Every six months, I go through the medical surveillance that tracks the signs of health and/or disease in my body. Last Wednesday, I underwent the CT scan, and six hours later my oncologist called to tell me, “It looks great! No changes! All is well.” When all my testing is done next week, I fully expect the all-clear and won’t have to think about cancer for six months, heart disease for maybe five years, skin cancer for a year, colon cancer for five years, female cancers for two years, yada, yada . . .

But there is one dumb thing that plagues me and probably will until I die. On Ash Wednesday, February 9, 2016, I began a serious recalibration of my food intake to address my significant weight-gain during cancer treatment, plus the extra twenty pounds of “too much Mary” already present before that. It has been one year, two months, and twenty-three days of logging my meals, mixing protein shakes, chopping vegetables, carefully navigating through parties and holidays, and otherwise changing habits. I have lost about 38 pounds, and have four (or six) to go. I feel terrific and have experienced many health benefits along the way. I can even say I love the way my body has turned out! Please note that last sentence, because I don’t want you to get the impression that I hate my body or have a body/spirit duality thing going on here (that’s a theological position that says anything of the body is “evil” and everything of the spirit is “good”). But after all of this success, I am still frustrated—on a plateau since Christmas—about that last four to six pounds that keeps my body-fat-percentage above 25%.

I just got home from the weight-loss doctor visit, and am working out my frustration here. The other reason I am sharing this with you is that weight loss offers one of the best illustrations of the struggle most Christian face against residual sin. Those who have embraced Christ and received his forgiveness have, Scripture tells us, been made alive in Christ, are new creatures, and possess eternal life. The Holy Spirit has moved into our hearts to work out God’s purposes from within. The Christian life is a journey toward Christ-likeness, and discipleship helps us practice the new habits consistent with belonging to Christ’s household of faith. For some of us, the transformation is dramatic; for others more subtle. But in Christ, we are new creatures.

We have eternal life now, but we are still residing in this body, which—if I may stretch theology a bit—has a mind of its own. There are things that happen in our bodies that we did not cause: I think of my friend with diabetes who can have a perfect diet/insulin day and still crash in the middle of the night. I think of another friend who has ups and downs of blood pressure that are not correlated to stress in her life. How about the person, like me, with no risk factors present (family history, smoking, exposure to pollution) who gets lung cancer? No, really, our bodies represent great mystery sometimes, and no matter what we do, things still happen.

I cannot answer the question on the physical level, but what this struggle illustrates in the spiritual realm is important. Until we prevail over the Last Enemy (physical death), we are going to struggle with sin. The Apostle Paul gives us two insights, first by venting his frustration in Romans 7:

14For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul is saying that there are forces at work within our mortal bodies, minds, and souls that oppose the good that God wants to do in us. We need the redemption offered in Jesus Christ! Our daily struggle reminds us of our complete dependence upon the grace of God.

Paul’s second insight helps us rest in God’s help:

7 . . . a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

I would be so happy if God would help me lose these last stubborn pounds, but at least I see the potential for blessing and spiritual fruit-bearing in the heat of the struggle. That stupid scale reminds me that I must remain vigilant against temptation. I must push back the human propensity to deceive myself. Who knows? If I reached my goal weight tomorrow, I might say, “Whee-e-e, now I can eat whatever I want again!” But that most certainly is not true. There will still be great need for discipline, healthful choices, and denial of self. Denial of self and life unto God are simultaneous dynamics that get to the heart of what it means to be a child of God.

So I accept the struggle and resign myself to my weakness, not by “sinning” but by renewed resolve to work with God’s purposes for me that include healthy discipline. God must be strong in me. This will be God’s work in his strength, and may my submission to God’s will be empowered by the Holy Spirit!

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Hello faithful readers,

I am taking a blogging break for the month of June to accommodate the intense concentration required to prepare and sing several choral concerts this month. It’s a spiritual discipline of another sort.

I am in the middle of final rehearsals this week, in anticipation of two “bon voyage” performances this weekend in Seattle. After a week’s break, I head to Frankfurt with the Northwest Firelight Chorale, to visit and perform in the Rhein Valley and Cologne in Germany and points west in Alsace and Burgundy France.

