Friday, October 1, 2010

Mistakes and Messes

Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5.13-14)

An Organic Process

We’ve a new kitten in the house, a dark-gray shorthair named Maxwell. Our first concern was introducing him to Cody, the two-year-old prince who took charge the day we brought him home. We read the articles, talked to the vets, and prepped for the accepted protocols, expecting Cody to put up a serious fight. Not so. The getting-to-know-you period lasted all of an hour before the buddies-for-life phase kicked in. We’ve got a different problem on our hands with Maxie. He’s so besotted with his big brother he’s determined to be like him in every way. This is most apparent at mealtime. Kitten food doesn’t interest him; he wants what Cody eats. Despite every ploy to prevent him, the little guy finds a way to gobble up anything the big guy leaves behind. It’s often too much to for him to digest—not enough to hurt him, just more than he can handle. Suffice to say, until Max’s system matures and he trains himself to eat richer foods in proper quantities, stain and odor alerts will remain in effect.

With faith formation being an organic process comparable to physical maturation, obvious parallels spring to mind—particularly, integration and dietary issues we tend to overlook. In many ways, we’re like cats, dogs, and other domestic pets. Our adoption starts with being lost or outlasting our welcome. We need a home. Christ finds us, takes us as-is, and promises to love, nurture, and protect us. Although He ensures our security, acceptance by others He found and took in isn’t always assured. Sometimes, the getting-to-know-you phase flies by so quickly it barely registers. Sometimes, it takes a very long time. And, sadly, sometimes it’s aborted when believers who fear any challenges to their way of life become antagonistic. In the last scenario, we have no option other than asking for grace to understand them and trust Christ to deal with them on our behalf. For the moment, however, let’s look at the first case, the Max-Cody situation.

Growing Up

Easy acceptance often triggers overindulgence. We bite off more than we’re mature enough to process. On the other hand, fear of rejection may cause us to stunt growth by sticking with what we can easily absorb. Scripture teaches growing up in faith involves training ourselves to distinguish what nourishes us from what harms us. Neither a diet we’re not yet strong enough to handle is recommended, nor is one of easily digestible fare that no longer spurs growth. As we muddle toward spiritual maturity, we can’t forget it’s okay to make a mess. Training ourselves to absorb increasingly complex, healthier fare necessitates impulse and presumption. (How can we learn what’s too much without discovering it’s too much?) But, on balance, mistakes and messes we make to enrich our faith far outweigh becoming weak and exhausted on watered-down staples we outgrow.

A rather charming moment arrives in Hebrews 5 that helps us understand how mistakes and messes connect with growing up. The writer is deep into his/her theological premise that Jesus is our High Priest, the Agent by whom we access forgiveness and redemption. It’s a message sure to resonate with Jewish readers steeped in sacrificial rituals. But it’s tricky. Understanding the principle demands a leap that begins with the symbolically literal to arrive at the conceptually abstract. So the author is rolling along, making the case, and suddenly realizes a lot of readers probably don’t get it. The accomplished theologian becomes the frustrated parent. In verse 11, we read, “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn.” A bit of chiding follows. “You should be teachers by now,” he/she writes, “but you’ve not learned how digest meatier ideas.” For those who’ve not risked making mistakes and messes by attempting to process heavier fare, the writer essentially lays their immaturity at their doorstep. “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (v13-14)

Training Our Palates

Although many persist in trying to complicate the Gospel of Christ, it’s remarkably simple. We strayed from God’s intentions. Jesus came to redeem us—to give us a new home. Obeying His commands rewards us with abundant life. The Hebrews writer refers to these concepts as “elementary truths,” the milk of God’s Word. As we mature, however, milk no longer suffices. We need solid food. Our hunger for new flavors and textures grows keener. We begin training our palates to digest complexities hidden in these elementary truths. The simplicity of God’s intentions gives way to implications in our lives and responsibilities to Him and others. They morph into His will and we steadily learn what pleases Him most is always best for us. The unparalleled love expressed in Christ’s sacrifice opens our comprehension of grace’s power and our obligations as recipients of grace to provide grace. We recognize the unmerited favor we experience by right of adoption requires us to welcome everyone who finds a home in Christ.

Training our palates is how we wean ourselves from basic milk, so we no longer need to be spoon-fed or closely monitored. It becomes unnecessary to be told what’s healthy or harmful in our behaviors and attitudes. Our mistakes and messes teach us what tastes right and what doesn’t. But none of this occurs if we insist on playing it safe and never bite into more than we can chew. When we’re infants in Christ, the complex implications of following Him are difficult to digest. I should evaluate everything I do in terms of God’s will and how much it pleases Him? The unconditional love that rescued me requires me to love everyone—including my enemies—without condition? Self-control and sacrifice are prerequisites for fulfillment and growth? In training ourselves to process these more difficult ideas, we’ll invariably mess up. But Max teaches us something. Testing our tolerance for richer foods is how we develop tastes for them. Mistakes and messes are how we grow.

