Saturday, March 17, 2012

What is True

Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3.21)


Before I got to college, I had to sneak off to the movies. Our church’s by-laws strictly prohibited film-going. (Which gives you an idea how clubby its faith approach was. What kind of church has by-laws?) This, of course, made movies the greatest thing since sliced bread, and I saw everything the studios released. I often had to lie, “borrow” loose change from my mom’s purse, and cajole friends and neighbors to (unknowingly) help me dishonor my parents’ wishes. But the lure of a fairly benign off-limits activity blinded me to the fact that I was breaking God’s laws to defy an idiotic human rule.

While spending the summer with our grandmother, my brother and I convinced her to drop us off at the local cinema, where Young Frankenstein was playing. She made us promise not to tell anyone. “I don’t see anything wrong with it,” she said. “But the church teaches against it and people will pitch a fit if they find out I took you.” On the way home, she didn’t say much as we told her how funny the film was. When we walked into the house we realized why. Her twin sister, Pearl, had dropped by to see us and, on learning where we were, took it on herself to set us straight. “You boys ought to be ashamed—and you, too,” she said to our grandmother. “If Jesus had come while you were in the theater, you’d be bound for Hell.” Really?

I challenged her: “Where does the Bible say, ‘Thou shalt not go to the movies’?” Without a second’s pause, she fired off John 3.19 from the King James Bible: “Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.” So sitting in the dark theater was the problem, not defying our parents’ teaching or being exposed to unhealthy material on the screen. Grandmother jumped in. “Pearl, that doesn’t even make sense.” Wanting so much to have the last word, I added, “Mom and Dad took us to Mammoth Cave last year. It was really dark. Was that a sin?” Aunt Pearl shot back, “The truth is the truth and you can’t change it. I’d fear God if I were you!” To put a final nail in my spiritual coffin, she whipped out 2 Thessalonians 2.11-12: “And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” Ergo, I was delusional to think it was okay to enjoy a silly comedy in the dark—and, worse than that, none other than God fed my delusion!

Living Truthfully Now

As absurd as this exchange was, I remain grateful for it to this day. Even at 14, I knew that God was too big to succumb to such small-mindedness. I knew the real truth of God and gravitated toward it, not allowing petty dogma and ignorance to sway my confidence in that God. I kept going to movies—in fact, I grew increasingly bolder about breaking the rules—because Aunt Pearl’s reproach, despite her sincere and loving intentions, convinced me I had nothing to fear. She taught me how easily being afraid of God causes us to cobble together a lot of loose scriptures to rationalize irrational fears. Looking at her anti-movie “evidence” in context (John 3.14-21; Sunday’s Gospel), it’s indubitable that Jesus teaches us not to be afraid of God. In fact, Aunt Pearl’s “be afraid, be very afraid” citation turns up no less than three verses after Jesus’s immortal promise of God’s boundless, perfect love: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (v16)

This is the Good News of the Gospel: believe God’s promise of love and life. And regardless how many times we’ve heard or quoted John 3.16, it’s beholden on us to comprehend what Jesus is saying, as His message is just as radical and earthshaking today as when He first spoke it to Nicodemus, the curious Pharisee who wanted to know what Jesus is all about. For starters, Jesus isn’t talking about Heaven or Hell. In fact, life after death doesn’t enter His conversation. He’s talking about living truthfully now and how trusting God’s promise of love brings about new life.

In the Looking

Rather soon, Jesus realizes Nicodemus is stuck on the erroneous idea that God’s love and acceptance must be earned before they can be trusted. It’s a misbegotten, Old Testament idea that has perpetually set Israel at odds with God—and Jesus wants Nicodemus to know that He’s come to uproot this rickety notion once and for all. So He takes Nicodemus back to Numbers 21.4-9 (Sunday’s Old Testament text, recently explored in the post, Snakebit), where God pledges to heal anyone stricken with snakebite if they simply look at a bronze serpent suspended on a pole. They don’t have to prove anything. God doesn’t even ask them to apologize for the grumbling that brought on the venomous scourge. They just have to look up from wherever they are and they’ll be cured. In the looking they’ll express their faith in God’s promise of healing and new life. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life,” Jesus explains in verses 14-15, going on in verse 16 to redefine the terms of God’s promise so that it includes everyone in the world. “God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn it,” He stresses in verse 17, “but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” Jesus tells Nicodemus (and us) that God’s lavish love and new life aren’t rewards for righteous behavior. They’re promises we access by simple trust and belief.

