Friday, January 31, 2014

The Source of Morality

Morality is all about right and wrong behavior.  In some ways it is like having a little rule book regulating behavior built into us somehow.  If we follow the rules we are moral.  If we disregard the rules we are considered immoral.  But where does this rule book come from, and why does it seems so integrated into my life?

Absolute Moral Standards

There is much discussion today concerning the nature of morality.  Is there such a thing as an absolute moral?  Or are morals always relative, varying across societies and time?  I commonly hear people today argue that morality is always relative; there are no absolutes.  And yet those same people will vigorously argue that slavery is just wrong, always.  That child abuse, at least once they are external to the womb, is abhorant, always.  That discrimination because of gender, sexual orientation, or skin color is intolerable, always.  And that sounds suspiciously like absolutes to me.

The problem with absolutes in the moral realm is that we have to account for them.  What makes it wrong to enslave another person?  Who says it is wrong?  If it is a human convention, then it can change as human society evolves; and it indeed is relative.  But if it is relative, then we cannot say that slavery was wrong in the past, nor that it will always be wrong in the future.

It is also not uncommon to hear people criticize or condemn the morality of another culture.  Those of us in the US typically look down on the morality of Afghanistan or the Arab world, calling them barbaric or uncivilized.  And they in turn look at our morality with disgust.  But ... if morality is relative, what gives me the right to consider my moral code superior to that of another?

By claiming my moral code is better than your moral code, I am actually claiming that there is a standard, an ideal, a best moral code.  And that I am closer to that standard than you are.  And so, by claiming that my code is better than yours, I acknowledge there is a standard, an absolute morality, even while claiming that morality is relative.

Differences in Moral Standards

Those who would argue for a socially derived morality will point to the differences in morality across different societies.  And indeed we do find differences in morality across different societies and ethnic groups, and sometimes even within a society.  Who I can have sex with is a good example of this.  In my social circle, it is limited to married spouses of a different gender.  Other circles will extend that to same gender, semi-stable relationships, or with just about anyone.

But while we may disagree over the issue of who we can have sex with, there does seem to be nearly universal agreement that we should not have sex with an unwilling partner, and those who do generally are punished by their society.  Cheating on your partner, while it happens frequently, is also something that is generally frowned on, as is sexual relations with children, although the age there will vary across cultures.

So while there are some variations in how morals are implemented across cultural groups, they are variations on what appear to be some pretty common moral absolutes.  Killing people, taking their stuff, lying, sleeping with your friend's wife, not taking care of your family: does any moral code not include these prohibitions?

Morality: A Product of Evolution?

There are also those who will claim that morality is a product of our evolutionary development; that our morals are a genetic trait that developed to help us better survive as social creatures.  By no means am I an expert on the theory of evolution, and I suppose it is possible that some aspects of the way we relate to each other have developed that way.  But some aspects of our morality seem pretty contrary to an evolutionary approach.

Evolution, at least as I understand it, involves genetic change; change that in some tiny way makes me different that the rest of my social circle.  If that genetic change gives me a survival benefit over my fellows, then I am more likely to pass that trait on to my descendents.  If the change makes me less competitive, then my chances of having offspring, and passing on that genetic trait, are reduced.  Makes sense.  So if morals are genetic, then it would seem that those morals that are developed should give me a survival benefit over those who do not have those specific morals.

But do they?  Some would be easy to understand as providing a survival advantage, especially something like motherly love and care of offspring.  But some would seem to be counter to that.  Suppose you are walking along a raging river and spot an unknown child hanging onto a tree out in the middle of the river.  What is your first instinct?  More than likely it will be to attempt to rescue that child.  But why?  What survival advantage is it for me to risk throwing away my life, and the possibility of reproducing my genes, for one who obviously has a weaker genetic makeup (otherwise they would not be out in the river while I am safely on shore).

Self-sacrifice, the hero thing, is an admired trait.  We look up to people who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives for others.  But how can this moral trait possibly be one that has any kind of evolutionary advantage.  If it is genetic, it would seem that it would be selected against.  Everyone who has it would die sooner than those who didn't.

Universal Moral Law

So where does morality come from.  It is possible that some aspects of morality have a survival benefit.  It is likely that some aspect of morality are simply social conventions that we adopt either during our childhood, or upon entry into a new social circle.  But neither of those can adequately account for all of the morality that humans wrestle with.  A lot of our morality seems to come from outside of human culture or evolution.  It is as if there were some form of universal moral code, or law, that impacts us from outside.

This law is in some ways similar to gravity in that it is part of the structure of the creation, and influences us whether we like it or not.  But it is different in that we seem to have the capacity to resist it and, to some extent, mold it to our own purposes.

