Saturday, September 19, 2009

Chasing the Wind

Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.

                        Ecclesiastes 4.6 

A Miserable Business

Admiring ambition to succeed at all costs is a fairly recent attitude, part of the fall-out from the 80’s Wall Street boom epitomized in the mantra “Greed is good.” Greed and ambition have always been bedfellows. But prior to this new (which is not to say better or legitimate) light, sages and philosophers held them in dim view. In Ecclesiastes 4.4, Solomon writes, “I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Verse 8 pities a workaholic without family. “There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’ This too is meaningless—a miserable business!”

While Solomon’s stereotype has spawned great art (The Merchant of Venice, A Christmas Carol, There Will Be Blood), when played out in actual life it is indeed a miserable business. Howard Hughes is a case study in ambition run amok. Everything he touched turned to gold. The problem was he couldn’t stop touching things—oil drills, aircraft, movie studios, hotels, etc.—and his tragedy surfaces in being remembered as a paranoid recluse rather than the innovative genius he was. As Solomon predicted, Hughes’ insatiable ambition brought none of the satisfaction he sought, which ultimately drained his life and work of meaning. Had he controlled his compulsive, golden touch he could have grasped the peace of mind and fulfillment that eluded him in the end.

When More Turns Into Less

Ungoverned ambition is like heroin. Once it enters our system, it generates constant cravings for greater challenges and rewards. It has no final objective, though it habitually deceives us to imagine one exists. Before the latest high dissipates, ambition whets fresh appetites to fill. We all know people who’ll invest ridiculous time and energy and hock everything they value for one more success fix. Heroin addicts call this “chasing the high;” Solomon calls it “chasing after the wind.” Both amount to the same thing—the satisfaction never materializes. The chase resumes, enticing the success junkie to look for higher highs, regardless what they cost or how dark the search gets. Sooner than they know, they’re ambition’s slaves, toiling ‘round-the-clock and surrendering all sense of self to its demands. The world closes in, severing their connection with their Maker and crushing their confidence in His principles. As 1 John 2.16 explains, “Everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” Since nothing in the world has lasting value, the price of success eventually outweighs its worth. Status and wealth no longer compensate for lost beliefs, dignity, relationships, joy, and ethics. There comes a time in every success junkie’s life when more turns into less.

Tranquility

So what is Solomon saying? Should we abandon our dreams, ignore our drive to achieve, and live out our days in an idle funk? Of course not. In fact, Ecclesiastes 4.5 balances his warning about success addiction with caution against idleness: “The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.” Everything comes together in the next verse: “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.” Instead of yielding to worldly ambitions and meaningless measures, it’s better to focus on meaningful aspirations. The emphasis shifts from what we can do to who we can be. An aspiring life is no less challenging than an ambitious one. But it radicially differs in where it leads and what it values.

Aspirations establish fixed goals that produce satisfying rewards. A life steered by aspiration heeds Paul’s counsel in Colossians 3.2: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” So we align our ideals with Christ’s principles and we gauge our progress by His standards. When this happens, confidence we’re headed in the right direction brings about profound tranquility that precedes reaching our goals. An aspiration-led life literally flips ambition’s equation. Instead of seeking success to find peace, aspiration finds peace in seeking success. At every point, we’re sure what we have is all we require. We have no need for greed. We place no faith in two-handed toil, because we walk hand-in-hand with Jesus. He tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6.33) Once we know and accept this by faith, we can stop chasing the wind and start walking on air.

Ambition seeks success to find peace. Aspiration finds peace in seeking success.

(Tomorrow: Look Inside)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing.

