How Does One Find Balance?

This Sunday I was at Sunday School, and we were discussing Ecclesiastes 7. This chapter is problematic for some Christians since right in the middle of it, a passage says.

Do not be overrighteous,
    neither be overwise—
    why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
    and do not be a fool—
    why die before your time? (v. 16-17)

I appreciated the class. They did not embrace the classic Evangelical/Fundamentalist position that most of the book of Ecclesiastes is human wisdom, and the last couple of verses is Godly wisdom. I believe that is a deeply flawed look at a beautiful book. In the class, the focus is on balance.

BUT HOW DOES ONE FIND BALANCE?

Balance makes me think of three places. One is extreme position “A.” The second is extreme position “C.” The third is the balance or “golden mean” that we could call position “B.”

So what should we focus on?

  1. One perspective is to embrace an extreme position (either “A” or “C”). This, not surprisingly, leads to extremism. I recall a boss of mine (my first boss actually) who served as a camp director. He would say that when one is driving on a mountain road, should one drive as close to the edge of the cliff or as far away as possible. The answer he wanted was to drive as far away from the cliff side as possible. In my view, the middle of the road is likely the safest, since the opposite to the cliff is likely to be the mountainside with falling rocks, or another cliff side. He was, however, simply expressing a position of embracing an extreme— the more extreme the better. Of course, for this position, Ecclesiastes 7:16-17 is nonsense.
  2. A second perspective is to focus on both of the extremes (both “A” and “C”). For a long time, I had embraced this. Find two extremes and recognize that “the truth” exists somewhere between those two extremes. The problem is in the word “somewhere.” Just because one may have bounded the truth, doesn’t mean that one has located it. So returning to Ecclesiastes 7:16-17, if over-righteousness is an unhealthy extreme, and over-wickedness is an unhealthy extreme, where is the unhealthy balance? Is a healthy balance being a little bit wicked? Somewhat righteous?
  3. A third perspective is to focus on the healthy balance “B.” Ecclesiastes is a book with a recurring theme— “Fear God and try to enjoy the life that God has given you.” This is a good message, and clearly places this as “B”— the healthy balance. If that is the healthy balance— what are the extremes? Legalism, asceticism, or licentiousness would be ungodly extremes.

We can use this principle in many ways. For example, one can look at the qualities of the Fruit of the Spirit are not extremes, but balances. From there, one can identify extremes. For example if Gentleness is a healthy balance, one unhealthy extreme is its clear opposite— abuse. But another is the perversion of the balance— in this case weakness.

A post I wrote on the opposite and perversion of various virtues is The Two Sides of Christian Virtues.

Good Theological Questions from 19th Century Seneca

I was raised up near the Cattaraugus Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians— a prominent Iroquois tribe.

Recently, I was reading “Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps” by William N. Hoover. In it, he shares a quote from another book that speaks questions that Seneca students had for white missionary teachers serving among them.

In A Nineteenth-Century Journal of a Visit to the Indians of New York, Deardorff and Snyderman noted that often in the evenings Henry Simmons sat with the Indian men and tried to answer many of the questions the Indians had about the whites and their ways. Especially thorny for Simmons to explain was how the whites reconciled their religious professions with their treatment of the Indians. Such problematic questions as: ‘Was it right for whites and Indians to marry since each went to a different Heaven (or Hell) when he died? What happened to the half-breed children? Why, if the Bible was intended for Indians hadn’t it been fixed so the Indians could read it?’ Explaining such contradictions and shortfalls in the ways of the white man would not have been an enviable task for anyone.

William N. Hoover, Kinzua: From Cornplanter to the Corps (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2006), 39.

These are great theological questions? Questions about intermarriage and of mixed race children were extremely practical questions that relate to Soteriology and the eternal destiny of Man. The question of the Bible and why it is not translated into the Seneca language is a hugely important contextual/missiological question. But of these the most challenging was reconciling the high principles of white Christians with their sinful activities. How can Christians be coming to the Seneca expressing high morality while deceiving and cheating the Seneca?

Truthfully, there is no excuse. The correct answer is that Christians often rationalize great evil when there is financial advantage to do so. This is even more so when that great evil is directed at people who are consider to be from “Them” rather than “Us.”

