Take It to Heart

God wrote through the apostle Paul, “Believe the gospel.” God wrote through the apostle James, “Prove your belief.” In chapter one of his letter, James exhorted his readers to be doers of the word and not hearers only (1:22). He addressed three doings of doers in the very next paragraph, three works to watch to discover if one’s walk is worthless or worshipful.

First, “if anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (v.26). Second, on the positive side, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (v.27a) And third, God pleasing religion is also “to keep oneself unstained from the world” (v.27b).

The initial talking point is our talking. Whether or not we control our tongues matters. If we use our tongues to bless the Lord but curse men who are made in God’s image (3:9-11), there’s reason to be concerned about the source of the spring.

The third comment is about worldliness. Being stained by the immoral, unmerciful, bickering, self-centric codes of the world is a sign of spiritual adultery. It does not match a life of faith.

In between, James clarifies that we have immediate, temporal responsibilities to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. Saying, “Be warmed and filled” comes out of dead-faithed mouths (2:15-17). So every Christian would-be-doer-of-the-word must care for orphans and widows if they want to be blessed. It doesn’t mean that every person must adopt a child or take home a widow, but it does mean that we must take to heart our responsibility to give ourselves and serve those in affliction. Otherwise, our words about obeying the Word are worthless.

The Larger Conflict Arc

Last Sunday was Veterans Day in the United States. This national holiday was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, one year after the end of World War I (in the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month) to celebrate the soliders who served during the war.

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations. The History of Veterans Day

Unlike Memorial Day which commemorates all those who died in service, Veteran’s Day commemorates all those who served in any capacity. We are thankful for those who sacrificed in a variety of ways to protect our liberties.

Wars between nations are part of a larger conflict arc. The Great War was established by God in Eden between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The serpent, or dragon if you prefer, still slithers about as an adversary. The battle and casualties and consequences are real. And while many soldiers have served in this conflict, they first had to be saved from serving in the rebel army.

At the Lord’s Table we remember that we were enemies but are now reconciled by the sacrifice of Jesus. We remember His perfect service of righteousness on our behalf. We remember a battle won by His death and so that we can live in His resurrection. We remember that blood is really red and was really shed so that we could serve in His strength and for His glory.

We are still in a battle. The dragon is still lying, still fighting, still seeking to devour. Together, at this Table, we are still looking to Christ and thanking God for His service.

Raking Face

I was listening to a message a few days ago that dealt with our need to repent from sin rather than adjust our definition of sin in order to protect our sin. I paused my run, got off the treadmill, and gathered all the kids together, along with Mo, for a confession.

I know that it’s important to show our kids how to respond, not merely tell them how. I know that yelling at them to stop yelling is an ineffective, let alone ironic, approach. The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God, yet we keep trying to paint pottery with sledgehammers. Sledgehammers do do something.

Earlier that morning I was in my study preparing the liturgy for our worship service–obviously a very important job–while the oldest three were playing outside in the leaves near that end of the house. Within a few minutes I heard loud, long wails of blood-curdling catastrophe. I pushed myself out of the chair, marched outside, and convened a meeting to find out what could possibly be so terrible.

Apparently there had been an accidental raking of someone’s face. One wasn’t paying attention, one got in the way of said leaf rake, and one gave a muttered explanation of the sorry event. It was all quite inconvenient (to me), quite a big problem (to me), and quite an inappropriate response (from me).

Yes, leaf rakers should pay more attention, and so should I when I approach a situation of little people who are learning how to live with each other, even when one of them hurts another one. Yes, there is no need for dramatic, excessive crying for a small scrape on the face, just as there’s no need for my dramatic, excessive anger about the crying. Yes, explanations should be clear and to the point, and I should show an eagerness to listen.

So I gathered the troops and asked for forgiveness for reacting wrongly to their wrong reactions. None of them had sinned; that was me. I was not loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, or gentle, which means that I was parenting in the flesh. The family granted forgiveness, and we learned that we don’t tolerate bad attitudes because we’re parents/fathers, we confess sin. By God’s grace, hopefully our kids will learn to do the same.

Right Behind Isolation

One of the great virtues in Scripture is hospitality. Faithful families in the Old Testament received visitors into their homes, sometimes hosting them for days, providing for and protecting their guests. The apostle Peter urged his readers to “show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9). Paul identified hospitality as a necessary qualification for elders in a church (1 Timothy 3:2).

Hospitality includes welcoming, receiving, hosting, and providing for guests. It means showing kindness to others, be they friends or even strangers, as was often the case in the Bible. Hospitality is better experienced than exegeted, but it means that we open our homes, give of ourselves, and share our goods for the good of others. We don’t show hospitality because our guests deserve it as much as because they are benefited by it.

