Friday, July 23, 2010

The Only Thing

You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5.4,6)

Rules and Roles

I recently caught one of those “lost books of the Bible” shows that pop up on the History Channel. These programs don’t hold my interest long, as they’re riddled with speculation. We have fewer facts about these texts—their origins, authors, dates, and purposes—than the 66 accepted volumes, which is to say next to nil. Yet if I could get my hands on any lost manuscript, it would be a reliable biography of Paul. The little we know of him before conversion is self-reported. He was a Jew raised abroad. He was a bright young man, an exemplary student of religious law. His hubris fostered intense hatred of Jews who didn’t subscribe to his indoctrination. His trade as a tent-maker funded his anti-Christian activism and the atrocities he committed against believers.

These fragments can't fully explain how Paul's past ignited his great passion to pry first-century Christianity from Judaism’s legalistic roots. No matter the topic at hand, he inevitably returns to this: “You’re no longer bound by rules. Fulfill your roles as free believers.” If only there were a document to shed more light on his obsession with rules and roles. What sparked his naïve enthusiasm for legal compliance? What in his encounter with Christ changed his mind so decidedly? Paul doesn’t gradually lose his ardor for the Law. It’s a violent, instantaneous reversal. His ministry is as much about pushing believers from legalism as leading them to grace. We’ll never know why this is. It's fairly obvious in his formative years Paul fell hopelessly in love with the complexity of the Law. He was brilliant at deconstructing its content and relished being a recognized legal expert. But all it took was a brief glimpse of Jesus to cure his arrogance. In that moment, he learned the one fact that eluded him: obedience is a simple thing.


Though it’s not hard to understand what God asks of us, like Paul, our distrust of simplicity pushes us to make it hard. We create impossible, often impenetrable rules. Even the work of making rules becomes hard, since we have to agree what they should be before agreeing to abide by them. This calls for committees, hearings, and votes. Consensus invariably ends in compromise. Then there’s enforcement, which introduces status and judgment that foster imbalance and prejudice. We settle for compliance to code rather than obedience to principle. Having embraced this process as a young man, Paul is intimately aware how easily we’re duped by its deceits. He reviles legalism with such vehemence because his conscience is seared with the faces of believers who suffered crimes he committed at the Law’s behest. The first sign of legalism creeping into the Church is Paul’s cue to shut it down. Every stroke of his pen is a personal strike against injustice.

The Galatians letter is a manifesto seething with hatred for legalism. Paul writes to a cluster of congregations in present-day Turkey, which tells us his readers are largely converted pagans. They’ve fallen under the influence of teachers who advocate “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.” (Galatians 1.6-7) The destructive doctrine calls for Gentiles to convert to Judaism before joining Christian ranks. This reduces Christianity to a Jewish schism, an idea Paul will not tolerate. It burdens believers with a moribund code that confounds the Gospel’s simplicity and defeats its purpose. He writes, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (5.4) Or, you’re making it too hard for yourselves. The Gospel is so simple, Paul says, the ridiculously complex Law becomes obsolete. None of its restrictions and demands bears relevance now. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (v6)

Divinely Reliant

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. The statement alerts us that we possess a living faith—a confidence that can only be conveyed by action. Pardon the bluntness, but dumb compliance to ancient codes steals our means to articulate faith in word and deed. That’s why we can’t be coerced to comply with rules. We’re called to communicate our faith in the roles we’re given. It can’t get any simpler. Stubborn commitment to love at all costs, all times, and in every situation witnesses our faith. No one’s impressed by how well we heed religious ordinances. Club membership of any kind implies accordance with its rules. It’s a conventionally human response, which is why Paul says legalism alienates us from Christ and His grace. Living faith is told in the doing, not doing as it’s told. When expressed through love, it reveals godly traits alive in us—compassion, justice, creativity, kindness, patience, and other mercies we adore in our Maker. These qualities cause people to take notice. What they see isn’t how “devoutly religious” we are; they see how divinely reliant we strive to be. Without God, we could never look beyond inescapable reasons not to love and find every excuse to love.

Living faith expressed through love not only frees us from dumb compliance, it protects us from doubt and criticism. It builds more faith. In 1 John 3.18-20, we read: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Living faith often casts us in roles that ignore accepted rules. Courage to obey Christ’s principles tests our comfort with non-compliance to social and religious codes. Unease raises uncertainties. Doubt surges when we’re hit with harsh criticism within and without our religious traditions. But God is greater than any doubt or critic. He knows everything. What anyone, including us, thinks or says isn’t our worry. The only thing that counts is faith expressed through love.

