Delivered to the 2013 New England Messianic Conference
Did you realize your imagination is the seat of meditation? Yes, a sanctified imagination is the godly opposite of the practice of lust.
“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.”
Ephesians 5:1 (NIV84)
The picture that burns in my imagination and has become my favorite meditation on Ephesians 5:1 is this:
I first found the photo flipping through old albums of yellowing, rounded corner, 1970s pictures. And there was a photo of my dad and me. I must have been 3, perhaps 4, and there I was standing on the toilet seat, my Dad and I peering into a foggy mirror, our faces lathered with Barbasol, and in my hand an empty razor—one of the old-school disposable ones, with the twist up doors into which you place a new blade—and with which I was diligently scraping foam from my downy face, in imitation of my loving father, who was preparing for work, but took the time to empty his spare razor, to answer my questions, to lather my face, and to lift his son up next to him.
If Invitation to Imitation is the name of God’s discipleship program, then Sanctification of the Mundane is the title of His curriculum.
Thus far we’ve been talking about the big picture, the how we understand. What I would like to discuss now is more like the lacing up your shoes. It’s the effect that adopting an Invitation to Imitation viewpoint has and how (and why) it has it. I want to talk about why chicken wings and dish washing, lunch with a friend and prayer after meals can change the very course of your life.
I hope you’ll come away understanding the remarkable reality that God produces story-inspiring events from the seeming drudgery of day-to-day life.
Dallas Willard wrote, “I know of no current denomination or local congregation that has a concrete plan for teaching people to do “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”
Spiritual formation (disciple-making, sanctification) is at the heart of the Church’s whole purpose for existence. “Our charge, given by Jesus himself, is to make disciples, baptize them, and teach these new disciples to obey his commands (Matt. 28:19-20).”
We’ve declared that God’s purpose for all His people might accurately be called Invitation to Imitation. The pressing question now in need of attention is, how do we become faithful imitators?
The Lesson of the Desert Fathers
Let’s begin by considering the so-called “Desert Fathers.” Why would we consider them? Mostly because they lived in a time eerily similar to ours. Christians and the government had become confusingly intertwined. The state of the world they were brought up in was insanely anti-Christian, pagans resented the power of the Christian “voting block,” many Christians were so in name only, immorality was rampant, the state controlled people’s lives and more and more people depended on the state for their livelihood. Sound familiar? Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes the scenario well:
The desert monastics of the third and fourth centuries were not sure how to live faithfully as both citizens of heaven and citizens of the Roman Empire, but they knew they could not find their way by running from the root of temptation, which they located in their own hearts. Led by Abba Antony, they went into their cells and stayed for the purpose of doing battle with the demons of their day.
The Desert monastics saw the practice of a righteous life as a cosmic struggle. Rejecting the constant temptations of the culturally “advanced” Roman society, the allure of “more,” the easy mobility of the Roman roads, the chasing of significance in the accumulation of stuff, power, friends, position, or pleasure the desert monastics moved to the borders of society in an effort to hear God’s voice and practice His ways.
After having been in his isolated place for some time St. Antony faced a barrage of despairing thoughts, accusing him of purposelessness, powerlessness and futility. He was overwhelmed by the seeming monotony of a simple life and cried out, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?”
Perceiving no answer St. Antony was tempted to believe his prayers had gone unheard, when outside his hut Abba Antony saw a monk making rope, getting up to pray, sitting down to work again, then getting up again to pray. Then Antony heard the word of the Lord in his heart, and understood that he was watching an angel, sent in answer to his prayer. Turning to face St. Antony, the angel spoke, “Do this and you will be saved.”
Antony’s biographer, Athanasius, records another story of struggle, relating how when the holy man was viciously attacked by an aggressive demon Abba Anthony called on the name of Jesus and his attacker vanished. The story is compelling in its record of God’s intervening and powerful action on his beloved’s behalf, but also strikingly different from the previous anecdote. In the previous story God does not directly intervene but instead sends a very down-to-earth angel to offer an example. “Some battles, it seems, are ours to fight.”
What are we to understand from these two stories? There are two ways in which God helps us: direct intervention and the practice of His prescribed rhythms. We often long for, and perhaps clamor for, a quick fix, and God responds by giving us work to do. A rhythm of prayer and labor that saves our souls; rarely like a SWAT team, though God does have one—even they can be delayed:
Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.
The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me…. Again one having the appearance of a man touched me and strengthened me. And he said, “O man greatly loved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And as he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me. Daniel 10:12-19 (ESV)
Conversion is a process, we are re-made as we work out the salvation we’re given “with fear and trembling.”
The argument of my previous session was essentially that all believers, by basis of their very acceptance of the Gospel, share the same unchanging standard, primary identity, and corporate mission. The following quote from Dr. Elmer Martens summarizes this point well:
The gift of the promise was received in faith (Gen 15:6) and issued in righteousness. Similarly, the Torah, God’s grace gift, when embraced by faith issued in righteousness (Rom 9:30-31). Clearly Jesus Christ, when received as God’s gift through faith, brings righteousness (Gal 3:26; Rom 10:9-10). The principle of faith-response to God (namely, orienting oneself totally to God via his gift) remains unchanged. The faith-response is essentially an embrace of God; more specifically, it is an embrace of his gifts, be they promise, Torah, or Christ. To embrace the Torah is also to embrace the promise; to embrace Christ is to embrace the preceding gifts of promise and Torah. It is this recognition that gives to law an abiding ethical claim on the believer.
I also mentioned that Anglicanism’s via media was a major attraction for me, due to its insistence on keeping the main things the main thing.
Focus on the Primary Issues First
Listen, I’m not a dispensationalist but I sure do appreciate how they prioritize the place of Israel in God’s redemptive plan. I’m not an Arminian, but I dig their emphasis on personal holiness. I’m not a pacifist but I’m thankful for their reminder that peace is integral to the Kingdom of God. I’m not a Calvinist, but I rely upon the pre-suppositional apologetics that was their gift to Christian thinking. I’m not a liberal but they are correct that God cares about the deprived and the marginalized, and so should we. I’m not a fundamentalist, but I sure do admire how unashamed they are to be different from the world.
We all share a strong desire to be part of the group that has it right, don’t we? It would be so reassuring to find oneself part of the universal group that has it all figured out and whose theology is completely biblical. I must report to you, however, that I’ve been on a sort of life-long tour of Christian groups and while I’ve found something to appreciate everywhere I’ve been, no one had it completely right.
Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, is too often dismissed for its simplicity, but I’ll never forget at least one thing he wrote:
“Longing for the ideal while criticizing the real is evidence of immaturity. On the other hand, settling for the real without striving for the ideal is complacency. Maturity is living with the tension.”
Come back to that…it’s worth chewing on. I think it’s a normal part of human nature to want to resolve tension. We don’t want to live in some in-between-No-Man’s Land, so in our efforts to figure things out we tend to fall into one of two different mistakes. We either try to bring about now what God intends for the future, or we throw up our hands because we know it won’t be perfect till Messiah returns, and we do nothing (or give only token efforts).
When one considers all the various Christian groups it seems that God has managed to have all of His personality on display somewhere, in some corner of Christianity. On the other hand, each and every group seems to have at least one detail misapprehended. I’m increasingly suspicious that God has done this intentionally.
It often seems as if those who are willing to take radical action to correct real errors or to balance real disparity are driven by a theological anomaly that goes too far, bases its claim to legitimacy upon an errant idea, or follows some charismatic cult leader. Wouldn’t it be nice if for once radical action could be taken by those committed not to a date for the end of the world or some strange ethnic theology but by ordinary believers committed to nothing more complicated than the “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and the Gospel message, the Lord’s invitation and the Father’s instructions?
Granted, there will have to be something extraordinary about this group or else they would be no different than the majority of those who call themselves Christians, and who have continued on buying, selling, marrying and giving in marriage while the salt became useless and the light on the hill became indistinguishable from the multitude of encroaching suburbs.
Could this group live differently but stay in relationship with their mainstream brothers and sisters in Christ?
Unity is of Paramount Importance (Despite its abuse by liberals)
Why would they need to remain in relationship? Well, if it’s true that all of us get something wrong, then we need others with a different perspective to hold us accountable when our thinking focuses too heavily on one particular topic. Remember one of my favorite scholar’s claim that 20% of what he would teach would likely be wrong, but he just didn’t know which part it was? My dad used to suggest that we are most likely to be wrong about the things that make us most unique. That’s a sobering thought.
How do we determine where to draw the line between those who will compromise us and those who will healthily counter-balance us?
First, we must acknowledge, I think, that the proper correction to abuse is not disuse but correct use. Woah, I’m about to dive in the deep end!
Listen, it is clear from Scripture that God thinks of his children as a family or household. Let’s let Scripture affirm this reality for us:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:19)
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14-15)
Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian (Χριστιανός), let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God (οἴκου τοῦ θεοῦ); and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:16-17)
And look at the contents of God’s law…it seems very household-oriented, very day-to-day focused:
“When you build a new house…” Deut 22:8
“When you see your brother’s donkey…” Deut 22:4
“If any man takes a wife… Deut 22:13
“If there is an engaged woman…” Deut 22:23
“If a husband is jealous…” Num 5:14
“…rejoice in the wife of your youth,” Prov 5:18
“…come and be healed by dunking in this river…” 2 Kings 5
“…if something falls into an earthenware vessel…” Lev 11:33
“…when you harvest your crops…” Lev 23:22
“…every athlete exercises self-control…so I discipline my body…” 1 Cor 9:25-27
Could these words be any more mundane? “Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by his Son and sanctifies us with his commandments.”
There are boundaries in life and we ought not to resent them but to embrace them. The culture surrounding us has rejected any sort of boundary, defining them as the opposite of freedom; this is a lie from the pit of hell. Freedom is found by living within the walls constructed by Him who loved us.
“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.
God’s plan is that we might be sanctified by practicing normal life in an extra-normal way. This is the “divine program” I referenced previously. All that remains is for us to import God’s grand design into the 21st century…and that will be some hard work, but it will be for our benefit, and we are swimming in the grace that will be required to do it!
The amazing thing is how brilliant God’s plan is! It automatically challenges the American Way. But in order to apply it we must categorize and principilize it. I know, I just said two “bad words” in the Messianic movement. I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to grapple with this reality. Remember, the proper correction to abuse is not disuse but correct use. I told you I was diving into the deep end of the pool. I’m now under water holding my breath; I pray you will extend me your hand and listen carefully for a bit longer.
Sometimes ambition, sometimes discontent, perhaps boredom, tempts us to abandon the practice of life where we are currently at for the sake of new vistas, new growth opportunities, or different experiences. We are so easily dissatisfied with the ordinary, longing for that elusive feeling of excitement that comes with a new task, new people to meet, new challenges to face. The repetition of the daily grind wears on us, luring us into thinking that nothing will ever change unless we break out of the fetters of routine and forge a “new” life. The demon of covetousness whispers, “Maybe this isn’t what you were meant for. I know your star could shine brighter somewhere else.”
How does the Psalmist describe the blessed person?
[T]hey are like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. Psalm 1:3 (ESV)
What am I saying to you? Regardless of whether it is pain and hurt, greed and ambition, or pride and privacy, the patterns of this world prevent us from embracing the Way of God. Where, we are tempted to ask, is my best life now? “I’m so tired of doing the same thing over and over; every day seems the same.” “I don’t really need more teaching, I just need to socialize.” “Why does it seem like life is so hard?” “I just can’t do this anymore.” “This is not what I’m created for.” “This job doesn’t play to my strengths.” “This doesn’t feel like my calling.”
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)
In contradistinction to the siren songs of our culture, God’s grand plan for our formation into the image of His Son is the sanctification of the seemingly mundane stuff of life.
I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a friend, I’m a pastor—I hear the private cries of my wife, my children, my friends, my parishioners, and of many who respond to the call of God on my life without having a regular place in my community. I hear firsthand the brokenness that the evening news tells us is everywhere, but more importantly is in your life and in my life. The greatest grief I bear is the broken-heartedness of many Christians close to me.
The shattered nature of our souls indicates the presence of a grave problem at the very foundation of our understanding and practice of the Gospel. Many of us sense this—otherwise you might not be in this room. We cry out against the injustice of working for a far off benefactor who doesn’t seem to care about us as people; we ache for community, we pine for divisions to somehow be reconciled, we lament our own addictions (don’t pretend: you have them too, as do I—we just practice the “Christian” ones, or hide those too “bad” to acknowledge), and keep on putting one foot in front of another, because what other choice do we have? We are slaves to our lenders, to grocery stores that provide foods nowhere close to in season, to clothes sold to us cheaply, made by the hands of destitute Bangladeshi children now resting in concrete graves.
God’s commandments prescribe a way of life that protests and prevents the practices of secular humanism. Had we heeded its wisdom we could have prevented the insidious infiltration of greed and godlessness into our lives.
The practice of real community, of normalcy, of stability—of the stuff of life itself—of fences and chickens, clothes and vehicles, nesting birds, vindictive women and jealous husbands, fabric, homeschool curriculum and particular prayers—is the means by which where we live becomes a sanctuary of God’s presence. Without the gift of God’s presence holiness is only a pipe-dream to which humans aspire. But God’s presence must be acknowledged and cherished. Without recognizing, naming and giving thanks for His presence the place where we are at will seem barren. The birthplace of holiness is God’s grace lived out in personal commitment by broken individuals in the process of being healed.
The primary crucible for transformation is life with other people who are every bit as broken and messed up as we are. We learn to dwell with God and to imitate Him by learning the practices of hospitality, listening, diligence, forgiveness, responsibility, rootedness, and reconciliation—the daily drudgery of life with other people. But sometimes we recite those lofty character traits and forget that they are practiced in the context of fixing lunch, doing taxes, mopping floors, wiping bottoms, shaving, sweeping, driving, eating, rising early, and praying often. Life in Messiah is designed to be a pattern of positive habits or intentional routines engaged in for God’s glory.
We have Skype, smartphones, and Facebook—all designed to keep us in constant contact. We have forums, chat rooms, blogs and Twitter accounts all designed to form virtual community, yet most of us still feel disconnected and lonely. We’re estranged from our neighbors, unsure of where we really belong. Not sure if we’re part of Messianic Judaism, the Church, Israel, this denomination or that one; are we patriots, conservatives, or libertarians? Where will we send our kids to college? Who will our children marry?
Though we long for community, we actually practice largely disconnected and isolated lives. Mostly gone are the days when everyone in the village knew everyone else’s business—of course this was annoying at times, but it provided a built-in accountability that was healthy for the individuals who made up the community. Suburban homes are next to each other, but cut off; we drive into our 2 or 3 car garages, shut the door with the push of a button, enter our home through an interior door and often go weeks—perhaps even months—without even waving to our neighbors, let alone talking to them.
Consequently, within the walls of our well-insulated homes we practice an individualized spirituality that “works” for us, or so we imagine. We clamber to establish a personal sense of tranquility all the while ignoring God’s preferred plan for spiritual formation—life in community, transparency of action and motive. This must partially explain why books on spirituality are racing up the best seller list even as church attendance is dropping like the thermometer in January. Choosing a personal path seems so much easier than learning to actually know and understand the people who show up next to me in the pew. After all, we think, my life is complicated enough as it is!
“Community is always a risk,” Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “We cannot know beforehand who will stay and who will leave. But each decision to stay—every prayer lifted up from our half-born condition—can be seen as an act of faith that our God will give us what we need.”
How does this apply to our life? How shall we advance in imitating Christ? First, let us embrace, indeed not just embrace, but commit to community one with each other. Secondly, let’s determine to practice the sanctification of our day-to-day normality because this is where Christ shows up. Let’s stop imagining the far off, the grandiose, the heroic as that which will help or fix us. St. Paul wrote,
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 1 Corinthians 13:11 (ESV)
Og Mandino writes:
As a child I was slave to my impulses; now I am slave to my habits, as are all grown men. I have surrendered my free will to the years of accumulated habits and the past deeds of my life have already marked out a path which threatens to imprison my future. My actions are ruled by appetite, passion, prejudice, greed, love, fear, environment, habit, and the worst of these tyrants is habit. Therefore, if I must be a slave to habit let me be a slave to good habits. My bad habits must be destroyed and new furrows prepared for good seed. I will form good habits and become their slave.
What was it that St. Paul said? I am a bond-servant of Christ. “[P]resent yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life!” … just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness … so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” (Romans 1:1; 6:13, 19)
You haven’t been a part of my local congregation, but hopefully you can understand why I so often belabor the point of kavannah—the purposeful directing of one’s heart in the application of intentional, personal meaning to pre-crafted words. If we cannot learn to embrace the mundane regularity of liturgy as a tool for worship (and transformation) then we will not learn to see Messiah in the acts of scolding children, washing dishes, pounding nails, or completing paperwork; we will miss the opportunity pregnant in the need to repent of unkind words, or in the repetition of rising yet again to a job you don’t necessarily appreciate. We must capture the ability, through practice, of embracing these tools of day-to-day life because God intended them for our sanctification. It is His preferred, indeed, His most common method for transforming us into Christ’s image.
We urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
Now do you see why I emphasize the critical need to acknowledge first and foremost that all of God’s children are expected to fashion their lives in comparison to His eternal standard of holiness? We are bleeding for lack of it, brothers! We cannot heal the world, because we are broken and compromised. I care not for secondary discussions when the primary need is being largely ignored.
Primary vs. Secondary Distinctions
Contrary to much propaganda the majority position of the Church throughout history has always been that the moral imperatives of God’s Law apply universally to all believers. While Luther produced a movement that introduced a strong dichotomy between Law and Grace, the overwhelming majority of Christians continued to insist that the third and primary use of the Law was to instruct believers in the proper way of living, to aid them in more closely reflecting God’s image. Only since the advent of dispensationalism did the idea that the Law has actually been annulled gain any popular consensus.
Much of the discussion surrounding how we relate to God’s Law focuses on who has an obligation and whether we are part of the same group or not. May I settle this once and for all? We are all obligated to keep God’s Law perfectly. We all fail; therefore Yeshua kept it perfectly for us. On the other side of our acceptance of that truth, we are all charged to imitate Him…He kept God’s law. End of discussion. Now that we’re all in agreement, let’s move on to how.
Concerns over whether the law can be legitimately split into civil, ceremonial, and moral categories are likewise often misdirected, though some have undoubtedly misused this conversation. Today’s reality is that God does not consider those imperatives of the Mosaic Code that can be accurately described as pertaining to civil issues as binding on any secular government. Similarly, without a functioning Temple, without a ritually pure Aaronic priesthood, etc. no ceremonial imperatives regarding the practice of Temple-worship are presently demanded. So if, a Christian asserts, as does the London Baptist Confession of 1689,
The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
in my opinion, we ought to heartily agree with them, not condemn them for faulty theology. They may define the contents of the “moral law” differently than do we, but that is a variance you will find among every believing community everywhere.
While the specific demands of the law clearly vary based on sex, geography, time, ethnicity, and role, God’s general demand of obedience to His Law is universal and does not vary based on ethnicity. The Scriptural distinction is one of application not of obligation. When it comes to New Covenant participation/obligation the Holy Spirit, through the Apostle Peter was crystal clear:
“He [God] made no distinction between us and them,” (Acts 15:9a).
For sure, the demands of Torah differ depending on one’s relationship to Messiah, meaning that the “demand” of Torah to someone under the Old Covenant is condemning, while the “demand” of Torah to someone in the New Covenant is enlightening. I read somewhere recently that “Grace is the bridge from Law as mirror to Law as Lamp.” But still that obligation remains: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15; John 14:21; John 15:10; Romans 13:9; 1 John 5:2; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 1:6)
The only proper distinction is secondary rather than primary. The motivation of the Apostles to mandate a grace-filled approach to law-keeping was practical (and an imitation of God’s approach), “tell the uneducated, new believers to be concerned with x,y,z.” These Acts 15 specifications for immediate observance would have prevented table fellowship, the common denominator of regular, daily life, and soon to be the central observance of the fledgling sect (after the destruction of the Temple).
The distinction the Apostles make between Gentile converts and Jewish believers doesn’t need to be “wrestled” with; it’s obvious. I expect my son to obey me in all things, yet I begin only with high-chair manners, and slowly add to the “burden” of obedience as his understanding progresses. When I say to my 1 year old, “eat your food” that does not mean I don’t also expect him to be kind to his sister as soon as he understands kindness, etc., etc.
Because I have a different standard of obedience for my 2-year-old than I do for my 9-year-old, does not mean that both are not obligated to obey. These are differences in application not in obligation. The primary question is does God Law apply to the redeemed? The answer is a resounding, Yes. The secondary question is how do we apply it in a particular time and place, to a particular person or persons?
…and that’s a complicated issue we shall try to tackle in the following minutes.
The Daunting Challenge of Application
Perhaps starting with a real life example would be the best thing. I received this letter a couple of years ago.
At what point is the OT obsolete?
I just got done reading Lev 19….my son (against my wishes, as my wife is an unbeliever) is in public school. There are several classes that are making totem poles. Now, you may think I am crazy, but it clearly says in Ex 20:4:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”
You may think I am tripping, but I will not allow this….he is my firstborn, first born unto God….this will not be tolerated! …..anyway, so I was just browsing around Leviticus this morning and thought to myself…what the heck?
Where do you take it (OT)? (to what point)
My reply was as follows:
Well, you have a legitimate dilemma on your hands. The first thing I would answer is that the traditional, historic position of the Church-universal is that the Old Testament never becomes obsolete. In fact, a famous 14th century philosopher (and monk) named William of Ockham (you may have heard of Ockham’s Razor – entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem – which basically means the simplest answer is likely to be the accurate one) suggested that stealing was evil simply because God said that it was, which sounds good so far, right? But what Ockham meant is that God could have decided the opposite; He could have decided stealing was ethical, and it would have been. The Church rejected this as heresy and said that no, the law of God was an expression of God’s very nature and could no more change than could God. Therefore, since God is immutable, His law is immutable (not subject to change). Since no one questions whether God is immutable, I guess that much is decided.
The big question is, since some things in Scripture obviously change (for example, Adam and Eve could only eat fruits, vegetables, and seeds; but after Noah everyone was allowed to eat meat) what is part of God’s eternal law and what is not?
A majority of the Church throughout history has answered that God’s moral law is eternal. The Anglican Church expressed it this way in the 39 Articles of Religion (written over a 30 year period and finalized in 1571):
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man. Wherefore they are not to be heard which feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet, notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.
So now we have yet another question: which commandments are the moral ones? I have never run across, nor do I have, a bullet-proof answer to that question, which is why at St. Patrick’s-by-the-Rivers we’ve developed the following guideline:
We believe the Bible is a revelation of the righteousness of God, and a description of the lifestyle of the redeemed community throughout history. While God’s commandments are to be considered prescriptive, we acknowledge that they require adaptation from generation to generation.
We see a precedent for this in the Gospels, where Jesus declares to the disciples that in the context of a council of elders they can count on His guidance (via the Holy Spirit) and actually have the authority to determine what will be a permitted way of walking out God’s Law (compare Matthew 18:18-20 and John 20:21-23).
This is why the church has often said that the three pillars of decision making should be Scripture, Reason, & Tradition. They understood that as godly elders made community rulings throughout history, they formed what we know as Tradition, and it should be one factor we take into consideration as we try to figure out how to live out God’s laws in this place and time.
Soo…so much for introduction to the problem itself. Now let’s consider the specific scenario at hand. Clearly God said in the 10 commandments (which everyone considers part of the moral law – except for those who exempt the Sabbath from that category) that we are not to make for ourselves a carved image. HOWEVER, what does that mean–does this prohibit all statues or sculpture? Does this prohibit all art and photography? I don’t think so; why not? From analyzing the language of the passage and keeping verse 4 in the context that includes verse 5, it becomes apparent that God is prohibiting the making of a carved image for purposes of worshiping it. Clearly this is not a blanket prohibition on sculpture.
However, the Indians made totems for idols. Or did they; the evidence seems to indicate that they did not, although culturally ignorant missionaries tended to view the totem poles as idols, that wasn’t what they were to the Indians.
Furthermore, are the school kids carving the totems for idolatry? I doubt it. Since it seems that there is not a black and white, hard and fast, no-questions- asked commandment against making totems, I begin to ask myself further questions. Questions like, “How will my wife perceive this if I deny my son from participating?” “Will it seem to represent a God of grace and mercy to her, or seem more like a tyrannical, dictatorial God that I am using/abusing to bolster my quest for male power and dominance?” Of course, I don’t suggest that is true, only that it could be misperceived in that fashion.
Clearly, there are lines that cannot be crossed; if the school is teaching that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle alternative than I will have no choice but to exempt my son from that class, and it would be preferred to remove him from that school. But the situation with totem poles is not one of those black and white issues.
Soo…I cannot tell you what the right decision is in this scenario, but I can tell you that from an outside-the-situation analysis it seems to me that I would probably allow my son to participate, depending of course, on what is being said about the totem poles.
For the Father – In Messiah – By the Spirit,
Now I don’t know what you think about my “halachic” decision—which I also nicely evaded at the end there, don’t you think? This man is not a part of my community, by the way, which also played a part in my thoughts to him, but the main point is the real life difficulties involved in making decisions about how to apply God’s law.
Certainly no directly literal application is going to fly. For one thing we are not living in the Land, we are not under a theocratic government, we are living in Exile, we have no Temple, there are no Torah courts with jurisdiction, and in many cases God was giving enduring principles with specific application to 13th century BC.
Some insist that a literal application is necessary. To them I ask what the parapet around the roof of their house looks like.
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it. 
So let’s analyze this command. If we are expected to imitate God’s character along the lines of what this specific command teaches us, what is our obligation in 21st century New England or Indiana?
My understanding is that at the time the Torah was given, they commonly used the roof of their homes the way we use our porch or deck. So you might invite the neighbor over for some barbecue beef and a beer and enraptured with the taste of your brew and your wife’s marinade, after a couple plates and couple mugs, he might tip backwards and fall off the roof, and if you didn’t have a railing, well, you were guilty of manslaughter.
Well, there is no access to the roof of my two-story home, and the pitch of the roof is too steep to enjoy any time up there anyway, so my specific application is that when it snows I shovel and salt my sidewalk. If I had a deck instead of a patio, I suppose I would make sure to put a railing around it. If I had a pool, I would fence it in too—that tends to be a municipal law anyway.
Gracious, we have covered a lot of ground. What am I trying to convey?
“… the law may be viewed from three perspectives: theologically, anthropologically, and soteriologically. Theologically, the law is an expression of the will of God…. Anthropologically the law bonds a community…. Soteriologically, the OT asserts the life-brining function of the law. The NT concurs, emphasizing that this conclusion is warranted only when the law is embraced in faith….”
Our primary identity must be in Messiah. In Messiah we are called to imitate his character. The commandments of God found throughout Scripture, lived out in perfect example in the pages of the four Gospels, and amplified in the commentary of the Apostles to their fledgling congregations, are to be our constant guidelines and the standard to which we compare ourselves.
We cannot live in perfect harmony with every branch of God’s Body, but we can focus on that which we hold in common, and intentionally associate with the broadest possible group that does not compromise our convictions, even if that means we will have distinctive congregations within that larger body. Furthermore, we ought to acknowledge that God often gives a prophetic call to a particular person or group within His body that is not our call, but we should be slow to condemn and quick to look for the fruit of the Spirit.
Our call is not to wild fantasies of fantastic, herculean effort but to quiet, faithful living. In the midst of the crises of normal discipleship we will see God performing wondrous miracles—they will always be to His glory not ours. God divinely anticipated our every need and devised a way of living that will often, perhaps will always, force us to form counter-cultural communities. Our communities are to be colonies of heaven in the midst of a culture of despair. As we sanctify the daily drudgery of mundane life the Kingdom of God will break out amongst us.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that He may grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, and that the Messiah may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know the Messiah’s love that surpasses knowledge, so you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to Him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think–according to the power that works in you– to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:14-21 (HCSB)
Part One here.
Dallas Willard. “Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 28, no 4 (2000): 256.
James C. Wilhoit. Spiritual Formation As if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community. Baker
 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (2010-09-01). The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (p. 35). Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid. 109-110. (refers not just to the ending exact quote but the preceding two paragraphs)
 Elmer A. Martens. “Embracing the Law: A Biblical Theological Perspective,” in Jon Isaak, ed. The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009. 25.
 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002. p 162
 Nathan A. Long. The Offerings of Our Lips: Daily Prayers for In(habit)ing Communities. Fort Wayne, IN: In(form) Press, 2012.
 Luke 11:17
 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (2010-09-01). The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (p. 25). Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.
 Og Mandino. The Greatest Salesman in the World. p. 53.
 1 Thessalonians 4:10-12 (NASB)
 VII. Of the Old Testament. “Articles of Religion.” The Book of Common Prayer. New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1929. 604
 Deuteronomy 22:8
 Elmer A. Martens. “Embracing the Law: A Biblical Theological Perspective,” in Jon Isaak, ed. The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009. 26-27. I could not say what Dr. Marten did any better, so I’ve used his words, but it is important to note that by leaving out what I did, I’ve significantly altered the primary thrust of his quote.