Relational Commitment

We live in an age that does not have a very good concept or grasp of Christian commitment when it comes to loving our neighbor as our self. We interpret these words to mean that we should treat each other well not that we should commit to each other whether the relationship is going well or not. We tolerate each other, we seldom repeatedly seek each others good or take the time to heal misunderstandings or divisions. Ours is a polite culture that values not inconveniencing others unnecessarily.

Jesus says that those that follow his teachings are his sister, brother, and mother. Those who are deeply committed to Christian life are family. The new testament writers often use language reserved for family to describe their heartache, prayers, and hopes for the communities the Lord has focused them on.

Even the word family can be problematic to describe commitment in our present cultural moment. Many people come from families where love and warmth were not readily or consistently available. When as people we are robbed of the experience of joy, love, and commitment we are left with ourselves. Thereby we let our own wants and interests rule why we stay in certain friendships or get to know certain people but not others. We are robbed of the understanding of Christian love and commitment without being left with any way to navigate or feel comfortable with those types of relationships.

In this way the sins of the parents or grandparents can easily be passed down for multiple generations. Cruelty and unkindness can disproportionately alter our understandings of the sort of life Jesus prays for us to have.

In the Gospel of John we hear the words that Jesus prays that we would be one as He and the Father are one. That same level of unity and commitment. It is a powerful prayer that ought to have some earthly connotations, especially when we think of loving specific neighbors and friends.

Obviously this type of commitment has to be mutual. While one person may consistently love and care for another and while Christians are called to be extraordinarily patient and persistent, in some ways without reciprocity a stable relationship cannot be built. There has to be a level of discretion when you are encouraging loving kindness and commitment while knowing that many may have very little interest on what you are saying or doing. Above all forgiveness and care has to be consistently practiced if any sense of Christian depth of community is to be realized.

Transformation has to occur persistently in oneself to more fully live into the command ‘to love your neighbor as yourself.’

Is such a thing even possible in the present time? Yes, but it is rare. Trans-formative but rare. In an age where the bonds of fidelity, trust, and care are so easily broken and transgressed it is deeply counter-cultural and difficult to push things in a reverse direction. But with God, all things are possible, and it does not take huge numbers for God’s people to triumph and transform the moment at hand.

 

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On Marriage 

This is not a post on the worth of persons. This is a post on marriage and celibacy as two main commitments one can make as a Christian.

Marriage is meant for holiness and wholeness. Holiness as we die to self to make room for our spouse and wholeness as we let the Trinity make up the difference in our human weakness. In essence to be the tie that binds what we in our own nature would easily break. For the Christian, Christ sustains and anchors marriage.

For the Christian all of life is transformation to Christ. The two main means of that come in the form of marriage or celibacy and both require a level of sobriety and commitment.

The very nature of marriage forces one to mature and grow as you take on serious and challenging responsibilities especially through the joy of children, the care of parents in old age, and siblings as the case may arise.

Marriage is much more than sex, but it is also the holy discipline and culmination of sex for men and women especially.

Christians have a distinct vision for marriage and a distinct and holy vision for vows of celibacy.

These are the two main choices presented to us. We go from childhood into marriage or celibacy and both have very distinctive holy and life giving implications.

If you can’t envision celibacy as having its own standing and virtue than probably marriage is the more natural path to take. But I would warn the reader that as we mature in Christ celibacy is actually a freedom for holiness and service to a wider and bigger mission field, not always, but as a general rule yes, especially for the well disciplined in faith.

As far as serving and being married the level of maturity and Christlikeness in the household comes as a first order priority, before any other kingdom minded service. The first duty is always those permanent commitments.

For the celibate person the duty is always first to Christ. This being the case there is generally more freedom, bandwidth, and creativity to serve, but encouragement is often needed more fully to sustain this kind of a holy life in this present age.

Encouragement is obviously needed for all Christians, but especially in the contemporary western world our selfish tendencies make sustaining Christian mission a strain especially as it relates to having a community that is able to support this life.

