I have heard it said, even in PCUSA General Assembly committee meetings, that God is unknowable. “God is so vast and so big that we cannot possible know or understand what God wants to do.” This is a bogus claim in the guise of humility. As I have written before, God wants to be known and has gone to great lengths to make himself known to his creation (cf. Deuteronomy 4:5–8, 32–36). Not only can we know about God—his nature and character—we can actually know God (more on that in a later post). Our investigation into God’s background is not a clandestine operation done despite some effort on God’s part to hide. No, God delights when we seek him, and he will be found by those who search for him wholeheartedly (Deuteronomy 4:29). Tuck that assurance into your heart and mind while we proceed.

As we ponder the nature and character of God, it is important first to answer the question, “How do we know?” How is it that we can actually describe—with confidence and clarity—what God is like? We know by three ways:

God’s Fingerprints Throughout Creation. The apostle Paul makes this point most succinctly in the opening chapter of Romans:

19″For what can be known about God
is plain to [all, even those who are opposed to God],
because God has shown it to them.
20Ever since the creation of the world
his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are,
have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

When I stand at the top of a ridge in the high Sierra Nevada, I am in awe of the beauty of granite, sky, and water (Psalm 8). When people pursue scientific inquiry down to the chromosomal level or up to the astronomical level, they are in touch with created things that are still smaller than the Force that put them in motion “in the beginning” (Genesis 1; Job 38). At the very least, an appreciation of nature moves us to ask, “Where did all this come from?” which is a question God recognizes as coming from a seeker.

The one who discovers, perhaps through observation of the natural world, that there must be a God behind it all has taken the first step of faith. Just the recognition of a Being not only bigger and better than we are but also greater and stronger than any other possible god has set us on a quest for truth. For ages, indigenous people around the globe have looked to the heavens and understood, perhaps wordlessly, that an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God exists somewhere, somehow. You can read accounts of these discoveries in an old book called Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson (Regal Books, rev. ed. 1984).

God’s Revelation Specifically in Scripture. Incapable as we are for finding God without help, God has put into words—the words of Scripture—his own singular story in order that we might be introduced to him. From the beginning of time at creation all the way to a projection of the end of time, God is interested, according to the Scriptures, in sharing his great benevolence and joie de vivre with us. Testimony of God’s presence and power was accumulated with the cooperation of many human writers through thousands of years of history. Organized into 66 “books,” the whole Bible is the Word of God written, “God’s Word in human words.” Holy Scripture, comprising Old and New Testaments, submits itself as the revelation and self-disclosure of God, the journal of God’s relationship to creation and to a people of Israel, the plan God implemented to reconcile everyone to himself, and the invitation to know God and experience Life in him. Everything we need to know is found here, if not everything we want to know—there is some mystery, after all, because it is true that God is bigger than we are and “out of sight.” By saying this, I am not contradicting my previous comments, but only saying that God has revealed himself and his will to us in the Scripture to a degree sufficient for our salvation and discipleship. The Word of God points us specifically and effectively toward the One who holds the keys to our future.

Don Richardson, previously mentioned, writes in his book about how native, unreached people on desolate islands for instance, had known for generations about a God who was above all gods. When missionaries identified him as Jesus Christ, they gave thanks that they could now address God by name. And so it is for us, when we receive the scriptural testimony from God, that we are exposed to the specific revelation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

God’s Embodiment in Jesus Christ. The third way we know about God is by taking a very close look at the One he sent, Jesus of Nazareth. If you want to know God, get to know Jesus. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus was not only holy, talented, smart, and gifted as a teacher; Jesus was God come in the flesh to save sinners:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14)

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman, born under the law,
5in order to redeem those who were under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as children. (Galatians 4:4f)

Jesus was not a different god than YHWH. Jesus did not come to correct excesses of an Old Testament tyrant. Jesus was and remains fully God even as he was fully human. That means, if a person wants to know God, then a person must get acquainted with Jesus Christ. If you see Jesus, you see the Father (John 14:7).

So much more to be said! Stay tuned . . .

