Thursday, December 26, 2013

Three Lessons From Professional Hockey

Those who know me, know I don't much like professional hockey.  The reason is the same for why I don't like any blood sport: it is barbaric to place money and entertainment before life--particularly human life.  Professional hockey is a classic example of this; it is not about tactics and skillful playing, but brawling, bloodletting, and indirectly, killing.

In a recent edition of Lab Reporter (of all sources), Ashley Peterson discusses the rising cases of brain damage among pro hockey players (Lab Reporter 2013 (4), 32-33).  These brain injuries, which usually don't manifest until years after they first occurred and are not detectable with current technology, often result in premature death.  Case in point is the recent demise of Derek Boogaard at the tender age of 28 years.

I'm not here to rant against blood sports, though.  Ashley's expose on the state of professional hockey affords three glimpses into the human condition.  We can learn three lessons about ourselves from the discussions around the problems stemming from violence in hockey.  It is these problems I want to briefly address here because they clearly illustrate why we all need a Savior.

First of all, fallen humanity thrives on what it sees as power.  Even though faced with mounting evidence of the lethal ramifications of aggression in hockey, the promoters are reluctant to completely do away with the fighting.  As Ashley reports,

"However, as long as rough action sells tickets, a major change to totally eliminate fighting in the NHL may still be a ways off."

You see, even though we all talk about the value of human life, tolerance, peace, and all such noble causes, we secretly value power more.  Money is power.  And if we are not making money at the expense of human life, we are doling it out so we can vicariously beat up those in our lives we want to see bloodied--if not killed; indeed, it is becoming less and less satisfying for people to pay others to burn their personal effigies for them; this is why we are hearing of more and more cases of post-game violence among the spectators.  Blood sports are and have always been a legal outlet for our hate.  This present world believes hate is power.  The incentive of hate is death or the threat of death; and the currency of hate is money.

Therefore, people value power because they see power as both a means to promote hate and to protect themselves from hate.  They want to promote hate--although they deny this--because it is hoped this will produce more power for themselves. They want protection, because to be king-of-the-hill ultimately comes down to survival. And if they lack the innate gifts to achieve such power on their own, they buy it.

Secondly, we easily blind ourselves to the clear facts in order to get what we want, which is, of course, power (see above).  I laughed aloud when I read in Ashley's article,

"Specifically, researchers presented new findings in support of the elimination of fighting [i.e., in hockey], suggesting that repeated punches to the head can cause the most serious injury.  While there is still no irrefutable evidence that fighting results in brain damage, many experts continue to press the issue."

Really?  Do we really need insurmountable evidence before we believe hitting someone repeatedly in the head will cause brain damage?  Are we really that stupid? Of course we are; but it is a self-imposed stupidity for the sake of power; and for this reason we will always question the data, no matter how irrefutable it might be.  Fallen humanity is--despite its protestations to the contrary--comprised of liars. And sadly, these liars have long ago believed their own lies.

Finally, we discover we cannot really protect ourselves from ourselves.  Ashley points out the fact that recent NHL legislation against blindside checks actually resulted in more concussions.  Furthermore--as I suspect we have been seeing in Pro football--implementing better protective gear actually emboldens the players to take more risks, which means more aggression.  Rules and armor will never overcome our thirst for power.  Truly, it has been said by someone, "Necessity is the mother of invention."

The last point locates the core of the fallen human condition: the human heart.  All I have discussed here flows from a heart of selfish-ambition and conceit.  For this reason, all the analyses, good intentions, and legislation will never bring peace to our world.  Until the human heart is changed to see what true power is and then act in it, we will continue to slit each other's throats, and congratulate ourselves in the process.

We will never possess such changed hearts until we completely surrender ourselves to our Creator; because only He knows what real power is and can give us the wisdom to possess it.  The true power which I speak is love.

God's answer to the human condition was for Himself to take on humanity as His son, Jesus the Christ, walk among us in perfect love, and take upon Himself, as an act of true love, all the so-called power this world can muster in defense and validation of itself, and sacrificially die.  But then prove the world's power to be powerless against the true power of love, by raising Jesus to eternal life as transformed humanity; so that now, if we surrender ourselves completely by faith to the living Christ, we will possess His heart of love as He lives within us by His spirit; we will become transformed humanity together in Christ and live forever in the power of his love, which is true lasting peace.

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders.  And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.  He will reign on David's throne and over His kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.  The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this." (Is. 9:6-7) [NIV]

Through three lessons from the NHL we have found ourselves severely wanting; and therefore from them we hopefully come to see our need for our Savior, Jesus the Christ, who is God with us.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Why am I so tired? (Part 2)

[Please don't read the following unless you have read the preceding post.]

We become tired any time we do anything, because work requires energy.  Not all fatigue defeats us, though. When we work hard at something flowing from our inherent strengths, the fatigue we feel actually exhilarates us.

My friend wasn't speaking of this kind of fatigue, however.  He wants more than anything to strive for his Lord Jesus, yet frequently finds himself feeling defeated at the end of the day.  This is why he asked me, "Why am I so tired?"

There are, of course, many reasons one could address in answering my friend's dilemma, but I would like to suggest three common reasons for the demoralizing fatigue my friend so desperately wants to overcome.

Firstly, when we walk with Christ we can often become burdened down with guilt.  We are well aware of the fact we all too often fall short of Holy-Love; and we worry we are rapidly using up the grace God has allotted us.  Consequently, we begin wringing our hands, pace, and fret that God will drop us from His roster unless we straighten up and fly right.  We work even harder to make up for our infractions, and fail again.  Before long we are exhausted and defeated under a heavy weight of guilt.

This guilt-based fatigue happens because we have misunderstood the Gospel of Christ.  Jesus took on all our guilt--past, present, and future--and paid for it once and for all by dying on the cross.  There is no longer any condemnation for anyone who is in Christ. We are forgiven when we stand in Christ by faith.  There is no limit to the mercy He will afford us.  Yes, we will fail; and yes, God's Spirit within us will help us  recognize our failures--not to discourage or shame us, but to awaken us to the new life we have in Christ.  Instead of becoming defeated by guilt, we become invigorated by the wisdom we gain through our failures, because our eyes see more clearly in the light of God's forgiveness.  Truly, in Christ we are freed from the burden of guilt.

Secondly, we tend to exhaust ourselves by  constantly second-guessing, modifying, mitigating, or down-right ignoring what the Holy Spirit tells us to do; instead of simply obeying by the grace He provides, we labor to find loop holes to the Spirit's simple instructions.  The fatigue I am talking about here is of the same ilk as experienced when we tell a lie and don't fess up.  The first lie soon begets a second and then a third, and we find ourselves embroiled in a complex chess game of manipulations, intrigues, and moves and counter-moves; just trying to keep it all spinning wears us out.  In the same way, when we override the Spirit's direction, we collapse under a heavy load of consequences; and our futile attempts to manage these consequences to our best advantage quickly incapacitates us.

Christ frees us from the burden of trying to figure it all out for ourselves--to find wisdom on our own. God's sight is always 20/20; we simply don't have the wherewithal to craft lenses thick enough to correct for our lack of wisdom.  Jesus frees us by lighting our path; we now see through His eyes. All we have to do is to trust Him by stepping where He tells us to step.

Thirdly, we tend to defeat ourselves by thinking walking with Christ is the same as keeping some grand New Year's resolution to ourselves. We tell ourselves, "I've got to be like Jesus," so we proceed to lay out our stratagems,disciplines, and rules.  Unfortunately, we soon find ourselves defeated by our inherent inadequacies.

The good news of the Gospel of Christ is it is God who does and must change us.  No longer are we fettered by our weaknesses, but we are being renewed in the perfect adequacy of Christ.  In ourselves we only find tortuous paths to death; in Christ we find life, and life to the fullest.  God is transforming us as we drink from the well of the eternal spring of Holy-Love gushing within us through His Holy Spirit.

There is an inescapable fatigue in following Christ, but it need not defeat us.  The fatigue I mean comes from persecution.  Persecution is resistance to the Truth of Christ; and we encounter persecution both from within and from outside of ourselves.  To suggest this persecution isn't exhausting would be a lie. But the truth of the gospel of Christ is Jesus suffered every persecution we face, and even the ultimate persecution of death by crucifixion.

In Christ, then, we are freed from having to bear this persecution alone. In the same way Jesus upheld Peter back to the boat through the torrent raging around them in the middle of the lake, He will uphold us through the terrors of this life.  And in the same way Jesus quelled the storm after returning Peter safely to the boat, the day is coming when Jesus will bring eternal Shalom for all who are standing in Him.  This hope is a sure comfort in our afflictions.

