Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ambassadorship

There have been a couple of high profile cases concerning homosexual lifestyle in the news recently, one of which was of national importance, and the other was more locally centered. Of course, the one concerning the State's role in determining marriage will go before the Supreme Court, while the local one, where a graduate student at Augusta State University sued the school over the ability to enforce a professional code of conduct as a condition of graduation – nominally about her vocalized opinions over homosexuality.

There are a variety of questions these raised, and I will do my best to stay focused. The things with which I am concerned are the issues about Christians presenting themselves to the world and the targeted importance of homosexuality.

I will go in reverse order, as I frequently do. I think that I must acknowledge that there is rather explicit Scripture to describe homosexuality as less than ideal (Mark 10:5-9, Rom 1:24-27, 1 Cor 6:9), to put it charitably. However, there is no shortage of other behaviors, much more socially acceptable, that are fall into similarly explicit categories. That Mark passage is pretty specific about divorce as well; but that is a touchy subject – I myself am a product of divorce: my mom is my dad's second wife. Being irresponsible with your resources is also very clearly considered sinful (Matt 25). Not taking care of “the least of these” is also a direct command from Christ in that chapter.

I could make this list of issues that come up that are not addressed with the same fervor as homosexuality gets in the media and is also explicitly dealt with in the New Testament. That is not to imply that homosexuality is some sort of lesser sin, rather it is to say that there is no distinction between severities of sin. We are all failures to meet God's expectations; that is why Christ came in the first place. I do not think that we should give homosexuals a pass because of this, but abject condemnation does not help – there is no doubt in the public consciousness that there is a disapproval of homosexual behavior by the church at large. If the church speaks out in an effort to help people – not necessarily to 'reform' them, but to really meet their needs on a personal level, whatever they are – then that is different. Telling someone that they are going to Hell is rarely constructive.

Our messages, at least, those to whom the media pay attention, frequently portray negative messages – Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Fallwell. At least, those are the messages that get to the public. The totality of their message is almost irrelevant if it does not get out, sadly. (There is, after all, a Biblical Mandate to spread the good news. If the dialogue gets hung up on all the kinds of things that Christians disapprove of, then we sound like stodgy grandparents with arms crossed and brows furrowed looking down our horn-rimmed glasses rather than messengers of an Almighty and loving God with the path to salvation out of a dying world, and our message is ultimately discredited.)

I cannot say that I have a great answer to how we should look at some of these behaviors that are considered sinful. The very nature of the Law was that it pointed out that satisfying it was unachievable, demonstrating our need for God in our lives. We all fall short of it. That does not mean we should not try to pursue a life concordant with God's Will, I do think it means we need to use some perspective on the matter, though.

We also need to be aware of the fact that our actions matter. People are watching us, and if our words say “God is love,” but our actions say, “but not for them,” then we fail. We fail each other, we fail the people who need help, and we fail Christ. As it stands, homosexuals are a marginalized segment of society, and those are the very people to whom we are called to reach out, do not forget.

I did not talk specifically about the issues surrounding the two cases I mentioned at the beginning because I do not want this space to be used for political discussion. I do not believe there is Scriptural support for Christians creating a government that enforces rules making it illegal not to be Christian, and is important not to forget that, too.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I can hear music

About a year ago, I participated in The Truth Project. This is a sort of video based class sponsored by Focus on the Family to discuss a Christian worldview with respect to a variety of disciplines. Its intent is to serve as a guide, of sorts, and appeals to a reasonably intellectual audience -- high school/early college or so. In an early episode, Del Tackett, the "Tour Guide" said in a sort of offhand apologetics concern, "If there is no God, then why is there music?"

I am not in a position to offer an theological history of music, but I feel comfortable in claiming that music almost certainly was developed as a form of worship. Regardless, music is something that is important and pleasing to God, and there is no shortage of Scripture to back that up. This can be a problem for me, because I sometimes have picky musical preferences. A lot of times, praise music which ought to be encouraged in principle, just does not make the cut in my estimation.

This is not a new struggle for me. I was reminded of it most recently at a contemporary service on Sunday. I do not mean to sound like a snob, but the lazy repetition of lines like "All your ways are just/ You are just in all your ways" does not measure up to "Teach me some melodious sonnet/ Sung by flaming tongues above." It just doesn't. However, praise songs like this one are very real and very emotional ways to worship and vehicles to reach closer to Christ for a lot of people, not the least of whom were those leading the service.

