It had been a few years since our high school football team had any luck on the field, but this year was definitely different. With an undefeated 8-0 season, their chants of “I believe that we will win!” showed great determination and conviction in their efforts. You could tell with the amount of power and emphasis behind each of those words, that they really, truly, and deeply believed that idea. Their winning streak was a sign that this belief went deeper than it had in the past, and with each win, that belief became stronger. That belief led to a school who rallied behind them, decking themselves out with green, white, and a ferocity at the games that showed true certainty. With each successful game, their playing became impressively sharper and more focused, as their belief lead them to a deeper commitment, resulting in a greater effort. That they believed was one thing, but that the belief accompanied effort and hard work was something different. When Christians often discuss their faith and beliefs, they emphasize the fact that we are saved through faith, and that works towards salvation is an empty pursuit. That point is mostly true, as it is the heart that God looks at, but like the football team, our works should follow naturally as a result of our faith. Phillip Melanchthon, a collaborator with Martin Luther, is often credited with the quote, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” If one truly believes and has faith, that faith will be accompanied by our works. Faith, all by itself, is not true faith, as true faith has works that naturally follow it. Take small children at Christmastime, for example. They are told that Santa will be visiting all of the children’s houses in the world, leaving presents for all the good boys and girls. As a result of that belief, these children do not merely sit around and wait for that day: they are making lists, visiting Santa and telling him what they want, and being properly behaved. All of these actions come as a result of their beliefs. Their faith is not alone, as their works follow naturally behind their belief. In James’ letter to the scattered, persecuted Christians in the land, he discusses their faith and how some were not acting on their faith. He brings up the residents of Hell and how they react as a result of their belief: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder” (2.19). His condemning suggestion here is that yes, the demons believe in God just like us, but unlike us, at least they have a reaction: fear. Those he is addressing claim to have their faith, but they have nothing that goes along with that faith. If their faith was real and devoted, then there would be belief-based actions afterwards. Just like when people marry, if they really love each other, they don’t just feel it: they take actions to show it. Similarly, if we have a true belief in God, then our actions will naturally reflect that belief. So what if, when looking at your actions, they don’t seem to reflect that of a true believer? Then, a close examination of your belief in Christ is in order. Seek a deeper devotion, one beyond the mere acknowledgement that He is Lord of your life. Tear yourself down at His feet so that He might build you back up. Allow yourself to be molded in His hands. And don’t seek to work harder at your actions. That quest will end up not based in beliefs but instead in yourself, as you are only lifting up your own actions and not His. Seek devotion, and the actions will follow, naturally. Amen.
With Halloween just around the corner, I’ve start a new yearly tradition: watching scary movies. Now, I know that this practice seems like a no-brainer to many people, but for me it’s something entirely new. In my youth, I’d always been too afraid to watch anything in the horror genre. As such, many perennial and seminal classics have passed me by, and I am now playing catch-up by watching such favorites as “Halloween”, “Poltergeist”, and “The Exorcist” for the first time. Although I am thoroughly enjoying my time going through them (as many of them are amazingly engrossing movies with excellent scripts), I find that they are not as scary as I had feared. Like the small child that forever feared that the bogeyman lived in his closet, and upon investigating, found only his hanging clothes and a few forgotten about toys, I’m feeling somewhat foolish, as it took me thirty or so years to work up the courage to watch these movies. They may have been frightening at the time, but now they are quaint and amusing. However, I would argue that it’s not necessarily the movies that have changed, but that it was me. For example, I was watching a forgotten about 1987 movie entitled “The Gate” the other day, and found it to be both goofy and somewhat predictable. Afterwards, I watched a positive review of the film and was encouraged to view it through the eyes of a pre-teen. When I rethought the film, I realized that scenes where rubber latex demon arms reached out from under a bed to grab at the main heroes would have been completely terrifying to a ten-year old me. Similarly, another scene where the main character grows a functioning eye in his hand would have absolutely and completely freaked me out. However, because I now know that nothing frightening will ever be waiting for me under my bed, save for some over-sized dust bunnies, and that the chances of an eye growing out of my hand are next to none, these events don’t phase or affect my current viewing self. I have grown and matured as an adult, and those child-like fears do not affect me anymore. My thinking has matured to where I know that these sights are not real, and thus ridiculous and not frightening. 1 Corinthians 14.20 suggests that we approach evil in a similar manner: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” Paul encourages the Corinthian church and us that our minds should be mature with discernment, that we should be able to logically decide what is good and right, rejecting what is wrong, but that we should also have the same level of experience with evil similar to that of a small child. We should not pursue evil but should be innocent and devoid of experience. Christ wants us to mature our minds with knowledge and understanding, but let our experience with evil be immature, which would explain why I would have been so frightened as a child with these films. As a child, my experience would be small, but my mind would be immature, so I would not approach these films as I do now: rejecting the frights as foolishness. Because I was so welled up with fear and immaturity, I chose to not watch scary movies, but now that my mind has matured, I am no longer paralyzed in action. So, in our maturity, let’s reject the fears that plague us that shouldn’t. Don’t let fear stop us from moving forward. Let’s mature our minds and realize the fears that are holding us back, as fear is the great inhibitor of achieving truly great and wonderful things with our lives. Amen.
