Then I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.”
In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.
- Deuteronomy 1:29-33
Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
- Psalm 32:1-2
Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
- Romans 4:4-8
“Like the Christian’s sanctiﬁcation, Christian community is a gift of God to which we have no claim. Only God knows the real condition of either our community or our sanctiﬁcation. What may appear weak and insigniﬁcant to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as Christians should not be constantly feeling the pulse of their spiritual life, so too the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.
“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it.
“Because Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ, it is a spiritual [pneumatisch] and not a emotional [psychisch] reality. In this respect it differs absolutely from all other communities. The Scriptures call pneumatic or “spiritual” [geistlich] what is created only by the Holy Spirit, who puts Jesus Christ into our hearts as lord and savior. The scriptures call “emotional” what comes from the natural urges, strengths, and abilities of the human soul.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Yesterday, I wrote about two books that I would like to refer to often in writing. While the John Piper book lends itself to just about every aspect of life with multiple quotable quotes, this very short Dietrich Bonhoeffer book had gold in every sentence, but mostly covered every aspect of Christian worship. It was almost as if he had a church bulletin in front of him, and he was giving a justification for each element of the standard traditional worship service.
But before he gets to that, he defines “community.” This community that he speaks of could be a family, a small group, a church, or a neighborhood of like-minded believers. He had written the book and was wondering when to publish it when suddenly his seminary was being closed by the Nazi government, with the Gestapo causing a lot of trouble, and the students dispersed. He quickly published the book for the sake of those that had “left” the community of the seminary.
I am not sure that I can totally buy into his idea that we are not to check our pulse, but as far as community is concerned, it might be a great idea to not bother checking it. The first Scripture is about Moses reminding the Israelites of their folly when the spies returned from the Promised Land with tales of giants and fortified cities. The Israelites first needed to realize that their faith was not strong. They refused to take the land that God had promised them. They did not trust God. And much of the wrong paths that we travel stem from not trusting God. We always think we have this great idea and we feel that God won’t mind, if we think of God at all.
King David trusted God. He wrote psalms to express that trust. The Apostle Paul quoted King David in Romans 4, regarding those who trust in God.
My wife and I always check our pulse each morning before we have done too much. Hers is near 60 beats per minute almost all the time while mine ranges from 75 to 96. Yes, mine is high and my high blood pressure medicine (the blood pressure being something else that we also record daily) is probably going to be increased next month when I see the cardiologist. When it is one day when it hits 96 beats per minute, I often write what was happening in the margin of my notebook – either running around too much before checking it or stress (lack of sleep or my wife’s health getting worse). It sometimes requires me to do some deep breathing and relax before taking it again. Note: My blood pressure was high this morning. After sitting here a while, my systolic has gone down to a high normal range and my pulse has slightly increased, having been sitting for a couple of hours. Not good. Especially with the high diastolic not going down at all. That is why you check such things.
My wife has the opposite problem. She does not respond well to kidney dialysis. They remove her blood, filter it, and put it back in. They remove the water by retaining some of the fluid in the dialysis equipment. Of course, they do not drain her system and then put it back later. She would die. It is a slow process of doing both at the same time so that she slowly has less coming back to her heart than went out. My point is that when you have a lot going out at once, you get dehydrated. This leads to very low blood pressure, alarms, and the dialysis stops until the nurse fixes the problem. Her blood pressure drops low faster than other people, probably due to the corresponding low pulse. If her pulse is below 60 beats before she goes to dialysis, they could have difficulty with her during her treatment with alarms constantly going off. A four-hour dialysis turns into four and a half hours or longer. She cannot go home until her blood pressure is stable.
But when you are looking toward your sanctification, is there a monitor that measures it? No. But we often know when we sin. We are like Paul in Romans 7. We do what we do not wish to do, and we do not do what we ought. Have you ever prayed to God, “Hey, God, I do not wish to sin, so why can’t You simply FIX it?” You may not have said that to God, but I have. That is not the way it works, however. I hope God understands my frustration when I ask that.
Now that brings us to the “community.” I have commented in the past that most Christian fellowship at church is false advertising, in that it is far from good Christian behavior. Most of it is church gossip. Your struggles are kept private due to not wanting them to become church gossip. You do not trust those other people at your table. You do not offer prayers for the others at the table due to them not trusting you with their struggles either. But you have no problems sharing the troubles that someone has at the next table, or two tables over in case the nearer tables may eavesdrop. Thus, checking the pulse of the “Christian” community puts you into the mode of self-righteousness, looking down on what everyone else is not doing right.
I was thinking of placing a link to an episode of “Church Chat” with the “Church Lady,” but while they are funny, they are inappropriate. Sadly, they are accurate in many “Christian” circles, with very little exaggeration. The “Church Lady,” was played by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live. The “Church Lady” is the most self-righteous person that you will ever meet who stretches the truth, fills in the gaps as she observes others and always thinking the worst, and finds “Satan” inside everyone except herself. Then when the people that she interviews tell the truth or give a lame excuse, her response is, “Well, isn’t that special.” Just watch one episode and you can see Bonhoeffer’s point. We have no business measuring the spiritual health of a “community.”
