Sunday, January 27, 2013

Enlightenment and Knowledge (Nehemiah 8:1-10)

We can do some scene-setting here to get a fuller picture of how this passage plays out.

Back in 586 BC, the Judeans were conquered by the Babylonians. For several years, Judean kings had played one large empire off another -- if the Egyptians invaded, they howled for the Assyrians, but if the Assyrians got a little pushy then they howled for the Babylonians. And so on.

Eventually, the Babylonians got fed up with this dance, besieged and destroyed Jerusalem and carted all of the leaders of Judea off to Babylon. There they stayed for many years, until the Persians conquered the Babylonians. They didn't care one way or another about the Judeans and left them where they were in Babylon, but eventually the Judean leadership asked the Persian emperor if they could return home. When he agreed, they went back to Judea and found Jerusalem and other major cities in ruins. Nehemiah was the governor and Ezra the high priest, and under their leadership the people rebuilt the city, the city walls and the Temple.

We join them as they hold a great feast to celebrate these accomplishments. Ezra and the other priests are going to read what we know as the first five books of the Bible. The Judeans called it "Torah," or "teaching." It contained the Law of Moses, or the commandments that God gave Moses at Mt. Sinai. They were also going to explain it to the people, many of whom had been born in Babylon and spoke Babylon's Chaldean language better than the ancestral Hebrew in which the Torah was written. For most of these folks, this may have been the first time they encountered the Torah in a way they could understand it.

And when they did understand it, we see they respond with great sorrow. They realize how their ancestors failed to obey God's laws about true worship and how to act like God's people. They hadn't treated each other the way God told them to, and they hadn't worshipped God alone as the first commandment directed. But they also realize how they hadn't kept Torah either. They can't celebrate knowing how they have failed God!

No, say Ezra and Nehemiah. They can celebrate because now they know the law and they can obey it! Before, if they'd done the right thing according to the Torah, it was by accident because they had no idea it was the right thing. Now they can do the right thing in order to show others they are God's people, and to show God the proper respect and thanksgiving. Now is not the time to be sad over failure, it's the time to rejoice over the chance to succeed!

We may come to an understanding of our own sin with the same attitude the Judeans had. When something uncovers God's will before us and we see it clearly, we may be sad because we know how far astray we've gone. We may even fear the consequences. But should we?

Ezra and Nehemiah would tell us no. Because we also know how we can return to following God. If God's standards are real enough that missing them saddens us, why then wouldn't his love be real enough that we can accept his grace? The Judeans said, "We failed to live like God's chosen people!" Ezra and Nehemiah said, "But we are still his chosen people! Now we can return to his ways!"

We might say, "We have failed to live as God called us to live! We have turned away from God!" But in the cross of Christ, God says, "But I have not turned away from you. Return to me, where you were made to live and to the relationship you were made to have."

Which sounds like very good news to me.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Knowing God's Will (Colossians 1:9-10)

Christians may do good things in their lives, but the reasons we do them might not be exactly what we think they are. We don't do them so God will like us and let us into heaven. And we don't do them so God will like us here on Earth and give us stuff, or at the very least aim the lightning bolts at some sinner instead of us.

We do good things in our lives because we believe God calls us to do them. We even call it "God's will," because we believe we're doing what God wants us to do. We say that we want to live lives where God's will governs our actions, our words and even our thoughts.

Of course, saying that leaves us trying to answer the question, "What is God's will?" And that one's not easily answered.

Christians have thought about God's will in different ways. One suggests that God has a perfect plan for the world and for your life, and that you have the responsibility of discerning that plan and following it. Because it's your responsibility, you can choose to say no to God's plan. If you do, then God will readjust his plan in light of your choices and you have another chance to choose. This idea seems to take into account the reality that God can redeem suffering and wrong choices, and it offers more room for human freedom, but it still seems to have a healthy slice of "programming" about it.

Another idea suggests that God has a general plan for what he wants you and I to do, but it's not specific. In fact, God will allow us to block out our lives as we see fit, but he will offer us the chance to let him guide us in what we do. If we don't, that's our own lookout, but it's not the best way to do things and we're likely to find that out.

Both of those ways leave us with our question we started out asking, though: How do we know and do God's will? How do we know what guidance God offers or what plan he has?

When we ask that, we have to be sure we really want God's answer. A lot of times we want God to tell us to do what we already wanted to do anyway. We just want God's OK on it so if it goes wrong we can blame him. Or we want turn-by-turn directions that outline the right step at every possibility so we don't have to make those decisions on our own.

The truth is that God has already outlined his will for us in ways that cover most of the decisions we make. Think of the Ten Commandments. If you know them, you know what God wills in a whole lot of circumstances. "Lord, this enormously attractive woman asked me to come to her house when her husband was away. What is your will for me in this situation?" God isn't going to come down and Gibbs-slap you and say, "Number six, meathead!" because he's already told you what you need to do.

