In anticipation of a stellar 80° day, Andy and I headed out Saturday morning to explore the John Muir Historic Site. We toured a visitor’s center and the Martinez home where the famous “wilderness tramp” John Muir lived and raised a family for 24 years.

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 to strict Presbyterian parents, who immigrated to Wisconsin when John was still a boy. He showed promise as an inventor, an interest that motivated him to study at university. But before graduating—he dropped out in 1863—he made a tour on foot of Iowa, Illinois, and Canada and acquired a taste for the wilderness.

Later at age 29, employed by an Indianapolis carriage parts manufacturer, a factory mishap changed his life forever. A metal file broke in his hand, and a piece of it jabbed his right eye, blinding him. A doctor bandaged the wound and prescribed quiet rest in a dark room for four weeks.

During this recovery period, Muir began to evaluate his life and loves, and realized that there was a lot of world he wanted to see. He set out to discover the riches and lessons nature could teach him, first with a 1000-mile walk to Florida and then to California where he fell in love with what we now call Yosemite Valley. He lived in the High Sierra, tending sheep or operating a sawmill, but mostly exploring, for four continuous years. During this time, he began to journal his findings and to publish magazine articles extolling the beauty and grandeur of Yosemite. His writings drew attention to its vast natural resources, the necessity of its preservation, and his own exploits off the grid.

Muir’s remarkable story goes on, but I want to reflect on the fact that a brilliant man went off the grid at least twice: from 1863 to 1866 and from 1869 through 1873. In both instances, he came back refreshed and resolved to secure and preserve natural wonders. His most potent methods were to write about his wilderness observations and experiences and to relate to influential people, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and President Teddy Roosevelt. He is known as the Father of the National Park System and was the first president of the Sierra Club.

Four years off the grid in Yosemite, but writing and taking notes, became the seedbed for great ideas and a significant impact on American life. As I pondered the correlation between social withdrawal and public impact, I realized that Muir’s life runs somewhat in parallel to the Apostle Paul and to Jesus.

The Apostle Paul was confronted by the risen Christ (Acts 9) and brought into Damascus to be instructed by Ananias. After this dramatic conversion, he withdrew from public life for at least three years. When he emerged from this quiet learning period, he itinerated all over the Mediterranean region to proclaim the gospel, establish churches, and write letters comprising a good part of the New Testament.

Jesus lived an obscure life for thirty years before changing the water into wine in Cana and becoming a locally known figure. After his baptism, he was sent by God’s Spirit into the wilderness for forty days. He returned to civilization and began calling disciples to himself and launching his ministry. His public life was punctuated by forays to quiet places for contemplation. His creative “product,” unlike Muir and Paul’s writings, was relationships and public teaching. He never wrote a book, leaving that task to the four gospel writers, but established his earthly legacy through the development of many disciples as preachers, teachers, and church planters.

For several years, based on what I still think was “a word from the Lord,” I expected that my contribution as a Christian leader to the church would be more prominent and influential than it has turned out to be. What form that leadership would have taken was never fully revealed, though I felt I was inching closer a couple of times. I felt the Lord preparing me for a leadership role of some impact.

But like Jesus’ Messiah-ship, which turned out looking a lot different than Jewish leaders of his day expected, the path God set for me has involved hardship and ridicule and failure (especially the 2012 PCUSA legal defeats that led to the sea change in that denomination). It has included life-threatening illness that took me out of full-time work, and academic forces beyond my control that truncated a future as a seminary teacher. These setbacks and redirections have channeled my energies into part-time hospital chaplaincy and into writing a memoir about my experiences. It is not easy for me to say this: I was disappointed and even shaken that I misunderstood God’s appointment.

Nevertheless I affirm that God knows what he is doing with my life. I am at peace now with the call to live as faithfully and excellently as I can within my present context and to remain open to his continued direction. Power and influence take many forms, some of which I may not actually want anymore. But writing something true, worthy, and thought-provoking may become my means of leading people to Jesus’ calling in their lives. As my dad used to say, “The one who has the pen has the power” (Naegeli’s Law #3).

