Thursday, November 5, 2009

Words & Wisdom

Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that one of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. (Luke 21.14-15)

Making Everyone Happy

Etiquette teaches us certain things should not be discussed in public. Money and sex used to push the boundaries of taste; no longer. Now, we avoid discussing religion and politics. But, like it or not, we talk about them all the time. Our faith and civic views filter into every other topic we discuss—including money and sex. If, for example, an issue regarding on-the-job protocol arises, our attitude will most certainly reflect our faith. We’ll be less concerned about what’s “fair” than doing the kind thing. Neighbors or relatives trying to recruit our support in their conflicts will be most unhappy when we counsel them to forgive and move on, instead of agreeing with them or joining their criticism of adversaries. One of the oddest ironies of following Jesus is how abstinence from entering conflict often ends up making enemies for us.

Too many people in the world ascribe to the idea “if you’re not for me, you’re against me.” They don’t realize “they” aren’t a deciding factor in how we conduct ourselves. Making them happy by agreeing with their opinions is secondary at best. The question we ask is, “Does what I’m agreeing with please God?” We’re naïve to believe making everyone happy makes God happy. What pleases others doesn’t always please Him. We do no one service by “not talking about religion”—a rather clinical injunction against faith-infused dialogue, if you asked me—when not confessing our beliefs causes us to float away on waves of harmful, incorrect thoughts and actions. Yet we also have to be aware that staying true to our commitment to God has the potential to put some relationships at risk. For example, telling someone whose heart is set on hating someone, “Well, the best you can do is just love and pray for them,” very well could result in likewise being hated. It’s a big price to pay sometimes. But not ever as big as the price we pay by compromising our faith “not to make waves.”

The Other Side

But there’s another side to this coin we also can’t forget. Staying true to our convictions and “making a stand” are not the same thing. Our God and our faith need no defense. And when we allow ourselves to be dragged into defending Him, our belief in Him, or our right to believe in Him we’re apt to fall into behaviors that are unbecoming to Him and us. Can anyone say anything to shake our confidence in God’s love and acceptance? No. Thus, it’s always best to allow them to speak their minds, answer with kindness, and let it go. How we comport ourselves will speak more than anything we can ever say. We love one another because Christ first loved us. Therefore, showing love in the face of adversity and criticism says more than any argument ever will persuade someone we are as loved and accepted as any other Christian.

Remember, in His day, Jesus and the disciples were the outsiders. Very few in their community and culture believed they were correct in their conviction that God loved all people equally. Everywhere they went, someone was pleased to tell them how wrong they were—and why they were wasting their time. Yet nowhere do we find Jesus yanking out Scriptures and pat arguments to defend Himself and His followers. When appropriate, He speaks to His adversaries’ charges with care and wisdom, offering insights to what troubles them. For example, when Pharisees reproach Him and the disciples for not conforming to hand- and dishwashing rituals, Jesus says, “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’” (Matthew 15.11) The point behind the ritual is kitchen hygiene. But Jesus subtly turns the Pharisees’ logic on its head: they want to accuse Him of sin and He says dirty food isn’t the problem; dirty words—lies, curses, and deceit—are what should concern us. It’s an amazingly wise response. It changes the subject and answers the question in one sentence.

Irresistible and Sure

In Luke 21, Jesus tells us not to worry about defending ourselves. And the insertion of “beforehand” suggests we shouldn’t ever allow prejudices, attitudes, or cold shoulders to drive us away. We are free; He died to make it so. Sometimes we’ll knowingly enter situations where others may not want us or may challenge our right to be there. We should neither anticipate it nor worry about it. If that’s where we’re supposed to be, Jesus says He’ll give us the words and wisdom to handle ourselves fittingly. But we should hear him carefully—words and wisdom. Sometimes wisdom will mean “no words;” saying the wise thing won’t be the wise thing to do. So when we’re confronted we listen very carefully and respond with equal care, knowing that we’re representing Christ in this situation. We never have to prove we’re right; we only have to do what’s right. And if our words express or provoke anger—regardless how correct and scripturally sound they are—they are wrong. If we speak out of pride in knowing God loves us, we’re not speaking the truth in love. And condemning anyone ultimately condemns us.

The words and wisdom we receive from Christ, either by studying His example or attending to His Spirit, will turn our adversaries around. Jesus says they won’t be able to resist what we say or contradict it. That means we become, to a certain extent, irresistible and sure. Not a bad way to be. Not a bad way to live, either.

