Sisterly Greetings–2 John 1:13

The children of your chosen sister send their greetings.–2 John 1:13

A mile or so from my mother’s house lies the intersection of Noland Road and 39th Street in Independence, Missouri. A couple of blocks away from I-70, this intersection used to be a truly major retail destination with various businesses filling all four corners. Now the convenience store on the southwest corner is closed. The Office Max on the northwest corner has relocated. Around the area, we see various other evidence of mercantile slippage. However, the two east corners are cooking with CVS on the northeast and Walgreen on the southeast. It’s a place of dueling drugstores. Perhaps you’ll find the same arrangement where you live with these two giants glowering at each other across an intersection.

Wouldn’t you think that a huge retail chain would look for an opening in the market rather than building across the street from their rival. This isn’t like McDonalds and Burger King building next door. There’s a difference, however slight, between a Big Mac and a Whopper, but what’s the difference between a prescription at CVS and the same one at Walgreen’s? Do they carry different beauty products? Different foods? Different bunion remedies? Not really. Change a bit of signage and a CVS can pass for a Walgreen, and vice versa.

I’m sure the brain trust at these two companies has thought this thing through. They know that being at Noland and 39th Street is important, even if the competition is right across the street. Maybe it’s even because the competition is there. They’ll try to lure each other’s customers with cut-price milk and batteries and hairspray. They’ll aim to get 51% of the market and then work from there.

How different is that from our churches? Do we get along? Do we compete? I’ve received mailings from a former staff member of my church promoting his new church start. Where else would this guy have gotten my address but from his former employment? Is it right to troll for members–even disaffected members–in the way that CVS trolls for Walgreen’s customers?

Does your church view other churches as “the competition” or as “the chosen sister.” For all the talk of cooperation and love, we see too much evidence of one-upsmanship and competition. As we reach the end of John’s second letter, it’s worthwhile to look at ourselves as members and our churches as bodies, evaluating soberly what we really are and the message we promote.

Face-to-Face Chaos–2 John 1:12

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.–2 John 1:12

Yesterday, I mentioned my attendance at the annual Cornerstone Music Festival. This was my fourth time attending the festival, although I had an eight-year gap in the middle. After my first year, I learned to always take the most important piece of equipment: ear plugs. While many people wear ear plugs to concerts, I typically don’t stand right in front of the speakers. I use ear plugs for sleeping. The quiet hours at Cornerstone run from about 3:30 am until about 9:00 am. Often I’ve found myself awake, ear plugs having fallen out, in the wee hours. The quiet is delightful. The rest of the day features the incessant throb of music, the whir of golf carts, and a welter of voices.

You don’t really know people until you’ve camped with them. Cornerstone provides plenty of opportunity to be irritated by this person and that. Last week I got to deal with know-it-all teens, cranky preschoolers, and super messy twenty-somethings. Farther afield, I got to listen to a bunch of yahoos sing “Free Bird” on July 4. Why? I don’t know.

Christian life, as John suggests here, is best lived face to face. Too often, we try to insulate ourselves with our churches and in our churches. We don’t want to sit by the annoying person or sing the music that isn’t our favorite. We–and I speak more broadly here–shop for the church that “meets our needs,” which is code, I think, for the church that doesn’t annoy us. Are you offended by your pastor? Shop for one who sees things differently. Better yet, go to Joel Osteen’s church where you can be lost amidst the many thousands of people and hear a cheerful gospel of self-improvement and prosperity.

I am, by nature, a solitary, non-social person. I’m capable of drifting amidst hundreds of people without connecting with any of them. I’m happy that way, but that way isn’t what Christ left us to live. As annoying as others can be, as much as we may want to avoid them, we should make our joy complete not only in communion with Christ but in communion–messy as it often is–with Christians.

Mr. Monk’s Boundaries–1 John 2:10-11

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work. –1 John 2:10-11

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting the Internet Monk, a blogger from Kentucky. I gathered more good ideas from this man in an hour of seminar and conversation than I can work through in a short period of time. One of his observation that I really appreciated was a shared frustration with Evangelicals who dismiss all contributions from other religious traditions. In other words, he and I both cringe when someone says, “Oh, Dante says things about heaven and hell, but he’s Catholic, so we don’t need to pay attention to his words.”