The stories I have shared today—of John Muir, the Apostle Paul, and our Savior Jesus Christ—remind me that good things come out of quiet obscurity. I can expect to thrive and be joyful and do some good as long as I stay closely in tune with the one singing the melody in my life. For now, that means (in part) transcribing the music I hear onto the written page, from which others perhaps can sing the lead and be heard.

 

 

I’ve been on the road, driving alone in our little Sprinter van conversion RV, to meet Darling Daughter A in Ashland, Oregon. It’s a drive one can easily accomplish in one day, but I left Wednesday afternoon to get the first three hours under my belt. Without really planning it this way, I have had a mini-retreat. Driving in the quiet, enjoying the scenery, occasionally listening to music, stopping every once in awhile to stretch. It’s good for the soul! I recommend it.

Sometimes a person just has to get away, into the quiet, in order to gain perspective. The daily discipline of “quiet time” allows us to listen to God and examine our lives. One need not go on a road trip to accomplish this task, but every once in awhile an extended “time away” (even at home) refreshes the spirit. I have experienced significant spiritual breakthroughs in times like this and am open again.

In the silence, I realize one question is a trigger for my anxiety: Am I spending my time on the most important things? I often wonder if today’s precious hours are being spent properly. “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). Am I doing what God wants me to be doing? Doubt that I am has plagued me for a few years, from a career perspective. It seems to be coming to a head as my husband and I discuss retirement (some time in the future). Like, Wait, I’m still working on, “What do I want be when I grow up?”

It is possible for me to get quite tied up in knots about this, and I know full well it is a form of obsession, diffuse in its focus, and therefore in the category of anxiety rather than worry. Worry tends to be focused on more realistic, specific concerns. I face the Life Question every day, because of course I have a long list of unfinished projects, home improvement tasks awaiting attention, four books to write, and relationships to maintain. Which is the most important to work on today? Half the time, I don’t know. I recognize that I can suffer from analysis paralysis, otherwise known as “overthinking.” Throw in a little perfectionism, and you have a recipe for emotional gridlock.

But wait, there’s more: experience a life-threatening illness that carries with it an abysmal 5-year survival rate. [I just celebrated Year 3 of those 5, and expect a full lifespan.] The tension surrounding the time question builds. Could it be that one of God’s purposes in carrying me through lung cancer was to explore this particular growth area? God has invited me to re-learn how to live in the present, make the most of every encounter, and consider the value of what I used to dismiss as trivial pursuit.

A corollary to the fear of Time-Wasting is the Bucket List idea: what’s on my list and how much time do I have left to fulfill those dreams? I was speaking with a patient earlier this week, and he told me, when asked how he was doing in his spirit, “I’ve done everything on my bucket list, and I no longer know what the purpose of my life is.” Wow! What a great entry into a meaningful conversation on the Purpose of Now.

I realize that most of my anxiety has to do with the future. My daughters laugh at me as dinner winds down and conversation gets goofy, and I change the subject to “What’s up tomorrow?” or “Here’s tomorrow’s plan.” Over decades time I have under-appreciated what is going on right now and often have not been present to it. It’s odd, because when I do actually rest in the present, I feel safe and secure, led by God. I have the capacity to put my heart and soul into whatever I am doing and get lost in time. Not very often do I do this, but I can.

Those who are overwhelmed by the present cope by diverting their attention to something fun or engaging: needlework such as counted cross-stitch is excellent for requiring concentration, and I have found backpacking does the same thing for me. You either center down and concentrate in a very small circle of activity, or you do something repetitive and concentrate on breathing. I know people who find their refuge in gardening, in making music, in fly fishing, and in painting. These activities are calming because they put us in touch (whether we realize it or not) with our Creator, who is saying right here and right now, “Peace be with you.”

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.

Spring training has started! The Giants are warming up their pitchers and catchers in Scottsdale, AZ, this week. Assessments are being made, recovery from injuries celebrated, starting lineups tried on for size. Next week the full team checks in. As of today, Major League Baseball has exactly forty-five days until opening day, April 6.

What we do not hear much about, however, are the umpires. The roster of 68 umpires qualified for “the Majors” is a traveling band of baseball experts. Their calls are sacred—even with official reviews, also made by umpires—and they bear an authority that elicits respect from little kids all the way up to grannies watching the game on TV. [Last June, a fascinating article told the story of a Christian ministry to umpires. The human side of their role—schedules, travel, and stresses of the game—awakens the compassion of a pastor called to minister to them.]

