Monday, April 27, 2015

Tightrope

"For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy." (Hebrews 10:14)

I've always loved how much truth is crammed into a single, short phrase like this one. It's by far my favourite "summary verse" when talking to people about sanctification (or, "growing up spiritually").
  1. It's a done deal -- Jesus has already made us "perfect forever". It doesn't rely on us and our performance.
  2. It's an ongoing process -- we cooperate with the Holy Spirit as we are "being made holy".
And to be fair, it can be something of a balancing act. I can see and appreciate how easy it would be to err on one side or the other (license versus legalism).

For example, if we were to only emphasize the first half of the verse -- that we are already considered "perfected" in the eyes of God -- we run the risk of:
  • complacency and/or laziness (personal holiness is optional)
  • a "party hearty" lifestyle that downplays sin and its effects (I see this a lot, unfortunately)
  • disinterest in any kind of mutual accountability (dude, isn't that just, like... judging?)
And on the other hand, if we only emphasized the second half -- that we are still a work-in-progress when it comes to personal holiness -- we run a different set of risks:
  • an unhealthy (and at times, somewhat neurotic) attitude of anxiously striving to "follow the rules"
  • wallowing in defeat/unable to enjoy God as Father (very common)
  • overzealous in attempts at accountability (legalistic nit-picking of self and others)
All of us have a tendency to lean too far in one direction or another, when it comes to issues of personal and community holiness. Keeping that all-important balance -- having complete confidence in Christ's finished work and in humility allowing the Spirit to refine our character to reflect Jesus more and more -- is not automatic by any means.
But it's worth pursuing.
In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that a working definition of "spiritual maturity" should include our ability to hold both sides of Hebrews 10:14 in healthy tension/balance.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Default (Psalmist) Setting

"Our computers work just fine. I'm  a generous person, that's all."

The Barista tossed her head as she laughed out loud at the quizzical expression on the Elder's face, one lock from her dark mane of hair falling over her face to augment her mischievous smile.
The Younger nodded his thanks to the Barista as he answered the Elder's unspoken question. "I guess you don't read the news until your evening paper arrives," he observed dryly, sotto voce, "but a certain coffee chain had a nation-wide computer glitch recently, and they were giving away free coffee to all their customers."

"Ah," responded the Elder, eyes brightening as he made the instant connection, "and yet here, at the Genesis Café, we simply have a generous barista, which explains her not charging us for our drinks this afternoon."

"Well done, Sherlock," teased the Younger with a smile, as they settled into their favourite seats -- the ones by the large front window, with the view of the street beyond. "Your powers of deduction are functioning at their usual peak of performance. Brilliance seems to be your... default setting."

"Elementary, my dear Watson," the Elder cheerfully rejoined, wrapping his hands around the warmth of his coffee mug. "Although, sadly, I must confess that my natural 'default setting' is not nearly as trustworthy as you seem to think it is."

The Younger might have said "hmm," if he hadn't been taking a sip of his latte at the same time. However one might describe the noise he made, it was apparent that he'd sensed the new note in his friend's voice.

Even as the Younger was placing his latte back on the tabletop, the Elder continued. "I've been reading in the Psalms again recently -- a spiritual discipline I would heartily recommend to any of your young friends, by the way -- and I couldn't help but notice the Psalmist's 'default setting', if you will."

The Younger nodded as his friend paused to take an appreciative sip of his coffee -- "black, the way God drinks it" -- and offered his own off-the-cuff thought. "I'd imagine that David, the 'man after God's own heart', would naturally default to praise. I wish I were that spiritual!"

The Elder laughed, acknowledging the Younger's honesty with a tip of his coffee mug. "Yes, I know what you mean. And on one hand, that is what we know to be true about the psalms that David wrote. But as I was reading this morning, it struck me again: just how honest and real -- I think you young people would say authentic -- David was in his psalm-writing."

The Elder gestured expansively with his hands as he continued. "I mean, on more than one occasion, David sounds discouraged and (quite frankly) depressed. Sometimes, he seems quite confident, and then almost crippled with anxiety. And, of course, sometimes he is almost boasting in his own integrity, and later seems crushed by his own sinfulness."

The Younger drank more of his latte as he listened, fascinated. "And yet David continued to come to God, no matter what his circumstances. Or am I missing the 'default' you're hinting at?"

The Elder looked perplexed for a moment, looking past the Younger at some undefined point on the far wall. Meeting the gaze of his young friend once more, he sighed and shrugged his shoulders.
"We don't sing about our sin when we worship. We don't sing about our questions, our doubts, our anxieties, our fears, our insecurities, or... I could go on almost indefinitely. It's as though we believe that already knowing the answer -- Jesus -- means we can conveniently skip over the questions."
The Younger leaned forward, unconsciously imitating the Elder's habit of wrapping both hands around his mug, as he responded. "So could you say, for example, that David's default setting is to bring all of his -- stuff -- to God, let it all go, and worship anyway?"

