Aug 26 2010

Trust And Obey

In Sunday School, we used to sing this song:

When we walk with the Lord
In the light of his word,
What a glory he sheds on our way!
While we do his good will,
He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
~ Lyrics by  John H. Sammis, 1846-1919

It’s a very interesting little song. If you look at the words, you can see that it would be easy to give the song a legalistic twist so that the message becomes, “If we don’t trust God enough and fail to obey Him, He won’t abide with us.” Unfortunately, far too many of us have been subjected to this kind of bullshit, which is definitely a contradiction to Romans 8:38,39. Fortunately, no one close to me saw fit to pile this kind of legalism on me as a child. There were a few legalists in the area, but I knew enough to be able to shake off their craziness.

The message of this song, as I understood it as a child, is this: We can obey God, because we can always trust Him. If we ask for bread, He won’t give us a rock (Matt. 7:9). Obedience is not so that God will be happy with us, obedience is so that we will be happy. Our lives simply work better when we operate according to God’s direction.

This, of course, is one of the main messages of the Old Testament. It seems that nearly every story, from Adam and Eve to Noah, Abraham and Moses, repeated this theme – God could be obeyed, because He could be trusted.

There’s an old story that I’ve heard over the years about a hiker who falls off a cliff only to grab on to a lone tree branch sticking out over the abyss. The hiker begins screaming, “Help! Is anybody up there?”

After what seems like hours, a booming voice answers, “I’m here.”

“Who are you?” the hiker yells.

“I’m God.”

“Can you help me?”

“Yes. First, let go of the branch.”

The hiker takes several moments to consider this, and finally yells, “Is anybody else up there?”

God is not capricious. He doesn’t ask us to jump through hoops or make sacrifices simply for His amusement. Sometimes obedience is so we can accomplish one of the “good works” that God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10); often, however, I suspect it is simply for our own good, so that we avoid or be rescued from our own “cliff-hangers.” In other words, it’s so we can enjoy abundant, happier lives.

Being able to obey – even when it seems our only option – is sometimes difficult. However, if we know God and believe that He loves us, and that He can be trusted, it becomes easier to “let go of the branch.”

Questions:

  1. Are there circumstances in your life where God is asking you to let go of the branch?
  2. What, if anything, is preventing you from letting go?


Jul 31 2010

From Luther, With Love

Growing up Lutheran, I was well acquainted with Martin Luther. As I’ll talk about a bit later, he has always been one of my heroes. Luther, like many Roman Catholics of his day (not to mention most contemporary evangelicals), was heavily influenced by St. Augustine, with his doctrines of man’s total depravity, original sin, and inherited guilt.As anyone who has seen the movie Luther knows, Brother Martin struggled with his sin, his guilt, and the need to know that he was forgiven.

The torment of his guilt was such that when he finally saw that God operated by grace and love and not by our ability to live pious lives or follow men’s rules, he was willing to die rather than retract his teaching. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther responded to the demand that he recant with these words:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Like Luther, the reformer John Calvin was also greatly influenced by Augustine, and we can see Calvin’s Augustinian influence throughout much of the contemporary evangelical church, even in groups who do not identify themselves as Calvinists. However, Luther discovered what Calvin seemed to miss: The primacy of God’s Love. It was the knowledge that God was motivated by His love for us – rather than the need for God to assert His holiness, vengeance, or glory – that finally set Luther free.

I have no doubt that Luther’s beliefs were firmly founded on his reading of Scripture, as he stated at Worms, though I suspect his own personal experience of grace and God’s love that accompanied his theological breakthrough reinforced his commitment to the Gospel. Luther wrote,

“Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through an open door into paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven . . . .”

Having this revelation of God’s love, Luther was able to make such bold statements as, “Love God and do as you please” and the oft-quoted and often misunderstood, “Sin boldly.” Anyone who has read Luther will know that by no means was Luther encouraging licentiousness or sinfulness. Rather, Luther was convinced that we did not need to become holy before we can approach God; furthermore, he knew that we couldn’t if we tried. Being human, we will fail – however, that should not keep us from drawing near to God. As the writer of Hebrews said, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:16 KJV)”

How else can we ever hope to boldly and with confidence (Heb. 10:19) enter God’s throne room, unless we are first convinced of God’s love for us? Even if we fully believe in the mechanics and legalities of our salvation, without being confident of God’s love, walking into God’s presence would give us a moment of pause. Is He perhaps just a little angry that we got in? Should I have given a dollar to that homeless man yesterday, or tithed more regularly? Will I be one of those to whom God will say, “I don’t know you?”

The true legacy that Luther gave to the Evangelical movement (which later became known as the Lutheran Church) is this certainty that we are indeed loved by God, the Creator of the universe.

It was, then, this rich heritage into which I was born, and for which I am eternally grateful.

Questions:

  1. Do you have a sense of having received a spiritual legacy, either personally, or in the church group you belong to?
  2. How does this flavor your present spiritual experience?


