Friday, April 28, 2017

Just Not Feelin' It

There are many things that you know you should do. But you’re just not feelin’ it. The motivation is missing. You are firmly in the grasp of inertia. You certainly intend to get around to it, when you feel better.

This is a description of a life lived according to feelings. And if you have great feelings, then it’s like riding a bike with the wind at your back. The hills are easy and the downhills are exhilarating. But that’s not how it normally goes. Good feelings are at least matched by bad, and often the bad feelings rule. It is in those cases that we hunker down, waiting for a more opportune time to do what we should.

In Christian fellowship we talk about living, not according to feelings, but according to faith. Of course there can be a great distance between talking and acting. And that’s the point here. Faith will instruct us to act, contrary to those feelings that tell us to sit still. One or the other, faith, or feelings, must win out. The feelings are so close. They feel so natural. It is by far the easier route. But faith continues to preach to us, reminding us of heavenly wisdom and eternal truth. Our feelings will try to drown out the voice of faith. And so, as followers of Jesus, we make a conscious effort to allow faith quiet times to speak, as we listen intently. It is our hope and God’s design that these quiet times, whether with others or alone, will rule our hearts. Because feelings make a miserable master.

Quiet times themselves are an arena of battle. Feelings avoid them. Faith hungers for them. Attention to God’s Word and time spent in prayer are another contested field. Feelings would rather do screen time. Faith would bow the head and the knee. Giving and sharing characterize the life of faith; self-indulgence and spending freely and foolishly mark a life fed by feelings. Love and forgiveness are on the front lines of faith. Our feelings run in full retreat from such kinds of engagement. Love is exhausting, and forgiveness can be excruciating. We often say, “I’m not feelin’ it.” But that’s hardly the point. The question is, will you live by faith, or by feelings?

One of the common phrases of Scripture is “Be strong and of good courage.” A short form is the common “Fear not.” A little Bible study or devotional exercise that you can try from time to time is to write Scripture’s opposite. In this case, the anti-Scripture might read, “Be weak and scared.” Short form: “Run and hide.” And that is close to what happens when we live by feelings. We live a life that fulfills the expectations of anti-Scripture. But let’s not. Let’s live by faith, according to God’s Word. Let’s obey, regardless of feelings.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Church is not a Business

Jesus gave us a pretty strong clue when he cleared the Temple in Jerusalem of moneychangers during the final week of his earthly ministry. He said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” Now we could argue about the relation of the Temple to the Church, but I conclude that the church’s function is close at this point, and that we are to be about meeting together with God, not about getting people’s money.

Jesus is not making this up on the spot. He is quoting Isaiah 56:7, which promises that the temple, once material, now spiritual, is to be ‘house’ of prayer for all peoples. The “den of robbers” statement comes from Jeremiah 7:11, and the description mirrors the offenses of Jesus’ day. It is amazing how well Jesus knows and uses the Scriptures, almost as though he had actually read them, and thought about them. Or maybe, that he had a hand in authoring them.

So when we think about the churches that we attend, can we honestly say that what is most obvious about our assemblies, as different as they may be, is the practice of prayer? I doubt it. Prayer is difficult. It does not draw crowds. It feels like a waste of time. 

When Solomon built that first temple for the Lord, he recognized that no building built by human hands can contain Him. It was merely a house in which God’s people could offer sacrifices, prayers, to God. That would be it’s highest purpose; it’s best purpose. The image from the physical temple that is so closely associated with prayer is the burning of incense. You would smell it as soon as you entered in. It would be obvious. But today, in our churches, is prayer as obvious as was that offering of incense? 

Prayer is not a marketing device. “We are the church that prays!” It’s not something to start doing so that we can feel self-righteous about ourselves: “We may be small, but at least we pray.” It’s simply that, according to the Scriptures - and it is so simple - Christians pray. It’s what they do, together, and apart. Christians pray.

