A Tale of Two Trees VI – A Pilgrim’s Progress

"Arc de Treeomph" by Kent Brewer
“Arc de Treeomph” by Kent Brewer

I’ve been imagining a book. Actually a set of two. (But I think it’s really a trilogy).

On the cover of the first book, in guilded leather embossing are the words, “Law and Justice.” It’s thick with pages carefully explaining all the objectives of fairness, goodness and rightness. It tells everything necessary from proper judgment to reward and penalty down to the smallest point. Closing the book, on its back cover is another word in simple lettering:


Going onto the next book, the apostle Peter ended his second letter with its first words:

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

That book is still being written.

The third book?  Not really sure how to describe it. It’s behind glass.

“Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  I Cor. 13:12

A Tale of Two Trees V – Unlocking James (Chapter 1)

"Arc de Treeomph" by Kent Brewer
“Arc de Treeomph” by Kent Brewer

“Every good and perfect gift is from above…”  James 1:17

To put it simply:

  1. The way of the world is by justification through works in knowing a law.
  2. Salvation (not just the threshold, but the walk) is by grace through faith in knowing the living God.
  3. Forgiveness is one time and unilateral (as in Matt 6:15). It clears the deck to go from walking by justification to walking by grace.

Chapter 1 of James is about “the testing of your faith” (vs. 3)

So considering the above, I either walk according to God’s grace (through faith) or by seeking my own justification (through the law of my choosing). Two different dynamics. Two different results.  They don’t mix. (You might already know what James says about a double-minded man – vs. 8).

I like James. He seems “right strawy,” as Luther said, but to me, James’ only fault is to over-explain. And our bias is toward guilt. But, “Don’t be deceived,” he says (vs. 16). “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above…”  The things above are known by faith alone.

So if anyone lacks wisdom, he “ask(s) of God” (vs. 5) personally, as opposed to leaning on his own judgments (or a law). God gives “without reproach”—i.e. by grace (vs.5). And we receive by faith (vs. 6). Talk with him. Listen. 24/7. So by faith, a humble man may glory in his high position (vs. 9). And trials will either wear a “rich” man out, withering under the sun (vs. 11 – shades of Ecclesiastes and the way of the world), or prove the worth of that “high position” which faith assumed early on. This is the “crown” of vs 12. (Many translations arbitrarily put vs 12 with the next theme. I disagree. It completes the “high position” thought.)

The next couple of paragraphs build on what’s been said and should begin with, “Let no one say…”—and the section becomes descriptive, instead of instructional toward earning a reward (or “crown”). It’s how things work. To act on our own wisdom puts the burden on the senses. So a man being tempted is “carried away and enticed by his own lust” (vs. 13-15). The only option we’re given is to set such judgments aside, and “receive the word implanted”—or God’s wisdom (vs. 21), James says. We were brought forth by “the word of truth.” (vs. 18). Remember, “word” and “truth” are for us, a who, not a what. Being “of God…” as James began in the letter. So we actually can “count it all joy” when we fall into temptations (vs. 2). James calls this word the “law of liberty,”—the “perfect law” (vs. 25).

Although James only mentions the word faith once, and at the beginning, remember that this is all about the testing of it. So the “effectual doer” (vs. 26) abides by faith alone. Don’t “delude” yourself (vs.22). Faith is an action word. It’s a continuous walk, not a feeling or philosophy to reflect on, and then forget (vs. 23, 24).

James concludes with what I call a simple “litmus test” to tell me how I’m doing (vs. 26, 27). The things most precious to a man reside in his heart. The heart is either the seat of a man’s judgments (of good and of evil), or the throne of God’s Spirit. They each produce their own fruit. What we say—the tongue—will be faithful to reveal it.

Now, of course you may approach James as an extension of the law and follow each word as a commandment. Have at it—you will have much to boast about. But you will also carry with you, the increasing burden of guilt in your inabilities.

Not to worry, there is only one option. And should you keep your eyes open, God will lead you to it.

Been there.



24/7 – The Gift

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…”  Rom. 1:20

People say that this is a wonderful world we’ve been given. And the time we have in it is a “gift.”

I’ll agree that the world is wonderful. But none of this is a gift.

Because a gift isn’t taken away.

At best, all this could only be the gift card. And like a gift card, it is read, then discarded.

But this card is attached to something greater.

And the card is signed.

