Monday, December 16, 2013

On Suffering and Forgiveness

I'm realizing that forgiveness, though commanded, is also something that is given.  It is definitely something we are responsible to grant, and it is an act of the will, yet it is also a gift from our Forgiver to us, a gift that gives life to our dead bones.  It is something that can be taught 1,000 times and have no real force behind it until the day it descends upon you from above.  It is something that finds its true weight and force and power and beauty not in the lightest and easiest offenses to dismiss but in the most grievous and painful betrayals to bear.

And I know this not because I have forgiven much.  I know this because by God's grace I am drawn to the edge of the camp where the fire of forgiveness burns.  I have felt it's warmth and seen it's light.  I have dabbled in it for a time, for moments here and there, and then I have run back to the cold outskirts of darkness and hatred and bitterness.  I see that while it is indeed an "act", it is also a permanent or committed shift in one's disposition toward the offender. 

And this brings me to today...

I was on Facebook, and I saw one of my Friends "like" a photo from a page.  This was not just any old Facebook page.  It is the page that belongs to someone who has done great wrong to me, someone who may still be doing wrong and may do it again, given the opportunity.  What bothered me was not that this Friend liked something on this page.  My friend does not know what happened.  It was that my friend was unwittingly accepting this person, and their endeavors... even showing support in a sense to something good this person is doing.

See... I don't want that person to do well.  I don't want them to be happy, to succeed, or to have other people think they are a good person.  I want people to know what they did, and I want people to hate them and take my side.  I don't want them to be lauded and appreciated.  I want people to see the truth.  I want them to suffer like I suffered (and still suffer).  I want them to truly know what they put me through.

And I want to forgive them... at least part of me does.  Or actually, I'll be honest.  I only want to forgive them because I know I should, because I don't want forgiveness withheld from me, and because I know it will free me inside.  Otherwise, I want them to suffer.  I really do.

This is where I must confess my inability.  I know my hatred is sinful, but I don't feel bad for hating the person.  I really don't.  How can I forgive when I really don't want to?

I don't know, but I am reminded of the story of Corrie Ten Boom.  I am reminded of how she was approached years later by one of the horrible guards from the Nazi concentration camp.  He said that he was a Christian then, that he had found the Lord, and asked her for forgiveness.  She could not.  She remembered her sister's agony and death, and she remembered this man's involvement in it.  She couldn't do it.  But forgiveness came through her toward him.  It was not of her own power.  That is what I need.

On a similar thread, Ten Boom wrote in her book, The Hiding Place...

“When He tells us to love our enemies He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

And though I am not there, yet, something did strike me today.  As I sat there and thought of and felt the pain I went through and still carry with me, I saw Christ in my mind's eye, suffering as well.  I don't mean that He was suffering my pain, though He does.  I mean that I saw Him suffering in this world.  I saw Him suffering the same kinds of tragic betrayal and rejection.  I saw Him suffering the hurt of lies and coldness and trickery.  These, among many, many other things, are the sufferings of Christ in this world.

In other words, I saw my sufferings as part of a greater whole -even the sufferings of Christ in this world.  And with that, there was a moment where I felt a kind of joy and peace in that... to know that I am bearing the sufferings of Christ with Him, to know that He not only knows of my sufferings but that, in my own way, I understand and feel His.  These sufferings are wrong.  They are not how things are supposed to be.  But they are... "appropriate" for this age.  They are a part of this world.

Yes, they are part of God's plan, as well -something the sufferings of Christ bear the greatest testimony to.  But in this way, I feel even slightly closer to Jesus -again, not because He understands how I feel but because I may in fact understand His agony to some degree.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

No Title

Has it ever occurred to us that the reason the cross of Christ does not mean more to us is that we fail to see how Jesus died to save us from our primary sin -which is our ardent self-determination, our unflappable, wild insistence on being in control of our own lives, our refusal to let Him be God over us, to entrust Him with the care of our lives?  In our insistence for life to go the ways we determine, to be able to find the right answer and get things to go the way we want, of course we are not more grateful for a God who saves us.

Why feel grateful?  After all, we are still trying to be our own saviors.  God isn't doing a good job when it comes to our lives, so we will take that responsibility back, thank you very much.  Perhaps we will let Jesus be our Savior to get us to "heaven" some day.  We will let Him pay for our sins.  But in our daily lives it is we who insist on leading ourselves through the desert and making the trek into the kind of comfortable journey that we insist it must be.  It is we who wish to be our own saviors, with all of our plans and strategies to control life and refuse to let it go into the hands of the One to whom it ultimately belongs. 

And the result?  Misery, pain, and relational disintegration.  I don't mean the pain that comes from simply living in this world.  I mean added pain.  I mean pain and misery added because our craving for self-determined control, to be faithless captains of our own souls, meets real life.  And it is there that we see our iron grip on the people and details of life does not work out as neatly as it does in our conceiving little minds.  Like trying to grasp at pouring oil, everything slips through our fingers, only adding to the desperation and frustration and pain of life.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Why are so many Christians seemingly silent about their marital woes?

In an online forum I participate in, one of the participants through this question out there.  They asked, "Why are so many believers silent about the challenges they are facing in marriage? What don't they reach out for help?"

This is a very good question.  Having some experience with this, I do have some thoughts on it.  Here is what I wrote:

Why are so many believers silent about what we face in our marriages? I honestly believe a large part of the problem is that the Church can tend to make an idol out of marriage -just in a way that is different from the broader culture. Our culture makes an idol out of marriage by presenting it as a sort of "heaven on earth" fairy tale that, just like in the movies, will fulfill all your felt needs, give you all the happiness you crave, and will have you two skipping through fields and having movie-style, passionate sex for the rest of your lives. Obviously, when reality hits and people realize the other person cannot make them "happy", they decide they need to go find someone else. And so on, and so on.

But the Church exacerbates the issue in a different way. The Church presents a high and lofty picture of a "godly Christian marriage", and it often looks something like this: both people love the Lord completely, want to do Bible studies together, want to pray together every day, want to do "date nights" once a week, want to go to all the marriage retreats together, read and apply all of the principles of "Love and Respect", watch Fireproof when things are tough, go to church every week together, and live happily ever after with their joyous Christian smiles on their faces. And the thing is... some people have something close to that. So reading Love and Respect might be all they need to boost things up a notch. But many people DONT have that, and when the Church presents such an idol, such a standard, that lacks the realism of life in a broken world and smacks either boldly or quietly of legalism, they feel ashamed. They feel like they don't fit in. They feel embarassed, like although they are saved by grace through faith they are screwed when it comes to their marriage, which has failed by their poor performance. And they honestly don't know who to talk to because they don't want a book handed to them, nor do they want the pad answers that the Church is so used to providing.

In other words, in the Church's battle to "save" marriage, at least for Christians, they may have inadvertently set up a standard that only creates a kind of spiritual pride for some and despair and shame for others. Marriage is not the be-all-end-all. Paul even said that if you can be single, maybe that is better. Less to worry about! We need to step it down a notch or three. Our focus has in some ways only made things worse and alienated people that have real sin in their lives and marriages. While we would never admit to such with our mouths, in practice and emphasis we have forgotten that marriage is trench warfare, full of sin. And some experience the full-brunt of the discord between man and woman seeking closeness and partnership far more than others.

And the Church should present that as a real and common part of normal, but we don't. It's like we're afraid to admit that is normal, like a Pharisee afraid to admit he is a sinner, for fear that admitting such might mean we cannot fix everything or provide an answer to every problem. We are, oddly enough, merely offering a Christianized version of "Progress", of making a heaven on earth where one cannot be made, and perhaps covering up the rough edges when we see we can't.

So, short answer? Shame. And not the "good" kind of shame that leads people to closeness with the Lord. I mean the bad kind of shame that makes people feel like they are hopeless to pull up their bootstraps and be like "everybody else." When people see that they don't live up to what appears to be the normative Church marriage experience, when they see that they don't even come close to the simplicity of problems spoken of in marriage sermons, when they read these ridiculous marriage books that seem to help others but offer them nothing but more despair and a sense of hopelessness, they feel ashamed and alienated.

and

The other thing I think is worth noting is that marriage is a very private thing. Many Christians maybe have gone to ask a pastor for help, often alone when their spouse has no interest or doesn't believe it will help. But such problems are not like when a family member is ill. You cannot go around the church community lamenting your painful marriage -it doesn't quite work that way! I think the person's spouse might not appreciate it! :) So, by its very nature the subject of marriage warrants a kind of hidden, silent form of counsel.

I don't think all of us need to be a "mess" in order to be an ear for others. I'm certain that people with silently painful marriages would not wish them on anyone. But we (and I mean that corporately, for I recognize that many individuals are not like this -my pastor being one of them) need to ditch the "image". The "Christian marriage image" is what alienates people. Some people need to know that, while God can certainly do any miracle He so chooses, their marriages may never BE that. And that is OK.

