Walk Alone

It is better to walk alone than in an inner circle of unbelievers.

We all live in community, but do we understand the nature of community? In every community we find circles within circles within circles. We may well know several hundred people by name, office, or function, but we have genuine relationships with a much smaller number. For the more gregarious among us, that smaller number may be around a hundred, but for most of us it is better measured at a dozen, or at most dozens. Inside that circle another circle forms with folk who are closer to us that many members of our family. Some favored few may have a dozen such friendships, but most of us can count such friendships on the fingers of one hand. Inside that tiny circle, we find those with whom we are genuinely yoked – that is, our lives and functions depend on those chosen few. Even if we are separated by years and miles, we are always forming our plans and gauging our level of success on the advice and input from those friends.

That inner circle is the measure of us – of our faith, our worth, even our essential humanity. Whether we believe it or not – whether we want it or not – our lives begin to take on the shape and flavor of those in that inner circle. We bond, merging into each other in our thought patterns, linguistic patterns, and behavior patterns. As daunting as that is, our relationship begins to bear witness to the truth that “Bad company corrupts good morals.” (1 Corinthians 15:33) We notice the circle taking on the speech, thought and behavior patterns of the lowest moral ground.

As Christians, we know that we are called to share our faith in community. That means that we will – we must – associate with sinners so we can shine the light of faith into their line of sight. We interact with them, we are kind to them, responsive to their needs and compassionate in their suffering. That is both faithful and honorable. But if they become our inner circle, we will sink further and further into the yawning abyss of their behavioral chasm, losing our connection with the moral excellence to which Christ calls us.  

We have heard all our lives that we should choose our spouses carefully, marrying someone who holds to the faith we cherish. We know that we should lead our family well, pass the hope along to the next generation, but we forget – God help us – we forget that we must choose our inner circle with the same level of care. If we fail at that, we place all our previous care in peril. Pulled down in the gravitational field of our close friendships, we drag our families with us.

Friends, please listen. So much is at stake. Love the world – reach with all your heart to rescue the perishing – but do not become the reason your precious family suffers, or even perishes. Guard your inner circle, and you will guard your heart. I said it once already, but now I will say it again: it is better to walk alone than in an inner circle of unbelievers.

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will live with them
    and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.”

Therefore,

“Come out from them
    and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”

And,

“I will be a Father to you,
    and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”

Paul to the gathered church in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 NASB 1995
It is better to walk alone than in an inner circle of unbelievers.

A Misunderstanding

This morning, I want to address a glaring misunderstanding. My aim is to address it directly and succinctly. While I freely admit that is not my usual style, this needs to be said in as few words as possible so more people will read it through and understand it completely.

When the world hears The Church call a specific act or practice by its true name, identifying it as a SIN, what the world hears is The Church spouting condemnation at those people engaging in that act or practice. While that may be what some people are doing in the name of The Church, that is not what The Church is doing. Rather, The Church is reaching out to the world to offer forgiveness and overcoming grace to prevent the people involved falling under judgment. The Church does not aim to punish, but to rescue and restore the sinner.

Why? We do that because The Church is a gathering of rescued sinners engaged in the process of complete restoration. Like people who have escaped a burning landscape, we call out to those still surrounded by flames in an effort to guide them to a safe route out of the destruction bearing down on them. We want to spare them suffering, not cause them to suffer.

I wish the world understood that. What we do, we do out of compassion. It really is as simple as that. Lord, as You are teaching us to love sacrificially, please show those still trapped in sin that we mean them no harm.   

And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.

Mark 11:25

Keep Running

I have run a few races. I was never very good at it, but I was amazingly stubborn. How many times did I cross the finish line, my hand on my belly, and veer to the side of the track to vomit on the sideline?

I know that is not a very attractive picture to paint for you, but if we start a race, we need to finish it. That’s right, isn’t it? If we put our toes on that starting block, we need to put the finish line behind us.

Those frontrunners, they set the pace. They run like the devil is chasing them. And maybe sometimes he is. From Abel with his better sacrifice to Rahab with her scarlet cord, they ran like the wind and caught the tape across their chests.

