On warnings against liturgical prayers

A couple of years ago I picked up a copy of Celtic Daily Prayer, a great book of daily prayers and readings published by the Northumbia Community. When my copy arrived in the mail (purchased used on Amazon), I removed the dust jacket and discovered the outside had been attacked with a Sharpie. The inside too had some warnings in place.




Apparently the previous owner felt it necessary to warn future owners of the danger of abandoning scripture in favor of, well, preselected scripture and liturgical prayers. They also are apparently not too keen on the NRSV, which apparently was devised by the sons of Cain, or perhaps a “serpent Jew”.

I share this just because I think it’s kind of funny and because as a book lover, it’s fun to find hidden treasures left by previous owners.

This made me think though – what a relatively recent idea to warn people not to fall back on liturgical prayers. My children just studied Gutenberg in their history lessons. Before his time, nearly 1500 years after the time of Christ, very few people on earth had access to a bible for use in personal devotions. What did they fall back on? Liturgical prayers and scraps of the best memorized passages – exactly the sort of thing you find in a prayer book like this. Oh such a step backward to return to their unenlightened ways! I’m not so convinced. It sounds too much like the “dark ages” myth all over again. Recently, I have been encouraged by using a prayer book for daily devotions rather than raw scripture reading, which is very hit and miss. Of course I still study the bible – for all kinds of things, but it’s been helpful to be shown another way to pray and meditate. The constraint is a comfort.

Rob Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ is total horse manure

I’ve written well over a thousand blog posts here and I can probably count on two hands how many qualify as genuine “rants”. It’s just not a genre I’m interested in reading much of so I don’t write it either. I am compelled to say something this time though.

Like everyone else who reads anything on the internet, I saw all the brouhaha over Miley Cyrus’s raunchy performance at the MTV video awards last month. I remember thinking, “Who is this other guy, Rob Thicke? (It’s pronounced “thick”). I didn’t think I’d ever heard of him.” Well, it turns out I had heard his hit song “Blurred Lines” on pop radio a few times, I just had never made the connection. Then I saw this interview with some gal named Emily Ratajkowski who was apparently a model in Thicke’s music video, but had just hit it big in the acting world by being cast across from Ben Affleck in the upcoming film adaptation of the bestselling thriller novel Gone Girl. Alright, so out of curiosity I looked up the music video. OK, that was a mistake. I shut it off after less than half a minute.

The film purports to be put together by famed music video directing master Diane Martel. Well let me tell you exactly what Martel needed to produce this video:

  • A room with cream colored walls
  • A couple of lights
  • 1 camera and tripod
  • 1 bale of hay
  • 1 goat
  • 3 young women to take all their clothes off and walk around the room
  • A cheap CD player (off screen) to sing along with

That’s it. It’s a wrap! I guess if I wanted to be technical, I should say that someone had to do some post-production color-correcting to make Thicke’s eyes some unnatural blue color. That’s got to count for something.


So the song, which itself sounds so much like an old Marvin Gaye tune that the record company is being sued, features Thicke who is a good 15 years senior to the naked ladies on the screen, barely singing, lip syncing lines like “You the hottest bitch in this place, hey hey hey, you know you want it.” Man, what a star! What an artiste! What genius! Just prance some fresh meat around on the screen for a few minutes and call it good.

In an interview with GQ after the video was banned from YouTube, Thicke commented,

“We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, ‘We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this.’ People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.’ “

Oh, haha. Now we get it. It’s all just tongue-in-cheek! That’s pretty clever there Rob! You’re alright dude.

I think I’ll just quote Mark Knoffler, also tongue-in-cheek – sort of:

“Now look at them yo-yos. That ain’t working. They play the guitar on the MTV. That ain’t workin’. That’s the way you do it. Money for nothing and your chicks for free.” (Dire Straits, Money for Nothing)

That was penned back in the 1980s, when the musicians actually still played guitars (albeit barely) and the ‘free’ chicks at least still wore clothing in public. Ratajkowski said in her interview that she’s glad she’s made it big in Hollywood now so she won’t have to do nudie shoots anymore. Well good for her. I’m glad she had that as a stepping stone to fame and riches. What about all the other girls in her situation? They’re rock bottom with nowhere to go, surrounded by a bunch of cocky guys that are pretty happy to keep ’em right where they’re at.

