Monday, November 13, 2017

574 - Get Real

Spirituality Column #574
November 14, 2017
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Get Real
By Bob Walters

“Nobody in the West can be wholly non-Christian.  You may call yourself non-Christian, but the dreams you dream are still Christian dreams.” – Don Cupitt, Philosopher of Religion, Scholar of Christian Theology, Author, Atheist and Life Fellowship holder at Emanuel College, Cambridge University, England

Leave it to an atheist theologian – a formerly-ordained Anglican curate and career-long Christian “non-realist,” no less – to exist within this stated bundle of oxymoronic footings and perhaps unawares express a valuable truth of modern liberal politics and culture.  A more Christ-centered way to put this would be:

You can run but you can’t hide.”

As virtually all of the Western world’s public (and many non-public) colleges in the last century have replaced “Theology” departments with secularly correct departments of “Religious Studies” – thus absolving scholars of the too-often humiliating need to publicly profess Christian faith – since the 1960s Cambridge’s ancient school for priestly training is host to Cupitt, one of Britain’s most prolific and well-known non-God, non-Jesus, non-Holy Spirit purveyors and media darlings of Religion Without God.

Personally, I don’t blame Cupitt’s empty faith on Cambridge, because that school also produced and for many years was home to my fervently faithful and brilliant Christian brother and mentor Dr. George Bebawi, who was a divinity lecturer there.  When I asked George about Cupitt, whom he knew, George assured me that Cupitt was never considered a major intellectual player nor given a teaching job.  Family financial contributions to the school, he explained, account for Cupitt’s presence there.

Forty books and a broadcast career later, Cupitt is commercial evidence of the secular world’s spiritual thirst for “something greater” in this life without the intellectual entanglements and ultimate reality of Jesus Christ.  The notion of One True God is an absolute buzz-killer for today’s progressive liberals who seek spiritual meaning without accepting God’s objective truth. Hope for a Christian is the ultimate good and eternal home we have in Christ.   Secular “hope” – consider the energy expended on today’s non-Christian political agendas – is assigning one’s untethered cultural expectations to worldly political programs.  Its creed declares: “Mankind can fix its own problems.”

Good luck with that.  Secular religion offers no redemptive “endgame,” what Christian theologians call the eschaton, i.e., “How it all ends.”  As we read in Revelation, the Christian “end” proves Jesus is real, God wins, and through God’s grace and love humanity is rescued from its sin by faith in Jesus Christ.  Secular theology’s “end” offers nothing more real, true, permanent, or moral than the next election, debate, or protest.

The seeds of God’s truth are everywhere, and I believe John 3:16 is correct in saying Jesus came for all humanity, so let’s not leave anyone out.  Cupitt’s “Christian dreams” are God’s seedlings, and God’s harvest means eternal Jesus is looking for us.

The reality is: religion without God is as imaginary as love without relationship.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) offers evidence of “secular religion”: just look at the next “coexist” bumper sticker you see. God is whatever you want, or not.
Monday, November 6, 2017

573 - Performance Anxiety, Part 2

Spirituality Column #573
November 7, 2017
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Performance Anxiety, Part 2
By Bob Walters

“For in The Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:17

As a young Catholic seminarian, priest, and monk, Martin Luther spent ten miserable years trying to confess enough of his sins to feel worthy of God’s redemption.

It was no picnic for the other priest, either, hearing Luther’s hours-long sin  confessions of even sins he wasn’t sure he had committed, but they crossed his mind so Luther confessed them too, and then wondered about sins he might commit.  It was exhausting and Luther was depressed; he could not be good enough for God.

Luther was certainly no obscure, crazed ascetic as legend sometimes implies.  He was a near-legendary student, became a monk, was quickly elevated to Wittenberg University’s theological professorship, was the local church’s priest, and while still in his twenties was pastoral overseer of eleven churches.  Luther even visited Rome early on as an emissary for his local archbishop in Saxony, Germany, on a matter of Church control and politics. Yet he still couldn’t pray his way to perfection; couldn’t work his way to redemption, couldn’t confess enough sin to be rid of it.

