Friday, December 05, 2014

Worship

Father, I don't know why things happen in the way that they do.  I don't understand why I cry out for help and so many times it seems like nobody is there to hear me.  Sometimes I even wonder if you are real.

But when I sin, I hate it.  And in the quiet of the morning, when all is still, all I want to do is go to the edge of the river, lift up my hands, and worship You.  My soul is content.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Where was God?

"Where was God when that terrible suffering happened to me?"

"Where was God when I saw my grandmother suffer and die in such a terrible way?"

"I cried out to God over and over, and nobody came and helped me.  Nobody was there.  That's why I don't believe in God."

These are the words of many people I've known.  During some of the darker times of my life, over a decade of suffering and praying and begging God to help, only to have nothing appear to change, these were my cries.  These were my words, my thoughts.  This was my anger, my death of faith.

And the truth is, I really don't know the answer in detail.  I don't know how to call God to account for his alleged absence when things go wrong, when people die, when suffering lingers like an agonizing dirge.

I could point out the theological fact of God's sovereignty.  "God is in control.  You can trust Him to turn your pain into something good."  This is true, but in the midst of gut-wrenching torment, that is often cold comfort.  After all, we've cried out to Him, and it would appear that He turned his back on us... or simply doesn't exist.  It seems unfathomable that God could have good reasons for allowing it to happen.  Even though a transcendent God, by definition, could have reasons that we could not understand or see or think of, we still don't really like this.

I could take the route we find in the book of Job.  When Job finally reached the end of his rope, he called God to give an account for all the suffering and loss and injustice he had endured.  It felt so wrong, so unfair.  God must give an account!  But when God showed up and began to turn the questioning toward Job, suddenly Job was humbled and began to worship.  God's presence was enough for him, and he saw his rightful place in comparison to God's transcendence.

But really, if we want to know where God was when that terrible thing happened, when we begged and begged and pleaded with Him to relieve us of our agony and nothing happened, we need only look at the cross.  Where was God?  Hanging on the cross.

I'm not asking you to fully understand it.  I'm not asking you to even like it -after all, it goes completely against all of our expectations of how a "god" should handle things.  That sentiment is certainly nothing new.  So no, I'm just asking you to look.  I'm asking you to look at the cross, where Jesus of Nazareth -the one called "the Christ"- hung and died.

That, ultimately, is your answer.  It is God's statement to the world, His message, His Word in human flesh.  In a kind of eerie silence, God gives no answer to our demand for answers, no details as to why, for our specific situation, He allowed it to be so.  He offers no apologies or justifications.  The God-man just hangs there, like a lamb led to slaughter. Yet this gruesome event communicates more to us than language can capture or intellect describe.

In the darkest hour, when it seemed God was most distant, He was more near and more invested in humanity's plight than ever.  This is the paradox of the cross.  It is both our indictment and our salvation.   And it is where our demand that God be what we decide is exposed for what it is.  Our demands and claims against God are silenced by the silence of heaven in that solemn, sacred moment.  We see that our imperious hands put Him there.

In one act, the God of the universe who gave us breath and owes us nothing, declared to us, "I am with you, I suffer beside you, and this is how I chose to save you all.  On my terms, not yours.  By the shedding of truly innocent blood.  This is what had to be done for you, for you are filthy, stained by your arrogance.  Yet by this I will make you mine and, one day, set everything right."

And on the third day, when the Son of Man rose, mankind's new beginning rose with Him.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day

It's been a while, now, since I've really had time to develop thoughts into longer articles, but this thought seemed worth posting even in short form.  Today is Veteran's Day.  I am torn between avoiding it completely, since it was a military veteran who helped break up my family, and spiritualizing it into a discussion about Jesus' sacrifice for us, overlooking the actual sacrifices of men and women for the freedoms we hold dear.  But I think today I will resist that tension as much as possible.  I'm also not going to go all "Christian-patriot" and use this day as a soap-box to talk about how this is a Christian nation.  Furthermore, I'm not going to use this as an opportunity to warn us about how our freedoms and values are eroding from within, even though they are, or perhaps how our military is used to further a political and likely commercial agenda that is not in our best interests.  No, I'm going to do my best to resist the urge to do all of that and simply thank God and the men and women who have sacrificed themselves to serve our country.  I am thankful that I live where I live, that I can walk down the street without dodging mortars, that I can safely take my kids to the park, that I can pray to and worship God, and that I can live a blessed life with those I love; and I am thankful to those who have given their lives to contribute to and preserve that for me and for everyone else in this country.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Do You Wanna Live Forever?

The other night I was having a conversation with a friend, and this friend said to me, "If you could live forever, would you?"  They then proceeded to explain to me how they would want to.  "After a few hundred years," they explained, "I would love to have things figured out."  Their belief was that it would take probably a few hundred years to get to the place where they had enough experience and wisdom that life would be what they always wanted it to be.  They would have "figured it out."

And so the story goes... the story of glory.  Of course, not all stories of glory are the same, but they have the same basic theme:  given enough time, effort, resources, help, or whatever, we can and ought to be able to reach the level of "glory"... whether it be wealth or wisdom or power or anything.  We can reach the pinnacle if only we have enough character and time.

Some stories of glory are more humanistic or atheistic, like this one.  But some are more religious... even "Christian" sounding... with enough books, effort, prayer, speaking the right words, doing the right things, I can reach either some kind of subjective "Christian goodness" and rise above the rest of the world or sequester God's blessing.

But the story of the cross is the only real story.  What I mean by that is that the story of the cross is the only story that represents reality, in the end.  All other dreams of glory ultimately fade into the wind.  My friend could be given thousands or millions of years to try, but they would never reach the place they sought.  They would never reach that utopia because it cannot be achieved like that.  It doesn't exist.  This world, and this life, cannot be "fixed" like that.  It can be improved to varying degrees, but never "fixed".  A "patch job" just won't do.

Yet, in the cross we find life on the other side of and through death.  In the cross we see that what is required is not more effort, more religion, more time to accumulate enough wisdom, or anything of the sort.  We see that what is required is nothing less than death... coming down, dying under the system of this world with all of its pretense and boasts of power and wisdom, and rising from that death to a new age, a new system of things.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

About Love

I used to think that love meant being awesome for someone else.  I used to think that it meant being so great that you would knock their socks off and they would be so impressed by you.  I used to think that love meant impressing someone. 

But I realized that love is about vulnerability and allowing someone else to love you as the imperfect and flawed person that you are, who will never meet all their "needs".  It is about being able to receive love.  It is about swallowing your pride and embracing your very limited humanness and letting someone else see it. 

And this is the problem that makes love so hard.  See, that takes something greater than being Mr. impressive.  It takes courage.  It means taking a massive risk.  It means putting yourself out there for someone to either love you or not, to take you and commit to you or not.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Two important life lessons

Life lesson:  Just because someone claims that they are your best friend, that they love you, and that they care about you, doesn't mean that they do.  Some of the most selfish and controlling people claim those things, and you will never be free of them until you realize the huge difference between real love and unhealthy need.  You will be pulled back in and lulled into a feeling that "everything is alright" every time they are nice to you, and then it will happen all over again.


Life lesson:  It is hard to be yourself.  You may find yourself in a rut where you are surrounded by people who constantly put demands on you to be a certain way, to not have your own feelings, to not stick by your own convictions, and to be what they want you to be for them.  Being in that rut is miserable.  And you get so used to it that you start to think there is no way out.  You begin to think that if you really stood up on your own two feet and stuck by what you feel and what you see that you would end up all alone, so you put up with it.  You carry the load.  But it is a lie.  It isn't true.  If you truly stood up on your own two feet, you would let go of those people, stick by your feelings and convictions, and find two things: peace and people who actually know how to love.  They exist.  You may have started to believe that there is just something wrong with you -that's why people seem so hurtful.  But the truth is that trying to carry this load and get the love of impossible and immature people is the only thing that has kept you with the wrong people and from the right people who know how to love.  It is a leap of faith, but it is worth it to stay true.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Uncomfortable Grace

It was a number of years ago at a mens' Bible study lunch group.  I brought in an article that I printed out the night before called, "Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt."  While it seems I cannot find the article as I remember it, today, the point of the article was to encourage the struggling Christian -a Christian, in this case, burdened by guilt for not having their "Daily Quiet Time" (DQT) religiously- by reminding him that DQT is not a Biblical command (even if it is useful and good) and that we live and walk by grace through faith.

Being zealous for good theology and having something of a tender conscience, I struggled with burdens of guilt and often searched and read books and articles to help me find answers and deepen my understanding.  I found the article refreshing, and I loved that it challenged conventional, often unquestioningly accepted norms (something I still love to this day).  So, I brought in the article and tried to explain what it was about to the other men (older Christian men) at the table.  I was a bit dismayed, but not overly shocked, by some of the responses.

