Bruce Van Blair
September 14, 2014
Galatians 5; Isaiah 11
When I think of the difference between philosophy and religion, I think of the difference between worship and balance. Now, there have been religious philosophers, and a huge number of religious people think of themselves as well-balanced. Nevertheless, worship has a strong connotation of total devotion, total commitment, total adoration and service that does not seem very “balanced” to any onlooker (unless, of course, they think God actually exists).
There is no rule or accepted definition here. I merely mention that, to me, philosophy seems quite tame in comparison to religion. It has better manners. It is more open-minded. It has a calmer, more balanced approach to thought, consideration, and expression. (Nietzsche was an exception. He had the passion of the religious, though in his case he was anti-religious, and his church turned out to be the Third Reich. I nevertheless read him with avid interest. As you remember, he was famous for his comment: “God is dead.” To which some wit has replied: “Nietzsche is dead, signed God.”) That is why I stopped reading the philosophers after the first ten years of studying philosophy. They are lovely, but they don’t go anywhere. As Tennyson comments in Vastness: “Household happiness, gracious children, debtless competence, golden mean.” It certainly sounds wonderful, yet it is hardly in the same category as a burning bush or a Damascus Road.
There is a lot of exceedingly tame religion in our society – that is, lip service and casual participation in things which used to be religious. But religion itself is quite messy, uncouth, ragged, and unpredictable in comparison to philosophy. It is the commitment thing – the worship thing. The religious, at the very least, are avid about what they believe about God and how they think God wants them to live. The religious always seem on the verge of being what we call “zealous” or “fanatic” – they are off the deep end, brainwashed, have a touch of madness – and I have heard many other such phrases and sentiments over the years. An increasing number of people claim that the world would be a better, more peaceful place if we could get rid of all religions and the religious. I quite agree. People without souls would be far more manageable. A world filled with only fenceposts would be calm and peaceful indeed.
To minimize the zealous side of religion is to misunderstand its nature. If we come to believe in God, then total commitment is the only appropriate response. Whether Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Christian, if you look tame and balanced to outsiders, you are not yet religious. You only toy with the precepts, dabble with the possibilities. True religion is a response to a call from beyond this world. And to be honest, the call of the Spirit makes the Siren Call seem like kindergarten. If in the eyes of the world you are balanced and well-adjusted after having heard the Spirit’s Call, then clearly you stuffed your ears and turned away.
In any case, well-balanced people do not go to crosses. They do not turn will and life over to an Unseen Power. They do not even tithe, or warp their schedules and responsibilities to participate in a faith community. Worship, by definition, is praise and gratitude to a BEING beyond this world. And instead of balance, worship is about giving all – and everything – to God.
But even those of us who are “religious” live in this world, at least for a little while longer. “In but not of the world” is the old phrase. We do not wish to appear any more irrational than necessary. We would like to “get along” here, as long as it does not require us to break our allegiance to Jesus. And the truth is, the Spirit does not require us to make life-threatening sacrifices or to reveal our fanatical devotion unless there is a special reason, a special assignment – that is, unless we receive special guidance from the Spirit. Nevertheless, we stand in readiness because such guidance may come at any moment – like a thief in the night, Jesus used to say. We stay in training, practicing all of the more common disciplines that serve His church and keep us growing and learning on the WAY. This not only keeps us alert and ready, it strengthens the Kingdom, and keeps us learning more of its blessings and benefits all along the WAY.
Fiddler on the Roof, in my opinion, is a great movie. It speaks of a precarious balance between life in this world and adherence to the Jewish Way. But such “balance” would not seem “well-balanced” to any outsider. From a worldly perspective, I think the notion of being “well-balanced” is one of the highest aims and goals. People feel more at ease in your presence if you are well-balanced. If you are an employer looking for an employee, it is comforting if the recommendations say that this person is well-balanced. When we are young, we think it would be nice to marry somebody exciting. But except in special circumstances, we also hope they will turn out to be mature, level-headed, predictable, dependable.
But what is “balance”? Did Jesus seem well-balanced to Caiaphas, to Pilate, to the Sanhedrin – or to His own mother and brothers, for that matter? Does Jesus look well-balanced to anybody who is not already converted? Conversion, of course, moves the pivot point of balance clear off the charts. If Jesus is right about God – right about the purpose of LIFE, and right about the principles He teaches – then Jesus is the most practical man who ever lived, and the best balanced. But Jesus only looks that way to those who already believe Him to be the Messiah and Son of God.
