Thinking Out Loud

January 21, 2021

“I” vs. “We” — Couples, Families in God’s Presence

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
– Romans 14:12 NIV

And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak.
-Matthew 12:36 NLT

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
-2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
-Matthew 25:32 NIV

Before we begin, apologies to those of you who are single, separated, divorced, or widowed. I wrote this with couples in mind, but as you see from the title, have expanded it slightly to include the concept of entire families.

I have several married couple friends who have shared social media accounts. It isn’t something I recommend. It was hard enough for Ruth and I to share an email account until she finally got her own computer. But I realize that, with Facebook in particular, there are sensitivities that some couples overcome by not having any contacts or communications apart from the other.

The problem is that many times all of us express opinion on Facebook and Twitter, and believe me, husbands and wives don’t always agree on everything, and this is probably a healthy situation. Some work around this by presenting names in parenthesis, such as: “I (Paul) thought the show was funny.” And of course there are things on which we do agree, not everything should be a battleground.

Beware of “We”

Almost every day at this site’s sister blog, I begin with something like “Today we’re featuring the writing of a new author…” Of course we is me. I produce and edit and format the daily devotions on my own; it’s a one-person project. “We” in this case is sometimes referred to as an editorial “I.”

But it can be overused. I tend to type, “Today we want to consider…” first and then, taking a moment to reconsider, realize I need to own the content more, and re-type, “Today I want to look at…”

I have some friends who share a few social media accounts. They use “we” a lot. I decided to call them out on it. Friends will forgive, right?

And they did. While they made it clear that I was making assumptions, they also assured me that while I may see them speaking with one voice on various things online, they do hold and value individual opinions on various issues, including theological ones. Honestly, I was relieved to hear that. I really shouldn’t have expected anything different.

When the stakes are higher

But then I think of another couple who recently gave up on church and I would say perhaps for one of them even any pretense of deism.

I opened this article with several scripture verses. (I know some of you thought I’d written this for my devotional blog, but I actually wrote it for you guys!) I keep thinking of the idea of each of us standing before God individually. We don’t get to have our spouse stand next to us.

This is also true for families. We don’t have the option of an inherited faith. Perhaps growing up your parents rooted for one particular college sport team and so you just joined them in that passion. Or liked one late night talk show host over another. Or one local radio station’s format better than another which played similar music. This is the stuff of good humored banter at the dinner table. Dare I mention political parties?

With faith, you stand on your own. I am aware that there is a passage in Acts from which is derived the idea of household salvation, and I know it does happen where an entire family turns to Christ at the same moment and is perhaps all baptized on the same day; but from that point on each of us is on an individual journey.

This leads to the possibility of one member of a family, or one spouse attending church and being faithful to Bible reading on their own, and I do frequently run into personal contact with a woman who is the wife of an unsaved husband or the man who is the husband of an unsaved wife. I feel deeply for people in that situation, and try to point them to resources written specifically to address this.

But let me clear on this: That’s better than not attending weekend services because your husband or wife won’t attend. Or not being active with a local congregation because your brothers, sisters, parents or children don’t want to take part.

In the end, when I stand before God, I simply can’t use the word “we” as any possible line of defense.

 

September 15, 2020

Applying Our Energies Where God Is Already at Work

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:45 am

It’s possible that your work situation or family situation or neighborhood situation looks, from a spiritual perspective, fairly bleak. You may find yourself in what you consider to be a fairly pagan or secularized environment. But I believe that God is at work in hearts more than we realize.

What is our part in bringing people into an awareness of Jesus that leads to a desire for Jesus?  There is the kind of person that God can use to be “sent,” that is to go out into a particular situation or people group or individual’s life and then tell them, so they can hear, believe and call out for salvation.

But the Bible also teaches a principle of “sowers and reapers” in I Corinthians 3:

(NCV) 5b-8 …We are only servants of God who helped you believe. Each one of us did the work God gave us to do. I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it. But God is the One who made it grow. So the one who plants is not important, and the one who waters is not important. Only God, who makes things grow, is important. The one who plants and the one who waters have the same purpose, and each will be rewarded for his own work.

My entire part-time work career during eight years of high school and college consisted of working in large department stores. In each area of the store I had to know what the products were, how the products worked, whether there were product warranties, and where the products were kept in the stockroom.  I also had to learn how to work the cash register.

