Friday, June 11, 2010

Impeded by Impulse

If you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then you will lift up your face without shame; you will stand firm and without fear. (Job 11.14-15)

Shopping and Buying

I’m a terrible shopper. Actually, I’m not a shopper at all. I’m a buyer, which is why I keep out of stores as much as possible. If I go into a store, intent on buying a single item, I guarantee I’ll leave with two or three bags filled with impulse purchases. A couple days ago, I walked into a bed & bath store to get a new shower mat. I was delighted to find the perfect one reduced to half-price. But I also came home with: a new toothbrush holder, matching soap dish, liquid hand soap, two collapsible laundry hampers, eight vacuum clothes storage bags, and a set of hanging storage bags. Since I was already out and within walking distance of the local bookshop, a fancy hair salon, a pet supply store, and a Gap, I also returned with: three new books, pricey bottles of shampoo and conditioner I thought I’d try, a few things for our cat, and three pairs of short pants. I had no idea I needed these things until I entered the first store. Truthfully, I don’t need them. All I did was spend an afternoon burdening myself with impulse purchases. I turned a quick errand into a costly adventure.

Some will no doubt relate to my predicament. Others will pat themselves on the back for having built up immunity to the buy-bug. Yet after reading Job 11.14-15 in the wake of my little whirlwind, I suspect we all can apply the shopping and buying metaphors to areas in our lives. Somewhere, somehow our lack of self-discipline gets the better of us. We start out looking for one thing, but in the process, we can’t resist picking up extraneous items that also catch our eye. In no time, we’re burdened with superfluous nonsense, none of it cheap. A good example of what I mean would be relationship “shopping.” Many people discover it ends in reckless buying. They find what they're looking for, but they also bring home impulsively purchased opinions, habits, attitudes, and values that weigh them down, clutter their lives, and expend precious time and energy. If we’re fortunate enough not to do this literally or with relationships, we may fall into this rut with religious beliefs, political ideology, social issues, etc. I suspect each of us on some level is impeded by impulse—i.e., careless buying instead of careful shopping.

Extracting Wisdom

The story of Job challenges us to see the truth in what his friends say, while conceding their reason for saying it is unfounded. They’re positive Job’s trials are punishment for disobedience, when they’re really tests to prove his integrity. Yet if their misguided motives negated the wisdom of their words, why record them at all? It would be much simpler—and clearer—to condense their visit into a brief passage: “Job’s friends grieved with him, trying to persuade him he had sinned. But Job resisted their counsel and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Thus, reading Job is a tricky exercise in extracting wisdom from knee-jerk rationale.

Of the three friends, Zophar is the harshest. The other two, Eliphaz and Bildad, focus more on God, respectively emphasizing His mercy and justice. Zophar, however, couldn’t be surer that Job’s hanging on to impulsive purchases that litter his life and cause problems between him and His Maker. “If you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent,” Zophar tells Job, “then you will lift up your face without shame; you will stand firm and without fear.” Although this couldn’t be further off the beam in Job’s situation, the principle still merits serious consideration. When we think about what brings us shame, contributes to our instability, and fosters fear in our lives, we’re bound to find, to a one, we’ve bought into them without thinking. The problems they cause—the space they require, the effort they exact, and the deficits they create—are reasons enough to get rid of them. Suppose Zophar were our friend and he adopted the shopping and buying metaphors. He’d tell us: “You don’t need that junk. Take it back where you got it and don’t ever buy it again. You don’t really want it. You can’t really use it. All it’s good for is tripping over.” In our case, he’d be spot-on.

Shopping Savvy

My best friend is the savviest shopper I know. He doesn’t buy anything he doesn’t need or won’t use. He has no issue with paying top price for something truly necessary. On the other hand, for things he’d like to have but could live without, he won’t part with a penny to get them until he researches them thoroughly and finds where he can buy them at the least expense. That’s par for smart shoppers. But Jerry goes one step further. If it’s an item he’s adding, he imposes a waiting period before opening his wallet—to be certain he really wants it. If he’s replacing an old item with a new one, he removes the old one from his house and waits to see if he genuinely misses it. So, while others moan about redundancies and clutter, Jerry’s life grows more streamlined and simple. His shopping list is as much about casting off useless things as acquiring useful ones.

That’s the sort of shopping savvy Zophar endorses—resisting the urge to accumulate thoughts and tendencies that bog us down and displease God. Before we reach for ideas and idols, we should impose a waiting period to determine if we really want them. Before we replace one thing for something better, we should see if we could live without it altogether. We may find not having it at all frees us from shame, instability, and fear. Resisting impulsive impediments is how we keep our hands free from sin and protect our dwellings from evil.

