Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
In my last post I talked about the necessity of a pilot keeping a scan going of all of his/her instruments during flight in instrument meteorological conditions – otherwise known as weather that ducks refuse to fly in. That got me to thinking about another aspect of flying that I think can have a profound theological application.
Except, I just can’t think of one. Or, maybe I can, but not in the precise way I want to express it. So, here is my brilliant analogy, I will leave it to you to come up with an equally brilliant application.
Many people think that flying in a single engine airplane, especially a little airplane with a propeller in front, is the most dangerous thing a person can do, short of jumping out of that airplane with a parachute on. For them the sight of a single engine with a single propeller is just too much, or too little rather, and they refuse to climb in the plane. If they see a plane with two engines, even two reciprocating propeller engines, they figure, “well, if one of those propeller thingies quits turning, at least the other one will get me where I am going.” Well, yes, and no.
If you as speaking of jet engines on large, commercial aircraft, then yes. Rest assured, the FAA mandates that an airplane with two engines be capable of all phases of flight with just one engine operating. (Few jets are manufactured with three or more engines today). That means that even in the event of an engine failure during the take-off roll the plane can still take off, circle around and land with just one engine. Now, if one engine were to fail before a certain point the pilots would certainly abort the take-off. But, still, the plane is designed to fly on one engine.
But with reciprocating (gas-powered) engines the story is quite different. With a reciprocating engine the FAA only mandates that the multi-engine airplane be capable of flying in a “cruise” configuration in the event of an engine failure, and even then very few planes can maintain altitude unless they are very, very lightly loaded. There is a powerful and very little understood reason for this.
(BTW – I never was trained to fly turbo-prop aircraft – airplanes that have jet engines that turn propellers. I am not sure of the dynamics of those aircraft, except to know that they have certain safety features that make them easier to control in the event of an engine failure, but certainly not without the risks of having that inactive propeller out there.)
In a small gas-powered twin-engine aircraft, when both engines are operating at peak efficiency you might say the plane has 100% of its power and lift. Twin engine airplanes can, with few exceptions, fly higher and faster than single engine airplanes. They have the capacity to fly in more inclement weather. There are many advantages to having that second engine and propeller. But when an engine fails the plane loses far more than just 50% of its power. That is what most people think: 2 – 1 = 1, so therefore the plane should still be able to fly just fine, albeit maybe a little slower. Not so!
It is kind of complicated to explain here, but when a small twin-engine plane loses an engine the plane actually loses 80% of its capacity to fly. It loses 50% with the loss of the power of the engine. But it loses another 30% or more with the resulting changes that occur when that engine fails. If the plane is light, and other conditions are favorable, the plane can maintain altitude just fine. Load it up, fly it high, throw in some other nasty variables and the plane will come down – slowly perhaps, but it will not be able to stay in the air.
There is a saying among freight dogs (small twin-engine airplane pilots whose job it is to ferry freight all over the country) that the purpose of the good engine is to fly you to the scene of the crash. Freight dogs are good with gallows humor.
I flew some of the best maintained, most wonderfully designed and built twin-engine airplanes ever to grace an airport. I would strap one of those planes on any day and fly it in just about any weather that the southwest could dish out (I hated ice, but my trusty steed could still handle an amazing amount of the stuff). If a human could have a love affair with a piece of machinery, then I was in love with those planes. But I still was aware that if I loaded it to its capacity, in the event of an engine failure I was going to end up on the short end of the stick. It was a dangerous love affair, to be sure.
So, I know there is a theological application out there somewhere. maybe there are several applications out there. This is a wonderful parable. I just wish I could come up with a good theological punch line.
To all my twin-engine pilot friends out there – keep the shiny side up and both feet on the pedals. Practice those engine out procedures and single engine approaches. May the number of your successful landings always equal the number of your take-offs.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you. (Exodus 20:12)
I did not specifically plan to write about parents just before Mother’s Day. I guess that was just serendipity. But it does allow me to get something off of my chest. More of that in a moment – but first, let us look at this command.
Have you ever wondered why, after four commands that specifically relate to God and how we are to honor Him, that the first command that relates to our fellow humans is a command to honor our parents? This is not just important, I think this is critical to stop and ponder.
Our culture is respect phobic. Just think about what passes as humor today, what gets the biggest laughs. If a comedian can make a joke about any authority figure the house goes crazy. We disrespect the office of the President of the United States. We disrespect the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court. We disrespect the courts and our police officers. We disrespect spiritual leaders (especially if they are conservative Christian spiritual leaders!) and we disrespect school teachers.