So, when I find myself in a situation like tat, surrounded by people who are singing and getting into it, I have to wonder if his is simply a matter of taste between two people, like when Mandy gave me a hard time for choosing a plain chocolate shake at the Clemson creamery when a whole host of flavors were available around us, or something more egregious, by missing a whole range of ways of worshiping God, ore akin to not eating anything at all. By not feeling the excitement of a Christian praise song that others do, am I not filled with enthusiasm the same way they are? Are all forms of worship made equal?

Both of those questions are complicated. The latter has a few layers, but I think the answer is "sort of." I think that when someone like Brian Moore, an acquaintance, who performed an impressive trumpet solo in church does that, it is a special public worship in part because it took preparation (in order to be taken seriously) and it is not done every Sunday (as to not be simply done by rote). That, in my mind, is better than saying the Lord's Prayer every Sunday to the point of becoming mechanical and meaningless. However, compared to other methods of worship, or even other trumpet solos, I cannot say. If a technically inferior performance followed but represented a higher proportion of the performer's effort, then it might be better, because the second gave more of him or herself, and we would no really know. But compare either of those to the organist who plays every week or to me writing this or even you reading it -- who can say? All I know is that I cannot perform like the do, so I admire it, and I can write like this, so I don't think much of it. The only reason to ask, though, is to judge how well we are using our time. If writing for others was inferior to music, should I take guitar lessons?

The answer to this question is related to the other one I asked first. If you were given one of those talents with the purpose of service and you are not serving, then there is a clear delineation of one being better than another. If Brian chose to shirk his musical talent in pursuit of something else, say acting, and his kills did not help inspire like his trumpet did, then his time is probably better spent with the trumpet. If I find myself in a service with music that is more of a hindrance than help to worship, hen I ought to go somewhere that is not true. However, if I sit with my arms crossed wearing a grinchy face, saying, "This music is dumb," and concentrate on that, not only am I getting in my own way, I can set a bad example for others, too. I think it is important to go where I can do the most good.

The other side of that, though, is a reminder that we should not judge. While I was sitting in that church with a grinchy face, the kernels of this, my own personal form of public worship, were being sewn before I even knew it. This serves both as my public adoration and my public confession; while sitting there, I could not help but thinking "My God deserves better than this lazily written song." The performer could just as easily think, "My God deserves better than to have that sourpuss stand in silence." Of course, we would both be right, but that is what we had, who we were, and what we gave. Worship, sincere worship, is the best we can offer, whatever form it takes.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Could it be... SATAN????!!!!

Our most recent discussion as a fellowship was Satan. We quickly realized that none of us had a very clear understanding of the problem we faced by having Satan be an ever present and unwanted guest in our lives. We do not have theology degrees, and, of course, we are only familiar with our own comfortable lives, really, even as we press on to become more familiar with the nature of God. There is an undeniable value in understanding the way your enemy operates; Sun Tzu made a pretty clear argument for that.

Satan, however, is very difficult to observe. We have a very extensive bit of scripture describing the nature of God, but describing Satan is not the same level of priority. Christ mentions him a lot, and the presentation of him in Job makes me scratch my head. The serpent, whom we all recognize by tradition as being if not identical, very closely related with, Satan himself is a little confusing, too. The whole Fall of Man confuses me, but that's a story for another post.

You might say that "He's the bad guy, and that's all we need to worry about," but that is not any more helpful than than saying, "God is the good guy and that's it." I was never a fan of the "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." bumper sticker because while it is a demonstration of resolute faith, it is of a rather immature sort. Ultimately, because we are choosing to stand with God, it is important to know against whom we are standing and what their business is.

There are a couple of explanations that are commonly held about Satan. The simplest is that he is what God is not; if God is love, forgiveness and justice, then Satan is selfishness, guilt and arbitrariness. The trouble with this is that Satan is not just the bad equivalent of God. He does not possess the same qualities of omnipresence and powers that God does in the negative or else he would be God -- just a fouled and terrible one. The next simplest is to draw an analogy with darkness and heat, defining them by what they lack. Satan is the absence of God or evil is the absence of good. God, however, is omnipresent and all powerful, so this is hard to reconcile. Another possibility is that there is no Satan at all, and it is just a metaphor for our own failings as men. Both of these are tricky, as they do not account for the active nature of evil, and require pretty creative interpretations of scripture and disagreement with Paul. The most common understanding is that Satan is a creature, with an agenda, out to do us harm. Being a creature, though, requires a creator, and why would God create Satan for the sole purpose of opposition? Can God even create something that is evil?

