Saturday, September 12, 2009

Rising Hope

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to pitied more than all men… For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

                        1 Corinthians 15.19, 23

Too True to Be Incredible

Before the Church left its cradle, a Greek schism fell back into pagan disbelief in resurrection. For this group, Christ’s resurrection posed no problem; He was divine. But mortals? That every Christian will be raised from the dead was too incredible to be true. It appears this resurrection debunking caught on, because in 1 Corinthians Paul exerts great effort to debunk the debunkers, unequivocally defending resurrection as the linchpin of Christianity. He builds his case carefully, first citing 500 eyewitnesses who saw the resurrected Christ. No one doubts that. Next, with dazzling agility, he flips his argument. “If it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” he asks in 1 Corinthians 19.12. Then he flips it again in verse 13. “If there’s no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised.” Finally, he nails the crux of the matter in 14: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

Questioning resurrection questions other essentials. For example, in John 3.16 Jesus says He came to ensure “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3.16) In verse 20 of his treatise, Paul confirms Christ arose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”—His victory over death secures our immortality. And what are we to do with Jesus’s own statements? In Luke 14.14, He advises His host to welcome the poor and disabled to his table, saying, “Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Why would He say such a thing? Thus, Paul’s logic: without trusting what Christ taught, what good is faith? If Jesus says the dead will be raised, resurrection is too true to be incredible. Knowing his opponents might dismiss this as sophistry, Paul serves up an airtight theological defense of resurrection.

Undoing Adam’s Deadly Deed

“You gotta give ‘em hope,” Harvey Milk famously said, and that’s the basis of Paul’s defense—hope. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (v19) It’s a given Jesus has no rivals among philosophers. His purity of wisdom and thought clarified the most opaque, unwieldy concepts into transparent truth. Yet Jesus was not a moralist or sage. His mission superseded dispensing tips for better living. Everything He did and every word He said flowed with eternal value. Paul says all that Jesus did centered on undoing Adam’s deadly deed. We were not created to die; Adam’s disobedience introduced death to our species. Jesus expressly came to correct that and return us to eternal life with God. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” verse 22 says. Before Christ, there was no point in believing in resurrection—and, indeed, many Jewish sects (e.g., the Sadducees) rejected the notion outright. Basically, existence came down to hanging around as long as possible. When the curtain fell, the show was over, a gloomy outlook on life. Christ’s proof of resurrection’s reality changed that. He gave us hope.

A New Elephant

Modern science and logic bring a new elephant to this discussion. Many Christians striving to balance natural facts with unnatural faith actually fall behind ancient resurrection debunkers. Before considering resurrection for all believers, they have to squeeze past elephantine doubts that Jesus actually arose from the dead. There are any number of rational reasons why resurrection of a corpse three-days dead is medically impossible—i.e., too incredible to be true. Yet these arguments strike me as moot, based on one basic, theological understanding. The body taken off the cross on Friday and the one that leaves the tomb on Sunday are radically different. Resurrection involves more than returning to physical life; it's transformation into a new life form. In John 20.17, when Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener, she touches Him, to which He says, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father.” This implies He’s protecting His resurrected body from physical corruption. Paul’s explanation of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.52-53 supports this: “We shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” (KJV)

Just as belief in spiritual transformation defies natural logic, hope in physical transformation balks at natural science. We shoo the fact-fed elephant out of the room. Faith in redemption and resurrection are all of a piece, a spiritually progressive process that starts in our beings and eventually overtakes our bodies. Resurrection is the final step. In verse 54 Paul teaches this ultimate transformation occurs so the prophecy of Isaiah 25.8 “will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’” Believing in this eventuality gives rise to hope for every day we live. Mortality—the only inevitability none of us can escape—will be defeated. By comparison, daily challenges we face look like small potatoes. Knowing our last and toughest battle with flesh ends in victory transforms how we see ongoing struggles with mortal weaknesses and desires. They also will be swallowed up in victory. That’s the real purpose and strength of resurrection. Hope we will live gives us hope to live.

Resurrection is a matter of faith, not science—transformation to new life, not return to life. To gain the hope it brings, we shoo the fact-fed elephant out of the room.