And all of this disrespect begins in the home. We, as a culture, have virtually dismissed the concept of respecting our fathers and our mothers.
Unfortunately, I fear a great deal of this situation began with parents who decided they did not need to be respected. Somewhere back in the 1960′s or maybe a decade or so later the latest and greatest philosophy was that parents were not supposed to be authority figures, they were to be their children’s best friends. So, respect went out the door and it was replaced with a faux friendship, something that was neither friendship nor was it parental leadership. A generation deprived of parental guidance then went on to raise their children without any real understanding as to how to be parents. Now, at least the third generation of children is being raised by parents who do not know how to instill respect, and more tragically, will not support those adults who are left who are capable of teaching respect.
Respect must be learned, but if there are no teachers, how can it be taught?
Strangely enough, it is exactly during this time that the “Hallmark Card” holidays of Mothers Day and Fathers Day (and now Grandparents Day and who knows what other day we will choose to celebrate) exploded. I think there is a telling sociological process going on here.
Simply put – we are not honoring our parents throughout our normal year, so when that one “special” day comes along we have to assuage our guilt and so we buy flowers, or an expensive necklace, or a fancy gizmo for dad, and we pass that off as “honoring” our mother or our father. How many times will you be told just before Mothers Day or Fathers Day to “honor” your mom or dad by spending a lot of money on something that is either basically pretty trashy or on something that will wilt and fade away within days if not hours? That is honor? Excuse me, but that is buying forgiveness to mollify a guilty conscience.
We don’t honor our parents by giving them some cheesy gift once a year. We honor our parents by respecting and obeying them while we are in their homes, and by continuing to honor and respect their guidance throughout our adult years. We honor our parents by raising our children to believe in and to respect the teachings that our parents instilled in us. We honor our parents by working hard and by doing our best in everything that we do. We honor our parents in the way we treat other parents who are both older and younger than we are. We honor our parents by mentoring younger parents in the craft of raising children – and that means that we demand respect from those tyrannical three year olds who absolutely refuse to offer it. We honor our parents with our words, our actions, and our thoughts. Everything that we do communicates either that we respect and honor our parents, or that we could not care less about those who raised us.
We honor our parents when, at that point we must disagree with them, or decide that we must act or believe in a way that our parents would never act or believe, that we still honor and cherish the guidance that brought us to our adult decision. No parent is ever perfect, and in a way it is no dishonor to disagree with our parents. But it is a huge sign of disrespect to mock or disparage the thoughts and beliefs that our parents held deeply. We can disagree in a most holy and honorable manner.
Our “retirement centers” and “nursing homes” and other facilities have become nothing more than warehouses for abandoned and disrespected parents. I know that many older adults can no longer take care of themselves and require specialized attention. I am not speaking about those individuals. I am speaking about those parents whose children cannot be bothered by the physical demands of taking care of an older parent and who simply ship them off to some out-of-the-way institution so that they can maintain their upper middle class lifestyle of soccer games and ballet recitals and country club events.
When we disrespect and dishonor our parents the land will vomit us out. I think that is pretty much the message of Exodus 20:12.
I do not think that day is in our future. I think it is here and now. We live in a land of mockery, abandonment, disrespect. Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. That which a man sows, he shall also reap. I think that is pretty much a New Testament principle. And, sadly, I think we are living it out right now.
“Holy God, as our eternal Father – teach us how to respect. Give us the courage both to respect our elders and to instill respect in our children. Help us to once again live in a land blessed by the sweet odor of respect and honor. Help us to see the error of our way, and lead us back onto the path that we have forsaken so long ago.
I have a weird library collection. Mainly that is because I am weird, and weird is as weird does. I have some volumes written by some of the most conservative authors who have ever taken pen to paper. And I have a couple on the other end of the spectrum as well. The largest single collection in my library belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, in my “devotional” section another name is very prominent – Thomas Merton.
For those of you who do not know me that may not be such a stretch at all – hardly considered weird. But theologically I come from a heritage that is anything other than Roman Catholic. I believe very strongly in believer’s baptism (famously nicknamed “credo-baptism” as opposed to “infant baptism”). I most certainly do not believe the scriptures teach the doctrine of transubstantiation. Nor do I believe that there is an unbroken line of apostolic authority from Peter down to the latest leader of the Roman Church known as the Pope. There are other differences between what I believe the scriptures teach and what the official stance of the Roman Church details.
