All posts by tunemyheart

Mark Browning lives on 60 wooded acres in the Greater Bates City, Missouri metropolitan area. For over a quarter of a century he has been wed to the lovely Penny with whom he shares four children and four grandchildren. In his spare time, he teaches English at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

No Condemnation–1 John 3:21

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God. –1 John 3:21

A year ago, I got right with my digestive tract. I started eating very light, cutting nearly all meat and dairy out and pigging out on twigs and sprouts. For the summer of 2007, I went nearly 100% vegan. From April until Christmas, I lost forty pounds. I got off my blood pressure medicine. I could leap tall buildings with a single bound.

This morning, along with a hefty jolt of caffeine, I ate two–not one but two–greasy, awful breakfast sandwiches from QuikTrip. Wasn’t it last June that I preached to Olivia that there was virtually nothing good that you could buy at QuikTrip? Now here I am: I love Big Brother. I’m eating fare that’s not just meat and dairy, but sausage and eggs and drippy cheese. It’s so good, but my heart–perhaps literally in this case–is condemning me. Almost the moment the food–and it was tasty food–passed my lips, I felt guilty, condemned.

In Romans 8:1, Paul says that there is no condemnation for us when we are in Christ. Here John says that if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in our standing before God. But what if our hearts do condemn us?

It seems to me that today’s verse and the one from Romans illustrate the danger of taking a verse of Scripture out of context. In the Romans case, the verse isn’t even a complete sentence, and in this case, it only has its full meaning in light of the long series of arguments preceding it.

John, it seems to me, has been spending most of the preceding chapters convincing guilt-ridden people that they have good standing with God. He’s combating those who would add works to the grace of the Gospel. Paul, too, is arguing for a Gospel of grace, but he’s not arguing for absolute license. The fact that I feel bad for eating fatty food this morning does not negate my lack of condemnation before God.

Since there is no condemnation for me, regardless of what I stuff in my mouth or what my hands perform, am I more or less responsible for my actions? If I were condemned, the responsibility would be shifted to a punishing authority. Like a condemned prisoner, my life would not be my own. Since I am not condemned, my life belongs to me. My responsibility to make the most of it, therefore, is all the greater.

Louder than Words–1 John 3:18-20

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. –1 John 3:18-20

I woke up yesterday agitated, bothered that everything in my life seemed just a bit off kilter. My relationships were rocky. My eating is off the tracks. My exercise is non-existent. I’m behind on my grading. Everything’s just a bit messed up.

Part of me wanted to leap out of bed and make a lengthy to-do list. Supplemented by a list of resolutions, that might do the trick.

Part of me wanted to pull the covers over my head and sleep the day away.

Part of me–or maybe something independent of me–recognized the answer why I still lay in the bed. “Get my relationship with God right,” this little voice told me, “and all the other things will work themselves out.”

“Yeah! That’s it,” I assured myself as my feet hit the floor. “I’m going to get my relationship with God right. Then life will be peachy.”

Within two hours, life stunk. I’d yelled at two of my kids and talked sharply to my wife. I topped a hearty biscuits-and-gravy breakfast off with two bismarks. Nothing was going right.

“Why?” I shouted as I stood outside in a driving rainstorm, shaking my fist at the sky. (Okay, that setting I just added for effect.) “Why didn’t things work out?”

No sooner did those questions cross the threshold of my mind than I realized the error of my day. Simply saying that I would get my relationship with God right wasn’t enough. I had to actually do something about it, a something that I couldn’t just wave my hands and make true in the act of rolling out of bed.

Of course, I’m pleased that my lapses don’t foul up my standing with God. Doing right doesn’t make me more redeemed, but it’s not worthless either. It’s like my citizenship in the United States, I think. If I fail to salute the flag properly, that doesn’t take away my citizenship. But saluting the flag, singing “God Bless America,” and otherwise living out my citizenship remind me of the land of my birth. Similarly, my devotion to God helps me to remember whose I am. In the end, that’s all that matters.

Give ’til it Hurts–1 John 3:17

If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? –1 John 3:17

My brother-in-law struggles with his sense of salvation. Regardless of how well he has learned the gospel of Grace, he cannot separate his mind from the sense that works must be important. I’m not talking about the James-style works as the outward manifestation of inner faith. I’m talking about the sense that somehow works are going help save him or that a lack of works will interfere with his salvation.

A couple of years back, I heard him indicate that he had not done enough if somebody in Kansas City was cold during the winter. (He is a furnace repairman.) Apparently, at least in that moment, he was taking the warmth of the entire metro on his own shoulders. Must he forgo sleep in order to fix busted heaters all over town? And why should his furnace-fixing responsibility stop at the city limits? Why not in the state of Missouri? Why not the United States?