So why doesn’t everybody in the world claim these promises as offered? Jesus answers this question with shocking candor. Many recoil from faith’s full light because they’ve grown to love the dark life, He says. They’re like cave dwellers; their adaptation to fearful darkness blinds them to God’s bright promises. It hurts their spiritual eyes to envision a world where God raises a life-giving, life-changing Christ Who welcomes and heals all who look to God in faith. They’ve developed finely tuned skills—many passed down over generations—that keep their radar on high alert. Anything that feels dangerous to them must be wrong for everyone else. As a result of feeling their way through darkness, they create evil that seeks to prevent those they love or fear from living in the light. In faith terms, they fabricate elaborate screens to block God’s light and condemn those who believe God’s promises. “But those who do what is true come to the light,” Jesus says in verse 21, “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Living as God Lives

God promises us eternal life—a new life that we live in God, as God lives, a life that cannot be comprehended because it has neither a beginning nor end. It is a life as limitless and enduring as God’s love, whose vastness reaches out to everyone who ever lived. What is true is that God loves us eternally. God loves us now. God has always loved us, and will never stop loving us. God’s love is perfect, which 1 John 4.16-19 stresses: “We have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as God is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because God first loved us.” (Emphasis added.)

The unconditional, unconventionally fearless love and life Jesus promises in John 3.16 is ours for the taking—and the living. When we forsake dark doctrines and ideologies to live truthfully as believers in God’s eternal love, we come to the light so it may be clearly seen that our deeds have been done in God. Basically, this is just a fancy way of saying, “Let God love you for who you are, where you are right now.” As dangerously radical as some may think that is, it’s why Jesus came.

Confidence in God’s promises of love and life opens the door to live truthfully in the light.

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Monday, March 12, 2012


If anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. (2 Corinthians 5,7)

Healing They Need

Paul begins his second letter to the Corinthian church on a painful note. From the start, we sense something’s gone wrong, not only because of what he says, but also because the deft frankness typical of Paul’s style is gone out of the writing. He’s mincing words—something he very seldom does—and the strain is oddly disturbing. With unusual tact, he refrains from recounting the specifics of an incident that occasions his letter or naming the offenders behind it. As best we can tell from his introductory comments, he’s decided not to return to Corinth for a while, even though his travels would make stopping there convenient. It seems his previous visit was marred by a confrontation that threatened the church’s unity. Paul was obviously wounded, as were many in the Corinthian community, and for the sake of all, he writes to explain why he believes it would be best not to return to them until the wounds heal.

Now that the offender has been disciplined and repented of his error, Paul encourages the church to welcome him back into community. Yet Paul’s also keenly aware that many in Corinth feel very protective of him and may be reluctant to embrace the man who opposed their leader. They may continue to resent, distrust, and treat him harshly. Rather than welcome his return as an equal, they may begrudgingly allow him to rejoin them while never dismissing their low opinion of him as a troublemaker. This will not bring about healing they need, healing that will ease Paul’s mind about future visits. In 2 Corinthians 2.7, he writes, “So now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”

Surpassing Pardon

It’s here that we get our first glimpse of Paul, the precise wordsmith and dynamic leader whom we admire. He replaces the Gospels’ customary word for “forgive” (aphiemi), which means “to let go, pardon”—as in forgiving a debt—with a more magnanimous one (charizomai) meaning, “give freely; impart grace; act favorably toward.” Paul asks more than usual from the Corinthians. He wants their forgiveness to surpass pardon. He urges them to dig deep into their reserves of compassion and summon the grace to restore the wrongdoer’s sense of self-worth and belonging. And he asks this for the good of all: for the man, for the Corinthians, and for himself. He concludes his supplication with this: “So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.” (v8-11)

Paul's adroit inclusion of “if I have forgiven anything” sends up a red flag that tells the Corinthians their forgiveness of the one who hurt him will make his forgiveness full and complete. Realizing this will be tough for some, he also notes that he’s watching them closely—testing them—to see if they’ll honor his request. In essence, he flips the situation, turning their willingness to extend grace to his former adversary as the litmus that proves they truly love him. Don’t stop at forgiving, he says; be free-giving.

Stuck in the Middle

I would guess that not one of us, at this moment, isn’t dealing with at least one situation that’s left us stuck in the middle somehow, stranded between our desire to stand for right while also deeply troubled about how our stance will affect those we believe are wrong. Break-ups are a classic case. When one partner wrongs another and their relationship ends, we support the wronged party. That’s an easy decision. Our response to the wrongdoer is much more complicated. We may love her/him as much or more than the other, yet our knowledge of the harm he/she caused encourages us to pull away. We hope we can forgive, offering true pardon that lets go. But we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the offender freely.

