Saturday, May 2, 2009

Pure Religion

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

                        James 1.27 


Anyone who’s told anything about me before we meet most likely knows I’m a fairly ardent believer. Being prepped in advance, many raise the topic before we’re comfortably acquainted—i.e., sooner than I’d prefer. Most of them lead with a line that, frankly, drives me nuts: “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” What does that mean? And what do they expect me say? “Good for you?” Any positive reply would be disingenuous, because I don’t see a difference in being “spiritual” or “religious.” They’re both wispy smokescreens that can’t hide what’s behind them—trying to squeak past following Jesus and pleasing God by occasionally thinking about Them. I suppose being religious and/or spiritual is better than agnostic or antagonistic. But what good really comes from either? It’s like claiming to be a jock without putting any skin in the game.

It took squirming out of a lot of awkward moments to find an honest yet tactful response: “What led to that?” Most often, their answer reveals they’re strays and the term “organized religion” pops up as they explain why they left institutional faith for an amorphous, casual relationship with their Maker. “Yes,” I agree, “organized religion is a minefield. But that’s an old story. What do you believe?” After professing faith in a “Higher Power”—another grating phrase—the answer’s always the same: “I try to be a good person and show kindness to others.” Though I resist pointing it out, they’re a lot more religious than they think, since their description lines up exactly with what James says religion is.

The Three “R’s”

“Religion” gets a bad rap because it’s become a catchphrase for three different concepts—one glorious, another less so, and a third that misses the boat altogether. In fact, divergence between the three “R’s” runs so deep etymologists still argue about the word’s genesis. And—wouldn’t you know it—they fall into three camps. One group traces its origins to religionem, Latin for “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods,” which evolved into an eleventh-century Anglo-French word, religiun, meaning, “conduct indicating a belief in divine power.” Cicero tagged another source, relegare, “go through again, read again;” while he retains supporters, they number least among the groups. The largest camp settles on religare, “to bind fast,” as in placing an obligation on humans to secure their bond with the gods. Is it any surprise the three concepts of “religion” are consistent with its three etymological theories?

For purposes of clarity, let’s distinguish the three “R’s” with modifiers, pure, studied, and organized, leaving pure religion for last. All three center on faith, yet come at it from radically diverse angles. Studied religion focuses on a spiritually centric ideal and raises its principles as pillars of belief. Adherents of this religious type seek truth through pedantic learning, sifting lives and lessons of their founders, reading ancient texts over and over for new insights. They favor the theoretical over the theological, striving for human understanding instead of accepting faith’s mysteries. Organized religion starts with a noble objective: inventing a system to protect the original ideal from corruption. But its back-door approach, stressing obligation as our bonding mechanism with God, subverts its goal by codifying behaviors and attitudes to measure faith by performance. Pure religion (religionem), according to James, reverses organized religion’s dynamic. God’s obligation to live up to His promises binds Him to us. Faith in His purity and perfection establishes our performance standards. And while pure religion incorporates the fundamentals of studied and organized religion—understanding and defending the ideal—its glory rests not in knowing or doing, but in believing.

God’s Metrics

James boils down God’s metrics for pure religion to two basic principles that mirror Jesus’s distillation of all religious law: love God and love others. He says the religious person whom God accepts must care for everyone. In Biblical times, a husband took everything with him when he died—his name, his property, his rights, and so on—forcing his widow to rely on her children and the mercy of others. It was worse for orphans, whose loss turned them into the streets to beg for their survival. Throughout Scripture, “widows and orphans” serves as a euphemism for those unjustly rejected and overlooked, and repeated commands to see to their care essentially means loving without prejudice. Pure religion teaches us no one is unfit or undeserving of compassion, which gives us no legitimate excuse to hate or neglect anyone.

In keeping with Christ’s command to love God with our entire heart, mind, and strength, James insists we stay clear of pollutants that impede our love for Him. 1 John 2.16 breaks worldly pursuits into “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does.” Everything on these lists “comes not from the Father but from the world.” Satisfying unhealthy appetites, valuing what we see more than trusting what we can’t see, and usurping credit for God’s blessings diminish our capacity to love Him and spoil our religion. We want to be religious. We must be. Wan stabs at “spirituality” won’t cut it. But we also want to be the right kind of religious, the pure kind. Study is important, but not enough. Protecting Christ’s ideals is vital, but conformity to manmade standards alone undermines His purpose. Only by loving God and everyone created in His image will He accept our religion as pure and faultless.

God's religious purity standards: loving everyone ("widows and orphans") and resisting anything that lessens our love for Him.

(Tomorrow: Where’d They Go?)

Postscript: Tech Trouble and a Terrific Blog

All comments are forwarded to my personal email, alerting me the instant they’re submitted for approval. (Wish I didn’t have to do that, but every so often a black-hearted flamer can’t stop him/herself from unleashing a torrent of homophobic bile undeserving of anyone’s attention.) Of late, Earthlink is dumping anything sent via gmail, including comments from those of you with gmail accounts. I don’t know you’ve commented until I sign onto Blogger or get a spam report from Earthlink, which frustrates me by delaying my response. Often comments from other providers arrive after your comments and get answered before them. While I’m trying to get to the bottom of this issue, please don’t misinterpret this as anything beyond what it is—tech trouble.