And maybe one of the biggest problems in checking the pulse of a community is that we, ourselves, take our eyes off Jesus when we look at the others in the community. After all, we also sin. We are not perfect and are thus disqualified as prosecutor, judge, and jury for our fellow travelers.
The final paragraph in the Bonhoeffer quote starts to point toward why we cannot, even if we were “good,” in checking the pulse. It is a spiritual pulse, just like our progress toward sanctification, that God gives us in small increments, small enough portions that we can absorb it. Those gifts come from the Holy Spirit. Who could judge that the other people are not growing fast enough in the faith or that the small group (or other form of community) is not progressing?
Bonhoeffer uses two words for “spiritual” in the German language, pneumatisch and geistlich. These translate into “pneumatic” and “spiritually” in the Google German to English translator. As an engineer, we have a few different ways of determining air speed (a pneumatic issue, where blood flow is a hydraulic issue, liquid). Airplanes and helicopters use a pitot (pronounced “P-toe”) tube. The tube measures the pressure impacting the end of the tube which is pointed forward. In knowing the pressure of the air in that part of the sky, the air speed can be determined by a calculation, as it is done on the air speed monitor on the control panel of the aircraft. But that does not give you the ground speed that you are traveling. You could be going into a head wind and making little progress toward your destination, or you could have a tailwind. With a tailwind, you might get there faster, or your airplane could crash due to the lack of lift (considering small fixed wing aircraft). The pilot must know the conditions and account for the wind. The same is true about our sanctification and the spiritual health of the community. It is why the bumper stickers that talk about God being our co-pilot are so horribly wrong. No. God is the pilot, and only He can account for the spiritual “wind” in our lives.
I have had people leave the Sunday school class that I teach for the exact reason that I love teaching the class. I interject things that I have researched and that gets everyone talking about the topic at hand (presently discussing the book of Acts and about to discuss Paul’s second mission trip). The people that left wanted me to stick to the discussion questions in the workbook only and finish each chapter of the workbook within the 50 minutes that the church allots for Sunday school. Most of the time, it takes me two weeks to finish one lesson, or three weeks, half due my long-winded extra information and the other half the excitement from the class in their discussion. Often, I learn more from their discussion than I did from my research. I can never cut that short. If I did not interject the added information, they would not discuss as much. But my point in bringing it up is that we cannot force God to stick to our schedule. I would love to be worrying myself as to what topic to discuss next because we are nearing the end of the book of Acts, but if we lay a better foundation while keeping everyone in the class involved, I don’t care that it takes twice as long as N. T. Wright thought it should. But I do not think that N. T. Wright restricted discussion to less than 50 minutes per lesson either.
That is the big difference in a pastor preaching a sermon and a Sunday school teacher. He has years of education behind him, but there is never a question-and-answer session. The Sunday school teacher is being asked deep, insightful questions from the very beginning with only their personal Bible study to back them up. And presently, I have two ladies that I call my “troublemakers.” They sometimes ask off-the-wall questions that are barely tangential to what we were studying. Have you ever been asked about the imagery connected to the two Abrahamic covenants when you are preparing a lesson on Paul’s first missionary journey? But while I love everyone in the class, I especially love those troublemakers.
While my pulse has always, since early in my adult life, been slightly above normal, my wife’s pulse has always been a bit low, before the open-heart surgery it was borderline too low. Between my junior and senior years of college, while the Vietnam War was still going on, I took a flight physical while doing the ROTC version of boot camp. I was thinking I might become a helicopter pilot (not completing the program though). I flunked the physical, and my blood pressure and pulse kept getting checked at sick call every other day until they were not going to give me any more chances. But a flight surgeon pulled me aside and made me lie down on a cot in his office, eventually missing one half day of training. After about an hour of not even saying “Hello,” he turned around and found that my pulse had dropped to a high normal level. He explained that I had two problems. My heart was fine, but I rested at a higher pulse than normal people – nothing wrong, but different – and I had “White Coat syndrome.” My pulse spiked when a medical professional placed the cuff on my arm. But after an hour or so of being used to a LTC doctor in the room with me, only occasionally grunting as he read one report or another, it was like I was all alone with four walls and a ceiling that were all painted institutional green, the pulse overcame the white coat. He passed me on the physical with my last chance blood pressure and pulse check. I missed out on my chance to drive a tank, but I passed my flight physical.
If you have Jesus in your heart, you have passed your flight physical. If you are not progressing as well as others along the road to sanctification, you may not be as effective of a witness for Christ, and you may never fly that helicopter, but that does not mean that God does not have you where He needs you to be.
Now expand that to a community of people who are each on their individual path toward full sanctification. Yep! Why bother checking the pulse? Just praise God and soldier on!
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.