Restoration that can only be wrought by extending grace—by free giving—may ask more than we’re comfortable providing. That would look like disloyalty to the wounded person, whom we also love. But here we find Paul speaking as the hurt party, explicitly asking us to surpass lip-service pardon. “Freely give of your grace, act favorably toward, and console him,” he implores, “so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” He then tells us, “I’m waiting on your forgiveness so I can forgive.” Paul informs us that our unforgiving, ungracious attitudes and behaviors toward those who’ve harmed others actually impede both parties’ healing. In the course of this process, however, we should note that the offenders’ error has also been noted and dealt with fairly. “This punishment is enough,” verse 6 says. Once we’ve expressed our disappointment and anger, it’s time to move on to restoration. And this will indeed ask more of us than common forgiveness. We’ll need to dig deep. What’s more, we’ll have to deal with the unhappiness of those who can’t find it in themselves to give grace and favor freely. But better that than permitting our misfortune of getting stuck in the middle to delay or prevent much-needed healing and rectification.

Frank Assessment

One of Lent’s hardest tasks is offloading grudges and fears we carry because of personal injuries. Even though we pray daily, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” it’s an uphill battle to get this work done in anticipation of beholding Grace Incarnate at Calvary’s cross. We want to be free, clear, and unblocked by animosity and resentment, to know the cleansing Jesus purchased for us with His life. What we may overlook, though, are grudges we hold on behalf of others. Have we also forgiven those who’ve repented of sins against those we love, respect, or care about as victims of injustice? Are we too afraid of how we’ll be perceived to extend them the added grace that will bring about their restoration? Do we believe it is just of us to allow them to “be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow”?

What’s done cannot be undone. But the wounds it created can be healed once the harm is acknowledged and the offender repents. Lent’s call for self-examination includes frank assessment of our stance in situations that strand us in the middle. Are we mistaking dismissal and disdain for the offender as loyalty and compassion for the wounded? If so, we’re not giving freely and we’ve relinquished our middle position to become part of the problem. In conflicts that affect but don’t personally involve us, taking one side to the exclusion of the other undermines the healing of both.

Lent calls us not only to offload grudges and fears we hold as a result of personal injury. It also asks us to examine our responses as third-party observers of conflicts between others.

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Postscript: Questions 14 & 15

Why is often easier to forgive those who hurt us than those who hurt others?

How does our eagerness to offer compassion to the wounded while withholding it from the offender put us at risk of inflating our sense of importance—or outright pride?

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19.14)

God is Moving

Yesterday was one of those delectable spring days that make quarreling with a Chicago winter worth it. The bright sun held the temperature at a steady 60 degrees and big warm gusts blew away the cobwebs in everyone’s head. Walt and I headed out for “the Broadway stroll”—a tradition on days like this, when it seems like our entire neighborhood converges on a mile-and-a-half stretch of Broadway lined with shops and restaurants. A half-block down the street we bumped into one of many regulars we’ve got to know over the years. Elizabeth is a schizophrenic who lives in a nearby shelter. Her meds have caused her to grow a scraggly goatee and she spends most of her day seated two doors down from a Subway franchise. Like many of our neighbors, when we see her, we always stop to ask how she’s getting along. She held an unwrapped sandwich; so we asked if she was covered for dinner. “No, sir,” she said. We helped her with that, hugged her—she’s a big hugger—and I said, “We’re praying for you, Liz,” to which she answered, “I’m praying for you all, too.” Then she added, “God is moving in our lives.” We smiled in agreement. She said it again: God is moving in our lives.

As we moseyed along, Walt and I remarked a number of times about what Elizabeth told us. The purity of it wouldn’t let us alone. And as we repeated her words, the joy of an early spring day gave way to something brighter, warmer, richer. It rode on the breeze and glinted in the sunlight. We heard it in fellow pedestrians’ laughter, in the melodies of street musicians, in all the happy sounds filling the air. God is moving in our lives. There it was all around us: God. Moving. Life.

Increasingly High Hurdles

Before we left the apartment, I’d glanced at Sunday’s readings and, to be truthful, was glad to let them wait. The Old Testament text (Exodus 20.1-17) reviews The Ten Commandments. Psalm 19 extols the beauty of God’s laws. The New Testament (1 Corinthians 1.18-25) has Paul guiding his readers away from viewing the Law as an ironclad imperative, since we can never fully comprehend God’s reasons. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength,” he writes. The Gospel (John 2.13-22) recounts the infamous Temple-clearing episode, where Jesus subverts the authorities’ demand for a “sign” that He’s qualified to take the Law into His own hands by offering His upcoming death and resurrection as proof He embodies the Law.