Now, on to something far more interesting. T, a prized reader here, publishes a terrific blog, Breathe Beautiful, comprised of short, haiku-like poems illustrated with atmospheric photographs, accompanied by understated music. Her topics are very personal, often discreetly alluding to relationships and situations that prompt a rich variety of emotions, positive and negative. While faith isn’t the focus of Breathe Beautiful, the oscillations of life that T writes about so beautifully will remind any believer of its importance. Her blog is unique and fascinating, often challenging, and always worth visiting. Realizing I could never fully do it justice, here’s a shot.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Be Sharp

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.

                        Proverbs 27.17

Something to Consider

The Hebrews letter is written for two main purposes: to instruct Jewish converts how to live by faith instead of conforming to code and inspire them to stay confident in their belief. God’s unmerited favor and the meaning of grace go beyond their religious experience and understanding. They live in a culture governed by Law, making them vulnerable to relapse into what they’ve always known. Because of this, the writer underscores why it’s unwise for any believer to go it alone. Discouragement comes too quickly and stays too long when there’s no one to help lift you out. The writer says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” (Hebrews 10.24-25)

Although we live in nominally Christian communities, our situation closely compares with that of Hebrews’ original readers. The majority of our family, friends, and neighbors are content with being cultural Christians—i.e., accepting Jesus’s principles without practicing them. They’re governed by Christianity’s concept of a personal relationship with God, which many misconstrue as placating Him with lip service while living on their own terms. Our decision to follow Jesus in earnest puts us in the minority and often isolates us. It’s unwise to go it alone, which makes spurring one another’s commitment to Christ and reaching out to each other for encouragement something to consider seriously.

Mutual Benefit

An enormous spectrum of knowledge and experience exists between us—along with a bounty of gifts, talents, and life skills. It simply makes good sense to avail ourselves to what each of us can offer and make what we have available to others. Regardless where we are in our walk with Christ, we know believers further ahead of us and others not yet where we are. We look for advice and inspiration from those out front; we offer the same to those behind us. In either case, both parties gain mutual benefit by seeking one another out. As Proverbs teaches us, we sharpen each other in the same way that iron bars hone their edges. We approach sharper, stronger Christians for help with smoothing our contours to reflect God’s love and Jesus’s example more perfectly. We also improve substantially when less seasoned and confident believers look to us for help. Upholding one another in the faith always results in profit to either side, just as two pieces of metal end up sharper and cleaner after they’re rubbed together.

Monitoring Damages

When we’re apart, we can’t escape harmful exposure to corrosive elements and influences. Unattended, they eat away our substance, blunt our effectiveness, and discolor our appearance. It’s our responsibility to monitor damages we undergo very closely and reunite quickly with other believers to rub them out. This asks tremendous humility to identify the flaws and failures we need help with. James 5.16 exhorts us to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” The longer we keep to ourselves, putting off coming clean so we can become clean, the higher our probability of growing duller, weaker, and less pleasing to God.

Very rarely does someone abruptly decide to quit following Jesus and revert to his/her old ways. Such a dramatic break constitutes utter craziness, as Solomon explains in Proverbs 26.11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” Far more frequently, once-fervent Christians grow indifferent by gradual neglect and withdrawal from fellow believers. Fear of exposing their failure turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as concealing it ultimately leads to doing it and there’s no hiding failure after it happens. No scripture I know counsels us to be aloof, afraid, or ashamed with one another. Time and again we’re told to be incisive, fearless, and bold. We can’t be sharp and stay sharp on our own. For that we need to spur one another to love and good deeds, to encourage one another, to pray for and with each other.

Whether we need sharpening or we’re asked to help sharpen another, we come out cleaner, stronger, and more incisive in the end.

(Tomorrow: Pure Religion)

Postscript: Weekend Gospel

Thou Art a Shield for Me: Psalm 3 – Byron Cage & Purpose

Gospel aficionados around the world know Byron Cage as “the prince of praise.” Backed by his nine-member group, Purpose, he has carved his own niche as a superb singer and songwriter focused completely on drawing listeners into a spirit of worship. While most other leading gospel artists are inimitable, Byron’s calling requires him to be widely imitated by less accomplished musicians. Dozens of his songs are now praise-and-worship standards in churches of every size and spirit. Here he sets Psalm 3 from the King James Version in a lilting, pop-infused melody that resolves with a genuinely moving coda: “Thank You for lifting my head.” And evidence of Byron’s global impact becomes obvious by this video being originally broadcast in Brazil (ergo the Portuguese subtitles). Slightly mellower than normal, yet too marvelously rich to be missed. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Truth That Lasts

For the LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations.

