Monday, June 1, 2020

707 - Completing the Course

Spirituality Column #707
June 2, 2020
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Completing the Course
By Bob Walters

“… if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” – Jesus to the disciples, Mark 11:25

I was listening to an older adult (though younger than me) last weekend wonderfully, excitedly describing his newly burnished faith in Jesus Christ.

His testimony, which took the shape of a warm and engaging “coffee shop” interview with his pastor, was the recorded centerpiece of his church’s Memorial Day weekend online worship service.  I listened to it with great interest since he is a former work colleague and friend.  I smiled a lot listening to the sincerity of his budding faith and seeing the joy emanating from the peaceful glow on his face.  Powerful stuff.  Praise God.

The core of his conversion, as he laid it out, was coming to the critical knowledge that through God’s son Jesus he is forgiven of his sins, that God in heaven loves him, and that heaven will be his home – all holy gifts he has sturdily embraced.  Praise God, again.

For his privacy and our focus, it is not his name but the lesson embedded in his testimony into which I would like to delve.  And we will start where he starts, with the most common and heavily “merchandized” aspect of Christian evangelism: forgiveness.

Ask 100 Christians, “Why are you a Christian?” and – ball-park guess – 99 of them will say some version of, “Because my sins are forgiven, Jesus loves me, and I get to go to heaven.”  The other one might say something about the music, the pastor, the fellowship, or possibly offer up some theological or scriptural profundity about love, truth, obedience, humanity, freedom, divine relationship, serving others, or maybe accepting the offer and demands of joining God’s glory.  Or that one person might say, “I don’t know.”

But, “My sins are forgiven, Jesus loves me, and I get to go to heaven” is the preponderant batter’s box / starting blocks / green flag of any walk, run, or race with Jesus.

That said, salvation is not achieved standing on the self-directed trinitarian starting line of “my, me, and I.” The gracious lesson of Christ is not what we get for our faith, but what our faith provides others.  It is not “God’s forgiveness of me” that saves me; it is my forgiveness and Christlike love of others, glorifying God, that saves me.  How do we know?

Read the Gospels.  Yes, Jesus remarkably offers forgiveness throughout, but notice that those instances are incidental to His more profound mission and message.  Jesus’s deepest teaching is about Who He Is as a person – the Son of God – and about His obedience to God, God’s love, His oneness with the Father, humanity’s creation in the image of God, our suffering, the truth and peace of the Holy Spirit, and the necessity not just to love God and others as Jesus commands in the upper room (John 13:34), but, as Jesus says in Mark 11:25 (above), our forgiveness requires that we forgive others.

Certainly, Jesus came to save and forgive us; it is plainly laid out in John 14:6 that Jesus is the only “way, truth, and life” for us to come to the Father; we receive and accept salvation.  We often talk – in some error, I believe – about the “cost” or “price” Jesus “paid” for our sins.  Jesus’ work of forgiveness on the cross was an act of God’s love, Holy truth, and Christ’s human obedience, not an exchange or a transaction or a credit card swipe.

No, our true Christian mission is not to be forgiven, but to forgive and love others.

When my friend understands that, his testimony – and his peace – will be complete.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) notes that all kinds of folks in the Old Testament ask for or predict God’s forgiveness; God’s full answer to their prayers and pleas is Jesus Christ.
Monday, May 25, 2020

706 - Outside the Box

Spirituality Column #706
May 26, 2020
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Outside the Box
By Bob Walters

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary and what is not seen is eternal.” Paul, 2 Corinthians 4:18

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1

It wasn’t until I went inside a church that I truly learned about thinking outside the box.

Seems backwards, doesn’t it?  All those judgmental, close-minded Christians steeped in spooky fear and irrational legends “praying” into thin air about forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, and God’s glory.  Where is the logic in any of that?

Turns out that logic, so revered by “thinkers,” I discovered over time, is the box that incarcerates humanity and truly confines the human mind.  It is faith in these wonderful “things unseen” which, as C.S. Lewis put it, is the light by which we see everything else.  Faith in Christ is the most out-of-the-box thinking we can experience.

Logic is helpful and isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing; it simply is neither a very big intellectual box nor indicative of an assured moral guidepost.  Logic, on its own, provides situational awareness, objective analysis, workable action plans, and a pathway upon which opinion may safely trod but right-thinking and truth may stumble. 

Because a large part of modern culture insists logic cannot be argued with, logic accommodates the tyranny of popular clichés, partisan soundbites, and what 1900s Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton would call, “Truisms that are not true.” Intellectual heft, you see, requires great intellectual will and inspired intellectual energy. Not clichés.

