so often read of their exploits and imagine ourselves there, observing or even participating in the story.

We are listening in on Eve’s conversation with a beguiling serpent, or trudging up Mt. Moriah with Abraham and Isaac, carrying kindling for the sacrifice. We are mourning with Job, as he scratches himself with shards of pottery, or trembling next to Esther before the scepter of the king.

We are with Ruth, gleaning in the harvest fields of Boaz, or with David, writing poetry by the springs of En Gedi.  We are with Jesus, fighting sleep as he cries out to his Father under the ancient olive trees.

The history of God’s people becomes our story, and we lay claim to their covenant promises. As sons and daughters of Abraham, we seek to take hold, like Paul, of “that for which Christ took hold” of us (Phil 3:12). We marvel at the excruciating beauty of Jesus’ life and the horror of a death that accomplished the redemption of the world. We receive the doctrines and admonitions delivered to the Church as our manual for Christian living amidst a crooked and depraved world.

With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even the fine points of Jewish law in Leviticus or the genealogies of Matthew can come alive and find relevance in our daily affairs.

I have come to realize that this makes people like me rather odd in a culture that heaps contempt on our ancient faith. We are strangers, aliens who seek “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16).

In my own experience, even family members who have known me my entire life and are very dear to me do not relate to the vast landscape of biblical experience in my imagination, and that this is the lens through which I view all else. Like those returning from an exotic travel adventure, I can tell stories and show pictures, but there are some things each person must experience for himself or herself.

In the meantime, having been so impacted by my travels in the pages of the Book, I find myself with culture shock as I navigate American culture in the early 21st century.

I want desperately to share my experience of the word of God with those who have never ventured into its magnificence. We all are commanded to be witnesses of its reality. But we must share this awareness of another world gently and kindly, never letting it become a bludgeon, a battering ram or a barrier.

We share our stories, pictures, and experiences with our Lord and King in hopes that it will inspire and motivate others to embark on their own journey of discovery.

The Real Deal

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The Bible really does say, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). In fact, Jesus himself said it. It’s in red letters.  What in the world does this mean? I might better frame the question: what does it mean in this world? What does it look like down here on the ground?  What does it mean to seek the kingdom of God first? If we could adequately understand and consistently do this “seeking first”, what “things” would be added to us?

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like we just pull Scriptures like this out of what Tim Keller calls our “blessing boxes” and quote them, without truly understanding Jesus’ meaning, intent, or context. Doesn’t the apparent bigness of Jesus’ declaration warrant some deeper digging, contemplation and application?  The problem is that if we take it seriously and begin living as though it is true, it just might cost us something.

At this moment in my walk with the Lord, I am hedged in by this saying of Jesus on one side and by another passage by the Apostle Paul (that I’ll share in a minute) on the other. I won’t claim to have full revelation, but I have a few clues.  I believe seeking his kingdom first means that Jesus is not only Savior but Lord. He’s the King of the kingdom, deserving both our wholehearted devotion and our deepest respect. It means we seek to carry out his agendas in our lives, and not our own. It means we don’t have the privilege of picking and choosing the sayings of Jesus that make us feel good and rejecting the ones that make us uncomfortable. It means that as disciples we willingly lay aside all purposes or causes that are contrary to his righteousness.  It means that the distorted ethics of this “present evil age” (Gal  1:4) do not guide or interest us, because only the transformative gospel (as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere) is adequate to motivate our hearts and our actions.

This becomes costly when we realize are not to wait for the lost, lonely, and needy to come to us. We are to go out and find them, loving “the least of these” as though we are doing it for him (Matt 25). This is the priority of the kingdom of God.

If we give these things priority, what does he add?  All that our bodies and souls need. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs—food, clothing, shelter, safety, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization. Theoretically, we’ve been taught to satisfy our most basic physical and safety needs first. But in God’s kingdom, we pursue first the point at the top of the pyramid, his perfect will, and the rest of the pyramid stacks up and fills out just fine. There is no lack in the realm of body and soul when we give up pursuit of self for something better and higher. Yes, this is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, but that is why I’m convinced it is right. The hierarchy gets turned on its point. Resting upon the kingdom of God and his righteousness, everything else trickles down from there.

The second Scripture I mentioned that hedges me in is Paul’s declaration in Philippians 3 that his credentials, heritage and spiritual pedigree is no more than a pile of poop compared to the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Really, Paul? Didn’t you work hard to become a Pharisee, with all the status and influence that brings? Are you saying that it doesn’t matter where we come from, how we’re educated, or who sees us as important? Aren’t we supposed to work hard, gain knowledge and experience, to become ‘successful’ people?