What is the difference between “balance” and “limbo”? I often talk to people who seem to me to be in limbo. They will not let go of the old, and they will not claim the new. In an attempt to stay “safe” – or balanced – they stay in limbo. But they are not balanced, from my perspective; they are paralyzed, terrified, stuck. The Spirit cannot help them because they will not obey, they will not move. Underneath they are miserable. A lot of fear masquerades as balance, in our world. But people in limbo are not happy, joyful, or pleased with themselves or their lives. Fortunately, they do not pretend to be. Honesty sometimes leads them back to hope and toward the Light.
“Neutral” is not the same as balance either. Some people try to claim that it is. Neutral is the creed of a pluralistic society. It says that it is dangerous to claim anything that is not inclusive – anything that might offend anybody. So more and more we are told that it is brilliant, just, and fair to stay neutral. To be wise and well-balanced, we will stay in the middle of everything. By this definition, of course, commitment is evil, dangerous, and the source of all our problems. What is halfway between Christianity and Islam? Nothing! Half of both is neither. It is the void: emptiness. What is halfway between love and hate? Neutral? Tolerance? Indifference? These sound logical, but in reality there is nothing – no relationship. There is no love in neutral. It is not a half-love; it is nothing. What is halfway between good and evil? Nothing. Good is not anemic enough to share with evil, nor is evil calm and tame enough to make compromises with good. It is nowhere. Halfway between good and evil is a figment of our imaginations.
Now, I know that we recognize ourselves as containing both good and evil. But that is no pleasant compromise. It is not a mixture. It is a fight to the death. Don’t you read the classics? Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are not in some happy combination. It is one or the other! The good within us is not tainted or mixed with evil. The evil within us is not tainted or mixed with good. One or the other is always winning and trying to throw the other out. It is why we need a Savior, and not just a teacher. It is why we need to be converted, and not just adjusted. Along the way, it makes us very uncomfortable with Jesus’ teachings. Being no philosopher, Jesus never lets us picture ourselves as some homogenized gray mixture of good and evil. He never allows us to think we are His friends by staying neutral or well-balanced. “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23) The most devastating thing Jesus ever said to all our self-help and self-improvement schemes was “You must be born anew.” You must die to the old self. This is not just a carburetor problem. This is going to take more than a few weeks or months with a shrink. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength.” Yes, “and your neighbor as yourself.” It is impossible, we keep saying. Whenever we understand Jesus, His precepts seem utterly impossible. But they are also our deepest longing and our only hope, and He sets us on a WAY that will never settle for less.
Many people would claim that I have no right to speak about “balance.” They say I have a tendency to be passionate, maybe even intense. It is true that I have hated the concept of “moderation” since I was a little boy. The “Golden Mean” has always seemed mean and stupid to me. Mariana has often claimed that I have never bought just one of anything in my life. That is entirely false. I did once back on October of 1977, and again just last year. What I think she fails to notice is that I only want one God – and one wife! Of course, in our society, even that looks unbalanced.
Because of personal circumstances, I am feeling very humble this morning, but not particularly apologetic – hence, not very defensive. If you will forgive me, I want to suggest now that I am much better balanced than many people suppose. And many of you who really are religious are better balanced than your friends imagine. By the way, when I do feel apologetic, it is usually because I have not been zealous enough, fanatical enough, or radical enough in my love and obedience for my Lord. But that is between me and Him.
Recently we have been searching for a pastor of Youth Ministries here. Several of our candidates came to Sunday morning worship and we never heard from them again. I’m sure another minister must have been preaching that day. More recently we got really excited about a young couple very committed to youth work. We thought it was all sewed up – we liked them and they liked us – and we were quite excited. Then after it was all settled, they backed out. They could not work in a church that did not believe the Bible was inerrant; that did not believe Jonah was actually in the belly of a whale for three days; that tolerated astrology; that did not teach the doctrine of the Virgin Birth – and so on. We had been upfront and honest with them from the beginning, and we were incredibly gentle and patient with them. But it reminded me of the incredible gap between us and our conservative brethren, on the one hand, and between us and most liberal churches, on the other hand. Is that a form of balance?