Though I’m not quite seeing it, the figure in this graphic is a lion—which I like very much, since expressing faith through love is simply fierce and courageous obedience to Christ's principles.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


The LORD reigns, let the nations tremble… The King is mighty, he loves justice—you have established equity. (Psalm 99.1,4)

Time Changes

I’m reeling as I write this. Last night, I had dinner with a dear brother of whose faith and witness I have no doubt. I have loved this man my entire life and can say without pause he has loved me just as long. We would give our lives for one another. For decades, our politics have been diametrically opposed. He’s a black-and-white kind of guy. I’m convinced I know so little of the realities our world faces I look out on fields of gray. Our discussions on social and economic issues get pretty heated, but we always stop before they boil over. Protecting one another from injury—or causing injury—is paramount.

Healthcare reform came up. He held his party’s line: it’s a disaster in the making. I held my position: as long as people can’t access healthcare, we are guilty, as believers and citizens, of moral neglect. His answer stole my breath. “I’ll tell you what’s moral,” he said. “Quit waiting for the mailman to drop an envelope at your door and get a job.” After we parted, my mind couldn’t release his mischaracterizing people on unemployment as “immoral.” Why couldn’t I shake that? The ton of bricks thundered down on me. Not six months ago, he’d spent a year waiting on the mailman. How was he “moral” then, while millions now in similar circumstances are not? Time changes everything, they say. This change was heartbreaking. How could he forget his recent past so easily?

Not Everything

Not everything changes with time. There are principles and expectations set down thousands of years ago that remain constant and in effect today. They will never change, because they are divine edicts issued from God’s throne. They are cast in ironclad language that leaves no wiggle room for circumstantial shifts or interpretation. They are true. They are clear. They are timeless. And nothing we bump up against in life gives us liberty to disregard them. The slightest inclination to set them aside for a moment should shake us until the very notion falls from our minds.

“The LORD reigns,” Psalm 99.1 says. “Let the nations tremble.” It reminds us again in verse 4: “The King is mighty.” We must be very careful about allowing changes over time to alter our sense of accountability to One Who does not change. Petitioning His power to rescue us when we’re in dire straits and then ignoring what pleases Him when times get better puts us in a perilous place. “He loves justice—you have established equity,” the psalmist declares. Justice. Equity. These are established principles. There is no “moral” us and “immoral” them. Our situation is weighed no differently than theirs. And we can delude ourselves with any rationale that suits our fancy or fits our politics. Yet any time our beliefs and behaviors flout the justice and equity God loves we can expect repercussions. Galatians 6.7 says, “Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”

Before the Grace of God

When we observe someone whose hardships are comfortably removed from our reality, we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Indeed, the further outside our realm of possibility they are, the more quickly we say it. To cite a personal example, I’ve never felt the least temptation to seek solace in alcohol. When I see or hear of someone who’s thrown his/her life away in a bottle, I have no difficulty recognizing God’s grace in sparing me from that impulse. But how many of us ever say, “There before the grace of God went I?” Why are we so intensely judgmental—to the point of dismissal—of those struggling with frailties God has blessed us to overcome? That’s for each of us to ponder, because our reasons are a complex knot of extremely personal emotions, circumstances, and memory. Still, no matter how rational our reasons for discounting anyone else may seem, this we must know: we’re wrong to do it. It displeases our King and warps His reflection in our lives.

The first stanza of “Amazing Grace” concludes “Twas blind, but now I see.” On the bright side of God’s grace, everything becomes clear. We see how easy our problems were for Him, and without the utmost care, we’re apt to assume the solutions came easily to us. We forget how murky those days before God made His grace known were. We slide into delusions that God delivered us because we proved we’re worth delivering. If that’s what we see when we look back at His goodness toward us, we’re blinder than we were in our troubles. God’s grace reaches us because it reached countless millions before us. It doesn’t prove anything about us; it proves everything about Him. He loves justice. He has established equity. He saves us to show us those He saved before us were no better than we. His grace proves we’re no better—no more “moral”—than those coming behind us, struggling in the same snares He graciously enabled us to escape. (Not avoid—escape.) There before the grace of God went we. Condemning those who’ve yet to know God’s grace condemns us.

