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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What Makes Us Happy?

Who'd have thought: social scientists are discovering that the real keys to a happy life are the things that the holiest-living saints have been preaching all along.  Here's a summary from columnist David Brooks:
In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most. They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones. . . . Governments keep initiating policies they think will produce prosperity, only to get sacked, time and again, from their spiritual blind side.
 For the entire interesting article, click here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Difference in the Details of Doctrine

Imagine you own a home and are excavating part of your backyard to put in an in-ground pool.  While the digging is going on, your neighbor storms up and declares that the hole in the ground crosses the boundary between your property and his, so you are stealing some of his property.  Now, you could reply philosophically, “Well, as I see it the line goes here, but I respect that you see it over there, and maybe you’re right—who can say?  In the end these details really aren’t the most important thing.  The important thing is that we always get along as neighbors (and that I have a pool).”  But of course you wouldn’t say that!  Not only will you not appease your neighbor that way, but there are real legal and financial consequences for you if you actually did start digging in his yard.  Even if you’re nice about it, you would still strongly defend your understanding of where the property line goes, because it really matters which side of it your pool is on.

We live in a world where people who are very keen on real estate property lines are very fuzzy on doctrine and theology, even many Christians.  Doctrine can seem impossible to nail down with precision and impractical or unnecessary anyhow—sometimes the more impractical the more it is nailed down.  And it turns people off when others get angry, unkind, and even violent about doctrinal differences.  So most folks like to keep things blurry and say things like, “We may differ, but it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we’re sincere.”

But in sharp contrast to this attitude, we Christians really care to get the details right about doctrine for the same reason that it’s important to know where the property lines are before you put in a pool.  We need to know where the lines are, because there will be bad consequences for us if we’re on the wrong side of them.  And we defend those lines because we don’t want to be lured away from what we need to survive and to thrive.

For example, the most repeatedly and hotly debated doctrine in the first eight centuries of the Church was the person of Christ—in other words, how “God” was Christ and how “man” was Christ, and how did the God part and the man part connect with each other in him?  The further along the debate went and the more options were ruled out, the more technical and difficult to understand the issue became.  But what kept the faithful going through the whole exhausting dispute was a conviction that our salvation hinged on it.  If the single person who both died on the cross and rose from the dead were not fully God and fully human without confusion, change, division, or separation, then we could not be saved, because only that sort of person could bring us and God together.  And to this day it matters—our salvation depends on this truth, so we had better know what it is and be sure about it or go off and find something better.

Mining the Bible for doctrinal details or stimulating each other in discussion in a Bible study might seem to some folks like a lot of work for a little payoff.  Does it really do anyone any good?  Without a doubt, if we talk endlessly about God’s Word but don’t do it, it doesn’t do any good.  But if are obedient to what we know, it is essential.  Knowing God’s truth, whatever it is, is as practical as planning how you’ll spend the next trillion or so years.

Friday, March 26, 2010

He's Just a God Who Can't Say No

The second segment of Jesus' four-part teaching on prayer in Luke 11:1-13 goes like this in the New English Translation (NET):
Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine has stopped here while on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him." Then he will reply from inside, "Do not bother me. The door is already shut, and my children and I are in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything." I tell you, even though the man inside will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of the first man’s sheer persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
Believe it or not, in the original Greek most of this story is a single run-on sentence.  More precisely it's a question.  The reason that English translations break this question into separate sentences is because a literal translation looks like a train wreck in our language.  But actually, in casual spoken English it's not that unfamiliar.  Imagine not reading but hearing your friend ask you,
Who here would have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, "Buddy, let me borrow three loaves of bread, because my friend showed up at my house from a trip and I don't have anything to feed him," and he answers from inside, "Stop bothering me!—the door's already shut, my kids and I are already in bed; I can't get up to give it to you"?
Does Jesus want to know the disciples' answer to this question?  No, because it's a hypothetical, point-proving question whose answer is obvious to all of them: no one.  None of them would have a friend who would refuse them that way in that situation.

That's because of what this scenario would look like in a typical Middle Eastern village.  The people wouldn't be living in multi-story houses with thick, well-insulated walls and yards in between.  They would be in small, totally un-sound-proofed houses jammed against each other on a tiny parcel of real estate with narrow streets.  If a guy starts banging on someone else's door in the middle of the night and shouting in to be sure he's heard, pretty soon everyone in town wakes up and hears all of it.