The human lust for power is a natural outflow of Adam and Eve’s resistance to God’s authority. When a person, a group, or a nation believes itself to be any equivalent of “the center of the universe,” bad things begin to happen. Adam and Eve’s choice may seem innocent enough to modern eyes, but within a generation, murder had entered human experience. The desire of one to dominate another comes out of the irreconcilable demands of two adjacent egos vying for the center of the universe.

If a culture adopts the philosophy that all people are free to do whatever they wish, to pursue happiness on their own terms, to be in essence the center of their universe, then several things unravel:

  • people get locked into competition mode in order to win the pot of finite resources

  • politics seeks personal power above the common good

  • the basis for law erodes and it becomes impossible to protect individual rights against the libertine advances of others

  • no one can be truly happy as long as an opponent or a rival, exists

  • there will be wars

If this isn’t a picture of hell, I don’t know what is.

But it is rapidly becoming the picture of the world, including American culture, and some of its micro-systems. It would be an interesting exercise simply to read the newspaper through these lenses and count the number of stories that relate to the above list. As a side note, I would observe also that these dynamics exist within the church, including my own tribe the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Disputes over property, doctrine, and inclusivity have their genesis in human resistance to God’s authority and power.

Power in the hands of human beings who are flawed and damaged by sin can turn into exploitation very quickly. This is one reason why Presbyterians, for example, generally exert power through their governing bodies rather than through individuals. But even so, original sin permeates the system because it has infected every person involved.

Power-seeking can also turn violent, as we saw in the Waco meeting of rival motorcycle gangs this week. Power corrupts the human spirit, because people have nothing within themselves to stop its insistent march toward dominance.

This is where God comes in.

The Bible teaches, and I believe, that God is the center of the universe. More than that, the one and only most holy God is bigger than the entire creation. You can get the picture through God’s thunderous objection to Job’s complaints, in Job 38-39. By virtue of his eternal existence, his unmatched might, his complete knowledge of all reality, and his inherent goodness, God holds all authority and possesses all power to rule the universe. His is not an idle interest in the affairs of the world, for he has known and governed every person on earth and through all history. God’s care is active, personal, and effective, and no person is beyond God’s reach, whether one is aware or not.

If it is true that God possesses all power and dominion, then we mere mortals do not. This is a fact that does not depend on our feelings about it. Here is where we find relief, if we want it, for the lust for power. The god of self must stand down. The fundamental transaction requires us to give up, give in, and give to the One who is sovereign over all. A tall order for sure! Who really wants to do this, in their heart of hearts? Nobody! That’s why we’re in this mess to begin with! But if giving up, giving in, and giving to God are required, what is to be done to make this happen?

For now, let’s frame some questions that will direct future thoughts:

  1. Is God worthy of my trust?

  2. Can God help me give up, give in, and give to?

  3. Is the effort to reorient my life going to be worth it?

Stay with me in this discussion, which will unfold slowly for some. I am laying a groundwork for Christian faith.

Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, recounts the story that took place when he was pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley (California). A very brief report of the story appears in his book The Dangerous Act of Worship (p. 64), but he shared an expanded version in a talk a few years ago:

A gentleman came to him a bit confused and befuddled, because his wife had just become a Christian. His purpose for the visit was to get the Cliff Notes rendition of the faith—“just bullet points, please”—so he could hold his own in the nightly conversation he and his wife were having. He made it clear to Mark that he was a very busy, very successful businessman who really didn’t have time for this, so “just bullet points, please” and like, right now, so I can move on to the next thing on my list. Mark resisted the urge to hand him a pamphlet or two, and instead gave an honest reply. “I can see you are a busy and successful person, so I don’t think what you’re asking for is a good idea.” The gent, frustrated, shot back, “Why not?” Mark told him, “Look, if I were to give you some bullet points, and you were to really understand them and act on them, it would totally mess up your life. You don’t really want that, do you?” The man gets credit for honesty, because he said, “No.” And he left, and Mark wondered if he had been too hard on him.

