Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Staying Faithful, In A 'Sexy' World

Sex is on my mind.

But not for the reason/s, you might think.

It started on Sunday.  First, at lunch, new friends revealed that the marriages of two lay-leaders at their church had collapsed, because of adultery.  Second, when I got home, I discovered a New York Times story that documented that a prime mentor of mine, had groped his executive assistant, on more than one occasion.

What is going on?

Actually, nothing new.  Sexual temptation and sin are as old as the ages.  And if we are honest, most of us will struggle with it at some point, in our life and career.

I got 'wind of this' early in life while sitting in Lloyd Semler's barbershop.  Now you've got to understand, Lloyd's barber shop was where 'the men of Halfway, MD' (my hometown) gathered.  And boy did we gather: drinking Cokes, swapping stories, and reading Field and Stream magazine.  

But periodically, a strange thing happened.  One of ‘the men of Halfway’ would go to the Coke machine and not get a Coke; rather he’d reach on top, wink at Lloyd – and get another magazine.  Then he’d slip the magazine into a newspaper and go back to his seat – but always with a great big smile on his face.  “Man I said to myself, that must be a really good issue of Field and Stream!”  But one day, Dad ‘burst my bubble.’ “Paul that wasn’t Field and Stream at all. That was Playboy!”  I was shocked:  “Playboy in Halfway; little, conservative, innocent Halfway?!  I couldn’t believe it!

A lot of us can’t believe it.  Oh, not regarding Playboy; that’s 'little or nothing now' in regards to sexual disclosure.  But there are oodles of other expressions of sexual disclosure, most prominently on the Internet. It is now estimated, for example, that Internet porn sites attract more visitors each month than Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter combined. The result? Greater sexual disclosure and seduction than ever before.  I mean, even beyond the Internet, we’re literally surrounded, bombarded, by alluring images, every day.

Biblical folks were also bombarded.  I think that’s why the book of Proverbs speaks so often of seduction and sexual sin.  But here’s the critical part:  Proverbs also speaks of overcoming seduction and sexual sin.  

Yes, temptation is all around, but there are ways to resist temptation -- remaining faithful and pure. 

Now that’s intriguing, given our temptation. So let’s dive in, discovering ways we can resist the seductive parts of life.  For starters...

Dispel The Myth of Greener Grass. 

In other words...don’t believe that life is always better someplace else with some other person or circumstance. 
“Drink water from your own cistern.  Running water from your own well…May your fountain be blessed and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth…” (Proverbs 5:18).   
It’s amazing how many of us don’t rejoice in our spouse, or any current circumstance. I mean we’re never satisfied, always believing ‘the grass is greener’ someplace else.  

The story is told of a man who wasn’t satisfied with his house; I mean he was convinced there was a better house.  And so he went to his real estate agent and declared:   “Advertise and sell my house.  “I’m after a better house.”   And so off he went, looking for a better house.  Well finally he found it; scouring the classified ads there it was: the perfect abode!  Why there wasn’t even a picture or an address, but the description said it all: that’s the house for me! Approaching his real estate agent, he was ecstatic: “make plans for me to visit that house.” Well, with that the real estate agent became nervous.   “Why certainly sir, we can do that.  But there’s one problem.  The house you want to visit, the house you saw advertised: that’s your house!”  

We assume happiness is found someplace else. But happiness, in reality, is already within our grasp.  Robert Fulgram says it best: 
“The grass is not…always greener on the other side of the fence. Fences have nothing to do with it! The grass is greenest  where it is watered…”
And so, are you watering your current relationships and circumstance?  

But temptation is curbed in yet other ways...

Avoid ‘Any And All’ Secrets.   

Researchers have found a direct connection between sin and secrecy; in other words, many do wrong, because they’re convinced they can hide wrong.  

But don’t be deceived:   sin cannot be hidden.  Someone is watching all the time.  Proverbs names a prime observer:   
“For a man’s ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all his paths…” (Proverbs 5:21).  
Now, frankly, such reality can prompt two reactions: we can become paranoid fearing God’s awareness.  Or, we can become convicted utilizing God’s awareness, to fashion self-awareness, banishing the secrets of life.

A few years ago a popular movie came out called City Slickers. Well in it Mitch Robbins, alias Billy Crystal and two of his city-slicker friends wrestle with a mid-life crisis, heading West.  Well in one scene, they’re on horseback – and one of the men Ed, asks Mitch if he’d ever considered cheating on his wife Barbara -- if he knew Barbara would never find out.  

