Thursday, October 29, 2009

Little Ones

I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven… See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. (Matthew 18.3, 10)

Big Promises in Tiny Hands

My first Bible was a “children’s” Bible with a cover pastel of Jesus talking to girls and boys, plus a few glossy inserts depicting Noah and the Flood, David and Goliath, and other favorite stories. Beyond that, it was identical to my parents' Bibles: a King James Version printed in two columns on tissue-thin stock. Mom and Dad weren’t averse to the Bible storybooks our friends’ parents were so crazy about. But neither did they encourage them. They wanted to expose us to the real thing right away. They believed we should learn to hold its big promises in our tiny hands, even though our minds weren’t yet old enough to grasp them. Thus, before we started school, we already knew how to clumsily sound out the King’s English to match scriptures we quoted by heart.

If memory serves, the first verse I learned to quote was Mathew 19.14: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God”—Christ’s response after the disciples rebuke parents who ask Him to bless their children. Where Matthew (per Mark’s lead) places the incident is of interest, as it appears soon after Jesus talks about child-like faith in Matthew 18. He starts the lesson by calling a child to Him, leading us to interpret His interjections about “little ones” refer to actual children. Turning the page to find Him welcoming toddlers appears to reinforce this. Yet Jesus’s tone and approach confirm He’s speaking about adults—about us. He deftly endorses open-minded innocence while adding caution against condemning it. In essence, He says holding big promises in tiny hands isn’t easy. Those with experience and knowledge must not crush others who seem to reach beyond their grasp.

Jostling for Position

An ego crisis sets the stage. The disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 19.1) It’s a silly question. Jesus has shown no preference among them. Asking if that will change in the future exposes their insecurities. It also ignores Christ’s law of inversion—the last come first, the least count most, and so on. The disciples either don’t get it or won’t accept it. In prior discussions, Jesus focused on the principle. Now He appears concerned the disciples’ competitive streak will harm other believers. Though they don’t realize it, they’re due to inherit Christ’s ministry in a matter of weeks. This obsession with status needs to be dismantled to prevent the future Church from becoming a hotbed of power politics. Jesus revises His teaching to include harsh warnings for anyone who leverages seniority and sophistication to intimidate newer, less knowledgeable Christians.

He stands a child before them, saying, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v3) He reinforces His principle of inversion—“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (v4)—and drops a bombshell. Anyone who welcomes an innocent, inexperienced believer welcomes Me, He says. But anyone who wounds the faith “of these little ones” would be better off committing suicide. Jesus tells us to pinpoint and remove what compels us to condemn weaker-minded Christians. “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away,” He says (v8), stressing it’s better to enter Heaven as an amputee than suffer eternal punishment. “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father,” Jesus instructs. (v10) His point is made. Condescension has no place in God’s kingdom. Jostling for position over those who don’t grasp the faith as firmly as we do only defeats us. Their place in Heaven is already secure.

Equal, Not Identical

We are all equal in Christ, but none of us is identical. Some of us mature more quickly in our faith. Others grapple with the basics and never graduate to higher levels of learning. Many can only access faith by interpreting Scripture in its most concrete sense. For them, the truth must be immutably writ in stone. Just as many believers find faith by sorting it out, evincing solid truth from abstraction and granting inconsistencies to grasp inerrant principle. There are intellectually driven believers. There are emotionally driven ones. Some limit their confidence exclusively to what they find between the Bible’s covers. There are others whose confidence includes wide fields of scholarship, commentary, and thought. Finally, there are Christians—the vast majority, perhaps—who never outgrow the habit of being spoon-fed by priests, pastors, and teachers.

It’s peculiar how we find accepting our differences so hard, yet we use them so easily to undermine our equality. Instead of cherishing the faith we share, we’d rather fight about varying approaches and aptitudes that lead to faith. Everybody wants to prove he/she is more correct than the rest. Literalists deride rationalists as faith failures. Rationalists sneer at literalists as mental midgets. Seasoned believers think younger ones need to grow up. New believers think older ones have lost touch. And everyone is absolutely correct. We’re all challenged in some way. We’re all immature on some level. We’re all little ones.

Jesus finishes with the allegory of the shepherd who risks losing 99 sheep to rescue one that wanders off. Without the one, the herd is incomplete. “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost,” Jesus says. (v14) I can’t allow my urges to drive you away, because I need you to complete my community of faith. You can’t afford to alienate me, because when I’m lost, your faith community is incomplete. We are all little ones humbled by what we lack. We all hold big promises with tiny hands. We all need love, tolerance, and protection.