We accept that Satan is evil and just evil. Is Satan really just evil, though? God created men, and men are evil, but not purely so. We were created in His image, after all. So, can Satan be similar? Evil, but not purely so? Satan's name means Adversary. One who opposes. That is action. I think that the source of man's evil is weakness, as shown in the Fall. Adam did not want to oppose God, he just did not have sufficient faith to win the spiritual battle. The serpent opposed God, on purpose. This distinction is no small matter. Men rarely oppose God directly; there are plenty who oppose religion. Atheists oppose the way we worship, but almost none of them oppose love, forgiveness, justice, charity, peace or patience. God is all of those things.

Is Satan not? I do not think we know. Satan's temptations of Christ in the desert showed us the strength of God in the face of man's weakness. Man failed when offered a piece of fruit; Christ was offered a good deal more -- escape from hunger, deliverance from suffering and physical dominion over all He could see. He turned them all down. Satan also entered Judas Iscariot to cause the betrayal, which started the immediate events that led to the Crucifixion, which was tragic of course; but it ended with the salvation of humanity. That was a pretty positive outcome from a Satanic deed. Christ's words, though, about how "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God" (sounds so much nicer in the KJV) shows that while productive, these actions are not of God. I make the point to say so because the relationship between Satan and God in Job seems oddly chummy, given the understanding of being cosmic nemeses.

I think we can all agree that Satan has skills and knowledge that we do not. The discussion that Daniel has with the divine vision about the Prince of Persia [who is opposing God's messenger] implies that Satan, or his surrogate, is powerful to detain individual actors on God's behalf. (I am hesitant to say angels, because there is an interpretation that Daniel was speaking to a preborn manifestation of the Son of God, I think.) However, he might not have understood the outcome of the execution of Christ. Undoubtedly, Satan had at least the same access to the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah that Jesus did. The worldly understanding of power and the Jewish reading leads to an expectation of political authority, or at least some other earthly exercise of strength. I cannot say that anyone would have been able to predict exactly the nature of Christ's message -- that the whole of the Kingdom of Heaven would be made accessible to anyone simply by asking for it with sincerity, and the forgiveness of the very sin that separated men from God in the first place, which was instigated by the serpent.

This raises a handful of other questions in my mind. Is Satan the sole source of opposition to God? While men may not purposefully oppose God in intent, frequently we do in action. The prophecies in Daniel and Revelation about the Endtimes discuss evil men and creatures rising up and demanding worship, and we naturally associate them with Satan. I do not know if that necessarily has to be true; those men could very easily be just men. Are there other supernatural beings also in opposition of God, like Beelzebub, the Dragon, Screwtape and Wormwood? Christ calls Satan and Beelzebub by name (at least in my NIV translation), are they names for the same thing or distinct? What would that mean? One question that my last paragraph raises that we did not discuss is can Satan be saved? If he repents of his opposition, can he be welcomed into the Kingdom? How much worse is he than the rest of us, anyway?

We, of course, did not come up with any definitive explanations or even new strategies to avoid his spiritual traps. I do feel like we left with a better understanding of God, though. We know that Satan, whatever else he is, is the Adversary to the Will of God. Since God seeks relationship with us and clearly wants triumph over opposition to His own will, He must support us to triumph over that adversity -- or at least be able to survive it. Based on the Book of Daniel and Christ's example, that struggle is real and power and continuous, so must His support for us to overcome it be. That is something I can get behind.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Questions

I was poking around CNN.com while I was at home tonight and came across this article. The contents don't really strike me as much as the comments at the end did. I recognize that there is hazard in taking stock in the bickering of people on the internet, but still, there is some currency to the concerns the raise in their questions. Fundamentally, it centers around the credibility of the Bible as a document and the validity of the lifestyle of the Christian.

Ultimately, the centrality of the teachings of the Bible is a matter of faith. If one reads it, it is hard not to be moved by its message, given the age and overarching consistency of theme. However, the fact that it exists at all is a testament of its endurance; holy books of the Egyptians and Hittites and Atticans are not similarly venerated or even in tact in the way that the Christian Bible is.

