Labor Day Meditation: The Eternal Value of Good Work

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10)

This past week, one of my meditations from Bonheoffer had to do with work. In his book, No Rusty Swords, he talks about work: “God has called each one of us to do His work in His time.” [1]

In his later years, Bonheoffer came to realize the importance of lay ministry and the ministry of the people of God in the world. In commenting on the passage I just quoted,  Charles Ringma, says, “We are not simply to be guardians of the good things that God has done in the past, nor are we only those who pray for what may happen in the future. We need to be intimately involved in the issues of our time. Different members of the Christian church will identify what these issues are differently. But however we arrange our priorities for our world, we must include caring for God’s creation, encouraging good government, sharing the Gospel, and proclaiming justice and righteousness.” [2]

This passage gives us some very deep and important teachings. First, Christians cannot just worship on Sunday, study our Bibles, and pray about the problems of our world. We have to work on making the world a better place as the Kingdom of God enters into the world through the live of believers. Second, we cannot wait complete agreement among Christians before we act. Different believers will see the world differently. Finally, we must all share our faith we must all speak out for justice and righteousness, public and private. We must all care for God’s creation. We must all work for better government. We must all tend for the garden that God has given us, whether it be large or small, important or insignificant.

The Bible begins with the human race in a garden we call “Eden.” Some Christians speak of Eden as if it was a place where there was no need to work. Genesis paints a somewhat different picture of this “garden,. Listen to two quotes from the Bible: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Genesis 2 puts it this way, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15).

This afternoon Kathy and I went out and bought some plants for our new home. We have a small back yard that was well kept by the former owners, but parts of it need a bit of care and new plantings. When we got home, I did not plant bed we are working on. It was mid-day and hot in San Antonio. I did not want to be sore tomorrow.

When I was a lawyer, I hardly ever worked in the yard. As a seminary student, I had no time. Then, we moved to Brownsville, Tennessee and our first church. Surrounded by farmers and gardeners on every side (and with plenty of guidance, advice and good counsel at hand, for which I am eternally thankful), I planted a garden in the back yard of the manse. When we moved to Memphis, my training in Brownsville allowed me to do most of the landscaping for a long time. Based on all this, I can convey to my readers one certain truth: Gardening, even in paradise, is hard work, especially on a hot, muggy, summer day.

The garden of Eden was never meant to be a place of leisure. God created the world. We were intended to be about the business of making that world more beautiful, more orderly, more just, and more productive. We human beings were made for work. We were made for the work of making the world a better place. We were made to till the garden of God’s good creation. We were made to expend the energy, strength, and brains that God has given to us in the precise way that we can best do that. We were made, and we are remade in Christ, “for the good works God prepared for us beforehand to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

This is Labor Day Weekend. It happens to be one of my favorite holidays. This is the weekend we celebrate the working people of America. Labor Day reminds us of all the endless generations of farmers who built a nation of plenty out of a wilderness. Labor Day reminds us of those who opened the West, built the transcontinental railways, created the greatest manufacturing nation in the world and made of our nation, the “Arsenal of Democracy” at a time of great danger to freedom. Labor Day reminds us of those who even today work and sweat that we might live in peace and plenty.

Those of us who have jobs we call, “White Collar” need to approach this day with a bit of humility. Interestingly for me, Jesus does not seem to have wanted to enter history either as a religious professional or as a “teacher of the law,” the two careers I have embraced. In fact he speaks ill of them both from time to time. He was content to be born and trained as a carpenter. Jesus was a laborer; and, his life, death and resurrection sanctified all laborers and all honest labor.

One reason that I did not work in the garden today was simple: I am waiting for Monday.

PS: Our hearts go out to all those who are suffering from Hurricane Harvey. Many people have asked about our family. We are fine. The hurricane really never caused any damage in San Antonio.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonheoffer, No Rusty Swords (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1977). This book is a collection of Bonheoffer’s writings on a variety of subjects. Many years ago as a law student, this was a favorite work of mine.

[2] Charles Ringma, Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonheoffer (Colorado Springs, CO: Pinion Press, 2000), reading for August 25.

Avoiding the False God of Convenience

Since retirement, I have been using a little devotional guide by Charles Ringma called, “Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”  Each day has a short quote from Bonhoeffer, a Bible verse, and a reflection by Ringma. I intend to use this little devotional guide for the first year of my “post-Advent Presbyterian Church” life. The devotional is very different than the devotional life I had as a pastor. Thus far, I am enjoying doing something a bit different devotionally. I don’t know how long this will last, but I am enjoying it and intend to finish my year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This week, one of the devotions had to do with our human tendency to seek God’s actual presence only when we have exhausted all human avenues to accomplish something we desire to accomplish. All of us, pastors and non-pastors, have a tendency to call on God and seek God most passionately when all else fails. Ringma reminds us that, “God is not not a god of the gaps when we have run out of human resources or explanations. God is not be called on only when human wisdom fails. He is not waiting in the wings to be called on only when things run into difficulty. He is there at the center–central to our wisdom, to our answers, to our very life. His wisdom is not geared for a life of religious escapism. It is sufficiently comprehensive to embrace family and political life, personal faith and social transformation.”

This morning, as has become our custom, we attended two different churches. In one of them, the pastor was talking about the false God’s we rely upon a lot of the time. One of them, partially responsible for some of our social tensions is the “God of My Tribe,” that racially and socially acceptable God that defends MY PEOPLE. There are a lot of false God’s in our culture. Perhaps most importantly, the God of MY Personal Peace. This is the God of wealth, health, perpetual youth, and personal fulfillment.  This is the God of pleasure, of security, and of affluence. There is no such God. It is an idol we have created in our own minds–and like all false gods, it must surely fail us and our culture.

The text for this morning’s sermon at one of our churches was from Second Corinthians. It reads like this,Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” II Corinthians 1:3-7).

Over and over again, Paul talks about “comfort.” To the modern ear to talk about “a God of comfort”  seems to mean that God is a God who makes us comfortable, at ease, without problems. This misunderstands what Paul is saying. The Latin word that we translates “Comfort” is made up of two words that mean, “To come beside and strengthen.” This puts an entirely different perspective on what Paul means. What Paul is saying is that God is the God who comes beside us to strengthen us so that we can face difficulties, aging, loss of vigor, disease, loss of jobs, of meaning, even of life itself. The ONE TRUE GOD is not a god who allows us to escape life, but the ONE TRUE GOD who comes beside us and strengthens us for this life. This God is always with us, in life and in death, and in every circumstance in between.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God came close to the human condition and suffered with and for us all that we can suffer: injustice, betrayal, disease, death. In Christ and in the resurrection, God demonstrated his power over our circumstances. Sometimes he will deliver us from them when we cry out to him. Sometimes, he simply walks with us through them.

Bonhoeffer knew such comfort. He was not delivered from the Nazi’s. They ultimately killed him. But he had a powerful understanding that God was with him in his circumstances empowering him to face them. Those around him at the end understood this and remarked on his remarkable calm in the face of suffering, injustice and death.

 

Amen.

When Everyone Does as They Please

If there is one single value that underlies American culture, it is the ideal of freedom. When our forefathers and mothers came to America, they came in search of freedom. The societies of Medieval Europe were highly structured. One’s social and one’s economic status was almost entirely determined by birth. The kingdoms of the Middle Ages were ruled by hereditary elites who owned and controlled most of the farm land. This was at a time when land was the primary source of wealth. There was little freedom of religion. Most European nations had state religions to which everyone had to subscribe. Economically, most children followed the career of their parents, which for most people meant what we would call “tenant farming.” Most people would never own their own land or leave anything to their children.

The early settlers of America wanted “freedom.” But by this freedom they did not mean “the right to do whatever I want so long as it does not obviously hurt anyone else”. They meant “the right to worship as I decide, to work at the job I desire, and to own a piece of property to leave to my heirs, as opposed to being tenants of a lord”. Today, we often misconstrue the founding principles as “the right to do whatever I please”—and in so doing we create a kind of social chaos as millions of Americans try to get what they want and do what they want without much regard for others.

In this blog, we are thinking about the time of the Judges and about what Israel learned between the death of Joshua and the ministry of the final judge, Samuel. This was a time of great social upheaval and period suffering for the people of Israel. It was also a time of periodic religious and moral decay. Unfortunately, Israel of the time of the Judges was not so different from America today: It was a society that lacked a coherent governmental, moral, religious, and cultural base from which to defend itself and provide security of its people.

Text and Prayer

Our text is from the second chapter of Judges. If you remember from two weeks ago, after Moses died, Israel was ruled for many years by the great military leader, Joshua, after whom Jesus was named. [1] Joshua led Israel as the reentered the Promised Land after over 400 years of slavery and wandering in the wilderness. One would think that Israel would remain faithful to God as a result of seeing the great miracles of their deliverance from Egypt and entry into the Promised Land. But, that was not the case. Here is a passage from the Word of God as it comes from the sixth book of the Bible, Judges:

After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.  In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them.  But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways (Joshua 2: 6-19).

Let us Pray: God of History: we come before you today asking that you would give to us a word for our lives, for the lives of our children and grandchildren, and for the future of our nation. Convict us, convert us, and make us wholly yours. In The name of the King of King and Lord of Lords we pray, Amen.

The Mistake of Joshua

Moses managed the transition between his leadership and Joshua’s in a magnificent way.. Moses picked Joshua when he was still a young man. Joshua was with Moses at many of the most important moments of Moses’  ministry. Joshua led Israel in a battle against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-15). He accompanied Moses on the Mountain to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:13). He guarded the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:11). He observed the Spirit of God among the people—and saw times when the spirit was misused (Numbers 11:17-29). He was one of the spies sent by Moses into the Promised Land the first time they entered it (Numbers 13:8; 14 6-38). Joshua was ready for leadership because he had been mentored as a leader by Moses. [2]

Unfortunately, it does not seem that Joshua did as good a job of preparing the people for his absence as did Moses. When Moses died, the people had not yet entered the land, and they knew they needed strong, experienced, competent leadership. Joshua provided that leadership. But, as Joshua grew older, and as the Jewish people conquered more and more of Palestine, the tribal leaders wanted to stop fighting and enjoy their new homes. So, Joshua distributed the land among the tribes of Israel near the end of his life, leaving a bit more land to be conquered. This was a mistake. I allowed the Jews to intermarry and adopt pagan customs. It also gave the enemies of Israel time to regroup. When Joshua died, he did not leave the a single successor. This was also a mistake.

When you are Number 1 it is easy to forget what made you Number 1. When you have had strong leadership, it is easy to forget that leadership is hard and necessary—and that good leaders do not grow on trees. When you have profited from sound judgment, it is easy to forget what a rare quality sound judgment is—and the terrifying consequences of bad decisions and bad leadership.

Problem: Our Short Memory

When the Jews left Egypt a good number of the people quickly forgot what it was like to be in slavery. They began to long for what they mistakenly remembered as the “easy life” as slaves. They remembered the food, the spices, and the waters of Egypt. They remembered the god’s of Egypt and began to long for them. Similarly, after the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they began the process of forgetting the price of their freedom. Judges records that the generation which fought with Joshua continued to hold fast to the faith of Israel and remembered what God had done for them (Judges 2:7). But, the next generations forgot the price of their freedom and the requirement of holiness and faithfulness to God, and so Israel entered a time of social decay. So, Judges records:

After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them (Judges 2:10-12)

I am afraid we human beings have a problem—we suffer from short memories. One reason it is so important that one generation tell another generation of the mighty acts of God (see Psalm 145:4) is that, if they do not, the next generation will forget the lessons prior generations have learned in toil and sweat and blood.

My parent’s generation was not perfect, but they understood the necessity of hard work and how quickly human society can degenerate into chaos. The generation that went through the Depression and fought World War II saw the consequences of overspending, of high living, and of economic and financial foolishness. They felt the consequences of a lack of preparedness as the nation suffered the attack at Pearl Harbor and the early losses of the Second World War. Consequently, for as long as they were the majority of Americans, they made sure that, whichever party was in power, they managed our national finances more or less wisely, remained unified on foreign affairs, and prepared for conflict should it become necessary. I am afraid that, as they have grown old and passed on, we’ve forgotten the old truths they knew.

Solution: the Example of Gideon

Judges describes a cycle that occurs over and over again in history. The people of Israel fell away from God and suffered economic and military hardships. They were then placed into slavery and underwent oppressions by the surrounding tribes, but particularly by the Philistines. In addition, they suffered a lack of internal security due to their loose confederation. Finally, the people repented and cried out for salvation. Ultimately, a leader arose—a charismatic military leader who provided temporary relief. Unfortunately, some of these leaders were little more than thugs, and some of them ended up as mini-dictators. And, as soon as the danger ended, the people forgot the price of their freedom and went back to worshiping false God’s. In Judges this story is told over and over as it applies to Israel. [3]

Gideon’s story is a good example. When we first meet Gideon, he is hiding in a winepress threshing wheat (Judges 6:11). The Midianites are harassing the people of Israel as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God (See, Judges 6:7-10). Gideon is not the most impressive possible leader. He is from a small tribe and the least member of his family (v. 15). Yet, he is the chosen of God so that through this weak man, God can show his power (v. 16). After testing God, and seeing proof of God’s power, Gideon agrees (vv. 19-22). To make a long story short Gideon cuts down the pagan altars, raises and army, and sets out to defeat the Midianites. He does so in an unbelievable way, winnowing his already inadequate army down to a size that has no chance of defeating the Midianites without the help of God (See, Judges 7). After his victory, Gideon led Israel for forty years, but eventually he grew old and died—once again without mentoring a leader (Judges 8:28-33). So, the people of Israel slipped back into worshiping false god’s and pretty soon Abimelech, his illegitimate son and a would be dictator, rose up and the people suffered again (see Judges 8:28-9:59).