Christianity is entirely an exercise in out-of-the-box thinking.

First evidence of that?  Nobody saw Jesus coming.  Despite prophecy and the despair of the Jews badly in need of and waiting for God’s promised Messiah, they saw nothing logical or attractive in a “savior” who was a servant and who taught the moral enormity of servanthood and obedience “even unto death.”  That’s outside the box.

Pick your Bible story – Old Testament or New – and you’ll find the true story of God, not much about the sanctified logic of humanity.  If anything, the Bible reveals that when man draws his mind within the small logical and often fearful, self-preservationist box of himself, evil frequently emanates.  Why?  He’s not thinking about God or others.

Twentieth century Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, who with her family escaped Nazi Germany, attended the post-war trial in Jerusalem of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann.  She expected to see a monster, but her lasting impression of him was the evident smallness of his ability to and absence of willingness to think.  That, Arendt surmised, was how he generated enormous evil out of his meek, “banal” personage.

In Christ – with mysterious but unwavering assuredness – we possess the cosmic enormity and power of thinking about God’s goodness, truth, and love.  The freedom of Christ is the freedom of thinking well outside the box of humanity’s confines.

Is our mind like Christ’s?  No.  But does Christ impart His mind to us?  Yes, that’s why He entered time and humanity: to teach, to share, to prove, to love, to serve.

It isn’t logical or in a box, but Jesus gifted us with a whole new way of thinking.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) sees the Bible more as a how-to-think book than a rulebook.
Monday, May 18, 2020

705 - Fellowship and Life


Spirituality Column #705
May 19, 2020
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Fellowship and Life
By Bob Walters

“And he took bread, gave thanks, and broke it …” – Jesus, Luke 19:19
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood …” – Jesus, Luke 19:20

I was on the schedule at my church this past Sunday to present the “communion meditation,” a short homily preceding our weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

That schedule – published late last fall for our Traditional services in 2020 – was obviated (i.e., “blown to smithereens”) by the COVID-19 shutdown.  We still partake in the Lord’s Supper in our online service (at home) but with no Traditional service homily.
Months ago, pre-shut-down, I hit on an idea for the homily and made notes.  When my phone calendar chime reminded me last week to prepare the communion meditation, I dug out the notes and figured, column!  Here is my communion thought:

“The broken body and the spilled blood of Christ.”  That’s the phrase we hear so often as we encounter the Lord’s Supper, our commemoration of Jesus at the last supper in the upper room.  Jesus there instructed His disciples, going forward, to eat the bread and drink the cup “in remembrance” of Him.  In the ensuing hours, Jesus – the perfect and innocent lamb – would be arrested, tried, beaten, and crucified.  Jesus’s broken and bloody body hung on the cursed cross sacrificed to defeat death, forgive humanity’s sins, and complete His mission of salvation in perfect obedience to God. 

That’s a story we all know, but frankly I don’t always like the way it is told.  Jesus died a violent but purposeful death and his resurrection proved His truth.  But scripture tells us that Jesus, the perfect sacrifice, would have no “broken” bones (Exodus 12:46, Psalm 34:20, John 19:36).  And though Jesus bled, crucifixion is not a “blood” sacrifice – death comes from multiple trauma and agonizing asphyxiation on a “cursed tree.”

Listen closely to the words of Luke 19:19: “He took bread, gave thanks, and broke it.”  Jesus was breaking the bread of sustained fellowship with His disciples and instructing all believers for all time to remember and replicate the holy communion the disciples had with Jesus and each other. Fellowship, not brokenness, is the point.

And hear Luke 19:20: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood …”  Blood is the locus of life, we are taught in the Old Testament, and this new cup of Christ indicates not only His bloody death but the blood – the new life of faith – in the New Covenant.

Let us always encounter the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper with joy and fellowship, in both our communion with Christ and in loving each other.  Why would we celebrate a guilty remembrance of a brutal death, or a shaming reminder of our sins, failures, and fallenness?  When did Jesus say to believers, “Remember your guilt!”?

No!  In communion with the gracious, risen Christ we are to joyfully and properly share in his eternal gifts of hope and peace.  “Go and sin no more!” Jesus said.  In this supper we commemorate the glory and love of God, the perfect truth and obedience of Jesus, and the abiding comfort and peace of the Holy Spirit.  The bread and the cup remind us that we are Christians commissioned to shine Jesus’s light on mankind and that Jesus commanded us, as faithful servants, to love God and to love each other.

