Behavior or Belief?

Behavior or Belief?

So, which is more important?  What we believe?  Or how we behave?

It’s a lot like breathing.  Which is more important? Exhaling or inhaling?  As a person who lives with asthma, I can tell you that it all depends on which one you did last!

Belief and behavior both matter.  What we believe shapes how we behave and how we behave demonstrates what we believe.  For a healthy life, they need to be in sync with each other.  Even our bodies rebel when what we say we believe and how we behave are not consistent. They both matter.

And yet…

My Problem with Jesus 

Over the past few weeks, the lectionary gospel readings have focused on Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ words we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:28).  Most people who say they believe in Christ would agree that these passages are the essential core of what Jesus taught.

The problem is that Jesus has almost nothing to say about what we believe. He focuses entirely on the peculiar way he expects his followers to behave. It’s the same when you turn to Jesus’ parables.  Most of them are not about what we affirm as the content of our faith, but what we do and how we live.  His parables of the final judgement are painfully clear that what will matter is not what we say we have believed, but the way we have behaved.  (Matthew 25:1-46)

John’s gospel is the only gospel that puts a major emphasis on belief, but even it concludes with Jesus saying, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35).  Paul’s epistles are the bedrock of what Christians believe, but every letter points to the way what we believe shapes the way we behave.

That’s not to say that belief is unimportant.  If it were, I wasted a lot of time and energy across the past four decades attempting to help folks get clear about what they believe and why they believe it. What is unimportant is belief that doesn’t transform our behavior.  The goal of Christian discipleship is not making sure that we get everything right in our heads, but that our hearts and lives are being shaped into the likeness of Jesus.

The Problem for Us 

The problem for “so-called” Christians is that the world watches how we behave more closely that it listens to what we believe.  Particularly the so-called “Gen-Xers” and “Millennials” can smell a hypocrite a mile away.

They may not understand all the complexities of Christian theology, but they know when people who say they believe in Christ behave in ways that are inconsistent with what Jesus teaches;
when we manipulate the truth with self-serving exaggerations;
when we accept economic policies that benefit the rich by denying the needs of the poor;
when we vote for candidates whose life styles are a contradiction of the most basic standards of truth or personal morality;
when we close our eyes to the subtle and persistent sins of racism, xenophobia, sexism and jingoistic nationalism;
when we are quick to resort to violence and slow to walk in Jesus’ way of peacemaking;
when we love to pray on street corners but fail to practice the disciplines of spiritual formation;
when anger and old-fashioned meanness contradict the way of mercy and forgiveness;
when we settle for our lives the way they are without stretching toward what they can become;
when we say we believe the creed but behave in ways that don’t look like Jesus.

In times like these, Jesus words come with painful and penetrating clarity:  “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 7:21)

Walk The Narrow Way 

David Brooks is just about the closest thing we have to a biblical prophet.  I plan to reread his powerful book, The Road to Character during Lent and hope you will, too.  In his recent sermon in the National Cathedral he reminds us that the teachers who made the biggest difference in our lives were not the ones who gave us an A+ because we walked in the door, but the ones who “started with a C- and loved us toward an A.”

That’s what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount.  That’s what he meant when he said, “The gate that leads to destruction is broad and the road wide, so many people enter through it. But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)  He calls us to a way of discipleship that leads us toward the complete integration of our behavior with our belief. He challenges us to face our failures and continue to grow toward what Wesley called “Christian perfection,” the completion of God’s work of love in our human lives.

The Need for Ashes 

All of which is why we need to get our ashes in church next Wednesday.  (Pardon the corny play on words!)  ashwThe dirty smudge on our foreheads is the tangible reminder that we are all dust.  We are all mortal.  We are all imperfect people.  But they are also the sign of the grace that meets us wherever we are and loves us too much to leave us there.  Jesus accepts us with all our contradictions between what we believe and the way we behave and draws us toward the wholeness (holiness) of a life that is fully integrated with his will.

We follow the Teacher who meets us at a C- and loves us toward an A.

Grace and peace,

Jim

“The Present Crisis”

On Flunking Retirement

My wife says I flunked retirement.  I’d say that I get to do the things I want to do but don’t do things I have to do.  So, what have I been up to?

This is my tenth year as one of the facilitators for the Institute of Preaching and I’m helping some young pastors who are on their way to ordination.  In January I was one of the speakers on the EO Celebration Cruise through the Caribbean.  I preach and teach in churches and Conferences when the opportunities come along and I’ve been writing other things that have kept me from writing on this blog.

We just finished Easter Earthquake: How Resurrection Shakes Our World, the 2018 Lenten study from The Upper Room.  We’re in the final stages of development of Make A Difference: Follow Your Path…Find Your Place to Serve.  It follows up on A Disciple’s Path and A Disciple’s Heart by helping people live into the second part of our mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world and will be released in the fall.

I’d say I have enough work to keep me out of trouble, but enough freedom to visit the grandkids in Orlando and Charleston, enjoy family travel and keep in touch with friends.  And, of course, Gator football season is not too far away!

With all of that, the dark shadow hanging over everything else right now is the continuing chaos surrounding the Trump administration.

“The Present Crisis” 

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was an American poet, the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, the U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Great Britain and an ardent abolitionist.  In 1845 he wrote a poem entitled “The Present Crisis,” parts of which became the hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” You can listen to it here.  Though it is no longer in our hymnal, the words stirred a teenage idealism in me that I’ve never been able to live up to or escape. Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted the last four lines in his sermons.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Those words have been haunting me as we’ve lived into the early weeks of the Trump administration.

I first wrote about Trump two years ago when I raised my concern that “Donald Trump is appealing to ‘the worst angels of our nature’ by touching the chords of fear, racism, xenophobia, greed, and arrogant nationalism.” I’ve also described my concern about his sexual immorality, his total disregard for truth and his distain for the freedom of the press that is enshrined in our Bill of Rights.  All of those are fundamental contradictions of the biblical, social and spiritual values that have shaped my life.

But there is a deeper crisis lurking in the shadows of this Administration.

Mr. Goebbels Comes to Washington 

In 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he appointed Joseph Goebbels as Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. His job was to control the content of the German media in order to silence all opposition to Hitler’s agenda.

I could not help but think of Goebbels when I watched Presidential advisor, Stephen Miller, on the Sunday news shows last week.  His words were disturbing enough, but it was the cold, unflinching glare in his eyes that sent chills down my spine.  You can watch the collection of them here. This guy really means what he is saying. Here are some key lines.

“To say that we are in control would be a substantial understatement.”

“It is a fact and you will not deny it, that there are massive numbers of non-citizens in this country, who are registered to vote.” (A claim for which there is absolutely no factual evidence.)

“The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” (So much for separation of powers and Five Freedoms of the First Amendment.)

Equally disturbing was the President’s tweet the next morning:  “Congratulations Stephen Miller — on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!”

The realities of our present time have taken me back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke out against the rise of Nazism from a profoundly spiritual, biblical and theological perspective.  I pray that we are not headed in the same direction but am reminded that every generation of Christian disciples is called to live into the clarity of conviction and commitment that guided him.

New occasions do, in fact, teach new duties.  May the Spirit of God teach us the new duties that the present crisis imposes on faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

Grace and peace,

Jim