Those of us who are inclined to wonder what in the world made the Jews act like this should perhaps take a look at the recent history of our own nation. We too have forgotten many of the principles that resulted in our freedom. We have forgotten how hard it is to earn freedom and how easy it is to lose it. We too have worshiped the false God’s of Personal Peace, Personal Pleasure and Affluence. [4] And, we too suffer the consequences. We too need to remember our past, repent of our present, and be restored.

When Everyone Does as They Please

At the end of Judges, the author pronounces his judgment on the period of the Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25 [NIV]). The very same phrase appears in Judges 17:6 and parts of the phrase in other sections of the book (See, Judges 18:1). In the end, the period of the Judges was a disaster for Israel. The dispersed tribes, largely disconnected and unified occasionally by charismatic leaders, could not defend itself against internal violence or external threats. Just as examples, a terrible rape and murder in Judges almost ends in the extermination of the tribe of Dan. Over and over again the Amorites, Ammonites, Midianites, and Philistines made war against Israel, causing untold suffering. The author of Judges blames the people themselves for the problem: they were not faithful to God, the degenerated morally and spiritually, and they suffered the consequences.

The term “Bedlam” applies to disorder, tumult, chaos, clamor, turmoil, commotion, pandemonium. It is sometimes used in connection with lunacy. The word “Bedlam” is a Middle English form of the Hebrew word, “Bethlehem,” which means “House of Bread”. The word got its current meaning because it the name “Bedlam” was given to an English hospital for the insane that had a terrible reputation. [5] I think this derivation has a point to make to all of us: When we forget the one born in Bethlehem who came to us to give us the Bread of Life in the form of the Wisdom, Love and Forgiveness of God, we degenerate into Bedlam. The current state of our society is a good example of this truth.

Message of the Judges

Is our situation hopeless? I don’t think so. The message of judges seems to be that, while we human beings have short memories and often degenerate into sin and foolishness, if we repent and ask for forgiveness, we will be restored. God will forgive us. This also seems to be the message of II Chronicles 7: 14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (II Chronicles 7:14 [NIV]). This need for humility, repentance and prayer was not just a need of the ancient Jews; it is our need as well.

Copyright, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua,” which means “savior” in Hebrew.

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Entering a New Era: Passing the Torch (September 30, 2012): 5

[3] See, Jacob M. Myers “Judges” in The Interpreter’s Bible vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1953): 688.

[4] Francis Schaeffer often spoke of the two values of our culture as being personal peace and affluence. See, “How Shall We Then Live” in The Collected Works of Francis Schaeffer Vol. 5 (Wheaton Ill, Crossway Books, 1982): 211.

[5] See, “Bedlam” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Online (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02387b.htm, October 11, 2012.

 

Putting It to Work

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Luke 10:1-2

 One of the most exciting things concerning the Christian life is the opportunities we are given to “be Jesus” in the life of other people. As important as the church is, as important as being part of a small group of disciples is, membership in the group is not all there is to the Christian life. Once we know, we need to share. We need to exercise our spiritual gifts and thereby share the wisdom and love of God with others.

Jesus formed the disciples as a community and enjoyed a wonderful, life transforming fellowship with them. Nevertheless, for the entire time that he was with them, he was also in ministry to others: healing the sick, teaching the multitudes, confronting sin, and showing people what the kingdom of God was really like. Then, he sent the disciples (and us) out to do the same. Mark records it his way: Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them (Mark 6:7-13). What Jesus was doing, they were now about to do. In other words, Jesus was empowering his disciples to do the very things that he was doing.

Expanding the Reign of God’s Love

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:23-24). Later, in Chapter 15, he gives his command: “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17).  Finally, in John 20, after the resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples that, just as God sent him into the world to reveal the wisdom (Logos) and love (Agape) of God, so Jesus was now sending the disciples into the world to do the same: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you (John 20:21). Sending was always a part of Jesus’ plan for his disciples. It is also his plan for us.

The heart of Christian discipleship is simply this: to spread the love of God as we have seen it in Jesus Christ. This sharing of God’s unmerited forgiving and restoring grace, what Paul called the secret wisdom of God that the world calls foolishness is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We were not called merely to have private religious experiences of God’s love. We were not called merely to enjoy the life transforming nature of a Christian community. We were called also to go into the world and to share the Good News of God’s mercy, love and grace with others in word and deed.

Our Sending

This week, several times the Lord brought the importance of serving others to my attention. Robert Mulholland defined Christian spiritual formation as the process of becoming more like Christ for the sake of the world. A small group study Kathy and I attended focused on the four aspects of this: our life in Christ as

  1. A process
  2. Of being formed
  3. Into the Image of Christ
  4. For the sake of the world. [1]

Too often we think of our salvation as something God has done for us, and we stop there. It is true that God saves us because of his great love for us. But we are saved so that we can become more like Christ. Therefore, Paul can say things like we should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”—i.e. Our salvation in Christ is a process that is worked out in some way over time. The “working out” is the process of becoming more like Christ. Not just like Christ on the outside (that is hypocrisy!), but like Christ inside and out. Like Christ in his relationship with the Father. Like Christ is our moral and spiritual being. Like Christ in the way we react to people and situations. Every serious Christian knows that this is a process that takes a long time—our entire lives and is complete only in heaven.

This process has a purpose. John begins with “For God so loved the world that he sent his Only Begotten Son” (John 3:16). John ends his gospel with, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Jesus was sent into the world to proclaim and live out the Good News. We are sent for the same reason. God is still in the process of loving the world and saving the lost. His Spirit is present empowering people to turn from sin and selfishness to God. For the sake of the world, God has now sent his people, the church, the ecclesia, those called out of the world into God’s kingdom, into the world. He is sending you and me.

God created the human race in his image. The Bible reveals what we all know deep in our hearts—we have defaced that image in selfishness, self-centeredness, and sin. In Christ, however, God has provided way for that image of God to be restored. (II Corinthians 5:17-18) Those of us who were estranged from God have now been “reconciled” with God, brought back into a relationship with God through Christ. We in turn, in our everyday relationships with people, are called to continue our own journey into Christlikeness not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world God loves, a world God loved enough to send his Only Begotten Son to live, minister, and die for.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] M. Robert Mulhollland, Jr,  with Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation Expanded Version (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Press), 1993

An Independence Day Meditation: Media, “Alt-Media” and News Media Lost in Post-Modernism

 

 

When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy. Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed (Proverbs 11:10-11 [NIV]).

A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might, for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory (Proverbs 24:5-6 [ESV]).

God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above;
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America, my home, sweet home.
God bless America, my home, sweet home (Irving Berlin, 1918, rev. 1939)

This particular meditation is born of a deep grief for our country and where were are in our political life.

The most recent American elections revealed in startling ways the culture decline of the American media and American Political life  in almost all its manifestations.  Whether one looks at Mainline Media, Print Media, Network Media, Television Media, Internet Media, or Alt-Media (sometimes called “Alt Right Media” by the traditional media) the failures of the media as a whole to accurately and factually report stories was plainly evident. It was as evident on Fox News as CNN, on Yahoo as in the New York Times or New York Post. For whatever reason, generally the media felt it had an open season on one particular candidate. Specially, left and right, the media and candidates demonstrated a complete disdain for a reasonable and dignified public culture. Since the election, nothing has changed. [1]

What is the Media?

The term “media” comes from a Latin word “medi,” which means “middle.” This word forms the root of many English words. “Mediators” stand in the middle between parties to a dispute and help them resolve their difficulties. “Intermediaries” negotiate on behalf of parties who cannot see each other personally in a dispute. The “Media” are intermediaries of a sort. Citizens cannot be everywhere. Therefore, we need the “media” to mediate news for us. Because of the volume of events that may occur on any given day or given period of time, the public relies upon the media to sort through events, prioritize their importance, summarize events in a meaningful and truthful way, and convey the meaning of events to those of us who cannot be personally present to view and participate in events. When the media fails in this task, becomes prejudiced in the task, ceases to believe in democracy and in the power of ordinary people to interpret and act upon the facts, a disaster is in the making.

It goes without saying that the media have an important role in any vital democracy. Citizens rely upon the media to provide them with information without which voters and participants in public life cannot make informed decisions. The media is the medium through which most people, in and out of government, gain the information needed to be responsible citizens and public servants. Unfortunately, the voters have not been well served by the traditional media for some time—and the recent election and the first six months of the new administration were just one more indication of a deep problem.

An Outmoded World-View

Behind the decline of American media and American political culture  is a mindset, a way of looking at the world, an orientation in which words do not convey meanings. Instead words are simply bids for power. Having given up any notion that the voters and the public should be given the facts so as to judge wisely, the media and politicians are  left with using their constitutionally protected position to put into office the candidate/s that support their biases, left, right, or whatever.

This way of looking at the world has two aspects: First, a strictly post-modern (really, “hyper-modern”) view does not believe that there is a “public truth” out there that citizens are discovering over time as we elect candidates and evaluate their performance. There is just an ideology of the left or right that their respective proponents would like to enact into law, and whoever gets the votes can do as they please. There is no truth, no justice, just ideology and the naked search for power.

This a prejudice the practitioners of hyper-modern journalism share with politicians left and right— and increasingly with those who control and teach in our universities. This prejudice contributes to many of our greatest public failures. Just to give one current example, virtually no economist or healthcare expert thought that the Affordable Care Act would work. There were many obvious flaws in the proposal. Most members of the media largely ignored these flaws, pointed out by conservative thinkers and legislators, because of the need to achieve some kind of universal coverage. They favored a single payer solution. The proponents of the Affordable Care Act were willing to deceive and lie to the American people because of an ideological commitment divorced from reality. The coverage of the passage of the Affordable Care Act did not alert the average voter and citizen to the inherent dangers of the way the legislation was structured.

The failure by the media to fully and accurately cover this story resulted in the passage of a deeply flawed piece of legislation. The Democratic Party, which the media was trying to “help,” has paid the price in every successive election. The political disaster consumed the very party the majority of the media was trying to assist. In addition, the taxpayers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get more expensive and no better healthcare than before. Finally, confidence in our political institutions and processes have been injured.

Today, a conservative Congress is busy following the same mistake in the opposite direction. The loud calls to “Repeal Obamacare” are resulting in pressure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but not necessarily replace it with a piece of legislation that achieves the two basic objectives of the American people: control of costs to the average consumer together with as broad a scope of coverage as  possible.

I have used legislation concerning medical care as an example, but in a variety of areas (banking legislation comes to mind) the ideological predispositions of an essentially irrational political and media elite are driving legislation that will assure that problems that have occurred in the past will repeat themselves in the future. Reporting tends to speak from the prejudice of those reporting as opposed to a desire to seek the truth. In a variety of areas this is dangerous because the problems we face require new solutions not necessarily available to those trapped in historic ideological positions.

A loss of belief in truth cannot help but be followed by another, perhaps worse, phenomena. We have seen this phenomenon during the past election and in the past few weeks: If facts are not important than sensational, overblown, and highly emotional visual and other images are. If all that counts is power, then getting power over the voters’ prejudices is what matters. Unfortunately, the public interest is what is harmed if the media and politicians engage in such behavior.

The problem of loss of faith in truth is complicated by a focus on sensationalism. The politics of negative sensationalism prevents us from having a conversation about serious national problems. It is easy to win office by stating that the candidate you oppose is worse than the candidate you support. It is harder to prove that your candidate had good ideas and is capable of solving a social problem. When you combine a lack of respect for the truth with a focus on the sensational, you have a recipe for democratic disaster.

The Way of Wisdom in the Post-Modern World [2]

Wisdom literature certainly does not provide a simple road map for contemporary political activity. The culture of the Old Testament is far removed from contemporary Western democracy governing a nation made up of city-dwellers who are part of a complex industrial and post-industrial economy. Nevertheless, certain principles of wisdom are needed to provide a foundation for our contemporary government. Moral decay and injustice still erode the foundations of a society. Moral principles continue to be important for leaders. Leaders still need good character and a willingness to listen to good advice. Wise leaders are concerned about the integrity of the political system, and especially for the courts. Just as in the days of ancient Israel, it is easy for a government to pay attention to the needs of the wealthy and well-connected and hard, sometimes incredibly hard to listen to the cries of the poor.

The philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi points out a paradoxical feature of modern society: it combines a cynical disregard for truth and for justice with kind fanatical devotion to certain moral ideals of an ideology, right or left. The Russian Communists and German Nazi’s were equally mad and equally inspired by an ideological moral fervor cut off from a deep moral ground in a history, religious faith, or tradition. The search for a just society, cut off from a deep transcendental notion of justice moves the practitioners of modern ideological politics into a fanaticism that permits acts of gross immorality in the search for a better or perfect society. [3]

What is needed is for Western democracies, most of which have some basic cultural history in the Judeo-Christian tradition to recover their connection with the moral tradition of the West in the conduct of its political affairs. Most importantly, the West must recover its faith in the reality of Justice and other intangible public values as real qualities which is progressively uncovered in the search for them. In his book Logic of Liberty, Polanyi puts the matter in this way:

The general foundations of coherence and freedom in society may be regarded as secure to the extent to which men uphold their belief in the reality of truth, justice, charity, and tolerance, and accept dedication to the service of these realities; while society may be expected to fall into servitude when men deny, explain away or simply disregard these realities and transcendent obligations.

