"So," they say, "nobody's perfect!"
But the Vinedresser won't buy that.
Given the opportunity, He will trim the unproductive suckers and shape the branches so each one will bask in Sonlight.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Audience of One

        Since The Radio Bible Class publishes Our Daily Bread, one would expect that spiritual bakery to daily, declare some evangelical Christian theme, which is indeed true of today's title. "An Audience of One" suggests a solid, Biblical theme that we should expect to periodically hear from the pulpit, but its possible familiarity must never dull our hearing or sate our appetite for its always timely message.
        The author, Philip Yancey, kindly suggested reading Matthew 6:1-6,
to complement today's devotional, so I dutifully clicked on the link. My eyes embraced the Scripture passage at first glance as a familiar excerpt from Jesus' sermon on the mount. Of course, verse one elicited a sub-verbal "amen," as it always does. For years I've accepted and believed those words as part of Jesus' teaching that cut across the religious establishment's grain. So I charged into verses two and following with every expectation of more "same-ol'-same-ol'."
        What I found, however, was anything but mundane. What I found was a sword-thrust, fresh from God's hand to my religious-establishment heart.
        I tithe and give, not because it's a valid principle of Christian living, and certainly not because I expect God to return the favor a hundred-fold. I tithe and give because I love to, and because those funds aren't mine anyway—or that's what I always thought. Though these Bible verses had become as familiar and comfortable as old shoes, when I put them on this time it felt as if God had, without my knowledge, installed some radical orthotics. And they pinched!
        "Lord, those words fit just fine as they were. I've been walking in them for years, so why fix what ain't broke?"
        But they were "broke," at least, as I had always worn them. How many years had I read those words and applied them directly to the rich, elitist religious establishment of Jesus' time? And YEAH! They had it coming … in spades! This time as I approached those words, Jesus held up His mirror-finished, double-edged sword and blinded me with His Truth … blinded me to my self-delusion so I could see my motives as He did.
        Yes, Lord! Guilty as charged. All this time I've been giving during the Offertory—that is, when I thought I could afford it—and feeling good about it. And why did I feel good about it, especially when my giving has been inconsistent at best? Because people could see me put something into the offering basket.
        Why, it's plain as day now. I've been using that Offertory ritual to boost my own ego. I would have given anyway, but I chose that time when the Offertory music was playing, just like "the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets, so they may be praised by others!" And during prayer meetings, when I utter a few holy words of profound wisdom aloud, I'm just like the hypocrites, who stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.
        The truth is, the Offertory, is for giving myself, as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is my spiritual worship. And if that's my motive for dropping a check into the basket, then I can praise God for so convicting me.
        Now, I am NOT saying everyone should give at some other time than the Offertory segment of the worship service. And I am NOT saying everyone should sit like a wart during prayer meetings, for fear of appearing to grandstand. I am saying we must not do anything for appearance's sake—or avoid doing them for the same reason. We must only fear God—not what others think—and trust Him to illuminate our motives to us.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Uncivil Religious Warfare