In other words, I believe the Church needs to re-adjust its goals about marriage. Because what happens is a person *does* seek counsel, many times alone, many times because the spouse is not willing, and they *do* have hope at first. They think, "I *can* have what the Church tells me my marriage should be like." And they read the books, they talk with their pastors, and they pray like mad. But then things don't get better. Yet, they keep trying. They pray harder, they try harder, they talk to more pastors and counselors, and they read more books to try and "fix" themselves or their spouse (a recipe for disaster). And the cycle continues, sometimes for years, maybe over a decade.

But along the way something happens. A deep shame and cynicism takes root. All the things they tried to apply haven't "worked". They feel cheated, and worse, they feel in despair because they can't get what they believed they could have. They feel like they have been beating their head against the wall. And eventually they give up. Maybe not on their spouse, but on the hope of having anyone from the Church help them and on the idea that they can have a "Christian marriage" like the "real Christians" at Church.

What could have been done differently? I wouldn't presume to know exactly. But somewhere along the way, the Church would have done well to give this person the truth: their marriage does not have to look like anybody else's because their marriage is a ministry given to them.

When we are taught to aim at some standard by our own efforts on a matter such as this, and in a way such as this, there will always be two results. There will be people who sit in some degree of comfort, thinking they have pulled it off or just need to step it up a bit here and there. Maybe they become proud. Maybe they think they should teach others and say, "Hey men, we can do better than this. All of our marriages can be like this." But there will also be people who only suffer more because of the despair of failure they feel and the alienation they feel from the people who think they know better.  It shouldn't be that way.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Interesting Twist

The other day I commented about a situation in which a lesbian server at a restaraunt claimed she was not tipped because she is gay, even posting to Facebook a copy of the receipt with a message scrawled on it about not approving of her "lifestyle".  She opened up a paypal account and collected a few thousand dollars in donations all over the world.  My comments can be found here.

Well, here is an interesting development that you have to check out. The family recognized their receipt on the news and spoke up, claiming that they did tip her and never wrote those things on the receipt.  Their proof?  They have a customer copy of the receipt, with the same date/time-stamp, showing an $18 tip, and they supplied a copy of their credit card statement which shows a charge in the total amount shown on their customer copy, not the copy Morales, the gay server, posted to Facebook.  Who is telling the truth?  Hmm....

Here's the video.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Christ's Death and Resurrection

For many years as a Christian, I was not entirely sure what the significance of the resurrection was.  I knew Jesus died on the cross for my sins, but what exactly was the deal with the resurrection?  Somehow it was linked to hope, but I did not know how.  Though it was not a focus of study for me, I found the answers I got from looking around and asking other Christians to be generally the same and generally lacking.

The most common answers I got ranged from Jesus rising from the dead to "beat death" to the resurrection being a sort of proof that Jesus' bloody "payment" was accepted by God: "the check has been cleared", so to speak.  There are elements of truth to these answers, for there there are many facets to be found, but it was not until I read the work of the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde that I began to really understand what the resurrection was for, and why it was necessary in conjunction with His death on the cross.

The short answer is that Jesus rose from the dead to bring in the new creation.  He is the beginning of something new for us.  His death was the end of the old... the old way, the old age that finds every one of us condemned and guilty of failing to live up to our humanity, the old system that corporately and individually finds itself comfortably at home in unbelief and defiance against God's good and sovereign care.  And His resurrection was the birth of the new age, the new creation, which all who belong to Him will inherit with Him.  He is the "first fruits" of this new creation.  So in sum, what makes His resurrection so important?  His resurrection means that there is a new beginning for mankind.  The end is no longer the end.  There is something new, a new and living hope which is as real and tangible and definite as His resurrected body.

So, now back to the cross.  What I'm realizing is that one must go with the other.  If our understanding of the cross leaves us with a weak or almost unnecessary resurrection, we are missing something essential.  And likewise, if our understanding of the resurrection leaves us with a weak or almost unnecessary death on the cross, then we have drifted far from the truth.  Thus, we have a question here.  If Christ's resurrection meant the beginning of something new for us, the beginning of a new age and new creation which we can be a part of, then why did Jesus have to die?  Or more importantly, why did Jesus have to die in the way that He did?

After all, it is obvious that one must first be dead in order to resurrected from the dead, but there are many ways the Messiah could have died.  He could have died as an infant.  He could have died in an accident.  He could have died from a disease or from old age.  Those are indeed all aspects of this fallen world which identify with all of humanity.  So why a cross?

Considering that there are voluminous works on this subject from many great minds over the centuries, I'm not going to even attempt to claim that I have illuminated the answer to that question.  But I do have some thoughts based on Scripture and what I have read.

The death of Christ on the cross assumes the curse for us by entering the place of the condemned man in our stead, ahead of us.  That is true.  It says as much: "cursed is the man who hangs on a tree."  But there is more.  It is by the death of the Messiah in this manner that the Jews of the time, in particular, and all men corporately are exposed for what they are.  We are exposed for all of our indifference, faithlessness, spiritual pride, treachery, and wickedness.  Jesus died as "weak" at the hands of the "strong," outcast and condemned as a criminal.  There the irony stands in blinding brilliance:  the innocent, righteous Son of God, the Savior of mankind who came bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, is hated and condemned and rejected, but it is his condemnation by our own hands that stands as the greatest and starkest condemnation of us all.  For the Gift of God, the Savior of the World, to be betrayed and killed as a criminal in the world's eyes shows just how screwed up and self-deceived and lost and warped we really are.  By the Son of Man allowing us to judge and condemn Him, He stood outside of the world's system as the ultimate indictment against it.

And yet it is by this very death and what followed that we are saved, purely as a gift, by no contribution of our own whatsoever.  This dark and dismal indictment turned to news of joy and deliverance as breath entered His lungs early that Sunday morning.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

One of the Stupidest Things I've Seen in a While

An article on the Today News website entitled Waitress denied tip for 'gay lifestyle' gets flood of support tells the tale of how a waitress's bad day was turned to good.  Rather than receiving a tip, waitress Danya Morales received a note on her ticket that reads, "I'm sorry but I cannot tip because I do not agree with your lifestyle & how you live your life."  Morales was understandably offended by this, posted about it on Facebook, and eventually set up a Paypal account, in which she has received over $1000 in donations, which she plans to donate to certain charities.

My first thought on this is... "My God, I hope the guy who wrote that note is not a Christian."  That is exactly the kind of stupidity that makes Christ and His Gospel look foolish.  It plays right into the belief that Christians are self-righteous, backwards bigots.  When I think about tipping someone, I think about how the service was.  Period.  How did the person know they are gay?  Did she announce it or something?  If so, so what.  She is fulfilling her role as a server.  For the love of God, tip her based on that.  Should we go around asking personal questions of waitresses and cashiers?  "Hey, tell me... have you ever lied?  Have you ever cheated on your wife?"  "Where do you go to church?"  "Sorry, I can't tip you because I don't agree with how you live your life."  Stupid.

God uses all people -and we are all sinners in our own ways- to bring his common grace to all the rest of us.  What a privilege it is to live in a country where you can go out to a restaurant and enjoy a meal that someone else prepares and someone else brings to you.  What a gift.  And God uses whom He wills to fill the roles necessary for such a thing to happen.  "Oh no... they are GAY!?  We can't have any sinners doing that.  That will just be providing them with a job and a livelihood by which they will continue their gayness.  I might as well rent her and her lesbian lover a room at a hotel and pay for the toys!"  By this absurd logic, who could escape its condemnation?  After all, who really knows if the next waiter I tip is going to use that money to buy groceries for his dying mother or to go out to a strip club?

But more thoughts came, don't you worry.  Here's what I don't really get.  I don't ask anybody to agree with my lifestyle.  I would be hurt if someone wrote a note like that to me, for sure, perhaps because I'm a Christian.  I'd be pissed.  And I might write about it on Facebook.  But I'd get over it.  Why?  Because I don't need others to approve of my lifestyle.  In fact, I already know many people probably won't, so why cry about it?  I just hope I don't lose my job, get beat up, or thrown in jail for it. I guess my expectations are low.  I wouldn't be setting up a Paypal account to rally people for my cause and take donations.  And this is what I don't get about the Gay movement -why does it seem that things have gone from freedom from oppression and abuse, which I whole-heartedly agree with, to the demand that others agree with and support your lifestyle?  Why is there such a hyper-sensitive demand for preferential treatment?  It's like with all the focus on tolerance in our culture, people are more sensitive and more dramatic.  It is ridiculous. 

You're gay.  Great.  Welcome to the messed up mass of humanity.  Yes, I think homosexuality is morally wrong for various reasons, but I also think it is morally wrong to discriminate against you and oppress you because of it.  And I'm entitled to believe that way, and I really don't have a problem working with you, having you serve me food, or even being your friend.  But nobody gets to sit there and demand that somehow your lifestyle is special and require that everybody think it is ok.  If that is what anyone thinks, they need to get over themselves.

