image of a boat in a storm

Tossed To and Fro By Every Controversy

Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head — Christ.

– Ephesians 4:14 – 15

In Ephesians, Paul warns his readers against following trends in spiritual matters. This was as important in the early church as it is today. It’s easy to get swept up in the pull of public opinion. It’s easy to want to do things that feel right even if they don’t line up with what God wants. It’s as much a challenge to young congregations as to those that have endured for generations.

There’s another way we let ourselves get tossed about, however, and that’s in the venue of current events. Something may suddenly flare up in the media, in the White House, in the courts, or on social networks, and we feel the need to jump on it immediately. We start sharing our thoughts on it reflexively; we share link after link or meme after meme; and it becomes the topic du jour in Bible classes and sermons — until the next distraction comes along.

Distractions and Reactions

We’ve all seen it happen. I’ve done it myself. A Bible study on the topic of giving somehow ends up including a rant about how unfairly the media is treating a Christian celebrity. A sermon about baptism end up spending twenty minutes on gay marriage. A reading from Isaiah suddenly turns out to be about immigration policy. A Lord’s Supper talk unexpectedly turns into a defense of the pledge of allegiance.

Some current events are worth discussion and study, but it should be done so with considered preparation, removing self from the equation and letting God’s word guide our thoughts. It’s never productive to derail what could be an otherwise encouraging study by letting something that is grating on our nerves distract us. Then the next thing will come along. And then the next. Before we know it, instead of purposeful and meaningful study happening in our Bible classes and sermons, all we’re doing is reacting. We’re being tossed to and fro.

What To Do About It

When something in the news or current events rankle us, we need to step back and ask ourselves some questions.

  • Is it a matter of Scripture? Whether or not someone stands for an anthem or wears a flag pin has no bearing on God’s word. In those cases, it’s not worth discussing in a worship or study setting. Have your opinion, but don’t derail others’ faith and worship with it.
  • Will it bring anyone closer to Christ? Again, will discussing the topic help anyone with their relationship with Christ, or will the topic create secular barriers to discipleship?
  • Does it fit the current topic of discussion? Maybe your current frustration does have scriptural relevance. Does it fit the current sermon or Bible study topic? If not, maybe it’s better to find another time or venue to discuss it.
  • Am I able to talk about it rationally? If I can’t discuss the topic without getting flustered or angry, I’m perhaps not the best person to address the issue.
  • Am I letting God’s word guide me? This is a challenging one. Is your opinion on the topic formed by Biblical principles or by secular sources like public figures or media personalities? We should ensure that God’s word shapes our opinions rather than letting our opinions shape our interpretation.

It really comes down to being able to practice self-denial with our need to express our opinions. We also have to stop assuming that every person in the room agrees with us. Ranting about the evils of gun control in a Bible class where there may be a visitor on the other side of the issue will make them feel unwelcome. You or I may hinder another person’s journey to Christ in our need to vent, and I don’t want to have to face Christ in judgment with that on my conscience.

We have to come to the conclusion that souls are more important than personal opinions, politics, or any other secular controversy. We have to decide that we will focus on Bible topics when we’re studying or worshipping together. Just look at Paul’s prison letters as an example. Does he spend time in his letters complaining about the unfairness of the Roman justice system? Does he complain about the conditions of his prison? Does he rant about the corruption of Caesar? In no case does he let physical distractions upset his spiritual focus.

We cannot be distracted from Christ. There are indeed some current events worth addressing in our Bible studies and our pulpits — our obligations to the poor and disenfranchised, overcoming racial prejudices, addressing violence against women. However, there are many more that we should leave alone lest we alienate believers and those seeking Christ. We should be a body knit together by our common faith and hope. Let’s not let secular distractions harm our unity and purpose in Christ. Stop being tossed to and fro by every controversy, and instead anchor yourself in the upward calling of Christ.

 

Making Fasting Matter

empty plate on a bare table

Have you ever considered the fact that fasting is something Christians do in the New Testament? We often associate fasting with the Old Testament since it had periods of required fasting. The New Testament commands no such observances, but we find fasting listed along other traditions of worship we are familiar with.