'Imagine a spaceship lands on earth,' Ed notes, 'and out walks the most beautiful woman in the universe. And the most beautiful woman in the universe wants to be intimate with you. And the second the intimacy is over she flies off, forever! No one knows, including Barbara! You’re telling me you wouldn’t do it?' 'No, Ed,' Mitch responds: 'I wouldn’t do it.' 'You see Ed, it wouldn’t make any difference if Barbara didn’t know.  You see: I’d know, and I wouldn’t like myself.' 

That’s the ultimate goal of God’s watchful eye. That we develop a watchful eye, gaining a heightened sense of conscience. Andrew Wyeth is right:  
“To know myself…especially…to know the plague of my own heart is the…only key to all other…knowledge.”
I pray we heed that truth, for...

Remember Unresolved Sin Chokes and Deadens.  

At least that’s the inference of Proverbs 5:22.
“The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sins hold him fast….”  
For 22 years we've struggled with the same problem in the flower beds and shrubbery around our house:  reoccurring, insidious weed-vines.  Unlike regular weeds, weed-vines literally entangle around everything, causing great difficulty, and potential stifling of growth. Frankly, weed-vines are incredibly difficult to remove, but for 22 years we've worked relentlessly to remove them, nevertheless.  For we know, that if not removed, entangling vines eventually ensnare -- messing up the growth pattern of our flowers and shrubby.

Unresolved sin, including sexual sin, is like the vines in our bushes:  it entangles and eventually ensnares -- messing up the growth pattern of life.  And so we also need to work relentlessly, nevertheless, to remove their insidious pattern.  

You do that frankly as you get wrapped in an alternative reality.  Specifically as you... 

Wrap Yourself In God And God Alone.  

You see sin, including sexual sin is ultimately resolved as we’re bound by a new essence and a new discipline – the purity and purpose of God. 

The concluding verse of Proverbs 5 tells us what happens when discipline is absent: 
 “…the wicked…will perish for want of discipline, wrapped in the shroud of his own folly.”  (Proverbs 5:23, NEV).  
But the beginning verse of Proverbs 5 tells us what happens when discipline is present, specifically discipline toward God.  
“Dear friend:  pay…attention to…my wisdom, listen…very closely to the way I see it…[for] what I tell you, will keep you -- out of trouble.” (Proverbs 5:1-2, The Message). 
Isn't that what you want:  to stay out of trouble?  Well, it’s possible if we’re wrapped in the right thing -- choosing the robe of Christ, not the shroud of sin – God’s purity, not a foreign path.

Frankly, such choice is apparent -- if -- you consider the consequences.  

Once Randy Alcorn, a prominent Christian author, did just that. He listed the consequences as he was tempted toward sexual sin.  Yes – I can give in to this urge, but if I do: 
"...I will inflict untold hurt on Nanci, my loyal wife; I will bring embarrassment to my family and friends; I will create a form of guilt that is hard to shake; I will form memories and flashbacks that could plague future intimacy; I will heap endless difficulty on the person I committed adultery with; I will possibly bear physical consequences such as gonorrhea or AIDS; I will bring pleasure to Satan, the enemy of God….but I will grieve the Lord who redeemed me..."   (adapted: Leadership Journal, Winter, 1988). 
Such consequences are not meant to depress you, but to motivate you to choose God and God alone. Choose God, and God alone -- and his righteous path. 

Marti Ensign tells of hosting a group of African pastors at a conference.  During their free time, the Africans wanted to go shopping, so Marti gave them her phone number, in case they got lost; after all this was their first trip to a large city and the U.S.  

Sure enough, in less than an hour, the phone rang and an African pastor declared: “We’re lost!” “Don’t worry,” Marti said: ‘Lay the phone down, go to the street corner, and find out the names of the two streets at the corner.  Then come back and tell me, and I’ll come and get you. 

And so the African pastor did just that. Returning he was very proud of himself! “I found out where we are!” he said. “Where’s that” Marti asked. “We’re at the corner of ‘Walk’ and ‘Don’t Walk.”

We’re at the same intersection:  the corner of walk and don’t walk.  Move with God at His command and find life.  Move willfully, independently and find the traffic of sin. 

Move with God, at His command.  Don’t risk the traffic of sin.  Choose purity over some foreign path.

For there are all kinds of places, to get in trouble these days.  Not just Lloyd’s barber shop: but on the Internet, around the water cooler at work... 

Temptation, especially sexual temptation, is more prevalent than ever before.  

But God’s Word is stronger than ever before.  

So get tangled up with Him -- and not the weed-vine of sin. 

For Proverbs is right:  
"...Pay attention to God’s wisdom, listen closely to His way and God will keep you out of trouble..." (Proverbs 5:1-2, The Message, adapted).  
Want to stay out of trouble?  

Listen up, and heed the wisdom of God! 

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Triangles Aren't Just A Math Problem!

A last sharing (at least for now) from my Bowen Family Systems training, at Rutgers.