                        Psalm 100.5 (NJKV)

Essential Knowledge

Psalm 100 calls us to worship with gusto, to shout for joy, worship with gladness, and sing joyful songs. It invites us to meet God with praise and thanksgiving, because He’s good, His mercy knows no end, and His truth outlasts time. It’s a short poem—only five verses long, its admonitions comprising the two opening verses and the two closing ones. Nestled between them in verse 3, however, we find a marvelously concise definition of “His truth:” “Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” It seems too basic to demand much thought. Yet the Psalmist doesn’t insert the verse as a passing recognition of Who God is and why He’s worthy of worship. If that was the case, he’d say, “The LORD is God,” and leave it at that. He says, “Know that the LORD is God, know where you came from, and know who you are.” This is essential knowledge not to be treated lightly.

Who Is God?

We know what God looks like, because He created us in His image and likeness. Therefore, how we choose to “see” Him can’t be wrong. God has no gender (despite grammatically defaulting to the masculine for neuter personages). He has no genetic ethnicity, orientation, traits, or physical features because He has no origin. He always was. John 1.1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Since nothing preceded Him, He inherited no identifiable characteristics. Being none of the things we envision Him to resemble, He’s all of them. So I imagine a patient Patriarch. You see a nurturing Mother. Someone else pictures an awesome Being—for lack of a better analogy, something like an “all-powerful Oz.” We’re all correct. Yet the vast diversity of how God is seen doesn’t alter the truth of Who God is. That remains the same for everyone. That’s what the Psalmist urges us to know.

“God is spirit,” Jesus tells the woman at the well, “and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4.24) When we pray or meditate or worship, it’s vital we look past the God we “see” to reach the God we know. His true nature defies description and boundaries of space, time, and logic. Thus, we approach God fully prepared for Him to respond in atypical, extraordinary ways. He receives our praise as only He can. He hears our prayers in their entirety, understanding every word—including those left unsaid by conscious omission or inadequate insight. He filters our requests through His infinite knowledge and inscrutable wisdom. And His actions flow out of a bottomless reservoir of unconditional love. “Oh, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” Paul writes in Romans 11.33. We need to know the Lord is God.

Who Are We?

The Psalmist answers this question without qualification. We are God’s handiwork. “It is He Who made us, and not we ourselves.” This truth is double-edged, slicing through self-doubt on one side and cutting down pride of self on the other. God created us as He desired us to be, shaping our makeup for His pleasure and purpose. Eons before our biological conception, each of us existed in His mind. In Jeremiah 1.5 He says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” We must never mistake our Maker’s creative process for improvisation. He doesn’t need to throw things together on the fly, since all creation waits at His command. What’s more, God isn’t an “idea guy” who comes up with a concept and walks away. He’s a hands-on Creator Who pays obsessive attention to every detail. That’s why we have no business doubting who we are or allowing others to denigrate how we’re made. If we or anyone else is displeased with us, all complaints should be directed to the Manufacturer—Who, by the way, never fails to accomplish His intentions.

We take pride in our making while checking any notions we’ve made ourselves. Our job is realizing everything God created us to be, not creating something to boast about on our own. Just as we know a Chagall mural or Rodin sculpture when we see it, our authenticity—physically and spiritually—rests on God’s inimitable signature. In Isaiah 43.7 God identifies us collectively as “Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Family and friends call us by our given names, but our Creator knows us by His name. He brands us to offset any confusion about belonging to Him. We are His people, the sheep of His pasture. We need to know who we are.

Human progress spawns perishable truths. As each generation’s understanding increases, previously sacrosanct knowledge gives way to new discoveries—the flat world becomes round. This produces a lamentable side effect. No cherished belief is immune to debate and doubt. For example, America’s Founders built their nation on certain “self-evident truths,” including universal equality and inherent rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it appears these ideals aren’t as obvious today, when ‘round-the-clock, point-and-click dismantling of long-held ideas raises uncertainties about truth. While our truth shifts over time, God’s truth endures because He endures. He is God. He made us. We are His people. This is truth that lasts. Knowing it does not—and will not—change changes our perceptions of Who God is and who we are. It changes us.

The truth of Who God is and who we are never changes. Knowing that changes us.

(Tomorrow: Be Sharp)

Personal Postscript: Thank You

I must apologize for taking longer than anticipated to get back in the groove here. My Achilles’ heel is always expecting things to take less time than they require. But I can’t let this moment pass without thanking all of you for your prayers and expressions of support. Just knowing we were in your thoughts gave Walt and me tremendous strength and comfort.

The sorrow of death brought about unexpected resurrection of several torn relationships. Watching relatives who once shunned Walt embrace him with genuine affection and respect was miraculous to behold. Before we left, he said, “Well, at least I won’t have to go back after this.” By the time God finished fixing the situation, however, we came home with plans to return for several upcoming family events. Psalm 30.5 says, “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” While we can never replace Walt’s mom, God honored His Word—and your prayers—by giving us a new day. We are forever grateful to Him and you for these blessings.