Crazy, I know. My 62-year-old brain is in overdrive memorizing eighteen pieces, most in English, but one in French and another in Alsatian, which is going to be the death of me. On the other hand, there is so much for which to be thankful:

• a voice that is finally cooperating and stable enough to sing for hours

 • a fine and fun choir and a conductor willing to overlook my creative breathing 🙂

• beautiful music focusing on the theme “On the Journey Home” through American sacred songs, hymns, and spirituals. A lot of these texts are heaven-centered, and since I have been contemplating Life after Life after Death lately, it has been a blessing to sing about it also.

Keep me and the choir in your prayers, for travel mercies, good health, and appreciative audiences throughout the tour.

In the meantime, treasure Jesus Christ in your heart and bring the Word to life. And if you get a chance, sing about the hope you have in the Savior!

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?

 

5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;
make the most of every opportunity.
6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt,
so that you may know how to answer everyone.

I have just spent two weeks immersed in the culture of “outsiders,” that is, those people who are not (yet) included in the household of faith in Jesus Christ. Turkey is, they say, 98% Muslim. Though it has a secular government, its red flag features a crescent and star. It straddles both Asia and Europe, ancient and modern, calm (in the west) and chaotic (in the southeast, at the Syrian border). It is a culture foreign to me, and yet its hospitality, geographic beauty, cultural richness, and historical significance all resonated. I made a habit of coming to Jesus Christ, the Lord, in prayer whenever I was conscious of the local mosque’s call blaring from the minaret. I decide that the discipline of The Hours is worth consideration, now that I am back home amidst the normal racket of American life.

Thirty of us tourists, all with Fuller Seminary in our background, toured sites of biblical and church history interest in western Turkey and Greece. Traveling by foot, plane, bus, funicular, ferry, and cruise ship, we traversed in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul and the Early Church. In most cases, the label “tourist” hung around our necks, automatically making conversation with the locals very filtered. However, there were moments here and there in which we could be salt and light. Never, though, was I able to engage anyone in conversation about Jesus or the Christian faith. The closest I came to substantive (unfiltered) chats occurred on the Aegean cruise ship and on the plane home!

But as I placed myself in Paul’s shoes, and took his exhortation to heart, I realized that outsiders are everywhere—not just in Turkey—and that I have opportunities for salty conversations almost daily. Here at home, for instance, the Peet’s Ladies and the quilt club provide significant moments for cross-cultural communication.

What sort of mindset does Paul describe here that would help me “make the most of every opportunity”?

Wisdom. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders.” Wisdom is the God-given ability to assimilate the knowledge you have about God and your conversation partner into a relationally healthy and true encounter. Wisdom draws upon God’s love, power, and direction to know how to act in a good and trustworthy way. Wisdom is not itself knowledge, but the ability to use godly knowledge to form life choices that are life-giving, God-honoring, and respectful of others. Wisdom is always listening for God, which brings us to the second mindset:

Alertness. “Make the most of every opportunity.” It requires God’s eyesight to see the opportunities for Kingdom impact around us. If we are committed to seeing the world around us as God sees it, we will become sensitive to the spiritual needs of others. As this awareness builds, we see opportunities and are called to make the most of them. I see this as a spiritual “seize the day” mentality, akin to the exhortation, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today” in the realm of spiritual conversation. This does not mean that the Christian is in a hurry, or a bull in a china shop. It just means that the Christian is called to be alert to what is going on in her relationships with others and—with wisdom—take the opportunities offered to go deeper.

Graciousness. In my day I have seen enough ungracious encounters between Christians and unbelievers, in the name of boldness and truth-telling, to know that we have a huge responsibility in conversational style. As God has offered us grace, so we are to demonstrate patience, kindness, and understanding of others even as we share an alternative world-view. It is of course not just any alternative—the gospel of Jesus Christ is true and life-changing—but to the outsider it is a radical new way of thinking and believing! Let us be gracious toward those bewildered, threatened, or otherwise uncomfortable with the heart of the gospel.

