Monthly Archives: December 2012

It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time!

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
(Romans 12.1 ESV)

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?…Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
(Matthew 6.25-34 ESV)

At first glance these passages may not seem to be relevant to each other, but they are in fact inseparable for living the Christian life. In the first passage we are commanded to be living sacrifices; to offer all of ourselves in the service of Christ; to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Matthew 22.37; Mark 12.30; Luke 10.27). Jesus called this the “great and first commandment” (Matthew 22.38 ESV); “first” because it is the most important commandment and “great” because it is the furthest outside humanity’s ability to keep in our own strength.

The reason for humanity’s difficulty in keeping this commandment is that every human, even Christians, possess a sinful nature that is sometimes referred to as the “flesh” (See Romans 6-7; James 4.1-17; Galatians 5.16,17). Basically this nature opposes God and seeks either its own will or the will of Satan (this topic is deserving of further explanation, but such an explanation would make this post obscenely long). Since all possess a nature that inclines them towards fulfilling their own desires instead of God’s, and since humanity is naturally inclined to follow it, it is much more familiar and comfortable than following the Holy Spirit.

However if you are going to follow God you must begin to follow the Spirit and not satisfy the desires of the flesh. It is impossible to serve both God and the flesh (Matthew 6.24; Luke 16.13). So what happens when you start trying to live a way that is unfamiliar to you and you put your trust in someone that you cannot see? Well, you become anxious. Hence the teaching of Jesus in the second passage.

Jesus sees us as we really are, Fallen nature and all. He knows that when we begin to trust in him and follow the Spirit that we will become anxious because we have left our familiar and comfortable way of doing things. This is why he taught us to not be anxious. And because he knew that there was no way for us to leave our comfortable, sinful, and Fallen way of living life in our own strength he became human, died, and rose in order to pay our debt and make it possible for us to leave our selfish way of living behind and live for Christ instead.

These two passage are like peanut butter and jelly: they complement each other. Offer all of yourself for the service of Christ and don’t be anxious when you do it because you have left your familiar ways of doing things. You are more valuable than the birds and plants whom God takes care of, so he will certainly take care of you as well.

Two Great Spiritual Weapons: Chocolate and Popcorn

I was doing some thinking (big surprise) lately on one of the ironies of life as a seminarian: how you can be in a place where you are constantly learning about God and studying the Bible, but yet can (potentially) grow further apart from God rather than closer. How is it possible that seminary could potentially kill your spiritual life rather than strengthen it? Surely if God founded a seminary his students would not have to balance working, studies, relationships (including family), local church commitments, and their spiritual life! They would have all their needs provided for without having to work for them; would be able to handle their assignments with relative ease; their relationships would be supportive and spiritually beneficial; and since the rest of their life would be stress free their local church commitments and spiritual life would seem like blessings rather than burdens! This would no doubt be a better way to strengthen their faith and prepare them for ministry rather than the way our present seminaries do.

As I thought about this more though I realized that God would not run his seminary in the way I would have expected (see above paragraph). First of all, God does give his followers easy lives. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and many other devoted followers did not live easy lives. Furthermore, many present day Christians do not live easy lives either (e.g. those living in Islamic countries in the Middle East). Secondly, trials refine us and strengthen our faith (James 1.2-4; 1 Peter 4.12-13), not comfort.

If God is indeed sovereign over all creation and more powerful than any heavenly being then why does he seemingly punish those who follow him rather than reward them? What is the point of doing things in this manner? How does having to balance a million different things help prepare someone for ministry?

While I do not know the full answer to these questions recently I have realized part of it. Seminary is preparation for ministry in our crazy, messed up and Fallen world. And in this world we will have to balance our family obligations, ministry work, and studies all while maintaining a close walk with God so that we can be faithful ministers to the people whom God has given us, just like we are doing now at seminary. I think of seminary as preparation for the front lines of war. In order to survive we must know how to overcome and manage the obstacles and hardships that we will encounter there.

While the classic (and certainly essential) tactics for negotiating the spiritual battlefield are probably well known to most seminarians (prayer, bible reading/devotions, fasting, etc) there is a new tactic that I’ve encountered recently. Not new in the sense that it is innovative and has never been used previously, but new in the sense that it is so under utilized human forgetfulness erases all memory of it before it is encountered a second time.

