Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Heaven and Earth

I grew up hearing the expression, “He’s so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good.”[1] I internalized this to mean that taking action is a priority.  The focus and intention (in my mind) were on the power and benefits of doing “earthly good.”  Therefore, it was considered wasteful and even lazy to be “heavenly minded.” In other words, the message was: we can think and plan and hope and dream and pray and scheme, but nothing will actually happen until we DO something.  Therefore and thereby, my cultural default setting has been action and achievement.  “Do, do, do!”; which reminds me of something else I heard a lot in my early years, “Don’t just stand there! DO something!”  I was always being reminded to keep busy.

Over the years, I have heard and read many messages from both sides of this coin – heavenly-mindedness on one side and earthly goodness on the other.  Some focus on the idea that heavenly-mindedness leads inevitably to earthly goodness, while others focus on the perceived need to control one’s bouts of heavenly-mindedness to engage in active, productive work to contribute to the Kingdom’s progress.  Either way, the interpretation was generally pointing toward action; accomplishing something here and now.  That leads to a mindset that doing good works is more important than contemplating and pursuing the Kingdom.

Now, of course, scripture encourages us to action in many places – to go, to sing, to shout, to dance, to clap, to run, even to fight.  But it also instructs us to “be still,” to “wait,” and to “stand.”  There is a solidly healthy balance in scripture between getting things done and patiently waiting.  We are not to be afraid to take action.  But we are also, perhaps even more so, not to be afraid of being still.  In all cases, whether we are taking action or being still, it is about trusting and worshiping YHVH.  All of our biblical role models, when they are doing things, are doing what YHVH has told them to do.  They are not keeping busy solely for the sake of keeping busy.

More important, though, than the tension between doing something and being still, is the truth inside what it means to be “heavenly-minded.”  I believe the most common interpretation is that the “heavenly-minded” person is a daydreamer, thinking about future glory and blessings while there is always work to be done in the present.  But I think “heavenly-mindedness” is more truly about having your mind fixed on eternity.  And eternity is not about the future; eternity is about the constant now-ness of our existence.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, “whatsoever things are true, …honest, …just, …pure, …lovely, …of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)  Think on these things.  Have your mind set on these things.  Good things.  Heavenly things.  Paul also wrote to the Colossians, “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.”

The primary commandment is that we are to love YHVH with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deut. 6:4-5; Matt. 22:37).  This means we are to be Kingdom-oriented people.  Always.  As we say these days – 24/7/365.  I think, then, by definition as Kingdom people, that we are to be “heavenly-minded.”  Does this type of heavenly-mindedness inherently preclude the ability to do good works in this life?  Not at all.  I believe having our minds set on eternal things enhances our ability to do good works.  Our good works will be motivated by something stronger and deeper than a sense of moral obligation, social duty, or rote habit.

Let me hasten to say, though, if our understanding or definition of heaven has to do with some future dwelling place, this could cause some problems.  If we are thinking about “somewhere beyond the blue” all the time, then we probably are not going to be much use in the here and now.  Unfortunately, much of our ecclesiastical culture for centuries has conditioned us to envision heaven as a cloud-borne destination in the sky, which we will eventually, someday, finally attain.  So, we dream about it, sing about it, emote about it, pray for it, hope for it, and just basically don’t expect to see it ‘Until Then.’  When we focus on that future resort life, we tend to neglect things that need to be done right now.

What I am saying is, you are a Kingdom person.  YHVH’s heir.  An eternal being.  Heaven is now.  Think on these things.

[NOTE: Proverbs 16:27, which is often rendered something like “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and which is also frequently quoted to encourage keeping busy, is one of those verses that suffers from faulty translation.  The English word ‘idle’ here is from the Hebrew word ‘be’liya’al,’ which actually means ‘worthless.’  It has also been translated ‘ungodly,’ ‘wicked,’ ‘evil,’ ‘naughty,’ and even ‘rascally’ and ‘mischievous.’ None of these translations carries anything like our 21st century American English understanding of the word ‘idle.’]

[1] Attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Label Makers

In my so-called dotage, which is in itself a label I refuse to apply to myself, I have become increasingly resistant to labels.  Well, at least, to labels meant to categorize people.  I am happy to accept labels on food products, usually; and on specific types of plants and animals; and bio-hazard warning labels.  But, stereotypes, generalizations, pigeon-holes, boxes, et al, applied to human individuals and especially to groups of people, are never precise, legitimate, fair, perfect, nor unqualified.

