WHO’S IN & WHO’S OUT?

WHO’S IN & WHO’S OUT?

In his novel, A Painted House, John Grisham describes a Sunday school teacher eulogizing a mean character named Jerry Sisco, who had been killed the night before in a back alley fight after he picked on one person too many.

In the words of the little boy who had seen the fight with his friend Dewayne: “She made Jerry sound like a Christian and an innocent victim. I glanced at Dewayne, who had one eye on me. There was something odd about this. As Baptists, we’d been taught from the cradle that the only way you made it to heaven was by believing in Jesus and trying to follow his example in living a clean and moral Christian life… And anyone who did not accept Jesus and live a Christian life simply went to hell. That’s where Jerry Sisco was, and we all knew it.”

Did you grow up believing that? I did.  But growing up with a belief is not the same as coming to grips with it in adulthood. Is what we learned as children valid? Is Jesus himself as categorical and exclusive as all that? 

Many years ago, I sat across the table from a man who almost lost his faith over this issue. He had friends – people he loved and respected – who had a much broader view of things. They told him he was very narrow-minded to believe that Jesus was the only way.  Would they be lost, damned for all eternity, if they refused to believe like the boys in Grisham’s novel?

We don’t have to wonder. Jesus made it crystal clear in Matthew 7:21-27.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

24 “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” [1]

He followed that up with an even more exclusive statement in John’s gospel:

 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[2]

Membership in the kingdom does not depend on what we say, how religious we are, or how moral we are. Membership belongs to those who believe and from that belief obey. Membership in the kingdom is not about creeds or images. It is about heart and action. Membership does not depend on what we think of Jesus.  Membership in the Kingdom of God and where we go when we die depends on what Jesus thinks of us.

What does he think of you?


[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 7:21–27). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] John 14:6 NIV

READY-MADE PRAYERS Spiritual Meat for Hungry Souls

READY-MADE PRAYERS Spiritual Meat for Hungry Souls

Some days my mind is scattered as a caffeinated squirrel, and my heart is as flat as a pancake. Ready-made prayers are helpful then.

Growing up Baptist had some definite advantages for my spiritual life. The clarity and importance of personal repentance and faith in Christ alone for salvation remain paramount. Add to that the emphasis on singing in worship and participation in choirs. The songs I sang then still bubble to the surface today. And eventually, personal Bible study, the conversation with God one develops when digging deep in the word, became important. The fried chicken (aka gospel bird) wasn’t bad either.

But among the things that my spiritual development lacked was a robust prayer life. We Baptists were great at potlucks. But if prayer is like chicken, we were getting the skinny bird every time. “Lord, we just want to praise you for this. And Lord, we just want to ask you for that, and Lord, we ask you to bless so and so.” That kind of praying will leave you spiritually hungry after a while.

The prayers of the Bible are much meatier, as are the prayers of many other denominations. For example, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1928 edition) has some wonderfully deep and theologically robust prayers. But as a young believer, I thought written prayers were for people who lacked a real heart relationship with God. They can be abused. Reciting a written prayer will not save an unrepentant sinner or deepen a spiritual life through the mere repetition of elegant prose. But that doesn’t make them useless.

That became clear when I learned that scripture contains many formal prayers and praises. Everyone is familiar with the Psalms and The Lord’s Prayer. But it happens in other places in the New Testament as well. 1 Peter 1:3-5 is a good example. With the help of his friend Silas, Peter begins with an expression of praise that is almost identical to the wording of 2 Corinthians 1:3 and Ephesians 1:3. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.[1] Push on down through verse 13 of Ephesians 1, and you find the same themes Peter stressed: Election or choseness, redemption through Christ’s blood, our spiritual inheritance, and hope in Christ’s return.

From that foundation, Peter builds out his prayer and links it to his readers’ specific situation. So he isn’t just repeating empty words. He is taking a form of praise widely used in the Church and building it into his prayer and exhortation to his readers.

As I got older, I realized that C.S. Lewis’s experience on this topic, provided in an essay whose title I borrowed, reflected mine. Some days my mind is scattered as a caffeinated squirrel, and my heart is as flat as a pancake. Trying to pray spontaneously on days like that was “counting on a greater mental and spiritual strength than I really have,” he said. I was making “what Pascal calls Error of Stoicism; thinking we can do always what we can do sometimes.”[2] The latest news headline or political crisis will always loom larger if we let it and have us praying about only those things instead of the strategic mission of the Church. And, left to the vagaries of our weary minds and momentary emotions, we can easily drift into some pretty shallow spiritual puddles. Praying the ready-made prayers of scripture and the great traditions can help us stay on the right path.


