"Blessed are the poor in spirit..."
He changed the world by calling the least, the last, and the lost. In a world that only knew how to use the poor, He only gave. They were not any more loyal than the rich and powerful. They came to be fed, healed, delivered from spiritual oppression. Some of them said thank you. Some did not. Many people followed Him. A few actually put His words into practice. In the end, they all either turned on Him or abandoned Him, and He died... perhaps the poorest spirit of them all.
"You are the salt of the earth... the light of the world..."
But they were not. They were nobodies. The man who memorized this message was a hated tax collector and traitor to his own kind when he first heard these words. He rated below Judas the thief. On their best days, they were just people, trying to get by in a world that seemed set against them. Whatever He saw in them, they did not see in themselves or in each other. It is a strange thing to have the one in Whom you hope, put their faith in you.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets..."
The laws and their interpretations piled up more and more all the time. It seemed impossible to please God. How can you earn a life of peace and comfort? Nothing seemed to work. They wanted to give up and come up with new laws, simpler laws. They wanted to start fresh. He looked at the broken mess of their lives and told them they were not far from God at all. They were just missing one thing.
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder'..."
Justice, in its purest form, has always been 'an eye for an eye'. Justice had gone missing though. When the Jews were trampled down by the Romans, where was their justice? When their property was confiscated and their people sold into slavery, where was their justice? Injustice led to anger and desperation, and that led to hate and violence and vengeance. That story ends with rivers of blood poured out across the nations. He does not deny the injustice. He denies the vengeance. He denies the violence. He defies the hate and the desperation, and He even defies the anger experienced in the face of injustice. What are we to do in the face of injustice? Seek reconcilliation above all else, He says.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery..."
To be poor is to know want and to want what is not yours. He proclaims that it is not merely the act of taking that which is not yours which is wrong, but even the wanting itself. Not only is anger intolerable, so is desire. Anything that causes uncontrolled desire should be cut off. Marriage is a calling from God and it is to be entered into and lived trusting in God's provision, not demanding fulfillment from one another.
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely...'"
It is a human privilege to be able to speak truth. The powerful ability to speak is part of our connection to the image of God. Lies therefore are a desecration of that image. This desecration becomes even worse when we speak untruth and point to God. There are no need for vows. Every person carries the seal of heaven as one of God's creations, as one of God's children. That is enough, and more than anything else we can call up to vouch for us.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye...'"
Injustice is not defeated with punishment. Injustice is defeated by reconciliation. In a complicated world of desperate needs and broken dreams, sin compounds upon itself as one misdeed is countered by one worse. Evil snowballs into atrocity. 'An eye for an eye' was the attempt to cut the cancer out before it spread too far. He is not proposing surgery though. What He speaks to them is a cure for the cancer. He will not cut anyone out and He will not let us cut them out either.
"You have heard that it was said 'You shall love your neighbor...'"
You have set the bar too low, He explains. From the beginning, we were meant to be extraordinary beings. We were made in the image of God. We were taught to be Holy, because He was Holy. When we saw the world fall apart around us, we lost our confidence in God. We failed when we tried to fix the world ourselves. We made it worse. So we lowered the standards for ourselves and repeated this process over and over and over again. Now we have no standards and we still cannot seem to satisfy that overwhelming sense of injustice in us. Depression sinks in as our hope goes out. There is no way out. We are powerless against the waves of death and destruction that come our way.
But His voice rings out from the chaos. It's time to raise the bar. It is time to set your sight back on the God who made you. You will never hit the target if you keep aiming below it. Anyone can just get by... You are a child of God and it is time to start acting like one.
I have wondered over the years why the gospel writers were so critical of the Pharisees compared to the other groups of Jewish people that lived in Israel, let alone the Gentiles. There are some moments when Jesus seems to stop his lessons about God and God’s Kingdom start picking on the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23) Why would the early Christians have been so critical of this particular group of Jewish teachers.
One thought is that it was because they were so wrong. I think there is some merit to this, particularly to the Early Church as they grew in Gentile territories. Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome demonstrated a close evaluation of the purpose of the Law of Moses in the life of the Christian. Both in that letter, as well as in Philippians, where he specifically identifies himself as a former Pharisee, as well as in Galatians, he concludes that both Jews and Gentiles find equality through faith in Jesus Christ. (Romans 3; Philippians 3:1-11; Galatians 3, 5:1-6). The Pharisees were a big deal to Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles. Yet it is not Paul calling these Pharisees out by name in Asia Minor and Rome. It is Jesus calling them out in Jerusalem.
