Part VII of a VII Part Series
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” –Romans 12:2
Last week during a sermon on ‘Service’—the sixth habit of highly faithful congregation—I mentioned Jay Hook, the Waukegan, Illinois, boy, Grayslake High School graduate, and Northwestern University Engineering student who pitched for the Mets in their first year of existence in 1962.
While pitching for the Mets, Jay Hook was a member of the National Rocket Society and worked on his Master’s Degree in Thermodynamics and could explain to his teammates in the clubhouse how John Glenn became the first human being to orbit the earth earlier that year.
Jay Hook knew about Bernoulli’s Equation, which explains how airplanes fly and baseballs curve. Jay Hook lost 19 games that first year with the Mets, and when Mets Manager Casey Stengel would wander through the clubhouse listening to Jay Hook explain how baseballs curve, he would shake his head and mutter, “If Hook could only do what he knows.1
If we could only do what we know, yes? But it’s also important to know what we do, and why, right? Doing what we know is the faithful habit of diakonia, or service. The Apostle James was our guide last week in looking at doing what we know.
Knowing what we do, and why, is the faithful habit of Christian Education. Didache is the Greek New Testament word for ‘Education,’ and our guide for knowing what we do is the Apostle Paul.
In Romans 12 Paul says, “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you may discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Paul tells us that the path toward what is good and acceptable and perfect is through the renewal of our minds. The stewardship of the life of the mind, says Paul.
Going back all the way to Martin Luther, a Professor of Theology; and John Calvin, the smartest if nerdiest scholar in sixteenth-century Europe, the mainline Protestant tradition has always emphasized the stewardship of the life of the mind. The Reformed tradition has always insisted that if we were to lose our learning, we would lose our faith.
“Don’t be conformed to this world,” says Paul, but transformed by the renewal of your minds.” The goal of Christian Education is not to be conformed, but to be transformed.” You are not a citizen of this world, says Paul. “You are a citizen of the world which is coming as sure as Jesus is alive.”
Now, remember, Paul was writing to a small enclave of brand new believers living in one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities in the history of the world. My land, it was something–the eternal city–the center of fashion, art, business, government, entertainment, religion, the military.
Just walking down the streets made you feel alive. It was Times Square, the Gold Coast, and Rodeo Drive all rolled into one. Who would not be seduced by her charms?
When you’re there, you want to belong. You want to be a part of it. When you’re in Rome, you start humming Frank Sinatra: “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere,” as if ‘making it’ were the point of the Christian life.
That’s what the Christians at Rome must have felt too. They were living in the capital of the world. No city before or since deserved that title in precisely the same way. Who would not begin to think, standing amidst her temples and aqueducts and sculptures, that she deserved one’s ultimate allegiance?
But the goal of the Christian life is not to kneel in obeisance to Rome or Washington but to Jesus Christ, and–Man!–what a loser! Born in a stable; raised in a woodshop; acquainted with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, children, and all the other pathetic forgotten souls of the Jewish world; a pain in the neck to the powerful; disdainful of authority; executed on a garbage heap for chasing after some obscure ideal which most people never quite understood; he acted as if this world was not all the world there was. He acted as if there were another world and a higher authority. And look where it got him–cast out of the world.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” says Paul, “but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” Not conformed, but transformed.
Metamorphosed is the Greek word Paul uses. You are to undergo metamorphosis. You know those Arnold Schwarzeneggar movies where they use that computer technology called “morphing,” where they can change an actor into something else right before your very eyes, that guy in the Terminator movies who looks like a big glob of mercury changing into anything he wants to be? Those Hollywood guys borrowed that word from Paul–yeah, really. They’ve been reading Romans.
How do you do this? How do you morph your mind? I hate to reduce this sermon to a bromide or a platitude, but the best way to renew your mind is by close, intimate, disciplined, constant contact with the Word of God under the direction of the Holy Ghost.
So CHANGE YOUR MIND. I’m telling you you ought to come to Church most Sundays–yeah, really. And bring your brain.
Someone put it like this: “All television,” she says, “all television is educational television. The television, which Leonard Cohen calls ‘that hopeless little screen,’ teaches values as clearly as any church.”2 That hopeless little screen is teaching your children how to live. Do you want it to be their most important tutor in living an honorable life?
You ought to read the Bible–yeah, really. Take it off the shelf, if you can find it behind your stack of People Magazines and your copy of All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
George Gallup says that “Americans revere the Bible, but they don’t really read it.” 82% of Americans say they believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but 50% of us can’t name the Four Gospels. 60% of us went to church last Easter, but 25% of us can’t tell you what happened on the first Easter. 50% of us don’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount.3
Scripture can change your mind–if you read it. The story goes that one morning a man had an appointment with Abraham Lincoln at 5:00 A.M. He arrived 15 minutes early. They put him in an ante-chamber and from within the President’s office he heard voices. He thought at 5:00 A.M. he might be the President’s first appointment, a reasonable assumption. He asked the secretary, “Is the President meeting with someone?” The secretary said “No, he is reading the Bible and praying. He does that every morning from 4 to 5.”4 Here’s a guy with a Civil War to manage, and he’s in the Oval Office praying at 4:00 in the morning.
Maybe that’s why his speeches and writings resound with the cadences of the Bible, and why he fought so hard for justice and freedom. Lincoln read the Bible, and Lincoln was a Presbyterian. Can you believe it?