[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Eph 1:3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] Ready-made Prayers. C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian: 127 Readings

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

I was approaching agoraphobia—the inability to be in a crowd—and didn’t know it, but then, I didn’t know much of anything about anxiety disorders in 1980. All I knew was that I had trouble sleeping, I was constantly worried, I felt terribly alone, incessantly churning down inside. I had been a confident, risk-taking teen, but by age twenty all that was gone. I was so uncertain of myself that I stayed in my car between classes at the junior college and drove straight home after lunch to spend the rest of the day alone and miserable. The only way I could describe it was that it felt like I was free-falling, with no bottom in sight and no rope to stop me.

If any of that sounds familiar, then you may be among the thirty-odd percent of Americans who, according to the National Institutes of Health, have an anxiety disorder. It’s even worse among college students, 62% of whom reported “overwhelming anxiety” in 2016 according to The New York Times.[1]

The search for peace is driving unprecedented sales of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, over 15.2 billion dollars and rising in 2015.[2] The medications have helped many people. And the more we learn about the brain the better. But finding peace is about more than balanced brain chemistry. It’s about inner harmony. Bottom-line: if our souls are out of balance the medications will only mask problems, problems that, if resolved, might preclude the need for medications.

It behooves us to ask then, what exactly is peace?

Peace means wholeness. Shalom—fullness of life—is the old Hebrew word. Harmony, which comes from the Greek Ireinei (pronounced I-Ray-nye), “at one again,” is another. When I have inner peace I am at one, I am whole. My mind and heart are in harmony and every part of me is in agreement. Inner peace has little to do with external circumstances and everything to do with how my mind and heart respond to those circumstances. One thing is certain: I cannot have peace with others if I do not have peace within.

We chase peace in many ways.

Fame is one, the search for which is exacerbated by social media. Teens especially are vulnerable. When we are well-known (translation: many “friends” and “followers”) and well liked, the center of attention, we have peace. But the peace of fame is fleeting. It leaves us empty and anxious when the spotlight turns, as it inevitably will, to someone else.

Perfection is another. Pursuing perfection makes us feel an inch taller than everyone else. Ben Franklin had thirteen rules of virtue but found he could never keep them all at once. Eventually we hit the wall, the end of our ability to achieve whatever goal we set be it athletic, musical, moral or financial. When that happens, peace is replaced by frustration, another word for anxiety.

Finally, some pursue peace through conformity to a sub-culture: We’re Goths or Gays, Progressives or MAGA’s, Baptists or Brethren. Conformity is sturdy, reliable. The boundaries are clear and so are the “ins” and the “outs.” But conformity offers peace only to insiders. It erects barriers to outsiders. In the end, conformity is the peace of prison. Life stops at the gates.

The Bible explains where our anxiety comes from. We are fragmented, incomplete creatures, created whole in the image of God but broken at the fall. We are jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, un-synchronized and incomplete without relationship with Him who made us.

The Bible also offers the path to peace: Jesus. “For he himself is our peace,” wrote Paul, “who made the two one.” Jesus is our peace because of two things: His personal wholeness, he is shalom personified, and his work of redemption. He restored our broken relationship with God.

Jesus is the only unfragmented person who ever lived. He is complete, lacking nothing. “In him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.”[3]

Jesus restored, synchronized and harmonized, our relationship with God. “We have peace with God through” him.[4] He filled up what was lacking in us by “making us complete” in himself.[5] He unifies our minds in peace, overcoming our mental fragmentation by the control of his Spirit.[6]

In March of 1980 I gave my life to Christ, asking him to take control, and experienced the “peace that passes understanding.” The falling stopped, and my feet were finally on solid ground. I have had many ups and downs since then, but the rock beneath my feet has never moved. Aren’t you ready to do the same?

[1] https://www.eab.com/daily-briefing/2017/10/18/why-extreme-anxiety-is-at-an-all-time-high-among-american-students

[2] https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/anxiety-disorders-and-depression-treatment-market

[3] Colossians 2:9

[4] Romans 5:1

[5] Colossians 2:10

[6] Romans 8:6 & 9.