But Luther had done one specific and unique thing upon entering seminary that few others did, and it was what ultimately delivered him from depression and re-ordered the Church: Luther took the Bible he was given upon entering seminary and read it – something few priests did – and then applied it and preached it.  That would get my vote for the greatest thing Luther did: he brought the Bible back into western Christianity.

His famed Ninety-Five Theses of 1517 were really just points of discussion, not rebellion, and written in Latin, like Bibles of the age, so few people could read them.  The Theses focused on Indulgences (paying the church for “time off” in purgatory), not the whole of Catholic tradition and doctrine.  But when others translated the Theses into German, and Luther himself translated the Latin Bible into German (New Testament 1522, Old Testament and Apocrypha in 1534), and Gutenberg’s printing press provided unprecedented mass production of these documents, soon the entire continent – including England - was scrutinizing, protesting and reforming Christian practices.

It is a deeply rich, complex, and continuing story.  To me the touchpoint is Luther’s personal struggle with “not being good enough for God” but finding the answer – e.g. Romans 1:17 – in scripture.  Even today, sincere, Biblically savvy Christians struggle with obedience, guilt, and shame, pleading for Godly knowledge and assurance that “they are good enough” and have “done enough.”  Such personal angst often leads to sinful judgment of others’ “works” in a wrong, downward spiral of personal pride.

Are we good enough for God?  No, not as we are, because God is perfect and we are sinful.  But each one of us is created by God, in His image, in His love, for His glory.  So be thankful first that God gave us the free will to seek and love Him, to believe in Him, and that He sent Jesus as our saving Christ who covers our sins and overwrites our earthly unworthiness into eternal glory.  Our righteousness before God is a free faith thing, not an anxious human performance thing.  Luther read all about it in the Bible.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) loves church but lives by faith in Jesus.
Monday, October 30, 2017

572 - Performance Anxiety, Part 1

Spirituality Column #572
October 31, 2017
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Performance Anxiety, Part 1
By Bob Walters

Oh, how we Christians stupidly worry if we are good enough for God’s redemption.

How can we prove our faith?  Earn His love?  Glorify His name?  Get into heaven?  Repent of our sin?  Avoid His wrath?  Live a perfect life?

“What am I supposed to do to be redeemed?”

Well, if it makes you feel any better, Martin Luther was worried about all those same things 500 years ago. His answer?  There’s not much we can do; the heavy lifting of human redemption is up to God.  How did Luther know?  The Bible told him so.

Unless one vigorously avoids all contact with church history – and there are people I know and love who think “church history” was a Billy Graham Crusade that came through town 20 years ago – we might be aware that today, October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary observance of the game-changing Protestant Reformation spurred by Luther’s plea for Roman Catholic doctrinal clarification in 1517.

The humble but quirky German monk unintentionally turned the Christian world upside down by simply inviting an academic and theological dialog to delineate church, individual, and divine redemptive roles in “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12).

And no, it wasn’t an “Occupy Wittenberg” hissy-fit style protest when Luther’s succinct proposal for discussion –his much-heralded Ninety-Five Theses – appeared on the church door at Wittenberg Castle in Germany.  The door was the school’s “bulletin board,” and most likely the notice was pasted, not nailed, to the door by the custodian.

Luther was Wittenberg University’s professor of theology as well as the local pastor and also overseer of several parishes in that region of Saxony.  At issue was the Church’s practice of “indulgences” whereby one could purchase for oneself or one’s deceased relatives – either with money or by visiting collections of holy relics – relief from time in purgatory, the Catholic traditional doctrine of where souls go after death to atone for earthly sins before, leading to redemption and then proceeding on to heaven.

Luther – a clergical rarity in his era in that he actually studied the Bible – had vast theological doubts about this Church interference with God’s plan of redemption.  Luther also knew, having visited Rome just a few years earlier, that the spiritual state of the church was in near shambles due to six consecutive 15th-16th century Popes – Leo X being the latest and last – who had scandalously misled the Church of St. Peter.

