Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fruit and the Community of God

Last Sunday, I preached a sermon that presented my current understanding of John 15:18 through 16:4. This passage follows closely on Jesus' words that he is the vine and we are the branches. The last part of John 15 points out that the vine does not exist to make a wonderful life for the branches. In fact, branches that get in the way of the production of fruit are pruned away. The goal is that the vine and the branches work in concert to produce fruit. Fruit can be defined as love, joy, peace, patience, understanding, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (as in Galatians 5:22, 23). It must also be defined as justice for others (as in Isaiah 5:7) and as the growth of more fruit-producing branches (Matthew 28:19, 20). In the church, this latter definition of fruit means more disciples of Jesus.

The obstacles to the way of life that produces fruit of the Community of God are many; but the primary one is our western addiction to consumption and caring for our own wants. In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat speaks of the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, the largest congregation in the United States, and says that he preaches "an upbeat gospel where 'God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than the next'."

But before we are too hard on this charismatic pastor, shouldn't we also admit that we love to hear an upbeat gospel where God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge (or prune), and hands out his rewards (to the branches) in this life rather than the next? Have we not been given the message for which we clamour? Is this not the message we would prefer to hear? Do we not secretly think that this is the message of God to us? We tend to think that the gospel is much like the American or Canadian way and that we just need a little help to steer us toward God. Randy Stonehill says it well in a portion of one of his songs:

We say we need a little help
We need some new direction
Avoid the blessing like a curse
We're only lying to ourselves
What we need is resurrection
What we need is second birth

God, please give us resurrection. Give us second-birth. Bear with us long enough that we might grow fruit before you prune us away from the vine.

That's Why We Don't Love God - Randy Stonehill

That's why, that's why we don't love God
Although our lips feign praise
Still our hearts are far away
That's why, that's why we don't love God
We're so consumed with self
We can't love anybody else

We mask the nakedness
Of our mortality
Cloaked in this poison pride
And the illusion of control
We need the gift of grace
More than the air we breath
But as it draws us near
Still it repels our stubborn souls

That's why, that's why we don't love God
Oh yes our lips feign praise
But our hearts are far away
That's why, that's why we don't love God
I don't want my prayers to be
Some meaningless litany

Why are we so afraid, guarded and counterfeit
Is it because we know all the shadows we conceal
And we are so alone
Wolves in the winter snow
Never imagining
That this mercy could be real

That's why, that's why we don't love God
Oh yes our lips feign praise
But our hearts are far away
That's why, that's why we don't love God
I don't want my prayers to be
Some meaningless litany
We say we need a little help
We need some new direction
Avoid the blessing like a curse
We're only lying to ourselves
What we need is resurrection
What we need is second birth

That's why, that's why we don't love
That's why, that's why we don't love
That's why, that's why we don't love
That's why, that's why we don't love God

Stonehillian Music/ASCAP

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Flannery O'Connor on Mystery

"I don't think literature would be possible in a determined world. We might go through the motions but the heart would be out of it. Nobody could then 'smile darkly and ignore the howls.' Even if there were no Church to teach me this, writing two novels would do it. I think the more you write, the less inclined you will be to rely on theories like determinism. Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge.” - Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor wrote these words as our culture was just beginning to move to a greater degree of determinism. She died in 1964 and The Habit of Being was published in 1979.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Follow-up to Robert Burns Day 2013

One stanza from "To A Louse" by Robert Burns:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!

My English translation:
Oh, if only God would give us the power
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would free us from many blunders
And foolish notions:
What presumption of fashion and posture would leave us,
Even pretentious prayers would be gone.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Robert Burns Day 2013

Robert Burns was a self-indulgent man who drank too much and fathered children with several women. He had many of the character flaws of a contemporary rock star. He was also a brilliant writer of poetry and song. One of my favourites is still "To A Mouse." Here it is in its original form. An English translation follows.

I think that all of us can relate to the penultimate stanza:
But, mousie, thou art not alone,
In proving foresight may be in vain,
The best laid schemes of mice and men,
Go oft astray
The final stanza subtly reminds us that mice and men must live with their eye on the present. Happy Robert Burns Day!

To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough, 1785

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion,
Has broken nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell-
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e.
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

To a Mouse

Oh, tiny timorous forlorn beast,
Oh why the panic in your breast?
You need not dart away in haste
To some corn-rick
I'd never run and chase thee,
With murdering stick.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken nature's social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
And fellow mortal.

I do not doubt you have to thieve;
What then? Poor beastie you must live;
One ear of corn that's scarcely missed
Is small enough:
I'll share with you all this year's grist,
Without rebuff.

Thy wee bit housie too in ruin,
Its fragile walls the winds have strewn,
And you've nothing new to build a new one,
Of grasses green;
And bleak December winds ensuing,
Both cold and keen.