But the businessman with the Christian wife came back a couple weeks later, looking just a little more desperate and coming across a bit more insistently, again asking for a brief outline of the Christian faith. Mark again refused, saying, “This isn’t something I can pass on to you here on the church patio between worship services.” “Well then, can I come in to see you for twenty minutes this week?” Mark said, “No, I think it would require more time than that, and besides, I have to tell you, the gospel will ruin your life as you know it. Do you really want to open that possibility?”

[Do you get what Mark was doing? Without sharing the gospel—yet—he was asking questions that he hoped would help this man to recognize his first big obstacle: his allegiance and loyalty to a way of life that made no room for God.]

The very successful and extremely busy businessman came back again, and this time for an hour-long appointment. What unfolded over the next several months was the examination and reordering of his priorities, his focus, his passion, and eventually even his money toward God and God’s purposes rather than his own.

I share this story because it made a big impression on me at the time I heard it, and its challenge has rung true. It has been a long time in my own life since this radical, initial turning—the Bible calls it repentance—took place, and it is easy to forget how life-altering it is. God met me and changed me from the inside out. But keeping at the center of my life God, around whom everything else revolves, remains a struggle to this day. What does this look like in my experience?

No, I have not sculpted idols of wood, gold, or silver, like the ones rebuked in Habakkuk 2:18-20. As mentioned last time, my possessions in competition with God are more likely to be financial or electronic or gourmet. But even more central is the Other God, the fundamentally wrong one:

The self. Myself. Yourself. Ourselves. Our self has been deified when our authority for decision-making comes only from within, what I want or how I read the situation or what is to my advantage. We do this all the time; it is as natural as breathing, which is precisely the point. Our own nature—with ourselves at the center calling the shots, keeping things in our control according to our own definitions and desires—is our snake in the grass (to borrow from the imagery of Genesis 3:1).

Let’s be clear at the outset: God does not need anyone’s faith to verify his power or authority.

God does not need my allegiance in order to be fully himself, fully divine.

But I, in one sense, dethrone Almighty God in my soul when I follow the bad habits first introduced by Adam and Eve in the garden, that is, when I

  • fail to worship God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and eternal maker of the universe and my Creator, too

  • fail to acknowledge God’s superior wisdom and gracious provision at decision-points in my life

  • fail to listen to God when I get input contrary to his Word; this static is the pervasive worldview in which we are immersed that contradicts God’s intentions

  • dismiss the Word of God as not applicable because I am special, an exception to the rule

  • allow my own emotions and desires to redefine life and happiness to accommodate them

  • think only in the short-term of what I want, rather than consider the long-term wisdom of aligning myself with what God wants.

Does any of this sound familiar? My attempts to define myself as the center of the universe, the fount of wisdom, and the deserving beneficiary of freedom without limits are not just narcissistic but spiritually dangerous. This form of idolatry, reduced to its essence, is precisely what was imbedded in our nature when Adam and Eve took the first rebellious step in that direction (Genesis 3).

So what does this have to do with God? Everything! We’ll be working on this in the next few posts, but a view of self I have described is a living denial of the claims God has placed upon us. They can be summarized with these verses from Scripture:

For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods. (Psalm 97:9)

[God said to Job,] “Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4)

[God says to us,] “Be still, and know that I am God!”
(Psalm 46:10)

All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades . . .
but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)

 

 

The Gods We Worship

May 15, 2015

My second prod to think and write about belief in God comes from my experience in Turkey and Greece, where “gods” were everywhere—or at least remnants of worship spaces, icon niches, and other ancient signs of pantheism and Greek/Roman mythology. Walking up the hill through the ruins of Delphi (Greece), we encountered the monument to Argos, the sanctuary of Gaia, and the great temple to Apollo. In Ephesus (Turkey), strolling down the main road made of marble, we saw what is left of the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven Great Wonders of the Ancient World, but represented now by only one surviving column). Hadrian and Domitian have their temples, too, giving some evidence to a Roman emperor cult.

The point is, in ancient Greece and then Rome, objects of worship, gods if you will, were present and the focal points of cult worship, treasure-building, and interpretation of life. We get a feel for what this dynamic produced, by recalling the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens:

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace . . .. 18. . . Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? . . .