Saltiness. One little grain of salt can work wonders on a hard-boiled egg. So too in conversation with unbelievers, one little comment can transform the taste of the gospel into something irresistible. Let us not be afraid to be specific, true, and pithy when introducing the idea of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior to others.

Responsiveness. Knowing how to answer anyone is a skill and spiritual gift. It is not a know-it-all attitude (arrogance) nor is it uncaring or unlistening (callousness). Responsiveness is the willingness to let our conversation partner ask questions and reveal a personal sense of need, to which we then can address comments or answers. We do not have to be in charge of the agenda at all times! But we are called to be responders who, alert to the opportunities and sensitive to a person’s needs, are ready and willing to enter into conversation with an outsider.

God, by his Holy Spirit, enables us to be wise, alert, gracious, salty, and responsive. Can you see how your ministry with outsiders could be transformed by letting the Spirit work within you?

2Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.
3And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message,
so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ,
for which I am in chains.
4Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;
make the most of every opportunity.
6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt
so that you may know how to answer everyone.

I have been a morning person my whole life. In the evenings we have a family rule, “No major decisions after 9 p.m.” But in the morning, I feel almost invincible. This life pattern was enhanced last year while I was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. My best, most productive hours of the day were between 3 and 8 a.m., and then the day’s treatment would knock me flat again and keep me sleepy throughout the afternoon and evening.

This morning, my alarm clock went off at 3 a.m. Not for the same reason—something much more fun. In ten days I will be taking an early morning flight to Istanbul, for a two-week tour of New Testament sites in Turkey and Greece with a Fuller alumni group. There is a ten-hour time difference between California and Turkey, and I have learned over the years that a “cold turkey” time switch does not work for me. So beginning last week, I have been shortening my days by thirty minutes, adjusting the schedules for meds and meals gradually. By the time I leave, I will be on Istanbul time.

It’s getting tougher now, because as of today, my bedtime will be prior to Andy’s arrival home from work. I freely admit the social inconvenience of such a method. Andy is a very good sport even though he thinks I’m a little nutty. But the payoff is so completely worth it, I press on. Today, though, my eyes are a little heavy even here at the laptop.

The Apostle Paul has written a stellar letter to the church in Colossae, and now he can’t really finish the epistle without one more practical admonition to pray, to say awake, and to give thanks. He started the letter with a prayer for them and now circles back to that same theme, encouraging them to pray as he does and now especially for him.

It makes me wonder what was on Paul’s mind when he said to “be watchful” (literally, stay awake). Perhaps the embarrassing story of the three close disciples of Jesus, who fell asleep in prayer on Gethsemane, much to the Lord’s disappointment. Perhaps in his later years, Paul is having a harder time staying awake in periods of solitude and silence. Or maybe his joyful anticipation of Christ’s return is enough to keep him vigilant and on guard so as to be ready when the Lord shows up.

What I do know is that it is hard for me to stay awake through prolonged periods of prayer. So to “devote myself to prayer,” I have to turn in that direction several times a day until I have covered the bases. Paul asks that one of those bases be his needs and God’s advance preparation of people with whom Paul will later share the gospel. He is always on the lookout for opportunity, and when it crosses his path he is ready with speech “full of grace, seasoned with salt,” ready with an answer to any sort of question that might come his way. This is one very good reason to pray for one’s pastor—Paul’s need is universal.

And we really must be ready for whatever comes. The week’s news bombards us with “what if” scenarios: what if I had only eight minutes to live in a plane headed straight toward a mountain range? What if I were captured and my house burned to the ground by Muslims demanding my conversion? What if I were asked to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and ridiculed for holding to a traditional view of marriage? What if I got stuck on a railroad crossing as a train was approaching?