You can have a church without a building. You can have a church without money. You can have a church without a pastor, and programs. A group of people can meet, sitting on the grass, and read, or, if lacking a copy of Scriptures, recall what God has said. And then, they will pray, perhaps better than most of us, since they aren’t so distracted and compelled to keep feeding the machine that we call “church.” 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Both Old and New

American culture from its beginning has tended to value what is new, and to disregard what is old. The celebration of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead challenges this prejudice, though it does not retreat to the opposite: being stubbornly attached to things old and resenting anything new. 

Jesus, according to orthodox Christianity based on the Bible’s teachings, is the eternal Son of God. That is, He is both old, and new. The incarnation, God in flesh, is (was) certainly something new - unheard of - nigh impossible to fathom or believe. New things are hard that way. But to think about a relationship between the members of the Trinity that has stretched from eternity past in perfect love and agreement also stretches the brain. He is amazingly old; and shockingly new.

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem (celebrated last Sunday) illustrates some of this. Here is a new kind of leader, outside the circles of established power, but demonstrating amazing (S)piritual power in word and deed. He rides to town, not on a white stallion, but on the “foal of a donkey” - humbly, yet acclaimed by the shouts of people. The people are shouting not something new, but something old - a verse from Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Both old and new.

He answers the long-standing question: “How can a man be put right with God? -  in a new way. Clearing the temple, he instructs us that the temple/church is not a business; and that this relationship is not made possible by our sacrifices (and the money-changers in the temple were facilitating the purchase of lambs for sacrifice) but by His Sacrifice as our Substitute, rendering all others obsolete. Our relationship with God is no longer characterized by what we pay, but in that we pray (“my Father’s house will be a house of prayer”).

The implications for Christians and churches are huge. There really is no use in clinging to old for old’s sake. We must embrace what is new in Christ in all the new ways. “Ever reforming,” as the early reformers said. But also, it is not up to us to create (or imitate) ever-new newness. 

An old song put to new music illustrates this for me: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end” (that’s beautifully old). But regarding those mercies, the song goes on to say: “They are new every morning, new every morning” (that’s refreshingly new); “Great is your faithfulness O Lord.” Both old and new.

Christian Kindness

When we evaluate people, we often notice all the wrong things. We tend to identify them as belonging to one stereotyped group or another; or we look for signs of status; perhaps personality type, or level of confidence. But we don’t as often have an antenna to detect kindness, which may be most important. 
If you were to give advice to a young person seeking a spouse, what traits are most important? Beauty and form? Wealth? Humor? Those may not be among the traits which help you determine the person you may live with for the next 50 or 60 years. Gordon Livingston recommends “kindness, a willingness to give of oneself to another. this most desirable of virtues governs all the others, including a capacity for empathy and love (pp. 4,5).” 
He explains that character qualities tend to exist in constellations. If a person is characterized by “impulsivity, self-centeredness, quickness to anger,” – this is not a grouping that will include kindness. But that kindness is accompanied by tolerance and a capacity for commitment – ideal of marriage, and most other relationships as well. What more can most of ask for than a spouse who will put up with our faults and stick with us through the tough times, and in the mean time, be kind to us, and we to them? 
But let’s apply this not only to family relationships, but also to Christian family. After all, Jesus, demonstrating the love of God, showed kindness is so many situations. And we who are followers of Jesus and members of His Body are to express that same character, even as we pray that kindness will be duplicated in us. 
Tertullian tells us that in the days of the early church, pagans sometimes called Christians “chrÄ“stiani” rather than “christiani.” The two words sound similar, of course, but there was another reason for the confusion. Christiani means “Christians,” but chrÄ“stiani comes from the Greek word for “kindness.” According to Tertullian, even when believers were not known as the Christ people, they were still known as the kindness people, and this kindness pointed others to Christ.’ (Ryken, Philip Graham (2012-01-31). Loving the Way Jesus Loves (p. 44). Crossway. Kindle Edition.) 
Perhaps, in this day when curtness is more common than kindness, someone may notice yours. And even if they don’t want to marry you, perhaps they will be attracted to the One you follow, and perhaps you will have the opportunity to verbalize what they have already seen in action.