A Present Challenge to Celibacy 

The present day church has largely lost its notions of celibacy except for specific kinds of monastic and priestly orders. Lay celibacy is not deeply supported except if the lay person becomes a full time professional. A reinvigoration of celibacy in the life of the present day church would be significant and transformative and would likely lead to substantial lay missions and kingdom minded priorities.

Some Challenges to Marriage

Specific Christian notions of marriage are also challenged. Christians entering into marriage should not do so lightly and should be taught the seriousness and rigor of the family prayer life, the support of children, and the unique challenges that come with God binding two different people together with the intent of lifelong fidelity, perminance, service, and holiness.

Whether married or celibate, the Christian has a unique responsibility to practice generosity, a modesty of career advancement, and to live out the teachings of Christ in a more challenging age. It’s an amazing and wonderous adventure and regardless of theology or practice we are called to strive with Christ as we live out faith.

 

Christian spiritual formation can take on an other-worldly emphasis from time to time. The evangelical American subculture (true for Catholics as well) is filled with retreat centers and other places where participants are invited to come away from their day to day life and spend time with God. In and of itself these centers of rest and respite are really important aspects to a life of faith, unless they become the only way we can envision drawing closer to God.

The Christian life is filled with subtle but deadly if onlys. I would be generous if only I made more. I would be prayerful if only I had the time. I would be kinder if I wasn’t so frazzled.

We have stopped looking at what has become of us as more a revelation of our true nature. When we are busy, when we are moody, when we are hungry, when we are impatient. That’s a truer image of our life without God. That’s a better reflection of our sinful nature. That’s us. It’s not the exception, it’s what we are when the comforts of life are pealed back.

The good news, is that how we actually are is a great starting point for spiritual transformation for those of us who persevere. A vibrant life of faith can and should be built in to life as it is for us. Whether it’s subtle practices of prayer, or giving out of our substance instead of our abundance, faith gets cultivated in our day to day lives.

Are you in a season that is especially busy? Are you in midst of trials and temptations, than if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, God will use it to build in a full, vibrant, living faith, as you integrate your life as it is with the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Retreats and respites are important, but a faith that is built in around the hectic patterns and trials of life is more central. In other words what you do today in regards to faith is of more value than what you do when you are moved from your life as it is.

Grounded Faith Formation

How do you make time for God? Many Christians have a great desire to spend time with God, but it never seems to translate to action. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that we lack the time; other times we are simply unsure of where to start or even how to cultivate the desire for a devotional/prayer life.  We catch ourselves saying, “I wish I could start the day with an hour of prayer, but given my commitments that’s not very realistic,” or “I know I want to spend time with God but where do I start?”

Without guidance the whole issue of how to develop a prayer life can become bewildering.

So how does one go from barely reading scripture or praying; to spending a robust amount of time in prayer, reading, or reflection of some sort?

The simple, one word answer: repentance. A devotional life begins with needing to cultivate some desire for it. The surest way to cultivate an honest desire for God is repentance. You might ask, “Repent? For what?”

For everything, more specifically repent for our lack of desire for a devotional life. You may want to choose some phrases to help. Many Christians use the Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But other phrases from scripture or like in spirit can be easily used. A few examples:

  • The wages of sin is death.
  • Give an account for your management of the household.
  • Remember from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first.

Cultivating a prayer and devotional life is a bit more akin to being serious about going to the gym or getting into physical shape. At first it’s going to be slow and hard work. You aren’t going to want to develop a prayer life. Instead you’ll find it comforting to go back to old patterns rather quickly. That’s why repentance is crucial. Repentance brings us back to our unwillingness to really cultivate our faith. The process of developing a prayer life will humble you and that sort of humbling is a key ingredient for living a life of faith.