Postscript: Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, Off to Work I Go

Alas, professional commitments take me away for the next few days. As I’ve done in previous absences, I’ve combed through previous posts and selected a few to revisit while I’m gone. In the past few weeks, Straight-Friendly has gained quite a few new readers, encouraging me to think the reposts will likely be new to them. And for the veterans, I pray the reposts will also prove worth a second look. While I’m away, I’ll continue to stay in touch via email, comments, and Facebook. Until I return, I hope you’ll continue to come by, share your thoughts, and pray for me as I travel.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Had It Not Been--A Personal Reflection

If the LORD had not been on our side—let Israel say—the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away.

                        Psalm 124.1,4-5

From Then to Now

Today’s a sort of milestone for me, my fiftieth birthday. It sounds a little old, but other than the random ache here and there, I don’t feel any older than I’ve ever felt—which is to say, I’m still stuck somewhere between 28 and 32 in my head. Not such a bad place to be, I guess.

Numbers are artificial and arbitrary. We all know that. They’re only as significant as we want them to be. That’s why birthdays have never been such a big deal for me, and why I’ve always felt a little embarrassed when people who care for me treat it like an occasion. But, for some reason, 50 feels different. It seems to call for a bit of reckoning, stopping for a second to look back on where I spent all those years—blessings I’ve received, people I’ve loved, challenges I’ve met, and disappointments I've accepted.

When I go back as far as I can remember and retrace my steps from then to now, Psalm 124 rings in my ears: Had it not been for the Lord on my side, I don’t know where I’d be. For half a century, day after day and minute after minute, He has held me in His hand. He’s guided me to wonderful places. He’s shielded me from harm. And He’s lifted me out of one mess after another. He has loved me more than anyone I’ve ever known, and (as we say where I come from) He's been better to me than I've been to myself. He has tested my faith and confidence, but never has He failed me.

My grandmother used to tell me when we follow Christ, “it gets sweeter as the days go by.” I don’t think I fully understood that ‘til now.

How I Got Over

It’s a blessing to say in 50 years, things never grew so desperate to require the sort of super-miraculous intervention others experience. But that’s a miracle all by itself, because the last-half century has been extremely tumultuous for everyone who’s survived it. When I think of how many brushes with danger came my way simply by living through these times, I know my goodness didn’t protect me, nor did anything I possess shelter me. I encountered the same traps of addiction and depression, self-hatred and disease, greed and cynicism that snared so many. But I was spared. Had it not been for the Lord on my side…

I drafted several posts for today, all of which ran too long and said too little. So I’m through—almost. But it wouldn’t be a Tim party without a gospel number, and in light of what this birthday has given me, I’m pulling out all the stops with Yolanda Adams’s full-throttle cover of Aretha Franklin’s full-throttle cover of the Mahalia Jackson classic, “How I Got Over.” It’s fast, rowdy, and it rocks. (Yes, my friends, prepare yourselves—we’re going deep.) But I’ve not chosen it for those reasons. I’ve chosen it because no other song I know better expresses the wonder, gratitude, and hope I feel today. My birthday gift to all of you:

How I Got Over 

How I got over

How I got over

You know, my soul looks back and wonders

How I got over

Just as soon as I see Jesus

The Man Who made me free

The Man Who bled and suffered

He died for you and me

I’m gonna thank Him because He brought me

I’m gonna thank Him because He taught me

I’m gonna thank Him because He kept me

I’m gonna thank Him ‘cause He never left me

I’m gonna sing, “Hallelujah!”

I’m gonna shout, “Trouble’s over!”

I’m gonna thank Him for all He’s done for me

How I got over…

I’m gonna wear a diadem

In the New Jerusalem

I’m gonna walk the streets of gold

In the homeland of the soul

I’m gonna view the host in white

Who traveled both day and night

Coming up from every nation

On the way to the great coronation

I’m gonna sing, “Hallelujah!”

I’m gonna shout, “Trouble’s over!”