But they are not the only runners. Far, far behind them, the race continues. First come those who flag and then catch their second wind. Behind them come the ones who have strained every muscle, but still fell behind. Then there are those who stumbled a bit, leaving skin and blood on the track. Maybe they were tripped when they fell. Maybe they go limping forward, significantly injured. But forward they go.

Sometimes the race is less about winning and more about finishing. It may be the medal that matters at the start, but when our muscles are raging and our lungs are burning, we just want to be on the other side of that line. First place, third place, last place, what does it matter? We just want to finish honorably.

What was true on the college track is true on the narrow way. The overcomers, the winded, the wounded and the martyrs are all running hard. We press forward, straining.

Somewhere along the way, the prize that drew us here pales before our eyes. We look with an overwhelming hunger toward the finish line. We stop caring about golden streets and gates of pearl, and simply crave the moment our eyes meet those of the One in whose name the course was set. With the sweat of exertion pouring from our souls, nothing else matters.

Are you tired? Exhausted? So, so ready to quit?

Don’t do it. You can see the finish line from where you are. One foot in front of the other, my friend. We can rest on the other side of the line. Until then, keep running.    

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 11:32-12:2

A Perfect Doctrine

During my pastoral ministry, I worked hard at walking the bright line of fellowship with those who do not see things exactly as I do. Now that I am retired, I see the fruit of that effort, as ministers and laity from more than a few denominations – and some who consider themselves non-denominational – contact me to seek my insight into questions set before them. I do not believe that I am exceptional in this situation. Christians reach out to each other. We all know that we are imperfect in our understanding of the mind of Christ, do we not?

It is my understanding that many of our doctrinal differences are more about our approaches to the truth than about truth itself. We agree on most things, but with shades of difference. This disturbs some folks, but I see it as a natural expression of our human limitations. We truly cannot see things through each other’s eyes because we are each looking through our own set of life experiences. Experience changes the way we think and feel. This is not an impediment. It is a gift. How I wish we could approach it as such.

The unity of The Church is a spiritual state. We experience that unity when Christians from several different expressions gather to work and pray. How sweet are those moments when people who worship under differing banners join hands to intercede for others, pray for each other, or tackle a societal problem together! Differences aside, we are one body, moving together for the glory of God. I live for those moments.

I freely admit that the shattered state of The Church disturbs me, and I frequently pray for unity, but I also understand that disagreements in The Church have been a part of the story from the beginning. In the First Century when The Church was rising, scripture tells us story after story of disagreements that created the need for councils, and even mentions arguments between essential leaders – among them a very public face-off between Peter (Cephas) and Paul. (Galatians 2:11-14)

Our understanding of scripture and the form The Church should take in this – or any – community does not always mesh. In fact, it seldom does. Is that because I got it right and you got it wrong? Is it possible that the reverse of that is true? Or could it be that neither of us has a perfect understanding of God’s truth, and one day we will understand it better when we know as we are known? Perhaps God is reaching through each of us in ways that will connect with those to whom we are called. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Anyway, my point is this; we do not have to agree in every fine point of doctrine to be in communion as expressions of The Church. Some beliefs, especially those that center on the Person of Christ and the role of scripture, are essential, and one day we may address that point, but not today. For today, let us consider the beauty of the Gospel sung out by a choir of believers who sing in harmony rather than unison. Sometimes there is a bit of dissonance. Sometimes we sing out of tune. But the music does not live and die with us. Christ, the Head of the Church, is in charge. It is in Christ that our hope rests, not in the perfection of our individual or collective belief-set.

So, share the Gospel. And if you and I do not always see eye to eye, let us pray for each other, anyway. That is, after all, what we do. Then one day, all our confusion will be sorted out, and we will be made perfect in truth. On that day The Church will stand in the light of a perfect doctrine, but this day is not that day. Reach for that day, but live this one in the light you have.

For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul to the Church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 3:4-9 NASB 1995

Treasure Hill

For your reading pleasure, a short story:

A couple came to live in a sparse community on a rugged plateau atop a forested hill. The ground was level, but rocky, and the wife set out to plant a garden to spare herself the trip down the winding road to the town. She chose a strip of ground near the escarpment that defined their property, built a sturdy little fence, and started tilling the ground.

