Tag Archives: Works

The Activating Ingredient

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
1 Corinthian 13:1 (NIV)

As I’ve mentioned in recent months, I’m making my way chronologically through all of Paul’s letters. This is in conjunction with a year-long study my local gathering of Jesus’ followers is conducting of the book of Acts.

One of the patterns that is repeated over and over again in the book of Acts is an action or event that is followed by an opportunity to teach, testify or pray. The action always precedes the teaching or testimony. “Do” then “Teach.”

I thought about this as I read Paul’s famous discourse on love. He begins by acknowledging that religious actions void of love are empty, impotent, and useless. Love is the action. Love is the activating ingredient. Love is the “Do” that opens the way for meaningful conversation, interaction, and Life-giving moments.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back over my entire spiritual journey. As I put on my 20-20 hindsight goggles, I confess that I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong. Oh my, have I missed some things. Simple things. Basic things. Things I should have seen long ago.

I was taught, and embraced the notion, that moral and doctrinal purity were “the most excellent way.” I and my Protestant tribes have been so worried about avoiding a doctrinally errant “gospel of works” (i.e. you earn your salvation by doing good deeds) that I believe I elevated the importance of belief and right-thinking. In so doing I diminished the activating ingredient: Love. And, without the activating ingredient, my faith is….

I’m reminded of James’ letter to believers (a letter Martin Luther hated and wanted struck from the canon of scripture). James is echoing the same sentiment as Paul. He just says it in a different way. If I say I have faith and I believe all the right doctrines, but I don’t have the activating agent of love motivating me to “Do” unto others, love my enemies, forgive those who’ve sinned against me, welcome the outcast, take up my cross, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give my coat as well, and et cetera, then my faith is void of Life. And, that which is void of Life is dead. I and my right doctrine are dead on arrival.

Lord, have mercy on me. I’ve still got so much to learn, and “Do.”

Compelled

For Christ’s love compels us….
2 Corinthians 5:14a (NIV)

I’m shaking my head with a smile this morning. I returned from a week’s hiatus and had to double check where we left off in our chapter-a-day journey. It’s a bit of synchronicity for me to read the five words pasted at the top of the post in this morning’s chapter because Wendy and I spent a good part of our journey home from the lake yesterday discussing them.

A number of weeks ago my fellow mystics at the Center for Action and Contemplation made a fascinating word connection in their daily meditation. The root of our word “mercy” is from an ancient Etruscan word, merc, which is also the root of our English word “commerce.” Over the past several weeks I’ve been quietly meditating on the transactional nature of relationship with Christ. And, it is definitely transactional in nature:

  • “Give, and it will be given unto you.”
  • “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
  • “Christ paid for sin, once for all.”
  • “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt of love.”

The problem, Wendy and I discussed yesterday, is that there are stark differences between the economics of this world and the economics of God’s Kingdom. In this life journey we are so ingrained with the concept of earning everything. Most of us earn our allowance as children, earn our grades and our diplomas as students, earn our paychecks and retirement as adults. Our entire lives are predicated on the notion that you get what you earn. This is a core piece of the curse of Adam when God said, By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” It’s even at the core of our justice system where you “get what you deserve.”

[cue: Cell Block Tango]

It is no wonder that we so easily we misunderstand the economics of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to reveal. We often mindlessly (and heartlessly) twist Christianity into the transactional system we know by making it all about earning God’s favor and proving ourselves good followers of Jesus by what we do to earn the title. We reduce relationship with God to a daily transactional paradigm in which I’m blessed if I do good things and cursed if I do bad things. In so doing our spiritual death begins to take hold because “God’s ways are not our ways.”

In the economy of God’s Kingdom we are motivated not by our need to earn, but by the experience of freely receiving what we haven’t earned, of having an irreparable debt paid off. We are not required to earn a thing because we’ve already been freely given all we need and more. The transaction that earned us salvation had nothing to do with us at all apart from being the object of God’s sacrificial love. It was all done by Christ Jesus on the cross.

In today’s chapter, in five words, Paul gets down to the crux of this small but essentially crucial difference in transactional spiritual paradigms. Why did Paul turn his cushy, well-respected life upside down? Why did Paul endure endless hardship and continually risk his life? Why was Paul willing to be persecuted, beaten, whipped, prosecuted, imprisoned, and have his head chopped off? He was compelled.

Christ’s love compels us.

This morning I’m thinking about my thirty-some years as a follower of Jesus. I think about messages I’ve given, blog posts I’ve written, resources I’ve given, and choices I’ve made along the path. Why? I’m compelled. I’ve got to. It’s the point Dumbledore made to Harry Potter about having to fulfill the prophecy. There’s a difference between “‘I’ve got to” and “I’ve got to.”

Which is where the conversation meandered between Wendy and me yesterday, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Have a great day.

A Spiritual Lesson from Acting 101

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
James 2:18 (NRSV)

I’ve always believed that acting is the creation of an authentically believable character from the inside out. It is not just the manipulation of body and voice but the understanding of internal need, intention, motivation and thought which then translates into words, movement, and action.