Acts 14:23 says:

When they had appointed elders in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

This is toward the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, and it gives us an apostolic example of early Christians participating in fasting. In this case it’s coupled with prayer. Acts 13:2 – 3 contains similar language: “They were worshipping and fasting,” and, “After fasting and praying.” The apostles obviously had a tradition of fasting before important spiritual decisions or events.

Jesus also fasted. In the beginning of Matthew 4, we can read that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights prior to facing Satan. I’ve often heard this taught as Satan approaching Jesus at His weakest, but have you ever considered the fact that Jesus might have fasted to prepare for this encounter. Just as the apostles would later fast before important events, here we see Jesus possibly doing the same.

When to Fast

When is it appropriate for Christians to fast? While there’s no hard-and-fast “on the first day of the week” passage for fasting like there is for the memorial, I believe we see evidence that fasting can be done individually or collectively. Both examples in Acts see Paul and his friends fasting together. Just as we can pray both individually and collectively, we can fast alone or together.

Also based on these examples, there’s no prescribed time for fasting. Paul and the apostles did it prior to some big undertakings. Jesus fasted before facing Satan. Individuals in the Old Testament also fasted in times of mourning and repentance. Fasting is an opportunity to grow closer to God, so the best time to fast is when you need that closeness most. That’s why prayer and fasting go hand-in-hand. It’s an act of removing something you take for granted or rely on and replacing that thing with God.

What to Give Up

When I think of fasting, I most often think of food. I think you can make the case, however, that fasting isn’t limited to eating.

I Corinthians 7:4 – 5:

A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another sexually — except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

When Paul says, “Do not deprive one another…except when you agree for a time to devote yourselves to prayer,” it certainly seems like a form of fasting. In this case, the couple fast from physical intimacy for a time.

The point is that fasting requires a serious commitment. It’s not about giving up something trivial for a week; it’s about disciplining yourself by removing something meaningful and important. Like the monetary offerings we see in the New Testament, what you give up is between you and God. Maybe one person will give up all social media for a period of time while another takes their fast more literally and gives up food.

How to Fast

Jesus and Paul both have some guidelines for us when it comes to fasting. For example, Paul warns against self-denial for the sake of false holiness in Colossians 2:18 – 23:

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm and inflated without cause by his unspiritual mind. He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, develops with growth from God. If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.

Basically, Paul is saying that fasting of any sort should not be outwardly enforced, nor does it serve as evidence of holiness in and of itself. I Timothy 4:1 – 5 makes a similar claim, that we should be careful of anyone regulating specific foods from which to abstain. These things can feel pious, but Paul says they’re not.

Jesus says, in Matthew 6:16 – 18:

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The idea here is the same as Jesus’ teachings on prayer and benevolence. When you fast, it’s between you and God, not between you and everyone else. When you fast, it’s not my business what you are giving up, unless you need me to know so I can support and encourage you. In fact, Jesus says that no one should even be able to tell we’re fasting based on appearance or behavior.

So What About Lent?

At this point, Lent becomes an elephant in the virtual room. Should Christians observe Lent? My only response is that it’s between you and God. That comes with a caveat: that we all understand that Jesus nor His apostles command the observance of Lent in the New Testament. Then we can apply Romans 14:5 – 8:

One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, yet he thanks God. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

If your conscience moves you to observe Lent, then do so in the ways we see Paul and Jesus observe and teach about fasting. If your conscience steers you away from Lent, then abstain. Do not judge the brother or sister who does observe, nor should the one who observes judge the one who does not. Both are acceptable to God as long as their motivations and conduct remain pure.

Fasting, Spirituality, and Self-Discipline

I Corinthians 9:24 – 27:

Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

To me this is the at the heart of fasting. It is an act of self-discipline that trains us to be self-disciplined in the Lord. The act of giving something up that is meaningful to you takes self-discipline. Sticking to it for a predetermined period of time takes self-discipline. If you are able to keep your fast quiet, that takes self-discipline. If you’re not letting a fast affect your behavior, that takes self-discipline. All of this helps us bring ourselves under control so that we will exercise self-control in all of our conduct.