Why wouldn't you want to have daily quiet time??

But daily quiet time is a good thing.  I enjoy my quiet time every single morning, at 4:30am, before anybody else wakes up...

Even now I look back and think, "Huh?"  The responses didn't actually deal with the issue I was raising at all.  They revealed assumptions, maybe even fears.  I was saying one thing, and their responses were clearly in response to something else... something they assumed or interpreted me as saying.  But what was the problem?

I think it boils down to this.  Even seasoned Christians can have a tendency to fear grace.  The idea of lifting burdens of guilt is assumed to mean lifting burdens of responsibility.  In other words, if grace removes guilt and fear, then the fear is that we will turn to license since we no longer have something keeping us on the straight and narrow.  But is that Biblical?  Is that the Gospel we profess to live by?  No.  "For it is the love of Christ that constrains us." (2 Cor 5:14)

I believe it is natural man's tendency is to see the world either as license or legalism.  The more legally minded religious folks fear giving up their religiosity for fear of becoming one of those sinners who believe they have license to do whatever they want.  And the non-religious people who feel license to do as they wish recoil at the idea of religion because of its "rules".  With each, their identity is a kind of security to them.  Giving it up means giving up control.

But grace is the third option that natural man is not familiar with.  It calls both of these alternatives to abandon their security blanket and find themselves smack in the midst of grace, where it is all on the terms of Another.  That is not something we like or know what to do with.  Grace it not only foreign to us.  It is uncomfortable.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Positive Thinking Isn't Enough

The Dalia Lama wrote:

"If your mental attitude is positive, even when threats abound, you won’t lose your inner peace. On the other hand, if your mind is negative, marked by fear, suspicion and feelings of helplessness, even among your best friends, in a pleasant atmosphere and comfortable surroundings, you won’t be happy."

This makes a lot of sense.  In fact, it seems to be so much common sense that my intial reaction is, "No $#@t."  But it misses something significant.  The question is really... do you have an objective foundation upon which to have true hope in the fact of threat and adversity, or is this merely an exercise in positive thinking?

I confess... my hope is not found in the idea that God is going to fix everything for me.  I've been through enough in my still relatively comfortable life, compared to many in other times and parts of the world, to know this. 

However, my hope is found in a God who will bring about what He has promised.  He will be there with me in suffering.  He will not let me go.  He will bring about a new age where everything is made right.  He will usher me into His kingdom forever.

When we have this hope, the inner state of our mind is not so much a matter of positive versus negative thinking as it is about faith versus unbelief.

Still, more comes to mind with this, for I can see how this kind of thinking lends itself to the idea that the goal of life is never to feel negative thoughts.  I agree that we ought not dwell in the negative, for it steals out joy and ability to enjoy the blessings given to us.  However, we should not buy into the false idea that life is going to be happy all the time.  I believe Christians fall into this, too.  We are looking for a theology of happiness, or at last a doctrine of numbness.  But what we fail to realize is that pain, distress, sorrow, grief, mourning, and even things like distrust and fear are normal experiences in a fallen world where our hope is NOT to be found.  This is why our hope looks ahead, ahead to an age to come.  There is no solution to the problem of pain and unhappiness in this life, but what we can have it hope -a hope which enables us to endure while remaining expectant and even joyful for what lies ahead.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

A Higher Calling

For years, I thought it was my job to endure excruciating situations and do anything to hold my family together.  And I did.

As that fell apart, I followed a call to enjoy things in life.  I let my hair down, I indulged in things I never indulged in before.  Some of it was bad, but some of it was good.  I learned how to have fun -and I became good at it.  I learned that I was capable of enjoying things.  But I also learned that there are limits to this.  Too much can leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth in the mourning, and still that aching hunger is left unsatisfied.

I don't fault myself for these callings.  I still see the first as good.  I chose what I chose for very good reasons.  I suffered for what is right and good.  And I see that being able to relax and have fun and explore the more social and outward side of life is also very important.  On this journey, I found my voice.  And my voice can be loud!

But what I want is that higher calling.  I want to believe it.  I want to see it in my mind's eye.  I want to taste it.  For example, I want to truly believe that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, that my light is precious and worth shining for the glory of the King.  I want that calling to take hold of me so that I am mastered by it, by Him.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Safe Place

There are a lot of things I don't want to share.  I feel like sharing them spoils how special they are in the moment.  Today, I'm having one of those moments when it comes to this one thing.

The world is not a safe place.  But there is One who is safe.  Jesus is the only perfectly safe place where I can go with myself -with everything I feel, with every thing and every way that I am.  Other people can come close to that, and I certainly look for those people to have in my life.  But He is.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Loving Your Enemies

One of the most challenging commands of Jesus is the call to love our enemies.  What once seemed like a virtuous bit of moral sentimentalism or a religious ideal becomes utterly impossible in the wake of great betrayal.

Why does Jesus call us to love our enemies?  Is it just because He feels like it?  Well, I believe the reasons are manifold.  God loves His enemies.  Jesus, the Son, loved His enemies.  And we are called to follow Him. 

But even more practically, He calls us to love our enemies because it is good for us.  I don't mean it is good for us like it is good to run 10 miles every morning, as we peel the blisters off our feet and think about how such a strain promotes good health.  That may be true.  It does build character.  However, I believe He calls us to love our enemies because it frees us.

Hatred of our enemies -holding them hostage in our minds, wishing for their demise, and following ever strand of activity, demanding that it result in utter justice and the righteous downfall of our foe- imprisons us.  We become the punished.  The yoke of hating our enemies is a yoke that casts us to the ground, impedes our life, covers our light, and sours our soul.

But to look at your enemy and be able to let go of all outcomes concerning them, to be able to wish them well and to pray for them, frees the soul to enjoy and receive love and blessings from God and others.

"But how can I do so?  Look at what they have done to me, and what if they do it again?"  Well, don't misunderstand what it means.  Jesus still calls them our "enemies."  We love our enemies.  We do not pretend they are friends who are safe to encounter and allow within our borders.  It has to do with an attitude of the heart toward them, and it manifests itself in action.  But that action is wise action, informed action.  If there is a need to wisely protect ourselves and those we love, then so be it.  But our disposition can still be one of good will, letting go, non-competition, and peace toward them.

Bonhoeffer says you accomplish this when you see them for what they are... people whom Christ loves, for whom Christ died.  I would add one thing.  You accomplish this, as well, when you see how heavy the burden of hatred, bitterness, competitiveness, and tension is to carry.  When you are done carrying such a burden, then you see the peace found in letting them go as attractive.  Then, even when you feel the sting of watching them do what it is they do, you can let it go, entrust yourself to God, entrust yourself to the truth and to the knowledge that He will bring about a day when everything comes to light, let them go, and wish them peace.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Shutting Out

Sometimes, I hate the world.  The unquantifiable grief and pain I feel for the things I have experienced in the past 15 years, alone, tempts me and calls me to a watery grave of isolation and burial -preferring to say, "@#$ you!" to the world, to shut myself out and refuse their entrance, even while knowing that it means a life of punishment and isolation and loneliness for me.  And it takes more than what it is in me to convince me to turn back and abandon my post in the tower of isolation.  It takes Christ in me.  It takes someone calling me forward.  It takes Christ in me calling me out and showing me how he bore with the world and did not shut it out.  It is there, with Him, that I see it is the smallest of people who matter most... who are most worthy of my heart and my light.  They don't live with all of the pretense of the world.  Children, the poor, the broken, etc.

But there is more.  While there are people out there who are dull and callous and who live on the pretenses of the world, there are also those out there who will receive the light and love I have.  There are those who see it and value it.  When I shut myself out from the world, I shut myself out from them.  And I lose out on love.  I lose out on them.

The best thing you can do for someone?  Receive their love and their pain.  You want to help someone rise from the ashes?  Love them but receive what they offer you, as well.  Receive the little pieces they give.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Peace with Others

"Peace" at the cost of your own soul is not peace but slavery.

The drive to have things go smoothly with a difficult person can be strong, but if you give up all of your convictions and values in the process, you have won nothing.  You have merely betrayed yourself in order to have them like you for a time.  And each time the challenge is put on the table, you will give up more of yourself until there is nothing left.  Compliance is a false peace.  But peace and truth and mutuality are friends.

This does not mean we should seek discord, but it does mean that we must swallow the difficult reality that we must press on toward what is right and true and bear the consequences of doing so.  There is a cost in both cases, in self-betrayal and in staying true, but only in staying true do we stay free as God intended and eventually reap a reward.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, "If at all possible, live at peace with all men."  Sometimes it is possible.  Other times it is not.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

All Men are But Grass...