Along these lines, I highly recommend Matt Walsh’s post, Dear son, don’t let Robin Thicke be a lesson to you.


Fiddling while Rome Burns: The Episcopal Church in America

This is not a detailed piece on the TEC in America, but rather just a short personal anecdote.

I was recently in a beautiful Episcopal church building. Off the fellowship hall was a library room. I poked my head in and looked at the shelves. There were bible commentaries and books by Lewis gathering dust on a shelf blocked by a table. Prominently displayed was a shelf filled with books by Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, and most recently, in the return basket, “Goddesses and the Divine Feminine”.

Back outside on the bulletin board where no missionary maps or newsletters, but rather a number of posters about the injustice of Israel encroaching on Palestinian land. Prominently displayed was a promotional flyer for a lecture by John Dominic Crossan, who is going to be passing through town in a few weeks.

A “get to know you” board with Polaroids showed only white hair and expensive clothes. Not a young child in sight or barely a fertile couple.

Thought leaders like Borg and Crossan have quite literally made a career out of undermining and defacing Christianity, yet here they are trumpeted. Instead of proclaiming, “He is risen indeed!” on Easter morning, they have traded that in for “Well isn’t Jesus a nice idea? He’s not risen of course, but the thought is kind of comforting. Amiright?”

Judging by the demographic, this congregation won’t even exist in 15 years time and will be paralyzed and insolvent long before then if it isn’t already. Who stays here amidst the ruin and holds their head up high? Only the people that lit the fire in the first place and want to see it burn all the way to the ground. Everyone who actually cares has jumped ship long ago, except for perhaps the rural elderly who naturally can’t be expected to jump anywhere. The bulk of the last few holdouts that were still hoping for reform bailed about 10 years ago. What remains is simply a bad joke with an incredible amount of real estate.

But no matter really. Christ is building his church, his kingdom is coming. That parts of it look crazy and silly sometimes is of no lasting consequence. Times change but He remains the same.

Good shepherd, good parent

This paragraph was from on early draft of my sermon from last week. I ended up rewriting it, but I like this version too.

God is the good shepherd that goes out and finds his sheep. Why would he do something like that? The analogy is like a good parent who loves his children. His kid gets lots in the woods – he goes and finds him. His kid is really sick and throwing up at school, the mom comes picks him up and tucks him into bed. The kid fell off his bike and cut himself all up. What does the dad do? “Oh, time for lunch, see you later?” No, he drops what he’s doing and cleans him up and bandages his wounds. The kid is thrown in jail for drunk driving. Do you just leave him there or do you post his bail? Though there may be a time for leaving him there to learn a lesson and maybe God does this sort of thing to us sometimes (hard to say), this isn’t what we see with the father in the parable of the prodigal son. No, he comes running to embrace the son when he comes back home, before he’s even had a chance to give his “I’m sorry” speech. What was he going to say? Who cares. The father rejoices at his return and throws a party. He is glad. The sin? Forgotten.

Global Anglican Future

The Global Anglican Future conference is going on in Nairobi Kenya right now. The first one was back in 2008 in Jerusalem. This picture is of our own Pacific Northwest bishop Kevin Allen, standing in a sea of diversity. I had the privilege of meeting him in Seattle a few months ago. I am excited to see the church continue to grow and reform in Africa, even as it backs away into shadows for a time in the secular west.


The oppressive aesthetic of the Christian book store

I’ve begun to read a rather unusual book by computer science legend Donald Knuth, titled Things a Computer Scientist Rarely talks about. It’s essentially transcriptions from a series of six lectures he gave at MIT in 1999 on the topic of… theology and bible translation. True story. I have tried to tackle some of Knuth’s C.S. books in the past, but it is like trying to read Barth’s Church Dogmatics in German – pretty hardcore. This work though is a bit oddball and I’m hoping it turns out to be interesting.

From early on in his talk, he discusses the aesthetic cultural disconnect between modern evangelicism and much of the well-educated, (especially in the arts and sciences) population. He knows very personally that there is another side though and decided to try and take a stab at revealing some of it.