The fact is, if we are asleep at the wheel these days, there are plenty of things that can happen. Paul is clinging to the fact that prayer, alertness, and a spirit of thanksgiving are going to hold us fast in the Lord and help us acquire wisdom for the tough stands and the difficult work ahead. Where I live (San Francisco Bay Area), it is a challenge to maintain the freedom to worship and to demonstrate the Kingdom of God according to the Word of God. It’s a tough crowd, 95% unchurched, and liberalism of all kinds is status quo.

For this scenario, Paul simply asks for clarity in what he says, wisdom to navigate political/social waters, and the patience to engage in meaningful conversation with the goal in mind. We can ask for no less!

A few years ago, my plans changed at the last minute, preventing me from accompanying my husband to Yosemite National Park for the annual Spring Forum. My ticket was prepaid, and I had registered for some interesting seminars. So rather than let all that go to waste, Andy decided to invite his friend Ron to accompany him for the long day-trip. Upon arrival, Ron claimed my nametag, but whited out the tail on the Y to make the nametag say “Marv Naegeli.” For the day, “Marv” lived in my name. I told him before they left, “Make me proud. Don’t embarrass me.”

This idea of doing something in another person’s name is legalized with a “Durable Power of Attorney.” When one has DPA for another, one feels very responsible to carry out the wishes (if known) of the person who signed the document.

So does it surprise you to know that God has given each one of us his “durable power of attorney” to act in a manner and with the same authority that he himself possesses? This DPA was first issued back in the Garden, when God told Adam and Eve to steward and tend the earth. Creation has always belonged to God, but he commissioned human beings to take responsibility for its care and feeding.

All along, our task has been to ask, “What would God do in this situation if he were in my shoes?” This focus is embedded in the Judeo-Christian psyche, to act on God’s behalf according to God’s purposes, for the glory of the One who made us and for the good of the creation we are stewarding.

The Apostle Paul concludes this first round of positive exhortations in Colossians 3 with a reference to this stewardship mindset:

17And whatever you do, in word or deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.

What a blanket statement! Paul is saying, whatever activity you are engaged in or whatever you are saying, conduct it “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” This instruction can be understood two ways, firstly, “representing Jesus,” and secondly, “with the power and authority of Jesus.”

As an ambassador for Christ, Paul was well aware that he was representing Jesus Christ to those who were just being introduced to the Savior as well as to established believers (2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20). It didn’t matter what the particular activity was, but Paul aspired to do it representing the goodness, life, power, love and message of the One who had transformed his own life. He is telling us in this verse that we are to do the same.

Further, whatever we do, we can (and should) do it in the power of Jesus Christ. We can expect Christ’s power only for those activities and words that are in the Lord’s service, consistent with his values, demonstrative of his nature, and aligned with his purposes. When we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, we are inviting the helpful scrutiny of the Holy Spirit to stay on the straight and narrow. Rather than feel threatened by God’s interest in what we are doing, we are reminded to give thanks to God, our heavenly Father, who loves us so much as to entrust us with important decisions. The least we can do is honor him and act in a way that would help others recognize God at work through us.

There is another “whatever you do” passage coming up, so I will save the rest for later. In the meantime, though, Paul is elevating all normal activity to the possibility of divine ambassadorship. Food for thought, don’t you think?

 

A Facebook friend was fretting a bit that she had not yet decided what to give up for Lent. She brings up an interesting question. As a born and raised Catholic, my family of origin refrained from eating meat on Fridays. Nowadays, such a discipline is a daily and year-round practice among vegetarians, robbing the deprivation of its spiritual meaning. But being the consumer society we are, chances are pretty good that we are all eating, drinking, injecting, or inhaling something that threatens to get the upper hand in our lives. Something in this category would be a sharper focus of discipline during Lent.

On the other hand, rather than eliminating something, would it not also be Lent-worthy to adopt a new habit or practice instead? Yesterday’s verse, Colossians 3:12, suggested arenas for our thoughtful application: patience, kindness, compassion, meekness, and humility. What is something you could do that would exercise one of these virtue-muscles for spiritual strengthening?

Today’s verse is even more pointed, as Paul urges us to express that patience, kindness, compassion, meekness, and humility in the act of “bearing with one another.”