It is possible that the Gospel writers, Luke in particular whom we know traveled with Paul, may have been influenced by him in writing that gospel account. I think that may have defeated some of his attempt to write an orderly and accurate account if he was intentionally adding in some verbal jabs Jesus gave to the Pharisees on behalf of Paul and his frustrations that occurred years after Jesus ascended to Heaven.
That brings me to a third alternative. It is possible that Jesus did indeed make those verbal jabs not because the Pharisees were so wrong but because, out of all the groups of Jews out there, they were so close to getting it right. If you read the comments Jesus makes about the Pharisees closely, you will discover that much of his criticism of them is not about their beliefs or their verbal teaching - it is about their practice. In fact, he explicitly tells His disciples to do as they say, but not as they do. (Matthew 23:2-3).
We know that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both Pharisees that followed Jesus - so it was possible to be both, it just presented its own challenges. In fact, given that the Pharisees eventually conspired to end the life of Jesus, I think the Pharisees had much more problems with Jesus than He had with them. Joseph and Nicodemus had to be careful, not of Jesus or His disciples, but of their fellow Jewish community leaders. For them, it was not just a matter of religious differences, it was an issue of political alliances.
There is also one final reason for the abundant presence of Pharisees in the gospels. They were simply more prevalent in the region of Galilee than the Sadducees were. Although Jesus spent a significant amount of time in Judea, he grew up and spent the majority of his three years in ministry in Galilee. Whether they came out from the towns and villages he visited, or actually followed him on the road, it was simply more convenient for the Pharisees to have access to Jesus, so it makes sense that, of all the Jewish groups near him, the Pharisees would have been better represented.
I think, in light of these reasons, that the Pharisees may well have deserved their part in those woes Jesus pronounced upon them. However I think they also in part were representative of all the groups in Israel at that time. They represented those who know what is right, but do not do it. At the end of the day though, as critical as Jesus was about the Pharisees, He let them follow Him… and He made disciples out of some of them.
Following up on Friday night’s blog about 2x2 ministry, here are 2 questions that we need to ask if we are going to move into the next generation.
1. What values do we have that we know they will need when we are gone?
2. As we envision the future generation, where do we draw blanks and need to seek outside counsel in order to create new values to fill out that vision?
The fact is, my values that I have are personal and many of them are not just taught, they are learned through experience. Some of us can learn not to touch fire by watching others get burnt, while others of us have to experience the pain ourselves before we will truly value and respect fire. I cannot expect others to take our word at face value when I often have not taken things at face value.
Some of my values are important and need to be passed on. Others however, are more contextual and will matter less over time. I saw a statistic today that said 60% of people get there television programming through Internet resources rather than live TV programming. I imagine that the way people keep up with the news is a greater percent social media. In years past, it was important not to schedule events at 6pm or in the early mornings when people would watch the news on TV or listen to it on the radio. There was a very specific time-frame they could receive that in. Nowadays though, anyone can get the latest breaking news simply by clicking on their phone, so the value of those times has changed already. The value of keeping up with the news though has probably grown. So I need to keep a value for current events, but leave the values surrounding whatever method I myself rely on, as it may change again in the next 10-20 years.
The second question regards those blind spots I have… how things may change. Much of it will be speculation and probably should remain flexible, but those are areas I need to seek outside perspective, and in many situations, a specifically younger perspective. Those who are shaping the future are the ones who will be closest to understanding what will be of value down the road. No perspective is perfect, but it’s best to make the best attempt I can.
Those two questions may help us all weather the storm of time and the inevitable change it brings, helping us to reshape and discern which values are timeless and which are timely.
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Two by two. It’s how the animals went into the ark in Genesis and it is how Jesus sent his disciples out in the Gospels. God’s plan of salvation spreading across the earth has never been one person at a time, it’s always involved us working together.
Now, obviously there are biological reasons for two of each animal on the ark. That is not the purpose of this writing. Nor is it the immediate practical purposes of survival outlined here in Ecclesiastes. No, there is a third and equally important purpose in the 2x2 rule, specifically related to ministry. Making disciples who make disciples.
That is some of the new terminology being used to describe the task given to us by Jesus in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). It is a catchy, shorthand way of describing the transition of that mission between generations of Christian leaders. Passing the torch of leadership, you say? That is a part of this, but it involves more than the perpetuity of an institution or organization. I’m thinking in much broader strokes. I’m thinking about the way that the number of Christians across denominations seems to be cut in half with each generation.
