Monday, July 29, 2013

Questioning the Sermon

After I preached my sermon yesterday, calling the assembled congregation to put Christ first in all that we do, someone asked me: How? How do you do this?

It's a simple question, and remarkably difficult to answer. When I was young, we knew the answer--go down to the altar and "pray through". Pray until you "get the victory". Pray aloud, fervently, even desperately. I am not convinced. For some of us, such theatrics do not touch the heart, but turn us into play actors concealing what is really inside.

More recently I have learned to appreciate the classical spiritual disciplines. I have found occasional (very occasional) fasting to be a good path to a closer walk with God. Occasional silence has also worked well for me (a communal silence: silence alone is a good way to go to sleep). But not everyone is a contemplative. For some of us, such disciplines (a la Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline) don't fit with our need to do something.

Some people find activism a good path to inner peace. Ron Sider (see One-Sided Christianity, republished as Good News and Good Works) provides a good model. he says, "I am not an activist", while acting like an activist. But some of us need to nurture contemplation more fully than does Sider's example.

A true answer to my friend's question is: I don't know. Each of us has to work out our own answer. Some will be revivalistic; some will be activist; some will be contemplative; some will find other paths I haven't thought of.

The best gift we can give each other is to describe our own experience. Then in each other's stories we may begin to find clues to our own answer. For myself, I quote John Donne's Holy Sonnet 14:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Or as the hymnbook puts it:
1. Make me a captive, Lord,
and then I shall be free.
Force me to render up my sword,
and I shall conqueror be.
I sink in life's alarms
when by myself I stand;
imprison me within thine arms,
and strong shall be my hand.

2. My heart is weak and poor
until it master find;
it has no spring of action sure,
it varies with the wind.
It cannot freely move
till thou hast wrought its chain;
enslave it with thy matchless love,
and deathless it shall reign.

3. My power is faint and low
till I have learned to serve;
it lacks the needed fire to glow,
it lacks the breeze to nerve.
It cannot drive the world
until itself be driven;
its flag can only be unfurled
when thou shalt breathe from heaven.

4. My will is not my own
till thou hast made it thine;
if it would reach a monarch's throne,
it must its crown resign.
It only stands unbent
amid the clashing strife,
when on thy bosom it has leant,
and found in thee its life.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ruled by Christ (Grace Bible Church, 28 July 2013)

Colossians 2:6-19

Spiritual Fullness in Christ

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Freedom From Human Rules

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Comment from Colossians
We begin by walking through the text together, looking primarily at Colossians 2.
2:6-8: We live our lives as Christians “rooted in Christ” and growing out of that root. Any other “root” (or any other foundation—to use the image Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 3) is “hollow and deceptive philosophy”.
2: 9-12: Christ can be this root (or foundation) because God dwells fully in him. Compare Paul’s words in chapter 1: “15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
     In baptism the human-ruled part of ourselves that we sometimes call “the flesh” is put to death (“I am crucified with Christ”), and we rise with the life of Christ, the divine life within. Just as “the fullness of God dwells in Jesus”, so also—in Christ—“the fullness of God” begins to dwell in us.
2: 13-15: We recognize that we are describing conversion with metaphors, and here Paul uses two more metaphors to illustrate the process—a legal metaphor (he cancelled the charge of legal indebtedness) and a military metaphor (he disarmed and defeated the “powers and authorities” that would lead us astray). This second metaphor reminds us that these powers and authorities are “hollow and deceptive philosophies” when we rely on them to control our lives.
2: 16-19: This new life in Christ is a life of freedom from the old authorities (hollow and deceptive philosophy; human rules for living). We may observe them or not, depending on the circumstance; but we are free from them to live fully in Christ. Paul introduces a new metaphor for this new life—that of the church as the body with Christ as the head. This new life is the life that is governed by Christ as the head, rather than by any other authority.

Brief Comment from Luke
In Luke’s gospel Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer, and then reminds the disciples that they can pray at all times. Their heavenly Father is a good father who will give them what they need when they ask.

