The Mindful Disciple

I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.

Lovely

Speaking about hard-corn pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said it was hard to describe or define,

“but I know it when I see it.”

The same cannot be said for beauty, though, can it? No doubt you, like everyone else, have your own subjective understanding of what it is, but is it possible an objective standard of beauty exists? Do you know how God defines beauty?

We all have a tendency to be drawn to beauty, visual or otherwise. Although what most people consider the aesthetic of beauty changes across cultures and eras (think, for example, about those pulchritudinous porkers that made Peter Paul Reuben famous), the fact remains that those who are considered beautiful achieve greater financial success than their less striking counterparts – but, somewhat counterintuitively, they are also more likely to struggle with lower self-esteem.

Who truly possesses beauty? How often do you notice it, and how often do you miss it? Is it possible that superficial, transitory beauty prevents us from seeing that which is genuinely lovely and worthy that daily passes by?

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with eye candy. God arguably made us in such a way that we enjoy and desire beauty. There are beautiful people in the Bible: The Matriarchs Sarah and Rachel were extremely attractive (the latter is also referred to as “well endowed”). Both of Israel’s first two kings are described as quite handsome. Solomon’s most famous bride was beautiful – she, for her part, described him as “altogether lovely” – and of his brother Absolom it was said no man in the nation exceeded him in beauty. And lest we forget, it was Esther’s good looks that positioned her to save her people from extermination.

And yet, in this as in many things, what is good can obscure what is best.

Outward looks, in and of themselves, are neither lauded nor condemned in Scripture. But external beauty is temporary at best, and must never form the basis of our identity or worth. Worse yet is when outward beauty leads us into narcissism, self-centeredness, and idolatry. Spending one’s time and money on jewelry and fine clothing, for example, while neglecting to care for the poor and needy earns God’s condemnation.

In a passage speaking strictly to women, the Apostle Peter commands their adornment (kosmos, from whence comes the modern English cosmetics) not be merely external. Instead, he says, the beauty you should focus on cultivating is spiritual:

“It should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”

In a parallel passage, the Apostle Paul says women professing to be godly should have good works as their “cosmetics” (and, given that Psychology Today says the “beauty gap” between males and females is finally closing, these verses probably equally apply to men as well).

The eminent New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson was of the opinion Peter & Paul are not in these passages forbidding patronizing beauty salons, clothiers, and jewelers; rather, he says, they draw a sharp contrast between temporal, expensive, and vain attempts at beauty versus a kind of beauty that is inward and eternal. The former is only bad when it detracts from the latter.

We tend to forget this, even when it comes to Jesus.

JC Project

From 1927’s King of Kings to this year’s Son of God, the Messiah has always been portrayed on the silver screen by a hunky (if not outright sexy) actor. That’s the nature of Hollywood productions. But the flesh and blood Savior was nothing like that. As the Prophet wrote,

“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

Have you ever noticed the Orthodox cross? Attached to the vertical beam are not two horizontal lines, but three: an accusation plate (in this case, “King of the Jews,” i.e. guilty of reason of sedition), a patibulum for the outstretched arms, and a footrest. The latter is always cocked at an angle, based on the idea that Jesus was a clubfoot. There is no historical reason to believe he was deformed; as in all Orthodox iconography, the depiction is not intended to be technically accurate as to remind of and focus on divinely-revealed truth, in this case the above verse from Isaiah. Messiah, he foresaw, would not be dashing or inspiring. Messiah appeared ordinary, perhaps even ugly. It was his character, his personality, his love and his intercession on our behalf that draws us to him, not his good looks.

We all have a tendency to be drawn to beauty. We also all have a tendency to remake Jesus into something we find more palatable, and not merely in terms of his physique. We like those Bible verses that speak of his kindness and humility, and dislike the ones that describe him a judge. Or we love to think of him wrathfully punishing sinners – as long as his anger is directed at someone else, not us (the Westboro Baptist folks come to mind here).

Who is Jesus? He is the Creator who subjected himself to his own creation, the ruler of heaven’s armies, a warrior, a healer. He turns no one away, yet he turns over tables of moneylenders in the Temple (and wove a whip for the occasion, too). He is both kind and stern. Accept both as true parts of his character, and don’t fawn over one side while neglecting the other. Both aspects of the King are wonderful in their own way.

“Is there in truth no beauty?” asked 17th century poet & Anglican priest George Herbert. Is it not enough that Jesus is whom the Bible presents him to be? Can you accept and embrace him as he is, and not try painting him over with the façade of who you’d prefer he be?

Much hinges on your answer.

