God’s name

God says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (or, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God”) (Exodus 20:7).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use magical arts, lie, or deceive by God’s name, but call upon it in times of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

Salvageable adds: Notice that in this and all the other commandments, Luther ties our obedience to our fear of God and our love for God. Because we cannot earn anything from God by our obedience, our efforts to live according to his commandments are part of our relationship with the Lord who has washed away our sins, purifying us, and making us acceptable in the sight of God. The commandments help us to imitate Jesus, since he lived a life of pure righteousness, faithfully following all these commandments.

In the narrow sense, God’s name is Yahweh (or Jehovah), the special name that means “I am.” In a more general sense, God’s name is anything that he is called: God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, and the many other names that belong to him. In the broadest, sense, God’s name is anything that teaches us about him or reminds us of him, including the Bible, church buildings, and crosses.

People insult God when they use his name to punctuate their conversation, declaring by God’s name how hot it is, or how happy or angry they are, or how much it hurts to drop a book of boxes on one’s foot. The roofer who worked on my house some years ago sounded like a very holy man, using God’s names in every sentence he spoke. On the other hand, he was neither praying to God nor witnessing about him. But, as Luther indicates, God’s name can be misused in other ways that are even worse than thoughtless and careless utterances of his name.

We should not curse. To curse is to wish harm on someone else. “I hope you fall down the stairs and break your neck” is a curse. The worst thing we can wish for anyone is eternal condemnation and punishment. Therefore, when a person tells another person or object to “go to hell” or says “damn you” or describes someone or something as “god-damned,” that person is cursing. (Other obscene language has come to be known as cursing as well, but Luther is using the word with its original meaning.) Only God can judge and decide who will go to hell. We have no right to make that decision for him, not even while driving on the expressway.

We should not swear. To swear is to use God’s name to back a promise. Luther taught that the government can require us to swear—when we bear witness in court, or when we take an important job with the government, for example. In our daily conversation, swearing is unnecessary and insults God’s name. We should be honest enough with the people who know us that they require no oath from us to prove that we are telling the truth. When we say yes, we should mean yes; and when we say no, we should mean no. If people can trust us to speak the truth, swearing is unnecessary.

We should not use God’s name for magical arts. Magic is part of many pagan religions, in which people use special words, gestures, ingredients, and objects to try to control the world. We are not to use God’s name in that way. His name is holy, but it has no magic power. We cannot control God or the world around us by using God’s name in a special way. In the broadest sense, people misuse God’s name when they believe that wearing a cross or carrying a Bible keeps them safe from certain kinds of harm. These things are holy because they remind us of God and teach us about him, but we should not look to them for magical power over the world.

We should not use God’s name to lie or deceive anyone. Luther says “deceive” as well as “lie” because he knows there are ways we can trick someone into believing a lie without actually lying. To claim that one has a message from God when one has no such message is a serious sin. Those who have made careers and become wealthy by using God’s name to lie and to deceive others face severe judgment when they finally meet God face to face.

It might seem that we can never misuse God’s name if we never speak his name. Neglect is also abuse. Luther says we should call upon his name in times of trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. God wants to hear our prayers. He wants us to talk to him about what matters most to us. He calls us to praise and thank him, not because he wants to be flattered, but because he wants us to remind ourselves how good he is and how many good things he has done for us. Of course we also use God’s name to tell other people about him. We praise him to others as we speak of his grace and mercy and forgiveness and as we describe the victory Jesus won against all our enemies. Other people need to hear these things, and God expects us to use his name as we share this faith and hope. J.

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The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8)

As I continue working on a book about the parables of Jesus, interpreting those parables by the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, I continue to discover new treasures in the Word of God. Consider, for example, the parable of the persistent widow:

In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a parable “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” On other occasions Jesus compared himself to a thief; in this parable he compares himself to “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” A widow repeatedly approached this judge, begging for justice. Because of her persistence, the judge eventually decides to answer her plea “so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” Jesus concludes, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Of course Jesus intends to contrast the goodness of God with the evil of a judge who neither fears God nor respects man. Judges should fear God; they should do their work faithfully, knowing that God is watching them. They should do their work fairly, granting justice to all people, whether they are rich or poor, black or white, young or old, male or female. Withholding justice from a widow because she can neither afford to bribe the judge nor threaten him with any harm would be wrong. God, on the other hand, can be trusted to do the right thing all the time. God can neither be bribed nor threatened. When we pray to God, we have no power over him. All we have going for us in our prayers is his command to pray and his promise to hear and answer our prayers.

God wants us to pray. He does not need our prayers. He knows everything about us, including what we need and what we want and what is best for us. He does not need advice or instruction from us. Jesus reminds us why we pray with his sample prayer, which begins with the words “Our Father.” God wants us to approach him confidently, as little children on earth turn to their fathers, expecting good things from them.

At the same time, God wants our prayers to be meaningful. “When you pray,” Jesus taught, “do not heap up empty phrases, as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Persistent prayer is not vacuous prayer, speaking words without considering what they mean or to whom they are addressed. We cannot impress God by our prayers, so we need not try. A child cannot overpower a father with many words, persuading the father to do as the child wants even though what the child wants will harm the child. So also, God’s promise to hear and answer our prayers does not mean that we have magic power to make him do as we want. He is wiser than us and more knowledgeable. If we ask for something harmful, he loves us too much to grant us what we ask.

Imagine, though, spending day after day with someone you love while that person refuses to say a word to you. Think of the pain that silence would cause you. Often we treat God this way. We do not speak to him at all, either to ask for anything for ourselves and for others, nor to thank him for any good thing he has given us, nor to confess our sins and beg for his forgiveness. God encourages us to do all these things, and more: he invites us to praise him. He does not need our praise—flattery accomplishes nothing with God—but we need to praise God in order to remind ourselves how good he is and how blessed we are that he loves us and delights to hear our prayers.

So Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow who finally obtains justice from an uncaring judge. Because this story is labeled a parable, the secrets of the kingdom should reveal more from the story than an exhortation to pray. Indeed, much more is happening in this story. For as Jesus compared himself to a thief, robbing us out of the hands of the devil, he now compares himself to a corrupt judge. Jesus truly is the Judge who will rule on our eternal home. Sinners will be locked out of the kingdom, while those who are pure and flawless will be welcomed into the kingdom and called children of God.

Were Jesus purely just and fair, he would lock us out of his kingdom. We have sinned; we do not deserve a place in heaven. But Jesus is unfair to us, not to our harm but to our benefit. Jesus judges that we are sinless because he covers our sins with his righteousness. Jesus judges that we are flawless because he has paid in full our debt for sin. Jesus judges that we are worthy to live in his kingdom—even to be called the children of God—because He, the Son of God, took our place and our punishment so we could receive the rewards he earned.

We have adversaries—not worldly foes, but spiritual enemies. We need protection from the devil, from the sinful world around us, and from the sin still within us. We persistently confess our sins and ask God to protect us from our enemies. God answers swiftly—so swiftly that he has finished answering our prayers before we reached the “Amen.” Christ has already paid our penalty. On the cross he fought our enemies and defeated them. Even the final enemy, death, has been defeated by Jesus. God has not delayed; he has given us all that we need and far more good things than we ever deserved.

“Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Without faith, no one can receive the benefits of the exchange that Jesus offers. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. Our faith is not a work that earns God’s grace; it is a gift, a result of God’s grace. Jesus asks whether or not he will find faith, not in despair that all faith will be quenched, but as a reminder that he will be seeking faith when he sits on his Judgment throne. Those approaching the throne of Judgment with faith in Jesus will be welcomed into his kingdom, an inheritance prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). Those approaching the throne demanding justice, demanding to get what they deserve, will receive such justice. They will be sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Jesus does not want to send anyone into that fire. He died to rescue all people. But those who refuse the gift of the unfair Judge truly will receive the justice they deserve rather than the gift the Judge offers them.

 

Stressing in the shadow of the moon

Traveling to see the total eclipse of the sun this week meant spending time with extended family. Now I love the members of my family. We get along well with each other, probably better than the average American family. But spending time with family still is stressful. It includes sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, eating on a different schedule, eating different foods, and being exposed to television programs I prefer to avoid. I am an introvert, a highly sensitive person, and am subject to bouts of anxiety. Not every member of the family understands my situation or has any sympathy for my problems.

The first problem was travel. Over the past five years, I have endured increasing dread over road trips. I wake up the morning of a road trip anticipating that something will go wrong with the car, leaving us stranded on the side of the road. In this case, the dread began building two days before the time of departure. I responded by praying that we would be kept safe throughout the trip. We were in fact kept safe, but not in the way I had hoped.

About halfway into the trip, stopping at a gas station, we heard a noise from the front of the car. To me it sounded as if something was scraping against the tire. We first heard it only while steering through turns. As we approached our destination, we also heard the sound when stopping, even without turning. I got out of the car and inspected the wheel well, and nothing was even close to touching the tire. We arrived at the house without further incident, but we knew that someone would have to look at the car before we did any more driving.

Our host knows more about cars than I do, so he went out and looked at the car. He noticed rust on the brake rotors, an indication that the brake pads were not coming in contact with the rotors as they should. He suggested that we visit a local mechanic to have the brakes checked. He also noticed that the front tires were badly worn and indicated that the mechanic would probably want to replace those as well.

The next morning I took the car to the recommended mechanic. He had a lot of customers and said the repair would not happen until the next day. He did say that he would look at the car the same day and let me know what work needed to be done. That meant that I spent the entire day waiting for a telephone call—not a good situation for someone prone to anxiety and in someone else’s house. When the call finally came at the end of the day, the news was not good. Front and rear brakes needed to be replaced—not only brake pads, but rotors and drums as well. All four tires needed to be replaced—the front pair were worn, and the back pair had been cut by failing shock absorbers. The noise we had heard was not from the brakes, though. That noise was from a ball joint in the front of the car. The total repair amounted to hundreds of dollars, although they threw in every discount they could find, including a one hundred dollar reduction given by financing the repair through a credit card supplied by their company.

In short, my feelings of anxiety about the car excursion were accurate. We were in danger of brake failure, which would have been worse than being stranded at the side of the road. My prayers for safety were answered; it may well have been miraculous that the brakes did not fail at any point of the trip.

Meanwhile, we had a second day without the car, a day that had been set aside for a visit to another city. We ended up making that trip in a borrowed car—one more unfamiliar situation to aggravate stress and anxiety.

Then came the actual day of the eclipse. My daughter and I were already energized in anticipation for the event, a feeling not far from the usual anxiety of life. Fortunately, the moon and the sun were not affected by our feelings, and we all enjoyed the show.

The final stage of the tour was driving home in a newly-repaired car. The night before that scheduled drive found me very unsettled. To make matters worse, the dinner menu that evening contained several foods that irritate my digestive system. I tried to limit my intake to small servings of those foods, but the combination of all of them—along with the building stress over the long drive—left me in severe discomfort. This experience is a vicious cycle—anxiety makes digestion worse, while bad digestion makes anxiety worse. The unexpected noise of a vacuum cleaner sent me over the edge. Our host tried to make things better by saying, “J., calm down, we don’t need this drama.” Of course that did not help at all. I needed to get away to another room, be alone for a while, focus on my breathing, and regain control of myself.

It would help if more family members understood what anxiety means. Too often they do act as if anxiety is a choice, something that can be controlled, and therefore a cause for blame. I know that if I showed up with my leg in a cast, they would not ask me to walk normally and blame me for being different. Because anxiety is not visible, it does not gather the same sympathy and understanding as a broken leg, or even a common cold. Even though that makes family events more challenging, I still love the members of my extended family and am glad for the time we are able to spend together. J.

