Love and Justification

Theologians are always debating the righteousness of God in justification.  Is it imputed?  Is it infused?  Is it forensic?

I can’t tell you the torture I put myself through for decades over this kind of stuff.  Like a navigator who knows if his calculation is off by the slightest degree he will miss the mark, I constantly feel like I have to get these formulations down at the outset, forgetting that all I really have to do is follow the One who not only knows but is the Way.  I swear Christians make this so hard, though.

I could and perhaps will say more about that, but I have to be gone the next couple of days, so for now, just this.

From Lewis, a close paraphrase: God does not make us good [righteous] so that He can love us.  Because He loves us He makes us good [righteous].

Not a righteousness [goodness] that comes through the law, be it God’s covenant law (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath keeping, dietary, etc.), like the arguments of the New Perspectives on Paul, which make a lot of sense to me, nor by the law as in moral laws, but by His grace.

Nouwen: “God’s love does not depend on our repentance or inward or outer changes.”

While I want to be one of those who repents and changes inwardly and outwardly, and believe I am, even if I’m not God loves me.  This is not the message I have heard from the church, but the deficiency may be in me.

I have either heard wrongly many evangelical and/or reformed writers, teachers and preachers, or they have not said it in a way I could hear well.

God’s love precedes his imputed, infused or forensic righteousness in each of us.  His love precedes creation, and creation flowed out of it.  His love precedes the Fall.  His love preceeds the Incarnation and is the very reason for it.  God’s love precedes the cross and made the cross itself inevitable.

Intentional or not the Calvinist/Reformed tradition has taught me that unless I am among the elect I am not and never can be righteous.  It has followed in my mind that if I am not among the elect, therefore righteous, God does not love me.  No matter what they say, one can not know with certainty, I don’t believe, if one is elect.

I don’t care how much good fruit you produce in keeping with righteousness, you’re going to sin, and we are never going to be certain if our motivations are right, and they never will be completely pure.  If our motivations are not right, our actions can’t be fully right-eous.  It produces an effort to prove one’s righteousness to one’s self, so that one can be assured of God’s love and forgiveness.

So, how do I ever know I am really being Christ to other’s, really being transformed, really putting on Christ and not trying to prove to myself and others I am among the elect out of fear of damnation rather than love of God and neighbor?  I don’t see how, but maybe that’s because I’m not elect.

Maybe the elect all have specific, dramatic conversion experiences and are then perpetually filled with peace, joy, gratitude and contentment, never stop growing, love selflessly and sacrificially and forgive everything all the time.  Maybe the elect know they are elect and those who think they are elect and don’t know it are deceived and it’s impossible for one to be among the elect and not know it. It’s a nightmare of a labyrinth.

Yesterday I heard a radio preacher I like.  I’m not going to mention names because it’s a distraction.  I went to his web site and was reading the days devotion.  There’s a line in it I heard countless times in the Evangelical circles in which I ran in college, and to whom I owe a great debt:

“The Holy Spirit…tells us that we are nothing, but that ‘Christ is all in all.’”

Indeed, Christ is all in all.  However, the message I heard over and over is that I am nothing or I am worthless.  The fact is that we elevate Christ so high that we forget what all the bother was about.  Christ is exalted; He is supreme; all creation will bow before His majesty, glory and power when it is made His footstool.

No question, no doubt, but is it possible that in the way we do, we corrupt even that to the point that we claim for Christ something He never claimed for himself: that God bounded Himself in flesh, space and time, suffered and died for…nothing?  That’s the word I hear all the time.  Not ‘nothing’ as in for “no reason,” but ‘nothing’ as in “worthless,” the other word I hear all the time.

Like Jeremiah’s potter, God is reshaping spoiled vessels.  Spoiled is not the same as nothing; it’s not the same as worthless.  The misshapen vessels have such infinite value and worth that even if they are not usable in their current distorted shape, the Potter loves them so much, that rather than just discarding them and starting over, He reshapes, remolds, restores, recreates them.