                        1 Kings 18.21

If Jesus Came Back…

Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters has a marvelous scene with Max von Sydow as a Swedish painter ranting about the American TV wasteland—“Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, a talk show.” He saves the worst of his bile for televangelists, “third-grade [sic] con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send money… If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in His name, He’d never stop throwing up.” I always flinch at that; it unnerves me to think how many well-meaning, genuine ministers get unjustly lumped in with the charlatans. I still laugh, though, as a shrewd inside joke adds bite to the artist’s disgust. Most Americans identify von Sydow with two roles: the priest in The Exorcist—which made millions bilking “poor suckers” in Christ’s name—and Jesus Himself in The Greatest Story Ever Told. So, in movie terms, no one’s better qualified than he to speculate how Jesus might physically react to criminal misuse of His name.

To my knowledge, von Sydow hasn’t commented on controversies currently inflaming American imaginations. (Why would he? In Sweden, universal healthcare, marital equality, gay adoption and military service, abortion rights, and church-state separation are the law of the land.) Were he to offer his opinion, however, I suspect he’d reprise the Hannah line: “If Jesus came back...” And honestly I’m not sure what Christ would find more nauseating, the hostility and disregard masquerading as “Christian values” or the silent complicity of believers too timid to speak out in His defense. This thing has gone far beyond a bunch of scam artists building mansions and cathedrals on penny-widow donations. (Heinous though that is.) We’ve reached the point where the very fiber of Christ’s law is unraveling under the guise of honoring it.

False Prophets

False prophets—and I charge them as such without hesitation—have built altars to special interests and political agendas. They’ve coerced impressionable Christians to serve their gods by creating confusion. Preventable sickness, premature death, and financial ruin looming over 47 million people should rally every American Christian to support healthcare reform. False prophets have brilliantly stolen the focus from Christ’s principles to fictitious threats—subsidized abortions, euthanasia, and every other monster they can yank out of their hats. Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves should compel every American Christian to demand equal rights for all, regardless of personal beliefs. False prophets have perverted the Gospel’s manifesto of love into a ministry of fear. Tolerance for other faiths—as modeled by Jesus’s respectful interactions with Samaritans and pagans—should drive every American Christian to revile religious bigotry. False prophets have justified hateful stances against non-Christians as a Biblical imperative. Need I go on?

On every front, we’re where Israel finds itself in 1 Kings 18: at a crossroads where we must choose between indulging false prophets or obeying Christ. The similarities between modern America and ancient Israel are eerily close. At the urging of his pagan wife, Jezebel—the power behind the throne—a new breed of false prophets emerges under King Ahab’s leadership. Ahab is a warmonger consumed with forging coalitions to settle old scores with his father’s enemies. With Israel on constant battle alert, it ignores corrupt influences creeping into its cultural and religious life. Prophets of Baal gradually displace prophets of God and idolatry replaces fidelity to His ordinances. Yet the Israelites don’t seem bothered by this; they passively accept what they’re told. Then the clouds vanish from the sky. A drought throws the nation into crisis and still no one but Elijah summons the nerve to confront the impostors. He challenges them to implore their god to send rain. He’ll do the same. The god who answers will be the god Israel follows. Everyone shows up for the big showdown. It troubles Elijah that people who once knew and served God would countenance a contest like this. There should be no doubt as to the outcome. Before the main event, he gives Israel a chance to decide. “How long will you waver between two opinions?” he asks. But the people say nothing.

Decision Time

Railing against false prophets who hijack Christ’s teaching and cheapen His name is like howling in a vacuum. Those who should be warned won’t listen and those who listen need no warning. The moment for diatribes came and went years ago. The moment to examine ourselves won’t wait. For too long, we’ve wavered between two opinions, neither one a viable option. Either we’ve held the “high ground” while this heresy spread unchecked, or we’ve spewed invective from the sidelines. We’ve elevated moral outrage into high art and congratulated each other for the good conscience to be offended. But this isn’t about us. It’s about Christ and protecting His principles and His name. It’s decision time.