But where would a universal moral law come from?


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Strength in Weakness

How many times have I prayed for strength. And how many times have I heard others request the same thing. Weakness is not something that we find desirable in our society. It leaves me at the mercy of other people and dependent on their willingness to help. Strength, on the other hand, gives me power and independence; the stronger I am, the less I am at the mercy of others. Strength is good and weakness is bad. At least that is the way it is commonly viewed.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NIV
Paul seems to have had the same view on strength and weakness.  Repeatedly he had prayed to God to remove some affliction that was getting in the way.  And ultimately God responded to him with the above passage; a passage that is so contrary to our normal way of looking at things that I have a tendency to nod my head in assent, and then pray for the strength to do it.

Now it does take strength to allow this passage to describe your own experience.  But not my own personal strength, which is what I would likely pray for.  Instead, I need to be weak and helpless, staying out of his way as he works through me.  And when I will do that, then his power will operate in my life.  Paul ultimately was able to affirm, "when I am weak, then I am strong."  

It is the surrendered life, rather than the talented or powerful life, that God finds most useful.  He is not so much interested in what I can do for him, as what he can do through me.  Will you let his power be made perfect in your weakness?  Will you get out of his way and let him work in and through you?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Which Gate Will You Enter

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matthew 7:13-14 NIV
In the collection of Jesus teachings that we label as 'The Sermon on the Mount', is a tiny nugget that is fairly well known, at least at some level, and from which we get the expression 'the straight and narrow'.  This expression usually refers to living a life that is morally upright and above reproach.  But I believe these two simple verses from Jesus have more to say to us than encouragement to live a good life.

Jesus paints a picture of a fork in the road, each fork passing through a gate.  One fork is broad and easy to see and follow.  This fork promises easy travel and a comfortable journey.  Its gate has a wide opening and is enticing.  This is the fork that most people choose to take.

The second fork is easy to miss.  It has a narrow gate that will not allow the person entering to carry much baggage.  Unlike the broad gate, this one offer little promise of an easy trip.  In fact, the road stretching out beyond this gate looks to be one that will be full of hardship.  Although, truth be told, few actually even notice this gate, much less look into it to see where its road might lead.

The vast majority choose to follow the road through the broad gate and, for a time at least, experience a pleasant journey.  But that journey invariably leads to destruction and loss.  The road that started off with so much promise ultimately ends in disaster.

The few who choose the road through the narrow gate face a quite different experience.  While the road may be challenging at times, they discover that they never face those times alone.  And at the end of the journey they find real life, and great reward.

So which will you choose?  To walk the easy and well traveled road that ends up with destruction; the road that may lead to happiness and success in this life, but, in the end, leads to eternal separation from God?  Or will you choose the road less traveled, walking with Jesus away from the allure of this world and toward the life that we were created to experience?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Smyrna: The Faithful Church

In the second and third chapters of Revelation are letters from Jesus to seven of the first century churches in what is today Turkey.  While I believe these letters were addressed to real churches of that day, I also believe they have great application to our churches today.  The second of these was to the church of Smyrna.
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:

These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.  Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
Revelation 2:8-11 NIV
I suspect that most people, if they are church shopping, would not give Smyrna a second look.  They appear to be a church that was experiencing difficulties and had little to commend them materially.  Imagine a church today who can barely afford to keep the lights on, the heat is minimal, the furnishings are old and drab, the sound system is non-existent, and the building is in need of a coat of paint.  Pretty attractive isn't it?

Smyrna was also a church that was experiencing some opposition from other local churches, maybe because of the message they proclaimed, and maybe because of their ministry efforts to less desirable elements of the community.  There were those who wished that the church of Smyrna would just quietly close their doors and quit being an offense to their sense of how 'church' should be done.

But someone very important didn't share their opinion of this church; and that someone was Jesus.  Where many saw a poor church, Jesus saw a rich church, one that was faithful, laying up riches in heaven, following his example in reaching out to the poor, the disadvantaged, the outcasts of society.  Where the world saw a church that was dying, Jesus saw a church that was very much alive and victorious.

We would like to think that if a church is really being faithful to Christ, like the church at Smyrna was, that they would not have budget problems, that they would not face challenging times, and that life as a church would be grand.  And while some of that may be true some of the time, for Smyrna it was not.  Jesus warns them of continuing challenges, some that are worse than what they are currently experiencing.  And he encourages them to remain faithful, and to experience the victor's crown.

Smyrna was a faithful church, one whose focus was not on their problems, but rather on Jesus.  In Jesus eyes, success as a church is not based on how many attend, how elaborate and well maintained the facility is, how many programs are offered or how well they are run, how inspiring the worship services are.  To him, success goes hand in hand with faithfulness.