The Pharisee and the tax collector, revisited

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a former tax collector. The ex-tax collector, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘”God, I thank you that I am not like other men, proud, boastful, trusting in themselves and their works, like this Pharisee. You and I both know, Lord, that he takes credit for fasting and tithing and other petty good works, while he neglects justice and mercy and faithfulness. I was once worse than he is, for I demanded money from my neighbors and gave some to the Romans to rule over us while I kept the rest for my own wealth and comfort. But one day my eyes were opened, and I came into this temple and prayed, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ As I went home, I knew that I was justified, for I had prayed the proper words and had invited you into my heart to be my personal Savior. Now I go to church faithfully, teach a Bible class, serve on a committee, and put money into the basket every week. Truly you have chosen me over this Pharisee, for I am humble and good-hearted, and nobody loves you more than I do.” But the Pharisee said nothing, being ashamed of his former pride and boasting. I tell you, that man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (See Luke 18:9-14.) J.

It’s a Wonderful Life

My plan to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my family this weekend was delayed as my daughters ran from one Christmas party to another. I hope we will be able to squeeze the movie in one evening in the next two weeks, because the uplifting story of kindness and generosity returned in a time of need suits the holiday spirit of Christmas.

I love this movie despite its errors. I am not talking about continuity errors or character errors. (You can read about those on IMDB if you are interested.) The movie contains some significant theological errors, some of which are even essential to the plot.

First, people do not become angels when they die. Human beings remain human, even when their spirits are separated from their bodies. Angels have always been angels. Just as cats never turn into dogs, so people never turn into angels. If Clarence is an angel, then he has always been an angel.

Second, the conversation between Clarence and Joseph, prompted by prayers to God on behalf of George Bailey, totally fails to mention God. True angels serve God and do his will. They do not answer prayers or step into the lives of God’s people without a direct command from God to do so. Perhaps the makers of the movie were afraid that a portrayal of God would offend some people. If so, they were probably right. Still, the omission of God from the heavenly counsel is also problematic.

Third, angels do not need to earn their wings. The wings of angels are rarely mentioned in the Bible, although the prophet Isaiah saw angels surrounding the throne of God–they each had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew. Also, the angels depicted on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and in Solomon’s Temple had wings. Angels do not need wings to fly. They are spiritual beings, not physical beings. They do not take up space or reflect light. When angels become visible, they generally do so to deliver a message from God. (The word “angel” actually means “messenger.”) Instead of reflecting light, they emit light, which is probably why they often begin conversations with human beings by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”

Fourth, the Bible does not mention first-class angels and second-class angels. The angels Isaiah saw were called seraphim (“burning ones”); other angels are called cherubim (“near ones,” perhaps because they remain close to God). There is also an archangel (“head angel”) named Michael. Medieval theologians speculated that there are nine ranks of angels, including thrones, dominions, virtues, and powers. There is no evidence that angels can be promoted from one rank to another by doing good deeds.

Why do I love a movie that is so wrong about angels? The movie is really about people, not about angels. Its hero, George Bailey, cares about people, especially the poor and the working class. His nemesis, Mr. Potter, cares only about money and power. In a run on the town’s bank during the Great Depression, George Bailey uses his personal funds (saved to finance his honeymoon–the run occurs the day he is married) to help others, while Mr. Potter takes advantage of the run to take over the bank. Even though George Bailey is a hero, he is not unflawed. Under stress he verbally abuses his wife and children, then self-medicates with alcohol. His religious beliefs are never stated, but it appears that he prays only as a last resort, not faithfully. Christmas provides a reason to decorate the home and the office, but its significance for George Bailey seems less than the significance of an approaching party to be held for his younger brother, a war hero.

For the Christian, It’s a Wonderful Life might be experienced like the book of Esther. God is never mentioned by name in Esther, although he is clearly the moving force protecting the Jewish people. Like Queen Esther, George Bailey acts in a godly way to help others; like Esther, he receives help when he needs it most. In Esther’s case, she needs the approval and support of the emperor; George Bailey needs the support of his friends and neighbors. Both of them receive what they need because God is in charge of their lives.

In short, Clarence is not the answer to the prayers prayed by and for George Bailey. The answer to prayers comes by way of the hearts of the residents of Bedford Falls. The ironic use of the hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”–meant in the movie only to underline Clarence’s role–can instead remind Christians of the true meaning of Christmas: “Glory to the newborn King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” J.

Three (or four) conversations

I suppose I could delay this post until the first Friday of November, but it seems fitting to continue last Friday’s untitled selection.

Esther May was seated at her desk when Carl arrived at work one Saturday morning. Carl didn’t usually work on Saturdays, but he had taken some time off in the middle of the week to see the doctor and to have the oil changed in his car. He was fortunate to have a flexible schedule in his job so he did not have to waste vacation time for mundane chores.

Esther was counting the weeks until her seventieth birthday, when she planned to retire. The number had recently dropped below one hundred. She also used her flexible schedule to come to work late on days when she started slowly and then catch up her hours on Saturdays.

Carl got himself a cup of coffee and settled into his work station. He was still reading emails from overnight when he heard Esther’s footsteps approaching. “Hi, Esther,” he said cheerfully.

“Hey, Carl,” she returned, smiling. She pulled a chair from a neighboring desk and settled heavily into it. “Could I talk privately with you for a few minutes this morning?”

“Sure, what’s up?” Carl swung his back to his computer and leaned back in his chair. One never knew what words were going to come out of Esther’s mouth. She was a wonderful storyteller with years of anecdotes to share. She was also remarkably perceptive about things that happened in the office. Their boss sometimes joked that Esther came with the building; she knew the details of the business in great detail, and her co-workers often consulted her for the benefit of her memory and her wisdom.

“This is about you and Number Seven,” Esther said. Of course she did not refer to their coworker as “Number Seven.” She used the young woman’s real name. Carl, however, preferred to think of her as “Number Seven.”

“What about us?” Carl asked casually, but he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. He didn’t mind people talking about him, but he had no desire to make trouble for Number Seven.