A voice says, “Cry!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
    and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
    when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God will stand forever. (from Isaiah 40)


No matter what you've gone through, no matter what injustices you have suffered from the hands of others or witnessed by others, no matter how lofty those people may seem for a moment, they are all like grass.  Their "glory" blows away and dries up.  But God's word -His promises, His purposes to redeem and make everything right- stands forever.

There are two responses we can find ourselves in with regards to this:

We can camp in place, dig our heels in, pout, and demand of God, "I will not move until you do something about my situation right now!  I demand that you address these injustices immediately, or I will not follow you, I will not trust you, and I will certainly not leave this stump I'm sitting on!"  It's all on our terms.  And in that, we whither and die.  We turn against God, and yet we believe that He has turned against us because He does not operate on our terms.

Or we can finally give up our demand for control and come to the place where we say, "Oh God, their glory is their shame.  Their strength is weakness and it stands for but a time.  We are all like grass, blown away in the wind of your breath.  But there is a time when you will make it all right.  Your purposes will stand.  And until that day, I will follow you.  I will follow and trust that you have something more and something new for me.  I will trust that following you will make it all worthwhile.  Here I am, Lord.  I follow."

One is death. One is life.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Living or Dying

I have a step-son who is a young adult, and I've watched him grow through many different ways of thinking.  At one point, I remember hearing him say things that I hear a lot of young people say.  The image to the left summarizes one such statement pretty well: "Are you really living life... or are you just paying bills until you die?"  Granted, most of the people who say things like this are kids who couch-surf from place to place and have no job.  Their anti-establishment idealism of 'living life' versus being a 'slave' to the establishment seems to loosely cover, like Adam's fig leaf, a deeper shame of feeling lost and both unable and unwilling to find a place in this world.

But I understand the feeling.  I understand what it's like to feel like you belong nowhere.  And I certainly understand what it's like to feel like life is just a long sequence of pay-periods.  Everything revolves around paying your bills and keeping afloat, if you can.  But recently my son said something that was astounding.  He said, "I get it.  The reason why you work is so that you can have things and provide things so that you can enjoy them with the people you love."  That was one of my proud dad moments, for sure.  So could it be that when there is something greater to live for, you become willing to pay those bills that seem to be so restrictive?  Hmm...

The image above was used today in an online forum that advertizes people looking for used things things or selling used things.  One man, a younger man that seemed to come from the marijuana crowd, shared this image with all of us after being railed on by an older gentleman who basically told him to put down his pot pipe, stop looking for handouts, and find a job like everybody else. 

Both of these men revealed what they live for and what they believe freedom to be.  The younger man believes that freedom is about not being tied down.  That is "living."  So, he winds up looking for handouts and snubbing his nose at the establishment.  The older man believes that "freedom", if you can even call it that, is found in being a responsible, contributing member to society and to a family.  That's what "real living" is.  You get a job.  You work.  Someday you die.  That's a good life.  It may not be "free", but it is at least respectable.

Regardless of the fact that I lean toward the latter man's point of view, if for nothing else than the fact that his point of view seems far less self-centered, both of these points of view (as far as they are described here) are wrong.  And they are wrong and misguided for one simple reason:  Any ultimate worldview that seeks to establish a freedom and ultimate purpose in the things found in this world will ultimately fall upon itself.  It will fail, but before it does it will lead you to turn against your brother -as I saw today, two men bickering from opposite sides of the fence.

The bottom line is that if we live purely for this world, to create a heaven-on-earth by our own power, we will not only be disappointed... we will be fools.  What we call "living", no matter what formula or self-salvation scheme we apply, will be eventually shown to be futile.  It will die.  In other words, if you live for this age, everything you do -not matter how much it seems like living- is actually just drawn-out dying.  But if you live for the next age, the things of this age have less desperation to them.  They can be enjoyed for what they are because you aren't trying to squeeze life out of them.

Those who purely seek "living" in this age are dying.  In fact, they are already dead.  But those who know that this age is dying can live in it with gratitude and place their hope ahead, where life is to be found.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

When Faith Goes Sub-Terranean

For the past few years, my faith has gone "underground" in some ways.  I used to try so hard to be involved in this or that at church.  I used to make a point of reading the Bible every single day.  But things have sort of pressed me down and into situations where it took everything I had to keep going.  I guess you could say I used to be much more "churchy" but in the last few years I let a lot of that go in order to focus on other things... like surviving.

My former, churchy self would probably be worried for a whole host of reasons.  But I'm not.  I'm not worried.  I do want to become more involved in a church family once again.  I do want to have regular family dinners with my kids and read Scripture to them nightly, once again.  And I will.  I may even start again tonight. 

But I'm not going to beat myself up about it.  And none of this is to suggest that I've walked away from God, even for a time.  Not by a long shot.  I've been through enough to know that even in the darkest moments I cannot walk away from Him.  I do not invite the testing of that statement, but I've found it to be true nevertheless!  It is more that my faith has become more... personal, more private perhaps (but not privatized), and definitely more tangible.  It is less about the outwards and more about the inwards, about walking in real life.  It is more down-to-earth, more real, less intellectual and abstract, more about walking my path after Jesus and less about keeping up appearances for others.

And I'm realizing that there are times and seasons in our lives for certain things.  Right now is a time where I am healing and growing.  My faith may appear less "churchy" and therefore more sub-terranean, but I know that it is there, underground, where deeper roots are growing and reaching the wells of water beneath my feet.  New paths are being forged.  Old, good paths are being deepened.  God is at work.

And it is here that I must hold fast and keep my eye focused on the prize.  I must keep on keepin' on.  I must keep patient in hope.  I read this from Isaiah 35 this morning, and it lept from the page.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;
2 it shall blossom abundantly
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

8 And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.[a]
9 No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Beauty of Good Character

Over the past handful of years, I've become a big fan of UFC.  What I originally saw as a pointless and brutal display of violence, I came to see as true competitive sport that requires strength, peak conditioning, perseverance, and skill.

As I've watched various matches and followed various athletes, I've come to favor and follow certain athletes in particular.  Some of them I favor for their skill alone, but others, like Lyoto Machida, I favor because of his skill, his unique contribution to the sport (he is the only UFC fighter I am aware of that primarily uses Karate techniques), and, as the icing on the cake, his character.

He stands out, as even commentator Joe Rogan pointed out in Machida's last fight against Chris Weidman in UFC 175, as one who is gracious in both victory and defeat.  He is a sportsman who believes in honor and good sportsmanship over showmanship and inflating his ego.  He gives credit where credit is due.  He accepts loss graciously and humbly, and he accepts victory with the same amount of humility and gratitude.  Yesterday, Machida lost to Weidman by decision, but you know what?  I will still follow his fights and root for him.  Character matters.

It may not matter to everyone.  There are certainly plenty of people who are too wrapped up in all of the trappings of feeding the ego, gaining power or wealth or fame, constantly seeking attention and adoration for themselves.  But when you go that route, it comes at great cost.  You give up character.

It is easy to become discouraged or even envious of such people, however.  Some people pull it off.  We see the authors of Scripture talking about such people and, more importantly, talking about the very human reaction that borders on envy.  "Why do the wicked prosper?!"  It seems unfair.  Why do they seem to get everything they want?  And why do I not?

Though it may not be the answer we want to hear, the answer is not that difficult to see.  Having good character has a cost associated with it.  You will suffer.  You aren't always going to be admired or recognized.  There will be seasons, perhaps long, arduous seasons, where maybe nobody sticks by you, where few aren't wrapped up in the fanfare of attention-seekers, self-seekers.  That is the way the world works.  That is what Christ experienced, and He told us we should expect no different.

But it is worth it.  Eventually, character stands out... and it stands out to those who matter most, to those who value character also.  And even though we may envy such people because of their apparent success in easily getting what we sometimes wished we had -those temporary and fleeting self-made glories- we should ask ourselves a question:  Would we want to trade places?

What if we could?  What if we had an opportunity to sell ourselves out and become like those people, to gain all of the temporary glory they seem to attain for themselves so easily, but it meant that we had to become like them?  Would you?  I wouldn't.  No way.

See, while there a cost to standing your ground in what is right, in what is of good character, the cost is ultimately much higher to give that all up for what they seem to have in the moment.  You would give up you.  You would give up everything God has built and wrought in you.  You cover the light He has fixed in you.

And such is a shame, a waste of the "talents" given.

I realize Christians often have a hard time talking about good things within ourselves.  We are sinners, after all.  That is true.  But it does not also mean there is not a part of us that sheds the light of Christ and reflects that light through good character.  It is not pride to recognize that when we know such a thing is a gift from our Maker.  When we know we have something precious and valuable given to us, we are more likely to protect it and use it for Him.

