Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What Do You Confess?

What do you confess?  Are you a patriot?  Perhaps you proudly state that you're an American, and insist that all your fellow Americans remember, if nothing else, that they are Americans.  So you are actually making two confessions.  The first is a simple statement of national origin, and the second is a statement of national pride.

In order to pin you down more, I will restate my question this way.  What or whom do you confess as the final arbiter of your raison d'etre, the thing by which you judge everything else?

If you think about it, you'll discover the picture quickly grows murky for anyone seriously asking the question.  For example, being an American deepens to Americanism being the only sane national alternative, which further intensifies into the American national imperative.  "I confess I am a Democrat!" you might finally assert.  "I'm a Republican!" the person next to you might then shout.  Both of you hail American nationalism with equal fervor.  So what differentiates you from him/her?  What's the beef?

It might surprise you, but the difference is not what you each perceive as the correct national imperative.  No, I propose that you and your neighbor are still not confessing what you truly confess.  Now, there are a zillion factors to be considered, but I will cut to the critical chase as I see it.

You, the Democrat, might explain, "I know where you're going with this.  Let me tell you, I am a Christian.  I confess Jesus Christ!  And Jesus taught us to care for the poor and repudiate the rich."

"And how do you live by this confession?" I ask.

"I support leaders and government systems that mandate fair distribution of wealth, and who promote peace through tolerance.  After all, this is what our founding fathers advocated.  It is the glory of Americanism, and why all other nations pale."

Your Republican neighbor quickly chimes in before I can say anything.  "I confess Jesus Christ who demands moral purity and everyone working for their bread, which means they must take care of themselves.  This is what it means to be American.  This is the national ethos that shines above the rest because it demands free opportunity under the strict rule of Judeo-Christian ethics.  Our founding fathers would be appalled by the moral laxity and entitlements being leveled on the American public, today."

"How do you live by your confession?" I ask.

"I live it by supporting leaders and government systems who limit their own authority, advocate Christian principles and traditions in the public sector, and insist that everyone carry his own weight."

I step back to watch the two of you--both red-faced--glaring at each other.

The rest of you watching this drama playing out in my mind's eye will perhaps accuse me of creating caricatures.  I disagree.  The two patriots clearly read from the same music in their heads; the rest, as Wolfie in Amadeus said non plus, is just quibbling and bibbling, bibbling and quibbling.  The point is neither person has yet to honestly admit his/her true confession; indeed, they might not even know what it is.

I submit that despite the fact each sees the other as hopeless and--no overstatement, here--evil, they both actually confess the same thing.  Both really only want a society where they can be left to themselves and feel good about it.  Their truest confession is self-satisfaction--pure and simple.

If any caricature has been painted, it is their caricature of Jesus.

May I remind us that simply asserting Jesus is the son of God doesn't save us or our particular worldview.  Frequently in the Gospels we find the demons whom Jesus cast out of people confessing Jesus as the son of God.  But their true confession didn't change them; they only cowered.

If we are to confess Jesus in a way that effects a change in us and in the world around us, then we must confess Him as King.  If Jesus is our King, we will seek to obey Him according to His standards and not our own or those of the corrupt world.  We will obey Him by promoting His kingdom through individual initiative (i.e., not foisting the responsibility on someone else) in our sphere of influence--regardless of who might be in office, or what might be in vogue.  We promote his kingdom by caring for the poor, the infirmed, and the marginalized (isn't this what our Democrat friend claims he/she wants?) by freely distributing the wealth God has placed in our possession, fully confident of God's faithfulness.  And at the same time, bringing justice (isn't this what our Republican friend claims he/she wants?) by acting mercifully towards everyone including our enemies--yes, especially our enemies.  And at the same time willingly dying each and every moment both to and for this corrupt world as Jesus died for all of us.

No doubt this is a hard teaching.  Our king makes the most uncomfortable demands on us.  God's kingdom completely contradicts this dark world and its ways.  So, naturally there will be conflicts, and there won't be peace--at least not yet.  But if we truly confess Jesus as our King and Lord, the unrest and conflict we encounter will be a response and not our actions.  In other words, we won't be seeking sanctuary from the opposition, nor will we attempt to muzzle the opposition using the world's methods and tactics.  Indeed, if we truly trust our King Jesus, we won't be feel threatened, at all.  We will understand that the justice will only come through the power of love acting in holiness.

Jesus doesn't want us, as our two friends above are doing, to hide behind other men or women, or ideologies.  He calls us to boldly come out of hiding and invest ourselves as representatives of His kingdom to a dark, fearful, and angry world.