I’ve been concerned for a long time, in fact, about the lack of material about theology that is written for people like me. There are plenty of books for other kinds of people, it seems, but not very much for a computer scientist. I can remember once going into a large so-called Christian book store and realizing that almost all of my professional colleagues would find it extremely oppressive just to be in that room. I’m disturbed by the notions of religion that many of my academic friends have; but I understand that their notions have been formed quite naturally, in reaction to the things that they see in the media, aimed at different subcultures.

From my point of view, the way they perceive religion is strange and totally distorted from the kind of religion that I grew up with. Therefore when I was asked to give a series of lectures in the God and Computers program at MIT, my first reaction – “No way can I contribute anything of quality” – was tempered by second thoughts that maybe I could say a few things that might be helpful to some of the people in this audience because such things are so rarely discussed.

-Donald Knuth, Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, p.5

Imitation: Learning to live as a Christian (I Cor. 4, Part 3/3)

That brings to the last thing I want to talk about and that is the pastor as model – sort of.

16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.

Later in chapter 11 he says, famously, and rather boldly:

Imitate me as I imitate Christ.

In 2 Thessalonians he says:

“For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.

And in 1 Timothy, where his giving advice to a young pastor, he urges:

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

Now, would you feel comfortable saying, “Hey, want to know how to be like Jesus? I’m all over it. Just watch me!” That would be incredibly cocky. I don’t think that is what Paul is saying though. Keep in mind that he is like a father to these people. He wants to see them grow as Christians, but he’s trying to figure out how to teach them to do it – how to introduce them to Jesus. He teaches out of the bible and writes them letters explaining things. So he’s making speeches and writing books. All right – that might work if people are really listening and have good memories but he knows that for a lot of us, that is not the case. And so he stays with these people and lives with them and works alongside of them and eats with them. He stayed with the Corinthians for a year and a half. They would have got to know him pretty well during that time. How can they best know more about how to live in light of the gospel? By observing more mature Christians.

What do kids pick up from us adults? Not just what you tell them to do. In fact, that’s only a small part of what they get from you. They pick up on how you act and how you talk. Act angry and they will think that acting angry is the way it’s done, even if you say otherwise. Work hard and they’ll think working hard is normal – just the way that you be human. Always got your iPhone out, dinking around and not listening to them? Must be OK. They’ll use the same phrases you do. It’s how they learn all their words. It’s how they learn all their categories. And how much of these can be communicated in a couple of pages of a letter? Can you get this stuff from reading a few bible verses? Nice try, but no way. That’s barely even the Cliff Notes. The real way to learn to be like Christ is to imitate someone else who is like Christ. If you are blessed, that person could be your father or mother or maybe a good friend and mentor you’ve met along the way. For a LOT of folks though, that is unfortunately not an option.

Who else did the people in Corinth have to imitate or look up to? They were first-generation Christians. They’re own parents were pagans. You can’t really look up to your own dad if (when he was still around) he would go hang out with the prostitutes down at the temple of Athena. There is your mother, but she has a couple of slaves she treats poorly and she thinks God is nonsense. That’s not a very good example. The Corinthians needed someone different to look up to for cues! There weren’t a lot of godly men and women around. Does anyone here come from a dysfunctional family? We’ll you’re not alone! You’re just like these folks that Paul was writing to in most of the New Testament. Congratulations! These letters are for people just like you.

You learn about the good news of God’s love and Jesus Christ’s work for you by hearing the gospel. But then how do you actually LIVE like a Christian? Well, you can read some of Jesus’s teachings like the sermon on the mount and get some clues, but you really are going to learn most of it by being around another person and imitating them. It’s how children learn pretty much everything and it’s how adults continue to learn most things. This is why good company can change your life for the better and the old proverb that “bad company corrupts good character” is, for most practical purposes, true. Your spiritual formation will be guided by who you look up to as a model.

One of my favorite Christian writers is Thomas Merton, and I’d like to quote you this passage he wrote about how our ideas of right and wrong are formed when we are children:

I cannot make good choices unless I develop a mature and prudent conscience that gives me an accurate account of my motives, my intentions, and my moral acts. The word to be stressed here is mature. An infant, not having a conscience, is guided in its “decisions” by the attitude of somebody else.