22Then Paul . . . said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. . . . .

29 . . . we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:16-31)

Pow! The dark backdrop of paganism provides dramatic contrast to the light of Jesus Christ, the one who has been raised from the dead and thereby having a rightful claim to supremacy over all other deities.

Yesterday, I wrote about the “nones,” those who do not believe in anything particularly. An irony of history is noted in the accusatory language directed at first century Christians, who were called “atheists” because they did not embrace the pantheon! Here we have the two extremes, those who claim no god whatsoever, and those willing to identify anything with deity.

The great contribution to the world of Judaism and Christianity is the insistence that there is only one God. Whenever pagans—be they Greek, Roman, Celtic, African, Incan, you name it—are engaged in dialogue with the Christian faith, the first step toward faith is not necessarily to meet and submit to Jesus Christ but to espouse monotheism. The idea that our fortunes and futures rest upon only one God—the Lord Almighty, the highest power with no rivals—represents a huge leap for a vast number of people around the globe. This is not only an ancient challenge, or a foreign challenge. I suggest also that monotheism is a difficult pill for many Americans to swallow.

We are people of no god or of many gods, or perhaps the wrong god. Belief in no god requires a person to self-define goodness, rightness, and meaning. Belief in many gods requires a person to keep them all appeased somehow, like the Chinese acrobat spinning several plates at a time. Many deities command our frequent and intense attention, our money, our commitments and our loyalty. I can think of a few: the iPhone, the television, our homes, our money, our places of employment. We sacrifice ourselves at their altars every day it seems, and yet we do not comprehend that this is worship of a materialistic pantheon. When we do get it, God Almighty turns our world upside down and everything has to be realigned under God’s banner.

In my next post, I will expand on the possibility of worshiping the wrong god.

[Sorry for the delay . . . “Life” has been happening, and my days have been zooming! Yesterday it was getting a water leak fixed.]

The topic of God is popping up here and there, not only in my personal life but in our culture. My thoughts are sparked this week by the latest Pew Survey, which took the pulse of American religious practice, denominational affiliation, and basic beliefs. You can read the results of the survey here and here.

The attention-getters in this survey are the changes in the religious landscape since this survey was done previously in 2007. In a seven year period, from 2007 to 2014, the United States has experienced a drop in the number of Protestants and Catholics and an increased percentage of citizens who are the “Nones” (those with no affiliation or identify as agnostic or atheist). The total percentage of self-identified Christians has dropped from 78% to 71%. The percentage of the population who identify as “evangelical” has dropped by only 1%, from 26% to 25%.

While several of these numbers can be open to discussion as terms are defined, I would like to focus on the non-affiliated segment. In 2007, 16% of our population was not associated with a religious body, and of those 25% self-identified as agnostic or atheistic. In 2014, 23% are “nones” and of those, 31% do not believe in God. Doing the math, we discover that the percentage of our population that does not believe in God (I include agnostics and atheists in this category) has gone up by 50%, but the number of people has doubled in just seven years.

So, clearly, God is an issue for many people.

I am thankful that we live in a country where discussing doubts and disbeliefs is acceptable. I am glad that we do not espouse a state religion, which can obscure or color an honest discussion of personal belief. I am not a fan, however, of misinformed or emotional reactions based on factors that don’t have anything to do with God really but more with a person’s expectations in life and even, perhaps, at “church.” I feel that a discussion about God has to seek evidence and knowledge of truth—yes, including revealed truth—with the honest acknowledgment that faith is required along the way. I say this knowing that asserting “There is no God” requires just as much faith as the confession “Jesus Christ is Lord.” That means we have lots to talk about, and we have the freedom and power to do so.

If “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1NIV), then it is expressed in how we anticipate the future and stand on invisible certainties. By addressing “faith” and “God,” we enter a realm worth talking about but one in which we must address our future and those things that are (currently) hidden from view. Even if one is an atheist, there is still an unknown future and aspects of life that are very real but invisible. And that’s why I claim that atheists and believers have faith in common. The question is, faith in what or in whom?