I bring up umpires, because there is a word in today’s Colossians 3 passage that hints of umpiring.

15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,
to which indeed you were called in the one body.

The word is “rule,” and it connotes the overarching judgment and voice of authority, such as an umpire would administer through a game. What is it that is to rule, or umpire, your hearts? The Peace of Christ! So let’s explore this a bit.

When we hear “the peace of Christ,” we are probably more inclined to think of it in terms of personal, inner reassurance and contentment. This is the focus of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians (4:4–7). There, he talks about trading in worry for prayerful petition and thanksgiving, the result being peace in one’s heart. So this individual, inner peace is certainly legitimate and necessary in the Christian life.

However, in Colossians, Paul takes a different spin by indicating that this peace is a quality to which we “were called in one body.” This points to a corporate condition of peace, relational peace, that is to guide and adjudicate our dealings with each other. Keeping the peace is a virtue in Paul’s playbook.

Thinking about my fellow Presbyterians for a moment, the peace in our ranks has been shaken greatly in the last twenty-five years or so. Discontent and dysfunction have disturbed the peace, unity, and purity of our denomination for almost as long as I have been a member. My desire is not to replay any of those fights, but only to illustrate that peace is truly a precious commodity in short supply. And yet, we are called to it. So how do we manage it?

The conditions in which the peace of Christ can flourish include the following:

  1. single minded and pure hearted recognition of the Lordship of Jesus Christ

  2. an agreement (yes, “being of one mind”) about the essentials of the Christian faith

  3. the exercise of the fruit of the Spirit in community with fellow believers, with love as the tie that binds all others together

  4. in the reality of conflict, discernment of those matters that fall under #1 or #2 above and dealing with them clearly and thoroughly in a timely fashion.

Speaking only for the conflicts of which I have been a part, we have failed to realize the peace of Christ, even yet, because

  1. there is still plenty of human competition for the role of “Lord” in the church

  2. we cannot state and therefore cannot agree on what is essential for Presbyterians to believe in order to remain within the fellowship

  3. we have betrayed one another’s trust and given confusing messages about loving one another

  4. our dealings with the issues at hand have dragged on now for decades, have been ecclesiastically clumsy, and have created mixed messages for the church and the world. The solution currently under scrutiny by the presbyteries will only confuse matters more, for what its new statement about marriage does not say, as much as what it does say.

So I do not hold out much hope that “the peace of Christ” will reign in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) anytime soon. It makes me very sad to say so.

It reminds me of the prophet Ezekiel’s indictment against Israel, which included, “They have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace” (cf. Ezek. 13:8-16). Lest we join the prophets who are making statements simply out of their own imagination, leading to dead-ends, let us submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, hold fast to the faith, and bear with one another out of love for Christ.

For those done with church, this passage probably comes across as a lament. If only the church had let peace rule, we say . . . so now what do we do to promote the peace of Christ, to live in it in community? We are going to have to listen more, talk less, pray more, walk alongside, anguish in the Spirit and long for purity that is wrought by God’s thorough work in our souls and in our fellowships. A tough call, and we may not be up to it yet. But still, we must affirm that Paul’s admonition is on target: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

Last Saturday, my covenant group friend Steve Hayner died in the Lord. As his wife Sharol put it, his life was swallowed up in LIFE. I along with thousands of readers of his CaringBridge site, colleagues there at Columbia Seminary, and family and friends whose lives he touched in decades’ time, were aware that his homegoing was imminent. He was sick only about ten months, from diagnosis of his pancreatic cancer to the end of his life on earth. Occasionally he would share what was on his heart and mind as this process took its turns and twists. We all stand privileged to have witnessed his journey home.

As I learned a year ago, one has the privilege of choosing what one thinks about. Steve chose to focus on finding joy each day and seeking his daily calling, regardless of what his external circumstances would permit him to do. I last talked with Steve and Sharol by Skype in October, when jury duty prevented me from visiting in person that week. Clearly, Steve was choosing to think about what was happening to him with eyes wide open, heart trusting God, and a joyful fearlessness that was so characteristic of his spirit.