The immature conscience is one that bases its judgments partly, or even entirely, on the way other people seem to be disposed toward its decisions. The good is what is admired or accepted by the people it lives with. The evil is what irritates or upsets them. Even when the immature conscience is not entirely dominated by people outside itself, it nevertheless acts only as a representative of some other conscience.

The immature conscience is not its own master. It is merely the delegate of the conscience of another person, or of a group, or of a party, or of a social class, or of a nation, or of a race. Therefore, it does not make real moral decisions of its own, it simply parrots the decisions of others. It does not make judgments of its own, it merely “conforms” to the party line. It does not really have motives or intentions of its own. Or if it does, it wrecks them by twisting and rationalizing them to fit the intentions of another.

That is not moral freedom. It makes true love impossible. For if I am to love truly and freely, I must be able to give something that is truly my own to another. If my heart does not first belong to me, how can I give it to another? It is not mine to give!

When your heart is slave to sin, it is not yours to give away to other people. The good news of the gospel frees us to give to others for real – disregarding what society happens to think is right or wrong at the time. I think Paul’s ultimate goal is to free them to follow Christ. He doesn’t really want them to imitate him, personally. But it’s at least a good start before they can be handed off to a deeper relationship with their loving father God.

Now WHAT is it exactly about Paul that we imitate? His not getting married? No, definitely not. He clarifies that elsewhere that that is the way for only a small handful of folks. His job? Being a pastor? This is a big one that has often gone completely out of control some Christian circles today. When the pastor is put on a pedestal, you find that all the young men in the congregation aspire to be, you guessed it, pastors. Why? Because that seems like the most “meaningful” thing they could do with their lives. Being a plumber or a scientist or an insurance adjuster are temporal things that don’t “make a real difference in people’s lives”, but being a pastor or a missionary really DOES! Nonsense. Again, only a few people are called to this. The ones that are will probably find themselves driven crazy if they keep trying to go another way. The others (and that is most of you in this room) should do whatever their hands find to do with all their might. They should especially be concerned with their own families – their husbands, wives, and children.

The imitation of Christ is the end, the goal, the telos (that’s the Greek word for goal). But looking at someone farther along the path than you is a good way to get an idea of what way to go. It gives you an image of what it looks like. The trick is to not attach yourself TOO much to that person and their humanness, their mannerisms and such. That becomes trying to become someone you are not created to be. Don’t try to be someone you are not. The temptation for leaders (the ones being followed) is to force themselves a bit too much on their followers, or, to allow their follows to imitate them too closely. Does your role model speak truthfully, treat women kindly and drink alcohol only in moderation? Great! Follow his example. Does he also wear really tacky Hawaiin shirts? Don’t do that. They aren’t connected. Paul isn’t asking the people in the church to imitate his hair-do. He wants them to learn some of his character qualities – the fruit of the spirit in his life.

If you have a parent who was a medical doctor, it’s very common for the children to feel a lot of pressure from their parents to become doctors themselves, or perhaps at least lawyers or engineers. A good parent though will seek to understand his children’s psyche and help each one grow in a unique direction. He may help provide opportunities for them to follow in his own footsteps, but will not force them down that road. If he sees that his daughter would rather settle down and marry and have children, he won’t be always bugging her about her plans for grad school. The same goes for sons. The good father will help his son grow, but also allow him to find his own way in life. He’ll try to instill in his children his faith and values, but not so much his enthusiasm for the Seattle Mariners. That’s flimsy proposition anyway.

So, find good older and wiser men and women to learn from. It fills in many of the little details of life that you won’t find bible verses about. Your pastors here are not a bad place to start. There is a lot you can learn from them. If you have just been hanging out here at church for a while and haven’t really gotten to know them beyond watching them up here or having two-minute conversation in the hallway, I encourage you to get to know them more. They probably think about you and pray for you more than you realize. They aren’t here to look cool or pretend to be important. They want to serve you.