I’ve got a proposition for you. Many of us are good about tithing our financial gifts. God gets 10%. Right off the top, before the light bill, the mortgage, etc. God gets the first 10%. How about tithing your time too. Most of us work at least 40 hours a week, probably much more. How about giving four hours a week to God. If you work 60 hours a week, that’s okay, I won’t suggest that you give God six. Four will do.
Four: An hour in prayer, 10 minutes a day; an hour with the Bible; an hour at church; and an hour in mission or service, working in a food kitchen, teaching young people to read, tutoring people in computer skills. Prayer, Bible, church work, and mission. I believe that if you give God that much, your mind will be transformed, morphed into something more closely approximating the life of Jesus Christ.
And so today, I’m remembering all the saints of God who have endeavored to change our minds by connecting us to God’s story. I remember the Church nursery ladies who taught me to sing “Jesus Loves me” almost before I could say “Mama.”
I remember when I was 11 years old in 1968, when Newark and Chicago and Detroit were exploding with the flames of racial hatred and violence, and even Grand Rapids, Michigan, became a dangerous place, when most of the white people, Christian people, around me were saying, “If they don’t like it here we ought to ship them all back to Africa where they came from,” I remember a few Sunday School teachers who refused to be conformed to that world and opened their Bibles and said instead, “They are our brothers and sisters: ‘never repay evil for evil, bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them; when your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat, and when he is thirsty give him something to drink.'”
I remember when I was 17 and the most important thing in the world was to fit in, to be conformed, to be accepted by my peers at high school, and wondering if I should be drinking and sleeping around like everybody else, and wondering what would happen to me if I didn’t, I remember those youth group leaders who reminded me of a different kind of life–“do not be conformed to this world,” they said, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
I remember the Baptist preacher in the small Southern town where they held a town meeting to protest a federal order to desegregate the schools. One after another, the people got up, most of them parishioners at his Baptist church, saying that they would be dead before they’d send their kids to school with the coloreds, and finally near the end of the meeting after everybody had expressed his opinion this Baptist preacher got up and said, “I am ashamed of you. I have baptized you into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have preached the Gospel to you, and I thought it had made a difference. I am ashamed to see that it has not.” And he walked out. The meeting continued awkwardly for a while after his speech, but people began to mumble and lose their resolve, and finally they disbanded without taking any action.5
I remember Karl Barth in 1934, saying to the powers of the Third Reich, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would acknowledge an authority other than the Word of God.”6
On its own, of course, Christian Education doesn’t necessarily produce beautiful lives. Neither knowledge, nor information, nor intelligence, nor science, nor biblical literacy, are directly proportional to righteousness, or holiness, or goodness. What ails our modern word is not a lack of information or intelligence, but something else. Knowledge, science, the Bible, and religion can all be used to brutal purposes.
The technology we live with is almost miraculous. We have come so far in our science that you can make a missile launcher the size of a UPS truck, hide it in a thicket of spruce trees until you need it, and then shoot down an airplane flying at 33,000 feet. Think about that: that’s six miles, from here to the southern boundary of Evanston.
Among many sad things about the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is that this almost miraculous technology was used to annihilate so much human potential, so much science, so much knowledge; it was science used against science.
Andrei Anghel was a Canadian medical student who wanted to work on a cure for cancer. He was on his way to a vacation in Bali. He was 24 years old.
Karlijn Keijzer, from Amsterdam, was on the Indiana University rowing team and a doctoral student in chemistry. She was working on an Alzheimer’s drug. She was 25 years old.
Joep Lange, also from Amsterdam, had been working on AIDS research for 30 years, ever since the virus was first discovered. He spent his life trying to get cheap anti-retro-virus drugs to people who can’t afford them in Asia and Africa. He always said, “If we can get a cold can of Coke into the darkest, remotest parts of Africa, we can certainly get AIDS treatment there.” He was on his way to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne. He was 59.
The news media have highlighted the enormity of this catastrophe by asking the question: “What if the cure for AIDS was on that plane?”
We can use knowledge and science and education to conquer cancer, Alzheimer’s, and AIDS, or we can use it to blow that knowledge out of the sky. Education does not lead inexorably to virtue.
Still, Still, we cannot love what we do not know. You cannot love your wife until you know her. You cannot love your child until you know him. You cannot love your friend until you know her. You cannot love your God until you know your God.
I love that hymn we sang a few moments ago. The text is one of my favorites out of about 600 hymns in our hymnal:
O God of truth, whom science seeks
And reverent souls adore,
Who lightest every earnest mind
Of every clime and shore,
Dispel the gloom of error’s night,
Of ignorance and fear,
Until true wisdom from above
Shall make life’s pathway clear!7
1Robert Lipsyte, “Spring of ‘62: Revisiting the Dawn of the Mets,” The New York Times, Feb. 19, 2012.
2Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996), 14-15.
3George W. Cornell, Associated Press story, Grand Rapids Press, June 22, 1991. This is an old survey, but I am willing to bet it is still accurate.
4E. Stanley Jones, “The Habit of Reading the Bible Daily,” in Devotional Classics, eds. Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith (SanFrancisco: Harper Collins, 1990), p. 303.
5Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989). P. 110.
6The Barmen Declaration, PCUSA Book of Confessions, Section 8.12.
7Harry Hallan Tweedy, “Eternal God, Whose Power Upholds,” #412 in Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs (Louisville: Westminster-John Knox Press, 1990).