I thank God for Steve, for his incredible example of humility, servanthood, brilliance, and purpose. I feel for Sharol and the loss she and her family have now experienced, but even she knows that having died to self, Steve’s life was hidden with Christ in God, and he is alright.

In this life, God has given us the power to choose the focus of our thoughts. We can choose fear, and the content of our thoughts roam around a dark closet of “what ifs” and worst case scenarios. We can choose worry, and the imagination unleashes a horror movie of losses. We can choose anger, and the blood boils at the injustice of it all. Or we can choose godly trust, and surrender ourselves to the Lord who has our days numbered and who anticipates our homecoming even more than we do.

So the question we have to ask is this: how are we to think? Where are our thoughts best lodged, for now, this side of heaven? What should be the focus of our lives? The Apostle Paul begins chapter 3 of his letter to the Colossians with a word from the Lord on this subject:

1So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things
that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,
3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
4When Christ who is your life is revealed,
then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Remember the context: Paul in chapter 2 has been making the case that the Colossians were in danger of a spiritual derailment of sorts. It sounds like they had been harassed by troublemakers trying to convince them that legalism is necessary for their acceptance by God. But if they are in Christ, Paul claims, they are united with the Lord of the Universe, the only One who is himself God. They do not need any external props to hold up their faith, to appease God, or to prove themselves worthy of God’s salvation. They do not need empty philosophies that are deceptively promising but ultimately dead-ends spiritually. Going after mere human wisdom will not produce any gain at all.

Paul makes the great pivot with the word “So.” If you have been raised with Christ then put your mind, your heart, your yearning, your desire in the direction of the throne of grace! Think about what is in God’s realm rather than get bogged down in the weightiness of earth. If you do this, Paul says, you will discover your safety in Christ, the one who brought you to life by the work and word of God. “When Christ who is your life” is revealed, then glory (God’s light and power) will also be revealed. Wow.

This passage opens up a bunch of questions, which I will ask you rather than answer myself. We do not want to misunderstand Paul’s main message here.

  1. Have you been raised with Christ? Paul develops this image elsewhere in his writings, so you can check it out here: Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6

  2. If so, then what are your choices about your focus, between “things that are above” and “things that are on earth.” Think concretely here. What would you benefit by focusing on those “above” things in your life today?

  3. Paul is speaking to living and breathing Colossians, so what does he mean when he says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden . . .” What practical implication does this reality have for you as a Christian believer?

  4. And a question for a later day: does choosing to think about things that are above preclude us from really seeing and responding to the needs, the pains, the death, the terrorism, the exploitation, the war, the injustice, the addiction, the violence, or the depravity all around us on earth? How do we continue to seek the things that are above while at the same time trying to be good citizens of the world? I actually think Steve Hayner found the fulcrum of these two polarities. As you read the many tributes being published right now (and undoubtedly attested to at his memorial service on February 23), see if you can point to evidence of his grasp of “above” and “on earth.”

After a sugar fast during the month of January and a rather decadent self-indulgence on Super Bowl Sunday, today began my annual discipline of calorie cutting. I have had a life-long preoccupation with food, which I do not consider a virtue but more a matter of childhood conditioning. As Erma Bombeck wrote once, “I am not a glutton; I am an explorer of food.” No, honestly, I really am a glutton and I am not proud of it and pray regularly for deliverance from this one of the seven deadly sins. In the meantime, I am vulnerable to the promises of this diet or that cleanse; and now that I have had cancer, the cancer-prevention diets beckon as well.

I suppose everyone has that point of vulnerability, into which promises of health or even salvation are poured. If we just cultivate this habit or deny ourselves that food group, we will be happier and God will love us more. Or worse, God only saves vegetarians or those who keep kosher. Anyone who is insecure about his or her standing with God can be swayed into believing that salvation is found in Jesus Christ + {you fill in the blank}.

This is not a new problem in the spiritual life. From the first century, in western Turkey, among Gentile believers in Jesus Christ, people have been harassed by others to think their religious practice is incomplete, uncommitted, or incorrect. In light of what Paul has just written in the previous paragraph, his instruction starting at Colossians 2:16 packs a punch for those tempted to cling to something other than Jesus for their salvation.

16Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” 22All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Paul is giving a direct instruction now. To unpack the passage, do a couple of things before reading on:

  1. Go through the complete passage and highlight all the phrases that refer to something Paul is affirming or promoting with his readers.

  2. Go back and underline phrases that indicate what the problems are with the Colossians’ current way of thinking or acting.

  3. What is the underlying problem Paul is pointing out to the Colossians? Considering what the letter has been teaching up to this point, what is Paul suggesting is the solution? [Keep in mind that a direct answer to this question is going to appear in Chapter 3. No cheating! We’re following Paul’s flow here . . .]

  4. Describe any area in your life that is similar to the Colossian issue. What would God be saying to you by way of correction, redirection, or hope?

To sojourners I make the following application. See if it fits. I can only speak from direct experience within the PC(USA), but I have heard it said in presbytery pulpits and General Assembly debates that leaving the PC(USA) endangers a person’s spiritual position. To leave the church is to leave Christ (or something similar). What strikes me, in light of Colossians 2, is that this misplaced warning really presents a temptation to make the PC(USA) either a replacement for or an addition to the salvation we have in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Hear me when I say that participation in a church family is extremely important. There are so many benefits of communion with the saints that far outweigh the liabilities. But these benefits to not rise to the level of “essential for salvation,” even if I think it might be unwise in the long run to maintain a churchless existence.

To be absent from church is “unfinished business,” but I understand the pains that make such a hiatus necessary. For some of my readers who have been decommissioned or de-churched or are simply done with it, taking a respite for a time of healing can be a good thing. I talked with someone today who went through a period like this and diverted her time and attention to Habitat for Humanity for a season. But she is back at church, preparing for full-time Christian work, and ready to labor within the context of a denomination to pursue Kingdom purposes. Neither she nor I have any illusions of the church’s perfection, and keep its very human flaws in perspective.

So whatever it is that contends for “god” status in your life—food, asceticism, denominational loyalty, picayune legalisms, whatever—what does Paul say to do with that? Forsake it, and turn to Christ, who is wholly trustworthy, whose salvation is complete without add-ons, and whose love for you is unconditional. Grab hold, and grow into him!

 

As we continue our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we are struck with the contrasts he so vividly paints. In today’s passage, Paul connects the dots between the glorious accomplishments of the Lord Jesus Christ and us (all) who were alienated and hostile to God’s intents and purposes.

21And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind,
doing evil deeds, 22he has now reconciled in his fleshly body
through death, so as to present you holy and blameless
and irreproachable before him—
23provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith,
without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard,
which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.
I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

Wrong thinking leads to wrong doing, and if one’s life is to be transformed, the process begins with a new way of thinking. (Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, and N.T. Wright agree on this.) If our thinking is hostile toward God, our actions will not be friendly toward him either.

This is why debating ideas is an important sharpening exercise for believers. We may be tired of “church arguments,” but the fact is evident that spiritually corrupt ideas have crept into the church and changed actions. Undisciplined, unbiblical thinking creates a new thing— not God’s new thing of Revelation 21:5, but a human thing (that really isn’t new at all)—that brings round old sins into a 21st century context. This is what has happened in my tribe, the PC(USA) and perhaps in yours, too. Paul cares about where our thinking leads us, and we would do well to acknowledge the link between the mind and the hands.

Speaking as a fellow sojourner, what is hard to swallow is being surrounded by bad, unorthodox thinking, and having no real place to go. Staying in the midst of teaching that is contrary to Scripture is strongly discouraged by the Psalmist:

1              Happy are those
                        who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
            or take the path that sinners tread,
                        or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2           but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
                        and on his law they meditate day and night.

And yet, one can stay in the fray and debate at every turn if one’s faith is strong and one senses a call to the prophetic ministry within his or her church family. Those prophets are more often being dismissed, one way or another, in today’s church. The accusation (or quietly whispered indictment) is of failure to promote the peace and unity (forget the purity) of the church. Our current situation makes it easier to picture “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” and the strange antics Jeremiah, for instance, employed to get an urgent message across.