We may be faced with the fact that only by resuming the great tradition which embodies faith in these realities can the continuance of the human race on earth, equipped with the powers of modern science be made both possible and desirable. [4]

If there is no such thing as truth and justice, if we are not constrained in our political behavior by a transcendent obligation to seek truth and justice in our political lives with tolerance for other views, then the state can and must dictate these matters—and society has turned onto the road that inevitably leads to tyranny. This is the road we have recently been taking. It is a road the leads to death—the death of our society, our freedoms, our culture, our way of life.

If, however, a society believes in the reality of transcendent, moral and ethical realities of truth, justice, tolerance, charity and serve them, not one or the one we find convenient, but all of them, and if we believe that our society will eventually discern these realities and be guided by them, then the foundation of a free society can be maintained, even in the fact of conflict and uncertainty. This is the road to which we must return. It is a road that leads to life.

So much of the frenetic dishonesty of contemporary politics comes from an underlying assumption of the right and left that there nothing involved but the contention of special interest groups for advantage. In the absence of faith in the reality of moral constraints on the political process and upon what special interest groups may seek as well as upon what means may be used to seek them, a free and just society cannot endure.

If, however, we come to believe in something called the “Public Interest” as an invisible reality which can and will be disclosed to us as we truly seek the invisible but progressively attainable reality of a more just order for society, then (and only then) can a free society be maintained in the face of the trials and tests of history. In such a society, the voice of religious leaders can and should be heard in the public arena, for Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law” (Proverbs 29:18 [ESV]).

Modern advocates of a purely secular state may immediately suspect that any attempt to subject government to religious opinions and moral rules involves an attempt to set up a theocracy or “moralocracy”. An attempt by religious or moral leaders to acquire political power to advance a religious or moral agenda would be contrary to the vision of Polanyi and others. A society in which moral values guide leaders is a society in which leaders have been trained in wisdom and in the principles of moral leadership and instinctively bring them to bear upon the problems of the day. The role of morality and religion is to create a kind of character in leaders, not to mandate a particular moral position enforced by law.

Conclusion

During these past weeks, actors, journalists, politicians, and others have openly suggested the assassination of a sitting President. The facts of certain decisions have largely been overlooked in favor of sensationalist, often violent, speeches and demonstrations. Exactly what these people think they will gain is not clear, but their strategy is clear: Cause chaos and maybe we will come out on top. This strategy is as old as the Communist Revolution in Russia. The problem with the strategy is the inevitable outcome: When violent revolutions occur, a society gets a Hitler, Lenin, Pot Pol, or Stalin not a Harvard Law Professor or an environmental activist. When violence, physical or political, is the way to power, you get violent leaders. Always. Every time. No exceptions.

The American people, the press, the Congress, and the Administration need to take a pause for reflection. The current administration was elected because the voters wanted a change in what the media is calling a more populist direction—what I interpret to mean a more personal, local, and organic direction for government. These changes are now occurring. Perhaps the administration might want to think about the pace and direction of change. Mistakes will be made and they will need to be corrected. Reasoned analysis and critique might avoid unnecessary errors.

On the other hand, a President needs a Cabinet, reasonable and helpful, if sometimes critical, support from Congress for the initiatives he was elected to take, and a “loyal opposition” to hold him accountable so that another Obamacare-like fiascos do not occur. The media needs to report as accurately as they can the facts surrounding the initiatives. Everyone needs to be held accountable to the democratic process. And, in humility, we need to give a new government a chance.

For this to work, in fact for democracy to work, there must be something more important and more fundamental than victory for our side in the next election. There must be shared values and a shared belief that the democratic process works, not always immediately, but over time. There must be a shared commitment to the search beyond ideology and prejudice for the best and most reasonable solutions to our national problems. There must be a shared belief in truth, in justice, in fairness, and in the capacity of our nation to accomplish the creation of a fair and just society for all people. Without that shared commitment, the future is dark. With such a commitment, whatever darkness may periodically erupt, there is always the hope for a better future for all Americans.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The following quote pretty much says it all: “The unhinged reaction of the mainstream media, which Mr. Trump correctly describes as corrupt and dishonest, only confirms their attempt to disguise rank political partisanship behind a phony First Amendment curtain. The fact that so many of the so-called journalists who were working behind the scenes for Hillary Clinton and writing false stories about Mr. Trump and the election are still on the job is inexcusable (when, for example, is CNBC going to fire John Harwood?). I certainly do not agree with everything Mr. Trump says or does (though I agree with much of it), but at least he speaks his mind and backs it up with action. Our country is now run by generals and businessmen, not by the types of academics and politicians who made a shambles of foreign and domestic policy over the last two decades. Before we judge Mr. Trump too harshly, we should give him a chance to implement the policies that he was elected to implement. The fact that a biased liberal medi a and half the country doesn’t like him or his policies is irrelevant. By the time Mr. Trump’s first term is over, the media is going to be a shadow of its former self if it doesn’t start telling the truth and behaving like the Founders envisioned, not like a bunch of political operatives.” Michael Lewitt, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” (Excerpted from The Credit Strategist (February 1, 2017), reprinted in John Mauldin Economics, Outside the Box “More on Complexity Economics” (downloaded February 3, 2017). I do want to point out that the President’s response to his critics in the media has sometimes been short-sighted and fed the dysfunction of our political system.

[2] This part of the essay is based upon a part of a chapter in my book, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

[3] See, Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946). This little book should be required reading in every college in America. It is an eloquent defense of academic and religious freedom by a scientist/philosopher horrified by what the politicalization of science did to Russian science.

[4] Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1951):\, 57. I am obligated to Polanyi for the argument as well as the quotation.

Salt & Light: Heart of the Church of Tomorrow

 

In Acts, Dr. Luke tells us that, when Jesus ascended into heaven, he promised they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…” (Acts 1:8). When that happened, the church would be born and his disciples would be empowered to spread the gospel in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Sure enough, fifty days later, while the disciples were praying, God sent the Holy Spirit upon them like a fiery wind. The wind of the Spirit filled the house they were in and descended upon the disciples like tongues of fire, empowering them to witness to Christ in many languages. Peter was empowered to give a mighty sermon, and many people were saved (Acts 2:1 ff.).

I need to stop right there and be sure we remember that the evangelism problems of the first church were much greater than the ones we face. Other than the twelve apostles, some women, and a few other disciples who had not deserted the faith, there was no church at all! Yet, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians were empowered to reach out in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and then into the Roman Empire and the end of the then known world. No one really knows. [1] Within about 200 years of the death of the last apostle, Christians were in the majority in the Roman Empire.

We know that, during those early years, individual people reached out by the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to their family, friends, neighbors, and fellow-workers. We know names like Peter, Paul, Silas, Pricilla, Aquila, and others. [2] We do not know the names of the countless hundreds and thousands of new Christians who shared their faith with their families and friends. If we want to reach out to a new generation, we cannot say it is the pastor’s job, or the evangelism committee’s job, or the job of a few members who feel called to share their faith. It is and must be everyone’s job.

Let’s All Be Salt and Light

We all know the Beatitudes. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by expressing to his listeners what the blessed life is like. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and lowly, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted because they defend the cause of Christ” (Matt. 6:1-12). He begins by informing the crowd what their lives should be like. Then, he tells them why their lives need to be like this:

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. People do not light a lamp and put it under a bowl. They put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:13-16).

Let us pray: Eternal God make us salt and light to those we meet. In Jesus Name, Amen.

America in a Dark Place

Every so often pastors and interested lay people read articles and books on the condition of faith in America. Christianity is on the decline in our society, not just among younger generations or in certain regions of the country but across race, gender, education and geographic barriers. The percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years.

Here are a couple of striking facts.

  1. Millennials are increasingly not a part of Christian Faith. The so-called Millennial Generation” is just not returning to church as they grow older.
  2. People who are unaffiliated with a church are becoming more secular. This includes all generations. Even older people are beginning to “drop out” of Christian congregations. [3]

Years ago, my former congregation did a study of what was going on to guide us in developing a five-year evangelism plan. The results of our study were frightening to say the least. Our church, which was by all measures relatively young and vital, was experiencing a steady decline in members between twenty-five and thirty-five. We were financially solid and not declining in absolute numbers, but we were slowing getting older. We also discovered that we were not alone. Even highly evangelical and evangelism-oriented churches were experiencing the same problems we were experiencing. Over the past few years, I have had many, many conversations with pastors and religious leaders, church consultants, and others. Everyone in every denomination testifies to a decline in overall attendance and commitment. The media loves to hold up a few rapidly growing congregations to our eyes. What they do not like to tell is this: Most of them are growing by attracting people who are already Christians to one degree or another. Most of their growth is what is called, “transfer growth.”

While it is a fact that Christian faith is under attack in America, under attack from the media and from very well-funded lobbying groups, among others, it is also true that ordinary Christians are not doing their part to reach the world for Christ. It is also true that the church in America has not necessarily reached out as Christ desired for us to do. We all need to be salt and light every day to everyone we meet!

The Importance of Salt

Salt is something that we Americans often try to avoid and think is somehow unhealthy to eat. When Kathy and I first got married, she tried as hard as she could to restrict my intake of salt. Like many Americans and members of my family, I was addicted to salt. Even today, our diet contains less salt than is common in the areas in which we have lived. In the process, I forgot something important—salt is necessary for life. Animals naturally seek out “salt licks,” because they instinctively know that they need salt to live. I was a camp counselor for many years. When we took our campers on a long hike, we always made them take salt tablets so that they would not pass out on a hot summer day.

In the early part of our nation’s history, land with salt on it was in great demand. Salt is not only necessary for life, it is a preservative. Before refrigeration, iceboxes, and the like, salt was necessary to preserve food. My parents, who grew up in the depression, knew exactly how to salt pork and beef; and they salted meat well into the 1960’s! Not long ago, I developed an infection in my mouth. My dentist recommended that I brush my teeth with a special compound that included salt. Salt, you see, is a disinfectant.

Jesus grew up in a culture that knew the importance of salt. He knew it was necessary for life. He knew salt is a preservative. He knew that salt is a disinfectant. He also knew that the People of God, people who live like Jesus with his wisdom, his love, his peaceableness, his humility, and his willingness to help others were necessary for his society and for all the societies of the world. Therefore, he tells them, “You are the salt of the earth” (5:13). In other words, when your society is overheated and dying—when your society is decaying and needs preserving—when your society is sick, you are the salt that is going to heal, preserve, and make it well again.

We need to take Jesus seriously. Our society is pretty clearly overheated and decaying in an orgy of self-centeredness, self-seeking, hedonism, materialism, etc. We are like a runner that is running out of steam and who has sweated too much. We need a salt tablet of the Holy Spirit! We are like a steak left out in the sun too long. We are beginning to smell of decay. We need to be salted! We are like in infection that is beginning to fester. We need some disinfectant! Our world needs people who live differently from everyone else and by their love and wisdom act as a healer and preservative, not just for their own benefit, but because of the benefit that makes to everyone else.

The Importance of Light

Just to reaffirm his point. Jesus goes on to say that people who live like him and who by the power of the Holy Spirit model their lives after him are the light of the world (5:14). Here is how he puts it:

 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (5:14-16).

In the ancient world, people used oil lamps to provide light. Oil was a precious thing because it provided light at night. If a woman wanted to light her house, which was usually just a room or two, she would not put the lamp in a corner, some out of the way place. She would not hide her lamp under her laundry basket. She would put her lamp right out in the open in the center of the room or as close to the center as possible. She would also put her lamp as high as possible in the house—on a lampstand.

It does not take a lot of imagination to apply this to our lives. Throughout history, light has been a symbol of God’s wisdom. The Bible refers to God as light (I John 1:5) and to Jesus as the Light of the World (John 1:9; 8:12; 9:5). Paul tells the Colossians that they have been rescued by Christ from a Kingdom of Darkness and translated into a Kingdom of Light (Colossians 1:12). In wisdom literature over and over again the ways of God are referred to as a Path of Light and the way of evil is referred to as a Path of Darkness. [4]

There are a lot of folks in our world that live lives of deep darkness. I have been a pastor and a lawyer, and in both my lives I have seen what foolishness and what wickedness people are capable of embracing to their own destruction. There are many people trapped in loneliness, isolation, personal and spiritual brokenness, unconfessed sin and brokenness, foolish habits, and the like. Jesus is saying that we need to let the light of Christ illuminate our lives, and then we need to allow the light of Christ to shine into the lives of others, just like a lamp shines in the darkness.

Being an Everyday Disciple

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was not just talking to seriously-committed disciples, or a seminary class, or to a few religious zealots. He was talking to common people who came to hear him beside the Sea of Galilee. He is not saying, “Go hire and especially holy pastor and make him be a moral example.” He is not saying, “Find a few people in your church who really want to live differently and turn over the task of being salt and light to them.” He is telling the crowd and us that we all need to be Salt and Light. We all need to be sharing our life with others in life transforming ways.