We would all do well to assess what we honestly confess.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why We Despair

This last week I fell, yet again, into an emotional slump; I felt disillusioned and discouraged; in short, I despaired.

And it's really disgusting when you think about it.  By what reason do I have to despair?  Compared to literally billions of people, I live in the lap of luxury, ease, and some might even say, decadence.  I surely hope they are wrong about the latter assessment.  I don't live decadently, but the rest of the point is well taken: I clearly have no reason to despair.

Unfortunately, all too often, I do despair.  I'm a petulant human being, and I think a bit of a problem child of God.  I can hear the Lord, "Bruce, Bruce, worry about so many things."  He'd be right.  And worry is nothing more than a symptom of despair.

I should say at this point in my defense, I am not despairing over the things I do or don't have, rather I despair out of a fear I am not using all I have been given--the collective assets of wealth, materials, knowledge, and opportunity--to make a positive difference in this world.  I despair I am merely a consumer instead of a producer.

Okay, after you get done gagging, you might suggest if I must despair over something, then that's a good thing to despair about.  Thanks, but despair is wrong because at the heart of despair is a lack of trust, or more correctly, a lack of proper trust.

Despite all the airtime I've consumed with this blog extolling the necessity of trusting God, I do a rather poor job of practicing what I preach.  The problem is not that God has failed to prove Himself trustworthy.  God has all through history proven His faithfulness, the crowning proof, of course, being the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of His son, Jesus the Christ.  And although I seem to quickly forget, God has also countless times proven His loyal love in my personal life.

Certainly, the problem is not with God's faithfulness but with my own lack of faithfulness, which blooms from an improper trust, and quickly wrecks me in the ditch of despair.  We can easily see the trust/lack of faithfulness connection, by considering three main manifestations of infidelity: 1) not doing what God wants all of us to do (i.e., blatant disobedience); 2) not doing what God specifically demands of me to do because I'm too busy trying to do what He would have the other guy do; and 3) doing what God asks our own way rather than His way.  In each case I trust in myself because of self-interest, with the outcome of being unfaithful to God.  And the ensuing failure breeds despair.

At the root of all the above examples of infidelity is an improper trust; that is, we trust in ourselves instead of God.  We insist we know better than God what we and the world needs, so we trust ourselves to get the job done.  The trouble is we are an unreliable lot.  Not only do we let God down time and time again, we let ourselves down countless times.  The fact is we are a very poor object of our trust.  And as long as we trust in ourselves instead of God, we will despair.

Is despair always a negative condition?  We must be careful not to confuse despair with grief.  At the root of despair is an improper trust born out of self-interest.  But the root of grief is love.  There is an inherent hopelessness in despair absent in grief.  Despair drives us away from God; grief leads us to Him.  Despair causes us to take matters in our own hands, or worse, give up altogether.  We can despair at the misery in the world, and be overwhelmed; or we can grieve at the state of the world and look to God to overcome it.  Jesus grieved at the waywardness of humankind, and was compassionate.  Hmm, come to think of it, anger is the only emotion I ever seem to dredge up in the state of despair--certainly not compassion.

Now that we better understand the mechanism of despair, what can we do to escape its sticky web?  As we seek to do the work Christ has for us by clinging tenaciously to Him for our strength, direction, and motivation, we should pray daily with the Psalmist:

Look, you desire integrity in the inner man;
you want me to possess wisdom.
Sprinkle me with water and I will be pure;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Grant me the ultimate joy of being forgiven!
May the bones you crushed rejoice!
Hide your face from my sins!
Wipe away all my guilt!
Create for me a pure heart, O God!
Renew a resolute spirit within me!
Do not reject me!
Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me!
Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance!
Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey!
Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways,
and sinners will turn to you. [Ps. 51:6-13][NET]

Yes, we will suffer; yes, we will grieve; but we won't despair because we are trusting in God, alone.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy Anniversary, Darling

Every year on or around our wedding anniversary I write what I affectionately call the state of the union missive to my wife.  The title is purposely tongue-in-cheek.  The sole reason for writing it is to celebrate my beautiful wife, to remind her again how much I love and adore her, and to guard myself from ever taking for granted the undeserved blessing she is to me.

Another tradition is our anniversary pilgrimage to a popular get-away vacation spot in our state.  The place we retreat is also where we were first hitched.  In fact, I'm writing this while sitting on the porch of our favorite B & B.  The day is absolutely idyllic, much as it had been the afternoon of our nuptials.  Earlier today we picnicked down by the water.  It was just us, a couple of young families enjoying their lunches, a light breeze, the periodic calls of the resident sea gulls, and a pleasure craft motoring out into the bay.