So, my usefulness to my employer consisted of two things:

  • product knowledge
  • sales processing

In later years, when I owned my own business, I realized I had been taught nothing about how to sell. There was no sense in which I asked customers what they felt they needed, qualified what might meet that need, and then proceed to  “ask the question.” Asking means saying, “Do you think that this product can meet those needs?” Or, “Is there anything stopping from you buying today?” Or, “Can I wrap that up for you?”

The ingredient I was missing was what is called, “closing the sale.” My training should have been a three-pronged approach consisting of:

  • product knowledge
  • closing the sale
  • sales processing

Sometimes in the Christian journey we encounter people who given to us so that we can plant seeds. And other times, we find people where God has been working in their lives already and they’re just waiting for someone to gently nudge them over the line of faith.

But sometimes we fall short of doing both when the opportunities are present. To switch analogies for a moment, it’s like a baseball game in which you’re up to bat and you get a perfect pitch, but instead of hitting a home run you decide to bunt. What holds us back from the hitting the ball out of the park?

One pastor often told the story of a friend with whom he been planting seeds for a long time. One day, out of the blue, an associate asked the man if he would like to become a disciple and make Christ the Lord of his life, and the man said yes on the spot. The pastor often joked that after all his years of investment in the man’s life, this was simply “not fair.” With a department store analogy — especially if you’ve been a retail environment where people are working on commission — you could say that this man was not the second person’s customer, though thankfully we’re not exactly on commission! But the pastor telling the story understood the distinction between sowing and reaping, and rejoices that this man did indeed cross the line of faith.

In Experiencing God, Richard Blackaby talks about coming alongside areas where the Holy Spirit is already working. Perhaps there is a ministry organization or even a secular social service agency where people, whether consciously or unknowingly, are experiencing the fruit of God’s love and are ripe to respond. Could you be the missing ingredient?

  • In the lives of people you’ve been in contact with for the past few weeks or month, are you a sower or a reaper?
  • Do you know people right now who you’ve been gently sharing your faith with, but you’ve been afraid to ask the question?
  • Re-read today’s key verses. Maybe you find evangelism very difficult. Is there an area where you can be a “water-er” providing after-care for new disciples?

 

March 22, 2019

Of Miry Clay and Wretchedness

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:10 am

Brain flashback…

I remember it being sung in a children’s meeting:

He lifted me up, yes up
Up from the miry clay

We were kids, we played in the dirt and we played with the hose. We knew a thing or two about miry clay. Well, we did and we didn’t. We didn’t use the word miry in everyday speech.

For the adults it was:

From sinking sands he lifted me

Quicksand is something with which most of us do not have direct experience. Sometimes a person who was caught in the throes of addiction will talk about reaching bottom where there was nothing else to do but look up. But for the most part, the analogy of quagmire gets lost on us.

A more contemporary lyric would be

That saved a wretch like me

I remember in youth group we when we were coming up to “me” we would turn and point to the person next to us and sing “him” or “her” instead of “me.” None of us wanted to be the wretch.

The point is, in Western Europe and North America we have it pretty good. We’re comfortable. We enjoy our materialism. We celebrate our excesses on social media. Sin is become as archaic a word as miry clay; we’re comfortable redefining it — “that’s not sex” — as needed.

Nobody is covered in clay anymore, no one is sinking, no one is wretched.

What would anyone need to be saved from?

February 12, 2019

Pop Stars, Presidents, Popes: Who is a Christian and Who Isn’t?

Much ink has been spilled and much energy has been spent trying to flesh out the subject of “who’s in and who’s out” in matters of the Christian faith. Only God knows. Approximately three years ago, the religion news story of the week was Pope Francis weighing in on Donald Trump’s faith and Trump’s inevitable response. The Pope asserted that Christians work to build bridges not walls, and on the basis of a statement reflecting this particular fruit of Trump’s character, implied that Trump’s Mexico/USA border wall concept is not consistent with identity as a Christian. Three years later it’s still the same story.

But on what do you base an assessment of someone? Within my own sphere of acquaintances there are people who disagree on a wide variety of subjects; some of which are part of Biblical interpretation, some of which are ethical, and others of which are reflective of the living out of their faith in everyday life. Is any one of these a significant marker of one’s spiritual sincerity or authenticity? Is there a single litmus test of orthodoxy? And is the in-versus-out question based on what I do today or tomorrow or on faith commitments I made at an earlier stage of life? Can I be in one day and out the next?