24/7 – This Relationship

“This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the One You have sent–Jesus Christ.”  John 17:3

My favorite portrayal of a Christian in the movies is Tevye, the protagonist Jewish character in Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye would look obliquely into the sky when he would hold his one-sided conversations with God.  But he wasn’t talking piously as if toward some idol at the front of a sanctuary. Tevye actually talked with him as he would a friend. And while there was no thunder from the skies in return, the answers came.

That’s me.

Except I’m more face-to-face.

Not that I think I have an inside fast-track to the divine that no one else may have.

But just to go deeper in describing this invisible connection to God, people say we need to “trust and obey him?” Well, one thing I’ve learned is that obedience doesn’t describe this relationship at all. Mine isn’t even one of what I would call trust. Because much of the time, I’m that snarling dog in the corner of the clinic staring deep into the eyes of the vet.

And God hasn’t made it any easier. Forget the syringe the vet’s got in his hand to cure what ails, God has put up all kinds of obstacles to keep me from him. Let’s start with the inherited handicaps from his wrath in the Garden. Add to it the distractions of this world, the taunting of his personally-enthroned prince—and the obscurity with which he presents himself to keep people in ignorance. He doesn’t want to be my friend.

But God assures me, I want to be his friend.

And he is patient.

Now, the above might seem like some abrupt shifting, and an irreverent approach, but there are a couple of things I want to add:

I was watching, “The Crown,” a TV series about the rise of Queen Elizabeth. Upon the death of her Father, King George VI, Elizabeth took on a new role of “Sovereign.” With this came new respect in the performance of her duties. From everyone. To begin with, people must bow and curtsy in her presence. Even her mother. Even her husband, Prince Philip, must follow behind and not walk alongside. He could only be her husband in private. And she would not take his name.

In an earlier post, I said the only thing I believe is that God is. Still true. Consequently, but, this passage comes to mind:

“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” James 2:19

This quote isn’t about belief. It’s about shuddering.

So, do I shudder?

We call it reverence. Reverence presumes. It is prejudiced. And I know nothing.

And then there’s this quote:

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” – Matt. 5:8

Purity in heart isn’t about goodness or cleanliness. It’s about lack of contamination or pretense. What you see is what you get.

You don’t treat a friend like a “Sovereign.”

But, you might say, “Familiarity breeds contempt” and the like. “We can’t have that! We might argue with him, judge him. Accuse him. Strike him over and over—and worse, if we could.”

“…he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon him, And by his stripes we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5

We might wrestle with him with all of our passion, holding nothing back.

And in the process, we might also see him for who he is.


A Tale of Two Trees IV… Unlocking James

"Arc de Treeomph" by Kent Brewer
“Arc de Treeomph” by Kent Brewer

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (James 1,2)

This initial passage in James, “the testing of your faith produces endurance,” is too easily misunderstood as, “the testing of your endurance produces faith.” Then considering trials to be “all joy,” becomes a commandment—and should I succeed, a burdening pretense.

But there are two ways to understand James, the Bible—and this Christian walk. One is by my judgments through a given law. The other is by grace through faith. One will be slow and ever-burdening. The other, easy and light (Matt. 11:28-30). “All joy,” as James wrote.

The Pharisees moralized according to an ever-tightening version of the law and the patch-working of behavior as on an old garment. The church often does the same today but with her own sliding-scale version of the Law of Moses. As if to refill an old wine skin as well (Mark 2:22). But Jesus proposed something different. While pointing out hypocrisy and pretense in conforming to the law, he talked about the kingdom of heaven.

Unlike a set of do’s and don’ts, Christ pictures this kingdom as the wind drifting here to there (John 3:8). It’s sap running from a vine through the branches (John 15:5). Or streams of living water (John 7:38). “We have the mind of Christ,” (1 Cor. 2:15, 16) Paul therefore declares. This is wind and hydraulics surrounding and filling to overflow, not the enforcement of a first-aided law.

In response to misinterpretations of Gal. 6:2, a friend wrote “Jesus saves, commandments don’t.” (Go here for the article.) This principle works throughout. Salvation isn’t only the initial repentance and receiving, it’s the continued walk (Col. 2:6).

But, if I drop my laws and judgments of right and wrong before God, I’ll have abandoned everything near and dear to my heart. And without the handrails (and burdens) of commandments to steady me, my next step will necessarily be by faith in him.

That will make the two of us decidedly yoked.

Then continuing without the passions of my judgments, but by faith alone, the walk is also one of grace (which accepts without accusation or condemnation.). Grace through faith. (Eph. 2:6).