Look at any gathering of people, and what you will obviously find among every group is commonality. They are together because they have something in common, and sometimes it may not be that significant a thing. When we were little, our best friend was most likely our neighbor, because we had the commonality of the same street. In the high school cafeteria, a scene which hasn’t changed in quite a number of years, you are bound to find some group with common interests no matter what table you look at: the football players, the honor students, the gamers, theater tech, whatever. We tend to flock together based on our common interests, and when we find a group that has similar interests to ourselves, we tend to stick with those people because of that commonality. Similarly, I mention to my students that the single reason they go to school with the people they do is also because of geography: they all live in the same town, so they go to the same school. Yet, is being a neighbor or living in the same town enough to bond people together? When they all decide to go to college, the bonds they form there are traditionally stronger than high school, as the commonality of those college people goes well beyond geography: they all choose to go there, thus they have that common interest. So, I warn my seniors that when they leave high school, there’s a strong chance that their friendships with each other will fall apart, because geography may no longer be enough to keep them together. As we get older, our commonalities tend to go deeper. Yes, we attend book groups, frequent recipe web sites, and walk our dogs together as a means of connection, but if these are the only commonalities you have with those people, more than likely you are satisfied with only spending an hour a week with them. In age, we tend to require depth to our relationships, a place where our values, thought processes, and emotional resonance tend to all vibrate at the same frequencies. When we meet together at church, we have the commonality of faith, a trait that goes deeper than most others. We have our foundations rooted in Christ, believing that He is our savior and we live to serve Him. Yet, despite this strong common thread and bond that runs through us, dissension and a lack of harmony sometimes enters the picture. We forget about our common ground because we don’t actively pursue a deepening to our relationships. 1 Peter 3.8 instructs us towards a stronger bond based on our faith: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” In addition to being like-minded (our commonality), we must move beyond what brought us together and work on what keeps us together. Of the five commands to us in that verse, one is mental (like-mindedness), two are emotional (sympathy and compassion), one is an internal action (humility), and the other encompasses all of them (love). If we truly want to get along and grow as a body, we need to actively care for each other using our head, heart, and hands. Resting on our faith really isn’t enough, or we risk becoming like the Pharisees who cared for no one but the law. Putting these words into action, we should lift each other up in thought, word, action, and prayer, looking to better others within the body instead of merely bettering ourselves. This week, allow your interactions with other Christians to be not only based in your beliefs, but also rooted in a faith that requires effort and action, one that puts others before ourselves, and use your commonality not as criteria for interaction to be met but as a foundation upon which to build. Amen.