It was apparent the lectionary wanted us to see The Ten Commandments and all the religious laws that have cropped up around them—both in Scripture and post-biblical doctrines—as something greater than codified behaviors and beliefs. But if laws and doctrines are supposed to achieve more than corral our attitudes and actions, what might their objectives be? How often do we hear good-hearted, spiritually inclined people say they want nothing to do with the Christian faith because it’s nothing but a bunch of do’s and don’ts? (A lot.) And how often do we cogently explain why following Christ is so much more than obeying an archaic set of rules? (Rarely.)

Uncertain that I could make sense of this double-bind—loving God’s laws while exercising Christian freedom from the Law—I put it out of mind. “Maybe something will come to me,” I thought, breathing a prayer something would. No less than 10 minutes later, the answer met me in Elizabeth’s profoundly assured wisdom. God is moving in our lives. The laws we so desperately want to carve in stone cannot be pinned down because the God Who issues them will neither be carved in stone nor pinned down. God moves in us constantly, responding to our movements, growing in us as we grow, perpetually challenging us, always asking more of us than we presently possess or believe we can achieve. God’s laws aren’t like our laws. They’re not given to mandate morality or deter behaviors, even though they ultimately do both. They’re meant to draw us into the process of moving with God as God moves in us. They’re not fences designed to hem us in; they’re a series of increasingly high hurdles we learn to clear so that God’s presence and purpose become increasingly evident in our lives. A good look at how The Ten Commandments are organized explains how this works.

The Degree of Difficulty

There’s a deliriously funny moment in Mel Brooks’ History of the World—Part One, when Brooks, as Moses, comes down from Mt. Sinai with three tablets. He declares, “The Lord Jehovah has given you these 15”—then he drops one of the tablets and it shatters—“oy, 10, 10 commandments for all to obey.” I mentioned the scene to Walt while telling him I was at a loss about how to approach Sunday’s texts. He said something that got me thinking. “What if there were 15,” he mused, “and the five that got away were ‘happy’ commandments like, ‘Have fun every day’ or ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself’? What if 11 through 15 were really easy commandments?” While I resist imagining they’d be as easy as those Walt invented, their placement at the bottom of the list suggests they’d be easier to obey than those above them.

If we look at The Ten Commandments in descending order, the degree of difficulty is markedly reduced as we go down the list. The bottom five are straightforward “don’ts”: don’t covet what your neighbor has; don’t tell lies about your neighbor; don’t steal; don’t commit adultery; and don’t murder. Most of these behaviors go beyond the pale for us—they’re literally unconscionable—and those that aren’t nonetheless require a conscious moral breach to disregard. As we climb the list, however, what God expects of us involves more judicious responses. “Honor your father and your mother” requires us to evaluate our motives: are we making choices for our good? Or are we reacting to parental prohibitions to prove a point? “Keep the Sabbath”: are we respecting God’s wish that we set aside a day to worship our Creator and rest from our labors? Or are we taking a day off for idle self-indulgence? “You shall not make for yourself an idol”: Do we reserve worship for God? Or are our lives overcrowded with other objects of adoration? “Have no other gods before Me”: Does faithfulness to God top our list of commitments? Or do we rank others above God? The higher up the list we go, the harder it gets. Suddenly we’re aware that this seemingly arbitrary roster of laws presents us with a process—a gantlet of sorts that gets us closer to God as we master each increasingly difficult demand.

Fixing God’s law as a monolithic wall writ large with do’s and don’ts will result in constantly crashing into it. We will never reach the place it wants to lead us, a point in life where we become intensely sensitive to God’s movement in us. Mastering God’s laws one by one is no easy task. It’s fraught with failure. We keep trying again and again. Yet only by learning to obey God’s laws can we be like Jesus, Who rose above the Law by conquering its impossible demands.

A Hurdler’s Prayer

When we come to view God’s law as a gradually difficult process, we understand why David fills Psalm 19 with high praise for God’s edicts. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul,” he sings. “The decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.” (v7-10) With every hurdle, God’s movement in David’s life becomes more evident. And he closes his hymn to God’s expectations with a hurdler’s prayer we should all incorporate into our daily lives: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” It’s a gradual process, not a grueling list of prohibitions.

God’s laws grow more demanding in order to make God’s movement in our lives more evident.

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