Besides, if this kind of thing happened toward a waitress because they were Christian, do you think it would make the news?  Nope.  Because Christians are "bad", so its like we deserve it, right?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Happy

Happiness is a great thing.  Who doesn't want to be happy?  There is something obvious and universal about this.  If someone wants to be unhappy, if someone seeks out suffering intentionally, depending on the circumstances we would think there is something seriously wrong with them.

Is there such a thing as wanting to be happy too much?  Yes, I think so.  I believe in America, which with all of its poverty and violence is still more affluent and safe than most other places in the world (and that is an understatement), happiness has become something of a golden calf.  Happiness becomes the goal of life... the measure of the worth of a life, the final evaluator of your decisions, the benchmark of success... and therefore anything which disrupts that happiness, such as evil and suffering, has no value and only serves to destroy your life.

And that is what many of us implicitly think.  Evil and suffering are not life.  They take away from life.  And thus, when evil and suffering hit home, and they will with even the best of us, we crumble.  We lose heart.  We lose faith.  We feel cheated and wronged.  We feel that life has lost its meaning.  We cannot see that the suffering has an ordained place in shaping our life, our story, our touch on the lives of others, even if it is not the way we want or had planned.  Happiness must be found, and this person or situation or event has screwed it all up!

If this is all you have, if there is nothing beyond this, then this is really your only shot to enjoy yourself, so you had better take it.

If happiness in this life is all you have, why give that up?  Why be a hero?  You might lose your one chance to be happy, after all.

Even though we know that type of thing is cowardly and selfish and we instinctively know that sacrifice for the good of another is of far better virtue, people still use happiness as the baseline for even their most life-altering decisions.  Take the high divorce rate, for example.  While I would certainly agree that there are many cases where people are better off being separate from their spouse due to things like infidelity and persistent abuse, how many marriages and families are offered up to die on the altar of our personal happiness?

Here is the crux of the matter.  Happiness is a good thing.  But when your life goal is happiness, when the only thing that makes your life a "good" life is your own personal happiness at any given moment, then you will find yourself unable to cope with real life.  Things like right and wrong start to slip back into the gray.  Sacrificing yourself for the good of others becomes the stuff of romantic fairy tales.  Finding meaning and truth, and for that matter finding God, in the midst of suffering becomes a very distant and unrealistic and arcane sentiment. 

And in the midst of all of this you may find what your character is really made of. When evil and suffering hit and your life begins to unravel, suddenly you may catch a glimpse of the fact that a large part of why you did any of the good you did was not for the goodness of itself, not really for others, and not for God.  You did the good you did largely with the expectation of controlling and keeping life the way you want it, revealed by the fact that you feel cheated by God and the universe because you thought there was some kind of unspoken deal:  I'll be good and you will keep me happy and make my life go according to my wishes.

The cruelest trick of all is that the pursuit of happiness is a lost cause.  Jesus taught us that real happiness is never found in itself.  It always comes as a byproduct of the pursuit of something else.  Pursue happiness -you never find it.  Pursue righteousness and the kingdom of God -you get happiness, blessedness, joy thrown in... not because you leverage God into giving you the kind of life you want but because you discover happiness in righteousness for itself and in God for Himself in spite of the circumstances around you.

If you "just wanna be happy," you will find that you go through life whining, because life will seldom go according to plan.

If you truly "just wanna love God and love others," you will discover that a kind of happiness follows you, a happiness and contentment that can live quite easily alongside sorrow and pain.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Preach the Gospel to Ourselves?

Preach the Gospel to ourselves.  That is what we are told to do.  It is heralded today in many Reformed and evangelical circles as one of the main spiritual disciplines we must learn and practice every day.  I used to be all for it.  But then I realized something... that controlling, I-can-do-it, flesh side of me loves this idea  It wants to believe it can do it all -or maybe not all but at least something to help itself.  But "it" is me.  It is I.  I want to believe that I can contribute and that I can be, and should be, able to control my own spiritual progress.  And more than anything else, I love to turn anything, including the gospel, into a means to "fix" myself and make me be how I want myself to be.

Read this from a TGC article...

"The call to preach to ourselves law and gospel is really a call to the discipline of meditation where we saturate our minds and hearts with Scripture, strategically applying the Word of God to our own lives with an aim at growing in faith and godliness."

A few years ago, I would have said, "Awesome, yes, I agree!"  Today, do you know what I see?  I see, "I can control it."  I see this, ironically, man-centered, flesh-driven idea that I can control my sanctification, and I can control how I change by the right application of law and the gospel.

Do you know what I think is a better spiritual discipline?  The discipline of shutting up.  We need to learn how to shut the @#$% up and give up on this idea that we can "apply" things in the right way and train our own flesh to behave itself.  This I believe is what Luther would call a "theology of glory."

If by "preaching the Gospel to ourselves" we do mean disavowing the spiritual pietist within and shutting up and listening, then I agree.  However, even if one agrees with that it usually isn't what happens in practice.  It much too easily turns into, "How can I say these things to myself and 'apply' them in such a way as to produce these results?"  That is what makes me think the idea is largely fool-headed to begin with.  Why on earth would me listening to me preach to myself be a good thing?  I'm not exactly a neutral party in the matter, even if I convince myself otherwise.  My problem is that I listen and trust myself too much!

Aside from potentially catering to our flesh -our old Adam who lives within a perpetual theology of glory, the side of us that wants to believe it can and ought to contribute and be in charge of something, the part of ourselves that foolishly refuses to believe its own powerlessness- this practice I believe minimizes the essential nature of the gospel being something outside of us.

The Gospel comes from outside of us.  It comes from a foreign voice, an objective voice -not our own voice in our own heads.  It comes from outside of us and says, "tetelestai... te absolvo".  It comes to us from outside in the objective Word, spoken from within God's community, the Church, and it comes to us in the things given to the Church to convey the gospel to us in tangible terms, such as the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper.  I believe we need that.  I believe there is no substitute for it.  And if we live in a cave on a desert island where there is nobody to preach the Gospel to ourselves, then we had at least better assume a posture of listening and allowing God to effect our souls as we read God's Word.

I don't know about you, but I'm not going to even try to preach anything to myself.  Or actually, I take that back.  I know I'm going to try to.  I know I'm going to try to take control and think I can do something.  I know I will, and it will always lead me down the same screwed up road.  I am incorrigible.  But what I hope I will learn to do, instead, is shut up and become a child again, willing to listen and be taught, willing to hear the objective voice that comes from outside of me, and placing myself within the context of being able to hear that objective, external Word and receive it, feeding on it, in its tangible forms.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Everyone Has Their Own Story

There is a particular person that is in my life without my choice.  Though I never have to deal with this person directly, they are always a part of my life in some way, and I really wish they weren't.  They took a great deal from me, and their presence haunts me in ways.  It bothers me to see them receive accolades and praise and attention, both from people I love and from the greater population of humanity.  To me, they are no hero.  Not all, but many of their present hardships are the result of their own choices, choices which also hurt me deeply and changed my life.

The words of Tim Keller came to mind the other day (paraphrase): "Receive whatever [or whoever] God sends into your life, whether you understand it or not."

When I read those words, I felt myself sink into a kind of reluctant humility.  "Yes, Lord."  But that is not the end of the story.  That is not all there is to it.

See, I have my own story.  It is not their story.  It is mine.  It is filled with all the good and the bad of my life.  It is filled with all the struggles but also all the endurance and overcoming.  My struggles are not as obvious and plain as this person's, but they are real.  They are just as real.  And they can be my victories, as well.  My battles are not published for others to see, but they are indeed battles, to be daily won or lost.  They can be my occasions to celebrate, and for those out there who actually care, they can be the occasion for others to celebrate with me.  Everybody has something they are battling.  Everybody has their own story.  May my pain not distract me in unhealthy ways towards anyone else' story so that I forget my own.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Death of Shame

Shame is normally not considered a good thing, but I do think there is a good kind of shame.  No, I'm not talking about the shame one feels who was sexually or physically or emotionally abused.  And I'm not talking about the kinds of neurotic shame and self-condemnation that people feel when they don't feel "good enough."  I'm talking about the kind of shame that is felt when one acts in a way that is unbecoming of themselves.  I'm talking about the kind of shame that rests upon the idea that we have value, that we are more than animals, and therefore that we should want to honor ourselves, our Maker, and others, by presenting ourselves to the world in a way that respects and illuminates that value.

See, this shame is different.  With this shame, the obverse side is self-respect and respect for others.  It comes out of something good.  Even in its purely secular form which pays no respect to God whatsoever, this kind of shame tells us, "Come on.  Have some dignity.  You are more than that."  While there is a sense in which we must all admit that, "No, I'm not more than that.  I'm a sinner", this has to do much less with pride and much more with common courtesy toward others and a desire to represent ourselves as one possessing common human dignity.  We all know intuitively, whether we are God-fearing Christians or purely naturalistic atheists, that mankind possesses a nobility above that of the animals.

