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.

Why the OT, part 2

In my last post, I discussed how important it is for the Church to read and learn from the Old Testament. This time, I want to say more about how we actually go about doing that.

First thing to keep in mind as you read the OT: it is first. As I described in the previous post, the OT is the first part of a multi-act drama. As with a two-act play, just as we can’t understand act 2 without act 1 — so it is with the Bible. At the same time, we no longer live in act 1.

If there is one key point to keep in mind as you read the OT — whether you are considering OT law or OT history; whether it’s wisdom literature or prophetic pronouncement — it is absolutely essential to remember that you are reading about a time you don’t inhabit.

The good news about this reality is that the work of God has now moved beyond a small patch of land in the Mediterranean world. It means that how they lived, and what they did, must be seen through the lens of what God has done in the New Testament, what God is doing now throughout the world, and what God intends to do for all eternity for all creation. In other words, Act 1 of God’s work must always be seen through the prism of Acts 2, 3, and 4. And living in Act 3 — as we are — we continue to learn from Act 1, while recognizing that much of it is no longer determinative of how we live.

Which leads me to the next thing to keep in mind: when reading the OT, keep in mind that there is a difference between principle and practice. Or, to say it another way: the OT is full of important truths that are still true today, but they are truths that we live out differently today.

This idea is especially seen in a chapter like Leviticus 19, which is full of commands and prescriptions. Some are clear, and clearly apply still today: Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not pervert justice (verses 11 & 15; all references are from NIV).

Others are less so: When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field… (verse 9). Or: Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight (verse 13). Do not … put tattoo marks on yourselves (verse 28).

I don’t have a field. No one is lying on my porch overnight, waiting for me to pay them. And I’m too much of a wimp, and too cheap, to get a tattoo (to say nothing of what that tattoo will one day look like when my skin is saggy, and seventy years old). But if I take seriously the view that all scripture is useful for instruction (and I do), how do passages like these instruct us?

This is where the “principle vs. practice” idea comes in. Simply put, there is a principle behind each of these commands that is bigger than the practice. To put it another way: the heart of God can be seen in the command, even if the call to action is not the same.

In regard to the field: clearly God is concerned about the poor and the needy. And I should be too, whether it’s with the extra from my field, or my pantry, or my bank account. As for the hired hand: clearly God cares that those who are dependent on their day-to-day wages are treated honestly and paid justly. And anywhere I can help with that — whether it’s in how I tip the single mom who waits on me at Cracker Barrel, or the babysitter who watches my kids, or refugees or immigrants I encounter — I am called to do what is right, following the principles outlined in Leviticus 19.

But what about tattoos? Leviticus 19.28 seems pretty clear: no tattoos. But, once again, it’s helpful to ask: What’s the principle at work here? We see that when we take a wider view — where verse 26 talks about sorcery and divination, verse 27 addresses interesting haircuts, and the first part of verse 28 deals with the cutting of the body on behalf of the dead. When we look at the broader context, it seems clear that in these verses God is forbidding actions that align with some of the pagan practices of the people around them. So, in that day, tattoos must have been a mark of pagan involvement and commitment — perhaps something similar to how circumcision marked a boy as Jewish.

And so, the principle seems clear: don’t mark your body in a way that aligns you with pagan religious practices. These practices also affected haircuts and body markings. The principle behind these practices continues to hold true today, and it should cause all of us to consider what our body, and what we put on our body, demonstrate about our beliefs and our commitments. And so, today, many folks mark their skin to indicate what matters to them. Some even get tattoos to show others their allegiance to Jesus (or, perhaps, Mom, or their wife, or, somewhat embarrassingly, their ex-girlfriend).

And so, if I’m serious about following the principle of Leviticus 19.28, it might mean that in practice I do have a tattoo, but I refuse to engrave myself with a symbol that can be construed to be opposed to the work of God in my life. For that matter, I will also refrain from wearing a certain piece of clothing or an article of jewelry that would indicate my commitment to any principle other than the redeeming work of Jesus.

But how do we know? How do we determine what is good, and what is harmful? How do we determine what practices demonstrate the principle of God’s leadership in our lives? A great guide is actually found in the words in verse 2, which frame the commands in Leviticus 19: Be holy, because I the Lord your God, am holy.