My students are in for a surprise, and not necessarily one that they will enjoy. I just finished grading their first paper, and oh boy did I have a lot to say. It’s a harsh lesson for them to learn, with that much correction being in one paper, but in the long run, that correction will pay off for them should they decide to heed it. What was most disconcerting was just how many corrections, suggestions, and instructions I had to write on each of those papers, with many of them rooted in two areas: paying attention more closely to what was covered in class and fixing skills that should have been polished years ago. I came to those two conclusions after spending a long time scrutinizing and analyzing their work with a close eye, paying close attention to trends in their work and what was truly at the heart of their mistakes. Now, it would be easy to stop there, however, what I need to take into mind is what their failings says about me as a teacher and my methodology. As I examine their work, I need their work to examine me. Their mistakes speak volumes about what I thought I effectively covered in the first five weeks of class, and how I need to alter my instruction to fit their needs. Also, in reading their papers, their responses acted as a commentary on the clarity (or lack thereof) of my assignment, and how I should alter the wording. Similarly, when we study the Bible, to just get at the heart of what the word is saying and means is one thing, but how often do we let God’s word look at us under the microscope? When we study His word, do we allow His word to study us? Scripture was built that way, as Hebrews 4.12 tells us about the nature of His word and the role it can play: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” For as often as we examine and study God’s word, we need it to study us right back. Yes, we might spend time investigating what a verse or passage means in our lives, and how we can change or be encouraged as a result of reading it, but how often do we really allow the scripture to strip us bare and expose us for our flaws and insecurities? As a living being, God’s word has the ability to take our lives, examine them with a careful eye, rebuke us and tear us apart, only to put us back together again through His watchful instruction and love. Allowing our lives to be examined by truth is vital if we desire a closer walk with Him. So we know how to examine the Bible, but how do we allow ourselves to be examined by His word? Silencing the world around us from distraction begins to create in us a heart willing to listen. Inviting quiet, inner peace and focus when we delve into His word also opens us up to instruction. Finally, humbling ourselves before Him, casting all our desires and trophies at His feet will bring us to a point where anything the word has to say to us will be heard and internalized. With a quiet and prepared heart ready to listen and learn, we then allow God’s word to examine us with a love and care that exceeds any and all personal attempts to interpret scripture through our own efforts. Instead of deciding what the word says to you, quiet yourself and listen. Let it speak to your life. In our own silence, His words will speak volumes. Amen.
It seems that with every corner I turn, this world and its people are always pushing and testing me. My son sees how much he can get away with regarding chores, my dogs test how much of that sandwich I’m really going to eat, and my students push for how much homework they do or don’t have to do when I assign it. My patience is tested in traffic, my endurance is tested in assigned tasks and state mandates at my job, and my tolerance is tested by politics and government. As a result, I may struggle to overcome, but I am always a better person as a result of that struggle. However, the one thing that these struggles all have in common is that they are all from outside sources and are (for the most part) fairly unavoidable. So in contrast, what about struggle that comes voluntarily from within? What about struggle that we purposefully bring upon ourselves for the sake of growth? What about pushing our own boundaries for the sake of purposeful growth? Let me show you what I mean: this week, I tried an experiment during a run. Instead of my usual distance at a certain designated rate, I added an extra mile but didn’t decrease my rate. I wanted to push myself further just to see if I could. In the end, I surprised myself with a better rate than I aimed for, thus learning about myself that I am faster than I allow and give myself credit for. The fact that I was willing to choose an area of my life, explore it, and push it just a little more has developed me as a person and has made me not only happier but also more satisfied. Socrates’ quote “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is often seen as a mantra for those that wish to truly live, and similarly, God calls upon us to explore and push ourselves to be better than we are: “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3.40). That we are living is a miracle in itself, so we should celebrate and embrace this miracle of life, adopting an exploratory stance, pushing ourselves daily to develop ourselves as Christians and as people. Without that push, we invite spiritual and mental atrophy, a shriveling up of our identity and our faith. We lose the desire to strike out in faith and to take chances in our day. In the past, I have emphasized thinking beyond ourselves and reaching out to others (known and unfamiliar) not only for God’s glory but also to affect a positive change in our world. Personal exploration and pushing a little beyond what we know is a key in achieving this goal. Doing what is safe in our lives will achieve some results, but by reaching out just beyond what we think we are capable of, we allow God to work in and through us, gaining a firmer understanding of who we are. And these pushes don’t have to be monumental; just explore yourself, find that line, and move one step past it. Like doctors who suggest that to increase one’s lung capacity you should breathe as deep as you can, hold it, then take in two sharp additional breaths, we likewise do not need to leap, but instead just take a small daily step in incremental growth. To start, at the end of the day, try asking yourself this question: what did I learn about myself today? If you can answer it, then you have pushed yourself. If nothing comes to mind, then make that your goal for the next day. That our time is limited here on Earth means that our chances dwindle with each passing day. Push yourself just a little more and embrace the few chances you have. Amen.