And yet I find myself drawn to a spirituality that is exemplified by writers such as Henri Nouwen and, in this case, Thomas Merton. I have purchased and read several of Merton’s books, and the prevailing wisdom is that you really have not understood Merton until you have read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I had resisted for several years, because I really liked his devotional writings but was not sure about an autobiography. Finally, I decided to lay aside my misgivings and read the book.
Boy, am I glad that I did.
I would concur that reading The Seven Storey Mountain sets Merton’s other writings in context. You learn so much more about the man and the time period in which he underwent his amazing conversion. To understate the matter – Merton is an absolute wordsmith. He has the gift of writing that I wish I had, and that is an inspiration to me. Reading his autobiography you get an idea about how that craft was born into him, and how he honed it to its razor-sharp perfection.
Because this is an autobiography (at least through his entrance into the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani), it would not be of any special value here for me to critique each chapter or section. It is simply the story of Merton’s life. But my copy is full of beautiful expressions of Merton’s keen eye, his talented pen, and especially of his deeply observant eye of faith. The book is a moving account of a young man’s journey from secular emptiness to spiritual fulfillment. There were times I did not want to put the book down – and other times I did put it down just so I could process something that Merton communicated. If you like the story of spiritual journeys, and you do not already have this book, by all means this is a journey that you do not want to miss.
With all of those positives noted, I must add that I felt a palpable degree of sadness as I read about Merton’s conversion to certain aspects of the Roman Church that I simply do not understand. His devotion to Mary, for example, while admirable in one respect, is so far outside of my process of understanding that I just do not comprehend how someone born outside of the Roman Church can come to accept its implications. The adoration of Mary is a relatively young belief in the Roman Church, and receives no biblical support. I had a Roman priest explain the philosophy behind the adoration of Mary (at least from his point of view) and so I think I understand that, but I must insist that it is a tragedy when a person who professes a love for Jesus as the Son of God takes some aspect of Christ’s divinity and attaches it to his earthly mother. There are other aspects of Roman Catholicism that I disagree with on doctrinal grounds, but this is not a book arguing doctrine. This is a book documenting one man’s journey from unbelief to belief, and a special kind of belief at that.
About the only thing I found missing (and I bet I am about to REALLY expose my ignorance here) is why Merton spelled “Storey” with an “e.” I have a suspicion that if I had a better resume of literary understanding I would “get it.” But, I don’t, so I don’t. I am awaiting someone to let me in on the explanation, and then I will be that much more informed about the book and the life of Merton.
So, bottom line, do not read this book if all you are looking for is a way to argue against Roman Catholicism. Read this book if you are interested in Thomas Merton’s journey. Read the book if you have read some other of Merton’s writings, and you want to know more about the man. Read this book if you are interested in the process of contemplative faith. And, by the way, read this book if you are interested in really good writing, and if you want to increase your own skills at the craft of putting words on paper.
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7 RSV)
This is commonly understood as the potty-mouth commandment, or rather, the anti-potty-mouth commandment. This commandment has been used for generations to keep pre-adolescent boys’ mouths somewhat antiseptic and to keep sailors at least partially on their best behavior whilst in the company of tender female ears.
Except that now the ladies can out curse even the most blue-tongued sailor, but I digress.
While it is quite appropriate to keep pre-teen boys, rough and tumble sailors and even prim and proper ladies from cussing a blue streak, I am convinced that this commandment does not specifically relate to cursing, except when the LORD’s name is specifically used in a curse or imprecation. We actually use the “potty mouth” interpretation as a dodge. As long as I do not say “God” in front of my “d” words or some other such expletive, I’m okay, so the logic goes.
And almost on a daily basis we take the name of the LORD in vain.
We use the LORD’s name in vain when we vacantly tell someone we will pray for them, knowing full well we have no intention of doing so. We take the name of the LORD in vain when we try until we are unable to lift our arms and then we say, “All we can do now is pray.” We take the name of the LORD in vain when we ask God to “forgive us of our many sins” and then partake of the Lord’s Supper in a vacant and meaningless manner. Oh, yes, we take the name of the LORD in vain often. Most often, ironically, in the comfort of our church pews.
But we also take the name of our LORD in vain when we ascribe actions to Him that are repugnant to His very nature. We say things like, “Well, it was just God’s will that those children were killed in Newtown.” God wants children to die in a terrorist attack? Your god maybe, but not my God.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Don’t be sad, it was God’s will that your little infant die of cancer.” Um excuse me, the line for those entering the smoking pit of hell forms over there on your left.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Yes I know I’ve been married for 20 years to the same person, but God wants me to be happy and this person just doesn’t make me happy anymore.” Please, feel free to join the line on your left.