“Oh, people are talking…” Esther’s voice trailed off.

Trying to be humorous, Carl leaned forward and whispered, “What are they saying?”

“They’re saying that you laugh just a little too loud; you stand just a little too close; you stare…”

Carl held up his hand. “You’d better stop right there,” he said. “You can only quote so many words from a song before you need to pay someone some money.”

“Even so, you get the idea. I remember how badly hurt you were when Rosa left. It took you ages to get over her.” Carl nodded. He had never mentioned anything at work about the counseling he had received or the medicines he was still taking. Yes, he had become overly fond of Rosa, and her departure had indeed been painful. Now, with Number Seven, he was starting to sense the same subtle and hidden euphoria that Rosa used to inspire. “Carl, I don’t want to see you hurt again.”

Nodding, Carl said, “Thank you for your concern. I don’t want to be hurt again.”

Esther patted his shoulder. “Well, just be careful then. You’re a big boy; you know how to take care of yourself.” Slowly she stood, returned the chair to its place, and started back toward her own desk.

Carl spent the rest of the weekend pondering what to say to Number Seven. Esther was right–he had been going out of his way to start conversations with her. He thrilled to hear her voice and to see her smile. More than that, she was knowledgeable and thoughtful about the same things that interested Carl. Even though she mentioned her husband, Ken, at least once a day, Carl did not sense that she was warning him to stay away from her. She never crossed the building to talk with him at his desk, but she also never seemed to mind when he stopped to share a few words with her. She didn’t avoid eye contact if he happened to look in her direction.

Carl wanted to ask her if he was making her uncomfortable. He wanted to ask if he was spending too much time with her. He wanted to ask her if she wanted him to change his habits. He could not think of any way of asking these questions that would not be awkward and possibly intimidating.

Number Seven spared him the trouble. When she arrived at work Monday morning, she walked straight to his desk and said, “Carl, we need to talk.”

“OK,” he responded.

“It’s kind of private,” she warned him.

“Let’s go for a walk, then,” he suggested. “As you know, there are no places to talk in this building where we won’t be overheard.”

Carl and Number Seven left the building, went around the corner, and strolled for about a block. Then, suddenly, Number Seven stopped, looked up at Carl, and said, “How did you get into my mind this weekend?”

Carl smiled. “Was I in your mind this weekend?”

“Most of it, yes. It started Saturday morning when I was driving to my parents’ house. Ken had to work all weekend, and I haven’t seen my folks since Mothers’ Day, so I thought I’d spend some time with them. All three hours of the trip, you were on my mind. It’s like you were there in the car with me.”

Still smiling, Carl joked, “Well, I’m sorry I ruined your weekend.”

“You didn’t ruin anything. In fact, I kind of enjoyed the company, not having to drive alone. But then Sunday morning in church I was thinking about you, and driving home Sunday night I was thinking about you.”

Carl gestured toward a bench. “Let’s sit,” he offered. When they were sitting, he asked, slowly and carefully, “Do you think I’ve spent too much time talking with you at work the last week or two?”

Number Seven shook her head. “No, I don’t. If anything, I wondered why you waited three years to start saying more than ‘hello’ to me. But I don’t think you’ve gone too far. Esther and Judy and Ruth all visit with me at least as much as you do. Judy and Ruth spend up to an hour talking to each other in the break room every morning, and Bob and Bob have long conversations that aren’t work related. So I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong.”

Carl swallowed. “But it bothers you that you were thinking about me over the weekend.”

“I didn’t say that it bothered me. It was kind of strange, but kind of sweet, in a way.”

“Look,” Carl exclaimed. “I want you to know this: I do not want to cause any problems in your marriage. I don’t want to come between Ken and you, and I don’t intend to wish him away. Even if you wanted me to, I wouldn’t start anything with you.”

Number Seven laughed. “Oh, Carl, you are no threat to my marriage. Ken and I are getting along great, and I’m not looking for any side adventures. Is that why you’re always so polite and proper and stiff? Are you afraid that I’d think you’re coming on to me?”

“I’m always careful,” Carl said, feeling a blush rise in his cheeks and ears. “I’ve got no social skills. I never know how I look or sound to other people. And I don’t want to make the wrong impression.”

“Carl, you can relax with me. I’m sorry—I wouldn’t have teased you just now about being on my mind this weekend if I thought you would take it like that.” She laid her hand on his arm. “If you say or do anything that’s inappropriate, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, you can stop being scared of me—and keep on dropping by to visit me. I like that.”

“Listen,” Carl added, “I want you to know this: I will never allow anyone to hurt you in any way—and that ‘anyone’ includes me.”

“Alright already,” Number Seven laughed. “You have not hurt me in any way. Now just drop it and stop worrying, OK?”

Carl sighed and smiled. “OK” was all he could think of to say.

Number Seven stood and stretched out her hand to him. “Friends?” she asked.

“Friends,” he said, shaking her hand before standing to walk back to work with her.

Of course neither of these conversations actually happened, outside of Carl’s imagination. The following conversation, though, is very real, even though Carl did all of the actual talking.

“Holy God, your nature is love, and you created a beautiful world and filled it with people to bear your image, loving you and loving one another. But, like so many good things, love can become twisted and broken, which is why you gave us commandments such as ‘honor your father and mother,’ and ‘do not murder or commit adultery or steal,’ and ‘do not covet your neighbor’s wife.’

“The love I have for Number Seven feels like a beautiful thing, and it is making everything else in my life seem brighter and happier. Yet I dread the thought that I might already love her too much, or in the wrong way. I do not want to harm her marriage. I do not want to claim her for myself. I simply enjoy being with her, talking with her, hearing her voice, seeing her face, and learning more about her. And I enjoy her interest in me and the way she sets aside time to talk with me.

“Father, please guide me in this confusing situation. Help me to be a friend to Number Seven without coveting her or wanting her to myself. Steer me away from temptation and from unholy living. If it is your will, please let this friendship continue to grow, since it has already cleared away so much darkness and distress from my life.