Condescension has no place in God’s kingdom. We are all “little ones.”

(Tomorrow: Trying God’s Patience)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Axes Are For Floating

As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. “Oh, my lord,” he cried out, “it was borrowed!” The man of God asked, “Where did it fall?” (2 Kings 6.5-6)

What Good’s Being Free?

Cat Stevens’ “If You Want to Sing Out” recently rebounded in a T-Mobile spot that gets me hot and itchy every time I see it. Young people won’t pick up on what’s so utterly wrong with co-opting the tune to hawk phones. But if you’re near my age, the first two bars are enough to lull you back to 1971, where you’re swept up by memories of sunflowers, cemeteries, a 79-year-old eccentric on a motorcycle with a 20-something boyfriend perched behind her, and Stevens singing, “If you want to sing out, sing out. If you want to be free, be free.” Basically, you relive Harold and Maude, the most defiantly anti-Establishment romance ever filmed. After you come to, you probably don’t know any more about T-Mobile products than before. But you’re certain Maude would sneer at seeing Stevens’ ode to individualism and material detachment married to a phone commercial. Can’t you see her tossing Harold’s Blackberry down a sewer? I can. “What good’s being tied up all the time when you’re free?” she’d say.

Maude took being free to madcap extremes. And while her ideals leaned toward the nutty side, her refusal to be captivated by things is a trait we all can learn from. In 1 Timothy 6.7, Paul writes, “We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” Freedom is our beings’ basic instinct. We lose touch with that by hanging on to life’s clutter as if it were ours, when everything we have is on loan. False pride of ownership in what God entrusts to us or overestimating its personal value costs our beings’ freedom. In verses 10 and 11, Paul says, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Holding on to our beings—the truth of who we are and the purpose God created us to fulfill—is what being free means. What good’s being free when we’re constantly tied up?

Flying Off the Handle

The first seven verses of 2 Kings 6 report a minor incident that teaches us material possessions can interfere with our freedom any time, even when we’re occupied with higher endeavors. The prophet Elisha’s renown has surged to the point the company of prophets following him has grown too big for its meeting place. They suggest relocating to the Jordan, where there’s plenty of room and timber to build a larger edifice. “Go ahead,” Elisha says, which disappoints them. They want to show how loyal and industrious they are. So he tags along. With everyone working as hard as he can, one prophet proudly swings away with his axe and, suddenly, its iron head flies off the handle and into the river. “Oh, no!” he cries. Elisha saunters over to see what the problem is. “What am I going to do? It’s not even mine. I borrowed it.”

If we factor in the uncommon aspects of the prophet’s situation, we see how ludicrous his response is. He’s a prophet. He routinely watches God fix impossible problems. He’s surrounded by prophets and led by the greatest prophet of his day. He belongs to a faith community blessed beyond capacity. And he’s literally working for God when the axe-head comes loose. All of this is so obvious that worry seems like the least reasonable response. But he’s really worried. And what does this to him? A borrowed thing he no longer holds or is likely to hold again. With one swing, his freedom in serving God’s purpose goes flying off the handle as well. None of this fazes Elisha. “Show me where it went,” he says. The prophet points out the spot. Elisha cuts a branch off a tree, throws it in the river, and the axe-head miraculously bobs to the surface.

The Short List

On the short list of eternal significance, who we are, where we are, what we’re doing, and whom we’re with will outrank what we have every time. When we lose sight of this, things start flying off the handle. We realize what we’ve lost was never actually ours. Freedom vanishes and we become worry’s slaves. In panic, we cry for help. Of course, none of this fazes God. What He knows about axes we couldn’t begin to imagine. All this while, we’ve held on to them, thinking they weren’t good for much else than grinding and chopping big things down to size. But God’s got no use for grinding axes. He doesn’t chop things down; He builds them up. Besides, He doesn't need to, as nothing's bigger than He. If we get overly caught up in what we have, it’s a strong possibility He’ll see fit to prove the total value of what He’s leant us by demonstrating how little we really know about it. How we view axes isn’t like He sees them. Our limited vision looks at what He's given us in terms of its potential to do things for us. He focuses on His power to do the impossible with what we have. In His eyes, axes are for floating, too.

If we put too much faith and importance in what we’ve been given, we may end up finding out how little we really know about it.