 

Image credits (L-R): Head of Christ, Walter Sallman (1940); actor Diogo Morgado from Son of God (2014); Prince of Peace, Akiane Kramarik (2004); 1st century Semite male composite based on forensic evidence,http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/forensics/1282186 (2002)

 

WEDNESDAY WISDOM

“Abba, Father! We approach Thee” by James G. Deck, from Hymns for the Poor of the Flock (1891):

Abba, Father! We approach Thee
In our Savior’s precious Name;
We, Thy children, here assembled,
Now Thy promised blessing claim;
From our sins His blood hath washed us,
’Tis through Him our souls draw nigh,
And Thy Spirit, too, hath taught us,
“Abba, Father,” thus to cry.

Once as prodigals we wandered
In our folly far from Thee,
But Thy grace, o’er sin abounding,
Rescued us from misery;
Thou Thy prodigals hast pardoned,
Kissed us with a Father’s love,
Spread the festive board, and called us,
E’er to dwell with Thee above.

Clothed in garments of salvation,
At Thy table is our place,
We rejoice, and Thou rejoicest,
In the riches of Thy grace;
“It is meet,” we hear Thee saying,
“We should merry and be glad,
I have found My once lost children,
Now they live who once were dead.”

Abba, Father! All adore Thee,
All rejoice in Heav’n above,
While in us they learn the wonders
Of Thy wisdom, grace, and love;
Soon before Thy throne assembled,
All Thy children shall proclaim,
“Glory, everlasting glory,
Be to God and to the Lamb!”

WEDNESDAY WISDOM

from That Incredible Christian by A.W. Tozer:

Every man is as close to God as he wants to be; he is as holy and as filled with the Spirit as he wills to be … Certainly there are many who wish they were more holy or victorious or joyful but are not willing to meet God’s condition to obtain it.

Brevity

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Despite being found two-thirds of the way through the book of Psalms, the ninetieth is actually the oldest psalm in the bible, written by Moses. It contains some of the major understanding of God’s nature: his sovereignty, his wrath, and his love. This psalm is a prayer, and has the following structure: It opens contrasting the greatness and limitlessness of God versus the frailty and finitude of mankind, then a confession of sin, and finally an appeal for divine favor. When I saw this structure, the first thing that popped into my mind was a passage in the New Testament that has a somewhat similar pattern: The Lord’s Prayer. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that there are similarities in the way that Moses and Jesus thought and taught.

Two lessons can be drawn from this one verse: one, we should have genuinely wise hearts, and two, the way to have that is to learn that we are finite.

hourglass

You do know the difference between knowledge and wisdom, right? Knowledge is data, facts, information. According to Webster’s Dictionary, ‘wisdom’ differs from ‘knowledge’ in that it can convey the sense of insight or discernment. Jesus said,

“Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

In other words, wisdom is the proper application of knowledge. For example, we all know that smoking is directly linked to lung cancer etc., but if you don’t apply that knowledge to your life and quit smoking, how wise is that? Your knowledge of the dangers of smoking remains simply information that hasn’t made any impact on your life.

A wise heart (“heart” here referring to one’s inner self; mind; will, desire, intention) doesn’t shrink from the realization that we – all of us – are small and weak and utterly dependent upon God’s grace and woefully undeserving of that grace. A wise heart doesn’t pretend to be great, but rejoices in God’s greatness. A wise heart will quickly and eagerly submit to God’s authority and ask for his aid.

Moses seemed to be of the opinion, though, that the way to get a wise heart is to embrace the very obvious fact that life is short. Compared to the long march of history and the God who existed before time and space, the oldest human lifespan is pretty insignificant. Not just individuals die; societies and entire civilizations die; ideas, fads, and fashions die. During WWII C.S. Lewis was asked by a nervous woman how he dealt with the anxiety of the nightly blitzkrieg of London by German bombers. He replied, “Madam, we all are living under a death sentence.”

It might seem to be a depressing idea, especially living in a culture that worships youth and novelty, but it’s not. I believe Moses and Lewis would want this concept to be an encouragement. If you know for certain who you are and where you’re going, you can focus on what is before you with confidence. You’re less likely to be distracted by things that are temporary or irrelevant. Proper perspective does that.

Young people tweet YOLO, as in, there’s only one shot at life, so make the most of it before it’s over. A decade or so ago a certain brand of beer used the marketing slogan, ‘you only go around once’ so enjoy yourself. Having fun is all that matters.

But Moses rejects this idea. Instead, he teaches that our lives are grounded in God who created us, and we are obligated to God. He holds us accountable for our actions, and places parameters around us. We work with the gifts he gives us within the limitations he places about us. And if we know that, and know that we’re in good standing with him, then our lives have meaning and purpose and value.