Monday, June 30, 2014

We Forget There is a Curse

If I had to summarize the life-story of each of us, in our own way, it would go something like this.  We each pursue something, some dream, some fulfillment, with the hopes that it will give us some kind of "heaven on earth" here and now. 

To some degree, this is good.  After all, we are to take responsibility for our lives, be good stewards, and make good of what we have -reaching the potential that God has given us.  But I believe each of us lives under the burden of a sort of perfect "utopia" of our own longings.  We are find ourselves at the point of collision between these good longings, longing that are perhaps built into us as part of creation, and the reality of life in a world that has diverged from God's original design.  But, in our natural state as fallen creatues, we refuse to live in reality.  And most importantly, we refuse to accept that we do not have control to make reality into what we demand it be, right here and right now, on our terms.

What do I mean?  Well, take the example of marriage.  Please don't misunderstand what I'm about to say.  I'm not negative about marriage, not at all.  But most people damage their marriages terribly because they insist on living under the burden of our own self-made plans for "heaven on earth" here and now, on our terms.

Many times, women are looking for their white knight, the man perfectly suited for them who will meet all their needs and complete their soul.  Men are looking for their ultimate companion who understands and supports them with love and tenderness and tenacity.  Women want their Adam.  Men want their Eve.  But what happens?  They get married and soon realize that the other person isn't the fairy tale they wanted.  And if they cannot accept that, they turn on each other for not living up to their dreams. 

As my pastor has said very wisely on more than one occasion, if you try to make another person the fulfiller of all your needs and dreams, you will crush them... and the relationship.

And in some ways Church doesn't help.  Though we try to be realistic, in our desperate attempt to try and salvage marriage from the downward spiral the broader secular culture is in we may mistakenly contribute to the problem by raising marriage to an inordinate level of focus.  Books and even movies give us the impression that adding Jesus to any marriage, and following the right principles, will fix everything and save it.  Certainly, it cannot hurt!  By all means, we should seek ways of constantly applying grace and forgiveness and love to our relationships.  But when the Church turns around and sells just another version of utopia, but slaps a Christian label on it "Christian marriage", then how does that help?

I know people who have great relationships, so I'm not trying to say all relationships are bad.  They aren't.  But even the best ones aren't going to be heaven on earth, and even if they come close they are going to be terminated by death.  This is why marriage, after the fall, is surprisingly relaistic in itself.  We tend to think of marriage vows as being romantic -and they are- but they are also realistic.  In our vows, we are telling the other person, "I know you aren't going to be heaven on earth to me all the time, but I still promise to love you."

Here is what I think we forget about and overlook.  People, this age, this world... we don't need some fixing.  We need to die and rise to a new creation.  Improvements are great, but they will never bring heaven on earth.  We need resurrection.  While we should absolutely avail ourselves of every aid in helping alleviate the brokenness of this world, we must not forget that part of the reason this world remains broken is so that we would not hope in it but hope in the world to come. (Romans 8)  The sober reality of a world where the best things don't last forever, or maybe never completely reach the good we longed for, is meant to propel us to hope, not despair.  This isn't that world. This isn't that age. God does intervene many times to fix things, praise God, but there are many, many times He doesn't... because this is not that age. This isn't the age we hope for, and He wants us to really know and believe it. 

I believe this is really missing.  I believe modern, Western Christianity loses sight of that in various ways.  Maybe we focus too much on personal salvation from sin and "going to heaven when we die", and we miss the entire New Testament emphasis on a Kingdom of God and an imminent hope in the age to come -not placing our hope in this age that is passing away.  Maybe we focus too much on our own personal happiness, so God becomes a means to an end for fixing life and making it the way we want it.  God becomes our personal genie for achieving our own self-made plans of bringing our own version of utopia to earth.  And we miss that Jesus died and rose to bring a new age, not to ultimately be fixer for this age. 

And in these ways and other ways like them, we lower our hope to this world.  We keep our focus on fixing everything in the here and now.  And "heaven" becomes something completely abstract to us, not something we look forward to more than anything.  I remember chatting with a friend about this, and he raised an excellent point.  Satan would love nothing more than to get us so wrapped up in dealing with all the things of this age that, when Jesus comes back, nobody is sitting at the gates waiting for Him.  The enemy doesn't care if we use the Bible and treat Jesus as a means to an end for it.  That doesn't scare him. In fact, he loves it because it gives us a false sense of security. 

When we lose sight of the hope in the age to come, we lose sight of perhaps the essential motif of the Christian faith.  Read the New Testament and pay attention.  It is everywhere, from Jesus' talk about the Kingdom of God, to Him identifying Himself as the "resurrection and the life," to Paul's description of creation groaning until redemption is realized, to Peter's talk about a "living hope," to St. John's vision of the new heaven and new earth.  It is Christianity.  And when we do find that hope in the age to come, when we come to see the truth about this age realistically, when we remember that this age was "subjected to futility... in hope" (Rom 8), we can stop trying to squeeze out of things and people what cannot be found.

Perhaps relationships would actually become a little easier and less tense if people really believed that their partner would never create heaven on earth for them, and isn't supposed to, so that they will hope in the age to come and stop putting their hope in this age.  Maybe we could give each other a break and live by grace if we truly believed that marriage and relationships also fall under the curse.

"Oh... I know it falls under the curse. I know it isn't going to be perfect."  Do you, though?  Do you realize what it means that this age is cursed?  It means that we will constantly be reminded of falling short of our humanity, of God's image in us.  It means that nothing will work the way it ought to, and even when it does for a time it is still subject to decay and death.  It means that our deepest longings won't be perfectly fulfilled in this age.  And it means that the world is full of people who don't really believe that and do what they will to squeeze the fulfillment of those longings out of things and people in this age.

But that is why the death and resurrection of Christ offers us actual hope.  It is written that Jesus died for us "... so that we would no longer live for ourselves but for Him who died."  Why does that mean?  I think it means this: 

We all have an inner, even unconscious sense of our own mortality and the futility of this life, but that clashes against our longing for eden.  So, what do we do?  We go about trying to frantically recreate eden in a broken, futile world that has a time limit on it -death.  We scramble, living for ourselves, to pathetically make that paradise for ourselves in a world where it cannot be ultimately sustained.  But then Jesus comes and dies for us.  He dies ahead of us.  And then He rises from the death, thereby ending the curse and ending death for all who believe.  This means that death is no longer the end.  We can rest.  We no longer need to run around, scrambling to live for ourselves, because everything is given to us, reserved for us, in the age that is to come -secured by the blood of Christ for us.  The impetus to live for self is destroyed.  We have a real hope.  Our futile quest can be thrown into the flames, and we can finally enjoy the things and relationships of this life for what they are, without trying to pour eternity into them.  For everything we seek is promised to us in the age to come... an age just as real and tangible and sure as the resurrected Son of God Himself.

When you really believe that death and the end of this age is not the end of your dreams but the entrance into the beginning of their fulfillment, you no longer place all your hope in this life and in this age.  And suddenly, you can relax and stop worrying about what others think, how you compare to others, who is better than you, who has beaten you and humiliated you, and how much "stuff" you accumulate.  It means little... like an ebbing tide or a fading memory.  "Life is a vapor," as it says in James.  And life becomes about enjoying the time you have and shedding your light abroad for others, as a beacon drawing them toward the same living hope you await eagerly.

Monday, June 23, 2014

And Don't Shove it Down My Throat

Ah, Facebook.  Our culture's bastion of spiritual and emotional wisdom, is it not?  With the amount of opinion-hurling on FB, one might think so.  But man, I seriously hope not -for all our sakes.

Please forgive if the text of this meme is off-putting, but I've seen this little prize popping up here and there on my news feed for a while, now.  In my experience, it actually represents a pretty common cultural viewpoint.

In case for some strange reason you are unclear on what it is, it usually goes a little something like this:  "Religion" (which usually means Christianity) is something you should keep to yourself.  It's great if you want to be a Christian -everybody should find that something that makes them happier and live better lives- but I don't want to hear about it, especially if it is that.  I can tolerate Suzie constantly sharing Buddha quotes in hew newsfeed.  I can support the "love everybody" stuff that sounds like it was from the closing thought on an Oprah episode.  But really, I don't want to hear more of this Jesus stuff.  After all, one of the things that makes us here in the West so civilized and progressive is that we finally understand that religious beliefs ought to be completely private.

Huge problem, though.  That statement is, itself, a statement of religious belief.  It makes claims about spiritual truth and how things ought to be.  No, it may not be saying which version of "god" you ought to believe in.  But it is saying how any "god", or tree, or whatever, ought to be believed in when it comes to the public sphere.  Ironically, while this attitude whines about how they are tired of Christians telling people how to live their lives, they are doing the same thing.

