Sunday, May 11, 2014

Thoughtlessness and skepticism

Matthew 25:45  Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

I have lately begun turning my attention more and more towards older books.  My reasons for doing so are myriad, but among them are:

1) frugality - most older books can be found very inexpensively.  If you don't mind reading electronic versions, many of them are free.  There are so many very good, meaty, interesting books available for free, why would I want to spend $10 or more on a book that will never be of similar literary quality to any number of books that I can obtain for free?

2) interest - many of my interests are piqued just as well by books written 50 or 100 years ago at least as well as, and often more than, newer books. 

3) quality - I have found that many books written within the last 20 years or so are increasingly formulaic, vulgar, and generally full of puffery with very little substance.

So, yes, when it comes to reading material, I'm a bit of a cheapskate.  But I also love the classics.  Any book worth reading is worth reading at least three or four times.  If you can't gain some insight from a book on a second or third reading, you're probably wasting your time reading it the first time.

Now, I can almost hear you wondering if there's going to be a point - or at least some attempt to reconcile the scripture quoted at the top with the ramblings beneath it.


There is a point.  And here it is.  I've been reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, mainly because I found the Kindle version for free on Amazon, and it's been many years since I read it.  And today, while I was reading I came across this quote.  It's a statement made by Augustine St. Clair to his cousin Ophelia, and it goes like this:

"... and I confess that the apathy of religious people on this subject [slavery], their want of perception of wrongs that filled me with horror, have engendered in me more skepticism than any other thing."

Think about that for just a moment.  The one thing that had the most to do with keeping St. Clare from becoming a Christian was the apathy of professing Christians.  Let me say that again.  The one thing that had the most to do with keeping St. Clare from becoming a Christian was the apathy of professing Christians.

As I read that quote over several times, I couldn't help but wonder what things I've turned a blind eye to, what small injustices that I decided weren't worth getting upset over, what big things that I decided were too big for my one voice to make a difference, what thing that has become so commonplace that I simply don't notice anymore.  How many people has my apathy turned away?  How many souls have been pushed an inch (or a mile) further away from God because of my unconcern? 

I think the point Jesus was making is that not every sin is something we do or say.  Just as often, my sin is in something I DON'T do or say.  Or as James put it, "therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin."  (James 4:17)

My prayer for today is that God would open my eyes to my thoughtlessness that is contributing to someone else's skepticism, and soften my heart to lay that thoughtlessness aside and do what I know is good.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How Can I Trust God When I'm Hurting?

On my way home from work last night, I listened to someone telling the story of a man who almost canceled a business trip when his two year old son started crying.  The boy realized when he saw airplanes that Daddy was leaving on a trip.

Being a dad, I completely understand how much it hurts to hear your child crying.  It is often very difficult to continue on a given course of action knowing that said action is causing your child emotional pain and distress.

That said, the father went on his business trip anyway.  The speaker - Joni Eareckson Tada, by the way - was making the point that the father cared about his child's hurt, and that our Heavenly Father cares about our hurt, too.

Sometimes, however, it seems a bit hard to understand how God could claim to love us and yet allow us to go through whatever it is we're going through when we have that thought.  It becomes difficult to think of God as loving us when we're suffering.  And when we start wondering if God really loves us, doubt can creep in, making it harder and harder to trust Him.

My mind, however, immediately jumped to a slightly different thought.  It usually does.  I guess my mind works differently than most.  Just ask my wife. 

Anyway, my first thought was, "Sure, the dad was hurting with his son, but he went on his trip anyway, knowing that it was causing the child emotional distress."  As a parent, I do things nearly every day that cause my kids some level of emotional discomfort.

"Yes, you have to do your schoolwork."

"No, you can't have two desserts."

"Yes, the doctor might have to give you a shot."

If you're a parent, you can relate to all of those scenarios and more.  Hopefully, even if you aren't a parent, you can understand why a parent would take all of those stands, even though they all can cause a child some level of distress.

The father in the story went on his business trip.  We make our children go to the dentist and the pediatrician, we limit their intake of candy and ice cream, we make them do their homework, we make them stay well away from the street when playing... you get the idea.

So, why do parents force their children to do things the children don't want to do? 

Because we know what's best.  We have a fuller understanding of the situation than our children do.  At least, most of us do.  And so, we go on those business trips when we'd rather stay home, because we know that we have bills to pay, birthday presents to buy, and so on.  We drag our children to their doctor's appointments because we know that a little discomfort now can save a significant amount of suffering later from avoiding illness.

Isn't it logical to assume, then, that God sometimes does the same thing to us?  Jesus asks in Luke 11 if any father would give his child a stone instead of bread, or a serpent instead of a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg.   If we, as imperfect earthly parents know how to give our children the things that are good for them, how much more does God give us the things He knows are good for us?