In conversation with Mr. Monk–okay, his real name is Michael Spencer–I brought up Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other Transcendentalists. He mistook (I think) my reason for mentioning them, perhaps assuming that I found them to be theologically useful, which they’re really not. After saying a nice word or two about Emerson, he went on to say “There are boundaries I just won’t cross,” identifying those boundaries with the ancient creeds (Nicene, as I recall).

I like that brand of openness.  Mr. Monk–the blogger, not the neurotic detective–attempts to be as intellectually and theologically and practically expansive as he can be, but he sets boundaries across which he will not step. If I read him correctly, he’s saying, “If I can at all reconcile a teaching or practice to the broad teachings of creedal Christianity, I will consider that teaching or practice.” He contrasts this with those who say, “I have a little hole shaped like my particular brand of Baptist (or Methodist or Nazarene or whatever) piety. If what you have fits in there, then I’ll consider it.”

As we read John’s epistles, we can get the sense of somebody espousing a rather fuzzy, New Agey gospel of love, something like the Transcendentalists trafficked in. In today’s verse, John lays down a boundary, across which he will not step, a boundary that looks back to 2 John 1:7 for its substance. Just as Mr. Monk won’t deal with those who reject creedal Christianity, John won’t deal with those who reject Christ’s coming in the flesh.

Let us be expansive and inclusive as we can be, but let us never forget to maintain important boundaries.

Fit or Fat?–2 John 1:8

Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully.–2 John 1:8

Vince buttonholed me at church yesterday, calling me “Liberal,” which meant that we’re still friends. “Are you still running?” he asked me.

“No, I’ve gotten out of the habit,” I confessed.

Vince is a few years older than me, but lean and muscular, a guy who takes his physical fitness seriously without being a bore about it. “I can’t quit,” he explained, not exactly chastising me. “I’ve worked too hard to get fit to lose it all. And you can lose way too much in just a couple of weeks.”

Don’t I know it! Since January, I’ve barely put in any exercise time at all. I can feel the loss when I go up stairs and when I mow the grass. I can feel it when I fasten my belt as well. Day after day, I tell myself that I just have to get back to the gym, back to running, back to biking, back to something to reverse this trend, but as each day passes me by, I haven’t done it. When I do get back into my routine, I’ll be starting from scratch.

Part of me could say, “Well, I’m not much of an athlete, so it’s not too big a deal.” Truly, if I had been born with a marathoner’s body, then I would have wasted more over the last six months, but I have lost what I worked for. There’s a sprinter from Jamaica named Jolt–great name for a runner–who is expected to win the 100m and 200m Olympic contests this summer. I know that no matter how hard I train–or how hard I had ever trained–I could never have been a runner like Jolt. God didn’t bless me with that sort of physique, but that’s not John’s point.

John tells us not to lose what you have worked for. That’s not our salvation, which we did not work for and which we cannot lose. There are other things, however, that we have worked for, things we can lose.  I’ve worked for my career, my marriage, and my financial well-being, all things that I could lose (or at least damage) in a heartbeat with the wrong foolish actions.

The same body sits here on the couch that sat here in January. It’s fatter and less fit, but it’s the same. Perhaps today is the day that I’ll get back into the routine. Or maybe tomorrow.

The Deceivers–2 John 1:7

Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. –2 John 1:7

I’ve been working in my office at school today. The drive is thirty minutes each way, but I find it useful to invest time and burn gas for the change of location, especially on a Friday, especially on this Friday.

At 10:00 am at my house, the united sewers of Raytown descended on Lakeshore Drive, ready to stitch and measure and cut, not necessarily in that order. In their wake, they broad, I’m fairly certain, ninety-seven children. The kids would have sprawled across the entire house. There would be weeping and (probably) gnashing of teeth. I’d never get a thing done. Of course I could head out to Borders and look at books that I need not buy or Lowe’s to peruse tools I’m not ready to buy. Before long, my day would be gone.

There are, naturally, time vampires here at school as well. From time to time somebody pokes a head in the door and talks or I poke my head in a door and talk. However, it is Friday, which, in the summer, means that people are few and scattered. The phone has not rung. The email inbox is empty. Soon I’ll go home, there to be confronted with work to do and problems to sort out. Emily wants me to teach her how to change oil.