Sometimes we have to be careful when considering Scripture and see exactly what it says. One way to read this verse is to believe that as long as I have something and someone else has less, then I should be giving things away. According to that logic, I should sell my house and my cars and everything I possess until I descend to the level of the poorest people or they’re brought up to my level. Is that what John says here? Not quite.

As long as I have material blessings, I should look on my brother’s needs with pity. That doesn’t say that if I have $100 and nine other people have nothing that I should get ten $10 bills and divvy up the loot equally. It says I should have pity on my brother’s need. I should care. Typically such caring will include giving.  However, John does not say that I must give until I’ve given down to the level of my needy brother.

How much should we give, then? Neither John nor Jesus answers that question. Our caring and the way it is manifested, is something between us and God. I’ve seen God perfectly capable of telling me I have not given sufficiently. The question then is how we respond to that message. If the love of God is in you, you will care and you will respond. The “how much” of that is not for me to determine.

A Tale of Two Jesuses–1 John 3:16

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. –1 John 3:16

You can’t go wrong with the three-sixteens, can you? (Try believing that after reading I Chronicles 3:16.) I’m reading a book right now called American Jesus by Stephen Prothero. In this book, the author traces the images and ideas about Jesus throughout American history. While I feel that he overstates some of his conclusions, the book is filled with marvelous insights. More importantly, it provokes thought.

Prothero notes the shifting emphases regarding Jesus as the years pass. For example, he argues that you’d be hard pressed to find a “Jesus as friend” hymn or sermon in 1700s and before. Along those lines, he notes the tendency of certain Liberal churches to focus on a de-historicized Jesus, taken out of the context of the Biblical narrative. After all, in the most prolific image of Jesus, Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” what is Jesus doing? Nothing! These same churches tried to ignore the death and resurrection of Jesus. If they did mention the crucifixion, then it had nothing to do with atonement. No, Jesus, in their eyes, died simply to provide a great moral exemplar, a sort of noble gesture.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even consider making that sort of gesture. If I’m going to risk my life or give up my life, I’m only going to do it in order to accomplish something worthwhile. I might go to the gallows in order to keep somebody else’s neck out of the noose. That’s the move made by Charles Dickens’ Sydney Carton makes at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. If Carton’s death did not provide for Charles Darnay’s escape, it would be simply a suicide. But that’s not the case. If Jesus’ death had not provided for your and my eternal life, then it would have been a very showy, very misguided journey into torture and suffering.

Yes, we learn about the nature of love by looking to the great example of Jesus, but we have to see the whole Jesus. The whole Jesus, unlike Warner Sallman’s portrait, is not simply head and shoulders. It is hands that healed, feet that walked, lungs that struggled for breath on the cross, and every other portion of the frail human form, dedicated to the redemption of you. That’s love.

Kids will be Kids–1 John 3:13-15

Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. –1 John 3:13-15

Tuesday morning, I sat in a hotel restaurant in Nashville, watching as some ninety high-school musicians milled about. Although most of the kids, a band traveling from Toronto, looked relatively distinctive, two of them stood out for me.

One I labeled “The Captain.” He covered his red hair with a ball cap that read “Captain.” He wore shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, both plaid and terribly mismatched. The Captain always had a swirl of crew around him. Clearly this was a personality to be reckoned with.

My second favorite had blue hair–not the naturally occurring sort you sometimes find on older women–that stood straight up on one side, as if she had dipped her hair into blue-colored glue and then taken a nap. She also wore a sort of tutu skirt that stood out from her hips a good twelve inches. I called her “The Ballerina.”

After breakfast, the kids brought a veritable mountain of luggage into the lobby. They then stood about in the gaps between piles of bags and talked. A rather timid hotel employee came up behind a group who blocked the only route to the front desk and freedom. “Excuse me,” he said quietly. “Excuse me.” They ignored him.

“That means we’re going to knock you down if you don’t get out of the way,” I blustered. They gave me that teenage-disdain look and shuffled aside.

I tell this tale not to ridicule teens. They do a fine enough job of that themselves.  What I would ridicule is the notion that these kids were particularly odd. They were teens being teens. Yes, they dressed funny. Yes, they prattled on about nothing nonstop. Yes, they failed to pay attention to their impact on the world around them. So what? Are we really surprised?

John, today, points out the unremarkable nature of people hating believers. We shouldn’t be surprised, he tells us, when people hate us. In fact, when unbelievers don’t hate, that is the surprising turn of events. We should not be surprised at anything that sinful, unredeemed people do. He doesn’t say it, but I think it a reasonable extension that we should be surprised at the things that believers do.

Most significantly, I cannot avoid surprise and disgust at some of the things that I do. Unbelievers, like teens, don’t know any better. What’s my excuse?