My theatre professor in college taught us that one of the most important tools for the actor is observation. Watch people. We were sent to the local mall to watch people. Really watch them. It’s the Sherlock method of beginning to understanding character. What do you deduce from what you can readily observe in people? What can you tell about that couples’ relationship by the way they walk four feet apart? What does it say about them as a couple when she’s carrying on a conversation but her eyes are always looking over his shoulder at the people walking by? What is that teenager trying to say when he walks with that pronounced strut? Look at that old man, shoulders hunched over as if he’s protecting his soul, shuffling slowly with his eyes glued to the floor as though he’s afraid to look anyone in the eye. What in life led him to walk like that?

James’ discussion of faith and works in today’s chapter has created firestorms of controversy among theologians throughout the centuries. Some have even suggested pitching James’ letter from the canon of scripture altogether. Paul teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, and that it’s not of works. But James writes in today’s chapter that faith without works is worthless faith. So, which is it?

I’ve never been that stressed out about seeming contradiction. Following Jesus is a journey fraught with paradoxes. You have to die to live. You must lose in order to gain. You must give away to acquire. Faith and works is just another spiritual paradox in God’s economy. Theatre learned long ago the spiritual principle required for holding the tension. It’s called “Yes, and.” Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, and yes, faith without works is worthless faith.

James was simply tapping in to Acting 101 class. Watch yourself. Really watch yourself. I should observe myself as others do. What do my words say about me? What can someone deduce from the way I treat my employees, my family, or as James suggests, the poor and needy? My inner spiritual realities are evidenced in my outside behaviors. If I really believe what I say I believe, the internal faith will continually work itself out in my words, actions, and relationships.

This morning I am feeling convicted. The process of honest self observation is never comfortable. Though I’m quite sure I have blind spots, I know most of my major shortcomings acutely. A self-inventory leads me to uncomfortable conclusions. And, I think that’s also ultimately James’ point. Discomfort prompts change, which creates movement, which propels me further in the journey towards Life. Comfort prompts apathy, which creates stagnation, which eventually becomes death.

Faith or works?

Yes.

We Love Our Rules

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God.
Leviticus 21:16-17 (NRSV)

One of the things that I must continually remind myself as I read through the ancient laws of Moses: They didn’t work.

The rules did provide a moral and religious framework for guiding Hebrew society. One could argue that the ideals presented in the chapters we’re reading provided an idealistic goal for Hebrew society to shoot for. The rest of history, however, proves that they continually fell short of the mark. The books of history are a record of the Israelites perpetually doing the things they knew they shouldn’t do. That’s why there are so many books of prophets, because God would always have to call them back to repentance.

One of the cornerstones of theology for followers of Jesus is this very fact. You can’t work to earn salvation because no person perfectly executes the perfection God requires. No human being can reach moral perfection of their own human effort. We are broken people who perpetually do things we know we shouldn’t do and refuse to do things we know we should. All of these rules for moral and spiritual perfection taught us how we couldn’t do it on our own, in and of ourselves. We need a savior.

This morning I’m thinking about the ways I have seen and experienced the institutional church and religious organizations trying to lay Levitical-type legalistic rules over the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice. “You are saved by grace through faith,” we often say and then continue with: “and you must do this and that and not do that or this because it says so in God’s law.” I find it fascinating that God provides forgiveness and salvation freely to anyone who will simply accept it, regardless of our moral standing, and we still want to run back to embrace the religious rules we’ve never been able to keep in the first place.

Rulebooks and Keeping Score

This is the ritual of the burnt offering, the grain offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being….
Leviticus 7:37 (NRSV)

I like to keep score at baseball games. I’ve always been fascinated by the scorebook since I was a regular benchwarmer in the minors at Beaverdale Little League. I would sit on the bench next to the coach’s wife and watch her mark the book as a record of was taking place in the game. I never lost my curiosity for it.

Scoring a baseball game is relatively simple if the game follows a simple story line of strike outs, fly balls, and base hits. But when run downs involving multiple players take place and the pitcher’s mound becomes a turn-style of pitchers called in from the bullpen with runner’s on base, things get incredibly more complex in a hurry. Then layer over it the official scorer’s role of making subjective decisions of whether the batter reached on a base hit (he gets credit for it, and any runs he batted in, and the run gets charged to the pitcher who gave up the hit to the player who scored the run [unless the player who scored the run reached on an error – then the run doesn’t get charged to the pitcher]) or an error (batter doesn’t get credited for the hit, and the error must be charged to either the fielder who should have caught it, the fielder who didn’t throw it effectively, or the other fielder covering the base who didn’t catch it). You get my drift. It gets arcane in a geeked out way.

On our coffee table sits a copy of Major League Baseballs official rule book. On occasion, when a play raises a question about a play or how it is to be scored, I’ll pick it up and try to find the rule. It’s a small book, but it’s a labyrinth of regulatory text. There’s an entire section on how to score. Sometimes it’s hard to find what I’m looking for in rule 4.2 paragraph two, sub-section C line six. The game is still going on. I don’t have that much time if I’m going to keep up with my scorecard.