I’m gonna thank Him for all He’s done for me

How I got over…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Homeward Bound

The ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

                        Isaiah 51.11

Our Purchase

“You were bought at a price,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7.23, adding, “Do not become slaves of men.” The statement’s resonance with us can’t compare with what it means to residents of the cosmopolitan, class-conscious city of Corinth. Slavery is a way of life for them. They’re intimate with its nuances, e.g., the relationship between slave and master, the slave’s reliance on the owner for survival, the master’s duty to care for his servants, the slave’s identification with the master’s name, his/her duties to avoid bringing shame on the master’s house, etc. When Paul reminds the Corinthians they were bought “at a price,” he refers to Jesus’s sacrifice as the cost of their redemption from sin. Dying to buy another’s freedom is unthinkably exorbitant. Yet that’s the price Jesus paid.

Our purchase is a recurrent theme for Paul. In 1 Timothy 2.5-6, he frames it as the price to reunite us with God: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men.” It’s telling that Paul adjusts his metaphor from 1 Corinthians' price of freedom for slaves to the Judeo-centric concept of “ransom” here. For a young Jewish evangelist like Timothy, the term evokes deeply embedded cultural memories of captivity—most notably, the Babylonian exile of the sixth century BCE. It summons the Jews’ profound hope in Messianic promises like that in Isaiah 51.11: “The ransomed of the LORD will return.” Thus, Paul names Christ as the Mediator Who negotiated our release as hostages by giving His life in ransom for our return. The difference between the two metaphors seems minimal—almost cosmetic—at first. A closer look, however, reveals an important distinction that speaks to non-believers on one hand and exiled believers on the other.

Freedom Given, Freedom Regained

Choosing slavery to illustrate the price for our freedom and new life in Christ describes spiritual conversion. Jews and Gentiles in Corinth implicitly read the comparison to mean a life-altering gift of compassion and mercy. Indentured servants comprise the lowest caste in a multilevel class system. From birth to death, they are without financial or legal means to raise their status. Slavery is all a slave ever knows—unless a master grants his/her freedom or a third-party benefactor buys the slave’s liberty. This is why the reference to purchase price rings with amazing love and grace. It’s an undue act, freedom given, more than a slave expects and one every follower of Jesus should be humbly grateful to receive. Because the cost surpasses any mortal’s ability to pay, Paul warns the Corinthians, “Do not becomes slaves of men.” Backsliding into pagan or legalistic mindsets devalues the believer and constitutes rank ingratitude for the unprecedented price of freedom from spiritual bondage.

While Paul explains redemption in Corinthians as freedom given, by alluding to it as a ransom to Timothy, he defines it as freedom regained. The emphasis shifts from conversion to restoration. Christ’s sacrifice buys back stolen status and identity as God’s chosen people. The “ransomed of the LORD” Isaiah talks about have been forcibly removed by political conflicts. As far as Babylonian exile goes, their existence isn’t bad. They’re treated fairly and many Jews—Daniel, for instance—climb high on the sociopolitical ladder. All the same, success doesn’t change the fact they’re hostages. And news from home via letters and merchants compounds their grief. Through no fault of their own, they’re stranded at a distance, looking in. Now the powerful resonance of “ransom” becomes clear. Paul values Christ’s sacrifice as the ultimate cost to restore what we lose to circumstances beyond our control. Through Him, stolen freedom and identity are regained. Because of His love, we’re homeward bound.

Between Home and Us

Christians coping with religious alienation need only believe their ransom was negotiated and paid in full at Calvary. Since that day, no earthly power holds sufficient authority to rescind our freedom to believe and right of redemption. Jesus gave His life as a ransom for all. No one is excluded. No hierarchy or individual can deny our right to liberty and life in Christ. No border can bar us from returning to lives we knew as active, upstanding citizens of His kingdom. We are all that stands between home and us.

It’s time we get over ourselves and start back home. Isaiah assures us the journey will be filled with joy. “They will enter Zion singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” We may have to travel many miles and days to get home. But well ahead of reaching the life we long for, joy and gladness will reach us. They’ll overtake us, Isaiah says, driving away sorrow and nostalgia presently affixed to our hope. Since Calvary, there’s no reason to live as slaves and hostages. Settling in exile is a matter of choice. Should we remain bound by sin and exile or be homeward bound? It’s a decision that decides itself.

The unsurpassable price Jesus paid bought our liberty from sin and restored identity as His people. We are all that stands between home and us.

(Tomorrow: Had It Not Been—A Personal Reflection)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Anger Issues

A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again.

