Conversations vs. Controversies

In my previous post, I wrote about the Canon with the Canon. If you haven’t read that post, read it before you jump into this one.

Ok, so you’ve read it, right? Cuz I’m going to move forward with that assumption. So, let’s go.

Just a few minutes ago, I read an article that looked at how the Christian Church, the Stone-Campbell tradition I am a part of, handles questions of what matters most. And the author made the point that, in the Church, we often handle difficult issues with one of two extremes: 1) we avoid conversation, or 2) we treat what should be conversations as controversies. In other words, we take what is non-essential, and we make it essential. And we then refuse to talk about it, or we choose to fight about it.

All of this reflects our choice of a Canon within the Canon. And if my CwtC is different than your CwtC, then we are likely to find ourselves in serious disagreement — and maybe even disunity.

One blog post won’t solve what 2000 years hasn’t been able to overcome. In fact, if the Church is any indication, our tendency is to move, not toward unity, but away from it. Tragic, yes. Inevitable, no. But reality nonetheless.

But I can’t help but wonder: what if we truly read all of scripture through a common lens? What if we refused to let non-essentials divide us — even when they infringe upon tightly-held traditions?

In the past week, I’ve seen this in at least three ways.

First: I preached at a church this past Sunday that has two different services. The first included only hymns, accompanied only by a keyboard, and led by a male minister. The second included only choruses, where the loudest instrument was definitely the electric guitar, and where the service was led by a lay female member of the church. After the 2nd service, the minister of that church told me that there’s an older guy who has been attending the louder and more contemporary service. It’s not my style, the man says, but he does it to worship with someone who does attend that service. In other words, whether he realizes it or not, he is choosing Ephesians 4.1-6 as a part of his CwtC. (By the way: In this post, I’m going to reference a number of scriptures. I’m not going to take the time to link each one. I figure you can do that for passages you don’t know. Go to biblegateway.com or biblehub.com. Or, you could go old school and pull out your Bible.)

Second example: a couple of days ago, I had lunch with 3 ministers. I have known two of them for years, and they are from the same church tradition as I am. The third I barely know, and is a Baptist. These 3 guys meet together every Tuesday for lunch, and then to work on their Sunday messages. As we talked, one of the Christian Church guys joked that his Baptist friend has to filter all of their studying through his Calvinist filter. That’s ok, he went on to describe. I do the same thing in reverse when it comes from him. All of this was shared with humor and the collegiality that comes from guys who, regardless of their views on TULIP, recognize that their view on the Rose of Sharon matters more. So, while they may have differing interpretations of John 6.44, all 3 of them stand firmly on John 14.6.

Third example: last night I was working for a friend who has a floor-demolition business. We were working overnight at a Target, and after we finished the job, we headed to a Waffle House for a 1:30am snack. On the way, one of the guys in the truck asked: Where did Cain get his wife? In my answer, I tried to focus on the essentials: The point of the Adam & Eve story, along with the Cain & Abel, isn’t to help us identify Mrs. Cain. Instead, the essential elements of those stories are that Adam & Eve didn’t love and obey God, and Cain didn’t take care of his brother — and we have been having the same problem ever since. Simply put, the point of Adam & Eve and their children is to describe the human condition: our fractured relationship with God, and with each other.

Which makes Matthew 22.34-40 such an essential passage. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is, he answers by pointing us to a response that is the opposite of, and undoes, the sin of the first family. And this tells me that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. In fact, isn’t that what Jesus is doing? Isn’t he answering the question by giving his own CwtC?

Why can’t we stand firmly where Jesus stood? Why can’t we all agree that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. And for that matter, Romans 3.23-24. And 1 Corinthians 15.3-4. And Galatians 3.28. And Philippians 2.12-13. And Colossians 3.17. And Hebrews 4.14-16. And 1 John 4.7.

And these CwtCs are prefigured, just as Jesus said, in Leviticus 19.18. At the same time, He remembers what He made us from (Psalm 103.14). But even so, our calling is to rise above our “dustiness” — as Micah 6.8 so clearly calls us to do.

I have no doubt that, until Jesus returns, the Church will have controversies where conversations should instead be had. I also understand that deciding what is essential is not so simple, and may never be so. But perhaps a good start can be had if we choose to plant our flag on essential passages — ones that point us with simple clarity to God’s love for us, and our responding love for God, and for every single person in our lives.

