Diagnosis with a Twist of Lyme–1 John 3:24

Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. –1 John 3:24

A year or so back, Penny had the pleasure of lyme disease. If you’ve never experienced this tick-borne illness, then save yourself the trouble and trust me. It’s one to skip. She had all manner of stiffness and general yuck. At first the doctors–bless their hearts, they try–settled on arthritis as her affliction. Penny protested that she had not suffered from arthritis for several years and that her symptoms sounded a good deal like what she’d read of lyme disease. No matter. She had arthritis. (This same doctor might have recommended me for a hysterectomy.)

This hasty diagnosis bought the bacteria a couple of weeks to reproduce and settle in. Eventually, another doctor–one we no longer use, I might add–listened to all of Penny’s complaints and said, “I think that might be lyme disease” in a tone that seemed to say “why didn’t you think of that sooner.”

We had to practically lay siege to the lab and doctor’s office in order to get the test results back, but when they came, they confirmed what she had suspected for several weeks: lyme disease.

Unlike some diseases, lyme disease does not simply keep bothering you until treat it. This is one that will progressively worsen. Catch it very quickly and it’s a non-event. Let it run for months and you’re in for some very bad effects. Happily, Penny was closer to the beginning than the end.

I’m not entirely sure how the test for lyme disease or any other ailment works. My understanding is that the lab techs perform some sort of analysis to determine if some substance is present that indicates the critter involved in the illness. For example, if I were performing a test to see if my daughter Alyson were around, I’d probe the trash cans for Sonic Drive-in trash. That’s a tip-off to her presence.

How, however, do you do a test for the Spirit of God? Is there a blood test indicating the Spirit and therefore the indwelling of God? John would seem to suggest that ability, yet I’ve never been offered such a test. Wouldn’t that be a nifty test for a prospective Sunday School teacher?

Just as bacteria leave behind chemical markers and Alyson leaves behind tater tot wrappers, the Holy Spirit provides evidence of its presence, evidence that plays out in our lives. Inwardly, that evidence involves the sense of conviction and duty that comes to a believer. Outwardly, it should be manifest by a holy life and a string of loving actions.

As certain as I am that the Holy Spirit is within me, I sometimes wonder if that presence is truly evident to the outside world, to my friends, my students, and my family. If I were accused of being a Christian, would there be sufficient evidence to convict me. Do I present the symptoms of a spirit-filled life? I’ll leave you with that question today.

It’s So Simple–1 John 3:23

And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. –1 John 3:23

I love this time of the year. As you read this, I’ll be finished with exams and ready to turn in grades on Friday. As I write it, I have another week to go. Regardless, I love this time of year. Soon, these students will be going away, and I’ll never have to look at them again.

But I also hate this time of year. No, I’m not going to get all sentimental on you. While I do actually like a good number of my students, by the end of the term, I’m ready to see the backs of them, at least for a while. The reason I hate this time of the semester is because of the silly questions. Here’s one, from an email two days ago:

I just make sure that if i have done annotated bibliography, which means I don’t need to do the final assignment. Is it right?

No, it’s not right. The online course says that isn’t right. The course overview sheet I asked everyone to print out back in January says that isn’t right. My weekly (or more often) emails say that isn’t right! What more do I have to do to get through to these people?

If it were only one silly question, I’d be okay with it, but there are many. Granted, it could be worse. I could have to really work for a living, but it does make me hate–okay, maybe dread–this time of year.

My online course is really simple. Start at the beginning and follow the directions. Keep hitting “next” until you reach the point that says you’re done. That’s it. But these students just insist on making it complicated. Or they refuse to read the instructions and try to find their way alone.

Happily, our relationship with Christ is just as simple.  We have to do two things:

  1. Believe in Jesus.
  2. Love each other.

That’s really easy. I don’t have to figure out which way to turn to face Mecca. I don’t have to discover which foods are kosher. I needn’t give exceptional respect to cattle. There’s no particular language that must be spoken or pilgrimage that must be made. Christianity is simple, which is good, since humans are notoriously bad at following directions.