I submit that God—his existence, purpose, and power—is the issue for Americans today. Some, like those wishing to excise “God” from coins, courtrooms, or city property, make it a flashpoint issue so talking about God becomes socially unacceptable. Some, wishing to scrub American life clean of ethical/moral standards that are based on biblical principles, have an issue with authority, most especially the highest Authority, Almighty God. Many who have discarded God from their life (if that is possible) have done so because they cannot, for some reason, align themselves with God’s purposes. In particular, I know a few whose takes on “God’s purposes” are so far afield that I would have to join them in disbelief. Try responding to a person who declares, “I do not believe in God,” with “Tell me about the God you do not believe in; maybe I don’t believe in him either.” You are in for a fascinating conversation!

In my next few posts, I shall share some thoughts about God (reality, purpose, and power) and why I think reclaiming such beliefs is critical to our well-being as a people.

Blogging presents some challenges, some of which are confronting me these days. So I thought it might be helpful to sketch those out a bit as a way of setting the context for what is to come.

Blogging for many writers replaces personal journaling, particularly for those who choose to write every day. Successful blogs can be very targeted, for example, on family food experiences or grief processing. My theme, Bringing the Word to Life, simply calls me to reflect on what is happening (either in my own life or in current events) in light of Scripture. I have gone through various phases, as my long-time readers know: everything from Presbyterian judicial processes to lung cancer treatment. I have reflected before on the purpose of this particular blog. The fact that I am doing so again suggests one challenge:

There are many doldrums to endure, between gusts that catch your sail. Your writing boat is still on the water, and you can’t just quit, so you paddle or wait or reflect on the meaning of life. These are the times when I have much less confidence in the quality of my missives, though, as a person of faith, I realize God can use the most mundane observations to bless someone. You never know. This thought actually keeps me going.

There are temptations along the way. I have mentioned some of these before, but they are still true. It’s tempting to be less than authentic in what I write, if by doing so I attract more readers or inflame more passions on the topic. It is tempting to care more about how many readers I have than to be true to my calling and true to the Word. It is also tempting to resort to clichés and not dig very deeply into a topic. Time often is a factor here, but I have to admit to laziness as well. While I fear being a sloppy opinion-setter, this fear does not always lead me to the next level of research or investigation.

We are responsible for facts, both in their finding and their interpretation. The events in our world today are crying out for comment from a Christian perspective: divorced Sofia Vergara and Nick Loeb’s argument over the future of their two frozen embryos; political polarization and the presidential campaign; issues before the Supreme Court, including same-sex marriage; the increasing gap between rich and poor in the United States; whether God is and has a place in society. Just for starters. But because of the kind of person I am, I do not want to share mere opinions about these topics without being faithful to facts I may or may not know yet.

A blogger is not a journalist and therefore is allowed more opinion and reaction. But even so, a blogger should handle facts transparently if the hope is to be an opinion leader. High on my frustration list are those who form passionate opinions based on inaccurate or false information. I do not want to be one of those people.

Reflection and self-examination are perilously close to self-indulgence, so finding the right balance on the path to wisdom is sometimes confusing. Our generation is infected with narcissism, and I am not immune. Even the idea of sharing one’s life for the benefit of others can cultivate a false belief that I am God’s gift to the world and if everybody thought and acted the way I did, we’d all be better off. Just writing this makes me laugh. But narcissism lurks in the shadows.

Blogging requires audacity without disintegrating into hubris. Particularly on topics that have so far generated complacency, a bold statement provokes new thought and engagement. This is a good thing, and a proper role for bloggers. However, the temptation is to go too far, too offend unnecessarily, to say something really stupid. If the goal is to be helpful, then arrogance stands in the way. My desire is to be creative and provocative enough to get my readers thinking—and possibly acting—without surrendering to something less that my calling requires.

“ . . . [L]ead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-2).

My thoughts are percolating, and Monday is a good day to start a new series, so stay tuned!

Technically speaking, I am unemployed. All that means is that the work I do is self-directed and without remuneration. Working at home, alone, usually means work without encouragement or even accountability. My admiration for the world’s great writers grows by the day, as I appreciate more fully the inner perseverance needed for literary productivity.