I think he might answer that it’s not by definition wrong to be successful in the world. But we can’t ever lose sight of the vast gap between what is possible to achieve in our own abilities, and the perfect righteousness of the Savior and King of the universe.

What I’ve realized is that I might say that I consider all of my accomplishments rubbish in comparison with his kingdom and his righteousness, because it sounds very pious. But if I’m honest about it, I’m not there yet. I confess that I still need to be delivered from my addiction to the approval and affirmation of people. It doesn’t have the same pull on me that it used to, but the traces of it are still there.

My intention and desire is to seek him first in all things and to keep a clear spiritual perspective on how my performance stacks up against his standard of righteousness. Are you with me? I hope so, because I’ll take all the fellow travelers I can get. We can be  greatly comforted by his constant presence as we undertake what Eugene Peterson calls this “long obedience in the same direction.” First things first…..

Work and Courage

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In his best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck proposed a definition of love from a psychiatrist’s perspective. He wrote,

When we extend ourselves, when we take an extra step or walk an extra mile, we do so in opposition to the inertia of laziness or the resistance of fear. Extension of ourselves or moving out against the inertia of laziness we call work. Moving out in the face of fear we call courage. Love, then, is a form of work or a form of courage. Specifically, it is work or courage directed toward the nurture of our own or another’s spiritual growth. We may work or exert courage in directions other than toward spiritual growth, and for this reason all work and all courage is not love. But since it requires the extension of ourselves, love is always either work or courage. If an act is not one of work or courage, then it is not an act of love. There are no exceptions.”*

Although Peck’s definition was not originally written from a Christian worldview (he did come to faith in Christ some time later), it corresponds in many ways to the agape love required of followers of Jesus Christ. Obedient lovers of God described in the Old Testament exhibited their love through work or through courage, and sometimes both. Think of Noah, building an enormous vessel by God’s instruction, measuring, cutting lumber, hammering nails, sealing with pitch. Or David, standing boldly before a giant enemy with only a slingshot and a handful of rocks. Picture Moses, lifting his staff over the wide waters, trusting that God would part them for the people to walk through. This kind of faith compels work and courage to carry out God’s plan, whatever the risks or rewards. Only love, directed toward a higher cause, can energize this in human beings.

What about Jesus? Of course, the ultimate example of work and courage in the name of love. His work as the Son of Man was to announce the coming kingdom, to heal, deliver, teach, save and forgive as he fulfilled his earthly ministry. He never backed down when under pressure, yet didn’t utter a word to defend himself against the false accusations of the Jews and Romans. His courage allowed him to go the distance, knowing the disgrace of the cross, because of the joy set before him. Praise God for this completed work, done so perfectly and courageously!

As his disciples, we are called to follow this extraordinary example of love. To extend ourselves “in opposition to the inertia of laziness” or “moving out in the face of fear.” This means that if we are able to help a neighbor or brother in need, we must extend ourselves to do so. If God calls us to leave what is safe and comfortable–for a day or a year or a lifetime–we must move past fear and selfishness to embrace this higher call.

*Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1978, 120.

Time to Believe

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I came across a song in the 1990’s by Clay Crosse that I have enjoyed singing from time to time, called “Time to Believe.” One verse of the song is

“Sounds tear through the morning, you pull yourself from your bed…Try so hard to quiet your mind, dodging thoughts of what lies dead ahead: A chance to be dashed on the rocks, fooled by friendly lights, shining solely to deceive. Such hard living in this cold, cold world People it’s time to believe.”

I like the song’s invitation to consider finding safety and solace in the goodness of God amidst some harsh realities we face as human beings in this world. As much as we might like to believe that we are strong and in control of our lives, we are actually quite fragile and vulnerable, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. We can be easily distracted by lights that seem friendly enough, but if we chase after them, we find ourselves “dashed on the rocks.” Temptations, wrong turns, deceptions, false hopes.

Jesus promised that there would be troubles, so we shouldn’t be surprised when life turns out to be difficult. But he also promised that we would not be left without resources. In fact, he sent his own Spirit to enable us not only to overcome all difficulties, but to do great works in his name as we wait for his return.

I am starting this blog to encourage faith to rise in my own heart and in yours. The journey is safer and also more joyous when we walk together. I pray for great love and great courage in all of our hearts in the days ahead, as we become fully rooted in our faith and in the love of the Father.