The thing most of us do not realize is that there is no such thing as a morally or spiritually "neutral" person.  Everybody has beliefs about what things ought to be like and what spiritual reality is like -even if they aren't aware of it or haven't taken the time to explicitly codify it.  And everybody both lives out of that and expresses it constantly to those around them -again, often without even being aware of it.  We simply take it for granted.  Call it what you will... most call it a "worldview."  But let's not pretend that you can interact with anybody in a relationship or in society without your basic beliefs and their basic beliefs coming into play and being "pushed" on each other.  It can't be done. 
(Incidentially, the advantage most non-Christians have is that their beliefs are culturally more mainstream at this point, and their beliefs have no real name -partly by design, since many modern Westerners dislike or distrust organized belief systems.  Therefore, they get to claim it as a kind of "common sense.")

So, in our interactions let's at least start off with that nonsense blown out of the water.  You and I are going to live out of our own basic moral and spiritual beliefs, and we are going to do it in such a way that we express those beliefs onto each other.  Time to accept it.

Yes, some "Christians" can be obnoxious.  But guess what?  Being told that I constantly need to shut up about Jesus is obnoxious to me.  Maybe I am obnoxious, but the centerpiece of my worldview is about a God who sends His Son into the world to love and die for His enemies.  I'm not saying that makes me better.  I don't believe it because it makes me better at all - I believe it because I believe it is true and because I personally know God.  That may be weird to you.  That may sound silly.  You are free to disagree with me. You are free to tell me you think that is ridiculous.  But I also believe that when push comes to shove and all the drama dies away, isn't a person who truly follows a man who died to love and save his enemies the kind of person you would want around at the end of the day?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Patience... Not Yet

There are times and situations that trigger deep feelings of anger, and I feel myself crying out inside, "WHY God?  WHERE is justice?!"  My heart enflames with indignation, and I groan with the Psalmist, "Who do the wicked prosper?"  And like the Psalmist, I can come to the point of becoming angry at God for not putting an end to it immediately and finally coming with peace and granting me the desires of my heart.

As Christians, we are often not comfortable with this.  We are not comfortable with strong feeling, strong core emotion.  We want to say something like, "Oh... well, let's not be proud.  Who are we to call something or someone wicked when we are sinners, ourselves?"  And this is a perfect example of how we can overthink things and impose our theology over the naked reality of Scripture, and in so doing we muzzle the God-given capacity to feel righteous indignation over what is broken in this world.

That indignation is a good thing, a healthy thing.  It does not make me sinless.  It makes me someone made in God's image, however.  It makes me someone who has eyes to see what is really going on and refuses to live in the numbing haze of trying to "be nice" all the time.

But when it does get to the point of anger with God, of accusing God of wrong, do we go too far?  I think we need to tread carefully, but no, I don't think so.  Remember Naomi in the book of Ruth?  She asked to be called "Mara," because "the LORD has dealt bitterly with me".  If there is one thing the Bible is filled with, it is unabashed honesty and strong emotion.  There is no "Christian filter" trying to throw a wet blanket over it, saying, "Now, now... let's not get angry or upset... strong emotions are bad... let's keep trusting God and calm down."  No, in the Bible, there are people who cry out in anger, frustration, disbelief, and horrible pain.

Besides, what I've realized about my anger toward God on those occasions is this:  it is based in hope.  It is based in faith.  It is based in believing that God can do something.  It is based in the belief that God ought to be looked to to do something.  And it is based in the hope that there will be a time when God will do something.  See, when in my anger and frustration I demand God fix things and stop those bad things and grant me my longings, I'm essentially demanding the age-to-come, the banquet feast, come to the here and now.  I'm demanding that the Promised Land exist in Egypt.  We both know that is not the way things work.  But it still shows my yearning for the Promised Land.  It shows that I am banging on the gates, sword in hand, waiting for His return.  "Come on!!!  When???!!!"

And God is angry along with me at the wrongs in this world.  And He says, "In time...  I am coming quickly.  And I will make all things right."

This is where I find a calm in the eye of the storm.  This is where I see that everything I long for is mine already, secured and delivered in Christ, along with all the treasure I store up as I faithfully carry the crosses he bestows upon me as I walk through this life in Egypt.  It is mine, but not yet.  I have it, but it is yet to be realized.  And though it may not seem real, it will be more real than anything experienced in this world.  Truth be told, this life is like a vapor.  There are many good things in it, but they are mine for a season, along with the paths and connections He calls me to.

Lord, I will do whatever you want.  I am yours.  And I await You and all that You have for me when You return.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When God Doesn't Come Through

From Tim Keller:

"If you say: I believed in God, I trusted God, and He didn't come through, you only trusted God to meet your agenda."

This is true.  True and difficult.  But it raises a question that probably many suffering people have pondered: if "God" cannot be trusted to always help us in the way that we want, by giving us what we ask for when we ask, then is it possible that this is just a religious explanation for the simple fact that "s#*t happens" and there is no God at all?

I've wondered that.  I've wondered that maybe the truth is that there is no God who intervenes and answers prayers.  Maybe just whatever happens is what happens, and then we either say, if it falls down in your favor, "Praise God for answering my prayer!", or if it doesn't happen the way we want, "Oh, well God must have other plans."  Maybe these explanations are little more than religious attempts at self-soothing and making sense of a world that, on one hand, can seem so remarkably ordered and wonderfully designed, yet on the other hand, so chaotic and painful.

I think this kind of reasoning demonstrates how our knowledge of God's existence and working in our lives cannot be ultimately found in how often or how well God gives us what we want when we ask in prayer.  There must be a deeper foundation.

And I have glimpsed that foundation myself.  I spent years, over a decade, praying essentially for the same thing, only to have things get worse and worse, the suffering more and more acute and mind-numbing.  But now, looking back, it was not God giving me what I asked that showed me that God is there.  It is seeing how God finds me today in the suffering I went through.  It is in the intuitive, unspoken, know-that-I-know-that-I-know sense of knowing, while looking back, that God's hand led me to where I am today.  He called me.

I remember being a little boy.  I remember how simple life was back then.  I am broken at times when I think of it in comparison to some of the past years of my life.  But I also have a deep understanding that God called me to this, and He called me through this.  To say, "Ok, this is why God did so" would be to try to discover the climax of the story before the story is completed, though I do already see reasons why He did call me to where I am today -situations, roles, relationships He called me to- and I know it was from Him.

I believe this is one of the many reasons why the Bible over and over points to the faithfulness of God.  God is not God because He rescues us from every peril and situation we struggle through, and that might make us wonder if God is there at all.  God is God because He is faithful, and that faithfulness is often only seen on the other side of the battle, while looking back at Sodom we walked out from.  And in that, I can see why it is said that God always does come through, but not always in the way that we expected.  You can only really see how God did come through when you see how He brought you to where you are and know there was purpose in it that is for good.  Then our faith is realized.  Then our suffering finds meaning in His purposes and in His closeness with us.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Criticism

Criticism is a part of life -and not always a fun part of life.  It is something we must all face -from friend or foe, family or stranger.  The internet is replete with self-help articles on how to handle criticism without being offended.  Sometimes, our pride and self-absorption get in the way, but other times our feelings may be triggered for very real reasons, and we should sit up and pay attention.

There are, in my mind, at least three types of critics and criticism.

First, there is the kind of criticism that involves a critic giving his or her person opinion about something you have done for the public.  The goal is to give people an idea to the public so that they can decide if they want to spend their time and/or money checking out what you have done.  Movie critics and book critics are examples of this.  Most of us are not producing things for the public on a regular basis, so we usually don't always have to worry about this too much.

Second, there is the kind of criticism that is intended to be not only truthful but helpful.  This can overlap with the first kind of criticism (sometimes public criticisms can provide feedback to help us improve).  This can be hard to take, just as it is.  Many of us struggle with various forms of pride or perfectionism.  Still, this kind of criticism can be very good.  It says in Proverbs 27:6, "The slap of a friend can be trusted to help you, but the kisses of an enemy are nothing but lies."

But third, there is the kind of criticism that intends to cut others down so that the critic can feel better about him or herself and draw attention away from their flaws, failures, and guilt.  In other words, there are people out there who want to criticize you, and often do it in front of others, just so that you feel bad and are put on the defensive.  This provides them a way to feel important, powerful, superior, and not so bad about themselves, while pointing the eyes of everybody (including themselves) away from their own sense of failure and toward you.  Their goal is to always put the spotlight on someone else.  And these people can be very good and very tricky at doing this, disguising and denying their motives and condemning you for getting upset, accusing you of being the one who has "issues".