Where do we learn hospitality? Why is it such a valued virtue? Because hospitality is divine. Who receives others like God does? Who provides for others, not because they are great but because He wants to treat them greatly? Who has spared no expense to give good things to strangers? Who makes guests feel more welcome, strangers feel more at home, better than our God?

Stinginess is one of the great vices of our Christian culture, right behind isolation. Calculating how to share the least is not wise, it is ungodly. Paul chastised the well-to-do Corinthians for not doing so well as they hoarded for themselves (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). The communion meal, meant to illustrate lavish grace, great cost, and abundant provision, was instead used as an opportunity to serve self.

There is a lesson learned around the Lord’s Table that we should take to all our tables. Give as has been given to you. Invite the undeserving, shower guests with care. Treat others with the portion you would enjoy. Christ is a great host and He invites us to eat and drink with Him at His cost.

Our Last Names

Many men have made the following observation: we–the people–always get the candidates that we deserve. That perspective is put forward by both unbelieving and believing political pundits. For Christians, the conversation relates to our worship and how our worship relates to our culture.

The biblical principle is that we reap what we sow. The candidates on our ballots are the cream of the crop, so to speak, the fruit of a culture.

Many Christians bristle against the connection. We would like to be counted differently than our unrighteous neighbors. In one sense, we are. We get into heaven by faith in Christ, not by citizenship of any nation, including the United States. Believers are saved even if the national ship sinks.

But in another sense, believers are responsible for the hole in the hull. We want to be counted different because we have isolated ourselves and privatized our faith. No wonder, then, that we have candidates who privatize their faith. We, the people of faith, have modeled how to keep it quiet and then we complain, in private, that we don’t have more faith-driven men to vote for.

As Americans, we get the candidates that we our culture produces and culture takes its shape from worship. As American Christians, we have not worshipped in such a way that honors Christ as Lord everywhere. We are to be salt, but the taste we’ve left on our neighbors is bland. We hide our light under a basket and then complain that it is so dark around us. Nominees for office are likewise wishy-washy and undiscerning but, when we locate their birth certificates, we see that they have our last names.

One Sunday of sin confessing will not altar one Tuesday of vote casting. But what we do Sunday after Sunday will inevitably affect who makes it on our ballots in years to come. If we really want to change our government, our culture, our country, our county, it doesn’t end at church (or in the voting booth), but it most certainly begins with us, with our repentance.

An Accountability Table

The Lord’s Table is a table of community accountability. By God’s grace, our local church has not yet needed to remove anyone from fellowship due to church discipline. He has guarded our flock from gross, ongoing, unrepentant sinners. We have been able to enjoy the sweetness of communion without too much sadness.

This is fellowship worth preserving, worth protecting, and that means that not everyone is invited. In particular, when professing brothers refuse to repent from their sin after they have been personally, lovingly, and repeatedly pursued, they may be formally uninvited from participation.

The Lord requires one brother who sees another sinning brother to confront the sinner (Matthew 18:15). The Lord instructs more people to get involved if there is not repentance and, eventually, the (local) church must acknowledge the immorality and discipline the sinner by removing him from fellowship (Matthew 18:16-17). Those inside the church judge those inside the church (1 Corinthians 5:11-13). This is part of mutual accountability.

The church gets it wrong sometimes, more often than not by failing to deal with sinners. According to 1 Corinthians 11:29-32, God sometimes intervenes directly rather than through the church toward those who profane the body and blood of the Lord by unworthy participation at His Table. God is not mocked even if the church gets it wrong. Death is an even stronger statement about the value of the Lord’s Table than church discipline.

Of course, it is not much of a discipline to keep someone from something that we don’t value or enjoy. Our enjoyment of communion now sets the tone for later. The offender will miss out to the degree that we make much of this meal. We will give an account for how we participated, and it ought to be with righteous rejoicing.

Four Bases

I started reading The Odyssey last week. This is yet another book I’m sure I was assigned and am even more sure I ignored. Like Roy Hobbs said to Harriet (sports star serial-killer) Bird, “The only Homer I know has four bases.” While the poem hasn’t “knocked the cover off the ball” for me yet, I’ve still got a couple thousand more lines to swing at.

The part of the story that provoked this post finds our hero, Odysseus, stranded on the island of the Phaiakians trying to get back to his wife, Penelope. He meets Nausikaa, a young girl out doing laundry, who seemed to him to be someone who could help him get home. Odysseus addressed her with the following flattery.

May the gods give you everything that your heart longs for; may they grant you a husband and a house and sweet agreement in all things, for nothing is better than this, more steadfast than when two people, a man and his wife, keep a harmonious household; a thing that brings must distress to the people who hate them and pleasure to their well-wishers, and for them the best reputation.