My friend asked me what this all looks like practically. Certainly when we can, we should read the Scriptures, which is God's revelation to us.  We should also not forsake His assembly; God often brings His wisdom, comfort, and strength through our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  We also need to find designated times to engage in focused prayer to God.  All these things must be done.  But there are times in life when we simply don't have access to them.  The beauty of the Gospel of Christ is Jesus is always within us.  Therefore we can and should be always chatting with our Lord; in work or play or anytime, we need to be talking with God as an active listener--thanking Him, questioning Him, seeking guidance from Him in everything, and celebrating the fallout of His love both to us and to others.  It is as the Holy Spirit teaches us through St. Paul:

"Always rejoice, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." (I Thess. 5:16-18)

In this way we are no longer taxed by the demands of Holy-Love because we are already entrusting ourselves fully to the sure power of Christ.  We find rest as we continually stand in Christ's righteousness.  And the fatigue we experience no longer defeats us but invigorates us as we confidently pursue God's purposes for us.

What Paul says next summarizes this present post much better than I can:

"Don't extinguish the Spirit, do not treat prophecies with contempt. But examine all things; hold fast to what is good. Stay away from every form of evil.  And may the God of peace Himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He who calls you is trustworthy, and he will in fact do this." (I Thess. 5:19-24)[NET].

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why am I so tired? (Part 1)

The Sermon on the Mount is the Law fulfilled in Christ.  Jesus perfectly practiced both the letter of the Law and the purpose/meaning the letter of the Law points to.  The purpose/meaning behind the Law is like the flesh covering the bones; it is love filling and energizing holiness and being energized by holiness.  It is God's righteousness.

What we must understand is unless we conform to this fulfilled Law--this righteousness of God--we absolutely will not stand in God's Kingdom.  Jesus teaches us very clearly,

"For I say to you (plural), unless your righteousness far exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you (plural) will absolutely not enter into the kingdom of the heavens." (Matt. 5:20)

If we understand righteousness as obeying the Law according to any standard outside of Love, we are neither standing with Christ in God's kingdom, nor will we ever so stand with Him in God's glory.  The Law of which Jesus speaks is the ten commandments; because the ten commandments are the necessary but not sufficient measure of the Law of God's righteousness that is love. For the Holy Spirit teaches us through the Apostle John,

"The one claiming, 'I have known Him,' and is not obeying His commandments, is a liar, and the Truth is not in him or her.  But whoever obeys His word, truly the love of God has been perfected in him or her, by this we know that we are in Him." (I John 2:4-5)

Therefore, Jesus unpacks Holy-Love (my concise term for the compass of fulfilled Law) for us through His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).  The latter serves to illustrate for us who dwell with Him in His kingdom (i.e., His disciples) what the Holy-Love looks like.  Because Jesus perfectly conformed to Holy-Love, we too can conform to Holy-Love if we live in Christ.  Not only can we conform to Holy-Love in Christ, we absolutely must do so; otherwise, we are not truly walking with Christ in His kingdom, TODAY--that is, we are not true Christians.

Immediately upon hearing this, our first reaction is God has given us an even harder set of rules than before to try to follow, and we become exhausted before we even start; we quickly feel defeated.  A fellow parishioner approached me recently explaining he understands the mandate of Holy-Love but is worn out by what it requires in practice.  "Why am I so tired?" he asked me.

I can relate.  But I also know this fatigue my friend is experiencing doesn't seem to jibe with what Jesus would later teach,

"Come to Me everyone who is toiling and has been loaded down, and I will give you (plural) rest.  Take up my yoke upon you (plural) and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you (plural) will find rest for your souls;  For My yoke is good--kindly--not pressing, and My burden is light." (Matt. 11:28-30)

Does Jesus contradict Himself?  By no means, and this is good news for us.

The yoke of a Rabbi was his example for how to fulfill God's righteousness; and a Rabbi's disciples would do absolutely everything their Rabbi did, to the letter--that is, they would be yoked to their Rabbi.  Jesus' yoke is the final word on fulfilling God's righteousness (above).  And even though Holy-Love appears daunting--and it is, because it runs counter to everything this world holds dear--Holy-Love is nevertheless the only way to the peace of God that is Shalom--the perfect rest of God's kingdom; Jesus promises us this is true.  And we can go to the bank on Jesus' promises.

The reason He promises His yoke is light lies at the heart of the Gospel of Christ--the Good News for all who are believing in Him. Next week, I will answer my friend's impassioned question by explaining what I mean by this.  For now, I think I have given us quite enough to chaw on.

See you next week.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Legend of Tom Turkey

There was this bird.  He was big as birds come, and quite a lot smarter than most would give him credit. He wasn't much to look at, though.  Some might say he was born old--not in the precocious sense or in terms of wisdom, just in the prunish way an old man would appear after living out his eighty years in Death Valley.  The bird's name was Tom.

Tom didn't live alone. Actually, he lived among quite a large flock.  Trouble was, old Tom felt quite alone.  The other birds ignored him; nothing Tom did seemed to alter this sad situation, either.  It got so bad Tom concluded he had an image problem, and he decided to do something about it.

Being the brightest bulb of the bunch, Tom tried to gain notoriety through his strengths.  He set up an old pail he found lying around, stood up on it, cleared his throat, and read his paper on the quantum implications of farm life.  No one listened and no one cared; before long, old Tom was really alone.

Undeterred, Tom tore his tee-shirt, lit up a cigarette butt Farmer Brown had dropped on the ground, and yelled through the wire to the girl on the other side, "STELLA!"  She promptly closed the window.

Next, Tom started listening to Bing Crosby records; and after fashioning a pipe from a corn cob, he began crooning to the chics.  I can't tell you their reaction, because this blog is G-rated.

Then one afternoon Farmer Brown came on the scene carrying an ax.  Tom thought the only way to impress the gang is if he acted tough.  So Tom courageously approached the surprised Farmer Brown and with his best bravado, said, "You talking to me?  I say, are YOU talking to me?"  Tom looked around to see if this would finally cause everyone to notice him; but it didn't.  The onlookers just went on with their fowl business.  Tom didn't have much time to regret this, because Farmer Brown called Tom's bluff.  The next day at about two o'clock--after the football game had ended--the Brown family lined the dinner table and gave Tom the respect he had long sought in life.  Only now, when is was too late to do Tom any good, did those gathered around Tom shout in one accord, "Oh, what a magnificent bird!"

The moral of this tale is it's hard to soar like a turkey in a yard full of chickens.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Out of Creation

This week I experienced a conflation (i.e., fusing--sorry, I need to get out more often) of three media inputs (two books and a movie).  I just finished Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God.  This is an excellent book for anyone who wants to understand the proper relationships between science and the Bible.  Dr. Schroeder does a bang up job of explaining difficult scientific concepts to the uninitiated--a rare talent, indeed.  He goes a long way to show how neither the Bible nor science can prove the existence of God; but shows how the more science learns, the more difficult it becomes for it to deny the existence of God.  Dr. Schroeder does an excellent job of exegesis of the first chapter of Genesis, which alone is worth the price of the book.  And even though I concur with much of Schroeder's theology, I find him stumbling over the stumbling stone of Christ.  It may not be his intention, but after reading his book, I came away with the feeling that if humankind studies the universe long enough, humankind will find the Shalom with God--that is, justice will eventually come with our understanding of creation. Putting it another way, my impression is Dr. Schroeder is suggesting--and I could be misinterpreting him--we can find peace through creation.

I got to thinking about this because of something Dr. Wolterstorff said in his book Journey Toward Justice, which I had finished before reading Dr. Schroeder's book and therefore is the second member of my three media conflation.  As if commenting on what I believe Dr. Schroeder was advocating, here is what Dr. Wolterstorff said,

"Fundamental to modernity is a blending and secularizing of the story lines of Scripture in such a way that there is thought to be good ground within the natural order for expecting that society will someday be liberated from injustice and we will all flourish until we die full of years.  A few scientists have even speculated that a  technology will eventually be discovered that halts aging, thereby eliminating death due to old age.  Those who successfully dodge fatal accidents will retain the vigor, the agility, the curiosity,the libido, of a twenty-five-year-old.

This is optimism grounded in creation, not hope grounded in God." [N. P. Wolterstorff, Journey Toward Justice. Baker Academic (2013), p. 235.]

He is absolutely correct.  It is true we lack knowledge, or more importantly, we lack wisdom needed to bring Shalom.  But we cannot find this wisdom in creation because to believe so assumes the problem is only our ignorance; it's not.  There is something more fundamental blocking Shalom than just our ignorance. Here is where the third source of input to my week came in.

Every so often my wife and I hold a 50's Sci-Fi movie night at our home.  She usually purchases theatre style boxed candies such as Milk Duds, Junior Mints, and the like.  She also pops popping corn and doles it out to the guests in miniature pop corn containers reminiscent of the day.  We always start with a Loonie Toons cartoon, and then watch the main feature. Well, this weekend we had friends over for a double-feature.  We began with Porky Pig and Daffy Duck in The Ducksters and followed up with The Thing and Forbidden Planet.  It was after watching Forbidden Planet this present blog came together--the conflation I have been alluding to.