While in Rome, Luther also discerned that the central priesthood had descended into a cynical, works-oriented, theologically vacant, biblically empty, say-the-Mass-as-fast-as-you-can-to-get-it-over-with pastoral morass.  It was an awful era in western Church history.

Deeply pious and deeply concerned with his own repentance and redemption, Luther was an academic prodigy and biblical scholar with questions, not a rebel with a torch. Next week we’ll cover a few salient takeaways of how this humble monk’s sincere desire to please God shook and revived the deepest foundations of Christianity.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) sides with Luther and the Reformation, but notes the tremendous service the revolt provided in restoring the dignity of the Catholic Church.
Monday, October 23, 2017

571 - Truth Be Told

Spirituality Column #571
October 24, 2017
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Truth Be Told
By Bob Walters

For the peace and comfort of those within earshot around me, I rarely sing in church.

It’s a cross I bear; I can’t sing.  I try, I can’t, I don’t.  ‘Wish I could.

Many of those nearest and dearest to me sing – or once sang – very well.  Our Sunday lunch group / Small group – all choir members but me – is a restaurant show-stopper when it sings Happy Birthday to one of our gang (yes, it sounds best on my birthday because I’m not joining in).  My dad sang in his college choir, and my wife toured Europe with hers. My younger son John sang in the top notch Carmel (Ind.) High School “Ambassadors” competition show choir and performed the character “Will” in the musical “Oklahoma.”  My elder son Eric plays some guitar and has led worship.

They say talent skips a generation.  Well, here I am. Call me “Skip.”

Psalm 100 notwithstanding  “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. … come before his presence with singing” – I enjoy and am thankful, really, listening to the hymns and praises of singers who sing well.  My heart is singing right along, even if my mouth isn’t.  But sometimes my lips can’t help but join in, and Friday this past week was one of those times.

Halfway around the world in the Muslim country of Qatar on the Persian Gulf east of Saudi Arabia, Pam and I were visiting Eric and his wife Lindsey in Qatar’s truly astonishing and opulent capital city of Doha where they live and work.  The Middle Eastern city’s amazing sights, modern architecture, traditional culture, frenetic bustle of endless infrastructure projects, and the anticipatory community buzz of prestigiously hosting the 2022 World Cup soccer championship concoct a breathless civic pride and sense of purpose not adequately communicated in words (or even in song).  Doha is a happening place; Gulf States political blockade – and 100-degree heat – or not.

And though it was a great trip, this isn’t a travelogue.  It’s a Christian cry of hope from my singing heart, sharing with you that on Friday – the Muslim world’s holy day, Friday-Saturday is their weekend – we found in Doha a small but robust Christian congregation of 150 or so souls packed into an unmarked building with whom we were able to worship.  Even in a land hostile to the Gospel, the Truth was being told.

We sang hymns we knew, praised the Lord we know, heard the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ preached, and prayed that others too would learn and know.

We shared joyfully in this small but bright point of light, praising Jesus’ name and – understanding where I was; the most meaningful part of the trip – joining these resolute and courageous Christians lifting my own voice in song as loudly as I could.

Truth be told, it was a joyful noise.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) and wife Pam flew home Sunday, the first day of the workweek in Qatar and the Muslim world. As they thought of stateside friends securely going to Sunday church, Eric dropped them off at the airport on his way to work. Though the Qatari government tacitly allows the Friday church to meet and operate, still, the worship leader begins by being sure everyone knows where the emergency exits are.
Monday, October 16, 2017

570 - The Easy Life

Spirituality Column No. 570
October 17, 2017
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

The Easy Life
By Bob Walters

I honestly didn’t expect that becoming a Christian would make life easier.  Then upon opening the Bible, I learned that Jesus promises over and over again that it won’t.

And it doesn’t.  Read the Gospels.

But what following Christ does – when done properly – is make life more understandable and provide the greatest depth of opportunity imaginable for intellectual growth, personal freedom, community power, truth-driven foresight and the unparalleled joy of truly loving and serving others.  That is the glimpse of God’s Kingdom we see in Christ; that is the truth the Holy Spirit was sent to communicate to humanity.

