Sunday, August 28, 2011

How Shall We Live? (Romans 12:9-21)

At one point in his ministry, Methodist founder John Wesley found himself feeling as though he lacked faith (OK, that actually happened more than once but I'm picking a specific one). His friend George Whitfield had some...interesting...advice for him. Preach faith until you have it, Whitfield told Wesley, and then once you have it, preach faith.

Some parts of this idea run counter to the way we might think things ought to go. We are pretty good on the thought that our emotions or feelings can spur actions. We know that it's usually healthier to admit them and express them -- appropriately -- than it is to deny them. But we're not always as up on the idea that our actions can influence and may even help determine some of our emotions, feelings and attitudes.

Earlier, Paul told the Romans they should not be conformed to this world, but "be transformed by the renewing of [their] minds." He didn't give a list of specifics because every person's mind is different, but in this passage he offers broad but concrete suggestions as to what kind of life we lead that can help spur the renewing of our minds and our transformation into the people God desires us to be.

Right off the bat, for example, is the idea that we should hate what is evil and cling to what is good. Then we are to actually try to outdo each other in showing love to one another, and love our enemies, and bless those who persecute us, and so on. All of these things run counter to the way the world around us seems to suggest for our course of action, which is do unto others before they do unto us. They also run counter to our feelings about what we should do. Even though we recognize that clinging to what is good in terms of behavior, thoughts and speech is a good idea, we might think we can't do that just yet, because we don't feel any love for what is good. Shouldn't we wait until we feel that love before we start moving in that direction, so our response is genuine?

Well, apparently no. If we take Paul's words here as our guide, we're just flat-out told what we ought to do to enable that mind renewal and transformation without any regard taken for whether or not we feel like it at the time. And although again I'd point out it's not a good idea to deny the reality of feelings, it's not always necessary to use them as our only spur to action.

If we look at experience, we can see this demonstrated. A friend of mine moved to Los Angeles to help her goal of working in the entertainment industry. She was a person of faith, but I noticed in our conversations over the years that aspect of her life seemed to occupy less and less of her time and her communication with me. One time we were trading messages back and forth on Facebook and that subject came up, and she simply confessed she had no faith anymore, that she had lost any feeling of faith in her life whatsoever. I didn't say -- because this is not the kind of conversation you can have on Facebook -- "Well of course you don't feel any faith. Your blog is all about your workouts and what you're eating and your boyfriend and according to it, most of your time and thought is taken up with those things. You haven't paid much attention to your faith in a long time, so why should you feel it?" But that's what I would have said, probably in a gentler form, if we had been talking face to face.

I attended an open-level Narcotics Anonymous meeting once as a part of a ministry seminar. Part of these meetings, which focus on the first steps of recovery and which are open to anyone, is a focus on testimonies about the impact of the 12 Steps on the lives of people who are walking them. One man at the meeting I attended described how his earlier attempts to clean up failed and did so for a simple reason: He wanted a changed life but he didn't make any changes in it. He hung around with the same people and went to the same places and so naturally he wound up doing the same things, including drugs. He had to change his ways if he wanted to change his ways. He phrased it this way: "If you hang around a barber shop, you're gonna get a haircut."

Paul's list in this passage talks about changed ways of living. Those changes don't save us. A world where everyone tried to outdo each other in showing love would be a better world for certain, but only the grace of God offered in Christ brings salvation and restores our relationship with God. God's grace healed our broken relationship with him and made us, in Jesus' words, "born again." But once born, we have to grow up, and the way we grow up is by learning how to act like a grown-up would act and then doing so.

Do we feel like blessing our enemies? I don't. I feel like lettin' 'em have it, and then when the dust settles givin' 'em seconds. No matter -- we should bless them if we want to be transformed into the kind of people who do feel like blessing our enemies. If we wait till we feel like it, we might wait a long time.

And as Wesley's correspondence with Whitfield shows, the same pattern can develop in many other areas of life. Wesley had other crises of faith during his life, but his sermons always demonstrate a faith that God can work in the lives of those who seek him. I imagine we all want to be transformed, we all want to be renewed as God's followers. And we all wonder how, and we wonder if Paul's suggestions here really make that difference.

