We were talking about what informs our faith, how we are living into the label of Christ-follower. And I found myself convicted.
My Bible-reading is hit or miss. Not a day goes by that I don't refer to something I have read from the Bible. Much is hidden in my heart, in my memory. There is no doubt that my life and thoughts and deeds are informed and influenced by scripture. I'm a Christian; that's what we do. It matters. My beliefs are based on what's in the Bible.
But the day-to-day reading, holding the book in my hands? Hit or miss, honestly. No daily 5:45 AM appointment with my Bible. It's not the last thing I read at night. Honestly, a good part of my Bible-reading these days comes from the internet; I faithfully read YouVersion and Bible Gateway, cross-checking translations and paraphrases. That doesn't make it less relevant, or truthful, or powerful - but it's different.
It's like this: I snack all day long. I graze. Again, I believe it matters; I don't discount the value of having the wisdom of the Bible close at hand via my computer or committed to memory via what's hidden in my heart and memory. But it's different than sitting down and just reading. Sort of "Bible Lite".
Like picking up a box of lo mein at China Delight, versus sitting down at PF Chang's for a sumptuous meal. Both are good, nutritious, relatively healthy and possibly made with the same ingredients. But the surroundings are different. Both feed me, but only one can be appreciated as a rich experience. (Sitting in the Food Lion parking lot gulping down a box of lo mein with a plastic fork is NOT a "rich experience". I know. I've done it.)
Point is, when I do sit down and move aside all the things that clamor for my attention and just read, I'm always amazed. Refreshed. Invigorated. Educated. Inspired.
And left with a huge appreciation - again - of just how relevant the Bible is for life. So much of my daily efforts are focused towards the mission of our church - finding ways to communicate with folks who are far from God or outside the church. We rely on every tool we can utilize to demonstrate the grace and truth of God, the life that is found in following Christ, the open arms that characterize Jesus (but that have not always characterized the Church). All those things are good and necessary and I do not doubt that they matter, that they are integral to the mission God has given us.
Coupled with the sit-down, five-course meal that can be found in the Bible, I have found myself in the midst of a powerful and intimate time with God this morning. That's been way cool. It's a mystery, it's supernatural - and yet it's so completely, coherently part of the human experience. The way we were intended to be.
Here's what I was reading this morning; the primary Bible I read is the New International Version. Romans 12.9 begins like this: "Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse...."
I read a good bit, up through chapter 14, and then I just started re-reading. So much of it I found applicable to some issues currently taking up space in my heart and head. Paul wrote Romans, and he had some great stuff to say about how we ought to live our lives. It matters.
Here's the paraphrase from The Message - the parts that really got my attention:
Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.
Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody.
Don't hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it."
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he's thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don't let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. Romans 12.9-21, The Message
And here's chapter 14, as paraphrased in The Message. Yeah, it's a lot of scripture. Yeah, you might just skip it.
But you know the lettuce wraps at PF Chang's? Pure deliciousness.
Yeah. It's that good.
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don't see things the way you do. And don't jump all over them every time they do or say something you don't agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.
For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume he should only be a vegetarian and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ's table, wouldn't it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn't eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table. Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God's welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.
Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.
What's important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God's sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you're a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It's God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That's why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.
So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I'd say it leaves you looking pretty silly—or worse. Eventually, we're all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren't going to improve your position there one bit. Read it for yourself in Scripture:
"As I live and breathe," God says,
"every knee will bow before me;
Every tongue will tell the honest truth
that I and only I am God."
So tend to your knitting. You've got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God.
Forget about deciding what's right for each other. Here's what you need to be concerned about: that you don't get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is. I'm convinced—Jesus convinced me!—that everything as it is in itself is holy. We, of course, by the way we treat it or talk about it, can contaminate it.
If you confuse others by making a big issue over what they eat or don't eat, you're no longer a companion with them in love, are you? These, remember, are persons for whom Christ died. Would you risk sending them to hell over an item in their diet? Don't you dare let a piece of God-blessed food become an occasion of soul-poisoning!
God's kingdom isn't a matter of what you put in your stomach, for goodness' sake. It's what God does with your life as he sets it right, puts it together, and completes it with joy. Your task is to single-mindedly serve Christ. Do that and you'll kill two birds with one stone: pleasing the God above you and proving your worth to the people around you.
So let's agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don't drag them down by finding fault. You're certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God's work among you, are you? I said it before and I'll say it again: All food is good, but it can turn bad if you use it badly, if you use it to trip others up and send them sprawling. When you sit down to a meal, your primary concern should not be to feed your own face but to share the life of Jesus. So be sensitive and courteous to the others who are eating. Don't eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love.
Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don't impose it on others. You're fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you're not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe—some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them—then you know that you're out of line. If the way you live isn't consistent with what you believe, then it's wrong. Romans 14, The Message