        It usually starts like this: "I did nothing to provoke such a blatant snubbing! She's not going to get away with treating people that way … she needs to be taught a lesson." Okay, it may not materialize in such lucid terms, but that's often the attitude behind the declaration of uncivil war among church members.
        So let the games begin! The first shots fired are subtle, indirect warning shots, "Are you well, dahling? You seem to have lost weight, haven't you. This calls for a new wardrobe, I should say." (translation: "That dress looks baggy on you.")
        The target reels at the sudden realization that she's just been fired upon, so reflex action ignites a return volley, "Why, thank you for that observation. You're so fortunate to not have to worry about clothes bagging on you." (translation: "Better skinny than fat.")
        If looks could kill, the war would be over before it really starts. But they don't kill, at least not directly. So the exchange of "broad sides" escalates into offhand comments behind enemy backs. And of course those comments find their way back to their subject, more or less—mostly less—accurately, deepening the rift between the brethren.
        The original combatants begin confiding in friends, who become outraged, taking up the offense as their own. Each friend feels it is their Christian responsibility to lift up every last minute detail in "prayer" through a somewhat abridged prayer-chain. Factions form around both horribly mistreated brethren, and with volunteer armies enlisted, people's names are excluded from key social and church functions' invitation lists. After all, we can't have that sort of people poisoning the atmosphere at the dessert social/fund raiser. It simply wouldn't be Christian. "Why, I heard ...." And on it goes.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.(Ephesians 4:29-32 NIV)
        If there is an ungodly behavior that much of Christendom passively accepts, unwholesome talk would certainly not be it—unless, that is, we were to drink deeply enough of God's word that we might understand His definition of the term. Is reading Ephesians 4:29-32 without grasping its message possible? Anyone who has spent much time around "church," would have to admit that it is.
        What may have originated as a thoughtless gaffe soon escalates to open warfare, with allies enlisted on both sides in a systematic campaign of attacks on the other's personhood. And all with airtight self-justification. Outright carnal behavior becomes a holy war as deadly in a way as an Islamic jihad.
        How can anyone who claims to follow the Biblical Christ justify such un-Christian behavior as bitterness, rage and anger? And that's just the short list of wrong attitudes.
        One might wonder how professed Christians manage to justify such character assassination. Perhaps if we isolate each clause of the above quoted passage from its neighbors, we can warp God's word enough to rationalize the message into oblivion. Wouldn't we be in the best of religious company by so doing?
        Today, ungodly people—whether religious or irreligious—can broadcast unwholesome conversation through e-mail, instant messaging and chat far more quickly than their infernal progenitors did by mouth or conventional mail. Though such uncivil war begins with righteous indignation, volleys of "justifiable" anger, bitterness and rage soon follow. While today's brethren may still consider bitterness, rage, brawling and slander to be bad things, we miss the fact that such aggressive behavior quickly follows the more passive sin of unwholesome conversation. Jesus didn't mince words when He said, For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." (Mar 7:21-23 ESV)
        Some will defend their spite with such excuses as, "evil things" aren't even in the same hemisphere as the "unwholesome talk" Paul refers to in Ephesians 4:29. But if a heart and mind hungry for godliness examines both passages, they will see that the offenses are disturbingly similar. They're not only in the same hemisphere, but cohabiters in the same household.
        War between brethren, whether civil or uncivil, is sin. And while Jesus pronounced judgment on the world's sin through His death, burial and resurrection, the church's sins of presumption on His grace remain to be judged.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Who Is Wise?

        The worst thing a preacher can do—the quickest way to get fired—is to "preach at" individual congregants' wrongdoing, especially those of the more tenured saints. On the other hand, Jesus' brother James—Ya'aqov in Hebrew—stood out from his brethren by living an entirely sanctified, righteous life. His community revered him as "James the Just." And other sources call him, in Hebrew, "Ya'aqov the Sadiq," or James the Brother. We can tell by the contents of James' letter that he didn't mind crossing the "saints" who had become smug and judgmental due to their position within the church, as the following excerpt attests.
13Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

14But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.

15Such 'wisdom' does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.