What is the mark of success for the church you are a part of?  Is it based on numbers, whether people, money or programs?  Is it based on appearances, in the form of facilities, worship or prestige?  Or is it based on faithfulness to his call to be the body of Christ?  And, even more importantly, are you faithful to God's call in your life, and service within his church?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What About Jesus

Central to Christianity is the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.  Most religions can trace their origin back to a person.  But generally that person is not significant except for their teachings.  Who and what they were, or even if they existed, is really not all that important.  Jesus is different though.  He is more significant for who he was and what he did, than for what he taught.  And as a result, who he was is of vital importance to us.

Did he even exist?

While most people will acknowledge that Jesus actually existed, there are those who will claim just the opposite, that Jesus never existed, that he was a legend, an invention of the actual founders of Christianity.  In support of this claim they will say that there are no contemporary, non-Christian, writings, those from the first half of the 1st century, that mention Jesus; and very little from the second half of that century or the next.  If there was someone wandering around the Roman world raising the dead, healing the sick and feeding multitudes, surely someone would have taken notice and written about it.  But apart from Christian sources, there are no records, whether official or not, that make any mention of Jesus or his miracles.  The claim they make is that there is no way the Jesus of the New Testament could have existed, doing what is claimed of him, without wider mention being made of him.  Therefore he did not exist, at least not as he is pictured in the New Testament.

But this assumes a first century world that is similar to ours today, in particular the western world.  In our world of instant communication and insatiable curiosity, little happens that does not make it onto the evening news or the papers.  Books are written about every conceivable subject and event, past, present or future.  It is inconceivable to us that a polarizing miracle worker in the Middle East who is killed and comes back to life, and who claims to be God, would not be widely known across the whole world and written up in a multitude of books and TV documentaries.

But the first century Roman world did not have instant communications.  It took a significant amount of time for information to circulate.  Jesus did not live in a place that was the center of much of the world’s attention, but rather a backwater Roman province that few cared about, other than as a place to avoid.  And there were no publishers roaming around looking for people to write books about any conceivable topic.  Writing was a very manual effort, reproduction of that writing was very tedious and expensive, and many people did not even read.  To the Romans, the most significant person in Judea during the time of Jesus was Pilate, the Roman governor.  Yet even he is just barely known from non-Christian sources.    Is it any wonder that Jesus, an itinerant Jewish rabbi, who taught mostly in the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea for 3 years, was not recognized outside of the local area?

Did he bear any resemblance to the Jesus of the New Testament

If the skeptic is willing to accept that there really was a Jesus of Nazareth, the next objection they will generally throw out is that he likely bore little resemblance to the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament.  They may accept that he was a Jewish rabbi with a local following who was killed by the Roman and Jewish authorities.  But then they will claim that the Gospels were written so much later that they cannot be considered accurate portrayals of his life, and are instead reflective of the legends that had grown up around him.  Even with an early dating of the gospels, in the 50's and 60's, they will claim that the 20 to 30 years that transpired between his life and its recording was more than enough to dim memories and add numerous embellishments during repeated oral transmission of his life and teachings.

But is 20 to 30 years enough time for established legends to arise, legends that bear little resemblance to reality?  Unless the legends are intentionally developed by those who had first hand experience with Jesus, it is hard to see how they could.  As long as there are surviving witnesses, who are truthful, there will always be a counter to any legends that are bending the truth.  While some small details may be obscured, in general the telling of his life and teachings should stay in sync with who and what he actually was.  It would take multiple generations of story tellers, or an intentional attempt by a core group, to substantially change the story.

The only records of Jesus life and teachings that come out of the first century are the 4 gospels that are included in our New Testament.  While these gospels have some minor differences in detail concerning Jesus life and teaching, they are generally in harmony.  Indeed, three of them seem to share common sources, and would be expected to be in agreement.  But while the fourth gospel is very different in content and style, it still describes the same Jesus.  It is only when you get to the second or third centuries that you start to see 'gospels' that paint a different picture of Jesus.  And these gospels are seldom in agreement with each other, and seem to be unknown by the church at large, even during the time of their writing, making them highly suspect.

If so, what claims did he and his followers make about himself?

I believe it is safe to assume that Jesus did indeed exist as a real life Jewish rabbi from the first century.  I believe it is also accurate to claim that the Gospel records are an accurate reflection of who he and his followers believed him to be.  But just what is it that they believed about who Jesus was?