God does not make us good so that He can love us.  Because He loves us He is making us good.

To preach Christ and Him crucified is to preach his radical, all-encompassing, unalterable love for us.

I suppose the concern, as it has been for me often, is that if we preach this love to ourselves and others it might lead to encouraging sin to abound so grace can abound even more, or it might make us think there is to be no striving or pressing on towards the goal.

If that is what we or others hear it is not the Good News because the Good News is that because God loves us we can be recreated, not stay the same miserable, spoiled vessels and the Potter merely says “Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to begin with.  It will look lovely in this spot or I can just use it for this purpose instead.  Silly me.  What was I thinking?”

The full quote above from the devotion, which was adapted from Spurgeon, is “But the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self: he tells us that we are nothing, but that ‘Christ is all in all.’”

I’m not at all certain the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self.  Away from false self, fallen self, sinful self, but not true self.  Paul spends much time in 1 Corinthians 15 expounding on the resurrection of the body.  We must avoid a purely spiritualized theology.  Theology is incarnational and embodied. The Word made flesh and the risen Christ.  We can not stop at the cross for all it’s majesty and glory.

There IS a me, a true me, a me crafted, knit together and wonderfully made. God does not want me to forget this self, but to become it.  To remember it, not as though I have a memory of it, but His memory of it.  His memory of ME.

We live in a self-absorbed, self-fulfillment, self-obsessed me-driven world in the grip of relativism.  Be that as it may, like with everything else, it’s not purely and solely a lie.  All good lies have an element of the truth, and the truth is that there is a me for God to love.  Distorted, warped, and idolized though self-love may be in this world does not mean the solution is the forget self; it’s to remember our true self.

God is not running an assembly line in which we turn to Him, climb on the conveyor belt and God stamps out a Jesus such that when we stand before Him all He sees is His Son.

In The Wrinkle in Time, Meg defeats the lies of the enemy with this truth: “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”  Because I am clothed in Christ does not mean there is no me to be clothed.  Because I am made like Jesus does not mean I am the same as Jesus.

I don’t know how many times I have heard “When God looks at you on Judgment Day, He will see Jesus.”  When I stand before God He will see the true me I can only be IN Christ.

Heaven will not be populated with a bunch of Jesus clones.  Only Jesus is Jesus, thanks be to God.  Heaven will be populated with resurrected, unique, infinitely  precious, incalculably valuable people of inestimable worth, spoiled vessels recreated.

God does not make us good so that He can love us.  Because He loves us He is making us good.

To me, it makes all the difference in the world.

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10 Commandments and Hubris

I was in Ex 20 this morning.  Besides the fact that I have broken every one of the 10 in so many ways except the obvious ones people think of.

I often put myself as a god before God.  I have used His name in vain.  Even when I remember the sabbath (most weeks in worship) my whole day is not spent in sabbath rest.  I have murdered in my heart,  Stole, even if time from my employer daydreaming. I have coveted. I have not always honored my parents.

The point is humbling.  Sure, we say, I h’ain’t killed no body.  I ain’t never cheated on my wife.  I ain’t  never made a false image.  Yup.  I gots ‘em all covered, ‘ecpt-in maybe that parents thing, but boys is wild.  Everbuddy knows this.

It was good to be reminded.  Not much later while driving I had a thought about someone and I immediately started exhausting myself, and was just on the verge of creating a fantasy about how I could do this or do that and show the other up.  It felt like God snatched the hair off my head getting in there to root it out.  The whole process from think to repent was less than a second, and then I told God: Go head, snatch it out.  I’m sick of it everytime I think about doing something good.  I was yelling and realized it.  I apologized to God for raising my voice to Him but explained it was me I was mad at.  So the 10 are good to read often. I think Luther tried everyday.  Yes, the rediscover of grace through faith studied the Law, hard.

The main thing that stuck me, though, was this:

“An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.”