The modern world really has no concept of serventhood. It only understands raw independence and power. It thinks that if you “let” yourself be under someone like a pastor, or even disciplined by a parent or teacher, you are just giving them power and submitting to be oppressed. This is what Marxist philosophy is all about. Everyone is always just using and abusing each other all the time. Because we are sinners, it does look like that sometimes, but it is not how things work in the Kingdom of God – the Kingdom that Christ inaugurated. I encourage you to take Paul’s advice. Your pastors are here, the world doesn’t think much of them, but they love you and are wise and here to serve. Get to know them, watch them, and listen to them. They are worth imitating in many respects.

Now, Cody is my adopted son. You’ve probably noticed he doesn’t look anything like me. Where my son Seth has picked up my big round head and some of my mannerisms and personality traits through genetics, Cody gets from Erin and I only what he observes and hears each day first hand. He is athletic and charming and has a very short attention span. To ask him to imitate me by becoming a nerdy computer programmer who reads theology books for fun would be doing him a disservice. I don’t want him to pick up that from me. I want him to see me be faithful and keep my head on straight during stressful times and give God thanks through the good times and the bad.

I can see this happening all the time, like when he enthusiastically says his nighttime prayers with the same inflection as I do. Or when he asks for a cup of coffee every morning so he can be just like me. I also hear it when he loudly says something a bit embarrassing like “what the freakin’ heck!”. I’m afraid I must say that a bit too often. He’s also seen me when I was angry and irritable and said harsh and destructive things to him or when I have been depressed and distant and ignored him, and everyone else too. I hope he doesn’t remember those times very well and when he does later, I pray he can forgive me for the damage I’ve done. It’s more lasting that the damage that comes from smearing paint all over the house.

Fortunately, in the end, the pressure is really off me. I’m not God in this story. I get to be in Cody’s shoes, but looking up to a father in heaven who is infinitely loving, very slow to anger and never unjust. Our salvation comes not from following his example and obeying his commands, but from the work he alone did through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is my prayer that all of you may be able to meditate on that relieving fact.

Let us pray.

Father, thank you for being a good father, the very best, who will never leave us or forsake us, even when we forsake you. Thank you for being the good shepherd, who goes and looks for us in the middle of the night when we wander. Thank you for giving us stewards and faithful shepherds here in your church for the present time. Help us learn to love more freely as we keep our eyes rested, looking only to you. Amen.

Parents and pastors: Thankless labor on the back channel (I Cor. 4, Part 2/3)

I’d like to move on now to another point Paul brings up in our passage from today:

8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

What Paul is talking about here has another immediate parallel in parenthood. Mothers and fathers have do a ton of hard work behind the scenes to make things stable for their children. The kids, especially little kids, are often oblivious of this. They get up in the morning and have a fridge full of food to eat and a closet full of clean clothes to wear. They play in a warm house or go to school and learn a bunch of new things with their friends. They don’t see the part where mom and dad stayed up until 12:00 the night before doing laundry, washing dishes, and fixing the toilet. They don’t realize that mom made about 15 different phone calls during the week to arrange rides for them, to talk to their teacher about trouble with their homework, and get a hold of the right kind of asthma medication for their little brother. They are only vaguely aware that dad has been getting up at 5:00 AM every day to work overtime and pay off extra medical bills. They are just bumbling through childhood. Eventually as they mature they become more aware that all this is happening on the back channel.

The same is true for church communities. You may not realize this, but your pastors do a lot of work to keep everything glued together. Now, I can legitimately draw attention to this fact because I’m not one of your pastors. Ha! I’m a member of this congregation, of this community and I get to help out with music and occasionally even preaching on a Sunday morning. But I’m not a pastor. I’m not an elder. Kim, and Loren, and Luke are, and to some degree there is also Kirk, Nick, Martin, Bret, and Geoff. Eh, who are these people anyway? Who cares? Well, that’s actually the usual attitude about these things. Being a parent can be a rather thankless job at times and being a pastor is the same way.