My big issue now is that there are too many other things to do besides writing, each requiring intense concentration until finished—the kind that pushes all other priorities to the margins.

  • Memorizing a lot of music really fast. My husband and I are participating in a choir tour, as guest choristers, for a series of concerts in Seattle and then in Alsace and Germany. We are rehearsing at home, alone, until dress rehearsals in early June. That means reading and learning notes and words, getting in shape vocally (after a lousy winter of lost voice), and committing to memory eighteen pieces, ten of which are new in the last week!

  • More medical surveillance. Six medical appointments in two weeks may not seem like that big a deal, but time in the waiting room and conversations with doctors, plus whatever changes to meds or diet or monitoring, all scream “interruptions!” While on my trip to Turkey, I carried a list of meds and their times of administration, so I wouldn’t get off track. Right now, that’s six times per day. I’m hoping after one of today’s doctor visits this will go back down to twice a day. [I remain in awe of the fact that my father-in-law, in his late-90s before he died, took only one blood pressure pill a day!]

  • Processing the lessons from the Turkey/Greece trip. How glad I am that I took only 850 pictures! Even so, they all must be labeled, and my faulty memory of their significance must be augmented by notes, guidebooks, and others’ pictures. One of my 2013 regrets was having the debriefing of our Africa trip truncated by the immediate illness and cancer diagnosis to follow. I don’t want that to happen again.

  • Making a baby quilt for my niece delivering her first child later this month. It is only a half-day project, but it looms big in my mind, for some reason. Silly, really.

The task list is different, but the effect is the same as when I was an overworked pastor: just too many irons in the fire, requiring too many areas of expertise and hours of concentration each. And this doesn’t even count figuring out the direction of my blog or finishing Slaying the Beast, which requires maintaining a train of thought over a few days to accomplish the next step. At times like this, I am paralyzed by perfectionism, indecision, guilt and dread.

So what is going to help me?

  1. God is going to help me, by reassuring me that he notices what I am doing and loves me. He is not withholding his love until I finish something; he does not wait to extend his mercy; his steadfast love for me is being poured out upon me right now.

  2. This may seem strange, but I also imagine that Jesus is chuckling at my folly and inviting me to enjoy these activities, because they are “me.” He would say, “Jettison the guilt and the dread; have a good time doing what you love! I’m right alongside you.”

  3. Taking more time first thing in the morning to let God breathe life into me through his Word. Like a mini-retreat, this pause de-clutters my mind and ultimately helps me focus on the tasks that follow.  

  4. Start. Something. Give it an hour, and assess. Keep going if it is gaining traction, or move on to the next thing and give it an hour. Repeat in cycles, punctuated by a turn in the garden or a ceremonious cup of tea. Once one of these activities takes on a life of its own, submit to it and keep going. Dinner can wait. Laundry can wait. Facebook can wait.

  5. Thank God enthusiastically and often: I am alive and have the freedom to make choices. Life is not boring. These projects all have the potential to bless someone. God is good and worthy to be praised.

In my next post—whenever!—I’d like to ponder the question, So what’s so hard about writing a blog?

 

When I write a letter or newsy email to a friend or family member, I often spend more time at the beginning of the letter with lengthy highlights and then at the end scramble to include all the little tidbits of news. At some point I realize that if I keep going, the missive will be too long to digest in one sitting! I get the feeling that Paul was in that mode with this last passage of his letter to the Colossians:

12Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. 13For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 15Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. 17And say to Archippus, “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.”

18I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

“Now that we’ve got the doctrine down, and its ethical requirements are laid out, here are a few housekeeping items before I close.” What does Paul include?

Relationship cementing. Appreciate what Epaphras has done for you and your neighbors. I have tagged Luke and Demas in this letter. I see the woman leading a house church—give her a good word! Keep me in your prayers.

Instruction. Share my greetings with your neighbors. Exchange letters with the Laodiceans. Archippus, finish what you started of the Lord’s commission.

