Tag Archives: Romans

Clinging to what is good: And other crucial verbs

Laboring under nouns

John McWhorter’s latest essay was all about verbs. I was happy to have his brilliance confirm my general resistance to how “nounal” Americans are. Like Adam wandering around Eden, we like to wall off a garden and name everything in it. Nouns feel settled and powerful, I think.

I am still healing from a rash of labeling which has been clinging to me for a couple of years – still finding negative nouns stuck on me like a stubborn tag on a piece of plastic from the dollar store. McWhorter wishes we’d get over being nouns and labelling others and move onto verbs, move on to something else, something deeper. He writes:

[L]ife is about much else, and what ultimately conveys this “else” is verbs. What makes all those animals [Adam named] interesting is when they do things like walking, drinking and looking. Verbs can be said to be the core of what language is, Human Expression 1.0.

Although this might seem a revelation to English speakers, it would be intuitive to speakers of, for instance, many Native American languages. In some of them, names can be verbs, as in “Dances With Wolves” with Lakota, a language I wrote about here not long ago. The Lushootseed language of Washington State takes this concept beyond mere names, such that some specialists think it doesn’t have nouns at all, just verbs: The word for “coyote” is the phrase “is a coyote.” In other languages, it’s adjectives that are elusive, with verbs taking over their jobs. In Japanese, today’s cup of tea “hots,” and yesterday’s cup “hotted.” In Fongbe, a language spoken in Togo and Benin, all the adjectives are actually verbs except for a mere 18.

McWhorter’s essay was one in a series of encouragements to live into crucial verbs I’d like to share with you.

Clinging to movement

I got started on the Bible study below because, while I was praying, I was hit by a snippet of Romans 12: “Cling to what is good.” I’d been labelled a few unwelcome things and I was dwelling on them. I was complaining to God about my feelings. God’s apparent reply was, “Cling to what is good,” or where did that even come from? How did a snippet invade my wound licking?

I did not immediately go to the Bible, since I carry a lot of the Bible with me — and the actual text does not always match what the Spirit is saying to me. So I delayed a bit and heard what I needed to hear, which was, “Cling to what is good in you.” That was important, because I was clinging to what was bad in me, as far as someone else was concerned. And in some cases I was clinging to the bad they did to me which had sunk into me.

What’s more I heard, “Cling to what is clinging to you.” That felt good, too, since I’m not always a good clinger. But my good God is clinging to me, coming right next to me and putting his arm around me in Jesus, and is nearer than my own breath by her Spirit.

Call it a coincidence, but I then came across a song by Lauren Daigle, about whom I know very little, and it was just the right thing to sing. I listened. Then I learned her song and sang it into my Smule collection to solidify it in my heart.

Living in verbs

I finally visited Romans 12, in which I have spent hours of meditation over the years. I followed a hunch I think McWhorter planted in me. Although I am not an expert in Greek, I was taught how Greek verbs are formed back in college. They are complex and evocative. They are also central to what amounts to Greek sentences — sometimes they are a whole English sentence in one word.

I thought my precious clause, “Cling to what is good,” might be part of a string of verbs in Romans 12:9-21. I was right. The passage is mostly a string of participles, almost like a bulleted list, which English translators turn into a bunch of sentences that often obscure their meaning. They make paragraphs out of little explosions, sentences out of expostulations popping off the page, much like I imagine God speaking the world into being out of nothing. Those verbs are better to be experienced than analyzed, as if they were a bunch of nouns.

I would not want to present this interpretation to my college Greek professor (she was tough!), or to my seminary Biblical theology prof (he was tougher!). But I think I am getting to the meaning and movement of this wonderful section of the Bible better than the New International Version! This portion said a lot to me. Maybe it will move you, too.