(Tomorrow: Little Ones)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Debt Resolution

If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6.14-15)

An Essential Tool

We’re apt to think of forgiveness as a principle, when it’s more accurate to view it as an essential tool every bit as powerful and effective as prayer, Scripture, good deeds, and meditation. We use forgiveness to pry loose clamps of hatred and resentment binding our minds. Then, turning to our hearts, we use it to break padlocks of fear and worry so we’re able to love those we forgive. Love is the principle. Forgiveness activates it. This is true for everyone, including God. It’s inaccurate to believe Jesus died simply to purchase pardon for sin. Yes, forgiveness for all—regardless of nationality, religious standing, and every other contrived impediment—is available through Christ’s sacrifice. But Calvary’s purpose exceeds forgiveness. It remains the purest portrayal of love the world will see. “God loved the world,” John 3.16 says—not, “God forgave the world.”

In light of this, might we make too big a deal of forgiveness, and thus make it harder than it actually is? How many times do we say, “I know I should, but I just can’t find it in my heart to forgive So-and-So”? Perhaps we can’t find forgiveness in our hearts because we already hold its power in our hands. Of course, admitting struggles to forgive implicitly confesses doubts about loving those who’ve wronged us. Particularly with enormous, unresolved debts owed to us, we estimate love will cost more trust and hope than we can (or care to) sacrifice. This is hard to accept, if only because we want to love others as Christ taught. We want to live by His example. So we justify reticence to love by citing incapacity to forgive.

Expecting Future Increase by Exempting Former Debts

If we detach the two, we can train ourselves to use forgiveness as a tool to facilitate love instead attempting to use love to prove forgiveness. Forgiveness functions much like bank checks. It promises eventual settlement of unreconciled accounts. It’s presented in good faith, expecting love's future increase by exempting its former debts. Seeing forgiveness as the first step toward debt resolution, rather than all-or-nothing restitution, achieves two things. It eliminates the need to delay forgiving others until we’ve amassed enough love to absorb previous losses—because, spiritually or financially, that’s all forgiveness is: repaying what’s owed us at our expense. Then, relieved from making the full debt “whole” (another financial term replete with resonance), we honor our promise gradually, offering love and trust as needed. Here’s where forgiveness proves its real strength and value. Every debt must be reassessed as it’s addressed. Some turn out less severe than we recall, others much worse than we thought. But from the most to least traumatic, our pledge to forgive constrains us to find sufficient love to compensate for what’s owed us. As much and as long as it takes, we get the job done.

Isn’t this how Calvary works and God forgives? The cross ensures pardon for our past and future sins. Any time we err, we look to the cross in full confidence God will find love He needs to make us whole. In Hebrews 4.16, we’re urged to ask forgiveness without hesitance: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.” God sealed His promise of forgiveness the instant Jesus died. But He honors it by meting out mercy and grace as we need it. By learning to forgive like God we learn to love like Him. Forgiving freely and loving fully at the same time expects more of us than we expect of Him. Is it any surprise we struggle to find enough love to forgive people who’ve deeply hurt us? There’s probably not room in our hearts to contain the love needed to pay all of their debts at once. So we forgive in advance and pay as we go, replacing love we sacrifice for those we’ve forgiven (note: past tense) with love we receive from God in reward for asking His forgiveness.

Out-In, Give-Receive

The out-in, give-receive dynamic is rudimentary to following Jesus. He quashes any possible doubt about this by opening His first major discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, with an eight-point manifesto that explicitly states sacrifice defines reward. Impoverished spirits gain heavenly riches. Mourners find comfort. Humble people earn earthly honor. And so on—including, those who give mercy receive mercy. The rest of the Sermon basically expounds on these points in greater detail, piquing interest in where Jesus ties each attribute to certain situations and behaviors.

He links forgiveness to prayer—The Lord’s Prayer—setting aside the bulk of its content to zero in on one phrase: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6.12; again: past tense) He enlarges on this in verses 14 and 15: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Jesus provides no wiggle room for mitigating circumstances, rare exceptions, or other alibis for withholding forgiveness. Extending mercy to others predicates obtaining mercy from God. The 1:1 reciprocation appears too obvious for further thought. Yet if we maintain ability to forgive hinges on adequate love to back it up, Jesus’s later thoughts about it are misplaced. They should land at the end of chapter 5, where He builds on the eighth Beatitude (enduring unjust persecution) by charging us to love our enemies. But forgiveness goes unmentioned in context with unconditional love. There’s just no ambiguity here. We forgive others to be forgiven. We love in obedience to Christ's command. The two are related, but not interdependent. Forgiveness promises to make love whole. Love makes good on forgiveness’s pledge over time.

Hat-tip to Rev. Harvey Carr for his inspiration.