This principle of “resistance to labels” is at work in almost every area of life, from sports to music to politics to literature.  Some things defy pinpoint labels.  In particular, as this applies in my own life, I am finding that my “belief system” keeps bumping up against the edges of various labels then moving away; sometimes abruptly, sometimes discreetly.  Time was, I truly yearned to find a “satisfactory” label for my “faith portfolio” so that I could easily answer questions about what or who I am.  Now I do not want the “faith” question to be answered so blithely.

I am tempted here to declare a basic “statement of faith” so that my dear readers will understand where I am coming from.  (Also, I keep wanting to put every phrase in quotation marks.  Is this a symptom of label resistance?) (Further, I am bugged by ending that sentence with a preposition, but “from where I am coming” just does not cut the mustard, ya know?) (And now I am apparently hiding behind a seemingly endless chain of parenthetical statements so I can postpone the revelations I am about to make) (Are you still reading? Cool.)

My suspicion is that the basics of my faith are not so different from most of you intrepid readers.  I believe in the Creator.  I believe in the truth and history of His Holy Word.  I believe in Yeshua haMashiach ben Elohim (Jesus Christ, Son of God); his birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, rule, and return.  I believe in the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit).  The rest, which is much, we can discuss later, I reckon.

Labels are astonishingly rampant in the Body of Messiah.  I have known this all my life, and I suspect nearly everyone knows this.  I mean, we can start with denominational labels.  Take a moment to come to terms with the images and terminology that arise in your mind when you see/hear these few representative denominational labels:  Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Catholic, Assembly of God, Nazarene, A.M.E., Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of God in Christ, Quakers… and, of course, the list could go on for pages.  By some estimates there are more than 40,000 distinct Christian denominations in existence.  Forty. Thousand.

Now, some would say, “one Body, many members” explains the “need” for the various denominations.  I disagree, but that is not actually the point of this blog entry.  I will just say this about that: are the many denominations operating in unity as One Body?

Over the past several years, my faith journey has crossed, and often joined, a path upon which has been bestowed the label “Hebrew Roots Movement.”  I still consider myself to be a “Hebrew Roots” sojourner.  But that label has taken on some unfortunate connotations due to the publicized behavior of some of its adherents.  These days, I am hesitant to tell a new acquaintance, “I am a Hebrew Roots believer.” Many of us in this “exploration” are feeling the same way.  We do not want to be lumped in with the emerging mainstream definition of “Hebrew Roots.”

So, what can we do about this?  It’s not like I can memorialize my present, personal, preferred definitions of terms and expect the world to accept, adopt, and celebrate!

What I am trying to do here, I guess, is just to admit to myself and to all and sundry that I am sincerely trying to avoid being molded and stamped by external (mis)interpretations of names, terms, and labels.

A couple of my favorite (?) examples of this phenomenon go back several decades in my personal experience.  Pentecostal and Charismatic.  There is no reason for any Bible-believing follower of Yeshua to avoid these terms.  In fact, we should ALL be both Pentecostal and Charismatic; i.e., if we believe in the infilling of the Holy Spirit and the gifts that come with it.

In 1974, I had a personal experience that highlighted this label resistance phenomenon for me.  I was raised in a denomination that ardently eschewed that term (denomination) and insisted on being called a “movement.”  It is called “Church of God (Anderson, IN).”  There are many groups who call themselves “Church of God,” usually with some qualification in parentheses to set them apart from each other.  (btw, this is not what I think YHVH means when he tells us to be “set apart”)

I was working in Georgia that summer (1974).  One day I saw a little church that was from “my” Church of God.  In the southern US, there is another Church of God (or two or three) that has distinctly different doctrines about the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.”  So, to make sure onlookers understood the difference, the sign out front of this little church declared, “Church of God (Anderson, IN) (NON-PENTECOSTAL).” Yes. It was in all-caps, just like that.  I laughed.  And then I wept.

I understood.  They were trying to manage the expectations of potential visitors.  Is that what we have come to?  Pre-selection of folks who might come share with us?  This is a recurring theme all over so-called Christendom.  A whole movement arose around this concept of managing expectations a few decades ago.  It is called “Seeker Sensitivity.”

OK.  So many terms, so little chance y’all will keep reading.