Several years ago, Kathy attended a mission conference in San Antonio, Texas. There she learned about what God is doing in the Far East and other places, including San Antonio, Texas, to plant new churches and to grow existing churches. She learned about a lay-driven technique that a lot of those congregations use. Being the person she is, within just a few weeks we were leading a training group in our home. Over the next two years, we developed a ministry we call “Salt and Light.” One of our members suggested the name. It relies on ordinary people learning to be filled with the Spirit, living the Christian life daily, and sharing the Good News with Others. [5]

Here are just a few elements:

First, Salt & Light is done in community in Small Groups. A Church that is a Disciple-making community will be a place of new life in Christ, where people experience the life-transforming power of God– a new kind of life – in Jesus Christ in personal relationships with others who themselves embody the light of Christ.

Second, Salt & Light is based on the Great Commission.  A Church that is a Disciple-making community will be a place where what Luke calls the “Apostles’ teaching” the Good News of Jesus Christ, in whom we can have forgiveness of sins and restored fellowship with God and others (Acts 2:42-46). We need to know the Gospel and how to present the Gospel to others.

Third, Salt & Light is Spirit-driven, prayerful, and transformational. A Church that is a Disciple-making community will be a place where people pray and experience the power of prayer in their lives and in the lives of others. We need to pray for miracles of God’s presence in our lives and we need to learn how to share those miracles with others.

Where these things happen, the church experiences the blessings of God and an increase in the fellowship, because people see what God is doing in the lives of people.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Michael Green, Evangelism and the Early Church Rev. Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004).  See also, “Evangelism and the Early Church: Did You Know?” Christian History Institute www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/evangelism-in-early-church-did-you-know/ (downloaded June 17, 2017).

[2] The beginning and end of Paul’s letters often contain a long list of coworkers and brothers and sisters in Christ. For an example see Romans 16:1-16. There are many examples of this phenomenon in Paul’s letters. The Book of Acts also reveals that Paul led a group of laypeople who shared in his ministry. Paul himself worked as a tent-maker. The early church grew as a primarily lay-driven mission.

[3] See, Sarah Pulliam Bailey “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion” Washington Post, May 12, 2015 (www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/…). See also, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

[4] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014) for a full treatment of this insight from New and Old Testament Wisdom literature. Our society needs to rediscover the importance of both community and the wisdom of an historical community of faith in helping human beings face the challenges of life.

[5] G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy Trammell Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Evangelism (Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017). Salt & Light embodies one concrete way to bring a relational, communal form of evangelism to your congregation.

A Disciple Spends Time in the Word

A few moments ago, as is my custom, I finished spending the first few minutes of the day praying, reading the Bible, and meditating. I have been a Christian since 1977, and for the vast amount of that time, this has been my daily routine. This has been true as a layperson, as a pastor, and as a parent. After all these years, I do not feel right on the days I skip and hope and believe it makes a difference in who I am and how I behave.

A committed disciple is committed to spend time in the written Word of God and so as to have the knowledge base to grow in likeness and fellowship with the Word Made Flesh. To be a disciple is to be centered in Holy Scripture in and on the One of whom Scripture speaks. A great deal of what we can know about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Christian life we learn by listening to the voice of God in Scripture. This knowing about, however, is of no use to us unless it results in our growing in a relationship with God in Christ and in our personal likeness to Christ.

In Acts, Paul leaves Thessalonica for Berea. Initially, the Thessalonians were resistant to the Good News and did not want to hear Paul’s message. Later in Berea, things were different. Luke records: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:11-12). Those who earnestly hear the gospel of Christ are almost always eager to study their Scriptures. We study our scripture to test the testimony and opinions of others and to grow in our understanding of God, God’s world, our fallenness, and our unique place in God’s plan to redeem the world.

In perhaps his last letter, Paul underscores the importance of Scripture as he writes young Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Here we see Scripture liftedup for what it is: the source of Godly wisdom, of a deeper understanding of the secret wisdom revealed in Christ, of the nature of faith, and of our hope in God through Christ. The Scripture was given to us by the Spirit of God and teaches us, rebukes our sin, corrects our errors, and trains us in the ways of God.

The Crisis of Biblical Knowledge

For a long time, pastors, scholars, and students have known that “Biblical literacy” is declining in our culture. There was a time when the Bible was found in almost every home in Europe and North America. There was a time before radio, television, and other forms of media and reading the Bible in family groups was common. There was a time when public schools and colleges taught the Bible and taught literature based upon the Bible. In such a culture, most people grew up with some understanding of the story the Bible is telling in the culture was formed by the story of the Bible.

This is no longer true, the story that the Bible tells us no longer at the center of our civilization. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the cost of discipleship, Europe was no longer filled with Christian nations. The elites that ran European countries no longer believed in historic Christian faith; however, the educated and were part of the culture in which their fundamental values were formed by the Christian story. Unfortunately, this is no longer true in Europe or in the United States.

Instead, in Europe and the United States, as well as the other parts of the world formed by European in the American culture, political, educational, cultural, and artistic leaders performed by a worldview that excludes God, the miraculous, the notion of a personal communication from God, prayer, and other facets of Christian faith. People formed by such a worldview simply do not find Christian faith, values, or morals important or realistic.

The situation will not change, and the crisis of discipleship will continue, until a group of people become deeply formed by the Christian story and Christian faith so that their approach to life and to secular problems of life are formed by the Christian story. The formation and growth of such a group of people cannot be done by mass media, but corporate education, or by large, entertainment driven, local congregations. [1] It can only be done within small groups of people who are studying the Scriptures, praying and leaving out the Christian life together.

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, thinks that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world, being transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our lives and automatically do the kinds of things that please God. This transformation will not and cannot occur until and unless we change the way we see the world, think about the world, and respond to the challenges of everyday life.

The Bible is a tool we use in day-to-day life. [2] all tools require skill to use properly. Generally, the utility of a tool is only fully available to a craftsman trained and experienced in the proper use of the tool so that its use is second nature. Mental tools are no different. The value of wisdom literature is not in the study of it, or even in the memorization of its teachings, but in internalizing and consciously and unconsciously learning to live wisely over an extended period of time.

An example of this function of wisdom is the warnings of wisdom literature against laziness and against excessive work (compare, Proverbs 12:4 with Proverbs 23:4). These proverbs provide a way of thinking about work and leisure. They are not a substitute for personal decision. They are an aid to thinking and acting, not a substitute for personal responsibility. This book intends to encouragement readers to rediscover wisdom literature not as the solution to the problems of life but as a source of basic principles that we can apply to live wisely.

As we study, memorize, and meditate on the Bible and the story of God and humanity that it tells, we learn to “indwell” the story and its principles. Only when the stories and teachings of the Bible are internalized, so they are tacitly available to us as part of our conscious and unconscious perception of the world, can they perform their most important use in guiding thought and action. [3] This is why wisdom literature is important for young people to internalize at an early age so that it can function to guide their perception and experience over the long course of their lives.

Modern Christian churches (including my own) have not done a sufficient job of providing members and children with the skills in living wisely required to meet the challenges of our society and the prevailing culture. This book is designed to help Christians understand and respond to the challenges our culture presents to the wise life. I have attempted to connect wisdom literature with the greater narrative of Scripture to show how Old Testament wisdom fits into the greater story of God’s wisdom and redeeming love.

The crisis of our civilization and world is largely due to a lack of understanding of the true story of the world and the love affair that god desires to have with all people, of every tribe and nation. The Good News of this story is contained in the Bible and particularly in the stories of the life death and resurrection of Jesus, of his interaction with people, and of the response of those people to the Good News.

Transformed by the Word

As Christians study Scripture and meditate upon the One revealed in its pages, we encounter the God revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Romans, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Later, in Colossians, Paul urges Christians to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). As we listen to others in a Bible Study or Sunday School Class, God’s word, the Word of Christ, enters our hearts through the window of our minds. Slowly, but surely, we are transformed.

[1] I hesitated to use the phrase, “large entertainment driven churches,” for fear that the phrase would be taken pejoratively. Recent years have seen the emergence of large congregations that rely upon sophisticated media and popular music in worship. There is nothing wrong with this approach. However, as powerful as the worship experience may be in these congregations, discipleship formation cannot be done in worship alone. Many of these congregations recognize this fact and are deeply committed to developing discipling ministries in their congregation.

[2] This part of this chapter is adapted from and based upon a similar section in my earlier book, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 10-11.

[3] Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Glouchester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983). The work of Polanyi and its application to wisdom thinking is often noted during the course of this study.

A Discipling Community

 

Christians were meant to be part of a family. We were meant to live in community with other Christians, sharing our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our dashed hopes and dreams, our worries and our cares. The church, the community of those who have responded to the call of Jesus to come and follow him, is not something optional. It is essential. Becoming a part of the community of Christ is essential to becoming and being a disciple of Christ.

The Bible uses many metaphors for God’s community of discipleship. The Church is Body of Christ; it is the City of God; it is the People of God; it is the Family of God. In the last chapter, we noted that, when Jesus came to be among the human race to display for us the wisdom and love of God in human form, he did not do it alone. He chose a small group of followers and poured his life into them. He created a community of disciples. During his lifetime, the little group grew. When he ascended into heaven, his discipleship group became the church. A fundamental principle of disciplemaking is that all believers, and especially new believers, need to be part of a discipleship group. Just as children need a family to grow up in, so also young Christians need a family to grow up in. They need the experience of growing in Christ in an intimate fellowship of other people who are trying to grow in Christ as well. We never lose our need for that close, Christian, family of disciples.

In an individualistic culture, it is tempting to think of the church as a kind of voluntary society like-minded people join to advance a set of beliefs or even a way of life. This is not the proper way to think of the church at all. The church is more like a family. Our families existed before we existed, just as the church existed before we became members—or even believed in Christ. Just as we grow up in a family, we grow up in the church. The church is a family in which the children are disciples of Christ growing into a deeper relationship with God.

Commitment to Discipleship

In the ancient world, a disciple was a learner, someone who followed a teacher around and learns from them. The process of learning was twofold: First, the disciple learned the information that teacher knew. Second, the disciple came to model the lifestyle of his teacher. For example, Plato, a disciple of Socrates later taught his disciples, one of which was Aristotle. In this way, the teachings of the master were passed down. We recover this ancient way of teaching people and changing lives. It is very important to remember that we are not called merely to transmit information to people. We are called to help them live a new kind of life as a disciple of Jesus. In a sense, every disciple is a child of those who helped that person grow in Christ and is the parent of those that they are discipling into the image of God-in-Christ.

The internet and “online learning” has made college and other educational opportunities available over the internet. There are even many “online seminaries.” While these online educational opportunities are good for transmitting information and gaining credentials, they cannot by their very nature provide the kind of discipling that Jesus modeled. Jesus personally spent time with his disciples and they learned as much by what they observed as by what they were taught. There is an old saying that children “do as the see and not as their parents urge.” Disciples model themselves after older, more experienced disciples just as children, for better or for worse, model themselves after their parents.

All our married life, Kathy and I have been members of what we call “discipling groups.” We met in a Bible study. When we were a young couple, we were in Bible studies with other young couples. Each of us has been a part of small discipling groups with men and women separately over the years. When Chris worked, he had a small group in his law office. When we went to seminary, Chris met weekly with a group of fellow students. Since entering full-time ministry, both of us have always been part of discipling groups. For years, I met with several men weekly. We met for almost eighteen years. For many years, I have taught a year-long Bible Study. Those groups meet for nine months. Often, our churches sponsored short-term groups that meet for six or so weeks. Today, Kathy and I lead “Salt & Light Groups.” The size and length of the group is not what matters. It is the love of the group and the example of its leaders that matters.

Some years ago, we became part of a renewal movement that encourages the formation of small discipling groups, and over the years we have been members of such small groups. We’ve led other discipling groups in our home and at church. We’ve always been members of Sunday School classes. We’ve attended special groups to learn special skills such as child-raising or how to manage our money. Each one of these groups changed our lives in some important way. Along the way, we’ve grown, helped others, made many life-long friends, and experienced the joy of Christ. Just as Jesus was lifted up into heaven and was no longer physically with his disciples, most of these groups eventually disbanded as people moved along in life, but each person in each group remains a precious memory. Some of the members of these groups keep in touch after as much as thirty years apart!

Just as this was being written, we met a couple that we’ve known for over thirty years for an outing. Chris has known the husband for a bit longer. We’ve never attended the same church. In fact, we belong to different denominations. However, when we were young, for just a few weeks, we had a weekly Bible Study in our home. The deep love created years ago emerges every time we are together. The day before, another couple dropped by our house with their grandchildren. Once again, we met in a discipling group many, many years ago. Today, we are still Christian friends, helping one another grow and face the new challenges of a new stage of life. The love of discipling groups is a kind of love that never ends because it was not primarily a human love but a divine encounter.

The family of God is important in a society that does not value family, and in which many people live and work far from their biological family. The form of life that is common in American and other cities increases that loneliness among many people. As mentioned a moment ago, many people live far from parents and siblings. Because of divorce and other factors, even if they might have community with their biological family, many people do not. The structure of modern corporate society makes it necessary for many people to live away from their families, sometimes across the globe. With the advent of social media, many people come to rely upon social media and electronic connection as a substitute for real human relationships. Finally, many people are working longer hours than in prior generations. The result is a kind of epidemic of loneliness.

This loneliness is not healthy. In fact, it can be pathological. If we human beings were meant for community, for deep and abiding relationships of deep care, then this structure of living is bound to leave most people unfulfilled and other people deeply wounded. If being fully human requires that we be in life giving relationships with God and others, then it is no surprise that the result of our societies deconstruction of the family and of stable communities and neighborhoods has had devastating impact on the mental, moral, and spiritual health of people.