If we are living out our new life in the Spirit
as members of the body of Christ, we will be

    • Loving authentically
    • Detesting evil-sowers
    • Clinging to what is good
    • Nurturing family love in the Body
    • Honoring others with the first place
    • Working with diligence, not slothfully
    • Letting our fervor boil
    • Serving the Lord
    • Rejoicing in hope
    • Enduring affliction
    • Persevering in prayer
    • Contributing to the needs in the church
    • Pursuing hospitality
    • Blessing those who persecute us
    • Blessing and not cursing
    • Rejoicing with those rejoicing
    • Lamenting with those lamenting
    • Protecting community
    • Maintaining equality
    • Practicing humility
    • Refusing to repay evil for evil
    • Living out what everyone can see is good
    • Dwelling in peace with everyone, if possible
    • Reserving vengeance for God’s discretion
    • Sharing resources with enemies
    • Providing warmth and light in the cold of night
    • Repelling the attacks of evil
    • Overcoming evil with good

I was kind of thrilled to see, after I put this together, that the section begins with clinging to what is good and ends with overcoming evil with good. Cling to the good at work in you, it is overcoming evil and seeding the creation with renewed life.

I remembered that the good in me is able to overcome whatever I think is evil or whatever might objectively be so. Cling to the good at work in you, it is overcoming evil and seeding the creation with renewed life.

I remembered that the work for me is finished; I received the goodness of God and I have experienced it. I am living in it now and can be assured I will find it wherever I go next. But that work of good in me has a multiplying and dying creation pulsing all around it. It is alive and completing its purpose wherever I live. Cling to the good at work in you, it is overcoming evil and seeding the creation with renewed life.

If you go back to the bullets above, try, at least for the first round, to experience the good work of the Spirit all those verbs represent. Jesus is alive. Don’t turn them all back into nouns that label who you or others aren’t or what you or others don’t do. Cling to the good at work in you, it is overcoming evil and seeding the creation with renewed life.

Romans Bible study on JUSTICE from Doing Theology

A month ago we had a “Doing Theology” time on JUSTICE. We had to think things over after being moved all year by the heartache and turmoil caused by police brutality and the protests about  systemic injustice that is poured out on African Americans, especially. This is one of two posts that attempt to sum up what we heard when we gathered to listen to God about justice. Hopefully, they will contribute to our ongoing dialogue.

To begin with, there is no justice without Jesus. We are all wrong. God graces us with “right” and the ability to bring things to right. We exercise His grace by the power of the Holy Spirit and it leads to justice. We demand justice from the powers-that-be from our place of safety in Christ, we don’t beg the powers to give us what is right as if they create it.

Jesus’ mission is to restore humanity and the whole creation. He envisions well‐being for people who are spiritually poor and people who are socially poor. As he walks among us, righteousness and justice mark the events of his days and nights. Jesus lives right and makes life right with and for others. If Jesus had offered a justice code (and it is dangerous to think he might have done this) it might have been centered around this idea: to love is to be just; to be just is to love. When we claim to follow Jesus, we are disciplined by the call to love like Jesus.

Justice is a concept with many meanings. It is too multi‐dimensional to be reduced to a single dictionary definition. It is summed up in the person of Jesus. It is also well-explored in the Bible. Romans 12-13 is a good place to see all the different aspects of how justice is worked out in one place. Modern people divide things up when they think. The Bible writers tend to mash things together because they are doing something personal, not conceptual. They are relating to wholeness, not particularity.

What follows is an attempt to sort out these two chapters according to ideas of justice that often aren’t thought of together, or are considered in competition with each other. Paul mashes them all up in his teaching masterpiece and helps us get a feel for how God feels and how God would like us to act.

This is by no means the final word about how to divide up these chapters, but it gives an idea of how Paul understands the levels and depths of how justice is understood and applied.

1) There is legal/courtroom justice. In democratic societies and many other cultures there is an assumption that “you get what you deserve.” Virtue is rewarded, evil is punished and criminals are brought to justice. They get their “just desserts” and are penalized according to the law as guilty offenders. The justice system holds court, and penalties are meted out to fit the crime.

    Romans 13:1-5 — Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.         Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

2) There is ethical/humanrights justice: Ethical justice gives a different meaning to “you get what you deserve.” In the moral equation that links basic rights with being a human being, individuals are inherently worthy to receive benefits from their society. We should look for what is good and bring about justice.