Many crucial decisions must be made without delay. Will we defend the poor, sick, and rejected as Jesus taught us to do? Will we speak against abuse of His name and gospel? Will we confront impostors who exploit fears and stir up confusion? Will we remind those who’ve been misguided—even those who’ve willingly strayed—that Jesus expressly said we’ll be judged by what we do for the least among us? Will we press our concerns on government and religious leaders who’ve succumbed to the deceits of false prophets? Will we risk criticism and discomfort for Christ’s sake? Or will we say nothing? How long will we waver? How long can we?

It’s time to protect Christ’s principles and name from misuse by false prophets.

(Tomorrow: Chasing the Wind)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mentors and Mantles

Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.

                        2 Kings 2.9

Passed Experience

Mentors often make the crucial difference between realizing our full potential or merely succeeding. They possess gifts for spotting unrefined talents and sensing unfocused energy in need of direction, and they offer their help and encouragement without expectation of personal benefit beyond seeing their efforts rewarded. It’s no exaggeration to say much of human achievement has arisen on the shoulders of mentorship—from Socrates' tutelage of Plato to Stanley Ann Dunham’s determined guidance of her son, Barack Obama. When we face new challenges, we seek out mentors who’ve already mastered lessons we’ve yet to learn. Mentorship is passed experience, knowledge and skills freely shared with others to prevent them from having to learn “the hard way.”

The Bible is filled with mentoring relationships: Moses and Joshua; Samuel and David; Naomi and Ruth; Paul and Timothy; and, of course, Christ and the disciples. Yet none portrays the dynamics of faith mentorship as vividly and succinctly as the story of Elijah, the elder prophet, and his student, Elisha. We know very little about their relationship, other than Elisha spent a good deal of time in his mentor’s company. In 1 Kings 19, God tells Elijah to anoint two successors, Jehu and Elisha. He finds Elisha plowing his father’s fields and without ceremony, he tosses his mantle on the boy’s shoulders. Elisha instantly stops what he’s doing and chases after Elijah, saying, “Let me kiss my parents good-bye and I’ll come follow you.” Elijah, who’s something of a loner, sends him back to the farm. But Elisha won’t be dissuaded. He knows he can learn more from the experienced prophet than he’ll ever discover on his own. He slaughters his oxen, sets the plow on fire, roasts the meat, and feeds his family. Basically, he fixes things so he can follow Elijah; with no oxen and plow, there’s no use hanging around.

Paying Attention

This chapter in the Elijah-Elisha story ends thusly: “[Elisha] set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant.” (1 Kings 19.21) After that, he isn’t mentioned for quite a while. It’s presumed he stays close by Elijah’s side, paying attention to everything he does, learning from his mentor’s conversation and example. He drinks in every detail and soaks up every second. When Elisha resurfaces in 2 Kings 2, Elijah’s about to be taken out of the world. He does his best to shake Elisha. Three times, Elijah tells Elisha to hang back. Each time, he gets the same answer: “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”

They meet 50 prophets assembled near the Jordan as a sort of bon voyage party for Elijah. It would be particularly fine to join them for a final farewell, but Elijah’s so irked with Elisha, he rolls up his cloak, strikes the river, it parts, and the two cross to the other side. Elijah asks Elisha, “What do you want from me?” The young man answers, “I want twice as much spirit as you have.” Elijah tells him he’s asking a difficult thing. “But if you’re paying attention when I’m taken from you, you’ll get it. If you look away, you won’t.” The two men walk on. From nowhere, a fiery chariot comes between them, stirring up a whirlwind that snatches Elijah into heaven. Elisha’s so overcome with grief he tears his clothes off. Then he sees Elijah’s mantle. He picks it up and strikes the Jordan just like his mentor. The river parts for him exactly as it did for Elijah. The 50 prophets see this and say, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elijah.” A prophet is born.