Here in Washington state, on a much less epic level, imagine a man outside of Safeway who needs gas money to get home. He observes a young woman with well-ordered hair coming out of the store with her friends and figures that she might be able to help him. If he flattered her about her marriageability, not only is it possible that she’d be frightened, she might be outraged. “How dare you assume that a woman would even want to be married!” or, “What gives you the right to say that marriage is between a man and a woman?”

Homer wasn’t a worshipper of the true God. The gods of his culture were nominally moral, and inconsistent at that. The stories told for entertainment included all sorts of the worst sexual immorality. And yet, these winged words from Odysseus reveal a worldview that still had some original, Genesis 1 and 2 image-bearing residue.

I’m discouraged that civilization in Homer’s day had a more civilized appreciation of marriage than ours. But the biggest whammer is that the first spouses to blame are within the church, not outside of it. If Christian husbands and wives actually enjoyed each other, if they demonstrated the glad dance of sacrificial love and submission, then maybe more people would desire marriage rather than deride it. Perhaps married life would once again seem natural.

I’m not arguing that Homer’s message makes it around all four bases. I’m arguing that Christians need to repent and take their marital image-bearing more joyfully for sake of our society and the next generation. May God grant such sweet agreement.

God Never Wants to Say No

I don’t always want to forgive someone who has sinned against me, at least not immediately. I know the verses about God forgiving us as we forgive others. I know the parable about how my offenses against God are far greater than any offense against me and that, if He forgives me, then I certainly should forgive a lesser offender. I know a lot of biblical truths about forgiveness and yet that doesn’t always translate into my obedient, ready response of forgiveness.

I may not have sinned first (this time), but I may very well sin second. His sin invites my sin to the sin party and I respond angrily or unkindly or impatiently. Then the Holy Spirit convicts the other person, he desires reconciliation, and confesses his sin. But by now I have my own sin that makes me want to hold off forgiving him while I huff around the resentment track a few more laps.

As bad as that is, I mention it mostly to make a contrast. God never wants to say, “No, not yet.” When we confess our offense to Him–offense that can’t be completely calculated since we can’t calculate His infinite righteousness–He never needs a minute to get His own heart right. He never needs to calm down or collect Himself before responding. He isn’t hassled or peeved by our confessing sin again. He doesn’t postpone forgiveness in order to prove a point.

Our Lord abounds in mercy and steadfast love. He patiently and gladly hears us. He forgives us because He is faithful and righteous. He does it because He is who He is, because of what Christ has done, and because His name will be honored. He never sins in response to our sin, let alone our confession of sin, and that’s good news for us sinners.

His Kids’ Table

We’ve all been to family events where the table wasn’t big enough to fit everyone. When I was younger, I remember throwing a fit (on more than one occasion) at being relegated to the “kids’ table.” Looking back, I think that the kernel of my desire to be included was good. What I failed to grasp is that was being included.

My parents could have left me at home, could have left me in the car, could have left me in the kitchen doing dishes. In order to be at the kids’ table, it meant that they brought me along, gave me a seat, and set a plate full of food in front of me. Why? Because I was their son. I was part of the family.

Slaves (and enemies) don’t get included like that. Paul reminds Christians of their family status in Galatians 4.

when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:4–7 ESV)

God’s Son took on flesh, fulfilled the requirements of the law, and then sacrificed Himself on the cross so that we could be sons. Jesus paid the adoption costs and we are family.

The Lord’s Table is a good sort of kids’ table; it’s a table set for His kids. Believers are included in every way in His divine family. He brings us here, He provides for us, and it all confirms that an inheritance is ours. That inheritance is only for redeemed, adopted sons, and our Father wants us to mature into manhood so that we’ll be ready to receive it.

Guilty of All

The apostle James explained our comprehensive accountability to God in his letter.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (James 2:10).

Of course this affects our confession of sin since, even if we’re doing every other part of the law but we find one sin, then we must admit complete guilt. If a man dies of a heart attack, it doesn’t mean he died in every way he possibly could. One way of death is enough to make a man completely dead. Likewise, one sin is enough to make us accountable for all of the law.

Remember the context in which James gives this explanation. Consider what he had in mind when he said “fails in one point.” While the application follows for many sins, the sin James was addressing was a failure to “fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture.” James was confronting the sin of partiality (in the church) since the start of chapter two. The royal law violated was, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we obey everything else in the law but neighbor-loving (which is unlikely, but go with the argument), then we are fully disobedient. Why? Because the law requires love. The law requires love because God is triune. The triune God made us for relationships, with Himself and with each other. That’s why the law and the prophets can be summarized as love God and love your neighbor.

We’re not permitted to “choose” our neighbor based on his money, personality, or position. We must love those out of our box, love the not-so-lovely, love those who need loving. Otherwise, failure in that one point makes us guilty of all.