     Romans 12:3-4 —For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function         12:14-18 — Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.          13:6-7 — This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

3) There is divine/God’s justice: God’s justice embraces measures of both legal and ethical justice. In some sense, people who disregard God’s laws of life and love get their “just desserts.” Selfishness eventually inflicts its own punishment. Unrestrained greed guarantees disdain and even revenge from those who are exploited. Deceit may lead to short‐term gain but guarantees long‐term pain.

God’s moral equation lifts life from the noble level of bestowing equal rights on all creation to the human experience of both loving and being loved. God’s vision for a just creation sees people in right relationships with each other. Love protects the vulnerable, and offers the right to fail and the freedom to begin again.

The ethic of love and the practice of “loving your neighbor as yourself” are at the root of God’s vision for a just creation. The tenacity of God’s love refuses to accept injustice. Because of God’s relentless hope, we don’t get what we deserve. Instead of being forever guilty we are granted forgiveness. We are invited to walk alongside Jesus who shows us how and empowers us how to live right and make life with others right.

Again, Jesus is justice and personally gives it. He is not subject to an abstract idea that humans have socially constructed. He says in John 8:15-16 — You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. But if I do judge, my decisions are true, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me.

     Romans 12:19-20 — Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”          13:8-13 — Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.

Katarina Thorsen

4) There is spiritual transformation or restorative justice. When God’s people get it right, they bring a distinctive contribution to the justice table. Even though followers of Jesus do not have sole access to human virtue or an exclusive claim on being principled people, they have two advantages: Christians have revelation to help them discern God’s will and ways for themselves and others; and they have Jesus with them in Spirit and in history to demonstrate what humans can be.

Followers of Jesus will never duplicate the full beauty and wisdom of Jesus. But their faith points them in the right direction. They bring the Spirit of God with them. The understanding they gain from the Bible and their relationship with God’s Spirit can enable them to translate their convictions into compassionate behavior that serves the eternal interests of others.

Circumstances will always influence the responses of God’s people. But personal concerns, self‐interest and material gain will not have the final word. Christians will champion the marginalized and be driven by the ethic of love. Right relationships will rule the day. Love will prevail. Justice will trump injustice. Reconciliation and restoration will be the goal. Gently, but prophetically, Christians will bring their confidence, born of being forgiven and renewed, to the table. Power‐brokers who have a vision for a just social order will welcome the participation of people of faith, or they will face their relentless conviction and hope.

     Romans 12:1-2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.         12:9-13 — Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in 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 the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.          12:21 — Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.          13:14 — Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

Justice is at play on many levels. People are able to grasp what justice means at many levels of personal and spiritual development. Some of us may devote ourselves to the most basic idea on the level first mentioned. But as a whole, we are determined to reveal God’s justice on the deeper, world-changing level listed last.

This Bible study helps us mentalize with God so we can think and feel more about what we can do to restore creation with the Creator. There will be more about that next time as I offer a few of the things our session collected for us to use.

Endless Love Chooses Limits

My sister made a good point last Wednesday after we stopped playing Wii bowling and watched a few minutes of the news. She said, “I like it when the TiVo’s got nothing and I need to watch the commercials. They are educational.” It will be part of her book “$%!# People in the Last Years of the Baby Boomer Demographic Say.”

I am unlimitedBecause she said that, I listened to the Sprint commercial for their I-Phone 5 deal while I was looking for news about the Phillies (which was not good news). While I was reaching for a Rolo, my ears perked up, because the Sprint commercial actually said, “I need, no, I have the right to be unlimited.” I looked at Gwen and asked, “Did you hear that?” She verified that it happened. Then YouTube confirmed it.

I think the commercial is supposed to be a little ironic. But since truth is not a goal for most advertisers, one cannot be too sure — and ads rarely say something which isn’t supposed to resonate in thirty seconds. So I think being unlimited is exactly what the advertiser meant to promise. And even though it is absurd, I think they meant to tap into the innate, entitled feeling (that is becoming more prevalent all the time) that we have a right to be unlimited. Maybe that sense of entitlement is a legacy of those baby boomers I mentioned. YouTube also verifies they promised fame would make their children live forever (who all sing and dance), all while enjoying endless love. Now those well-educated boomers are working on how they will make it literally possible not to die.

