Friday, July 31, 2009

Problems, Prayers and Promises

I am intending to repeat the first series I did at my previous pastorate. It was 20 years ago that I began my 18-year tenure as senior pastor. Preaching through First Corinthians was the first offering of what would be the main characteristic of my ministry. I will attempt to edit (slightly) and post one sermon a week. Here is the first one:


1 Corinthians 1:1-9

I have never known of a church with no problems. Some are more obvious than others; some are under the surface. The problems can be doctrinal. They can also be moral and ethical problems. Yet again, they can be relational problems. Some churches are very aware of their problems; other churches go stubbornly on in a confirmed ignorance.

The Corinthian church had major problems even though it had been planted by the Apostle Paul, and even though he stayed at Corinth longer than any other place except possibly Ephesus. Yet it is quite obvious: the church at Corinth had doctrinal problems; it had moral problems; it had relational problems.

We know about these problems because of this letter Paul wrote. It deals with an historical situation which existed in the church at Corinth. Actually, this is the second letter Paul had written to them (we do not have the first one), and they had written to Paul as well. The relationship between the Corinthians and Paul was not too good; that comes through in this letter. It is frustrating that we do not know everything –– one side of a correspondence is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation.

Still, this half we have is timeless because it is part of God's Word as the Holy Spirit worked through Paul as he dictated the letter. And it is to our advantage that we do not know everything; that makes it easier, I think, for God's words through Paul to be even more applicable to us today.

Corinth has been likened, all at the same time, to the New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas of the ancient world. It was wealthy, pagan and immoral. The Christians of Corinth were very much a product of their environment. Even though they were Christians, their thinking and their behavior reflected that of the Greek-thinking, hedonistic city in which they lived.

I think the best work available on First Corinthians is a commentary by Gordon Fee (in the series, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm B. Eerdmans, Pub., 1987), who was one of my New Testament professors at Gordon-Conwell. Dr. Fee offers these words as we look at the Corinthian church of long ago alongside the church today:

The cosmopolitan character of the city and church, the strident individualism that emerges in so many of their behavioral aberrations, the arrogance that attends their understanding of spirituality, the accommodation of the gospel to the surrounding culture in so many ways –– these and many other features of the Corinthian church are but mirrors held up before the church of today. Likewise the need for discipleship modeled after the "weakness" of Christ (4:9-13), for love to rule over all (13:1-13), for edification to be the aim of worship (14:1-33), for sexual immorality to be seen for what it is (5:1-13 & 6:12-20), for the expectation of marriages to be permanent (7:1-40) –– these and many others are every bit as relevant to us as those to whom they were first spoken

It is out of such concerns that we turn to this letter of Paul's to the Corinthians.

What do we do when a church has problems? What would you do if suddenly you were responsible for the well-being of a church that had problems with doctrine, morality and relationships? Other than walking away from it, there are two main options. First, you can focus on the problems. You can get legalistic and say that certain things will or will not be done in the future. The second way to approach the problems is to begin by looking at what is right. Alongside the truth, the error will show up for what it is, and the presence of the right way may attract the correct response. That is how Paul starts his letter.

The beginning verses of First Corinthians illustrate an important principle in Paul's thinking, and in New Testament theology in general. It's the idea that the indicative precedes the imperative. In other words, fact undergirds actions. Let me work through this one with you. In grammar, an indicative states something; it "indicates" what is. An indicative statement is a "matter of fact" statement –– something listed as straightforward truth (whether it is actually true or not). An example might be: "All smart people eat sardines."

An imperative statement is a command. To follow through on my ridiculous example, a parent who wishes his child to excel in academics might say, "you must eat sardines." The point is lost, though, if the indicative statement, "all smart people eat sardines," does not come first. Thus the indicative precedes the imperative. The imperative makes sense only as it is based on the indicative.

When this is applied to Paul's writing, the same is true –– the indicative comes first. Imperatives are built on what is indicated as being true, or to put it more in the context of Paul and the New Testament, what you do or do not do (imperatives) should be based on what you are (indicatives). This then, is the point: one does not obey the commands of God in order to belong to him; instead, the one who belongs to God obeys his commands precisely because he belongs to God. The being is foundational to the doing; the doing is based on being. This cannot be over emphasized if we would understand Paul and the New Testament.

As Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians, he starts with several indicatives which form the base for everything else that follows. There are four things which are true about the Corinthians, and Paul wants them to see it, to understand it, and allow those truths to give perspective to everything else –– especially their problems.

The first thing that is true about the Corinthians is their formation. Something happened to them to make them who they are. And who are they? Whatever else might be true, they are the gathered people of God who are in Corinth. Paul says he is writing to the church of God in Corinth. He is not writing merely to people in Corinth. That's a major distinction. It has to do with self-identity. How do we see ourselves? Is our association with God a major part of our self-understanding? That is where Paul implicitly begins.

How is it that these people are part of God's church? There are two other things here connected with their formation. They have been sanctified. There are any number of words Paul could have used here to signify the Corinthians' salvation. Why did he use "sanctify?" As we will see later, the Corinthians were a stand-offish bunch. They had the big head. They thought they were ahead of everyone else. Paul reminds them with this word "sanctify" that when they became Christians they were consecrated. They no longer exist for themselves. They have been “set apart”; they now belong to God.

He also tells them they were called to be holy. What does that mean? Whole books can be written on holiness, but here I want to suggest it means "different." When we are holy we are different. The Corinthians still had too much of Corinth in them. Paul is reminding them that as Christians they can no longer be the same. Their identity has changed, and that means changed behavior.

How has this happened? On what is this new identity based? This leads to the second thing about the Corinthian Christians: they have a foundation. They have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. They are among others from all over who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. God's grace has been given to them in Christ Jesus. Over and over the reference is to Jesus Christ. The emphasis is on Christ. Later Paul will address the problem the Corinthians had of thinking one person was better or more important than another, but he begins with the positive reminder that Christianity is Jesus Christ.

Jesus always has the priority. We did not choose him; he chose us. That is always the starting point for the way we understand ourselves and the church. No person or church is independent. It did not matter what the Corinthians thought if it did not start with who Jesus was and what he had done. The same is true for every gathering of people which calls itself after Jesus Christ.

The next thing Paul recognizes is the Corinthians' fortune. He tells them that being in Christ has caused them to be "enriched in every way." Later we will find that this was one of their problems –– they knew they were gifted, and were proud of it. The interesting thing here is that Paul did not back off from a truth even though these people abused it.

Have you ever known someone in the church who had an ability, but the trouble was that they knew it too, and flaunted it? The misuse does not change the gift; it only means the use is wrong, and that's a problem with the person's attitude instead of the gift. Spiritual gifts in the church come from God, so Paul is thankful for them. The fact, though, that they come from God means the person with the gift has no reason for pride. Neither should another person be resentful. We need to let God work through his people in the church.

The last thing Paul affirms to the Corinthians is their future. Again, we will later see that the Corinthians thought the present was so good they did not need the Second Coming and the consummation of the kingdom. They were so pleased with themselves in the present, they did not think much about the future. But Christianity is a faith based on the future as well as the past. This life is not all there is, and to settle complacently into the here and now is to deny the faith.

On the one hand Paul is rather optimistic about them when he says, you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. Paul can be optimistic because God has begun a genuine work of salvation in them. And because God is the one who does initiate his relationship with us, his faithfulness is what we depend on. If God is only faithful as we are faithful, then it's little faith we can have. But if we are faithful in response to God's faithfulness, all God's promises can be true.

Yes, the Corinthian Christians are quite a mess. They are proud. They are independent. They are immoral. They misuse God's gifts. They put little importance on the need for Jesus to come bodily back to earth. Still, in spite of that, God has begun his work in them. They belong to him, and Paul wants to help them live up to all they actually are.

And what was true of the Corinthian church is true for every other church. Every church is like Corinth in the sense that every group of people who is called of God and in Jesus Christ is part of the great thing God is doing through his people –– and no single congregation has “arrived.”

Yet.... We too are sanctified. We are called to be holy. We have been given spiritual gifts. We have the promise of God's faithfulness. And all that we are and have is based in and through Jesus Christ.

The Army had a commercial that was so good I wish they had not used it. It should belong to the church. You have heard it: Be all that you can be. In the church, whether it was Corinth or whether it's in your home town, being all we can be is a lot because it is not all up to us. It is up to the one who calls us.... who sets us apart.... who helps us to be different.... who gives us his gifts.... who promises us his kingdom.