Faith Formation

Mentorship is a key component of faith formation, yet it’s far and away the most commonly neglected. Because faith is an extremely personal and private matter, we erroneously presume we’re solely responsible for its development. We limit our exposure to general knowledge we glean from the pulpit, study groups, and publications. Unlike academics or careers, where we single out individuals who can teach us one-on-one, we resist initiating close relationships with more seasoned and knowledgeable believers. Our reluctance to find faith mentors does us a great disservice. For starters, it puts us in the imprudent position of having to learn “the hard way.” Second, it removes the opportunity to aspire to levels of maturity and understanding others have reached.

Elisha didn’t want to be like Elijah; he wanted to be better than him. To get there, he left his regular occupations to devote time and energy he needed to pay close attention to his mentor, carefully observing what he did and how he responded to situations. When he picked up Elijah’s mantle, he knew exactly what it was for and how it could be used. There was nothing supernatural about the mantle; Elisha’s confidence in his ability and right to use it made the difference. We should never shy away from seeking faith mentors or be ashamed about aspirations to reach—and surpass—their understanding and abilities. Faith is personal, but it’s also transmitted believer-to-believer, with the stronger Christian encouraging the less experienced one. Paul said, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11.1) Placing ourselves in the company of those who can teach us in word and deed is vital to our growth.

Mentors share their knowledge and experience to save us from having to learn “the hard way.”

(Tomorrow: Decisions, Decisions) 

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Signs of Strength

Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Romans 14.4

God-Talkers

I love this verse as much for what’s wrong about it as why it’s right. Paul’s exasperation here often mirrors my own when a Christian (or group of them) usurps God’s say. Even when limited understanding leads me to agree with God-talkers, I can’t shake indignation at their gall to think they know and can speak His mind. “Now, remind me again,” I dream of saying, “Who are you?” Of course, the proper response would be, “Well, who are you?” The point is well taken. Since I’m no better qualified to judge than they, judging them for judging catches me in the same snare. Likewise, on one level, Paul’s accusatory tone puts a wrong spin on his admonition against judging. Yet his basic rationale for asking the question remains sound.

Paul kicks off Romans 14 diplomatically. “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable [i.e., personal] matters.” (v1) He cites diet, a hot issue in the Roman church’s diverse congregation. In Rome and other metropolises, meat offered to idols was commonly sold to customers or served as temple feasts. One person was fine with eating it; someone else—the weaker one; we’ll get to that—refrained, considering it tainted by pagan worship. “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does,” Paul writes in verse 3, adding, “for God has accepted him.” Then, poor guy, he gets flustered by the boldness of anyone—weak or strong—to speak for God. “Who are you to judge?” he hisses. “You’re not the boss. Only God knows who’s right. He’ll decide who stands righteously before Him.”

How Little We Know

We attack signs of weakness in others by professing we know more than they do about God’s thoughts. All this proves is how little we know. Imagining we can judge (or predict how God will judge) reveals how clueless and powerless we really are. Conceding our incapacity to judge is a sign of strength. It places total trust in God’s justice and compassion. It also relieves us of pointless adherence to outmoded legalities, many of them hatched in our tiny heads.

The dietary controversy exemplifies how speaking for God eases into a presumption about God. No injunction against eating meat sacrificed to idols exists. In fact, Jewish believers have no problem eating idol meat because, as 1 Corinthians 8.4 explains, “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.” In other words, how can something that doesn’t exist corrupt anything? “But not everyone knows this,” Paul says in verse 7. “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think… it is defiled.” He’s now describing Gentile converts who haven’t shaken their roots in idolatry. Because they think the meat is defiled, it is—to them. A baseless taboo evolves into an edict against eating idol meat. Without any scriptural support, God-talkers condemn it as though their opinions are gospel truth. Their weak conscience intimidates believers to accept its notions. In verse 2 of the same chapter, we read, “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” The strong-minded believer withholds judgment by admitting he/she doesn’t know.