Now, I'm not talking about the math-kind, but, the relationship-kind, when an issue, a problem, a challenge that should involve just two people, ends up involving three people. But not in a professional capacity (e.g. involving a Christian counselor) -- but in a covert capacity - as we run to a third party -- privately -- and ventilate -- or -- worst (e.g. adultery).

The result:  messy relationships, skewing and complicating life, big time!

Need an example: just think of gossip.  Though gossip is often described as 'telling tales out of school,' it's more accurately noted as 'telling tales out of a relationship.'

Rather than going to the person who's 'needling' us, we go and 'needle' somebody else, ventilating our anxiety, e.g. our concern, our disappointment and, often, our anger and rage.

Edwin Friedman gives a technical definition of such reality, in his classic:  Generation To Generation:
"The basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another. A person may be said to be “triangled” if he or she gets caught in the middle as the focus of such an unresolved issue..."  (Edwin Friedman.  Generation to Generation, pp. 35-36)
But you really can't solve something by creating an emotional triangle (e.g. going to a third party and ventilating) -- or -- allowing yourself to be triangled.

You really only solve something by going directly to the 'someone' who's annoyed/injured you (or encourage the one trying to triangle, to do so) -- and care-front. 

Actually, such a strategy is not original with Bowen Family System Theory.  It's as 'old' as the Bible.  Jesus classic words in Matthew 18:13ff summarize God's preference for going direct -- and -- the best way -- to involve third-parties.
“If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.  (Matthew 18:15-17, The Message, emphasis added).
Note the action-plan Jesus advocates:

  • Plan A -- Go to the person hurting...offending.  Care-front.  
  • Plan B -- Involve another person or two.  Care-front.
  • Plan C -- Involve even more persons, e.g. the church.  Care-front. 
  • Plan D -- Repeat Plan A / B / C.  Care-front, again.

It's convicting: I always thought the traditional rendering of Matthew 18:17 was the correct rendering:  
"...If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector..."  
In other words, jettison folk and stop the care-fronting process. But The Message translation is accurate: 
"...start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love..." (Matthew 18:17, The Message, emphasis added).  
For, in fact, Jesus changed the way we are to treat even the most difficult folk, e.g. the pagan or tax collector.  As Dan Ulrich and Jan Fairchild point out:  
"...In a first-century synagogue, treating someone as a Gentile [i.e. pagan] and a tax collector probably meant 'have nothing to do with the offender.'  In the context of Matthew's story, however, it takes on a different meaning.  Jesus heals Gentiles and praises their faith (8:5-13; 15:21-28), and later he commands the disciples to make disciple of all nations (28:19).  Jesus also calls a tax collector as a disciple (9:9), and he deliberately ignores the synagogue's ban on eating with tax collectors and sinners (9:10-13).  [And so] in light of Jesus' example, treating someone as a Gentile and a tax collector probably means, 'Treat the offender as someone who still needs to hear and accept the gospel'..."  (Dan Elrich and Jan Fairchild, The Matthew 18 Project, pp. 98-99, empahsis added).
And so we are relentless in our care-fronting, even with those who are the worst offenders.

In essence, the care-fronting path Jesus advocates is the path of peace-building. I find peace-building to be a robust concept, calling us to live in a state of civility and goodwill with all persons.   For me, peace-building has at least three non-negotiables:

  • Forgiveness -- we ask for pardon, and give pardon.  
  • Release -- we let go of resentment, giving the person, and the past, to God.
  • Blessing -- we wish the person well, desiring God's best for their life.

Note: such care-fronting steps don't necessarily assume relational restoration or reconciliation; that's ideal, but not always attainable. [for a fuller explanation, see my blog post, 'The Best Counsel I Have Ever Been Given':     

What is attainable is a sense of settledness and peace, as -- indeed -- we do forgive, release and bless folks -- no matter what -- regaining a sense of human decency.    

I believe such realism is essential in moving beyond the trauma of life.  For unless we understand that care-fronting is not 'making everyone happy' -- but calling everyone to accountability and peace -- we'll continue to be 'all worked up' -- either too hard on self -- or others.

God doesn't want us to be too hard on self or others.  God wants us to be 'hard' on Him -- leaning relentlessly on His grace -- entering into Christ's freedom -- and...then...moving on. 

For, in Christ, we can achieve...
 “ more resentment, no more anger or temper, no more violent self-assertiveness, no more slander and no more malicious remarks, [We can] be kind to each other... understanding...ready to forgive others as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven [us]….” (Ephesians 4:31-32, J.B. Phillips)
And so, like God, forgive, bless and release others -- not resenting, or triangling others.

For triangles are not just a math problem, they're a spiritual problem, polluting relational worlds with deadly stuff.