Once everyone wakes up, the guy's problem becomes everyone's problem.  Hospitality was a huge virtue in Jesus' traditional society, so the guy with the visiting friend is really in trouble.  However, the communal nature of a typical village meant that everyone was responsible for the treatment of this visitor.  Again, if we think about the towns that we live in it doesn't follow that my neighbor's failure of hospitality makes me look bad.  But imagine that someone brings a guest to your church and then leaves him alone in a room and ignores him, and the guest is standing around clearly not knowing what to do.  In a small church like mine, any one of us would immediately feel responsible.  If we don't take care of him, it's not just the member who invited him who looks bad, but we all look bad.  This is the same situation that the residents of this hypothetical town are in—let's get this guy some loaves of bread!

But of course, the fellow whose door is being banged at is the one imposed upon, and therefore the shame of not showing hospitality has been transferred from the person with the visitor to him.  That makes it an even larger imposition.  Not only is he being asked to roll out of bed, not only is he about to lose three loaves of bread out of his own family's mouths, but if he doesn't comply he looks like a complete jerk to the entire town.  The NET says that he will get up because of his friend's "sheer persistence."  A better translation (which you find in the marginal notes in some Bibles) is "shamelessness."  This friend knocking on the door is way out of line.  He is rudely putting his friend in bed in a painfully awkward position.  He's making a scene.  The whole town is probably torn between the shame of not providing for this visitor and the sympathetic discomfort of seeing this guy's audacious behavior, like when you hear (but pretend not to hear) two people getting into a shouting match in a grocery store and you quickly find another aisle to shop in.  The man inside won't stay under the covers—he'll get up to end this embarrassing moment as soon as possible.

So why does Jesus tell this story to urge us to pray?  Because when we pray, we, like the man whose friend as just shown up at midnight, are admitting our poverty.  We admit that we don't have the resources to do what we ought to do.  We're basically embarrassing ourselves by admitting our weakness.

But when we pray, God is even more embarrassed.  His promises are written in Scripture after Scripture, his faithfulness is displayed in every sunrise and sunset and at the turning of every season, and as a Father he has placed his own Name on his children.  His children's want is an embarrassment to the King of glory.  The loud, obnoxious prayers of the saints draw the attention of all the world to disparity between the glory, riches, and claims to faithfulness of God and the hung-out-to-dry destitution of his children and servants.

Will God allow this disparity to continue?  Will he be humiliated and allow his great Name to be sullied before the entire watching world?  Certainly not!  Even if he did not love us one bit—and we know that he loves us more than we can conceive—he would still grant our requests for the sake of his glorious reputation.  His own prestige is on the line, and he will not let it drag through the mud.

So when you are pinched by life in any direction, when you have needs that make you groan, go to prayer with shameless boldness, knowing that God potentially has even more egg on his face than you do.  Will he let you down?  Of course not!  He has a reputation to uphold, and that reputation includes satisfying you beyond what you can ask or imagine.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Amazing Grace (the Funky Solo Guitar Version)

New, genuine, possibly useful blog post coming soon!  But until then, check this out.  Like my previous post pertaining to "Amazing Grace," it involves must-see media.  But unlike my previous post, this will only take three and a half minutes of your time, and it can be done with a simple click on what 30 Rock's Tracey Jordan calls "the Intraweb."  If anyone can watch and listen to this rendition of the hymn and not smile, I'll buy you a virtual cookie.

Josh Wilson

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Of Stubbed Toes and Broken Bones

Is it just me, or is one of the strangest phenomena of the human body the stubbed toe?  Of all the things a person could do to injure themselves, the average stubbed toe has to be about the least serious.  Unless you really, truly haul off at some immovable object, in a few minutes your stubbed toe will feel just fine and you'll be walking around normally.  You'll probably forget it ever happened.  But for the first few seconds after stubbing your toe, for some unknown reason you feel like you just amputated something without anesthesia.  Man, does it hurt!

Then there's breaking a bone.  I've never broken a bone and I don't intend to start, but just the thought of it makes me queasy.  Now that has to be really, really painful, about as painful as a badly stubbed toe.  But there's a difference.  After a while, the broken bone still hurts.  In fact, it probably hurts more.  And unlike a stubbed toe, the broken bone is actual damage done to the body, and if it isn't treated properly that damage may be permanent and the person may walk with a permanent limp.  No one has ever suffered that from just a stubbed toe.

But what's really odd is that in the moment of injury and immediately thereafter, I'm not sure it's easy to tell the difference between a stubbed toe and a broken bone.  When pain is shooting through your nervous system like liquid fire it's hard to analyze anything or be reasonable at all.  (There's a dent in my refrigerator door created about one second after I bashed my head on a nearby cupboard that proves this point.)  Only by exercising great self-control to freeze for a little while and not take action can we then sort out whether this is hurt-as-in-pain or hurt-as-in-pain-plus-injury.

I think there is a parallel between this pattern with our bodies and what happens when we are offended emotionally.  Any offense of some sort hurts, and it is very difficult to control oneself at the moment of hurt.  But we have to give ourselves time to figure out whether this is a stubbed toe that can just be blown off and forgotten about or whether this is a broken-bone offense that still needs to be forgiven but may require some more serious healing work between the two parties.