There is, however, a fairly strong argument to be made in the failure of Christians in our era to behave like the Christ of our book. Really, it is an impossible task because the example we are held to is perfection, but we, inevitably, will not reach it. We are men, not Sons of God. That does not mean we should surrender. Faith without works is dead, you know.

Our failures are disastrous. They are poison. So we must endeavor to have successes to counter them. Love covers a multitude of sins. There is no shame in aiming for perfection and missing. The shame comes in not reaching it and being satisfied. Christ has bigger plans for us all.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Persecuted for the faith? Really?

I don't really know what it's like to suffer. I have lived in the United States my whole life, have great parents, went to private college and graduate school, so have scarcely seen real suffering, let alone experienced it. James, though, tells us that trials are good, as it develops us and makes us more like Christ. So, even if the magnitude of things like not having a girl like you might count if you use that as an opportunity to appreciate God's work in your life surrounding those circumstances. Sometimes her not liking you turns out to be a blessing in the end, right? Just ask Garth Brooks.

I don't really know what it's like to be persecuted, either. I think a lot of pop-Christian outlets make a bigger show of the worldly anti-Christian bias than is really the case, because those who are persecuted get credit for it (Matthew 5:10). Wal-Mart greeters wishing you Happy Holidays aside, the US is an awfully permissive place, and thankfully so. We are reminded in Sunday School videos and sermons that there are places where it is actually illegal to own a Bible or to preach, and the rights that guarantee our ability to that are preserved in our founding national documents.

In the face of that, I think the difficulty we American Christians face is, quite simply, a lack of difficulty. It is pretty easy not to lean on the Lord as your shepherd when you don't want anyway. That is something I find myself struggling with often, because to counteract that, you need discipline. As my flagging gym attendance indicates, a few cracks can lead to a flood of inactivity. In my mind, one of the most effective tools in the Adversary's arsenal is comfort.

Can you think of a time when Jesus said, "You're doing fine, just keep it up"? No, from Peter and Andrew to the Rich Young Ruler, He challenged and pushed them to be uncomfortable, of ten times with the only apparent motivation being to make the feel that way. While much of what Christ had to say was provocative like this and not easy to hear, shock was not, as we know from the context, ever His sole purpose. The initial intent is to say that you cannot follow Him and live as you were. The Holy Spirit changes you forever, and without exception, for the better.

As Christ pushed Peter and Andrew and tRYR away from their familiarity in fishing and wealth, the long term message is once you change, the Peace of God will reach you, even as your earthly comfort may not. We don't really know what happened to tRYR, but I think he was invariably different (as were Peter and Andrew) after his revelation. At least, I hope so, because want to be rich (and young, for that matter)?

So are we helpless then? Do we have it too easy, unlike our grandparents who had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to school? Are we so spiritually soft that we mistake not having the Ten Commandments in a courthouse as actual persecution? We should be secure enough in faith that our visible behavior will be sufficient to show those who wish it removed that we are living symbols of Christ, and do not require icons at work to spread the Word. That would make life more comfortable, though, to surround yourself with pictures that blend into the scenery rather than actually make you need to do anything, wouldn't it?

That, I think, is why suffering is good. That is why persecution is good. The challenge to live Christlike becomes more palatable when life otherwise isn't so cushy. The improvement is so dramatic, that the hesitation is quashed. Like the sinful woman who washed Jesus's feet in front of the Pharisee, for whom much is delivered, the greater the gratefulness. We are in peril of missing key parts of knowing Christ because we have cable television.

Not that I am in any particular place to judge; my life is extraordinarily comfortable. My discipline is considerably poorer than I want, and of course I do not pray for suffering to improve it. I do, however, want the passion that comes with defending something duly earned, like the first car you bought with your own money. I don't know if there is another way to reach that level, though, without first being afflicted with the scars.

I don't plan on canceling my satellite subscription, throwing my cell phone away or moving into a monastery. I am very much like tRYR. I am superlatively comfortable. While I don't necessarily think I have to give those things up, I must seek the challenge to escape them in the way Christ demanded of all of us, and I think that is one thing that joining a community of believers can help you do -- challenge one another in productive ways to do better. I hope that this prompts you to try something, like service you would not have otherwise considered, and that you readers (assuming there are any...) can help challenge me, too.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Respect my authority

I have been a little lax about keeping my end of this up, but I will try to do a better job in the future. I was discussing a rather heady topic with some friends at a fellowship gathering this week and am still trying to sort it out. The content shown in Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 tell us to accept authority, even when it is "wrong". This has been construed to apply to governments, bosses, parents, etc. That, on its face, is acceptable, even though it can be a bitter pill to swallow in those times. By submitting, you are clearly demonstrating trust and obedience to God.