Some chalk this up to evidence of the approaching End Times, but most who do so do not acknowledge their own responsibility in bringing this result about. There is little point in laying blame. The damage is done and there is no punishment or payment that can be made to take back anything that brought us to where we are today. We react to the situations around us instead of being proactive, and the result is that we end up losing our values in the process.
There are many shocking similarities between our politics today and those around 1860 - just before the Civil War. Without getting into any of the specific candidates for election, let me focus instead on party platforms. In 1860, the Republicans in the north were pushing to end slavery in the U.S. They met at their convention in Chicago and Abraham Lincoln was their nominee for the presidency. The Democrats in the South were incredibly divided between North and South. The North wanted to let states decide for themselves about slavery, while the southern Democrats wanted to keep slavery as it was. There was also an Independant party of primarily older citizens who nominated a slaveholder from Tennessee for president. Their platform was to ignore the slavery issue altogether and keep our nation from tearing itself apart.
What strikes me as odd (and I’m no US history expert by any means) is that we had the Republicans pushing for stronger federal laws, while the Democrats were fighting for State sovereignty. This tells me that one of two things happened. Either both parties got really confused over the slavery issues and abandoned their foundational platforms of federal sovereignty vs state sovereignty, or the experience of the Civil War transformed the parties into switching roles in the twentieth century. Today, we have two divided parties and it is getting harder to tell how they differentiate in their political values. They spend a lot of time trash talking the other party and the competitors within their own party as well.
Have we gotten this way in our church as well? There used to be much clearer distinctions between different denominations. On the positive side, I think we have all mellowed out a little from senseless competition and learned to work together. In some circumstances the trash-talking about other pastors or congregations still happens I’m sure, but in the light of our common struggles, it has been downplayed as of late. I think the real problem has been the values of our churches that have been lost in translation between the generations, and part of that can be seen in the lack of participation in younger people.
For instance, 100 years ago, you were expected to be in church every Sunday, somewhere, if at all possible, if you were going to call yourself a Christian. There was something about church attendance that was tied to salvation. Then, someone came along and told people that it wasn’t true, that attending church did not mean you were saved - which is true. But what some people heard from that criticism of the church attendance practice was that attending church was not valuable - so they stopped attending church and decided to worship God on their own, in their own way. That may well have been the start of the modern agnostic movement, though I doubt it was intended to be such.
Over the years, fewer and fewer of those values were passed down and new values were brought in by younger people who either inherited leadership without any real training or who left churches to start their own. Today there are very vocal acknowledgements made to being rooted in scripture, although that is often not articulated well, and the importance of our more recent church history is downplayed to a place of sentimentality about how parents and grandparents raised us, or the glory days of our time in church youth group. Either way, we can name the things we think we should do in church, but we cannot say why. We do not really understand, and thereby don’t truly value these aspects of church, so we are unable to pass them on… and the process continues.
The other concept that feeds this problem is our understanding of spiritual gifts. In our hyper-individualistic society it is now considered normal to believe that God created us all entirely unique and our spiritual gifts by which we serve God are different for every person. Again, there is some truth in this. We are unique people, uniquely gifted in many ways… yet the Apostle Paul felt compelled enough to write several lists of gifts that we have in his letters. These are not exhaustive lists, but they are fairly inclusive lists - in the sense that they represent broader categories that all of our uniqueness can find homes in. Or, in other words, they represent values in ministry. Teaching, preaching, administration, healing, encouragement, etc… these are all values that the early church had and that Paul sought to pass on to the next generation of Christians in all these churches he helped start.
So how does doing ministry 2 by 2 help with this concept of values? It ensures that the gifts I am using to carry out any given ministry are not limited to my own values, because there are two persons involved. The values are shared and the people being ministered to receive a double dose of those values to mix with their own. Perhaps most importantly is that the act of disciple-making goes on between the ministry partners as well as those with whom they are serving.
There is also a more practical reason to do ministry in partnership with others. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, and unexpected things happen everyday that mess up our well-intended ministry plans. If one person is removed from a ministry, there will always be the partner who can carry on the work, with the same consistent values in mind. If not, the transition is far rougher and often those important values are lost in these transitions.
If partnerships in ministry help ensure more consistent transitions of values in and through leadership, just imagine what ministry in the context of an entire team could bring!