Forgiveness promises to make outstanding debts whole and love steadily delivers, reassessing and reconciling each debt as needed.

(Tomorrow: Axes Are for Floating)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Help Wanted

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help… But you, O LORD, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me. (Psalm 22.11, 19)

In the Bunker

There will be times when we feel unduly beleaguered. A pending problem bears down on us, confusing our minds and draining our spirits until we can’t see or respond to anything else clearly. At other times, “little things” go awry. Everything we hope for gets put on hold, shows up late, or doesn’t work out in a way we’d prefer. The most frustrating aspect of these periods is our sense of being held in abeyance. Nothing moves as swiftly or favorably as we’d like. Stumbling around and staring at the horizon only taxes us further. It’s time to hide away in prayer.

Psalm 27.5 reads, “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle.” Taking sanctuary in prayer is very much like stealing away in a bunker. We go there to find peace and safety the from real-time battle that continues while we retreat. It’s a strategic move to reconstruct our resolve and return to the front. But we should also be aware the bunker has certain drawbacks. It’s being a peaceful place doesn’t necessarily make it a happy one. It’s often lonely there. Our removal from the action may add anxiety about what’s happening outside. Lastly, because the bunker’s built to withstand heavy attacks, it sounds like our prayers bounce off the ceiling. An overwhelming sense of futility accompanies the solitude and safety we find. What’s the use of praying, we think, if our prayers don’t appear to reach God?

Stuck in the Middle

Psalm 22 is composed in a bunker. David opens with the most anguished cry in Scripture—the exact words Christ calls out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He elaborates on his angst about not feeling confident that God hears him in verse 2: “O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.” Anyone who’s spent time in the bunker understands David’s anxiety. With our prayers echoing back at us, it’s easy to assume we’re the first ones who’ve ever felt total isolation from God. David blames himself. He recalls how many times God heard his forefathers’ prayers. “In you they trusted and were not disappointed. But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people,” he says. (v5-6) Wherever he looks David sees people shaking their heads. “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him,” they jeer. (v8)

With all the negativity surrounding us, it doesn’t take long for the sanctuary we sought to feel like a prison we can’t escape. We sink into David’s mindset, comparing our present circumstances with examples of how God intervened for others in the past—often bringing them out of situations many times more threatening than what drove us into hiding. We forget we’re looking at them in retrospect, and stories of divine deliverance tend to short-shift the agony of feeling defeated to get to the triumphant ending. Nothing looks good when we’re stuck in the middle of conflict and uncertainty, which is why it’s vital we realize where we are affects what we see. Psalm 22 is jammed with gruesome imagery. Bulls and dogs encircle David. Lions bare their teeth. He feels as weak as water, disjointed, his courage melting like wax. Everybody stares and laughs at him.

We Need Help

These and similar realities might be taken as reasons to stay out of the bunker. But David’s poem explains why hiding away in prayer is the most strategically sound thing to do. Temporarily removing ourselves from conflict brings clarity to our prayers. We cease asking for concrete answers and humble ourselves to admit we need help. Our sights turn from waving banners of victory to hanging out a “Help Wanted” sign.

The great spiritual also rings out of the bunker: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” That’s where David is in verse 11: “Trouble is near and there is no one to help.” And then, after a few verses of describing how close trouble appears to bear down on him, David comes to his senses and explicitly asks for help: “But you, O LORD, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me.” Stark periods of duress inevitably find us trying to describe our emotions to others. Many respond in love and kindness, “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Bless them for trying, their comfort lands with a thud. How can they possibly know?

Stealing away in prayer brings us to the place of knowing nobody knows but Jesus. And there’s no denying He knows. In that moment, the picture of Christ in Hebrews 4.15 comes to life: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” Our Strength comes quickly to help us. When we leave prayer’s bunker, it’s not atypical to come out with many questions still unanswered. But they no longer trouble and weaken us, because we’ve found an answer all its own. Psalm 46.1 puts it like this: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” He knows. He is our help. He is our Answer.

Prayer is often like a bunker—a safe retreat from conflict. Though we may not come out with answers we want, we leave with help we need.

(Tomorrow: Debt Resolution)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

How Can a Loving God...?

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5.45)

Three Camps of Doubt

It seems most atheists and agnostics pitch their tents in one of three camps of doubt. There’s Camp Literal, a joyless conclave of inflexible thinkers who can’t bend their minds around anything that isn’t wrapped in solid evidence or, at the very least, logical theory. There’s Camp Maybe, a collective of slope-dwellers who prefer slippery instability to putting a stake in the ground, be it on faith’s summit or in disbelief’s valley. The third group settles in Camp Why, a shambling spot where chaos rules because no one cares to sort things out. (The lingua franca of Camp Why is limited to questions.)