If those are too much, then remember that Jesus focused on just two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. When faced with a course of action, we can ask ourselves if it rises from or demonstrates a love of God. Does it demonstrate love for our neighbor? Does it demonstrate the most love possible for God or for our neighbor? If it does, then it is probably an action within God's will.

These guidelines don't help us with some of the choices we make, but when we look at them we might understand that God is OK with either option. God may not have a preference about which job you take as long as you honor him first in all that you do no matter where you work. If you can, then take the one that seems best to you. If one offers more money but you intend to tithe from that higher income, then there's nothing that says God wants you to take the lower paycheck.

I think that sometimes, we tie ourselves in too many knots trying to "figure out" God's will, when what we probably need to do is to further study his word and learn we can already know that will. Ah, some say. But what if we choose wrong? Well, then we immediately go to hell.

Of course we don't! See how silly that sounds when we say it out loud? And yet all the time we act like it's the truth! If for some reason we choose wrongly and it turns out we didn't discern God's will and we admit that and rededicate ourselves to following that will, what happens is we are forgiven, just as we would be no matter what we confess to God. 

We sometimes say when we try something and it fails that we're going to have to switch to Plan B. I have no doubt that I've goofed enough times to run the alphabet through and then some. But God is still with his Plan A: Loving me, offering me forgiveness when I admit my failure and redeeming even my mistakes so that I can try again. If I remember and live in that, I've got a pretty good pipeline to knowing and doing his will. As well as help when I get it wrong.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Whatever You Ask For? (John 14:12-14)

When things are not good, one of the things we Christians do is pray. This is one of the things that people who are not believers don't fully understand: "You mean you just think that if you ask God to fix everything then it will all be OK?"

Well, yes, that's what I hope will happen. If someone is sick, I want them to get better. I don't diagnose, prescribe or treat -- I leave those things up to the people who are trained for them. But what I can do is pray. Sometimes that prayer is answered in a supernatural way, even if most of the time it is not. But if I want someone who is sick to be well and I believe God exists, why wouldn't I pray? And if I'm going to pray, it's because I believe that what I pray for might happen. If I didn't, why would I pray?

Of course, the reality is that prayer is often not answered in the way we want. We pray for someone who is sick but they don't get better. We pray for a relationship to heal but it doesn't. We pray that people hit with a disaster somehow miraculously survive it with little damage or injury, only to find widespread destruction and loss of life. If your life is like mine, then what you have prayed for doesn't come to pass sometimes -- maybe even most of the time. This is ordinary. It's a part of Christian experience. It's normal to feel disappointed or sad if a prayer is not answered the way we want it to be answered.

The problem can come when we let those "unanswered prayers" affect our walk with Christ. If our faith wavers because our prayers aren't answered, maybe our faith wasn't based on following Christ, but on how much Christ resembles Santa Claus. We get the idea that if a prayer is not answered the way we want it answered, that must mean God is not present, or at least that he doesn't care. Really? Frankly, this is one of those times to be glad God is not a human being, because the question, "Hey God! Where were you when things were bad?" would probably get answered with, "Eh. Where were you when things wre good?"  

Let's consider what it might mean if all of our prayers were answered the way we want them to be. We could pray for an end to all sickness and infirmity in the world, right? Just pray it all away so that no one ever gets sick or has any kind of debilitating or harmful medical condition. We pray it tonight and when we wake up, every doctor and nurse and pharmacist and what have you is out of work. Sure, if offered the trade between their jobs and permanent good health for everyone on Earth, they probably would have taken the deal. But nobody asked them. We just prayed their jobs away.

Or take the prayers of the people who buy lottery tickets. I bet many of them pray that they have picked the winning number. If all of those prayers are answered "Yes" by God, then you've bought a  Powerball ticket that will win you a couple of bucks and change. Next time you watch Bruce Almighty, see if you can catch when that exact scenario happens after Jim Carey has been given God's power.

Remember being a kid just starting out in the mysterious boy-girl world and praying for the boy or girl of your dreams to like you? Think how often your crushes changed. Or think of how many times more than one girl had a crush on the same guy, or vice versa. What happens then? People don't divvy up like lottery tickets. Whose prayer gets answered?

The reality is that even though I pray because I want something bad to change or something good to happen, I know that a lot of time my prayers will not be answered the way I want them to be. Yes, sometimes they will, but often they won't. And chances are pretty good that I won't know why, maybe not until a long time has passed. If my faith is based on what comes out of the Heavenly Vending Machine when I drop in my prayer tokens, then I haven't got a very solid faith at all. 

Why does Jesus say things like he does here in John, then? Why does he say, "Whatever you ask for in my name, I will do it for you," if it's not going to happen that way? Well, once answer is that Jesus may not be speaking literally here. We know that he sometimes teaches with parables, where the true meaning is not only the meaning on the surface of the words. He also sometimes speaks in hyperbole, exaggerating what he says to get his point across. Is he lying to his disciples and to us? No, no more than our parents lied when they told us "You can be anything you want to be." My folks said that to me, even though they could tell pretty early that I was never going to be an NBA center, whether I wanted to or not. They didn't lie to me. They just didn't want me to think small when it came to my plans for my life. They and I both knew not to take "anything" literally in that sentence.