Fasting can also bring us closer to God if we really are giving up something meaningful and replacing it with study and prayer. It puts us in a place to turn to God when we might most miss something of this world, and it helps put the things of this world in perspective. Whether you are giving up meals for a couple of weeks or turning off all screens for a month, fasting helps remind all of us that we need God more than we need the things of this world.

 

 

Truthiness

TruthinessDef

The pilot episode of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report gave me one of the biggest a-ha moments I can remember having while watching a television program.  In the pilot, Colbert introduced the idea of truthiness in a segment called The Wørd (a parody of a certain someone else’s Talking Points segment) and described it as something that feels right – regardless of whether or not actual facts support it. We see truthiness around us every day.

  • It may not be true that the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit was a million-dollar jackpot for an old lady who carelessly spilled her coffee while speeding down the highway. But doesn’t that narrative feel right? It’s truthy.
  • It may not be true that President Obama has missed more Arlington Memorial Day ceremonies than any president in recent history (and therefore is anti-American), but it sure feels right. Again, it’s truthy.
  • Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet, but doesn’t it feel good to mock him for it? We’ve accepted truthiness.
  • Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin may have never said, “I can see Russia from my house,” but doesn’t it feel like something she would have said? Truthiness strikes again.

Truthiness is something we in Christ’s body have to guard against like crazy. Faith is a deeply personal thing. It’s fundamentally emotional. It appeals to the heart.  Yet Jesus speaks of his words being objectively true. Paul appeals to our rational minds several times in his writings. Think about Galatians 1:6-12, where Paul appeals to his readers to be careful of the doctrine they accept. Think about Jesus speaking about worship in terms of spirit and truth in John 4:19-24. Think of John writing about testing every word from every spirit in I John 4:1-6. As Christians, we have to be concerned with our practices and our beliefs. Do they adhere to the truth of Christ’s word, or have I morphed them into something that feels good to me.

I once saw a quote asserting that worship is a feeling. I’d agree to an extent, but I think this misses the mark in a way that encourages truthiness. Worship is more than a feeling. It’s a way of life. It’s a complete giving of myself over to God and what He wants me to be. This includes worshiping Him within the truth of His word – not relying on what feels right to me but rather doing what God has shown me is right in His word. The same goes for social issues, for issues of morality, of kindness, of charity, and a number of other topics. It may feel right to me to take a “get what you deserve” approach in this life, but that is not the pattern God wants me to follow. He wants me to be forgiving and charitable, even when it doesn’t feel right to my sense of justice.

When we succumb to truthiness in the way we divide scripture, we are putting self before God; just like we put self before facts when we succumb to truthiness in science, in politics, or in any other topic we can grow emotional about. As children of Christ, our concern is with truth, and truth doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes truth is hard, but we have to accept it. We cannot shape truth. We have to let it shape us.

Little Distractions

A couple of months ago, my congregation was studying about what it means to be living sacrifices. The series was called Worship 24 x 7, and I even had the privilege of delivering a lesson in the series about our Christian lives at school. Being a living sacrifice is a large undertaking. Numerous passages in the Old Testament – like Exodus 12:5, Exodus 29:1, Leviticus 1:3, Leviticus 3:6, and many more – require those ancient sacrifices to be without stain or blemish. We’re the same. Romans 12:1-2 calls us us to completely transform ourselves, removing ourselves from conforming with the world, and making our bodies and lives spiritual sacrifices suitable for God.

We’re good at keeping away from the larger blemishes, the outright sins we are warned against from childhood. We are in little danger from conformity when it comes to sexual abuse, drug abuse, violence, theft, or other such obvious sins. The things we need to be most wary of are those little distractions in our daily lives that keep turning our attention off of God and back to this world. These are what prevent us from completely turning our thoughts over to praise and our steps to worship. These distractions leave tiny, almost unnoticeable, blemishes on us that keep us from being truly pure living sacrifices.