I am very concerned that we get perilously close to taking the name of the LORD in vain when we pray, “God, we want little Susie to get better, but we pray your will to be done, and if it is your will that little Susie die, please take her peacefully.” Just exactly what do we think the “will of the LORD” involves? To listen carefully to some of our prayers you would think that God’s will involves making children and old people die in some of the most dehumanizing and painful diseases imaginable.
LORD, please save us from our own religion.
The Israelites became so fearful about breaking this commandment that they ultimately refused to even pronounce His name, the four letters that we now refer to as the “Tetragrammaton.” In English those letters would be YHWH, but we do no know their exact pronunciation in Hebrew. We assume it would be something like “Yahweh,” which has come down to our English translations as “Jehovah,” but once again, that is just a conjecture.
But taking the LORD’s name in vain has nothing to do with mispronouncing His name. Taking the LORD’s name in vain means to misuse it, to use it cheaply, to use it for our own benefit, to use it as a shield when we put ourselves in a defenseless position. To take the LORD’s name in vain means to demean the highest and most Holy name that exists.
When Isaiah came into the presence of the Holy One, he could not find a hole big enough to climb into. We should be just as fearful when we invite the presence of the LORD by invoking His name. When we use the name of the LORD, we enter into his presence.
The Preacher had this divine advice, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2 RSV)
Better yet, do not take the name of the LORD in vain. When you speak His name, remember – He hears every word you say. Make sure you mean your words, and especially make sure the words you speak in His name are in harmony with His perfect nature.
Commandment number 1 – “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, RSV)
Really, how simple can it get? There is one God. Worship Him. Burn, throw away, discard, dismember all the rest.
For the sake of the series, I shall separate the idea of having a false god with that of having a physical image of a false god (idolatry) which is the topic of the next command.
The command here is to have no other gods before the one, true God.
Nothing, either physical nor metaphysical, can be in the place of God. None, nada, zip, zero. No other gods means no other gods.
We worship a pantheon of gods today – each one a testament to the myriad ways in which we violate this command.
We worship power, sex, self-esteem, education, freedom, love, health and safety, entertainment, glory, and honor – and many others. Each has its own little menagerie of idols (graven images) but each is truly a false god.
We fear losing each of these things, but the reality is that it is only when we lose those things that we can receive the one true God. Blessed are those who have absolutely nothing, because they are the only ones who can see that they need God.
How many gods are in my life. Not idols – we will deal with those in due time. But how many gods are in my life. What do I worship? What do I fear losing? What demands my attention? What receives my money? Track those things back and you will find your god.
We violate any and all of the other commands because we don’t get this one right. If we truly understood and obeyed this one, the others would be unnecessary.
God, forgive us of the worship of our false gods. Help us identify them, give us the courage to destroy them. Teach us how to have one, true God.
Just sitting here ruminating on a subject that has been festering for a while. I really do not know who to address this to, so it will just be an open letter – directed at no one in particular and a lot of people in general.
To all those who are fed up with, cannot stand, and are otherwise angry at the church. I think I get your message. I want to say “I think” because to say “I fully understand” would be presumptuous. Because I have not met you personally, you may not fit every description that I mention in what follows. So, let me begin on a foundation of humility. I want to understand where you are coming from, and to a certain degree I think I get you. And, whether you believe me or not, in many areas I agree with you. But still, there is a yawning chasm between the two of us that bothers me…
The overwhelming majority of you are in your third decade of life. Some are much older, some are younger. That tells me that the majority of you simply have not had the opportunity to experience so much of life that longevity teaches. You may have traveled extensively, you may have lived with the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. But, you are still young. Youth has its advantages, to be sure. But youth also has its severe limitations. There is a reason that God turned the leadership of the church over to a group of individuals we refer to as elders. Age does a lot of things to our bodies, but it is an incredible teacher for our hearts and minds. So, I am not necessarily criticizing you for your youth, but I am making a point. You have not seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of life simply because you are not old enough to have done so. Hang around a while – you will.
That leaves some of you who are my age and older who still angry at the church but for entirely different reasons. Maybe something I say will speak to you as well, but I fear the issues you have need another letter. Increased chronological age does not necessarily equate to increased maturity. An angry senior citizen is no improvement over an angry toddler.