In a world where Satan’s darkness is close, we are citizens of a Heavenly light in communion with the Father, the Son, the Spirit, and each other.  Let’s remember that.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) is fixed and gathered, not broken and spilled.

Monday, May 11, 2020

704 - God's in Control ... of This?


Spirituality Column #704
May 12, 2020
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

God’s in Control … of This?
By Bob Walters

Countless doctrinal sticking points notwithstanding, if Christians, Jews, and Muslims have one inarguable thing in common it is their assuredness that “God is in control.”

Yes … God – the “capital G” God, yhwh, Allah, the one with “99 Beautiful Names,” the Cosmic Sovereign – is in control.  He created all things, is the giver of life, knows all things, and is the lone and final arbiter of judgment, mercy, and justice.  How humanity’s relationship with God works – personally and corporately – that’s where you’ll find all the doctrinal sticking points.

But let’s not spend time today on the “sticking points.”  While I’m fully prepared, willing, confident, and always excited to share the reasons for the hope and trust I have in Jesus Christ, the topic at hand is God’s sovereign control. I’ll talk about it as a Christian since that is what I know best.  A Jew or a Muslim would explain it differently in terms of what they know best.

As for this sovereign God who is in control; we sure pray to Him a lot.  “Fix this, fix that,” we demand.  “How can a good God allow … THIS!?”  From (currently) viruses and social distancing, to politics and factions, to economic freefall and globalist intrigues, why has this supposedly all-powerful God let this chaos happen and why do I have to worry about it?

Sigh.  Bad, chaotic things happen because the world is a fallen place.  When we refuse that truth or refuse God’s righteousness – because God is the real Capital T Truth – this life likely will seem like a purposeless, out-of-control slog.  Try as we might to construct for ourselves an alternate ultimate purpose or “goodness” emanating out of our own God-refusing humanity, I can only direct us all back to Square One where “God is in control.”

However – and this is my first of two brief but main points – despite God “being in control,” we also have to understand that He gives us personal freedom; we have to control that.  Why?  God is love – Jesus said so – and love can’t be coerced.  God created us in His own image so that we could glorify Him – and ourselves – by freely loving Him and His creation.

Speaking only for my Christian self, I believe my job, opportunity, and purpose in this life – in this fallen world – is to use my freedom to discover and testify to God’s glory.  Freedom – as we should know by now – is not really a government thing; it’s a sovereign God thing.

Second, God controls things we cannot see or imagine.  Remember how the Jews reacted when Jesus – God riding on a donkey – entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to initiate His plan to save the whole world through His love for the Jews?  Yeah, the Jews weren’t impressed and had Jesus killed.  God’s glory isn’t always revealed – or accepted – smoothly.

Our mission is to live God’s love and obey Him when He shows up, not to tell Him what we think His job should be.  In this season of dire disease and civil unease, I’ve seen two remarkable examples of God’s sovereign “control” recently that everything to do with devout prayer on the one hand and God’s timing on the other:

1. A long-time friend’s 47-year-old son (father of three) had a severe, surprise, not-gonna’-make-it heart attack.  Facebook lit up in prayer.  Just three weeks on he’s back at home doing fine.

2. My wife Pam’s daughter Lauren, a mother of three, in a minor surgical follow-up last week, had “the biggest kidney stone” her urologist had ever seen – discovered just before the shutdown, preventing major kidney surgery in mid-March – simply fall out of its stented lodging spot into an easily getable location, also something her urologist had never seen.  Lauren was back at work the next day; fixed.  God’s timing?  Had the major surgery and long convalescence happened, Lauren would now be furloughed from her job.  Nobody thought to pray about that.

So yes, God is in control.  Let’s use the freedom He provides to discover His plan, our trust in Him, our love for each other, and to accept His surprises, righteousness, and grace.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) has no Plan B; Plan A is faith in Jesus.  That’ll work.
PS –You sharp Christian doctrinal types will notice that I consider “freedom” to be something of a divine absolute, not a sub-function of Calvinist predestination.  You have observed my beliefs correctly.  We all know Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:5,11; we also all know John 3:16.  No need to fight; God is in control.  I believe we all have a shot; we just have to believe in Jesus Christ (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).  I pray for all.

Monday, May 4, 2020

703 - It's the Light, Not the Leap

Spirituality Column #703
May 5, 2020
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

It’s the Light, Not the Leap
By Bob Walters

“…that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on the power of God.”
“…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
 – 1 Corinthians 2:5, Hebrews 11:1

If I do say so myself, I wrote the most amazing sentence this past week in an email exchange with an extraordinarily bright, non-religious, long-time friend.