Moses writes in Psalm 90 not merely about God’s anger, but also about his great love. The occasion for God’s anger is our sin but it arises out of his love. If he didn’t love us he wouldn’t become angry at our sin. You might think that doesn’t make sense, but reflect on this a moment: We sometimes get angry because of wounded pride or fear, but God is perfect; those things don’t motivate him one way or another. And Moses tells us that God’s love is steadfast – just as eternal and unchanging as God himself.

The hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” was based upon this psalm, composed by Isaac Watts almost 200 years ago. You might not realize the song has nine stanzas and if you’ve never read them, you should. The second to the last stanza says,

“Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all of us away / We fly, forgotten, as easily as a dream disappears at the dawning of a day.”

This world will forget you. Except for the tiny fraction of men and women for whom we make statues and whose names are recorded in history books, we will all be forgotten, eventually, even by our loved ones and closest companions. But God will never forget us. He alone is eternal, unshakeable, unchanging, and he really does care about us. Since that is the case, doesn’t it make sense that we should live for him? Not for fame, not for others, not even for ourselves, but live for him.

According to Ray Steadman, one of the foremost pastors and bible teachers of the 20th Century, Psalm 90 corresponds to the book of Numbers, the story of Israel’s failures and wilderness wanderings. Let me offer you a word of encouragement, then, on Moses’ behalf. If you, too, like the Israelites, have experienced great failure or feel like you are in a wilderness situation, then remember: there is hope. God is great. He will help. And the time will come when the failure is forgotten and the wilderness is behind you, because those things are temporary, too. As the Apostle Peter put it,

Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.”

image credit: ‘Hourglass,’ Windows Wallpaper (free download)

Elevation

Rochdale_Unitarian_Church_'Humility'Here’s a little theological quiz for you: what was the first sin?

If you replied rebellion or disobedience, you’re correct sequentially but not chronologically. For though the fall of mankind is depicted in the Bible’s opening pages, by this time the Satan already fell.

It is correct to use the definite article, by the way, because Satan is not a proper name but a title, being Hebrew for ‘adversary.’ As Christ is our Advocate in heaven’s courtroom, he is the prosecutor who continually accuses us. He is not to be feared – but we are to mindful of his influence.

No, the first sin was not rebellion against God. Bad as it was, rebellion was merely the inevitable consequence of the first sin, which was pride. To paraphrase Augustine, it was pride that turned a glorious luminous entity into a devil; being now devilish, he works make mankind sin. He has no real freedom to do otherwise. It was his pride that drove him to be like God, so now he is driven to remake mankind into his own image.

What is sin? It, too, comes from a Hebrew word, one which meant “to miss the mark.” It is a term that comes from archery. Picture yourself armed with a bow and arrow. Ahead of you is a target painted with a bull’s-eye. You draw back, release, and watch your shot fall short of the mark. You missed – or, as an ancient Jewish bowman would have said, you sinned.

The analogy is apt. Your best efforts are like your best shot, and you can never, ever hit the mark unaided. The target in this case is God’s standard – his holiness, his righteousness, his purity of character and his perfection of all virtues. And the center of this bull’s-eye is humility.

There is such a thing as false humility. Self-righteous people are full of it. They pray in order to be seen praying; they subject themselves (and, if possible, others) to asceticism, idolatrous practices, and religious rules which are of no benefit to themselves or the Kingdom of God. We are warned to avoid becoming like them (see, for example, Colossians 2.18-23).

But there is true humility, and we should diligently seek to humble ourselves. Humility is the chief of all virtues, without which no other virtue can be won.

Humble yourself. It may be difficult at times, but do it anyway. It will be especially difficult if you are a proud, arrogant SOB, but take heart – even recognizing this about yourself is a step in the right direction. And persevere in lowering yourself! The devil will try to derail your efforts. The fictional demon Screwtape (from the eponymous Letters by C.S. Lewis) says hell, seeing us humble ourselves, tries to make us proud of our humility. The best weapon at that point, Lewis writes, is to have a good laugh at your own expense.

Last year I read an article written by a recruiter with Google in which he described that corporate giant’s hiring policy. Among all the education and skills he looks for in a new employee, he also wants to know if they are humble. Years of experience have made him decide to never hire someone who lacks humility.

This is old – and wise – policy. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, had a means by which he would vet future officers. When people would approach him about taking a leadership position within the Army, he told them to polish boots in a dark cellar. Those who quit in disgust, offended at being given such a menial task, weren’t leadership material; those who stuck it out were.

Unless you are humble, you cannot lead – at least, not according to Scripture. Biblical Christianity has no place for any but a servant-leader, one who will not “lord it over” those he leads but be willing to literally or metaphorically wash their feet.