Philippians 3:12-16 records Paul speaking of his life as one that is pressing upwards toward a goal. He has focus and direction that helps guard him from distractions. Hebrews 12:1-2 says something similar, telling us to lay aside our burdens and encouraging us to keep our eyes set on the goal before us. It’s a fairly simple principle, whether you’re talking about finishing a race, completing a large project, or undertaking a long trip. You blank out as many distractions as you can and focus wholly and entirely on the goal – which is great until you find yourself playing games on Facebook while you’re supposed to be researching solar radiation for a big report. The principle is simple at face value. Putting it into practice is something else entirely.

There are realities of this world from which we cannot entirely hide – debt default, economic crisis, threats from hostile sources, health issues, challenges on the job, pressures at school, and many other cares of this world. Some are real and pressing. Others – like political arguments, conspiracy theories, personal soapboxes – are largely self-manufactured. The stresses and outward pressures outside our control will be there regardless of what I do, and the distractions I impose on myself speak to the priorities I hold dearer than my spiritual health.  The question is not one of my control over these factors. It is one of how much control I will let them have over me. If we’re fretting our time away, trying to take control of issues and decisions that are out of our hands, then we know we’ve given them too much control. We’ve become distracted.

That is yet another reason why time spent together worshipping God and studying from His word is so valuable to our sacrificial lives. That is another reason family Bible study is essential. It is another reason we should be checking everything we say, tweet, update, participate in, watch, read, or endorse against this simple metric: is it helping me reach my goal? Does it make me more spiritual or less spiritual? Is this party I want to attend, this radio talk show I listen to, this television program, this website, this argument, this anything helping me press toward the upward goal? If not, it’s sidetracking me and distracting me from where my focus should be. It’s leaving me blemished in God’s eyes. Let’s reaffirm our focus on God every day, and let’s allow nothing to distract us from worshipful living.

Living Christ at School

Note: This lesson is a part of a larger series being held by my congregation called Worship 24 x 7. I was privileged to be able to deliver this portion of the series, and I hope to have the opportunity to deliver another message about our online conduct soon. They’re not up yet, but you’ll soon be able to see others’ lessons in the series over on our congregational blog.

We’ve been studying about worship the last few weeks at our congregation, and we’ve emphasized time and again that worship is more than what we do when we gather together with our congregation. It’s more than singing songs, mouthing prayers, listening to lessons, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper – even when we do these things in complete truth and with a sincere heart. Worshipping God is something we do in how we conduct ourselves everywhere. Hebrews 13:15-16 and Romans 12:1-2 both call on us to be living sacrifices, reflecting God in our lives. In this lesson, we’re going to look at the school community and how we worship God in our conduct both as students and as parents.

The Power of Example

The most powerful tool of worship we have as students is that of our example. We’re familiar with I Timothy 4:12 that tells us to be an example in speech, in love, in conduct, in faith, and in purity. We also know Ecclesiastes 12:1, reminding us to serve our Creator in the days of our youth. What do others see in you at school? What kind of example are you setting in front of your peers, your teachers, the custodians, instructional assistants, and anyone else with whom you interact? Does your speech, your attitude, your online conduct, your choices, your work ethic cause them to despise or respect your youth?

I Thessalonians 4:1-2 is an admonition that we know how we should be living. The fact is we just have to do it, and this includes at school. Unfortunately, parents, this applies to us too. We adults have to ask ourselves what our child’s peers see in us. Do they see parents who conduct themselves in a Christlike way? Do they see a family that puts spiritual matters before physical? Would they guess your spiritual affiliation by the conduct they see when you are at a school game, picking up or dropping off your child, when they visit your home? What do the teachers of that school see in you? The example you set will greatly inform the example your child is able to set themselves.

