Saturday, April 25, 2009
Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
1 John 4.20-21
When the Pharisees challenge Jesus to name the greatest law of all, without pause He quotes Deuteronomy 6.5: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Before they process that, however, He augments it with a second quote: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19.18) Then He ties them together: “There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12.31) Because Jesus initially responds with Deuteronomy, identifying it as “the first and great commandment,” many assume it ranks above Leviticus. But He’s not singling out either law as greater than the other or all the rest, as the Pharisees hope He’ll do. He’s encompassing the Law, placing love of God at one end and love of others opposite it. In Matthew’s version (22.36-40), Jesus ends His reply, saying, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Once again, He confounds the Pharisees’ scheme with an irrefutable answer they never expected. “No one law is greater than another,” is what He’s saying. “Obey these two and you obey them all.” (Oh, those Pharisees—such smart boys, such foolish ideas—they never learn!)
Jesus connects Deuteronomy and Leviticus because loving God and loving our neighbors go hand-in-hand; one without the other is incomplete. So centrally does this doctrine define our faith that John’s first epistle, written as pastoral guidance for the entire Church, is by and large a treatise on Christ’s response. John views love as the litmus that separates believers from poseurs. When someone professes to love God, he urges us to note how caringly he/she treats others, and vice-versa. He writes, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.” (1 John 5.2) Several verses earlier, as chapter 4 ends, John says, “Anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, Whom he has not seen.” (4.20) He hits this note so regularly there’s no room to second-guess. For John, it’s impossible to follow Jesus without loving God and others. Failure to love both fails the test.
Don’t Believe a Word
How adamant is John about this? Here’s the first half of verse 20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” Not mistaken or confused or exaggerating—he’s lying. The forceful tone jars the reader. It seems out of character for John, whom we presume is the “disciple Jesus loved” in his Gospel, and it slices against the grain of the topic. (Calling people liars sure doesn’t sound loving.) Yet I’m convinced John intends to shock, as his letter addresses an urgent crisis troubling numerous congregations.
At this point, the Church hasn’t quite ironed out its theology. It’s without a ratified creed and accepted canon. The hierarchy hasn’t solidified; the apostles govern, but middle management is shaky, allowing toxic ideas to seep into the doctrine. Many, oddly enough, carry over from traditions Jesus opposed, including a faction of converted Pharisees! (Acts 15.5) They advocate heresies with convincing, yet unbalanced use of Scripture and enforce compliance with threats of damnation. John does not want naïve believers entangling in legal debates or subscribing to false doctrine out of fear. He writes, “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (4.18) With that established, the rest falls in line. Those making you afraid don’t love you. If they don’t love you, they can’t love God. Ergo, those leveraging fear against you while claiming to love God are liars. That’s all the proof you need, John says. Don’t believe a word they say.
More to the Message
If we only read John’s expansion on Christ’s commandments to love as a searing indictment of abusive teachers, we miss the larger purpose behind his letter. There’s more to the message—and it applies directly to us. Trying to love God as Jesus taught yet withholding love from our neighbors is folly. Many believe we can squeak past this by not actively hating anyone. Still, we harbor resentments and accumulate unforgiven debts. Until we’re rid of them, we’re not free to love God totally and completely. Here’s Leviticus 19.18 in full: “’Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.’” Measuring love (to the point of indifference) for others by what they deserve results in giving God less than He deserves. Failing the love litmus test on one side automatically means failing on the other.
“We love because he first loved us,” 1 John 4.19 reads, with both objects implied. We love God and others because He first loved us. “This is how we know what love is,” John explains. “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (1 John 3.16) In his Gospel, he quotes Jesus: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15.12) No person ever existed with more right to avenge our wrongs, to resent, and to withhold love we don’t deserve. Yet Jesus loved us in spite of ourselves in advance. He didn’t hold out for an apology. He didn’t ask for closure. He didn’t need to get over His pain and suffering. His love was there, waiting for us. How can we not love Him with all our heart, soul, and strength? And how can remotely pretend we love Him, sight unseen, and refuse to love those right before our eyes?
Love's litmus test. Love for God tests positive in love for others; love for others tests positive in love for God. Presence of one indicates the other. Absence of either disproves both.
(Next: Truth That Lasts)
Friday, April 24, 2009
You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.