Years ago, Frederick Buechner described the pain-full reality of a triangled -- gossipy -- bitter -- life.
"...To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. 
The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.
The skeleton at the feast is you..."   ―Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973, emphasis added)
Avoid, the 'feast of you.'

Triangle with God -- not others -- or -- your pain.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Justice, Or, Just Us?

The young woman's wail still rings in my ears.

I'm thinking of the homeless woman I encountered in Indianapolis recently, right outside the downtown hotel, where I was staying.

I forget the exact wording of her cardboard sign, but in essence, it announced that she was not only homeless, out of work, without food -- but pregnant.  When I saw her, others were hovered around, trying to assist, so I didn't stop.

But -- in all honesty, I did see her later in my Indy visit -- in the middle of a rain shower, no less -- and just passed her by.

There are varied reasons for my brush-by:  over-urgency to get to my next appointment -- a desire to get out of the rain -- a fear of what others would think.  But the main reason I didn't stop, is fear of getting 'sucked into' a vortex of aching need, from which I could not escape.

Translated:  I feared that I would get too involved -- perhaps for hours -- with no exit strategy, i.e. a sustainable, workable, cost-effective way to truly help the young woman in need.

Frankly, I think that's the reason a lot of us avoid the aching wound of the beaten down, oppressed,  'run-over,' folk, who increasingly surround us.

We don't really know what to do, that will really, help. 

A disclaimer:  I'm not denying that in some instances. needy folk could have done something for themselves to avoid their plight; often, there's an element of personal response-ability that's not been exercised, when people experience 'down and out' times.

But, with that said, I am increasingly convinced that the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized --  including the homeless (e.g. the woman I recently encountered) -- are the outcome of the injustice that riddles our societal system.

Translated:  I have opportunities and resources, that others don't have equal access to -- because of my status and positioning in the social system.

True, I did a lot, on my own, to get to where I am.  But...I also...started with a huge advantage given my family of origin, the neighborhood I grew up in, the money I had access to -- and frankly -- the faith, inspiration/encouragement, and resources of my church. 

But here's the bold, stark truth:  not everyone has access to such advantage.  

The result:  people are left-out -- people are poor -- people are marginalized -- people are oppressed -- largely, at no fault of their own.  

Thus, bottom line: a huge injustice is done, daily, monthly, yearly, to many, many, folks.  

And so, the Bible instructs, we are to help.  In fact, scripture is filled with passages, instructing us to reach out and aid, the poor and oppressed.   

In the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs is especially explicit:

  • "Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed." Proverbs 19:17 
  • "Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him."  Proverbs 14:31    
  • "Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse." Proverbs 28:27 

 In the New Testament, the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, are especially impactful: 
[And Jesus said] “…I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’  Then [his disciples said]: ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’ “He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’  (Matthew 25:41-45, The Message, emphasis added)
The 'takeaway,' in the words of Ron Sider:  
“God's Word teaches a very hard, disturbing truth. Those who neglect the poor and the oppressed are really not God's people at all—no matter how frequently they practice their religious rituals nor how orthodox are their creeds and confessions.”

But here's the 'twist' in my approach:

I also believe that we are not God's people, if in our efforts to 'do justice' (Micah 6:8), we also do not lift-up the importance of justification to God, through Christ (Romans 3:24).  

Though it is often misrepresented as irresponsible (e.g. a pious escape from, indeed, working for justice and the alleviation of poverty) -- in reality - the greatest poverty is not physical poverty -- but poverty of soul (e.g. a lack of identity, purpose, significance, community, destiny), resulting from a lack of reconciliation with God (e.g. justification to God) and God's people.

Please do not misunderstand:  there is no excuse for not addressing physical, tangible, systemic justice/ poverty issues.

No excuse.

But it is my sincere conviction, that is there is also no excuse for not addressing the poverty that results when one is not in a relationship with God through Christ -- and -- God's people in Christ, the Church.

Sure, such advocacy can be/has been, done with coercion, pressure, and manipulation; for example, the infamous 'rice Christian' phenomenon is a sad testimony of God-sharing gone wrong.

Yet, God-sharing can 'go right.'  I know, because at an improvised point in my life, a Christ-follower reached with the reach of God, and I gained.  In fact, I can honestly say, that a large part of my elevation in life, to the status, privilege, and justice I now know, is because of my relationship with God through Christ and His Church.