Maybe, God knows as much more about the situation than we do as we know more than our children do.  Maybe He understands that it's better for us to have a little discomfort now in order that we avoid some larger problem later.  If I'm smart enough to know that too much sugar will lead my children to pain in the dentist's chair, then maybe God is smart enough to know that whatever I'm going through today might have a purpose as well.

We might never understand why a certain something had to happen to us.  But I think it's comforting to realize that even when I'm hurting, God cares, just as much as I care when my son is getting a shot of penicillin.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Happiness and head-banging

Did you ever want to shake someone? No, not literally. Well, okay, maybe literally, but not hard enough to cause permanent damage.

Why do I ask? Because I just wanted to shake someone. There I was, scrolling down my Facebook page (yes, I know) when I saw a quote from the Dalai Lama being shared by one of my Christian Facebook friends. Now, before you start in at me about how we can find truth and wisdom everywhere, and that Christians don't have a monopoly on either – yes, I agree. Nobody is always wrong about everything, except for that one guy. You probably know him (or her).

But my problem wasn't with the fact that a Christian was sharing a quote from the Dalai Lama. My problem was with the quote itself. “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”

It took every ounce of my will to not type “no it isn't” and hit the enter key. The only reason I didn't is because I know it would have led to much more heat than light, because, sadly, that's the currently popular mindset.

If you're not happy with your job, quit and get another one (although only the brave and the foolhardy quit a job in today's economy). If you're not happy with your house, sell it and get another one. If you're not happy with your car, your furniture, your church, or your husband (or wife), get another one.

Instant gratification has become the ruling philosophy of our time. I have to deal with it with my children almost constantly. They always “need” the next, the newest, the coolest. My response is invariably “then save your money until you can afford one.”

The problem with that advice is that I don't immediately follow it up by placing the boys into a sealed room with no television or internet access. It never takes more than a few days for them to see something that they just HAVE to buy. Occasionally, when I remind them that they were saving up for this or that, they'll have an “Oh yeah” moment and pass up whatever it was that caught their eye. Most often, however, the “need” for whatever it is overwhelms them, and they crumble like a stale cookie.

Some of you are probably asking yourselves why I allow the kids to spend their money in this fashion. I have found that slowly, bit by bit, when they realize that their need for instant gratification has destroyed their plans, they learn just a bit more patience. The next time, they have to think the decision over just a bit longer before they give in and waste their money. Occasionally, they even decide to stick with their plans. I believe (or at least I hope) that learning the dangers of spending frivolously now will help them avoid the pitfalls when there's more at stake than being able to buy the newest Playstation game.

You expect children to behave rashly, to have a need for instant gratification. Today, however, adults have the same mindset. But as I read my Bible, I don't find anywhere the notion that the purpose of my life is to make myself happy. In fact, I read that I'm supposed to deny myself, take up my cross and follow Jesus. I'm supposed to nurture my children and love my wife. I'm supposed to allow God to bring my desires into line with His desires, and to realize that I'm not the main character in the story.

The simple fact of the matter is, the purpose of my life is to make God happy.     

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Answers and Amazing Love

Hebrews 5:8 Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.

I'll never forget the day this verse slapped me in the face. There I was, minding my own business, when this verse jumped out at me. Well, actually, somebody threw it at me. But what he had to say that day really made me stop and think about life.

How often do you hear someone say something along the lines of, “Why doesn't God show up and answer prayer the way He used to? Why can't He come down and rescue us today like He did for Peter and Paul and all those guys in the New Testament?”

On the surface, that seems like a fair question, right? I mean, the Bible is full of stories where God dramatically rescues His people from serious trouble. He delivered Paul and Silas from prison, he rescued Paul from a shipwreck, he freed Peter from prison, and the list goes on and on. They prayed (or someone else prayed for them) and God answered with a breath-taking miracle. So, why doesn't He answer my prayers the same way?

I hear that a good bit. I'll even confess that I've had those thoughts myself from time to time. I mean, Jesus PROMISED that if we'd ask anything in His name, He would do it, didn't He? So, why doesn't it work? Just in John 14-16 alone, Jesus says at least five times that if you ask any thing in His name, He will give it to you. The other gospels contain similar promises, such as Matthew 7:11 and Luke 11:13. So, why doesn't it work?

Several responses come to my mind, and I'm going to briefly lay out a few of them. First of all, when God rescued Peter, Paul, Silas, etc etc etc, they were boldly and unashamedly doing the work God had set before them. When it seems like God isn't listening to me, can I always say the same thing?

Second, notice that Paul, Silas and Peter were all IN prison when God rescued them. He did not keep them from all of life's problems. He saved them OUT of them, not FROM them. Paul lays out a list of how many times he was beaten, thrown into prison, etc in 2 Corinthians 11.

