Christianity 201

April 12, 2014

Cheapening Spiritual Progress with Gifts

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
  Matthew 7:6

Earlier today at Thinking Out Loud, I wrote about the trend toward feeling obligated to purchase a gift for someone who is being baptized as a teen or adult, an obligation perhaps borrowed from our Catholic (Confirmation) or Jewish (Bar Mitzvah) friends.  In that context, today’s opening scripture verse may seem a little extreme, but I believe the verse applies to anything which might trivialize or reduce someone’s sincere (hopefully) spiritual steps with gift-ware.

I suspect the logic works like this: Family and friends have been invited to the church. They will have everyone over to their house afterwards. Food and beverages will be served. There will be laughter and celebration. That constitutes a party. Therefore, I must take a gift.

I am all for celebrating spiritual occasions. When the prodigal son’s father saw his son returning in the distance his heart was filled with joy:

Luke 15:20“…But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

The son begins his well-rehearsed admission of contrition and humility, but the father interrupts:

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”

Sorrow and sadness
Turn into gladness.

But for many young people, a spiritual step that is marked with gifts — or even worse, cash — sends a mixed message. I know I have a very biased preference for books, but it seems like, if anything, a good time for a Bible handbook, a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia, or a copy of the scriptures in a novice-friendly translation.

Of the various youth-friendly, scripture-based things the gift-ware industry has created over the past decade, I’ve always liked the “Whatever” plaque from Abbey Press because it is a Bible quotation that is a good prescription for life for a young person.,

Whatever plaque

The text is based on Philippians 4:8

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.

If a gift is absolutely necessary, that’s a sentiment I would endorse.

How else might we trivialize the things of God?  In looking back, I’ve referred to the “dogs” verse in Matthew twice before here.

One post dealt with several things at once:

  • We can pray repetitiously, reciting memorized prayers without thinking of their meaning
  • We can omit to pay proper reverence to the name of God
  • We can fail to regard as sacred the writings of scripture and the books that contain them
  • We can substitute subjective testimonies for actual Bible teaching
  • We can discount the importance of committing some of the scriptures to memory
  • We can have a rather casual approach to church services, small group meetings, etc.

In another post, I wrote about how as leaders, we can trivialize the importance of special times for The Church, using Good Friday as an example. We can neglect to immerse our congregations in His humility (washing the feet of The Twelve), his pain and sadness (showing how he would be betrayed and using the cup of sorrow in the Passover meal as example), and his anguish and suffering (at his trial, scourging, crucifixion and death.) For more of my thoughts on how might we ‘miss the moment’ on this particular day of all days, read this recent essay on the other blog.  In the two paragraphs that follow, I explain how we get to this conclusion from the opening verse:

Go Deeper: I should also say that there is much more going on in the ‘giving holy things to God’ and ‘giving pearls to pigs’ verse than what I’ve touched on in the three times it has come up here. While the verse seems to speak to all the things we’ve discussed, the context has to do with judging, but even there, this proverbial saying seems somewhat of an interjection and several Bible commentators skip over it altogether. In its most literal reading, the dogs and swine represent Gentiles, or by extension, unbelievers. It could be argued here that this is stating we are to judge within the family of God and not attempt to judge the world at large.

The broader application of this verse to mean “Don’t offer spiritual ‘pearls’ or things of great value to those who lack the understanding to absorb or process the meaning of them” is really being reversed to say, “Don’t take things which possess great meaning and value and expunge or excise (or we could say, diminish, depreciate or pejorate) all or some of that richness.

In the same Prodigal Son story we read in verse 10,

In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

By all means celebrate. But don’t reduce someone’s pursuit of God and desire to live a set-apart life by offering something purchased only because you feel you had to.

We’ll close today with our opening verse as taken from The Message Bible, which seems to lean more to the way we’ve applied it here:

“Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege.


July 20, 2013

Hallowing the Lord’s Name

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain. (Exodus 20:7 NASB)

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God. (same vs. NRSV)

Since I’ve been writing I have taken The Lord’s Prayer as a theme for several blog posts.  One looked at the prayer in Aramaic which is quite different from the one we know. Another was much more lighthearted; an imaginary dialog wherein as an individual is ‘talking’ the prayer to God, who is interjecting questions and comments.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches on prayer:

Matthew 6:9 “Pray, then, in this way:

‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.

One chapter later, he continues this theme:

Matthew 7:6:“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

I wrote about that passage just a few months ago, when I talked about trivializing important moments in worship or times on the Christian calendar.

What got me thinking about all this is a quotation from the book Tell it Slant by Eugene Peterson.

Tell It SlantFor several years I was part of a group in Baltimore called the Jewish-Christian Roundtable.  Twenty of us met monthly, ten orthodox rabbis and ten pastors and priests.  We basically conducted a Bible study alternating the leadership between Jew and Christian.  The rabbis always brought a handout of the Hebrew text that we would study together.  And they always collected the pages afterwards – meticulously.  I observed that they always counted the pages to make sure they had them all.  One day I asked the rabbi in charge what he did with the pages afterwards.  He said that he took them home and reverently burned them.  He told me that it was a tradition with them.  They were not permitted to leave the holy name in the hands of gentiles, lest it be inadvertently used or treated irreverently, or even blasphemously.

My immediate but unspoken reaction was negative.  Wasn’t this being a bit over-scrupulous?  But as time went on I began to feel the weight of their reverence, this hallowing of the name.  The experience continues in my memory as an implicit rebuke of the glibness in which the name is often tossed around in the circles I frequent.  And it often enters my mind still when I pray “Hallowed be your name.”  (p. 173)

When I read this story, it reminded me of an experience I had, also with a group of Jewish people, but a group of Jews who had accepted Jesus as Messiah. Our church youth group had been invited to visit a youth group of a Hebrew Christian church. I should explain that there are two streams among converted Jewish people, one is the Messianic Jewish style of worship that continues to meet on Fridays and follows the order of service of a typical Shabbot meeting. The other adopts the forms familiar to Evangelical Protestants, with a church building and worship style that is similar to Baptist.

Our group had brought musical instruments and taught them some songs, and several from our group shared their salvation stories. Up to that point, I thought we were doing a reasonably good job.

However, when we turned the youth meeting back over to their leader, he basically said, “These stories and testimonies are all well and good, but we need to focus on what the Bible actually has to teach us.” He then launched into a highly focused, very sober Bible study using a catechism type of teaching format (i.e. question and answer) which proved very quickly how well his group of teens knew their Bibles… and how much our group didn’t.

The contrast between “serious faith” and “casual faith” was striking. We were good kids. We attended youth group. We attended a church renown for the excellence of its programs, speakers and teachings. But we did not have the same reverence or thirst for the things of God in the same way as the group we visited. You could feel the difference. It was for more pronounced than simply the ability to answer Bible questions. It was humbling.

Someone has said that “a fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” That said, could something also be said of someone who takes seriously, and more deeply reveres the things of God that you or I?