Certainly not because of my nature or temperament, but in reality: Have I not tried to lead this church into places of balance? Conservatives think I am a flaming liberal. Liberals think I am a hopeless conservative. Both tend to assume that I haven’t thought about things very much or studied enough. If I do not mistake it, many of you have indeed followed me into the freedom of the Gospel: you have inquiring minds; you study to make the Faith your own; you pray more personally and earnestly than ever before; you acknowledge imperfections, but nevertheless you have a real and personal relationship with the Holy Spirit of our Risen Lord. Interesting, then, that fundamentalists are sure we are going to Hell, while liberals think we are much too pious and wonder why we are fooling around with prayer, the Bible, and our own faith family when we should be concentrating on the problems of our society: justice, ecology, and feeding the poor. Are they really better balanced than we are?
I abhor the concepts of inerrant Scripture, yet I take the Bible with utmost seriousness. Is that a form of balance? I never intended it to be, but lately it has crossed my mind. Inerrancy ends up closing down the mind and offends the very precepts of the Bible itself. It reeks of fear, and Jesus Himself went beyond and interpreted anew nearly every precept and principle of the Bible of His time. If He had not, there would be no NEW Testament! On the other hand, if you do not revere the biblical records, you have little respect for history, tradition, or the personal experiences of all those who have walked this WAY before us – including Jesus.
If you think Jonah was an actual individual and that his story is about being swallowed by a fish, you haven’t the faintest notion what the story is about or what it is trying to say. Jonah means “dove” in Hebrew, and Jonah stands for the whole Jewish people. The “fish” that swallowed them up was the Babylonian captivity. They ran from their true purpose – to be a light to the nations, to carry God’s word of love and forgiveness to all peoples – so they ended up in the belly of Babylon. And when they had truly repented, God brought them back to Israel and to Jerusalem – coughed them up on dry land, as the story puts it. Then God gave them the very same purpose and commission they had always had. “Go to Nineveh, the capital of the pagan, Gentile empire you hate the most, and preach to them my love and forgiveness.” But as the story ends, they still have not learned yet – that is, Jonah still has not learned yet. When will they ever learn? It is perhaps the most New Testament-like story in the entire Old Testament. And if you get fixated on the fish, you haven’t the faintest notion what the Book of Jonah is talking about.
Let me tell you about balance. I hope and pray it is your kind of balance also.
I deeply believe that Jesus is the Christ – the only Savior/Lord we have. I also believe that God is after everyone, everywhere. Of course, I only believe this because of Jesus, but never mind that for the moment. In any case, I know that there are sincere and even elegant children of the Father in every culture and religion on earth, and that they are on roads and live in ways that seem very different from mine. But Revelation 7:9 assures me that most, if not all, of them will be in God’s Kingdom with me. However Jesus works this out, it is clear to me that these “others” will not be second-class citizens in the Kingdom. I also know that it is not my business to figure it all out. It is my business to be as faithful a follower and disciple of Jesus as I can possibly be, and this includes – insists! – that I honor God’s other children. A lot of them do not include me and they have scriptures which do not include me. But the Scripture I have includes them, whether I like it or not. “Many sheep I have, not of this fold.” (John 10:16)
I believe in monogamous marriage, and I think family life (for all of its travail and aberrations in this broken world) is potentially close to the principles of the Kingdom, and that it is one of the greatest blessings we have on this earth. But I think gay people can and should form such bonds of exclusive love and faithfulness to each other, and that God in Christ Jesus wants to bless them just as much as He does me. And if you want to quote to me Scripture passages to the contrary without trying to understand its language, its context, or its meaning, then go to the Hell you believe in!
I also know that not everybody seems designed for marriage, but the rest of us either need to get our marriages back on track as a three-way covenant between Christ and each other, or we ought to get out of them. And yes, Scripture supports this view. A lot of marriage and family life in our country is a travesty of self-centered hopes turned into neglect and animosity. At least the Christians among us should still be bearing witness to how Jesus has the power to forgive and redeem us.
Still speaking of balance: I think we have a mission to reach out to others, and to help those who are struggling with all or some of the many traps and pitfalls in this world. But I also believe we are given a mission to bring more people into the light and wonder of the Christian Faith, and into the support and love of churches that are true faith families. Lots of people separate these two purposes and neglect the one in the name of the other. I believe they must go together, and that we must constantly look to our own growth and faithfulness or we will not have much to offer to others who come here.