Whenever you hear about a problem in the church, do one thing –– first think of these things Paul said. Then see what it is God wants you to do because you belong to him.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Saint Martha

Today is the day the Church celebrates the faith of Martha, Lazarus and Mary's sister. I grew up hearing Mary exalted and Martha chided. A few years ago (while still pastoring) the following was part of a morning sermon:

It seems Mary and Martha are stereotyped, so we need a way to consider how we can see ourselves through some basic human issues we find in these characters. Most of us see the Mary-Martha story as a lesson about “being” and “doing” (or the “spiritual” and the “physical” aspects of life, or “quiet reflection” compared to “active serving”). Those things are certainly there. Those things are throughout the Church and in each of us.

One of the worst things that happens when there are differences between people in the Church is the tendency to polarize. Our broken human nature wants to see one side being right and the other side being wrong. This is usually what happens in the story of Mary and Martha. Yet, no one, no matter how mature in the Lord or how filled with the Spirit, gets everything right. The truth is, all of us are wrong about some things, even with best intentions. This means that all of us can learn from one another. Any person who is trusting and obeying Jesus has something to contribute to the good of the Body.

It is a sign of our sinfulness that we so easily exalt certain positions in the Church and all but dismiss people who are not conspicuous with their gifts or personal piety. It’s sort of like the common attitude toward pennies. There is debate whether the penny should still be part of U.S. currency. Without much effort, one could find a penny on some floor or in a parking lot. We may even pass one without picking it up. An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution related the power of pennies when they join forces:

A one cent per case increase of Coca-Cola would bring the company $45 million a year.

* A one cent-per-gallon increase in the price of jet fuel increases Delta Airline's company costs by $25 million a year.

* A one cent increase in the hourly wage for all the employees of Home Depot amounts to $6.5 million a year.

* If Krispy Kreme increased the cost of each donut by one penny, the company would increase profits by $27 million. ("A Penny Saved," Journal Constitution, 8-22-04)

So when we look at the relative contributions that people make in the Church, we need to remember The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body... Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1Cor 12:12,27). This needs to be part of the Mary-Martha story. When we consider all that Scripture tells us, it is not simply an issue of Martha being wrong and Mary being right. Mary and Martha are not adversaries. Together they give us an example of giftedness, of individual incompleteness and a need to see things contextually.

There will always be Christians whose basic orientation ― and I think it is right to say their “gifting”― is serving. These are people who are happiest when they are busy, and especially so when they know they are helping others. This is one of the marks of Christian Faith. Christians are the people most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others. This is Christian servanthood.

At the same time, there will always be Christians whose basic orientation―and again I think it is right to say their “gifting”― is reflection. These are people who are happiest when they are praying or meditating on Christian truth.

But while there is legitimacy in a particular orientation, there is also the need that all of us have what we can call “wholeness.” Even if a person’s “gift” is reflection, he cannot live as though there are no physical needs to attend. Even if a person’s orientation is serving, she cannot live in perpetual busyness, thinking the inner life will take care of itself. I repeat a quote from last week by Saint Augustine: “No man has a right to lead such a life of contemplation as to forget in his own ease the service due to his neighbor; nor has any man a right to be so immersed in active life as to neglect the contemplation of God” (Of the Dress and Habits of the Christian). And yet it remains true that the balance of those things will vary from person to person, according to both personality and spiritual gift.

We all know that Martha complained to Jesus about Mary’s apparent indifference to all the housework in caring for a special guest. But it is not as if Martha was inferior in faith. A later story about Mary and Martha included their brother, Lazarus. Martha had watched her brother die, and when Jesus came―seemingly too late―it was Martha who went out to meet him. She did not complain, asking where he had been. She expressed her faith and said, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask. A further exchange with Jesus brings Martha to confess: I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world (Jn 11:21–22, 27). Then Martha’s faith was richly rewarded when Jesus raised Lazarus back to life.

One thing we find here is a reminder that, while we may have faith in Jesus and be serving him with the best of intentions, what we do by ourselves is incomplete. There was a very real sense in which Mary needed Martha that day; Jesus was hosted well because Martha did the work. At the same time, Martha needed Mary’s example to show her that “doing for Jesus” is never enough if we are not taking time to sit at his feet.