1 Corinthians 6.19-20
Whose You Are
We’re taught to value the right to be our own person, make our own decisions, follow our own lights, and live our own lives. We admire individuals whose strength of character guides their choices and whose sense of responsibility enables them live up to their promises and admit their shortcomings. It requires courage to be “your own” man or woman because the truer you are to yourself, the more likely you’ll become a target for weaker people who resent your self-confidence and independence. All it takes is tactfully declining something you know is unhealthy or unprofitable, and they work overtime to persuade you to “get over yourself” and join in. If you won’t be convinced, they criticize you for being a joy-kill or “holier than thou.” What you believe and how you behave should be of no consequence to anyone else. Still, it is.
Paul devotes a notable portion of 1 Corinthians to encouraging us to withstand unhealthy and unprofitable temptations. Yet this shouldn't be mistaken as counsel to be "our own" persons. Indeed, it's nothing of the sort. His message is, Know Whose—not who—you are. “You aren’t your own,” he tells the Corinthians. “You were bought at a price,” reminding them Christ purchased their redemption on the cross. He bases his argument for believers maintaining the highest ethical and moral standards on indebtedness to Christ, not personal integrity. When times come to choose right over wrong, what’s best over what’s easiest, Paul flatly insists the choice is not ours to make. What pleases our Maker takes priority over what pleases us. Very often the two coincide, and frequency with which they overlap increases as we gain experience following Jesus. We learn what pleases Him ultimately pleases us, if not in the moment, always in the long run. No believer reaches a point where making the best decisions comes automatically. Every believer regularly faces dilemmas where honoring God conflicts with satisfying self. Over time, however, honoring God’s ways above our desires becomes a proven best option.
What Are You Really Doing?
The context for Paul’s statement is sexual immorality, specifically, patronizing prostitutes. In Corinth, prostitution was openly practiced and even encouraged—as religious worship no less! Pagan rites often involved sexual acts our society prohibits in any open venue, least of all in a house of worship. Had Paul argued such behavior is indecent and degrading (as we would today), his objections would have gone unheeded. Instead, he reasons with the Corinthians—something we’d do well to emulate when addressing self-gratification issues, rather than trying to shame others and ourselves into healthy decisions. When you consort with prostitutes, Paul asks, what are you really doing? The act represents more than bodily coupling. It’s a physical union, the welding of two into one. If I’m a Corinthian believer who enjoys paying for companionship and considers it harmless, however, I’m likely to read this and say, “So what? It’s my body.” Paul sees this coming and he’s ready with an answer. “It’s not your body,” he answers. Following Christ is an act of total commitment, mind, body, and spirit. What we do on every level now involves Him. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6.15. It’s a crude yet vivid way to startle us into realizing everything we have belongs to Him.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Paul stresses in verse 19. The instant we confess Christ, His Spirit takes up residence in us. We become sacred vessels charged with protecting ourselves against defiling thoughts or actions. Everything about us is precious—bought at an unprecedented price. We’re God’s property, not to be wasted on flip indulgences. And what’s ironic here is we’ll handle sacred objects like Bibles and rosaries and crucifixes with utmost care while thoughtlessly subjecting our minds and bodies to all sorts of indignities.
Suppose someone gave us a vat of swill and told us to pour it into a baptismal font. Would we? Would we give a chalice to a stranger to treat irreverently? Why then do we fill our minds with swill or offer our bodies for casual use? It’s not as basic as “being moral.” It’s about being reckless with what’s not ours. Jesus paid His life to reconcile us to God. God welcomed us back to Him, restoring us to new life by faith in Him. We surrendered all we own—our minds, bodies, and spirits—to Him for His use, honor, and pleasure. We are not our own. We cost too great a price to handle ourselves cheaply.
We are sacred vessels, purchased at an unprecedented expense and not to be handled carelessly and cheaply.
(Tomorrow: Love's Litmus)
Postscript: Weekend Gospel
Kumbaya – The Kurt Carr Singers
This weekend’s gospel video is by The Kurt Carr Singers, one of the finest contemporary ensembles working today. Hearing Kurt’s music and watching him minister in song, you’d think he grew up in the church. In fact, his family was non-believing and he didn’t find his way to church until 13. After earning a degree in fine arts/classical music at the University of Connecticut, Kurt made up for lost time, bounding on the scene as a major talent on every front: musician, singer, and songwriter. Here, he turns the campfire classic into something altogether fresh and inspiring. Chances are you’ll catch yourself singing, “Shower down on me!” after you watch this. The video was shot at West Angeles, my church home when I lived in LA—making this an added treat for me. (PPS: Happy birthday, Dad! I know you'll enjoy this!)