In the modern west, especially in America, who is given the most respect and honor? The guy or gal that makes the most money! Turn on the TV, who do see? Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, LeBron James, George Clooney. They’ve got the mad skills to bring in the bucks and live like kings. If you read the news much at all, I’m sure you’ve seen an article or chart like this before:


Pastors aren’t dumb. Most of them are well aware of this going into it. It’s easy to make fun of a handful of celebrity pastors out there who have TV shows and big book deals. They don’t really count. They are just anomalies. Real pastors, who spend their time shepherding the people – nobody has ever heard of any of them except for a few of the people in their own home towns.

That was actually the case for the apostles too. We look at Saint Paul now and say, “Wow, he wrote half the New Testament!” But while he was alive, most people thought he was just a chump. He was always getting run out of town because people didn’t like his preaching. He was treated with suspicion by some of the Christians in Jerusalem because of his shady past. Even people in the churches he planted wouldn’t listen to him half the time. And then later in life he ended up shipwrecked, under house arrest, and then executed. It’s only hundreds of years later that we looked at what he wrote in his letter to the Romans and said, “He really understood what Jesus did for us and did an amazing job explaining it. Wow.” At the time, he was, as he describes in his letter, reviled like the scum of the world. And so were the other apostles too.

Your pastors here are nobody famous, but they care about you a lot. They agonize over you, and pray for you all the time. When you are having a rotten time, you are on their mind more than you realize. They do some of what you see up here on a Sunday, but they do a lot of counseling behind the scenes – talking people out of getting a divorce or sometimes even committing suicide, helping them get out of debt, break destructive habits, and maybe even fixing their water heater. They do teaching, planning, helping and giving supplies to people in need, and yes, even cleaning the toilets. I remember coming here late in the evening last year to set up something for worship practice and Kim and Eva were running around like crazy planting flowers and mowing the lawn. I mean, we try to have volunteers to that stuff, but if it doesn’t happen, where does the buck stop? With the pastor, and for a lot of things you don’t see, that’s where it stops.

The benefit is that many things are taken care of for you. These worship services are going on here every Sunday whether you can make it or not and whether you sing along or not. And if you’re in trouble, there are people you can ask for help and they really will. They’ve made it their job. Crazy, right? A bunch of fools – for Christ’s sake.

In many parts of the world, being a pastor is not just thankless and worth little money, but also dangerous. This past month has seen many pastors and clergy in Egypt and Syria kidnapped and even murdered. They were just doing their jobs, but nothing drives people crazy like saying Jesus is actually God. In China, to be a pastor means you need to keep your activities way on the down low or you’ll find yourself in prison. Here in America, pastors are just slandered in the press as being bigots or homophobes, or whatever the scapegoat of the week happens to be. Sure it’s a drag, but fortunately it’s relatively safe. You all get to live quietly as a Christian while they get most of the hate mail.

God as father, parents and pastors by extension. (I Cor. 4, Part 1/3)

This is the first of three posts that comprise the bulk of the sermon I gave today, Sunday, October 20th, 2013. The passage was all of I Corinthians 4.

Introductory Prayer:

Father God, I pray that you send your Holy Spirit to work in ours hearts and minds this morning. We have praised you and openly declared how great you are with our singing, using cues from your Word as a starting place for our songs. Now let us examine your Word, given to us here in the holy scriptures. We ask that you would use it to change our thinking and change our hearts to desire you more. Please make these words that the apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth many years ago have power here in our lives today. It is you God and no one else who makes this possible. Amen

We have been studying Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians a few verses at a time this fall. Today we come to chapter 4, which is not the most straight-forward of passages. There are several different ideas in presented in this part of the book but they are kind of mixed together so I’m going to be jumping around a bit instead of starting out, like we usually do, be reading the whole things straight down.

Instead, I’d like to start out by telling you a story about my youngest son and something that happened a couple of weeks ago.

Last month, my wife arranged to take the three older children and a neighbor to the science center for a homeschool field trip. I stayed home with my youngest son for a few hours and tried to get some work done. We had lunch together and played with some blocks. I saw that I didn’t need to get back to the office for another 20 minutes so I decided to take a quick power nap. I laid down on the couch for about 15 minutes and closed my eyes. All was quiet. Then I got up and took Cody with me back to my office and he spent the whole next hour quietly coloring at a desk. He was being so good! I could hardly believe it. I should have known right then that something was wrong. He was being so good because he had recently exhausted all his badness.