Final greeting. Grace be with you! It is I who greet you.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians has contained treatise and testimony. Here it also includes what we used to call touchy-feelies . . . Colossians has everything from lofty doctrinal statements on Christology to thoughts on “things above” as a spiritual discipline. What I find encouraging, challenging, and inspiring is this: as good a thinker and ethicist as he is, Paul loves the recipients of this letter. The relationships that exist between him, his protégés, and the churches of the area, are dear to him. This letter carries the affection of a spiritual mentor to his apprentices, and the hopes that all would carry on in the faith despite his incarceration.

His hope for them—and my hope for my readers now—is that we may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. This means, I think, that we continue to grow in our faith toward spiritual adulthood and that we rest assured that God is working out his purposes. We have not “arrived” anywhere but into the presence of our heavenly Father. There is still the completion of what God has started in our lives to aim toward.

It strikes me that this process of transformation—sanctification Paul calls it elsewhere— would be more steady and fruitful if we were to share Paul’s writings with one another. I imagine the Laodecians reading the letter they got from Paul out loud to the assembly of Colossian Christians, and visa versa: comparing notes, holding one another accountable, thinking about how it applies to the current situation or tomorrow’s demands.

I started this Bible study with the de-churched in mind, believers who nonetheless are out of church fellowship for the time being, discouraged with “organized religion” or otherwise alienated from congregations. This word is for you: the Word of God will dwell more richly in your heart if you share it with others, and, in the bond of the Spirit, hold one another up in prayer. There is a big hole not only in our experience but in our obedience if we isolate ourselves from other Christians. Yes, it can be a drag sometimes when our brothers and sisters in the Lord get side-tracked or we perceive a level of hypocrisy at work. [As one of my friends used to say to people with this objection, “Well, I am aware that some of our folks are hypocrites, but there’s always room for one more!”] But if Paul has taught us anything, it is that Christ is Lord and his supremacy is a reality that affects our life in community. We cannot fully live in submission to Christ without also living in submission within his Body the church.

With that, we will be moving on in the coming days to new topics related to current events in the church and the world. May the Lord bless you for sticking with this study, and I do hope to hear of some of the fruit it might have ripened in your life or in the lives of others.

12Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. 13For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 15Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. 16And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. 17And say to Archippus, “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.”

18I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

It certainly helps to have traveled in the region to which Paul speaks in his letter to the Colossians. In the letter’s closing passage, Paul mentions some place names, so let’s look on a map to get our bearings.

Asia Minor is the region we call Turkey today. Asia Minor MODERN Map On this map you can see Istanbul to the north, straddling the isthmus (now divided by the Bosphorus, a channel between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, with direct connections to the Aegean). Istanbul was previously known as Constantinople and before that Byzantium. If you take a wide view of the area, you can see its stupendously strategic location. No wonder Constantine preferred it over Rome as the new capitol of his empire.

South and west, along the coast, note Izmir, known to us in the Bible as Smyrna. About forty miles south of Izmir is Ephesus, known for its temple to Artemis and the site of three years of ministry investment by Paul.

 

Paul’s activity was concentrated generally in the western region of Asia Minor, and the letters to which he refers in this passage draw our attention to the valley and hills about ninety miles east of Ephesus. IMG_6627Within ten to twelve miles from each other, we find Laodecia, Hierapolis, and Colossae. Of the three, Colossae was the smallest, having seen better days by the time of the Apostle. Today it remains unexcavated, though I walked on the mound under which fascinating archaeological layers undoubtedly lie.

Laodecia, on the other hand, was flourishing at this time, known for its woolen mill, eye care, and a first century medical school.IMG_1291 Hierapolis, while mentioned only as a beneficiary of Epaphras’s ministry, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perched on a hillside commanding spectacular views of the valley below. It was known for its textiles and hot mineral springs. [Neighboring Pamukkale is where I had my Turkish bath.] Of interest to us is that all three cities sustained paralyzing damage in the great earthquake of AD 60, within a few years of Paul’s writings. It appears that Colossae never recovered, but Laodecia was prosperous enough to fund its own reconstruction, and Hierapolis rebuilt as well using not marble but black stone that does better in earthquakes and bad weather.

