Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Trial and Error

Trial and Error
Ephesians 5:8-20[1]
There is a tension in the Scriptures regarding the moral standards for the life of faith. In some places, the “precepts” of the Lord about right and wrong are presented as absolute. It would seem that what Scripture teaches on how we are to live our lives is clear and unchanging. On the other hand, there are other places where the Scriptures seem to speak with a different voice. In those passages, the will of the Lord is expressed in general principles more than clear-cut rules. Indeed, those of us who embrace the New Testament are used to hearing that we are set free from rules and regulations. It can be confusing to try to know just what it is we’re expected to do.
That tension translates into two basically different approaches to the Christian life. Some of us believe that all the teachings of Scripture are indeed rules for living, with all the authority and finality of the Ten Commandments. Therefore, to depart from any of them is to depart from God’s will. Unfortunately, life tends to be messy, and we all make mistakes. And so that has led some of us to embrace the opposite extreme: we cannot possibly keep all the commands the Bible presents, so we think we are free to live as we choose. In the process, however, we can go so far as to abandon the Scriptures entirely as the basis for our life and faith.
Our lesson from Ephesians for today presents us squarely with this problem. On the one hand, in the preceding verses St. Paul speaks about the behaviors that must be avoided, indeed must not even be mentioned, as well as those which prevent any who practice them from having an “inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). In our lesson, he speaks in seemingly absolute terms of the contrast between those who are “disobedient” because they are in the darkness and we who are “children of light.” If you only pay attention to what our Scripture lesson negates, it would seem that the matter is clear and unambiguous. Those of us who practice the Christian faith are to separate ourselves from the behaviors of those who walk in darkness.
But the problem with this is that it’s hard to make such an absolute separation when it comes to human behavior. Whether we like it or not, we all contain both darkness and light, and there are times when our behavior reflects one or the other.[2] Those who cannot accept this typically have not had much experience with the brokenness of life. And even if they do, they only cinch up their resolve even tighter and refuse to admit that they might ever “fall short of the glory of God.” But the attitude that sees the speck in the other’s life and is blind to the log in one’s own is itself a part of the darkness in us all. We just cover it up with a veneer of piety.
Despite our best efforts at avoiding this difficult truth, the fact of the matter is that we all fall short. We all make mistakes. We are all human, which means we are all fallen and flawed and fallible. And oftentimes we fail precisely at the point where we think we are invulnerable. I think that’s what Jesus’ saying about the speck and the log is about: recognizing that none of us holds the moral “high ground,” and if we think we do, it should be a warning signal that we are headed in the wrong direction.
So if we cannot construct an air-tight absolute set of life laws from the Scripture that any flesh-and-blood human being can possible keep perfectly, what are we to do? Many in our day have decided that the thing to do is to ignore the Scriptures. After all, they do come from a time and a place that is very different from our world. The logical conclusion would seem to be to think of the Bible as a historical relic, one that might have some snippets of wisdom. But since it’s basically out of touch with our lives here and now, we are free to take it or leave it. Since it comes from a very different setting, we can view its teaching, especially its moral precepts, as descriptive of a way of life that no longer really applies to us. But to make that assumption would be to abandon one of the essential foundations for our faith.
What are we to do then? If we look at the positive teachings in our lesson for today, I think they may point us in the right direction. We are to “live as children of light”, which means practicing “all that is good and right and true” (Eph. 5:8-9). We are to “be careful” how we live, seeking to be wise, “making the most of the time” (Eph. 5:15-16). We are to “understand what the will of the Lord is” and seek to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:17-18). And I think the guiding principle behind all of this is found in the appeal to “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10).[3]
If you’re like me, you may be wondering just how specifically we’re supposed to do that. But that’s where the heart of what the Scriptures have to say can be challenging to us. There are indeed some very clear-cut teachings, but the Bible doesn’t tend to prescribe specific actions. Instead it teaches us principles for living, principles like “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Our job is to “try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” That may sound frustrating. We’d much rather have a clear-cut list of do’s and don’ts. But that’s not the way God works in our lives. The call to follow Christ is a call to live intentionally, every day.[4] It is a call to continually seek God’s will in every aspect of our daily lives.[5] In a very real sense, it is a call to a life of trial and error—figuring out how God wants us to live our lives as we face each situation, each crisis, each opportunity, and then doing our best to put that into practice.[6]

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/16/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 38, where he offers the suggestion that for ministers to truly offer others a way to connect with God we must “enter ourselves first of all into the center of our existence and become familiar with the complexities of our inner lives.” I think this applies generally to all, and he says that when we do this we will “discover the dark corners as well as the light spots.” Cf. also Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 15-16, where he says, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. … Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter—the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.” Cf. further Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34-35, “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. … All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” Cf. Richard Rohr , Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 33, where he says that the “ego” or the false self “wants to think well of itself and deny any shadow material.” He continues, “Your shadow self is not your evil self. It is just that part of you that you do not want to see.”
[3] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI: 437: “Christians will be active moral agents in their world. They are to ‘try to find out’ [dokimazo, ‘discern’ or ‘test’] what is pleasing to the Lord (v. 10). This implies that believers must determine what is suitable behavior in concrete circumstances.” Since the main idea is one of “figuring out” what is pleasing to the Lord, I like Gene Peterson’s translation of this verse in The Message: “Figure out what will please Christ, and then do it.”
[4] Cf. Perkins, “Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI: 443: “Believers must attend to their own conduct. Ephesians never suggests that such attention requires detailed moralism and legal observance. It does require consistent turning away from the old way of life.”
[5] In this regard, it seems to me that the highest example of this approach to life is the one modeled by Jesus. As the Declaration of Faith, 1978 PCUS (adopted by PCUSA in 1991) puts it: “Jesus lived with a constant sense of his Father’s presence. He put God’s claim on his life above all else.”
[6] I think one of the best expressions of this approach to life is a prayer written by Thomas Merton, in Thoughts in Solitude, 79: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I’m going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. There for I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (emphasis added)

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