Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Pilgrim’s Progress – VI

Pilgrim’s attempt to enter the Village of Morality ends as he confronts the terror of the Law and then encounters Evangelist once again. Evangelist asks Pilgrim, “How is that you have left the Way so quickly after starting your journey?” Pilgrim’s response is, “I met a man who persuaded me that I could find a man in this village who could relieve me of my Burden.”

Isn’t that the story of not only the world system, but of much of the professing church? Looking for a “man” to relieve us of our Burden, looking for someone, anyone, other than Jesus Christ? It seems to be a never-ending temptation – be it a teaching, a doctrine, a program, a hidden truth, or maybe even a diet or nutritional supplement – perhaps even a workout program – or a political agenda – or nationalism – or internationalism – I suppose it could be about anything, anything or anyone but Jesus Christ to relieve our Burden. In the case of Pilgrim it was Morality and Legality; as Evangelist observes, “Morality saves people from the Cross”. 

I think it’s easier to understand the pitfalls of Legality than Morality. Legality can lead to rigidness, narrowness, and judgmentalism. If one is outside Legality then Legality can be pretty unappealing. But Morality, that’s a bit different. Good moral people can be a pleasure to be around, they can be trustworthy and honest, decent and caring; moral people often give others a wide berth to be fallible without heaping judgment on them. And most certainly, people who value morality can be more gracious that people mired in Legality, and often more gracious that professing Christians. 

The root of both Morality and Legality is self-effort and self-righteousness, and therein lies a problem – for we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the righteousness of God, the standards of God. Therefore, whatever benchmark we may use in terms of either Morality or measuring up to Legality is of our own creation and therefore mutable and changing – we become our own standard, whether individually or collectively; this is a demagnetized compass, it cannot find True North.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

More About Jesus

This morning I woke up with the words to the song "More About Jesus" dancing in my heart and mind.

"More about Jesus would I know, more of His grace to others show, more of His saving fullness see, more of His love who died for me."

What else is there?

The Pilgrim’s Progress – V

After leaving the Swamp, the next thing that occurs in Christian’s journey is an encounter with Worldly Wiseman who convinces Christian that there is no need to follow the path to the Narrow Gate and onward to the Celestial City to relieve himself of his burden, there is no need to subject himself to the many perils and hardships along that way; the better thing to do is to travel to the Village of Morality and seek out Mr. Legality (page 11ff Barbour edition).

Encounters with the Swamp affect people differently, many are like the seed sown on rocky soil, they return to living life their own way, leaving the path to the Way and never coming to know Jesus. There is an encounter with Jesus Christ, for the seed sown is manifested in life springing up – but there is no consummation of relationship. Ah, this is a mystery to me.

While Morality and Legality have similarities, they are also different and here Bunyan confuses the two; though in his historical context he no doubt saw little or no distinction because he strikes me as a writer of precision. Could he have missed this one?

When I was young in Christ I also encountered Morality and Legality in my journey to Christ. Morality was in the form of the prevalent 1950’s mentality that if one was an American that one was a Christian (unless one was a Jew). This mentality carried over into the 1960’s with the adults of the WWII years, hence when I came to Christ some of my family couldn’t understand it because I was already an American and we were Presbyterian/Christian, so why was I becoming something which I already was? My dear dear aunt reminded me of my family’s (mother’s side) roots in New England Congregationalism, and in education – surely morality based in idealism and tradition and sound political and educational thinking deserved my consideration – rather than running off over the horizon toward the Narrow Gate. Morality is the basis of righteousness – that was and is the message.

Legality introduced itself to me in the first church I regularly attended as I was coming to know Jesus, Christianity was about how we looked and talked, whether we smoked or drank alcohol, whether we danced or not, and a number of other things. Legality has the same message as Morality – it is the basis of righteousness.