I've been doing some reading up on Frederick Douglas this week. He has been a breath of fresh air in the midst of the tragic violence our nation has faced and the turmoil occurring in our political parties. President Obama continues to call for unity, but our nation, our culture, our lives are incredibly divided. Read these words, delivered to Congress in the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
"It is no disparagement to truth, that it can only prevail where reason prevails. War begins where reason ends. The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion. What that thing is, we have been taught to our cost. It remains now to be seen whether we have the needed courage to have that cause entirely removed from the Republic."
Truth does not prevail in violence. Emotion does. Personal agendas and ambitions do. Certainly sin and evil do as well. But Truth does not prevail in that. Instead, it prevails in reason.
Take a step back and ask, why now? Why do these attacks happen in the heat of summer and in times and places where the economy struggles? Why do we hear about these attacks in places with greater population density and not in the rural villages that predominate our country? We get hot and stressed... and our frustration overides our reason, so we find someone to take it out on. That someone is almost always the wrong person, not the person with whom we are truly frustrated.
I don't know about Frederick Douglass's faith, so I cannot comment on that, but I noticed he applied some of the spiritual warfare principles of Jesus to politics in the 1800's. He taught us to name the root cause, the evil spirit tormenting us, and to have the courage to cast it out instead of just dealing with the symptoms. It reminds me of the demoniac of Gerasene that was chained outside the town, near the tombs because he was so enraged that he would wound himself and anyone around him. Jesus, was not afraid of him, but asked the demons their name. They replied "Legion, for we are many". Jesus then cast them into a herd of pigs when they begged him not to send them away and the man was restored to sanity. (Mark 5:1-20)
We need to name those root causes, those spiritual evils that are tormenting us and have the courage to cast them out. I don't mean the evils our neighbors have, I mean the ones that we have in our own lives, in our own houses, in our own hearts. I'm sure the devil loves nothing more than a bunch of tormented fools taking out their distress on one another, all the while being blind to the root of our strife.
I've not seen any quotes of Frederick Douglas posted but I encourage you to check him out as he spoke from a place of peace, grace, strength, and unity, in a time when those qualities were most lacking in our nation. We may be in times like those again.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Php 4:4–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Last year I wrote a sermon about prayer. While searching Google and Pinterest for pictures on the subject of prayer, I found that the vast majority of submissions under that keyword could be divided into 3 categories. (ranked by order of prevalence)
I think there is something uniquely human about the act of prayer. What I mean by that is, there is something about the act of prayer that makes us more human than when we do not pray. Prayer changes us, and here is a curious thing I am learning. We bring prayer to our politics, more and more often today it seems, hoping that prayer will change things around us. But I think there are problems in ourselves that grow out into our communities, that consume our national politics in such a way that our political problems will not and perhaps cannot change until we do. Our politics, whether we like it or not, may actually be just another symptom of the sin-sickness going on inside us all.
If that is true, their is no candidate that can cure our troubles (unless Jesus Himself runs for office). Perhaps it is time we become a society that does not wait for Christian politicians to lead us into the future of our country, but instead steps up to become a society whose encouragements and opportunities for leadership bring our politicians to a place where they recognize their own need for prayer, and the change that prayer will bring in their own lives.
Prayer does not just change things. Prayer changes us.
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 5:13–16). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
I am helping out with Vacation Bible School this week, using the Cave Quest curriculum from Group. During our lesson tonight on a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount, our lesson teacher passed out popcorn to demonstrate the value of salt. All but one of the children (and there is always one) said they liked the salted popcorn better than the unsalted. Salt, among its many values, makes thing taste better and so we are to share our faith in a way that makes life better around us. (And preserve life, etc. for the bible scholars out there...)
Jesus goes on to talk about light though, which was the next example our teacher tried to explain. She asked the children, "Jesus wants us to be salt and ______?" and in one big voice they all said, "Butter!". So much for a smooth transition. I wonder if Jesus had as much trouble the first few times He preached the Sermon on the Mount.
There may be a lesson in here. Salt and butter have a way of making things easier to swallow. Butter is very different from the concept of light, which is not about making things easier to take, but about revealing truth to us. Contrary to our own desires, sometimes the truth is painful.
