Saturday, June 27, 2009

Repost: Conflict and Consensus

A time for war and a time for peace…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.8

Whoa There, Christian Soldiers!

Reading the Old Testament as linear history one finds relatively little peacetime. Israel’s at war, preparing for it, or rebuilding after it. A jittery peace holds during the New Testament’s time frame. Rome occupies Palestine along with most of the known world and military stories involve police actions—false arrests and executions. Still, war is never far from mind for early Christian writers as a metaphor their readers easily get, given the centurions on every corner. The challenge for modern readers—especially Americans—is reading these passages as metaphors, not dispatches of ongoing conflict. Yet many today interpret them as jingoistic battle cries: Get out there and win! If we read them closely, however, they ring truer to their times. They reassure believers of their power to withstand, rather than their duty to initiate, unprovoked attack.

Inevitably, apostolic battle references seeped into Christian culture, more notably in Protestantism, since many breaks with the Vatican led to literal warfare. Over time the image of “Christian soldiers” got so lodged in the collective mindset it’s not going anywhere. What’s currently troubling, though, is how many have seized on it to inflame believers’ animosity toward anyone who doesn’t conform to their beliefs—including other Christians. Visiting a church several years back (at the height of the Bush madness), I was stunned by what I heard. The first 10-15 minutes of “praise and worship” were nothing but bellicose rock anthems about “destroying false witness” and “taking the Enemy by force.” (Someone didn’t do their homework; in Matthew 11.12, Jesus says we take the Kingdom by force.) Has Christianity come to this, being “in it to win it?” Haven’t we already won? Didn’t Jesus say, “I have overcome the world”? (John 16.33) When did He ever rally us to fight one another? How can believers bitterly, angrily, and publicly oppose each other on political and social issues—marital equality, freedom to choose, gay rights, capital punishment, creation, etc.—and even pretend to obey John 15.12: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you”?

Know Our Enemy

God’s Word confirms a state of war exists between good and evil. But with increasing regularity, wide swaths of believers have misidentified the enemy. There’s no excuse for this, as Paul names our adversaries outright in Ephesians 6.12. They’re not flesh and blood, he says, but “rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” So why have some Christians declared war on each other? If the world is out of control, shouldn’t we unite against spiritual wickedness run amok? Shouldn’t we call for peace within our walls? The discord weakening the church comes because we don’t know our enemy. We’re consuming all our time and energy on doctrinal conflicts when we’d be better served by building consensus—agreeing to disagree, if need be—to join the real battle with a solidified resolve.

Twice Defeated

Religious infighting leaves us twice defeated. It hands victory to the enemy and creates conflict between God and us. Isaiah 1 gives us a vivid picture of this. It shows God’s people and Him in a virtual standoff. They’ve abandoned His truth for their ideas and pounded each other into bloody pulp. “From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil,” Isaiah says. Blinded by arrogance and enslaved by tradition, they keep going through the motions, completely oblivious to how far they’ve strayed from their meaning.

Finally, Isaiah steps aside so God can tell them how angry He is for Himself. “Your sacrifices—what are they to me?” He asks. “Who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? I cannot bear your evil assemblies. They have become a burden to me.” He tells them to shut down their controversies, cease their pious displays, and return to basics: “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Having got their attention, God lowers His voice. “Come now, let us reason together,” He says, offering to purify them of their sins. “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”

We’re no better than Israel. We’re engaged in too many imaginary battles on too many fronts while our real adversaries have a field day and our responsibilities go untended. Instead of working together to do what God says, our presuming to speak for Him has turned our faith into a minefield. Aggressive pride and self-righteousness have twisted following Jesus—by far the safest, sanest way to live—into a dangerous, maddening pastime that scares people. It’s time to reason together, with one another and our God. He offers two options: resolve our conflicts and prosper or become casualties of war. It’s time to reach consensus. Because we live in wartime, it’s urgent we make time for peace.

Our arrogance and self-righteousness have turned our faith into a minefield.