However, I do think that I have a suggested answer. Boccaccio’s Decameron has the First Day, Second Story a situation where a non-Christian discovers how far Christians fall short of their high ideals. I would suggest you reading it yourself. It is a great story. But from it, I would suggest this answer.

“You are right. So many Whites have mistreated your people. I am sorry for this. What makes it even worse is that we claim to be Christians meaning that we claim to follow the guidance of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ would never approve of stealing from your people, or cheating your people, or abusing your people. I am convinced that Jesus Christ, God’s Son is very displeased that people claim to follow Him and yet do such evil things. My hope is that you will not follow the example of so many of the White people you have met, but follow the example and guidance of Jesus Christ.”

This would make sense because as missionaries we are not to lead people to ourselves, or even people like ourselves. We are to lead people to Christ. In fact, it is the great gulf that exists between Jesus and Christians that can help people see Christ more clearly. I don’t recommend, being ungodly so that people identify the godliness of Jesus in contrast. But it is important to recognize that Christianity is not a man-made faith from good people. It is a God-given faith that aspires to that which is beyond the reach of man to attain. That is what led the non-Christian in that story in the Decameron to become a Christian. The sinfulness of religious leaders convinced him that Christianity did not come from them.

An Inspiring Failure

This is a sermon I preached at a church in the Philippines on its anniversary. This was a few years ago. I am calling it “An Inspiring Failure” because a key illustration in is is on the early Protestant missionary—- Justinian von Welz.

It is wonderful to finally be here to visit your church. We have known Ptr. Noel and Tita since 2004. We visited here many years ago, but not on a Sunday. So much has happened here at Mabalacat Good Harvest Community Church. I believe God has been doing great things here.

But of course, in an Anniversary, we don’t just look back to the past. We take time to think about the future.

I have two jobs generally. I act as administrator for Bukal Life Care, a Christian counseling center in Baguio. The other is that I teach missions at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary, or PBTS. I often find inspiration in the stories of Christian missions. God has blessed us with his word… the Bible. But he has also blessed us with the stories of those who have come before us. Because of my involvement in missions, I especially like to read about missionaries throughout history. So I would like to tell you a story. It is the story of a man name Justinian von Welz. I think it is safe to say that few, if any here, have heard of him.

Welz, was born in 1621 into a Protestant, Lutheran, family in Austria… a country dominated by Catholicism..  His family was persecuted for their faith so they moved to Germany. 

As an adult into his early 40s, he led a rather carefree and sinful life (he had money and he was of noble blood, meaning he could do pretty much anything he wanted) but then he began to read the Bible and church teachings. He repented of his sins, and became a true follower of Christ. His values and goals were completely changed by the experience of his conversion. He lived a simple life and dedicated himself to that which would glorify God.  Although he was of noble birth, being a baron, he decided to set that aside to serve God. He believed that God so loved the entire world, that God gave His one and unique son, that whoever believes in Him no matter who they are or where they live, should not perish but have eternal life.

He proposed the formation of an organization called the “Jesus Loving Society.”  This was a mission organization…. Long long before anyone had thought of such a thing. He urged that everyone… every church… every minister should share the gospel to lost people groups… not just preaching to those already in the church, or just waiting for some calling from God.

Welz suggested that The Jesus Loving Society was to be composed of three groups:

Missions sponsors and promoters (they provided the money)

Missions directors and secretaries (they provided the organization and leadership)

Missionary volunteers who would serve overseas for 2 to 3 years, sharing the Gospel. (They provided the hands, feet, and voice… to bring the message of Christ to all people)

Each missionary would study geography, history of the church, early church missions, Paul’s missionary journeys, evangelism, and foreign languages. Once the missionaries would arrive in their ministry country, they would study local customs, and local religions. They would learn the local language, translate portions of the Bible, and send back regular reports to home supporters.

This is a new idea. The Protestant churches at that time, did not think of the Gospel as for the whole world. They just focused on their own neighborhoods. Some of the theologians actually taught that it was wrong or evil to share the Gospel with non-Christians… or “heathens” as they would call non-Christians.

Welz felt that universities should train students to be missionaries. They should be trained in language, world religions, and other subjects related to missions. He invested a large amount of money to accomplish this. His ideas, however, were not accepted.