But here's where the emotional parallel differs.  With our physical bodies, if we stub our toe, we don't have to choose for the pain to subside and to feel better.  It happens by itself, and we figure out it's only a stubbed toe no matter how much we rage in the meantime.  But emotions don't work like that.  If we get our emotional toe stubbed but we immediately assume that an emotional bone was broken—in other words, we make the issue a bigger deal than it is—then that pain will never go away because we won't let it.  In a way it becomes a broken bone because of our reaction.  If we do that often we quickly get to a point where we simply can't tell the difference between a stubbed toe and a broken bone.  Every time someone offends us, we make a big deal out of it in our minds and eventually with other people.

But worse, when we can't tell the difference between an emotional stubbed toe and a broken bone, then we also can't tell the difference between hurt-as-pain and hurt-as-injury.  We consider emotional pain to be a true injury just because it's pain.  But if our definition of hurt is nothing more than pain then our definition of healing is nothing more than removing pain.  But if healing is just removing pain, then we will never be healed when we actually do have an injury to be healed from.  That's because real healing of real injuries involves more pain—pain of setting a bone or surgery or rehab.  This is true of both our bodies and our emotions.  But if in our minds being healed means not being in pain anymore, then we will never allow ourselves to be really healed.  We will just keep looking for some emotional experience that makes us happy and drives the pain away.  But such experiences are always temporary, and the injury lingers.

I have seen this in others, and I have experienced it myself.  Sometimes someone says or does something that wounds me and I get angry.  If I give it time and don't yield to the anger I may realize it's not a big deal—it's a stubbed toe.  But if I do give into the anger then I start demanding that the other person "make" me feel better.  So then I define my wholeness by their ability and willingness to change my emotional state.  That never turns out well.  I never get satisfied until I make my emotional state my responsibility instead of theirs.

But other times when someone wounds me it actually is a big deal.  And there have been times that I have refused to believe it's as big a deal as it is—that is, insisting that my broken bone is only a stubbed toe even though it's worse.  So I blow it off as if it's no big deal, but deep down in my soul it actually is a big deal, and I'm still silently holding on to resentment over it.  As that injury remains untreated, and as I just keep putting off dealing with it and stuffing it down by focusing on my superficial emotions, it gets worse and worse.  It becomes a "root of bitterness" that eventually, when I least expect it, bursts out and damages people and myself in terrible, vindictive ways.  I once horribly humiliated myself and someone I loved this way.  I once failed to get a job this way too.  It's bad news.

But all of this can be avoided by carefully distinguishing between stubbed toes and broken bones, between simple pain and true injury, at the very beginning.  Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry—which is much easier said than done—gives us time to tell the difference.  So for example, wait a good 24 hours before sending that hurt and upset e-mail, perhaps even before writing it, because things that get written have a way of getting themselves sent.  (I know—easier said than done.)  Then if it no longer seems important, forgive and forget.  If it's still disturbing, even if it's not quite as painful, then do the more painful thing and call the person or meet them face to face, because that greater pain (i.e., anxiety) in the short run is part of healing the actual injury, which will spare everyone more hurt in the long run.

"Love . . . keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor. 13:5) is more complicated than it first appears, but it starts with taking the time to tell the difference between a stubbed toe and a broken bone so as not to magnify pain or ignore injury.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Cost of Love and What It Buys

I was reading Jesus' familiar parable of the good Samaritan, which Jesus told to define who one's "neighbor" is with respect to the second greatest commandment, to love one's neighbor as oneself.  It strikes me how much it cost the Samaritan to love his half-dead Jewish neighbor.  Certainly time, as his help interrupted his own journey.  It cost him oil and wine, which he poured on the man's wounds.  It cost him energy as he had to walk to the inn since the wounded man was on his own animal, and maybe the Samaritan was carrying on his own back some of his belongings so as not to overload his beast of burden.  It cost him two denarii to pay for their stay at the inn, where he may have been up all night tending him, which cost him sleep.  Then the next day he makes an open-ended promise to pay for the rest of the Jew's stay, which could have cost him who-knows-how-much.  And at the conclusion of the parable, Jesus says to the man he was talking to, "Go and do likewise."

It got me thinking how much it costs to love someone the way God wants us to.  We are willing to pay high costs for our own health and happiness; to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do to others what we would have them do to us require us to pay those costs for everyone, even our enemies.