My wife came by to pick him up and I walked him out to the van. It was then I noticed a couple of red dots on his shirt. Where did those come from, I wondered? Oh well. I went back in my office and started typing away on some new software proposal. Then I got a phone call from my wife, who had just returned home. “WHAT is going on?”, she asked. “Ummmmm, I’m not sure. What’s wrong?” She proceeded to explain to me that Cody had gotten out a large bottle of red tempura paint and squirted it all over the office. There was paint on the walls, the floor, the carpet, the bookshelf, and more. He had even gotten out a bunch of Play-do and covered it in red paint as well. And all of this literally happened on my watch, right under my nose, during the time I fell asleep. There wasn’t even room to apologize the situation was so ridiculous. I couldn’t believe it. I cancelled my meetings for that afternoon, apologized to everyone at work, and rushed home and spent a good deal of time cleaning it all up – bewildered how I could have let it happen in the first place and how he could suddenly pull such a stunt.

Now one can imagine that I was very angry at Cody for what he had done. And I was. But at any time in there did I think of disowning him? Tossing him out the window? Selling him on Craigslist? Of course not. Did we still give him dinner that night and a bath and tuck him into bed? Of course. I love him and my only thoughts were how I could teach him to grow up and be more careful and less destructive. What if when he was older he, through his own carelessness, did something more destructive like wrecking a car? What if he got his girlfriend pregnant? What if he told me he hated me? Would that do the trick? Would that neutralize the love I have for him? No way. My love for him is unilateral – it’s completely one-sided. I desire for him to love me back, but if he doesn’t, it has no effect on my love for him. I think we have an easier time realizing this when our kids our young. Infants obviously can’t give anything back – it’s just a non-stop stream of crying and pooping and barfing. But when they get to be young adults, we start expecting them to come through for us. We start holding back then and making our love more conditional.

Quite a few of you here are older than I am and you have maybe had your own children do something much more destructive than covering part of the house in red paint. Maybe YOU remember doing something much more destructive in your own youth. Maybe you’re an adult and you did something terrible just last year or even last week. Did people stop loving you because of it? Very possible. They’re just human after all. God is different though. His love is utterly unfailing.

In the bible there are lots of different analogies used to describe God. Sometimes He’s a king. Sometimes he’s a shepherd. But most often he is a father. Not just any father, but a very good father – the best of the best. If fact, when WE are good fathers or good mothers, we are just being kind of like Him. He is the point of reference.

The parable of the Prodigal son that Jesus tells in Luke 15 is a good example. The son says to his father, effectively, “I wish you were dead!” The runs off with half of the family money and blows it all on hookers and booze. He’s terribly ashamed to ever show his face back in town again, but he decides to come back and beg to be allowed to be a slave in his old house. The Father sees him on the road far away and runs to him. He doesn’t even give the son a chance to make a big apologetic speech, he just hugs him and gets fresh clothes and food for him right away. All that terrible stuff the son did to spite his father? Not even on the radar. That’s what unconditional love looks like.

But love doesn’t always look like forgiveness and hugs. Sometimes it looks like discipline. God allows his children in Israel to be slaughtered and taken captive by foreign nations in the Old Testament. He hasn’t abandoned them – not at all. The thought never even enters his head. But he sometimes lets the consequences for their actions run their course. If you’re 16 years old with a new license and you drive too fast one evening and wreck the family minivan – there probably won’t be a shiny new Mustang waiting for you in the driveway the next day. In fact, if there was, it probably means your parents don’t really love you nearly enough.

In 1 Chronicles 21, King David disobeys God and takes a census of Israel to see how many fighting men he could put together into an army. God sends a plague that sickens the people until David realizes how unfaithful his motives were and repents. God was teaching him a lesson. The damage the king would have done by inciting unjust war with his neighbors was prevented.

(I won’t go into detail here, but the gist of it is that he got into a bottle of Rolaids and received some swift discipline. That is the sort of thing that can hurt someone, but an ounce of prevention goes a long way.)