The story-line of Forbidden Planet is the discovery of a planet once occupied by the Krell.  The Krell had lived millions of years prior to the time of the story and had evolved their society over a couple of million years through technological and scientific advancement into a state of Shalom.  However, when they looked to eliminate all instrumentality from their existence (i.e., operate purely mentally) they rediscovered the truth that despite all their advancement there still remained deep in the core of their psyche, the id.  The id is of course the remnant of animal barbarism left over from their evolution from the primitive--or so says Freud. For this reason the Krell ended up destroying themselves, leaving only a powerful yet powerless technology for posterity.

The story of the Krell steers us to the fundamental barrier I mentioned above.  The barrier is the fact--despite popular belief to the contrary--humankind is not basically good, rather humankind is basically evil.  But this evil did not arise in us because of our primitive roots; even Dr. Schroeder asserts this fact by recognizing that humankind differs from their ancestors by virtue of the fact that God breathed His image into them.  No, humankind became evil because it chose to disengage itself from God who is the only source of goodness because only He is good.  The hubris of Adam and Eve was they could be good--that is, they could muster up the wisdom to keep Shalom--from within themselves--from creation.

Do you hear what I heard from these three seemingly disparate pieces of media?  Evil entered into humankind and therefore into the world because we believed we could find wisdom through creation! The revelation shines a whole new light on what Paul meant in his letter to the Romans:

"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes--His eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made.  So people are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give Him thanks, but became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles." [Rom. 1:18-23 (NET)]

And justice continues to elude us because we continue to believe we will find Shalom through creation; it just isn't so, because such wisdom only resides in God.

Our only hope to Shalom we all seek is to reestablish the intimate relationship with God we were created to have and indeed must therefore have to truly live, which is Shalom.  And only God could make this possible for us because our evil blinds us to the truth.  And God has accomplished this through His son Jesus the Christ.  Failure to recognize this final and absolutely necessary piece to the puzzle of restored humankind is the stumbling block I mentioned earlier.

If we want to find the wisdom Dr. Schroeder recognizes we need, we must as Dr. Wolterstorff so beautifully explains move out of creation, because we are inherently evil as the Krell learned too late for their civilization.  To find Shalom we must leap out of creation and into the loving arms of Jesus--into the new creation that is His eternal kingdom.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Should We Forgive an Unrepentant Person?

I am finishing up Nicholas P. Wolterstorff's freshly minted book, Journey Toward Justice.  It has been a challenging book for me--particularly in the categories of rights and forgiveness.  For this reason it is a good book, and certainly one I would recommend.

Professor Wolterstorff addresses an issue near and dear to all of us who care anything about relationships, I think; the topic is forgiveness.  I broached this subject in my own book, A Final Word on LOVE, so I was interested in his perspective, especially in light of the broader context of justice.

We all think about forgiveness frequently because life unfortunately is made up of events leading to either our need to forgive someone, or our need to be forgiven.  Some of us will harbor bitterness towards others, and that is that.  What Wolterstorff or I have to say on the matter will likely matter little to those of that persuasion.  But the rest of us see a value to forgiveness--if only a self-interested one--that is, we know bitterness eats the embittered soul alive; and forgiveness is a good vaccine against such cancer.

As a Christian, I know God fully expects me to forgive others.  Indeed, Jesus leaves no room in this:

"For if you forgive people their trespasses, your Father in Heaven will also forgive you.  If you don't forgive people (their trespasses), neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." [Matt. 6:14,15]

The Greek construction here is quite emphatic.  Jesus is saying if the front end statement (protasis) is true (i.e., if you forgive others...) then the end statement (apodosis) will always be the case (God will forgive you).  The corollary is therefore also emphatically meant: If I don't forgive others, then God will not forgive me.

Wolterstorff would stand on this; yet he and many others I know also believe you cannot, nor should not forgive someone who hasn't repented.  He quotes Luke 17:3-4 as showing even Jesus invoking repentance as a necessary condition for our decision to forgive someone.  He argues that even though Jesus clearly teaches us to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us and do not repay evil for evil but evil with good, Jesus never teaches us to forgive our enemy. Wolterstorff further argues God doesn't forgive us if we don't repent--that is, the necessary but not sufficient condition of receiving God's forgiveness is our repentance.

In practical terms, Wolterstorff believes if we forgive someone who doesn't repent, we are in effect saying his or her immoral action against us isn't really immoral; in fact, it doesn't matter, at all. Wolterstorff says the following of forgiving Hurbert, who has refused to repent of his deed against him:

"I submit that this is both to demean myself and to insult Hubert by refusing to treat him and what he did with full moral seriousness." [N.P. Wolterstorff Journey Toward Justice. Baker Academic (2013): p. 215]

I must confess, the good Professor almost had me convinced.  But I cannot accept his argument.  I cannot because I do not think any human being can love his enemy without forgiving his enemy.  An enemy is an enemy because they wrong us and continue to do so with no remorse.  How can anyone love such a person without forgiving him, when love requires fundamentally to treat the other person for his good because of his inherent worth (i.e., Wolterstorff's proper definition of human rights)--irrespective of his actions and disposition?  I ask again: How can we repay his evil with good, if we haven't forgiven him?  After all, forgivenness is to let go any obligation the other person might own us. How can we possibility love someone while still holding an account against the person?

I suppose it is theoretically possible for a person to pigeon-hole his complaints against someone, so he or she can treat the person as if those complaints don't really exist, and therefore love the other person without forgiving him.  But such a thing just doesn't jibe with what I know of human nature.  If I don't forgive someone, I will be embittered towards the person.  I may be able to keep my bitterness in check by not beating him up, or slashing his tires, but I will harbor bitterness against him.  The problem is our understanding of the love God calls us to.  Love is not only avoiding hurting the person in some outward sense, but in any sense.  And harboring bitterness--whether acted upon, or not--is hurting the person and therefore not loving the person.  This is what Jesus meant when He equated murder with anger (Matt. 5:21-26).  Certainly it is wrong to murder someone; yet if we harbor unresolved anger (unforgiveness) toward someone we will eventually murder them, either physically, emotionally, or politically; and therefore if we cling to our unforgiveness, we have already murdered our offenders.  Bitterness is an unavoidable consequence of not forgiving someone.  And bitterness is contrary to love.

The present world system sees the only way for people to face their actions is to force them to live the consequences of their actions.  Therefore, if I forgive an unrepentant person--so the argument goes--he or she will not have to live the consequences of his or her actions (i.e., whatever our unforgiveness delivers the offender).  This makes sense to us because we are children of this world system; its logic is hardwired into us.  But God is calling us to His kingdom system.  And even though it may seem counter-intuitive, the only real hope of our offenders coming to face their offenses is if they see true love expressed to them--regardless of their current disposition.  This is how Jesus brought us to see our Sin; Jesus loved us with the supreme act of mercy and forgiveness by dying on the cross--even though He was perfectly innocent.

If I follow the world's method, I submit the offender will rarely if ever come to face his or her own demons because he or she will be too preoccupied with either taking revenge against me for my unforgiveness, or proving why he or she had been justified in wronging me in the first place.  But, if I respond according to the methods of God's kingdom, the offender has a good chance of seeing his or her faults, and--guess what--will likely come to repentance.  Not always, of course.  But I don't love someone only because I expect or demand the right response, rather because I hope for the right response--this is the real beauty and promise of God's kingdom. Besides, I am not responsible with what an unrepentant offender does or does not do with my forgiveness; that is between him or her and God.

Therefore, I must always forgive people, regardless of whether they are repentant or not.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Birdseye View

I love to look at aerial photos of marathons.  You might think I feel this way because I'm inspired by a mass of humanity striving towards a goal.  I suppose I should, but that's not the reason.  Besides, it's a race; so even though they are in mass moving toward a prize, they are competing with each other--not exactly a model of cooperative human achievement.  However, I suppose at any given race there are those whose sole objective is to win at all costs, and those running to prove something to themselves or others who might be watching them, and those who are running simply to give meaning to all the long hours of exercise and training.  For most people involved, the marathon is a social event and therefore a good picture of the human community.  This is good, and I doff my hat to them, but it is not what it is about these birds eye view glimpses of these meets that captures my imagination.

What I think about when looking at these pictures is how each one of those dots of color is a person. And as such, each one comes with his or her own life.  Each one has dreams, ambitions, loves, hates, fears, pasts, secrets, hurts, gifts, joys, and heartaches.  All of them have sandwiched themselves together--perhaps for the first and last time--and then separate according to ability.  At the end of the day, most will have crossed the finished line.  The winner will carry his or her reward home; the rest will mark off the experience with a joy of accomplishment, a bested time, or a charlie horse.  And some had earlier dropped out along the way.  But flying high above them, I don't know them or their outcomes; I only see tiny figurines.  And I marvel how this is only a small sampling of the human race--past, present, and future.  I'm struck by an indescribable sense of wonder.

