Thursday, March 01, 2018

Following the Example of Christ

He couldn't believe what he saw. He drove around the block to see if he saw what he thought he did. Sure enough, there was a lady on a wheelchair trying to shovel her driveway with a snow shovel. He noticed many drivers going by straining their necks to see this unusual sight. "Hmmmm," he thought to himself, "I wonder if I should stop and help." There were still a bunch of errands he needed to get done before it got dark. Then he remembered, "I am a Christian. My Lord washed his disciples feet, and one of them had become his enemy." With that, he stopped the car and got out. She looked startled at first as he walked toward her. Then she smiled. "Would it be okay if I were to help?" He asked. With a smile on her face, she handed him the snow shovel. Then she said, "I am trying to clear it off so I can get in and out on my chair." The city snow plows had gone by and created a hard mound of snow at the end of her drive way. He introduced himself and then went to work on the driveway. The snow was hard and icy at the end of the driveway. There would have been no way she would have gotten it off in her wheel chair. After he finished, he looked up and saw she was still smiling. He handed the shovel back to her. The look on her face was one of deep appreciation. "Will that do it?" He asked. "Yes, and then some," she replied. "God bless, and have a happy New Year," he said. He could see the look of relief on her face that the job was done. He knew another snow would be coming, so he made a mental note to go by again and see if she might need help.

Jesus stated emphatically that he did not come to be served, but to serve (Mt 20:28). He demonstrated this toward the end of his ministry.  At the last supper, even though he was the head of the table, he got up, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and went to work washing his disciples feet Jn 13:1f).  This demonstration of servanthood must have shocked his disciples.  After all, he was their teacher and Lord.  It has been pointed out that this was the job for the low man on the household servant roster.  It would have been like that job no one wants that always goes to the new guy.  When I picture Jesus volunteering to do that task that goes to the low man on the totem pole, I begin to get a sense of why Peter reacted in the way that he did. 

The text says that Jesus "loved them to the end," and therefore began to wash his disciples feet.  Love trumps pride.  Love gives generously.  Love serves above and beyond.  Love is the example that Jesus demonstrated for us.  He asked, "Do you understand what I have done for you?  You call me teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for this is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feed, you also should wash one another's feet.  I have set an example for you to do as I have done for you.  Truly I tell you that no servant is greater than his master…"

I need to remember that I am not greater than him that I should find any kind of service beneath me.  Love for God and love for neighbor should motivate me to serve.  I am reminded of those historical accounts where outsiders found it strange among the Christians that masters were serving their slaves.  But this is nothing unusual in the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom turns the world's values on its head.  The nobody becomes somebody, and the somebody becomes nobody in the kingdom.  The ground at the foot of the cross is level.  God exalts the humble and humbles the exalted.  Jesus said that a mark of discipleship is to love as he loved (Jn 13:35).  Jesus demonstrated part of what love looks like in the upper room. 

Years ago, I heard a story about a woman who had just about lost hope, and stumbled onto a church and walked in asking, "Is this the church that helps people?" The brethren all came together to help this single mother, from repair of her car, to helping her get a new home for her family and finding a job. She was overwhelmed at the benevolent goodwill of these brethren. She experienced the love of God through these brethren. She became a Christian and promptly began a lifestyle of also helping other people even through her humble means. She felt it a great blessing to have the ability to help other people.  This is not extraordinary, but is rather ordinary in the Kingdom of God. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Bible Reading Reflection (Deuteronomy 1): Age of Accountability

In my reading, I was reminded of a question that comes up regularly.  At what age should my son or daughter consider being baptized?  When I was younger, I remember discussions about reaching what people called the "age of accountability," which is a point in a person's life where they become mature enough to be held accountable as an adult.  Of course, the problem was that no one seemed to know what that age of accountability was.  Some placed it as young as 10, others placed it closer to age 16.  I always felt a little uneasy about baptizing a ten year old for the simple fact that in no other area of life would we even dream of holding a person that young accountable as an adult.  We would not support marriage at such a young age nor would we hold someone legally accountable as an adult at that age.  If being baptized is analogous to becoming married to Christ, then it is a very adult decision.