I offer one more story to emphasize the “complementary” nature of our life in Jesus. A sea captain and his chief engineer were arguing over who was most important to the ship. To prove their point to each other, they decided to swap places. The chief engineer ascended to the bridge, and the captain went to the engine room. Several hours later, the captain suddenly appeared on deck covered with oil and dirt. "Chief!" he yelled, waving aloft a monkey wrench. "You have to get down there: I can't make her go!" "Of course you can't, Captain," replied the chief. "She's aground!" In the Church we do not excel each other; we depend on each other. There was a sign above the boy’s locker-room door that I have remembered from junior-high phys ed (I would quote it to my staff when I was senior pastor, and I still ask the Lord to keep me in this attitude): There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.

And yet, having said all of this about not pushing Mary and Martha into extremes of right and wrong (and urging us not to do that in the Church), we do need to hear Jesus’ words to Martha and to understand their implication in all our lives. Jesus said, Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her (Lu 10:41).

Another basic Christian truth that we need to hear regularly is the continual conflict between external, material existence as opposed to the imperishable needs of our inner life. We are constantly bombarded with demands all around us, urging us to abandon inner recollection. Being honest, what is most likely to get short-changed in the life of the average American who professes an allegiance to Jesus: “getting everything done” or spending time with Jesus?

Listen to this characterization of American Christianity:

[American Christianity] is more Petrine than Johannean; more like busy Martha than like the pensive Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. It expands more in breadth than in depth. It is often carried on like a secular business, and in a mechanical or utilitarian spirit. It lacks the beautiful enamel of deep fervor and heartiness, the true mysticism, an appreciation of history and the church.....

The incredible thing is that this comes from Philip Schaff, a Swiss theologian, analyzing American Christianity for a German audience in 1854! Considering what Jesus told Martha, what is the Spirit of Jesus saying to us today? We live in a society where even kids need palm pilots to stay on track of all the stuff that clutters their schedules. All of us could profit from reflecting a bit on this modern proverb: “The problem with living life in the fast lane is that you get to the toll booth quicker.”

There are ancient words about Mary and Martha that should not be lost among today’s Christians. In a sermon from his Fourth Century setting as the greatest Father of the Western Church, Saint Augustine wrote:

Our Lord’s words teach us that though we labor among the many distractions of this world, we should have but one goal. For we are but travelers on a journey without as yet a fixed abode; we are on our way, not yet in our native land; we are in a state of longing, not yet of enjoyment. But let us continue on our way, and continue without sloth or respite, so that we may ultimately arrive at our destination....

But you, Martha, if I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labors you seek the reward of peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveler to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarreling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?

No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. Thus what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness; she was gathering fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.

The first way that we serve Jesus is by loving him. Doing things for someone can say “love,” but the deepest love is expressed by those who simply delight in being in each other’s presence. Our challenge, especially in our hectic world, is to learn to sit at Jesus’ feet―to take time to let the world go by―for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Seeking, Serving, Saving

Listening to Mike Card’s nice bluegrass tune “Walking on the Water,” I focused my thoughts on what Jesus was telling Peter to do: step out of the safety of the boat into the waves of a raging sea. What an illustration of the more abstract saying of Jesus: the one who seeks to save his life will lose it, but the one who gives his life for my sake will find it. This theme has recurred in my readings recently (and not surprisingly, since it’s such a foundational truth of Christian Faith).

One of my morning readings had these words:

For the world, to love is to enjoy yourself; it thinks in its selfishness that love consists above all in receiving consolation, satisfaction, etc. It is exactly the contrary: love is nourished by giving, by self-sacrifice, with the holy fuel of suffering.

For a soul that really loves the Lord, of what importance are honors, wealth, social position, the future, suffering, and even death itself? The important thing is that Jesus is pleased, even though the soul suffers; that he rejoices, even though the soul weeps. When a person truly loves, the “ego” disappears and dies so that Jesus alone may live within the heart.

I was reminded of a passage from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (one of my recent reads). Shortly before taking the step of entering the Trappist monastery he was reflecting on his then-current position of teaching (as a secular) at St. Bonaventure’s. He had been challenged to move to Harlem to live among the poor and vulnerable. Out of this situation came these words:

I could no longer doubt that St. Bonaventure’s had outlived its usefulness in my spiritual life. I did not belong there any more. It was too tame, too safe, too sheltered. It demanded nothing of me. It had no particular cross. It left me to myself, belonging to myself, in full possession of my own will, in full command of all that God had given me that I might give it back to Him. As long as I remained there, I still had given up nothing, or very little, no matter how poor I happened to be.