One of the best articles I’ve seen on this topic is in the book A is for Abductive by Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren and Jerry Haselmayer in which they speak of bounded sets, centered sets, and dynamic sets; along with helpful diagrams. It’s a book I keep handy, but the lateness of the hour on Friday prevents me from scanning in those pages, so you’ll have to settle for someone else’s work. On the previous page there is a circle with no center point; one is defined as either in or out. X, Y and Z below are all in, but B and C are certainly close. Then they introduce centered-set thinking:

Bounded Set, Centered Set, Dynamic Set

For most of you, this either simplifies things or makes it more complicated. (There’s a logical statement.) But it illustrates the degrees to which people go to try to think through the issue of who’s in and who’s out.

In searching for the graphic I came across this quote from C.S. Lewis along with another diagram:

Christians as centered set vs bounded set_thumb[5]

[The] situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand…. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together.

Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs, or even men and women, in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat. But when we are comparing Christians in general with non-Christians in general, we are usually not thinking about real people whom we know at all, but only about two vague ideas which we have got from novels and newspapers. If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time.

~ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 208-209.

So while the media continues to speculate on the faith of pop stars, politicians, Presidents and Popes, know for sure that deciding on either the present devotion or the eternal destiny of anyone in particular is way above our pay grade. We can’t do it when speaking of individual people because we’re not God; but Lewis argues that dealing with it theoretically has no value.

February 11, 2019

Recipe for a Joyless Christianity

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:35 am

One of the best ways to experience a completely joyless salvation is to believe you were never ultimately lost in the first place.

One of the best ways to remain smug about your standing with God in Christ is to feel you were entitled to it all along.

One of the best ways to not be gracious is to remain firm that any grace you have received — amazing or otherwise — is something you deserved. 

One of the best ways to be unloving is to never fully consider the love that has been poured out on you.

All four gospels record the story of the woman with the alabaster jar. But Luke adds this detail:

7.41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

April 13, 2017

Good Friday: I Wish I’d Thought of It

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:03 am

In much younger days I had a friend who I said I would be willing to die for. I’m not sure if I went on record with this in an informal conversation or if it was said in a talk I would have given to a particular group of young adults.

Today, I’m not going to be dismissive of it. I’m not going to suggest it seems a little silly, though it does seem rather extreme. But is it? In a world where people donate kidneys and bone marrow to perfect strangers?

John 15:12 comes to mind: “There is no greater way to love than to give your life for your friends.” (The Voice).

The Good Friday narrative is something we could never have come up with by ourselves. 1 Corinthians 2:9 echoes Isaiah 64:4 “No one has ever seen this, and no one has ever heard about it. No one has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” (NCV) In Isaiah 55:8-9 we’re reminded that “His ways are higher than ours,” translated elsewhere as:

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.  (NLT)

Just a few days ago we quoted Walter Wink, “If Jesus had never lived we would never have been able to invent him.”

…As I thought about this, a song title popped into my head, “A Strange Way to Save the World.” I don’t know this song at all, and a quick search proved it to be a Christmas song, not an Easter one; but the sentiment still applies namely, for those of us outside the Jewish sacrificial framework, the act of atonement would not have been predicted, and even within that context, a human sacrifice might not have been foreseen.

One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 10:11-12 (the reference is easily memorized)

11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. (NLT)

I wonder if back in that day, anyone ever looked the priests, “ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices” (NASB) and wondered, ‘What if we had a way to do this once and for all?’ Maybe that’s just me, or perhaps it’s just a 2017 mindset. Maybe they didn’t think like that back then. Or, ‘What if there was such a perfect sacrifice that this act need never be repeated?’

It was and is a strange way to save the world.

…I’m posting this on Thursday so we can think about it as we head into Good Friday. This whole thing, conceived in the mind of God is so simple that a child can understand it, but so intricately detailed that an adult can never cease to be fascinated by it.

And then there’s prophecy; that dozens upon dozens of prophecies are fulfilled on a single day. We often talk about a story that wraps up all its loose ends as, ‘putting a bow on it.’ In this one God ties up the bow and hands us a gift labelled, ‘For you.’