According to the Gospel records, and the other New Testament writings, Jesus is clearly portrayed as God himself in human form.  This is actually a pretty incredible claim, especially by a Jew, either about themselves or someone else.  It was a claim that was punishable by death and would go against everything they believed or held to.  It is highly unlikely that a group of Jews would attempt to start a new religion, or even build on an existing one, using something as inflammatory as this as a cornerstone of the faith.  I can see no reason to make the claim unless they were indeed convinced that it was true.

Did he resurrect?

There seems to be little reason to doubt the existence of Jesus, or even that he aroused the animosity of the ruling officials and was crucified.  The few non-Christian references to Jesus from the first century seem not to question his crucifixion at the hands of Pilate.  But what happened to him after that.  The idea that he was restored to life seems clearly incredible.  And a spiritual resurrection would seem to work just as well theologically, and indeed some Christians today make just that claim.  But it does seem clear that the early church believed in a literal physical resurrection.  While there is no physical proof available to us today concerning that resurrection, there must have been pretty convincing proof for those who were eyewitnesses to his death and later appearances.  And at the same time, no proof that he had not resurrected, otherwise there would have been little chance of convincing an audience that had no built-in reason to believe it.  We could argue the resurrection from the basis of the empty tomb.  But most convincing to me is the testimony of his early followers.  For those who were closest to the events, there seemed to be no question in their minds concerning the physical resurrection of Jesus.

1 Corinthians is universally attributed to the Apostle Paul, even by skeptics who question much of the rest of the New Testament.  And the date of its writing is generally held to be in the range of 53-57 A.D., or about 25 years after Jesus' death and resurrection.  In the 15th chapter of this letter Paul addresses the resurrection of believers, and ties it closely with the resurrection of Jesus.  He begins this section with what is generally accepted as an early creed of the church, likely in place within 5 years of Jesus resurrection.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIV
While the underlined portions above were obviously added by Paul, it does tell us that the earliest church clearly believed in Jesus resurrection, a bodily resurrection that allowed him to visibly appear to others.  And that at the time of 1 Corinthians writing there were still a substantial number of witnesses to the resurrection that would verify their encounter with the risen Jesus.

What is the significance of his sacrifice and resurrection?

Many people today seem to believe that the message of the Bible is that God had a plan for humanity; we rebelled against him, and as a result have frustrated his plan.  And in order to get things back on track, God was forced to deal with our sin, was somehow required to offer himself as a perfect sacrifice to redeem us to himself.  But is that really the case?

Indeed God does have a plan for us.  And indeed we seem to prefer following our own plan of action rather than his.  And he has offered himself, in the person of Jesus, as a sacrifice of redemption.  But I do not believe that there is any truth to the idea that Jesus sacrifice for us was somehow a fallback position required because of our sin.  In contrast, the New Testament actually teaches that Jesus was prepared as a sacrifice for us before the creation.  It was the original plan.  Nor do I believe that it was the only plan that God could have chosen.  Instead I believe that it was intentionally chosen by him because it would require faith on our part to accept it, and that, rather than perfection, was what he was looking for.  We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and what he did for us.

Summary

There is no way to conclusively prove that Jesus existed, that he was God in human form and that he was physically resurrected after his crucifixion.  But there is no good reason to deny that he did live and developed a following.  And it seems clear that the New Testament Gospel accounts accurately reflect the beliefs of his early followers.  Beliefs that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he rose on the third day.  I am willing to share in those beliefs because (1), I believe the New Testament is a trustworthy account, (2), because of the transformed lives of other people throughout the intervening 2000 years, and most importantly (3), because of the difference it has made in my own life.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

God's Will: Rejoice, Pray and Give Thanks

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
The above passage is from Paul's concluding remarks in his first letter to the Thessalonian church, and it is sometimes easy to just race past it to finish up the letter.  But I believe that is a big mistake.  These three tiny verses have some very practical application in our daily lives, especially if we want to follow God's desire concerning our character. Three simple directives that will make such a big difference in who we are.

Rejoice always!  I am sure you have know people who always seemed positive, who always see the good, who brighten your day whenever you encounter them.  God wants me to be one of those people.  Not one who is wearing a mask and just pretending to rejoice.  But one who just does.  To have a heart that is always rejoicing in the Lord.

Pray continually!  This sounds impossible; and it is if you limit prayer to something that requires you to close your eyes, bow your head, and tell God what you want him to do for you.  But prayer is so much more than that.  Think of prayer simply as talking to God, without all of the ritual that we so often seem to wrap around it.  There is generally no need to bow your head, although there may be a time for that.  Closing your eyes can be useful when you need to block out other distractions, but would normally be a bad idea, especially if you are driving.  Prayer should not be limited to making requests, treating God like a giant vending machine in the sky.  Just talk to him, like you do your closest friend.  That is how you will get to know him best.