There is, of course, another perspective of this spectacle.  I'm reminded of the scene in the movie The Third Man, where Harry Lime is talking with his best friend while riding in a gondola on a Ferris wheel. Harry's friend had learned of Lime's nefarious activities of killing little children through a black marketing scam.  Lime justifies himself by asking his friend if he had the chance to make ten or twenty thousand dollars, but it would mean some of those dots moving around below would have to disappear, wouldn't he do it?  Therefore some people looking at the same aerial photo I am don't see persons, they see opportunities to advance themselves.  The grim truth is even if they were to come face to face with some of those dots, they will still see them as objects.  How else can you explain the long history of exploitation, murder, and betrayal?

Fortunately for all of us, God does not see us this way.  The really amazing thing about looking at that aerial picture is it is in one sense exactly how God sees us.  God sees us as a collective--as a community--and smiles broadly because He created us to be a community with Him; this is what is meant by the kingdom of God. It is the wonderful gift of Christ that we can be a community of people who love each other--mutually supporting each other for the benefit of the other so the created purpose of God's kingdom is accomplished.  God wants His kingdom to be unified, and has accomplished this in Christ--such a picture of beauty for us to contemplate.

Yet God is not only interested in the collective; God cherishes each individual as if each one were the only one.  When God looks down and sees the sea of dots, He sees persons.  And not only does He see them as persons, He knows each one of those dots intimately in every way, even much more than the persons know themselves.  And this knowledge is not just analytical on God's part, but the result of a deep abiding investment of love for each person because He has ascribed great worth to each of them. This is perhaps the most beautiful thing of all: "what is man that you are mindful of him..." says the Psalmist.  Do you now begin to understand how much God loves you?

Even though from God's birds eye view you might think you are but a mere speck to Him. Think again; you are a precious child He longs to embrace with love that is life forever.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

Who's the Greatest? (Part 3)

Coming on the heels of the passages from Mark's Gospel account we discussed last week is a decidedly enigmatic set of statements from Jesus.  It reads as follows:

"Everyone will be salted by fire.  Salt is good; but if salt becomes unsalty, by what way will you season it? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with each other." [Mark 9:49-50]

You can easily see how perplexing these comments are.  Barclay suggested in his, Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Mark. Westminster Press (1956): p. 241, this was an example of pithy sayings of Jesus the gospel writers would record out of context as a means of remembering them.  I disagree.

The passage is difficult to grasp if one fails to see its connection with the passage preceding it.  What we have here is Jesus' summary statement to the whole discussion answering the question, "Who's the greatest?"--at least that is how Mark is using it.

I must first explain a minor translation challenge before elaborating what I mean by the last paragraph (now stay with me a moment; it won't be pretty).  The word translated "fire" is in the dative case without any preceding preposition.  Consequently, the translator, knowing the many ways the dative functions in Greek, must decide what preposition the writer intended. In the present situation, most people translate it as I did as "by fire" or "with fire."  But  the 19th century Jewish Christian, Alfred Edersheim, in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Hendrickson (2000): p. 557,  translated it, "for fire."  The usual translation is the means or agent by which the salting is done, whereas Edersheim's translation is the reason the salting is done.  So which is it?  Do you care?

Both ways of understanding fire are possible.  What we will discover is by taking both paths we end up in the same destination more enriched than were we to chose one path over the other. This is the beauty of the Greek language and God's word.

Edersheim's translation captures a practice every Jewish listener of Jesus' day would have understood.  Before a burnt sacrifice was offered to God, both the body of the animal and the wood fueling the fire to consume the animal had to be first salted.  From this vantage point, then, Jesus is using "fire" to represent a sacrifice--more specifically, an acceptable sacrifice.

In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul defines what it means to be an acceptable sacrifice:

"I urge you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercy of God to present your bodies as a living, sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God--your acceptable worship; and don't conform to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind so that you prove what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God." [Rom. 12:1-2]

We are to be living sacrifices to God, where are acceptable worship--service--comes through a renewing of our minds--that is, a fundamental change in the way we view the world.  This change of mind starts with a purification of ourselves in purpose, motives, and thought--the whole person; this so we can effectively love others by seeking their spiritual and physical good for their sake and God's, in even the simplest ways; and this is done without harboring prejudices or divisions--something we easily do to elevate ourselves over others.  In short, we become the least of all and the servant of all.  Only when we become such people are we salted, and we are an acceptable sacrifice for God.  Because only in this salted condition does God's love flow in justice that is true peace.

The more common translation sees fire as the means by which we are salted.  The listener would have easily understood this allusion because, for example, precious metals are purified by melting them in a fire, so the impurities (dross) can be easily poured off.  From this perspective, then, Jesus is teaching us that to become salted--to be salt--we must be purified as by fire.

In the first century, salt was a precious and therefore expensive commodity.  Salt was used to preserve foods, and was seen as a nutrient.  We become like salt to the world only when we listen to and yield to the Holy Spirit working in each of us who stand in Christ in God's kingdom.

The Holy Spirit will move us away from all those things causing us to sin (disobey God)--those attitudes and ideas we use to promote ourselves at the expense of others, and the selfish-ambition keeping us from truly loving others in even the simplest ways.  In short, the Holy Spirit is purifying us with the fire of grace so we will become the least of all and the servant of all, which is to be real salt to this world.

This purification by the Holy Spirit will, like fire, be hot and painful--that is, it will necessarily entail suffering.  The reason is everything the Spirit is transforming us into is in direct contradiction of how the world thinks and operates.  The world strives for the single goal of being the greatest by wielding the most power.  For this reason, we who strive for Christ's principle of greatness will experience resistance both from within ourselves and from outside ourselves; indeed, we will be hated, and such hate will incur suffering.

Even though the present world doesn't recognize it, and even violently opposes the idea, the world will not find peace outside the kingdom of God.  We who stand in God's kingdom in Christ are His salt to this dark and confused world.  We nourish and bring preservation by being living sacrifices, which is to become the least of all and the servant of all.  If we cave in and hold onto the world's principles (i.e., conform to this age) in order to save ourselves, we lose our saltiness. This is what Jesus means by "if salt becomes unsalty, by what way will you season it?" And Jesus tells us elsewhere such vapid salt will be thrown out to be trampled under people's feet (see Matt. 5:13).

Therefore, my dear readers, let's stand in God's kingdom in Christ by submitting ourselves wholly to His grace through the power of His Holy Spirit working within us, and become the least of all and the servant of all.  Only then shall we be at peace with each other.   

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Who's the Greatest? (Part 2)

Last week I proposed our reluctance to see others with an uncompromised compassion is because we are all trying to answer a question much more important to us: "Who's the greatest?"  I neglected to point out we also believe we know the answer; it is either a) I am! or b) I need to be be!  Both to our detriment and the detriment of others, this is the real question and real answer we all pose in all our relationships--from those most intimate to us to those most remote to us.

As I have said hundreds of times on this site, God has made restored relationships--first with Him and then consequentially with each other--possible in Christ.  I question if we can fully comprehend what these restored relationships are if we don't see others with an uncompromised compassion.  As long as I see others from the perspective of how they might advance me or hinder me, I am really only interested in the question of who's the greatest, and answering it summarily with a resounding, "I am!"

Jesus who is the source of all wisdom, God incarnate, and therefore the only one who can guide us into and perfectly arbitrate restored relationships, He tells us the greatest is the least of all and the servant of all (Mark 9:35).  Let's read further in this passage from the Gospel account of Mark and learn what Jesus means by this.

And taking a child, Jesus made the child stand in their midst, and after embracing the child Jesus said to them, "Whoever receives a child such as this in My name, receives Me.  And whoever receives Me does not receive Me but the one who sent Me." [Mark 9: 36-37]

Because children were nothing much more than possessions equivalent to slaves in the first century, Jesus' admonition would have been astonishing to those listening--to say the least.  The greatest therefore in the Kingdom of Heaven (i.e., "in My name") is one who refuses to cling to social prejudices, but who treats every person, either those who can repay or those who cannot, with equal love, which means to promote the other's welfare over his/her own--even if it doesn't advantage the one doing the promoting.  In this way we are truly receiving God because He has loved us the same way.

The disciple, John, says to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we forbid him, because he wasn't following us.  Jesus said, "Don't forbid him.  For no one who does a miracle in my name is one who will soon be able to speak evil of Me.  For whoever is not against us, is for us." [Mark 9: 38-40]

A person who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven will not promote or maintain divisions.  From the time we are children until we die, we humans love our cliques, clubs, and Parties.  We seem to find great power through our exclusionism. The most grievous example of this are the walls that we maintain between our own brothers and sisters in Christ (i.e., sectarianism).  But one piece of the great news of the Gospel is God has broken down all the dividing walls of humankind in Christ.  His kingdom is open to all without distinction who surrender themselves completely in faith to Jesus the Christ.