                        Proverbs 19.19 

Mad at the World

The comedian Katt Williams talks about people “who are hard all the time, from the time they wake up until they go to bed.” Paraphrasing slightly to tidy up his fondness for volatile euphemisms, he says, “They’re mad before they eat breakfast. [You want to say] ‘What’s wrong with you? It’s 7 o’clock in the morning and you’re bangin’ on bacon?’” The line gets big laughs of recognition at how ridiculous anger can get. Second to hate, anger is the most malignant emotion we know. It enters our hearts on the heels of injury (actual or perceived) and creeps through our system until it seizes our thoughts, feelings, and physiology. Angry responses are inevitable; they’re part of our emotional palette. Though this may surprise some, we get angry because our Creator gets angry. For example, 1 Kings 11.9 tells us, “The LORD became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the LORD.” The difference between God and many of us, however, is we nurse anger while He quickly releases it to find a better way. In Exodus 32.14 we read: “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

Flashes of anger are understandable. Sustained anger has no reason. It searches for new targets to justify its existence. Our neighbor does something that makes us mad. To stay mad, we’ve got to get mad at something else he/she does, and then something else. When that source runs dry, we start noticing other things to be angry about—maybe a spouse or third neighbor who knows why we’re mad but doesn’t take our side. Before long, we’re angry with everyone who doesn’t get mad with us. Eventually, we’re mad at the world--we're bangin' on bacon--which ends with us being angry with ourselves most of all.

Anger Is Costly

Strangely enough, Solomon—whose behavior enraged God—captures the price of sustained anger. “A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty.” Anger is costly. It creates enormous debts in relationships, many of which we can never fully satisfy with later regret and apologies. But it also exacts a tremendous toll on us. Constantly angry people wind up horribly lonely. No one wants to be subjected to endless flows of poisonous, erratic behavior. Anger makes people unhealthy, and unhealthy to be around. They’re unreasonable, selfish, and sad. It doesn’t take long to realize nothing will make them happy, because they’re hell-bent on being miserable. And even the most patient people remove themselves to invest their energy and optimism in others who’ll appreciate and benefit from them.

What’s most intriguing about Solomon’s counsel is his decision to pair wisdom about hotheads with sound advice for those around them. “If you rescue him once, you will have to do it again.” Anger’s greatest expense is the trouble it causes. Angry partners set fires of humiliation and despondency in those committed to love them for life. Angry parents etch scars of fear and hostility in their children’s hearts. Angry children crush parental confidence and fulfillment. Although specific outcomes vary, all who suffer uncontrolled wrath and struggle unsuccessfully to rescue the angry person share one common emotion—lost hope. The bitterness of failure never fades entirely, nor trepidation about trusting others. Only God can say how many deserving relationships are undone by the ripple effects of foolishly nursed rage.

Power Struggles

Anger issues are basically power struggles. They’re fed by subterranean wells of fear and perceived worthlessness. Think about what makes us angry: suspicions no one notices or cares what happens to us; feeling useless or rejected; disrespect, deceit, and disregard. We give way to anger to reassert our value. Behaviors and situations that don’t challenge our insecurities may annoy us, but they don’t make us mad. Only those tapping into hidden anxieties bring anger to the surface. Outbursts of rage are primitive attempts to regain control—to conquer fear by inflicting it on others, to increase our value by slicing into anyone unfortunately within range. But anger never delivers on its promise. Never in human history has it produced a desirable effect. And frankly, if we actually believe persistent anger can change things for the better, we’re mad fools.

Solomon offers the key to overcoming power struggles brought on by personal insults and injuries. In Proverbs 16.32, he writes, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”  (NKJV) Control of situations triggering rage comes by taking control of our anger. Meanness is not might, nor intimidation a show of power. Anger exposes weakness and impotence. It validates the very things it means to disprove. Cruel, vengeful people will do and say everything possible to enrage us, playing us like self-destructive puppets for their personal pleasure. We have two options. We can allow them to string us up and, in doing so, ruin our lives and dozens we touch. Or we can defeat their intentions by letting anger pass and, like our Father, find a better way to resolve our issues. Here’s Solomon’s suggestion in Proverbs 15.1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” His wisdom cuts both ways; gentleness halts anger in others and in us.