Years ago, missiologist Donald McGavan documented this truth, through a concept entitled, 'redemption and lift.'  In his research related to evangelism and church development on the mission field, McGavran  discovered: 
[That] when Christ comes in [people's lives] they become new creatures.  They repent and turn from their sins.  They gain victory over pride, greed, laziness, drink, hate, and envy...They educate their children.  They learn what God requires of them and worship regularly.  They become more effective human beings.  The fellowship of the church buoys them up.  Brothers and sisters in Christ gather at their bedsides to pray for them in sickness.  They hear the Bible and realize that God is for them and is available to them.  They realize they are children of God and began to act as such.  They begin to live for others.  Their community, in which many others have accepted Christ, becomes a better and better place to live.  All these aspects of redemption occur in imperfect measure, to be sure, but they do occur..."  [Donald McGavran.  Understanding Church Growth. Grand Rapids:  Eeerdmans, 1990, p. 210.] 
A while back,  sociologist Rodney Stark, came to a similar conclusion, detailed in his book, America's Blessings   

Summarizing Starks finding, Simon Smart noted, that Stark discovered...
[That] on every measurable standard...[faith in God]...broadly leads to better physical and mental health, improved life-expectancy, better educational outcomes, higher levels of fertility and more harmonious families and communities. When exhibiting high levels of religious commitment [persons] are more likely to contribute both time and money to secular charities, gain access to better jobs, and be active in civic affairs. Contrary to the caricature of religious [persons] being ignorant and uncultured, Stark finds [such persons]...most likely to consume and support "high" culture and to be less prone to belief in occult and paranormal activity like UFOs, haunted houses and astrology."
Bottom line,  in the words of George Wood, as he condenses Stark's findings: "...a person renewed by the gospel increasingly acts in a self-controlled and selfless manner rather than in a self-serving one, and this produces positive change in their material circumstances." (emphasis added).

And so, addressing material circumstances in a tangible, material way, must continue without apology, as a necessity. For we are to " justice..." (Micah 6:8).  No doubt.

But in addition, we are also to lift up the importance of justification with God (Romans 3:24) -- from whom all resources of identity, purpose, significance, community, and destiny -- ultimately flow.

Physical food and shelter are crucial, essential.  No doubt.  No excuse.

But spiritual 'food' (e.g. identity, purpose, significance, community, destiny) are critical -- providing final significance and meaning in life.

Thus, working for justice is full-orbed propositon -- calling us to address the whole person -- within the entire social system.

  • Feeding...
  • Clothing...
  • Sheltering...
  • Empowering...
  • Advocating...
  • Legislating...
  • Marching...

But in the final analysis -- also -- grounding... the Creator of the Universe, and His Church -- Alive in Christ -- who began His earthly ministry by announcing:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me (the Messiah), Because He has anointed Me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent Me to announce release (pardon, forgiveness) to the captives,  And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed (downtrodden, bruised, crushed by tragedy), to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord [the day when salvation and the favor of God abound greatly].” (Luke 4:18-19, The Amplified Bible, emphasis added)

May the salvation and favor of God abound greatly... we work for a full-orbed justice -- and not -- just us!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Becoming The Very Thing We Detest

Periodically, I'm 'stopped in my tracks' by an arresting quote.

Such was the case, recently, when I read a Twitter feed by Eugene Cho, founder and visionary of One Day's Wages.  Eugene said:  

"...Be careful not to dehumanize those you disagree with. In our self-righteousness, we can become the very things we criticize in others..."

Frankly, the level of dehumanizing of those 'opposite' us, often 'opposing' us -- is at an all-time high.

It manifests itself in multiple ways.  As we instinctively, ruthlessly...

  • 'Cut' -each other -- with negative, presumptive talk -- rather than seeking to understand each other.
  • Label -- each other -- as 'liberal-conservative,' 'young-old,' 'old-timer'-newcomer -- rather than seeing each other beyond categories and 'silos'.
  • Demonize -- each other -- as racist, bigots, permissive, narrow -- rather than 'diving deep' for one's true motive and intent.  
  • Name-Call -- each other -- as Tubby, 'Rocket Man, 'the Little Woman,' 'Liar-in-Chief,' 'Oldster,' Kid, 'Shrimp,' Idiot, Fundie, Baby-Killer, Crooked, Deplorables, etc -- rather calling each other by our true name/identity as valued children of God. 

I am not saying we're to excuse the behavior of others -- especially evil behavior.

But when our behavior becomes catty, sub-human -- hateful -- reduced to cutting, labeling, demonizing, name-calling -- we really are no better than the very people who concern us.

The last person you might imagine, cut, labeled, demonized, called names was Abraham Lincoln.  After all, a larger than life memorial dominates the Potomac-side of Washington, D.C., lionizing Lincoln as a leader among leaders.  

Yet, when I visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL, I was shocked as I entered a central gallery, surrounded by headline after headline from publications of Lincoln's day, vilifying the 16th President in the most ruthless, even hateful way.