The Elder drained the rest of his coffee before answering. "No, I might take it even further than that. What if what makes David's default setting so authentic is that he worships while he still has unanswered questions, unresolved anxieties and fears, etc.? He doesn't have to set them aside in order to worship, only to take them up again afterwards.
"He doesn't compartmentalize things -- block out 'life' in order to worship, and then get back to 'real life' later -- he worships in the midst of."
The Younger leaned back in his chair, a slight frown on his face. "In my mind, that makes total sense," he admitted with a sheepish grin, "but my heart is already reminding me that I don't really worship that way. I do tend to have a 'block out the rest of life so I can enjoy this worship experience' approach."

The Elder nodded, eyebrows slightly raised. "I think we all do, to one degree or another. I'm just not satisfied to stay that way."

"Hear, hear," agreed the Younger, finishing off the last of his free coffee.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Holy Spirit As Sacrament

He said, "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." Then he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:21-22)

He commanded them, "Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised... in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." (Acts 1:4-5)

There has been a renewed interest in recent years among evangelical Christians regarding the sacramental nature of our faith. Most Protestants recognize Baptism and Communion as sacraments, although they usually prefer the term "ordinance" (a fancy way of referring to something that Jesus instructed us to do).

Catholics have seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders (ordination to full-time ministry).
There are many nuances and a range of opinions on just how these sacraments actually work, but the common thrust is that these actions -- done properly and done by the right (ordained) people -- confer grace to us. As one friend put it: "there is an ontological change (spiritual growth) imparted."

As the above definition states, sacramentalism is the belief that the proper administration of the sacraments -- regardless of how many you include in your personal list -- imparts something of God's grace to us (and for some, are the means of salvation). God's ongoing grace to us -- this side of Kingdom come (the "not yet") -- is given through our participation in the sacraments.

It is not my intention to attempt a thorough examination of each school of thought and its various and sundry permutations. Actually, I would like to suggest something far more basic:
The Holy Spirit is the Sacrament of the Christian life, and any additional rituals -- mediated by people -- detract from the sufficiency of the Spirit.
I would highly recommend Gordon Fee's excellent book Paul, the Holy Spirit, and the People of God as a resource here. Fee's robust argument that the "promise of the Father" that Jesus referred to -- the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all Christians -- is at the heart of a Trinitarian understanding of our faith.

Fee does a masterful job of tracing the Spirit's work in our salvation, the transforming of our ethics (justice), empowering our sanctification and our service, and creating an authentic koinania community among us.
A few gems from the book:
"Holiness also (especially) means the Holy Spirit lives in believers, reproducing the life of Christ within and among them, particularly in their communal relationships." (page 109)
"Both Paul's exhortation to the community in Ephesians 5:18 ("be filled with the Spirit") and his instruction to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6-7 ("fan the gift into flame") imply the need to continual, ongoing appropriation." (page 124)
"[This book] is a plea for recapturing Paul's perspective of Christian life as essentially the life of the Spirit, dynamically experienced and eschatologically oriented -- but fully integrated in the life of the church." (page 187)
 Again, there are many nuances within the sacramentalist school of thought that I haven't addressed here. My desire is not to somehow demonstrate that sacramentalism is wrong per se, but only that it is a pale substitute for the true source of God's ongoing grace in our lives: the Holy Spirit of Jesus, who will continually fill us with Himself as we seek Him.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Compassion vs. Mean Tweets

This definition of compassion sounds remarkably similar to the character of Jesus:

"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matthew 9:35-38)

This video is a powerful statement, as people who have (or still are) experiencing homelessness are given the opportunity to read some of the "mean tweets" that people have posted online:



It would be so easy to indulge in some level of self-righteous indignation at the cruelty of these "mean tweets", and write a fiery rant about thoughtless, hard-hearted, careless words that reinforce the wisdom of Solomon's proverb: "The tongue has the power of life and death." (Proverbs 18:21)

But somehow, I think Jesus would focus more on compassion. Remember, this is the same Jesus who broke all kinds of societal traditions by reaching out and actually touching a guy suffering from leprosy:
A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. “If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” Instantly the leprosy disappeared, and the man was healed. (Mark 1:40-42)
The video is a powerful reminder that these are people, who have become homeless. They are not some vague demographic called "the homeless". They have names. They have stories. They have hopes and dreams.

Jesus would have compassion for them. And so can we.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday: Saved & Forgiven

A friend of mine made a fascinating observation recently as we chatted in a coffee-shop:
"It seems like a lot of people prefer to be forgiven for their sins, but they don't want to be saved from their sins."
Anyone who has been a Christian longer than -- oh, say, 15 or 20 minutes -- knows that we still struggle with sin. We also understand that we are viewed as holy & righteous because of Jesus, even as we are still growing in holiness:
"For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy." (Hebrews 10:14)
Good Friday is the day that we stop to reflect on the death of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. We pause to remind ourselves again of the terrible anguish and pain that Jesus willingly embraced on our behalf. We ponder afresh the incredible love of God, who would willingly sacrifice part of Himself (the Son), to redeem anyone who would trust in Jesus.

And we will offer up prayers and songs of gratitude for the forgiveness of our sins, freely offered in Jesus.

But let us also remember that Jesus wants to save us from our sins, not just their consequences. The death of Jesus means that we are both forgiven for and saved from our sin.
"This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:5-9)