"For whoever gives to you  a cup of water to drink in (My) name because you are of Christ, truly I tell you, that one will absolutely not lose his/her reward." [Mark 9:41]

The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are those who maintain right relationships in even the simplest ways.  I see in this simple parable of Jesus a role reversal in order to communicate a universal principle.  Jesus did this with the parable of the Good Samaritan to communicate we are all neighbors and therefore we must treat all as we would like to be treated.  In a similar vein, we need to treat our brothers and sisters in God's kingdom as if the entire kingdom rides on even the slightest gesture of kindness; because--guess what?-- it does.  A mitigated love ceases to be love God is trying to create in us, but quickly reverts to self-interest.

"And whoever might cause one of these little ones who are believing in Me to stumble (sin), it is better for him/her if a mule-driven-mill-stone is placed around his/her throat instead, and has been cast into the sea." [Mark 9: 42]

The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is one who seeks first the benefits and spiritual prosperity of another person for the sake of God and that other person.  It is a sad truth that our neglect, exploitation, or inordinate burdening of another person leaves us owning some of the sin that person might fall into because of this.  The very foundation of the Kingdom of God is relationships, first between us and God, and then with each other.  As Jesus' image of a mill stone around a person's neck illustrates, God takes these relationships very seriously.  When we advantage ourselves at the expense of another person, it is as if we tear the very fabric of God's kingdom.

"If your hand might cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better to enter into life maimed, than to depart, having both hands, into Gehenna--into unquenchable fire.  And if your foot might cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better to enter into life lame, than, having two feet, to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better to enter into the Kingdom of God one-eyed, than, having two eyes, to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm doesn't die and the fire isn't extinguished." [Mark 9:43-48]

The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the one who purifies him/herself.  If our leg is gangrenous, we have the doctor cut it off because we would rather live lame, than to die whole.  At its most basic level Jesus is telling us the one who is least of all and the servant of all loves him/herself by eliminating everything and anything from his or her life--whether good or bad--that might cause him or her to sin, which is to disobey God. The illustration Jesus employs here of a hand, foot, and eye speaks to the extreme by which we strive to purify ourselves--not a literal injunction.

I see also by Jesus' choice of body parts an intended completeness of purification.  It is all too easy to cherry-pick those parts of our life we think God wants us to purify, and then ignore all the rest.  We might then purify the part we have identified with the intensity basic to Jesus' parable (above), but still miss the comprehensiveness also intended with the parable.  What do you think?  I suggest the hand, foot, and eye are types for the purpose, motives, and thoughts of a person.  These three things capture the whole person; they are therefore interrelated, and so must all be subjected to Christ.  For, indeed, to purify ourselves is to completely surrender ourselves in faith to Christ.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Who's the Greatest? (Part 1)

What is your typical reaction to other people?  When you see a toddler for the first meeting, I suspect you are filled with some degree of affection for the little person; a desire to be the child's protector might even well up in you.  But when that same rascal goes on the rampage, pulling out your potted plants, running around helter skelter, or screaming in a temper tantrum, those initial warm impressions quickly vanish.  Perhaps more interestingly, you thereafter view the same child, regardless of his/her present disposition, with at best only a patient tolerance; any original sense of regard is long gone. Furthermore, you now tend to project your dissatisfaction on the kid's parents, so you question their parenting skills and even their character: "Certainly responsible parents who understand the importance of discipline to the health and welfare of future civilization would never raise such an unruly little beast."  You stuff the kid and its family into your burgeoning file of names of all those people you classify as second and third class citizens, and therefore people to be avoided, or at least not to be trusted.

There are many more examples of how we tend to make lasting judgments of others based on scant evidence--people such as the loner in your office or class room, the mother screaming at her child in the check-out line, the guy sitting at the green-light for more than 5 seconds before going, or many, many others I'm sure will easily come to mind with only a mere touch of the rolladeck cards we all keep at the ready in our brains.

Face it; our judgments and assessments of others--any others, whether family, friends, acquaintances, or people we only read about--grow increasingly harsher and unforgiving as their actions or inactions become increasingly inconvenient to us.  We invariably take our first glimpse of our fellow human beings with critical eyes.  Even if we make the attempt to perhaps understand the other person's behavior, we usually find ourselves making qualifications, and end up shaking our heads at them for their obvious stupidity, flagrant and incomprehensible immorality, or--if we are in a particularly generous mood--ineptness.  We rarely, if ever--and I mean all of us, myself included--consider others with an unqualified compassion.  Why is that?

The question should be most disturbing to all of us who profess to be followers of the Lord and King, Jesus the Christ--that is, all of us who claim to be Christians--because Jesus always looked at the throng with compassion.  And the throng always contained all types from the murderers to the oppressed, the swindlers to the haughty, and the poor to the rich.  Yet, even though  Jesus teaches us the student is not above his/her teacher, nor is the servant above his/her master, we all seem to excuse ourselves from having to greet our fellow human beings with the same compassion our professed Lord does. Perhaps, we think Jesus is a perfection unattainable by any of us, or the compassion He exhibits is only something he expects us to practice in heaven, or maybe we take a mean view of the word compassion.  Joseph Ratzinger, in his seminal work Jesus of Nazareth--From the Baptism in the Jordon to the Transfiguration. Image (2007): p. 197, in describing the Good Samaritan's response to the man left beaten and bereft on the side of the road, explains our valuation of the term compassion this way:

"And now the Samaritan enters the stage.  What will he do? He does not ask how far his obligations of solidarity extend.  Nor does he ask about the merits required for eternal life.  Something else happens: His heart is wrenched open.  The Gospel uses the word that in Hebrew had originally referred to the mother's womb and maternal care.  Seeing this man in such a state is a blow that strikes him 'viscerally,' touching the soul.  'He had compassion'--that is how we translate the text today, diminishing its original vitality."

Dr. Ratzinger is absolutely correct; and the same word is used to describe Jesus' reactions to the crowds.  Regardless, we rarely conjure up such a "visceral" compassion for others.  Instead, we downplay the whole idea, thinking compassion is nothing more then writing a check to the United Way. Why is that?

I propose the answer lies in the fact we are all busy trying to answer another question far more relevant to us: Who is the Greatest?

And they went into Capernaum, and when He was in the house Jesus asked them, "What were you considering on the road?"  But they [His disciples] were remaining silent; for they were arguing with each other on the road, "Who is the greatest?"  And after sitting, Jesus called the Twelve and says to them, "If anyone wants to be first, he/she will be last of all and servant of all." [Mark 9:33-35]

Jesus has graciously given us the answer to the question consuming all of us.  I suspect it isn't what we wanted to hear.  I'm also convinced that in this answer we shall find the path back to the visceral compassion God expects each of us to have for our fellow human beings.  Therefore, next week we will allow Mark to unpack for us what Jesus means by being least of all and servant of all.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The First Clayton Bloom Parable (Reprised)

[Because last week I published the second Clayton Bloom parable, I thought I would reboot the first for all of you who either have forgotten it or are new to my site.  Enjoy.................]

Clayton Bloom sired three sons. Even before they had hardly grown, each of them turned away from their father, obsessed by a need to outdo his brothers. When they could, the brothers demanded their inheritances and left their father—each certain that with his talent and resources he would excel over his brothers.

Time passed and the three brothers failed in their quests. Each found himself separated from the others and severely destitute.

At the right time, Clayton went in search of his wayward boys to bring them home. He found his oldest in a stupor and lying in a ditch.

The father appealed to the man, “Come home my son, and I will give you rest. You will have your original job at twice the salary. And someday you, along with your brothers, will be given control over my estate.”

His son looked up through eyes half closed by contempt for his father and replied, “I don’t want your pity, Old Man. And I certainly don’t want your charity. I can care for myself. Go away and leave me alone!”

Reluctantly, Clayton left his oldest son in search of his brothers. Eventually he found his middle son, and appealed to him in the same manner he had with the man’s older brother.

The middle son didn’t answer his father right away, but thought, if I take the money, I can get myself cleaned up and go back to those guys who stuck me and make them sorry for underestimating me. The bums will soon be bowing to me, and I’ll be on top, again. “Sure, Pops,” the middle son said. “I’ll go back to work for you. Thanks, thanks a lot!”

After Clayton had sent his middle son home with instructions for the servants to care for him after he arrived, the father sought out his youngest boy. He found the young man worse off than his brothers. The father knelt beside his youngest son, and appealed to him as he did his two brothers. The man looked up at his father with weak eyes that welled with tears.