So…  I will not try to make an exhaustive list of malleable labels (mal-labels?).  And I certainly will not try to offer any definitions or clarifications.  But I will make a list as a demonstration of the breadth of the label-making phenomenon.  I encourage you to look at the list below and consider how YOU would define each of these terms; and how do these things look in your own life and beliefs?  Do any of them make you uncomfortable with the notion of applying them to yourself?  It is a long list, but it barely scratches the surface.

Dry Bones
Hebrew Roots
Lost Tribes
One Law
Sacred Name
Two House

Our definitions and interpretations of these and many other terms leads us to distance ourselves from each other.  We all need to be moving closer to Father.  As we do that, we will be drawing closer to each other, not farther apart.  Which do you prefer?  Drawing close to Father, or keeping a sterile barrier between yourself and your brothers and sisters?

Perhaps we should concentrate on how to walk together in faith, love, and peace.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

New & Improved

We live in a staunchly change-oriented society.  Despite a much-professed antipathy to change in general, most humans expect and even seek change as a healthy part of the progression of our lives.  Honestly, I am not sure how well we would fare if we could not select new fashion trends, enjoy new recording artists, try new cuisine, make new friends, and surf channels on our televisions – not to mention the stupendous inundation of ‘fresh’ stimuli that defines the internet.  While claiming to hate change - especially as it relates to the subject of aging, we all acknowledge that change is inescapable.  In fact, we have developed entire professional disciplines around “change management.”

Conventional wisdom reminds us that “the only constant is that everything changes.”  This axiom has an impressive pedigree, dating back to at least the sixth century BCE, attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus.  He wrote, “πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει,” which is variously translated but is essentially, “everything changes and nothing stays fixed.”  For the record, an alternate (and more popular) rendering of this thought is attributed to none other than that great American philosopher Louis L’Amour: “The only thing that never changes is that everything changes.”

Touting change is also a cherished marketing and business development tool.  How delighted are we to see “new and improved” on a given product?  OK, not all that delighted because usually nothing inside the product has actually improved, but still.  And although the buzzwords – uh – change, “innovation” is always highly valued.  We want to move on to the next great idea, whether it be clothes, cars, buildings, music, movies, books, entertainment, hair styles, and on and on.

Of course, there are those among us who claim that we would like it better if things did not change; or at least not so quickly.  I won’t explore in this brief blog entry the political divide these notions represent.  That would be WAY off topic.

So, what exactly is my topic?

It is this:   
How do we reconcile YHVH’s immutability (that he never changes)
with our ceaseless environment of change?

I mean, we are to LOVE YHVH with all our heart, soul, and strength.  It is comforting that He never changes.  That means he is reliable, trustworthy, solid, dependable.  But how are we supposed to pursue a relationship with him who never changes while we are in a constant state of change?  How does that actually work?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is his instruction in Psalm 46:10 to “Be still…”  The action of being still forces us to, as much as possible, move into alignment with the Almighty’s state of being, which is “never changing.”  That is kind of like moving from the outer edges of the merry-go-round to the center.  You are still going in circles, but the force of the spinning is not as profound.

One of Jonathan Cahn’s meditations in his “Book of Mysteries” illustrates this principle.  He showed how we can walk through the day, and at various times the sun is at different points in the sky; sometimes it might be obscured by trees or buildings or mountains or even by our own hand.  Relative to us, the sun may seem to be changing, but it is not.  It is we who are in motion.  (OK, the sun is constantly “changing” in several ways, but stick with me for this illustration, all right?)

It is not that YHVH is distant from us.  He is not.  But he is so inestimably “Other,” that we sometimes are at a loss as to how we should relate to him.  Nevertheless, he is calling us to commune with him. How?  


What is TESHUVAH?  It means “repent” or “return.”  It can be interpreted, to turn around and face / move in the opposite direction.  In other words, “change.”

YHVH, the Unchanging One, calls us to CHANGE!  But, what is he really calling us to?  To himself.  To Be Still.  To turn and face toward him.  He promises to bring to us the ultimate change; to make us a new creation; to put in us a new heart; to give us a new song.  What could calm our spirits more than to be in relationship with the One Who Does Not Change?

Ponder this truth: we live in a condition of constant change while the Eternal One is calling us to himself, to his unchanging perfection and holiness and shalom.

Be. Still.

NOTE:  Scripture references about YHVH’s immutability: 
Numbers 23:19
1 Samuel 15:29
Isaiah 46:9-11
Ezekiel 24:14
Malachi 3:6
Psalms 33:11; 41:13; 90:2-4
John 17:5
2 Timothy 1:9
Hebrews 13:8
James 1:17