Monday, May 11, 2015

There's No App For That

The scriptures referenced are 1 John 5:1-6 and John 15:9-17.

One of my favorite apps is the Waze app. I first downloaded it as a crowd-sourced traffic app. My wife and I were on vacation and as usual were in crawling traffic surrounding Atlanta and this app told us why. The way Waze works is that everyone with the app on their phone can report heavy traffic, construction, vehicles on the side of the road, collisions, bad weather or the presence of the police. And at first that was all I used it for. Then I realized it would tell us where gas stations were and what the current prices were, which is invaluable when you are traveling. Almost immediately I discovered it would actually take us to the filling stations and would navigate us wherever we wanted to go, if I just turned on that feature. But the reason I'm really crazy about it was on a trip to a Deans' meeting. The traffic in Miami got bad (I realize that “bad Miami traffic” is an oxymoron). Suddenly my Waze app made a new sound and told me it had a better way. The route on the screen changed. It had me get off the highway, took me through various side streets, and got me back on the highway but on the other side of the obstruction that was slowing everything down. I got to the cathedral 15 minutes early!

Usually I explain the relationship of faith and works by comparing them to having surgery and then following the doctor's orders for physical therapy. The surgery corrects the fundamental problem, such as a broken hip. The PT is no substitute for surgery. But if you don't do your therapy, you don't really reap the benefits of the surgery. I've seen patients with new hips or knees remain wheelchair-bound because they won't do the tough work of strengthening their muscles and learning to walk again. Substitute Christ's atonement on the cross for surgery and good works for physical therapy and I think that illustrates the relationship between faith and works.

I want to try a different metaphor this time. If you have a smart phone you have probably downloaded a number of apps. They may give you the weather or the news. Wikipedia's app gives you access to practically all the knowledge in the world. There are apps that tell you what restaurants are nearby and how others rate them. There are apps that allow you to see movie trailers, tell you local movie times and even let you buy tickets.

Just as every business seems to have a website these days, many have apps. Your pharmacy chain probably has an app that tells you the weekly specials, sends you coupons and reminds you when your prescriptions are ready. Amazon has apps that let you read books and an app that lets you compare and buy whatever they offer. Our sheriff's department has an app that gives you info on vehicles dispatched, traffic, a list of sex offenders and our ever popular mugshots.

I got sold on the idea of apps when I heard of a man trapped in an elevator when the earthquake hit Haiti. He broke his leg and while waiting to be dug out, he treated himself using a first aid app. So I have one offered by the Red Cross as well as iTriage, which not only gives you the latest medical and health news but defines various conditions, lists symptoms and tells you everything you need to know about most medications and procedures. It will even suggest specialists in your area.

There are numerous free apps that put the whole Bible in your phone, often with more than one translation. I have one that reads the Bible to me, which is handy when driving. I have another which offers not only Bibles but a whole library of high-quality reference works from Intervarsity Press. I even found an app that offers most of the text of William Barclay's Daily Study Bible.

I didn't develop the apps. Other people put a lot of thought and work into them. I just had to download them. But some of the apps I've downloaded I rarely use. I have them but they don't do me any good. And I only use one or two functions of a few of them, as I did the Waze before discovering its other features.

We do not save ourselves. We can't. Only Jesus can do that, the way only a programmer can create an app. Downloading an app is an act of faith. You trust it will not freeze up your phone or install malware but will make your life at least a little better. But we not only have to download the apps but use them. And that brings up the way some so-called Christians seem to act. They download Jesus but rarely use him or explore all the levels and features available. They do not obey him. They do not try to really love their neighbor, much less their enemy and so they never learn the joy of sharing and reconciliation. They do not try to feed or clothe or welcome or visit the unfortunate and so miss out on the surprising revelations and the discoveries made when seeing and serving Christ in others. They do not renounce themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus and so they do not enjoy the peace and happiness that comes of not thinking of oneself all the time but moving outside yourself into mission and the lives of others.

Part of this is the fault of the way we proclaim Christianity. We emphasize God's love for us while not emphasizing the necessity that we love others. We tout the fact that, as it says in Ephesians 2:8 & 9, we are saved by grace through faith, but neglect that as it says in verse 10 that we were created in Christ Jesus for good works. Not only do we forget they are part of the gospel, we forget they are actually benefits.

When I wrote radio ads, I liked to emphasize the benefits of whatever I was telling people about. Some things sell themselves but for many you have to spell out how this car, this seafood restaurant, this carpet company differs from the competition and why it is a better choice. I think it would be good for us to think about the benefits we have in Jesus Christ.

In Christ we have salvation. Unfortunately for many people, including many Christians, this means primarily salvation from hell. And if this is the only reason you are a Christian, it makes your faith not much different from fire insurance. It is not so much a way of life as a precaution that doesn't come to mind except in an emergency. Sadly, I am afraid that this is how a lot of people who claim to believe in Jesus see their religion. They got the idea that if they simply said the sinner's prayer or got baptized, they were now on Team God and had a “Get Out of Hell Free” card.