“And, if I have done wrong, please forgive me for my sin. Thank you for the comfort of knowing that, if I have strayed from your path, your Son will pursue me and restore me to where I belong. I pray this in his name, the name of Jesus Christ my Savior. Amen.”

Carl listened for an answer. Whether or not he received it is hard to say. The next time he drove his car, the radio played three songs in a row. First it played Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Starting Something,” which seemed ironic in light of Carl’s prayer. Next came Queen’s “You’re my Best Friend,” which Carl had already heard once as a message that Number Seven wanted to be his friend, nothing more. The next song was Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.” Carl thought, “Yes, I’m crazy in a lot of different ways. I wonder what the next song will be.” But he arrived home during a string of commercials and heard no answering song. J.

American Civil Religion

When I was in college, I took a course on American Civil Religion. The course was taught by a sociology professor and a religious studies professor, and students majoring in both departments participated. I earned an A in the class, in spite of the fact that I disagreed with both professors about the definition of Civil Religion, stating my case in classroom discussions, in my major paper for the class, and on the final exam.

Civil Religion is a blend of religious beliefs and favoritism for one’s nation. The nineteenth-century concept of Manifest Destiny is an example of American Civil Religion. Manifest Destiny was the conviction of white Americans that the entire continent, “from sea to shining sea,” should be dominated by the United States of America, even at the expense of Native American tribes and the country of Mexico. Treating the blood of soldiers shed in warfare as a sacrifice to God for the nation (as is done, for example, in the Battle Hymn of the Republic) is an example of American Civil Religion. The idea that the United States is a city on a hill, shining its light to the rest of the world so the other nations can follow our example of “liberty and justice for all,” is an example of American Civil Religion. This is especially true when that idea is combined with the belief that God intended the United States to be that beacon to the nations and that he will bless us so long as we continue shining our virtues into every dark corner of the world.

Singing “God Bless America,” not as a humble prayer but as a demand, is an example of American Civil Religion. Saying during the Cold War that we were battling “godless Communism” is an example of American Civil Religion. Singing patriotic songs that are not Christ-centered or Biblically based during a church service is an example of American Civil Religion.

In class I argued that faith and patriotism can exist in the same mind without being Civil Religion. Pledging allegiance to “one nation, under God,” combats American Civil Religion by stating that God comes first before the nation. Praying humbly to God for blessings for the nation is a blend of faith and patriotism which is not Civil Religion. The Bible tells Christians to pray for kings and those in authority. Jesus allows us to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s,” and in Romans 13 Paul includes honor and respect, along with taxes and fees, as things we are required to give to our civil leaders.

Some practices of religion are on the border between faith combined with patriotism and the American Civil Religion. Having the American flag in the church building, especially in the central worship space, is ambiguous. (Europeans, especially Germans, are astounded that Americans bring the national flag into the church building.) Prayers before sessions of Congress or of a state legislature are ambiguous. In fact, the more ambiguous and inoffensive the prayer, the more likely it is an example of American Civil Religion. Glorifying our national leaders and attempting to prove that they practiced a conservative Christian faith can be American Civil Religion at work, rather than a genuine inquiry of faith or of history. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln—all of our great leaders can be quoted in favor of Biblical Christianity and opposed to Biblical Christianity, depending upon who is doing the research into their lives.

I still believe that I can be a faithful Christian and a patriotic American at the same time. I do not believe that every expression of love for my country is part of the American Civil Religion. In fact, Civil Religion is idolatry that opposes true Christianity. Not every leader who says, “God bless the United States and God bless you” is speaking of the God who is known only through Jesus Christ. Discerning minds will detect the difference. Christians are to be active in the public square, sharing the hope that is ours through Jesus Christ. Our presence in the public square entitles us to love our country, even as we call it away from idolatry and invite its people to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. With that in mind, I can pray, “God Bless America.” J.

 

Maundy Thursday

On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus sent Peter and John into Jerusalem to make preparations for their Passover Seder. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there had been no room for him and his family in the inn. Now a borrowed room was available for Jesus and his followers. (The same Greek word is used in the Bible for the Bethlehem inn and the borrowed room in Jerusalem.)

That night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and told them that they were to be humble servants to one another. He gave them a new commandment, telling them to love one another. (Of course that commandment had been given before. It is new in the sense that his people are new every day through the work of their Savior. Therefore, every day this commandment is new to his people.) Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all who would believe in Jesus because of their testimony. That same night Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray him, and that all the disciples would abandon him.

Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal—bread made without yeast—gave thanks, broke it, and distributed it to his disciples. “Take, eat,” he said, “this is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving—the third cup of wine in the Seder meal—and said, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the cup of the New Testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He also said, “Do this often, remembering me.” Christians continue to obey this command of grace, remembering Jesus and rejoicing in his gift of forgiveness and eternal life, promised through his sacrifice and through this act of remembrance.

After the Seder, Jesus took his disciples and went to a garden called Gethsemane (which means “olive press”) to pray. While he prayed, they fell asleep. Jesus prayed that a cup would be taken away from him—the cup of God’s wrath, the anger deserved by sinners. Jesus had already given his followers a cup, the cup of the New Testament. Now he was taking the poisonous cup deserved by sinners and drinking it dry for the rescue of sinners. While Jesus prayed, his disciples slept. It was late at night. They had eaten a large meal with a lengthy ceremony of prayers and Bible readings. Jesus had added many new thoughts to the ancient ceremony. Each of them had drunk four cups of wine during the meal. Now they were tired. Already, as Jesus prayed, they were abandoning him.