16For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

17But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

18Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
(James 3:13-17 NIV)
        Wisdom and understanding are noble pursuits. Most of us will readily admit we possess far too little of those characteristics. And the ones who won't admit those shortcomings? Well, we just relegate them to the loony bin with all the other self-deluded wackos.
        There has to be some way of discerning the higher qualities in those we encounter, other than taking their word for it. The first direct product of wisdom that James mentions is a life of good works done in humility. Of course, discerning the works of those we don't know well can be a dicey proposition. And even those we think we know well can be clever enough to carry on an Academy Award Winning performance, both of good works and of humility. So there must be other ways of discerning genuine, heavenly wisdom.
        In verses 14 and 15, Ya'aqov the Lord's brother gives us the other side of the "Wisdom Equation." The "wisdom" that is not from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish, is often as hard to discern as the Gold Standard of true wisdom. Perhaps we can call it "fool's gold."
        Many who succeed in this world demonstrate that same worldly wisdom, and are proud of the bitter envy, and selfish ambition they harbor in their hearts. Others, depending upon their audience, flat-out deny the envy and ambition that fills their hearts. Oddly enough, we find blatantly religious folks in both camps. If one were to suggest to them that such worldly wisdom is carnal, unspiritual, or of the Devil, there'd be "hell to pay."
        Human affairs have always produced certain … ah … "fruit," such as vs. 16 enumerates: Such fruit looks and tastes a lot like disorder and every evil practice. The secular world's remedy of choice for this bitter fruit is regulation and control. We all know how well that works. Back in 1887, Lord Acton summed it up rather succinctly: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
        The corollary to Lord Acton's Law would be, "Laws are made to be successfully exploited by powerful men." Of course, we all know that "powerful" and "rich" are synonymous.
        One caveat is in order here: History has witnessed many wealthy people who refused to succumb to Lord Acton's Law, or, once corrupted, repented openly and liberally of their corruption. They were the philanthropists, the agents of righteous and social change, and even a few ministers who underwrote effective humanitarian and gospel works. Nowhere does the Bible say wealth is inherently sinful. But love, or even more often envy, of wealth has brought down many.
        But Ya'aqov the sadiq isn't finished with us yet. Verse 17 lists other characteristics that, if practiced successfully, guarantee the practitioner will conspicuously lack worldly power. Such things as purity, love of true inner peace, deference to others' needs, submissiveness, mercy, good fruit-bearing, impartiality and sincerity, virtually assure those who possess them of running at cross purposes with the world system.
        And the apostle's parting statement in chapter three sounds rather like a religious platitude. But listen carefully to the words and what they mean: Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

The Real vs. The Counterfeit

        Sounds so nicely passive, doesn't it. Just try it and see how easy it is. The world cries for peace, but do they really want it? No, the cost of righteousness is far too high.
        The Biblical fruit of the Spirit from Galatians chapter five sounds nice: Love-Joy-Peace-Patience-Kindness-Goodness-Faithfulness-Gentleness-Self-control. Let's all serve it up in HUGE portions. Just go out and pluck that fruit off the Tree of Life 'til the basket overflows.
        But there's one thing we harvesters must remember: The world is full of counterfeit spiritual fruit, and it is quite clever. They are infatuation instead of love, situational joy, aggressive peace-seeking, grudging tolerance instead of patience, altruism rather than kindness, and religious, Sunday-righteousness.
        And the last four are simply convincing performances of superficial goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These counterfeits are convincing enough to fool anyone, so we can't rely on our own discernment to know them. In fact, our attempts at discerning spiritual fruit can easily head us into the sin of judgmentalism. For that reason, Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.(Luke 6:37 NIV)
        So, how can we know the true fruit from the counterfeit fruit? Simple! Care for your own, and let God care for the rest.
        John the baptizer said it right. Speaking to all the religious leaders who came out to the Jordan River to make a show of righteousness, he said, Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.(Matthew 3:8 NIV)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why I Go To Church

From stuff I've written, you can no doubt tell how fed up I am with the effect that Kool-Aid drinking lemmings, whether Left, Right, Secular or Religious, have on culture. I attend "church" because the Bible warns me not to forsake the assembling of believers. When I go, it's not to socialize or discuss the weather, hunting, politics, or others' personal affairs. When that goes on around me, I concentrate on God, and my own struggles in growing toward Him. I'm afraid some of the folks see me as standoffish, or elitist, not realizing that if they would only fellowship in God's word, I'd be all over it. There is a significant minority of attendees, however, who love God the way I do, and we learn from one another—hopefully—how to get it right. If I had to name the denomination with which I align myself, it would have to be the Tuppence—you know—"Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them." (Matt 18:20)