When our society does provide community, that community is increasingly political or economic in nature. Unfortunately, jobs, corporations, business relationships, and the like can only provide a kind of limited social connection. Business does not love anyone as a person, only as an economic unit. Similarly, particularly among the young, belonging to causes may provide some limited social connection. However, causes can only provide a limited amount of love, meaning and purpose. Our government and political organizations value us as citizens, not as children of God. Exercise classes, hobby groups, and other groups have similar limitations. Human beings were never meant to live as isolated individuals bound together only by work and the laws of a society. We were meant for deep, loving, wise, relationships.

Unfortunately, at just the moment in human history when the relational, family aspect of the local church is most needed, two factors have limited the ability of the church to respond to that need. First, over generations, churches have assumed that the loving community of the church would automatically permeate its fellowship. When most people lived in small towns, had relatively strong families, and attended churches in which their families had long and strong connections, church community grew naturally. Pastors and seminaries did not think that they needed to focus on the creation of life transforming fellowship as a particularly important duty of the local congregation. They assumed it would happen as a result of the teaching and worship ministries of the congregation. The massive transfer of population to major cities and the decline of small, community churches put an end to the possibility that this strategy could work.

Secondly, for most of the 20th Century, the major Christian denominations, including my own, increasingly developed a corporate model of church operation and a professional model of pastoral formation. At the very moment when the sheer size and complexity of our culture was forcing people to live in large cities and in anonymous neighborhoods, and the natural ability of people to find spiritual nurture was declining, the church was developing a way of doing church that was not able to adapt to the changing reality of the lives of people.

Finally, in the past many young people were not particularly active in church during their immediate post high school and college years, but when they had children, many of them returned to local congregations. Unfortunately, these uyoung people are delaying families longer and longer, and while they are delaying family formation, they are constantly bombarded with images of churches as judgmental, corrupt, only interested in money, and backward. Therefore, when confronted by the need for meaning, purpose, and community, they are unlikely to seek out the church for an answer to their deepest needs.

The only way to respond to this deep need in contemporary society is to focus attention on the process of building life transforming community and making and growing disciples within that community.

Personal Relationships are Essential

In the last chap-er we developed the idea that, as Christians, we celebrate a God who exists in an intimate, self-giving, life transforming relationship. God not only reveals himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in some mysterious way, God exists as one essential being in three distinct persons. These persons exist in an unbroken relationship with one another in the perfect love of the Godhead. In other words, God exists in a community (a family) of self-giving mutual love. Within the self-giving community of love, there exists both individuality and relationship. This has profound implications for the Christian life:

  1. If God exists in a relationship of love, then there is no being a Christian without being in a relationship of love. As persons who are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), we were made for deep, loving, wise, and powerful life changing relationships – with God, with other persons and with creation.
  2. The church is to be made up of people who are in relationship with one another. A church that is merely a place for so inclined people to meet on Sunday morning sit in pews, sing and listen to a talk, is not the kind of church God God meant the church to be a place where people are in relationship with God and with one another. A church is not a worship service. A church is a group of disciples called to live together and demonstrate to the world God’s love.
  3. Since God is love, and the same love he showed when he “sent his only son” (John 3:16) exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it is only as we exist in communities of love that the Church can be the body of Christ it was intended to be. This love is not a love based upon attractiveness, or other human qualities or worthiness. It is a pure self-giving love, which Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross.
  4. Finally, the very names of the divine person: Father, Son and Holy Spirit encourage us to see God existing as a family. This is exactly the relationship Jesus claims and models with his disciples. When Jesus says that he desires the disciples to be one just as the Father and he are one (John 17:20-21), he is praying that we might enter the family of God and become participants in the self-giving love of God. In other words, he is making us part of his family. When John calls believers, “Children of God” (I john 3:1), he indicates that by faith in Christ and participation in his body, reflecting the love of God in our lives and in our life together, we become part of God’s family.

We cannot live wisely on the journey of life without being in community with people who are also on the journey of living with love, wisdom, humility, and a great desire to be be in community with God, with others, and with creation itself.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The Most Essential Group

For most of my time as a Christian layperson and Minister, the churches I was a member or pastor of placed a lot of emphasis on small groups. Over the years, small group formation has been an important part of many, many vital congregations. If your church is like mine and those I’ve served, then you have Bible Study groups, prayer groups, “life groups,” caring groups, service and mission groups, etc. All these groups are important, but the variety and number of small groups available in many congregations can blind us to the most important group of all, what I will call the “Discipleship Formation Group” or “Discipleship Group.”.

Jesus gave us one command: Go and make disciples. Disciples are not listeners who sit passively taking in Bible studies, sermons, worship services, or the results of others’ ministries. Disciples are not simply cognitive learners who memorize Bible verses, theological ideas, and other aspects of the Christian life. Disciples are not simply people who are moved by worship. Disciples are not merely, as Kierkegaard put it, “Admirers of God.”

Disciples are those who, in their day-to-day lives, bring others into God’s Kingdom of Wisdom and Love, sharing the Good News of what God was doing in Jesus Christ with others, and  themselves helping others come to Christ, learn to obey Christ, and follow Christ in their own lives. Disciples learn, pray, and worship for a reason: To become more like Christ and to share God’s invitation to join with Christ and others in the task of bringing the Kingdom of God into the world so that the world can enjoy the harmony, peace, and joy for which the world and the human race were created.

Not long ago I read a critique of the church and of pastors. The writers point was that too often churches and pastors have treated their job as to attract people to come and listen, listen to the music, liturgy, sermon, and sacraments, give a little money, and return home “fed” for the week. When I read this, I recognized it was true. We focus too much on bringing people into the Church as an institution and too little time discipling people to go out into the world and share God’s love with others. We spend too much time trying to make Christian faith easy, culturally relevant, and personally meaningful and not enough time teaching people to “obey all that I have commanded you” and go into the world helping others overcome the impact of sin and death in their own lives and in the lives of others and in their communities, families, jobs, etc.

If Churches and Christians  are going to effectively do a better job of discipling people in the climate of Western society, then we have to deeply rethink the idea of the “Program Church.” In a way, the Church of Christ should have just one program: in everything to obey Christ, incarnate Christ, and share the love of Christ with others. Programs and membership are not an end. They are a means to accomplish the Great Commission. Our programs are not unimportant, but they are only a means. The goal is to make disciples who make disciples.

This is why Kathy and I wrote the study, Salt & Light: to help our church and hopefully other congregations  focus on becoming “Disciplemaking Disciples.” Salt & Light is not the only way this can be accomplished. It is but one way. It is the elements of Salt & Light that must, we think, become a part of the basic thrust behind what Churches do in all the variety of their programming:

  1. Bring people to Christ.
  2. Train them to  follow and be like Christ.
  3. Empower them to share Christ with others.

I can imagine a number of Bible studies, small groups, prayer groups, care groups, marriage groups, mission groups, etc. that incorporate the principles of disciple-making into their structure and organization .Once again, the exact method is not so important as the focus on bringing people to Christ, helping them to learn to follow Christ, and empowering new disciples to share Christ, embody Christ in their own lives wherever God takes them.

To disciple people the way Jesus discipled people is to gather people into a long-term relationship that may actually last years in which they, like the original disciples, meet Jesus, follow Jesus, watch how Jesus lives and works in the lives of others, and then reach out and share the wisdom and love of God with others. Discipleship is a process and a relationship with God, not a decision we make and thereafter work on by ourselves when it fits our purposes and needs.

There is no other way to be in relationship than to be in a small group of Christians who are also on the journey of following Jesus, learning to be more like Jesus, and calling others into a relationship with Jesus and helping them grow. Therefore, the Most Essential Group in every Christian church is the intentional discipleship making and empowering group, what we  all a “Disciple Group.” Groups such as “Salt and Light Groups” are and should be at the center of fulfilling the Great Commission and therefore at the center of every Christian fellowship.

Kathy and I just returned from a wonderful trip to Scotland. We thank al those who made it possible. As we drove through town after town we passed the once homes of congregations whose buildings have been turned into public buildings or retail establishments. We toured the ruins of once mighty abbeys and cathedrals. Many of the members of the orders who formed the abbeys and cathedrals we toured lived in violent times of persecution of their faith and orders. Nevertheless, they were faithful. Looking at ruins and repurposed buildings reminded me of this truth: the church is not a building. It is people who have been called into a relationship with God and who are faithfully living out that relationship in their day-to-day lives. The world can tear down or empty buildings. It cannot tear down the Kingdom of God in a single human life.

Currently, we inhabit a society that is running away from God as fast as it can possibly do so. Our job, like the job of countless others in history is  to be faithful and  share in word and deed the Good News that God loves even those who have strayed far, far away. God loves our sinful, fallen, reckless society. God loves his enemies and our enemies. God loved them and us enough to send his Son into the world, and He continues to send his Beloved Son into the world through the lives of those who love, follow, and obey Him.

The business of disciplemaking is not just the job of religious professionals and a few talented laypersons. It is the job of all Christians. We are all called to be “Salt & Light to others.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

 

Come Follow Me

All the Gospels portray the calling of the disciples in one way or another. All the Biblical records have this in common: Jesus called the disciples into a personal relationship with God through him. Matthew describes it like this:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus found Peter, Andrew, James and John amid their ordinary day-to-day lives. He did not say, “Stop what you are doing for a few moments and accept me as your Lord and Savior.” He did not ask for a mere intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God.” He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he asked for a commitment that would involve mind, heart, body, and soul. He might as well have said, “Stop what you are doing. Leave your old accustomed way of life. Leave the books you are reading right where they are. Stop going to your therapist. Make your hobbies, families, and work secondary. Then, follow me.” He even offered them a new occupation: From now on they would not fish for fish; they would fish for people.

Too often modern people think of our commitment to follow Christ is purely intellectual terms, as if recognizing who Jesus was and is makes a person a Christian. Too often in our evangelism and discipleship we simply ask people to make a verbal statement of faith. We ask them to confess with their lips, remembering that they must also believe in their heart—the center of their very being. Christians believe in and trust Jesus for all of life.

Jesus wanted the disciples to know who he was. More importantly, he wanted them to spend time with him, follow him, and become more like him. He wanted them to make a deep commitment to God through him. He knew that this would take time, a lot of time. He knew it would take personal commitment on their part and on his part. He even knew it would require a cross.

Sometimes, we think it must have been easier for the disciples than for us to follow Jesus. We think that if we physically saw Jesus, if came and personally asked us to follow him, we would find it easier to follow than after hearing a pastor, evangelist, or friend share what God has done in their lives and ask us if we are ready to follow Jesus. This is a mistake.

The disciples had it just as hard as we do. They had families. They had friendships. They had hobbies. They had occupations. They already had a religion. They probably went to synagogue in Capernaum if there was one. They had homes and responsibilities. They did not have the gospels or the records of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. They had even less information than we have. One day, when they were out fishing or getting ready to fish, a man came up to them and asked them to follow him and become fishers of human beings..

Deciding to Follow Jesus

The gospels tell us that the disciples heard the invitation, left what they were doing, and followed. Somehow, amidst the hustle and bustle of earning a living, caring for spouses, parents, and children, the disciples saw something important in Jesus and decided it was worth the risk of following. They did not have it easier than we do. In fact, they may have had it harder. We can look back at the generations of lives changed, of people healed, of ministries and missions of compassion and care.

We have the examples of people like St. Francis of Assisi, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and hosts of others. We have reason to know what God can do with one ordinary life. When Jesus called the disciples the cross, resurrection, and spreading of the gospel, the birth of the church, the example of the martyrs, the evangelization of the world, had not occurred. It was all to come. They had to look in the traveling Rabbi’s eyes and answer the question, “Will I follow Him or not?” So do we.

We are called to answer the same question the disciples answered: “Am I going to respond to the call to follow Jesus?” As we ponder that question, we must ask ourselves the same questions the disciples must have asked. We must ask if are we willing to be committed to follow Jesus. When we ask another person if they are ready to become a Christian, we need to be careful not to make it sound too easy. We probably should not say, “Are you ready to believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” We should say, “Are you willing to be follow Jesus?” Eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, membership in the family of God, citizenship in the kingdom of God depend upon our being willing to follow Jesus, not tell people we believe in Jesus.

The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard puts it this way, “Jesus does not need admirers. He needs imitators.” In the ancient world a disciple was more than just a learner. A disciple followed his master and imitated his master. While learning is a large part of the life of a disciple, it is not the end or goal. Jesus asks us to follow him because he intends to have us become little Christ’s living as he lived and doing the same kind of things he did. A follower of Jesus will have certain characteristics, the most important of which is that followers of Jesus try to become like Jesus and in becoming like Jesus we believe we become more like God. Our goal, as the Eastern orthodox put it is “theosis.” We are Christ’s disciples so that we might become more like God.

Christianity is not just knowing who Jesus is, a few Bible verses, and three or four theological ideas. Christianity is a way of life. Furthermore, it is a specific kind of way of life: it is a way of life patterned after Jesus the Christ and his way of life. It is a life of loving others, of being a servant, of sharing life together, of discovering and using spiritual gifts, of healing our broken world, and speaking truth into the darkness of a world too often governed by lies. Being a Christian is learning to bear a cross now and again. We can only learn these things as we do them. We cannot be a disciple or learn to be a disciple any other way but by following Jesus, watching and listening to Jesus, and acting and living like Jesus. This is what it means to be a disciple.