(Tomorrow: Anniversary Post: Every Word Heard)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Repost: Loving and Loathing

A time to love, and a time to hate…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.8

The Time Is Now

As we wrap up our study of Solomon’s “Seasons of Life,” we’re dealt a doozy—loving and loathing--and immediately we ask, “Is there ever a time or a reason to hate anyone?” Just as quickly the answer comes back, unequivocally: “No!” Love’s time is now. It can’t wait, because the longer it’s withheld, the less of it there is. And if there’s one thing we need, it’s more love for one another. When Jesus declared His First and Great Commandment to love God with all of our heart, mind, and soul, He instantly attached another: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” stating it was equal to the First. Not loving people as they are—as beings made in God’s likeness, regardless how they’ve corrupted His image—is tantamount to not loving their Creator. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen,” 1 John 4.20 says. We can try all day and night to justify animosity toward people (or groups of people) who, quite frankly, have worked overtime to earn it. Yet it’s dangerously deceptive to believe it’s possible to hold hatred for others and love for God in our hearts simultaneously. They can’t occupy the same space.

Love for Sale

Genesis 3.1 tells us, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals,” making it the perfect guise for the Tempter. It’s incumbent on us to stay alert to his wiles, because he’s a superlative trickster. His ploys go beyond luring us into disobedience. He also dilutes truth’s importance and power. Since love is central to all we do, he seduces us into mistaking it for a feeling instead of a fact. He cheapens it as a commodity we buy into, rather than a reality we express. Love stories filling our heads, love songs hanging mid-air, and love clichés littering our language aren’t about love at all. They’re about emotions tied to love. Love doesn’t grow. It doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry. It can’t be fallen in or out of. Love just is, because God is and God is love. Feelings wax and wane, but love remains constant. It’s inextricably rooted in our beings to reflect of our Maker. As Romans 5.5 tells us, “God has poured out his love into our hearts.” Therefore, love isn’t ours to give or take. It’s God’s and He placed it in us so wherever we are, His reality is manifested by love. Feeling love instead of being love mucks everything up by hiding God’s presence from others and us.

Sinners, Sin, and Side Effects

Those of us old enough to remember Anita Bryant—the former Miss America, modestly talented singing star, and pitch-person for orange juice and rental cars—recall her trying to smooth over her uncharitable opposition to a Florida gay rights initiative with this: “As a born-again Christian, I love the sinner, but I hate the sin.” How cleverly convenient is that? Her lopsided argument caught fire and spread across intolerant pulpits everywhere. Had someone paused to square it against Christ’s teaching of love, though, two things would have made ashes of the wildfire straightaway. First, not once did Jesus expand His commandment we love to entitle us to separate the person from his/her behavior. Indeed, He never referred to those we must love as sinners, only as neighbors and enemies. But second, Jesus explicitly denied us any right to condemn another or his/her sin. “If you judge,” He said, “you’ll be judged by the same standards.” Look no further than Ms. Bryant for proof. Her loving fans found her bigotry so hateful they vanished. She crashed while those she claimed to love (conditionally) soared ahead.

Getting back to Solomon, when if ever does the “time to hate” arrive? After taking the right to hate anyone or his/her sin off the table, we’re left with sin’s enormous damages—poverty, inequality, grief, fear, disease, and innumerable other harms. Whether globally or individually, time to hate comes when we identify side effects of iniquity. Caution becomes necessary. Loving people despite their behavior while hating its consequences calls for tolerance without indulgence, acceptance without approval. We make it clear we love our neighbors and enemies no matter what they think or do, but we loathe what results of their actions. Times to hate demand delicate demonstrations of love. It’s sounds ironic. But it’s not.

We hold the power to love and hate in our hands. 