Just before this I had read Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof [sometimes translated and all that fills it)
the world and those who dwell therein,

Here's the key to Hubris, and we see it everyday.  God made the stones; they are part of the fullness of the earth which belongs to Him.  They would change His creation by hewing them.  He forbid this.  "They're MY rocks.  Why would I want your pathetic hands trying to shape them?  They're perfect the way I made them."


But how often do we apply ourselves to a task thinking we are the creators, the builders, the movers and shakers, the ones the world need in order to “Get ‘er done!”?

Shear Hubris!  Even when we are doing good it is often according to our plan.

We are stone stackers of the alter of God.  The only thing He wants is our obedience.  Not our leadership.  Not our creative designs.  Not our tools.  Not our organizational charts and flowchart plans.  He wants us to pick up the rocks he created and place them where He wants them to go.

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God’s Faithfulness or My Faith

Our views of God are critically affected when, in an attempt to understand Him and know Him, we make Him into our image so we can relate better.  We are people made in the image of God, so we look at ourselves like shadows on Plato’s cave wall, instead of looking at the one who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3)  Yes, “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14), but we are only broken images, not “exact imprints.”

Gideon’s story in Judges 6-8 reflects this well.  I think it’s possible that the angel who appeared to Gideon might have been a manifestation of Christ prior to His incarnation (like perhaps with Jacob) because Gideon actually makes an offering to him and then feels doomed when he realizes who it is.  The angel does not tell Gideon not to make a sacrifice or build an alter after, as one might suspect and angel would, and the angel touched the sacrifice with his staff and it was consumed.

It is not instrumental to the story nor is it a matter of doctrine to believe one way or the other, but I find it intriguing, and like to think of the story this way because it shows God’s extraordinary faithfulness in the face of our lack of faith, so I will write as if it was a non-material manifestation of our Lord even though if it was a messenger it was still God speaking.

Gideon had his strengths, to be sure, but he also made those from Missouri look like pure mystics in comparison. Like usual, showing He can use the “weakest member from the weakest clan,” God called Gideon.  Gideon shows how corrupted Israel had become (his father even had an alter to Ba’al) by saying “If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us.”

This is actually encouraging to me.  While I don’t like it when I too feel that way, God demonstrates it’s not Gideon’s faith but His faithfulness that matters.  He doesn’t consume Gideon on the spot, as He could and would be just and right in doing, as with any of us.  The Lord actually addressed Gideon as “Mighty hero,” and when Gideon showed his doubt, God didn’t rebuke him; he actually commissioned him: “Go with the strength you have, and rescue Israel from the Midianites.  I am sending you!”

Incredible!  God says “Mighty hero, the Lord is with you”–perhaps even as the one uttering those very words.  Gideon basically replies “Yeah, right.  You say so, but it’s obvious to any rational person He’s not.” And God’s response is to commission him!

It gets better.  Gideon then whines like Moses and Pigglet “Bbbb-but, I’m too ttttt-timid.” (I’m not mocking the man, but Moses stuttered, too, right?)  With infinite patience, the Lord says “I’ll be with you.”  Gideon b?n Missouri says “show me.”  “If you are truly going to help me, show me a sign.” So he runs home, whips up some tasty goat and bread and rushes back.  Then after the Lord consumes the offering Gideon has what might have been the granddaddy of all “Oh, crap!” moments in history.

So now he’s on board, kinda, sorta, at least for a while.  God tells him to destroy a pagan alter and a pagan pole, build a true alter and sacrifice a bull.  Well, OK, Gideon does it, but he takes 10 servants with him and “did it at night because he was afraid.”  He almost gets killed again, this time by the people, but his father grows a pair and defends him.

Is Gideon ready to go up to the big leagues, get in the Show.  Nope.  Basically he’s still going with “the strength he has,” which is just fine because it’s God’s faithfulness that matters and not Gideon’s weak faith.  Gideon still wants to be sure God really wants him to actually go into battle against the allied armies.  So this time he asks God for a sign, and then when he gets it replies like a Teletubbie: “Again, again!”  (OK, I’m missing my children’s childhood.  I loved Pooh and hated the Teletubbies, but I have a fondness for them now.)