Counting the Cost

One of the most famous Christian books of the 20th Century is by the Christian teacher, pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” He begins his book with these words, “Cheap Grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for  costly grace”. [1] If these words were true in Europe in the years leading up to the Second World War, they are even truer today.

Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace in this way:

“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principal, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception of God.” An intellectual assent to the idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure the remission of sins.”  [2]

He later describes the calling of the disciples in these words, “The call goes forth and is at once followed by the response of obedience.” [3]

One dangerous failure of churches today is a failure to understand that the Gospel is not primarily a system of doctrine, a theology of Grace, or a formula of verbal and mental acceptance to propositions about God, Jesus, and Eternal Life. The word we translate “Faith” could also be translated as “Trust”. Real faith is seen in obedience to Christ and in responding in faith to the pressures of daily life. Real faith is seen in disciples who follows Jesus regardless of the cost, personally, professionally, or otherwise.

At the time of the Reformation, it was unquestionably important to guard against the idea that by doing certain liturgical actions one could be saved as if by magic. The Reformation was a corrective to the excesses of the Middle Ages. Today, among evangelical churches, indeed among all churches, there is a need to correct the notion that faith is merely accepting a proposition about Jesus, getting your admission ticket to heaven punched, and then living as you always lived in reliance on the Cheap Grace of God. If it was a problem in Bonhoeffer’s day, Cheap Grace is a worse problem today.

The call to be a disciple is a call to follow Jesus. It is a call to respond by committing one’s self to God in such a way that we follow Jesus, learn from Jesus, imitate Jesus, and grow to become more like Jesus. This includes cross-bearing. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). We cannot be disciples without becoming like Jesus and being willing to experience what Jesus experienced, for good or for bad. We cannot become like God unless we are willing to give our lives for others in self-giving love.

Crosses are not difficulties. Crosses are not the consequences of our own behavior and choices. Crosses are the decisions we make to suffer for others though we are not required to by law, or compulsion, or some inner brokenness. Jesus went to the cross because God loves us, and Jesus was sent by God to bear our sins and brokenness on the cross. Being a disciple means bearing the sins and brokenness of others, loving them unconditionally.

Years ago, I was a lay leader in a large congregation. A problem arose. As time went by, I came to think that my closest friends, those I was theologically most in sympathy with, and those with whom I wanted to side were not adopting the right strategy, and therefore were behaving improperly. On the other hand, members of my own family were on another side, which I did not believe was acting properly either. It was the first time as a Christian I ever had to go against the very people who were most important in my life and to my Christian walk. It was a time of personal suffering. During this time, God taught me an important lesson: Being a disciple does not exempt us from being misunderstood, misquoted, slandered, and otherwise deeply hurt.

To be a disciple is, from time to time, to bear a cross. I’ve now been a pastor and for over twenty years and a Christian for well over 35 years. Every pastor and every serious Christian leader knows that following Jesus does not exempt you from suffering and carrying a cross in the name of Jesus. In fact, as I sometimes say to leaders, every time God desires to do something really important in this world, someone carries a cross.

The Role of Faith

From the beginning, Jesus warned his disciples what belief in him meant. Think of Abraham. God called Abraham to leave his homeland on the basis of the promise of a son and blessing. Abraham left his homeland because he believed. He trusted God, believed that God would be faithful to his promises, and so Abraham acted on that belief. When Jesus called potential disciples to come and follow him, he was asking them to show the same kind of trust/faith that Abraham had.

Mark begins his gospel with Jesus proclaiming the good news and telling his hearers to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:14). The faith of which Jesus speaks is more than knowing Jesus is right. It is moving out in faith, trusting in the wisdom and love of God. It requires that we give up our self-trust, our sin, our selfish ambition, and follow Jesus. If we believe in Jesus we will trust him, move out, and live like him trusting that a life of loving service to others is the best way of life there is.

In Galatians, Paul speaks of the Gospel that can only be accepted by faith. He teaches the principle that people cannot earn their salvation. He is correct: We cannot be justified by our moral behavior or by following the moral law (Galatians 2:16). However, Paul goes on to say, “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). Responding to the cross means dying to self and selfish desire (“I have been crucified with Christ”) and then living by the power of Christ (“it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). Faith means responding by giving our whole selves to God, turning away from our selfish, self-centered ways, and living out of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Faith inevitably results in works. This is why in Ephesians, Paul says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our works do not save us, but when we believe we are going to do things we never would otherwise have done. We are going to be more loving, more caring, more truthful, than we were before. God does not save us because of our works; he saves us so that we can become capable of living like Jesus and doing the works Jesus does.

Faith and Works as a Personal Journey

There is a lot of confusion in our society and in our churches about the nature of faith. Is faith merely recognizing who Jesus is and calling upon him so that you can go to heaven when you die? Does faith simply believe Jesus is who Jesus said he was? The answer is, “No.” The Bible is the story of faith lived out by faithful people. The story begins with Abraham, who is told by God that he will be the father of many nations and have an heir if he goes to the land of the promise God will show him (Genesis 12:1-3). The Bible tells us that Abraham believed and went. In other words, he trusted God not just with his mind (“OK, God I know you can to this”) but also with his heart, soul, mind, body and strength. Abraham went and followed God in the wilderness for years because of his faith. As James reminds those who think faith can be divorced from works, Abrahams faith was revealed and completed by his works (James 2:14-26). A faith that does not change the way we think, live, act, and feel is not a faith at all.

When Jesus says, “Come and follow me,” Jesus means just what he says. He wants us to follow him because we believe that he holds the secret to our becoming the people we were created to become. Our faith is shown in our discipleship. The person who believes one thing and does another can never be psychologically or personally whole. To have integrity, to be whole, our hearts, minds, souls and spirits have to be one. Only then can we be a whole person.

The life of faith is a life of transformation. We are slowly being made whole as we gradually become the people we profess to be. As what we believe in our minds becomes imbedded in our hearts, our emotions and how we behave automatically change. This is the work of grace we call sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which what we believe and how we live become one thing in one life.

This is the journey of faith. Just as Abraham went on a journey with God, and the disciples went on a journey with Jesus, when we become Christians we begin a journey of faith. It is journey of following Jesus and therefore God through a process of discipleship and spiritual growth. It means following Jesus where Jesus goes, with companions (other disciples) who are also following Jesus and listening to the Words of Jesus spoken in the Bible in our hearts through prayer. It means doing what Jesus did and is doing in the world. It means making a few mistakes along the way, just as the disciples made mistakes, correcting those mistakes and growing along the way.

As with any journey, there are and will be twists and turns, blind allies, and mistaken paths.
A few years ago, a close friend and I walked five days of a pilgrimage, the El Camino de Santiago. The path of the pilgrimage is marked with the sign of sea shells. Occasionally the path may not be precisely marked or one may miss a marker or a marker may have been obscured. When that happens, it is easy to take the wrong path and then have to retrace your steps. This happened to us on the last day when we were very tired and ready for the journey to be over. We had to walk back a mile or so to where we left the path and begin again.

This happens over and over again on the journey of following Jesus. We cannot always see Jesus. Sometimes the way is obscured. Sometimes the thorns and thistles of our culture make the way hard to see and find. Sometimes we misread the signs God has given us in Scripture. When that happens, we retrace our steps (ask for forgiveness and make amends) find the place we went off the path, and begin again. God in his mercy knows that we will need instruction, examples, and mercy on the journey. At the same time, God because of his steadfast love for us will bring us safely through the journey. This is why Paul could say with confidence to those he was discipling, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1”6).

Copyright 2017, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: McMillan, 1937), 45

[2] Id.

[3] Id, at 61.

The Blessed Life )Part 3)

This is the final installment of the Blessed Life. If we are to truly be disciples of Jesus, we must be fully convinced, as the Apostles were truly convinced that following Jesus is the way to the Blessed Life.

The New Testament

By the time of Jesus, the religion of Israel had developed in a disturbing way seen from the perspective of the prophets. In terms of religious observance, the blessed life was to be achieved by participating in the rituals and festivals of Israel and in making the proper sacrifices. In terms of behavior, the blessed life was to be achieved through understanding the law of Moses and following that law as best one could. The Pharisees, and teachers of the law those who took the Old Testament seriously, had developed detailed understanding of what it meant to follow the law in every area of life and achieve the blessed life.

For the religious few, this form of life gave meaning and purpose. However, for the average person, temple religion had become a matter of mere external form, and the religion of the scribes and Pharisees was complicated and unachievable. Certain forms of modern Christianity bear a resemblance to the situation. People continue to go to church. A few continue to study the Bible and attempt to organize their lives around biblical principles. However, for the majority of people the life of discipleship has become a dim memory. The life of faith seems complicated, unrewarding, and unachievable.

When Jesus for Joseph walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called twelve ordinary men to become his followers, he brought something new. The blessed life was not to be achieved merely by external religious observances, devoted study of the law, or even dedicated obedience to the law. Instead, discipleship, and blessed life it entails, was to be a matter of a living relationship with the God who is the source of wisdom and love. First and foremost, Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through that relationship, into a personal relationship with God. As with any relationship, the primary aspect of this relationship is a personal commitment, a commitment that we call faith. The faith of the original disciples was reflected by their decision to follow Jesus. Our faith is no different.

Just as in a marriage (or any other human relationship) not every day, week, month, or year is characterized by good feelings, so it will be true of our relationship with God in Christ. Perhaps even more challenging is Jesus’ warning that following him will entail sacrifice and even suffering. “If anyone would come after me, they must take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). Following Jesus may involve not just discomfort, but true suffering and sacrifice. There will be blessing, but that blessing will not eliminate the reality of suffering and even undeserved suffering.

It took the disciples a long time to understand that the blessed life Jesus promised was not a promise of uninterrupted health, success, or victory over opposition. The cross, and the suffering crucified Messiah, revealed a kind of blessing that transcends human experience. This is why Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). The blessing (Shalom) that Jesus offers is a kind of blessing that cannot be achieved by simple religious obedience or ritual. Is a blessing that may only be found in a personal relationship with the Living God.

The Truly Blessed Life

So then, what is the blessed life? First of all, the truly blessed life is a life lived in fellowship with God, nature, and others. It is a life lived in solidarity with the external world, as we human beings recover the stewardship of creation for which human beings were made. It is a life of restored interpersonal relationships, as the personal and social alienation caused by pride, selfishness, and self-seeking is overcome. The blessed life is a life of spiritual and emotional wholeness. It is a life of restored communion with God.

The person who lives in communion with God, creation, and other human beings achieves personal, emotional and spiritual wholeness. The blessed life is a life of humility, because the wise and blessed person recognizes that we human beings are fallible, finite, and capable of wickedness. Blessed life is a life of steadfast, self-giving love, because those who live in relationship with the God of steadfast love exhibit that steadfast love in their own day-to-day lives. It is life of wisdom, for Christians believe that the wisdom of God was personally present in Jesus and his teachings embody a true wisdom.

When I was a young Christian, the missionary, evangelist, and social theologian Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the condition of Western society as dominated by a definition of the good life as achieving personal peace and affluence. [1] Certainly our society is dominated by the individualistic search for things, for experiences, for recreation, for a sense of happiness and peace. In the midst of this search, we experience a high level of dysfunction. Why is this so? Is it because the “Blessed Life,” the “Happy Life” as some translations put it cannot be found in having more things, achieving greater success, experiencing greater pleasures, and the like? What if the blessed life can only be found in the humble search for wisdom in daily living and in loving service to God and others? What if our society, and every other society, have always been and are today misguided at a deep level concerning what constitutes the blessed life?

In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, there were those who desired to experience the blessed life. In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people had misconceptions about what it would be like to live blessedly. The Jews, just like modern Americans, were inclined to suppose that those with sufficient material blessings and economic and political security to relax and enjoy life would experience the blessed life. The Jews, just like many modern Americans, were inclined to believe that if only their own particular political opinion and preferred form of government could be achieved, their lives would be blessed. Jesus came to deconstruct that entire way of thinking.

Jesus knew that we human beings seldom change our behavior until we experience what life might be like if we only adopted another pattern of behavior. Therefore, he was not content to simply think  or teach about the blessed life. Jesus lived out the blessed life for all the world to see. In order that we human beings might see the blessed life, he called disciples who lived with him and observed him. They did not know it at the time, but they were experiencing the blessed life and being trained to share that blessed life with others.

If people in contemporary society could achieve the blessed life by reading about the blessed life, our society would indeed be a blessed society– the many self-help book published each year would guarantee blessedness. There are books about how to lose weight, gain weight, exercise, take vitamins, diet, think and grow rich, retire early, become more physically able to defend ourselves, find peace with God or the Ultimate (however you visualize it)— in fact there are books about anything and everything we might do to achieve the blessed life on our own terms. It is been my experience, and the experience of most people who’ve tried these books, that they don’t work. Why?

It is because we human beings do not need more books on the blessed life. We need to experience the blessed life. We need to experience what it is to live wisely. We need to experience what it is like to live in healthy relationships with other people. We need to experience what it is like to love others with what the Bible calls “steadfast love” or “agape love,” that is the self giving, long-suffering, faithful love of God. In order for us to see, there must be disciples who follow Jesus and to now know not just from reading books but from experience how to live the blessed life.