What I fear is that this kind of shame is dying in our culture.  More traditional cultures possess an implicit social doctrine of shame.  Some of these cultures take this way too far, as we have seen in cases where the parents murder their young-adult children who have "shamed" their family by things such as premarital sex or conceiving a child out of wedlock.  But in our modern, American culture, it seems there is a burning, desperate desire to throw away all of the old.  There is a disdain for the old, for the traditional, as though the traditional was a chain around our necks, and now we are more enlightened and "liberated" from these oppressive ideas.  The problem is that in the wake of this revolution, this "liberation", good shame is being trampled under foot. 

It is being silenced, numbed out like a dulled conscience.  In the name of personal freedom, the freedom to do whatever we please, say whatever we please, look and act however we please, we have thumbed our nose at the traditional at the price of our dignity.  The motto of today, in its typical crassness, is, "I'm going to do and say whatever I want, and F@#$ you if you don't like it."  Elegance is gone.  Dignity is gone.  What is left is a defensive shell that creates the illusion of an elevated self while pouring disdain on anyone that would seek to temper our cosmic rebel tantrum.  What is left, what is hailed as god, is me and my desires, and @#K you if you don't like them.

But has it dawned on us that if we really didn't care about what others thought of us, we wouldn't have to say it (and we certainly wouldn't have to say it with such profanity and vitriol)?  Perhaps it is a lie we are merely trying to convince ourselves of as a way of coping in a society that no longer values what it ought to?  But we do care.  We were built to care about connection with others, to want love and acceptane.  Yet we try to appear strong and kill those desires, for our culture tells us that caring about connection when people can hurt you and caring about reputation when people can so easily judge you is just weakness.  And so, we respond by dehumanizing ourselves.  Kill the longings which make us human.  And kill the shame that makes us feel badly for how severely we assault our own dignity and how poorly we represent our nobility as God's image bearers in our quest to be "free" kings of our own private little ant hills.

Kill our longings.  Kill objective meaning and truth.  Kill good shame by calling it a hindrance, an arcane relic for the unenlightened.  Meanwhile, we make ourselves miserable fools with no sense of meaning and purpose other than our futile attempts to fill up the darkness and kid ourselves into believing that we don't care.



Monday, October 28, 2013

Looking for Meaning

In anyone's life, there will be a time when relationship, career success, youth, sex appeal, and popularity evade you.  All of these things are things we look to for a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and without them, usually one of them in particular given our temperament and history, we cannot help but feel void.  Lost.  Without meaning.

But we have meaning.  We have purpose.  Many Christians would say, "Your meaning and purpose is to know God through Jesus Christ."  I agree with that, but I think that can be a bit abstract.  Plus, it sort of promotes the idea that I don't really have a meaning and purpose right here, in this life, right now, but that it is only found beyond the horizon of death and in the new age.  What is missing is the tangible, earthy application.

Our meaning and purpose in this life are found in knowing Jesus Christ and partnering with Him as an instrument of His hand in this world.  In other words, in concert with Jesus, in communion with Jesus as your partner and Lord, our true meaning and purpose are found in being an image of Jesus in the life of someone else, in loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Our meaning and purpose are found in being a parent to our children, a friend to our friends, an ear to one who needs to be heard, a presence to one who is alone, a father to the fatherless, a peacemaker to one who is disturbed, a voice of loving truth and reason to one who is wandering in peril, love to the unloved, etc.

This is where things can get into trouble.  Some people already overextend and exhaust themselves by "helping" others too much.  But if you look closely at it, many of us are like that either because we are chasing or running away from something.  That will not do.  That yoke we are carrying is from us, not Jesus.  This is not intended to be a means of trying to climb a ladder out of futility and oblivion or run away from the pain of life.  This is not a means of saving ourselves, not a means of striving to achieve meaning in a meaningless world.  This is intended to show us what is of true value and what is not.  It is the recognition of what already has value and meaning.  It is a recognition of the path that Jesus has already laid down ahead of us and for us.  And thus, value is found in being complicit with Jesus in His love for this world -a world He has already done everything to redeem- as an instrument in the hands of our Friend and Master in the capacity and opportunities we are given.  O that He would grant us such a privilege.  Let us not squander it.

Every time you share this...

"This is a test.  If you really love God, share this with your friends and you will receive a blessing."  "Share this and you will receive a gift from God."

I get sick of those things -probably a good indicator that I spend too much time on Facebook.  But if there are a few things that really irk me about the online world we find in social media it is those fictitious stories that people keep passing around (without checking Snopes.com) and these pseudo-religious, superstitious nonsense posts that are supposed to invoke some kind of gracious disposition of God or pull down some kind of angelic response from the heavens.

It is the latter that I'm focusing on, today.  Why do I hate those things?  I hate them because they not only make Christianity (and therefore Jesus) look like something that belongs only on sentimental greeting cards, but they also unwittingly gut the Christian faith of its core essence.  What is the core essence of Christianity?  Many would say, "That God loves us."  Sure.  I would agree, but in itself that tells us nothing.  God could easily love people who would remain forever lost in their own sin, as well.  How is that good news?

The core of the Christian faith is that, though we are lost and completely incapable of finding God, and though we are incapable of covering for our sin by anything we do, and though we pridefully and foolishly imagine that if we only did enough of this and stopped doing enough of that -pulled this spiritual lever and pushed this spiritual button- we could pull down God's grace and favor from heaven, which we don't really believe we need to begin with, God did the unimaginable by doing it all for us in Jesus Christ, His Son, through His life, death, and resurrection.  For mere sinners like us, Jesus swallowed up sin and death and made a new way, a new creation, though his resurrection from the dead.

The Christian faith is not primarily advice.  It is not primarily a set of tips on how to live life best.  It is not primarily a philosophy that makes you feel more enlightened about life.  Though it contains elements of all of those things, the Christian faith is not primarily about you and what you have done or can do at all.  It is about what Jesus has done for us.

As the meme from Confessional Lutheran Meme's on Facebook above suggests, anything which calls itself Christianity and fundamentally asserts that somehow we can reign in or pull down or leverage God's grace through certain moral or religious activities is going against the heart of the Gospel.

Ephesians 2:8-9 says...

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."


Monday, October 14, 2013

Drunkenness

I've been thinking a lot about the place of drinking alcohol in my life.  I lived the first 34 years of my life without ever knowing what it was like to be "drunk."  In fact, I hardly ever touched alcohol.  I wanted to be different from everybody else.

In high school, I remember feeling abandoned a bit when I was the only remaining person in my tight-knit group of friends, but I still found a way to hold onto my badge and keep my separate identity.  I was known as being the guy who "didn't need alcohol" to "act crazy", often settling for mass quantities of sugar and caffeine found in 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew.

This translated into college even more deeply.  I even became part of a fraternity, though I was known for being the "only sober one" at a party, yet one of the "craziest" dudes there.  My refusal to drink became not only a source of identity but also a crutch of sorts.  It became an excuse to cover up for the fact that I felt so unbelievably insecure and out-of-place amongst my peers, especially the opposite sex.

And into married life I brought my conviction to abstain from drinking and drugs, and then into my Christian faith.  Yes, I was a mere pagan during all of those years of abstinence from drinking.  It was part of a group of convictions.  The bottom line was that by this age in life I was fairly used to the idea that I did not feel like I fit with anybody else nor did I really want to be like anybody else.  Occasionally, we were invited to weddings and such, and I had the opportunity to get a little silly with a glass of wine or champagne at the table.  But that's it.

All of that changed during a very difficult time in my life a few years ago.  I loosened up those reigns a bit.  I realized that I spent so much of my life avoiding things that maybe weren't that big of a deal and, and here's the clincher, I "deserved" to have a good time, given that and all the difficulty I had experienced.

To make a long story short, in my relatively short drinking career of a few years, I never really became a regular binge drinker.  I have only experienced probably twice what is commonly called a "hangover".  And only twice have I been unable to remember small parts of the previous night.  I also don't merely drink to get loaded -I only drink things, usually craft beers, that I like.  I realized quickly what things I do not like, and I avoid them even though something like a "shot" could get me hammered pretty quickly.  I just don't like how it tastes or makes me feel, and I don''t like the nasty after-taste or heartburn in the morning.

In the home, it became more and more common for me to have a few beers in the fridge.  During this past summer, it was not uncommon for me to crack open a single bottle of beer a few nights a week, while cooking or to relax at the end of the day.  Sometimes, when stressed out, I would crack open a bottle to unwind.

Slowly, my 1-2 beer tolerance increased until I noticed that it took more than a beer or two to get me feeling buzzed and bordering on super-goofy.  So, as I noticed lately, I've had to drink more to get to that stage.  No, not an exorbitant amount, not more than average by any stretch, but more than I have had to before.