And enduring streams of living water.

So that James passage? Best not to read it too quickly. The difference between the understandings will determine how I react not only to the rest of the letter, but to all of the Bible, and to life itself.

That Judgment Thing 5… Getting It Done

“When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished.” And bowing His head, He yielded up His spirit.” John 19:30

When Jesus said, “It is finished,” I had to ask, “What is finished?” And I thought whatever it was, must have begun at the Garden.

Much of Christianity thinks of “the fall” as a mistake. Not me. Not anymore. The words aren’t in there. “Their eyes were opened,” Genesis (3:7) says. It was a revelation. But this was an estrangement, nevertheless. And following the narrative into the third and fourth generations, mankind drifted from walking with God, to talking to him, to talking about him, to replacing him.

But from the beginning, it was “not good for the man to be alone…” (Genesis 2: 18). So I see the entire Bible as the story line of this separation and then the necessary reunion.

As a painter, I know a composition begins with the establishments of darks and lights.  And while at many points during its creation, the painting looks broken and wrong, it doesn’t fall completely together until I finally put the brushes down.

When it’s finished.

A Tale of Two Trees III – Matt 11 Rabbit Trail


“Out of the eater came something to eat,
And out of the strong came something sweet.”  Judges 14:14

I was reading where Samson visits Gaza (and the prostitute) in Judges 16. The people there waited to ambush him at the city gate. “At dawn we’ll kill him” (not at night). So in the middle of the night is when Samson took hold of the city gate and carried it to the top of the hill facing Hebron (Hebron = union or binding, where God promised Abraham a son).

After that Samson fell in love with Delilah; and the Philistines began to toy with him to find out the source of his power.

Shouts of the context in Matt 11 especially concerning the city gates (kingdoms), violence toward the kingdom of heaven (speaking of John the Baptist and Christ) and the children toying with flutes and dirges in the marketplace (vs.12-19). Calm, but wrenching times.

Samson is named by the writer of Hebrews as being justified by faith. But while he was called by God to turn the tide against the Philistines, the story as a morality play doesn’t make sense. As an allegory, however, Samson pictures the three relationships of God and man. Samson’s first love was his wife. But she was given to another suitor and died (Adam and Eve). Samson solicited the second woman as told in the above story (Israel). The third was Delilah, the love of his life (the world). But because of her, he died.  And it all started with a riddle. (For more discussion on Samson, go here.)

Then thereʼs the letter to the Hebrews, which is rightfully called a tract to Godʼs chosen people. Samson is mentioned as being justified by faith in a book of judges who live by faith. And the letter is written to the “Hebrews”—not the “Jews” as everywhere else in the NT. It’s as if to plant the city gates toward the east and focus the attention of the Jews on their origins at Hebron (due east of Gaza): from which they get their name, the promise of the son through whom all nations will be blessed, and the resulting bonding of God and man. (For more discussion on Hebrews, go here.)

At Hebron, it was under the oaks of Mamre that Abraham was given the news of a son. In the shade of a garden of trees. But the fruit of these trees was inedible (bitter, causing stomach aches, unless first leaching out the tannins from the acorns). But no matter. There is fruit of another tree to come.

(Gotta love the echoes of imagery.)

The oaks of Mamre, then, is a garden of trees with fruit that is not eaten. But the fruit of one tree must be eaten. (This fruit would come through Abrahamʼs seed.) The converse of Eden.

This tree became a large, complex and slow-growing genealogy as it turns out (the history of Israel). But later weʼre told that the fruit would come through the branch of Jesse (Isaiah 11).

Which brings us to the Gospel—and the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Jesus said we must eat and drink of him (John 6: 54 and elsewhere, the imagery of fruit from a tree). “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Jesus and the disciples preached. Speaks of reaching up, picking and eating (as oppose to stooping over to till the ground). And Jesus was crucified on the timbers of a tree.

Then thereʼs this curious phrase:

“…for anyone who is hung (from a tree) is cursed in the sight of God” (Deut. 21: 23)

But it was through this cursed “fruit” that all nations would be blessed.

(Imagery and irony.)

On that irony…

The ground that was cursed by God in Genesis had no cause to be cursed, in and of itself. It was cursed because of man. (Gen. 3: 17)

Same as the one who was hung from a tree.

The ground took the curse upon itself and became work for man.

The one who was hung from a tree took the curse upon himself and became rest for man.