If, on the bright side of God’s grace, we consider ourselves better than those who’ve yet to experience it, we’re blinder than we were in our troubles.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


To those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ: Mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance. (Jude 1.1-2)

Too Much

Walt and I were in Paris when Spider Man opened, and we thought it might be interesting to watch the French watch an American blockbuster. If you’ve been to the movies there, you know Parisians respect film as high art. They’ll talk through the previews without a glance at the screen. When the feature starts, however, they go silent and remain so to soak up every minute. Although we experienced this before, we couldn’t believe Spider Man was getting the kind of attention Americans reserve for “serious” films. Obviously, its sarcasm and wit didn’t translate. (I whispered to Walt, “The subtitles are fine. The jokes are too American.” On every side, I felt lasers of disapproving stares.) Then, about halfway along, four characters gathered for Thanksgiving. They brought out a golden-brown, colossal turkey, sitting it in the center of a table groaning with side dishes. The audience roared. It wasn’t an intentional joke, but the response turned it into one. Cooking enough for a small army looked ridiculous with only four skinny actors to feed.

A few days later we mentioned this to our friend, Ludivine, a movie actress we’d met a few years earlier. We said we got how it could be mistaken as a sight gag if the audience didn’t know about Thanksgiving. She said, “I don’t think they were laughing because there was so much food. It was a love-laugh at Americans. You have such a hard time distinguishing plenty from too much.” We had no clue what she meant. “We have feasts, too,” she went on. “We’re famous for them. We make sure there’s plenty, so everyone has his fill of all he wants. But too much is… too much. All of that work—the planning, shopping, and cooking—only to have most of it shoved into the refrigerator or thrown away. It’s too much.” “But, but, but,” we replied, stressing that Thanksgiving is a feast of abundance. “What good is abundance if it’s wasted?” she asked.

The Pleasures of Plenty

When the topic of abundance surfaces among believers, our thoughts focus on “abundant living,” based on Christ’s statement in John 10.10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (NKJV) And we accept that at face value without considering there may be more to it than meets the eye. On its surface, it’s pretty simple. Jesus came to give us life, not only new life, but also plenty of life—more than we’ve ever known, more than was possible before He came. Yet misinterpreting abundance to mean "excess" ruins our response to this great promise. It’s too much for us to conceive, let alone digest. So many of us react to Christ’s abundance as though it were a table laden with overstocked offerings and oversized portions. Either we push back because we’re too concerned about overeating or we stuff ourselves into a stupor. Both reactions prevent us from enjoying the life Christ gives.

There’s no need to go hungry, nor is there any use in making ourselves sick from overindulgence. Christ gives abundant life so we can experience the pleasures of plenty. Unlike our feasts, which we slate for special occasions, His table is continuously spread for everyone to savor life to the full. Every day’s a feast day. Abundant living is a privilege we practice. Every day, we’re drawn to the feast to satisfy the needs and appetites of that day. Some days we go to the feast craving love. There’s plenty of love on the table. Some days we go in search of peace. There’s no shortage of peace. We may have forgot what joy tastes like. So we go that day wanting nothing more than a big helping of joy. Whatever craving draws us to Christ’s table of life we eat our fill without hesitation, because there’s always enough of everything for everyone. Thus, abundant life isn’t a mystery. It’s not a lofty goal. It’s not a higher spiritual plane or state of consciousness. It’s the daily discipline of getting to the feast, knowing what we require and desire for that day, and believing there’s plenty for us and everyone else. Our presence at Christ’s table day after day ensures none of His abundance is wasted.

Come and Dine

When I was young, we sang a hymn whose chorus said:

"Come and dine," the Master calleth, "Come and dine."

You may feast at Jesus' table all the time

He Who fed the multitudes, turned the water into wine

To the hungry calleth now, "Come and dine!"

That’s abundant living in a nutshell. Jude opens his epistle with a glorious salutation: “To those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ: Mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.” We’ve been called to dine on Christ’s abundance, and each day brings a new call. God does love us. Christ does keep us by providing plenty of everything we need to remain in Him. There’s plenty of mercy and peace and love and everything else we will ever need or desire in order to live abundantly.

What do you need today? What do you hope to discover? What will drive your thoughts and behavior closer to God? Whatever that may be, it’s in ready supply. The table is spread. There’s plenty of room for you. Don’t worry about who is or isn’t there. You’re welcome to sit wherever you like. Abundance awaits you. It must not be wasted. Christ is calling you to new life, more life than you’ve ever known, more than was or will be possible without Him. Come and dine.

Whatever you need or desire in life, there’s plenty awaiting you at Christ’s table.

Postscript: Off to Celebrate

I’ll be away from my desk while I travel to Oakland, California to celebrate Bishop Walter Hawkins’ life and triumph over death. I don’t anticipate having time to post anything new mid-week, but I’ll make time to monitor comments. Please keep me in your prayers as I travel, and pray added strength for Bishop’s family and congregation as they go through the days and months ahead. God bless all of you. I look forward to getting back home and here soon.