Thursday, January 26, 2012

Weekend Warriors, Special Forces, and Everything in Between

If there is one thing I have learned from having a husband in the National Guard and a son in the Marine Corps, it is that not all branches of the service are alike. In fact, there is a bit of rivalry among them – and even a degree of snobbery on the part of some branches toward the others. For example, when my son was at Fort McCoy (an Army base) for training, he wrote to me about how "lazy" the Army guys were. The Marines rose a full hour earlier than the Army, so they were often returning from their early morning exercises (PT) by the time the soldiers were getting started. The Marines would run by chanting a cadence to the effect of, "Hey there, Army, can't you see, stretching in the parking lot is not PT!" (In defense of the Army, I would not call rising at 5:00 instead of 4:00 "lazy"; but you get the idea!)

When people join the military, they have some choices to make. Not only do they have to choose between Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines; but they also have to choose between part time and full time – the corps or the reserves. This choice is often made based on how committed the person enlisting is to the military way of life. In other words, how much do they want to suffer and sacrifice? My son chose the Marine Corps for a specific reason: he wanted something more demanding than the Army but not quite as arduous as the Navy Seals. He wanted to be challenged and stretched and strengthened in body, mind, and spirit; but he did not want to become a fighting machine. My husband chose the Army National Guard because he wanted the training, the self-discipline, and the "job security" that it offered. But the military has never been his primary career.

The teachings of the New Testament make it clear that Christians are all soldiers by virtue of the fact that we have an enemy to withstand and a Commanding Officer to obey. We do not have a choice about this. Like it or not, it's who we are. However, we do have one tremendously important choice to make. We must choose our own level of personal commitment. We have to ask ourselves how far we are going to take this "Christian life" thing and what we are going to do with it.

We certainly have the option to be "Weekend Warriors." We can put on our "uniforms" and go to church on Sundays, put in our time, and then go back to our "civilian lives" Monday through Saturday. This isn't a bad choice. It even has its perks and benefits. We can hear good music, make nice friends, hang around with people who share our beliefs, and get the satisfaction of knowing we are doing the right thing by bringing our kids to Sunday school.

I can't speak for you; but I have to ask myself, Is this enough for me? Do I want to be a faithful minimalist? Or is there something in me that is stirred by the idea of a bigger commitment, a greater sacrifice, a higher cost? When I face my Commander, will He not just be satisfied but pleased? To put it another way, would I be more proud to display a uniform that is perfectly creased and pressed or one that is so muddy and bloody that it'll never come clean again?

When I was about fourteen, I read the biographies of D.L. Moody, Martin Luther, and Amy Carmichael. I was deeply affected by their life stories. As a young man, D.L. Moody was challenged by these words: "The world has yet to see what God can do in and through a person whose heart is wholly and fully committed to Him." Moody wanted to be that person, and that passion drove him to higher levels of commitment and service than most. Martin Luther was a man whose conscience was keenly attuned to the Voice of God. He risked his life to expose the lies that threatened the gospel and to put the Bible into the hands of the German people in their own language. If Luther was among the "special forces" in Christ's army, Amy Carmichael was a Navy Seal. She rescued literally hundreds of young girls in India from wretched lives as temple prostitutes. She lived in harsh, difficult conditions for decades refusing the usual furloughs that most missionaries take. She poured out her life in the extreme.

Amy Carmichael wrote a poem entitled, "No Scar?" which captures her perspective of the Christian life. Its closing stanza sums up the Christian's choice. When I read these words, I can't help but ask myself, What kind of soldier am I? What kind of soldier do I want to be?

No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And piercèd are the feet that follow Me.
But thine are whole; can he have followed far
Who hast no wound or scar?

Friday, January 20, 2012

MREs, Uniforms and the Spiritual Life

Today I was thinking about how much time is spent on the matters, "What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?" It seems to me that in Western society (particularly American) we are more obsessed with these things than ever before.

When Jesus spoke of "taking no thought" to what one is to eat, drink, or wear the context was poverty -- not worrying about such things but trusting the heavenly Father to provide them. But today poverty is not the reason for the preoccupation for most of us. The reason is excess. I open the fridge and think, "What should I eat?" not because the fridge is empty but because it is too full. I look in the cupboard where I keep my coffee and tea and think, "What shall I drink?" because there are twelve kinds of tea there and I am not sure which would please me most at this moment. I open my closet and ask, "What shall I wear?" because I have about forty outfits I could choose from. I waste time and energy giving thought to these things because I have so much more than I need.

I also dwell on what to eat, drink, or wear because I am preoccupied not with what I need (or what is best for me) but what I want and what would please me most.

I have to ask myself: Is this the way of the soldier?

Soldiers in the field take no thought to what they eat. They break open an MRE and eat whatever is in those little plastic packets. The MRE is engineered for energy -- not flavor. The consistency is not pleasant. They are often too salty (to ward off dehydration). But they can sustain a soldier in the field. They are calorie dense and efficient. And most of all, they can be eaten quickly anytime anywhere -- the perfect meal for one who needs to "take no thought to what they eat or drink" because they are preoccupied with much more significant matters.

Soldiers in the field take no thought to what they wear because they have a uniform. The uniform and the gear is issued to them and it suits a purpose -- camouflage, protection from the weather, keeping feet warm and dry, storing weapons and amunition.