Give thanks in all circumstances!  It is easy to be thankful when everything is going just right.  It is quite another thing to be thankful when your life seems to be the subject of a country western song; dog died, wife ran away, and the truck is broke.  Hardly a day goes by that I don't find something that is hard to be thankful for.  But fortunately we are not being instructed to be thankful for those things that happen to us.  Instead we are just told to be thankful while we are going through those trying circumstances.  Be thankful that we have a God who cares about us.  Be thankful for what the trials can produce in our lives.

This is God's will for you.  There are a lot of things that I might identify as being God's will for me, including some things that are specific for my life and not necessarily for others.  But for all of us who are 'in Christ Jesus', who have a relationship with him, he wants us always to have a spirit of joy and thanksgiving, and to stay in constant contact with him.  After all, we have been invited to be a part of God's plan for eternity and to enter into fellowship with our creator.  Why would I not be filled with joy and thanksgiving?

Friday, January 17, 2014

God Has Proven Himself To Me!

Dear Atheist,

I cannot count the number of times you have challenged me to prove to you that God exists.  And I always freely respond that I cannot prove to you that he does.  So you consider me a fool because I accept something as true that I can't prove to your satisfaction.  But that I cannot prove it to you does not mean that I cannot prove it to myself.  And that I can do.

I was born into a Christian family and was a regular attender at the family church.  However, as I neared graduation from high school and induction into the US Navy, I recognized the emptiness of my 'Christian' experience and was prepared to abandon it when I left home.  And it is quite likely that you can relate to this, since that seems to be a fairly common story.  But during that last summer I was ambushed and captured.

I spent about half of that summer washing dishes at a Christian camp.  During that time I discovered that not everyone's experience with God was the same as mine.  There were some there who had a spirit about them that was very appealing to me; I wanted what they had.  What I discovered was that they had a personal relationship with God, unlike others, myself included, for whom God was simply an intellectual construct.

By the time that summer was over I had joined those who had a personal relationship with their creator, and discovered that it was a transformational experience.  My plans for the future were upended, not because I felt like I had to, but because the desire was gone.  And my language, which could be pretty vulgar, was also transformed, even in boot camp, and with no effort on my own part.  It just happened.

Now, is that scientific proof for the existence of God?  No, it is not.  But is there a more logical way to explain a change from R rated desires and language to G rated versions of both.  And especially for an 18 year old male, fairly susceptible to peer pressure, going through Navy boot camp.  I cannot tell you how many times I have looked back at that experience when questions arose about the reality of God.

And I could describe other experiences in the following 40+ years that continue to add proof to my conviction that God not only exists, but that he cares about me and has a purpose for my life.  Today I continue to enjoy spending time with my creator and getting to know him better.  And this has not been my experience only; many others that I have known over the years have had similar experiences.

Does God exist?  Without doubt!  And regardless what you may say about Him, I know the truth.  God is real.  He has chosen to inhabit this fragile clay jar.  And what better proof could I ask for that his confirming presence in my life?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Rebuilt from the Ground Up!

In an earlier life I was a computer programmer.  And I remember well one web site that a group of us put together.  The customer was very demanding, the requirements changed frequently and the deadlines were short.  And as a result the code behind the web site was hurriedly thrown together, patched, tweaked and modified until it was becoming a nightmare to work with.  While we managed to produce the site the customer wanted, it was pretty ugly behind the curtain, and hard to change.

Once the site was launched and the pressure was off, we were faced with a decision.  We could leave the code the way it was and struggle to make changes to it when needed.  Or we could throw out the old code and rewrite it from scratch now that we had a complete set of requirements from the customer, as well as the needed time.  Fortunately we opted for the second.  Fortunate because that site changed a lot over the next few years, and the clean code base made that much easier.  Without that, it would likely have been impossible to keep updating the site.

I find this process to be very similar to the approach many take when coming to Christ.  We have been busy with building our own lives, and are comfortable with where we are, even though our lives may be a mess with all the pieces cobbled together.  And when Christ comes we are tempted just to add in a few new features (like periodic Bible reading, occasional prayer, worship attendance, and maybe putting money in the offering plate if I have any extra) into the old existing code base.  And the result is not very satisfying.

The alternative is what Paul describes in the passage below, throwing out the old me, and allowing the master programmer to rebuild me into something that would be useful to him.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 
Galatians 2:20 NIV
Crucified with Christ and no longer alive.  This sounds pretty drastic.  But it is what is needed if I am going to experience the life God has prepared for me.  Trying to hold on to my life with just a few upgrades just will not cut it.  Throw it all out and start over again.