Why am I telling you this?

It is in the kinds of moments such as the one I related above, where we have our best chance at seeing our spouse.  In the calm serenity and the temporary withdrawal from the cares of life, we have an opportunity to peer into the heart of the companion God has blessed us with.  There are imperfections to be found, there, to be sure; such imperfections are also within us for our spouse to see.  But I'm suggesting in these tranquil moments, if we really want to, we can call an amnesty, and for a moment see our spouse from his/her perspective--nay, God's perspective--rather than our own.

Some of you at this point might be thinking, "You don't know my wife!" or "You don't know how much my husband hurt me."  Of course I don't, at least not in the specific details of your situation.  But trust me, I've lived long enough to understand what you are going through; I can empathize with you.  But I'm suggesting things will never change for the good if you keep looking at your spouse in the harsh light of accusation and resentment.  Despite your take on the history, your spouse carries within him or her the same fears, hopes, failed dreams, and need to be loved as you do.  I'm suggesting if you simply take a moment to weigh out each of those areas in your spouse without doctoring the balance with your personal weights and measures, you will suddenly know how you can love your spouse for his/her benefit.  And in the process you will be better able to assess your own true situation.

Here's what I propose:

Love you spouse
Forgive your spouse
         never look back again
Love your spouse
Tear down the wall between you
         even if certain you're not the mason
Love your spouse
Hear his cry
         it may be inaudible
Love your spouse
Dry her tears
         the well might run deep
Love your spouse
Celebrate his success
         it might be all that's left him
Love your spouse
Rejoice in her strength
         she might have much to carry
Love your spouse

And never, never, never, seek to make him or her in your image.  One can never love one's spouse unless one first loves God.  And that begins with understanding He wants all of us to bear His image.

Happy Anniversary my dear, Sara.  Thank you for making it so easy to see the love of Christ.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Meet Telemachus

In the course of preparing to teach an adult Sunday school class this fall on an overview of the Gospels, I came upon the account of the very famous Christian, Telemachus, as told by William Barclay in his commentary of the gospel of Mark [Daily Bible Study Series; St. Andrews Press: 1956, pp. 208-210].  I will reprise it here in my own words.

Telemachus was a monk who believed that isolating himself from the world was the surest way to secure his salvation.  And for a while he lived alone praying and studying.  He soon realized, however--I have to think his praying paid off--that such devotion to God was more self-serving than God-serving.  So he decided to go to Rome where the need was greatest.  It was late in the fourth century, and by this time Rome, as the entire Roman Empire, was officially Christian.  Telemachus arrived to a great celebration of a victory the Romans had recently won against the Goths.  The conquering general paraded before the people along side Emperor Honorius in the proud tradition of Rome, except people now poured forth from churches instead of temples.  One thing had not changed with the advent of Christian dominion, though; they still held gladiatorial fights to the death as part of the festivities--although, these were forced upon members of the defeated armies and no longer included martyrdom of Christians.   The humble monk came to the famed Colosseum just after the chariot races to behold a restive crowd, eighty thousand strong.  The tension was palpable as the fighters took center stage.  Telemachus, shocked that such brutality still existed in an Empire that had supposedly bowed to King Jesus, jumped the barrier, and stood between opposing gladiators.  The crowd shouted for him to get off the arena; one of the fighters pushed him away, but Telemachus quickly rebounded.  As only a blood-thirsty crowd of such a long and violent tradition could, the spectators demanded, in so many words,Telemachus' head.  The order went out, and whoosh, wang, the old monk fell dead in his own blood.  The crowd grew silent.  As if awakened from a drunken stupor, the people, for the first time, clearly saw the horrid inconsistency of their blood-lust with the gospel of Christ.  The gladiators wouldn't fight that day.  The crowd dispersed, and never again were such bloody spectacles held in Rome.  Telemachus' singular act of love had ended for good the centuries-long tradition of the gladiators.

True story.

How did that little old man accomplish such a great feat?  He didn't foment, or perpetuate a culture war.  He didn't stand outside the forum disparaging the current administration.  He didn't draw a sword and start hacking away at everyone opposing his world-view.  No, Telemachus abandoned himself completely to King Jesus, trusted Christ, and bore fruit for the kingdom of God.

Now, some of you reading this might complain; "Where was Christ in all of this?  Telemachus entrusted his life to Jesus.  Why didn't Jesus save Telemachus?"

Here is Jesus' answer:

If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it. For what benefit is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his life?  What can a person give in exchange for his life? For if anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  [Mark 8:34-38][NET]