CJ's Blog

by CJ Alderton of Patrick Crossing

October 25

Antonym

We should allow in this shaft of light, this thought: If God loved us enough to send his son to die for our sins, then we can rest in the humble knowledge that we are worth loving. We are not loved because we are lovable.

Webster gives us these synonyms for lovable: adorable, dear, cute, sweet, charming, darling, lovely, likable, delightful, captivating, enchanting, engaging, bewitching, pleasing, appealing, winsome, fetching, and endearing. Hmm… Have a run through of that list for yourself. How many can you put a check mark by? Now, do it again for someone that annoys you. Again, with the check mark.

And here is why the Gospel is called the Good News. He loves us when: we are not adorable but deplorable; not sweet but sour; not captivating but disgusting; not engaging but enraging; not winsome but fearsome; and, not bewitching – but in fact a bit witchy. God loves us in the antonym.

I’ll not clutter your thoughts with much more than that this fine day. You are worth loving. You are worth it. The whole universe is bent towards you as it declares this Divine covenant – the words of which are written in blood. Quiet your soul before this most awesome of truths this very moment. Rest.

October 24

Cannon Shot

So, we’ve expanded grace the past few days in order to draw attention to this central teaching of Jesus that concerns itself with love. Now, it doesn’t at all mean that we leave people to wallow in their addictions or stand impassive at the consequences of their bad choices. We are all pressing on to be like Jesus and we need to help one another. That bar is set for all of us.

But what it does mean is that we love in spite of another’s struggles. We must always remain God-centric when we consider love. If he can continue to love us in spite of our many faults, we should aspire to do no less. Moreover, I’m inclined to believe that we all have addictions of one sort or another. Some are just more hidden or socially acceptable. I could well preach a sermon entitled: “Put That Remote Down!”; or, “Drop the Fork!” Neither of these will get you a DUI, but they can nonetheless numb the mind, soul and body.

And now a cannon shot toward the self-righteous. I’ve encountered a curious phenomena over the course of several years of ministry. It seems that often, often enough to suggest something of a malevolent strategy, there are people drawn into positions of leadership who think themselves quite the paragon of spirituality. If they’re really good at their craft they will stealth themselves into a place where they can rule according to their definition of what is right. On the outside they often seem to have it together. They support the church with their money. They show up every time the church doors open. They associate themselves with worthy causes and the like. They seem to be the perfect ecclesiastic. Yet, once you get past the patina of their religious bustle, you find a heart that is shriveled like a frozen pea.

I admit with some embarrassment that I’ve not always been great at spotting these misshapen souls. In a desperate attempt to fill a gap with a willing body, I’ve allowed them aboard. But I’ve always lived to regret tossing the leadership keys to those who’ve missed the teaching on love – always. Over time they form secret cabals and sow discord. They think they are doing heaven’s work when in fact they are advancing a kingdom of darkness.

Closely wedded to love is what Jesus actually did back in John 14. He began the whole sermon with an unforgettable word picture – he scrubbed the grimy feet of his disciples. Those who refuse to go low should never go high. Those who are too good for feet are not good enough for hearts. If there is anything that would cause me to find a whip, turn over tables and clear the temple (or in our case, a Theatre), it would be those who have a pretense of spirituality but in the end, actually loathe their fellow brothers and sisters.  And, as is often the case, those who loathe others begin by loathing themselves. Loathing others and loathing ourselves is not how God drew this whole thing up.

October 23

The Unlikely

Did you figure out the connection from yesterday’s offering? I hope so. I’ll give you this much. There are those who stretch the notion of grace to the outer limits such as the dear friend of which I spoke yesterday. Yet, central to his life, in spite of the many barnacles he collected over the years, stood this teaching from the Gospel of John. He loved people. He would do anything for anyone at anytime. He listened without judgment. He attracted to himself the down and out. There was no pretense about him.

It is unsettling for some of us to countenance such rough stock believers. They don’t fit the pattern, the norm, the ethos, the lowest common denominator of whatever it takes to join the Christian club. That is revealing. Whatever lowest common denominator we might come up with, Christ can go lower. Whatever lofty standard of righteousness we might codify, Christ can go higher. It is well to think often of such possibilities. If we don’t, we might fail to hear Jesus speaking to us from unlikely sources. That would be a shame.