It only took me 47 years of this life to catch on.

Everything I thought I would dislike about religion – the rules, the obedience, the judgment, the narrowness, the mystery, the reliance on hard-to-understand scripture, the seeming irrationality of believing things you can’t see, the surrender of self-will to God’s will, going to church, church people, etc. – were all things that I discovered either aren’t really true or, if true, aren’t really a burden.  Not in Christianity, anyway.

No doubt, the world we live in promises to remain a rough and tumble affair.  And religions through the ages – including some parts of Christianity – have lined up errantly on the side of rules and definitions that require the cancellation of personal growth: you must not ask questions, you must not doubt, you must not disobey.  Or? We will kill you.

Perhaps less scary but equally useless are religions – including some parts of Christianity – that promise only “good things” in this life like wealth, health, and stature.  These are the deceitful lies of pride from Satan, not the humble promises of the living, eternal, and divine Christ.

Loving, relational, and sacrificial faith are unique, key, but often underappreciated aspects of Jesus.  And the reason that the true purpose of Jesus – to reunite us with God the Father – is often lost, I think, is that the world is focused on sin, control, guilt, blame, fear, greed, suspicion … it’s a seemingly endless list, but note that these are all things of which Satan is a champion, and all things that cover over God’s great power of love with virtually the same effectiveness that the power that Christ covers over sin.

Christ, we learn, is the embodiment of grace; not turmoil.  So much of the world – often with boundless but baseless vigor – confuses, badly defines, or flat-out denies good and evil, right and wrong, wise and foolish, and even smart and stupid, reducing humanity’s ability to properly attach its fallen pieces to the eternal fabric of Christ.

Surviving this world isn’t about making this world easier, because you can’t.  But in making life’s burdens easier even when they are inexplicable, frightening and maybe even crushingly unfair, no survival tactic tops a close relationship with Christ.

When we hold Jesus close, we realize He holds us even closer.

It’s as easy as that.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) didn’t know what to expect when he became a Christian; neither did he ever expect to truly become one, nor how easy it would be.
Monday, October 9, 2017

569 - Stuck in the Middle

Spirituality Column No. 569
October 10, 2017
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Stuck in the Middle
By Bob Walters

He was never stuck for an answer or stuck for the truth.  And when it came to good and evil Jesus Christ spent no time treading the middle ground.

Don’t we all wish we could say the same assured, virtuous thing about our sometimes tongue-tied and sin equivocating selves?  Think of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15-20, “…doing what I don’t want to do and not doing what I should do …”  Jesus – the authority of all creation, the embodiment of God’s Kingdom, the fulfillment of the Law, the author of all wisdom, fully God and fully man – never had that problem. 

But let’s not stew in our own shortcomings over how we are less than Jesus.  We are, and that’s OK.  Instead let’s examine how Jesus unfailingly blended mercy with righteousness, shrewdness with truthfulness, God’s power with humanity’s weakness, never expressed neutrality about anything, and was never mistaken about anything.

Christ’s ministry was God’s absolute expression of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, and grace vs. the Law.  And almost nobody wanted to hear it.  His parables picked apart Jewish traditions, enraging the Pharisees who lived by them.  When in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6-7) Jesus repeatedly asserted, “You have heard it said … but I say …” He was redefining the Kingdom of God which the Jews were certain resided in the Law.  They were overlooking, unaware, and refusing to believe that Jesus – with love, grace, humility, and mercy – was the fulfillment of the Law.

Salvation, Jesus was saying, was real and attainable and a gift of pure divine love, not a function of legal obedience.  True salvation brought forgiveness of sins, joy in this world through faith in Jesus and the trustworthiness of God, and eternal glorious life in the true heaven of the true God.  Salvation was an explanation – it is the only explanation – of life’s truest purpose: our loving relationship with God who created us in His image, expressed in this life by faithful, selfless love for God and our fellow man.