I want to tell you that we – the older generation that you seem to be so bent on overcoming – have been where you have been and we have done what you are doing. With our grandfathers, or maybe for some of us our fathers, it was the “social gospel.” For many others of us it was that promising panacea called “youth ministry.” Then there was the “bus ministry.” Our pet phrase was “ministry with a social conscience.” Then we were saved by becoming “seeker sensitive.” We were given a healthy dose of “purpose driven.” Now we are told the only thing that can save us to to become “emergent” “incarnational” or “missional.” Next up – “discipling.” We have been transfixed with Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and now Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. It has become so confusing that we need a scorecard to keep up with all the slogans and phrases and personalities. It’s just that we – the old gray head set – need bifocals to read all the small print.
As a member of the “traditional, fundamentalist, backward, Luddite” generation that provides so much of the anger that you are venting, I would like to suggest that you take a moment to analyze why it is that we are so wary of your efforts. After reading volumes of your books, scanning your blogs and watching your You Tube videos, I would gently like to suggest that you criticize without offering the least indication you have attempted to understand what it is you are criticizing. You think that you are criticizing the “established, traditional, fundamentalist church” but who you are actually criticizing are people. Real people. People who have stood where you are standing and who have asked the same questions and who have been through a lot more fights and defeats than you have.
You come across as selfish, arrogant, narcissistic, and vain. The very traits, I would suggest, that you criticize us for being.
You preach a tolerance of ideas and practices and yet you ridicule and reject the values and beliefs of the generations who have gone before you.
And, I say again lest I be misunderstood, we can recognize these failings because we pioneered them. You are simply perfecting the faults we instilled within you. But I hasten to add – the fact you have perfected them is no honor.
If we are hesitant to accept your panacea for church renewal I suggest that it is because we are tired of the rhetoric – the empty promises and of dealing with the burned out remains of ours and previous failures. The generation that is older than I am had to deal with me – they heard the same empty promises and they dealt with the same blown-up congregations and they had to pull out the bandages and try to put broken people and lives back together. And my generation blithely walked away from all the carnage and smugly patted ourselves on the back for being such faithful and devoted disciples of the Prince of Peace. Until it happened to us. Now we see the same thing that our forefathers experienced and it gives us a lot of heartbreak. We cannot undo what we did, but we are not much interested in having the same thing happen to us.
Believe me, many of us are looking for something better! We have not lost the idealism of our youth, but the scars and the broken bones have taught us to be a little careful about how we go about instigating change. We may need bifocals to read our old leather-bound Bibles, but we can see through the dim lights of your “new” worship. We may need hearing aids, but we hear nothing of substance in your theologically vapid praise bands. And we can smell a rat through the fog of your incense.
So, please – if you are asking us to give you the courtesy of listening to the next one greatest discovery that will save the church from every evil that befalls it, give us the courtesy of realizing we have heard this song before. We sang it too. We even added a few verses and an endless repeating chorus. Realize that we are not your enemy until you back us into a corner and give us no other option but to either leave or fight back. Yes, there are individuals who are my age and older who have demonized every word you say and every idea you put forward. I do not like them any more than you do. I reject their rhetoric and their hateful attitudes. Every mansion has a few cobwebs in the corners.
I appreciate your enthusiasm for the Lord and His church. I appreciate that you are not only willing, but also very capable of the skill of analysis and problem solving. I would suggest that one skill you are lacking significantly is the skill of the appreciation of history – your history, and your immediate history to be exact. I would also like to suggest that unless you seek to remedy this gap in your resume you will find yourself in an interesting situation in about 20 years or so – give or take a few.
You will be exactly where I am, peering through your new pair of bi-focals, writing an open letter to your children and grandchildren who have discovered the next latest and greatest saving prescription for the church they have discovered is old and stale and irrelevant.
The very church you are in the process of creating.
An old guy who is willing to listen, but justifiably cautious about swallowing every idea just because it is new.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I was inspired this morning with the thought that I have not really worked through the 10 Commandments in any kind of meditative or contemplative manner. I think that I have taught and /or preached through them, but I wanted to take another look at these great words. I hope my thoughts will be beneficial, but as with everything else in this blog, I am speaking primarily to me.
A word about my outline. I plan on taking one “command” per post, and then at the very end I plan on adding an essay about why I believe the 10 Commandments have been neglected in many circles of Christianity (especially so in the Churches of Christ) and what can be done to overcome that omission.
So, here is installment one.
And God spoke these words, saying, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:1-2 RSV)
Most people think that the ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:3. That is our first mistake.
The ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:1. God is speaking to His people. He identifies Himself. But he does not identify Himself with any esoteric, profound ontological or theological definitions. God identifies Himself simply and profoundly by reference to His action. “I am your God. You know me because I am the One who just delivered you out of your miserable slavery. I am the LORD. I am the I AM. You’ve seen my mighty arm, now listen to what is in my heart.”
When we begin our study of this text in Exodus 20:3 we miss this monumental opening. We miss the main point. It would be like showing up at a wedding after the couple has departed for their honeymoon. Sure, there may be some cake left, and maybe a mint or two – but is that the point of going to a wedding?
We must see that the “10 Commandments” are built exclusively and entirely upon grace. “I am the LORD.” It is the greatest statement of grace in the Bible, repeated hundreds of times. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the “I am the good shepherd” of John’s gospel, but the meaning is the same. God is saying, “Don’t worry. I have your back. In fact, I have your front too. Just look at what I just did for you. Which would you prefer – slavery or freedom?” And that is the entire meaning of v. 2. God double identifies the place where the Israelites just were. “Out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Remember Egypt – the cruel taskmasters, the hours and hours of back breaking labor only to be beaten and humiliated? Bone crushing servitude with nothing to show for it? Do you remember that? Look at your hands, look at your feet, look at the backs of your neighbors – remember Egypt.
The ten commandments are all about grace. And if we miss that point we might as well not even try to study the actual commands. If we miss the grace concerning the deliverance from slavery all we do is return to the land of Egypt. Exodus 20:3-17 simply becomes another house of bondage if we miss v. 1-2. We become slaves to a legal code, a merciless task master that seeks only to impose it’s power over us. It beats us, brutalizes us, dehumanizes us. Built on the foundation of v. 1-2, however, and the commands become avenues of God’s grace.
It is interesting that in the original Hebrew text, the description for what follows are the “10 Words.” Not commandments, even though they may take the imperative form. No, this section of the inspired text is referred to as the “10 Words.” I believe that in the overall theology of the Bible this point is profound. In the beginning God spoke simple words and the world was created. In the book of Isaiah we read that “my words will not return to me empty.” In the prologue of the gospel of John we read that, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And the decalogue, the great charter of the Israelite nation, is referred to by these Israelites as the “10 Words.”
I like that. The 10 Words of Grace. That just sound so much more inviting, so much more welcome, so much more, well, God-like than the “10 Commandments.”
Mind you – these are still commands, they remain strictures about how a child of God is to think, act and believe. But they are primarily words of grace. And that makes them foundational for any understanding of the work of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and the very personification of Grace.
May we hear these words always new, always fresh. Amen.
Many of you have followed my series of articles on the Sermon on the Mount, and several have commented on one or more of the entries. I realize that there are many who would like a more in-depth treatment of the subject, but are either unable or unwilling to access the material I referenced because of two very good reasons: (1) Dr. Glen Stassen’s book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context is 491 pages long and not everyone wants to wade into a volume that long and complicated, and (2) the article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount” is found in the Journal of Biblical Literature, a resource not many people have access to or even the desire to access. In order to alleviate those two issues I suggest a third possibility – Dr. Stassen’s smaller and much more accessible book, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) 201 pages in an easy-to-read format with many pages consisting of graphic illustrations.
This book eliminates several of the problems that are associated with longer, college text-book type volumes, and especially with articles in peer-reviewed journals. The book is written for the common member of the church, with few (but adequate) endnotes and a non-technical writing style. However, in terms of content, the book follows Dr. Stassen’s explication of the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount and even goes beyond the more technical works in providing some concrete proposals for how the “transforming initiatives” can be worked out in our contemporary society. The book is divided into 10 chapters, but in his preface Dr. Stassen provides information about how to divide three chapters in half, thus providing for a 13 week study of the Sermon on the Mount to fit into a congregational Bible class format.
Even though the book is relatively short (the 201 pages are easily read – this is not a cumbersome technical exposition) do not be misled – there is a lot of “meat” in this book. Dr. Stassen has studied the Sermon on the Mount in-depth and his writing reveals his research. One thing I found particularly valuable was the many ways Dr. Stassen ties the Sermon back into the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah. This is important because I think that all too often we believe that Jesus was teaching something new and never-heard-before, while all along he was teaching what His Father had been teaching through the prophets for generations.
Another aspect of the book that I genuinely appreciated was the illustrations depicting the “traditional teaching, the vicious cycle, and the transforming initiatives” that are located throughout the book. For those of us who are visually oriented, this is a big help.
