The Life-Giving Word

I run in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding. (Psalm 119:32)

The verse above resonates with me because of the vivid picture of running within the path. Making the imaginative leap to our lives is not difficult. Like the conservationist carefully clearing and marking the trail or like the parks personnel diligently planning and laying the walkways, God’s Word creates a path for us to walk within. If the path seems confining, spiritual and moral wilderness is the alternative. The right path is a gift.

What I love best about this verse is how the boundaries of a path and the broadness of the person’s understanding are matched together. Other translations use images of a heart freed or enlarged. Both ways of rendering the original Hebrew phrase gets at the same idea. See the contrast? When our path has clearer boundaries, wisdom broadens. The reverse is also true. When our path’s boundaries are blurred or non-existent morally and spiritually, wisdom shrinks. Hearts are chained, not freed.

So, what paths does God mark off clearly for us as Christians? Sex is an obvious one. The traditional standard of sexual intimacy within the context of marriage is the Christian teaching. Walking terrain beyond this path fails to free hearts and broaden wisdom. Experiences? Yes. Wisdom? No. Let’s be clear about that. But let’s be equally clear that God’s path includes boundaries for stewardship and generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and compassion. Stinginess, judgmentalism, self-centeredness, hard-heartedness, and pride are at least as pernicious vices. Probably more, in fact, since their root systems are concentrated in the heart, mind, and soul. If we don’t perceive ourselves “sinning in the body,” sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that we aren’t in any wilderness at all.

Yet, God does give us commands: the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandment of love of God and neighbor, the fruit of the Spirit—most of all, the life and teachings of Jesus. Even better, God makes choosing and staying on this path possible by the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church in our lives.

Want broad understanding? Expanded wisdom? Strong, free hearts? The Psalmist is clear. Run in the path of God’s commands.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 6

In article 6 of John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he shows when he began preaching on Christian Perfection (or at least when he had preached on the subject at an early point). He shares a few extended quotations from his sermon, “The Circumcision of the Heart,” which he preached on January 1, 1733 at St. Mary’s Church, Oxford University.

The scripture reference is to Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 2, verse 29, which includes these words: “Circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (NIV). Paul is discussing the covenant relationship of the Jews to God. The physical sign of that covenant was circumcision. Paul wants his readers to know that the evidence of a person’s belonging to the covenant people of God is not simply the evidence of a physical mark. Rather, the true evidence is the difference that membership in that covenant community makes in one’s life — beliefs, worship, ethics, dispositions, character, use of time and money. In other words, it’s the difference between referring to the letter of the law and getting at the spirit of the law—that intangible part to which the letter of the law is really pointing.

In his sermon, Wesley states:

‘Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment,’ It is not only ‘the first and great’ command, but all the commandments, in one… In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness: the royal law of heaven and earth is this, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.’ The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end. One thing ye desire for its own sake,–the fruition of Him who is all in all.

God is not only the creator of all that is, “seen and unseen” (in the words of the Nicene Creed), but also the ultimate end or purpose of all that is. God is not only all creation’s source and origin, but also it’s goal. Not only where it’s all come from, but also where it’s all headed.

Our lives are shaped by where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and how we approach the journey in between. Wesley points out that we come from God, that we are headed toward God as King and Judge, and that the journey is meant to be one lived by grace, growing in love and complete dedication of one’s life to God. The beautiful thing about this is that the One to whom we are to give our whole lives, gives himself to and for us. The command that sums up all commands–the command to love, is the thing that most imitates God himself.

Book Review of Minding the Good Ground at Seedbed.com

My latest book review for Asbury Seminary’s ministry resourcing site Seedbed.com is up. The book is Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal (Baylor 2011), by Jason Vickers. Vickers is a professor at United Methodist related United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

Here’s the link.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 5b

Wesley noted a transition in article 5 of his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection from reading the bible to studying it “as the one, only standard of truth” in 1729. And he saw its teaching “in a clearer and clearer light.” So, what did he see?

Hence I saw, in a clearer and clearer light, the indispensable necessity of having “the mind which was in Christ,” and of “walking as Christ also walked;” even of having, not some part only, but all the mind which was in Him; and of walking as He walked, not only in many or in most respects, but in all things.

Salvation is by grace through faith. It is God’s doing, received by us as a gift. And, in Paul’s words, “we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” Our works don’t save us, but saved people do good works. Why? Because grace is transformative. God’s grace is not only powerful enough to justify us before God, but also to sanctify us in and for God.

Wesley saw in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament that the full project of God’s salvation is not only saving us from the consequences of things we’ve done, though that’s a part of it. The full project is heart surgery (and we would add the mind and the will too!) in which we are transformed by God’s grace and power into Christlikeness.

As Wesley saw in that “clearer and clearer light,” God’s aim is to transform us not just a little bit, but all the way. God’s grace is not limited to forgiveness only, but works in us for “an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master.”

Sound extreme? Well, it is. Submission to and participation in the grace of God is not easy for us. But it’s not our project, it’s God’s from start to finish. And the testimony of the saints, the most mature Christians of all, is that this work of grace is worth it.