4 Ways To Think about God

In a thought-provoking article on how to speak to people in today’s culture, Daniel Strange notes that there are 4 ways people respond to God. Randomly pick someone out of a crowd, ask them their view of God, and when you parse out the answer, it will boil down to one of these four approaches:

1. Displacement: Not content with the God who is, many people make another God. They displace the One who sits on the throne, and they put another god of their choosing in that place. And the gods available for choosing are about as numerous as the people choosing them. There’s the obvious ones: Money, Sex, and Power. And there’s the churchy versions of false gods: Legalism, Spiritual Arrogance, Pious Language with a life that doesn’t match it. All of us were made with a thirst for transcendence – with a need for more. And many seek to slake that thirst with any liquid, rather than the One who is Living Water.

2. Distortion: Another way to (mis)understand God is to distort Him. Don’t like that God calls us into a relationship of holy, faithful living? Envision God as a kindly Old Fella who loves us, but doesn’t hold us accountable. Don’t like a God who takes on flesh and is so much a part of us? Picture God as withdrawn, available only when we need Him. Or, maybe you prefer a God who hates the same people you hate? Then you’ll look to a God who plays favorites. Just as we can displace God with many knock-off versions, so we can also distort God to fit our idea of what God should be. But be careful: the God you distort will probably end up looking a lot like you.

3. Denial: This is the version of the un-God that is so popular these days. Denying God is simple, straightforward, and carries with it a sense of chic. Believe in God? Me? Haven’t we moved past our need for a great eye in the sky? Some folks who choose to disbelieve have done their homework: they’ve read the Bible, they’ve attended worship, they’ve wrestled with the issues. But I suspect that such a description fits a minority of atheists. The majority, I would think, disbelieve in God because so many people practice displacement and distortion. In other words, the God many folks choose to reject is the God who is less than the One revealed to us in scripture. As Daniel Strange notes: “These days when people tell me they don’t believe in God, I often say, I bet I don’t believe in that god you don’t believe in either.” Regardless of the reason people decide not to believe in God, those of us who choose the fourth option have a responsibility to make sure they get a chance to see what real love from the real God looks like. Which leads to the fourth way to approach God…

4. Devotion: At its heart, this is a full trust in the God who has made Himself known in Jesus. This is a belief that God has made us, and invites us to be His children. God is a relationship God, which is shown in the fact that God doesn’t simply love, He is love. And God shows this clearly at a time like now, when, at Christmas, we celebrate the unthinkable – that God became one of us.

In a world that displaces, distorts, or denies God, what people need most is to see those devoted to God live that out – every day, in every way. So, of these four ways to respond to God, which one describes you?

What It Means to Get Worship “Right”

In Jeremiah 2.12-13 (NRSV), God addresses the reality that His people have turned away from Him:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
    be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
    they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
    and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
    that can hold no water.

The Lord says that His people have committed 2 sins: 1) they have turned away from Living Water, 2) choosing, instead, to dig their own well. In other words: they have chosen to worship other gods – and worshiping these pagan deities has led them to forget their call to love each other. This then leads them to, as described in Jeremiah 7.5-6: act unjustly; oppress the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow; and shed innocent blood.

And if that weren’t enough, there’s more. In verses 8-9, God then accuses them of trusting in deceptive words; of stealing, murder, adultery, and swearing falsely. Even so, they still go the Temple of God and do the acts of worship, while not living a life of worship.

So, why does God get so worked up when we worship false gods? Whether they go by the name of Baal, or Success, or Wealth, or Comfort, or Fulfilment, God cares WHO we worship because God cares HOW we live. In other words, worship and life are inseparable. If you worship God rightly, it leads you to LIVE rightly. Wander from worship, and your life wanders.

So, God is not a petty, petulant 2-year-old, demanding we do things His way. God is a jealous God because He is zealous for us to get worship right – which leads us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6.6-8).

Of course, this kind of “right” worship is about more than Sunday. It involves Sunday, yes, but it’s more. It’s about submission, surrender, trust. It’s about coming before God on Sunday, yes; but it’s also about walking before God each day.

So, are you truly worshiping the One True God? One simple way to tell: How are you living each day?