…Even as I write this I see my words’ deficiencies. I’m thinking of the plan of salvation and not focusing that in all of this Jesus is ushering in his kingdom. For 3+ years he teaches, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand;’ (see Matthew 4:17) and if this Easter weekend represents the climax of the story, then certainly his death and resurrection has huge kingdom implications. It’s hard to tell the whole story in a few short paragraphs and not leave something out.

However, we are on safe ground to allow ourselves to see this weekend in atonement terms. Looking to the cross we find forgiveness. Remembering his sacrifice on Good Friday we’re reminded that “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 CSB)

 

 

February 16, 2017

Camped Out on the Edge of Belief

southern-ontario

I mentioned a few weeks ago that twice a year I am asked to write a devotion for our local newspaper. It presents a number of challenges, not the least of which is trying to keep it under 550 words. If I I’m writing for C201, I don’t include things that begin with illustrations; we cut to the chase of studying text. But I have to include some type of local references, to our town about an hour east of Toronto. I thought I would share with you what I came up with awhile ago. Your comments are invited.

As I mentally scan the map, I can’t think of any place along the southern tier of Canada where it’s possible to be so close to the U.S. border but have to drive so far to get there. On a clear day, you can see a generating station’s smokestack across the lake with the naked eye, but entering New York State involves either a nearly two-hour drive in either direction to reach a border point.

In many ways, it’s a metaphor for the relationship that Canadians, especially in the days before today’s religious pluralism, had with Christianity. Even now, many sit camped out on the edge of belief. They might even hold church membership or do volunteer work, but a spiritual heart examination would show that they’ve never crossed the border of commitment; they’ve never placed themselves, by faith, under the covering of the cross.

We can all see the border. We see it in the chorus of our federal anthem, which is a prayer for God to keep our land free, just as we see it still in some municipal councils where another prayer acknowledges the sacredness of God’s name, invites His kingdom to be fulfilled and recognizes His power and glory. We see the border when local churches step up to build a house for Habitat for Humanity, join en masse a walkathon for Multiple Sclerosis (canceling a Sunday morning service in the process) or feed the hungry through the Salvation Army…

Just as we can watch U.S. television stations and listen to its radio so easily, because the border is so close, we live in a time and place which has been influenced by Christianity, but still, many hesitate to fully enter in, to fully engage, because, figuratively speaking, the drive to the border is too long. Nothing of urgency has forced us to make the trip.

In Acts 26, we read the story of an encounter between the Apostle Paul and King Agrippa. This is Paul’s moment to secure his release from custody, but from a legal standpoint, he squanders the opportunity and instead tells Agrippa the basis for his belief that Jesus is the long-anticipated Messiah, the deliverer of Israel in particular and mankind in general.

As Paul is speaking, Festus, the Governor, interrupts and says what many still say to passionate followers who seem more heavenly minded than earthly good: “Paul, you are insane. Too much study has made you crazy!” (vs. 25, NLT)

But Paul calmly reminds him that none of the occurrences in the Jesus story were made up, nothing was done in secret, “for this thing was not done in a corner.” (vs. 26, KJV) Agrippa and Festus need merely to check out back issues of The Jersualem Times to read the accounts for themselves of Jesus’ teaching, miracles and crucifixion.

And that’s where Agrippa says, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian;” (vs 28, KJV) or “Keep this up much longer and you’ll make a Christian out of me!” (vs. 28, MSG)

But a few short verses later the scene ends. We’re left with the picture of King Agrippa camped out on the border of belief, but, to return to our analogy again, he never gasses up the car and makes the run for the border. Full commitment is in view, he can see it with the naked eye, but nothing of urgency forces him to make the trip that day.

Perhaps that sounds familiar.

 

December 29, 2016

The Opposite of Infant Baptism: Why Evangelicals Opt Out

This article was a link list item two weeks ago, but I found myself thinking about it somewhat continuously since, and last night it came up again at the supper table. The writer blogs at Patheos under the banner Troubler of Israel but I’m otherwise unfamiliar with his work.

I’ve quoted this in full, though you are strongly encouraged to read it at source and join the over 300 comments; just click the link in the title below. The only difference here is that I’ve placed one paragraph in bold face type which I believe deserves special attention.

The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptize Babies
by G. Shane Morris

Friends (especially those expecting children) ask me with surprising frequency why I believe in infant baptism. For a couple of years, I replied by giving what I think the best biblical reasons are. But I usually don’t take that route anymore, because I’ve realized that’s not what convinced me.