Jul 22 2010

Steeped in God’s Love

(A personal reflection)

I was raised a Lutheran, in a small community in northern Minnesota that very well could have been the inspiration for Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon. My dad came from a long line of Swedish Lutherans who had been part of the Swedish Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, which merged with the Lutheran Church in America (now part of the ELCA). Kittson County, where I lived, was at least at one time considered the most Swedish county in the United States and still boasts the highest percentage of Swedish speakers in the country. My dad was raised speaking Swedish at home and my grandfather, who lived with us when I was little, never fully converted to English.

The church we attended was called Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, a truly wonderful name for a church. “Evangelical” was the term Martin Luther used to refer to his reformation movement, and was kept in the name to honor the former Augustana church. My church was the largest church in town, with a membership of over 1,000 (but an average attendance at less than 1/3 of that). While the LCA was apparently known as the most liberal of the Lutheran denominations, I remember our church as being quite conservative, both socially and theologically.

Oddly enough, the Swedish Lutherans had been pietists, something that I’m sure would have caused Martin to spin in his grave. It was the very thing that Luther had warned about in the introduction to his commentary on Galatians:

I have taken in hand, in the name of the Lord, once again to expound the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians; not because I desire to teach new things, or such as you have not heard before, but because we have to fear, as the greatest and nearest danger, that Satan take from us the pure doctrine of faith and bring into the Church again the doctrine of works and men’s traditions.

When my dad was young, for example, playing cards were not allowed (although they could play regular card games with a deck of Rook cards), alcohol was wrong (except for medicinal purposes), and frivolous music was frowned upon.

These trends obviously didn’t stick in my family, as my dad and his brothers were self-taught musicians, my dad playing piano, guitar, and clarinet in a local swing band. My mother was Episcopalian, but joined the Lutheran church when I was little, and began teaching Sunday School, which she did for fifteen or more years. Neither of my parents were drinkers, although they no aversion to making home-made wine on occasion. By the time I was born, playing cards were in abundance in our house, and I could play Rummy as soon as I could count (if not before). My parents certainly demonstrated very high moral standards; however, I was never taught that God would be mad at me if I failed.

I grew up convinced that God loved and accepted me unconditionally. I don’t know where I first learned this, but I was surer of this than anything, even of my parents’ love for me. I’ve often heard that children will form their ideas about God from their relationship with their father. While I had a wonderful dad, I can’t really say that this principle held true for me. Rather, from a very early age I understood that God was the only person who would ever really love and accept me unconditionally. My parents were fallible, God was not. I might fear the wrath of my parents or other authority figures, but I never feared God’s wrath.

And to this day, I never have.


Jul 20 2010

This I Know

As I write in my introductory post My Childhood God,  I have discovered that I still believe in the same God I believed in as a child. That is, I believe much of the same things about God that I did as a child. While I have grown in experience and knowledge and my beliefs have been refined, I find that what I learned about God still holds true today.

I should also point out here that my understanding of God’s character and how He acts appears to be in conflict with the beliefs held by many people (hereafter referred to as OPB, or Other People’s Beliefs).  Some of these OPB were held by me at some point in my journey, others I have always rejected. My point is not that I haven’t changed what I believe; to the contrary, I have been in constant change. On at least two occasions I have gutted my library of books that I no longer agreed with. However, I am aware that I had a knowledge of God as a child that has remained. I also have discovered that I had a pretty decent theological education as a child.

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

My absolute core belief about God is that He loves me unconditionally. While various people over the years have tried to convince me that I have to jump through certain hoops in order to earn that love, I don’t recall any point in my life where I was not convinced that God loved me unconditionally. I know that this is not common, and it’s something for which I am quite grateful. I know far too many people who were raised believing that God was a stern master, more like the “angry God” of a Jonathan Edwards sermon.

My childhood memories are for the most part fragmented and random, filled with more emotion than fact. When I was three, I was given a small record player (some of you will remember records).  The case was red and white plastic, with a cover that lifted back to reveal a small turntable, just large enough to play 45 RPM records, and a tone arm so heavy I’m surprised it didn’t actually cut through the plastic disks. I had an assortment of 78’s and 45’s (we’re talking lat 1950’s, folks) which included an assortment of children’s songs, including the standard Jesus Loves Me (although my favorite was a 45 my dad had of Chopin’s Les Sylphides – go figure).

Jesus Loves Me is still a favorite of mine, the lyrics presenting a simple truth:

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak, but He is strong

Truth like this is hard to beat; and, unfortunately, it often seems hard to find in many contemporary worship choruses which tend to focus on our emotions about God rather than truth about God’s emotions toward us. If your church sings a lot of contemporary choruses, chances are many of them focus on “I” – “I will follow you” or “I love you.” We have this idea that worship depends upon our action towards God, as if we’re initiating the relationship.

The reality is that God really does love us unconditionally. When I hear “Jesus loves me,” I cannot help but respond; it’s how we were designed.  Unfortunately, there are many who have been so damaged by bad teaching about God or who have made emotional connections between the Heavenly Father and bad earthly fathers that they simply cannot receive such truth. Personally, I believe that we all need to hear “God loves you” over and over again. Like dripping water slowly boring through solid rock, eventually the truth that God loves us will break through.