Judas Iscariot brought guards from the Temple to arrest Jesus secretly in Gethsemane. Trying to defend his Lord, Peter swung a sword wildly, slicing off a man’s ear. Jesus healed the man, his last show of divine power before being led to the cross. The disciples fled. Jesus was taken to a series of hearings in Jerusalem. During those hearings, outside the building, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Jesus was put on trial for blasphemy. The Law of God required that no one be condemned to death without identical testimony of a crime by two witnesses. The prosecution failed to find two witnesses who agreed about Jesus, even as they tried to recall what he had said about destroying the Temple. In frustration, the chief priest put Jesus under oath and asked him if he was the Christ, the Son of God. If Jesus did not claim to be the Son of God, he could have escaped condemnation and punishment. Instead, he affirmed under oath that he is the Son of God, and the authorities condemned him for blasphemy, saying that he insulted God by claiming to be his Son. They began to beat him and insult him.

According to God’s Law, because he was convicted of blasphemy, Jesus should have been taken to the gate of Jerusalem and stoned to death. Stoning was the “firing squad” of ancient times. When a criminal was stoned, the entire community participated, rejecting his crime and cooperating in his death; yet no one person could be said to have thrown the one fatal stone.

According to Roman law, though, no criminal could be executed in the provinces until a Roman official had reviewed the case and the evidence. Evidently, this law prevented a community from rising against the Romans by first convicting and executing supporters of Rome. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, happened to be in Jerusalem because of the Passover celebration. (His presence gave him an excuse to bring extra Roman soldiers into the city while it was crowded with Jewish believers from all over the known world because of the holiday.) When the sun rose on Friday, the authorities intended to bring Jesus to the governor and to seek permission to stone him to death according to God’s law. J.

On thanking God

In the Bible, Christians are told to be thankful. Sometimes Christians blame themselves or one another for not being thankful enough. More startling, however, are the times when nonChristians complain that Christians are too thankful.

A friend of mine at church has mentioned this situation more than once. When she expresses her gratitude to God for some small blessing, a coworker accuses her of being arrogant. If she has prayed for something—such as good weather for an outdoor event, for example—and what she requested happens, her coworker says it was just coincidence. This coworker insists that thinking that God manages the weather according to our requests shows extreme arrogance and a self-centered nature.

This week a WordPress friend of mine had a similar experience. Authentically Aurora describes in this post how a parking spot appeared to her benefit at the end of a trying day. She regards that event as an answer to prayer, and she expresses her thankfulness to God. That post leads to an interesting conversation in the comment section in which another poster suggests that in a world filled with suffering and misery, thanking God for a parking spot is petty and strange.

I added my two cents worth to the comments there, but I wanted to expand my words to a nickel’s worth of pondering. A nonChristian may struggle with this thought, but God is real, and he has a genuine interest in every human being. God knows everything, he can do anything, and he is eternal, without beginning or end. Unlimited by time, he can pay intimate attention to every human being. Jesus assures his followers that God knows even the number of hairs on each of our heads. If God remembers that number and keeps track of that number—especially for those of us with diminishing numbers that change each day—surely a parking spot or a sunny afternoon is not too small for God to handle.

But sometimes it rains, even upon church picnics. Isn’t a sunny afternoon merely a coincidence unrelated to any Christian’s prayers? Whether or not that is the case, I see nothing wrong with praying about what we want, even about the weather. More to the point, I see nothing wrong with thanking God when good things come our way. Lack of gratitude would be highly inappropriate in a Christian who believes that every good gift comes from God and that we all were created to thank, praise, serve, and obey God.

Why, then, do Christians not solve all the world’s problems through prayer? Why not ask for enough food for every person so that no one would starve? Why not ask for an end to all wars? Why not ask that all people be protected from floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters? Christians do, in fact, pray such prayers. God does provide enough food on this planet to feed everyone living here—if some people do not have enough, that is the fault of people who have more than enough but who refuse to share what they have. Only God knows how many wars God has prevented or shortened, how many disasters God has withheld or reduced in power, or how many ways God provided other kinds of help when he chose to permit poverty and war and other calamities.

I’ve addressed the complex problem of why God allows any problems at all to happen here. In summary, God allows suffering so we see the true face of evil and prefer to turn to the good. Moreover, God has entered the world and endured suffering himself, taking on himself the consequences of evil so he can share with us the consequences of his perfect goodness. As I commented to Aurora, it saddens me when people will blame the-God-in-whom-they-do-not-believe for the world’s problems, and then they criticize believers when we thank God for good things.

I don’t expect ever to win the lottery. Chances of winning are slim for those who buy lottery tickets; they are slimmer yet for people like me who do not buy lottery tickets. I have imagined, though, what I would do should I happen to win the lottery—perhaps one day I will pick up a scrap of paper in the grocery parking lot that turns out to be a multi-million dollar winner, or perhaps a lottery ticket as a gag gift at a workplace Christmas party will turn out to be the winner. I’ve considered writing a novel based on my fantasies of winning the lottery, and in that novel my character would thank God publicly for the blessing. He would do so very carefully, trying not to offend anyone. He would make it clear that he does not believe that he was given a winning ticket because he deserves it more than all the other people who bought lottery tickets. He would regard the blessing of much money as an opportunity and obligation to do good things with that money and to use it to help people in need. But still he would be thankful. He would say, “I thank God when the weather is good. I thank him for green lights on the way home from work. I thank him every day for my wife and for my children. This does not mean I think that I am better than people who endure bad weather, people who are stopped by a string of red lights, or people who are unmarried or childless. I thank God for my health and for the blessing to live in a land of relative peace and safety, but this does not mean that I think I am better than people who are ill or people who live in war-torn lands. I would be an ungrateful wretch if I did not thank God for the good things that I have. In that spirit I thank him for this gift, and I ask him for the wisdom to spend it properly.”

As a Christian, I look to my Father in heaven for all good things. I ask for good things for myself, and I ask for good things for other people. When good things happen, I am grateful. I don’t thank God as much as he deserves for the good things I have received and for the many ways I have been protected from evil. And I confess that I do grumble at times about the problems that I have, small as they are compared to other people in this world. Among the many gracious qualities of God is his loving willingness to overlook my flaws and to accept my tiny expressions of thanks and praise. I await the ability to thank and praise him in a better way when I meet him face-to-face. J.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian faith–Chapter six: the mystery of Christian living

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).