Mark Bowen, writing in The Atlantic, summarizes just a few of the scathing comments made about Lincoln by his contemporaries:
"...George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer and diarist, wrote that Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.” Henry Ward Beecher, the Connecticut-born preacher and abolitionist, often ridiculed Lincoln in his newspaper, The Independent (New York), rebuking him for his lack of refinement and calling him “an unshapely man.” Other Northern newspapers openly called for his assassination long before John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger. He was called a coward, “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla” by none other than the commanding general of his armies, George McClellan..."
Now privately, Lincoln, of course, was mortified and deeply wounded by such comments.  But publicly, Lincoln worked hard, and intentionally, not to return 'fire for fire' -- or -- an 'eye for an eye.'     

A representative example was the closing lines of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address.  Faced by fierce voices, from both north and south, related to secession, Lincoln could have easily lashed out and joined the vitriolic, damning rhetoric.  But, rather, Lincoln took a more modulated route:
"...I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature..."
Jesus would concur.  For Jesus also called us to yield to the "better angels of our nature."  
Jesus' words in the Sermon On The Mount, in particular, point in this direction -- persistently.
  “...You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also...You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven...If you love those who love you, what reward will you get...And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others...Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matthew 5:38-48, emphasis added). 
That last phrase:  'be perfect' is often misunderstood.  But in it's most literal sense, is quite revealing.

To 'be perfect' actually means, to be mature.  

In essence, Jesus is summarizing all that he has said, thus far, in the Sermon On The Mount.  As Frederick Dale Brunner notes:  “…Ever since his Beatitudes, Jesus has been describing adulthood. And in the commands [that follow the Beatitudes] we learn…” what adult disciples do.   (For an excellent discussion of the rationale for translating ‘perfect’ as ‘mature’ see:  Frederick Dale Brunner, The Christbook:  A Historical/Theological Commentary, p. 223-225) 

Specifically, we learn, again under the tutelage of Brunner, that 
"…Maturity, adulthood…is a whole-souled commitment…to the protection of every other person.  Maturity is looking at every person…and saying, at least to oneself, ‘I will never, God helping me, do anything to hurt you': neither by angrily lashing out at you, lustfully sidling up to you, faithlessly slipping away from you, verbally oiling you up, protectively hitting back at you, or even justifiably disliking you…" (Frederick Dale Brunner, The Christbook:  A Historical/Theological Commentary, p. 223-225)
That's how we grow-up, Jesus declares.  That’s how mature satisfaction, fulfillment, and wholeness, truly comes.   

The Apostle Paul strikes a similar theme in Ephesians 4:14ff 
“…Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.  Instead -- speaking the truth in love -- we will grow to become...the mature body of...Christ...[building]...up in love…” (Ephesians 4: 14-16, emphasis added).   
And so, rather than 'pulling back' from Jesus (because of a seemingly impossible ideal, e.g. perfection) -- we lean deeper into Jesus -- who, in reality -- is not asking us to 'be perfect' -- but rather -- to be whole and mature -- the "better angels of our nature" -- becoming more like Him.

For Gandhi is right:  "an 'eye for an eye' leaves the whole world blind."  

And, boy, is there a lot of darkness these days!

  • A lot of cutting...
  • A lot of labeling...
  • A lot of demonizing...
  • A lot of name-calling...

Sure, that's 'the mean.'  But that's not mature.   

I am not advocating that we gloss over differences -- placate evil -- or -- fail to confront each other.   Please hear me.   

But I am advocating that we confront in counter-cultural ways, not returning 'fire for fire,' but engaging each other in forthright -- but -- non-ruthless, hate-full ways. 

Paul says it so well in Romans 12:14ff -  
“…Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath…Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone...Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” … if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.  (Romans 12:14-21. The Message). 
So, surprise your adversity with goodness.

Yes, speak the truth -- but -- eventually -- with love (Ephesians 4:15) and a sense of peace...even forgiveness.

Addressing the United Nations in 2013, Bill Clinton told the remarkable story how Nelson Mandela, -- after spending 27 years in a jail-cell on Robben Island,  Pollsmoor Prison, and Victor Verster Prison -- invited his jailer (from Robben Island) to his inauguration, when Mandela became President of South Africa.  Mandela, recounted to Clinton, that that decision -- along with the inclusion of white opposition parties in his government -- began the day he was released from his cell on Robbin Island, after over two decades of confinement.  

"...Clinton asked Mandela: “Tell me the truth: when you were walking down the road [from Victor Verster Prison] that last time didn’t you hate them?” Mandela answered: “I did. I am old enough to tell the truth ....I felt hatred and fear but I said to myself, if you hate them when you get in that car you will still be their prisoner. I wanted to be free and so I let it go. (emphasis added)”
When we cut, label, demonize, name-call -- we also hate -- no better than the persons we detest.

In fact, we're their prisoner.