Sister Sally

“Sister Sally is such a good Christian. She lives right,” we say before itemizing allegedly wrong things she doesn’t do. She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t eat meat on Fridays. She doesn’t condone same-sex unions. Nobody questions her sincerity. But does Sister Sally truly know her actions reflect God’s mind, or is she conforming to dogmatic guesswork? She may abstain from certain things because they tempt her to sin. She may avoid them so others don’t fall prey to weakness by following her example. If these reasons drive her, Sister Sally is strong. Then again, she may be weak, driven by fear or lack of confidence in an all-knowing, loving, and merciful God.

When we look at Sister Sally, it’s not ours to say if she’s right or wrong. We know only God can judge based on what’s in her heart. Yet respecting her beliefs mustn’t inhibit us from living by our convictions. Conformity to another’s personal belief increases exposure to weak-mindedness. On the other hand, flaunting comfort with practices that discomfit others exposes our pride and insensitivity. Placing credence in how we judge others or how they judge us portrays deficient awareness of our limits and God’s wisdom. In common usage, “live and let live” is a lazy, loathsome motto. As to judging anyone or submitting to another’s judgment, however, Paul describes living by our convictions and allowing others to do the same as signs of strength.

When taboos ease into dogma, weak-minded believers accept it as gospel truth. Strong-minded believers know not to judge others or worry about how others judge them.

(Tomorrow: Mentors and Mantles)

Postscript: "Through My Eyes"

Several weeks ago, I posted a preview to a feature documentary called "Through My Eyes." Produced by the Gay Christian Network, the film uses a superbly effective, straightforward style to capture the anxieties, passions, and heartaches of young gay Christians who struggle with reconciling their faith and their identity. The movie is notable because there are no third-person experts or commentators, no "b-roll" segments of homophobic Christians or gay-hostile preachers; there's no pulling at Scriptures and hauling out statistics.

"Through My Eyes" is all about lives--young people either raised to believe in Christ as their Savior or who found Him at an early age. The film opens with their witnesses of faith. As I watched this, I couldn't help thinking, "How many youth pastors would be full of pride if these kids were part of their group?" Then, the movie segues into how they came to recognize and understand their sexual orientation, followed by the inevitable--trying to figure out why knowing and accepting their identities suddenly turned everything they trusted and believed into something foreign and untrue for them. Watch this young man's account and you'll understand how nuanced and tragic this moment can be--and how amazing the young gay believer's faith must be:

video

Find out more about this amazing film at: http://www.ThroughMyEyesDVD.com/.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Repost: Underneath

The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

Deuteronomy 33.27

The Poet Who Doesn't Know It

In Exodus 3, Moses balks at God’s instruction to plead the Israelites' case before Pharaoh because he’s “never been eloquent” and is “slow of speech and tongue.” Once he submits to God’s plan, though, Moses becomes the Bible’s poet who doesn't know it. He speaks with astounding force, giving the ages a wealth of quotes that cut to the marrow of our beings with brute simplicity: for example, “Let my people go!” and “Stand still and see the salvation of the LORD!” On other occasions, Moses waxes rhapsodic. His prayer in Psalm 90 captures the fragility of human existence on a level unmatched by any other scriptural passage. And his blessing on the tribes in Deuteronomy 33 is flush with eloquence at its finest.

In verse 12, for instance, Moses describes Benjamin as “the one the LORD loves [who] rests between his shoulders,” and in verse 17 he says of Joseph, “In majesty he is like a firstborn bull; his horns are the horns of a wild ox.” He begins to wrap things up in verses 26 and 27 with an indelible portrait of Israel’s Maker and Defender: “There is no one like the God of [Israel], who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Much of the confidence in Moses’s words springs from his ability to articulate them so splendidly. This once tongue-tied recluse marvels at what God inspires him to say with such bold beauty. He exemplifies what saints Down South used to call “a new way of talkin’” and he reminds us that God places potential above capability. It’s not what we can do for Him, but what He can do—and does—with us.