All people at one time or another were once alienated from God, but God took the initiative to reestablish a relationship with us. Again, Paul’s theme of Christ’s work on the Cross is reprised, the notion that our lives are hidden in Christ’s so that we can approach the Father “holy and blameless.” It is important to note here that it was in Jesus’ body and by means of his physical death that we were rescued and brought back into fellowship. It is in Jesus’ body that human frailty and divine mercy meet.

Verse 23 introduces an interesting caution to the mix: “provided that you continue . . . steadfast . . .” This faithfulness to God is contrasted with shifting away from the gospel’s hope. We cannot help but think that the Colossians themselves were observed drifting away from the message of the gospel that Paul (and his protégé Epaphras) preached and taught. The caution to continue steadfastly again links behavior with the mind’s thinking. If indeed the Colossians’ ideas about the gospel are changing, it is going to show up in how they act. If their acts are contrary to the gospel of hope, then Paul hints that they jeopardize their holiness. We will hear more about this is the passages to come. For now, as Paul concludes the introductory section of the letter, he drops a hint as to his main concern and the occasion of his writing.

It is very important for believers who have become disenchanted with the church, alienated from fellowship, to not go off and do their own thing out of fellowship. Loss of accountability puts one in a perilous position spiritually. I hear your protests that the church you once knew no longer disciplines sinners toward repentance and transformation. I agree that many of our mainline denominations are enforcing a politically correct party line on the new unholy trinity of tolerance, relativism, and self-actualization. The culturally assimilated now holding power in our churches will “hold us accountable” all right, to their way of thinking, as evidenced two weeks ago in the defrocking of a good friend, the Rev. Joe Rightmyer in Dallas.

But if we are not to become dismissed prophets wandering alone in the wilderness, how are we to find and participate in the Body of Christ? Who will hold us accountable to God’s way of thinking, as God has revealed it in his Word? It is a troubling question for Presbyterians, with whom I am most familiar; but anybody who has participated in the church over a period of time in any tribe is bound to feel the same sort of angst about being on their own. As we continue in our study, let us look for those pointers toward a solution to our dilemma.

9. . . asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

Parents encourage their emerging adult children with “You’ll know what to do,” but those young adults never grow old enough to know precisely what course to take any given moment. I have been a legal adult now for 43.5 years, and sometimes I still feel like I’m a kid! It is a good thing I am a child of God, for I can consult with my heavenly Father at any time. How full my heart is when I remember God’s direction even in the darkest times of my life. Some of the twists and turns have not been my choice, and I still chafe at a couple of them. I can’t help but be glad that, despite everything, God has made known his will and, in the main, I am walking in it.

But there is still plenty of uncertainty from time to time, and that is the basis for my suggestion that this prayer of Paul’s is universally needed. But for what exactly is he praying?

The knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. The avenue by which we know what God desires for us is spiritual wisdom and understanding. These are gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8) and therefore not conjured up by merely using one’s brains, à la the Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). It is not acquired by study, although knowledge of God’s Word exposes us to God’s way of thinking and gives us plenty of commands and case studies from which to learn. Nor is God’s wisdom and understanding imparted to only a few. Since it is a gift that comes along with the Holy Spirit, and every believer has the Holy Spirit inside, the gift of wisdom is available to all who have trusted Christ and turned their lives over to him.

God’s wisdom is evident in a person with sufficient spiritual knowledge and experience to choose a course of action that is God-honoring and life-affirming. The wise course is to be differentiated from the most expedient course, or the most profitable course (in worldly terms), although expedience or profit may be God-honoring and life-affirming in particular situations. Having said that, the wisdom of God can seem foolhardy to world-wise people, because self-sacrifice and humility are often hallmarks of God’s way of doing things. When we pray for others, then, we are praying not only for wisdom and insight but also for the courage to follow through on a godly course of action.

For those angry at and alienated from the church, a prayer for knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding is a petition for freedom from a merely human point of view. Our human emotions—particularly anger and bitterness—can lock us into an infinite loop, a vicious cycle of blame. But inject godly wisdom into that cycle, and one has hope for a new perspective and a positive, productive (God-honoring and life-affirming) way forward. The way to get that injection is to ask for it; hence, the prayer Paul offers here.