For now, let us appreciate the fact that Paul was writing to real people in real places he had struggled to visit or embrace through letters. What we see in all these sites is the overwhelming presence of Rome, the Roman deities memorialized in great temples, and the signs of everyday life in commerce, agriculture, and in some cases luxury. The maps help us set his message in context, as we imagine ourselves traversing ten miles at a time to visit these cities and observe the result of Paul’s teaching. Given that the occasion of this letter was an apparent concern for the quality and accuracy of their Christian doctrine, the Colossians and their neighbors were challenged to keep their eyes on Jesus Christ and live holy lives dedicated to him despite the distractions of the good life. Sound familiar?

Tomorrow: Paul’s final message

One of the frustrations of international travel for me is the unreliability or unavailability of Internet access. It was clear from my arrival in Istanbul, a population center of 17 million, that Internet usage was prevalent (just like home, everybody walking down the street looking down at his or her iPhone). My hopes were dashed, however. When you get to a hotel touting Internet access, you deal with slow speeds, lock-outs due to overloads (experienced when all 30 of us disgorged from our bus and tried in the hotel lobby to get online at the same time), or outrageous charges for its use. Let’s just put it this way: by the time I got to Athens eleven days later, I was ready to pay $10/day for premium high-speed access.

I know this is hard, but think about what life was like when there was no Internet, no email, no Instagram or Facebook . . . Remember the quaint practice of composing a hand-written letter, addressing an envelope, stamping it, and placing it in the mail for delivery in three to five days? Go back a few centuries, when communication required a person to ride or walk overland (or in Paul’s case, take a boat across the Mediterranean) to hand-deliver a letter. Such a journey could take days or weeks, adding weight and importance to the message carried along. I can guarantee you, nobody sent a picture of tonight’s restaurant dinner or the first pie of the season (like I did on Facebook yesterday). Letters were substantive in information and laden with emotion and thereby the means Paul used to foster unity among the churches.

As Paul closes his letter to the church at Colossae, he sends greetings, gives instructions, and provides some social glue to strengthen the bonds between him and the wider body:

7Tychicus will tell you all the news about me; he is a beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord. 8I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts; 9he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you about everything here.
10Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him. 11And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.

While Paul awaits trial in Rome, the ministry continues to flourish under his direction and with the help of several associates.

Tychicus was on Paul’s ministry team, in this case a courier bringing the present letter and other news about Paul, who is writing from house arrest in Rome. Tychicus was probably from the region of Asia (present-day Turkey) close to Colossae and had rendered help in Ephesus under Paul’s direction (cf. Acts 20:4 and 2 Timothy 4:12).

Onesimus is the slave formerly owned by Philemon of Colossae. In the letter to Philemon, Paul made a good-natured appeal that Onesimus be released from bondage. Onesimus became a part of the ministry team.

Aristarchus, a believer from Thessalonica (in Greece), was under house arrest with Paul in Rome, having traveled with him and been gathered up in the Ephesian ruckus recorded in Acts 19.

This cast, including those “of the circumcision” (Jewish converts to Christianity), demonstrates the importance to Paul of moral support, ministry coordination, and an ever-spreading gospel. He is also concerned that the churches not worry about him; part of the assignment to his couriers is to reassure the Colossians that Paul is doing well and that Kingdom purposes are being fulfilled even in his imprisonment. This surely would have been good news to those who perhaps had never met Paul personally (there is no record that Paul ever visited Colossae) but were aware, through his protégés, of Paul’s unique brand of teaching and his passion for the developing church.

Paul’s letter raises at least two questions for us to ponder: 1) Do we see ourselves as members of a ministry team, mutually dependent, affirming of one another, and trusting the good work of others to fulfill the gospel mission? And 2) Is our communication clear, meaningful, edifying, and reassuring to the body of Christ? Paul’s practice shows the strength and wisdom of team ministry. It also demonstrates the power of clear communication, the effectiveness of a gracious tone, and the necessity of keeping people in touch with one another. Food for thought, as we appreciate the “blessed tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.”