You remember that the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer has the words: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.” Even in this briefer version, our prayer rests on God’s authority, which has come into our world. The Gospel reminds us that God’s authority is ultimate, and Paul tells us clearly that we find that ultimate authority in our intimate relationship with Jesus the Messiah.

The essential point in these texts is found in the first verses of the passage in Colossians: “We live our lives as Christians rooted in Christ and growing out of that root. Any other root (or any other foundation) is hollow and deceptive philosophy.”

Consider other possible foundations in our world.
1. The commitment to peace. I have a deep and abiding commitment to the way of peace and non-violence in our world. The scourge of war and all kinds of violence against other people is a deeply-rooted disease that requires eradication. But the call to peace is not itself the root or foundation of our Christian lives. Recently I read a book by Eric Seibert entitled, The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy. In it Seibert tackles the difficult and troubling problem that we have with the violence we find in the Old Testament. He does so honestly and with real courage, and I find much of his analysis and many of his suggestions helpful and worth considering.
     But in the end I have one basic problem. It is not clear to me what Seibert’s foundation is: It looks to me as though it is a rock-bottom final ultimate commitment to peace, whatever else is happening. I know Eric. We went to Asbury Seminary at the same time, and he teaches at my Alma Mater (Messiah College). I know that he shares a real commitment to Jesus and to Christ’s Church. That’s one of the basic reasons he has written this book. But in the book he does not give Christ as the foundation for his commitment to peace. I see rather a final commitment to peace. I share that commitment, but as the centre of our lives it becomes what Paul calls a hollow and deceptive philosophy.
2. The Truth of Science. Many Evangelicals have a bias against Science. That makes no sense to me. Science has shown itself to have a powerful explanatory force in our world. It includes the search for truth in all areas of life and has contributed to wonderful technological advances in our modern world.
     My appreciation for Science shows itself in the way that I respond to reports of Climate Change. Some people respond with ridicule, noting that in the 1970s some scientists thought we might be facing a Global Winter, and now they say we face Global Warming. The truth of course is that climatologists did not predict a new ice age or anything like it; that claim was a media creation. But in any case, Science’s willingness to consider new data and come to new conclusions is part of its great strength.
     Any form of Christian faith that includes a bias against Science weakens itself, since God placed the order in the universe that makes scientific study and exploration possible. But Science works best when it builds on the foundation of God’s reign. When Science becomes the foundation it becomes a “hollow and deceptive philosophy”. It has no way to tell us what we should do with its discoveries. Science can tell us how to use stem cells from fetuses to bring new life; it cannot tell us whether or not we should harvest fetuses in order to use their stem cells.
     I suspect that you could list more ethical dilemmas coming from scientific advances than I know about. The point is clear: Science makes a poor foundation on which to build our lives.

3. Environmentalism. I mentioned the findings of Science in terms of climate change. I am an environmentalist. That is, I am committed to wise and proper use of the resources God has given us in the Creation. I occasionally vote Green because I do indeed believe in the importance of treating our environment responsibly and because I see many examples of abuse and misuse of God’s good creation.
     I know people who make the environment part of their foundation for living. There are environmental theologies that replace Christ with Gaia and Christian faith with the spirits of the world around us. Used in this way my commitment to the environment becomes a hollow and deceptive philosophy.

Summary: You see what happens. We start with something that is genuinely good, but when we make that good thing the foundation for living, it changes and becomes something bad. Our foundation for living is Christ and nothing else. You will have to do the analysis for your own life. I don’t know what stands in your life that is important and can compete with Christ for your allegiance. It may be the right to life movement. It may be a commitment to marriage equality—or to what we sometimes call traditional marriage. There are many possibilities, and we must keep each one of these competitors in its place, built on the new life that we have in Christ: These things are secondary, however important.

What Then Should We Do?
The answer is obvious, I think: Put Christ first. In everything. But a real danger lurks as we do so. We can be so focussed on putting Christ first that we neglect the world around us. History (or legend) says that Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. The Christian equivalent would be for us to put so much emphasis on prayer and meditation and “Christian activities” that we ignore the real needs around us. To avoid this danger, look again at the metaphors Paul has used.

