An Epistle of Straw?

There are two problems I have with the great reformer Martin Luther. As much as I appreciate his starting the Reformation, pointing out corruption in the Church of the time, and emphasizing salvation by grace through faith rather than works here are my disagreements with him.

  1. Some nasty and even paranoid things he said about the Jews. I can’t help wondering if this paved the way for the much later anti-Semite  stance taken by the Lutheran Church during World War II. (That is worthy of at least one post of its own!)
  2. Luther almost kept the Epistle of James out of the New Testament canon. Though he reluctantly allowed it in with the rest, he called it an “Epistle of Straw.”

Come on Marty! That’s no way to talk about a part of the Bible. I would like to leave out parts of Romans that I don’t like or understand fully, but I won’t. I don’t even cut out the Song of Songs in my devotions, though my preacher smugly says that they will be having a Bible study on it for “marrieds only.”

What bothered Martin Luther was that James seems at first glance to be preaching good works as a way to get to Heaven. Of course this would bother a reformer who had been struggling with being “good enough” all his life and finally found the freedom of grace.

James gives a lot of practical advice on how we should live out our lives as Christians.

  • He mentions that we should rejoice when persecuted and not blame God when tempted.
  • We should obey God’s Word rather than just listening to or reading it.
  • My personal favorite–don’t play favorites in Church.
  • Your good deeds are proof of salvation.
  • Watch what you say!
  • Seek true wisdom from God.
  • Submit your being to God.
  • Commend your future plans to God because only He knows the future.
  • Don’t be arrogant if you happen to be rich; don’t oppress the poor.
  • Be patient when you suffer.
  • Always pray in faith.

Was James at odds with Paul? Was he teaching that we get to Heaven because we follow the list above? Does God’s Word contradict itself or should the Epistle of James simply be cut out of the canon?

No, no and no.

I have a strange question to ask my reader. Is it your body or your soul that makes you alive? Think about it.

Your soul is the true source of life. Without it, there is no real you, just a lifeless corpse that won’t last much longer as decay sets in.

But then, what are you without your body? Just a disembodied spirit.

Just as the soul needs the body to make the human being complete and to make an impression on the world around us, so our saving faith needs good works to become a complete and living faith and make an impression on the world around us. As James says, faith without works is dead!

Without faith our good deeds are a decaying corpse–a stench in the nostrils of our most high God.

Without works our faith is a mere ghost. It is the kind of thing you can even find among the demons of Hell who believe that Jesus is the Son of God–and shudder.

Life comes from faith, that is true. It animates us and saves us. Let us not forget, though, that the good works show we have true, strawsaving faith. Without works our faith is indeed dead and no threat to the forces of Hell at all. Faith saves us; works are evidence of that faith.

Abraham’s faith led him to Mt. Moriah. Although God prevented him from killing Isaac, that three day journey and binding Isaac to the altar proved his faith. If Abraham had refused to go, his faith in God would have been worthless.

We are saved by grace, through faith, for good works. If good works aren’t evident in our lives we need to reevaluate our faith, because the fact is our faith is not evident either.

We must remember that.

An Epistle of Straw?

The Greatest Love

Sorry Whitney Houston! The greatest love isn’t self love after all.

Self love may be the most natural, but that doesn’t make it the greatest. Eating dinner is a very natural thing to do, but there’s nothing inherently great or noble about it. Self love is undoubtedly the most selfish form of love. Unless you add other loves to it, it can prove disastrous and it will not lead to happiness. Only loneliness and misery.

(That said, I guess it’s still better to love yourself than no one. But it won’t lead to making the world a better place. Or even personal happiness.)

All this emphasis on self love is making this world a very childish (not to be confused with childlike) and self-centered place. When people enter into sacred marriage covenents instead of asking, “Will this please God? Can I help this other person? Will we be better able to serve our church and community together? Will I be able to stick to this person and stand by him/her no matter how I feel or how unhappy I get?” they ask themselves, “Will this person make me happy?”

The answer is no. Only God and you can make you happy. Through His Son Jesus and many minor gifts, God has already given you everything you need for happiness. Whether you choose to appreciate it and make yourself happy is up to you! That said, it’s okay to feel unhappy from time to time. In this sad and sinful world, there’s something wrong with people who’re perpetually upbeat and Happy all the time regardless of the suffering around them.