I leave us with this, from Brennan Manning, to consider as we greet the new week.

“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.

But how?’ we ask. Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ There they are. There we are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.” ~Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out

October 22

Memoriam to an Alcoholic

I lost a good friend a few years ago who was also a member of my church. He was working out of state when I got the call that he had passed. He was an alcoholic.  He also smoked like a chimney and had running battles of addiction with prescription drugs. Along with that, coming as he did from a blue-collar background, his language was fairly colorful. His resume didn’t measure up in any way to conventional ideas of what it means to be a Christian. Yet, he was one of the finest Christians I’ve ever known. He got one thing right. He loved people.

I cannot count the number of times I would check in on him and he would be talking to me from beneath someone’s car, cussing and smoking away and fixing whatever was broken – for free. Moreover, his carpentry skills were truly old-world, craftsman quality. He would just show up when he heard someone was doing a remodel or might need some help, unload his tools and get to work. He had such a soft touch with wood, caressing it into just the right radius for molding and finish work – again, for free.  He was also a very able musician with a particular bias toward bluegrass.  I often reminded him that this bluegrass of his was a Johnny-come-lately, that it was ripped off from my beloved Celtic music. He cussed me.

He was quirky in so many ways. He drove around in a beat-up car. In that car was a well-worn Bible and a $20,000 mandolin. He never locked his car. In a crowd he was quite shy. He didn’t like attention. When he found something funny, he would sort of duck his head and laugh into his armpit. And, because of his many vices and coarse social skills, he belittled his own faith. He didn’t think himself much of a Christian. I did, and I told him that quite often – that in so many ways he out-Christianed me.

Pastors can often find themselves boxed in. We’re either placed on a perfection pedestal only to be brought out and gawked at on Sundays, or we are hounded to death by imperfect perfectionists. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of fine people in between those two extremes, yet because of those two extremes, it is easy to become both jaded and jumpy.  So, from time to time, God will send us a smoking, cussing, alcoholic Christian friend who is off the rails and off the map and altogether different. God does this to shake us to the core, to remind us of the sacrilege of whittling grace down to our size, to our definitions. He brings people into our lives who are fighting demons so we won’t have to.  This was a guy I could neither impress nor disappoint. He truly loved me in a “just as I am” kind of fashion. It was nice. He hosted the gentleness and love of Jesus in a way that I’ve found rare. I miss it. I miss him. I let heaven have it for awhile at my loss.

So, what’s the point? What does this have to do with Jesus talking about fruitfulness and love and all the rest? Well, in a way that would delight my friend who is now enjoying a smoke-free heaven, I’m not going to say. I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.

 

October 21

Broken
Here’s one we’re not always so great at: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”~Matthew 7:1-3

One of the reasons Jesus took judging off the table is because we lack the Divine quality of omniscience. We form judgments based upon an anecdote or a brief snapshot of a person. But even were we lifelong friends, our knowledge can only take us so far. We are each an enigma wrapped in a mystery. To add to the toxicity, a judgmental person often stores the selected memory of the one who has been judged and allows no grace for grace. For us to alter an opinion that has hardened requires humility. People who judge are generally humility deficient.

And that brings us back round to what we’ve been talking about in respect to answered prayers, fruitfulness and love. These are each inextricably connected. Jesus is hastening his disciples to work toward love in all things. Jesus defines it as being willing to lay down our life for another. Paul will expand on it much further in I Corinthians 13. (Feel free to read). The radical point that Paul makes is that it doesn’t matter a whit what you do as a Christian – miracles, prophecies, fancy sermons, or even giving away  your money. If it is divorced from love, it has no currency with heaven. It has all been done for show. It comes to nothing.

We’ve all, I suppose, some vague notion, an operational definition if you will, of what a “good Christian” looks like. I’ve found even non-Christians carry such notions. What has surprised me over the years is that often the non-Christian has a better notion of the ideal Christian than do the Christians.  Theirs is a reductionist argument. “He is a judgmental and unloving person and calls himself a Christian. I want nothing to do with him.” Case closed. And, to the extent their judgment of the judgmental is correct, I can appreciate the sentiment. Neither do I.