“Bear with each other and forgive
whatever grievances you may have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

I can think of at least two ways “bearing with” happens:

  1. We help our [friend, family member, co-worker] to bear a particular burden, by our ministries of intercession, presence, and merciful action; or

  2. We “grin and bear it” when our [friend, family member, co-worker] errs, sins, or offends us, and follow up that tolerance with forgiveness in the same manner Christ has forgiven us.

Both interpretations offer possibilities for Lenten discipline.

This past week, one of our covenant group members experienced a confusing medical problem and had to be taken to the hospital ER. Three different brothers in Christ took turns staying with Tom and his wife Betty while the situation was sorted out over a matter of days. Just being there to share the burden and to help them know they were not alone away from home was “bearing with them.” In your life, is someone suffering a prolonged illness, requiring isolation from his or her community and yet needing it more? Can you take a meal? Drop off a little stuffed animal? Do a load of laundry or garden maintenance? Send a meaningful card with a verse worth re-reading and remembering? Your imagination is far more creative than mine is. What is important is that you show up in some way, as a sign that the burden is shared by the Christian community.

But then we come to the other meaning of “bearing with,” which is another way of saying Christian forbearance toward others while they work out the sin thing in their own life. Perhaps Lent is the time to stop nagging or being critical of someone close to you. The Christian discipline would be one of fervent intercession (pray for them!), openness to their humanity (listen to them!), active choosing not to be bothered by irksome behavior (forgive them!), and tending to their wounds with the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

Just today, a Christian friend was sharing frustration over a work relationship that seems to be going south. The Christian friend thinks the solution is to quit the job because he feels he is being discriminated against as a Jesus-follower. I do not know the details, only that he feels this way about the situation. But maybe for Lent, he (and I in similar situations) could choose to take the barbs and put-downs without losing sleep over them, and walk in Jesus’ footsteps toward the Cross. After all, isn’t that a point of reflection during Lent? We ponder how it is that Jesus took our sins upon himself and absorbed them. He did not return evil for evil, he did not displace any anger or frustration on others around him. No, he bore the sins of all people and carried them to the grave where they could do no more harm. He bore with us, and he forgave us.

There is escalating tension and terror on earth today. Perhaps giving up retaliation might just be the Lenten discipline that could change the world.

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!

 

11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power,
and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience,
while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, . . .

Paul’s prayer for the good folks at the Colossae church continues with a run-on sentence we are unpacking phrase by phrase.

Just a little textual note here: Early New Testament manuscripts carry few punctuation01.13.15 codex_sinaiticus marks, so sometimes we can’t really tell where one sentence ends and another begins. I have personally seen the Codex Sinaiticus at the British Museum; not only is there no punctuation in that oldest surviving bound text of the NT (dating to the 4th century), there is no small case/upper case differentiation, and no space between words! Everything is in capital letters. I think they were trying to save papyrus. Reading such a document, one is very glad that Koiné Greek was structured not only with verb tenses but declensions (different noun endings depending on its “case,” i.e. function in the sentence).

But back to Paul: his intercession on behalf of this little church is that the people would be strengthened by the force that comes from God’s own power, the sort of dynamism that is glorious. God’s glorious power is characterized by overwhelming goodness and intense light. Out of that Big Bang, God’s “force of nature” is capable of making us mere mortals strong.

The reason to have strength is not so that you can obliterate everything else with a stroke of violence. No, Paul is not praying for brute force, and Christians are not to expect any help from God if they want violent power with which to dominate others. No, the reason to have godly strength is so that you may be prepared, “strengthened,” for the tough challenges ahead. I love N. T. Wright’s comment about this: “A patient and longsuffering spirit [is] the quiet corollary of faith, hope, and love.” God gives his children endurance through impossible situations, and by his Spirit he works the inner transformation that produces a patient person who is empowered by faith, hope, and love.