Thursday, April 23, 2009
I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.
“I Got It”
I went through four assistants in my years as an agency creative director, all very capable and dedicated, yet none more so than Nancy. She became a creative powerhouse in her own right, which I never doubted she would do. During her apprenticeship, Nancy approached her job as a partner rather than a staffer, not caring much for tools and practices other executive assistants can’t live without. She wasn’t big on note pads, for instance. She’d come to my office empty-handed and, at some point, she’d snatch a pen from my desk to jot a word or two on her hand—often under similarly cryptic notes from two other creative directors she supported. While this made me crazy, I’d usually let it go. But when we were really under the gun, I couldn’t stop from asking would she remember everything. “I got it,” she’d say, with a steely stare that read, “Have I ever forgot anything?”
We find a similar situation in Isaiah 49. Big plans are underway—sketches and schedules to launch a new era in Israel’s history. Isaiah’s the creative lead on this; it’s his job to pitch the idea to Israel, to mobilize and prepare them for what’s about to happen. It’s an enormous task that often leaves him frustrated. In verse 4, he says, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain for nothing.” He doesn’t give up, though. “Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with God.” Instead of what he wants—fewer responsibilities—Isaiah gets promoted. In verse 6, God takes him off the “local account” and gives him the global business: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob… I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.”
Isaiah returns to present God’s plan to Israel one more time. It doesn’t go well. After he outlines strategies to restore losses, gather far-flung citizens, and build new infrastructure for success, nothing moves them to buy into God’s promises. Verse 14 finds Israel responding, “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” To grasp full import of their reaction, we need to note the two “Lords” in their response. “The Lord”—upper-lower case—is the pivotal figure in Isaiah’s presentation, the One promised to deliver Israel from its troubles and sins. But His credibility rests on Israel’s trust in the LORD—all caps—the True God, Who has kept Israel secure and blessed its ventures for centuries. Lately, Israel’s felt neglected by Him. They basically ask, “Why trust a Messiah, when the One sending Him doesn’t seem attentive to our needs?” Like a creative director facing clients who like the concept but doubt it will work, Isaiah turns to his Producer and asks, “Can You take this?” God answers: “I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands.” He looks Israel in the eye. “I know what I’m doing. I got it.”
Big Things Ahead
Many are the times when we sit where Israel sits. We’ve been faithful to God and experienced His power repeatedly in the past. But of late we feel forsaken. We’ve trusted Him to keep things moving on our behalf, yet we’re either stalled or, worse yet, losing ground. Our prayers seem to ricochet off the ceiling, while our faith and fortitude take a beating. We search our hearts, thinking perhaps we’ve allowed idle doubts to impede our ability to reach Him. But, as far as we can see, everything’s clear on our end. We open the Word, searching for answers. All we find are big promises of extraordinary things God intends to do for us and through us. Honestly? These grandiose concepts are hard to purchase when everything indicates God’s not attending to mundane problems we’ve always depended on Him to handle. Has He forgot how much we rely on Him?
He has written our names in His hands. He knows what He’s doing. He’s got us. What looks like negligence is how He realigns our priorities to His. Before giving us greater tasks, He sometimes pulls back so we’ll see how thoroughly we rely on Him. This is Jesus’s point in telling the disciples, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15.15) He’s turning over the whole of His ministry to them. He reminds them they’re completely dependent on Him now to guard against them trying to handle future responsibilities without Him. We think God’s left us to manage on our own when He’s really preparing us to trust Him with bigger things ahead. He hasn’t forgot us. He will never forget us. We’re in His hands.
God doesn't forget us. He inscribes us in the palms of His hands.
(Tomorrow: Not Ours)
Personal Postscript: Thank You
Over the past days, we’ve literally been inundated with expressions of love and prayers for comfort during our bereavement for Walt’s mother. We can’t thank you enough, nor can we ever adequately explain how much you’ve lifted us. Your kindness is more than we can possibly repay. How blessed we are to have such magnificent friends! Thank you all so much.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father.
We say “our Father” often—so often, for many it becomes like an obsolete tire. It loses traction. That’s why it’s good every now and then to put new treads on the phrase. God is our Father. Our natural fathers, terrific as many of them are or were, serve as His emissaries to bring us into the world. Their DNA and guidance play enormous roles in our development, but only God is responsible for our making. He wills our conception, molds us in the womb, and breathes His life into us as we join His other children—nearly 7 billion of them—on the planet. We’re here at His pleasure, for His purpose. Because He invests such attention in our formation and arrival, it’s sensible (to the say the least) to believe He doesn’t drop us off and forget about us. He’s our Father, not the Stork.