Another thing I like about this book is that Dr. Stassen included a much longer section about the spiritual disciplines in this book, as opposed in particular to the JBL article, and this is a significant addition. In fact, Dr. Stassen goes to great lengths to show that the section on prayer is the pinnacle of the sermon, and every other teaching found in the sermon is incorporated into Jesus’ model prayer. It is this kind of working through the text as Matthew constructed it that makes this little volume so valuable.
This book is NOT a critical commentary on Matthew 5-7. If you are looking for a careful definition of terms and high-falutin’ biblical language, you will not find it in this book. This is a book designed to the the word of the Sermon on the Mount into our hearts, and therefore into our hands and feet. The scholarship behind the book is solid, but the presentation is in a popular writing style.
The standard caveat directed to every book applies to this one as well. I am sure that you will find something that Dr. Stassen writes with which you disagree. So be it. I have more than one question mark placed in the margin of my copy, along with an editorial “hmmmm” or two. But I do not buy nor do I read books simply to reinforce that which I already believe. Those volumes are okay to a point, and I have several of those type books on my bookshelves. But what I really look for in a book is the answer to the question, “What does the author have to tell me that I do not know, or that furthers my understanding of a particular topic?” Closely related to that question is another: “How well has the author prepared himself/herself to write this book, and how well does he/she present his/her research?” On the basis of these two questions I can recommend Dr. Stassen’s works on the Sermon on the Mount unreservedly. He is an accomplished scholar and knows how to write both professionally and popularly. He challenges with his insights, and even when you disagree with him you have to accept that he has done his homework well and that he presents his case energetically.
Bottom line – this is a fine addition to your “Sermon on the Mount” section in your library.
Please, learn to be comfortable in your own skin.
I grew up as many people do, thinking that I had to be something that I was not, and quite honestly, was never, ever, going to be able to become. It is, to be perfectly blunt, a lousy way to live. But so many of us are conditioned by society (parents, school mates, teachers, preachers, trusted adults, etc) to think this way that it seems rather abnormal to find someone who just wants to be who they are, regardless of their cultural preconditions. With me it was not my parents (who were and are amazingly supportive) but rather the larger culture in which I was raised.
Just a couple of examples. For many, many years I was led to believe that I had to be an evangelist or else I was going to be a second class citizen of heaven (or worse.) My eternal fate would be sealed by the number of persons who would tell St. Peter at the pearly gates who baptized them. If I met that magical number of inclusion into the sainted masses, well then I was in. Miss it by one or two and I might as well learn how to love sulphur and brimstone.
It took me quite a while to find Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. It seems to me that the apostle Paul was quite satisfied to admit that not everyone could be, or even should be, an evangelist. Isn’t it amazing to discover that someone who beats you over the head with a Bible has missed such a huge part of it? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love preaching and teaching. I will study the Bible with anyone, anytime. But I am most certainly NOT a personal evangelist and I never will be one. But, I learned that is okay. I had to learn how to be content in my own skin.
When I got out of preaching (for a while) I became a pilot. Now, in the pilot world the equivalent of being a personal evangelist is being the captain of a Boeing 747 or Airbus jumbo jet. I was a little bit older, but I was still driven by the concept that I had to perform at a certain level or that somehow I was just not good enough, or that I still had some mountain to climb. Quite honestly I did not want to pay the price to become a captain of a Boeing 747, so failing to meet that expectation did not hurt too much. But I learned something valuable along the way. New generation Boeings and Airbuses basically fly themselves. And, for the piloting part that the plane does not fly itself there is a crew of two highly trained and very proficient pilots. In the job that I had (flying freight for a small company) all I had was me and a plane that as often as not did not even have a functioning auto pilot. And when I did get a plane with an functioning auto pilot all it did was keep the wings level and the altitude steady. I still had to fly the plane through weather that ducks would not fly into, and I had to do it by myself. That, my friends, is really piloting an airplane. I learned that the big boys could sit on the tarmac and swelter in 110 degree heat all they wanted to. I was going to enjoy flying my little Cessna 402 and 404 and really enjoy flying the airplane. Chalk up another lesson in being content in my own skin.
During my brief stint as a hospice chaplain I had the supervisor from Gehenna. This person was not happy with anything that I did (well, with one notable exception). I did not visit enough, or I visited too much. I did not give enough counsel or I gave too much. Once I met with a family at their request and had a wonderful session. The next week I was called on the carpet for not involving another “team” member (who, by the way, never included me in their meetings with families). It was utter misery. But, my skin was getting thicker and I knew who I was, what I was capable of (and, equally important, not capable of) and so finally I just chucked the whole situation in my supervisors lap and walked away. No one has the right to make another person miserable for doing a job to the best of the person’s ability and giftedness.