But really what Jesus saves us from is ourselves—our worst selves; the part of us that acts selfishly, that uses people for our own benefit, that deceives others and ourselves, that sabotages our lives, that indulges in self-destructive behavior, that puts ourselves before others, that convinces us that we are nearly always right and that those who contradict us are not only wrong but evil. And ultimately being such a person and letting those traits grow in oneself indefinitely becomes a living hell.

But uniting ourselves to Jesus doesn't just save us from the evil in ourselves, it makes positive changes in us. If we let the Spirit work in us we become more faithful, more hopeful, more loving. If following our baser nature leads to a hellish existence then letting the Spirit bring our nature into harmony with the God of love is heavenly.

Through Jesus we become children of God, obtaining the rights and duties of heirs. As God's children we can go boldly before his throne to ask for whatever we need to live and to carry out his mission. We can share with God whatever concerns us and cast our cares on him because he cares for us. (1 Peter 5:7) When we cannot express ourselves in prayer, the Spirit communicates to the Father with “groanings too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26) Our loving heavenly Father wants to know what is in our hearts.

Through Jesus we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, the realm in which God's will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven. The kingdom starts small and grows slowly but eventually will be impressively large and sheltering. The kingdom of God is thus already within and among us at least in its embryonic form but will one day reach its consummation. Our job, besides obeying our king, is to invite others to enter.

Through Jesus we are members of the Body of Christ. We are connected to him as intimately as parts of the body and like them we have a great number of functions. To accomplish these functions, the Spirit bestows gifts and abilities to each of us. No one has all the gifts, which is why we need to stick together and work together. The church needs every one of us.

Through Jesus we belong to the church, the gathering and assembly of all people called by God. In the church we worship and serve God. We are baptized. We hear the scriptures read and the gospel preached. We confess our sins and receive forgiveness. We sing to our Lord and we celebrate the sacrament of his body and blood. We are sent out to serve Jesus through serving others and to spread the good news.

So through Jesus we receive healing, forgiveness, communion with God, a loving family, an outlet for our skills and talents and a purpose in life. We become part of the narrative of God's recreation and restoration of the earth and its people. And there are more—peace of mind, reduction of stress, better mental and physical health, longer life, etc. That's a lot of benefits.

And yet many people look at our faith as if it did just one thing, as I used to think my Waze app did. Especially confounding are those critics who state that religion is merely bad science, a defective way of explaining how things work. I have never understood how it is that people who are scientists managed to never read up on the subject, on the sociology of religion and/or comparative religion and learned all of the different functions that faith fulfills in the lives of adherents. In this regard, someone like Richard Dawkins displays precisely the same kind of ignorance as those fundamentalists whom he attacks.

Sadly, there are Christians who similarly neglect to learn all the riches that God in Christ has for them. They live lives that are not substantially different than those of non-Christians. And it's not, strictly speaking, a matter of lack of knowledge. I know people in jail who spend every waking moment reading the Bible and every Christian book I send them. Some can quote chapter and verse better than I. But if their knowledge of scripture is a mile wide, it is only an inch deep. Their mastery of God's Word does not translate into living a godly life. While some of these men are mentally ill, many are not. They have simply carved out exceptions in the standard moral code when it comes to violence, sex, alcohol and recreational drugs. They only apply to themselves the parts that are easy for them to observe. Or they only apply the rules to other people.

Not all such people are incarcerated, because many sins are not illegal, especially if they don't injure others physically or financially. And so people damage themselves and others spiritually, mentally and/or emotionally, thinking they have impunity to do so or even that they are not doing anything wrong. They are like the individual who used his Waze app to find out where cops were reported to be and then he went to shoot one. That was not the purpose for which they app was created.

The purpose for which Jesus came was to help us, to reveal God's love and forgiveness and to show us how to love each other. And from that flow many other benefits for body, mind and spirit. But to get those we must use them and delve deeply into our relationship with God.

And to do that we need to stop treating God as if he were a life vest. You only wear those when you're on the water and usually only when things look like they could get dangerous. And the minute you get on dry land, you leave the life vest behind. We need to start treating God as if he were our cell phone. We won't leave the house without our phone. We feel naked without it. If we forget it, we go back for it. And we check it frequently for messages. We go to it whenever we can. Why do we do that? Because in part our phone connects us to those we love. Imagine what the world would be like if we treated God that way—as something indispensable, as something we can't imagine doing without.

Jesus is our connection not only with the God of love but with others. We love him because he first loved us. Which is also the reason we love others. Because if we look closely enough, we will see something of God in everyone. So what we do for them, we do for him. Every time we serve Jesus through others, we become more like him. And that's our goal: to become more Christlike every day in every way to every person. And the paradox is the more we become like him, the more we become ourselves, the persons we were meant to be. As hard as it is to see Christ in others, it can be harder to see him in ourselves, to see the God of love buried but growing deep within us. But John tells us that when we see him, we will be like him. There is no app for that. It simply must be lived. 

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