(Tomorrow: Conflict and Consensus. Sunday: 1-Year Anniversary)

Personal Postscript: Our Pride Parade

The weekend is upon us. I thought Straight-Friendly should host its own pride parade. We all know what “pride” looks like. Here’s what love is. Enjoy!

video
What have you done today?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Repost: Discretion and Discussion

A time to be silent and a time to speak…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.7 

A Proverbial Problem

Why all the proverbs about keeping thoughts to ourselves? They’re so well known, a parlor game could be built around them. Two teams, two pads, 30 seconds—go! “Loose lips sink ships.” “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” “Discretion is the better part of valor.” “Don’t spill the beans.” “Think before you speak.” “Still waters run deep.” “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” “Don’t talk out of school.” And a personal favorite, “Take something to your grave!”

With all these mottos on the loose, one might expect far less loose talk. But, oh my, how we love to talk! We tell on us, each other, friends and neighbors, even people we’ll never know—celebrities and acquaintances twice removed and random strangers whose loud talk tempts us to repeat what we overhear. We buy tabloids and surf Websites to find more to talk about. We Twitter, Tweet, text, IM, blog, post, link, leak, email, answer, forward, comment, respond, cut-and-paste, collate, Skype, vidcam, Google, TiVo, Youtube, download, upload,  or lumped together, we "share." If somebody's said  or done it and we don't know it, it's not because we can't or won't or shouldn't hear about it eventually. It's on the loose to fall into our hands. If we're not telling everything we know, adding our two cents, or formulating alternative theories, it's not for lack of an audience, because somewhere there's someone eager to hear any and everything we want to say about anybody. In today’s chatterbox culture, anyone is fair game and loose talk only offends if we’re its subject. That alone should teach us to mind our words. But for reasons I'll never get, we never connect talking about others with being talked about. Wags coin proverbs about talking too much because too much talk is—literally—a proverbial problem.

Listeners First

According to Solomon, there are times for discretion and times for discussion. Not only what we say, but when it's said often tells more about us than those we tell on. Our comments float into the ether, leaving impressions behind: Mary’s a gossip. Martin’s a braggart. Meg’s a critic. Ryan exaggerates. Though we preface observations with disclaimers, if our audience is too inexperienced or impressionable to acknowledge our sincerity, it’s the wrong time to speak. In Romans 14.15 and 16, Paul explains why ignoring perceptions harms others and us: “If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” Being strong enough to speak honestly doesn’t override considering our audience. “The ear tests words as the tongue tastes meat,” Job 34.3 says. The ears our words fall on decide the right and wrong in what we say. Putting listeners first disables the compulsion to show off how smart we are and how much we know. It informs us when to keep silent and when to speak.

Spiritual Correctness

Political correctness does a grave disservice by shifting attention from things we say to how we say them. But swapping older, belittling epithets for newer, “appropriate” ones won’t change what we mean. It just ties a fresher ribbon around the same scorn and hatred the old phrases expressed. For instance, a person with an IQ below 70 is clinically retarded. As we know, the classification seeped into usage decades ago as a general insult having nothing to do with mental ability. Teaching children to refer to retarded people as “special” or “challenged” only allays our guilt for abusing the old term when we were young. Before today ends, hundreds of kids will use “special” and “challenged” disparagingly, meaning exactly what we meant by “retarded.” Nothing’s changed. It’s not a matter of “inappropriate,” but unacceptable. Until political correctness takes that on, it’s no more correct than what it pretends to replace.

Spiritual correctness, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on what’s acceptable, measuring what we say, how we say it, and when it’s said by God’s standards. This is why David prays, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD.” (Psalm 19.14) It’s why Jesus chastises Pharisees who malign Him, saying, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12.34) It’s why Paul advises Timothy to “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4.12) Spiritual correctness fixes our thoughts first, so what, how, and when we speak is acceptable to God. And if He’s pleased, we can be confident we say the right thing at the right times and nothing wrong at the wrong time.

This fresh take on a stale proverb gets much closer to Solomon’s wisdom.

