Ep.319: Religion or Relationship?

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Growing up as a conservative evangelical, I often heard that “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.”  

But Paul in Ephesians 4 doesn’t make that point. Listen to the list of dos and don’ts in the religion he teaches:
    Put off falsehood.
    Speak truthfully.
    Stop stealing.
    Get to work.
    Share your earnings
    Don’t blather on uselessly.
    Say something helpful.
          (Eph 4:25-29) 

Sounds to me like a religion—a list of rules to guide our speech and actions. 

Eventually, though, Paul does get relational when he says, Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30).  

Then he promptly resumes his list:
    Get rid of bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and malice.
        (Eph 4:31)

So what is Paul’s model for a Christian life? In this passage, the obvious way to not  grieve the Spirit is to keep all the rules. Is Paul saying our job as Christians is to make God happy by toeing the line, by obeying his laws? 

Is this what they mean when they say Christianity is a relationship, not a religion? 

A different way to approach this passage is to start at the center and work our way out. At the center is the statement, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30). 

A personal relationship differs from rules because a relationship wants me to be concerned about someone else’s feelings, not just their behavior. A relationship requires me to work with others, to know others, to share something of life with them.  

I can keep rules with the attitude, “I’ll do it because I want to, not because you tell me to.” I can build relationships with an attitude that says, “Yeah, it’s tough to share your values, but I’m willing to learn.” 

A relationship is more than the sum of its rules, more than a collection of acceptable behaviors. Many people keep the same rules I do about stealing, lying, adultery, and murder. But I neither have nor want a relationship with most of those people. Like Anne of Green Gables, I want kindred spirits, not just other humans.

Paul tells me that Christ lives in me. Have I developed a kindred spirit with him, a relationship that doesn’t grieve his Spirit? I want the Spirit to be at peace in me, not restless because I violate his goals and values. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, do I need a relationship app to improve my interactions with you? Or are there already too many people surfing dating sites and lists of rules in hopes of finding a a relationship? 

O Spirit of God who lives in me, make my heart alive to your movements and your moods. I want to know when I grieve you. I want to know when you approve. I want to be a kindred spirit with you. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.318: A New Wardrobe.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

In Ephesians 4 Paul says we need a new wardrobe. Not furniture, as in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, but clothes as in “chuck out your grubbies and give yourself a new look.” 

Or, to quote Paul,
    Take off your old self, which is being corrupted by deceitful desires;
        be made new in the spirit of your mind, and
    put on the new self, created to be like God in righteousness and holiness.”
              (Eph 4:22-24)

I’ve always been nervous about shopping for clothes. And Paul makes me even more nervous when he talks about clothes. He doesn’t suggest updating my wardrobe. He suggests updating me. He tells me to ditch my old self, the way I trash old running shoes and old jeans. He tells me to put on a new self.

Old self, new self? Does Paul think I have two personalities? Am I like “Malcolm in the Middle”–sometimes an unruly, snarky, ego-driven teenager, and at other times intelligent and mature? 

Paul says, Take off the old frayed self! But that person is not so easily discarded. I’ve found it’s way easier to discard bits of my frayed wardrobe than to discard the frayed bits of me.   

Paul is not finished.

He says, Be renewed in the spirit of your mind (Eph 4:23). My mind is the part of me that thinks and feels and believes, so the spirit of my mind must be my underlying disposition, the tenor of heart I bring to mind. 

And what spirit do I bring? Do I bring an open mind, ready to receive and meditate on God’s word, ready to hear and obey? Or do I bring a spirit of distracted busyness or dismissive rejection or outright unbelief? 

My new self sends my cynicism and unbelief to the laundry; and approaches life with hope and faith. It’s a new way of thinking and feeling, a new spirit of mind, a new self.

This new self is not simply a better behaved version of my old self. It’s not just new clothes on an old body. Rather, it’s a new way of approaching at life, a new attitude, a new person living in my old body. When my new self becomes fully and properly dressed, the pointing fingers will no longer say, “The emperor has no clothes!” 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, I wish the Christian life were as easy as a change of clothes. Then I could donate my worn garments to Value Village, and shop at Eddy Bauer. 

But when I buy new clothes, they always look like my old ones. Why do I choose practical, drab, conventional garments? I don’t know how to dress fashionably. I don’t know how to look like a new man. 

O father, renew the spirit of my mind, give me the gift of your spirit. Help me see my poor fashion choices–the conspiracy theories and cynicism and unbelief I wear. Help me receive a new wardrobe, in the fashion of your kingdom. The belt of truth, the shirt of righteousness, shoes of peace, hat of salvation, and shield of faith (Eph 6:14-16). Help me become a well-dressed man.

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.317: A Life Worthy of God’s Calling.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

In Ephesians 4 Paul says, “Live a life worthy of God’s calling.” A lofty goal, indeed. But what does this worthy life look like? 

Paul says it is a life lived in community, using the gifts God gives.  

First, community. In the evangelical circles where I grew up, the word “community” was not used much. I think we assumed that when we excluded bad Christians, Roman Catholics, liberals, and cults, we’d be left with a tribe of true believers that would automatically be a close and loving community.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. We didn’t become a close community. We became a  closed community. Stricter rules and rigid doctrine created arguments and exclusions instead of growth and fellowship.

As I said jestingly to a friend, “I think it’s just you and me who have got things right. And I’m beginning to have doubts about you.” 

In Ephesians, Paul presents a simple list of things to believe. He says, “There is one body and one Spirit,. . . one hope. . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6). Perhaps we try too hard to pin down the details, deciding which baptisms to include in the one baptism, and which body is the real body of Christ. But God is over all, and in all, and through all.  

Paul says, “Be humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2-3). We build community through patience and unity; not through excluding those we disagree with. 

