Dirty Memories

My readings this morning described the important power of memory for our faith.

For example, Psalm 77 starts in despair,

Will the Lord cast me off for ever? will he no more show his favor? Has his loving-kindness come to an end for ever? has his promise failed for evermore?  Has God forgotten to be gracious? has he, in his anger, withheld his compassion? And I said, “My grief is this: the right hand of the Most High has lost its power,”

but memory comes to the rescue,

I will remember the works of the LORD, and call to mind your wonders of old time. I will meditate on all your acts and ponder your mighty deeds.

In The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 11, Peter reports on how an unexpected invitation to preach to an “unclean” Roman officer and his household was confusing and frightening, until memory transformed it for the spread of the Gospel,

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (11:15-16 ESV)

These insights into the Scripture got me thinking about this Sunday’s Gospel, in which Jesus uses a story about throwing around seeds to illustrate what it will be like to preach, teach and share the Good News in his name,

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!  (Jesus, recorded in Matthew 13, this Sunday’s Gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary)

The “dirt” on which the word lands represents, in part, the capacity of a person to remember what is heard or read. Hearing or reading Scripture “plants” it in the believer’s mind, so that the Holy Spirit can bring it to remembrance at the right times, like seasons of despair as in Psalm 77, or in the face of a confusing choice like Peter’s in Acts 11.

And planting is an important image, because the word needs time to crowd out old weedy thoughts and emotions that clog our lives. Memory is not just storage, but fertile soil in which the word grows. The Letter of James puts it well,

So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. (1:21 NLT)

IMG_20170713_145244_906Our son with autism planted carrot seeds in a plastic cup at his day program. They came home with him, with green tops sprouting and needing more room to grow. So I got a proper flower pot and some good garden soil.

That good dirt is like a spiritually receptive memory.

If I toss the little root ball of carrots on the sidewalk, they will be scarfed up by our local bunnies and birds just as a the devil snatches the word of the Lord from a hard headed person whose memory is paved over with no entryway for new life.

If I leave the young carrots in the plastic cup, there’s not enough soil for them to grow, just like the word planted in a shallow memory will not take root and will wither in the face of life’s challenges.

If I transplant the carrots to a poorly kept patch in my yard, they’ll be choked by the weeds just as the word will be choked out of a memory clogged with worldly concerns like grudges and fantasies.

But I transplanted the carrots into good and abundant soil, so they can grow.  Jesus is telling us that those who receive, hold and let his words take root have “dirty memories” – not “filthy” but abundant, healthy space for his word to grow – and will experience spiritual growth and good works in his name.

This doesn’t mean you have to sit and memorize every last word of the Bible to follow Jesus.  He says that each believer’s  “crops” will come in different abundance, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”  He can work with different capacities and chooses all sorts of people – some who can remember every detail of childhood, others who can’t remember what they had for lunch.

Some of us will memorize large swaths of Scripture, others will catch onto a verse here and there.  In either case, the Holy Spirit will bring the right words to remembrance at the right time.

The important thing is that we let the word be planted by whatever means God uses – hearing it read and preached in church, reading it ourselves or listening to podcasts, having a friend share it with us over coffee – so that it gets into the dirt of our memories, be they great big fields or fancy little pots.  It is God who brings forth an amazing crop through those who make a little room for the seed to grow.

Setting our minds on the Spirit

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  (From Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary Epistle, Romans 8:1-11 NRSV)

So the wrong way to preach this is as a moral exhortation:  All of you, right now, get your minds off the flesh and back onto the Spirit!  That message actually surrenders the mind to the flesh.

WHAT?!?!?!?!?

Well, let’s start with the fact that we are all familiar with the New Testament idea of flesh as our self-centered, aggressive and pleasure seeking animal nature.  Paul captures this in a number of important verses, such as

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV)

But in Romans, I think he’s warning us about a religious exercise of the flesh.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

When a sermon or other teaching shouts at us to STOP WALKING IN THE FLESH we instinctively (carnally) respond by trying harder to be good.  We try to do lots of pious stuff like going to all of the church programs we can and saying darn instead of, you know, d@#n, and switching from the metal station to the Christian station on the car radio, at least when the kids are with us.

That is, we try to save ourselves by keeping all the rules.

Which, the lesson from Romans warns us, is hopeless because keeping the law is a strategy under the weakening influence of the flesh.

The antidote is setting our mind on the Spirit, which first and foremost means to receive the Spirit’s perpetual witness: Jesus himself condemned sin in the flesh AND fulfilled the just requirement of the law by suffering death on the cross.

This is not to say that putting our mind on the Spirit is to reject the law and practice a touchy-feely Christian form of amorality.  Having our minds on the Spirit generates two primary actions for our practice of discipleship,

First, we are to affirm with the Spirit that Jesus Christ alone is our righteousness.  As Jesus taught of the Spirit’s work,

And when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and of the coming judgment. The world’s sin is that it refuses to believe in me. Righteousness is available because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more. Judgment will come because the ruler of this world has already been judged.  (John 16:8-11 NLT)

The second action is to read and/or hear Holy Scripture, which gives us the language by which the Spirit can guide us.  If we spend our day memorizing the Bible as a list of laws to be carried out, we inevitably walk according to the flesh, even if we dress the flesh up in religious ceremonies, jargon and habits.  Instead, our knowledge of the Bible allows the Spirit to teach and guide us in accord with God’s priorities and timing,

These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:25-26, ESV)

The Holy Spirit is not a mere feeling (thus Paul tells us to set our minds on the Spirit), but God present within us to help us understand the Scripture He’s breathed, all of which bears witness to His righteousness fulfilled for us in Jesus and now being completed in us as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Understanding that the work of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is primary and that our piety and power to do good are outward signs of God’s continued and continuous inner work in our lives is what allows us to enjoy the radical truth that launches the lesson from Romans,

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In the flesh we are our own false gods and justly condemned; in the Spirit we share the life of Christ who is the righteous one, the beloved at the Father’s right hand.

 

 

 

Tracts with Legs (moved by brains)

Do not let the men deceive themselves and others with the assertion that the “Man of the Lord,” as they call Him, Who is rather our Lord and God, is without human mind”…

…If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation.  For that which He has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved…

…But if He [Christ Jesus] has a soul, and yet is without a mind, how is He man, for man is not a mindless animal?

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, 4th century

In the first few centuries of the church, some argued that the Christ came factory equipped with a divine mind so he automatically made the right choices, no big.  Yeah, he had flesh that could suffer and die, but the divine mind had it all under control.

Gregory of Nazianzus fought for the the position that Jesus, in order to save every aspect of human nature, assumed (took upon himself) every aspect of our humanity.  If he did not assume it, it couldn’t be healed and saved in Him.  He could not redeem our brain and transform it to know and carry out God’s will if he did not take it with him to the cross, through the tomb and back to the throne of the Almighty.

Across the millennia, Christians have from time to time disowned the mind.  Ecstatic visions, personal experience, ethnic/cultural/national traditions, feelings and other aspects of our humanity have been identified with the presence of God while the work of the mind has been discounted.

The tendency to disown the mind in our worship and service of God is a denial of the Biblical revelation of Jesus Christ.  It is to miss the reality that he saved us by taking to himself every aspect of our humanity, including our mind, with all of its challenges,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  (Hebrews 4:15, ESV)

To divorce our faith from the work of the mind is to deny the full import of the Incarnation of Christ expressed in John 1:14,

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.  (KJV)

If we infer that he did not have our gray matter, or that our gray matter is irrelevant to our life as his disciples in this world and as his transformed brothers and sisters in the next, we deny the Incarnation and do the work of the enemy,

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3 NASB)

I have a brother in Christ who is taking up this challenge in the context of contemporary American Evangelicalism, where cultural conventions and feelings-based-and-targeted techniques have disparaged the devotion of our minds to God.

He goes so far as to call this a sin needing the church’s corporate confession and repentance.

And he’s come up with a provocative approach to starting the discussion in our daily encounters…

Tracts with Legs

Give it a look.  (Even on Facebook). You might wind up a walking tract for our times.

Don’t click away just ‘cuz it’s about “love”

As I reflect upon Sunday’s Gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary, I think that Televangelists with great hair are a better testimony to the majestic power of God,

And even the hairs of your head are all counted,

20160529_091828<<<<< than am I. Oh well. Just a musing, not my main point.

Back to Sunday’s Good News,

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

It is a troubling passage. After all, the Lord also says that our love of others is part and parcel of the Great Commandment, as necessary as loving God if we are to please God. Sure, he calls love of neighbor the “second” but it is “like the first.”

Love for others is fruit of the Holy Spirit, by which Jesus says those who truly represent him can be identified.

The Apostolic letters of Christ’s New Covenant command love within families and among church members.

We can wax glib (which really means we’re on the wane, IMO) and say, God first, family second, work third.  But such slogans run the risk of Christ’s rebuke, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 

The Father’s will is revealed in the Greek word for love that Christ speaks here.  It is philon, the word for affection between equals, as between siblings or friends.  It’s not about passionate feeling or over-the-top sacrifice or miracles,  but about the work-a-day bonds of life that manifest our priorities.

This is continued in the Apostolic teaching of James 4:4,

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship (philia) with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend (philos) of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Leading “normal” life attentive only to the people and stuff we enjoy, without attentiveness to Christ as a friend alongside us, is the adulterous friendship with the world against which James is warning.

So our ueber-friendship with God is not to plunge into religious zealotry, manifested in public displays of piety or “spirituality.”  Rather, it is to take up the cross (daily, as Luke reveals), walking in sometimes uncomfortable friendship with Jesus with the same attention to efforts, empathy and reactivity that we invest in family relationships and friendship bonds.  It is to treat our friendship with Jesus with at least the same intensity that we have for those we enjoy most in this world.