We know from Scripture that the disciples did not immediately understand what Jesus was showing them. We know that until after his cross and resurrection they did not fully understand just exactly whose disciples they had been. Like us, they did not learn all at once but only after a long period of discipleship training. Although Peter was inspired to say that Jesus was the Christ, the son the living God at Caesarea Philippi, his inspiration was temporary. He would still deny Jesus and go back to fishing until his time of discipleship was complete. It was only after he saw the risen Christ and experienced the power of the resurrection that Peter became capable of living the blessed life.

We cannot expect people in our time to be any different. Relational understanding comes slowly. It requires time, practice, mistakes, correction, teaching, patience, and all the other attributes of discipleship. The reason Jesus created and lived in relationship with his disciples during his entire earthly ministry was because that is the way, and the only way, people can truly change and be transformed. In our day and time, we are experiencing a crisis of discipleship precisely because we have not done a particularly good job of discipling others into a living relationship with God. The crisis will not abate until we give up the idea that better marketing, worship, or programming can achieve real change. Real change involves a return to Way of Jesus.

[1] Francis Schaeffer, How the blessed life.geall at once iworld Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture Rev Ed. (Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1976), 205.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Part 2 of The Blessed Life

This is the second in a series of three posts on the blessed life. In the book on discipleship, they form one chapter. This week focuses on the nature of blessing in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament and the Blessed Life

The Old Testament reflects a clear understanding that the blessed life, like all of life, is a gift of God. The Hebrew word “Baruch” implies a kind of all completeness and wholeness that can only come from God. In the creation story, God creates the human race and then immediately blesses them (Gen. 1:27-28). The blessing God gives to the man and woman implies that the human race was intended to occupy and enjoy God’s good creation as a creature that can appreciate the blessings of God. The story of the fall contained in Genesis reflects the human race falling away from its divine destiny of blessing (Gen. 3:16-19). The curse is not the abusive action of an angry God, but the natural result of the human race leaving the path of fellowship with God for the self-centeredness of sin—a path that inevitably leads to alienation and suffering and a way from blessing. The human race, meant for communion with God, nature, and one another has forfeited its divine destiny and now must roam the earth in search of a restoration of its blessings.

In the story of Noah, God saves a righteous man in the midst of a catastrophe of sin and alienation that engulfs the entire world. When the flood is over, Noah departs from the ark, builds an altar, and praises God. God in return blesses Noah in language that reveals God’s desire to restore the blessing lost in the garden of Eden: “Then God blessed Noah and his children saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen. 9:1). [1] Even in judgment, God is seen restoring and renewing His intended blessing on the human race.

The story recorded in Genesis reaches a decisive moment when God calls Abram into a new and special relationship with God. When the Lord calls Abram to leave his country, his people, and those of his household left behind, he promises:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;

I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

The blessing God gives to Abraham is a blessing not just for his family. It is a blessing for the entire would to flow from the restoration of Abraham and his family. It is a blessing for all the peoples of the earth. Throughout Genesis, over and over again, God blesses the family of Abraham. As the story unfolds, the blessing of Abraham is a blessing continually extended from Abraham and his family to the entire world (See, Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 28:14).

In at least one modern translation of the Beatitudes, the term blessing is translated “Happy.” The Old Testament makes clear that, while happiness may result from the blessed life, the blessed life is not constituted by happiness. The blessed life is dependent upon the grace and mercy of God. God is the source of all blessings. It is God that establishes his covenant with Israel. It is God who establishes his covenant with David. It is God who promises to bless Israel and the house of David. To be blessed is to receive a state of wholeness and holiness that only God can provide. It is a gift, an act of mercy, not a reward.

The book of Psalms begins with a blessing:

Blessed is the person who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on His instructions day and night.

Such a  person is like a tree planted by streams of water,  which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever he or she does prospers.

Not so the wicked!  They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,  nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

By the time the book of Psalms was written, the people of Israel had come to understand that the blessed life is also a life of righteousness and of following the instructions of the Lord God. The blessed person not only receives the blessing of fellowship with God, but also the blessing that comes with obedience to the instructions God is provided for his people. God has revealed in nature and in his word a way of life that leads to blessing.

Those who follow the way of wickedness and live contrary to God’s will, can never be blessed. Those who follow God’s will and become wise in good living, receive the blessing a fellowship with God. Those who follow the way of holiness and righteousness are recreated into the image of the God who created them in the first place and received the blessing of that re-creation.

Wisdom literature continues this same idea: the blessed life is a life lived according to the wisdom God has imbedded in the universe, a wisdom that is revealed for the people of God in God’s instructions and laws. Thus, in Proverbs 3 we read:

Blessed are those who find wisdom,  those who gain understanding, for wisdom is more profitable than silver  and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies;  nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand;  in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed (Proverbs 3:13-18).

 The blessed life is the wise life. Those who follow the path of wisdom (adapting their lives to divine and created reality), find a path that leads to peace and plenty. It is a way of life that leads to increased blessings and wisdom. For the wisdom writers, the blessings of God are to be found by those who find wisdom, a wisdom God imbedded in the universe he created. Thus, the wisdom writers go on to say:

By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations,  by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew (Proverbs 3:19-20).

The blessed life is a life filled with the kind of wisdom that can only come from God and from a life lived in fellowship with God. The blessed person listens to the voice of God’s creative wisdom, listens to it daily, and waits for God’s revelation of the proper course of action (Proverbs 8:34). Ultimately, the wise life is a life of trustful, faithful obedience to God (Proverbs 16:20). It cannot be achieved without the kind of deep reverence and respect for God that that Bible terms, “the fear of the Lord,” which is the beginning of wisdom and of the blessed life (Proverbs 1:6, 9:10; 28:14).

The prophets also teach that the blessed life is a gift from God. If wisdom literature emphasizes that the blessed life is the result of wisdom, the Prophets teach that the blessed life is a result of following the will of God. The end of the Kingdom of David, the failure of Israel to retain its freedom and independence, their defeat by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and their exile to Babylon were all interpreted by the prophets as a judgment for their lack of faithfulness to the God of Abraham. As a result of their apostasy, God removed his blessing from them, and allowed a terrible judgment to come upon them. The people of God forfeited the blessed life.

If the receipt of the wisdom writers for a return of blessing was to forsake foolishness and wickedness and return to the “Path of Life,” the recommendation of the prophets was that Israel return to faith in the Living God of Israel and lives according to God’s commands. Their message was one of religious and national revival. “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). If Israel did return to faithfulness to the LORD, they would be restored to their land and the kingdom of David would be restored. They will then be blessed once again.

In Isaiah, for example, the prophet speaks of the coming of a “King of Righteousness,” who will usher in a time of blessing for the people of Israel (Isaiah 32:1). People will learn to live wisely and receive the blessings of justice and righteousness (v. 2-5). For those who refuse to follow God’s instructions and will, there will be suffering (vv. 6-15). Then, at the end of the prophetic vision, Isaiah speaks these words:

The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert,  his righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;  its effect will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,  in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest. Though hail flattens the forest and the city is leveled completely, how blessed you will be,  sowing your seed by every stream,and letting your cattle and donkeys range free (Isaiah 32:16-20).

The blessings of God impact the moral and the physical well being of God’s people.

The Old Testament writers were not unaware of the role chance, good fortune, and bad luck play in human life. [2] Nevertheless, they believed that God was the fount and source of the good life and all the blessings of life, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The restored Kingdom of David was, even in the early stages of its development more than a restored earthly kingdom, but a kingdom of unusual blessing from God. It would be revealed in a kingdom of wisdom, righteousness, and peace.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The language of Genesis 1 and 9 are nearly identical, indicating God’s divine intention remains the same for the fallen human race as it was for the human race at its creation.

[2] I have written about the awareness of the Old Testament writers that the wise and good life does not guarantee happiness: Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms speak of this awareness. Nevertheless, the Old Testament writers believe that God is the source of the blessed life and that it cannot be achieved without following God’s laws in faith. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

The Blessed Life (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of three on Discipleship and the Blessed Life. Comments appreciated. 

We live in an unusual age. Never in human history have people in the developed world had so much in terms of material wealth. Paradoxically, never before have people suffered from such anxiety about life, the future, about their ability to continue to consume at or above their current level of consumption, and about the meaning and purpose of their lives. Young people in almost all Western democracies, but most notably in the United States, the leader of the so-called “free world,” demonstrate a profound lack of trust in the institutions that provide for them the highest standard of living in human history. For Christians, most sadly, fewer and fewer of these same young people live as disciples of Christ. Churches in Europe are nearly empty, and those in the United States and North America are rapidly following the European example.

Almost every social commentator, Christian or non-Christian, liberal or conservative, traditionalist or radical, notes that there is something deeply sick and decadent about our society. Almost no day goes past without someone publishing an artice with a title like, “Are America’s best days behind her?” Each of these articles focus on some indication that there is something deeply wrong with our society. These commentators just do not agree on what is wrong or what to do about it.

One reason we have so much trouble in resisting the temptations of our culture is that most of us have a deeply ingrained, culturally formed notion of “the Good Life.” The Good Life is the life that results in happiness. Most people believe that hard work, healthy habits, and self-sacrifice will lead to a better life. Some people believe that government will help in some way to create this better life, and some people believe it will be created by private industry, but almost everyone believes in a kind of earthly messianic kingdom that meets our human expectations and desires. [1]

Just as the Jews were wrong when they reduced the promise of the Messiah to an earthly kingdom run by an anointed Son of David, when we reduce the gospel to a political agenda we are always wrong.  In our culture, Christians need to be prepared to show people the error of expecting God’s kingdom to be just like our kingdom only wealthier, politically stronger, and more defensible. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, and was accused of opposing Caesar, he replied that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to bring his kingdom into this world; it just means there’s more to God’s kingdom in this world can or will ever know.

Jesus and the Blessed Life

Jesus never talked to his disciples about the desirability of seeking to live to old age, of attaining a degree of physical beauty, of staying healthy, of acquiring wealth, of getting ahead in the world, of maintaining the current geopolitical balance of power, or any of the other preoccupations of our day. He did, however, speak of what he called “the blessed life.”

His teachings concerning what it means to have a blessed life are completely at odds with what our culture considers blessings. It is thus surprising that more young people have not been attracted to the teachings of the Master. Perhaps it is because the churches and Christians have done a poor job of representing Christ to the world. When people in our society use the word “blessed” in any of its forms, it almost always is about something concrete we have received. We say, “I am blessed with good health.” “I am blessed with a strong heart.” I am blessed with a wonderful spouse.” I am blessed with four children.” “I have been blessed financially.” “I am blessed with a new job.” “I am blessed with a promotion.” The list of our blessings could go on an on, but they have this in common: they relate to physical blessings that contribute to our sense of emotional and physical well-being.

Jesus, on the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are the humble.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Worst of all, Jesus says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” In Luke, the words are even less palatable to modern ears. In Luke, Jesus is recorded has having said, “Blessed are the poor,” not just the poor in spirit. He says “Blessed are the hungry,” not just those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He says, “Blessed are those who weep,” and repeats, “Blessed are you when men hate you, exclude you, and insult you.” [2]

Jesus challenges our human presuppositions about what it means to be blessed. For Jesus, the blessed life is not something exterior to ourselves that we acquire. Instead it is something within ourselves that we experience. Furthermore, because of the nature of the blessing—the fact that the truly blessed life is not something we would naturally seek, we can only receive it as a gift from God.

Natural reason alone will not permit us to see and understand the truly blessed life. It was true in Jesus’ day; and, it is true in our day. The blessed life must be received by faith from God. We cannot discover it on our own. Someone under the inspiration of God will have to tell us about it and show us what it looks like. That is why Christ came.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This point is made powerfully in lay language in W. T. Wright’s new book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good (New York, NY: Harper One, 2015), 109ff. In the modern world, we are all subject to a culturally reinforced worldview that considers progress to be an automatic result of human striving. Recent history casts doubt on this view. What is needed is a new kingdom not the result of human striving and schemes.

[2] See, Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22.

Living as Children of the Light

It is the Saturday before Easter.  I am taking a break from Salt&Light to meditate on Easter. As Matthew begins his description of the events of Easter Sunday, he records the following:

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men (Matthew 28:2-4).

The resurrection was accompanied then and now by the appearance of the Uncreated Light of God.

 The Importance of Light.

Light has always intrigued human beings. Almost all ancient religions have some form of Sun God, a God who is worshiped as a source of light. Light has also always been associated with the eternal. Light has always been associated with truth, when speak of “a light going off in our brains,” we refer to the experience of solving a puzzle. When someone knows a truth, we call him, “enlightened.” This word is used, in Buddhism to refer to a person who has come to understand the suffering of the world and the true and best way of escape. Jews and Christians have always thought of God as dwelling in light. We see this in the visions of Isaiah and Daniel in the Old Testament and in the visions of John at the end of the New Testament in Revelation, where God is pictured on a throne in heaven with lightning streaming out from his being. Paul is blinded at his conversion by an experience of the light of the Risen Christ.

The period of time which began in Europe about 300 years ago, when human beings first began developing modern science and technology, is often referred to as the “enlightenment,” because it was at that moment that humans shook off the superstition that was felt to characterize the Middle Ages and begin to be able to understand and manipulate the workings of the physical universe in a new and more powerful way using science and technology. The founders of the Enlightenment felt that the human race was experiencing liberation from the darkness of superstition.

This blog is about the Christian notion that God is Light, that the True Light of God was revealed to us in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ; that we  become children of Light by faith in Christ and can, therefore, live according to that Light. The empty tomb is the source of Light, for the dark door of death has been destroyed by the One who is the True Light of the World.