I hope someone is praying for me and my tribe today, as we Presbyterians get the news that one of our own, a godly, patient, gracious minister named Joe Rightmyer who has served the church for over 40 years was stripped of his ordination yesterday. The reason for this extreme measure? He participated in a decision-making process, of which an allegedly “illegal” congregational meeting was a part, that ultimately resulted in his congregation leaving the PC(USA). I will probably post a separate blog on this topic, but I can say this much now: it is precisely this kind of self-serving, punitive, and power-blinded action of a bureaucracy gone bad that turns good people off to so-called organized religion. I myself have worked with the man over a period of several years, and know him to be faithful to Jesus Christ and a genuine bridge-builder within the PC(USA). Yes, I find the whole situation disturbing and disgusting—that’s why you need to pray for me. But it illustrates the need we all have to pray through this and similar situations just as Paul prayed for the Colossians, so that better fruit than bitterness can grow out of it.

Speaking of cycles, the passage continues to describe an alternative to the vicious cycle. I will unpack that idea in my next Colossians study.

There are lots of reasons why Christian believers stop going to church. Sin may be at the root of some migration out of fellowship, but people may simply feel they no longer belong or they have sustained an injury of spirit that makes it impossible to stay. My goal here is not to cast blame or to be judgmental, but to find out what is true and see if there is anything we together can do to help.

It does not seem a stretch to assert that most people want to feel at home somewhere. A sense of belonging is a primary responsibility of families, to be sure, but in our broken world families can often be the source of deepest rejection. The same can be said of church families, when someone in the fellowship becomes a bully or doctrinal shifts occur or covenant is broken by sin. For some, a sense of alienation occurs when cultural changes make them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. For others, circumstances beyond their control make a church unlivable for them, such as a leadership change, a move to a different site, or a denominational realignment. It is safe to say that we are living in a dynamic environment right now, in the church realm, and changes are causing many to opt out of church, perhaps until the dust settles.

If the church, or any congregation within it, were perfect, this displacement would be non-existent. But the church is blemished because its people are flawed human beings who cannot—without God’s help and the Body’s nurture—conquer greed, ambition, addiction, narcissism, or stubbornness. We are not the spotless Bride of Christ in our present condition. What is a person to do?

One of the gentle principles of my tribe in the Christian family, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is found in a helpful footnote in our Book of Order: “When any matter is determined by a majority vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion . . .” We are talking here about those who have chosen to peaceably withdraw, not to start a fight or a schism, but just simply to walk out.

These folks are sojourners wandering outside of fellowship looking for a place of safety and healing. I am hoping that Bringing the Word to Life might be a place where you can find both in the company of fellow travellers.

For the next few months I intend to use this space to lead a Bible study on the book of Colossians. Since you and I can’t meet face to face, I am hoping that by virtual means we can walk the journey together until you find a spiritual home in face-to-face fellowship with other Christians. We are going to take care of some of the spiritual housekeeping required to prepare for church re-entry (because, yes, some day I hope you will end up back in “church” fellowship in some way). Together, we are going to maintain our focus on the Lord Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.

In the spirit of New Year’s Resolutions, I want to encourage a few steps toward spiritual health and wholeness. These may take awhile, under serious Holy Spirit scrutiny, but I am hoping the spiritual dietary restrictions will help. We are going to talk about cutting out of our diet the following:

• Anything bitter tasting
• Anything green with envy
• Anything “dark”
• Anything too much or too heavy for the digestion

And we are going to encourage one another to consume more:

• Bread of Life (The Word of God)
• Living Water (welcome of the Holy Spirit’s movement in our lives)
• Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control)

In order to enjoy a new feast, we are going to take steps to clean the cobwebs from the dining room by confessing our own sin, acknowledging responsibility for our choices, and welcoming accountability. Around the table, we are not going to talk about what we have left, but where we are going and what it will take for us to get there.

Because this is a blog you can read at your leisure, this may be a private exercise toward healing for you. I would see this as a temporary state, though, and do not want you to lose sight of the goal, which is authentic Christian fellowship. Eat alone when you must, but share a spiritual meal with other sojourners when you can.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
            come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
            come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
            without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
            and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.          
Give ear and come to me;
            hear me, that your soul may live. (Isaiah 55:1-3)