 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

(James 2:15-16 ESV)

I’m going to call this “new” tactic Tangible Acts of Encouragement. With this tactic instead of saying something merely along the lines of “I’ll pray for you” you actually do something tangible to encourage the person. This can be done regardless of whether or not the person displays a need for encouragement. If they like a certain restaurant buy them dinner there (or a gift card). If they like a certain movie watch it with them. If they need a break at work give it to them. If they need someone to talk to listen to them (I mean really listen and remember what they said, not just nod your head and say “yes”). If they need a coat to stay warm give them one. If they need food to eat give them some. With this tactic you go beyond mere encouraging words (though they should definitely be there), which too often seem like a cop-out to someone who is feeling down, and into acting on those words.

You’d be surprised how often you can employ this tactic. Even in a situation where words and prayers seem like the only thing you can offer for encouragement, such as when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, you can do something tangible for them. A cup of coffee, an attentive ear, and an encouraging tongue can do more to encourage that person that a million prayers they never hear you pray.

Don’t over or under utilize this tactic though, otherwise your recipient will be inclined to doubt your sincerity.

I was recently the recipient of a Tangible Act of Encouragement from my mother. Two of my favorite foods are chocolate and popcorn and my mom recently sent me a package filled with them. It was one of the best encouragements I’ve received so far in seminary and it didn’t require a single word. Thanks mom!

Picture of care package from my mother containing chcolate and popcorn

These are a few of my favorite things…

So don’t forget to encourage your local clergy (and seminarians) in tangible and appropriate ways. If you are a layman in your local church they are the ones who are (or will be) shepherding you on the front lines of the spiritual war raging all around us. They are human just like you are and need encouragement just like you do, though it may not obvious when they are struggling and need it. It is to your benefit and theirs that they remain spiritually strong and Tangible Acts of Encouragement are highly effective in this endeavor.

Now I had not been busy and frustrated with trying to balance all the things in my life I would not have realized just how effective this tactic could be. Thus I would not have been able to share it with all of you, nor would I have been able to use it myself in order to encourage my brothers and sisters who are struggling with me for the cause of Christ. The stress that comes with seminary is indeed an essential part of ministry preparation.

What is the Church?

I am the vine; you are the branches.
(John 15:5)

One of the tasks during my first semester here in Dallas has been to find a church home. Since I wasn’t raised in any particular Christian tradition or denomination I’ve also taken this opportunity to evaluate various traditions and denominations with the goal of possibly joining one of them.

Background Info: I grew up in independent churches, all of which were orthodox and Protestant. I have no doctrinal dispute of any significance with any of the churches I attended during my childhood and adolescence. Over time however I became increasingly dissatisfied with these churches. Or to state it metaphorically: I began to feel like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole (the specific reasons for this are another subject entirely and I won’t go into them in this post).

What is the Church? One of the books I have (finally) started reading as a part of my evaluation of the various Christian traditions and denominations is An Outline of an Anglican Life by Louis Tarsitano (McGrath’s Christian Theology has also been very helpful). In the first chapter Tarsitano presents a view of the Church that I agree with very much and think the rest of Christendom would do well to not merely intellectually assent to, but to actually live their lives, conduct their worship services in light of, and guide their flocks by.

One of the things that breaks my heart about modern Christianity are the divisions that exist within it. While I think that distinct styles of worship and disagreements are inevitable I do not think that these differences should lead to divisions within the Body of Christ so that certain denominations/churches absolutely refuse to work with other denominations/churches in spreading the Gospel.

When divisions go this deep I think the leader of the church has been forgotten, if he was ever acknowledged in the first place. Christ is the head of the church, not a man or a council of men (Ephesians 1.22; 4.15; 5.23; Colossians 1.18). Furthermore Christ is the one who chooses who constitutes the church, not us (John 13.18; 15.16, 19). While most Christians would agree with these statements it seems to me that these statements have little effect on relations between different churches and denominations.

Christ is the vine and we are the branches. There are not multiple vines, but only one: Christ. The branches are connected to the vine and are to bear fruit. If we could truly recognize that this, that Christ is the only vine and the different denominations/traditions are merely branches connected to the vine I think it would go a long way towards achieving the unity that has been lacking for so long within Christendom.