What are the deceivers? Not these things. These are simply the things that pull my mind away from Christ, away from God’s will for my day. There are deceivers in this place, but the worst of them, the most insidious, are those that find room to function within me. When some part of me does not trust in Christ’s redemption, then am I not a deceiver? A self-deceiver, perhaps, but a deceiver nonetheless. When I believe I must work to effect my salvation, that is deception.

It’s fairly easy to identify and avoid the obvious deceivers, the atheist writers and pundits who litter our media. What’s not so easy is to find their traces within ourselves. But remember, you are no less deceived when the folly comes from within.

Caught 22–2 John 1:5-6

And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.–2 John 1:5-6

The term “Catch 22” has morphed into our vocabulary over the years, originating in Joseph Heller’s novel of the same name regarding World War II bomber pilots. The basic idea is this: The only way that you can get out of flying missions is to be crazy, but if you seem to be crazy, then you’re assumed to be faking it because only somebody who was crazy wouldn’t try to get out of flying. So if you act crazy, you’re sane and if you act sane, you’re sane. Either way, you fly your missions. That’s Catch-22.

I think of that as I read today’s verses. These remind me of similar verses in 1 John, but there’s a twist to the matter. Let’s paraphrase. The command is that we love each other and love is the commandment and his command is for us to love. Everybody clear? The command is love and love is the command.

If you’re not confused, then you’re apparently not paying attention.

We’re too much children of the Enlightenment, too much trying to understand everything, to boil it down to its bottom-line thesis for this passage. If the command is love and love is the command, then what do I do? How should I live? How about a test:

  • Is it loving to share food with others? Of course.
  • Is it loving to help others? Yep.
  • Is it loving to accumulate as much wealth as possible regardless of the consequences? I don’t think so.

See, that wasn’t so hard. All too often, like trying to get out of bombing missions, we try to make actions in life complicated so that we can avoid living in love.  Contrary to what it seems, this verse is incredibly clear. Just love, baby!

Declining Doctrine–2 John 1:4

It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us.–2 John 1:4

Back in the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson preached an impassioned sermon to his Boston congregation. This was, obviously, before Emerson gave up the pulpit for the lecture hall, eventually dumping all manner of criticism on those who continued the practice of preaching. In this sermon, he explained why he would not officiate over the serving of communion any longer. It made no sense, according to Emerson’s version of Christianity or even to the Unitarianism that he rebelled against.

Of course, his choice did make sense. Once you start jettisoning the central doctrines of Christianity, the process will continue. The Unitarians simply could not wrap their minds around the idea of the sinfulness of man. They couldn’t look at a world full of the bright possibilities and new beginnings, the world of the American Revolution and the Age of Reason in Europe and see man as other than marvelous. Occasionally misguided, a bit off the path now and again, but man, in their minds, could never be sinful.

Once you throw sinfulness out the window, there’s really no need for Jesus the Redeemer, is there? Jesus the moral teacher has a lot to offer, but the Lamb of God? No. No need for him, and the Holy Spirit holds scarcely any more value. That’s when you come down to Unitarianism.

We don’t worry about atonement, about sacrifice, so why would we need the Lord’s Supper? Yeah, Emerson’s sermon made perfect sense.

Proper Christian doctrine crosses the straightest eyes. People have debated fine points for centuries, but the essentials, the fundamentals, provide an area of agreement for all believers. We must hang on to them. Once they’re gone, they rarely return. Although our salvation won’t suffer, our Christian life will. So continue to walk in the truth.

Empty Nest Peace–2 John 1:3

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.–2 John 1:3

Life is idyllic in a (temporarily) empty nest. Thomas is 800 miles away, experiencing a mission trip in Houston. Olivia spent last night with a friend. Alyson is house-sitting for a lady. That leaves Penny and me here without the pitter-patter of little (or big) feet. If lights get left on, then it’s us who did the leaving on. We needn’t please anybody but ourselves at mealtime. I could get used to this.

On the other hand, life is nowhere near serene right now. Gas prices spike while the stock market tumbles. Mad cow disease has reappeared in Canada while the African political unrest monster, which had moved from Rwanda to Kenya now have headed south to Zimbabwe. Flood waters are receding along the Mississippi leaving the media to wring their hands over probable food price increases.In short, we’re doomed.