Walking in the Light.

In the  First Letter of John, he says the following:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives (1 John 1:5-10).

Father of Lights, in whom there is no darkness, come by the Light of your Word this Easter to enlighten our minds and warm our hearts, convict us, convert us, and make us wholly yours. In the Name of the True Light who came into the World and by whose power we may li e forever we pray, Amen.

The Bible Teaches that God is Light

I don’t know that there is a more important source of  encouragement  than the simple phrase, “God is Light and in him there is no darkness” (I John 1:5). As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, almost all religions in some way associated light with the divine, but in the Old and New Testaments we have a distinctly Judeo-Christian evolution of this notion. For the Jew, God cannot be represented by any created thing, there can be no idols, no visible symbols of the invisible God, so it came natural to the Jews that God was a blinding Uncreated Light. Light  is invisible until it touches and illuminates something. When we speak about the being of God in Three Persons, one of the images often used is the image of the Sun. God the Father, who cannot be seen is like the hidden nuclear reactions in the center of the Sun. Christ, the Word of God, is like the rays of light coming from the Sun. The Holy Spirit is like the heat of the Sun when it touches our face and arms.

The Apostle John begins his gospel by equating the Incarnate Jesus Christ with the Eternal Word, which is the Light of God’s perfect rationality:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5).

This equation of Christ with the uncreated Word of God, a Word that exists before time, and a word that enlightens the human race by showing us what it means to be truly and rationally human sits at the foundation of John’s view of who Jesus the Christ was (see, John 1:4, 5, 9; 3:19).  Jesus refers to himself as the “Light” (see, John 8:12; 9:5). Paul also uses the same image when he speaks of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). In all these passages, and more, Jesus the Christ is said to be, to actually be, the personal, physical manifestation of the Uncreated Light of God, an uncreated light. [1]

The actual being of God as Uncreated Light has deep implications for our notion of God. God is not capricious. If a God of Uncreated Divine Light created the laws of the universe,  the universe can expected to be  orderly. God is not without a witness.  So, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). Not only is the physical universe a scene of light, but so is the moral universe, for God’s light is seen in his law and in the moral order that he has created. So, the writer of Psalm 119 can declare, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105).

There is no affirmation we make more important than the affirmation that God is Light, for that is our declaration to the world that it need not be a place of intellectual, moral, or aesthetic darkness, but a place of light. The God of Light has imbued his creation with Light, and has sent his Son as the True Light that shows us how to faithfully live within his beautiful and meaningful creation.

The Bible also teaches that we are Children of Light.

In today’s text, John urges Christians to “walk in the light” (I John 1:7). In Ephesians, Paul writes, “For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the Light” (Ephesians 5:8). In Thessalonians, Paul refers to Christians as “sons of the Light” (I Thessalonians 5:5). When Christians, by faith, receive Christ, we receive the Light of God into our hearts and minds. Our “conversion” is a conversion from darkness to light, from being children of the Fall, to being children reborn in fellowship with God, from being those who follow a way of darkness in self seeking, to those who seek the light in following Christ.

As a result of the Fall, we human beings have hearts that are darkened (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:18). As a result of our selfishness and self seeking, we walk in a kind of moral and spiritual darkness. When Christ comes into our lives, it is as if we have been removed from a dark room into light.

Years ago, when I was a camp counselor, we often went exploring in caves. Now, these caves were usually not very large, and we entered the caves through narrow passages in the land around the camp. We would squeeze trough an opening and crawl some distance in a narrow passage before entering the first room of the cave. There were often times when we could not even use a flashlight for a time as we wiggled our way through the tunnel. I can tell you, I hated it. But, when you got to the first room, where other counselors had already come, you could see in the light of their flashlights. If you were the first person through, your light suddenly light up the cave and you could see the lovely formations of stalactites’ and stalagmites.

The experience of opening up to the light of God is like entering that first room in a cave and turning on a flashlight. Suddenly we are able to see, really see the Truth of God’s Word, the Goodness of God’s Law, and the Beauty of God and of God’s creation. The presence of God in our lives acts as a light, illuminating the world and illuminating our lives, so that we can see the Good, the True and the Beautiful. By the power of the resurrection light of Christ, we can become illuminated with the wisdom of God, the goodness of God, and the beauty of God. All this is the gift of the True Light.

The Darkness that Remains is an Impediment to the Light.

Of course, if we are honest, we know that  the Light will expose something else: darkness. the darkness of our souls. John says, “If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). To experience the Light is recognize its absence and the darkness that inevitably accompanies the absence of light. The Psychologist Carl Jung speaks of each person as having a “shadow self,” a dark side. This selfish, instinctual, driven, dark side is a moral problem. [2] Although this dark side can never be totally eliminated, it can be recognized, brought to the light, acknowledged, and integrated into the larger self.

For Christians, the process of sanctification is a process of overcoming the dark side, the sinful side, of our personalities. The first step, and a continuing step, is the process of acknowledging that it is there. For the light to do its moral work in our lives, we must allow it to illuminate the darkness.

Light has many qualities, one of which is that it is one of the very best disinfectants there is. When our family used to go to Montreal, North Caroline,  we sometimes rented cabins full of mildew. We could not live in a mildew infested house. When a house is infested with mildew, one of the best things to do is to get the sheets and the furniture out into the sun, for the sun will get rid of the mildew. Our sin is a lot like mildew. Once exposed and brought to light, it begins to die as Light of God’s presence strikes our souls and begins to warm our cold hearts to a better way of life. Once the light of Christ, exposes the smell of our sin, its light begins to remove the dark stink of the smell of sin in our lives.

Our Mission is to Share God’s Light.

Christian truth is not a merely abstract truth. Christian truth is an embodied truth. God did not send us an instruction manual for living. He sent us his Only Begotten Son, full of grace and truth. An embodied truth is one that must be lived, not simply understood. When John urges his readers to “walk in the light” (v. 7) he is saying to them, “Live your life in such a way that the world will see the light in all that you are and to in your day to day life.”

Scholars point out that when the Middle Ages ended, and the modern secular state emerged, gradually religion shifted from being the organizing principle of all of life, to being a matter of personal religious experience and choice. Gradually, ever so gradually, “faith” became something private, something connected to a person’s inner self. Faith lost its connection with the outer world of life, of business, of politics, and of education. Even those who claimed to be Christian lived and acted just like everyone else.

The great British founder of the Gospel and Culture Movement, Lesslie Newbigin, wrote a book under the title, “Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth”. [3] In this book, Newbigin reminds his readers that if we believe that the Incarnate Word is the truth made flesh, then we must live according to that truth, willing to be different than those around us, and we must be willing to proclaim that truth publically in word and deed, for truth that is not proclaimed is not a truth.

We have done a lot of talking about what it means to be a “missional congregation”. Being missional is not a matter of going on mission trips, though our mission trips are important. Being missional is not a matter of how much money we give to missions, though supporting our missionaries is important. Being “missional” is a matter of being about proclaiming in word and deed, in all of life, as we go from this place into our society our confidence that the love and mercy of God, which was revealed in Jesus Christ is the ultimate truth about God and forms the ultimate ground of what it means to really, truly human.

Conclusion

All advances in human civilization come with some kind of  cost, and no advance is without problems. In the case of our scientific culture, one cost of our overly analytical culture can be a loss of confidence that there is something that is true. When we doubt everything, it is hard to believe in anything. Beneath the ultra-competiveness of our culture, of our business, of our politics, even of our churches, lies a deep darkness. This darkness is born of the fear that nothing is true, that everything is really about power. It is about do I and those who agrees with me, get to have our way? In such a world, there is no greater gift Christians can offer the world than the gift of faith in the transcendent reality of the God of Light, who stands as the ultimate guarantor and source of all truth, a truth we can never know completely, but which he graciously reveals all honest seekers, and which became one of us in the person of Jesus.

At the end of the book of Revelation, when John talks about the new heaven and new earth, he says that there is no need of a sun in this new world, for God himself will be its light, “They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light” (Revelation 22:5). This is our ultimate proclamation, that in a world of confusion and darkness, where it is hard to know what is true, what is good, what is beautiful, what is just, what is kind, we can know that the Eternal Light of God is here, and will be here, and there will come a day, when our struggle with darkness will be over, and the world will be filled with his Uncreated Light.

Amen

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Thomas F. Torrance, Theological and Natural Science. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002):15.

[2] Anthony Storr, ed, The Essential Jung: Selected Writings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983):91.

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Geneva and Grand Rapids, MI: World Council of Churches & Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991.

Life in the Ruins

This week the post focuses on the dystopic nature of modern society as the modern world decays. This decay is particularly important for Americans to understand because American culture is a direct result of the so-called “Enlightenment.” I am not sure that his chapter (this week is part 1) will be in the final book. Nevertheless, it is important for us to understand the cultural roots of our current cultural distress if we are to minister God’s love and mercy in our culture.

Although they  considered themselves to be wise, they became fools…. (Romans 1:22)

One features of many contemporary movies and literature is the prevalence of “ dystopic” visions of the future. When I was in undergraduate school, in my freshman year, I took a course entitled “Utopias and Disutopias. The word, “Utopia” literally means “Nowhere.” A “Utopia” is a vision of a better world that might be. By the same token, a “Disutopia” is a vision of a dark world that might be. Increasingly, the vision of progress that powered Western civilization for 300 years has turned into a dark picture of the world of decay, immorality, violence, chaos, and darkness. For example, recently there was a popular movie called, “Hunger Games.” [1] In his movie, a young girl is forced to participate in the Hunger Games, a competition in which villages send one particular person to compete for food. This movie exemplifies a distinctive feature of modern dystopia’s: fear of an emerging immoral elite (the one percent) who enslave the majority of the people.

Why is it that, at this particular juncture in history, many people, and especially intelligent, perceptive, artistic, and capable people are unable to find meaning and purpose in life? It is, as the Bob Dylan song has it, because, “The Times, They Are A’Changin:”

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’2

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’2

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’2

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’ [2]

When Bob Dylan wrote these words, a great culture upheaval was underway in American culture, an upheaval that would irrevocably change America, and the institutions of modern society. The United States, and indeed the victorious parties in the Second World War began the second half of the 20th Century with a sense of victory and endless possibilities. Neverheless, beneath the surface optimism and confidence, the pillars upon which Western Culture had been built for almost 300 years were rapidly being undermined.

The tumultuous events of the 1960’s and beyond exposed the hollow caverns of emptiness and despair that lurked just beneath the surface. Contemporary Western culture is a paradoxical mixture of Greco-Roman philosophical ideas and Judeo-Christian spirituality and ethics given its current form by the events of what philosophers and social critics call, the “Enlightenment.” About 300 years ago, under the influence of the emergence of modern science and technology, the nations of Europe entered a new era.

This era called, “The Modern World” was characterized by confidence in human reason, faith in the power of science and technology to both understand the universe and provide solutions to myriad human problems that had vexed humanity for millennia, a kind of secular utopian vision of a perfect world, and confidence that human ethics could be reduced to universally acceptable, reasonable principles upon which all rational people would agree. The deists promised a rational religion of peace. For a time, this World View and its program for progress seemed irrefutable.

The term “Enlightenment” was coined in France, which at the beginning of the 19th Century, under the impact of the radical implications of the Enlightenment attempted to create a perfect secular, post religious society. The result was slaughter and madness. Nevertheless, as the 19th Century progressed, problems began to develop in the Enlightenment program. Within a short period of time, certain philosophers noted that reason alone did not seem to satisfy the human need for meaning, and so a romantic revolt emerged emphasizing the emotional and physical importance of human life. Then, the philosopher Nietzsche engaged in a complete attach both upon the Christian religion and on the rational underpinnings of the Enlightenment, emphasizing the Will to Power. The modern world, with its dystopic leanings was born.

The early 20th Century ended whatever optimism was left that human reason and human technology could bring in a millennium of peace, health and plenty. The early 20th Century was punctuated by two World Wars, the second of which resulted in the development of a weapon that could annihilate humanity. The First World War began the destruction of the optimism of Europe and Western Culture. The Second World War, fought because of a brutal dictatorship that emerged in what was Europe’s most advanced nation, ended with Europe in ruins.

America was victorious in both the First and the Second World Wars. It emerged confident of the future and securely positioned to carry on the Enlightenment project. However, in the 1960’s that optimism began to dissipate. The Viet Nam War divided America and caused a generation of young people do doubt our American culture and values. The emergence of birth control and the sexual revolution undermined traditional sexual moral values and traditional family structures. The Nixon presidency and the so-called “Watergate Crisis” undermined faith in American politics and in the integrity of its political system.

In music, in movies, and in the media a kind of moral and cultural darkness began to emerge. We  now live in the ruins of Western culture. Among elites and many, many ordinary people a kind of spiritual and moral darkness has fallen. It is the mission of the church to enter this culture with a gospel of wisdom and love that can repair the ruins of our society.

Copyright 2017, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Hunger Games, dir., Gary Ross; Wr., Gary Ross Suzanne Collins Starring, Jennifer, Josh HutchersonLiam Hemswort (Lionsgate: 2012). The movie is based upon a trilogy of books written by Suzanne Collins. In the novels a young woman confronts a terrible future in which the majority of people live in poverty and hunger. Food is at a premium. The annual games reflect the fears many people have about a manipulative and immoral future government ruled by an immoral elite, a common feature of dystopias.

[2] Dylan, Bob. The Times They Are A-changin'. Columbia, 1964.