As we mature, we crave richer flavors in God’s Word. Some are difficult to process at first, but we train our palates to digest them and grow stronger as a result.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Peace of Jerusalem

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.” For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122.6-8)

It’s Time to Pray

Last Thursday, King Abdullah II of Jordan appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Like millions of viewers, I count on the program to leaven current events with doses of irreverence and irony. It helps that my politics hew to the show’s liberal slant. Still, I’d probably enjoy it even if I disagreed with its editorial position, since its primary target is foible. “Feet of Clay” might be a more fitting name for it. Four nights a week, the show serves up deliciously sardonic examples of officials, pundits, and firebrands stumbling badly. But now and then it transcends comedy. This happened Thursday, as Jordan’s monarch—the moderate leader of a nation encircled by political and religious animosity—discussed his region’s turmoil. He made one point that staggered me with dread. If the moratorium on Jewish settlements in the West Bank isn’t extended past its September 30 expiration, war between Israel and her Arabic neighbors will follow. I spent Friday contemplating how rapidly the conflict might escalate as nations lined up behind either side. Then I opened Saturday’s readings to find Psalm 122: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” With the moratorium deadline days away, it’s time to pray.

Teaching Peace

“Jerusalem” is a compound name combining an ancient Semitic word meaning “to teach” with another that means “peace.” Yet in the fifty-plus years I’ve been alive the sun hasn’t risen on a single day that assured peace inside it walls. “Peace in the Middle East” is a punch line akin to “when Hell freezes over”—except there’s no joke to set it up. If there were, it would no longer be laughable anywhere on the planet, as the intense hatred dividing its Jewish and Muslim occupants has triggered violence everywhere, from lower Manhattan to Bali. That Jerusalem, literally and symbolically, rests at the heart of global strife is all the more surprising when we consider its Islamic name, al-Quds Sharif, or “The Holy Sanctuary.” Of all places, Jerusalem should be the safest, calmest, most peaceful city on Earth. It should be “the city on the hill” that Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount. Its residents and culture should be the ideal every other community aspires to, the epicenter of tolerance and good will. Its sole preoccupation should be teaching peace and providing a worthy sanctuary for God’s presence. It should be. But it hasn’t been for so long we immediately associate it with everything but what its name suggests. Thus, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

We must be very canny in how we pray, because many have mistaken the psalmist’s entreaty as a biblical directive to side with Israel at all costs, at all times. The psalmist calls us to pray for peace and nothing else. That’s the issue—not religious or political allegiance. Peace. If not patently wrong, it’s simplistic for Christians to assume we’re obligated to uphold modern Israel’s policies based on ancient texts, if for no other reason than those texts suggest otherwise. Throughout Scripture, Israel, as a nation and people, is as prone to sin and error as anyone else. Chapter after chapter, God confronts the injustice of its actions and vanity of its disobedience. Its complex relationship with God is beyond our depth. The same applies to Islam’s relationship with Allah. The issues to be worked out concern the three of them—God/Allah, Israel, and Islam. Meddling in their madness inevitably invites suffering for us, because we risk promoting injustice out of ignorance. The best we can do, the only thing we can do, is pray for peace in Jerusalem, the Teacher of Peace, for peace in al-Quds Sharif, the Holy Sanctuary.

Our Prayer

The psalmist tells us exactly what to pray. “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.” (v6-7) Our prayer favors neither side. It’s a plea for God’s intervention, asking Him to neutralize a situation that history proves is beyond human ability to control. Before we pray, we must rid ourselves of every predisposition and opinion about the conflict and those it involves. Praying that either side prevails prays against peace. More than that, in a very real—and dangerous—sense, it denies our faith in an all wise, just, and loving God. We forget our heritage as Gentile believers is made possible through Christ’s abolition of racial preferences. While we date the Church’s birth at Pentecost, non-Jewish believers' birth into It comes a bit later, in Acts 10, when Peter’s epiphany regarding God’s grace brings Him to this conclusion: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (v34-35) A prayer for Jerusalem that favors Israel or Islam exceeds its purpose. It tacitly excuses sins committed by the favored side—and who can dispute both have sinned egregiously? In Psalm 66.18-19 we read startling words: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.” To prefer Israel over Islam or vice versa as we pray for peace raises grave questions whether our prayer will even be heard.

In his interview with Stewart, King Abdullah II superbly explained that sustained peace in Jerusalem will contribute greatly to the collapse of global terrorism. The Palestinian cause has been co-opted by haters to wreak death and destruction worldwide, attacking Israel's allies as punishment for their allegiance, he said. Once peace in Jerusalem prevails, terrorism will become a matter of urgency for nations that have permitted it to flourish unchecked. So peace in Jerusalem will, at last, fulfill the promise of its name. In light of the King’s comments, Psalm 122.8 rings with hope for people everywhere: “For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’” Today, and every day—through September 30 and beyond—when we pray Our Lord’s Prayer, I trust we’ll offer it as a prayer not just for us but for Jerusalem’s peace, for al-Quds Sharif’s peace. "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven." We pray for the peace of Jerusalem—for the sake of the world.

“May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels. Amen.”

Postscript: The Interview

If you didn’t catch Jon Stewart’s interview with King Abdullah II, here is the broadcast portion. The remainder of the interview can be found here, where the King expands on his comments, including the complexity of the situation and his nation’s role in attempting to broker peace in Jerusalem.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
King Abdullah II of Jordan
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