Christian Magic 5

Mark 2:23-28

Many people have tossed around the expression “I work to live; I don’t live to work.” The idea is that they have no intention of allowing their jobs to control their lives – a healthy attitude. Some people have lost their focus and allow their vocation to consume them.

Our attitudes in worship can become unclear at times too. In today’s passage Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field. What do they do? Who sees them? What story does Jesus relate? What is the purpose of the Sabbath?

The Sabbath is a day meant for rest and for a time dedicated to God. The purpose for setting aside such a day is not to give us another situation where we are restricted by rules and regulations. Rather, a day of rest is intended for our physical and mental health. A day set aside for God is meant for our spiritual health. In Jesus’ own words “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

We can have similar attitudes in our worship times and in our faith walk. The new Christian or those seeking God can be shunned or shut out of a church because they haven’t learned how to “do” church. Knowing when to stand, when to sing, where to go, what to say, can be very confusing to a person new to worship. But church was made for man, not man for the church.

The purpose of worship is to give all people an opportunity to encounter the presence of God, to draw nearer to Christ. Embarrassing someone or scowling at a person who may seem confused doesn’t help. Isn’t it more important that the person’s heart is seeking God? Isn’t it more important that the person is trying to get on the right path?

The rites and rituals of worship are established not as obstacles or as hoops that must be leapt through. The act of worship is not a step by step process that absolutely must be followed to reach the ultimate goal. It is an opportunity. It is a time and place meant to help us.

Value the rituals of church for the intention behind them and not for the rigorous observance that may result in mistakes.

DAILY CHALLENGE: Is there a person who may need or want to learn the rituals of your church? Is there a loving and gentle way to teach them?

Christian Magic 4

Romans 2:25-27

We taught our children to say “please” whenever they asked for something. One of our children took this to be the key to getting what he wanted. One day he asked for something we were not prepared to give – like a new bike when it was not his birthday or Christmas. When I refused, he was baffled. “But, I said ‘please.’”

Going through the motions, doing what is required, does not mean what you are doing is right. Saying “please” is no guarantee you will get what you want. Such was the way with certain people in the Roman church.

What does circumcision indicate? Which is more important, according to Paul, being circumcised (outward piety) or obeying religious law (inward piety)?

In the early church there was frequent disagreement between the Jews who were following the teachings of Christ, and the Gentiles who were following Jesus. Many believed that these Gentiles had to become Jewish first, marked by having the males circumcised. Only then could they begin following Christ.

It was a ritual, an outward and visible indication of a person’s faith. Many Jews claimed that anyone not willing to undergo circumcision simply had no faith. But Paul points out that the physical obedience of the law, of faith, is no guarantee of holiness. It is when a person inwardly commits himself or herself to God that they are leading a holy life.

In our own churches and society we can sometime adopt the same attitude toward others. If they have not memorized the Apostle’s Creed or become confused during Holy Communion, or if they do not act exactly as we expect we may think these people can’t be Christians. However, simply knowing the ins and outs of Christianity, of knowing how to do the rituals, does not assure true Christianity.

It is attitude. It is intention. If a person’s heart hungers after God, if a person truly desires a deeper relationship with Jesus, then they are much nearer the throne of God than the most pious of Christians who knows the rituals but whose heart is empty of love.

DAILY CHALLENGE: Pray for more understanding of anyone you consider un-Christian because they do not do what you do.

Christian Magic 3

Luke 11:37-41

One of the classic gags from the old “Candid Camera” show was the bit with Fanny Farmer driving a car into a gas station to see what was making a noise in the engine. The mechanic lifted the hood to find there was no engine in the car at all. It’s a funny bit for a show but it is a sad reality for many people’s faith. They may look great on the outside, but inside they are empty.

In this passage Jesus is dining with a Jewish priest, a man well schooled in all the rituals of religion. What surprises the Pharisee? What is Jesus’ response? What does verse 40 mean to you? How are we made spiritually clean (verse 41)?

As I stated yesterday, there is nothing inherently wrong with tradition or ritual. Many people, me included, find comfort and the ability to focus by performing a familiar act or rite. I wear a cross around my neck, not as a lucky charm, but as a constant reminder that Jesus is with me. I find it easier (not necessary) to pray in a certain place and in a certain order – praise, thanks, confession, requests. Hospital visits are more comfortable for me after I have said a specific prayer in my car before entering the hospital.

The danger of ritual and habit is that these things can lose meaning. Mumbling through The Lord’s Prayer because it is something you have memorized, but no longer recall what it means, is pointless. Reciting creeds as if you are racing your neighbor to finish first is equally pointless.

On the outside such behavior can look very pious and holy. Externally our cup may seem sparkling clean. But if all we do in worship and in faith exercises is done from rote memory and has no meaning, then our insides – our souls – are not at all clean.