God created people to do good things. We are to love God and to love our neighbors, and our love is intended to be active, making the world a better place. God does not need anything from us, but he wants us to take care of each other. When we help someone else, we are helping someone God loves. We serve God by helping each other. In this way, we accomplish the plan of our Maker. We do what we were created to do.

We do not always love God as he deserves to be loved. We do not always help our neighbors as they need to be helped. We have fallen short of our Maker’s plan for our lives. Because we have failed, God could reject us. Instead, he redeems us. He pays to fix what we have broken. We ran away from him, but he brings us back to himself. We were buried in our wrongdoing and in a world filled with sin and evil and death, but our Redeemer entered this world and got himself dirty, enduring even death itself, so we could have eternal life in his new perfect creation.

We contribute nothing to our redemption. Jesus has done all the work to redeem us. Even the means of grace that create and strengthen faith are God’s work in our lives, not our work for God. Being redeemed, though, we do not sit on our hands and wait for Jesus to appear in glory. We are his Body doing his work in the world. The plan of our Maker, that we should do good works in love, remains his plan for us. He did not redeem us so we can do good things; he redeemed us because he loves us. One result of being redeemed, though, is that we now have the power to do good things, showing our love for God and our love for the people he loves.

Jesus lived a perfect life. He always did the right thing and never did the wrong thing. Now, redeemed by Jesus, we imitate Jesus. We obey God’s commands. We help the people around us. We strive to make the world a better place. Our ability to do these things does not come from the commands of God; our ability to obey his commands comes from his work of redemption. We do not transform ourselves; we are transformed by God’s forgiveness, changed back into the people that God wants us to be.

One of the paradoxes of Christian living is that every Christian is both a saint and a sinner. We do not go back and forth between one and the other—at every minute each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and a saint who knows the Savior. In Romans 7, Paul describes the paradox of being both a sinner and a saint. Like Paul, we do not understand ourselves. We cannot explain why we break God’s commands. With Paul, we say, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25). Every day we repent, and every day we believe the promises of redemption. Every day we are made new, transformed by the forgiveness of God.

Some Christians think they can stop sinning and can become perfect in this lifetime by the power of God’s redemption. To convince themselves that this has happened to them, they have to ignore their sins, redefine them as mere mistakes, or blame other people for any time they do not act like Jesus. Our Lord would not have taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses” if he did not know that every day we would trespass, and every day we would need his forgiveness. Even more than we need daily bread, we require daily forgiveness. We are sinners while also being saints. We strive to be like Jesus, but the harder we try to imitate him, the more we realize that we are falling short of the glory of God.

Christian living is a challenge. We contribute nothing to our redemption, but our imitation of Jesus does require effort on our part. Some people call Christian living sanctification, while others call it discipleship. Jesus told the Church to “make disciples.” No one can be a disciple of Jesus without first believing his promises of redemption; but no one can believe those promises without beginning to be transformed by those promises. As James wrote, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

A living faith produces good works, as a living apple tree produces apples. Apples do not cause the tree to live, and good works do not cause redemption or faith. We cannot judge our redemption by what we do—when we make that mistake, we have room to doubt the truth of God’s promises. Our good works are never enough to balance our mistakes. If we judge ourselves by God’s standards, we are failures. Only when we see ourselves through the promises of God do we see that we are saints, citizens of the kingdom of heaven. God sees us through those promises; he sees us through the good works of his Son. Our sins were removed when Jesus suffered and died on the cross. Now all that remains on our record in God’s book is the perfect righteousness of Christ, accompanied by those times that we succeeded in imitating Christ.

Jesus compares our good works, not to apples, but to grapes. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). These words describe a second paradox: nothing we do is counted as good apart from the presence of Jesus. Many unbelievers have done great things in the world, showing deep love for their neighbors and making the world a better place. None of those good things, done without faith in Jesus, counts in God’s book, because even the greatest of good works is still tainted by sin. On the other hand, the smallest good deed of a believer—even giving a child a glass of water—is a good deed recognized by God. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing, but with and through Jesus we do many things that are recorded as good.

God does not need our help. He made the world and it continues to run according to his rules. Every day God is active keeping his creation running according to his plan. Now God allows his people to cooperate with him. He tells us to pray for daily bread. When we gather for a meal, we thank God for the blessings we have received from his generous hand. Yet the food we eat, a gift from God, also involves the labor of many people. Farmers planted the seeds and tended the fields and harvested the crops. Millers ground the grain into flour. Bakers added other ingredients to the flour and put the loaves in the oven. Truck drivers moved the grain to the mill, moved the flour to the bakery, and moved the bread to the store. We then went into the store and took some of that bread, exchanging money we earned by doing some other kind of work so we can have the bread on our tables. God created the seeds and the fields where they grew. God gave the farmers and millers and bakers and drivers the ability to do their jobs. He gave us the ability to do our jobs. He will not send us manna every morning as he did for the Israelites between Egypt and Canaan. He expects us to work, as he expects the farmer and miller and baker to work. We cooperate with God, and we receive the good things he wants us to have.

Every good thing done by a Christian is done by the power of Jesus, who reminds us, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” In doing good things, though, a Christian cooperates with Jesus. We cannot make anyone a believer in Jesus; we cannot even make ourselves believers. God makes us his partners in redemption, though, by giving us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. When we tell other people about Jesus and what he has done, we use the keys that Jesus gave to his Church. We are cooperating with God to bring redemption to other people, even though no effort on our part can cause the redemption of any person.

Christians pray to God. God does not need our advice. When we mention problems to him, whether our problems or the problems of other people, God is never surprised. He knows everything; he knows all about those problems. God wants us to pray. He wants to hear from us every day. He wants us to praise him and thank him, not because he needs our thanks and praise to feel good about himself, but because we need those reminders of the goodness of God. He wants us to confess our sins. Our prayers do not earn his forgiveness, and a sin will not be unforgiven if we forget to confess it to the Lord. God wants us to pray to him about the things we want and need. God already knows what we want and what we need. He will not refuse to give us something that we need if we forget to pray and ask him for it. God wants us to love our neighbors and pray for their needs. He knows what they need and will not refuse to give them what they need if we forget to pray and ask him for it.