God gives Gideon the back-to-back signs he asked for.  He roust the allied armies with 100 men, kills their leaders and then kills the town people who refused to help him.  He refuses to be king and tells the people “The Lord will rule over you.”

<<Fade to Black>>

But wait!  It’s just a “Return of the King” type long pause to make you think it’s over.  This man who had just been used by God to rescue his people now asks them all for a gold earing from the plunder which he uses to make a sacred ephod and place in his hometown.  According to the Talmud, the wearing of the ephod atoned for the sin of idolatry on the part of the Children of Israel.  Yet, they had just days before been rescued from years of immersion in a pagan, idol-worshiping culture.  So what did they do?  “The Israelites prostituted themselves by worshiping it, and it became a trap for Gideon and his family.”

It’s no where indicated God told him to do that, and wisdom would have dictated not creating something so like an idol in that culture and climate because, as you say “He is not made with human hands” and they still were acculturated after years of living within that worldview to think He was.

Idolatry, weak faith, making God into our image, cultural conditioning, pagan warriors, fear, uncertainty, doubt.  Through the whole story, again and again, God proves Himself faithful.

I am like the weak parts of Gideon, Jim, and we live in a pagan culture (no sense pretending we don’t) but you know what?  God is still God and He loves me.  “All the promises of God have their Yes! in Christ Jesus” my Lord.

Faith alone?  I wonder sometimes.  James actually says “Not by faith alone.”  However, I don’t ever wonder if it’s Faithfulness Alone.  Whatever else this new life is, surely it’s grounded on God’s faithfulness.  By His faithful mercy and grace, He’s taking me along for the ride.  From my perspective it is a scary ride.  Sometimes we’re lost in the jungle, sometimes caught in raging waters, sometimes doingImmelmann’s in a dogfight, sometimes crawling through a desert.

Thanks be to God it’s not dependent on my frail faith but on His Glorious Faithfulness.  Thanks be to God that He is not made in my image.

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Good Gifts: Children and Communion

Well, I’m down to one, one child at home.  Nicole just started at UNC and David just went to Job Corps.  It hasn’t been easy.  In addition to the bittersweet joy and sadness, moment-by-moment mood swings, I suppose it’s natural to have moments of regret; at least I know I do.  “I could have done more.”  I could have done what I did good even better.”  “I did things wrong.”  “If I could do it again, I’d…”

Last week, I was reading in Matthew 7, and verses 9-11 took on a radical new meaning for me.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

 
As a father, I have reflected on this passage often over the years.  Of course, we sometimes get confused about what “good gifts” are and focus on giving things to our children which may be ‘good’ in one sense, but perhaps not the best sense, but I think most Christian parents understand “good gifts” to be: food, nurture, spiritual formation, acceptance, love, shelter, medical care, character, education, and the like.

Sinners that we are we often fail to give the good gifts in good measure and unfortunately we sometimes give ‘stones,’ though I hope I’ve never given a ‘snake!’ :-)

What struck me the other day as I reflected on this in light of children leaving home and some of the regret one naturally feels about not having given good enough gifts often enough–and all parents have to face this, but it doesn’t mean wallow in it or think one can’t continue to give good gifts–was this insight from God.

What is the best gift?  What meets the true definition of Good each and every single time without fail?  Jesus Christ, of course.  That’s when, for the first time, I linked the above passage with Communion.

In John 6:48-51, Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

In Luke 22:19 we read these words we hear proclaimed each Sunday:  “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’”

Even before they know it, our children ask us for bread.  Even when they don’t understand what they are asking for, they ask us for bread. This includes the literal  nourishment of food and drink, of course.  A baby’s first cry after “Whatever that was that just happened to me, it hurt like crazy,” is “I am hungry.” Nor do I believe it is a coincidence that the last words the Incarnate Son of God spoke on the cross before he said “It is finished” were “I am thirsty.”