Welz, asked “Is it right for Christians to keep the Gospel to themselves rather than sharing it with others?  Is it right for so many theological students to sit around awaiting suitable appointments or perhaps becoming schoolmasters rather than venturing forth to preach to the heathen?  Is it right for Christians to spend so much money on amusement, expensive habits of food and dress, give no thought or money for the dissemination of the Gospel?” 

He could not interest others in his day to serve as missionaries, so he chose to go himself. A religious leader described him as ““… a dreamer, fanatic, hypocrite and heretic, …. it was absurd, even wicked, to cast the pearls of the gospel before the heathen.” He left for Suriname… a tropical region in South America. He left in 1666. We know that he was dead by 1668, probably of malaria. As far as we know, he was unable to lead a single person in Suriname to Christ.

At the end of his life, one could call his story: “Justinian von Welz— the Failure.” There were other men of his time… noblemen… kings… who built palaces… conquered countries… did things that changed the world. But von Welz died a failure… changing nothing.

But his story did not end with his death….

Less than 30 years after his death, the University of Halle set up a program for training missionaries built on the principles and proposals of von Welz. They were able to train university students to travel all over the world as missionaries.

70 years after von Welz’ departure for Suriname, mission families from Moravia, Germany travelled to Suriname to restart the work that von Welz had begun.

125 years after von Welz death, William Carey, Andrew Fuller and others established the first real Mission Society or Mission agency, based largely on the principles that von Welz had described over a century before.

150 years after von Welz death, there are dozens of mission agencies built on similar principles to his Jesus Loving Society, sending out hundreds of missionaries throughout the world.

350 years after von Welz death, we are here in the Philippines, in Mabalacat, Pampanga, talking about how we are joining Justinian von Welz in seeing what we can do to share the Gospel of Christ to the whole world.

Justinian von Welz was a success… in God’s eyes.

He is not alone. Jesus had a similar life story. He preached and healed for three years… he trained disciples… but then he was captured. His friends and supporters deserted him. Jesus was judged and found guilty… and killed as a criminal… an enemy of the State. And if we stopped there, we could easily say that he was a failure…. Died a failure. But we know that there is more to that story.

Jesus conquered death and was recognized as a true success. And in his actions, we have inspiration for what we are to do. Read Philippians 2:3-11

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

He obediently humbled himself… and God the Father raised him up and exalted him.

The Bible said that Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to use for His own advantage… He was a King but chose to be a humble servant… and seen as a failure to the world around that thinks of emperors, and military leaders as successes. Because of this… God has exalted Him… raised him high… declared him victorious.  

You know… when you think about it. God has a very different view of success than we commonly do. Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 20:25-27

25But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,c 27and whoever would be first among you must be your slave

That is a very different attitude. Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus were great historians from the first century. One mentioned Jesus in a couple of sentences. One mentioned him in only one sentence and even then mispelled his name. Another did not mention him at all. But today, there is no one better known in human history than Jesus Christ. A king who became a servant.

Justinian von Welz was a nobleman… a baron. He was rich and could have used his position and wealth to impress the world. Instead he gave away his money, and renounced his noble birth to serve God. Today, 350 years later, we still talk about Justinian von Welz… while nearly all of the people who lived when he lived lie silent in forgotten graves.

So what? What does that have to do with us?

I like to look at what your church has done over the years. We have known Ptr. Noel and Tita for 11 years, and Ryanne almost as long. It is exciting the various outreaches that are being done here. I see children’s outreach, music and youth ministries, feeding programs… and more. You have much to look back upon and feel pride.

Anniversaries are special this way. They are a time to look backwards… but also to look forwards. What path has God led us on. What is God doing right now. Where is God taking us into the future. After all God is always at work… whether we are working or not. But we must always ask ourselves the question… Are we working for God… or working for ourselves?

Another story… I like stories. This one is about my dad. My father was an engineer… a mechanico. He was hard working and smart. In fact, in addition to being an engineer… he was the President of the Board of Trustees of the local school… a school of several hundred students. One day, when I was 7 years old, my dad came home from the school and told me that he quit his work with the school. I was shocked. Even at 7 years old, I knew that this was a job of respect and power in our town. I asked my dad… “Why did you quit?” My dad responded, “That job required me to be gone so many evenings, so I quit. It is more important for me to be home with my family.” That seemed so stupid. I didn’t tell my dad that, of course. But it seemed so obvious that you would keep a job that adds status and honor… even if it means being away from the family. But over time, I began to understand that my dad was choosing what was most important. A few years later, his engineering boss retired… and my dad was offered that higher job. My dad said NO… he did not want the job. My dad said he did not want the job because it would require him to travel a lot, and he wanted to be home with his family, and serving in the church as head deacon. By this time… I did not think this was stupid. I understood his wisdom. Instead of choosing what was important… he was choosing what was MOST important.