Does this answer seem too simple? If you want a changed life, live a changed life? Maybe so. Certainly not easy, but almost too simple.

Which is probably why it's so hard to do.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Offering the Crumbs (Matthew 15:21-28)

Jesus seems a little harsh here, doesn't he? He's telling a woman that he didn't come here on her behalf, equating her and her sick daughter to dogs...this Jesus seems more likely to dunk Peter than save him when the disciple tries to walk on water.

I've heard several explanations for this behavior. One suggests that Jesus, being a human being, had bad days and he got what the old folks would have called "a mite tetchous" now and again. Certainly understandable given the disciples, isn't it? They quarrel about status, they never seem to get what Jesus talks about, they don't understand his significance, and so on. They'd put most folks off their feed, and then when you add in the crowds that show up just to see the miracles and the religious leaders always looking for a way to dig at him, it's not hard to to imagine Jesus having a rough day now and again.

I'm not really sure about that idea, and anyway it doesn't help me much if it's true -- it just proves Jesus was human, and his death takes care of that pretty well.

I'm curious about this episode because it seems like Jesus does what the disciples ask, or tries to, anyway. She's following them around, asking for Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Being a Canaanite, she'll stay away from the Jewish Jesus and his disciples because she knows they'll flip out over the prospect of touching an unclean Gentile female. Which means she has to yell at them, and that makes her even more annoying. "Send her away!" they ask.

Interesting, don't you think? How many of them are there? Twelve, as I recall. And how many of her is she? One, I believe. So what do we hear from this even dozen of courageous Jewish manhood? "Teacher, make the girl leave us alone!"

But Jesus more or less does what they ask. "I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel," he says. He tells the woman, "It's not right to give the children's food to the dogs."

Do you wonder if the disciples were a little shocked by the harshness of this? Did they think to themselves, "Whoa, Master, we didn't mean like that! 'Dogs?' Overkill much?" Perhaps they thought he would offer her a little blessing and send her on her way, or maybe tell her one of his parables and that would satisfy her. Or maybe he would think of some other nice way to tell her it was time to run along now, but dogs? Really?

But look at the reality of things. Whether Jesus had done some kind of "nice guy brushoff" or not, the impact would have been the same. Again, remember who these disciples are hanging around with and what they've seen him do -- feed multitudes, walk on water, heal the sick and, oddly appropriate given this woman's request, cast out evil spirits. They have seen him do amazing things, and if they had been able to pair their twos together to even the slightest degree, they might have thought that one way to get the yelling lady to go away and leave them alone was to do what she asked. After all, if her daughter didn't have a demon any more, she would probably go home.

They don't, though, and it seems it's as much because she's bugging them than whether or not she's really bugging Jesus. Because she's annoying them, they're willing to keep her from seeing Jesus. And when Jesus speaks so harshly, I wonder if he's not trying to show them just exactly what it is they want him to do and how awful it is.

I think we can see where we might have done similar things now and again. We hear a call from God to reach out to one of his people in some way or another, but for any one of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of reasons we don't do so. Or we hear about someone who's done something really wrong or who's a part of a group we don't like and we are quick as anything ready to turn our backs to them.

Because they annoy, offend or have wronged us, we are willing if not eager to be the ones who look at Jesus and say, "Send them away, Lord." No, not that, we may say. We would love for these people to know Christ or to learn that God reached into their lives. What we leave unsaid is that we don't love it quite enough to be the conduit for showing that love or to pray for someone we hear about whose done great wrong. It's like we somehow figure that the Pearly Gates and St. Peter aren't enough to properly screen who gets into Heaven so we set ourselves up as bouncers.

And make no mistake, no matter how mildly we may try to view it, that's exactly what we're doing, just as Jesus' reference to the woman and her daughter as dogs compared with the children of Israel was the same thing as the disciples wanting her sent away. I understand and sympathize with dislike of some people because they've done something wrong or because they're just plain dislikeable -- I do it myself. But I have to remember that even while I might even be exactly correct in my judgment of what they've done, I can't set myself up as an extra gatekeeper between them and God, either by pushing them away with an attitude and actions, or failing to pray for them. Because if I do, I might very well be right that I'm on the other side of the fence from them.