A God Who Endures

The phrase Moses chooses, “the eternal God,” has been variously translated as “the former God” and “the Ancient of days,” meaning He predates and transcends time. He is a God Who endures. While it’s not hard to acknowledge that, it’s also easy to set the concept aside before sufficiently internalizing what it means. Our God is impervious to history, human progress, current events, shifts of thought, and life changes. Exciting breakthroughs and exasperating breakdowns aren’t news to Him. Ecclesiastes 1.9 tells us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” God exists in a perpetual state of “been there, done that.” Rather than interpret this to suggest He regards our ongoing and immediate issues with blasé diffidence, we take courage in our belief that His experience with impossible, unmanageable situations supremely qualifies Him to see we will endure. In the moment, in the day, the month, or the year—however long our trials continue—He’s there. He’s always been there and always will be there.

Hidden and Held

Moses calls the eternal God our refuge, an indestructible safe house in which we can dwell, hidden from dangers and miseries threatening our security. In Psalm 27, David proclaims, “The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.” While hatred, deceit, anger, envy, intolerance, greed, and many other diseases of heart and mind infect our world, we take divine refuge from harms they pose. Yet if we believe this, why do we incessantly expose ourselves to their poison? Ephesians 4.30 tells us we’re “sealed for the day of redemption”—hidden away in protective custody in our God Who endures. When we give in to fear and doubt, we break the seal to jeopardize our wellbeing and security.

And with God as our refuge we’re nothing if not secure because underneath it all are His everlasting arms. What an extraordinary picture Moses paints here—an image of tireless strength and reliability. These magnificent arms supersede serving purely as a solid foundation. They function in every imaginable capacity for our good. We’re held by them, enfolded in them, shielded, rescued, defended, and lifted by them. As we hide in God, amazing things happen underneath. His everlasting arms remove obstacles, topple barriers, and scatter adversaries. They change the landscape of our lives, smoothing out some rough places and carrying us over others. Nothing’s better than watching God in action—other than the serenity and safety of being held in His arms.

Originally posted February 10, 2009.

Our Father holds us secure in His arms.

(Tomorrow: Signs of Strength)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Repost: 70 X 7

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

                        Matthew 18.21-22

On Sin’s Wrong Side

In all the clatter and turmoil stirred up by today’s religious legalists, it’s quite possible many of us are so conscious of being mislabeled as sinners we forget what to do when others sin against us. At our dysfunctional worst, we may truly believe we deserve the attitudes, actions, and violence leveled at us. At our disengaged best, we may take it on the chin, dismissing discrimination and ignorance as par for the course. Neither of these fulfills Christ’s law.

More is demanded of us than suffering or tolerance when we’re on sin’s wrong side. We have to reach into the depths of our souls and consciously forgive those who mistreat us. This goes for everyone—not only those we know personally, but strangers and public figures who target us with their malignant ideas and strategies. And, as Jesus explained to Peter, we forgive those who sin against us again and again and again.

No Limits

Surely, if a person continues to wrong us, he/she reaches a point where we can say, “OK, that’s it—no more forgiveness for you!” If that makes sense to you, I’m sorry to tell you authentic followers of Christ set no forgiveness quotas. And here’s why. There are no limits on God’s forgiveness. If there were, we’d all be in big trouble, as we rely on His grace and mercy on a minute-by-minute basis. Since we’re created in His image to express His love and power in the world, we’re expected to forgive others just like He forgives us. This concept is firmly stitched at the center of the prayer millions of us recite daily: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Jesus followed His forgiveness statement with a fascinating story. A servant owed his master a debt he couldn’t pay. The master planned to sell the servant’s family to make up the loss, but the servant pleaded for patience until he could repay it. Touched by his sincerity, the master forgave the debt entirely. Later, meeting someone who owed him, the servant wasn’t like his charitable master. He attacked the man and had him thrown in jail. News of this reached the master. Angry that the servant hadn’t offered his debtor the same mercy he received, the master withdrew his forgiveness and had his servant imprisoned. “If you don’t forgive from your heart,” Jesus said, “expect a similar fate.”