After repentance you need to choose some set course of study or rule (set form for study). This is probably the hardest thing to do, especially in an age that values spontaneity and experience, at some point all of that feeling has to give way to a decision. The good news is that there are a lot of things one could do. There’s the Book of Common Prayer (here‘s an easy to use online version)  which has very set prayers for morning and evening. There’s also a whole host of audio prayer devotions, and scripture readings. Here is an audio devotional from the Jesuit tradition and here is a long listing of options from http://www.biblegateway.com.

Some elements that are worth looking for as you decide where to start. Look for something that has some scripture to work through or think about. Look for something that you will do in repetition. This is a key point. In the beginning your prayer/devotional life can’t really survive off of spontaneity. If you have to start with five minutes a day, twice a day, than that’s what you do. Like weight lifting start at something you can repeat and explore from there. A prayer life is something you cultivate and develop; it doesn’t just happen because you want it to.

You aren’t going to go from nothing to a robust devotional life in a short period of time. Realize that patience will be a key ingredient to cultivating a life of faith. So you are looking for something to build on.

Practice. Not just doing the devotion, but implementing the ideas and truths in scripture in your daily life.  Faith without works is dead. Devotion without practice won’t build up a life of faith. The scriptures have to be infused in your day to day life to strengthen your faith. It’s not enough to think about theology and about prayer and about scripture, integrate them with specific people and specific circumstances and you will find that your understanding of scripture and desire for a devotional life grows.

Faith comes by hearing and doing. A devotional life comes with cultivating a desire for it by living out what we learn.

Making Time for God

On Friendships

There is too much being written about how hard it is for men to relate to other men. Given that we live in a more socially mobile age, you get the impression that it must be almost impossible to have good, stable male friendships.

That’s really not the case.

Jesus tells us that we are his  friends if we do what he says. In the words of the book of James we are to become doers of the word, not simply listeners.  So what is a doer when it comes to friendship?

One that loves his neighbor as himself, one that forgives his neighbor, one that helps his neighbor in need whether physical or otherwise, one that exemplifies peace, patience, and self-control. One that does not avoid conflict or avoid their neighbor when they are hurt or disappointed, but one who is steadfast with his neighbor to the end.

Now just by putting the words of scripture into practice doesn’t mean that we’ll advance far along the way of robust, healthy, and long lasting friendships, but it does mean that we can be consistent in our character as far as it depends on us. We could consider holding in our slights and hurts and be more consistent in bearing with each other. We will find plenty of people who will come in and out of our lives, who won’t be there for us, who won’t match our ideas of friendships, who won’t be honest. All of this is really beyond our control.

What we can control is our approach to others, having an ever better understanding of our inner life, being transparent with how God made us, seeking counsel and help as needed, acknowledging our many weaknesses, and growing in our willingness and ability to forgive and be engaged with others. This is no easy thing. We are all called brothers and sisters in the Lord. We have a familial relationship in our standing with each other whether we recognize it or not. In other words we are a dysfunctional family in the church that needs to work on our ability to be reconciled to each other.

One way that happens it through friendships. A friendship may or may not met your expectations and you might not be able to share yourself fully or even be yourself fully, but by being consistent and by operating within your abilities and personality, you can over time have a solid and consistent friendship with other people.

The ultimate goal of Christian friendship isn’t simply vulnerability (though that may happen) or overcoming obstacles and challenges together (that may happen too), it’s growing into the fullness of Christ’s character. That means consistency, compassion, firmness of inner character, and a radical commitment to forgive and be reconciled. In other words to live at peace and grow in our ability to be graceful to each other as we are and as we will be in the age to come. Amen.

How Evangelicals Handle Wealth, Fame, and Mission

“Not by bread alone we live,
Thy good word our life shall be;
Not for all the earth can give
Shall we worship ought but thee;
Nor the word of promise bend
E’er to tempt our God in heaven;
Never for unholy end
Was the gracious promise given”
(Faint and Weary Jesus Stood by Walter C. Smith)

It’s in our human nature to assign blame. We want to know why something happened and who was responsible. This is true in our legal processes as much as within our own relationships and family life. If something has gone wrong someone is to blame.