Building: Christ is the foundation—We are the temple built on that foundation.
Plant: Christ is the root—We are the tree that grows from that root. (Or in the version of this metaphor that Jesus uses in John’s Gospel: He is the vine [plant], and we are the branches.)
Body: Christ is the Head—We are the body led by that head.

In each case the church makes Christ present in the world around us. Putting Christ first is not a way of escaping what happens in the world around us. We are ruled by Christ as we represent Christ and his rule in the world around us. Think again of the three examples I gave:
Peace: We are committed to peace and justice, not as the foundation for our lives (when they become a false and deceptive philosophy), but as an expression of the rule of Christ in our lives. I was a CO during Vietnam, not because I have built my life on peace, but because I have built my life on Christ. Pursuing peace and justice grows out of living the gospel.
Science: I am not a Scientist, but my Christian friends who are do their work as an expression of their faith. I think of my university biology teacher, K.B. Hoover, now 100 years old. When I was a teenager encountering ideas about evolution and faith, Hoover presented the ideas as a man of deep faith in Christ, for whom science was not an enemy, but a friend. With his example, I have never been able distrust science the way that some do, but have always seen it as an outgrowth of Christian faith, with the potential to lead one into greater awe and wonder for the marvellous Creator of the universe.
In right proportion, faith in Christ leads us deeper into the scientific endeavour. Properly understood, the rule of Christ leads us deeper into whatever our profession is and makes us better police officers, better musicians, better gardeners, better writers.
The Environment: When we approach the environment understanding the rule of Christ, we are set free from unnecessary worry and fear of the future on the one hand and from an abusive manipulation of nature on the other. Jesus is Lord! As the Creator of all that is, God has given the world into our hands to use as God’s stewards.
When we make the environment into God in place of God, it becomes a burden and cannot do us any good. When we build on the foundation of God in Christ, we are free to do what is right and best for the Creation. Think of one of the fears that paralyzes our politicians as well as the public: We fear that environmentally-responsible actions will hurt us economically. But if Jesus is Lord, when we follow Christ faithfully in the way that we treat creation, we can trust God to take care of us.

Questions remain. How do we live in the rule of Christ? What steps in our lives do we take to place Christ first? Do we need an ecstatic experience of Christ’s presence, or some sort of crisis coming to the altar for prayer? Are the classical spiritual disciplines the best way to place Christ first? These are all questions for you to work at as you resolve to grow out of the root that is Christ and to set aside all “hollow and deceptive philosophy”.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Wedding Vignettes

Wedding Vignettes
Lois and I enjoyed our son and new daughter’s wedding last Saturday. Here are some of our favourite moments.
Walking up the aisle: We walked up the aisle with our son and left him at the front to wait for the bride. I felt an unusual sense of sobriety—31 years of memories as we walked. Lois noted the joy she felt as we anticipated the ceremony to come. It was a short walk, and will live forever in our memory.
Singing: We sang eight hymns, mostly a cappella. We were in a tent in a field, gathered as God’s people. We were church!

The vows: The couple had tailored their vows to the meshing of their personalities and the struggles that go with such a union. The promises are forever, and they are the same promises all couples make; but the unique personalities of the bride and groom were clearly expressed. Similarly, the unity symbol (mixing two chemicals together so that the product of the chemical reaction forms something new) reflected their union.
The children’s story: The purple dinosaur happy in his block of ice, and the lovely other dinosaur who melted his block of ice, and the path they walked—read by the bride’s father as children sat on the grass in front of him. One child asked how we could see the dinosaurs’ faces when the sun was behind them. Dad didn’t miss a beat: “It’s hard to draw depth perception.”


The party! Often called the wedding reception. The wedding party came in, we ate and drank and toasted. Then came the first dance, a wonderful moment as the couple danced in front of us. They’ll be dancing for many years we trust, sometimes slow and peaceful, sometimes sad, sometimes uproariously happy; dancing the dance of life.