I am often sad that we do not show a greater devotion and commitment to our Lord. I find it hard to understand why we are not packed-out here every Sunday. On the other hand, I get highly annoyed if anybody wants to step in between you and the Holy Spirit, or tries to tell you how to run your lives or what your obedience and commitment should look like. True, I do not get quite as annoyed if I am the one telling you, but even that is not okay. If we are not patient, the growth is not genuine. If any one of us lives the life somebody else hands us, it is not our own and it will not last. Of all the people who ever lived, Jesus knew this best. “On the night in which he was betrayed ....” At His own zero hour, Jesus still broke bread with the friends He knew would forsake Him. They would each have to learn in their own way, in their own good time, or they could never truly serve His Kingdom. When will we learn to follow Jesus into such faith and patience? We cannot believe that love and truth will win in the end, so we keep trying to jerry-rig it, force it, compel it. But Jesus truly believed it.
I like it a lot when we fix and maintain our buildings and treat them like they really are God’s property. Some people say this means I am not really spiritual. Some people were angry that we spent money for a new organ, when we should have given it to the poor. I think they are way out of balance. There should be no art, no music, no poetry, no joy in the Christian Faith? What kind of nonsense is that?! They cannot tell the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist? They have never heard of the Incarnation? We are supposed to integrate body and soul – not pretend that we do not have one or the other.
I think people should be truly spiritual and prayer-driven. I also want all of you to be rich and successful. Yet I hope none of you get controlled by or fixated on such miniature dimensions of life. I hope all of us rejoice more and more in the LIFE we have been given and all of its wonders, but we must never forget that this is a broken world, that nothing lasts here, and that none of our real security is based here. I think many of us take our bodies too seriously and our souls not seriously enough. Yet our souls are housed in our bodies, and we should treat them as the temples they are. Is this my notion, or do you recognize the Scripture? (I Corinthians 6:19)
Most of you know that I think Christianity is for both head and heart. I read and study a lot, but I have no faith at all in the intellect to save us. You know I think that many of the creeds and teachings of orthodox Christian approaches are misunderstandings, or that they have been put to us within the constructs of a former time when the earth was flat, and we simply can no longer hold to such constructs. And that some of those creeds and teachings are just plain wrong – like the belief that vows of celibacy or poverty are pleasing to God. But most of you also notice that very few people believe in Jesus – and His Holy Spirit, His sacrifice, His love for us, His Resurrection, and our future – with more passion or conviction than I do.
So when you stop to think about it: Do you know a lot of Christian pastors who are more balanced than I am? Or a lot of churches that are more balanced than we are? I know; I nearly choke on the words too. It is certainly no intention or plan of mine. But while we are thinking such thoughts: Do I not truly love you for who you are, and want you to be free in Christ Jesus? Do I not refuse to mollycoddle you or control or manipulate you? Do I really want you to be guided and directed by the Holy Spirit, even if that comes at the expense of what might be good for the success of the institutional church at the moment?
I am not sure it is a very good test, but when you get shot at from all sides, does that mean you are balanced? It might just mean that you are wrong about everything. On the other hand, we are covered by the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love of Jesus Christ. You will never convince or persuade me that I am wrong about that. I have been experiencing it for too many years now.
Well, if you have tracked me this far – and forgiven me for mentioning it – here is another balance I really want you to know and have: Selflessness and self-centeredness are the two opposite ends of Satan’s way. In our tradition, the danger of self-negation is approximately as damaging as the danger of greed and selfishness. Individualism is a curse, on the one hand, but community can become as serious a straitjacket. In many Christian communities, you can barely breathe, never mind think, without calling down judgment on your head. Asceticism run riot is about as big in our tradition as self-will run riot. Bondage to self is not something that leads to Life. But neither is bondage to community or creed. Jesus Christ leads us to LIFE, and He is not nearly as frightened by Life as many of His teachers and preachers and churches try to make it seem.
If you are comfortable in this world – if you do not feel the tension between heart and mind, between the physical and the spiritual, between success in this world and devotion to God – then I think you can be certain that you have fallen off into error and sin, into some form of idolatry. On the other hand, I do not think any of us are well-balanced until we are zealous for Jesus and His church. I think we have no true balance until we are fanatical in our love and gratitude toward God. And I always wonder why we do not build His church (His community and fellowship of believers) with a far greater commitment and devotion and abandon. Do we really have anything better to do? Is there something we will care about more when our days here are ended?
Copyright 2014 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.