Impulsiveness causes us to purchase thoughts and tendencies we don’t need, can't use, and ultimately wind up tripping over. We should take them back where we got them and never buy them again.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Moving On

The people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village. (Luke 9.53-56)

Transitional Passages

From time to time we come upon transitional passages in the Gospels—brief accounts of going from here to there, with something that seems relatively minor happening along the way. We tend to scoot by these to get to the good stuff, and some of them feel so incidental we may wonder why they’re included at all. Every now and then, though, what takes place borders on monumental, and if we glance over these quick bits we miss why the writers considered them essential. Luke 9.51-56 is an excellent case in point.

Peter, James and John have just witnessed Christ’s transfiguration, the event that initiates the Passover journey to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be tried, executed, and resurrected. The magnitude of the disciples’ experience instills in them a sense of authority unlike anything they’ve known. For Peter, it confirms his confession that Jesus is The Christ. For James and John, whom Jesus calls “the sons of thunder,” it dazzles them with power. They go overboard in holy swagger. First, John hastens to inform Jesus they found a man driving out demons in Christ’s name. “We tried to stop him,” he tells the Lord, “because he is not one of us.” (Luke 9.49) Jesus corrects John’s impetuosity. “Don’t stop him,” He says. “For whoever is not against you is for you.” (v50) It’s pretty much a “mind your own business” scolding. But the Thunder Boys can’t help themselves. Next, Jesus sends messengers ahead to a Samaritan village that He and the disciples will pass through en route to Jerusalem. He intends to rest there. But the Samaritans aren’t eager to accommodate a Jewish prophet and entourage—which makes sense, since they're not welcome in Jerusalem at Passover. So here come the Thunder Boys, feisty as ever, asking, “Should we call down fire from heaven and destroy them?” As if Jesus would countenance such a thing. As if they could actually do it. They’re in a transitional passage of a different kind without knowing it—the steep pass we all must climb to discover true power is evidenced by self-containment and tolerance.

Saving Lives

Once again, Jesus scolds them. Most manuscripts simply note, “Jesus turned and rebuked them.” But some texts also quote Christ directly, saying, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (v55) The expanded text stresses nothing—including religious rejection—entitles us to wish destruction on anyone. That’s an archaic mentality, based on Old Testament yarns about God wiping out Israel’s adversaries. It’s completely out of keeping with Christ’s spirit and message. And any time we sink to the level of even imagining vengeance, like James and John, we betray our ignorance. We are not born of a spirit of destruction, but one of life and love. The only fire we should be concerned with is the flame burning inside us, the fervor that burns up our impure desires and lights the way to mercy and acceptance. If we truly follow Christ, our main impetus is saving lives, not destroying them.

Punishment is none of our concern. Contemplating ill that might befall someone who harms or disrespects us isn’t worthy of us. Yet it’s also often the case that those who wish us no good will not receive us. How then do we go about “saving them?” This passage answers that question with such simplicity we may be dumbfounded. After Jesus rebukes the Sons of Thunder, the story ends: “And they went to another village.” (v56) This sheds enormous light on what Jesus means by “saving lives.” We tend to think of it in the most grandiose terms—i.e., changing lives. We fret about not being heard or welcomed into a place where we can show those who reject us a better way. We presume if we were there to lead them, they would change. This won’t always be so. Some people have no desire to change. What we tell or show them won’t be anything they’ve not heard or seen. In this context, saving lives means sparing them—praying for their good, their health, and their success despite the harm they intend to do to us. This aligns with Christ’s teaching in Luke 6.27-28: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Often, saving lives is more about changing us than them.

The Journey’s Beauty

When Jesus realizes He isn’t welcome in the Samaritan village, He moves on. There’s no recrimination toward the villagers. In fact, there’s no mention of them at all. More important things lay ahead. James and John don’t know this is Christ’s last journey to Jerusalem. They want to show off their newfound sense of power and righteousness. Jesus realizes time is of the essence. There are villages ahead that want Him, people who need Him, and believers waiting to minister to Him. Fighting prejudicial resistance will mar the journey’s beauty.

Sometimes moving on is our only option. We have to accept that. We also have to realize others don’t define our value and worthiness. No one needs to be brought low so we can be lifted. Indeed, fantasies of vengeance and retribution reduce us. They pull us down to a level that’s beneath Christ. Instead, we lower ourselves by letting go and moving on. James 4.10 says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Earlier in Luke 9, Jesus teaches us, “If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them.” (v5) Move on. The fact that we’re not around speaks for itself. We don’t have time to linger over destructive thoughts. There are places that want us, people who need us, and others waiting to minister to us. Our journey is too beautiful and sacred to be marred by rejection.