Now is My Way Clear–1 John 3:21-22

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. –1 John 3:21-22

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that yesterday, after speaking of the danger of taking a verse out of context, I proceeded to take the first of these two verses out of context and write on what it does not say. Verse 21, we can clearly see now, does not talk primarily (if at all) about our confidence in salvation before God. It talks of our confidence to stand before God and ask for blessings.

I won’t apologize for my writing yesterday, since those words did correspond well with Romans 8:1, but I thought I should point out my sneakiness.

As I sit here in my office at school, I look to my left and see a movie poster for T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, one of my favorite plays of all time. In this play, set in 1170, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Beckett, has been causing trouble for King Henry II of England. Beckett knows that his life is in peril at the hands of the king’s minions; thus, he wonders how to respond. After being visited by four tempters, Beckett stands firm, refusing to do the wrong thing, or even for the right thing for the wrong reason. “Now is my way clear; now is the meaning plain,” he says, as the last tempter falls away.

Thomas a Beckett did not ask God to send four knights who would plunge their swords into his flesh before the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral. Does that mean that he could not stand with confidence before God and ask for deliverance? Yes and no.

Beckett received something far better than what he wanted. His momentary pains, horrible as they must have been, passed into martyrdom. No sane person, I think, prays for martyrdom. But then no person–sane or otherwise–has the clarity of vision to know what to ask for. I believe that John indicates  here that the efficacy of our prayers relates to the purity of our hearts. If my heart were completely pure, standing completely unblemished before God, then it would see the absolute purest vision and ask for it. My heart, however, is only moderately pure–redeemed but still flawed by sin’s residual effects. I can stand with some confidence before God and ask, but I realize that at times the obstacle of sin will prevent me from asking for (or even recognizing) what is best for me.

Therefore, uncondemned, I can stand confident before God, confident in His willingness to deliver things sometimes greater than what I have the vision to request.

No Condemnation–1 John 3:21

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God. –1 John 3:21

A year ago, I got right with my digestive tract. I started eating very light, cutting nearly all meat and dairy out and pigging out on twigs and sprouts. For the summer of 2007, I went nearly 100% vegan. From April until Christmas, I lost forty pounds. I got off my blood pressure medicine. I could leap tall buildings with a single bound.

This morning, along with a hefty jolt of caffeine, I ate two–not one but two–greasy, awful breakfast sandwiches from QuikTrip. Wasn’t it last June that I preached to Olivia that there was virtually nothing good that you could buy at QuikTrip? Now here I am: I love Big Brother. I’m eating fare that’s not just meat and dairy, but sausage and eggs and drippy cheese. It’s so good, but my heart–perhaps literally in this case–is condemning me. Almost the moment the food–and it was tasty food–passed my lips, I felt guilty, condemned.

In Romans 8:1, Paul says that there is no condemnation for us when we are in Christ. Here John says that if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in our standing before God. But what if our hearts do condemn us?

It seems to me that today’s verse and the one from Romans illustrate the danger of taking a verse of Scripture out of context. In the Romans case, the verse isn’t even a complete sentence, and in this case, it only has its full meaning in light of the long series of arguments preceding it.

John, it seems to me, has been spending most of the preceding chapters convincing guilt-ridden people that they have good standing with God. He’s combating those who would add works to the grace of the Gospel. Paul, too, is arguing for a Gospel of grace, but he’s not arguing for absolute license. The fact that I feel bad for eating fatty food this morning does not negate my lack of condemnation before God.

Since there is no condemnation for me, regardless of what I stuff in my mouth or what my hands perform, am I more or less responsible for my actions? If I were condemned, the responsibility would be shifted to a punishing authority. Like a condemned prisoner, my life would not be my own. Since I am not condemned, my life belongs to me. My responsibility to make the most of it, therefore, is all the greater.