Now, the point should be obvious. That sort of standard is closer to the Spirit of Christ than any of the other lists we might compose of  a “good Christian.”  You know the lists: 1) Faithful in church attendance; 2) Serves the church; 3) Sings in the choir; 4) Tithes; 5) Still married; 6) Has great kids; 7) Works hard…etc.  You can add or subtract from the list. But here’s the thing – we can pull off all of these, and more, and still have a heart of stone in respect to love. And I’ve seen it aplenty. And, this is the part that’s puzzling…I’ve known a number of Christians who’ve mastered none from the “good Christian” list. They were mangled by life and by their own poor choices. Yet, in spite of their brokenness, or perhaps because of it, they loved well. They somehow produced the ONE fruit that mattered to Jesus and that seems to matter to an unbelieving world. Fancy that. (I’m just getting warmed up).

October 20

Heresy Alert

Bear with me…I want to now do a side by side with three passages of Scripture. If someone keeps repeating the same thing over and over, either they’re experiencing short-term memory loss or they really want you to hear a major point of emphasis. It’s usually pretty easy to tell the difference.

So, let’s back up a chapter and let’s recall Jesus saying this: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” ~John 14:13,14

And again: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” ~John 15:7,8

And one more time: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” ~John 15:16

Oftentimes when we repeat ourselves it is given to emphasize a negative: “Be careful, the roads are a mess out there. Be cautious, the snow is piling up. Watch out for the black ice. I remember one time…” And, so forth. But with Jesus, he is giving away the store. He tells his disciples three times that their prayers to God will be heard and will be answered. We spoke a few writings ago in respect to some of the qualifiers that surfaced so I don’t have a mind to repeat all of that again. What I want us to see is this steady march toward the main point  – and that is the very next verse: “This is my command: Love each other.” ~John 15:17

Do you see what Jesus has done? Can you grasp the brilliance? He has told us that to have our prayers answered consistently we must pray in his name, or his nature. He has told us that we are to be people who bear much fruit. He has given us a singular command of what that fruit should be – love.  If we get this right we’ll be getting most things right. It is that simple.

Over the next couple of days I will have a story or two to share in this regard. Ready yourselves. Some could very well think as they read what’s just ahead that they’re smelling the burning rubber of heresy. I hope you’ll ride it out and offer me some room to make my point. After forty years of ministry, I’ve a few things to get off my chest!

October 19

You go first…

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” ~John 15:7,8 The teaching in John 15 unfolds like a flower in the morning sun. Jesus repeats a promise of which we’ve already spoken. Somehow, bearing fruit and answered prayer go together. He is inviting us to wholesale prayers so long as these arise from remaining, or sojourning in him.

But now Jesus will drill down to the very heart of the matter – the thing that makes his teaching so universal, so axiomatic, so qualitatively different, and, I would add – possible: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” ~John 15: 9-13

Always, with Jesus, it is about love. It is not about power and control. It is not calculating. It is not judgmental. It is not about self-interest or self-indulgence. It is about a love that reaches such depths, such heights and such breadths that it’s willing to die.

We can easily grasp the logic of what he is saying.  If everyone in the church would simply respond to this teaching it would be: “His kingdom come, His will be done on earth as it is in heaven” instantly. Our problem is with the “If everyone” of that last sentence.  We are waiting around for the other guy to go first.  We sigh out, “If everyone…” And of course, that gets everything backwards. We’re not responsible for the otherness of “If everyone”, we’re only responsible for the “If one…” I’m the one, today – this moment – that needs to get with it. Jesus understood this. He didn’t wait around for the other guy: “Love each other as I have loved you.” It becomes terribly personal and urgent – a now assignment for me. A now assignment for you. We’re not commanded to worry over the progress of anyone else. The command is singular to each one of us yet universal to all of us.

October 18

Sojourn

An authentic Christian is never surprised by a lack of fruitfulness in his or her life, and perhaps of equal importance, in the lives of other Christians. Until we really try to follow Christ we’ve no idea of the power of the world and the flesh to pull us down. Each day should be greeted with humility and a welcoming of the fresh mercies that await us as we have another go at it. To this, the old Oxford don gave us these encouraging words: On the whole, God’s love for us is a much safer subject to think about than our love for Him. Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about. Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’ He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right. But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him. ~C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

These words speak to that which we’ve been talking about in John 15. Jesus wants us to bear fruit, yet each of us prove to be needy little branches. We demand a lot of attention. It is somewhat up to us to participate, but thankfully it is not all up to us. The gardener intervenes in our lives to lift us, tend us, prune us, water us and weed around us until the fruit begins to radiate from us.