For a long time, I confused the second and third types of critic and criticism -largely because the critic I have in mind would recognize I was upset and tell me that I was angry because I was perfectionistic or "didn't know how to handle criticism."  Looking back, this was a half-truth used to manipulate me and avoid blame for what they were doing.  The real reason I was angry was because they were (and still are) this third type of critic, whether they recognize it in themselves or not.  I sensed that I was being manipulated and used as a scapegoat so that they could make themselves feel superior, get people on their "side", and probably avoid the guilt for their own failures.  Once I finally listened to what I perceived, I began to realize how frequently they criticize and judge  everybody around them.  Despite what they say with their lips, I can only imagine that they are very unhappy people inside.

If a friend comes to me with criticism and they sincerely mean my good, it may be hard but I can listen.  But you can sense when someone is doing something evil to you, can't you?  So what do you do in those situations?

The temptation is to be drawn into the game, to defend yourself, to retaliate.  But in so doing, you lose.  Even if you somehow "beat" them this time around, just by playing their game you lose.  You've lost the moment you utter your first word.  You bit their hook.  You played into their game.  You gave validity to their foolishness and credibility to their lie.

But you don't have to play their game.  Who cares if they make you look like a fool for a moment?  You could be Jesus Himself and they would find a reason to accuse and criticize you.  Jesus dealt with that all the time.  But they will show themselves to be the fools in the long haul, especially if you refuse to play the game and refuse to answer according to their foolishness, thereby mocking their kangaroo court.  These are childish games played by emotional children.  You have flaws.  Everybody does.  You get things wrong sometimes.  Everybody does.  What makes you lose is when you bite the hook and engage in their senseless game of theirs.  Time to say goodbye.  This is your life, the life God (and God alone) has given you and will judge. 

It is to Him whom you answer, and they will, too.  Who will be found faithful?  The one who "wins" the game by having the best comebacks, or the one who refuses to let those games distract them from being the person God wants them to be?  Refuse to play the game.  Refuse to retaliate.  Stand in the truth and let them tarry on... for a while.  If there is a grain of truth to anything they say, use it to bring yourself to God so that He can mold you even more.

Unconditional Love

In this article at ordinarypastor.com, the idea is set forth that while in one sense the love of God for us is unconditional, in another sense it is very conditional:  in essence, God loves us because of what Jesus did for us.

As the author wrote:  "The basis for God’s love for anyone is the doing and dying of Christ for them."

I used to believe this.  I think it is a pretty typical Reformed notion.  But there is a problem.  First, I don't believe it is Scriptural. Second, I don't believe it falls in line with the early thought of our own tradition (if I even consider myself "Reformed" any more).  Take a look at John Calvin's commentary on John 3:16.  But thirdly, it isn't even logical unless you want to come to all sorts of dubious conclusions about the Godhead. 

So, God (the Father) needed help loving us, so Jesus stepped in to save the day?  This notion reminds me of one of the valid criticisms of Anselm's view of the atonement.  Did the death of Jesus really make God merciful toward us?  I don't believe so.  I believe it is the other way around.  The mercy of God put Jesus on the cross.  What Jesus did was remove the obstacle of God's wrath and provide a way for God's love and mercy to reconnect with us, His creatures, without having His closeness and holiness utterly destroy us.

No, the cross of Christ did not make God merciful and loving toward us.  The cross of Christ is the result of God's love and mercy.  However, I would say that the basis for God's acceptance of anyone is the doing and dying of Christ for them.  Is this splitting theological hairs?  I don't think so.  I think it matters very much because the two ideas paint different pictures of God's character.

So what truly makes the unconditional love of God so truly remarkable?  Anyone who has ever had a wayward child or spouse has a glimpse of the answer: unconditional love suffers

Today, often we think of unconditional love in very sentimental terms... like God is a doting grandfather who loves us because he sees us through sort of... sentimental, rose-colored glasses.  He doesn't really get involved in our lives.  He doesn't want to really know about what we are doing in our personal lives (because that might change his opinion of us).  He likes to still think of us as innocent "little Johnny."  Or even if the grandparent image doesn't apply, our thinking of unconditional love often still lacks any truly deep involvement.  It may come out more like a sort of naive permissivism.  "Oh, shucks.  There you go again, you little rascal.  But you know I still love you."

What makes unconditional love so amazing is not that it permits and minimizes and turns a blind eye to evil and wrong.  What makes it amazing is that it stays rooted in reality, in the truth, and yet endures the wrong, the hurt, the betrayal, the suffering.  It takes it.  It doesn't take the wrongdoing forever.  At a point it stands up and says "No more!"  However, unconditional love is known by its refusal to cover itself, numb itself out, or changes its position.  That means that unconditional love will suffer.  In this world, it is the unavoidable consequence.

If we think of it this way, we can see that the cross of Christ is the embodiment of His unconditional love.  It is literally God suffering the rejection of the world -something which He still suffers even now.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Turning the Other Cheek

In Matthew Henry's Commentary on Matthew 5:39, we read

As in much of Jesus' teaching, pressing his illustration the wrong way may obscure his point. In fact, this would read Scripture the very way he was warning against: if someone hits us in the nose, or has already struck us on both cheeks, are we finally free to hit back? Jesus gives us a radical example so we will avoid retaliation, not so we will explore the limits of his example (see Tannehill 1975:73). A backhanded blow to the right cheek did not imply shattered teeth (tooth for tooth was a separate statement); it was an insult, the severest public affront to a person's dignity (Lam 3:30; Jeremias 1963:28 and 1971:239). God's prophets sometimes suffered such ill-treatment (1 Kings 22:24; Is 50:6). Yet though this was more an affront to honor, a challenge, than a physical injury, ancient societies typically provided legal recourse for this offense within the lex talionis regulations (Pritchard 1955:163, 175; see also Gaius Inst. 3.220).
In the case of an offense to our personal dignity, Jesus not only warns us not to avenge our honor by retaliating but suggests that we indulge the offender further. By freely offering our other cheek, we show that those who are secure in their status before God do not value human honor. Indeed, in some sense we practice resistance by showing our contempt for the value of our insulter's (and perhaps the onlookers') opinions! Because we value God's honor rather than our own (Mt 5:16; 6:1-18), because our very lives become forfeit to us when we begin to follow Jesus Christ (16:24-27), we have no honor of our own to lose. In this way we testify to those who insult us of a higher allegiance of which they should take notice.

I appreciate Henry's perspective on this, and I believe he is right.  While there are certain instances where it is right to "stand up for yourself," ultimately the demand to keep your own honor and dignity in the sight of men is a futile trap.  And human honor is not only of little value in comparison to our status before and fellowship with God, but there is a sense in which we mock the system of the world in our refusal to play by its rules.  We stand outside it, in judgment over it, just as Jesus did.  Far from showing surrender, it shows that we operate on a different plane and have the courage to remain there.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Let it Go

I love the movie Frozen.  I saw it with my girls in the theater.  Since then, the song "Let it Go" has apparently become quite a hit, with many people drawing inspiration from it. 

Not to be a killjoy, but has it dawned on anyone that the song occurs at the place in the film where Elsa essentially gives the middle finger to the rest of the world and runs off to establish her own little isolated ice-kingdom on top of a snowy mountain?  Has it dawned on anyone that this attitude not only hurts Elsa even more and ultimately puts her sister, Anna, in mortal danger?

The clear conclusion of the movie is that Elsa was wrong in her attitude, which I felt was such a timeless lesson.  But it seems to be a lesson we have a hard time learning.  See, we like the Elsa who says "screw you" and runs off to her ice castle more.  It feels stronger, more powerful.  This attitude is found all over Facebook -countless wounded people walking around with their middle finger in the air, thinking it makes them strong.  But as the film shows, it only imprisons you and hurts others -including others you did not intend to hurt.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Jesus and Idols

Money, power, sex... these are the kinds of things that people use as a means of exalting themselves and finding a sense of identity and purpose and status.  They are misuses of good things given to us, perversions.  They turn ordinary things into ultimate things... into idols, false gods, objects of our devotion and worship.

And Christians are right in pointing out that these things are idols, idols which will never deliver on what they promised.  The antidote is Jesus Christ.  And so, many demonstrate how Jesus gives us a far better status and identity and purpose.  Jesus gives us a lasting hope, a higher status that will not fade, unconditional acceptance and love, and purpose as a king, priest, and missionary in this world.  All true.

But what I posit to you is that this is still missing something important.  Lutheran theologians might notice that this is really just turning the Christian faith into another theology of glory.  It turns Jesus into another means, albeit a better means, to finding the kind of self-glory and self-exaltation we seek.  It neglects that perhaps the main problem is not merely the object of that pursuit but the pursuit itself.  The theology of glory, after all, describes what is wrong with us -our pursuit of glory, of turning everything into a means of getting ourselves up the ladder.