(Tomorrow: Loving and Loathing)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Repost: Rending and Mending

A time to rend, and a time to sew…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.7

Imperfect Fits

My partner and I are obsessed with “Project Runway,” Bravo’s fashion designer competition. One of its trademark moments comes as time runs out. A designer transfers his/her creation from mannequin to model and discovers how imperfectly it’s sized. The outfit gets ripped apart and reconstructed for a more flattering fit. It’s a huge risk. The show milks the tension, suggesting the designer might face his/her judges empty-handed. But, in the end, it’s the right thing to do.

Life often poses similar challenges. Sometimes what looks so clever and pleasing in theory fizzles out in real life. It just doesn’t fit. We can keep what we’ve got, pretending we don’t notice how unflattering it is and hoping no one else—God most of all—sees the disaster we’ve fashioned. Or we can tear it apart and reconstruct it so it works. We may find there’s too much going on, too many unnecessary pieces complicating the design. On the other hand, we may learn previously eliminated parts contribute more than we first thought. Rending times and mending times are typically fraught with anxiety. But, in the end, fixing our mistakes is the right—the best—thing to do.

Over-Accessorizing

Parents and teachers encourage us to amass friends because being well-liked signals character. The notion carries forward as we grow up. How we get along with colleagues and neighbors plays a major factor in how we do on the job and in the community. Then, when we decide to follow Christ, we couple what we’re taught about popularity with His commandment to love everyone. Equating indiscriminate friendship with unconditional love can lead to trouble, however. We can over-accessorize our lives with friendships that detract from, rather than enhance, the godly image we want to convey.

“A man of many companions may come to ruin,” Solomon says in Proverbs 18.24. Seeking popularity exposes us to many hazards. It puts us in company and situations that bring us no good. For the sake of building and maintaining unfruitful friendships, we make concessions impeding our ability to freely express God’s love. It’s essential to distinguish tolerant love from friendly indulgence. They’re not the same. Love accepts people as they are without condemnation. Indulgence accepts what people do—an altogether different proposition. Leading friends to believe we're OK with unflattering attitudes and behaviors leaves us nowhere to stand when asked to join them. Friends who pressure us to participate in unacceptable activities aren’t true friends. They’re liabilities. They detract from our design. And, difficult though it may be, the time comes to rend their influence without rejecting them entirely as unfit to be loved.

Patching Things Up

In counterpoint to ridding ourselves of unprofitable friendships, we face an equally tough challenge: mending torn beneficial ones. Stubbornness, pride, jealousy, and other unnecessary weight we carry can fray good friendships until they burst their seams. But as we mature in Christ, much of what pushed them past their breaking points falls away. We slim down, if you will. Greater experience and knowledge alert us to how much these estranged friends added to us. Patching things up asks many things—honesty, humility, and courage chief among them. Yet it’s imperative because until these cast-aside friendships are mended, we won’t fully please God with our reconstructed lives.

After cautioning us against false friends, Solomon instantly admonishes us treasure true ones: “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” True friends never leave voluntarily; we send them away. We could rationalize not redressing the situation—what’s done is done, they’ve moved on, etc.—were it not for what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5.23-24: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you… first go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Mending healthy friendships takes precedence over worship, while rending harmful ones alters compromise. “There’s a time to rend and a time to sew,” Solomon tells us. Both call for choices that ultimately decide how we’re judged on the runway.

How well we rend detracting friendships and mend enhancing ones determines the image we project on the runway.

(Tomorrow: Discretion and Discussion)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Repost: Retaining and Ridding

“A time to keep and a time to throw away…”

                        Ecclesiastes 3.6

The Corners of Our Minds

The Streisand classic, “The Way We Were,” begins with “Memories light the corners of my mind,” which seems most apt since that’s where memories live. They’re artifacts of events that once commanded center stage. The actual occurrences happen quickly and yield the spotlight to new ones. But their memories don’t leave. They settle in shadowy corners and flare up unexpectedly without provocation or reason.