You saw the fields laid bare and waste,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cosy there beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash; the cruel ploughman crushed
Thy little cell.

Your wee bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Had cost thee many a weary nibble.
Now you're turned out for all thy trouble
Of house and home
To bear the winter's sleety drizzle,
And hoar frost cold.

But, mousie, thou art not alone,
In proving foresight may be in vain,
The best laid schemes of mice and men,
Go oft astray,
And leave us nought but grief and pain,
To rend our day.

Still thou art blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches thee,
But, oh, I backward cast my eye
On prospects drear,
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear.
For more of Burns' poetry and more English translations see the Burns Country website. Another of my personal favourites is "To A Louse."

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Is Christianity Hard or Easy? - an excerpt from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

No preamble or discussion required.
The ordinary idea which we all have before we become Christians is this. We take as a starting point our ordinary self with its various desires and interests. We then admit that something else – call it ‘morality’ or ‘decent behaviour’, or ‘the good of society’ – has claims on this self: claims which interfere with its own desires. What we mean by ‘being good’ is giving in to these claims. Some of the things the ordinary self wanted to do turn out to be what we call ‘wrong’: well, we must give them up. Other things, which the self did not want to do, turn out to be what we call ‘right’: well, we shall have to do them. But we are hoping all the time that when all the demands have been met, the poor natural self will still have some chance, and some time, to get on with its own life and do what it likes. In fact, we are very like an honest man paying his taxes. He pays them all right, but he does hope that there will be enough left over for him to live on. Because we are still taking our natural self as the starting point. . . .

The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.’

It is like that here. The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’, to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centred on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.
All this needs is some comments.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


I, like many people in January, find that there is much work to be done and I become quite busy. It is certainly a fitting time to consider what we are accomplishing as we work at our jobs, volunteer with non-profit organizations, and serve at our churches. In the midst of my busyness I will consider my vocation. At least three authors have influenced my perspective on work and service to others. Martin Luther spoke very clearly about how our vocation will influence our day-to-day living when he said,

The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow
him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that
belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I
might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his
neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and
shield my neighbor....The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If
he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden
me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.
When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living.1

He is suggesting that every person has a place, either of their own choosing or by virtue of having that role thrust upon them, and we seek to fulfill that role to the best of our abilities. In this way we praise God with our vocation. But you might ask, "What of the mundane interruptions of life and the things which seem so unrelated to my vocation?" Dietrich Bonhoeffer had this to say about helpfulness and interruptions.

God’s perspective is that we must enter into the ministry of helpfulness, which is
simple assistance in trifling, external matters. . . One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. . . . We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps -- reading the Bible. When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised athwart our path to show us that not our way, but God's way must be done.2

I often think of this quote when someone asks me to help them move or paint their house. It is in these interruptions of life that we have some of our greatest opportunities to praise God with our time. Finally, Henri J. Nouwen brings the two concepts together in this brief statement. "My whole life I've been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered the interruptions were my work."3

1 Martin Luther, “Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar” (25 October 1522, Saturday after the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity), in D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 60 vols. (Weimar: Herman Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1883–1980) 10/3:382.

2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer Life Together, Harper, New York: 1954.

3 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Toronto: Doubleday, 1975), 52, 53.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Becoming Wise

Proverbs 9:10 says, "Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment." God is truly the source of wisdom and He speaks to us through His word in the Bible; and, we also know that we can experience knowledge and wisdom as we read other books and apply God's wisdom to the circumstances of life. I particularly appreciate these words by Tim Keller:

When you listen to and read one thinker, you become a clone; two thinkers, you become confused; ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice; two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice. "Reform and Resurge Conference," 2006.

I pray that we might listen to the words of many and, with appropriate reverence for our God, discern the wisdom to which He calls us.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Reading God's Two Books

. . . let no man . . . think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.

These words were written by Francis Bacon in his book Advancement of Learning in 1605. We might put it differently today and say that one can study both theology and philosophy or theology and science. The study of God's word in the Bible and God's works in the world are both legitimate pursuits. We need not fear finding the truth. The Creator of the universe knows the minute details of genetics, physics, mathematics, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology. Nothing that we can learn will surprise Him or call into question His word in the Bible. We humans may need to change our interpretations of the Bible or our theology as we learn more about the universe He has created; and this is how things should be. Reading one helps us with the reading of the other.

Darwin writes, in the sixth edition of his On the Origen of Species book:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.1

Notice his use of the word "Creator." Darwin was not afraid of searching for scientific answers and searching for Christian answers. Neither do we need to fear science nor fear theology. God is Lord over both.

1 On the Origin of Species, 6th Edition, Charles Darwin, EBook November 23, 2009.