But like so many things in the flesh, our children’s first cry for food and drink points towards God and a spiritual hunger and thirst.  They are also asking for the true Living Bread of Life and the Living Water.

I often tell people about how I loved feeding my children their bottle when they were babies.  When I did that I knew with absolute clarity and certainty that that was exactly what I was supposed to be doing at that moment.  Nothing else had a claim on my time.  Nothing else could take priority.  It was the perfect peace of knowing that whatever else in life was confusing or stressful or conflicted, this moment was pure.

As I reflect on my children growing up and leaving home, I now know that when Kerri and I brought them to church, when we brought them to the Lord’s Table, we were still giving them their bottle–which is both food and drink.

There is no better good gift we can ever give to our children than to take them to worship and celebrate the sacrament together.  As God’s child, when I have asked my Father for good gifts for my children, He, as always, has faithfully responded by giving them Himself, even when I haven’t seen it because I was looking for a different answer.

I give thanks to God that whatever else I might do differently if I could do it over again, this one thing I would never change.  Like us, they are really His children anyway.  The best good gift we could ever give to them is Him.  When I take them to worship, it is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.  Perfect clarity. Perfect certainty.  Perfect peace.

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Eternal Prayer

It occurred to me this morning as I was praying that God still hears (is continuously hearing) all the prayer I have ever offered to Him.  He is not bounded by time.  Which means that when we praise Him we add to the eternal chorus of all saints living and dead that is eternally on-going and has an infinite capacity for growth such that eternity will never be filled by it.

It also means He now and forever hears His Son’s prayers to Him, including the High Priestly Prayer of John 17, and His prayer on the cross “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.”  He continuously hears the prayers of Paul for the church like the one in Philippians: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” (1:9)

And the one in Colossians 1:9-14:

“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

It’s encouraging to know that God is eternally hearing the prayers of Jesus and Paul.  Let us now add to the chorus: Praise the Lord!”

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On Love and Righteousness

I stumbled across this quote that for me just shows how Christians thinkers, as humans, try to sift the mysteries of God into false hierarchical categories:

“Holiness is pre-eminent in God, for in the actual dealings of God his other attributes are conditioned and limited by his holiness. This is beheld excellently well on Calvary: in Christ’s redeeming work, love makes the atonement, but it is violated holiness that required it. The prime source out of which our salvation issued is God’s violated holiness. His love motivated him to actually accomplish it on our behalf, helpless and weak as we are.”

“In the same way, the eternal punishment of the wicked is irrevocable because of God’s unchangeable holiness. His self-vindication overbears the pleading of love for the sufferers.”

“Holiness shows itself higher than love, in that it conditions love. Hence God’s mercy does not consist in outraging his own law of holiness, laying it aside or even disparaging it. No, it is rather by enduring the penal affliction by which that law of holiness is satisfied.”

Really?  Holiness is pre-eminent in God?  “Holiness shows itself higher than love?”

Please. Love is not an attribute of God because it’s not a modifier.  Holy, righteous, just, merciful, pure, wise, good, sovereign, powerful, glorious, eternal, impartial, etc. are all modifiers, thus attributes or inherent characteristics.  Love is never a modifier.  The Word does not say God is loving.  Well it does (abounding in loving kindness), but it says “God is Love.”  It says “God so loved….”

1 Peter 1:20: “He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”  Jesus was chosen to suffer and die before He created the world, and yet He created it anyway.  If holiness was pre-eminent or higher than love, if it conditioned and limited Love then God would have just destroyed the spoiled pot instead of reshaping it.

Every attribute of God is an attribute of Love because God is Love.   Theos Agape.

Compare other uses of God and is.

For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God
For the LORD your God is a merciful God
God is giving you.
God is commanding you.
God is with you.
God is my rock.
God is greater than other gods.
God is gracious and compassionate.
God is mighty.
God is exalted in power.
God is our refuge.
God is merciful.
God is righteous.
God is sovereign
God is one.
God is truthful
God is God.
God is glorified.
God is Spirit.
God is light.