As I read the chapter this morning I was struck by the way it read like baseball’s rule book. The rules for sacrifice were so complex. It’s a labyrinth of offerings and sacrifices of different kinds for seemingly every occasion. It made me think that the ancient Hebrews had a different sacrifice for every emoji:

I’m feeling thankful today. How do I make an offering for that according to the Levitical rulebook? That’s section 2, offering 3.4, paragraph three.”

“Oops, I accidentally dropped my neighbors pint glass and a shard cut my wife’s foot causing her to jerk her foot back and kick the neighbor’s cat. To whom do I charge the error and who  has to make the guilt sacrifice? Is that a blood sacrifice or just a burnt offering? Burnt offering? Can I do that on the neighbor’s grill?”

It’s overwhelming just to think about living under the weight of that system. I can’t imagine it. Which was, I believe, part of the larger point God was trying to make in the grand theme of the Great Story. “You want to try and do it on your own?” God says. “Okay, here’s the rulebook. Have fun.” Trying to keep score in life, recording errors and then make up for every wrong doing, unintended injury, and moral oversight is impossible.

Then who can be can be saved?” Jesus’ followers asked when the subject came up.

It’s impossible for human beings,” Jesus replied, stating the grand lesson of the Levitical law. “But it’s not impossible for God. God is the one who can and will do it.

Jesus becomes the sacrifice, once for all.

Suddenly, keeping score becomes quite simple. Charge the errors to Jesus. All of them.

(Not) Missing the Point

“…[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit….”
Titus 3:5 (NIV)

There is a fascinating and utterly critical matter lying beneath the structure of Paul’s letter to Titus in today’s chapter. It is essential to understanding God’s Message.

Our chapter begins with Paul instructing Titus to remind the followers of Jesus to be obedient and to do good:

  • Be subject to rulers
  • Be subject to authority
  • Be ready to do whatever is good
  • Slander no one
  • Be peaceable
  • Be considerate
  • Always be gentle

Here is a do-gooders laundry list. “Surely this is what God expects,” I can hear a heart whisper, “There’s no way. I’ve done too many awful things. I’m such a wretch. There’s no use trying. I could never be what God wants me to be.”

But we can’t stop with the list. The very next thing Paul does is remind Titus of what both of them were, in the past tense:

  • Foolish
  • Disobedient
  • Deceived
  • Enslaved to passions
  • Enslave to pleasures
  • Malicious
  • Envious
  • Hated by others
  • Hating others back

What a contrasting list. Here is a description most of us can identify with. We know the struggle against our own selves, our selfishness, foolishness, and out of control appetites. We know the shame of our own failures.

So, how do we get to the former list when our lives are described by the latter? Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s next words to Titus this way:

But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life!

Here is the crux of Jesus’ teaching, and what I believe is the most amazing piece of it. Gods acceptance isn’t the result of being a do-gooder and earning some kind of spiritual merit badge. We are accepted by God amidst of our ever present laundry list of failures simply by His mercy. We don’t become do gooders to earn God’s mercy. God’s mercy is poured out over us, because of what Jesus did on the cross and because of the empty tomb, so that our lives might be transformed. The transformation is not our doing; It’s God’s work in  and through us after simply accepting this amazing, gracious gift.

Today, I’m reminded that goodness is not a prerequisite of God saving me, but the result of God saving me. If I miss this truth, than I miss the entirety of Jesus’ teaching.

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How are Those Resolutions Coming?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
Romans 7:15 (NIV)

So, how are those New Year’s resolutions coming? I laughed the other day when a friend on Facebook confessed that he couldn’t wait for everyone at his crowded gym to give up their resolutions and stay home.

Why is it that we struggle to do the things we want to do and the things that we know will be good for us? At the same time, we continue to do things we know are unhealthy for ourselves (and perhaps others) even though we know we should stop.

This is the crux of the rumination in today’s chapter. There are those who steadfastly believe, or act as if they believe, that God’s favor is earned by keeping the rules, being good people, and coloring inside the lines. Paul’s response is basically: “How are those New Year’s Resolutions coming?”

No matter how good we try to be, we never truly rid ourselves of the human condition. Despite our resolutions we find ourselves choosing the couch over the gym after a couple of meager attempts at self discipline. The five pounds we shed in January (of the 20 we need to lose) is back on by Valentine’s Day. And, we won’t even go there with the nasty little secret behaviors the rest of the world doesn’t see.

The message of Jesus was simply this. You can’t rid yourself of the nature of sin. That being the case, death is the penalty. Jesus did not come to give us a a bunch of Pinterest worthy sayings to motivate us toward good works. Jesus came to die the death that we deserve, so that we might have access to the Life we can never afford by our own efforts.

Today, I’m feeling grateful that my salvation is not dependent on my goodness. I think I’ll keep working on those resolutions, though. They won’t earn me a ticket to heaven, but they will certainly make my journey on this earth a little better for both me and my companions.

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