Taking Christ Seriously

“Saul asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’”
Acts 9:5 (Common English Bible)
            The most frightening thing about life today is that it is organized around political ideology instead of God. The rhetoric of the major political parties in the United States seem to give scant attention to what Christ would have us do and be as a people of God. As a nation we must address looming issues such as the treatment of aliens in our land, the use – or not – of torture upon our enemies, and the care of the disenfranchised and poor among our nation’s citizens. Republicans and Democrats, as well as the smaller political parties, each cast their own vision for this great nation and either abuse the scriptures to support that vision or ignore the Bible altogether. The great truth that is missed is that when we try to do without Christ, we collapse.
            That towering figure of the New Testament, Saul, who would have his name changed to Paul, offers the much needed corrective to the current rhetoric: “Who are you, Lord?” This question takes Christ seriously. It is a question that offers the promise of a fresh vitality for our churches and strength for our nation. But it is a question that must be asked honestly and with a humility that recognizes that every conviction we embrace may be changed. Notice in this Bible narrative that when Saul asked the question, his name, and his whole life, was changed. Old convictions were put to death. New convictions redirected his life. One result of his changed convictions is our New Testament. Nearly two-thirds of the New Testament is the witness of Saul’s changed life.
            A great difficulty today is the lack of humility. Everyone believes that they hold the corner to what is right and, therefore, desire to foist their deeply held convictions upon another. The result is a good deal of heated bluster and few who are listening. What is absent is a word from the Lord. That word, the word that Christ speaks, is left in the pages of a closed, and ignored, Bible. It should be little surprise to anyone that churches are being deserted and that few people pray with any sense that Christ matters. There may be a polite nod in the direction of Christ by politicians and political parties but, if pressed, many will softly say that the issues which confront our nation today require more than the polite Christ of the scriptures.
            Engraved upon brass and fixed upon the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach are the words, “The pulpit must be the grave of all human words.” These words of Edward Thurneysen simply assert that our words, human words, have no place in the witness of the Christian Church. As a people of God, our life must not be shaped and directed by political ideology or human reason. When the Bible speaks of God’s people as “holy,” it isn’t making some claim to our perfection. Quite literally, the claim made by this designation is that we have been separated from the world and are given new marching orders. We are a people of God. It is a call to take Christ seriously in our lives. And it begins, as it did for Saul, with the question, “Who are you, Lord?”


What We Can Know

What We Can Know
“If an army camps against me, my heart won’t be afraid. If war comes up against me, I will continue to trust in this.”
Psalm 27:3 (Common English Bible)
            For some, the greatest struggle of faith is uncertainty. One man spoke to me following worship recently and commented, “I find this Jesus you speak of very attractive. And I have no doubt that living as Jesus taught will positively impact a life. My difficulty is this, what can we know for sure?” The writer of these words in Psalm 27 records an ancient answer to this question that remains very present for some people: “What can we know for sure?” Here, the author makes an honest assessment of the world – a world that is fearful of hostile armies and of war – and affirms that, nonetheless, trust in God will abound. Anyone would be grateful that this author is so confident in the presence and power of almighty God. Yet, the question remains, “How shall we find that same confidence?”
            Gene E. Bartlett is helpful.[i]First is the consistent witness that God is a loving God. Naturally, this unwavering witness through the ages fails to prove to existence of God. Simply, it asserts agreement that if there is a God, that God is a loving God. Yet, an honest and fair reading of the Bible demands some attention to the cultural norms that shaped the day when these words were written. In the day of scripture the notion of “father” was much deeper and richer than our present use of the designation. More than a biological identification, “father” was one who had authority and commanded respect. Unquestioning obedience and honor was expected. So when Jesus addressed God as “Father,” Jesus was making a theological claim – obedience was expected before proof was received. And throughout the ages, as men and women struggled imperfectly to obey God, the consistent experience was love, acceptance and forgiveness. A common experience through thousands of years of struggling to live faithfully does, at the minimum, hint at the possibility of God’s existence.
            Second is the conviction that men and women are responsible creatures. We may shirk responsibility at various times in our lives but none of can escape the conviction that, ultimately, we are personally responsible for the direction our lives will take. We have the capacity to decide to move in one direction or another, to love or to withhold love. Each person senses a freedom to make decisions that will impact their lives positively or negatively. Except in those cases where there exist some mental deficiently or handicap, the common experience is that there is a tug in those decisions to move positively for the benefit of others and oneself. From where does that tug come; the tug toward kindness, goodness and mercy?
            Third is the common experience that good is more powerful than evil. So pervasive is this thought that it is woven throughout the pages of science fiction. Look at the popular movie franchise, Star Wars. Anyone familiar with it have had the words, “May the force be with you” engraved upon their minds – “the force” a force for good. Bartlett observes on this one point that in the long sweep of history, there is evidence after evidence that good beats evil at every turn. How is that so? For Gene Bartlett and countless Christians, the answer cannot be coincidence. Behind the consistent witness of being deeply loved, behind every conviction of personal responsibility and behind every experience that good is a greater force than evil is the notion that present is a common source. For many millions of people through the pages of scripture to the present day, that source is God. “What can we know for sure?” The answer is these three things. And they all point to something much deeper.