In both instances, neither Morality nor Legality pointed me to the love and grace of Jesus Christ; in my case Legality was more insidious because I thought that by adopting it that I was following Jesus. The result was failure and frustration on a number of fronts; I didn’t know the Biblical truth that the Law, and hence Legality in any form, including its purest form in the Mosaic Law, can only produce transgression, condemnation, and death (2 Corinthians Chapter Three). When I see this today in churches and people I know there isn’t much I can do but pray and hope for a better day for the folks for it took me a few years to “catch” the reality of the Cross and the grace of Jesus Christ, so weighed down was I by Legality – even then I wonder how it affected me over the course of my life.

My biggest regret over my adoption of Legality is not the effect it had on me, but the effect I had on other people when I was legalistic, both in my teaching/witnessing and in my actions. My focus was on behavior more than anything; that focus was often communicated harshly and self-righteously. What a fool I was. Jesus is really all that matters.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Pilgrim’s Progress – IV

“And I saw in my dream that just as Pilgrim and Pliable ended their discussion that they came to a swamp, and not paying attention to where they were going they both fell headlong into the murky bog. The swamp was named the Swamp of Despondency; it was named this because many who entered it left it suffering from discouragement and depression, often turning around and retracing their steps back to where they came from. Pilgrim and Pliable wallowed in the muck and mire, sloshing about trying to gain their footing; Pilgrim, because of the burden on his back began to sink.

“Pliable called out to Pilgrim, ‘Where are you? Is this the joy and happiness you talked about? If this is what we can expect on this journey, having just begun, who knows what lies ahead, if I can find my way out of here I’m going home and you can go ahead without me!’ And that was the last Pilgrim heard or saw of Pliable.

“As Pilgrim continued struggling to extricate himself from the swamp, crying for help the entire time, a man approached him and called, ‘Hello, hello. Who are you? Do you need help?’

“Pilgrim cried, ‘I’m trying to make it through this swamp and get to the Narrow Gate.’

“ ‘ Well why don’t you use the boardwalk through the swamp?’

“ ‘ I was so afraid and disoriented that I must have missed it – can you help me?’

“With that a hand reached through the fog and grabbed Pilgrim, pulled him up onto the other side of the swamp, and set him on firm ground.” [My rendering]. Pages 8 – 9 of the Barbour edition.

This is not exactly an enticing view of the beginning of the Christian life. Obviously John Bunyan was not attuned to the seeker sensitive approach to sharing the Gospel, and he certainly had never heard of the health and wealth or name it and claim it messages – or if he had he had not bought into them. (Actually the equivalents of the heath and wealth and prosperity messages, as well as other approaches that cater and pander to audiences have been around since the First Century, they’ve just been known by other names).

I’m not sure that the above passage is a mirror of the seed sown on rocky ground in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13; Mark 4) because I don’t see Pliable having a direct encounter with the seed/Word; on the other hand Pliable does hear the testimony of Pilgrim/Christian and that testimony does include the promise of heaven, so if the two passages are not on all “points” there is certainly an overlap. Jesus says in Matthew 13:

“The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.”

While it may be evident to the reader that with a name like Pliable that Pliable won’t endure the pilgrimage, there are certainly examples in life of Pliables becoming rocks upon whom Christ can build His Church – so I don’t think we ever know as observers the outcomes of others’ pilgrimages. I have also known rocks who apparently melted away and became Pliables – these things are a mystery because they have to do with the heart and only God truly knows the hearts of men. Perhaps a day will come in the Pliable of The Pilgrim’s Progress when he sets out once again for the Celestial City and this time arrives at his destination?

Do we follow Christ because of His blessings, or do we follow Him because the Gospel is true, because Christ is very God of very God and because He is the way, the truth, and the life? If we follow Christ because He is God, because the Gospel is true, then the circumstances of our lives are in one sense irrelevant to our obedience to Christ and to our perseverance in that obedience – we obey Christ because He is God. However, in another sense they are exceptionally relevant in that obedience in whatever our circumstances may be, by God’s grace, transforms us into the image of Jesus Christ and bears witness to others.