Our LORD was called the Man of Sorrows after all; not the Man of Pleasures. I’m sure Jesus knew how to laugh. The Bible records some witty stories He told (I doubt He told the whole thing without smiling!) His enemies got mad at Him for partying. But the real reason He came to us was to experience sorrow, not pleasure.

Why would the Son of God come to earth just to experience sorrow and suffering, when He could have stayed equal to God in Heaven and enjoyed Himself amidst the praises of his sinless angels? I’m not sure why He loved, but He did it for love.

Loving another person in this world is not always a happy experience. I’d say even the best of loves involve one part happiness, two parts discomfort and irritation, two or three parts sorrow and suffering.

Every “romance” this side of eternity has one of three endings.

  1.  A couple marries or maybe doesn’t even make it to the altar before one of them dies. A good friend of mine lost her beloved fiance before they even set a date.
  2. A couple marries and one hardens his or her heart and leaves the other. I know many people this has happened to. It’s not right and it hurts.
  3. A couple marries and after half a century of living together as one flesh, one dies. The other is even more devastated then the person bereaved in example one.

That’s the way love stories end. Hollywood doesn’t show that.

“See,” my critics are probably saying, “If you only stuck to self love you wouldn’t get hurt.”

I can only say there are worse things than pain. Ask any leper what it means to live without pain. And there are greater things than pleasure. Ask our LORD who left everything for the love He bore fallen humanity.

All right then, you are thinking. So what is the greatest love we can experience this side of eternity.

This is it:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13.)

Loving your friends enough to sacrifice life itself–if necessary–for their well being is the greatest form of love. Unfortunately self love can get in the way of that.hands-compassion (1)

 

The Greatest Love

Raisins in the Sun: when dreams die

mf286In his lengthy poem Montage to a Dream Deferred, Langston Hughes beautifully describes what happens to a dream deferred and asks if it shrivels up “like a raisin in the sun?” As an African-American man in the segregationist south, this poet knew quite a bit about dreams deferred and even dead. Later there was a play made, with the title taken from this quote (A Raisin in the Sun.) Not surprisingly it is about an African-American family. And dead dreams.

When I was twenty, I had a bout of severe health problems, including a long series of seizures and had to leave the college campus where I had been so happy. Most people’s dreams fade as they get older. Mine all crumbled when I was barely out of my teens.

While all my friends were getting married and starting careers and families I grew bitter. Often I felt that the people around me would be better off if I were dead.

Now I see it differently. If it’s true that some people would just as soon I up and died, there’s still no reason why I should oblige them. I intend to stay alive to spite them all out of sheer orneriness!

Besides this, as a Christian, I don’t believe I have the right to kill myself no matter how tough things get. Not my body, not my choice. God gave me my body and only He has the right to say whether I leave it or not. Not me or any of my ill-wishers. (God will deal with them as well. Revenge is His.)

This blog post is supposed to be about dead or dying dreams though. The fact is, that when a dream dies, it causes other doors to open.

You may wonder how that is. In The Paradox of Choice, professor Barry Schwartz describes how too many choices overwhelm the human psyche and can prove worse in some ways than too few. Not that that is a good thing either.

Dr. Schwartz describes some interesting methods near the end of his book. Flip a coin for unimportant decisions. But what about the important ones?

Narrow them down to two or at the most three options. Easier said than done, however.

Supposing there are a multitude of career options and scores of available men who want to date and perhaps marry you. How do you possibly narrow down each to two or three possibilities? You certainly wouldn’t want to flip a coin to make such an important life decision either.

When one of your dreams dies, that narrows the field drastically. If a door won’t open up despite all your efforts it probably means God is saying, “No!” very firmly.

Ironically a dead dream frees you to look at other options–options you might otherwise have not even considered. If you fail to find a husband and start a family, it may free you to consider a career in law or medicine that a young family would hinder. If you fail to become an English professor, it may encourage you to try freelance writing as a career. That’s what happened to me.