A better route is to let go of the hate-speech -- and confront -- in a truth-full -- but -- more generous way.

And thus -- be free.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Splurging For The Savior

Have you ever splurged for someone you care about?   You know: ‘pulled out all the stops,’ ‘broke the bank,’ ‘spared no effort’ – in an extravagant, over-flowing expression of love?   

Maybe it was when you filled your spouse’s dresser-drawer chock-full of Hershey Kisses, and Hershey Hugs.  Maybe it was when you got a pilot to fly high and sky-write ‘I love you, Sweetheart’ across your home-town sky.  Maybe it was when you surprised your best friend with a gift certificate, to not just any restaurant, but the very best restaurant.  

As we enter Mark 14, extravagant, ‘spare no effort’ love overflows.  

It happens during dinner at the home of Simon the Leper, in the village of Bethany, two miles outside of Jerusalem.  Why, Jesus is eating away when suddenly, an unidentified woman comes and pours perfume all over his head (Mark 14:3).  

Now frankly, the woman’s approach would not have surprised folks. It was a common Jewish practice to pour a few drops of perfume on the head of the guest of honor at a social function.  But this woman ‘pulls out all the stops,’ ‘giving everything’ to the guest of honor -- to Jesus. 

The extravagance of the woman’s giving is accented by the quality of the perfume she offers.  Why this is no ordinary perfume, but imported perfume, a perfume called nard from India.  So this woman is ‘sparing no effort’ – giving to Jesus in radical ways. 

We need to give to Jesus in radical ways.  For radical, challenging times require radical, challenging devotion to Jesus.  And so rather than ‘giving everything’ to a hobby, or a job, or an earthly relationship -- we’re to ‘give everything’ to Jesus.  As Charles Spurgeon once challenged:
“If Christ is anything, He must be everything. Do not rest until love and faith in Jesus are the master passions of your soul.”  
Summertime is a season of rest, but not resting from our pursuit of Jesus.  And so even during these more leisurely months, let us excel, nevertheless, in extravagant abandonment, extravagant giving -- to Christ and Christ alone.  

Moving through Mark 14, Mark coaches us on how to do that; how to grow in extravagant devotion to Jesus.  For starters...

Realize: Radical Love, Is Costly Love.  

You can’t ‘give everything’ to Jesus without ‘paying a price,’ ‘making a sacrifice.’   

Mark accents this by emphasizing the perfume used by the woman was not just quality perfume, but pricey perfume: the “…woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume…” (Mark 14:3) – Mark tells us.  

Bible scholars surmise the alabaster jar was actually an exquisite vase, a family heirloom, worth about 300 denarii, or in today’s currency, about $10,000.   Normally the perfume vase was never broken open and shared, but passed on in a family, as an investment or nest egg.  But sure enough, the woman breaks open the vase, giving away her nest egg -- giving her all -- to Jesus.  


A while back, historians documented that Michelangelo was not only Catholic – but utterly devout – devoted to Jesus intimately, as Master and Rescuer. (  There’s no greater example of Michelangelo’s devotion, than his paintings in the Sistine Chapel, created to portray humanity’s need for a covenant with God, through Jesus.   But Michelangelo ‘paid a price’ to tell that story, taking four long years to tell that story!  

The Sistine Chapel ceiling is especially amazing.  Why Michelangelo tilted his head upward, in a confined space, on scaffolding, 60 feet off the ground, for years, to paint that exquisite, extravagant work of art.  And then there were the demands of Michelangelo’s painting technique -- the fresco technique – that required him to paint on wet plaster, that initially – get this -- was infiltrated with mold, eating away at what Michelangelo painted, requiring him to re-paint – time and time again!  

But Michelangelo persevered – ‘giving his all.’ 

And the result is one of the most inspiring, daring expressions of God’s glory and Christ’s promise ever revealed! 

We’re called to reveal daring expressions of God glory and Christ’s promise, as well.   And it happens as we too, like Michelangelo -- ‘pay the price’ – tilting our heads upward, at great sacrifice – doing exquisite – extravagant things – for Jesus!

But here’s the rub: don’t expect everyone to appreciate your effort.  In fact...

Expect To Be Criticized and Misunderstood.   

It’s ironic: you’d assume after the woman’s exquisite, extravagant act, she’d receive an affirming, positive response from those around her.  Well, she did from Jesus (we’ll get to Jesus in a moment), but from others at the dinner, she was chastised big time.  Why they said... 
“…indignantly to one another. Why this waste of perfume.  It could have been sold…and…given to the poor. And they rebuked her harshly.” (Mark 14:4-5).   
Have some ever been rebuked harshly?  Have persons ever criticized your best effort?  