Almost all of these take the form of Noun Adjective (modifier).  Some are Noun Noun, but the noun is a figurative expression of a spiritual truth (e.g. God is my rock.  God is our refuge.) as it relates to us.

Here are the ones that don’t describe what I consider to be attributes; rather, they describe God Himself in Himself and they are all Noun Noun:

God is Love
God is Light
God is Spirit
God is One

Oneness isn’t an attribute; it’s not a characteristic; It IS
Spirit isn’t an attribute.  It is a person of the trinity.
Light isn’t an attribute; it’s how He exists, is present.

John is the only one to use this phrase:  Theos light is.  This means: to be, to exist, to happen, to be present.  This is how God is, exist and is present to us.

To me it’s similar to Yahweh.  It is saying God exist as love; God exist as light.  God exist as Spirit; God Exist as One.

They are not characteristics.  God’s love manifest itself to us as attributes like holy, righteous, merciful, just, eternal, sovereign, steadfast, mighty, powerful, but his nature is Love.

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Citizens or Fans

The political climate is such that no one who wants broad-based national appeal can possibly be forthright and specific.  As soon as s/he does, s/he looses too much appeal from too many. This is not a criticism of one side or the other, except to the extent that, as Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

We currently have a serious structural problem, the cracks of which are illuminated by the reality that both conservatives and progressives have basically reached an ideological impasse.  Both sides believe they are right, and it has become an either/or situation.  This is not a situation the Founders foresaw.  It’s been getting worse for decades, but useful coalitions used to be built within the two-party framework.  I do not believe that is possible any more.  The only real hope is a multi-party system in which coalitions have to be built between multiple parties.

National politics is not about the base.  Neither party’s base is going anywhere, though they may just stay home.  National politics is about independents who want issue by issue policy solutions. So, if you have 4-5 viable parties actually in office, and parties A, B, and C agree about policy on issue X then they can put together something even if parties A, B and C disagree about issues Y and Z.

If just A & B agree on issue X and don’t have the numbers, then they work out deals with C, D and E about issue Y, giving parts of Y support in order to gain support for X.  Competition works better than monopolies in politics as well as business. It’s ugly business, but you can not govern a democracy without compromise between factions.

In Federalist 10, Madison makes the argument that liberty can not exist without giving rise to factions: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

The only way to prevent this is to remove liberty by stamping out dissenting opinions; that is, until everyone shares the same opinion. Madison rightly knew this to be totalitarianism, well before the term was coined, and he considered it contrary to human nature.  “As long as the reason of man continues to be fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”

Faction is healthy!  What isn’t healthy to democracy, according to Madison, is the “violence of faction.”  We don’t have a lot of that anymore, despite the inflammatory rhetoric.  What has happened, instead, is that factions have condensed into two basic Factions: Us and Them.  For all practical intents and purposes, factions have been co-opted into Faction on pragmatic grounds.  “There are more people in Faction A,” we reason, “who support my opinion about policy X than in Faction B, so, if I want policy X I will have to join them.”

So then Faction A and Faction B become like two armies justifying their constant fight for power on the basis of broad ideological Good v. Evil worldviews in which pandering, demonizing and demogogary are merely the weapons of warfare.  And, what’s worse, the battles are usually between skirmishers fighting over peanuts in the media Collesium.

Witness the Republican debate the other night. There was not one single question on the European debt crisis, Medicare reform, how to fix Social Security so each of my kids isn’t working to pay for 50 retirees each, or restoring our triple-A rating.  There were questions on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” HPV Vaccinations, Border Fences, which department of the government would you eliminate, and who would you pick a VP.  I do not diminish any of these issues, but they are motes, not logs.  Just as in the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, all the questions boil down to just one: “Prove that you have the bona fides to be quarterback for Us.”

Madison wrote that “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their infriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Like with football, it doesn’t matter that the “issue” is a pigskin; what matters is that the audience cheers for your side to move that pigskin as far as possible to an extreme end. In American politics today there are only 2 teams and the arena of the 24 hour news cycle has turned us all into fanboys watching “Last Man Standing/Running Man/Rollerball” as they seek to demolish one another over pigskin issues.