Look at what it would have to mean if Jesus was literal here. My prayers could take away your free will. I like your car, and I pray, "God, I would like this person to give me his car." Now. maybe I'm generous and take over the payments, but if I don't you're stuck paying for my new car and the one you have to buy to replace it. When we say things like, "Well, he meant that only when we pray for things that are part of God's plan do we get them," we're reinterpreting that statement anyway, so why not in a way that suggest Jesus wants us not to limit ourselves when we work for him. It makes more sense if we're talking about Jesus and serving God; the other ways make sense if we're talking about Santa and how to stay on his "nice: list.

So we pray, and we pray big. We believe prayer may happen the way we ask. Or sometimes we find that in the midst of the worst, the fact that we can pray at all is a sign God has not forsaken us, no matter what it feels like. So yell at God, pray to him, argue with him, whatever. As long as you're still talking to him, he can work with that.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

For a Reason? (Romans 8:26-28)

If you made a list of the things that Christians like to say to someone after something bad has happened, "Well, everything happens for a reason" might be bear the top of the list. It's well-intentioned and designed to be comforting.

See, when people deal with hard things, sometimes they find the dealing easier if the hard things can be given a context or meaning. For whatever reason, we take comfort in the idea that a tragedy or difficulty might have some purpose, or at least it seems like the idea of suffering without purpose is that much harder to explain or accept.

The thing about that phrase, though, is that in the way that it's true, it's not very helpful. And in the way that it's meant to be helpful, it winds up saying things about God we probably wouldn't want to say -- which means it's not really true.

In one arena -- cause and effect -- it's exactly right to say that everything happens for a reason. Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton notes that when we talk about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 300,000 people, it did in fact happen for a reason. It happened because the same geological processes that make our planet able to support life also create the conditions for earthquakes. Here in Oklahoma, we're currently in a drought and many of us are praying for relief. But the same meteorological processes that will bring us rain can also lead to the tornadoes and storms that make our springtime a TV weather hack's paradise. Earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, landslides -- every natural disaster happens for a reason that's rooted in the physical laws of our universe. And every one of those laws, if it was a little bit different, might make it impossible for life to exist.

As I said, though, that's not a particularly helpful thing to say when someone is looking for answers to their own suffering and loss. It doesn't comfort.

Nor does it comfort if we talk about human actions and the harm they can cause. They have at their root human freedom and people's choices to use that freedom without any regard for anyone else. Why do some people do bad things? "Because they can" is again, not helpful.

What we most often intend to mean with those words, I think, is that God has a plan and that these bad things happened so that good things can come from them. We rely on this verse when we do: "All things work together for good for those who love God."

But think about what that would mean if it were true. We would be saying that God caused the bad things to happen so that could could come from it, but don't be so quick to lay it out that way.

Back in 2011, a 19-year-old girl from Mustang was found dead, dismembered and stuffed into a duffel bag. It turned out she had been tortured and killed in order to send a message to others to cooperate in illegal activities or else face the same fate. Because of her death, a lot more people in the Oklahoma City area started paying attention to human trafficking crimes and operations that use the major interstate highways there for their business. I think we'd agree that efforts to reduce those activities are good things.

But did God cause the suffering of that girl so we could pay more attention to human trafficking? Does anybody want to say that?

Or pick something more on our radar screen: the shootings in Sandy Hook Elementary school. It's early yet, and I have to say that nothing much of what I've heard yet makes me optimistic that any good will come in the next few months or years. But if it does, does anyone seriously want to say that God caused the shooting of 7 teachers and 20 children in order to bring that good about?

What does this verse mean, then, if it doesn't mean that everything happens for a reason and that everything is a part of God's plan?

Maybe it makes more sense to look at this verse in combination with what Joseph said to his brothers after their father had died. They had sold him into slavery and they now worried that with Dad out of the way, he might use his power as the second-in-command of all Egypt to get his revenge for that little prank. But he told them no. What they had intended for evil, God used for good. Joseph never wavered in his devotion to God or belief that God was with him, and that faith allowed God to redeem his suffering. It didn't hurt any less to be away from his family all those years, but God transformed it in the salvation of Israel.

Jesus on the cross suffered physically and spiritually, but even his last words showed trust in God. And God redeemed his death, turning it into the resurrection through which all of humanity could be saved.

Maybe, as Christians, we ought to find other words to embody the comfort we want to give. Maybe we should focus on how we believe a loving God stays with us and hurts with us in those times of pain, and maybe we should not only say it with our words but with our actions. We say, "Christ is still with you," and then we act as the hands and feet of Christ in the midst of whatever's going on.

We believe it, we speak it and then we live it. That's probably how we ought to do more things anyway.