The Power of Choice

Right up there with the power of our example is the power of the choices we make as students and parents. My wife, when she was young, had a sign posted to her bedroom door that read, “I am the most powerful person in my life.” It served as reminder to her that she had the final say in what she let herself get drawn into. It reminded her that no friend – casual or romantic – could control her. It reminded her that no one makes her do anything, nor could any troubling external factor take control of her life.

As students, we choose who we hang out with, and I Corinthians 15:33 simply states that bad companions will drag us down. Yes, we might believe we can change someone, that we can be the example they need, but we also have to realize when the burden is becoming too heavy to bear. II Corinthians 6:14 warns against being unequally yoked with unbelievers. If our companions are dragging us away from Christ, despite our best efforts, maybe it’s time to choose different friends. Still, We can’t always choose who we’re going to be around because our classes are set by others. The teams, clubs, and arts we choose will dictate who we are around a great deal of time, but that again comes down to choice.

Coming back to parents, we need to be involved enough with our kids’ lives that we can see when something is bringing them down or influencing them in a bad way. We need to have such a relationship with our children that we can talk about such things with them and be able to offer advice and guidance. At times, we have to be able to nudge them to reach the right conclusions themselves, and we need the wisdom to know when our kids need to handle something themselves before we exert our influence. We would all do well to remember I Corinthians 10:12-13 that assures us we can overcome any struggle or temptation or discouragement laid before us. It comes down to the choices we make.

Worship in Practical Conduct

Students

  • What is your work ethic at school? How do you act when in a class you don’t want to take? Do you, as Paul instructs Ephesians 6:5-7, work as if you are serving God?
  • How do you treat those you don’t like? How do you treat teachers you don’t like? Do you participate in making fun of others when your friends get going?
  • How do you respond to those who are mean to you, teacher or student? Matthew 5:38-48 teaches we should never return evil for evil.
  • What activities and social events are you participating in? Parties where you know there will be drinking? Dances where you know you’ll feel pressured to conduct yourself in an improper way? Clubs that will perpetually take away time you should be devoting to God?

I’m not saying here that you can only have friends who are Christians. I’m not saying you are eternally lost for attending prom. I’m not saying you can’t be in band, orchestra, on the football team, in theater. What I’m saying is this, though: be careful that your choices do not make your spiritual walk unnecessarily difficult, and always remember that God comes first in your extracurriculars. There is always a way to do the right thing.

Parents

  • How do we conduct ourselves around our kids’ teachers? Do they see us arguing with or undermining those teachers? How do you think that will affect their effort and behavior in class?
  • Do our kids hear us badmouthing their school and their teachers at home? Again, how will this affect their attitude at school if they see a bad attitude from us?
  • Do we accidentally send messages to our children that we don’t value an education by letting them miss school for reasons of convenience – maybe for vacations or other things we don’t want to schedule for personal time? If your kids see you don’t value their education, how much will they value it?
  • On the other hand, do we send a message that we don’t value God because we let every practice, concert, school event, program, or big assignment take priority over worshipping God and studying from His word with our brothers and sisters?
  • Are we familiar with the friends our children choose and the activities in which they participate? Do we take the time to discuss the challenges they face?

I think the biggest challenges we face as parents are those raised by our inherent protectiveness. I’ve had parents call me up, call me names, use foul language, and then end the conversation with, “Have a blessed day.” We also have to realize that we are only ever getting one side of those stories that trigger our protective instincts, and, whether they intend to do so or not, our children’s versions of events are biased for themselves. We have to be calm and Christlike in the face of school challenges, and we have to show we value their education as much as we want them to value it.

Conclusion

By the time you graduate from your senior year in high school, you will have spent at least 15,120 hours at school – that is, if you don’t start until first grade and never participate in any extracurricular events ever and your school day is only seven hours. We will come in contact with hundreds, if not thousands, of individual souls during that timespan, and every one of those souls we have a chance to bring closer to Christ. If we choose to walk in Christ’s footsteps, even if we would rather do things that would take us away from Him, and even when we are around people we don’t like, then we can worship God through our conduct in our school communities.