Let’s put things in perspective. The chances of any of us starving in the forseeable future are dim. That wasn’t the case when this letter was written. Life in the first century was uncertain even if you didn’t belong to a religious sect opposed by the greatest power then on the earth. That’s why a promise of grace, mercy, and peace meant so much then.

But who am I kidding? We need grace, we need mercy, and we need peace every bit as much as those Christians nineteen centuries ago. These words do not lie lifeless on the page. They do not simply mark meaningless opening passages to be skipped over before the important scripture comes. No. These words stand as a promise of grace, mercy, and peace to you and me.

When the kids return or when the news seems bleak or when my mind simply grows too cluttered, I must remember this threefold promise. I’m going to need it.

Running Ahead–2 John 1:9

Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.–2 John 1:9

I’ve been reading a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth-century writer who found Unitarianism entirely too dogmatic for his tastes. Having read a good bit of Emerson’s work in preparation for my journey to his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, I already knew that Emerson didn’t stand as a poster child for orthodoxy, but now I see him emerging as an all-too-common pattern in mental development.

A reasonably pious fellow as a youth, Emerson went to Harvard, which was already in the throes of the doctrinal decline of Unitarianism. During these years, he found himself exposed to the German “Higher Criticism.” What makes that criticism “higher”? In the minds of those who formulated its Bible-dissecting, skeptical stuff, it was higher because they’d read everything they could get their hands on. They were smart, and they knew it. That’s the story with Emerson. A thoroughly bright fellow, he traded his own intelligence for wisdom. He ran ahead, thinking he knew where he was going. He ran ahead and found himself in a place where logic told him that whatever he decided was true. Talk about circular reasoning.

God gave us a faith, a belief system, that does not require genius. It can be apprehended by little children and the simple minded. It’s not that God has it in for any of us who have a few surplus brain cells, but we needn’t get all full of ourselves. If so, we might find ourselves running ahead of God. That’s not where I want to wind up.

Caller ID–2 John 1:1-2

The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth– because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:–2 John 1:1-2

Alyson enjoys teasing me about the way I answer my cell phone. According to her, when it rings, I pick it up and open it immediately, thus answering it. This much I agree with, but she suggests that I stare at the screen for thirty or forty seconds before speaking to the caller. The exchange then goes something like this: Vibrate! Take phone from pocket. Open it. Wait, wait, wait, wait. Stare. Wait. Put phone to ear. “Hello!” I do believe that she exaggerates.

What really happens is this. When the phone rings, I glance at the illuminated, postage-stamp-sized screen on the outside. In letters that a ladybug would struggle to read, it tells me who is calling. My eyes, which do not focus up close quite as quickly as they formerly did, discern a handful of dark globs. Is it Mom or Home? Alyson or Emily? Do I recognize that number? When I open the phone, I can actually read the display of the business-card-sized inside screen and know who is calling. My pause is perhaps a second.

Why do I need to know who is calling? I suppose I don’t. I’ve already opened the phone, so it’s not like I’m going to hang up on a caller. There aren’t some people I’m immediately rude to. Rarely do I begin whispering sweet nothings to Penny without being sure it is her on the line. I suppose this is just a little idiosyncracy of mine. But don’t you like to know who is calling.

The first word in this epistle provides a bit of caller ID. “The elder,” our English versions render it. The Greek word “presbyteros” (or elder) provides the name for the Presbyterian Church. Who wrote this letter? Traditionally it has borne the name of John, but nowhere in its text is the Apostle John (or any other John) claimed as the author. It’s just “the elder.” Apparently that said something significant to its original recipients.

Sometimes on my phone, I’ll notice a number I recognize as belonging to my church. But who at the church is calling? Is it Alyson, who works there? Perhaps it’s one of my younger kids calling for a ride or the youth minister asking me to do something. But what if it is “The Elder.” In this case, it would be the pastor. Although I’m overawed by my pastor, I do respect him sufficiently that I’d always take his call. I might tell Alyson, “the daughter,” that I’ll call her back, but “the pastor” will get my attention now if possible.

It’s not just anyone, not just any pastor, who earns the respect inherent in simply referring to himself as “The Elder.” John–or whoever wrote this letter–must have been such a person. I’d like to be such a person. I’d like to have the sort of reputation that makes people perk up when I begin to speak. Perhaps as we proceed through this letter, we can learn some things about establishing that sort of credibility.