More dancing: The groom and his mother; the bride and her father. This dance is a tender time. It seems to go on and on, and is over far too quickly. Lois and our son danced and talked, a dance she will carry in her heart until she dies.

The whole day was a wonderful blend solemnity and joy, informality and serious intention. I marvel at the amount of work the bride did planning and putting everything together. And at the work her parents did once they returned home from an overseas trip to help with final touches. Just before the ceremony we had a serious power failure; her Dad stripped off his jacket and turned a potential emergency into a blip before the service.
That kind of common sense readiness to deal with whatever comes can carry the new couple through life, and Lois and I rejoice that they are a new family ready to make a new home.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


This past weekend our older son and his fiancĂ©e said their vows to each other: Promises based on many hours learning to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As Lois said to me, “They know each other better than we did when we got married.” They were unusually clear about what drew them together and what they need to do to stay together.

Their friends and family have looked forward to this day, and we celebrated joyfully. As the bride and groom and their parents stood in the receiving line following the ceremony, we heard one statement repeatedly: “This wedding was so (their names)!” It was.

We celebrated the ceremony in a tent beside a corn field, at a farm owned by a friend of the bride’s parents. The reception moved up a short slope to the barn, where the University Mennonite young people have held more than one barn dance: One of the happy couple’s favourite events as part of the UMC youth.

The ceremony contained eight hymns, a Scripture reading (Colossians 3:12-15), a children’s story (about two purple dinosaurs, and a reasonably accurate rendition of the couple’s relationship), and the vows. No set colour for the bride’s party; rather the bride wore white and her party wore solid colours, which showed up wonderfully against the tall corn beside the wedding tent.

Many at the wedding came from the University Mennonite Church, and they know how to sing. The tent became church as we sang and prayed and read and affirmed the couple’s promises. The barn was church too, even if we were more obviously partying.

Highlights of the reception included a stirring rendition of “I am cow” by some of the groom’s friends, with the groom joining in. It was perhaps a bit surprising that he knew all the words so readily. His friends added bits of costume to his outfit so that the words “I am cow” rang true. Then the toasts, and some rap songs about the couple, and occasional stories that led to some kisses.

Finally dancing, lots of dancing: A conga line led by a stuffed tiger, weaving in and out of itself and in and out of the barn. I rebelled against the limitations imposed by cataract surgery enough to do two dances with Lois. She danced more with our younger son, while his wife and I sat and watched. (She was being careful of a trick ankle, which did not mix well with the barn floor.) Wonderful food, catered by a local Indian restaurant, and the cutting of the wedding cake. The food and cake carefully included gluten-free options.

The evening closed with the bride and groom running down to their car and driving off into the night through two rows of sparklers. Very cool.
Family and friends and church gathered together—from old people to young children, with the pictures of grandparents who had died sitting on an empty chair. It was a good wedding, in a tent and barn that became the Body of Christ as we gathered together in Christ’s name to witness the promises made by the bride and groom. They promised. We assented. God sealed it. “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” God bless you both, our son and daughter!

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Liverpool, Spain

A few posts ago I wrote about my football jerseys (soccer shirts). There I described this jersey:
I wrote about it: "UK 2: Liverpool. Almost my favourite shirt. Gift from Joe, bought in Harare from a sports shop run by the former national coach there. In the 1980s Liverpool’s goalie (one of the best they have had) was a Zimbo who went to the same High School as I did in Bulawayo. You cheer for your old mates, even after they’ve had a whiff of scandal. (Nothing proved!)"
UK Liverpool indeed! People kept asking me if it was a shirt from Spain. I kept saying no, they must look alike. Then my older son searched the net for images and showed me this:
 This is indeed the home jersey for the Spanish national team! The description above remains true--except that the shirt does come from Spain. Not Liverpool. Not even Liverpool, Spain; just Spain.
Fortunately I like Spain. I can wear their shirt with pride. I can still support Liverpool and remember Grobelaar (the aforementioned goalie) with pleasure. Now all I have to do is get a shirt that looks like this!

I suppose that I can raise a glass of Carlsberg to the truth.