Still, there’s a fairy-tale aura to this, a kind of incomprehensible magic accounting for our cognitive dissonance when our making clashes with our circumstances. Let’s face it: many times, an all-loving, knowing, and powerful Father doesn’t jibe with living in a hateful, ignorant, and overpowering world. Israel’s Babylonian captivity is a classic case of being forced into a terrible situation that invites suspicion maybe God is an absentee Father. The Jews grow up with stories of how He brought them in the world, freed them from Egypt, and deeded them a kingdom. Then, it all goes away. The Babylonians swoop in, pulverize the nation, and rustle thousands of Jews back to Babylon like cattle on the Chisholm Trail. While their captors treat them more humanely than Pharaoh—they’re hostages, not slaves—living in a foreign land among strangers grieves the exiles deeply. Psalm 137.1 says they sit beside the Tigris, weeping about the land and people they involuntarily left. They keep looking for their Father to show up and say, “Let’s go, kids.” Decades pass—seven in all—with no sign of Him.
Although God leaves the captives in Babylonian custody, He keeps checking in with the families they left behind. They too suffer from separation anxiety. Not having their homes and clans intact makes their task of rebuilding their nation particularly laborious. Particularly during the first phase of reconstruction, He checks in often, mainly via Jeremiah, to maintain high morale. History indicates remnant Jews correspond regularly with the exiles, suggesting what God tells them gets passed to relatives in Babylon. (“We heard from Father the other day…”) Even so, 70 years is a long time—more than three generations. Near the end, parties who’ve never met write one another out of familial obligation. All they have in common is their Father. All the news centers on His promises. By this time, Jeremiah’s left the scene. So they’re recycling news, sending archived snippets, which only underscore how long the captivity’s dragged on.
Why even write to someone you don’t know about a Father you’ve never heard from, transcribing promises to your grandparents He hasn’t kept? Today, we’d say, “Heck with it. If He comes through, we’ll figure it out then.” But for all their primitive superstitions and knowledge, the ancients do a much better job than we of instilling heritage in successive generations. This is happening on both sides during the captivity. Confidence that God always honors His vows is drilled into their marrow, as is awareness He takes His time. Thus, if He said it 500 years ago or five minutes ago, it’s newsworthy.
Letters from Home
Let’s imagine we’re twentysomethings, born in Babylon, raised by parents constantly reminding us it’s not our home. Their stories plant heartache for somewhere only in our minds. We hang out by the river, reading letters from home. Recently, we got one with a clipping from Jeremiah 31. As we read what our Father says, our hearts race and our eyes pool with yearning for His words to become reality. One day, He says in verse 9, we’ll start for home, crying and praying as we travel a level path beside rivers. Not once will we stumble. Our Father loves us too much to lead us where we’ll fall.
We look at the only place we’ve ever known. It’s not home. We have no idea what that looks like. Though what we read gives a vague sense of who’s there and what life’s like, it’s probably not what we imagine. Our eyes follow the riverbank’s rise and fall. Much of it looks steep. We spot places that appear impenetrable. Then the river curves, leaving the rest between here and home a mystery. If we weren’t sure Who our Father is or confident we’re His children, we’d write off the letter as a pipe dream. But we know Who He is. We know who we are. Trusting Him is in our marrow. Though the letter admits we’ll cry and pray along the way, it’s a small price. We’ll gladly trade sorrow for safe travel to arrive at last where we belong. If our Father says He’ll lead us safely on a river walk along a level path, that’s how we’ll make it home.
The Tigris. Although what can we see from here looks uneven and hard, our Father promises our river walk will be level and stumble-free.
(Tomorrow: In His Hand)
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
After 40 years of wandering adrift, raising and striking camp 41 times, the Israelites settle one last time east of the Jordan, near the acacia groves of Shittim. Jericho, which God promises to give them, waits across the river. Palpable anticipation rises among the people, coupled with anxiety. Moses is recently dead; their fate now rests with Joshua, a bright and capable—but untried—leader. They’re almost there, and concerns about something going amiss can’t be denied. Joshua’s more worried than anyone. God has assured him there’s nothing to fear: “No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so will I be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1.5) Joshua gets this, but he needs to find out all he can about Jericho to avoid tactical errors in the heat of battle.