When God redeemed Israel from bondage in Egypt, he led them to freedom toward a new home.  However, they were rebellious and stubborn and initially refused to enter the land, opting to elect a new leader and return to Egypt.  As a result, God told them this:

 “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this wilderness; here they will die" ( Numb 14:27-35).

The children under 20 years old would suffer for the sins of their fathers by being stuck living in the wilderness for forty years.  However, God does not hold those under twenty years responsible in the same way he does those who are twenty and older.  Those under twenty would enter the land after their parents had all died in the wilderness.

In Deuteronomy, those who were under twenty are now adults and their parents have all died in the wilderness. Moses is preparing them to enter the land God granted to them.  Moses recounted their history, and how their parents had rebelled against God, refusing to enter the land, making plans to return to Egypt.  Then Moses reminded them of what God had said:

"When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: 'No one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors, except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He will see it, and I will give him and his descendants the land he set his feet on, because he followed the Lord wholeheartedly.'

Because of you the Lord became angry with me also and said, 'You shall not enter it, either. But your assistant, Joshua son of Nun, will enter it. Encourage him, because he will lead Israel to inherit it. And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it" (Dt 1:34-39).

This text jumped out at me: " And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land…"  This group included everyone under twenty years old.  God did not hold those who were under twenty responsible as an adult. 

This reminds me of some of the scientific literature I have seen on human growth and development.  Apparently, the brain is the last part of the human body to physically mature.  Even though the rest of the body looks like an adult body, the brain is still developing until about age twenty.  This is why a seventeen or eighteen year old might respond to a situation more on emotion and impulse rather than sound judgment.  Perhaps this is why God does not hold them responsible as adults.  They were not yet fully mature.

As I think about the implications this has for the conversion of children, I wonder about the wisdom in pushing teenagers to be baptized.  If it is an adult decision, and if it is the most important decision one will make in life more than even marriage, then pushing a teen toward it may not be the best course of action.  Expecting a life-long adult commitment, with adult understanding that requires an adult level of emotional maturity may be setting a teen up for failure and discouragement, not because he or she is not committed, but because he or she may not yet be emotionally capable of such a decision.  This means that if a child wants to be baptized, a parent may hold them off for the same reason they would hold them off from getting married.  One would not disfellowship a child for the same reason one would not try a juvenile in an adult court.  The child is the responsibility of the parent until he or she begins to transition into adulthood.  Childhood is a time of preparation, training, instruction, and encouragement.

As a practice, I do not discourage children who want to make that commitment.  They love God and want to please him, which pleases God.  They want to follow Jesus, which I encourage.  However, it is a marriage, and I explain it in terms of marriage.  It is a very adult decision.  I have often thought about whether starting a tradition of a formal period of betrothal up till the day of baptism would be a good thing.  This would involve instruction and guided growth in service and ministry.  Something to act as a symbol of that betrothal might help to strengthen a child's faith and commitment.  This might help with the child's desire to express his commitment to Christ even though he or she may not be emotionally or spiritually ready for baptism. 

In the end, I suppose the encouragement for parents in this regard is to not get bent out of shape if a child is not yet beating down the doors to the baptistery yet.  The more important thing is not so much whether they have been baptized, but whether parents are instructing them regularly, whether parents are including them in service and ministry in the name of Christ, and whether parents are modeling love for God and for the neighbor.  I have known kids who were pushed toward baptism by parents, but they were never really committed.  Baptism is not some magic ritual that equates to commitment. 