Louder than Words–1 John 3:18-20

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. –1 John 3:18-20

I woke up yesterday agitated, bothered that everything in my life seemed just a bit off kilter. My relationships were rocky. My eating is off the tracks. My exercise is non-existent. I’m behind on my grading. Everything’s just a bit messed up.

Part of me wanted to leap out of bed and make a lengthy to-do list. Supplemented by a list of resolutions, that might do the trick.

Part of me wanted to pull the covers over my head and sleep the day away.

Part of me–or maybe something independent of me–recognized the answer why I still lay in the bed. “Get my relationship with God right,” this little voice told me, “and all the other things will work themselves out.”

“Yeah! That’s it,” I assured myself as my feet hit the floor. “I’m going to get my relationship with God right. Then life will be peachy.”

Within two hours, life stunk. I’d yelled at two of my kids and talked sharply to my wife. I topped a hearty biscuits-and-gravy breakfast off with two bismarks. Nothing was going right.

“Why?” I shouted as I stood outside in a driving rainstorm, shaking my fist at the sky. (Okay, that setting I just added for effect.) “Why didn’t things work out?”

No sooner did those questions cross the threshold of my mind than I realized the error of my day. Simply saying that I would get my relationship with God right wasn’t enough. I had to actually do something about it, a something that I couldn’t just wave my hands and make true in the act of rolling out of bed.

Of course, I’m pleased that my lapses don’t foul up my standing with God. Doing right doesn’t make me more redeemed, but it’s not worthless either. It’s like my citizenship in the United States, I think. If I fail to salute the flag properly, that doesn’t take away my citizenship. But saluting the flag, singing “God Bless America,” and otherwise living out my citizenship remind me of the land of my birth. Similarly, my devotion to God helps me to remember whose I am. In the end, that’s all that matters.

Give ’til it Hurts–1 John 3:17

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? –1 John 3:17

My brother-in-law struggles with his sense of salvation. Regardless of how well he has learned the gospel of Grace, he cannot separate his mind from the sense that works must be important. I’m not talking about the James-style works as the outward manifestation of inner faith. I’m talking about the sense that somehow works are going help save him or that a lack of works will interfere with his salvation.

A couple of years back, I heard him indicate that he had not done enough if somebody in Kansas City was cold during the winter. (He is a furnace repairman.) Apparently, at least in that moment, he was taking the warmth of the entire metro on his own shoulders. Must he forgo sleep in order to fix busted heaters all over town? And why should his furnace-fixing responsibility stop at the city limits? Why not in the state of Missouri? Why not the United States?

Sometimes we have to be careful when considering Scripture and see exactly what it says. One way to read this verse is to believe that as long as I have something and someone else has less, then I should be giving things away. According to that logic, I should sell my house and my cars and everything I possess until I descend to the level of the poorest people or they’re brought up to my level. Is that what John says here? Not quite.

As long as I have material blessings, I should look on my brother’s needs with pity. That doesn’t say that if I have $100 and nine other people have nothing that I should get ten $10 bills and divvy up the loot equally. It says I should have pity on my brother’s need. I should care. Typically such caring will include giving.  However, John does not say that I must give until I’ve given down to the level of my needy brother.

How much should we give, then? Neither John nor Jesus answers that question. Our caring and the way it is manifested, is something between us and God. I’ve seen God perfectly capable of telling me I have not given sufficiently. The question then is how we respond to that message. If the love of God is in you, you will care and you will respond. The “how much” of that is not for me to determine.

A Tale of Two Jesuses–1 John 3:16

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. –1 John 3:16

You can’t go wrong with the three-sixteens, can you? (Try believing that after reading I Chronicles 3:16.) I’m reading a book right now called American Jesus by Stephen Prothero. In this book, the author traces the images and ideas about Jesus throughout American history. While I feel that he overstates some of his conclusions, the book is filled with marvelous insights. More importantly, it provokes thought.