Jill Kilmont and Joni Eareckson both broke their necks as teenagers. Both became paralyzed from the neck down. Jill lost her dream of becoming an Olympic skier; Joni lost her dream of a normal life and marriage to her boyfriend. Both went on to find new dreams though–dreams they otherwise would never have considered.

Jill became a teacher. Due to discrimination from the educational establishment, she wound up teaching on a reservation for Native Americans.

Joni went on to become a dynamic powerhouse painter, speaker, writer, and singer. Eventually she found a fine Christian man who was able to look past her wheelchair.

When your dreams are deferred or just plain dead you need to ask yourself, “OK. So what do I have left?”

It really doesn’t pay to live in the past, bemoaning what can never be and wishing things were what they aren’t. If taken to its logical conclusion, such thinking can even lead to neurosis or a psychotic break. If God wanted you to serve Him in that way, He would have opened that door.

So now ask yourself, “What do I have left? How can I best use it for the LORD?”

 

 

Raisins in the Sun: when dreams die

Having a Happy Valentine’s Day

IMG_4397I used to dread Valentine’s Day as an adult. The fact is, ever since I was an unattached 20-year-old I have disliked it intensely.

I attended a small, private college. Since it was a Christian college everyone was encouraged to marry early (to prevent unchastity I guess). Unfortunately there were almost three times as many girls as there were guys. Good statistics, if you are a guy who can’t find dates anywhere else.

It wasn’t as bad as it seemed at the time, but imagine how it must have felt to see all your friends getting engaged or even married when none of the guys would even give you the time of day. I wondered if I needed to lose weight to find true happiness (this was the early nineties) so I went on a crash diet and lowered my caloric intake to 600 calories a day. Still no success with men!

Over the past twenty odd years a lot of changes have occurred. Several of my friends who were sure they had found lasting happiness and an earthly paradise have divorced. Like Eve they were eager to leave Paradise once they had it, I guess.

As a childless single I have a lot of reading time that my married counterparts lacked and still lack (they may get it back as retirees with empty nests, but then they won’t necessarily know what to do with it.) When I saw how much time and energy marriage and children took and the lack of cultural and intellectual development in married women I realized that celibacy wasn’t altogether a bad thing.

It was during some of this reading time that I came to the realization that the original St. Valentine was celibate too. He was, in fact, a priest–executed in ancient Rome for the crime of refusing to worship the emperor.

During his time in prison, the jailer introduced him to his daughter who had become blind. According to the legend, Fr. Valentine miraculously healed her so she could see once more.

Apparently the girl could read. Before he was killed, Valentine sent the first valentine note. I don’t know all that it said, but basically he encouraged the girl in her newly found faith. In addition to healing her eyes, Valentine had shared the Gospel message with her and she had become a Christian.

So remember, before Hallmark and Victoria’s Secrets took things over, Valentine’s Day is about much more than romance. It’s about the kind of love that is unselfish and honestly wants what is best for other people, even when they don’t have your best interests at heart.

If more marriages were based on this kind of love instead of the nebulous feelings that come with erotic romance, we might have fewer divorces. And people that can’t find marriage partners would be happier too because they would find other outlets for their affection. There would be an end to war, stealing, murdering and cheating. Poverty and sickness would be easier to bear, because people would give of their time and money to relieve others’ misery.

Here are some ways to celebrate the true meaning of Valentine’s Day which is agape rather than erotic love.

  1. Take some children’s valentines and a big Whitman’s sampler to work or the local coffee shop where you know people. Pass out the valentines and chocolates with a smile and wish everyone a happy Valentine’s Day.
  2. Decorate your apartment with Valentine’s Day flowers. Cook a special meal or order delicious take-out food. Invite several friends–singles and couples and have a party. If the couples can’t make it due to other plans, that’s okay. They’ll still feel good to know they were invited.
  3. Send a single friend or two a note or short e mail telling them how much their friendship means to you. This can mean a lot to singles.
  4. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or visit people in a nursing home over Valentine’s Day weekend. Spread your love around.
  5. Remember God loves you so much, He sent His only Son whom He dearly loved to die in your place. This makes you pretty special! If other people can’t appreciate that that’s their problem. God’s opinion counts for infinitely more anyhow.

So have a Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

 

Having a Happy Valentine’s Day