Surrender and Thrust

The etymology of “forgive” tells the whole story. It’s derived from an Old English phrase meaning “complete surrender.” In a fascinating parallel, the original Greek word suggests more than merely extending mercy to someone who’s wronged us; it’s closer to thrusting mercy upon them. Putting them together presents an illuminating idea. Forgiveness happens in two steps. First, we totally release ourselves from the pain and shame of hurts and false accusations. Then, we force our mercy to clothe those who sin against us. We no longer see them as sinners; we look at them just as God looks as us—forgiven and guilt-free.

In the parallel universe of Hallmark cards and I-heart-you posters, we hear that forgiveness leads to healing. I’m not so sure about that. Many of us have suffered or may yet suffer evil that leaves us with harrowing memories and scars us for life. What forgiveness does do, however, is alleviate the pain. It emulates God’s nature, lifting us out of our human constraints to live above the hurt. There’s no reason to carry the sins levied against us. Let’s rise above them. Our debtors may never fully appreciate the forgiveness we give. But we can’t allow that to prevent us from reaping its benefits.

Originally posted October 7, 2008.

When we forgive, we surrender our pain and thrust mercy on who those who’ve hurt us.

(Tomorrow: Underneath)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Repost: Come Together

Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.

                        Hebrews 10.24-25

Objective: Encouragement

Imagine you’re a TV news reporter or documentary filmmaker conducting “man in the street” interviews, randomly asking passers-by, “Do you attend church?” To those who say, “Yes,” you ask why. Your ears ring with predictable answers: “Because I love God.” “Because it’s a good thing to do.” “I was raised to go to church.” “I want to learn more about God.” “I’m teaching my children to do what’s right.” “It makes me happy.” “Because my parents make me do it.” And so on.

These replies are good inasmuch as they promote exposure to godly knowledge and experiences. Yet none captures why the Bible says to assemble regularly. Hebrews teaches we come together for one purpose: to spur one another toward love and good deeds. If we shift our concept of habitual worship, making this its central theme, we view church in a surprisingly new light. What we expect of it and what it expects of us are radically altered. Other reasons take a back seat to the church’s main objective: encouragement.

Remember, We’re Members

Paul urges the Corinthians to see the church as diverse members of a single organism. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12.12) When parts go missing, the church ceases to function as a whole. The same happens when they get out of joint, assuming the same role. “If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If it were an ear, how could it smell?” Paul asks, confirming the church’s cross-functionality. “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”

It’s time to remember we’re members and without us, the body can never attain full potential. Yes, parts of it insist we’re not needed or useful—congregations and denominations are full of them. Yet their opinions directly contradict God’s Word. Paul insists every believer belongs, contributes something, and qualifies for service. The eye can’t tell the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t tell the feet, “I don’t need you!” “On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” (1 Corinthians 12.22-23) Surely, we can, and must, take Paul’s word above contemporary, fear-based bigotry and dogma.

Doing Our Part

In another brilliant discourse on the church, Paul says every member has specific talents and responsibilities “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4.12-13) His “works of service” squares perfectly with Hebrews’ “love and good deeds.” When we turn our minds from what the church isn’t doing for us to doing our part for the church, there’s no good reason to stay away and an outstanding one to be there. Unless we’re there, the church won’t achieve unity. It will never mature into fullness in Christ.

“Then,” Paul says, “we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” (4.14) Do we really get this? Withdrawing from church causes the very thing that keeps us away. We fall for deceitful schemes, when we should hold our ground to help fellow believers—and us—grow up. Hebrews emphatically says not to give up coming together, as others do. No doubt, at church we find invaluable encouragement to love and serve our neighbors. But let’s never forget the church needs us to come to it as much as we need to go to church.

Originally posted November 2, 2008.

The church needs us as much as we need it.

(Tomorrow: 70 X 7)