And you know what... although I have been burned a bit on drinking too much, I still occasionally like to have a beer and I probably will continue to every now and then.  But in all of this experience over the past few years, and given my gratuitous attempt over the last few paragraphs to give you an accurate picture of the place of drinking alcohol in my life, there are a few things I realized about drunkenness and myself when drunk that I do not like one bit.

At this point maybe I should define my term.  When I say "drunk" I am essentially talking about that state in which your mental and physical faculties are impaired and your demeanor, attitude, words, and actions are less and less under your control.  I now consider myself to be "drunk" when I am acting like a fool and have no sense of myself because of the alcohol.  While I did not crack out my Greek Lexicon, I'm pretty sure this at least resembles the meaning found in various places in the Bible.

So, what are my conclusions?  Well, to begin with I don't like how drinking too much alcohol hooks into my desire to impress people and be the center of attention.  If I have to act like a fool to grab people's attention and be memorable to them, then perhaps I'm hanging with the wrong crowd of people.  And you know what?  Deep down I know that, and it feels lonely.  It's a crutch and a way to avoid the fact that most other people are there for the same, shallow thing.  I also realized that I often drink too much as a way to make something more entertaining than it actually is.  Sometimes, sitting at a bar is just plain boring.

But probably the worst thing about drinking too much is that I feel like a divided person.  I do not feel that I accurately represent who I am.  When I can't form cogent sentences and let almost anything fly out of my mouth, I actually shame who I really am.  It is hard to represent my life and potential and character when I'm drunk and acting like a moron.  And more importantly it is hard to represent Jesus and my love for Him and what He has done when I'm acting like a drunk fool.  In fact, I feel as though I should hide that part of myself.  I feel like I should pretend for a moment that I'm not a Christian, hoping that I won't bump into people I know who know that I am one, so that I will not bring shame to His name.  That's a pretty strong indication that you know you're doing something wrong.

Why hide?  Because although I am quite aware that Jesus is a friend of sinners, and a sinner is what I am, it doesn't really show that I value Him very much when I'm acting like a drunk dumbass.  It would be like a guy hanging out at a strip club, getting lap dances every night, while sharing with the ladies how much he loves and respects his wife.  He's either clueless, a liar, or a hypocrite.  If I saw that in real life, I would feel embarrassed him and sorry for his wife.

Or step my example down a bit.  Let's say you bump into a few parents, or maybe some of the teachers, from the school your children go to.  "See... your problem is that you care too much about what people think about you."  No.  I care too much about what people think of my kids.  I do not want my actions to be a blight on the reputation and honor of my children and the family they belong to.

So it is with Jesus.  I don't want to do anything that would devalue Jesus in anybody's eyes.  I can't stop people from rejecting Jesus, but let it be because they reject Him for Him, because they hate the truth, and not because I'm acting like a fool or stumbling, loud-mouthed jerk.  I shame myself and Him.

In a culture where everybody is so hopped up on their personal freedom to do whatever retarded thing they want with no sense of shame for debasing themselves, shame is sometimes a good thing.  It shows you value something.  It shows you value yourself and the ideas and, more importantly, the people you represent.

Probably the most sinister thing about drinking too much?  Well, the Bible warns about it more than once.  While Jesus had zero problem turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and while the apostle Paul encouraged Timothy to drink a little wine to help his stomach and nerves, the New Testament epistles state clearly that drunkards (among others) will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

How can this be?  I thought we are not saved by our works?  True, we are saved by Christ's work on our behalf, which is ours through faith.  The typical Christian answer is that a "true believer" won't live in those condemned ways.  They may stumble and fall and make mistakes, but they will not lose their lifestyle to those things.  This is true to a large degree, though it leaves out the possibility of sins of weakness that we struggle and battle with our entire lives, but I think the bigger problem is that each time you go down this road (or down the road of lust or whatever other thing), each time you make the conscious choice to keep going, you put yourself in a position where you choose the alcohol over your connection with Jesus.  And if you continually make the conscious choice to indulge in that direction and make excuses for how it is "okay", you have to continue to dull your conscience, and therefore your faith.  The scary part?  Lying to yourself gets easier and easier with time until you don't feel guilty at all.

So, I postulate that the reason why the apostle Paul warned of those things is because he knew how they eventually win.  Those people will not inherit the Kingdom because they will have departed from it.  Eventually, we walk away from Jesus, our faith dies, and the scariest part of all is that we don't even see it happening or care to stop it.  With every little step we take, we deceive ourselves into thinking it is not a big deal and that we are allowed a "mistake" every now and then, until we wake up one day and we no longer really care.  But since we don't care, we don't worry about it.  We may never disavow Jesus with our words, we may always intellectually call ourselves Christians, but one day we may realize that our faith is a distant memory and be too calloused to care.

In the end, I don't want to dump the faith I've been given, and I don't want to indulge in something that masks and distorts who I really am and who I really love.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Enablers

enable - verb.  to make able; give power, means, competence, or ability to; authorize

While there are indeed some contexts in which it can be a good thing to enable someone to do or be something, most of the time we hear this word in a negative context.  "Oh, you're such an enabler."  "Can't you see you are just enabling him and his bad behavior?"  In other contexts, to enable someone means to empower them or grant them the opportunity and means to continue in their established patterns of self-destructive and/or other-destructive behavior.

To be fair, most of us (maybe even all of us) can be said to "enable" certain behaviors of those we are in close relationship with.  Maybe there is some idiosyncrasy or personality flaw within the person that, if looked at objectively, is not really all that conducive to a perfectly healthy lifestyle for them or relationship with them.  But, in the grand scheme of things, we have decided to not let it be a big deal.  Maybe they snore.  Maybe they are not very warm and fuzzy.  Maybe they can be selfish at times.  Maybe they are insecure.  Maybe the just have terrible taste in music or walk around the house in ugly underwear.  Whatever it is, we've grown to accept that about them.  We've grown to accept their imperfection and recognize that no person can change another person.  We will love and be with them as they are.

But in many cases, enabling is far more serious than this.  In many cases, enablers grant the opportunity and means for others to continue in patterns of abuse, neglect, blame-shifting, lying, laziness, and addiction.  This is what it means, in the negative and psychological sense, to be an enabler.

Some examples of enabling behavior:
-Doing anything to keep the peace
-Ignoring the problem
-Giving the other person "one more chance".  Then another.  Then another
-Trying to soften the consequences of bad behavior.
-Trying to fix the other person
-Giving them money, food, paying their bills, etc.
-Putting themselves through stress and pain and frustration in order to assume responsibilities for the other person that should be theirs alone.
-Holding in their emotions, often leaking them out just enough through passive aggression or mini temper-tantrums, while they continue to allow the same situations to happen over and over.
-Feeling badly, and bad about ourselves, when we don't take up every opportunity to help someone who says they need us.
-Finding ourselves stuck, overly busy, and over-committed to things that really don't have to be our problem.
-Having a hard time "drawing a line" of where our responsibilities end and where others begin and sticking to it.

Why do we enable?

The short answer is that enabling the addict, loser, deadbeat, abuser, or otherwise dysfunctional or mentally ill individual promises us a sense of control.  We are trying to control something.  We refuse to let go of something (or someone).  We demand it.  With the enabler, there is almost always an identifiable "I can't let that happen" item.  There is almost always a clear "terrible outcome" they are trying to control or prevent.  So, enablers try to create an alternate reality so that they don't have to face actual reality where there is senseless loss, grief, disappointment, betrayal, and rejection.

Enablers are great at rationalizing their enabling behavior, as well.  They may even be quite aware of what they are trying to prevent, but they will often rationalize why they are doing it.  "Oh, I just don't have the heart to let my kids see how their dad really is."  That may be true, but perhaps what is really going on is that we don't have the will to face the mountain of grief we have for the whole situation, including what we feel for our children in their tragically obvious loss.

Enablers hurt

Enabling is the silent crime.  It is much easier to become angry at the openly dysfunctional person and "all you have done for them" to try and make things "normal" than it is to look in the mirror and realize our very large hand in this big, crazy, painful, dysfunctional mess.  As hard as it may be to listen to, the truth is that our enabling hurts people.

-It aids and helps extend highly dysfunctional and abusive situations.
-When we refuse to live in reality, we abandon those who do live in reality and need us.  Our children live in reality.  We may think we can try to soften the blow by telling them white lies or trying to cover up the problem, but their little hearts sense something is wrong.  When we refuse to live in reality, we abandon them to face it alone.
-We hurt the dysfunctional person.  Maybe you loathe them deep within, so you really don't care.  But the truth is that you aren't helping them. Maybe you rationalize, "They aren't going to change anyway," but the truth is that you deprive them of any need to.  They get to continue what they are doing and then get angry and defensive at you when you lash out at them, which enables them to continue to look away from their own actions and at yours -which, incidentally, is exactly what we are doing.  We are so wrapped up in what a jerk they are they we don't look at our own problem.  Maybe that is intentional, ya think?
-We lose ourselves.  It isn't always that obvious to us, maybe not for years down the road, maybe not ever, but when we continue to enable others, we pick up so much responsibility and so much of the unseen emotional burden, a burden which really belongs to them, that it becomes all-consuming.  This is where denial plays a huge role.  We don't see it until there is almost nothing left of ourselves, if we see it at all.