Let’s call him John, and his irenic response to that sentence inspired this column.

John had commented wryly but critically about a recent op ed piece I had written, “On Facemasks … Who Are We?”  It was an editorial about American character, COVID-19, and hiding the identity God gave to us behind a facemask.

John’s public observation contained what seemed to be ad hominem vitriol. I pushed back, but our ensuing non-public exchange was thought-provoking.  He noted: “My lack of faith means I do take things more objectively, and though your words were almost poetic it might not resonate as deeply with me as it would with a Christian. …”

A nice compliment from a smart guy that revealed a common error about “faith.”

I responded, “Great note John.  I deeply appreciate your sincerity. Don’t ever think lack of faith makes one more objective; it makes one (maybe not you) less able to embrace the existence of objective truth, which requires faith. …”

That was my “amazing sentence,” in case you couldn’t tell.  I continued briefly about being 47 when I “got” Christ, what a deeply intellectual journey my faith-growth has been, and I noted John’s keen capacity to parse and understand virtually anything.

To that John replied, “I love how your journey has … led you into sureness that (in my wry and respectful observation) you can use a phrase like ‘embracing the existence of objective truth requires faith.’  I … understand that after you have crossed that faith bridge you are no longer tentative but living in a new certainty, such that a phrase that seems to be a contradiction in terms isn’t a contradiction at all.”

And there it is, this week’s column: objectivity vs. faith.  John was gently, eruditely, and without condescension acknowledging that what is a contradiction to him, i.e., “objective truth which requires faith,” he understands is not a contradiction to me.

And that seeming contradiction, friends, is what limits the world.  It also largely defines today’s truth-obviating post-modernism which positions “truth” as objectively incompatible with the inferior “faith” as objective proof of the reality of Jesus Christ.

John also cited the “metaphysics” required for me to take such a “leap of faith.”

It reminded me – and underscored – how western civilization overly-relies on the ancient Greek philosophical axiom that reality and objectivity are confined to that which can be seen (or discussed) and “proven.”  I also think of Francis Bacon’s 17th century “scientific method” that adds “repeatability” to the proof of “scientific” reality.  These worldly constructs exclude faith and combine to vacantly imply, “Faith isn’t objective.”

Really? Which is closer to objectivity: God the Creator of all things, His infinite love and eternal relationship, that he made humanity in His own image, and lights our lives with Christ, or the machinations, variations, limitations, and opinions of fallen men?

Life’s objective truth is not a leap of faith; it is a faithful walk in the light of Jesus.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) met John (smart even back then) in Little League.
Monday, April 27, 2020

702 - Letting Truth Out of the Bag

Spirituality Column #702
April 28, 2020
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Letting Truth Out of the Bag
By Bob Walters

“When the Counselor comes, who I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” – Jesus, in John 15:26

A little more than a year ago I inherited the teaching duties in our church’s Thursday morning seniors “Mustard Seed” Bible study fellowship.  At age 65 I am the “kid” in the group, and I can barely describe how enriching it is to share scripture with this weekly group of seasoned, Bible-savvy saints.

Currently we have not met since Thursday, March 12, which was pretty much the last open day in Indiana before everything, including our East 91st Street Christian Church, area schools, and public meetings started shutting down Friday, March 13.

Mustard Seed – no argument there – is the kind of group that especially needs not to meet when a pandemic like COVID-19 is an evident danger to older folks.

But what I wanted to talk about this week is not the dire, dour, and depressing isolation of our nation’s and indeed the world’s present situation.  Nor can I think of anything new to say about our individual and largely home-bound circumstances.  To all those folks still out there working every day in hospitals, grocery stores, gas stations, and other life-saving and society-sustaining endeavors, I say “Thank You!”

What I do want to discuss is the plain-as-the-nose-on-my-face fact that perhaps the greatest joy-robbing, hope-jangling feature of this unprecedented time is the utter absence of what I would call reliable truth about virtually anything having to do with the reporting, media narrative, and politics surrounding the pandemic.  Who can we trust? 

From China to Washington state to New York City to Washington D.C. to Italy to my home here in Fishers, Indiana, I wonder who is pushing which social, political, or economic agenda.  What is the real danger: the disease or our reaction to it?  Since “tomorrow is guaranteed to no one,” let’s not panic about the presently more intense vagaries of “tomorrow.”  What we all need are facts and truth, not fear and spin.