“Why should you be so kind to me after I brought you so much disgrace? I have despaired so long, Father. If you only knew how tired I am of it all. I hate my life. I have tried to console myself by remembering my home and you and my life there, but I couldn’t. I tried and tried but the memory was gone, so I convinced myself that it never really happened. I thought it was nothing but a dream. I went on even though deep down I knew it was pointless and ended here hoping to die. I didn't have the guts to kill myself. Now here you are. It wasn’t a dream after all. I want to go home. I’ll do anything to go back there. I’ll listen to you. I’ll do anything you say. Teach me, Father, so I can please you. I want to please you, but I've forgotten how. I should never have left home. How could I have been so stupid?”

The young man wept. Clayton reached out and pulled his son up out of the murky water and embraced him. He could feel his son’s bones beneath his dank, soiled, and tattered clothing. The son staggered and nearly collapsed out of his father’s arms. The father realizing how near death his boy was lifted the frail body over his shoulders and carried his son home.

A year passed, and the younger brother found the middle brother packing a suitcase.

"What are you doing?” the younger brother asked.

“I’m out of here, man,” the middle brother replied.

“But why? We have everything we could ever want right here. No one out there will ever love you and care for you as our Father does. You of all people should know that.”

The middle brother attending to his task answered, “This is too much like work. No thank you. You can have it.”

“What are you talking about?” the younger brother pleaded. “Father has given us servants to do all the real labor so we can complete our studies. Once that is done, father has promised to put us in charge of the whole estate—the house, the land, the livestock--everything!”

“That’s fine for you,” the middle brother said as he snapped the suitcase closed.“I got some old scores to settle.” He waved a thick wad of bills before the younger brother’s face, and then plopped it on top of others neatly stacked in a black attaché. “Besides,” the middle brother continued, “I know just how to parlay this money into some big bucks. Soon you will be working for me, little brother. And I’ll make it happen without all the sweat. I have all I need.”

The middle brother picked up his things and made for the door and stopped. Turning to face his younger brother he said, “Still, I can always use dedicated workers like you. Yes, you’ll be hearing from me, squirt.”

The younger brother watched his brother walk out of sight; he never looked back.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Second Clayton Bloom Parable

Clayton Bloom sired two sons.  The Bloom boys and their father did everything together.  When the boys were old enough, Clayton took them into the forest growing around their small home, in order to teach his sons about the trees and plants, the animals who lived there, its beauty, and how they might care for it all.

The boys were enthralled and amazed by each new thing their father showed them.  In a very short time, the boys confidence grew, and it emboldened them.  Even though Clayton warned them against venturing off alone, the two brothers decided they had learned enough to go exploring without their father.  When Clayton left them unattended, the boys seized the chance to go hiking on their own. Happily and with great pride, the boys bounded into the wood.

As you might expect, it didn't take long for the boys to become disoriented.  The more they walked, the darker it became.  Even though the sun shown brightly in the sky when they had embarked on their journey, now, no matter where they turned, the trees grew closer together and higher, shutting out the light.  The lads started to panic and quickly forgot all Clayton had taught them.  Soon their panic turned to rage, and they tore through the beautiful landscape, mashing colorful wildflowers, uprooting bushes, and tearing off limbs of trees.

They then turned on each other, each blaming the other for their predicament.  Words became violent, and the bigger brother strangled the smaller until the latter ceased struggling.  The young man wailed at the sight of his motionless brother and screamed at the gloom, cursing his father for ever bringing them to this place.  Now senseless with guilt, the boy ran deeper into the forest, leaving a wake of horrific destruction.  He ran on carelessly in this way until he fell down an embankment.  Unable to move because his leg was broken, he lay there in the twilight quietly weeping.

When Clayton discovered what his sons had done, although late, he dropped everything and rushed into the darkness to find them.  Eventually, he found one of his sons lying unconscious on the ground. Clayton knelt beside his son and resuscitated the boy, and then gave him water to drink and food to eat.

As the boy regained his strength, he noticed blood streaming down his father's face.  "Father, you are injured."  His father smiled and stroked his son's head. "I would suffer a thousand wounds and even die if that's what it would take to find my boys."  His son's chin dropped to his chest in shame.  "Father, I'm sorry I disobeyed you."  Clayton embraced his son and kissed the boy's face with pink tears of joy and relief.

"Come, now," the father said, standing.  "We must find your brother before something worse happens to him."  Clayton and his son went on together in search of the missing boy.

The boy was the first to find his brother lying on a small protrusion on a steep slope.  "He's here, Father.  I found him, I found him.  He's over here.  Come quickly, Father, he's hurt!"

When the lad saw his brother he thought he had murdered show such concern for him, he whimpered, "Why would you care after what I did to you?"  His brother answered, "Didn't I run away with you? Didn't I try to kill you?  Yet, even though we are bad sons, Father came after us; and even though he injured himself, he never stopped searching until he found us.  How could I not care for you?"

Their Father arrived. Carrying his injured son over his shoulders, Clayton led his two sons back home. The brothers became closer than they had been before their ordeal.  They remained with their father, and he taught them and provided for them, so that they built their home into a magnificent estate. Together, Clayton and his two sons nurtured the forests and lands around them into resplendent gardens spreading out in all directions as far as the eye could see and beyond.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Our exchange students left us this week to return to their homes in Europe and to carry on their lives. From my vantage point it was a tearful departure for all the exchange students and their host families. The poignancy of the moment was accentuated by rain and the predawn darkness.

It amazed me how quickly familial bonds form between people who only a couple of weeks before were utter strangers.  It just goes to show how relational we humans are.  But why shouldn't we be? After all, our Creator is relational.

As relational as we all are, it also amazes me how much human society struggles to establish meaningful, healthy, and functional relationships.  Like Darth Vader trying to set his sight on Luke Skywalker's X-wing, we just can't seem to home in on loving relationships.  If we were created to have such relationships, then why do they continue to elude us?

Even though it isn't a very popular subject, that question can be answered with one word: Sin.  People don't like to talk about Sin because, basically, they don't want anyone telling them how to run their lives. And all too often the things we want to do seem to be on someone's list of sins: things such as, sexual preference, abortion, killing, stealing, adultery, dancing, gambling, drinking, drugs, pornography, warfare, music, and on and on.  But none of these things or any others one might add to the list constitute what I mean by Sin; they are really only symptoms of Sin.

A careful examination of the above list--and there are many, many more items one might add to it--shows a common relational theme. The items are either a means to create and maintain relationships, or a means to compensate for the absence of relationships, or a means to cope with destructive relationships.  One way or another, any item on the list can be traced back to a relationship.

And because the behaviors on the list function in some way pertaining to relationships, it does no good to tell the practitioners they are wrong because they, as all of us, are desperate for a relationship--all of us want to be loved; so they really believe they have discovered the means in the life style or behaviors they have adopted, or they have given up hope, altogether, and have defaulted to simply medicating the pain.  It's as if I were starving to death and caught a poisonous frog, and when I was about to eat it you told me I was wrong to eat it.  I would think you either didn't care about my plight, or wanted me to die of starvation, or you just wanted to control me.  In the end, I would eat the frog, and I would die.

Surely some things on the above list of "sins" are definitely comparable to the poison frog, but not all the listed items are.  Yet any one of them are just as fatal if we are attempting to find through them those elusive relationships we have all been created for.  This is what I meant by Sin, earlier.  Sin is the belief we can find, maintain, and build right relationships on our own; putting it simply, Sin is thinking we can be our own god.

Speaking about the community of right relationships we were created to have, the Apostle John tells us,

"Not those out of bloodlines (genealogies), nor out of the desires of the flesh, nor out of the desires of humankind, but those who are born of God." [John 1:13]

The right relationships we all long for will forever elude us until we are again in the right relationship with our Creator--when God is our God and not ourselves.  Until we do that, we shall remain in darkness--both in wherewithal and understanding.

Well, I have good news and bad news.  The bad news is we cannot extricate ourselves from this darkness.  The good news is God can and indeed has made the way out for us.  Let's return to John for the rest of the story....

"In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God and God was the Word. He was in the beginning with God,  All things were created by Him and apart from Him was not one thing created that was created.  In Him was life, and the life was the light of humankind; and the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.... He was real light that illuminates humankind coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was created by Him, and the world did not know Him.  He came to His own kind, and His own kind did not accept Him.  But as many as receive Him, He gives to them authority to become children of God, to those who are believing in His name, not those out of bloodlines (genealogies), nor out of the desires of the flesh, nor out of the desires of humankind, but those who are born of God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we saw His glory as the only unique begotten one from the Father, full of grace and Truth." [John 1:1-5, 8-14]

In an inexpressible act of re-creation, God entered into human history by taking on flesh as His only begotten unique son, Jesus the Christ, to deal once and for all with the consequences of Sin and the Death that came from it, in order to re-establish the intimate relationship He intended from the beginning to have with all of us, so we would be an eternal community with Him and with each other. And this eternal community--the kingdom of God--the salvation of Humankind--the glory of God--is for all who stand in Christ and Christ alone by believing in Him, which is faith that is inseparably belief, trust, and the action of obedience.  It is in Christ alone we will find those elusive relationships we all long for because only in Christ is the Truth of what they are and the power to live them.