Anger never delivers on its promise. Never in human history has it produced a desirable effect.

(Tomorrow: Homeward Bound)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Safe All Around

The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.

                        Psalm 34.7

Heavenly Hosts

No Biblical concept bewilders me more than angels. They appear in so many contexts and configurations, comprehending their basic form and function eludes me. There are good angels (Michael, Gabriel, et al.) There are evil angels (Lucifer and his crew). Some angels do nothing but worship, others deliver messages, and still others guard God’s people and holy places. Some come into physical contact with people, like the one that wrestles with Jacob. Some waft through dreams. Some hover overhead to perform choral numbers, as the heavenly hosts heralding Christ’s birth do. Then, to make things more confusing, angels come in various shapes and sizes. Cherubs have two wings. (1 Kings 8.7) Seraphs, per Isaiah 6.2, have six wings. During his vision, John of Patmos sees an angel resembling neither cherub nor seraph. His angel “was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars.” (Revelation 10.1)

I trust the time will come when I’ll grasp these perplexing mysteries. Meanwhile, I confess skittishness about discussing angels. In part this springs from factors cited above. But it also comes from awareness each of us imagines angels differently and believes in their post-Scriptural existence to varying degrees. Many accept their reality wholeheartedly; many regard them as figurative representations; a few experience manifestations they consider angelic visitations. Yet wherever each of us stands, I hope we all agree when the Bible introduces angels, something extraordinary is underway. And what that is takes precedence over how it’s described.

An Inner Circle

Belief in angels may strike rational thinkers as crazy. But David’s declaration in Psalm 34.7—“The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them”—comes at an undeniably lucid moment in his life. The psalm’s preface says he penned it after “he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.” A great deal of speculation has gone into what this refers to, as no recorded episode directly correlates to it. From what we’re told, though, we assume three things: David was imprisoned or held hostage by a hostile king. ("Abimelech" is a Philistine title akin to “Pharaoh.”) He faced sufficiently serious danger to risk loss of self-respect by feigning insanity—or epilepsy, according to some—to escape. Finally, his confidence in the strategy was shaky at best, because Psalm 34 revels in God’s mercy and protection without a hint of personal pride.

“My soul will boast in the LORD,” he writes in verse 2. Verse 4 says, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” And the sixth verse reinforces this: “This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.” In retrospect, despite being surrounded by hostility and danger, David observes an inner circle stood between his enemies and him. “The angel of the LORD”—plural, in the same sense of a collective guard or platoon—“encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.” His crazy routine didn’t save him after all. He’d been safe all around all along, buffered from harm by God’s protection. And, most important, the desperation and doubt that inspired his goofy behavior also signaled his dependency on God. Acting like a madman was the best he could come up with, but he went with it, trusting God to take his pitiful attempt and somehow make it succeed.

Through It All

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” they say. If we find ourselves encompassed by menacing attitudes and circumstances, we’re as likely as David to act like we’ve lost our minds. We may even think we have. But if we truly believe God is actively concerned about us, trust in His deliverance accompanies our feeble efforts. Where we are and what we do doesn’t negate confidence in Him. When what we come up with isn’t good enough, God steps in with His best.

In times of trouble, we take comfort in knowing we’re not part of God’s inner circle; we’re surrounded by it. His angels encircle us always. They camp around us. Whatever they look like, whether they’re actual beings or figurative representations of His love and power, they’re there. Where we go, they are. Psalm 91.9-11 promises this: “If you make the Most High your dwelling—even the LORD, who is my refuge—then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” Life will jostle us left and right. Problems will knock us back a few steps. Time and progress will push us into uncertainties. Things will get crazy. We’ll act crazy. Sometimes we’ll believe we are crazy. Through it all, if we live by faith, we can stand secure inside God’s protective inner circle. He commands His angels to guard us in all our ways. We’re safe all around.

Whether actual or figurative representations of God’s love and power, angels encircle us always. We’re safe all around.

(Tomorrow: Anger Issues)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Workers Among Us

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.