Where once Paul was at the center of his life, now Christ occupies that position.  Talk about an upgrade.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Ephesus: The Almost Perfect Church

In the second and third chapters of Revelation are letters from Jesus to seven of the first century churches in what is today Turkey.  While I believe these letters were addressed to real churches of that day, I also believe they have great application to our churches today.  The first of these was to the church of Ephesus. 
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
    These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.  I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.  You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
    Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.  Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.  But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
    Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Revelation 2:1-7 NIV
The church at Ephesus had a lot to commend them.  They were a hard working bunch; you can imagine there was plenty of opportunity for people to be involved.  And the members of the body were likely taking advantage of those opportunities; there were probably not a lot of pew sitters.  If this was a modern day church, you could picture their calendar being full.  Rather than having something going on at the building once or twice a week, there would have been activities scheduled throughout the week, busy, busy, busy.

This was also a persevering church, they did not become quickly tired in their service, but kept after it.  When things were not going smoothly, or they faced opposition, or things did not turn out the way they had expected, they did not become discouraged and quit.  Instead they continued to faithfully serve regardless of how tempting it might have been to give up.

Ephesus was also doctrinally sound, not compromising the gospel for the sake of being more welcoming to seekers, or less offensive to their community.  They held to the truths they had been taught and refused to listen to those who came bringing a message that was contrary to God's word that had been delivered to them by the apostles.

Sounds like the ideal church: doctrinally sound, hard working, and with stick-to-itiveness.  When I am looking for a church to be a part of, these are definitely things that I look for, and Jesus commends them for that as well.  And yet they are missing something that is more important than any of that.

They had lost their first love.  And regaining that love had to take priority over everything else, or they risked losing their standing with God as a church.  But what was that first love?  Was it a love for the lost, a loss of evangelistic fervor?  Was it a loss of brotherly love for each other as members of the body of Christ?  Or was it a loss of love for Christ, the head of the body?  

While all of these are serious, I believe that Jesus is mourning their loss of love for himself.  My first love as an individual, and ours as a church, should be to our savior, the bridegroom, the head of the church, his body.  Only when we love him can we truly love each other, and have a real passion for the lost.  And only when we love him does it matter how hard we work and persevere and how pure our doctrine is.

As a church, how much of our focus is on: our calendar; keeping the programs staffed; making the budget; having an exciting (entertaining) worship service; having good comfortable facilities; having a superstar pastoral staff; having a good fellowship.  Or is our focus on Jesus, loving him, serving him, and getting to know him better?  It is clear from Jesus letter to the church at Ephesus which he prefers.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Faith Expressed Through Love

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Galatians 5:6b NIV
In the letter to the churches of Galatia, Paul deals extensively with those who are struggling with what is required to be saved.  Is it necessary to be circumcised, or to follow any other Jewish ritual.  Must one be baptized, join a church or tithe?  Do I have to do anything besides believe?

Paul's answer to all of that is a resounding "No".  God has done it all, and nothing I can add to what he has done will improve my standing with him.  Paul goes so far as to say that anything I do that is intended to secure my salvation will only be a detriment to it.  What is required on my part is simply to believe, to have faith.

But belief, or faith, needs to be more that merely intellectual acknowledgement.  Many people believe that God exists, that Jesus is God in human form, that Jesus rose from the dead, that life continues past the death of the body.  Included in those who believe is Satan and his followers, for all the good it does them.  Believing that God exists will get you nowhere, if it is only a mental exercise.

What counts is a faith that expresses itself through love.  A faith that changes who I am.  A faith that leads me to go beyond simple acknowledgement and into trust.  Trust that God has a purpose for me, and then seeking to live out that purpose.

My motivation for serving God should not be to win his favor.  Rather it should be out of love for what he has done for me.  I can never be worthy of his love, or adequately reward him for choosing me.  But I can surrender myself to him.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

What is a Christian?

If you were to take a survey of a sampling of the world's population, I would venture to guess that you would come up with a wide diversity of definitions and/or opinions as to what a Christian is.  The answer seems pretty simple to me, and I would guess that most people would feel the same way.  But if that is the case, how come so many of us have such widely differing, and sometime contradictory, answers?

Many people will say that a Christian is nothing more than a tag that one uses to identify themselves, a check box on a survey.  If I call myself a Christian, then I am one; nothing else is required by this definition.  But is a Christian anyone who claims to be one regardless of beliefs or lifestyle?  I don’t think so; anymore that claiming to be a cow would make a person one.

For some, being a member of a Christian church, or at least attending one occasionally, is what makes one a Christian.  But is being a Christian simply a matter of attending a ‘Christian’ church?  Does occasionally shopping is a running store, and reading an article or two in Runner's World, make be a runner?  It would seem to be that being a Christian, at least in a Biblical sense, is more that asocial activity.