He taught me what was most important.

So when I look back at my Dad, I see someone who knew what was most important. His family and his church were more important than money or status or prestige. And I would suggest that you reflect on this too… make sure that you take care of your church family. Prioritize what is most important as an example to the next generation… both inside your church and outside of your church.

When I look back at Justinian von Welz… I see someone who is a man of divine vision… ahead of his time… breaking away from what those around said was God’s will. He moved forward with such passion that even though he was seen as a failure in his time, he left a vision that has inspired generations of Christians down to the present age. You have the opportunity to transform Mabalacat, Pampanga, Tarlac… the Philippines… the World in ways that you may now think is impossible. To do so, may produce ridicule from others… but when doing the will of God, one may have to set aside comfort… ease… for something better… an inspiration for future generations.

When I look at Jesus… who set aside his glory to be a servant… and example of humility driven by love… He set His heart on the Kingdom of God… not some little kingdom here. I see one whose heart inspires me to stop trying to be a king… stop trying to build my little kingdom… but seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. You can create a great church… with a great and mighty ministry. And that would certainly be exciting. But maybe better than a great church… is a good church… one that humbly serves God by humbly serving the community it is in… a safe harbor in stormy seas.

How does one make that happen? I don’t know. I am not part of your church… it is between you and God. But be reminded of the verses we read:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,c 27and whoever would be first among you must be your slave

This sounds backwards… but it is not. Jesus said this is how the kingdom of God works. Those who humble themselves before God… will be exalted. Those who seek to be first will be last… and those who are last… they shall be first. Those who seek greatness, must serve others. Those who who will serve God and others like a slave might… we be first before God.

And this is what I hope and pray for you all and your church. I want your church to be a mighty, a great, a prestigious, a powerful church. I want your church be honored by those around and members of the church to be people of influence in the community. I want those things. I I suspect you want those things too. However, don’t want them too much. Don’t seek might, greatness, prestige, honor, influence.

Seek to be humble servants of those in need of help. Take on the role of a servant in your community, in your country, in the world. Faithfully serving God and not yourself. In due time, you will be exalted… a success… in the eyes of God.

Is It Worth It?

Quote from the movie, “Men in Black”– where “K” explains what it means to become a member of the the ‘MIB”

Edwards: What’s the catch?

K: The catch? The catch is you will sever every human contact. Nobody will ever know you exist anywhere. Ever. I’ll give you to sunrise to think it over.

Edwards : Hey! Is it worth it?

K: Oh yeah, it’s worth it… … if you’re strong enough!

In the movie, the statement of K is questioned by the narrative where it starts to become clear that “K” is less than fully satisfied with his life as a member of MIB. He gave up the love of his life to gain knowledge of “What is out there.” But slowly he began to question this decision, and by the end, seeks to leave MIB to take the path not (initially) taken.

Does that truly undermine his statement, or simply point out that he is not strong enough?

Many missionaries have asked the same question.

—Is it worth it? Does the question depend on one’s strength (resilience, sense of calling, faith)?

—Can “strong missionaries” struggle with this answer?

—Is it wrong to even ask questions such as whether it is worth it to be a missionary?

The issue is not really so much about strength or faith. Rather it is about Opportunity Cost.

When you take one path, you miss the opportunities that other paths hold are lost and never come back.

Years ago, I quit my job, we sold our house and traveled to another country. I could have stayed on my old path as an engineer. Perhaps we would have a large house and a beautiful car. I don’t know because we did not take that path. Maybe our children would do better… or worse. I don’t know… but things would be different.