God does not need our advice, but he loves us as a Father and wants to hear from us. Imagine spending an entire day with someone you love and never hearing that loved one speak one word to you. Some days we treat God that way. To keep that from happening, God commands us to pray. He promises to hear our prayers and to answer our prayers. As we pray for daily bread and receive it from God with the cooperation of the farmer and the miller and the baker, so in our prayers we cooperate with God. We become his partners, making the world a better place through our prayers as well as through our other good deeds. A Christian who is so ill that he or she cannot leave the bed can still do good things by praying for other people.

Sometimes a Christian is aware of the good deeds he or she is doing. Often that Christian is not aware that he or she has done a good deed. Imitating Jesus becomes easier over time, just like any other activity. When you learned to walk, when you learned to ride a bicycle, and when you learned to drive a car, at first what you were doing took effort and concentration. After a while, the task became easier, and eventually you could do these things without thinking hard about the details of what you were doing. The good deeds of a Christian are selfless, done without awareness. They are not done to earn rewards. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). In the same sermon, Jesus spoke about helping other people, about praying, and about fasting, each time saying that such things should be done secretly. The good things done by Christians are part of their relationship with the Lord; they are not done to impress anyone. When we help others, Jesus says, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3).

Jesus promises that God will reward our good works. But Jesus does not want us to keep score of our good works. In his parable about Judgment Day (Matthew 25:31-46), those entering God’s kingdom are surprised to be rewarded for doing good things. “When did we do all that?” they asked. They had done those things without keeping score, but Jesus remembered every good deed and treated it as service to him. Likewise, those barred from the new creation asked, “When did we fail?” They thought they had done enough good deeds to win God’s approval. Because what they did had been done without faith, every failure was remembered and they were treated accordingly.

Christians do good things without keeping score. Often the best things Christians do are not noticed as good deeds. They are simply the result of love. No one enjoys changing a baby’s diaper. Some people consider changing a diaper to be about the most revolting thing they ever had to do. Yet people change diapers. They do these good deeds because they love the baby and want the baby to be healthy and comfortable. When a Christian changes a baby’s diaper, God sees that good deed and remembers it.

Most Christians recognize the saintliness of others more than they recognize their own saintliness. Acting selflessly out of love, a Christian is serving God by helping others without keeping score. For that matter, every Christian knows his or her own secret sins. Being aware that we are sinners, we continue to repent and continue to be active doing works of love. Other Christians inspire us to do more, because we are all working to imitate Jesus and do things as he would do them.

Some good deeds are done in the church building or as church activities. Many more good deeds are done in other settings. Members of a family do good deeds for each other. Friends and neighbors serve God by helping each other. Even someone working for a salary is still doing good deeds that bring glory to God (unless, of course, their chosen career is sinful or they are doing corrupt things on the job). Paul’s letters follow a similar pattern: he addresses problems, shows the answer to those problems in Christ’s redemption, and then urges his readers to do good things. Many of those good things involve husbands and wives, parents and children, and workers and employers. “Whatever you do,” Paul wrote, “in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

As members of the body of Christ, each Christian has unique ways to serve God by helping others. In the congregation, different Christians do different things to serve the entire body of Christ. Every day of the week, in homes and workplaces and schools and neighborhoods, Christians are doing good things that help others. Because they have different resources, different abilities, and different opportunities, Christians do different good works. If we were all the same, many good things would never get done. Because of the diversity God created, his Church is filled with many different people doing many different things, all for his glory.

God’s commands tell Christians how to live, but God’s commands do not address every situation a Christian will face. The attitude of a Christian is not slavish obedience to rules, but freedom to be like Jesus. Different Christians make different decisions about their personal lives. Some drink no alcohol, and others drink in moderation. Some Christians are vegetarian, and others eat meat. Some listen only to certain kinds of music, while others enjoy many kinds of music. Where no command has been given by God, Christians are free to serve him in various ways. God has forbidden his people to judge each other for their personal decisions. To the Romans and the Corinthians, Paul stressed this diversity. He warned Christians not to offend each other by openly doing things that trouble others. The Christian who eats meat willingly forgoes meat in the presence of the Christian who eats no meat. However, when the vegetarian is not around, the other Christian is free to eat meat. Neither one judges the other, but both act in a way that shows love for God and love for each other.

The good things done by Christians do not earn for them a place in heaven. Redemption is accomplished only by the work of Jesus Christ. His redemption which opens heaven to Christians changes the lives they live on earth. As an additional mystery, one could say that Christians live backwards. Everyone else in the world assumes that the present is shaped by the past and that the future is shaped by the present. For the Christian, though, past sins are erased and do not shape the present or the future. Eternal life in the new creation is guaranteed and is not shaped by what we do today or by what we did yesterday. Instead, what we do today is shaped by our future. Because we are citizens of the new creation, we are transformed today. The forgiveness of Jesus changes us, making us able to do good things today.

We do not know when that Last Day will come, the Day Jesus will appear in glory and we will enter his new creation. Only God knows that mystery; he has not revealed it to anyone. This creates a paradox for each Christian. We live each day as if it were the Last Day. We spend our time doing the things we want to be doing when we see Jesus face to face. Yet we also plan for the future. We do not waste our resources, because we want them to be available for future generations. Even if a Christian was firmly convinced that the world was going to end tomorrow, that Christian would still plant a tree today.

We are not yet perfect. We still sin and fall short of God’s glory every day. In the new creation we will be perfect. Today we practice for that perfection. Loving God and loving our neighbors, serving God by helping our neighbors, we remind ourselves of the redemption that is ours through Jesus Christ. We remind ourselves of the home Jesus has prepared for us in his new creation. And we teach others about Jesus, not only by our words, but also by our loving examples.