For most evangelicals, what stands in the way of baptizing infants isn’t a lack of biblical evidence, but an interpretive lens they wear when reading Scripture. That lens–shaped by revivals, rugged individualism, and a sacramental theology untethered from the church’s means of grace–makes conversion the chief article of the faith. We should expect this, since American evangelical theology was forged on the frontier, in camp meetings, to the sound of fire-and-brimstone preaching.

For Evangelicals, this is the far more familiar image which comes to mind at the mention of the term 'baptism.'

For Evangelicals, this is the far more familiar image which comes to mind at the mention of the term ‘baptism.’

The core assumption here is that you must have a conversion experience to be saved. You must turn away from a past life toward a new one, usually with tears and laments attesting your sincerity. And this view of Christianity works well in an evangelistic setting, where many have lived as open unbelievers. The problem is it’s an awkward fit when it comes to multi-generational faith.

Anyone who was raised in a Christian home and still believes in Jesus knows that there wasn’t a time when he or she transitioned from “unbelief” to “belief.” We were never “converted.” It was simply inculcated from infancy, and for as long as we can remember, we have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, whether we were baptized as a baby or not.

But because of the baptistic emphasis on conversion, many (if not most) raised in those churches found ourselves “converting” over and over, reciting the “sinner’s prayer” at countless altar calls during our childhood and teenage years, certain that each time, we were truly sincere, but always finding ourselves back at the altar. Some of us even asked to be re-baptized upon our fresh conversions. And everyone raised in evangelical churches will know what I mean when I say “testimony envy,”–that real and perverse jealousy you feel when someone who lived a nastier pre-conversion life than you shares their story.

This is where I think the chief difficulty with infant baptism lies, at least for American evangelicals. I don’t believe baptistic evangelicals really view their children as unregenerate pagans before their “credible profession of faith.” If they did, they wouldn’t teach them to say the Lord’s Prayer or to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I think what’s really going on is a kind of alternative sacramentalism, where a dramatic conversion experience, rather than baptism, is the rite of Christian initiation.

Thus, children raised in this setting feel the need to manufacture tearful conversions over and over to prove their sincerity. And rather than their present trust in Christ, they’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) to look back to a time, a place, and a prayer, and stake their salvation on that.

Infant baptism runs counter to this entire system. It declares visibly that God induces a change of heart and a saving faith in those too young to even speak or remember their “conversions.” It illustrates that the branches God grafts in to His Son aren’t sterile. They bud and blossom, producing new branches that have never drunk another tree’s sap. And most importantly, it matches the lived experiences of believers’ children, rather than continually imposing a system on them that was designed for first-generation converts.

Almost always, I see the lights come on after explaining this point to an evangelical friend. And in most cases, their acceptance of infant baptism isn’t far behind.

 

December 17, 2016

Chickens and Eggs: Which Comes First, Belonging or Believing?

Try Before You Buy?

Later today at Christianity 201, we’re doing a video post from Seven Minute Seminary at Seedbed.com. We did this about a year ago, and while choosing something for today (it’s on the destiny of the unevangelized) I found this one. At first, I found the reference to “postmodernism” a bit dated. Surely everybody gets that mindset now and its continued pervasiveness among Millennials, right? But as Jim Hampton got into this 6½ minute explanation, I realized that is take on believing vs. belonging was something I hadn’t seen before; the notion that a new generation of seekers really wants to embed themselves in our communities to see if our faith is genuine; if our belief is authentic enough that it translates into our everyday practices. 

But embed themselves to what extent? Singing on a worship team? Partaking of The Lord’s Supper (Eucharist)?

Click the title below to read the article and watch the video at source:

Belonging vs. Believing: Postmodernism and Its Implications for Discipleship

Postmodernism has many implications for how churches understand and approach discipleship. Using youth culture as a model, Dr. Jim Hampton explores how those who have a suspicion of authority and dogma might be included in the process of discipleship by allowing them to participate in community in significant ways.

James Hampton is Professor of Youth Ministry at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is an editor for the Journal of Youth and Theology.

View the growing playlist of Seven Minute Seminary.

September 26, 2016

Hitchhiker’s Guide to Evangelicalism

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:41 am

If you have a copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, you’re probably familiar with the quote which follows:

hitchhikers-guide

I decided to put a bit of soteriological spin on this.

hitchhikers-parody

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