There’s a story about two taxidermists (you know, the folks who stuff animals) named Hank and Harry.  Well, one day Hank and Harry stopped in front of a window where an owl was on display. And boy, were they harsh and critical! Why Hank criticized the way the owl was perched and positioned. Then Harry complained that the owl’s eyes were fake and glassy.  Then Hank fumed that owl’s wings were too big, out of proportion with its head. Then Harry growled the owl’s feathers were too yellow, not life-like.  Finally, Hank snorted: ‘there’s too much stuffing in the owl’s tummy, far from natural.’  And with that, the taxidermists stopped, so proud of their rebuke and criticism! But not before the wise old owl – turned – and winked in their direction!   

Wink in the direction of your critics!  For even your best efforts, your most authentic efforts will be ‘torn apart.’ So expect it! But be confident, wink, anticipating the defense of Jesus. I mean when criticized, especially when espousing Kingdom values, when ‘giving all’ to Jesus, visualize, realize, Jesus rising-up in your favor. 
“Leave her alone” – Jesus snaps at the woman’s critics.  “Why are you bothering her?  She has done a beautiful thing to me…” (Mark 14:6).
Ultimately there’s only one advocate you need ‘in your corner,’ and that is the strength and support of Jesus. 

If ever there was someone criticized it was Apostle Paul. As Paul notes in 2 Corinthians 10:10...
“…Some say, [my] letters are weighty and forceful, but in person [I am] unimpressive and my speaking amounts to nothing…”  (2 Corinthians 10:10).   
But is Paul fazed by such harshness?  Not really. Why in Galatians 1:10 he declares -- 
“I am not trying to please people. I want to please God. Do you think I am trying to please people? If I were doing that, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10, Contemporary English Version)
Translated:  I wouldn’t be giving all to Jesus.  

And so be mindful of criticism – learn what you can from criticism – but don’t be consumed by criticism.  As the popular clique challenges: "there are over 7 billion people on Earth and you’re going to let one person ruin your day?"

Rather -- let Jesus 'make your day,' as you're consumed by Him, who takes all things – even harsh, difficult, damning things – and works them together for good.

And so you can’t lose!

Sure in the short-run, it appears you come up short.  But in the long-run -- giving all to Jesus, pleasing Jesus – accelerates and advances life. And so... 

Take Comfort:  Only What’s Done For Jesus Will Last.  

Translated:  bank accounts eventually are depleted.  Careers are over.  People die.  But what’s done for Jesus – never dies!  And so C.T. Studds, concludes:
"...Oh let my love with fervor burn, And from the world now let me turn; Living for Thee, and Thee alone, Bringing Thee pleasure on Thy throne; Only one life, “twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last..." (emphasis added).
The  extravagant woman in our text models this conviction, for as Jesus notes, she “…has done all she could by pouring perfume on my body…”  Jesus notes in Mark 14:9.  And because of such sacrifice, such devotion... 
“…You may be sure that…people will remember what she has done. And they will tell others.” (Mark 14:9, Contemporary English Version, emphasis added).   
You see, there’s something lingering, lasting, enduring about what’s done for Jesus.  

Though it’s not in the text, we can infer the woman’s perfume stayed with Jesus for a long time. After all, she poured the whole contents of her vase all over Jesus’ head, saturating His whole being.  

And so that aroma of extravagant, exquisite love didn’t just linger for a while, but for an extended time, reminding Jesus of the love He would continue to give to others – the extravagant, exquisite love -- expressed ultimately in the Cross – the very love of God – the love that never let's go – the love that always lingers! 

I still remember the smells and aromas of my old home-place, the house I grew up in, in Halfway, MD. I remember the musty, wet scent of our dirt cellar – I remember the sweet, juicy aroma of our grape-arbor out-back -- and most of all I remember: the delicious – delectable – scrumptious – smells of our kitchen – especially when my mother was cooking the all-time Mundey family favorite:  hog maw – with extra, extra onions. 

But though varied, there was actually a common aroma throughout all those aromas, it was the aroma, the fragrance of love.   For though we had our rough times -- the rough times worked together to produce good things – creating a beautiful legacy for our family, a legacy of devotion and love.   

God wants us to know a beautiful legacy of devotion and love.  God wants His aroma to dominate all other aromas – the aroma, the fragrance of Holy – Righteous – Saving – Redeeming -- Jesus-love!

Allow Jesus-love to dominate.  Splurge for the Savior!

  • Strive to please Jesus, primarily, and not others.
  • Submit everything to Jesus and His Lordship -- and not some other non-Kingdom pursuit, be it material, vocational, or relational.
  • Break open your life, giving all to God's full Reign, found in Christ.  

And let the aroma of Jesus...

...the fragrance of Jesus... 

...the beauty of Jesus...

...pour over -- and saturate your life!