Our job in all of this is to: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  ~John 15:4-5

The first word in that passage is our part in fruitfulness – we are to remain. It sounds rather passive. The word in the Greek is: μένω (me’-nō) “Remain” is a fine enough translation of the word, but we can do better. It can also mean “to sojourn.” We speak of sojourning when we are given the opportunity to be in a place we’ve longed to see. For example, I was blessed to sojourn in Ireland for about five weeks a few years back. Sojourning was not a chore. It was a delight. Likewise, if we import that sense into the text we get this: “Sojourn in me, as I also sojourn in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must sojourn in the vine…” I’m a practical sort and try not to give out devotional fluff. What I think this is like is spending time with a person you absolutely adore. It never grows old. The beauty is that there is, in this life and the next, no end to it. Jesus doesn’t have to rush off to some meeting. He is not distracted – even by our distractions. He sojourns with us. And as we return the kindness we get this: “If you sojourn in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit…”

October 17

Flammable

An unfruitful Christian is an oxymoron. By definition of the very word Christian, which means “Christ-like”, we assume that lofty call to be like him. And none would consider Jesus unfruitful.

So back to it: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He lifts up every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” ~John 15:1-3

It’s best that we begin with the last line, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.”  Jesus is not conflating salvation with fruitfulness. He has pronounced them as already clean. The disciples have yet to be morphed into the very fruitful apostles they will soon become. They’ve not made a scratch on their destiny. Up to this point, for all practical purposes, they’ve been roadies. Nevertheless, they are clean.

There is another passage that talks about gardening that deserves a peek. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes for us that humbling, scary, thrilling moment after we die and actually meet up with Jesus, face to face. It seems he borrows from this passage in John 15 to make a dramatic point: By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.  If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. I Corinthians 3:10-15

Well, Paul also includes construction in his imagery, but it is the bit about wood, hay and straw that speaks to our point. These are the works, if they can be called that, which were most likely rooted in selfish, self-serving, self-centeredness. They were works done with wrong motives and reflect an unfruitful life. I believe this passage might be the theological basis for our high church brethren’s concept of purgatory, for which I find insufficient support. Rather than a lengthy stay in a hot jail cell, it  seems more like a flash fire of judgment that is over in a moment. To the extent that this is metaphorical, I cannot say. What I can say is that the person of faith who has wasted his or her life will suffer a real loss but still qualify for heaven…” If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

That is of some comfort I suppose. But I would also think that a person who is placing their hope of heaven on this lowest common denominator passage is literally…playing with fire.

October 16

Time

One other issue in respect to fruitfulness is time. For those who insist that Jesus “cuts off” the unfruitful rather than “lifts up” the unfruitful we must then ask the question: “When?” If we’re unfruitful for a week does that get us the axe? Or a month? Or a year? Or a decade?

It becomes problematic when we consider the self-disclosed, longsuffering nature of God and the command for us to do likewise. It seems we are asked to practice things that are terribly unreasonable. We are asked to forgive without question, to bless our enemies, to choose mercy over judgment and a list of other things. If we’re asked to do so, it follows that God must be rather good at it himself. It fails both logic and love that he would require something of us that he himself is loathe to do.

So once more – the issue of time. What happens if a person is unfruitful over an entire lifetime, until the very last moment – a deathbed “aha” conversion as it were? We know that even that is possible because of the thief on the cross. He was promised eternity with Jesus. For those who think that baptism is required for salvation we might note that this lad didn’t call a time out from being crucified, wiggle off the cross, and go jump in a river. He died with no baptism and no fruit yet he made the cut.

I’m not lobbying on behalf of the fruitless. I think a Christian who doesn’t bear the fruit of the Spirit, or who is unacquainted with the spontaneous joy of doing good works, is missing out and most likely both miserable and miserable to be around. Yet, if there is but one ember of redemption in a soul there is always a chance that – given time – it might catch fire. I’ve seen a number of such late in life awakenings. And because I have, I’ve come to believe God will not write anyone off prematurely. Neither should we.

« Older posts

© 2017 CJ's Blog

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