This is the key to understanding Leviticus 19, all of the OT — and, for that matter, the NT and the whole of the Christian life. Be holy. That is: Be set apart. Live like God. Let your life and your actions and every part of you show others that you belong to Jesus. Let his Spirit be your guide — leading you, shaping you, loving others through you.

Or: Love God, love others. For, as Jesus himself taught us, this is the whole point of the law. This is the principle that every practice should be built on.

Letter to My Daughter Upon Her Graduation

So, last week, I looked at commencement speeches, and what they say about us. This week, I want to continue on the graduation theme — but on a much more personal level.

Today, I write a letter to my 18-year-old daughter who will, in 3 days, graduate from high school. Consider this my commencement speech — for one.

Dear Ruthie,

There are few things in life a guy can point to and smile broadly. Work accomplishments: rarely. Bank account or house size: not hardly. Sports team accomplishments: big deal.

But I am proud and grateful that I can point to you. You and your brother and sister are a source of joy and gratitude for your mother and me. It’s truly amazing to have a front-row seat to watch you grow. I love your sense of humor. I marvel at your vibrant self-expression. I’m impressed to see you come alive on stage.

But now, of course, the scene changes, as you move from high school to college and life beyond. You are incredibly gifted, and I look forward to seeing how your gifts will come together for you, and for those around you.

And as you prepare to take this next step, let me offer these humble reminders:

  1. Remember you are loved. Nothing compares to this truth, and nothing can change this truth. You are deeply loved — by God, by me and mom, by so many people who have been a part of helping you reach this point. That love, which begins and ends with God, is the source of your greatest identity. Don’t ever let circumstances, or people, or struggles, or successes keep you from this vital truth: You are loved. Deeply, eternally loved.
  2. Love sets you free. Because of this truth, you are set free to roam around in the great big embrace of God’s love. This Love opens doors to meaning and purpose that this silly world with all its silly concerns, simply cannot. Because you are loved, you have the freedom to explore who you are in this love. One of the things that graduates often get told, is: Do what you love. Let me modify that slightly: Do what you love because you are loved. Life isn’t about simply pursuing whatever you want; it’s about understanding that because you are loved, you are free to explore what that love sets you free to become.
  3. So, don’t settle. Don’t go the easy path, or walk the wide way that most everyone else is. Don’t be afraid to do the hard work of finding God’s path for you. And keep walking it, even when it’s hard to see far ahead, and when the way gets steep. The popular path is popular because everyone’s walking it. And everyone is walking it because it’s easy. But the most important things in life, including walking the way of faith, are a challenge. But it’s in the challenges that you find who you are — and who God is calling you to be.
  4. With that in mind, don’t be afraid of mistakes. You’ll stumble. Maybe even fall hard. As your dad, I really don’t want this for you. But I also understand that the failures and struggles in life are often what teach us the most. So, when you do hit a wall, or fall flat on your face, get up. Learn from it. And keep going.
  5. To do this, you’re going to need faithful friends for the journey. The longer I live, the more I realize I can’t do life on my own. I need friends to walk with me, to walk alongside me — challenging me, encouraging me, and picking me up when I don’t feel like getting up. Don’t ever go through life without at least 2 friends who are faithful, full of faith, and with you whatever you face.
  6. Remember grace. Don’t ever let go of grace — the powerful life-giving presence of God that is as essential as air. When you stumble, grace is there to pick you up. When you feel elated at your successes, grace is there to ground you. When you’re not sure what’s next, or where to turn, grace is the whisper of God that says: I’m here. I know you can’t see very far ahead. That’s ok. Just trust me for the next step. I’m here. Without grace, you’ll just spin your wheels. With grace, life’s successes and failures always come into perspective — for grace gives meaning to all of life.
  7. Finally, remember this: mom and I are always here for you. No matter where life takes you, or where you choose to go, we’re here. Our love won’t ever run out. Our listening ear will always be available. And though our love is imperfect and incomplete, it’s a glimpse of the Love that is perfect and complete.

So, never forget, and always remember: We love you!

Dad & Mom