We have a duty to be salt and light, and to do so in love. This applies to our relationships at home, at work, among friends, among neighbors, and also with our leaders. We struggle with that in all areas of our life, but today, we especially struggle with that in regard to those who lead us. I have read and heard many criticisms of leaders, often made disrespectfully. I have also witnessed others refuse to stand up and speak truth when something was wrong for fear of being disrespectful. It is not easy to be salt and light to those authority figures in our lives. There is an excellent example of this in the Acts of the Apostles.
24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ac 18:24–28). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Priscilla and Aquila discovered a problem with the leadership of Apollos and they chose to be salt and light to him. They pulled him aside and explained what he was still lacking. It was not a scolding or shaming, nor were they hesitant in reaching to them. It was not done for the sake of saving the congregation, it was done out of love for the Truth and love for Apollos. They did not turn the light on him, they turned the light on the blind spot in his vision, and everyone was blessed by their efforts. They chose to be light rather than butter.
It must have worked well because the church there wrote him a letter of recommendation when he was ready to move on to his next church and Luke records that his amazing ministry continued there as well. That would not have been possible if Priscilla and Aquila had kept quiet and refused to be light. Our words to one another should be salt and light - love and truth, not just one or the other.
Last week my wife and I watched an episode of the TV drama The West Wing from over a decade ago. They were going back and forth about gun control laws, throwing out different statistics, and ultimately did not make any major changes. Another episode dealt with the subject of racial discrimination and prejudice based on ethnic or religious background. I was curious to see what a reboot of that show would look like depicting our current decade. My wife said the media would not go anywhere near it, and she's probably right. Those issues are far too fresh and blatant today... much more so than ten years ago.
I think our country may be ready for a different term than "gun control" but the polarization of our nation around that issue has kept it locked in place. Maybe that has been for the best. I do not know what will help our country be a safer place to live. Carrying a gun only gives you a chance to survive if you can use it well and an see your attacker before they shoot you. It does not help against bombs. It does not stop drunk drivers. It does not stop germ or other biological warfare.
I want to make a statement about faith and violence, but I think it will be helpful to explain where I am coming from first. I personally don't like guns. It's not that they are used to kill people, it is that they are often loud and require a great deal of care and responsibility to keep safe. I saw the movie Home Alone when it came out in the theaters and my twisted mind has come up with plenty of home defense strategies just using basic household supplies and power tools. I do not own a gun for the same reason I do not have a desire to have a big swimming pool in the back yard. All it would take would be one momentary lapse of responsibility for someone too young to know better to end up hurting or killing themselves or someone else, and I'd rather not have that on my conscience.
That being said, I support our military and even tried to join them as a teenager. I may not agree with everything they have ever done, but I understand their role is so much bigger than killing people. I believe, as Ecclesiastes 3:8 says, that there is a time for war, just as there is a time for peace. I don't always understand it and I'm not going to call the shots, but I believe that God is at work in our warzones, the same way He is at work in cancer wards. Sometimes destruction and death come before new life.
That's me. Here's my statement:
I don't think you have to be a pacifist to maintain self-control and faithfulness in the presence of enemies... but I think it helps.
I think this whole 'gun control' thing has more to do with self-defense than guns. Politically, whether in domestic or foreign affairs, we have sometimes used the motto that a good offense is the best defense. In a world where you could only kill one person at a time, that is all well and good, but today, when your money can be stolen remotely from the other side of the world, your food can be poisoned in processing or in transit to your local grocery store, where someone with a virus can infect an entire city before anyone knows what hit them, and all life can be wiped off the face of a continent with a dozen missiles... at this point we are not talking self defense. We are talking about mass murder of ignorant, if not innocent bystanders. Our country did it to Japan, and we were repaid by the threat from Cuba and Russia in the early 60's under President Kennedy. This concept of self-defense changed into a staredown contest where each party tried to intimidate the other by showing off their weapons and threatening to use them. Both parties knew that if either actually did use them, the entire world would face devastation. It was a showdown where the first person to draw would guarantee that everyone lost.
The specific tactics may have changed in the last 50 years, but we can never take back Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the power we saw unleashed there. Judgment day aside, we now know how to end our world ourselves. All we have to do is lose self-control.
Why does it help being a pacifist? I don't speak from experience exactly as I have been a pacifist more by circumstance than by intention. Threats to those I care about might change me pretty quickly, and as I mentioned, I don't need a gun to do damage. I think it might help to forsake violence because that is one foothold the enemy cannot hold against you. If you refuse to even consider violent responses, you are protected from losing control in those ways. It is the same for those who choose not to drink alcohol. Whether they think it is bad or not, they will not ever struggle with alcohol addiction. If you know something could lead you to sin, you don't go anywhere near it. It is not a rule (see yesterdays post about Fair vs Right) it is a choice, and it is a choice you have the ability to make every day.