Yesterday I received a devotional email from Mike Card (this is something anyone may register to receive; see his website). He was reflecting on Jesus’ words: None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions, and followed with these thoughts:

Almost everyone who follows Jesus in the New Testament leaves something behind. Simon and the other disciples who were fishermen left their nets and boats. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, left their father as well as a prosperous family business. Matthew left behind an even more lucrative business, tax gathering. The woman at the well ran off and forgot her water jar. The sinful woman left behind an empty alabaster perfume jar. Lazarus, perhaps the most miraculous of all, left behind a pile of grave clothes and an empty tomb.

Getting out of a safe boat.... leaving a comfortable job situation.... leaving “stuff” behind (the Hebrews writer says lay aside every weight).... This is not a legalism, but there is the ongoing reality that Jesus does not want us to stay where we are –– at least not in spirit. When our “life in the kingdom” has become a comfortable rut, to what extent are we truly living in the kingdom of God?

What are we seeking? Who are we serving? What kind of life are we saving?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Free and Happy

Two quotes from Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain are part of my current thought process, and I thought others might profit from them as well:

I was free. I had recovered my liberty. I belonged to God, not to myself: and to belong to Him is to be free, free of all the anxieties and worries and sorrows that belong to this earth, and the love of the things that are in it. What was the difference between one place and another, one habit and another, if your life belonged to God, and if you placed yourself completely in His hands? The only thing that mattered was the fact of the sacrifice, the essential dedication of one’s self, one’s will. The rest was only accidental.

....Because there is happiness only where there is coordination with the Truth, the Reality, the Act that underlies and directs all things to their essential and accidental perfections: and that is the will of God. There is only one happiness: to please Him. Only one sorrow, to be displeasing to Him, to refuse Him something, to turn away from Him, even in the slightest thing, even in thought, in a half-willed movement of appetite: in these things, and these alone, is sorrow, inso far as they imply separation, or the beginning, the possibility of separation from Him who is our life and all our joy. And since God is a Spirit, and infinitely above all matter and all creation, the only complete union possible, between ourselves and Him, is in the oder of intention: a union of wills and intellects, in love, charity.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Morning

from the Liturgy, a wonderful prayer for Sunday morning: Lord, extolled in the heights by angelic powers, you are also praised by all earth's creatures, each in it own way. With all the splendor of heavenly worship, you still delight in such tokens of love as earth can offer. May heaven and earth together acclaim you as King; may the praise that is sung in heaven resound in the heart of every creature on earth.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

(Too) Busy

I spent the holiday weekend in New Jersey with some fellow members of The Brothers and Sisters of Charity. I came home to a significant meeting with our bishop on Monday, an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon on Tuesday (I am scheduled for total right knee replacement on August 24, with the left knee to follow maybe in November). Tomorrow I fly back to South Carolina to spend a few days with my dad in his new-to-him independent living apartment and to drive him to a family reunion in Alabama.

All of which is to say I've not been blogging (or writing at all). I am keenly aware, in the mix of so many varied things, that our days are in the Lord's hands so that, when we live in trust and obedience, we can have assurance of being under His mercies. I've been thinking of the old gospel song, Trust and Obey; it is a wonderful expression of Christian life.

I hope to be back to a more regular schedule in another week. Thanks to the readers who follow this blog faithfully. May the Lord's grace and peace go with you!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

What We Have (and don't have)

I’ve not been home in PA much in recent days. Originally I was to be in Arkansas at a Leadership Conference with the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. That was preempted by my dad needing to move from his home of 59 years into a retirement home for seniors, so I spent several days in South Carolina helping in this great transition.

This move triggered both thoughts and emotions in me and my dad. Again, this had been his home for 59 years. He and Mom built it together, moved into it in 1950 and I was born in 1951. Wherever I have lived over the past forty years since leaving for college, from Florida to Massachusetts, out to Kansas, but mostly in Pennsylvania, that house in Spartanburg, South Carolina was a constant, abiding “home.” There was a place where I could return that was familiar. There was an address and phone number that connected me to a root that went back to my very beginning. And if I had such an awareness, Dad’s sentiments were far deeper. When I left forty years ago to start out on my own, the home-place was where he and Mom remained. And when she died in 1996, the home they had shared together was one big thing that helped Dad feel connected to the good years he had spent with her.