If only we could take Solomon’s counsel about keeping and throwing away at face value—if we actually could choose which memories to retain and which to rid. Unfortunately, we can’t govern memories any better than the events that spawn them. They are what they are, and we should accept that. Memories can, however, be remedied. And that’s where Solomon’s advice obtains unique wisdom. Inability to purge our minds’ corners of unwelcome reminders doesn’t prevent us from addressing them one by one, consciously deciding what of each to keep and what to toss.

A Poultice of Love

When I was 10 or so, a nasty boil popped up on my knee. I didn’t mention it to my mother in dread of the undoubtedly painful procedure she’d administer. (She was a nurse before entering ministry and many things that sent other kids to the doctor she treated at home.) The boil grew until wearing pants was unbearable. I had to ‘fess up. Mom glanced at it and ordered me to the kitchen. She sliced a potato, shaved off a bit as a poultice, and bandaged my knee. “Go to bed. You’ll be fine by morning.” I was. The starchy potato had drawn the boil’s poisonous core from my knee. “Now, don’t you wish we’d done this sooner?” Mom asked.

I apologize for the slightly disgusting details of this story, yet I always recall it when discussion turns to bad memories. They’re like boils—poisonous at the core. Until that’s removed, they continue to fester, causing greater discomfort. Merely brushing against them is agonizing. In dealing with pain from our past, love is to memory what potato is to boil. “Love covers over a multitude of sins,” 1 Peter 4.8 tells us. And in 1 Corinthians 13.5-8, Paul says it “keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” A poultice of love is the treatment of choice for bad memory core removal. It goes beneath surface wrongs to counteract underlying victimization, despair, and resignation with protection, hope, and perseverance. It turns us from what evil has done to what love can do. We’re able to keep the memory—as we must—but throw away the core causing so much pain. Instead of wishing the entire memory to go away, we wish we’d treated its core poisons sooner.

Mind Renewal

Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12.2) What is the world’s pattern regarding bad memory treatment? Basically, it follows one of two methods: symptom suppression or pain management. Unassisted, we try to bury the past; with professional help, we try to live with it. Both methods subscribe to natural logic—they’re both personality-based defense mechanisms. But neither fits the love-driven, unnatural lifestyle Jesus taught because they attempt to alleviate our agony instead of addressing its cause. Christ’s followers think differently about everything, bad memories included. We don’t conform to conventional wisdom; we’re transformed to approach life from an entirely different, counterintuitive perspective. We do this by renewing our minds, filtering them of logic’s limited alternatives to infuse them with faith’s infinite possibilities.

There’s a reason why Paul uses the present tense. Mind renewal is a constant, conscious process, not some kind of spiritual hypnosis that induces amnesia. It’s more like waves of faith we release over our thoughts about where we are, where we’re going, and where we’ve been. With each fresh surge, memories bob up—some quicker than others. When they do, we apply love to leech their core poisons. Loving allows us to retain memories by ridding ourselves of past evils chronically infecting our hope and happiness.

Love is the poultice we apply to bad memories. It leeches their evil cores and remedies their pain.

Originally posted as "Having and Heaving."

(Tomorrow: Rending and Mending)

Postscript: Shepherd’s Song

Yesterday, the ever astute and remarkable Fran posted this simple video set to the hymn, “Shepherd Me, O God.” For reasons I can’t explain, nor need to, it resonated deeply with me. So I’m taking a page from the equally astute and remarkable Rev. Fred, who also was moved by Fran’s post and shared the hymn’s lyrics with his readers. The song is particularly relevant to today’s discussion. Listen closely to the fifth stanza: You have set me a banquet of love in the face of hatred, crowning me with love beyond my pow’r to hold. The love we need to overcome evil infecting our memories is beyond our power. It comes only by God’s grace and He assumes total responsibility for seeing it's always available in ready supply. (Hat-tip to Fran and Rev. Fred.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Repost: Searching and Surrendering

A time to search and a time to give up…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.6

The Same Old Song

Solomon’s statement about knowing when to search and when to give up evokes more Top 40 hits than one might first expect: The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” U2’s “Still Haven’t Found,” Waylon Jennings’s “Lookin’ for Love,” Chicago’s “Searchin’ So Long.” The list is endless and also enlightening. It tells how deeply seated our drive to find and claim what we haven’t got really is. The compulsion is so overwhelming it eclipses questioning why we search so long (often in all the wrong places) without ever finding what we’re looking for—why we can’t get no satisfaction though we try and we try and we try and we try. If we took time to examine our objectives, though, we’d get a clearer idea of why we’re always singing the same old song.