Words & Wisdom: not one or the other, though sometimes one without the other.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


You who love the LORD, hate evil! He preserves the souls of His saints; He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked. Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. (Psalm 97.10-11; NKJV)

The Daily Struggle

All Saints’ Day is when it happens. This kid from a tradition that doesn’t follow the liturgical calendar starts envying churches that do. Though he’s aware saints’ days and feasts occur regularly, they fascinate him more as Christmas comes into view. He feels cheated because his church delays its celebration until very near the actual date, while others celebrate Advent for weeks. And since those communions (unlike his own) also venerate saints, he somehow links the two. In a vague attempt to enter the Advent spirit, he opens Butler’s Lives of the Saints and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and spends hours immersed in heart-stopping—sometimes blood-curdling—tales of faith. They strike him as perfect for the lead-up to Advent and Christmas, sort of like envisioning a parade of future Olympic champions during the torch’s odyssey to the host city. The amazing feats of courage and tenacity that spring from Christ’s birth make anticipating its celebration all the sweeter.

In effect, Hebrews 11 does this with its Who’s Who of Old Testament heroes—albeit as precursors, rather than the posterity, of Christian faith. After that, chapter 12 opens: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (v1-2) Since Hebrews was written, its “cloud” has expanded to include thousands of legendary examples—and millions of unsung ones—that also depict committed faith. Whether studying a ninth-century ascetic or observing a saintly life unfold in real time, we find a common element: the daily struggle to join Hebrews’ cloud of relentless believers by shaving away hindrances, defying weakness and fatigue, and focusing completely on Christ. Specifics that garner their acclaim—epiphanies and miracles, suffering and sacrifice—grow out of fierce resolve to overcome. The daily struggle is the thing. Ask St. Augustine which is harder, healing the lame or heeling the libido. He’ll tell you.

Deep Determination

Hebrews 12.1-2 isn’t intended as criteria for sainthood. It’s aimed at all of us. It clearly identifies strategies for winning our struggles and makes no bones about the daunting nature of our challenge. Many hindrances bogging us down we dearly love. We sought them and carry them voluntarily, which makes them twice as hard to let go. The same applies to sins that easily entangle us. If we didn’t enjoy them, we wouldn’t be susceptible to their temptations. This is a marathon that tests our stamina, endurance, and commitment every step of the way. There’s no gain in looking for applause from the sidelines, no sense in leaving the route in search of short cuts. To finish, we fix our eyes on Christ and stay as close to Him as possible. But while Hebrews paints a sharp picture of how we triumph over daily struggles, it’s pretty sketchy about where the impetus to triumph originates. Psalm 97.10 fills in the blanks.

“You who love the LORD, hate evil!” it shouts. And when all is said and done, that’s what daily struggle is—combat between deep determination to honor our Maker and nonchalance about dishonoring Him. In Matthew 6.24, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Wannabe saints scour the print for exceptions to this rule and invent all sorts of extenuating circumstances to justify the easy thing versus the right thing. Deeply determined saints take Jesus at His word. “If you love me, you will obey what I command,” He says in John 14.15. It doesn’t get any plainer than that. Loving God as He commanded, with our entire heart, mind, soul, and strength, leaves no option to hating evil with equal passion—down to the tiniest urge to indulge harmful thoughts and behaviors in others or ourselves. The daily struggle is a two-fisted battle.

Join the Cloud

Words like hate, combat, and battle don’t appeal to sunny-side believers who’d rather retreat from conflict than resolve it. But ignoring the struggle won’t make it go away. If anything, it overshadows us, stripping the light and joy from our lives. Even then, however, some of us have got so adept at make-believe peace we simply toss a make-believe sun into the sky. And while we’re living the dream, we miss the sunny side of the struggle, the brightness we experience when we're intent on joining the cloud. The psalmist continues: “He preserves the souls of His saints; He delivers them out of the hand of the wicked. Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.” (v10-11)

The struggle can be grueling. The choices it calls for can drain our energy and put us on edge. Confronting evil can leave us staring into the heart of darkness. Defying human nature can sap our sense of pleasure and turn our lives upside-down. But we press on, driven by unyielding love for God, deeply determined to join the cloud. He preserves our souls. He delivers us. His light breaks through. And despite the topsy-turvy misery around us, He rewards our upright hearts with gladness. That’s what happens when saints do what saints do.

The daily struggle to love God and hate evil with equal fervor is the common element in every saint’s story.

(Tomorrow: Words and Wisdom)

Personal Postscript: Thank You

I’m truly grateful to all who sent get-well wishes and held me in your prayers these past few days. I’m back on my feet, gaining strength by the hour, and happy to be back. Thank you so much.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Where's Tim?

Everyone, I so deeply apologize for disappearing over this weekend. I came down with a real lulu of an upper respiratory tract infection that's kept me in bed since late Thursday night. I'm on the mend, but not quite 100%. So rather than try to make sense in this fog, I'm going to finish getting well and come back strong. (Hopefully by Tuesday.) Please bear with me, and I ask you keep me in your thoughts and prayers.

Blessings always,