“Every Mile Out There Is a Gift”

When the explosions went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Amby Burfoot was just seven tenths of a mile from finishing. Burfoot won Boston, the great prize of marathons, in 1968. To celebrate that momentous occasion, he has run it every five years since. This year was the 45th anniversary of his win. He and other runners yet to complete the race were turned back, unable to finish.

Here’s what Burfoot shared in an interview a day or two after the bombing:

There was a time when my entire soul hungered for nothing but winning this race and I was lucky enough for that to happen. But now I run it with the full knowledge that every mile out there is a gift and every finish line is a gift and knowing I don’t know when it’s going to end and be taken away from me or when it will be taken away from others as it was at this year’s marathon.

“Every mile out there is a gift.” That simple line has been lodged in my mind.

Amby Burfoot’s first Boston Marathon was in 1965. Winners of the Boston Marathon are at the top of their sport. That pinnacle demands orienting one’s whole life—schedule, diet, sleep, etc—around preparation for competing to reach it.

The early followers of Jesus knew well the demands of orienting one’s whole life around a great goal–living authentically and abundantly in Christ, and making disciples of all peoples. James writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

I think James would like Amby Burfoot’s words: “Every mile out there is a gift.” It’s an attitude of appreciation and gratitude. And it’s an attitude that acknowledges that, as hard as we work at life—like a marathoner’s difficult training regimen—at the beginning, middle, and end of the day, life is better treated as a gift to be cherished than a wage to be earned.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 5a

This week, we continue looking at John Wesley’s little book, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Article 5 is titled, “Conformity to the Master.” In it, Wesley describes how his heightened study of the bible led him more clearly to Christ as Master at life. Not only our Master in life (though he certainly is), but the Master at life—the One who really knows what life is really all about and how to live it abundantly, for all it’s worth.

There are two basic reflections I’d like to share from article 5. I’ll share the first, about Wesley and the bible, in this post.  I’ll get the second in the next post.

Wesley and the Bible

Wesley begins article 5 this way:

“In the year 1729, I began not only to read, but to study, the Bible as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion.”

First, we note that Wesley differentiates between reading the bible and studying the bible. I would contend that both are important. Studying takes us deep into the meaning of the Scriptures, whether getting into the details of a small passage or paying attention to the significance of over-arching themes. Reading can be many things. For my part, I see it as simple immersion into the Story of the bible itself. Perhaps Wesley is referring a sort of surface engagement here.

Second, we can see that an important part of Wesley’s faith journey entailed submitting himself to reading the bible “as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion.” This sort of posture does not only seek to understand the bible, but to gain understanding by “standing under” it, being instructed by its story and its wisdom. We not only read the bible, but are also read by it! We do not master the Scriptures, but are mastered by them.

Finally, Wesley notes that this posture toward the bible began in 1729. An observation: Wesley began reading guides to the Christian life in Jeremy Taylor, Thomas a Kempis, and William Law. Those guides led him eventually to engaging the text of the bible himself. Sometimes we need the company of others (either face-to-face or through their writings) to help us along the way. But they should lead us to the Scriptures themselves as the “standard of truth’ and “model of pure religion.”

Then we may, like Wesley, see “in a clearer and clearer light…”

What Wesley saw will be the subject of our next post.

Wesley on Wednesday: A Plain Account 4

In article 4 of John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, we are again introduced to the significance of Wesley finding spiritual mentors through books. I’ve mentioned it each week, but think it worth noting again how important that can be in our faith journey. I have authors who have become not only mentors but friends through reading their works. And I have authors whose writing crossed my path at a critical juncture in my journey and nudged me along the way.

Another of those persons for Wesley was William Law, a priest in the Church of England. Law wrote two books that came into Wesley’s possession soon after their publication: A Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection, and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

Reflecting on them, Wesley writes:

These convinced me, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian; and I determined, through His grace (the absolute necessity of which I was deeply sensible of), to be all devoted to God, to give Him all my soul, my body, and my substance.

First, Wesley becomes convinced that it is not merely unadvisable or awkward or even a serious failing to be “half a Christian.” Rather, it is an “absolute impossibility.” In the New Testament, James seems to say it only slightly differently: “Faith without works is dead.” Forgiveness and reconciliation with God are key, but they are the beginning, not the end. The journey is about maturing faith, faithfulness, restoration to the image of God in which we were created.

Second, Wesley says he “determined, through His grace… to be all devoted to God.” This work of maturation, of growth in faithfulness, of restoration, is ultimately God’s work, according to his grace. We may apply ourselves to serving people, for example, and thus participate with grace. But we dare not mistake our efforts for what really does the job. That is the grace of God.

Third, Wesley desires to give his whole self to God, not just part: “not a mite would I withhold,” goes the old hymn. On this, I will end with Wesley’s own questions:

Will any considerate man say, that this is carrying matters too far? or that anything less is due to Him who has given Himself for us, than to give ourselves, all we have, and all we are?

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