[i] Gene E. Bartlett, “Some Things We Know Without Proof,” The News in Religion and Other Sermons (New York & Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1947), 96ff.

Knowing God\’s Will

“Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is – what is good and pleasing and mature.”
Romans 12:2 (Common English Bible)
Recently, my friend Tom Tewell shared with me a basic and helpful approach to seeking God’s will – an approach he had learned years earlier from Lloyd J. Ogilvie. The place to begin is a careful reading of the Bible and prayer. Seeking God’s will in a particular circumstance, or more generally for one’s life, must always begin with some grasp of who God is. What can we know of God and how God has worked through human history from God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures? God’s desire for today will not contradict God’s character as disclosed in the Bible. If God is opposed to adultery in the Bible, for instance, God remains opposed to adultery. Simply, we will never discern that God may be calling us to violate our marriage vows.
The second movement to discerning God’s will is by consulting with a few trusted people who have demonstrated, in some way, that they listen carefully for God’s direction. These will be people who have been widely noticed by others as “paying attention to God” as they live each day. Share with them what you think God may be calling you to do. Then invite them to place what you think you hear alongside what they know of God and God’s activity. Is there consistency? Does what you believe God is saying match up with the God your friends have come to know from years of following Christ? Some Christian leaders refer to this practice as “discernment in community.” Bring what you hear to a faithful community so they can say if it makes sense to them from what they know of God.
Finally, pay attention to the opportunities that present themselves – and those that don’t. What some may simply call “circumstances” may be powerful indicators of what God is up to in your life. If you believe God is calling you to missionary work overseas and no doors seem to be opening for that to happen, it is well to rethink if God’s will has been properly discerned. On the other hand, if you sense God is calling you to partner with Habitat for Humanity for building homes for the poor, and you have particular skills for building homes, and have discretionary time available in your routine rhythm of life and then hear of a specific need from that organization that you can meet, and feel a burden for those who can’t afford a home – well, you see where I am going.
Many ask why finding God’s will has to be such a struggle. My own take on that is that God planned it that way. It is in the struggle that we go deeper and deeper in a relationship with God. Think of it this way. A meaningful relationship with a spouse is built by paying close attention to their likes and dislikes over a long period of time. We listen carefully when they speak. We watch what makes them happy and what discourages them. We take notice of their idiosyncrasies. This takes effort, naturally. But it is the effort – over time – that results in a deep and satisfying relationship with another. God wants no less from us.

From Doug Hood\’s Heart & Soul, Vol. 2, now available on Amazon and available in the church this month.

The Cost of Complaining

“The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. 
‘Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.’”
 (Exodus 16:2) Common English Bible
Frederick Douglas wrote, “Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needful to be done.” What Douglas speaks of may be called the claim of positive action – the decision to meet all circumstances not with a negative spirit, but with a positive mind and a useful response. When we meet disruptions in life, little inconveniences and seeming disorder of daily rhythms, it is good to remind ourselves that complaining doesn’t improve the situation. What complaining does accomplish is damage – damage to us and to those who must hear our complaints.
This damage is seen in the people of Israel. After leaving their captivity in Egypt, life along their journey through the wilderness becomes difficult. Food is scarce, as is water, and the people complained about the hot days and the cold nights. Their whimpering and complaining eventually became directed against their magnificent leader, Moses, who had faced Pharaoh squarely on their behalf, and secured their release from slavery. Memory of a difficult, even cruel, life in Egypt as slaves faded as they exaggerated the comforts they once enjoyed under Pharaoh. Under the cloud of complaining, their future as a free people grew dim.  The great vision of liberty was surrendered to a past not rightly seen.
To this miserable and confused state Moses said, “Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.” Now that is insight worthy of our best reflection! Often complaints arise from a sense that we have been treated unfairly or a belief that life has been unreasonably difficult. Someone or some circumstance is the blame for a life that is less than what we might have. But tell us that our complaint is against God and we may be forced to consider that God never really promised the ease we feel entitled to. Perhaps, God has placed each of us into a world where there are heavy loads to bear and difficulties that demand our best energies, both mind and body. Some reading this may remember the song lyric of decades ago, “I never promised you a rose garden.” God didn’t.
Complaining doesn’t solve anything. And most agree that complaining is a sign of mental and moral immaturity. Complaining brings nothing of value to the table of life. But complaining does exact a heavy cost. It diminishes a clear view of the presence and activity of God in our lives and it sends friends and acquaintances running – in the opposite direction. What remains is to develop a mental attitude that says, “This is the way things are right now. Where can I see God in this? And what positive response can I make?” It is this new mindset that finally moved Israel out of the desert and into God’s promised land.
From Doug Hood\’s Heart & Soul, Life Application Edition, now available on Amazon and available in the church in early January.