Endless love

As a missionary, that thirty seconds was very educational. I also promise people can have eternal life, which is unlimited. I don’t think one has an innate right to it, but once it is given by the Giver I could say, “I need, no, I have a right to be unlimited.” My fame won’t make me live forever (or my children, as our brothers and sisters at Saddleback are pondering), but God’s fame will live forever. But what about endless love? The Bible records this teaching:

Romans 8:37-39: But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

1 John 4:9-12: By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

What about endless love? God has loved us from the beginning and will love us until the end. Nothing will ever separate us from God’s love. But what kind of love is this unlimited love? It is not like Sprint’s sense of being unlimited, which you can pay for and buy a right to. It is not something I can work hard enough to deserve, like people think of fame or scientific progress.

I suppose it could seem ironic that God’s unlimited love is the kind that limits itself. Nothing can separate us from the love of God because it is in Jesus our Lord; the love is expressed by God who became a limited human to serve humans. Nothing can separate us from the love of God because the one and only Son limited himself to life like ours, killed death, went beyond angels, undermined the powers that be, invested our present with hope and guaranteed our future. God-with-us, who knows the heights and depths and every possibility of our creation, put endless love in limited flesh and made limited flesh full of endless love.

Expressed in our limits

make it workOne the way home from my sister’s, I read a book on the plane about psychology (of course). It had a great metaphor for seeing our many inner “selves” as a family system. What the author suggested is that we get in touch with our true, inner Self with a capital “S” and learn how to let that Self relate to our many selves with honesty and understanding, just like a family therapist would help a family. That is a nice Hindu-ish idea that assumes that people can find the image of God in themselves and “make it work.” I think it was another example, like the Sprint commercial, of how we are being trained to see our potential as limitless.

But true, endless love from our true selves is a gift of God, who demonstrates how it comes alive in Jesus. We don’t make it work as much as it works in us. It is endless, but it limits itself to be expressed in us. Our sin gets us condemned to being in charge of forever. But God’s love demonstrates the alternative that saves the world.

For instance, tonight we are going to have a meeting about making a covenant with the other members of Circle of Hope. We would need an alternative commercial for our alternative kind of life: “I need, no, I have a right to be limited.”  I make a covenant with a visible group of Jesus-followers because I need to love in this time and place as one of these people — Christ in me, Christ as us. The meeting answers crucial questions:

  • How am I going to be a visible part of an actual body?
  • How can I not end up like some kind of imaginary god whose love is endless, a god outside an actual body, an aspiration I need to make work?”

God’s love is in us and is something that works in our limited condition; it is a life into which I can enter and from which I can live.

This is a big deal. The love of God is Jesus entering into our world and our lives. Expressing love like God’s is living fully in our world, entering the experiences of others, and living with Jesus in his body, the church. It is a love that serves within the limits of creation. It is limited by the need to be a receiver who gives as a real person to other real people. It is love that is not looking beyond what is to what isn’t, and so love that honors the person in front of them and doesn’t expect what has not matured to fruit yet, much less the impossible.

When we meet in our cells or public meetings we are not there to experience wonderful people whose fame should live forever (or to lament the undesirables we are stuck with!). When we meet, we are humbly emptying ourselves of self-aspirations to endlessness and entering in to the smallness of knowing someone and being  known, of discovering the goodness created in us and the new life given to us by Jesus. I am not going to “make the cell work” or bring all my endless demands for what I deserve to it. I am going to give of myself as love is given to me by God. I am going to honor the limited person and context and be used to fill them with whatever fullness of love they can contain.

That’s a lot of meditation on a thirty-second commercial! But I needed to do it. We are longing to be the body of Christ – not the only representation, of course, but a real one. I love the limitations of a love that empties itself of rights and gives out of God’s endless supply. Within those limitations is where the love of God saves us. It sounds reasonable, I suppose. But then my wife wipes me out at Wii bowling and I have to love her. Someone  messes with my I-phone and I have to make a choice. Someone invites me into a covenant of love like God’s and I have to reorient who I think I am!