If I am to live like a soldier, it implies I will stop my preoccupation with matters of food, drink, and clothes. This would actually translate to some very practical things -- such as eating simply for health and energy rather than always being preoccupied with what I "feel like" eating -- and not endlessly browsing clearance racks at the mall spending time and money accumulating stuff I don't even have room for in my drawers.

But even one who wants to simply "eat healthy" these days can find themselves spending countless hours (not to mention dollars) on researching, choosing, and implementing eating plans. Has there ever been a period of history in which people could spend more time simply sifting through information on food? It seems that every time I turn around I am hearing about a life-changing new discovery about carbs, proteins, supplements, etc.

If we had an enemy who was trying to distract us, could he do better than this??

I have trouble imagining a solider obsessing over the nutrition panel on his MRE when he is tired and weary from the day's march and needs to fill his stomach so he can sleep a few hours before rising early to start another day of battle.

I know that it is important to be aware of nutrition and to eat carefully. But there has to be a tipping point where the preoccupation becomes an unhealthy distraction from more important matters.

So, today, I am going to try to be preoccupied with higher matters than my tastebuds or my closet. I am going to try to give as little thought as possible to what I eat, drink, or wear. I have a feeling I will find that good choices can be made more quickly than bad choices when it comes to nutrition. I'm going to start this day off with a hot bowl of oatmeal to prove it! No wait, an egg. Or maybe just some cereal. Oh, heck. A granola bar. Greek yogurt? hmmmmm....

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Faith Without Works is Dead

Today I read sections from two different books. One was Holiness by J. Ryle. The other was The Two Covenants by Andrew Murray. Ryle's introduction was cautioning against those who claim that believers are sanctified by faith just as much as they are justified by faith. He warned against a passive view of sanctification that implies we just "let go and let God." He noted that this generally leads to careless living and an antinomian mindset.

In contrast, Murray wrote of the possiblity of a higher plane of Christian living in which one was able to rest in the promises of God and entrust their sanctification wholly to Him. He emphasized "Christ in you, the hope of glory."

As I read convincing words from two very godly scholars, I felt that same old tug-of-war in my mind between faith and works. We all know the dangers of taking our Christianity upon ourselves, trusting to our own strength. But we also know those who talk a good game but live wholly inconsistent lives. Where is the balance??

As I begin my New Year's Meditations upon the metaphors of Paul, I am reminded of the underlying metaphor of Christ: the Vine and the Branches. In John 15, Jesus said, "Apart from me you can do nothing." He is the Vine. We are the branches. When we abide in Him we bear much fruit. Any and all lasting fruit in my life will only be produced because of Christ's life in me -- His Spirit filling me as sap fills the living branches of the Vine.

But Jesus also spoke of dead branches. He spoke of withered, fruitless branches that were gathered up to be burned. These were the branches that did not abide in the Vine. This leads me to connect a few dots.

James 2 asserts that "faith without works is dead." Jesus says that branches that don't abide in the vine are dead. Putting these two passages together, we see that spiritual life and fruitfulness depends on both abiding and working. Working is impossible apart from abiding ("apart from Me you can do nothing"). But working is essential (and inevitable) where living faith is present. So the metaphor of a passive branch attached to a vine bearing much fruit must be coupled with the metaphors of Paul: the athlete, the soldier, the farmer. The Christian life is one of resting, abiding faith; but at the same time it is a life of work, discipline, and focus. Sanctification does not occur in those who live in a spiritual coma.

Paul summed up his life in 2 Timothy with these words: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." These three phrases are the heart of the metaphors Paul lived by: a spiritual battle, a race to the finish line, and an enduring patience. By focusing on these metaphors, we are in no danger of turning to a "works" sanctification. But by neglecting these metaphors we are in danger of being dead branches -- dry, fruitless sticks tangled up in the growth of the living Vine but not really a part of it.

Any branch that abides in Christ bears much fruit. Any branch that does not bear fruit is a dead branch that is good for nothing and cast into the fire. Faith without works is dead. As I draw my life from Christ, I will work out my salvation in practical ways. There is no contradiction. This is simply where imagined Christianity ends and real sanctification begins.

Friday, January 6, 2012

New Year's Reformation: Meditating on the Metaphors

Instead of making resolutions this New Year, I have decided to focus my thoughts on the various metaphors used in the New Testament to describe the Christian life. I want to understand them in a deeper way -- to really think through what it would mean to walk them out each day. And then, by God's grace, I want to do just that.

Jesus' metaphor of choice was the steward or the slave. Many of His parables develop around the theme of a master who leaves on a journey and entrusts His property and His work to those in His employ. The parables emphasize the need for faithful service and watchfulness for the Master's return. As He prepared to leave His kingdom in His disciples' hands, this metaphor loomed large in Jesus' mind.

Paul also used the metaphor of the slave, but his three favorites seemed to be the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer. The loyal service and personal sacrifice of the soldier, the self-discipline of the athlete, and the patience of the farmer inspired Paul and encapsulated the kind of servant he wanted to be -- and urged others to be -- for Christ.

Last but not least, the metaphor of the Bride permeates the New Testament. Both Jesus and Paul use it to describe Christ's relationship with His Church. To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13, what is all the loyal servitude and personal sacrifice in the world worth without Love? Never does Jesus ask for our service apart from our love. If we do not present ourselves to Him as His loving, loyal bride, we do not present ourselves acceptably. It was for love that He saved us, and it is for love that He desires our service to Him.

So, I plan to begin 2012 by meditating on the metaphors. I will begin with these and see where the Spirit leads.