Who are enablers?

We may tend to think of enablers as people with very low self-esteem.  That may be true.  But I think all it takes for someone to be an enabler is a tendency to avoid deeply painful feelings (to avoid reality) combined with a strong ego, a strong sense of "I can do this, I can figure this out, I can handle this on my own" and a disbelief (conscious or unconscious) in the ability of their core emotional selves to handle life without that other, controlling, figuring-it-out part.  Put that together, and you have a person who lives on the surface, who prefers control over reality and vulnerability and freedom and true peace, a slave.  Enablers give up their own personal and emotional freedom, and often put those who need them in further dysfunction and pain, in order to try and control the uncontrollable and avoid the unavoidable.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hello, My Name is Victim

Are you a victim?  Did someone hurt you?  Did someone take advantage of you?  Did someone betray you?  Use you?  Lie to you?  Trick you?  Or better... do you find that people are often just cold and thoughtless of how their actions make life more difficult, lonely, and painful for you?

Well, welcome to the human race. You are a victim, and so am I.  And so are those people who victimized you.  In fact, if there is one thing certain, as certain as death and taxes, it is that all of us will be a victim at some point.

And many of us camp on this.  We use our victim status as a sort of crutch.  We blame others for our unhappiness as a way to refuse to take some responsibility for our lives, our choices, our potential, our goals, and our focus.  We get used to being a victim.  It's almost as though we like it in some sick way.  It becomes a familiar friend, a way to rage against the world that let us down by wallowing in self-pity and destroying ourselves.  Good one.  You're really teaching them a lesson *wink*.

But there is another response to life's pains and betrayals that is equally disastrous and cruel to ourselves, just in a different way.  It goes like this... "I'm never going to let them hurt me again.  Ever.  I need to never let anyone take advantage of me or get the better of me ever again.  I need to never put myself in a position where I can get hurt.  I need to be stronger, smarter, and more vigilant than all of them.  I'm never going to let myself be tricked, and I'm always going to stand up and put a stop to anybody who tries to pull one over on me.  @#$&!!, I need to get away from all those people!"

This kind of hyper-vigilance can border on paranoia.  This kind of ultra "take responsibility for my own life by making sure I'm awesome enough to never get hurt again" thing puts you always on the defensive, always on guard, always in performance-mode, always feeling like you need to control this and prevent that, and really... it sucks.  It is exhausting.  It leads to more misery, frustration, and disappointment with life.  Why?  Here are two huge reasons:

1. Even the best of us, and even the most seasoned and experienced, get betrayed, used, tricked, lied to, and hurt.  If someone really wants to do that to you, there is very little you can do about it except build a cabin in the woods and avoid people altogether or place all the people you have emotional investment in into a cage.  Good luck with that.  Think about it.  Think about someone right now that you are close to and care about deeply.  If they simply decided they wanted to hurt you or trick you, right now, at this moment, they could very easily, in spite of all of your hyper-vigilance.  There are few things more self-destructive than placing yourself into an impossible position that can never achieve what you intend through all of your exhausting effort.  Control is an illusion, my friend.

2. You are basically blaming yourself.  See, what ultimately comes out of that attitude is, "It's my fault.  I should have been smarter, more vigilant, more aware, more manly, more whatever."  And the next time someone gets the better of you, you take the blame on yourself even harder, "I'm so stupid!  I should have been more this or that way."  Guess what?  No, it is not your fault when someone betrays you, it isn't your fault when it happens again, and it does absolutely nothing but cause you more misery when you blame yourself like that.  It is taking the blame on yourself instead of sitting is squarely on the offender.

I came face-to-face with this recently when I realized that I was duped into taking on a responsibility that should have not been mine.  There was an item that someone was giving back to me, and originally I thought they were going to bring it over to me.  Although this other person wanted this item out of their home, and apparently wanted it out badly, suddenly I found myself going over there to pick it up for them and bring it back to my place because they were too "busy."  Huh?!  What just happened?  I had no idea.  It was like a switch-a-roo right before my eyes.  I had already agreed to go pick it up, but after I realized what had just happened, I began to get angry and feel stupid at the same time.

"Man, I'm so stupid.  They manipulated the situation and tricked me... again!  What a dope!"  I started to ruminate... "Oh, they probably don't even know they are doing it because they are so trained to act that way.  It is just natural."  My negative emotions were not even mostly about being tricked.  They were mostly negative emotions against myself for being a "stupid patsy again."  I was beating myself up.

Thankfully, by the time I got to their house reality kicked in... Why am I punishing myself?  Why am I feeling stupid?  And why am I only adding to my stress by ruminating about this?  I didn't do anything wrong.  They did.  They should feel stupid.  They should feel badly, not me.  There is zero reason to put this on me.  None.

This is not to say that we should naively continue to place ourselves in situations and relationships that are abusive or manipulative.  Of course we shouldn't.  That goes without saying.  But ultimately we have to recognize that, despite our best intentions, we cannot be bullet-proof and we cannot beat the system.  The illusion of control only makes us miserable, and blaming and punishing ourselves for being victimized only compounds that misery.  Why should I suffer from my own hand for what someone else has done?  Why take the world's side against myself?  I vote for giving myself a break and having a little realistic compassion on myself, something the "tough" refuse to do.

So, there are three ways you can respond as a "victim" in this world.  You can be a poor little victim who is always seeking sympathy, wallowing in misery, and blaming others for how your life didn't go as you wanted.  You can become a "tough guy" who will allegedly stop people from victimizing him, living in a constant and exhausting state of hyper-vigilance, frustration, and self-blame when it doesn't actually protect you.  Is it really any wonder why these first two approaches leave us hard and bitter?  Or you can be realistic and non-punishing toward yourself, taking reasonable steps to avoid destructive people and situations but treating yourself with compassion in acceptance of the fact that you aren't going to somehow be the first person in the history of human civilization to figure out how to conclusively beat the system.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hating Others and Ourselves

We hate others because we hate ourselves.  We hate others because they have what we don't have, causing others (we believe) to want them and reject us, or we hate others because they have rejected us because of our flaws or struggles.  These situations stir up and remind us of the self-destructive disdain we have for ourselves for being imperfect, for not being able to stop rejection by being everything others want.

But if we did not hate ourselves, if we did not turn against ourselves like that, and if we stuck by our own side, refusing to take the side of the world against ourselves for being imperfect, then we may be hurt or angered by someone's rejection, but we would not hate them.  Their rejection of us, or their alleged possession of that one thing we wished we had that would prevent rejection for us, would no longer be a reminder of how much we loathe ourselves for being imperfect.

The world will not stop rejecting us.  It will not stop telling us that if we were more of this or more of that, more this way and not that way, then they would like us.  Then we would be worthy of love.  It will not stop setting standards and expectations of what it says we should be like in order to receive the status of beloved.  It will not stop selling that lie.  And it is a lie, for the moment you fall, and all of us will, it will turn on you faster than you can blink.

Still we do not have to reject and hate ourselves.  That is something we are doing to ourselves in response to the coldness of the world.  Sometimes the most difficult thing is to willingly and graciously occupy our own life.  We can find the freedom of not having to hate anyone, but it begins with us.  It begins with a declaration... a Declaration of Independence, if you will.  It begins with a rebellion.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cultural Leaders?

I know that for many Christians, the dream is to go back to the "good old days" where Christians were "cultural leaders."  The dream is to change the culture, somehow, back to where it was in our idealized minds so that the world will presumably be a better place (in any number of ways, depending on what our pet issue is at the moment).

Here's my take on that...  I think I'll let God worry about if Christianity becomes the "cultural leader" again.  I have zero interest in trying to prove how Christianity and Christians can be "relevant" again or leaders in certain spheres of culture, such as the arts.  And after all, the Christian faith is relevant.  If I am trying to prove it to people, then maybe I'm not convinced it is really relevant, myself.  Maybe I'm the one who is out of touch with its relevance to real life, and if I were more in touch with it I would simply live it rather than trying to prove it.

What would be wonderful is if Christians simply wanted to excel at things because those things are amazing gifts to be cherished and adored.  What would be wonderful is if we gave up this ridiculous, "I'm going to prove that Christians can do it well, too" thing.  Trust me.  People actually care way less about that than we do, and the more we care about it, the more outsiders are annoyed with our sectarian drive to promote our own tribe only.

Besides, I'm not sure having Christians as cultural leaders would necessarily make everything all better.  If anyone is a serious student of history, human nature, or religious history, they will recognize the fact that sometimes the most well-meaning of "faith-motivated" ideas turn, over time, into vehicles for oppression and division.  It is not just secularism and other "isms" we need to worry about.  It is ourselves.  The Bible is unique in that it contains the most exhaustive, deep, accurate, and staggering critiques of our own faith compared to anything else out there.  We need to heed it.  Even if we do wind up contributing many positive things, Christians are just as capable of running the culture into the toilet as anyone else, just in a different and less obvious way.

This is why I suggest letting God worry about those things.  Just do what you need to do, and do it well.  If you are a Christian film-maker, just make a good movie.  If you are a Christian author, just write a good book -it doesn't even have to be a "Christian" book (I know, shocking).

Has it dawned on any of us that perhaps the very thing that today's culture rebels against and rejects most about Christianity and a Christian worldview is our die-hard drive to take over and make things go back to how they were?  And that is interesting because, while there is certainly an essential place for speaking truth and speaking our minds, I don't get the impression that the early church was endeavoring to take over anything or gain footing in any way.  I could be wrong, but my understanding is that they were simply living our their faith, amidst awful persecution, and that is what spread like wildfire.

Let God worry about showing the world how His children can impact culture.  And relax for once.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An Ordinary Life

If you asked most Christians what the greatest thing they could do for God would be, you would get varied answers.  Many would say something like, "Sell everything I have and become a missionary."  Others would say, "Spend all my time evangelizing."  Others might say something more spiritual, abstract, and Gospel-centered-sounding like "Abide in Him!" or "Worship Him!" 

The common thread is that most of these answers involve to some degree leaving behind or escaping an ordinary life, including an ordinary job and ordinary activities, and engaging in some kind of "super-ministry" or spiritual activity.  The main issue I want to point out is that an ordinary life, and an ordinary job, is often not viewed as being "ministry" or service to others or God.  It is a life that is often relegated to the lukewarm or half-serious Christians, the mediocre, the rest of the pack.  The "on-fire" Christians, however, want to stand out and leave that kind of life behind and do something super-duper.

I take serious issue with this sentiment.  This is not, of course, to say that there is anything wrong with wanting to be a missionary, start an orphanage in a foreign land, or quit your job and become a full-time evangelist.  Some people are called to such things.  But the concerning thing is that an "ordinary" calling is not seen as a comparable and viable and equally valid Christian calling.  It seems we have run back to the pre-Reformation days when the "really holy people" became monks and learned Latin and the ordinary people worked and took care of their families.  That mindset is something the Reformers worked very hard to overthrow, yet it still lives in various forms, it seems.

I'm with the Reformers.  I don't believe our service to God or others should be about standing out from the crowd.  I don't believe in "classes" of service and ministry.  I believe that for most of us, our service to God and others will (and should) be nothing more than an ordinary life where we daily live, love our families, love our neighbors, and serve others by providing our services through our very ordinary, very non-spiritual looking jobs.

"But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and to mind your own affairs and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one." (from 1 Thess 4)

The plumber makes people's lives a little better by making sure the luxury of indoor plumbing is working in their home.  The food server makes people's lives a little better by serving their food with a smile and a warm greeting, helping them relax and enjoy a meal.  The corporate computer-programmer makes people's lives a little better by providing software solutions that enhance and automate business processes.

And this is how God acts in our lives and in the world, through the tangible hands, feet, smiles, hugs, and service of regular people.  This is how God ordinarily provides.... through the very simple and ordinary routines and activities and services of ordinary people like you and I.

Friday, September 13, 2013

One Thing

If there is one thing I have learned it is this:  Do not look to others to believe in you for you.  Do not depend on them to be for you what you will not be for yourself, first.  When you look to others to believe in you for you, in place of you, you lose yourself in them and enter into slavery.  Because you seek your foundation in someone else, you unwittingly take on the full-time job of always trying to please them, chase them, wait for them, pressure them, squeeze them, or argue with them about how they feel about you and what they think about you in the hopes of getting them to fulfill what you need.  Or maybe you go the other route and reject people, running to the next hope of finding what you need, over and over, squeezing the life out of people to be what you ought to be for yourself, first, and then throwing them away when you discover that they are human.  Such an occupation is futile and ultimately self-punishing.  It's like running on a treadmill, expecting to get somewhere.  The only place you will come to is exhaustion... and the perpetuation of the very rejection and loneliness you were desperate to avoid.

Everyone wants someone who believes in them, who cares for them and their feelings, who sees their potential.  That is normal.  But you must not put someone in this role in lieu of yourself.  It is your job to believe in yourself, to see and seize your potential, to be on your own side rather than abandoning yourself.  Only you, and your God, can and should fill that position first.  Then you will have the inner stability to find people who can add support and love and partnership to your life.  You will no longer be a tiny boat led around by the nose, to and fro in the midst of a storm, chasing after anything you hope will be a life boat.  You will recognize the people who really do love and believe in you (and who do not), and they will be the icing on the cake, rather than being made the cake itself.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Truth Hurts

"It's funny how most people consider honesty a virtue yet nobody wants to hear the truth."

This is true.  We do seem to have an aversion to the truth.  It is hard-wired in some weird sense.  When the truth confronts some of our most cherished strongholds, we will not relent easily.  We will deny, run, deflect, project, and do anything to either discredit or downplay the claim against us or put the other person on the defensive.

Yet sometimes people don't want to hear the "truth" because its either only your opinion which you blindly and carelessly blow out your mouth, as though you are some kind of expert on other people, or because it is truth spoken without love.

See, when "truth" is used to put people down or elevate yourself, it betrays the One who is the Truth.  People love to use the "truth" in this way when they are angry, for example, and then they say something equally as cold when they see how it hurt the hearer... "It's not my fault you cannot handle the truth."  Shameless.

Granted, some people could not see the love in your words even if you put it right in front of their faces, but could part of the problem be that there isn't any?

We love to use the "truth" for all kinds of reasons, deceiving ourselves into thinking that our intentions are purely noble.  We conveniently hide behind the fact that the truth is the truth -the sterile, objective, impartial, blind, non-emotional facts.  It doesn't pick sides.  It just is what it is.  But in so doing, we turn a blind eye to how we are using the "truth" (if it really is the truth) in a certain way and for a certain purpose.  That, my friends, is never purely objective.

There is a flawed person behind those words and intentions.  The truth may be impartial but we certainly are not.  We may want to hurt people, put them down, lift ourselves up, show our dominance, show how smart we think we are, control them, or simply reject them while leaving them with the final, echoing message that they are wrong, flawed, and deserving of our dismissal and we are right.  We use the truth to win, to manipulate, and to dominate.

Yet how often do we really stand across from someone, eye-to-eye, standing in their shoes, and tell them the truth in love?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Bad Arguments... Blech!

In this video, a member of Australian parliament, a "devout Christian", allegedly stuns a Christian pastor with his reasoning for why he has changed his mind and chosen to support "marriage equality."

I've known other Christians who, for reasons they believe are entirely Christian, have chosen to drop the fight over the legalization of gay marriage.  That's fine.  But what I can't stand is bad argumentation.

Here are a list of his arguments with my responses:

1. People do not consciously choose their sexual orientation and therefore are born that way; therefore, it cannot be wrong.  God made them that way.  Case closed.

My response:  The question of where sexual orientation comes from is something that mankind, even with our best knowledge, still has yet to definitively answer.  To me, the fact that nobody consciously chooses sexual preference means little to nothing, and to suggest that this fact means that our sexual preference is purely innate and therefore above moral accountability is simply not true.  I've never heard of a sexual predator who said they chose to be sexually attracted to little boys.  You can try to dismiss this comparison with shock, but do we really have any reason to make a distinction here?  Some people have a sexual preference for children.  They never chose it.  They never woke up one day and said, "I think I will choose to think little boys are sexy."  We can say it is "wrong" because it involves children, but really, based on the logic above, who are we to say it is wrong?  "Well, it is just obvious".  Yes, and 80 years ago it was obvious to us that same-sex sexual preference was just "wrong", too, so who are we to believe our miniscule cultural moment in history is so damn right?  Arrogant much?

The Bible says that we are born sinners.  We are born corrupt, with a tendency away from God and away from His design for us as humans.  That does not mean that God "made us" that way.  In fact, the Bible teaches that we are born corrupt because this entire world is corrupt due to man's original rebellion away from God.  You can disagree with the Bible on this, but don't pretend that doing so gives you a "Christian" argument.  Call it what you will, but it is not Christian.

Thus, even if we argue that our sexual inclinations, like many of our other inclinations, are somehow innate, it still does not mean they are above reproach or natural or according to God's design.  I would argue that what is wrong with us is woven into the very core of us, into the fabric of our being, and that won't change until Jesus returns to end this age and bring the new age to fruition.