So love can look like impossibly easy forgiveness for the most grievous offenses, and it can also look like strict discipline. I bring up all this talk about being a good father or a good mother because it is the language Paul uses throughout his letter to the Corinthians. Lets look now at some of chapter 4.

14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

This is something to keep in mind while we are going through this book. Paul is writing to them like a father talking to his children. He may have some correction to give them, but he is not giving them preconditions for his love.

Paul isn’t like a Vice President of a company writing a memo to his employees. Has anyone here ever worked fast food before? Have you ever had your manager come and give you some kind of performance review? “You need to be making 100 hamburgers an hour to meet your quota but you’ve only been making 70 or 80 most shifts. If you don’t improve, we are going to have to let you go.” Or maybe if you worked at Starbucks it was something like, “Be sure to upsell more pumpkin spice muffins to go with those lattes. Corporate says you must have at least 10 upsells an hour to qualify for a raise.”

If that was the context, you could easily feel condemned by what Paul has to say in this letter. Heck, you could feel condemned by everything that was in the whole bible. Do this, do that, think this way, be careful not to do that. Geesh! That is how a lot of people see the Bible, and all of Christianity for that matter, but unfortunately they are missing the point. Yes, there are rules and strong admonitions in scripture, but the context is that of a loving father helping his children grow up. Jesus isn’t there to show us how to do it right, but rather to single-handedly fix the whole thing himself. That is the main story.

I’m going to quote from a piece by pastor and author Tullian Tchividjian that was (amazingly enough) in the Washington Post this week. (Incidentally, he is also Billy Graham’s grandson.) He says:

“The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” And my fear is that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard our “do more, try harder” sermons and pleas for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the work that we do instead of the work God has done for us in the person of Jesus.”

“As someone who loves the church, I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying. It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.”

That is something to keep in mind as Kirk spends the next two weeks going through chapter 5 of 1 Corinthians, which is all about sexual morality. If you are sitting there thinking – I’m a loser, I’m a failure at this stuff, you can know that that doesn’t change God’s love for you. And, you have a bunch of your life still ahead of you and you can learn to follow the right way. You can’t “make it right”. Jesus already made it right. To the degree that you can bring yourself to love him, then obey his commandments. That is how to read most of these New Testament letters as the apostles write to their friends and followers in churches abroad.

Thomas Merton on the imitative conscience

While stumbling through Merton’s excellent essay on vocation, I chanced to come across this unrelated passage on the conscience of man. This stuff is dynamite!

I cannot make good choices unless I develop a mature and prudent conscience that gives me an accurate account of my motives, my intentions, and my moral acts. The word to be stressed here is mature. An infant, not having a conscience, is guided in its “decisions” by the attitude of somebody else.

The immature conscience is one that bases its judgments partly, or even entirely, on the way other people seem to be disposed toward its decisions. The good is what is admired or accepted by the people it lives with. The evil is what irritates or upsets them. Even when the immature conscience is not entirely dominated by people outside itself, it nevertheless acts only as a representative of some other conscience.

The immature conscience is not its own master. It is merely the delegate of the conscience of another person, or of a group, or of a party, or of a social class, or of a nation, or of a race. Therefore, it does not make real moral decisions of its own, it simply parrots the decisions of others. It does not make judgments of its own, it merely “conforms” to the party line. It does not really have motives or intentions of its own. Or if it does, it wrecks them by twisting and rationalizing them to fit the intentions of another.

That is not moral freedom. It makes true love impossible. For if I am to love truly and freely, I must be able to give something that is truly my own to another. If my heart does not first belong to me, how can I give it to another? It is not mine to give!

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, p.28 [Broken into paragraphs]

Being slave to sin means your heart is not really yours to give away. It’s chained down. So how does one’s conscience become more independent? I think the answer is: By the renewal of the mind by the holy spirit (versus the conforming to the world) and by finding one’s dominant life meaning in service to Christ, versus what others think or wish for me. That is not at all easy. What is a good intermediate step perhaps? Keeping good company. Find someone more free and Godly to take a cue from. This is why Paul says to imitate him as he imitates Christ. Hopefully in the end you won’t be imitating Paul either, but it’s a start.