We don’t have time to stick around where we’re not wanted. There are better things ahead. Praying for adversaries’ destruction only mars the beauty of our journey.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Helping Helps Us

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Kings17.13)

No Sense at All

I love the story of Elijah and widow because nothing in it makes sense. If you don’t know it, here’s a quick recap. After Elijah’s told a drought will strike Israel and passes the word to King Ahab, he’s instructed to wait out the drought beside a brook flowing through the Kerith Ravine, east of Jordan. He’s to drink from the brook, while ravens bring him food every day. This makes no sense at all. The drought is meant to draw Israel back to God, yet its prophet is sent away. The ravine sits in a desolate region, with nothing to sustain the prophet. Instead, he’s to rely on ravens—one of the most voracious bird species—to feed him. Elijah has no guarantee the brook won’t dry up, but he obeys anyway. As promised, ravens show up twice a day to drop off bread and meat, though where they steal them from is anybody’s guess. Then the brook runs dry.

So he’s sent further afield, to Sidon (Lebanon), also enduring famine, where God says a pagan widow will care for him. When he meets her, Elijah tells her to bring him some water and, while she’s at it, a piece of bread. The widow replies, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.” (1 Kings 17.12) Elijah says, “OK. Don’t be afraid. Go about your business. But make a small cake for me before you cook your last meal.” Why would a pagan woman take food out of her child’s mouth to feed a Jew? Why would a hungry man ask for a small cake? No sense at all.

But Elijah believes God, and the widow believes Elijah, who tells her: “The God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.’” (v14) And it is so. She houses Elijah in her spare room. She, her son, and the prophet ride out the famine together—which surely must raise a few eyebrows and stir up some hostility among neighbors who are burying loved ones. Then, when the drought ends, her son suddenly turns ill and dies. The widow believes that’s really why Elijah’s there: to visit calamity on her for her sins. The insanity of the situation grieves the prophet. He takes the boy’s corpse into his room and questions God’s purpose in all of this. He lay against the lad’s body three times, pleading with God to restore his life. God answers Elijah’s prayer. The son revives and the widow says: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.” (v24) Evidently, she was as confused as Elijah. Now it makes sense to her. But what sense are we to make of it?

Every Reason Not to Help

This story has enough messages on the loose to fill at least a half dozen posts. From Elijah’s perspective, there’s total faith, trust and obedience, daily provision, and compassion. From the widow’s side, there’s resistance to fear, availing ourselves to God’s purpose, welcoming the stranger, and struggling with doubt and disappointment. The son’s story is all about renewed life. As for God’s role, there’s unnatural providence, guidance through hardship, wisdom in apparent nonsense, reward for obedience, faithfulness, and mercy. Yet as I reread it, something I’d not noticed before struck me. The widow gets help she needs because she helps Elijah.

She has every reason not to help the prophet. Although it’s highly unlikely she’s aware of it, Elijah’s the agent of her suffering; it’s at his word that drought descends on the region to jeopardize her and her son’s lives. He’s also an enemy, a prophet who condemns people like her as sinners. She doesn’t have to help him. Why should she? Why isn’t he bothering a Jewish widow, taking food off her table? Not only is he arrogant. From the sound of things, he’s also intimidating, since Elijah tells her not to be afraid. Furthermore, his promise that her flour and oil will outlast the famine could be no more than a ruse to con food from her. Then, after she complies, that’s not enough. He wants to stay with her! Finally, adding insult to injury, once everything works out as Elijah predicted, relief that she and her son survive gets stolen from her. The prophet will move and she’ll be left with no son to help her survive. What kind of God is this?

An Interlaced Plan

With no logical excuse for the widow to obey Elijah, there’s only one explanation for why she comes to his aid. She’s moved to help him. When God sends the prophet to Sidon, He says, “I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.” (v9) The widow acts on God’s urgency. She may not understand why she helps the prophet. She may not recognize where the prompt in her spirit comes from. But she heeds the command in defiance of everything that makes sense. It’s not until she encounters worse hardship and experiences God’s mercy that she knows what’s happened. She's played a key role in an intricately interlaced plan—a grand design that comes together to fix Israel’s problem, provides for its prophet, and places him with the widow to restore her son’s life. We don’t know the nature of his illness, only that it’s not famine-related. Had she extricated herself from God’s plan and not helped Elijah, when her son fell ill, she would have been left alone, without hope. The help she needed wouldn’t have been there.

So often in God’s mysterious ways, just as ravens bring food instead of devouring it, people who seek our help are actually sent to provide it. It makes no sense at all to help someone who causes problems for us, condemns us, and asks of us what they won’t ask of their own people. But we are commanded to help, and when we obey, we enter God’s interlaced plan. He often places us with people who, by all rights, we shouldn’t help so we can receive help for ourselves.

So often people who reach out for our help are actually sent to provide help for us. If we rationalize why we shouldn't or can't help them, we extricate ourselves from God's plan.