Who loses?  The fans of course, but then we made ourselves fans instead of citizens and we let them commodify our dissent.

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A Life Pleasing to God

“And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17

Three things the Father said of Jesus: You’re my Son.  I love you.  I am pleased with you.

By grace in faith, I am an adopted son.  God loves me.  I can not earn His love, His grace, His forgiveness, His mercy or His salvation. (I say “His salvation” rather than ‘my’ because “salvation belongs to our God.”)  I have earned His judgment, His justice, and His wrath.

But is it wrong to live as though I can–through, by and with Him–earn His pleasure, by which I mean work towards His pleasure?  I know it is pleasing to Him for me to trust, hope, believe, submit, rely, etc.–all the generally passive stuff, though more active than we think.  We are so scared of “works righteousness,” though, that maybe we think (or maybe just I think) that exerting effort to “please” God implies we think we can earn righteousness through righteous behavior.

Now, pleasing God isn’t going to happen with just external behavior.  External behavior no matter how outwardly good can be displeasing to God if done out of selfish ambition, greed or pride.  It might be pleasing to God to the extent that it genuinely helps another or accomplishes good in the world, but it will never be well pleasing by itself.  And internal change, though pleasing to God, will remain shallow and incomplete if faith does not act in love and gratitude and therefore not well pleasing to God by itself.

That said, I want to live my life in such a way that God can say: “You are my adopted son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

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Reflections on a Yard Sale

Yes, I confess.  I used to dread our biannual church yard sales, which are always on a Saturday, but take two days to set-up.  A lot of my distaste for them was the pressure of time while raising kids, the neglect of my own home and yard that would still have to be made up, and the tedium.  I’ve noticed a gradual and growing shift in my attitude over the years, and while my reflections are fresh in my mind from our most recent one today, I thought I’d share some of them.

We live in a consumption driven, acquisitively orientated society.  No doubt about it.  I lament it often—just ask my kids—while knowing full well I am implicated in it.  It’s tempting to look at all the donations we have at our yard sale and think “What a shame.  All this stuff people acquire and discard.  We live in such a disposable society, buying stuff we don’t need and then tossing it out.”

I used to do that, and maybe I’m just projecting onto others; maybe no one else looks at it that way.  Without a doubt there’s some truth to it.  I see it differently now, though.  I look around and I see a high chair parents used to feed their baby in.  I see couches people used to snuggle on as they rested at the end of the day.  I see kitchen tables that people used to fellowship around, pray around, laugh around and sustain themselves with daily bread.  I see toys and games a child once opened with delight under a Christmas tree or unwrapped for a birthday.  I see clothes that protected people and kept them warm or cool or dry as they worked, played, worshipped or even hurt, hungered and grieved.  I see exercise equipment that at least represented hope if not reality, cups that helped quench thirst, pictures that used to hang on walls and brighten a room and vases that held beautiful flowers that brightened a day.  I see books that educated, fascinated and entertained.

It’s all there, and more, much more.  Above it all I see love.  We all know that the most precious gifts we have to offer are not tangible.  But, being the frail creatures of the tangible world of sense that we are, when we freely and joyfully give tangible gifts to one another, we are able, by doing so, to also give them intangible gifts.

Not all, but some of the donations were once gifts given or received in love.  Some of them were probably things that used to belong to departed loved ones that their family is finally able to give away as they struggle to move through their grief.  Some of them were originally purchased as a way to care and provide for someone’s family.  Some were bought in hopes (perhaps misplaced, but who knows?) of being better people.  Some were bought to do good work, to better care for creation, to spend time in genuine activities of re-creation.  Some, yes even some, were probably bought wisely, on a budget, when something else nicer, better, lovelier, but more expensive, would have been preferred, but the person wanted to save more for generous, cheerful giving or necessary provision.   And now they have given them away, in hopes that others may find some value in them, rather than toss it in a landfill.