The husband favored another site and did a little digging there. As he broke open the sod, he found an iron-stained spot and a bit of hematite, and he shouted, “I believe there is a treasure to be found here!”

He soon forgot about gardening and started digging deeper into the bowels of the spot. He found more hematite and a trace of magnetite and became even more excited. While his wife planted corn, beans, potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and squash, he chased the elusive treasure down and down.  

Summer came on, and the wife fought the weeds and the rabbits, while the husband tunneled this way and that in search of pay-dirt. In the evenings, he ate the produce, and sometimes a rabbit or two, and talked about the day when they would not have to labor for their food. Meanwhile, the wife took some of the produce and traveled into town to barter for canning supplies and came back with the jars and lids as well as a rooster and three fine chickens who roosted in the shed and laid copious eggs.

When the weather started to turn, the wife canned some of the produce and dried some others. She left a clutch of eggs in the nest, and soon had a respectable flock. Soon there was chicken as well as rabbit on the table, and the wife tilled another little patch to plant herbs. The seasoning made the soups and stews tastier and brought a fair price in town. This time, she brought home a bolt of sturdy cloth, a big jar of honey, and a box which she set gently beside the garden spot. Around the box, she planted all manner of flowers, and the husband watched in amazement as bees came flying out of the box and danced among the flowers.

In the evenings, after a long day of treasure hunting, the husband sharpened his spade by the fire while the wife sewed the cloth into a long, wide sack and filled it with the tiniest feathers from chickens she had cooked and served. She carefully pressed the feathers into even patches and ran seams to keep them distributed.

Cold weather settled in, and the little family ate from their stored supplies. The wife spread leaves and grass clippings on the garden patch and watched the snow carry the nutrients into the earth while she served up cornbread with honey, canned tomatoes and squash and steaming bowls of dried beans. The husband spent the day mining for treasure, ate his fill at their table, and slept soundly through the long, cold nights under a feather tick comforter.

Just as the weather was starting to break, the husband found a promising vein, loaded with magnetite. He was sure he was chasing gold, so when the cold rain set in, he kept working. Even as the light failed, he refused to stop. He was so close to the treasure…

By morning, he was soaked through and exhausted. He climbed under the feather tick and tried to warm his grumbling bones, but they would not warm. Fever set in, with a deep cough and weakness. His wife brought him chicken soup and herb tea with honey, but the fever would not subside. The town doctor came and went, but the cough persisted. Just as spring stole over the waking garden, the husband breathed his last.

Neighbors came and the preacher said some words over the yawning hole the husband had called his mine. Four strong men lowered the husband, now resting in a sturdy pine box, into the place he had spent most of his final year.

Despite her grief, the widow tended her little garden. As the seasons rolled, she spent her days seeing to the chickens, chasing the rabbits, robbing the bees, and gathering her produce. She had more than she could eat, so she preserved some, bartered with some of it, gave some to the poor, and often supplied the preacher’s table. At night, she slept beneath the feather tick comforter and dreamed of the sweet company of the one she had laid to rest in the mine. She was lonely, but she was strong, and the bond that brought her here was always enough to keep her near his side.

One spring, many years from their first, the preacher came to call on the widow. She had missed the Sunday service, and he was concerned. He found her cold and still, wrapped in a worn feather tick comforter, her head resting on one worn pillow, and her arms wrapped tightly around the other.

The neighbors came. The preacher said a few words, and four strong men lowered the widow’s body to rest beside her husband. Her chickens, her store of honey and preserved goods, were distributed to the poor. Her garden was left to run wild, and the bees kept all their honey for themselves. The rabbits overtook the herbs, the hearth went cold, and the little house melted into the vines.

Many years later, a group of women were berry-picking on the now overgrown plateau. The berries were thick there, especially around a stone marker that had long-sense been wrapped in clinging vines.

One of the women tasted the fat berries and exclaimed “These berries are wonderful! I will remember this place! What is it called?”

One of the older women said, “We call it Treasure Hill.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure. That’s just what we’ve always called it.”

The oldest member of the group put a withered hand on the vine-covered marker and said in a voice thick with emotion, “Oh, there is treasure here. The sweetest treasure I have ever seen.”

And they thought she meant the berries…

For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.

Ephesians 5:31-33, King James Version
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