I Corinthians 15:12-19 I feel speaks of this sort of Opportunity Cost. Paul notes that if there is no resurrection from the dead that all Christians are have only this life and are lost in their sins, and the dead are simply dead. This seems reasonable enough. But then he adds, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” The previous verses would suggest that Christians are equally miserable. But in verse 19, Christians are “more to be pitied’ (eleeinoteroi) than all other men. This suggests that Christians would actually be in a worse state than all others because they have invested in something that did not pay off, unlike the rest.

Luke 14:25-33 records Jesus talking of the cost of being one of His disciples. He makes it clear that it is important to ‘count the cost.’ Reading the Bible, I believe it is quite clear that God is telling us that IT IS WORTH IT to follow Him. But that does not imply that God does not want us to go through the effort of running the numbers.

The “Rich Young Fool” decided that the cost of following Jesus was too much. However, this was not a unique occurrence. Judas Iscariot changed his mind. So did Elijah quite… for awhile. So did John Mark. Many of the Kings of Judah (Saul, David, Solomon, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Josiah, for example) started out good but struggled in holding to the true path.

It is very human— meaning very normal for us, being human— to question whether being a missionary is worth it. It is healthy, and the impulse should not be stifled. Any missionary that struggles with this should be listened to, non-judgmentally, and sensitively.

It is worth it… but it sure doesn’t always feel like it.

Is the Bible a Legal Drama or a Love Story?

Some see the Bible as a disconnected set of stories, poems, history, letters, and more. I do believe, however, that it should be seen as a big story with lots of chapters.

But what type of story is it. An obvious possibility is that it is a legal drama. And there are strong reasons to view it that way…

A legal drama would typically have a Law, a Judge, the Defendant, the Prosecutor, the Defense. And in the Bible these roles are made pretty clear:

Law: Mosaic Law or New Covenant (This can be looked at in terms of covenants or dispensations)

Judge: God

Defendant: Mankind (individually or corporately)

Prosecutor: Satan (the “Accuser”)

The Defense: Jesus Christ (Mediator)

If one looks at the Bible this way, perhaps the book of the Bible that best fits this form is the Book of Job. God acts as Judge. Satan is the Accuser, the Defendant is a man, the Law is vaguely described but seems to be godly righteousness. The only thing missing in Job is a clear Defense. Job really spends much of the book trying to defend himself.

There are problems with this. For one, there is more than one Law. Focusing on different covenants or different dispensations does not help. It kind of comes off as more than one law drama. Also, although Jesus is described as a mediator, more commonly Jesus’s role is different. It seems like Jesus as defense is more of a metaphor to make a point rather than a model. Also, these roles within the story sort of suggest that Jesus and Satan are equal and opposite, while God (the Father) is more interested in the Law (His Law) than He is in mankind. God the Father is ultimately more Just and Loving.

The Love Story is more vague. There is the two people and the relationship. In this the two “people” would be God and Mankind. The relationship would be found in the pursuer and the pursued. As such, the book of the Bible that fits the overall story the best is probably Hosea, with God as the faithful lover, Israel as the unfaithful loved one, and a marriage, adultery, and restoration providing the story.

The love story sounds vague, but I feel it works better in a number of ways.

  1. It puts Satan in his proper place. Satan is not the “anti-God.” He is not equal and opposite. He is more tempter than accuser.
  2. In this model, God is not schizophrenic— a Holy Judge and a Son seeking to undermine justice. It works better in terms of a Trinitarian understanding of God. The Christian understanding of God is not Tritheism— three different gods working with and against each other. One God may express Himself in multiple persons/players, but are united in purpose.
  3. It doesn’t require stressing out so much over different laws/covenants/dispensations. Each section of salvific history is a different strategy or chapter in the dance that is the relationship between God and man.
  4. It has a stronger anthropological aspect to it than the other. For the legal drama, the expectations of God are found in terms of the Law (whether Mosaic Law or Law of Grace), but the expectations of Man are ignored… only the failure to meet the expectations of God. However, as a love story, God not only has expectations for Man, but Man has expectations for God. That is a reality and it is best to acknowledge that— much as the Bible does not ignore Man’s dissatisfaction with God at times.
  5. It avoids some of the (I am sorry to say) “silliness” in terms of talking about God being “infinitely just” and “infinitely loving” so the blood atonement was the “only way” that God could work out how to fix things and pay the price. Rather, the sacrifice of Christ is primarily an act expressing the depth of love that God and for mankind. With this understanding, God is more loving than He is just.