I now find myself as an educator and administrator. I find out daily that I am gifted in ways I did not fully realize, and I find out daily that I am a real klutz at things that I once thought I was good at, or at least was going to be good at. But, I’m nearing the age where I could be considered a “classic” (although far from “antique”) and maybe for the first time in my life I can say with quiet calm – I’m good with my gifts and I am cool with my limitations. I cannot take credit for the first, and I refuse to be blamed for the second. I am mortal, and every mortal is good at something and bad at others. I may not be a personal evangelist, but how many personal evangelists have landed an airplane full of critical documents, medicines and other essential freight at an airport shrouded in fog where the visibility is one half of a mile and the overhead ceiling is 200 feet? And in an airplane going over 100 miles an hour? Hmmmmm?
Two words of caution here. One, I am not speaking of throwing up your hands and saying, “that’s just the way I am, get over it” if you are behaving in a way that is truly counter to Kingdom behavior. I am not saying be happy if you are living in a sinful relationship or condition. God expects all people everywhere to live according to His standards, His criteria. I am not giving you permission to dismiss God’s word or the teachings of his Son.
Two, just because I may not be gifted in some areas, or even if I am gifted in other areas, that does not mean I cannot try to improve where I feel God has called me. I want to become a better preacher, teacher and administrator. I would not even mind becoming a better personal evangelist. But I must use God’s standards for my life, not the standards of someone else who is exceptionally gifted in one particular area, and who cannot accept or refuses to accept that not everyone is as gifted as they are in that area.
Get comfortable in your own skin. God made you to be someone special – find the dirt where you feel especially happy and bloom where you are planted.
And don’t let some supervisor from Gehenna tell you that you are worthless. God sent his Son to die for you to tell you you are priceless!
In his treatment of the Sermon on the Mount in the article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12), Dr. Glen Stassen compresses Jesus’ teaching on the spiritual disciplines of giving, prayer and fasting into one brief but in-depth treatment. I will attempt to be as brief.
First, the four sections are set up in parallel – “When you give alms…when you pray…and praying…and when you fast.” So there is thematic as well as grammatical cohesiveness to this section. Second, instead of a “traditional teaching” what we see Jesus discussing is a series of “traditional practices” that, just like the traditional teachings, can devolve into a “vicious cycle” that gets the worshipper nowhere. And, third, the pattern that we saw in the first section of the sermon continues with a series of “transforming initiatives” in each of the four teachings on these spiritual disciplines. These initiatives transform both the practice and the one practicing them.
In regard to these spiritual disciplines, the “traditional practice” that Jesus confronts is doing them in order to be seen and praised. The “vicious cycle” is that “they have their reward” but it is not the reward that ultimately matters. Their reward lasts only as long as it takes for someone to give more, pray longer, or fast more solemnly. So, the struggle to win praise and admiration from the crowds because of spiritual practices never ends – in fact, it only gets more and more difficult.
However, the “transforming initiative” for each of these practices focuses on God as the recipient. God receives the alms and thus blesses. God hears the prayers and thus responds. God notices the fast and thus rewards.
So the pattern that Dr. Stassen identified for the section 5:21-5:48 holds true for 6:1-18. Jesus confronts the traditions of those he lived with, and by doing so confronts our traditions as well. Do we practice the “five acts of worship” (singing, praying, Bible study, Lord’s Supper and giving) as rote practices that must be performed as check boxes to be completed, or are we entering into a special relationship with God through each of these (and more)? It is interesting that in the heritage in which I was raised fasting was something that was never taught as a spiritual discipline, or if it was, it was taught as something that was not necessarily a “command” in the Bible. I think just as frequently it was taught as a Roman Catholic practice that we did not have to share (sort of like eating fish on Friday). But notice, Jesus did not say, “If” you fast, he said, “when” you fast. It has been encouraging to me that fasting has made somewhat of a comeback in non-Roman Catholic circles, and I believe the church would be much stronger, and individual Christians would be much stronger spiritually, with a restoration of this very biblical and very Christ-like practice.
I just wish that I could develop the spiritual discipline of fasting. I speak to myself first and foremost.
Brief, yes. Critical, absolutely. Giving, praying and fasting (among the other spiritual disciplines) must be returned to their proper place of emphasis within the church. But that emphasis is on worshipping a holy God, not for the purpose of being seen and praised.