I started by talking about “Mustard Seed” because our past several months have been a study of “The Words of Jesus.”  Especially illuminating to me personally, in the Last Supper and Gethsemane sections of John 14-17, is Jesus talking through these four entire chapters about God’s unwavering righteousness, eternal truth, boundless love, infinite glory, their relationship … and his disciples’ responsibilities going forward. 

This truth – His truth – marches on.  In His last hours it is virtually all Jesus talks about.

When we can’t see truth – in anything, whether particular or whole – our human misery most likely is in our inability to see God, relate with Jesus, and listen to the Holy Spirit.  The world, for unrighteous reasons in times like these, prefers our focus to be on fear and anxiety. These are man’s evil shackles that choke our free breath in Christ.

I listen carefully for God’s truth.  I know that’s what Jesus brought into the world – freedom not just from our own sin and the wiles of wicked men and women, but toward faith, hope, love, peace, creativity, and joy that our trust in God’s eternal truth assures.

What a better world we make, and what joy we reap, when we believe in and testify to God’s truth.  The fallen world controls us in fear, but Jesus by his life, death, resurrection, and sending of the Spirit let God’s righteous, saving truth out of the bag.  

Sometimes we have to fight for that truth, but our joy always is in knowing it.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) watches little mainstream news but stays informed and prays big sincere prayers … regularly.

Monday, April 20, 2020

701 - Humble New Beginnings


Spirituality Column #701
April 21, 2020
Common Christianity / Uncommon Commentary

Humble New Beginnings
By Bob Walters

“… because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” – Luke 19:41

Jesus very famously wept quietly at the tomb of Lazarus – “Jesus wept” – but He absolutely howled as He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Jesus "weeps" twice in the Bible – tenderly (Greek edakrysen, John 11:35) for Lazarus’s sisters’ sadness, and a second time loudly (Greek eklausen, Luke 19:41), “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it.”

While we could spend this entire column discussing how deeply Jesus was moved – and somewhat miffed – at the reactions of Lazarus’ family and friends before Jesus brought Lazarus out of the tomb, that’s a common story we’ve all studied before.  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” (John 11:25).  And He meant it.

Bible scholars mostly agree that “Palm Sunday” was a few days later on the first day of the following week when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem to the palm-waving Hosannas of all the believers who knew of Lazarus and had heard of Jesus’s many miracles. They welcomed him to Jerusalem as their holy and promised Messiah. 

The Pharisees were not so thrilled.  As Jesus approached (Luke 37-44) the crowd joyously praised but the Pharisees viciously harangued: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” (v. 39).  Jesus noted that if his disciples were quiet, then the “stones would cry out.” (v. 40).  Seeing the unbelief of the Pharisees and their blindness toward God, Jesus knew it meant Jerusalem’s eventual destruction.  He wept bitterly because of it.

Clearly nobody except Jesus had any idea what the rest of that week held, or how history after that would be forever changed.  The reality was, Jesus on that donkey was God returning to Jerusalem – as God told Abraham, Moses, and the prophets He would – to initiate His Kingdom on Earth.  It’s what Jesus had been saying all along.

What the Pharisees saw – in their blindness and anger – was a troublemaking blasphemer who would pull down their temple, negate their authority, threaten their social positions, and not least of all threaten Jerusalem’s tenuous peace with the Romans.  The Pharisees “did not recognize the time of God’s coming.” (v. 41)

Something else they didn’t perceive, and I’d never thought of either, was looking at what we call Holy Week as a perfect, poetic replay of the Creation story in Genesis. 

It was just a brief note in N.T. Wright’s The New Testament in Its World I’m reading, but, Lord of lords, how poignant. In Genesis 1, God labored for six days, rested a day, and His perfect Creation was in motion.  Jesus here spent six days in Jerusalem (Sunday to Friday), finishing his work of salvation, service, obedience, and love on the cross on Friday – the sixth day – and in his death rested on the seventh day Saturday. 

Right here, let’s not worry too much whether on that “Holy Saturday” Jesus descended into Hades, battled Satan, freed the saints, or whatever else He might have done; there is only thin and much debated scriptural evidence for that.  What we know is that on the cross Jesus said, “It is finished.”  On the seventh day, why not let him rest?

Jesus’s resurrection on the first day of a new week was breathtaking and glorious for those who believed.  It signaled the new beginning of humanity’s eternal life in God’s Kingdom through the humility of the cross of Christ.  

Creation, humbly, was renewed.

Walters (rlwcom@aol.com) looked up the Greek for “wept” at Biblehub.com. 

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