But Jesus told this parable as part of a conversation that started with the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"  The first thing, Jesus affirms, is to love the Lord with everything we have and are—in other words, to pay high costs to love him—and then derivatively to pay the cost to love our neighbor.  But the enormous, self-negating costs of loving God and neighbor are what buy us the inheritance of eternal life and riches that never die.  So in other words, no matter how extreme the cost we pay, what we get for it is an immeasurable bargain.  We are like a man who sells all he had to buy a field with buried treasure or a merchant who sells all he has to buy a matchless pearl.  Like them, divesting ourselves of everything isn't an agony, but the greatest joy.

Of course I use the term "buy" as a figure of speech as Jesus did (see also Rev. 3:18), knowing that he paid the cost of our salvation with his own blood on the cross.  But the Bible is clear that just as our salvation cost Jesus everything, it costs us everything too.  And just as Jesus got everything back that he paid and more besides, so will we.  I hope that makes us more willing to pay it.

God, please grant me the willingness to pay the cost of loving you and loving my neighbors today.  And grant me joy as I pay it by giving me a glimpse of the eternal weight of glory for which I spend it.  In Jesus' name, amen.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Challenge of the Kingdom

I read Luke 9:57-62 yesterday—a very familiar and very challenging passage.

The first guy promises to follow Jesus wherever he goes, but Jesus tells him that he's homeless and if the guy comes with him, he can expect to be homeless too.  This guy hasn't thought it through.  The cost of the kingdom is high.

Jesus tells the second guy to follow him, but he wants to bury his father first.  (If the dude is dead and unburied, what is his son doing just hanging out?  Or is he waiting for the undertaker to show up?)  He wants the loose ends tied up.  Jesus tells him to "let the dead bury their own dead," but the guy is to get busy proclaiming the kingdom.  Whether the guy's request is "reasonable" or not we'll never know.  But we do know that the need of the kingdom is immediate.

The third guy wants to follow Jesus but wants to say goodbye to his family first.  Maybe he wants a foot in both worlds, the present age and the age to come.  Either way, Jesus tells him that once he starts in the kingdom (presumably he already had), if he looks back he doesn't deserve to have a part in it.  The demand of the kingdom is unyielding.

Its cost is high; its need is immediate; its demand is unyielding.  Does my life reflect subservience to that particular kingdom today?  Does yours?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Happy Birthday, Chuck

Today we wish a happy 70th birthday to Chuck Norris.  Yes, you read that right.  It's been said that though Jesus walked on water, Chuck Norris swam through land.  Of course, as a follower of Jesus himself, Chuck knows that's not true.  But here's to our septuagenarian, cowboy boot-shod brother in Christ Chuck Norris on his birthday.  Chuck, I'm not 100% on board with your politics, but the fact that you can still perform a lethal roundhouse kick at your age is an inspiration to us all.  Ladies in my church's craft class, if you're reading this, now you know what I expect of you.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Should the Church Be a Family?

Do you love your church because it is your Christian "family"?  How would you react if a consultant told your church that the most important thing you could possibly do is to quit thinking of yourselves as a family?  Can you imagine why someone would counsel such a thing?  Read here to find out.

(By the way, there are arguments to be made in favor of thinking of the church as a family that aren't mentioned in the article, but it is still really good food for thought.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

The God of 20 Degrees

Someone told me recently about a surge of prophecy at a recent worship service in his rather charismatic church.  One prophet boldly declared to someone in front of the church that God was about to turn his life around "380 degrees."

Now, it's pretty clear that the prophet was trying to say that God was going to turn the guy's life around 180 degrees—that is, point it exactly the opposite way that it's currently going—but he or she got his or her words mixed with "360 degrees," a perfect circle.  Because to turn 380 degrees happens to be spinning in a circle and then rotating 20 more degrees.  So the prophet accidentally told the man that God was about to make him veer slightly to the right.

Obviously, this is not as dramatic as the prophet thought.  But it got me thinking: what if God actually did turn the guy's life around "380" (i.e., 20) degrees?

Let's say you're driving down a road at 60 m.p.h., and there's a road that veers to the right 20 degrees, and you take that right.  In one hour you will be 20.8 miles away from where you would have been if you had stayed on the road that you started on.  In five hours you will be 104 miles away from where you would have been.  And after a whole day of driving, 24 hours, you would be 500 miles from where you would be if you hadn't gone right at the fork.  So that 20 degrees would make a really big difference.

It occurs to me that we often hope and pray that God will turn our situation or someone else's situation (or someone else, period) around 180 degrees.  Sometimes God acts that dramatically.  But probably many more times than we realize he gives us a 20-degree nudge that we might not even recognize at the time.  But then quite a long time later we end up at a very different destination than we would have arrived at otherwise.

So if you're not seeing colossal hoped-for transformations in your life or circumstances, don't be discouraged.  If God tells you to do a small thing with no apparent immediate payoff, obey him and do it.  God uses our tiny choices to achieve big things in due time.