Of course some of the stuff was unneeded, was charged with money one did not have, was bought in an attempt to satisfy a selfish desire, or was put to bad use, but not all, probably not most.  Many of the donations we had to offer were bought by people seeking to fulfill real needs or to give as the best gift they could to someone they dearly love, and maybe even to save money to give more to God or to others, and the donations helped them to do just that.

On yard sale weekends, our fellowship hall is packed with shared humanity: our memories, hopes, generosity, longings and love as well as our greed, acquisitiveness, envy, discontent and self-inflicted pain.  It’s packed with the image-bearers of God and the fallen, broken, prideful rebels those image-bearers have become.

And it’s packed with another kind of humanity, too: the humanity of church family fellowshipping and serving.  I say serving because I believe most of the people who come are sincerely glad and genuinely needful of the things they buy, and knowing it’s not ideal, it truly helps our church continue to serve and worship God.  It would be nice to not have to use the proceeds for the budget, to give it all away to Lutheran Services for the Aging or ELCA World Hunger or Disaster Relief, or to Synod benevolence, and that’s a good goal worth striving for and remaining mindful about, but God knows our frame; He knows our need; and He understands our fears and weaknesses.

I’m not willing to concretely say that we have not been faithful in giving.  I only know that I haven’t always, so it’s likely in the abstract that others have sometimes also not been as faithful as they should.  But this too I know:  God is always faithful, and He provides in our unfaithfulness without ever approving of it, always prompting us to more faithfulness and more generosity.  We need, nay, we must move towards that with the help of God’s grace and the power of His Spirit, but we must also give thanks to God for His provision now.

I also say fellowshipping because there’s a chance to get to talk to church family you may not get to talk to that often, the sharing of stories and memories, and even a good laugh or two.  Most get the chance to sit down and share a meal with someone.  There’s also the natural fellowship of shared labor, which doesn’t always include words, and the appreciation one gains for the willingness of others who do all the setting up and preparing.  To top it all off, it’s intergenerational fellowship!

One also meets members of the community.  Some of the same people come year after year, and many of them will stop and talk if you give them an opening.  In the slow part of the afternoon this past Saturday, I spoke to a man who seemed hesitant to say more than hello, but I pressed a little and the next thing I knew we had a 20 minute conversation.

It’s a different world for me than it was 5-6 years ago when I begrudgingly started working at them.  Go to one sometime and see for yourself.  Bring a fresh pair of eyes.  They really help!

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Perseverance, or What’s It All About Alfie?

Sometimes I think the harder you fight the more resistance there is such that more energy is expended to accomplish the same amount.  It’s like jogging 3 miles, but every time you increase your pace the wind blows back in equal proportion, so that you still only jog 3 miles, and you do it in the exact same amount of time, but you’re more worn out and exhausted at the end.

Even if you increase in strength and stamina from the extra exertion, so that each time you jog you can run faster and faster, the resistance is just going to increase proportionally. Like Sisyphus pushing that damn bolder up the hill every day.  You gotta know by the 1000th year of that he was exponentially stronger than when he started.  Didn’t matter.  Push rock up; rock rolls down (lather, rinse, repeat, buy more shampoo).

Of course the analogy breaks down because we don’t move a fixed distance, and what looks like getting nowhere builds character and hope (if we have eyes to see), but that is hard.  Especially when most people in your life only have a snapshot of you.  You come into their picture only regarding specific expectations and needs.  For them, those expectations must be met in full, to their standards, on their timelines, and are all high priority, front burner, world-ending-if-not-done-right-and-on-time issues, and your value to them is based on how well you meet those expectations, no matter how unrealistic, and they do not see the depth and density of your life, care what else you’re doing or about healthy balance.

Our lives are motion pictures but we see one another in still frames.

Let us now praise Crony Capitalism and its offspring: rapacious consumption, driven workaholism, false identity, burn out and debased culture.

“I believe in love, Alfie.  Without true love we just exist.”

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