This past Friday night we spent the last night “at home.” That day we had packed up small things; on Saturday morning a half-dozen men from Dad’s church came in their pick-up trucks, loaded the big things Dad was taking, and in one caravan trip, transported it all to the independent-living apartment that is now Dad’s home. We spent Saturday night at the new place. Transplanted.

On Sunday morning I (and my wife and son, who helped in the big move) went to church with Dad. This is the little country church where Mom and Dad raised me. It was where I surrendered totally to Jesus when I was fifteen years old. This congregation is one big reason why Dad did not move to Pennsylvania to be close to me and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The pastor had given me the privilege of preaching the morning message (as a special treat for Dad, who is a beloved patriarch in the church). I did not prepare it as meticulously as my usual sermons, but the gist was as follows.

I have no such inclination but my daughter loves to tackle 1000 or 1500 small-piece picture puzzles. This image came to me as one way to think of life. Each day is like one piece of the huge picture of our lives. Can you imagine trying to put a huge puzzle together without being able first to see the big picture of what it’s supposed to be? Add to that image the further complication of the picture being, not one focused subject but instead, a collage of various scenarios –– the kinds of things that occur throughout life.

Christians believe God has given us a “big picture” to help us understand the meaning of human life. While none of us has an individual blueprint of life, we do have Jesus Christ as the ultimate paradigm of God’s purpose for human life. We have a context to understand suffering and death; we have a reason to believe the awful things do not have the last word because Jesus is risen and has ascended into heaven.

Many of the daily pieces of our lives do not seem especially significant; they are neither grand nor terrible, but rather serve as the “background” for times that get more attention. Some days are stressful, but we can handle it. Some days are wonderful, so that we may actually say, “I wish all of life was like this.” (Christians should understand these times as God’s encouragements along the way, and as a reminder of what the triumph of goodness will be like.) Other days are truly horrible –– tragic accidents, bad medical reports, financial collapse, emotional breakdown, and.... death. We live in a broken world.

When people do not live in faith they try to “make the best of it.” They focus on the happy things and do everything possible to insulate themselves with security, comfort and pleasure (think here of the advertising industry!). On the other hand, faith in what God has given us in Christ provides a way to understand and to exercise patience and hope.

I have thought of this in the categories of WHAT WE HAVE and WHAT WE DON’T HAVE. Christian faith causes a great reversal here. Living apart from what God has done and promised usually means looking at temporal circumstances and making our judgements from this perspective. Christian faith has a different focus. Paul said it this way in his second letter to the Corinthians: we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (4:18).

So I began to think about those categories of WHAT WE HAVE and WHAT WE DON’T HAVE as I looked at my life and Dad’s big move. The first thing that came to my mind was something else Paul told the Corinthians (in the first letter): you do not have many fathers (4:15). This was in the context of Paul’s deep love for the Corinthians and how he was a father to them in the faith. Dad has been a “father in the faith” to me. Both he and Mom nurtured me in a godly home. When I sensed a calling to Christian vocation Dad supported me financially through the many years of college, two masters degrees and a doctorate. I have a father who has loved and supported me in the faith.

A profitable personal Bible study might focus on the phrase “we (do not) have,” Here is a sample from the verses surrounding the 2 Corinthians verse I quoted earlier:
we have a hope (3:12)
we have this ministry (4:1)
we have this treasure (4:7)
we have a building from God (5:1)

This last one was a bridge to another verse, in another letter, I’d had on my mind. In the angst of leaving the “building” he’d lived in for 59 years (and the one consistent home I’ve known), I was reminded of the “building from God” that is promised us. Of course the context here is our physical body. Someday when we die and lay aside this “tent” of clay, we will ultimately find that God has prepared a resurrection body for us in continuity with Jesus, who has gone ahead of us through His bodily resurrection.

Yet a larger issue comes into focus. This is what the writer to the Hebrews says: For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (13:14). And in a similar context, describing people who live in biblical faith: They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them (11:13b-16).

This is the larger picture from God that gives us hope and peace when the temporal things around us change. A house of 59 years can be a wonderful thing. It has been for Dad and me, but that is not our ultimate joy. We are looking for the city that is yet to come.

It has not escaped me that this has happened so close to July 4th, a big national holiday. We are blessed in this country. Our temporal advantages are indisputable. And yet, for Christians, we desire a better country. Whether it is our family house or our country, here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.


God has given us a way of looking at this –– seeing the pieces of the puzzle according to His design, and I’ve been reminded in a new and fresh way.

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