However, it is hard not to notice the string of figures that are held up in both the Old and New Testaments who defy earthly authority in favor of God's. Rahab was an example a friend bought up in discussion, but Moses did it too. Peter and John pretty nakedly defied the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, too, which is kind of hard to reconcile.

Without getting mired in theological abstraction, I have questions about what this means practically. What is the takeaway as far as resisting unjust laws or the pursuit of social justice? How do we, as Christians, need to interact politically and socially and view our history in the face of such moral questions of the day (and yesterday)?

Quite simply, I don't know. (Seems like a cop out, right?) We unanimously decided that our attitudes cannot be divorced from faith in favor of parsing the legalism of Scripture. We cannot substitute inaction in the guise of submission, either. We venerate the nameless footsoldiers in Ohio and Kentucky who spirited slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, even though they were in violation of the law of the land. Yet we know viscerally that enslaving people is morally abhorrent, regardless of its legal status.

When faced with an analogous social ill today, what are our roles and responsibilities? I am pretty sure it comes at the individual level, and not in some sort of larger political pursuit. Deciding when the Will of God in your life means to defy earthly authority does not have a recipe to determine its result; it is dependent on your individual relationship with Him. However, that also has the potential to lead to outcomes like Scott Roeder, the recent Kansas abortion doctor murder, or the Waynesboro Baptist Church (I don't mean to pick on Kansas), both of which I can roundly say are not consistent with the Will of God as I understand it based on my relationship with Him. Having a solid relationship based on knowledge of His Word is indispensable and quite simply unavoidable, because also serves to warn against false prophets and their snares.

At the end of this discussion, none of us felt like we could authoritatively speak on any particular issue anymore than we did before we got started. Unfortunately, you probably can't after reading this either. The takeaway, though, is just more evidence that an active and personal relationship with Christ is necessary to responsibly navigate these questions that we face in the world and I hope this encourages you.

Friday, April 2, 2010

That's My Story

"Suppose [a man] learns, as Scripture teaches, that he was estranged from God through sin, is an heir of wrath, subject to the curse of eternal death, excluded from all hope of salvation, beyond every blessing of God, the slave of Satan, captive under the yoke of sin, destined finally for a dreadful destruction and already involved in it; and that at this point Christ interceded as his advocate, took upon himself and suffered the punishment that, from God’s righteous judgment, threatened all sinners; that he purged with his blood those evils which had rendered sinners hateful to God; that by this expiation he made satisfaction and sacrifice duly to God the Father; that as intercessor he has appeased God’s wrath; that on this foundation rests the peace of God with men; that by this bond his benevolence is maintained toward them. Will the man not then be even more moved by all these things which so vividly portray the greatness of the calamity from which he has been rescued?" (John Calvin - Institutes of Christian Religion II.xvi.2)

That is my story. Abundance. I once was blind but now I see. The distance between 0 (nothing) and 1 (something) is infinite, literally. My sight was absent but now though dimly, I do see. As my vision matures, the fullness of my vision only further reveals the fullness of my blindness. I have been saved from much. I have been saved into much. I still need to be purged of much but the heavy lifting is done. It is finished. Because sin no longer reigns, because He is faithful, the rest will be completed. I will hope against hope and and He will not disappoint. This is my story and it is a good story.

There is no greater miracle than that which occurs when a heart of stone is turned to a heart of flesh. There are those who would tell us that our religion is outrageous because men do not walk on water or calm the seas, and the leprous are not healed by the touch of a hand or the dead raised by the call of a word, but they are wrong. Though we believe these things--men walking on water, the dead rising, the aspect of our faith that is truly outrageous is the reality that a holy God would forgive the sins of a wretched people. God bringslife. Sin brings death. For God, sin is His other and He cannot commune with that which is not of Himself. We are all vessels of wrath but forgiveness--outrageous, gratuitous, crucifixion-powered, resurrection-evidenced forgiveness--makes us fit for honorable use. Walking on water is a parlor trick by comparison. This is our story and it is a miraculous story.

What's your story? If you hear the shepherd and you know His voice, then your story is a part of God's story and it is, by necessity, consequential and good. Own it. Remember your story--how you were taken out of Egypt--and worship the Lord and be glad.