He sends two spies to check out the city. The Bible isn’t clear about this, but it seems while Joshua looks at Jericho, Jericho looks back at him. It’s also a good guess Jericho’s king positions lookouts along the city’s famous wall to watch for interlopers. This we know: the spies barely set foot in the city before they’re detected. They duck into a brothel built into the wall. Word on the spies spreads like wildfire. Before the king’s men storm the house, its madam, Rahab, knows they’re coming and hides the spies under flax drying on her roof. She lies to protect them, saying the Israelites left Jericho for parts unknown just before dusk.
Rahab goes up to check on the two men, who are stunned by her valor and curious about her motive. She informs them fear of Israel grips the city. While everyone else trembles in dread, Rahab realizes Providence dropped the spies into her lap. “I know God has given you Jericho,” she says. “That’s why we’re so terrified. We’ve heard about how He brought you out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. News of how He enabled you to destroy two kingdoms east of Jordan crossed the river in no time. Your reputation as people of God leaves no doubt we too will fall.” Being a savvy working girl, Rahab doesn’t hesitate to negotiate payment for services rendered. “Here’s what I want to get out of this,” she continues. “I want you to swear when you invade us, you’ll spare my entire extended family.” They pledge their lives to save Rahab and all her kin with one caveat: she keeps Israel’s plan to attack confidential. With a deal in place, the men rappel to safety on a rope hung out a window on the wall’s exterior.
When the Israelites start their march around Jericho a few days later, they rescue Rahab and her family before the walls crumble. They hail her a folk hero and she lives with them the rest of her life. Her legend lives on and we assess its magnitude by her inclusion as the only woman and non-Jew in Hebrews 11’s Pantheon of Faith. James trumps that, saying she was “considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction.” (James 2.25) The courage, kindness, and cunning Rahab showed in a few hours transformed a woman of ill repute into an unexpected ally whose reputation follows her forever.
Life On the Wall
Most people probably read Rahab’s story objectively, as an exciting episode leading up to the tumbling walls. For them, it’s less about who she is than what she does. That’s fine. But many of us look at Rahab to find we share a close resemblance and our stories parallel in telling ways. We’re the believers outside traditional norms. We’ve been typecast as unworthy, vilified as deviants, and shoved to the edge of town. Moral and religious reactionaries assail our character with hackneyed generalizations that fall short of who and where we are. They claim to know everything about us, yet we’ve never even met. So we live on the wall, doing our best with what we’ve got, hearing reports—mostly from people who sneak our way when no one’s watching—about scare epidemics loosed on the same crowd that isolates “sick, corrupt” people like us. (If it weren’t so pathetic, we’d chuckle. Is their resistance to diseased rot really that weak?)
Life on the wall teaches many lessons. Love, don’t look. Hope, don’t have. Forgive, don’t fear. Wait, don’t worry. Accept, don’t avoid. Persist, don’t panic. Consider, don’t condemn. It prepares us to answer when people intent on our destruction have no choice but turn to us or be destroyed. Our dealings may be brief and secretive. They may involve great risk. Still, we rise as their unexpected allies, using all we learned on the wall to ensure their safety and success. Of course, they can’t understand it—they don’t live where we live or know what we know. Hebrews 11.31 says, “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.” If life on the wall teaches nothing else, it teaches sparing others is how we’re spared.
Life on the wall teaches many lessons.
(Tomorrow: River Walk)
Personal Postscript: Our Sorrow
My partner’s mother left us last evening. What appeared to be a turn for the better last Sunday we now recognize as her final surge. We thank God for her. I thank God for her, because she gave the world and me the finest human being I’ve ever known. As waves of grief rose and receded through the night, little bits and pieces about her floated up. During a prolonged silence, Walt said, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. She taught me that when I was 9-years-old.”
That captures this gentle lady better than any description I could try to sketch for you. It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.
Our sorrow is great, but our faith is strong. We cherish your prayers.
With burial arrangements pending, I’m not sure when I’ll be away. I hope to hammer out a few posts later today to make sure S-F stays up-to-date, though they’ll no doubt be less than I’d like given the limited time I have to spend on each one. Please stay with me. I’ll be back and busy as soon as possible.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.