2. If you accept #1, then it follows that it is not right to deny two same-sex-oriented people who want to love and be together romantically, relationally, and sexually and have it be recognized by the state.

My response:  Yes, if we grant that his starting point is true.  But notice where his starting point leads.  It leads away from the Bible, which is shown when the pastor who asked the question promotes the definition of marriage re-affirmed by the word of Jesus as being one man and one woman.  And if your view contradicts Jesus, then okay, but again... don't call it Christian.  This actually does illustrate the big picture issue.  Both people in the video, the pastor and the parliament member, have two completely different starting points.  The parliament member tries to prose his argument under the guise of Christianity, but his arguments thus far do not come from God's Word.

3. "If I was going to have that view, uh, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition."

My response:  Huh???  Let's see, if he was going to have "that view"... oh, you mean the view that the Bible and, in particular, the words of Jesus, should shape our view and direction on things, the very view that Jesus says is definitional of one of his followers... then that would mean embracing evil things that the Bible allegedly teaches and condones.  His example?  Slavery.

I'm sorry, but this is just ignorant tripe being regurgitated.  It is a common objection that is thrown out there, and people buy right into it.  Note the loud applause by the audience.  The problem is that the Bible nowhere says that slavery is a "natural condition."  What does the Bible say about slavery?

It says that we are all born corrupt and slaves to sin, slaves to our desires that draw us away from God and toward the idea that we are gods who define everything for ourselves (ironic?).  In the Old Testament, slavery was common, just as was polygamy.  Slavery was never condoned, in fact the Law itself condemns capturing a man and oppressing him.  The Old Testament records many things, including illicit sex, murder, affairs, etc.  This does not mean they are taught or condoned.  In fact, chaos and destruction is always shown to be the result.  There is no way you can read the Exodus story, the story of Israel's redemption from 400 years of slavery and oppression under the Egyptians, the centerpiece of the Old Testament, and think for a moment that the Bible teaches that oppression is okay.

But he then does actually try to surmount some proof for his statement by quoting from the New Testament where the apostle Paul instructs slaves to be "obedient to your masters."  "And therefore we should have all fought for the confederacy... blah blah blah."  Really?  It sounds really good, but it comes up short when it comes to facts.  First, first-century Roman-culture slavery was not the same as African slavery in early America.  I learned that in 7th grade Latin class, long before I became a Christian.  Roman-culture slavery was not race-based and did not involve kidnapping people and treating them as animals.  Roman-culture slavery was more like indentured servitude.  Let's not try to compare apples and oranges.  This is a canard that is casually passed off by this Prime Minister either because he is ignorant, himself, or he assumes that his hearers are.  I'm not sure which is better.

Besides, Paul's point was not even that this kind of slavery was "good" or "natural".  Within the same breath, Paul instructed these early Christians to be subject to the governmental authorities, to be good citizens, even though Paul would certainly not accept or condone the Roman oppression of the Jews and the occupation of their home.  His point was to encourage them to find ways to live out their faith, to live out the Gospel of their freedom and acceptance in God's sight for the sake of Jesus and what He did for them, by being a light of love and humility to others.  In other words,

Need I point out how vehemently Paul also taught that in the Gospel, in the Kingdom of God, in the new reality created by Jesus for us, there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.  All of those man-made distinctions for status and approval and special treatment that were so prevalent in that culture, and are in their own way today, mean nothing. We are all one in Christ.  Using the common tools one uses to understand any document (such as looking at the context), it is easy to see that Paul's point was not to condone oppression or call it "natural" but rather that "you are already free in Christ, so use the present conditions you are in as an occasion to demonstrate the light of that freedom to others."


4. The fundamental principle of the New Testament is one of universal love, loving your fellow man.

My response:  Even if that is true, real love does not mean thinking everything someone thinks or does is right or acceptable.  Jesus died on the cross for us out of love.  Has this man considered that while this is a wonderful testimony of his love toward us, it is simultaneously a stark condemnation of our wickedness?  It says, "You are so beloved, I was glad to do this for you.  But you are so wicked, I had to.  There was no other way."  The cross of Christ both condemns and revives us.  Love does not draw back from being honest about what it sees.

But secondly, is that really the fundamental principle of the New Testament?  Or is "love" something that stands within a much greater context that this man is totally missing in his desire to turn the New Testament into a pick-and-choose selection of instructions that suit his purposes?  After all, 30 seconds ago the Bible condoned and taught that slavery is a "natural condition".  Now, the New Testament, which contains the very passage he quoted to prove his point about the Bible and slavery, suddenly teaches "universal love, love for your fellow man."  Okay, well which is it?  Does it teach that oppression is acceptable, even natural, as you tried to make it say that it did?  Or does it teach universal love?  Those seem pretty different to me, even exclusive.  Could it be, Mr. Prime Minister, that you are trying to pick and choose what you like when it suits your position but then crapping on the Bible when it doesn't?  Could it be that the Bible forms nothing of your opinion whatsoever, and you use it only when it is convenient?  Yes, I think so.  Good show.

Universal love is very important, but the New Testament is not primarily about a principle of love.  Come on, it isn't like we didn't already know we needed to love each other.  Did Jesus really go through all the trouble of coming down here and living and dying just to tell us to be nicer to each other?  Did the early Christians, for the first few hundred years (and today in other parts of the world, still) give up their lives to be tortured and killed for a message of "love everybody and be nice?"  Sorry, something MAJOR is missing.

The New Testament is primarily about how the God who created the heavens and the earth, who then chose to create a people Israel for Himself, through whom He would some day redeem all of humanity and reverse the curse on this entire world, finally came to do so, to live up to all of His promises, but did so in a way that nobody really predicted and few really wanted.  He did so by sending Jesus into the world, born of a woman, born into this world like you and I, to do His Father's business of healing the sick, forgiving sins, loving outcasts, and standing up to the bullies, while eventually giving up his life in the stead of every one of us and then rising from the dead so that sin and death do not have to be the final condemning word for us, for those who by faith embrace Him and His words, and that there is a new age growing out of his resurrection.  It is about the promised Kingdom of God coming, not in a way any of us expected, and not in the way we (or the Jews at the time) wanted.  But it came in Jesus Christ and in His life, death, and resurrection from the dead, and it is coming in its fullness when He returns.  That is what the New Testament is about.  To miss this and focus on just "universal love" in a way you can use to suit your arguments is either ignorant or dishonest.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Believe in Your Kids

You are a parent.  You love your children.  You want to protect them.  And in many ways you absolutely should.  There are many things and people out there that are dangerous, that can and will hurt them, and that they are not equipped to handle themselves.  This is why you tell your kids not to talk to strangers.  This is why, when they are little, you don't let them wander the streets alone.

But one of the best gifts you can give to your children is the gift of believing in them and allow them to believe in themselves.  And this is where things get tricky.  There is such a thing as trying to protect your children too much.  There is such a thing as treating them like they are helpless little victims at the hands of the big bad wolf (some other person, or some difficult situation), and you have to do what you can to "fix" it for them all the time.

The problem is that when you treat your child like they are a helpless victim they will believe they are a helpless victim and likely carry it for the rest of their lives.  To treat your child in this way shows, as much as you love them, that you don't really believe in them.  You don't believe in their potential.  You don't believe in their ability to surmount obstacles, face themselves in the midst of the difficulties of life and grow and learn and get back up.  You show them that you believe their legs are too weak to handle life.  You coddle them, and in so doing you cripple them.

You might say, "That is ridiculous!  What an offensive thing to suggest!  Of course I believe in my child.  They are wonderful and I love them."  I'm certain that you do, but step back and consider the message sent your actions toward them.  Are you a helicopter parent, hovering worriedly and endlessly, looking to rescue them from any difficulty that comes their way, refusing to allow them to grow into their own potential and sense of self-respect and personal responsibility?  And do you excuse it as "just being a parent?"  Time to take a step back.  Maybe the issue is that you don't really believe in yourself, and you are projecting it onto them.

To believe in your child means to allow them to test their own limits and strengths and weaknesses for themselves in a situation that is realistically not impossible for them.  They will fail, and they will learn.  They will fall, but they will learn to get back up.  They will be rejected.  But they will grow.  It means you see and believe in their potential even when they do not, even when they are screaming for mommy to rescue them, and you allow them to face their fears and taste success for themselves.

See, when you overprotect them, not only are you conveying to them that you don't believe in a potential they cannot see, you are robbing them of their own success.  You are robbing them of the sense of accomplishment, the experience of their own flourishing potential, when there is a success they have worked hard to obtain, an obstacle they have worked hard to surmount.  You rob them of what it means to believe in themselves.

Protect them when it comes to situations that can put them into actual danger.  Help and protect them when it comes to situations that are truly far beyond their ability to handle.  But otherwise, as they get older be an advocate and partner with them, not a control freak.  Show them you believe in them by allowing them to taste life for themselves and find their own legs.