Following a specific moral code is the key for some.  If one is at least giving lip service to the 10 Commandments, selected portions of the Old Testament law, or the code defined by some church, then they can claim to be Christians.  But is that all it takes, being moral?  If so then there would seem to be many people who claim to be atheists who in reality are Christians.

Others will look for a specific set of beliefs, although what that belief set is will vary depending on who you ask.  But is it enough to accept that a certain doctrinal statement is correct?  James 2:19 says: “You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”  Having correct beliefs seems not to do much good for them.

I claim to be a Christian.  I am very actively involved in a mainstream Christian church.  I live by a very high moral standard.  And I am in agreement with most of the doctrinal stands of my denomination.  But does that make me a Christian?  I do not believe so.  Being a Christian is more than that.  It is having a relationship with the God of creation based on the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus and empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  Being a Christian is a matter of trusting him with my life.  Being a Christian is not just another thing that I am, like being an engineer, husband, backpacker…  Being a Christian is at the core of who I am, and it is as a Christian that I work as an engineer, am a husband and father, enjoy the world around me and serve my God.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Training to be Godly

Train yourself to be godly.  For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:7b-8 NIV (1978)
I spend some time most days involved in physical training.  Most days I will don the fancy running clothes and spend time dodging cars out on the local roads.  Following that will usually be a long session that includes light muscle toning and stretching.  Some of the stretching is to prevent leg muscles from tightening up too badly, while an equal amount of the stretching is to combat the stiffness that seems to be a part of the "growing older" package.  I come away from the session feeling looser and better prepared for the day ahead of me.

That physical training has some additional value beyond not being as stiff.  I never have to listen to a doctor tell me that I need to get more exercise, although I do get nagged about diet somewhat.  But more importantly, it has great value when I strap on a backpack and head out into the mountains.  Running 30+ miles a week is of great value when walking 20 miles a day up and down mountains.

But as important as the physical exercise is to me, training to be godly is even more important.  For some people being godly means that one goes to church regularly and doesn't break the rules, at least not very much.  But to me it carries the idea of being like God.  I realize of course that in many ways I will never be like God, especially when trapped in this body.  But as Paul directs in Ephesians 5:1, "Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love", I can be like him in the way I treat the people I come into contact with.

To be godly, I need to walk in the way of love.  Now I don't know about you, but this is pretty challenging for me.  I am at heart fairly self-centered, and putting others needs ahead of my own is a challenge; at least for those outside of my family.  It requires a conscious effort and discipline, remarkably similar to getting out on the road every day.  Choosing to love, even when I don't feel like it, or the person seems unworthy of it, can be very hard.  And sticking with it when it seems to bear no immediate results is like continuing to run, even when tired and the finish line seems so very far away.

But, just like running, the more I train myself to be godly, to walk in love, the more natural it becomes.  And the results of walking in love are more far reaching that the physical exercise.  Physical exercise keeps the body working better, and has some impact on my emotional well being.  But walking in love helps me in my relationship with God, relationships with others both within the body of Christ and without.  Being godly changes who I am at my core, rather than just on the surface.  And, most importantly, it has application to my eternity.  Once the body I inhabit is gone, the physical training I put it through no longer matters.  But the training in godliness will continue to bear fruit as I continue fulfilling the purpose God created me for.

Indeed, there is some value in keeping your physical body in good shape.  But there is much more value in disciplining yourself to be godly, to follow Jesus example, to walk in the way of love.  But do you dare?  Are you willing to lose yourself in Him?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Beasley at Work!

Vacuuming and sweeping are not my idea of fun, an affliction that I share with my wife.  Dust bunnies seem to flee from surrounding homes to take refuge in my more friendly environment, although for the most part we have managed to keep the population somewhat under control; although just barely.  So, in an attempt to get the upper hand on the invasive bunnies, this Christmas I bought my wife a Roomba 650 by iRobot, and have been using it for the past week; and it has been quite an interesting week.

The Roomba is a small robotic vacuum cleaner that will wander around your house, sucking up dust bunnies, hair, dirt and other small things that it encounters.  And, in general, at least so far, it appears to do a fairly decent job of it.  iRobot produces several models of the Roomba, and what we have is a basic no frills model, other than the ability to schedule when it should make its rounds around the house.

Beasley, the name we have given our Roomba, is about 13.5 inches in diameter and rises to about 3 inches off the floor.  The vacuum pickup occupies the middle half of the bottom and it also has a small brush, along an outside edge, that helps to herd the bunnies away from a wall and into the vacuum mouth.  On the top are the simple controls that allow you to start the unit, send it back home and schedule it to clean automatically.  And around the sides are a number of sensors that give it some awareness of its environment as well as a small prison for captured bunnies.