The theology of the cross, however, counters this, destroys this.  It shows that God's own Son, come down to us, lived in our shoes and did not escape death but went headlong into it, for us and for our sins, and was then raised from the grave as the first of a new creation.  It shows that God operates on a completely different system.  We think in terms of going up. He thinks in terms of coming back down, shedding the delusional need to go up. That delusion is the problem, and it needs to die.  But life is found out of death, our healing is found through a new life, and faith is coming back down to earth and realizing that the ladder was a total sham to begin with.

So, I would agree that Jesus is the antidote, but perhaps not in the way typically prescribed.  I do not think Jesus ought to be peddled as a better way to fulfill our self-defined plight.  I think in some way the cross of Christ must relate to us and expose our self-defined plight for what it is: the way of this world, the way of death and futilify itself.  It shows us that the system of the world, along with this, both deserves to die and must die in order for something new to exist.  That is the only way.  But because of His death and resurrection, on the other side of that death there is something new.  There is redemption and restoration and a new creation.  There is actual hope through death.  There is actual freedom found through the expiation of the lie, when that system is killed off and we realize that in truth we are all equals, all creatures of God by His unintelligible choice and design.

That sense of emptiness and unworthiness is the result of the curse, the backlash of our quest for glory, our "knowledge of good and evil", coming to meet us as we walk in real life, among others with the same curse and all the wounds and shame that go along with it.  Yes, we were meant for greatness, but the kind of greatness is not the kind we think.  God's idea of greatness is not a better fulfillment of our own ideas, of our own system.  It is a totally new and different system, where "greatness" is found in being a mere creature on God's earth, living to love Him, tend His creation, and love and serve others. 

Jesus, kill in me, by the cross, what is of the world in me so that You may restore in me what is of the earth, what is of your hand.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What Others Think

Should you care about what others think?  Though some disagree with this, the short answer is... yes, sometimes.

It is popular to have a "F*** YOU" attitude toward others and do whatever you want with no regard for what others think of you.  It feels... independent, strong, though probably a cover for deep feelings of rejection.  Though there is a grain of wisdom found in this, minus the "screw you" attitude, it is missing one important thing:  reputation really does matter.  This includes our own reputation but also the reputation of others relating to our actions.

For example, I don't post personal things on Facebook.  There are a few reasons for this.  One, I don't want to present myself as an immature drama queen (because reputation is important to me).  Two, I have children who are on my Facebook, and friends of those children, and other people who otherwise personally know or know of some of the situations and individuals I would be writing about.  I would not want to hurt them or embarass them or tarnish their reputation in anyway.

The bottom line is that certain actions make us (and others) look like fools while certain actions (or the absense of certain actions) shows us to be conscientious and stable individuals, and it is good to recognize this.  A good reputation is something worth pursuing.

"A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold." (Prov 22:11)

But why?  What makes a good reputation such a good thing?  Here are three big reasons I can think of.

1. Devotional:  Your actions before others to a large degree reflect upon what (or Whom) you claim to believe in.  You bring glory to the God you claim to know by being known as a person of integrity and love.  Conversely, you shame God's name when you act like a fool or a liar before others.

2. Practical:  In general, acting with integrity and love leads to a good reputation, which gains the respect of others.  You become a person "looked to" and listened to, trusted.  This means you have more influence to do good, to help and love others, and to pass on good values to others.  People are more likely to partner with you, either when you are helping them or when you need their help.  Conversely, people are less likely to rely upon you in the long term if your actions show you to be a fool, regardless of how "wise" you may sound at first.  They are also less likely to give you help when you truly need it.

3. Social:  With a good reputation you become a jeweled crown to your family and friends, someone they can be proud of knowing and belonging to.  You give glory and a level of status to those closest to you.  Conversely, you set a dark cloud over your family and friends when you are known for being selfish, immature, deceitful, or impulsive and foolish.

As a general rule of thumb, act in such a way that your children would not be ashamed of you if they found out what you were doing.  There are a handful of things I've done in the past that do not comply with this rule, but I still believe it is a good one.  It is one I take to heart.

But of course, there is a sense in which we ought NOT to care what others think.  When it comes to doing what is right and sticking to what you know to be right and true, it is better to stand your ground than crumple under the weight of others' opinions.  When it comes to doing what God sent you into this world to do, let them whine and complain and insult you.  You'll only be joining the long line of people before you who stuck with the mission and identity God gave them and suffered for it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Radiant

Self-affirmation is the key to happiness and success, as it would seem.  But is it really?  I don't think so.  Though it is extremely popular, I believe the enemy loves this notion.  Why?  Because we still lose.  We don't really convince ourselves that we are great.  And to the degree we do, it borders on self-preoccupation and pride.

And why is that?  It is because the enemy's real goal is to separate us from the Father.  Jesus said "I do not testify about myself... My Father testifies about Me."  Everything Jesus did was out of connection with His Father.  Everything.  The Father testified of Him. 

But with self-affirmation, is that out of connection with the Father?  No, and the enemy has won again.  He has got us self-reliantly testifying about ourselves, trying to affirm ourselves out of the pit of nothingness and self-emptiness.  But it is a trap.  Divide and conquer.  Divide us from the Father, into self-reliance, and we may convince ourselves we are all good... but it is a trap.  Now we fall and are devoured.

And why would we prefer the self-reliant path?  Well, I'll give you one good reason.  Suffering.  We do not share in the glory of the Son without also, to some degree, sharing in the suffering of the Son.  It is in living in the real world, facing the real pain and anguish from living in this broken place, that we can suffer with the Son and thereby know His connection with the Father as our own, thereby sharing His glory.  This, however, we do not like.  We want to be able to control it, to have it be won happily and by our own steam.  We are lovers of the theology of glory, not the theology of the cross.

It is through suffering, suffering entered and drank with Him, that we know ourselves, and know ourselves in connection to Him, and become radiant -not with the temporary and fleeting and false radiance, but with a radiance like that of the moon, reflecting the rays of the Sun.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Failure

We all fail.  And we generally hate failing.  When we see that we blew it, that little voice inside us starts tearing into us:  "Nice going. How are you ever going to [fill in the blank] when you keep doing this?  You need to figure out a way..."

But failures aren't all bad.  In fact, they are both inevitable and necessary.  So, having a good and true attitude toward failure is one of the key things we can learn in life -both practically and Biblically.

Here are five inter-related facts about failure that I believe are essential to know:

1. Your failure is no surprise to God.  You fell into a particular sin, again.  You blew it with a relationship.  You let someone get the best of you... again.  And now you feel any combination of guilt, anger, and self-hatred.  Frustration mounts.  "Why does this keep happening?!"  And if you are a Christian, you might even feel guilt before God.  You might feel like you need to hate yourself because you blew it before God -like you failed Him and now there is this cosmic rule that says you need to torture yourself for some undetermined amount of time.  But you don't.  God already knew you were going to blow it.  And though you may hate that you keep falling into this, it's God's job to do punishing -not yours- and He has already put it on His Son.  So, get a grip and read on...

2. Your failure is an opportunity to rely on God.  Failing keeps you humble.  It shows you that there are things outside of your control -that you are not God- and that you cannot "fix" everything by your own steam and self-reliant brainpower.  Contrary to popular belief, both theological and secular, there is something more desirable than being "perfect" (in the sense that we conceive of it), and that is having a close, intimate relationship with God.  Being a partner to God, throwing up your hands and letting go of your illusion of self-sufficiency and control, is something far more precious in God's sight than going through the week "without any major failures."

3. Your failure is an occasion to see where God is taking you.  Rather than seeing your failure as a reason to beat on yourself, see it as God gently revealing something to you ... something He will be working out within you.  Let it become an occasion to thank Him for showing you this area so that He can minister to you in it and walk with you through it.

4. Failure is part of suffering in this world, and suffering is what perfects us.  Now, we don't like that idea one bit.  We don't like that suffering perfects us, and I think there are two reasons.  First, nobody wants to suffer.  We want to say, "Ok, God.  Isn't there another way to do this?"  Second, we don't like it because it is something that happens to us, without our input and control.  We want to believe we have total control of our own destinies.  We want to believe we are the sole captains of our own souls.  We want to believe we can fix ourselves and make ourselves awesome.  After all, that is why we hate failure so much and beat on ourselves so much because of it.  Failure reminds us that we aren't God.  We can't just fix ourselves and be perfect.  We can't "go it alone" in this world.  We don't like that.  So God says to us, "You are a part of it, indeed.  It doesn't happen while you sit idly.  But it is still something I do in and through you, not you."  In other words, has it dawned on you that perhaps God had actually called you to fail in that particular situation so that He can perfect you into the person He wants you to be, for His name and glory and for your everlasting joy and thankfulness?