Besides being a life in community, Paul describes the life worthy of God’s calling as a life which recognizes and uses God’s gifts.He says, “To each of us, Christ has given a measure of grace.” Then he quotes an obscure psalm:
    When he ascended on high,
      he took captives in his train
      and gave gifts to people (Eph 4:8, quoting Psalm 68:18). 

Christ gives to the community people who help it become mature–apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. He also gives each member of the community a 

a measure of grace, a gift to be shared with others. The community grows as we recognize and value Christ’s gift of others, and Christ’s gifts in others.

Let’s pray.

O father, our Christian community is a stumbling, inefficient, wounded collection of misfits. As Paul said, God did not call the wise, the influential, the noble, the strong. He chose foolish things to shame the wise, the weak things to shame the strong (1 Cor 1:26-27).

Jesus, you built your community with small-time fishermen, a political agitator, and a thieving treasurer. Give us your vision, help us receive your gifts, grant us wisdom to build a remarkable community with the unremarkable people you choose. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.316: A Tour of God’s Love.

Ep.316: A Tour of God’s Love.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Psalm 48 takes a tour of Jerusalem, saying: 
    Walk about Zion, go round her,
    count her towers,
    consider well her ramparts,
    view her citadels . . . (vv. 12-13). 

The Message Bible uses a tourist image to translate Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3: 
   I ask God that . . . with all followers of Jesus you will take in
the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love.
      Reach out and experience the breadth!
      Test its length!
      Plumb the depths!
      Rise to the heights!
  Live full lives, full in the fullness of God (Eph 3:17-19). 

Yes. Take a tour of God’s love.  

The Oceania cruise company fills my mailbox with flyers. I can cure my problems with a warm-weather cruise to the Caribbean or Mediterranean. How about Around the World in 180 Days, for a bargain price of only $120,000 per couple.  I went to the Oceania website to see if I could stop the flood of mail. They they don’t make it easy. 

Meanwhile, I’m still on God’s mailing list. But I’m not sure how to sign up for a tour of his love. I follow the usual prescriptions–read the Bible, pray every day, meditate, attend church, fellowship with believers. But I don’t feel immersed in God’s love. I feel more like a camper, dipping my toes in a glacier-fresh lake, shivering against the plunge that would immerse me.

Is this God’s problem or mine? How can I, as Paul says, test the length and plumb the depths of Christ’s extravagant love? Is the experience of God’s love a gift he gives, or withholds? Sometimes, he takes me on amazing tours; sometimes he lets me sit under a vine and lament. 

God teaches me what I’m willing to learn. He’s patient with things I need to unlearn. He’s making a way for me to go deeper.

Pray with me.

Our father, you journey with us, not to reward us for being good, but to be our friend in bad times and good. 

You hear our prayers, but you give us what we need, not what we want. You sympathize with us when we feel forsaken. You rejoice with us when we feel loved. We sense your presence with us in a place beneath our flow of thoughts and feelings, beneath our pains and pleasures. 

Guide us by your Spirit. Make us true to your presence. Reveal to us the Christ who dwells in our hearts by faith (Eph 3:17). 

Now to you who can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine, to you be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, now and forever (Eph 3:20-21).   

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.315: Approaching God.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

In July I was diagnosed with colon cancer. In September my church anointed me with oil and prayed for me and I had major surgery. Not exactly the summer I’d planned. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Ephesians 3, about God’s great plan for the universe. He unveiled his mystery, hidden for ages, the mystery to make Christ’s family of believers a triumph of wisdom and leadership, and to expose and defeat unseen evil powers in the heavenly realms. 

God may have unveiled his plan, but it’s still a mystery to me. I keep up on the news, but they don’t report on evil powers in the heavenlies or the worldwide impact of the church. 

How did Paul fit his experience into this grand scheme? He says, “Don’t be discouraged that I’m in prison. My sufferings are for your glory” (v. 13). 

Really? Is Paul saying, “I’m stuck in a stinking Roman prison, but it’s all according to plan, because God is managing the big stuff”? Is he saying, “My orange jump suit and prison number don’t matter, because that’s just on earth and the important stuff is happening in the heavenly realms”?  

In my life, I read fantasy novels as an escape valve from cancer. In one novel, the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is a leper on earth, divorced by his wife and rejected by his community. But sometimes he is transported into a different world, where he has power, honor, and respect. He is constantly conflicted, trying to live out his two identities. 

That’s how I feel in my post-operation recovery . . . as I wait for chemo. I wouldn’t mind being transported into a different reality–perhaps into God’s grand plan for the world, the church, and me. 

But the big plan escapes me. How and when will God work everything out? How much must the church suffer before he does? Does my life really make that much difference? 

My only comfort comes from one small sentence in Ephesians. “In Christ and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (v. 12). 

I don’t need to grasp the big picture. I can go to God, freely and confidently, bringing my cancer-inspired angst, my dread of chemo, and my doubts about God’s goodness. God doesn’t block my phone number or put my calls on ignore.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, the big picture confuses me. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin’s war, driving a new wedge between his Christian church and others.  

The American right fuses individualism, patriotism, and nationalism, with Christianity using the slogan, “Don’t mess with my faith, my family, my firearms, my freedom.”

How can I reconcile the fragility of my life with the robustness of your grand plan? What to make of modern western Christianity, fracturing into tribes over politics and pandemics and culture wars?  What of worldwide violence that gives no quarter to peace? 

I humbly accept Paul’s advice, to approach you freely, confidently, hopefully. Not because I am right. Not because I deserve to be heard. Not because I understand. But because you invite me to approach. Because you offer yourself as a refuge. Because you call yourself counselor. Because you love like a father. 

Hold me in your ever-loving arms. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube