Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Problem of Being Self-Righteous

     I have to admit I am a stubborn, combative person at times. And when I feel pigeon-holed with others that I don't even want to be associated with, I am particularly ready to counter-punch and counter-argue. I experienced one of those moments two weeks ago when I read through the comments on a FB article in Trending on two pastors arrested in Tennessee as part of an under-age prostitution sting. But what struck me was the reactions of what can only be described as "self-righteous" indignation on the part of many of the commentators. Reactions ran between "See? Religious nuts are all pedophiles" to "Religious people are the real problem, not transgender bathroom switchers." I suppose in our instant outrage, instant reaction society it's what we get, but it doesn't lend itself to deep breaths, and calm reflections. First of all, the very public, very horrible actions of two pastors in Tennessee have very little to do with the credibility of Christianity at large, or the truth of its teachings, as the actions of a few anarchists have very little to do with the credibility or the truth claims of post-modernism, or atheism, or whatever. We are all individuals, and individually must take responsibility for our own actions, but our individual actions do not prove or disprove the validity of a larger whole. In this case, the fact that there are individual Christians who behave in reprehensible ways does not prove Christianity to be reprehensible, anymore than the noble actions of a few Nazi's would not prove Nazism honorable and truthful.
     The problem is that lashing out in self-validating righteous indignation at "the other side" blinds us to our own failures, our own need for grace. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus tells two different stories about two different groups of people: the first bunch are slaughtered by the oppressive Roman ruler, Pilate, at the altar in the outer courtyard of the temple, defiling it as their blood and the ashes of their sacrifices mix together. The second group are people crushed to death in the collapse of a tower. Jesus makes a stark point about both: whatever you may think of either group, unless you (and I) personally repent (turn from our own selfish, self-serving and self-excusing ways to lean on Gods mercy), you too shall also perish.
     Some may not perish until they actually cease to breath; the two pastors from Tennessee, caught in the web of their own depravity, are for all intents and purposes already dead to any positive contribution in life. But be warned, Jesus says; without me, without grace, you too shall perish. For there is no one righteous in and of themselves - no matter how many of the "right kind" of bumper stickers they slap on their cars back side to shout down the unrighteous rabble jostling behind them. We are all one complacent step away from disaster, if not for grace. We need to drop our stones of judgment & look at each other with a bit more humility, and a lot less condemnation.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Why so silent?

As a child I learned a terrible secret; when things in the home were tense, safety was found in running silent - unseen, unheard, moving noiselessly like a shadow around the giants fighting around me, I could keep my sanity and avoid detection. It was my own secret strategy for survival, and it worked - to a degree, but left a terrible imprint on my character and instincts that I have yet to fully shed. Like most phobias and destructive habits picked up in childhood, running silent as a coping strategy grew into a way of life and stance for everything important. Silence is golden, but silence when my voice is needed to be heard is positively ruinous.

But it need not be that way; Paul, tempted to run silent in Corinth, received instead the wisdom of Christ in a nighttime vision: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city." (Acts 18: 9-10)

We know as followers of Jesus, we've been called to go & make disciples, which of course means that at some point, we must actually speak - tell - the good news. So why are we - why am I -  so silent
instead, so content to wait for the spiritually superior & put together to speak the message?  I think it comes from being so alone, so isolated. It's a truism that Americans are a lonely people, living right on top of each other and yet so isolated. I think (at least for me) the root of my silence is fear and loneliness, two things that Jesus spoke strongly to Paul about; first, He himself was there with Paul, because, second, "I have many people in this city."  When we really determine to live connected to the rest of the "body of Christ" - the church - then Jesus has people He can speak rebuke, reproof and encouragement to us through as the Word of God dwells richly in us (Col. 3: 16). So why so silent? Could it be that I - and perhaps even you - are secretly convinced that we really are left on our own to figure things out, resulting in silence, running scared and alone, afraid to let others see our vulnerabilities for fear of ridicule and shame? May I - and you - find the power to rest in Gods thoughts towards us (Psalm 139:17) that we might speak to those who are waiting to hear good news.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

When I make God say, "If my people would..."

"Hear, O my people, and I will warn you - if you would but listen to me, O Israel!" (Psa. 81:8)

I think this is one of the more painful realities about who we are as human beings in relation to our Heavenly Father - we cause Him pain. I'm not thinking of the ways in which what we like to think of as "wicked" people causing God pain (murder, strong arm robbery, physical assault and battery, the "big stuff"), but the ways in which believers cause Him pain through gossip, jealousy, lies, prideful arrogance over others put into action, or even becoming so used to our own daily sins that they no longer cause us any pain, only annoyance when they are called out by someone else. Psalm 81 is a call to Gods complacent people to consider how their disobedience, grown comfortable and  unrepented of, becomes a source of pain to God, which then ultimately becomes a source of pain to us. God shows the pain He feels at the rupture in the relationship we have with Him by saying three times, with slight variation, "if you would..." It's like a parent seeing a child heading towards emotional hurt, and knowing there's no way to get the kid to turn aside - they have to learn, by experience, that there is a better way. But until then, God watches as we blunder on until the consequences of our sin become so evident to everyone else that we then have to recognize it for what it is: sin that breaks down the communication between us. God could, if He chose, simply command that when we get saved, we would become perfectly obedient, a sort of "Stepford Wives" scenario on a grand scale. But He is "faithful and and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9)". So then the question is; do I want grow, or am I comfortable remaining unaware of the hurt being caused vertically and horizontally. Do I want to hear Him say, "well done, good and. Faithful servant...or "If my people would..." I face the choice again, hopefully this time with my eyes open to see something differently. What will I do with it? What will you do with yours?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Teaser Lunch

One of the painful lessons of life is learning the truth that, indeed, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” From the bag of candy that came with the obligation to clean our room, to the 3 free nights in Cancun that came with the obligation to spend an additional $3000 for the airfare home, life trains us to look with jaundiced eye at the word, “Free!”
No, there’s no such thing as a free lunch…but then, what is this in Matthew 14: 13-21, that Jesus provides on the beach? It looks suspiciously like…well, one of those “free lunches” we’ve been told to avoid. So what is Jesus’ angle?
Well…he heals the sick of the crowd first it says. Did he then enroll them in his academy to begin paying fees immediately?
No…it just says he healed their sick. Hmmm…there must’ve been a bigger hook waiting in the background. So he has the disciples bring the 2 fish & 5 bread loaves to him. And he offered free to the first 7 takers of his new life improvement program…No, it says he gave thanks for them, and gave them to his disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowd…And a miracle happened; the small little lunch turned out, handful by handful, to be enough to feed the entire crowd of 5,000 men and their families.
It must have been a tease; that’s when Jesus signed them up to join his 12 step program to self-actualization, complete with $250 DVD series…No, it simply says they all ate and were satisfied…and after they had ate Jesus dismissed the crowd.
Well, so it was free, the only truly free lunch in the whole history of the world. Whoopie; what’s the big deal?
Ok, you’ve got me – there was something else Jesus wanted. You see, Jesus in Johns gospel goes onto say that He is the bread of life; all who come to Him will never go hungry, and all who believe Him will never go thirsty (John 6:35).
Jesus wants us to go beyond the free lunch of grace to the life that satisfies, to the work that renews us as we do it. In short, what Jesus has provided through the cross, viewed through the eyes of faith in the symbols of bread and wine, is a teaser lunch – one that invites us deeper into the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to discover that our lives were meant to be full, satisfying and overflowing with hope and peace into the lives of those around us. This is, after all, He who said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.”
So the choice is ours - to spend our life looking under the table for the hidden catch, or to sit down with the Host to find a life that really is worth living, and really is satisfying.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Surpising comfort

I'll never forget a lesson I learned when I was a young believer, growing in my faith, about the importance of not focusing on my burdens. It came at a time when I was carrying a big burden - my oldest brother had suffered a head injury in an accident, and was in a coma as a result. He had been flown from Colorado to the old VA hospital in Minneapolis, and I came down from where we lived, along with my sister, to see him and my mother, even if he could not see us. My other brother was in a different hospital as well, with complications from a surgery the previous year, and my father was with him. Three brothers; two hospitalized. That was a heavy burden that fall. We three (Mother, Sister, and I) talked together, prayed together, cried together, talked to my brother in his coma, sat silent together, and did all the very limited things a person can do in a hospital room like that one and that situation. On the way up from the lobby to the room I had spotted a sign for a chapel, and I felt an urge to go pray there. After some wandering down wrong turns and retracing of steps, I finally found it and went inside. I sat down on a chair in the very simple room and just as I started to pray, a man in a wheelchair rolled into the chapel. In those days I would pray out loud, so I stopped praying, confused; God had prompted me to come here to pray, but why interrupt it by bringing someone else there as well? I needed the comfort of His presence; how could I find it if I was praying silently so as not to disturb someone else? I know, it sounds ridiculously selfish and immature, and it was. But God is gracious in growing the immature; I distinctly felt Him prompting, "Go talk to that man." I remember looking at him, and thinking, "But he looks like he just wants to be alone." I got up, and went over to a table on which various pamphlets lay, and browsed through them, not really seeing them because I was wrestling with God over talking to the other man. I went through a few silent minutes of internal debate, and finally went over and blurted out, "I feel like God wants me to talk to you and let you know He cares about you." The other man looked at me in astonishment and said, "I came in here because I felt God wanted me to come in here and tell someone that God cares about them too!" We looked at each other in amazement, laughed, and then shared the different burdens we were carrying that brought us to that room. It says in II Corinthians 1: 3-4, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God." (NIV, 2011) Paul talks about the sufferings of the Christian becoming the means through which we can help others find strength to bear up under their burdens as well, and it has stuck with me to this day - when I focus on what is going wrong in my life and how unfair it is, I miss the chance to receive grace in the middle of it to pass onto others who need the same kind of reassurance, care and hope that I need. And surprisingly, it is often in that turning outward, out of our own burdens into the burdens of others, that we then receive the comfort and care we are craving for. Life is tough, and it's often unfair; who do you know that's experiencing that reality? Comfort them.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Liar, liar, light my own pants on fire...

"Be careful what you wish for" is a truism that I have heard since I was a little kid, and there is wisdom behind its simple message: pursuing a goal simply because I desire it badly doesn't mean it will give the result I desire. It could, in fact deliver disaster. Knowing this, of course, hasn't stopped me from wishing anyway for things that would make my life simple, hassle free, and uncomplicated. And sometimes I have gotten what I wished for, and then wished I hadn't. Sometimes I even realize, looking back, that there were warnings about those possible consequences, but I was too fixated on what I wanted in the moment to listen to wise counsel. Worse, there have been times that I even went after the opposite, just to get my wish.

I think of that as I read 1 Kings 22 in the Old Testament, the story of how one of Gods greatest disappointments as a king, Ahab, finally met his end. Here it is in a nutshell: Ahab, king over Israels 10 northern tribes, wants to take a city back from an enemy. His "cousin", the king of Judah & Benjamin (the 2 southern Israelite tribes), says they should ask God if they should attack (through one of the faithful prophets) after 400 corrupt, compromised Baal prophets tell them to go for it. Ahab hates the one prophet who is not a yes man, but sends for him anyway. The prophet tells the 2 kings, at first, the same line - go for it, be victorious, yada-yada-ya. But after being pressed to tell the real word of God on the subject, he tells the king the other 400 prophets have been manipulated by a "lying spirit" in the mouths of the prophets (1 Kings 22: 19-23). Ahab goes anyway, is wounded in battle, and dies. Graphically, as his chariot is being washed out, wild dogs (not remotely the kind of ones we would keep as pets today) come and lick up his blood, fulfilling the words of Elijah the prophet concerning Ahabs death and its circumstances.

Some have had a real problem with this story; if God is good and righteous, how can He send a lying spirit to deceive the king? Honestly, though I can understand being troubled by that, it's rather simple to understand. Ahab was set on getting his "wish" - a city named Ramoth Gilead. It should be his, and the fact it wasn't galled him, nagged at him, pestered him.  His 400 yes men prophets were there simply to confirm what he already had determined to do; if by some twist, all 400 had suddenly said no, he would've found some other reason to get what he wanted - official, God sanctioned permission to go to war. God allowing an evil spirit to do what it was going to do anyway (in this case, lie to the king through disobedient prophets) is not, in the end, much different from reaching out and hardening Pharaohs' heart. He knew Pharaoh would choose to be hard, and so God gave him the wish of his heart - a heart that was hard.

And that brings me to why this story troubles me: I suspect down in my heart, left to my own devices and wandering away from grace, I'm not much different from Ahab. If my heart is set on making myself look good, if I'm just as determined to increase my kingdom at Gods expense (if I can), just as stubborn to get my way, just as willing to listen to the 400 echoing my own voice and ignore the one still, small voice whispering warning, then in the end, left to my own wisdom and righteousness, I become the "liar, liar" who sets his own pants on fire. "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God-through Christ Jesus our Lord!" (Romans 7: 24-25)

The only way out, too late for Ahab (but maybe not for you & me) is to humble ourselves before God, and ask for grace to be delivered from the tyranny of our own wishes, focused on ourselves. Wishes focused on God's glory receive the power of the Spirit of God to accomplish His will. Wishes simply about our own comfort He will oppose.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

To pursue joy or happiness...

          When I was in college, I had New Testament Survey at 7:45 in the morning. I was not then, and am not now, a "morning" person, and found it difficult to be awake, much less cheerful. You may appreciate then how hard it was to sit under my professor’s relentlessly cheerful and joyful sweep through the New Testament over the next 4 months! But I learned something from her; joy is not a creation of circumstances, the result of being consistently entertained to death. Joy is the creation of a life satisfied with God's goodness and grace, confident in hope of new mercies.
            Joy is often confused for happiness. In America happiness is one of the pursuits guaranteed under the constitution of the United States (though happiness meant something in 1776 which it does not now mean).
            We American's pursue happiness, primarily through overindulgence. We fear boredom and silence more than death; so we glut our senses with movies, TV, theme parks, road trips, the internet, sports and casinos until our wallets are empty, our eyes bloodshot and our brains and emotions numb.
The problem is that happiness as a pursuit leads to unhappiness.  We were not created to be happy.  We were created to experience joy. Joy is the creation of a life satisfied with God's goodness and grace, confident in hope of new mercies. Listen to this:

"When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, 'The Lord has done great things for them.' The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him." Psalm 126

            Did you notice the repeated emphasis on joy? This Psalm dates from the time after the Jewish exiles returned from exile in Babylon, their circumstances anything but easy. And yet, there is joy bursting through at every turn. Why don’t the majority of humans experience this? As Eugene Peterson, writes in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction,

        "We cannot make ourselves joyful. Joy cannot be commanded, purchased or arranged. But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. One of the certain consequences of such a life is joy, the kind expressed in Psalm 126." (p. 97)
            Pursue the God who gives joy, and the pursuit of happiness will take care of itself. God invites all to the table of grace; rest assured that joy is there in abundance for all who will seek Him, who is Joy itself!