5. Failure is an occasion to evalute what is really important.  If you are pressuring yourself and beating on yourself to be so awesome at something, maybe it is a good time to ask yourself why.  Why is it that important?  What is it you are demanding to have control of, and is being awesome in that particular are really as important as you are making it?  Does this situation reveal what is really driving you and maybe what needs to be prayerfully re-evaluated?  See #3.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tools in the Hands of The Master

I write a lot about control... our lack of control, how the demand for control hurts us, etc.  There are things we do have some semblance of control over, and then there are things we have no control over.  For example, we have reasonable control (one would hope) over our own actions.  We do not generally have control over outcomes, however, and we most certainly do not have control over someone else's actions.

This becomes particularly frustrating when your life situation is such that you are forced to deal with people who are something of a thorn in your side.  They are not respectful.  They are passive-aggressive.  They are manipulative.  They are gossips.  They look for opportunities to push your buttons in front of others as way to try and establish their alleged dominance.  And yet... for one reason or another, they are part of your life.

I've wrestled with this kind of situation a lot.  Anger is the typical response.  Anger at them, anger at myself (perhaps for feeling like I should have handled something differently), but if I am honest, there's a lot of anger toward God.  There is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, like in spite of what I do to establish and improve my life, this person is always there to throw a wrench into it or exploit my weaknesses.  They are there to be a thorn in your side, to make sure nothing goes smoothly, to be like a fly in your face.  The demand for "control", to finally have your life be the way you want it, is strong... and that is where a lot of bargaining ("God, haven't I dealt with this enough?") and resentment come in.

But this is also where the demand for control only hurts us.  Perhaps the first step we must learn is that our life is not our own and that we can rest and leave in the hands of God all things, particularly the things and people we cannot control.  God will deal with them.  In good time, He will.  And in the meantime, He is perfecting you through suffering.  They are an unwitting tool in the hands of the Master.  Every manipulative, selfish, childish, harmful, abusive thing they do, though itself bad, is ultimately just helping you become more like Jesus.  All of the chaos and peacelessness they sow in your life is ultimately a tool in God's hands to bring you to a place of greater inner stability and peace.

That is one of the great victories through the cross.  No matter what the enemy does, the Lord of all things uses it to accomplish good: to redeem, to perfect, to establish, to love, to save, to embrace, to embolden.  They may laugh at the moment, but God gets the last "laugh" with everything they have done.  Every selfish act, every passive-aggressive word, every ego-centric power-play is ultimately a gift to make you more into who God wants you to be, a gift to perfect you.

Not only can I learn to accept that I don't have control over this person or these situations, it is my hope to find peace and joy within it.  Rather than seeing these people as giants who can thwart and diminish all my plans, I can see them as both the sad fools and unwitting instruments of my redemption that they really are.  I can see them as tools in God's plan for me, and though I may not like it one bit, I can receive them from His hand.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Stigma of Online Dating

Though online dating (or as I would like to call it, "online meeting") is clearly here to stay, connecting countless people who are looking for new relationships, for many there is still a stigma attached to it.  I have experienced this personally.  I've used online dating sites before, and I've hidden it from my best friends because of the stigma attached.  Am I right to feel that way?  Are people right to look down on online dating?

I don't believe so...

Usually there are handful of negative connotations associated with using online dating sites...

1. Online dating sites are for people who are losers or who are "desperate."  You don't need an online dating site.  The right one will "come" when the time is right.

Reply:  If you are a full-time working adult who has children, how exactly will the right one "come" along?  You aren't 19 years old any longer.  Depending on the person, their lifestyle, and their situation, the potential for meeting new people who are looking for partners for long-term relationships drops off significantly.  So it makes you desperate because you use a tool that helps you meet other people who are looking for the same thing?  It makes you desperate because you don't want to rely on having a chance-meeting of your "soul-mate" at a grocery store, like in a movie, and you don't want to wait to get invited to a big party that has lots of level-headed, single, respectable members of the opposite sex (you know...those parties that either don't exist or which you rarely get invited to)?  Maybe you are at a place in life where you want to find a new partner but haven't the foggiest idea, due to your life situation, of how to meet one.  Guess you're stuck, then...  or you could do something so unbelievably degrading: join an online dating site.  Seriously, who are others to judge you?  Don't let them put their own hangups on you.  Sorry, that is crap.

2. Online dating sites attract weirdos.  You aren't going to find quality people in online dating sites.

Reply:  And you aren't going to find weirdos at bars, night clubs, or parties?  So what if you joined an online dating site?  Does that prove this wrong, by proving that there is at least one non-weirdo and therefore probably other decent people out there, or does the act of joining an online dating site prove that you actually are a weirdo (see #1 above)?  Online dating is certainly not the same as meeting people in person, and people may be able to "hide" things better at first, but the reality is that you bump into "weirdos" every day because everybody hides things about themselves.  It takes discernment and listening to your gut when it comes to letting anybody new into your life, regardless of how you meet them.

3. Online dating sites are superficial.  People just post pictures to get noticed.

Reply:  And again... you don't get that at bars, night clubs, parties, or really in any social setting?  Of course you do.  People go out and want to look nice.  And when that guy or girl notices you from across the room, is it because they noticed your personality or your face?  You can call that superficial all you want, but that's how it is.  Online dating is no exception.  But lots of people opt to not post photos of themselves for this very reason (among others).

4. I've heard horror stories of people who used online dating.

Reply:  Let's say it one more time... And you haven't heard horror stories of absolutely crazy and terrible relationships from people who met in other ways?  And nobody lied about themselves before online dating?  Riiiiight.  Online dating is a portal to meeting new people.  That is not going to change how people are.  People are all sinners with baggage -we are inherently complicated and dysfunctional (and because of the decline of our culture, we are probably getting worse).  Welcome to real life.  That has nothing to do with online dating.  Online didn't make them dysfunctional or immature.  It didn't make them rush into things blindly and foolishly.  That happens pretty well on its own, doesn't it?

Using a tool that sets you up with others who are single and looking does not take away the need to use your brain.  There are risks -some of those risks inherent to online dating, but many of them involving common sense.  You need to be careful with what information you share with people whose character you really don't know.


I'll admit one thing.  You can probably get a more informed initial impression of someone by meeting them through other more traditional routes.  That goes without saying.  But online dating is for discovering new people before you meet them in person.  It sets up an opportunity, a possibility, nothing more.  You get to decide what criteria are important, and it affords you the ability to learn some things about the other person before you meet them in person.  Maybe you won't waste your time after reading that they smoke or have 8 children.  Maybe, after listening to them freely offer up nasty information about their ex, you decide they aren't for you.  But if they pass through your deal-breakers, maybe they are working chatting with and maybe meeting in person at some point.  Again, you have to use your brain, your discernment, and your intuition just like with the rest of life and making life decisions.  Sorry, yeah... I knew you were hoping you didn't have to.

The bottom line is this.  Once you have kids and get settled into a family and a career of some sorts, your social circle loses much of its potential to expand.  If you are lucky, you wind up with a handful of close friends who are more like family to you, but the rest of your time is spent taking care of your children and working 40-plus hours a week to support them.  If you are lucky enough to go back to college, you will find yourself able to meet many more people, but how many of them are potential long-term friends or mates?  Most of them, if you are in your mid-30's for example, are much younger than you, usually don't have children, and are overall far less mature.

Therefore, as a late 20-something, 30-something, or 40-plus adult, your social opportunities for building relationships and meeting new people become generally limited to:

1. Your workplace -Many employers have policies prohibiting the dating of fellow employees, though you may meet new people who are friends of fellow employees.  If you work from home or don't work for a company with lots of opportunities like this, this is something of a dead end.

2. Your church -And that is only if you go to a small church or do something like join a home-group.  Are you really going to meet someone new and ask them to coffee during the 2-minute "greeting" time before the sermon?  Probably not.

3. Bars and night clubs -Really?  That is so much better than online dating?  Reality check.

4. Your childrens' school -You may meet other parents who are single or become friends with other parents who have single friends.  Possible, but not easy.  Unless your children "play" together, you usually don't get to know other parents very well.

5. Neighbors or existing friends -You meet neighbors and friends of neighbors, or bum off the ever-expanding social circles of your current friends. 


So maybe in your situation these five spheres above don't offer you very much by way of meeting new people.  And maybe there are other factors that get in the way and limit things even more.  What on earth is wrong with adding in another way to help you meet someone new, someone who is looking to meet someone new, as well?  Is it really so much worse than drinking another beer so that you can have the "courage" to go talk to that person at the bar?  Give me a break. 

Besides, I hope that I have demonstrated how online dating is not a crutch to begin with.  It is a tool to open up possibilities that your life situation may not currently have.  You weren't supposed to be 38 years old and single.  Your life was supposd to be settled.  That's why it is hard to find new people.  But here is one of many valid ways to find others looking for the same thing.

I say let the stigma die.