Prothero notes the shifting emphases regarding Jesus as the years pass. For example, he argues that you’d be hard pressed to find a “Jesus as friend” hymn or sermon in 1700s and before. Along those lines, he notes the tendency of certain Liberal churches to focus on a de-historicized Jesus, taken out of the context of the Biblical narrative. After all, in the most prolific image of Jesus, Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” what is Jesus doing? Nothing! These same churches tried to ignore the death and resurrection of Jesus. If they did mention the crucifixion, then it had nothing to do with atonement. No, Jesus, in their eyes, died simply to provide a great moral exemplar, a sort of noble gesture.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even consider making that sort of gesture. If I’m going to risk my life or give up my life, I’m only going to do it in order to accomplish something worthwhile. I might go to the gallows in order to keep somebody else’s neck out of the noose. That’s the move made by Charles Dickens’ Sydney Carton makes at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. If Carton’s death did not provide for Charles Darnay’s escape, it would be simply a suicide. But that’s not the case. If Jesus’ death had not provided for your and my eternal life, then it would have been a very showy, very misguided journey into torture and suffering.

Yes, we learn about the nature of love by looking to the great example of Jesus, but we have to see the whole Jesus. The whole Jesus, unlike Warner Sallman’s portrait, is not simply head and shoulders. It is hands that healed, feet that walked, lungs that struggled for breath on the cross, and every other portion of the frail human form, dedicated to the redemption of you. That’s love.

Kids will be Kids–1 John 3:13-15

Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. –1 John 3:13-15

Tuesday morning, I sat in a hotel restaurant in Nashville, watching as some ninety high-school musicians milled about. Although most of the kids, a band traveling from Toronto, looked relatively distinctive, two of them stood out for me.

One I labeled “The Captain.” He covered his red hair with a ball cap that read “Captain.” He wore shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, both plaid and terribly mismatched. The Captain always had a swirl of crew around him. Clearly this was a personality to be reckoned with.

My second favorite had blue hair–not the naturally occurring sort you sometimes find on older women–that stood straight up on one side, as if she had dipped her hair into blue-colored glue and then taken a nap. She also wore a sort of tutu skirt that stood out from her hips a good twelve inches. I called her “The Ballerina.”

After breakfast, the kids brought a veritable mountain of luggage into the lobby. They then stood about in the gaps between piles of bags and talked. A rather timid hotel employee came up behind a group who blocked the only route to the front desk and freedom. “Excuse me,” he said quietly. “Excuse me.” They ignored him.

“That means we’re going to knock you down if you don’t get out of the way,” I blustered. They gave me that teenage-disdain look and shuffled aside.

I tell this tale not to ridicule teens. They do a fine enough job of that themselves.  What I would ridicule is the notion that these kids were particularly odd. They were teens being teens. Yes, they dressed funny. Yes, they prattled on about nothing nonstop. Yes, they failed to pay attention to their impact on the world around them. So what? Are we really surprised?

John, today, points out the unremarkable nature of people hating believers. We shouldn’t be surprised, he tells us, when people hate us. In fact, when unbelievers don’t hate, that is the surprising turn of events. We should not be surprised at anything that sinful, unredeemed people do. He doesn’t say it, but I think it a reasonable extension that we should be surprised at the things that believers do.

Most significantly, I cannot avoid surprise and disgust at some of the things that I do. Unbelievers, like teens, don’t know any better. What’s my excuse?

I Am Ironman–1 John 3:12

Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. –1 John 3:12

Tonight–actually a week ago–I attended a special advance screening of the new film Ironman. Since you might well have not seen this movie in the few days since it opened on May 2, I thought I would assure you that it was definitely worth every penny that we spent to see it. Did I mention that we had free passes?