It is Friday, but Sunday is coming and this is good news.

Happy Easter.

Friday, March 5, 2010

For every action...

My mom has a memory like an elephant. She particularly remembers critical comments, especially when aimed at our family from years (and in some cases, decades) ago. It's kind of a joke at this point in our lives, but it has served as a reminder throughout our whole lives of how small, often off-hand comments (like one time a 'friend,' I guess, said that my dad's brother "got all the looks in the family" and that's why friend gets single quotes) can make a really big impact, and for a long time, too. It's not just Mom, though. My dad is a local politician and one of my sister's ex-boyfriends made the indefensible claim that he doesn't make real laws; her husband likes to quote that one still.

Sometimes, if you're not careful, this leads to real grudges. More often than not, of course, those off-hand comments are not really laced with the venom we think they are. One of those moments happened to me at work this week about something rather insignificant. It still made me defensive, though, because, well, engineers are engineers because they are good at math, not diplomacy. He fit that bill. Really, he meant well, but sometimes that just isn't enough to keep me from getting a little irritated. Of course, though, there was nothing I could do about his attitude, and the most recent sermon at church was on self-control, I begrudgingly gritted my teeth and said "thank you" and his comments. I was aware of the relevance of the moment, which is something, I guess.

I guess it was a start, but my heart wasn't exactly in the right place. The only thing I can control is my reaction, and luckily, that's really all God asks of us, as far as I can tell. (If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Matthew 5:39, What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' Matthew 15:11). It is rarely that straightforward, though. I have never been punched in the face at all, let alone the cheek. The second one, though, has always been rather significant to me, not just because I really like scallops. I come from a family of communicators: not only is my dad a politician, so was his dad; his brother is an attorney, mine is about to become one; I like to think of myself as a writer and quite frankly, not to toot our own horns, but we say (or write) matters. The words everyone says matter (James 3 outlines that pretty clearly.) I can distinctly remember people telling me they were turned off by Christianity because of a something like a bad date with a jerk who said he was a Baptist. (Gandhi said, "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.") It's a lot of pressure when you think about it.

I don't really know what to do about it, specifically. Breathing exercises? Count to ten? I guess, try to be good and practice in the efforts you want to perfect are the short answers, but the details are what get you. The guy from earlier in the story was trying to do his job, and I took it a little personally, due to his delivery. How much of that is on me and my attitude, and how much is rightfully on him? I think this might be one of those "Who cares?" situations. I think there are a lot more of those in Christian application (if not theology) than we like to admit (hopefully this will be a revisited theme in this blog). The fact remains that I can only address my own attitude. Does my reaction really change that much? John 9:1-5 and Matthew 7:1-6 kind of tells us not to worry about what other people do, so probably not. Now, how do I get to the point where I actually react that way all the time? I am just glad that shrimp and barbecue aren't off the table.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect

Perfect? Really? Don't you think we're aiming a little high? Is there a less responsible thing you could say to another human than to suggest that perfection should be the goal, much less that it is even attainable? I'm not trying to be a rain cloud on your efforts, but perfection just isn't in the cards...take it from someone who knows. By the time I finish this blog, it will be, by unanimous acknowledgement (Hi, mom), "perfect" but it will still sport no fewer than 4 run-on sentences.

By my discerningly captivating eyes, there are at least three things wrong with this colloquialism, which given it is made up of only three words, exceeds my personally preferred word-to-error ratio.

First, the word "perfect" is hardly the perfect word to describe the product of practice. Most often the word doesn't actually mean "perfect." It most nearly means very good or well above average or best in your over-60 bowling league. Like "most popular kid at band camp," this title of perfection is dubious at best. Also, in the case of this catchphrase, perfection always refers to performance within a finite set of parameters. Perfect games last nine innings and perfect seasons framed by the calendar. These windows indicate that perfection is more a statement about luck than affirmation of the quality of the subject. There are no perfect teams or perfect pitchers; only good teams and good pitchers upon whom the sun shines for a moment.

Then, there's the word "practice." If you're sold on the idea that perfection is within grasp, you must be crazy should be scratching your head wondering: practice what? practice how? Silly questions, eh? If you want to be a perfect pitcher, you must practice pitching and you must practice so to improve. That was easy. But, again I ask: how? How do you grip the ball, adjust your arm angle, rotate your hips, snap your wrist, follow through, etc? It is not enough to simply practice your bad habits over and over. You need instruction and you need instruction from someone who knows how to pitch. Ms. Jefferson may be a great piano tutor but she won't add two inches to your curve ball.