And this rest would be like an oxen paired in the yoke of another. So one would do the heavy lifting to make the way easy and burden light for the other (Matt 11:28, 29). And as one, man and God would take on the labors of the ground (Proverbs 3: 5,6).

My Justice or His Grace

“…The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

Read: Matthew 18:21-35

Now, thinking back a little further:

Genesis 4 The story of Cain

Driven into exile after killing his brother, Cain accepted the grace of God over the justice of men. And God protected him. But did Cain ever value this grace over the justice he was due?

The Book of Exodus The story of Moses

Moses was also a murderer. And he escaped into exile from his own people (who would have turned him in). But did he ever value the grace of God over the justice he was due?

Then there’s the story of the unmerciful servant who, having received the grace of his master, applied the justice he was due upon others.

Justice is simply the balancing of the books in a marketplace world. It’s the eye-for-an-eye compensation, and getting change at the grocery store. If I hurt you, you hurt me (lawsuits and prison sentences). And if I kill, then I must die. But grace assumes value only in God. So it freely gives, turns the other cheek and spares.

We don’t know what happened with Cain, but by the grace of God, Moses returned to his people and faced the justice of men head on. But the unmerciful servant valued his justice over the grace of God and was thrown into prison until he paid the last cent.

My justice or God’s grace. It’s a ruthless choice.

But the judgment of God is this: If we insist on justice, he will hold us to it.



That Judgment Thing 4… Putting Justice on Trial

"Woman Holding a Balance" by Johannes Vermeer
“Woman Holding a Balance” by Johannes Vermeer

“I came that they may have life…” John 10:10

Matt. 15: 21-28

There was a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus once for help. Jesus replied that his ministry was to Israel, not to outsiders.


He turned her away accordingly.


She might have just walked away sad like a certain ruler (Luke 18: 18-29), but the woman responded that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”


Jesus, delighted, remarked at this and disregarding the law, helped her according to her request.


With his miracles, Jesus undoes the physical handicaps of God’s wrath. And without condition. But if he came just to do that, he could have waved his arms for the whole world at once.

But that’s not what he came to do. He came that we might “have life” (John 10:10).  And this “life” means to “know him” (John 17:3).

And to know him demands personal engagement.


That Judgment Thing 3… Proof of God

"Woman Holding a Balance" by Johannes Vermeer
“Woman Holding a Balance” by Johannes Vermeer

“…lest you be judged.” Matt. 7: 1-2

If someone judges me but I don’t hear them, it has no bearing on me at all. If someone judges me and I hear them but don’t care, it still has no bearing on me. But if someone judges me, I hear them and take it to heart, it will affect me every time it comes to mind.

If I cast the judgment, I’ve already accepted it as true for myself. But if judgments are cast upon me, they must be received as true to have an effect. So while I may judge others and people may judge me, I really can only judge myself.

Sticks and stones…

Jesus brought up judgment at the end of a speech that kicked off his ministry. We call the speech the Sermon on the Mount*, and it sums up all Jesus would do and say the next three years. Very much the opening statement in a trial, he walked his listeners back through time to the beginning–from their present condition under the law, through sin and its consequences to this judgment statement. Contrasting the world with heaven throughout, Jesus would close with two trees and the fruit they bear. It’s a narrow portal to enter the kingdom of heaven, he said. It was also a narrow portal to enter this kingdom of the world. One tree in the middle of a vast garden.

Small things can cause much grief.

One reason I have come to like this Vermeer painting so much. It shows a woman with a scale caught between two worlds. In front of her are worldly values that she would weigh. Behind her, a painting of the last judgment – the final weighing of value. But the woman’s scale is empty. And it’s such a delicate thing.

The point of decision.

Like the tiny scale in the woman’s hand, while its consequences are great, judgment is such a small thing that we hardly notice. But point it out (“Don’t eat from the tree,” God said), and we’ll begin to see its impact.

Better not do it, we’ll think as a result.  A noble experiment.

Go ahead and try.

But Jesus didn’t simply point out the dilemma. He would carry this court case of judgment to the finish.  And take on its consequences.

All the while saying, “follow me, believe me, trust me…know me.”

Because we can’t give up judgment by simply not judging. We can only give it up by forsaking it and turning to something else entirely.

“But judgment is for both good and evil. That would leave me empty, and with only faith to continue!” I protest.

Precisely his point.


*For more discussion on the Sermon on the Mount, go here.