Pilgrim needed a hand to guide him out of the swamp – how aware am I of those in the swamp that need a hand? And how often have I needed a hand, a voice, a friend, or even a stranger, to let me know that I’m not alone on this pilgrimage?

“Lord, please give me eyes to see and ears to hear those in the Swamp of Despondency who have lost their way, and please use me to encourage them and set their feet on firm ground on their way to knowing You, on their way to the Celestial City.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Pilgrim’s Progress – III

“I looked and saw a man named Witness coming to Pilgrim, and he asked Pilgrim, ‘What’s wrong?’ Pilgrim answered, ‘I’ve come to face the fact that one day I’m going to die, and from reading the Bible I’ve learned that I’m a sinner who is facing the judgment of God. I don’t want to die, and if…or when…I die I can’t possibly face God because of the things I’ve done, because of this Burden on my back. I don’t know what to do.’”  [My rendering.]

Witness points Pilgrim to a small narrow gate on the far side of a large field. When Pilgrim tells Witness that he doesn’t see the gate Witness says, “Do you see the Bright Light? Keep that Light in your eye, follow that Light and you’ll find the gate.” [My rendering.]

We may be unlikely to come upon someone reading the Bible in distress, but we can’t help but meet people whose lives are in turmoil and despair. They are all around us. We only have to read statistics; illegal drugs, the misuse of legal drugs, alcohol misuse, divorce, pornography, infidelity, serial sexual partners, spousal and child abuse, depression, stealing (blue and white collar), fraud, fears and anxieties over daily life, overbooked mental health clinics – the list equals humanity.

Dr. Bryan Chapell at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis fruitfully works with what he terms a Fallen Condition Focus when preparing sermons. In essence, he asks the question, “How does the Biblical text before me relate to man’s fallen condition?” The other side of Dr. Chapell’s approach is in effect, “How does Jesus Christ relate to the fallen condition as seen in this Biblical text?” In other words, how does the promise of redemption in Jesus Christ address man’s fallen condition?

This is a helpful approach to sharing the Gospel message with others in daily life, for everyone has some distress in life; by listening, asking questions, and by observing we can often discern an element in a person’s life that we can bring hope to in Jesus Christ. Where is the fear? The uncertainty? The anxiety? What hole in the soul is the person trying to fill with ___________?

A challenge to witnessing in our society is the presence of unbridled pleasure in many lives; people medicate through pleasure and materialism and achievement; they also medicate through greed; since we are a society driven by consumerism, since we worship at the altars of the economy and wealth and affluence, since these altars emit intoxicating aromas that induce dreamlike states in those who approach them, witnessing is often threading the eye of the relational needle in order to penetrate the stupor enveloping those around us. Nevertheless, to use Bryan Chapell’s paradigm, not only does every Biblical text have a fallen condition focus, but every life has one as well – find the fallen condition affecting a person’s life and you find a bridge of witness.  

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Pilgrims Progress – II

“O my darling wife”, he [the pilgrim] said, “and my dear dear daughters, I am stressed and troubled by a Burden in my life, it’s a realization of the way I’ve been living, the way we’ve all been living; and it’s a realization that this City [the world] that we live in is under judgment. We’re not living the way we’re supposed to live, and while I don’t understand it all yet, there must be a better way, there must be a way of escape. The things I’ve been reading in this Book [the Bible] are warning me of the way we’ve all been living. We’ve got to find a way out, a way out of the Burden and a way out of the judgment to come.” [My rendering.] Pages 1 – 2 Barbour 1985 edition.

“At this his [the pilgrim’s] relations were surprised, not because they thought he was telling them the truth, but because they thought he was delusional. They hoped that after a good-night’s sleep that he’d return to his senses.” [My rendering.] Page 2 of the Barbour 1985 edition. 