We currently have Beasley setup in an out of the way location in the living room, although that will likely change once we get better acquainted with how he works.  He normally sits connected to his docking station where his battery is charged between cleanings.  Push the 'Clean' button on his top and he pops into action.  And when he is finished for the day he will return to the dock to rest up for the next bunny hunting expedition.

Beasley doesn't make any attempt to systematically vacuum the house.  Instead he appears to just randomly wander around the house from room to room, sucking up anything that he wanders across.  Mostly he will charge off in a straight line until encountering an obstacle, at which point he will rotate some seemingly random amount, and then charge off again until hitting the next obstacle.  Sometimes he will, for some unknown reason, halt in the middle of the floor, rotate, and head off in a new direction, and sometimes he will carefully work his way around the perimeter of an obstacle or wall.  It all seems rather random, and I am sure it is.  But over the course of an hour to 90 minutes, he does seem to cover the bulk of the house at least once.  And if run every day, so far he seems to be keeping the resident bunny population under control.

Beasley has a downward pointed sensor in his nose that is used to detect stairs, although I have yet to test this.  It is supposed to turn him around before he takes the plunge.  He also appears to have at least one forward facing sensor that lets him know when he is approaching a wall or other large obstacle.  With this, Beasley will slow down just before slamming into a wall and just lightly touch it before heading off in another direction.  Unfortunately this does not work all that well of the obstacle is small, like a chair leg or plant stand.  These he just slams into before careening off in another direction.

Beasley proofing the house has been ongoing since he was hired.  Wrapping a towel around a plant stand makes it visible and protects the plant.  Setting the plant stand in a shallow potting saucer does not, apparently it is not tall enough to be seen.  The included 'virtual wall' also works to keep Beasley away from a couple of plants and the back of the home entertainment system with its plethora or cables just waiting to capture him.  I have bought one "Keep Off" mat, with a couple more on the way.  These small black floor mats look like a cliff to Beasley and makes him turn around, so whatever is on the mat, plants, speakers, etc., is protected.  Currently on order is a softer bumper to protect the furniture from his bumper car operation.

I have not tried the scheduling feature yet, wanting to be around when he works until I have the house fully Beasley proofed.  Once I have developed a level of comfort with him, I will set him up to run on his own, at a time when he will not disturb anyone with his noise, or attempt to vacuum up my slow moving mother-in-law.

All in all we have been pleased with Beasley so far.  Hopefully he will give use years of faithful service.  And who knows, someday we may hire his sister Scooba, to take care of the mopping chores.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A New Year's Resolution for 2014

I am not generally one who makes New Year's resolutions.  In part because I don't see much purpose in it, and because, at least for me, they are quickly forgotten.  But I have been thinking about making some for 2014, and this time trying to keep them front and center and active.

I thought about making a resolution to run 1000 miles, hit 1:50 in a half marathon and run another full marathon in 2014.  I also thought about resolving to hike at least 600 miles on the PCT this year.  But while both of those are things I would like to do, and may well do, they did not seem to be the stuff of New Year's resolutions.  They are things I want to do, so it would be kind of like resolving to have a good time at Disney Land.  And besides, would running 1000 miles make me any better of a person than if I only ran 750 miles again?  Probably not.

I also considered resolving to love God more.  Or love my wife more.  Or being a better church member in 2014.  Or reducing the amount of clutter around my house.  All of those are good things, and I hope to do them.  But I am unsure how to measure them to see if I had accomplished my goal.  Try putting a number on how much you love your spouse, say 93%, and then target loving her 95% by the end of the year.  Does that even mean anything?

At this time in my life, what I want more than anything is to be useful to God.  I have spent the past year and a half slowly coming out of a long dry spell spiritually.  And it leaves me craving even more to develop a more faithful walk with God, my Lord and creator.  I know it will not happen quickly or easily, because I am way too stubborn to let go of self easily.  But it does point me to a resolution.

I wrote a blog last week, Showing Visible Progress in the Faith, that includes the heart of my resolution for 2014.  I want to be so faithful in obeying God's direction that other people around me will notice a change in my life this year.  I don't want to be the same old Ed come 2015.  Instead, I want to strive for godliness, and to be an example to people I encounter.

So how do I know if I have managed to successfully keep this resolution?  I will certainly know if I have drawn closer to God, and have been more willing to listen and obey.  But the bigger indication will come from you.  Can you see the progress?  If so, please let me know.  If not, I need to know.  Negative feedback may be painful, but it is necessary.  Help me to become a more faithful servant of Jesus Christ in 2014.