                        1 Thessalonians 5.12-13 

If It Were Easy…

Studies came easily to me through high school. I credit this to my religious upbringing more than anything, as the added hours spent in Sunday school and listening to preachers taught me how to be taught. When I entered college, though, the intensified curriculum, competition, and workload challenged me in new ways. During one weekend at home, my father caught me at peak frustration as I studied for an economics midterm without the foggiest idea what any of it meant. I started crying uncontrollably. “It’s too hard,” I blubbered. Dad waited for me to collect myself and said, “If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.” Since then, his words come back to me every time I consider quitting anything.

Dad’s credentials backed him up. He and my mother devoted their lives to founding churches in underprivileged Chicago neighborhoods. While Mom worked constantly at this, he supported our family and fledgling congregation by keeping a regular job. My parents heeded this call because, as they often explained, many better qualified than they thought it too hard. Ministry isn’t for everyone. Beyond years of preparation and hours of weekly prayer and study, it demands sacrifice of personal means and comfort in deference to others’ needs. Granted, some pastors and teachers possess native gifts and fervor for their work while others approach it with professional detachment or personal ambivalence. Yet from the most effective to the least, the nature of their work commands high regard and their willingness to do it earns our respect. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.

Obedience Over Opinion

The Church—the organic, universal Body of Christ—is divinely sanctioned. Denominations, however, are manmade attempts to protect the Church’s principles and execute its mission. As a result, ministers serve two masters: the Church and their churches. The juxtaposition of divine mandate and vocational responsibility creates tensions all around. What Christ expects of those who shepherd His flock often conflicts with—and sometimes directly opposes—their superiors’ expectations. Political impositions supplant spiritual imperatives. Biblical standards crumble beneath organizational pressures. Conformity breeds mediocrity. And outbreaks of scandal can lead to cruel hypocrisy, typically justified “for the greater good.”

All this presents us with a serious dilemma. How do we reconcile idealized images of faith leadership with realities affecting those who work among us? Is it possible to respect ministers who shirk responsibilities, kowtow to human influence, or, worst of all, abuse powers of office for personal gratification? Ironically, the answer to our complaint is cached inside it. Displeasure with ministerial disobedience to God’s Word compels us to obey it. So what does the Bible say? (Brace yourselves; this won’t be easy, which is why everybody can’t do it.) Paul says we’re to “respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard because of their work.” (1 Thessalonians 5.12-13) Except in cases of flagrant sin—i.e., false teaching, moral impropriety, embezzlement, and so on—which he and every other apostolic writer instruct us to oppose vehemently, Paul insists we honor workers among us for their labor. Our opinions of them may not be stellar. Yet lest we fall to similar weaknesses, we place obedience over opinion. Why does Paul ask this of us? He’s very clear about it.

Living in Peace

“Live in peace with one another,” Paul writes. Venting disappointment and displeasure with our shepherds creates discord. We may be sufficiently seasoned and knowledgeable to recognize their faults—their capabilities may be inadequate to minister to our needs—yet expressing dissatisfaction to others could very well damage their faith. We tolerate ministerial weaknesses to avoid harming others. Christ’s flock consists of lambs and sheep, innocents and veterans. It’s the sheep’s responsibility to show wisdom and restraint for the lambs’ benefit. Maligning the shepherd fosters divisiveness within the fold. Living in peace must assume top priority.

Being the son of ministers, I can vouch their work is extremely hard, regardless how well they perform it. No professional calling on Earth carries graver implications than ministry. Souls hang in the balance and each pastor, teacher, and administrator’s performance review ultimately rests in God’s hands. It’s a fearsome task none of us should view lightly. What’s more, excluding those who’ve fallen into heartless corruption and apostasy, it’s hard to conceive even the most negligent ministers can fully divorce their occupational duty from its eternal consequences. They know their work isn’t easy, yet from the best to the worst, they’ve stepped up to do it. For that alone, we respect and hold them in high regard. We pray for their strength rather than prosecute their frailties. And we filter our opinions of them with canny grace, recognizing what my parents freely and frequently admitted. They’re there because many better qualified than they lack the courage and dedication to do the job.

We respect those who work among us and hold their labor in high regard. If their job was easy, everybody would be doing it.