Knowing where to sit in church, knowing how to dress for church, knowing the order of the books of the Bible, reciting The Lord’s Prayer (even if you are the first one done) does not necessarily mean you are a good and Godly person. Jesus suggests that we give what is inside to the poor and then all is made clean. If we give our heart and our mind, our passions and our values to doing what benefits the needy, then we need not go through a ritual bath to be pure. Our soul will be right where it needs to be.

DAILY CHALLENGE: Is the inside of your spiritual cup as clean as the outside? Pray that God will help you to be clean.

Christian Magic 2

1 Kings 18:30-38

Over the years my wife has worked with me on being a better cook. What at first seemed a mystery that I could never fathom has become something I can approach with a bit more comfort, even though I still do not embrace it with passion.

After a few inedible results Peggy pointed out the most important aspect of being a good cook – follow the recipe. I had often assumed that if you simply threw all the parts together and cooked it, the cake or pot roast or meatloaf or whatever would come out fine. Many recipes present the ingredients and the process in a specific order because it is essential for good results to follow the steps precisely.

Many people have that same attitude in rituals of faith – do this, do this, THEN do that and God will respond. In today’s passage the famed prophet Elijah is going against 450 prophets of Baal, a pagan god. The contest begins in 1 Kings 18:23 and involves a test to see if the priests of Baal or Elijah can get a sacrifice to be consumed by fire.

How many stones did Elijah use? What did they represent? What did he put around the altar? What did he do with the bull? How many times was water poured on the offering?

What was the last thing Elijah did (verses 36-37)? How did God respond?

What a tremendous story of faith! What an incredible story of God’s power and faithfulness to those who believe! But it can be easy to assume that all Elijah did was a specific ritual, an exact rite to gain a specific result. Twelve stones for the tribes of Israel, a trench of specific measurements, three dousings of water – these can be seen as ingredients necessary to make God respond.

But what prompted God’s response was not the ritual of erecting a soggy altar. What prompted God’s response was faith and prayer. Elijah worked with confidence because he had the faith that God would show Himself so the people would stop following the wrong spiritual path. More effective than the number of stones or the water being poured on three times was the prayer. Elijah turned to God in faith and prayed.

There is nothing wrong with rites and rituals. There is nothing wrong in taking comfort in worshiping in a certain way. Elijah, I am sure, used twelve stones not for magical power but for his own symbolic and spiritual motivation.

Rites and rituals are fine as long as we do not give them too much credit, too much power, too much credence. What is essential is our faith and our communion with God in whatever form we give it. Faith and prayer will give us results.

DAILY CHALLENGE: Think of a ritual you may employ in your own worship, private or public. Be certain you know why you are doing it, and not just how to do it.

Christian Magic 1

1 Chronicles 4:9-10

As we near Halloween the idea of witchcraft and magic spells, of incantations and ghosts, begins to surface in conversation and on television programs. As Christians we are adamantly opposed to such thinking. Belief in the one true God and in our Savior Jesus Christ negates such concepts of luck and magical spells.

Yet, there can be times when even the most devout of Christian believers can fall into the habit of ritualistic behavior that borders on supernatural belief. Today’s passage is one such example of a very popular ritual.

The book The Prayer of Jabez, by Bruce Wilkinson, points out that 1 Chronicles begins with a lengthy list of Jewish heritage, and goes on to say that this list has a slight interruption in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. Suddenly we are presented with more in-depth information regarding a man named Jabez. What do we learn about the name? What four things does Jabez ask of God? What is the result?

It is interesting that this chronicle has this interruption, and Jabez’s prayer does have interesting aspects to it. The man dares to ask God to bless him, and not just a little. Some translations have Jabez saying “bless me indeed,” the word “indeed” implying a request for abundance.
He further wants more territory, which the book explains to be more responsibility. But he concedes his place with God and asks that God will be with him and protect him. And God, in His benevolence, grants the request.

I am one who read the book and prayed the prayer. The book recommends praying the prayer daily for 30 days to see that God will indeed respond to such a request.

The problem is that this prayer and daily recitation can be viewed as a type of incantation, a magical Christian spell that furthers us along in God’s kingdom. But rather than using this prayer as a ritual, I think it is more important to see the intention behind it. I do not believe that the words, the order of the words, the exactness of the wording, are what can produce positive fruits from God. Instead it is the attitude.

If we, in our own words, will draw close to God and ask Him for blessings that are meant to serve Him and not just benefit us, I believe God will respond. He does indeed want what is best for us and He wants us to prosper in His kingdom. We also must acknowledge our need for God to control our situation and protect us.

Rather than adopting specific words and phrases to make our life better, we should adopt the attitude of Jabez. Draw close to God. Ask for more responsibility in His kingdom, more evangelical, missional, service work. Then ask God to be with you to guide and protect. Then, I believe God will grant your request also.

DAILY CHALLENGE: Create your own prayer, asking God for more opportunities to serve Him and for His presence to help you get it all done.