Good Guys and Bad Guys
Claude Chabrol sits high on my list of favorite filmmakers. Long ago, US critics dubbed him “the French Hitchcock,” because his perverse view of virtue and villainy adds unexpected twists to his tales of pedestrian crime. You’re never sure who the good guys and bad guys are in his movies, which often end suddenly—almost rudely—without a dénouement to clean everything up. I recently caught The Flower of Evil, one of his lesser works in rotation on IFC. Chabrol gives us a family of aristocrats with two unsettling tendencies: for generations, they’ve married in-laws or stepsiblings, and tensions within these quasi-incestuous relations repeatedly trigger murder. As gamy as this is, with Chabrol at the helm, Flower is a deceptively sunny movie about charming people—and thus the title. Beneath its refined civility, the family is rotten. Also because it’s a Chabrol film, it finishes before you pin down which characters are good and which are evil.
Unfortunately, life closer to a Chabrol film than movies that identify the good guys and the bad guys early on. Real-world characters conceal their true natures to present palatable images of themselves. Heroes hide their virtue; villains obscure their malice. On top of that, neither real-world heroes nor villains always behave consistently. Heroes often lash out at opposition to their cause. Villains can be admirably charitable to those they love. So we misjudge people all the time. What we lose by misjudging good people is seldom regained; rarely do we override our initial misgivings. On the other hand, too often we continue with rotten people after cracks in their façade reveal they’re not as virtuous as they appear. It’s here our Christian commitment to love and accept them as is can slip into indulging their filth. This is a mistake.
In Mark 6, Jesus divides the disciples into pairs to spread the Gospel in surrounding villages. Before they leave, though, He does something very interesting—and necessary. He transfers His power over unclean spirits to them. Next, He gives them three instructions: 1) Travel light. 2) Stay where you’re welcomed. 3) Don’t waste time on people who don’t welcome or listen to you. Emboldened by Christ’s power, the disciples have great success. Mark says they drive out many demons and cure many sick people.
Our live-and-let-live culture encourages us to submit to unclean spirits instead of taking authority over them, to nurse unhealthy minds rather than using power Christ gives us to heal them. We’re told “not judging” means looking away if we see people harming others or themselves. But Jesus never told us to ignore abusive behavior or let it persist. We were given authority over spirits that drive deceptive, defiling, and debasing practices. I believe Jesus effected this power transfer for two reasons: first, to confront evil wherever and whenever we meet it; and second, to protect others and ourselves from its foul effects. In challenging harmful behavior, however, we take issue with the spirit, not the individual. As Paul explains in Ephesians 6.12, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Jesus’s instructions to the disciples provide three keys for dealing successfully with unclean spirits, though more than a casual reading is required to comprehend why they work. First, we wonder why He insists the disciples travel light: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” (Mark 6:8) Next, we ask why He says to settle with hospitable people: “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.” (v10) Lastly, it’s curious He says not to linger where they’re not wanted: “If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” (v11) One would expect the opposite from Him, telling the disciples to abide anyone who rejects them and persist in persuading them to follow Christ. But Jesus has solid and practical reasons for His directions.
Bringing too much too soon to relationships risks greater loss should we discover unclean spirits vex those we’re involved with. Traveling light increases courage to take authority over them; if they resist, we can quickly move on before getting hurt. That’s also why we’re told to find healthy company and stay put. Flitting between good guys and bad guys creates chaos for us and costs us credibility on both sides. We can’t speak to unclean spirits or unhealthy minds if those troubled by them don’t find us sincere. Finally, not compromising our faith to indulge others’ flaws sometimes results in overt rejection. We don’t have to be with people to love them, nor do we need to hang around for added abuse. “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” 1 John 4.1 tells us. When dealing with unclean spirits, we have two options: take authority over them, or if they refuse to yield, leave them alone. We never submit to them—ever. Verse 4 reminds us, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” Jesus transfers power to us so we can help those who need it. It’s ours to use, and use it we must.
The One Who's in us is greater than any unclean spirit in the world.
(Tomorrow: Unexpected Allies)
Personal Postscript: Walt Update
My partner, Walt, returned this morning from his mother's beside with two encouraging developments. First, he has more peace about accepting her loss. Second, it may not be as soon as the physicians anticipated; by yesterday's end, her vital signs had rebounded within normal range. While we're elated by both bits of news, neither surprises us, knowing we're in your prayers and prayer changes things. Thank you again, and please continue to pray for us.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.