But I'll probably be wrong about which side is which.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Still in the Silence (First Kings 19:9-18)

Remember the commercials that used to run after big sports events in which the winner was asked what he was going to do next? "Hey, Victorious Quarterback! You just single-handedly engineered a 45 point comeback in the last two minutes and made the game-saving tackle coming off the bench to play defense! What are you going to do next?"

"I'm going to Disneyland!" Probably not, actually. He was probably going to sit in a whirlpool tub for awhile and then see a chiropractor to try to ease the effects of 300-pound linemen playing whackamole with his face. But the idea was that he was going to celebrate his win and the only way it could get any better than the win itself would be celebrate it at Disneyland.

So, Prophet Elijah! You just pwned 500 prophets of Baal and watched your God send down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice of bulls that you'd doused with so much water they grew gills. You've conclusively demonstrated that the God you serve is real and the gods the others served are false idols! What are you going to do next?

"I'm going to run and hide!" Wait, what? Run and hide, really? Just because Queen Jezebel, whose priest ranks have quite a few new openings these days, threatened you? You watched God do this absolutely amazing thing and you're going to run away from one queen? Was Elijah a coward? Did he not have very much faith? Was he not too bright and missed the connection that if the power of God could consume a sacrifice it might protect a prophet? We don't know. All we know is that Elijah ran and hid. Just before the passage we read, in fact, we see him go out in the wilderness to just lay down and give up. God has to use an angel to get him to rouse long enough to eat and set out to Mount Horeb, which is where he is now.

When God asks him why he's there, Elijah says he's the last God-follower in all of Israel and he heard the queen was going to have him killed. God tells him to go out and stand in front of the cave, because God was going to pass by. When Elijah is in place, we first see a mighty wind, so strong it was actually splitting rocks in half. Then we see an earthquake, and then a huge fire, which may have been a volcanic eruption. But God is not in any of these things. After all the ruckus subsides, there is nothing but silence, and it is then that Elijah knows the Lord is passing by so he covers his face and they repeat their conversation from earlier about why Elijah is here.

This time God gives him instructions about anointing a couple of kings and about who Elijah's own successor will be. And by the way, God says, I've got seven thousand followers in Israel, so let's can the poor pitiful me routine, eh?

I'd like to draw some attention to how God actually showed up and maybe offer a couple of reasons why it's important. He's not in the big 'splodey stuff but in the silence that follows, and that's interesting to me. Sound, as we may remember from science class, is just vibration. Something happens, and it starts vibrations through the air that reach our eardrums and get converted into recognizable sounds by our brains. It works like the ripples in a pond after a rock gets thrown into it.

Now, continuing the sounds requires continuing disturbances -- things have to keep happening in order for us to keep hearing them. Once the rock sinks beneath the surface of the pond, its ripples stop and eventually everything is smooth again. Once whatever produces the sound stops happening, the sound fades. If you want to see it this way, silence is the natural state and sound is what happens that disturbs it. When the disturbance is over, silence returns because it's always there.

The metaphor I see is that God is like the silence in that he's always there. Whatever disturbs our focus or causes vibrations or ripples in our lives will fade away, and God will remain. Once the disturbing force runs out of energy -- because they always will -- then God's presence will reassert itself.

Can you see why Elijah needed to hear this? God could of course have been in the wind or the quake or the fire and demonstrated his awesome power. "Afraid of one little ol' queen? Really? Trust me, Elijah, ain't no queen or king want to mess with wind and fire here!" But Elijah has seen God's awesome power demonstrated and is still scared. If I'm right, I think what he needs now is an assurance that God is still there even when the high-profile stuff is done. God is in the storm, but is God in the silence? God is there in the battle, but is God there when the battle's over? God is there in power, but is God there in the weakness?

And now you can probably see one of the reasons Christians attach such importance to the cross. It's the ultimate defeat, even more that Elijah running away. And yet God is there in it and afterwards. It takes no faith to see the all-powerful God in the might of a storm -- his force is clear and plainly visible.

But to see God in the silence? That does indeed take faith. And God strengthens that faith so that we can come to trust him in storm and in silence, knowing he is always there.