Sunday, January 29, 2012

All the Will in the World (Romans 12:1-2)

If we listen to Christians talk about following Christ, it seems like one of the biggest uncertainties in our faith lives is knowing God's will. We believe God has a will for our lives and we say we want to follow it, but we often sound like we're at a loss to know what it is.

When we consider what the Bible says about the will of God, we find that some things aren't a part of it. God does not will our suffering, for example, even though he promises us that if we rest in him in the midst of it he will not desert us. Our prayers might move God to act in one situation or another, or they might remind us of our need to act on God's will ourselves.

Much of the time we feel at a loss to know God's will because we might tend to think of it as very specific and detailed. God has a preferred option for every action we take, every thought we have, every word we speak, and he has either predetermined what we will do or he expects us to listen so he can tell us what that preferred option is.

But perhaps God's will is less like a script with each element spelled out and more like an outline with some general guidelines about the things God considers most important. After all, while we face issues in our lives that would mystify the people in the Bible we still don't see God spelling out every detail in their lives. And yet they seemed to know God's will, even when they did poorly at following it.

Think about someone who's married, for example, who sees an attractive person of the opposite sex. That other person seems interested as well. Does a married person really need to pray, "Lord, what is your will for me in this situation? What should I do about this attractive person who seems to like me too?" Or do they just need to remember the sixth commandment: "Do not commit adultery." Ah, see! God's will, shown quite clearly, no assembly required.

Other situations might not be covered by the ten commandments, but they might very well be covered by the two that Jesus said were the greatest: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. In this or that situation, we try to figure out what action we can take that gives glory to God and shows the most love for our neighbor. If we have an idea about that, we have an idea about what God's will for us could be.

Now, more than one choice might fulfill those requirements. There could be more than one choice that glorifies God, for example, and my thought is that God would be OK with either of them so he says I can pick which of them I want. That may be a problem sometimes, because we still want some kind of more specific direction, but nobody who's lived this life for awhile should be surprised that we have to make up our own minds about some things.

Of course, sometimes we say that we wish God would be more specific and we mean that, but sometimes we mean, "I wish God would give me the specific guideline that says I should do what I've already decided what I want to do." In other words, we actually have a pretty good idea about what God's will might be, but we don't want to do it. Or we don't really want to find out what it is because we're afraid it will be different from our own will.

A lot of modern Christians have an idea that God's will involves our safety and security and making our lives easier. But the truth is, according to what Paul writes here in Romans, that God's will is going to require sacrifice sometimes. It's going to require our discomfort sometimes, and following it might very well mean choosing the hard things over the easy ones. Too often we look on our churches and our faith lives as things that have been created for us, in order to serve us and to be in existence so we can get something from them. But our faith lives exist because we know that every other kind of life leads nowhere. And our churches exist so we can combine as the body of Christ to do his work. God will bless us, to be sure, but that's a side-effect and not the main purpose.

There's nothing wrong with prayers to know God's will. God's will may be revealed to us in the Bible or in the guidance of mentors or the example of other Christians. It may even be revealed to us as we pray, as a direct communication from God. And at least we know that if we are praying to know God's will we are listening for God's word, and that's unlikely to turn out to be a bad thing.

But the accompanying prayer should always be for God to help us to do his will once we know it. After all, there's a lot of truth in that idea that knowing the problem is only half the battle. Fixing it is still the other half, and knowing God's will is only half of our Christian responsibility. Doing it is the other.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Escape Clause? (Matthew 27:45-46; Luke 23:44-46)

I imagine most of us have had the experience where we do something that seems like the right thing but turns out to be the wrong thing. Sometimes it's no big deal, but sometimes it can cause real problems.

One of those times is when we talk to people who have suffered and we want to tell them something to make them feel better. We may say something we heard when we were younger or something that we have been told is the right thing to say, but which we haven't thought about very much ourselves. And that's when we can not only not fix the problem at hand but we can cause even more problems.

If someone loses a loved one, we may say something about how it "must have been God's will," or about God having a plan, or how everything happens "for a reason." Our impulse there is a good one. One of the things about these kinds of losses or this kind of suffering that hurts the most is the senselessness of it all. My grandmother's death was hard for us to handle but it was not senseless -- she was 104, after all/. But the death of someone at, say, 14 is completely different. It makes no sense, because young people die much less frequently than old people do. Put that death in the context of something stupid, like gang violence or drug use, and the senselessness magnifies.

We believe that if we could give a reason for this kind of tragedy that would somehow lessen the hurt. It's a common impulse and not always wrong, but some of our tries at making sense of the world's wrongs turn out to make no sense. Go back to my example of a teenager who died because he inhaled something deadly in an attempt to get high and apply the "everything happens for a reason" to it. If by that you mean, everything happens for a reason and the reason is that the human lungs can't handle some chemicals and inhaling them kills us, well, that's true but not much comfort. If you mean that God had some kind of plan that required the death of a 14-year-old for being 14 and stupid, then we will just have to agree that you sometimes say foolish things.

For two thousand years, Christians have spilled oceans of ink, digital and otherwise, talking about what to say in the face of suffering. I won't re-hash it all, but the key is to remember that if what you're going to say makes God guilty of doing something for which we would want a human being arrested, think a couple of times about saying it. What you say may or may not be wrong, but the chances are pretty good that even if it's right, you're going to say it at the wrong time.

Have you noticed that even God didn't try to answer the question about why there's suffering? Jesus never said, "OK, here's why bad things happen to good people." He never said, "See, if you're good then nothing bad will ever happen to you and if something bad does happen, it's because you did something wrong." And if he ever had said that, then the end of his life would prove him a liar because he of all humans who ever lived was without sin and yet died a disgraceful, painful and unjust death. His death was more senseless than any.