I think of my own experience with my own children.  I included them in ministry, service, and discussions about God, scripture, and service.   I had not yet considered the age twenty marker that God identified in the text from my reading.  My younger two children were older teens when they made the decision to be baptized.  However, they had reached a level of emotional maturity that they understood the level of commitment this would take.  They were what some people called, "an old soul."  They have been involved and committed and are still faithful Christians today. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Loving God's Law

The Psalmist often declares his love for God's law.  One might wonder how one could love any kind of law to the point of writing poetry and music about it.  With the exception of School House Rock, I have never heart any songs on the radio or television extolling the beauty, desirability, and delightfulness for law.  Poring through volumes of dusty law books is not typically part of a person's top ten favorite things to do.  Many hire lawyers and other professionals to do this for them. 

What about God's law?  Many have similar feelings toward God's law, which may stem from the word, "law."  Granted, it is God's law and not man's law, but many still do not find delight or beauty in it.  On the other hand, the New Testament assessment is that the law is good.

"So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Rom 7:12)

"…I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good" (Rom 7:16).

"But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8).

When we hear the word, "law," our prior experience and culture colors how we understand that word.  We most likely think of courts, lawyers, policemen, and public statutes that permit or prohibit.  We think of dos and don'ts.  While the law of God does have this aspect, it fails to capture the true essence of God's law.  The Hebrew word for law is Torah.  It usually does not mean "law" in the same way our English word means law.  It often has the more general meaning, "instruction."  The Hebrew word, torah has several other forms that demonstrate this.  The verb form, yarah, is often translated, "to teach, instruct, direct."  A related noun form, moreh,  means, "teacher." 

Torah is not just a list of dos and don'ts, it is instruction about God and life.  This becomes even more apparent when you consider what the Torah consists of.  Genesis through Deuteronomy is what is classified as Torah, or books of law.  With this designation, you might expect something that looks a little like our constitution or local statutes.  However, it reads more like a history book that lends itself to life lessons and instructions.  God "instructs" through history, through teaching about himself and ourselves, and through statutes.  It is truly God's instruction.  Even the rules within the Torah are not empty rules for the sake of rules.  All of it was designed to instruct.  In fact, throughout the Bible, Torah is often used interchangeably with God's "word, instruction, meditations, statutes, commandments, judgments, etc."  Our English concept of "law" is too limited and confining to capture the beauty and goodness of the Lord's Torah.

Many remember how a bill becomes a law from that old catchy School House Rock tune, "I'm just a Bill…"  The Psalmist also wrote songs extolling the beauty, goodness, wisdom, sweetness, and life giving nature of God's Torah.
The Psalmist's song celebrates the fact that through Torah, God's people could grow in wisdom:  "Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine" (Ps 119:98).

His law could guide his people successfully through the challenges of life:  "Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path" (Ps 119:105).  "Those who love Your law have great peace, And nothing causes them to stumble. (Ps 119:165)

His commandment helped his people gain greater insight;  "The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes (Ps 19:8).

The Torah of God restores the soul:  "The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul" (Ps 19:7).   "Hear my voice according to Your lovingkindness; Revive me, O Lord, according to Your ordinances (Ps 119:149).

God's instruction was given to learn, meditate on, and form the heart and character of his people. In fact, the New Testament says that the law has become our "tutor" or "schoolmaster" to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:24).

The ultimate Torah of God is Jesus who is literally the personification of the word of God.  The Bible says that the Word became flesh and lived among us (Jn 1:14).  He "explained" or "interpreted" God (Jn 1:18).   Jesus expounded on God and on God's instruction throughout his ministry as he did in the Sermon on the Mount.  He also demonstrated God's Torah in the way his lived his life.  Therefore, as Christians, our meditation on God's instruction centers on Jesus Christ, the personification of Torah.  No instruction is clearer than the person of Jesus Christ himself.  He is our wisdom, our guide, our Lord, our life.  He is our meditation and our delight. He is sweeter than the honey of the honeycomb.  He restores our soul when we are weary.  He is the bread of life.  He is the living water.

What a great blessing that God has now given us his Torah in the flesh, Jesus Christ himself, who not only instructs us, but has become our redemption, reconciliation, and reformation. 

Thank you Lord for the way you have provided instruction for us.  May we learn to long for, savor, and delight in the sweetness of your word, which is our life.  Thank you Lord for your patience.