My final complaint, finally, is actually with what is not said. Practice makes perfect is not only wrong but it is also incomplete. All the practice in the world won't make a hill of beans difference if you never perform. You have to suit up. You have to get in the game. Performance in the vacuum that is practice does not guarantee any level of success in the garbage disposal of reality. When we try new techniques and work out bad habits, we do so in the safety and isolation of a practice environment but we must put these adjustments to the test on the field of play. History is full of men and women who practiced perfectly but performed poorly.

Great, I'm a constant rain cloud but what does any of this have to do with fear and trembling? I'm glad you asked...I was having trouble making the transition. Everything. You see, I buy into this pragmatism. I practice Christianity as if to become perfect. I don't mean perfect like Jesus was perfect; I simply mean more Christiany than dregs who share my pew. I read the bible so I can name drop a minor prophet. I serve the community so I can be seen serving the community. I'm in three Bible studies so I can tell people I'm in three Bible studies. I work and strive and hustle not so God will put me to His uses, but so I can show Man (and God, though He should be paying attention anyway) how perfect I'm becoming. I want to perfect my faith so I can bask in the sunshine of my peer's admiration. That's Heaven and it's here on Earth. But...

I'm exhausted and I perform poorly. A thought! Is Christ the founder and perfecter of our faith? Another! Is the chief end of man is to glorify God?

There is a happy medium. Practice is a part of a perfect faith but perfect faith is not simply the result of practice. True, our five talents are our five talents, and we should want to use them to yield five more. But, we must remember that ours is to plant and water, it is God's to grow. All the effort in the world won't squeeze out an apple without God's consent. No fruit or small fruit? First, stop comparing your fruit to that of the stronger branches which surround you and then find a gardener and get some instruction. But, the most important thing Christians can do is remember Jesus Christ and his work on the cross. We are made in God's image so we ache for perfection--C.S. Lewis called it an inconsolable longing--but it is God's gift of mediation between a holy God and corrupt sinners, not our work that makes our practice efficacious.

Practice makes perfect? Not hardly. Practice, instructed by the Holy Spirit, empowered by God, made effective by Christ, will end in our perfection. Better.

Monday, February 15, 2010

I'm just talking about practice

I took piano lessons when I was in like 3rd grade. That’s one of those things that I hated at the time, like reading Huckleberry Finn, that I wish now I had paid more attention as a kid. I wanted to play like Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder (I was a precocious little kid). Of course, since I didn’t have prodigious musical talent, I would have to practice a lot in order to get there. My story is the same as everyone else’s; practice is boring and Schubert’s Lullaby did not sound anything like Superstition.

Perspective, though, tells me now that I’m older and wiser (well, the former for sure) that neither Billy nor Stevie got there either without that kind of practice, either. They just were committed enough to realize their goals and put in the work to make that happen. They were also blessed with loads of that prodigious talent that I was not.

As far as growing the same way as people of faith, we are told pretty clearly that we need to practice. 2 Peter Chapter one talks about this, as do a number of other places (Galatians 5, James 1 and 2 are a few that come to mind). The thing is, how do you know what that looks like? John 14:15 says, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” That’s good advice, but we also are told how hard that is to do by Christ himself, pretty much continually.

This also reminds me of the various cute but meaningless clich├ęs churches like to throw out there to make us feel better: “God is my co-pilot” or “Give your decisions up to God.” I can’t think of a third one, but I’m sure they’re out there. What does that look like? How can we identify the spiritual equivalent of Stevie Wonder at the piano? How do we even know if we are making progress?

Tiger Woods, arguably the best golfer ever, doesn’t win every tournament he plays in; the best out there have their bad days, too. What does that mean for us? Especially when in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains the expression of the Spirit in believers looks different, how do I know what that kind of progress should look like in me? The easy answer is when you are walking in the Spirit or living in God’s Will, you’ll just know it. And sometimes that’s inarguably true. But there’re a lot of times where it’s just not that clear. Those are the times when identifying the right way to go isn’t something you just know. Those are the times I am talking about.

The promise that comes with doing this right is so dramatic, that asking these questions to get it right is very important, and certainly worth the effort. In John 14:23, Jesus explains the conclusion to 14:15: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Sounds like a pretty good deal, even if I can’t play River of Dreams.