(Tomorrow: Safe All Around)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Plugged In

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

                        John 15.5

Metaphors and Mediums

Throughout His ministry, Jesus refers to Himself with a variety of metaphors: the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Water of Life, the Good Shepherd, and so on. A pattern emerges when we place them side-by-side. In every one, He is the Source and we are the mediums. His meaning is conveyed in the thing He conveys to us—enlightenment, nourishment, refreshment, care, etc. What’s most interesting about this, I believe, is an overarching message that what we seek from Christ is already present by virtue of our relationship with Him. Furthermore, all we find and receive is given to us so others can find and receive it also.

If we need illumination He is our Light. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” Jesus says in John 8.12. Meanwhile, in Matthew 5.14, He also says, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” His light shines on us to shine through us. In John 10.11, Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Later, in a conversation with Peter, He asks, “Do you truly love me?” Peter tells Him, “You know I love you,” to which Jesus says, “Take care of my sheep.” (John 21.16) Jesus cares for us so we can care for others. The moment we receive what we need it becomes something we share. Life we gain is life we give, and so on. Nowhere is this principle more evident than in the vine metaphor.

Attached for Life

“I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus teaches in John 15.5. Because the statement sounds so elementary, we’re wise to look at it closely. How do vines work? One seed takes root and sprouts, giving life to dozens of shoots that grow into sturdy branches. While the branches burst forth with blooms and fruit, the vine serves a different function. It feeds the branches, guaranteeing they receive sufficient nourishment and moisture to continue to blossom and bear fruit. In the most literal sense imaginable, the vine and branches are attached for life. The branches can’t survive without the vine. Yet, on the other hand, without branches to produce fruit, the vine has no reproductive potential. Seeds for future growth exist exclusively in the fruit, which the branches—not the actual vine—produce.

Thus, Jesus uses the vine-branch metaphor to explain the symbiotic nature of our relationship with Him, and His with us. “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit,” He says. Bearing fruit is vital because that's how the vine protects itself from extinction. The fruit gets picked and after its eaten, its seeds are replanted in other gardens and vineyards to produce more vines, which succor more branches, which produce more fruit, which yields more seeds, and the cycle repeats. More people are nourished. More vineyards are planted. Unless the branches are tightly plugged into the vine, there will be no fruit, no seeds, and no future. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus tells us flatly. Without a direct connection to Him—a conscious reliance on Him for life-sustaining nourishment—our lives are fruitless. Implicit in this statement, however, is Christ’s recognition that without us, His gospel of love and reconciliation won’t reach those hungering for it. And since the Gospel’s survival and proliferation are most important of all, Jesus’s vine metaphor also introduces a third party, The Gardener.

The Gardener

Before defining our role as His branches, Jesus tips us off to the role God plays in this system: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15.1-2) Branches too loosely connected to produce healthy fruit will not last. In verse 6, Jesus tells us, “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” To put it bluntly, if we think our relationship with Christ is solely for our benefit, our efforts will go up in smoke. Lovely as they are, vines are meant to produce, not decorate. Anyone casually attached to Christ simply to belong to “something beautiful” won’t thrive. The life we draw from Christ is provided to make life possible for others. If we don’t yield seed-bearing fruit, we’re dead weight. We wither and waste strength more productive branches can use more productively. The Gardener removes barren branches so others can flourish.

The Gardener also prunes thriving branches to make them more fruitful. He attentively monitors their growth to prevent expending precious resources on unproductive pursuits. As we branch out in our faith, newer, more productive endeavors overshadow lesser ones that once sapped our time and attention. Our potential to bear better fruit can’t be sacrificed to continue producing less satisfactory results. Often before we realize it, The Gardener prunes desires, attitudes, and relationships we’ve outgrown. Yet even when we’re aware of what He’s doing, we submit to His wisdom. Fruitless efforts drag us down. They stall our progress and, worst of all, they pull against our connection to the Vine. Staying attached to Christ for life is our top priority. Bearing fruit comes first. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you,” Jesus says in verse 7, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” All it takes is remaining tightly plugged in, plus a little pruning now and then, to make that promise a reality.

The quality of fruit we bear—and our effectiveness in spreading Christ’s gospel of love and reconciliation—depends on how tightly we’re plugged into the Vine.

(Tomorrow: Workers Among Us)