Many years ago, our family planned a rigorous backpacking trip with friends in the High Sierra Nevada. Our second day called for a trek up and over a 13,000-foot col, covered 01.13.15Lamarck Colwith talus. It was a grueling, long day, a battle from start to finish over difficult terrain, through threatening weather, despite early equipment failures. When we finally got over that notch to the other side, there was no camp space that would accommodate all our tents. While some of us huddled in a tent, others curled up in their sleeping bags against the boulders. As the night wore on, a terrific windstorm blew through the canyon, like a Flight Test wind tunnel. I hardly slept a wink, not only because of the noise but also out of anxiety for those sleeping “outside.” What enabled us to make it through? Inner strength, provided by God, and patience that was far from passive waiting. It was an active, teeth-gritting several hours buffeted in the wind and watching the moon cross the sky. I will never forget it. [We learned upon returning home that everywhere else but that canyon had been inundated with a heavy downpour all night; so guess who, in retrospect, praised God in great joy and thanksgiving!]

This Sierra Nevada scenario is a good example of the sort of endurance and patience Paul was asking for; and not only that, he prayed that we would be able to persevere in joyful thanksgiving! So why are these qualities part of the prayer all people need?

Because life is difficult. Holding on to the Christian faith in a world inhospitable to Jesus and his gospel is hard. Staying on the path is particularly challenging when you are alone. So the word to us sojourners is that strength training is indispensible for our survival off-trail, outside the tent.

I think some people stop going to church because it is just too hard to keep going to a place that upsets them or seems to be in self-destruct mode. But it is not easier to be out on your own, out of fellowship, either! Without the encouragement of fellow travelers, the mutually-helpful problem-solving, and holding on to one another so you don’t blow over, the walk on God’s path is fraught with perils. We need each other. We need God’s strength. We need the practiced discipline that will develop spiritual muscles and a joyful, thankful heart. Through this life, God is our trainer, our energy, our loving Father.

Next time: What has happened to make God’s power, endurance, and patience available to us?

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.

Today in our continuing study of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we are tarrying a bit around verses 1:9-10 in order to unpack one of the apostle’s cascading sentences. Yesterday I mentioned that the church so easily falls into a pattern that yields bitterness and stagnates growth. This infinite loop-to-nowhere-good is achieved by following mere human wisdom, writing God out the script, and wallowing in disappointment or anger.

The alternative to this vicious cycle is what I am calling today The Vitality Circle:

01.10.15 The Vitality Circle-croppedOnce the believer is infused with knowledge of God’s will—knowledge that is a gift of God’s Spirit—one is directed toward a life “worthy of the Lord.” This is not worthiness of the proving type, that is, efforts at earning God’s love by works according to some Law. Rather, the life we lead by following God’s will is a full expression of or consistent with or at home in God’s realm. When we say a person has performed a piece of music “worthy of J. S. Bach himself,” we are saying that it fully represents Bach’s intention and embodies his spirit. Same here. When (on those rare occasions) we nail it while on Kingdom business, it makes us happy to have finally lived into God’s intention for us.

The life worthy of the Lord is, by definition, a fruitful life. That fruit is the result of growth forces (for lack of a better term) conspiring to produce the qualities and actions that are God-honoring and life-giving. Among these would be what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:21ff), including both inner character qualities (love, joy, peace, self-control) and relational steadfastness (love, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness). Later in Colossian letter (chapter 3), Paul will expand on this idea as he describes more fully what the will of the Lord is for Christians. Fruit-bearing, for starters, is a natural outflow of the Spirit’s work in one’s life.

As it is said, success breeds success. And so also, in the spiritual life, an obedient and fruitful life just brings more knowledge of how God works and what he cares about in the world. Anyone who has dipped a toe into the waters of Christian ministry can recall the first thrill of seeing how those initial, perhaps tentative, efforts to serve Christ by serving others made a difference for the Kingdom.

For the de-churched, the decommissioned, or the sojourner, here is the message: pray for one another that God would replace the negative feelings still lingering in our hearts with the knowledge of his will. Open the door to allow God to show you how things stand, from his perspective. One of the best ways to open this door is to open our Bibles. God speaks to us there, and opening the Book while opening our hearts is a very good place to begin. Choose the wise course as God makes it known to you, and you will not regret it!