Jesus never wavered from that message of love and sacrifice, though it was the antithesis of how the Jews thought the Law worked.  Mercy was the real message of Jesus and caring for our neighbor was the true fulfillment of the Law (Good Samaritan parable, Luke 10:25-37).  Jesus forever brings relationship; the Law always builds pride, judgment, hate, and separation from our neighbors.  That’s the ominous lesson of the Old Testament.  The Law was not a waste of time; it was a lesson man had to learn.

Our problem today may not be that we are wishy-washy; it may be that we sacrifice mercy at the expense of righteousness.  That’s what the Pharisees and pious Jews did with the Law, and they killed Jesus for it.  Today we have cultural Pharisees with incomplete love who misjudge good and evil and navigate God’s Kingdom poorly.

Political Correctness, as my friend and teacher George Bebawi notes, is modern society’s attempt to be neutral between good and evil.

Please listen, Christians … you’ll never find Jesus in the middle.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) craves generosity and politeness but sees P.C. as a controlling secular exercise ignoring obvious truth, not a divine function of true mercy.
Monday, October 2, 2017

568 - Getting the Point

Spirituality Column No. 568
October 3, 2017
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Getting the Point
By Bob Walters

Our fall weeknight Bible study taught by Dr. George Bebawi is a thematic look at the Gospel of Mark.  So far we’ve done Origins, the Holy Spirit, and Marriage as Part I of a two-week look at Mark’s Parables.  Consider these nuggets from the lectures …

-- A man was severely wounded by an arrow but would not accept treatment until he asked many questions about who shot the arrow, who made the arrow, where it was shot from, what kind of a bow, etc. The man died because he was so busy with the origin of the arrow he never got the present help that could have saved his life.

The point?  Questions are fine, but our help and salvation reside in Jesus.

-- We encounter many versions of the Bible and therefore some folks question its truth, integrity, and origins.  It’s simple to track, really; plenty of information is available and today’s versions always go back to the “original language was Greek.”  Right, but most people recorded in the Bible would have been speaking some form of Hebrew, Arabic and in the New Testament predominantly Aramaic, not Greek. The Greek version would vary in clarity and eloquence based on the various writers’ facility with Greek.  Peter, a Semite, would have been less linguistically elegant than Luke, a Greek.

The point? Jesus is the key, not the language.

-- What did we lose in the Garden, and what did we get back in Jesus?  “We” means humanity – all of us, all created in God’s image.  What did we lose and then gain back?  God’s Holy Spirit, that’s what.  One of the great differences in the Old vs. New Testaments is the absence, presence and involvement of spirits both good and bad.  Note that in the entire Old Testament, an “evil spirit” is never thrown out, as we constantly see in the Gospels.  In the OT David “played music to calm the [evil spirits]” not expel them.  And notice that the Holy Spirit – the one that presumably “hovered over the waters” in Genesis 1:2 appears rarely in the remainder of the OT, and then only in certain times of crisis and to the prophets.  The Law, it would seem, obviated the Spirit.

The point? Jesus conquers evil spirits and connects us to God in the Holy Spirit.

-- What of marriage, the church, the “bride of Christ,” and all the marriage symbolism in the Bible, Gospels and parables of Jesus?  God created man in His own image because God wanted a marriage relationship with us.  We get stuck thinking “Christianity” is about sin, punishment, slave-like obedience, guilt, God’s wrath, etc.  No, as Christians we must think of our relationship with God as a trusting, wholesome, loving, pure, and eternal marriage.  An interesting note about the crown and “garment without seams” Jesus wore to the Cross is that they are traditional ancient garb (a crown minus the thorns) for a Jewish bridegroom.  I do see the thorns as our sins and the whole cloth as God’s purity.  That God saw Israel as “an adulterous nation” also is a reference to God’s desired marriage relationship with His chosen people.

The point? Relationship, i.e. love, is what God, Jesus and the Spirit are all about.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) notes that ScriptureText.com, his “go to” for foreign scripture translation, has the Bible available in nine different versions of Greek.
Also …George’s class – free and open to the public – meets at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays at East 91st St. Christian Church, Indianapolis.

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