Going further, we know that Paul was beheaded. Peter was crucified upside down. Matthew was killed by sword. Mark was dragged by horses until he died. Luke was hanged. James (Jesus' brother) was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and then beaten to death with a club. James (John's brother) was beheaded. Bartholomew was whipped to death. I could keep going, but I hope I made my point.

Which of those would you prefer? Exactly. I think we have a tendency to take a few instances of miracles and assume that the Apostles were always kept from harm. In fact, they were horribly persecuted and brutally killed for their faith. On an interesting side note, the Roman soldier who guarded James, the son of Zebedee, became a Christian while watching the way James behaved during his trial and imprisonment. When he escorted James to the chopping block, he confessed his newfound faith to the judge and then knelt down beside James to accept beheading as well. Would anyone who watched my life do the same?

Third, notice that several of those verses specify that God wants to give GOOD gifts to his children. The problem with that is that God knows much better than we do what's good for us. The second problem is that He loves us so much that He will not stop working until we are exactly what He wants us to be. Many times, the best way to move us towards the goal is by allowing trials and circumstances to shape us.

After all, if Jesus learned obedience by the things He suffered, how much more do we have to learn than He did? (No, I'm not trying to imply that Jesus wasn't perfect, or was somehow disobedient until He learned better. Don't argue with me, I didn't write Hebrews.)

It's amazing to think that God loves me. The thought fills me with awe and wonder and deep gratitude. It also scares the bejoobies out of me. God loves me. He loves you, too. And His primary concern is NOT my comfort. His primary concern is that I become formed into the image of Jesus Christ, that I be made into a fit vessel, that I be shaped into the living stone that will become part of His home. And God is perfect – not just in love, but also in holiness. His love is holy and righteous. It isn't the mushy, sentimental kind of love that gives you that second piece of cake. It's the kind of love that says, “I know this will hurt, but it's what you need to draw you closer to Me.”

Scary, but also exciting.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ouchies and the real problem

Isaiah 53:5 has always been one of the most fascinating verses in the entire Bible for me.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

I have spent a good deal of time mulling this verse over, working out what it meant, trying to dig into it to see if I was missing anything. And along the way, in addition to finding meaning in the verse, I have decided what I really think it doesn't mean as well.

For instance, I am just about one hundred percent positive that “by His stripes we are healed” has absolutely nothing to do with physical healing. You've heard that taught, I'll bet. “Are you sick? Well, just come on and claim your healing! By HIS stripes you are HEALED!” But I don't think that's what God meant. Not at all.

Don't believe me? Let me ask you a question. How many stripes had Jesus taken when he healed the ten lepers? How about Bartimaeus? Jairus' daughter? The Gerasene demoniac? Here's a tough one: Lazarus. How many stripes had Jesus taken when he raised Lazarus from the dead? I mean, that seems like it would be a lot tougher than replacing a nonfunctional eye, right?

Jesus didn't have to go through a massive beating, dehydration, torture and death to heal physical ailments. For Jesus, healing physical problems was a slow Tuesday. We know of at least one time where He went into a town and healed every sick person that was brought out to meet Him.

All before the Romans ever threw the first lash!

Please don't take this the wrong way, but using Isaiah 53:5 as a promise of physical healing is an insult to our Lord. In fact, the more time I spend on this verse, the more strongly I believe that trivializing the suffering of Jesus, using verses like this to promote a health and wealth gospel is treading dangerously close to blasphemy.

Why do I say this? Well, let's look at what I believe this verse is really talking about, and then you tell me.

Imagine for just a moment that you and I are going to hop into my truck and go for a ride. We see a rundown little singlewide trailer beside the road, and we pull into the driveway. When we open the front door, we see a young man passed out on the sofa in the front room with a pile of empty beer cans and liquor bottles scattered around. We pass by him and walk into the kitchen to find a young woman sitting at the kitchen table crying quietly. She has a cut over one eye, which is swollen nearly shut. Her lip is split, and she is covered in bruises, old and new. We leave her and walk down the hall to find a four year old boy lying on a mattress on the floor. His cheeks are streaked with tears as he whispers, “Dear God, please don't let my daddy hit my mommy again. Please?”

Now, imagine that we have the power to reach inside that young boy and just scoop out all of the pain and anguish he's feeling. Then we do the same for the young woman, taking away all her pain, her embarrassment, her guilt, her shame. Then we do the same for the man. We take all his guilt, all his shame, all his bitterness and rage, and we pull it out of him.

Now, we're going to get back into my truck and drive across town to the wealthy section of the suburbs. We're going to pick a house and go inside. Up on the second floor we hear music pouring from one of the rooms. When we open the door, we find a teenage girl wearing black clothes, crouched in the floor. As we watch, she takes a razor blade and makes several deep gashes along one arm, then across one thigh. And we're going to reach into this young girl and take away all her pain, her suffering, her loneliness and despair, her guilt, and we're going to pull it out of her.