When the three groups convene, it’s always at Camp Why. And why is that? Well, first off, most Literal and Maybe campers spent a good chunk of time in Camp Why before hunkering down where they are. They’re familiar with its customs and jumbled layout. Second, the sprawling expanse of Camp Why easily accommodates all types. All anyone needs to fit in is one or more questions to ask over and over. But most important, Camp Why is built around a bonfire that rages in the mind of every non-believer. It’s the one place on the faith-free map where they can discuss their misgivings in a unified context. And with Camp Why as their gathering site, the discussion consists of infinite variations on one question: How can a loving God allow suffering?

Talking About the Weather

They know it’s a conundrum that can’t be solved on its own terms, which makes it a highly effective tool for harvesting recruits as well as cutting believers down to size. If God is real and if He really cares for us, why doesn’t He put an end to violence and poverty? Why would a God of love sanction the premature death of a child? If Jesus is The Living Christ, how can He stand by as people wage war, preach prejudice, and bilk believers in His name? Questions sparked around the Why bonfire can be very troublesome for easily shaken believers; they’re apt to mistake inability to respond for inadequacy of faith. But the question is where inadequacy really resides. It’s a flawed attempt to debunk belief in a loving God with evidence that actually proves He loves all of us equally.

In Matthew 5.45, Jesus smoothes out this gnarly dilemma by talking about the weather. After telling us to love friends and enemies equally, so “that you may be sons of your Father,” Jesus says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The operating principle is equality, not fairness, merit, or mercy—equality. Because we are all equally loved, we are also equally vulnerable to suffering. Neither the blessings we enjoy nor hardships we endure are any indication of how much God loves us, if He loves us, or if He exists to love us. God’s equal care and concern for all of His children means none of us is less likely than the rest to experience turmoil, deprivation, or profound grief. And the reason for this comes from knowing none of us is more deserving of God’s love, mercy, or protection than anyone else.

Depth of Perception

Carefully reading Jesus’s explanation gets to the heart of the issue. Rather than saying, “Be like your Father. His sun shines on everyone. He sends rain to everyone,” Jesus calls out “evil and good” people who enjoy sunshine and “the righteous and the unrighteous” who suffer rain. Seeing no differences among His children, God makes no distinction in who thrives or struggles at any given moment. But the manner in which we respond to what He sends our way makes a huge difference in how we see Him—or even if we see Him at all.

People with no regard for God will disregard His goodness in sunny times—never pausing to wonder why God blesses them despite their disregard. Yet when the rain starts to fall and floodwaters rise, the same people will rush to accuse God of callous disregard for their suffering. “Why would God let this happen?” becomes the question. In contrast, people who love God look for His love at work in every situation, rain or shine. When times are good, they recognize it’s because of His love. When times turn sour, knowing His love is there is how they recognize it.

Solving the Camp Why riddle boils down to depth of perception. Those who can’t reconcile a loving God with human suffering take His goodness for granted, leaving them nothing to fall back on when the sun drops from their skies. Those who acknowledge God’s presence when things go well will see His goodness in the midst of storms. Confidence in God’s compassion for everyone translates into faith in His constant concern in every situation. When the sun shines, He loves us. When rain pours, He loves us. Finding Him with us wherever we are is how we know He’s alive and transforming our circumstances for His glory and our good. Since Why campers only speak in questions, we answer with one of our own: “How can I allow suffering to shake my faith in a loving God?”

Allowing ourselves to see a loving God in every circumstance solves the riddle of “How can a loving God allow…?”

(Tomorrow: Help Wanted)

Postscript: Hymnology by Jake--"In the Garden"

Last Sunday I posted video of a hymn suggested by Marion, a Straight-Friendly email subscriber. Thinking it was a lovely addition to the Lord’s Day post, I invited other readers to submit titles or video links to their favorite hymns. Jake responded immediately with this:

I have such a hard time picking favorites, especially when it comes to hymns. I have an old Baptist Hymnal on my bookshelf with so many post-its stuck in it the binding has been stretched! The one most likely to move me when it catches me off-guard is “In the Garden.” I tried to find a decent version, and I do like Anne Murray, but I'm not sure what's up with the wolves at the end?!

Thanks, Jake. And I look forward to more reader suggestions today and in the future!