If you want another perspective, read the life of David in 1-2 Samuel. David killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in battle. He was not a pacifist. When he was face to face with his greatest enemy, King Saul, he refused to kill him. Saul gave the killer of the giant Goliath every reason to defend himself, but every time David chose not to. This is the man who wrote the lines:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ps 23:1–6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
When it comes to the subject of defense, where do you put your faith?
Disclaimer: I am personally a terrible example about the following subject.
I'm coming close to 20 years of experience serving in churches. One of the common stories I have heard told or seen demonstrated in almost every congregation I have been a part of is the growth toward becoming Pharisees. Depending on how my day is going it strikes me as either funny or sad the way it seems everyone, and I mean everyone tells this story on someone else. It goes something like this...
Once upon a time, I was a young Christian who had just discovered the love of Jesus for the first time and was reveling and excited about the freedom and forgiveness I found in His grace. I couldn't understand all these "older" Christians who were always reading from the Old Testament and talking about the Law. Come on people! Jesus died so that we could get away from all the Law stuff that only holds us back from God. It was offensive to me how complicated they were making the simple love and grace of God out to be. They were just like the Pharisees in the Gospels.
To make matters even worse, I found out that they were still sinners. Not only were they keeping people out who were the ones who really needed God, they weren't even following all the rules they were so insistent on others keeping.
This story often ends with a call to ministry, perhaps a church split, or some other form of starting ministry from a fresh new perspective. The world turns, and another generation arises. Those who were once adamant that grace theologically outranks works every time have grown a few years older, and perhaps more importantly taken up the mantle of leadership and their perspective changes.
Suddenly, they are not sure that everyone deserves grace all the time. Now, they should only receive that forgiveness and acceptance if they apologize... and not just a half-hearted apology. They need to really mean it. It needs to be actual repentance, so everyone knows they will never do it again. They should also pay for whatever pain or damage they caused if at all possible. The list goes on...
The funny thing is that so much of this depends on context. It is not age that makes people Pharisees, it is responsibility. I have seen young adults in college ministry be so pro-grace/anti-law in their college ministry groups on campus who, when put in charge of a cabin of middle school students at camp, suddenly transform into the master of parliamentary procedure for the Sanhedrin Council of the Pharisee sect.
Why is this? Simply put, we would rather receive grace than give it. Even those of us who struggle with our own pride and desire to earn our keep... we certainly don't want to give out more grace than we have access to ourselves. That cuts us to the core. Yet what did Jesus say about giving and receiving? Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:8) or more pointedly in Luke 6:30 - Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
Jesus didn't deal with what was fair. He dealt with what was right. Those are not always the same thing. It is those moments when it is not fair but it is right that we probably cringe the most. Especially when it is unfair to us.
The question today is not, where do you stand? Where we stand depends on the day and how much responsibility we have. The question is: how are we giving out grace?
"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"
- Matthew 7:3 KJV
Tonight I'm finishing up the chapter on the gospel of John. It is just the first draft and I imagine there will be plenty of revisions. If there is one thing I have learned combing through the politics in the gospels is that we all have room to grow. I do not just mean that nobody knows it all like Jesus does... that much is a bit too obvious. I mean that we all - right, left, middle, other, and abstaining, are unified by the effects of fear in our political lives.
Every day it is something else. I used to hear about the negativity in the media and how some people wished the stories were more uplifting. Today though, it is not just negativity, it is anxiety. It is fear. I do not know if we have grown up into a fear-consuming nation or if there are external pressures that intend on keeping us that way. All I know is that fear is prevalent.
That is except when we cover it up with our anger. The political anger today matches the fear and meets it head on in a violent chemical reaction that is imploding communities and exploding across the nation. We react. All of us. Anger and fear, two sides of the same coin that herd us around in circles.
So tonight I'm wondering, if we strip away the fear and anger as motivations for our politics... what is left? Is there any motivation? When we strip away the manipulators is there anything left that honors God?
It's time to quit reacting to the motes in our own eyes. They lead us into jousting matches with windmills like Don Quixote that make us feel important because we cannot see what we are doing... just being foolish. We need to see clearly what is going on in us, so that we can see clearly what is going on around us, and where God is at work.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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