When we leave this house, we're going to hit the road, and we're going to go to every drug addiction treatment center, every halfway house, every crisis pregnancy center, every prison, every street corner, every house, and we're going to find every hurting, guilty person we can, and we're going to scoop out all of the pain and the guilt and the shame they carry, and we're going to add all of that to our pile.

And when we're done, we're going to drop every last crumb of it onto one man.

Does that seem incredible? That's exactly what happened on the cross. If you keep reading after Isaiah 53:5 to verse 6, you read these words:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Can you imagine it? I can't. I know what bearing the weight of my iniquity feels like. I can't imagine bearing mine and yours. And yet that's what Jesus did.

Isn't that much better even than a cure for cancer?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Bombs and millstones

I just turned on the television to find that a series of explosions have disrupted the Boston Marathon. My first thought, and hopefully yours as well, was to pray for the victims and their families. I have never lost a loved one to a senseless act of violence such as this, but most everyone has lost someone they loved in one way or another, so I think we can all empathize to an extent.

Watching the footage of people being loaded onto stretchers and wheelchairs, placed into ambulances, and otherwise being carried away from the carnage, my heart goes out to that city. Some of the early eyewitness reports being read and played are absolutely heartbreaking.

My second thought is to wonder how long it will be before someone uses this tragedy as a platform from which to bash religion. It never takes long for someone to lump all religious people into one large pile and labeling the whole pile with one broad brush.

I'd be willing to bet that those same people would deeply resent being lumped into a pile with men like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. The question is, which comparison is more appropriate?

Honestly, I don't think any generalization along these lines is appropriate. People are people. Not statistics, or probabilities, or likelihoods. They're people. No set of statistics ever created can tell you what a random person with x belief system will do in a given situation.

The question of which comparison is more logical, however, is a totally different animal. If you compare the teachings of the founders of each system of thought, it quickly becomes clear which followers are most closely following their leader.

But today is not a day to point fingers of hurl accusations. Today is a day to cry with those in pain and help them if we can. As reports continue to roll in, it appears that there will be no shortage of people who will need help.

The other thing we all need to do today is examine ourselves. Sadly, too many people are too willing to twist things Jesus said to justify their behavior. Abortion clinic bombers come to mind. Yes, Jesus did say that it would be better for a person to have a millstone hung around his neck and be thrown into the sea than to harm a child, but He did not tell His followers to go out and buy millstones and rope.

In fact, Jesus made it very clear that we're to pray for our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. I honestly believe that it is the height of arrogance to think that anything I could do would be more effective than what God can do in response to my prayers.

Including the prayers being lifted for the victims of today's tragedy in Boston.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Thoughts from the pinkie toe

1 Corinthians 12:27 “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.”

I've known this verse for most of my life. I don't recall the first time I read it, but I'm sure it's been over 30 years, and probably more than 35. And very likely more than 40 years since the first time I heard someone else read it.

The analogy of the followers of Jesus being like the parts of a body is one of the most popular – at least in the circles I've been part of. People have even had fun trying to decide which part everyone is. I told my wife just today that I'm pretty sure she's the tongue (although she has a lot of competition for that particular honor).

Most Christians, I would imagine, have heard this term used at least a few times. “We are the body of Christ.” I can think of at least three songs off the top of my head that use this very terminology. It's one of those things that most of us take for granted. We rattle it off at various appropriate times, much like “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and John 3:16.

But sometimes I wonder if we let the truth of this verse really get into our lives. I know I'm part of the body of Christ, but have I really fleshed out what that means?

Think about the last time you stubbed your toe, or banged your knee into the edge of your desk, or bumped your head. I imagine you said, “Oh, look. My left great toe is bleeding. Hmm...”

Of course you didn't. If you're anything like me, it was more like, “OOOOOWWWWWWWWW!” When one part of my body hurts, I'm in pain. If I bite the inside of my cheek, it hurts all of me, the same as if I bang my knee (which I do at least once every work week).

So, if my whole body sympathizes with my toe when it's hurting, shouldn't the body of Christ react the same way? If the toe is hurting, the rest of the body should rally to it.

By the same token, my hand can't steal without dragging the rest of me into trouble with it. My foot can't walk somewhere it shouldn't without taking the rest of me along for the trip. The same is true of Christ's body. Everything I do, for good or ill, affects the whole body. Not only that, but this isn't just a body. It's His body. So, everywhere I go, everything I do, Christ is going with me. It's His body, after all. I can't just ask him to wait for me at home while I borrow it to go out and have some fun.

I wonder how much different the church would be if all of us kept that in mind more often.