There are as many reasons for not locating what we want as songs about it. For the record, let’s toss a few around. We may search for more than we can handle or less than we need. We may be captivated by an imaginary ideal that prevents us from seeing the real thing. We may convince ourselves what we’re seeking is useful and noble, all the while overlooking the reasons we want it aren’t prudent; too often we camouflage the insignificance of underlying desires—impressing neighbors, for instance, or building a façade—by attaching unneeded importance on things that impress others or foster illusions. Examining these and myriad other motives exposes the futility of our search. In such cases, it’s time to give up and seek fulfillment in more beneficial, realistic pursuits.

Unexpected Places

Not every search is superficial, though. If it’s legitimately worthy, our search stays in effect until its objective is realized. It demands commitment and endurance. What we’re after remains top of mind. Our eyes stay open and faith guides us to believe it’s already there, waiting to be found. Where “there” is, though, isn’t always where we anticipate it will be. Many searches end in unexpected places, in unusual ways. Matthew 17 describes an incident where taxmen confront Peter about Jesus’s unpaid temple dues. While there’s a bigger point to the story—honoring obligations—what happens illustrates why we never dismiss any endpoint as too unlikely. Peter has no cash. He takes the problem to Jesus, essentially looking for money to pay the tax. “Go fishing,” Jesus says. “You’ll find it in the mouth of the first fish you catch.” It probably was the craziest idea Peter ever heard. Yet he took Jesus at His word and found what he needed.

Finding Love

The most significant search most of us ever undertake is finding love that lasts a lifetime. This quest is particularly urgent for gay people, many of whom view loving partnerships as the ultimate means of validating their worth and reconstructing self-images critically marred by hatred and rejection. The “urge to merge” plays such a potent, prevalent role in our overall community, however, that it’s vital to know what we’re really searching for versus what our culture encourages us to seek. Our media and merchants jam our minds with so many images, myths, and mystiques—and we invent so many codes, rituals, and catchphrases—that it’s a constant struggle to hold fast to our search. Too many distractions interrupt us. Too many surfaces gleam. Too many dreams cloud our focus. So our streets and establishments teem with Mr./Ms. Right Nows while Mr./Ms. Rights seem nowhere to be found. But if we’re there, they’re there, because we are they. Yet instead of seeking someone worthy and willing to love us as we are, we insist on circling the ring, looking for someone better—butcher, buffer, bigger, etc., etc., etc. Our world is full of lonely dream-chasers.

If we’re truly sincere in seeking meaningful, lasting love, we have Jesus’s promise we’ll find it. Matthew 7.7 says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” We must believe that and take confidence we’ll find what we seek. But before we jump into our jeans and head to the hunting grounds, we should heed Jesus’s warning above His promise: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” Placating ourselves with momentary pleasure puts us off our search and belittles our bodies, our emotions, and our beings as disposable commodities. It numbers us with the fast and furious crowd, putting us in serious jeopardy of being stampeded and ripped to shreds. “There’s a time for searching and a time for surrendering,” Solomon writes. Our search for what’s real will come to naught if we won’t surrender the unreal figments and fantasies we cling to and let cling to us.

If we’re not searching for the right things for the right reasons, it’s time to surrender our flawed quest and correct our course.