Unless you are humble, you cannot learn, for learning presupposes willingness to admit shortcomings. It takes humility to recognize you don’t know what you need to know, and to receive instruction. Apart from it, you cannot possibly know how badly you need God, thus will not cry out to him for help.

Without humility, you cannot achieve true, lasting riches, honor and life. You will fail to understand that to be purchased by Christ means you no longer belong to yourself; to be Christ’s is to be bondslave as well as brother. Once his, you no longer have the right to do as you choose. Humility and humility alone enables you to submit to his authority and follow his lead.

Unless you are humble, you cannot be like Jesus. He was willing to be born to an impoverished family situation, living a life “of no reputation,” and dying a criminal’s death – and it was for this reason that God exalted him. Therefore, the Apostle says,

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

True humility does not pretend differences do not exist. You may indeed be smarter, stronger, healthier, wealthier, more attractive, more popular and more talented than the next person. These things are not irrelevant, but neither does having or lacking them make you intrinsically superior or inferior to others. You and they are equally loved and equally valued by our Creator. To believe otherwise is to head down the same road as the Satan did.

“Humility is the child’s acceptance of his true place in the grand scheme of things,” writes Beale, “and it is little wonder that so many minds cling to their foolish pride and flee from that awful reality.” Do not flee it. Embrace it. You are nothing without God. He relishes your love and welcomes your contributions, but needs neither. You have a unique part to play in this world, but should you fail in that part God will ensure the damage you do will be undone and the good you failed to do will be supplied by another. The universe will hum along just fine without you.

You are not needed. But you are wanted. God esteems those who are humble and gives them grace. He has promised to elevate them in due time, something which may occur in this life, or the next, or both. As Christ taught,

“Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

Believe it, and live it.

image credit: “Humility” by Edward Burne-Jones, WikiMedia Commons

WEDNESDAY WISDOM

Valentine
Perspective, people.

Treason

You’ve seen it. You may have been directly impacted by it, even personally wounded by it. I have. It’s undeniably real; the question is, what is to be done about it?

For over a quarter of a century I’ve served in the ministry and have seen it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It comes from both sides of the pulpit: pastors who lie to their congregants and congregants who lie to their pastors. Church leaders who grub for fortune and fame. Church members who gossip, slander, and form coalitions. Back stabbing and character assassination. Really, really bad theology preached and believed.

Gargoyle Notre Dame

I laughed at my seminary professor who warned that church members who want to get rid of their preacher will sometimes plant pornography in his office or car and then publicly denounce him – until I met the ex-preacher who said that’s precisely what was done to him. A deeply disillusioned young man told me of discovering his pastor and all the deacons in his church were committing adultery, and was told they would destroy him if he didn’t keep his mouth shut. Just today a colleague related his story: when something not just illegal but truly evil happened at the church he pastored, the leadership forced him out because he wouldn’t sweep it under the rug.

This past fall, newly moved and seeking a new congregation, three churches were disqualified three Sundays in a row because of grave improprieties we observed. It’s not just me; others have noted this tragedy, too.

It is unconscionable that what should be a place of refuge is a den of thieves. Untruth is pervasive in what God intended to be the pillar and support of the truth. But keep in mind as much as you and I may hate it, God hates it even more.

The nation of Israel was sometimes referred to as the bride of her God – but one who all too often prostituted herself. The Church, Christ’s bride, fares little better. To use another biblical analogy, followers of Christ are celestial citizens, which means the local church should rightly be considered an embassy or consulate of heaven. But too often it is a treasonous one.

What to do? You have a role to play in this crisis – yes, you do, and yes, it is a crisis. If you belong to a good church, don’t assume it will always stay that way; be diligent to preserve its goodness. Support your leaders and lovingly hold them accountable to the standards set for them. If you screw up, willingly submit to church discipline. Study the Bible for yourself – don’t be intellectually and spiritually lazy so as to just be spoon-fed Scripture from your teachers and preachers.

If you’ve been wounded by the Church, don’t give up on her, because God doesn’t. There are healthy congregations out there. You just may have to hunt a little bit to find one.

Know this: if you indulge sin in your own life, it affects all your relationships, including your church. If you personally don’t sin, but your leaders do while you look the other way because they’re popular or successful or because pointing it out would rock the boat or “it would hurt the church,” then you bear some of their guilt. Knowing but doing nothing makes you an accessory to their sin. You are, in modern psychological terms, an enabler. We are assured the Judge of all the earth will hold us accountable for every idle word we speak; how much more seriously will he deal with those who destroy or defile his Church?

If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

What will you do?

image credit: “Gargoyle” by Brian Jeffery Beggerly, Flickr Creative Commons

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