It is to be “on” all the time, not in some “religious” venue apart from the rest of our daily lives.  This friendship with Jesus is loaded with honor,  support and practical direction supplied by the Word of God, 

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends (philouos), for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

I bolded that last love because in this verse Jesus uses the term agapate, escalating from simple friendship to affection that manifests as self-sacrifice.  As Sunday’s Gospel puts it, Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The Good News is that if we walk as friends with Jesus, his power, not our anxious, straining will and effort, can take our love for other people to a supernatural level.

Defective Elephants

 

“Elephants never forget.”  There might be some truth in that:

African Elephant Amboseli Kenya
From the linked article.

Their superb memories help elephants stay alive in ways that go beyond just recognizing threats. Matt Lewis, a Senior Program Officer with the World Wildlife Fund’s Species Conservation Program, tells mental_floss that one of the best examples of elephant cognition “comes from desert-adapted elephants, where the matriarchs remember where reliable water can be found and are able to guide their herds to water over very long distances, and over the span of many years. This is a pretty clear indication that elephants have a great ability to remember details about their spatial environment for a very long time.”

Humans have impressive memory as well.  Just have a fight with your spouse, and marvel at your ability (and your spouse’s) to remember every bad thing (and many good things reinterpreted as bad) over decades of marriage.  We use our memory to exalt the self rather than build the common good. We are like defective elephants.

Right now I’m attending a church with a mainly immigrant population.  One of the groups there was asked to leave because they were getting into violent confrontations over issues in their homeland.  Both factions remembered all the details of the division – interpreting them differently, of course – vividly enough to demonize the other group.

Now that they are gone, the remaining group (a different ethnicity) is encountering the same problem.  My charismatic friends would suggest there is a malign spirit at work in the place.

Maybe so, but all that spirit would need to do is exploit our existing capacity to use our prodigious memories for evil.  Although made in the image of God, we are fallen creatures, as much as much contemporary thinking feeling would like to deny that.

We need to look to God, who has the ultimate memory but also a great capacity to forget.

God remembers with love:

Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us;
    the Lord has forgotten us.”

 “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child?
    Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?
But even if that were possible,
    I would not forget you!
See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.
    Always in my mind is a picture of Jerusalem’s walls in ruins.
Soon your descendants will come back,
    and all who are trying to destroy you will go away.
Look around you and see,
    for all your children will come back to you.
As surely as I live,” says the Lord,
    “they will be like jewels or bridal ornaments for you to display.  (Isaiah 49:14-18, NLT)

And God is practiced at forgetting bad stuff,

For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrews 8:12, ESV)

Christ Jesus uses his cross as an eraser so that much is forgotten,

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross… (Colossians 2:14, KJV)

Let us pray that our memory be surrendered to the One who willingly forgets our sin and remembers us with loving favor.

 

Rocks in my head

My current evening lessons are in the Gospel According to John.

Tonight, Jesus gave Simon the fisherman that “Rocky” nickname,

(Andrew) brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).  (John 1:42 NRSV – Cephas/Peter are words for “rock.”)

Peter, famous for vacillating again and again, seems unworthy of the name.

I’ve heard preachers suggest that Jesus was poking gentle fun at Simon, recognizing His follower’s penchant for emotion driven reactions, but this seems inconsistent with Jesus’ later invocation of the name as a foundation of the church,

Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  (Matthew 16:17-18 NAB)

A few moments later, Peter would evidence his passionate instability by arguing against Jesus’ announcement of His necessary suffering and death, for which Jesus snapped at Peter and called him “Satan.”

Yet Peter would come to understand “rock” as an affirmation of Peter himself and all members of the church as Jesus’ chosen building materials, humbly recognizing Christ as the cornerstone of an ever growing temple,

As you come to him [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    will never be put to shame.” (I Peter 2:4-6 NIV)

John would see another expansive vision of building stones in his vision,

So he took me in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God and sparkled like a precious stone—like jasper as clear as crystal. The city wall was broad and high, with twelve gates guarded by twelve angels. And the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were written on the gates. There were three gates on each side—east, north, south, and west. The wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.  (Revelation 21:10-14 NLT)

All of us who are in Christ, with our flaws that the Lord sees, comprehends and forgives better than we, are His building material.  He knows our part and place in what he is building, and has a name for us that we will receive once we are completed in it,

To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone,with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’  (Revelation 2:17 ESV)

Here’s a video because I needed something with “rock” in it and didn’t want to do a predictable hymn or something.

If anybody says anything…

…it’ll probably be this,

Hey, buddy, you got dirt on your head.  Yuck yuck yuck.

20170228_172409

To which I’ll reply, Yep.  Glad you can’t see into my heart and mind, too.  Pretty much a total mess except what Jesus is making with it.

Or maybe some people will just ask, So, what’s that thing on your head mean?

To which I’ll answer, Dust is what I am and all I’ll finally be on my own. But Jesus has marked me as HIS own, and so I’ll be much more.

Hopefully, that will invite more comments and questions.  But about Him, not me.