These tendencies are amplified when your community is facing big challenges. Presently, evangelicals are facing big challenges. Very few evangelicals are looking at the future and seeing bright and vibrant possibilities for the evangelical faith.

People are giving a multitude of reasons for the declining influence of evangelicals. For those outside of the community the culprit is the right-wing politics. Evangelicals would be better off practicing their religion and leaving politics alone. In fact if evangelicals did this many outside of the community might change their judgments from negative to just quirky.

For those inside of the community the reasons tend to be legion, but there is a tendency to say that such things are happening to us rather than to say that we are causing such things. Without a significant unifying figure like Billy Graham many evangelicals are breaking into a kind of tribalism. With various people picking their favorite way of practicing faith or doing it the right way. This has spawned a whole social media industry of blame.

So, what has actually gone on?

Seek first the Kingdom and His Righteousness.” How are we doing with such a focus when it comes to wealth, fame, and mission.

There is a tendency for posts like this to descend into a sort of blame game as well. But I submit to you that God calls us to discernment not to sit in judgment of specific people. Ultimately judgment belongs to the Lord and such a thought should cause us each to tremble. I know it does for me.

As best as possible we want to keep our judgments sober, modest, and in line with helping to extend the mission of the church as it is united with Christ. With this kind of charitable spirit let us look at some hard issues.

Money

Perhaps there is no challenge greater in the present church than the role of money. Beyond the sermon to give generously we don’t talk a lot about money. Yet, our day to day is dominated by needing to navigate finances. Money can buy material goods and we’ve even developed a special term for when our relationship with money is going well: financial well being.

Pastors are not immune from how our society grapples with money. And you can see this play out in the life of the church. From lavish amounts being spent to make sure the church keeps pace with the business world or not enough being spent keeping pastors in unnecessary hardship. We run the gamut from pastors who charge exorbitant speakers fees and fly private jets to those who never save for retirement. In our community you would be hard pressed to say we handle money well. The words of Jesus come to mind if you can’t handle the riches of this world who will give you the riches of the kingdom.

Scriptures are clear you can’t serve God and money. Money is not morally neutral. It’s not what you do with it, it’s what hold it has on your life and ministry.

Without the proper spirit on money, money easily rules the life of many evangelical Christians.

Perhaps we have seen our witness squandered in part by the way we’ve handled ourselves with money. It’s one of the unspoken areas of church life. Money often determines our comfortability with risk in the kingdom, should it really be that way?

Fame

This is a harder one to talk about, but in some ways as pervasive as a dynamic as wealth.

We live in a celebrity culture and evangelicals are not immune from such tendencies. In fact many crave attention and recognition. The problem is that seeking fame is not the same as seeking the kingdom.

If one wants to seek fame they might actively brag about their access to the corridors of power and influence. Yet the kingdom is not impressed with such things. The riches of the kingdom surpass the riches of any temporary fame. The way of the cross and salvation is not the way of cultural glory.

We should hold those who embody a holy life in high esteem. If that leads to recognition so be it, but let us all be on guard for the temptation to seek recognition for its own sake.

Mission

Seeking first the kingdom means seeking those things of the Father in all places and at all times. It requires peace of mind, awareness, intense prayer, and a deep love for others. This should be what motivates our focus, when such things are lacking we are falling short on Christian mission and in some ways we should consider refraining calling things that don’t resemble Christianity, Christian.

Mission creep is certainly very present in the evangelical world. So let us return to a passion for the mission of the kingdom in all of its rich forms.

The point is not to just say see look at three areas that aren’t normally talked about it is to actually encourage a turn and repentance in order that we might more fully seek the kingdom.

Repent, turn, and actively turn from the old ways. This is true for me as for you. Don’t just say I repent demonstrate repentance with actions that match a truly turned heart. Ask what God would have you do even if it is sell half of your possessions to atone. Have sorrow for how things have happened and move towards the heart of the kingdom. Seek the true treasurers. Don’t wait the time is now. Amen.