In his must-read book Jesus of Nazareth, From Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Image (2007): p. 169, Joseph Ratzinger puts it this way,

"...Jesus is closely connected with the "we" of the new family that He gathers by his proclamation and his action.  It has become evident that this "we" is in principle intended to be universal: It no longer rests on birth, but on communion with Jesus, who is himself God's living Torah."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Trouble in River City

One of my favorite musicals is The Music Man; and one of my favorite numbers in The Music Man is You Got Trouble.  I was thinking about this today because trouble has come into my life.  I knew it was coming; I tried to circumvent it; but it remained out of my hands, and now is knocking at my door like the angel of death.  Okay, this is over dramatic and hyperbole; things could be much, much worse, and is for so many people I know.  In some respects, though, trouble in America is much like the trouble Harold Hill spoke of in River City.  The town was well fixed and peaceful, compared to other places in the world at the time, so what they saw as trouble was really only a minor annoyance.  Many things we see as trouble in America are really only what my daughter refers to as first world problems.

What disturbs me more than the pending storm is my inability to deal with it in my spirit.  I mean, how often have I encouraged us to trust Christ, and not fear because He is alive?  Now, with what is really only a minor disturbance--comparatively speaking--I am completely unsettled.  It is easy to pontificate about faith from an easy chair, in front of a warm fire, while sipping a glass of Malbec.  Only when the fire goes out and you start to feel cold, do you begin to understand how much of what you believe is only theory.  It reminds me of what the disciples of Jesus felt when a storm suddenly rose up over the lake as they were boating their way across....

And there was a sudden great squall of wind and the waves crashed into the boat so that the boat was already filled.  And Jesus was sleeping in the stern on a pillow, and the disciples woke Jesus up and said to Him, "Teacher, doesn't it matter to you that we are perishing?"  And after having been aroused, Jesus rebuked the wind and said, "Be silent, Be quiet!"  And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  And Jesus said to them, "Why are you cowardly?  Do you not yet have faith?"  And they were filled with great fear and spoke to each other, "Who, then, is this, that both the wind and the sea obey Him?" [Mark 4:37-41]

It all goes to show that ideas and doctrines do not hold us up, only the real presence of Jesus in our life does.  And we only come to really understand faith when we are forced to walk in it.  This reminds me of a story my physics professor once related to us.  He told how he had invited his girlfriend to go sailing with him.  She asked him if he had ever sailed before, and he told her he knew everything there is to know about the theory of sailing--and he did.  Well, after several hours of floundering on the water, and finally walking the boat along the shoreline, his girlfriend told him in no uncertain terms they were through.  I think she called him an idiot, but it was a long time ago, so I might be wrong about that.

Thank the Lord he isn't fickle like my professor's girlfriend.  The Lord didn't give up on His disciples because of their tentative faith; He hasn't given up on me because of my cowardice; and I assure you He won't give up on you, either.  He will continue to give us grace upon grace:  grace to forgive us when we stumble, grace to pick us up again, and grace to strengthen our faith for the next challenge. Such is the beauty of the Gospel of Christ; such is the wonder and peace of standing in His kingdom.

Thanks a lot, folks, for letting me unload on you like this.  I am feeling much better.  I guess this is why Jesus calls us to be a community; we cover for each other in our moments of weakness.  Thanks again for listening.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Yesterday was a beautiful day.  The temperature was cool without being cold.  The sun played hide and seek with the clouds; and best of all, it all happened on a holiday.  It was a perfect day to commune with the outdoors by attending to our yard and garden.

As I have said many times before, everything in life is a metaphor.  Well, perhaps not everything; but living in a house full of women, you learn to speak in hyperbole.  Of course, that is also a hyperbole because not all women are prone to exaggerate.  The few women I've come to know well over the years have tended in that direction, though.  It's not a criticism; actually, I think it's kind of cute.  In fact, I've come to use the classic "always" statement as a means of making a point; I use bad grammar to the same end.  So I will say it again.  Everything in life is a metaphor.

Our small garden comprises a variety of perennials that bloom at different times over the course of the summer in order to treat the viewer with a ever changing palette of color. You gardeners reading this are likely thinking, Ah, yeah, that's the way it's supposed to work.  You must understand; our garden in particular, and all botanical matters at our house in general are the brain-children of my wife; I'm strictly a brown thumb.  My job is to mow the lawn, trim, and weed the garden.  The challenge for me is differentiating the weeds from the flowers.  My wife has been perplexed her daisies haven't come up this year.  I'm thinking I may had mistook them for weeds.  Some of this mistaken identity is due to my ignorance; but I attribute some of it to the cleverness of the weeds.

As I was surveying the garden yesterday, all seemed nice and tidy.  There were a few small weeds spotting the clear areas, but overall the garden appeared healthy.  Yet on closer inspection, I found some weeds dressed to the nines, standing straight and proud among the flowering plants past bloom, feigning to be part of the gang.  From a distance they were pretty convincing, too; close up, though, their weediness was quite obvious.  Huh, I thought, there's got to be a metaphor in this, somewhere....

And answering, Jesus again spoke in parables to them by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a ruler of people who prepared a wedding feast for his son.  And the ruler sent away his slaves to call those who have been invited to the wedding, but they didn't want to come.  Again, the ruler sent away other slaves by saying, 'Tell those who have been invited, see, I have prepared my feast, my bulls and the fattened animals have been slaughtered, I prepared everything.  Come into the wedding feast.'  But those ignoring the invitation went away: one to his family farm, and another to his market; but those remaining seized the slaves and assaulted and killed them.  The ruler was furious; and dispatching his soldiers, he killed those murderers and set fire to their city.  Then the ruler said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those who have been invited were not worthy.  Therefore, go upon the roads leading out of the city, and invite however many you might find to the wedding feast.  And those slaves took to the roads, and invited everyone they encountered, both the bad and the good.  And the wedding was filled with those reclining at the banquet table.  When the ruler entered the gathering to look at those who were reclining at the table, he saw a person there not dressed in wedding attire.  And the ruler said to the person, 'Comrade, how did you get in here without having wedding clothes?'  The person was dumbstruck.  Then the ruler told the servants, 'After you bind the person's feet and hands, throw the person out into the outer most darkness.'  There, there will be the wailing and the gnashing of teeth.  For many are called, but few are chosen." [Matt. 22:1-14]

No doubt some will cite this passage as a proof text for unconditional election.  I spent a good part of this summer rebutting such an idea, so I won't belabor the point here.  I will say this.  Our hope and security don't rest in God having decided before all eternity how everything in His creation will play out, down to the last motions of each subatomic particle.  No, our hope and security lie solely in the perfect, finished work of Jesus the Christ.

God calls each of us to join Him in His eternal kingdom.  But we must respond, and respond totally on His terms, not our own.  This means we mustn't think we will get in because we're wearing a "I love Jesus" T-shirt; or toting citizenship papers to some nation, ethnic group, or church affiliation; or clutching our advanced degrees from prestigious universities, proving we have mastered the correct theology; or packing our get-out-of-jail-free card.  No, to come to God on His terms is to come clothed in Christ--ensconced in Him as in our skin--by surrendering ourselves completely to His strength and will with an indefatigable trust.  Jesus explains what I mean with graphic imagery:

"Truly, yes truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves.  The one who is gnawing my flesh and drinking my blood has eternal life, and I will resurrect that person on the last day." [John 6:53-54]

Unless we put on Christ in this most intimate and utterly dependent way, we will remain like those weeds in my garden, believing ourselves to be flowers in God's garden, when we are not.  And our fate will be the same as the fate of those weeds: yesterday, I entered our flower bed, pulled those weeds out by their roots, and cast them behind the fence to dry and whither in the hot sun.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The One Sided Coin

This week I would like to make a comment concerning the ongoing culture war by considering a well known incident in the life of Jesus.  I will translate it from Mark's Gospel account (Mark 12:13-17) because the other Gospel writers (Matt. 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26) probably used Mark as their source material:

And they sent away certain ones of the Pharisees and Herodians in order to ensnare Him [Jesus] by [His] word.  And after they came, they said to [Jesus], "Teacher, we know that you are true, and in you is no bias concerning anyone; for you do not look into the face of people, but you teach the way of God in truth.  Is it lawful to pay the poll tax [i.e., a tribute imposed by Augustus in 6 C.E.] to Caesar or not?  Should we pay it or shouldn't we pay it?"  But having seen their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them, "Why do you test Me? Bring to Me a denarius so that I might look at it."  They brought [Him one].  And [Jesus] said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's."  Jesus said to them, "Pay the things of Caesar to Caesar, and the things of God to God."  And they they were exceedingly astonished by Him.

Brother, nothing is new under the sun, is it?  The same political manipulations and trickery used two thousand years ago live on today without mitigation.  Duplicity is one of humankind's best weapons against its self.  Our advanced technology definitely has afforded us the ability to refine duplicity into a high art and science, but we are still as nasty as ever.