Seriously, I’m not that much a fan of comic-book movies.  Spider-man was okay and Fantastic Four sort of bored me. Probably what bugs me most is the rather obvious direction these films go. The heroes, though flawed, remain heroes, and the villains, as hard as the writers attempt to make them difficult to perceive, can be recognized from their first appearance on-screen.

In Ironman, the baddest of the bad guys is Obadiah, played by Jeff Bridges. You can tell he is evil, due to his bald head and his warmth toward the hero. If he weren’t bad, there’d be no reason for him to be taking up frames.

The worst thing that Obadiah does in the too-long span of this film is attempting to kill our hero, Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey. What drives Obadiah toward homicide? Was he born a killer? Not really. Obadiah, in this film, like Cain in Genesis, moves toward murder because his own actions are evil. In this case, Obadiah wants to protect his illicit arms sales to good guys and bad guys alike, since better weapons lead to a better world. Tony Stark, for all his flaws, had a conscience and attempted to restrict sales simply to the good guys.

Comic book morality barely registers on the complexity meter. You have a good but troubled hero with amazing powers and an inexplicable point of vulnerability facing off against unscrupulous and utterly wicked villains with equally (or maybe more) amazing powers and a less obvious point of vulnerability. Typically, the hero is tempted toward a misuse of his power, but in the end, virtue always triumphs over evil.

While life is not quite so simple, in the end, we (heroes?) are tempted toward a misuse of our powers. Sin, we discover, leads on to sin, when we surrender ourselves to the evil one. Before long, perhaps like Obadiah, we find ourselves doing things unimaginable at the outset.

Our call is to be Ironman: uncompromising and willing to use our abilities for good. Living thus, we won’t be able to fly, but our lives can be every bit as heroic as the comic-book hero’s.

Love, Yes, but How?–1 John 3:11

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. –1 John 3:11

I’m in Nashville today, sleeping in a hotel room, missing my own pillows, my own bed, and my family. That’s okay, I suppose, as I’ll appreciate them all the more when I get to go home on Thursday. Besides, being in a different place and a different situation always makes me pay a bit closer attention to the world around me. Take this evening’s events for example.

When we returned to the hotel after supper, I decided to make a bit of a pilgrimage, not to the Ryman Auditorium, long-time home of the Grand Ole Opry, but to a nearby convenience store to buy a two-liter bottle of soda. As I walked down Broadway, over the long bridge that crosses the main railroad tracks through the city, I encountered a bedraggled guy in a filthy jacket. He approached me for a bit of money. I declined to help him.

When I reached the store, a pair of slightly less bedraggled guys in less filthy clothing stood out among the other customers. One of these men held an enormous bottle of beer in his hand as he waited for the cashier. He turned to face me. “How you doing, brother?” he asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I replied.

His turn at the register came. He handed the bottle to the cashier, and she turned to place it behind her. Then she looked at him, slightly ill at ease. When he shrugged, she said, “I cannot sell you any beer, since you’re already intoxicated. I can smell it on you.”

My new-found brother muttered for a moment and then moved off. I heard him say a few things about “smell it on me,” but he didn’t raise too loud of a fuss.

All this leaves me wondering about today’s verses. I’m sharing a room with David of Cincinnati, a very easy roommate all in all. We understand how to defer to each other, how to respect each other, and how to love each other. Being loving toward some people–all the people I’m meeting with this week–happens with ease. But what of the dirty drunk on Broadway? How do I love him?

Do I love him by giving him a handout or by shrugging that request off? Does the convenience store clerk love him by selling him the beer or refusing? Do I speak to him or refuse to make eye contact, scuttling away at the first opportunity. I ask these questions because I don’t know the answers. I’m not sure how to love a difficult daughter or an annoying church brother. Loving is hard work.

In a way, adherence to a complex and convoluted law, refusing to eat this or washing that, would be a great deal easier than the religious observance that Jesus called us to, this message we heard in the beginning. We don’t get a checklist or a rule sheet. There’s no clear standard to this love we’re to practice. No one ever said that Christianity was easy, did they?