(Tomorrow: Retaining and Ridding)

Personal Postscript: Home Safe and Sound

Walt and I are back at home after a terrific week’s vacation. We thank all of you for your prayers for our safety as we traveled. We were blessed to visit Prague, a city we’ve dreamt of seeing for years, and found it every bit as fascinating and delightful as we’d heard it was. We met some great people, locals and fellow travelers, who taught us quite a lot—so much, in fact, that I’m still trying to process all the information. Some of it is relevant to our discussion here, actually, and I hope to write about it soon.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue reposting the Ecclesiastes series through this week, mostly because I believe it’s not a bad idea to revisit it, but also to free up some time to get out to your blogs and sites. The past few months have been so busy I’ve not had proper time to visit with you and I’m feeling all the poorer for it. So while I’m home and back at the desk, I’m going to keep traveling, knowing what I find at “your place” will be just as fascinating and delightful as anything we discovered while we were away.

Walt in the Rampart Gardens at Prague Castle
Tim on the Charles Bridge.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Repost: Holding On and Holding Off

A time to embrace and a time to refrain…

                        Ecclesiastes 3.5

Excellence

I live with a packrat who holds on to everything. Not long ago, we had one of “those” discussions—over a Pyrex measuring cup, of all things. We live in a high-rise flat with a galley kitchen and finite cabinet space. Given the paraphernalia we’ve collected over 14 years of living here, every inch is precious. When I found a collapsible cup that tucks into a drawer, I snapped it up. My partner came in just as I dropped the old cup in the trash. With not a word, his look said it all. We’ll never use both at the same time, I told him. He suggested someone might want it. “Of course,” I said. “The next time somebody says, ‘Boy, I wish I had a measuring cup’ we’ll have one.” He wandered off, muttering about how I love to throw out perfectly good stuff. As I saw it, though, I replaced one cup with another to free up space the old one required. Keeping both cancelled the new one’s advantages. The Pyrex cup was history.

Growing in knowledge of Christ, we pick up better tools to replace old ones used for the same purpose. No finer example of this exists than love. Younger, less experienced followers of Jesus love out of obligation; it’s what He asked us to do. But as we mature, we learn love is an opportunity to introduce God’s presence to people and situations that need it. If we hang on to love as what we’re supposed to do, we negate advantages gained by approaching it as a privilege. Obligatory love is history, replaced by love no less obedient to Christ, yet far superior in effectiveness. This is why, transitioning from spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 to love in chapter 13, Paul writes, “And now I will show you the most excellent way.”

Expedience

Experience teaches us to hold on to most excellent mindsets and habits in lieu of previously held, less effective ones. It also teaches us when holding off is best. “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6.12 (KJV). Later, he repeats this, affixing a fresh conclusion: “not everything is constructive.” (10.23; NIV) Contrary to the legalistic bent of religiously (rather than spiritually) minded Christians, Paul places believers above the law. Codes and statutes are useless to him; they eliminate assessing how closely we conform to Jesus’s example on a case-by-case basis. The issue shifts from what’s right to what’s best, opening all options to consideration. Yet blanket permission doesn’t excuse us to do as we please. It forces us to choose between holding on to what’s constructive and holding off compromising influences.

Green Light, Red Light

“There’s a time to embrace and a time to refrain,” says Solomon. Knowing what we need tells us when to hold on; knowing what we don’t need tells us when to hold off. During early stages of walking with Christ, discerning what’s best in every situation—choosing excellence over expedience—isn’t as clear-cut as we’d like. Tools we’ve collected so far may be inadequate and skills using what we’ve got may need fine-tuning. For example, it takes seasoning to embrace people as they are and still refrain from getting lured into unhealthy aspects of their lives. The art of simultaneously holding on and holding off comes with experience.

Regardless how often we fail to choose what’s best, however, we continue, applying today’s lessons to tomorrow’s efforts. “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything,” James 1.4 explains. It’s a trial-and-error process. As one songwriter said, “We fall down, but we get up.” And with every stumble, our sight improves. Experience helps us see green lights signaling times to embrace and red ones that say, “Refrain! Refrain!”

As we pick up new wisdom and experience, we drop off inferior ideas and behaviors.

(Tomorrow: Searching and Surrendering)