Actually God did answer the question but his answer seems so weird we overlook it because we can't believe he'd do it. We ask, "Why did I suffer this evil?" and God says, "Let me suffer it with you."


No, really, that's what happened when Jesus entered creation. He took on everything that makes us human, including suffering. Everything from the minor level like stubbed toes and long days and being surrounded by people who don't get it to the major level like betrayal by friends and loved ones and injustice and wrongful execution.

He did this for many reasons, but one is to help reassure us that our suffering does not mean God has deserted us. He reinforced God's presence with us in the midst of the worst pain we could imagine, whether that pain is physical, emotional or spiritual. He tells us, "Even here, I am with you. I didn't abandon you. I didn't turn away from you; please don't turn away from me."

I've come to believe that even if God could tell me exactly why this or that bad thing happened to that person -- beyond the basic scientific principles that underlie things like how our bodies work or how the world's different processes help create the conditions where life exists -- it wouldn't really solve my problem. Now that I knew why, I'd still find myself asking, "Now what?" And it's that question God answers when we let him. God did not and does not cause the kind of wrongs that make us howl our "Why?" But he has promised us that, if we can find our way through to clinging to him in the midst of them, he will make from them good things.

In Luke's telling of the story of Jesus crying out on the cross, notice the detail about the curtain at the temple being torn in two. This curtain divided the center of the temple, the place where in ancient times God's presence was said to dwell, from the worshipers so they would be safe from God's overwhelming holiness. Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection did many things, and one of them was to heal humanity's broken relationship with God, symbolized by the tearing of that dividing curtain. From the senseless evil of Jesus' execution, God drew forth salvation. And from our suffering, God can draw forth good beyond what we might imagine. He does not desert us in our times of suffering. Let us not desert him or each other in them either.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Renew! (Luke 2:22-40)

On January 1, the sun came up and things happened mostly like they normally do. In fact, the earth's rotation means that the sun has been coming up pretty much ever since there was an earth to rotate, although it used to happen more often because the earth rotated faster.

People who use Gregorian-influenced calendars -- most of the world has to at least take notice of them even if they have their own calendar -- mark the beginning of a new year on that day. It's not different from any other day in any way but that one, and as I mentioned there are several other calendars in wide use that don't note it at all. Rosh Hashanah, the "Jewish New Year," happens in September. In 2012, New Year's Day on the traditional Chinese calendar will be January 23. Muslims observe years according to the "Hijiri calendar," and date each year from Mohammed's pilgrimage or hijira from Mecca to Medina in November of 622. Users of these and other non-Gregorian calendars often use the Gregorian dates in most things that don't involve either culturally or religiously important observances.

Because we tend to look at the day in terms of starting a new year and a new set of dates, we often see January 1 as a chance to do something different. We look to adopt new habits or new practices that will benefit us -- ask anyone who works at a gym what it's like the first few weeks of the new year and you'll see what I mean. We also look to stop old habits or unhealthy activities.

Some of this may be a mental thing. We knew last year that we needed to exercise more and eat less (we knew it after Thanksgiving dinner if no other time) but because the new year represents new chances and a new start, we may feel more motivated or encouraged about starting that pattern. Other people are probably starting similar new patterns at the same time and we can encourage each other. All around us are signs of new starts and new beginnings: Posters with babies wearing sashes that have the new year on them, checks with the old year scribbled out and the new year written in, and so on. All of this pushes us in our new resolution for renewal as well. Everything around me has been renewed, so I can be renewed also!

The opposite, it would seem, would mean that trying to feel a sense of renewal in the midst of the same old thing would be harder. If all the new year's posters were cut in half and I only had pictures of the tired old guy with last year's number on his sagging sash, how motivated would I feel?

There's nothing wrong with taking our cues from our surroundings and using our environments to help motivate us. We may like to pray with an open Bible in front of us or in a place where we can see something that inspires thoughts of God, like a cross or a peaceful natural scene. We may like to exercise with a picture of a very healthy person on the wall in front of the treadmill as a sign of our goal. Or maybe a picture of our own significant posterior as a sign of what we're trying to get away from. Or maybe even a picture of the donut with which we can reward ourselves for our hard work and as a reminder we'd better work harder if we're going to eat donuts.

Our problem can come when we believe that the cues do more than just encourage and motivate. If we believe that the cues themselves make things happen then we've crossed the line from motivation to magic, and we're doing more to get in the way of change than help it. Look at this scene from Luke. Joseph and Mary have brought Jesus to the Temple to offer the sacrifice all Jewish parents made for their firstborn children. They have done so since the time of the Passover, more than fifteen hundred years before this! At the temple their baby boy is remarked upon by two old people. But it is in the midst of this setting of centuries-old ceremonies and decades-old believers that the sign of God's new work is seen.

Nothing around them changed. Anna and Simeon were still old and probably passed away not long after this. A Roman governor still ruled the province of Judea and Roman soldiers still strode through the streets of Jerusalem in the sight of the temple. Mary and Joseph still had to figure out how to be parents, something that apparently comes with no manual.

And yet, in the middle of all of this tired old ordinary, God had done an amazing new thing. In Jesus, God had entered his own creation in order to heal that creation's broken relationship with him and with each other.

Every day starts a new year, really. It's been a year since the last time it was that date, so it's a whole new year even if it doesn't get its own special themed calendar. And every day God also begins anew, offering you and me the chance to do that as well. Isn't that some very good news?