There are as many reasons for going to church as there are people who go. At face value, we can probably group them into sets. Some go to pray, others to praise. Some go out of desire, others out of duty. Some go to learn, others to look. And on it goes. Despite the category our reasons fall under, they’re still very personal. Why I go to church, what I hope to receive, how I participate, and the significance I attach to it are unique to me. We might think gathering in the same place indicates worshipers share common needs and interests. Surely, certain facets of the church appeal to all of them. This isn’t necessarily so. It’s quite possible what one likes most—the pastor’s sense of humor, let’s say—another cares for least. When we assemble for worship, our joint experience conveys singular meaning and benefits to each of us.
Where we are is we really all we have in common across the board. Individual variables take over from there. Yet once we’re comfortable in our church—i.e., the actual structure—familiarity with our surroundings dulls our appreciation of the place. If we worship in a storefront sanctuary or a gothic cathedral, we should be actively, habitually aware it’s a holy place specifically set aside to encounter God’s presence and experience His love. Passing or entering any church, we should consciously remind ourselves it’s founded on His Word, built for His glory, and occupied by His presence. After railing against Israel’s vain pursuits in chapter 2, Habakkuk hoists the final verse like a victory flag for the eternally present God. His basic message is, everything you chase will turn up dead on arrival. “But the LORD is in his holy temple.” It’s His temple. He abides there always and forever. Because He’s there, where we are becomes more than enough to share with worshipers around us. Your church, my church, and every other church are holy places.
Building a physical home for His presence was God’s idea, not ours. In Exodus 25.8, He instructs Moses, “Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” Theologians call God’s perpetual residence among us “Shekinah,” descriptively translating Hebrew for “resting place” as “divine presence.” (It shouldn’t go unnoted that it’s grammatically feminine, which may give pause those who limit God to the male gender.) Today, we invoke and experience Shekinah by faith—which, as Christians living by faith and not sight, is exactly what we should do. Several times in the Old Testament, however, God visibly manifests His temple presence. For instance, after Moses puts finishing touches on the sanctuary, Exodus 40:35 says, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”
Any time God requests something that will bless Him, what we do for Him ultimately blesses us. He asks His people to build a home for His presence. They obey, and He immediately honors His promise to dwell among them. Yet Moses and the people soon realize the sanctuary also puts before them a powerfully visible reminder of God’s presence in their community. It’s no different now. Although we accept Shekinah by faith, inability to visually perceive God’s glory in the sanctuary has no bearing on its actuality. Indeed, every brick in every church was and is built on His pledge to live among us. When we look at any house of worship, we see past its architecture and affiliation to rejoice in its universal proclamation that God abides among us. Every church on every corner testifies to His presence in our communities.
Besides declaring God abides in His holy place, Habakkuk also enjoins the earth to be silent before Him. God’s house is soundproof. He muffles the din of life, controversies, and vanities to speak clearly with us. If noisy distractions detract from how well we hear Him, they came to church with us. Most often, no one else hears the racket drowning out God’s voice because it’s blasting away inside our heads. Habakkuk tells us to be silent, which isn’t the same as being quiet. Quietness damps noise; silence eliminates it. The prophet advises us to clear our heads to receive God’s Word and experience Shekinah with open minds. Our world stops while we’re in the sanctuary. The work assignment hanging over our head evaporates. The funky neighbor hassling us disappears. Brunch plans leave our thoughts until we finish communing with God. Conflicts vying for our attention will eventually die anyway. What sounds so urgent today will be gone tomorrow. But the Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him.
(Tomorrow: Power Transfer)
All holy places. All occupied by God's presence. Before entering any of them, we clear our minds of distractions, our world waits outside, and we come before Him in silence.
Personal Postscript: Pray for Us
My partner flew to Detroit this morning for what likely will be his last visit in this life with his mother. Her physicians say everything indicates she’ll leave us within the week. We both trust it’s best for her; a few years ago, a stroke took all her mobility and much of her speech. She recently had a series of secondary strokes that further incapacitated her. This once vibrant and exceedingly gracious lady—and she truly is a lady—has been encumbered by too many limitations and indignities far too long. When God calls her, she’ll at last be free.
In our nearly 18 years together, God has been exceedingly kind, sparing us to deal with major grief just once, when we lost his dad several years ago. But our inexperience with death leaves neither of us feeling sufficiently prepared. He needs your prayers, as does his entire family. I also ask you pray for me, as I stand beside him and them. In closing, I must express my deep affection and admiration for all of you. Knowing you’re there soothes our spirits and calms our fears.