Some nineteenth century American scholar/statesman--I don't remember his name--once said something to the effect that politics makes strange bedfellows.  It's true.  Here we see two opposing forces in first century Palestine--the Herodians, who represent the economic and political arm, and the Pharisees, who are the religious arm--in cahoots to blacken Jesus' eye of reputation in order to turn the people against Jesus.  They attempt to liquor Jesus up with  Jim Beam's oldest and most potent recipe affectionately dubbed, "Vanity."  They hope that in His inebriated condition He would slip up and either answer "no" and get the Romans down on Him for fomenting sedition, or answer "yes" and incite the Jewish zealots against Him.  What they don't understand is only the will of God intoxicates Jesus--as it should all of us.

What we need to see in understanding Jesus' response is what coinage represented in the minds of people in those days.  Whoever struck a coin was in effect saying, "this is my realm, my rules, my things!"  Whoever's money you exchanged with others marked you as an ally of the minter of the money.  For this reason, the Jews only used faceless coins minted by either Herod, Herod Antipas, or, until the reign of Vespasian, the Romans in deference to Jewish sensibilities (see A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Hendrickson (2000): p.740).  In this way the Jews maintained their allegiance to the Jewish nation and therefore God.

Don't miss what they were doing in the incident under discussion.  In order to win their culture war against Rome and Jesus--because Jesus, by standing outside of the war, was undermining the causes of both sides of the conflict--the Jews willingly contradicted their own sacred beliefs and traditions; they resorted to using their enemy's methods to achieve their own purposes; they showed their true alliance was with the sword which they hoped someday to wield, but for the time being remained in the hand of Caesar.  The Herodians had long ago bought into the so-called truth of might makes right; but the religious Jews were not far behind them; they would later fully capitulate to this so-called truth when they would confess before Pilate, "We have no King except Caesar!!" (end of John 19:15)

 Jesus' answer to all those hypocrites might be restated as, "Let Caesar do his gig, you play God's gig."  Jesus wasn't into culture wars because the present world order--if we can be so gracious as to call it an order--will do whatever suits it, and what suits it will always oppose the perfect order and love of God's kingdom Jesus has brought to us.  This doesn't at all mean Jesus condones or doesn't care about all the evil persisting in the present age--He does, and so should we.  But such evil will never be beaten by its own methods because the evil feeds on its methods.  The present world system will only be vanquished by the methods of God's kingdom, which are love and forgiveness.

As members of Christ's kingdom juxtaposed on this grim, dark, and evil world system, we should not be trying to fight a culture war because eventually we will be drawn in to use the same tactics and methods of our opponents--that's how wars always work.  Inevitably, as did those Jewish leaders of two thousand years ago, we will attempt to make our point by investing our enemy's money against them, as if to say I represent one side of the coin and you represent the other side.  In reality, though, the coin is one sided.

For example, we cannot hope to show the truth of God's kingdom by repudiating abortion while at the same time war mongering and supporting the death penalty and harboring bitterness against other people, as evidenced by a relentless spewing of vitriol against everyone who doesn't see it our way.  In the end, everyone is killing everyone else.  Instead, we must stand for the sanctity of all life by investing ourselves in a crumbling society by trying to lift people from the desperation, despair, and false allegiances leading them to their murderous decisions and outcomes.  We do this by living according to the sacrificial and humble nature of God's love, which by its very definition means we won't be liked by the present world--indeed, they will try to snuff us out.  But we should not be deterred because God's love is the Truth; and we know this because our King, Jesus the Christ, is alive.  I mean, really folks, what are we afraid of?

Our fear is palpable because we insist on fighting a culture war.  As long as we keep fighting culture wars, all that our opponents will see is our fear.  And our fear will defeat us because fear is contrary to the only force that can bring life, beauty, and peace.  As John writes in his first epistle, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear holds punishment, the one who fears has not been perfected in love." (I John 4:18)

The people of the present world system are afraid, so the methods they employ are fear based.  When we use their methods we show them we are afraid, too.  There is only one side to the coinage of the present world system, and it is fear.  We need to bring to this fearful world a new coin--a rare, precious, and beautiful coin--that has been minted in a kingdom they do not know, yet long for without knowing it.  We need to dazzle them with the resplendent and bright coin of God's holy love by loving them as Christ has loved us.  Only in the light of the stark contrast of our fearless love will they perhaps come to see their fear and all that fear leads them to do to escape it, only to keep dragging them farther down into its hopeless misery and despair.

Jesus said, "I have spoken these things to you so that you might have peace in Me.  In the world you have tribulation.  But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


A few years ago, I was sitting at my wife's desk waiting to take her out for lunch.  She was a therapist at an elementary school, and was away somewhere on the campus dealing with whatever she dealt with.  I watched the children passing by her open door on their way to the cafeteria.  Each child or group of children streaming by became framed for a moment by the doorway as snapshots of the human race.  It was all of us coursing before my eyes that noon: the flamboyant, the timid, the tough, the haughty, the humble, the weak, the contemplative, the playful, the scared, the invincible, the popular, the marginalized, the swindler, the wheeler and dealer, the politician, the bully, the picked-on, the predator, and the prey.  There we are, I thought.

Then I sat up a little because a small boy--maybe eight or nine years old--drifted through my view, wearing out in the open what all the others were concealing.  There were elements of despair and worry in his face; yet none of these quite described what I witnessed in that little shaver.  In fact, those descriptors--even though accurate at one level--are too easily spoken--too glib.  If they were all one saw in that little guy at that moment, then one would completely miss the profound impression I'm trying to convey. No, he was lost; but lost in the deepest sense.

It was quite evident that he had found himself up against a high, blank, and impenetrable wall.  He knew something lay on the other side, and he knew he needed to get there in order to survive.  But he had looked up and looked to his right and looked to his left, and all he saw was featureless gray.  He no longer thought of going back.  The little lad had come to a point where there were no answers.  It was as if his tender mind simply shrugged its shoulders and told him, "I don't know."  The boy was lost.

When my wife returned, she saw my eyes had welled with tears.  After I explained what I had seen, she said, "Oh, yes, he is one of my students,  He lost his lunch box."

We don't often have such an open window to our selves as I had that day in my wife's school.  I wouldn't see that little light again until sometime later when it reappeared in a woman.

I was waiting for my girls--as I am wont to do--outside a department store when I spied a solitary, middle aged woman walking away from the store.  All she was carrying was her purse; the scene was quite ordinary.  What caused me pause, though, was the manner by which she held her purse.  Her bag had nothing to distinguish it.  As I recall, it was plain and perhaps a bit worn; I don't even remember its color, except that it was monotone.  Yet she carried the purse as if she were carrying her self.  She was clearly lost in the same deep sense as the little chap back at school was lost.

Everyday, millions and millions of people tote around their purses, backpacks, and bags.  If a robber were to snatch a bag from one of these people, you know he or she would get mad--and rightly so; the person might even go after the thief.  But after it was all over, the victim would simply go out and buy new stuff.  This was not the impression that lone woman left me with.  If someone were to suddenly lift her purse, I'm convinced she would end up standing there where it happened in exactly the same state as that little boy had found himself. She would be paralyzed by a hopelessness she couldn't understand.  She wouldn't see her self as a victim--only as one without recourse or options or explanation.  To take something from someone else is wrong; to take that poor woman's purse would be an inscrutable cruelty that would leave her devastated.  And the bleak sadness in this is she wouldn't be able to articulate her devastation because she is lost.

Two people afforded me two glimpses into all of us.  We are all lost just as I have described here.  We are a race in denial.  We are experts at hiding our selves from our selves.  We are all like those with iTunes(R) blaring in their ears in order to drown out themselves in those unwelcome silences.  We are a people without hope until we are willing to quiet the white-noise and finally meet our selves.  We cannot really help each other, either; unless we are willing to look beyond the smoke and mirrors--clever and intimidating as they often are--and see each other as God sees us: the little guy without his lunch pail, the lonely woman clutching her purse.  And when we do that, let us turn back to God; the only one who holds the answers, who finds the lost, who leads the way out, and who genuinely loves us.

"When Jesus saw the crowds, he was filled with compassion concerning them, because they were distressed and sunk powerless like sheep without a shepherd.  Then [Jesus] said to His disciples, "The harvest is great, but the workers are few.  Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest so that He might cast out workers for His harvest (Matt. 9:36-38)."

And on another occasion:

"After He heard this [i.e., about the execution and burial of John the Baptist], Jesus departed from there by boat to a deserted place by himself.  And after the crowds learned this, they followed after Him on foot from the towns.  And after He came out, Jesus saw the populous crowd and was filled with compassion for them, and He healed their sick (Matt. 14:13-14)."

Oh, and by the way, my wife made sure her bewildered little charge had lunch that day.