John Bunyan begins his story with a Burden (sin), a warning (judgment to come), and relational conflict that leads to separation, but then eventually to the salvation of Pilgrim’s wife and daughters.

In our society we deny the Burden and make a fortune doing so. We deny sin by insisting that it doesn’t exist, and then because our consciences cannot well function in such denial we attempt to medicate the Burden away by drugs (legal and illegal), alcohol, materialism, sex, entertainment, achievement…the list is endless. Elements of the church water down the Burden not wishing to offend church members and communities. We’d rather feel good temporarily than have peace with God eternally.  

When I think of much of the church’s failure to warn others of the reality of death and judgment I think of Isaac Cline, a meteorologist who believed that a major hurricane could not damage Galveston, Texas – to the point where he argued against a proposed seawall to protect the city. Mr. Cline’s false belief, and his refusal to issue a timely evacuation warning in 1900, led to the deaths of thousands, including his own family.

On the other hand, Pilgrim shares both his Burden and his knowledge (though it is fledgling) of coming judgment, and though he suffers rejection and separation from his wife and daughters, the familial separation will be but temporary (though he doesn’t know that) because his wife and daughters will later follow in Pilgrim’s steps to the Celestial City. We often never know the results of our faithfulness and obedience; we are not called to know the results, we are called to be faithful to Christ and to others by witnessing to the Truth of the Gospel.

Unlike our cotton-candy Gospel, John Bunyan begins by showing that obedience to Jesus Christ will entail relational difficulties, misunderstandings, rejection, and separation. Jesus speaks of these things, making it clear that we owe Him all of our love and commitment and that obedience to Him will, at times, entail conflict within families.

Yet, Bunyan’s portrayal of Pilgrim’s witness is one of care and concern, not one of arrogant self-righteousness. Pilgrim’s witness is birthed out of his own sense of Burden (sin) and of his concern for his family and neighbors. This should be a warning and correction to professing Christians who self-righteously condemn others, judge others, and hold themselves above others. It seems we tend to see either a functional denial of sin and judgment to come in the church, or we see these things used to bludgeon others in self-righteousness; a Christ-centered love for others, a love that is willing to accept rejection, a love that will lay its life down…this is the love that we are called to.

Mark 8:27 – 38.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Pilgrim’s Progress – 1

I'm using John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress during my morning devotional time and thought I'd share some reflections along the way.

The title of the book is, The Pilgrim’s Progress, From This World To That Which Is To Come.

We are on a journey. Even though we usually act like we’re permanent residents we’re not, and so acting like permanent residents doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s as if we boarded a passenger jet and thought it would never land, or as if we got on a roller coaster and thought it would never stop. For most of us the ride of this life is longer than a roller coaster ride or an airplane flight – but compared to eternity it’s not long at all.

While we use the term “ride” when referring to this life, that’s probably not a wise choice of word because “ride” can portray someone who gets on something and doesn’t do much afterward, he just lets the ride take him for a ride and then he gets off – hopefully in one peace. “Riding” can conjure up a passive image – but this life is anything but passive, even when we think we’re being passive we’re usually not – for every decision not to decide is a decision. Not to decide to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ is a decision; not to decide is the same as deciding not to – we each have a will and no matter how you approach the issue of “will” (and there is a mystery in that for me) at the end of the day, at the end of the ride, at the end of life – what we’ve chosen regarding Jesus Christ will determine the rest of our story – will our story be merged with the story of Christ – or will our story be merged elsewhere?

The story of The Pilgrim’s Progress is a story about, “Here I am today, and that’s where I’m headed, I’ve got a goal, I’ve got a destiny, I’m not hanging around here and I’m not living like I’m a permanent resident here – I’ve got to get moving, I’ve got someone to meet”. This reminds me of the men and women of Hebrews Chapter Eleven who confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims and that they were looking for a City whose Builder and Maker is God. They were on pilgrimage. Are we on pilgrimage? Is our passport issued by the Kingdom of Heaven?